bestof11

Popdose’s Top Albums (and more) of 2011

You wanted the best, you got the best. No, we’re not talking about the bazillionth Kiss cash in; this is the Popdose Staff’s picks for Best Albums of the Year.

Instead of going over the usual internal debates that accompany these lists, I came up with a new approach this year, and I think I’m going to use it in the future. Basically, I asked myself which album made me want to tell as many people as possible about it, and what were their reactions when they heard it? American Legacies, the collaboration between the Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, quickly became the obvious choice. It’s a loose, swinging, and joyous trip through the roots of American music. Close your eyes and you can picture them in the studio, huddled over three or four microphones and making eye contact to see who gets the next solo. They’ve given this the clever name of “Mardi-grass,” but to me, it’s what rock n’ roll would have sounded like if it had been invented 10 years earlier. – Dave Lifton


Mastodon was the band that restored my faith in modern heavy metal, thanks to 2004′s outstanding Leviathan. And for my money, they’re still the best in the business. The Hunter represents the type of metal I love the most — aggressive yet melodic, skillful yet uncluttered. Mastodon is clearly hitting their stride as a band, and when I listen to them I can’t help but think back to how much fun it was to be an Iron Maiden fan in the ’80s as they released one great album after another. – Chris Holmes


The album that really met my expectations this year has to be Tom Waits’ Bad as Me, which was everything you could expect, and Waits has not sounded as clear as he does on so much of this record. He still has moments of sounding like the trash compactor from the underworld though (like on album highlight “Hell Broke Luce”) but this album presents an invigorated Waits and yet another solid entry in a very strange musical journey. – Dw. Dunphy


Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light is their best album by such a wide margin, it’s almost like I’ve been enjoying a different band with that name for the last 16 or so years. Whereas Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace had a shit-hot first single (“The Pretender”), a smattering of decent tracks, and more than its share of dross, there is no filler on Wasting Light. None. We still get the shit-hot first single (“Rope”); it’s preceded by a massive-sounding, three-gee-tar stomper (“Bridge Burning”) and followed by screamy freakout (“White Limo”), power ballad (“I Should Have Known”), and classic-sounding cut after classic-sounding cut (“Arlandria,” “Miss the Misery,” “Dear Rosemary,” and, well, all the rest). Cut on analog equipment in Dave Grohl’s garage, Wasting Light‘s warmth emanates not from the sound of the record (though that’s there, too), but from its material and performances. The Foos were the kings of rock in 2011. Long live the kings. – Rob Smith


Merrill Garbus has done more than most this year as far as giving Oakland a reason to be proud of its musical community. She has taken her band tUnE-yArDs to soaring new heights with their second album, W H O K I L L, expanding their sound to include pulsating West African rhythms, matched with unique instrumentation, a dazzling method of building and managing digital loops, and strongly delivered lyrics of personal empowerment. The band has traveled the world, played several major music festivals, and has been recognized by late-night TV hosts and influential music magazines, not to mention the adoring and enthusiastic audiences who oftentimes will mimic Merrill’s distinctive face-paint patterns on their own skin. The feeling down here on the ground is that this is just the beginning. Let’s hope so, because the world needs a band like tUnE-yArDs: positive, uplifting, original, innovative, culturally aware, and artistically inclusive of both the mainstream and the avant garde. Michael Fortes


It feels like everyone at Popdose has sung the praises of The Damnwells and No One Listens To The Band Anymore. There’s nothing wrong with that – it totally stands head and shoulders over most of the music that’s been released in 2011 – but it’s a daunting task trying to explain what has been explained so well in the past twelve months. Here goes.

Imagine you’re a young, smart kid mired in the weird situation in which most young, smart kids of 2011 are caught. There are no steady jobs for your four years and countless dollars of earning a college degree – if you’re lucky, you’ll find some sort of simple labor, but it’s not enough to make you feel like an honest, hardworking adult. Maybe you have some things to take your mind off the seeming futility, but maybe you face more setbacks. You lose friends, you break up with the girl you thought was “the one.” You feel stupid for the way things seem to fall apart, and you feel stupid again for self-pitying yourself where others have it so much worse.

But then you take a step back and realize that, through all the layers of disappointment, things aren’t as bad as they seem. You make friends who admire you for who you are and what you like to do. You refuse to give up, with their encouragement. And you find yourself listening – something you almost never do - when your new friends suggest new music. One of those albums, in 12 tracks and 50 minutes, somehow encapsulates all the desire to love, shades of profound resignation and the incomprehensible desire to laugh through your tears that you’ve felt over 12 months. It’s an album you’ll want to use as a personal touchstone, a CD you’ll want to copy and give to all your friends full of tracks you know you’re going to use the next time you make a mix tape for a girl, a band you’ll never want to miss when they come to town, an endlessly complex reminder of how happy you are to be alive and temporarily at peace with that life, even when every third thing is a razor-sharp argument against that very idea.

I don’t want to make a mess of things by overselling an album as a panacea to all ills. But if that joyful mystery of music could do all those things to one person, imagine what it can do to you. – Mike Duquette


I made a bold declaration when I first heard St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy upon its release a few months ago that it would be my favorite album of 2011 and that has proven to be true. I think this is Annie Clark’s strongest, most personal work to date and her incredible songwriting and guitar playing talents are at their highest level. It is, by far, the album I’ve listened to the most this year and I don’t see retiring it any time soon. - Kelly Stitzel


I enjoyed the Damnwells‘ last album, One Last Century, and because I downloaded it while the band was giving it away through Paste Magazine, I felt like I owed them one when their next record came around. So I didn’t think twice when the band announced it was teaming up with PledgeMusic to release No One Listens to the Band Anymore — and I haven’t stopped listening to it since it was released on March 3.

There are too many Popdose writers with too many divergent tastes for us to have an official “album of the year,” but No One Listens to the Band Anymore came as close as any record could in 2011 — my love for this album was shared by Tall Editor Michael Parr, Infrequent Editor Matt Wardlaw, New York Times Bestselling Editor Dave Lifton, and Largely Invisible Editor Jason Hare, just to name a few of the staff members who were captivated by these songs. They’re catchy, they’re funny, they’re rousing, they’re smart, they’re heartbreaking — sometimes all at once.

How many songwriters would namecheck Dionysius and drop an f-bomb in the same chorus? How many can make you feel like you’ve got the best seat in the friendliest bar while the coolest band is rocking a perfect set on a Friday night? How many can sum up the bone-deep fear and stubborn refusal to abandon love that grips us all in post-9/11 America? Not many. Maybe only Alex Dezen of the Damnwells. – Jeff Giles


The rush to be first. Several online publications felt the need to get their year-end lists out there very early. Those who did missed my favorite album of the year. Last year the Roots were in my top ten with two albums, this year they own the top spot.

Undun is the band’s first concept album and uses reverse chronology to tell the sad story of the life and death of a small time drug dealer. The Roots are at their rocksteady best, but it is the lyricism of rapper Black Thought that makes Undun a classic. – Ken Shane


It was clear back in 2009 when they released Burn that Havok was on to something special. Their sophomore effort ups the thrash quotient by a billion compared to that debut record.

In a time when so much new thrash borrows from that current Exodus/Testament sound, Havok comes out with something that sounds so fresh and unique. The production is great on this album with each element clearly having its own voice. The riffs aren’t the standard thrash fare and Reece Scruggs shreding on “No Amnesty” is killer. David Sanchez’s vocals match the music perfectly alternating between singing, screaming and grunts. The bass is up loud enough in the mix to hear the complexities of what’s being played but it’s really the drumming that makes the difference. Pete Webber is a fucking monster on the skins. This isn’t just the typical pounding away repetitively that you hear on many thrash albums. This is some challenging shit he’s playing actually adding to the uniqueness of each track instead of just blending into the background. The most interesting thing about this too, is that the guitarist and drummer are both new to the group for this recording. Time Is Up gives you that feel of what made old school thrash so great while at the same time sounding like nothing else out today. – Dave Steed


I’m a simple man, with simple needs. Three chords, a decent hook, and something resembling the truth is usually enough to win me over. If I look back over the albums I enjoyed most in 2011, it’s an incredibly simple yet clever and catchy record that rises quickly to the top. Summer of Lust is the latest from Library Voices, a Canadian combo that’s on their second full-length. It’s a pretty classic formula–guitar-driven indie pop, layered with horns and the occasional sax solo, with sharp lyrics about twentysomething life and the vagaries of love. There are pointed moments–”Generation Handclap” takes on the modern obsession with altered states, both physical and mental–but even when they’re being arch, the band manages to stay eminently hummable. “Reluctant Readers Make Reluctant Lovers” is one of those songs that enters your head and never, ever leaves. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s like it always is–I can’t tell you what the best album in 2011 was, because I haven’t listened to even every major release. I can tell you my favorite, and that’s Summer of Lust. – Matt Springer


Of course, there are things not touched upon yet; perhaps the most glaring of omissions would be the lack of The Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions as the #1 Album of the Year. It was the opinion of certain seditious editors (It was Dunphy – Ed.) that while it is the most appreciated release of many a moon, it was unfair to pit albums of new, worthy material against a new release of old classics (because Dunphy is short-sighted like that. – Ed. again). So if you have but one gift credit to spend, you would do well to lend those digits to one of Brian Wilson’s most deserving classics, SMiLE (no matter what Dunphy says. – Ed. once more). – Popdose Staff


Another subject to mention: Popdose movie critic Robert Cashill weighs in with his cinematic pick of the year.

Resolve in 2012 to see the movie that is hands down the best I saw in 2011, A Separation, which Sony Pictures Classics has in limited release beginning Dec. 30. I saw it at the New York Film Festival in October and it’s still on my mind. “(Asghar) Farhadi’s script has the beats of a John Grisham page-turner and, right underneath this suspenseful surface, a truly hunanist vision,” I wrote in October. (http://popdose.com/no-concessions-at-the-49th-new-york-film-festival/) Yes, the story of an Iranian family in crisis opens a window onto the country, showing us slices of life that are largely invisible to us. But it also has a Law & Order-type appeal that transcends cultural boundaries. I promise that seeing this Golden Globe and likely Oscar nominee will be the best resolution you make this holiday season. – Robert Cashill

Johnny Bacardi’s Comic/Graphic Novel Of 2011 Is…

When it comes to comics in 2011, there were many, many excellent releases, some modest successes, some epic in scope…but none were more epic, and more just wide open gonzo nuts, then DCs Xombi, written by John Rozum and illustrated by Frazer Irving. Xombi started out in the mid-90s as one of DC’s attempts at diversifying its line via a separate imprint called Milestone, shepherded by the late Dwayne McDuffie.

Rozum created the character of David Kim, a Korean-American who developed a nanotechnological virus capable of extensive tissue regeneration. This led to, thanks to some supernatural intervention, having nanites, tiny intelligent bots, for lack of a better description, introduced into his system…which transformed him into a eternally young being that can’t be killed and whose injuries were constantly being repaired by the tiny critters in his bloodstream. He soon acquired a supporting cast who were even odder than he, and through them he learned to adjust to his new situation, even as he was threatened by weird antagonists of an otherworldly nature, who inhabited a world which existed on the fringes of what we consider the “real” world, but fully able to threaten it just the same.

The series ran a respectable 22 issue run before it expired, with the rest of the Milestone line. It was quite odd and often brilliant, even though it was hampered by artist J.J. Birch, truly one of the worst artists I’ve ever seen in the pages of a professional comic book series. Then, over a decade later, it was surprisingly exhumed for what at first promised to be an ongoing series, again written by Rozum and illustrated this time by the brilliant Irving, whose striking work brought Rozum’s mad concepts into much clearer focus. It was a tour de force for Irving and Rozum, so no wonder the series failed to last seven incredible, imaginative issues.

Why people didn’t take to this genius comic is a mystery for the ages, but DC, to its credit, seems to be at least willing to collect all six issues in one trade paperback, which is set to come out in February. I thought Xombi was one of the best comics series of 2011, and I sincerely hope everyone who passed on it, for whatever reason, will consider picking up the trade…if they’re willing to have their minds blown in a fashion not seen since Grant Morrison in his heyday. – Johnny Bacardi

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