Everyone’s a critic.
This statement rings especially true this time of year when everyone feels the need to share their “Top (fill in the blank) of 2011.” As a music blog, I understand I’m expected to also throw my own version of this annual review into the mix, but I really don’t see the point of trying to rank which albums/songs/whatever were the “best” of any particular year. Music is such a subjective art that it’s impossible to devise the perfect ranking system; so, essentially, all we’re doing is saying “this is what I think” and, honestly, I’m not convinced that any one opinion is more valid than another. But I do think it’s fun to look back on the year and reflect on the great art that was released; so, rather than rank what I consider the best releases of 2011, I’m just going to chronologically list the music releases that were on my radar and that I enjoyed and offer a review for each one. Let me know if you also enjoyed any of these, or if there’s something not listed that you would recommend!
Glassjaw – Our Color Green
The year 2011 got off to a nut-busting start on January 1, with the release of Our Color Green by Glassjaw. The only downside of this album is that it leaves you longing for more. This is some of Glassjaw’s best material to date and there isn’t one weak moment on the EP, but after years of patiently waiting while the band works through all kinds of setbacks and distractions, these five songs do little to satiate the die-hard fan’s desire for a full-length (especially since most of these songs were already released as singles). Granted, GJ did give away copies of the Coloring Book EP during their tour this year (yours truly was unable to procure one), but, suffice to say, the new full-length is sorely anticipated.
The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
I regret not hearing this album sooner (I didn’t discover it until after they opened for Foo Fighters at The Metro Lollapalooza weekend) because the joy it has given me is formidable! (See what I did there?) Seriously, this album is stunning and so much fun to listen to. The Welsh trio masterfully balance the loud, edgy sound of punk rock with the pop sensibilities of 80′s new wave. And the melodies! Oh, the melodies! These songs will be stuck in your head for days and you still won’t get sick of them.
Darkest Hour – The Human Romance
Tasty dual guitar riffs, gritty vocals splashed with melody, machine gun-like double-kick with thunderous toms, mashed together into one massive wall of sound – it’s Darkest Hour as you know and love them. The Human Romance is no break from the mold, but it’s a solid album highlighted by “The World Engulfed In Flames” and “Love As A Weapon.”
Dance Gavin Dance – Downtown Battle Mountain II
As a fan of Jonny Craig’s voice (not his general douche-baggery) I was stoked to hear of his return to Dance Gavin Dance (although I preferred him in Emarosa). Downtown Battle Mountain II is good for a few listens, but the album as a whole doesn’t hold up very well. This is not the first album I would give to a new listener, but if you’re familiar with and enjoy the back catalog of DGD or Emarosa, chances are you’ll enjoy this album too.
Rival Schools – Pedals
Words can’t describe how excited I was to hear Rival Schools was getting back together to write a new album after a 5 year hiatus. United By Fate was a cult-like favorite among some of my buddies and I, and Pedals nearly matches the quality of songwriting on that debut album. The shoe-gaze, garage-band drone of guitar accompanied by the endearing croon of Walter Schreifels with his wry lyricism is sure to put you in a good mood. Pedals is an absolute delight.
The Human Abstract – Digital Veil
I don’t know if it’s the revitalized guitar work of A.J. Minette or the beastly vocals of Travis Richter or a combination of the two, but for some reason I enjoy Digital Veil so much more than their previous two albums. I realize this might not be the popular opinion among THA fans, but I think everyone can agree that Digital Veil is an impressive collection of tenacious tunes worth your listen.
Funeral For A Friend – Welcome Home Armaggedon
Welcome Home Armaggedon is a little too “produced” and “safe” sounding for me to hold it in the same regard as Funeral For A Friend’s previous records, but it’s still a good album. There are moments of brilliance, like the vocal harmonies on “Owls (Are Watching),” the guitar solo on “Medication,” or everything on “Old Hymns” (best song on the album) but all in all, I don’t think Welcome Home Armaggedon holds up as well as the band’s past work. Still worth your listen, though.
Kvelertak – Kvelertak
Technically, this album was produced last year, but it wasn’t released in the United States until 2011, so I’m going to include it on this list. I can’t say enough good things about Kvelertak’s debut album. Their blend of classic rock guitar riffs and black metal vocals (in Norwegian, of course) is like nothing you’ve heard before. The album kicks off with a string of upbeat, party rock anthems and then diverges midway into a series of psychedelic, bluesy jams a la Led Zeppelin. Their live set only reinforces their energetic, no holds barred identity. Kvelertak are a refreshing new sound in the world of metal.
Defeater – Empty Days And Sleepless Nights
Never a band to settle for the status quo, Defeater explore new territory on Empty Days and Sleepless Nights by closing the album with 4 acoustic songs. The end result is both intriguing and impressive. The first 2/3 of the album are packed with some of the most powerful, punishing performances yet from the band. But it’s the endless pursuit of the next milestone that lifts Defeater into the upper echelon of hardcore bands today. This album only further validates their belonging in that realm.
Born Of Osiris – The Discovery
If you like any of Born Of Osiris’ previous releases, you’re sure to love The Discovery. The band continue to develop their sound and this is them at their most complete. I especially love the back and forth vocal parts between Ronnie Canizaro and Joe Buras. Born of Osiris have established themselves as some of the leading gentlemen of Djent.
Protest The Hero – Scurrilous
If Kezia was Protest The Hero at their most raw, vulnerable, and passionate, and Fortress was them at their most massive, refined, and technical, it’s hard to know where to place Scurrilous. Perhaps it’s best not to compare it to the other albums, but simply accept it for what it is: an impressive and enjoyable collection of great metal songs which also serves as a slight change of direction for the band. What stands out most about Scurrilous is the development of Rody Walker’s vocal ability and lyricism. Walker finally seems to fully embrace the forefront, exhibited by his writing lyrics for the first time and the vocal clinic he puts on display. His chops were always impressive, but this album is his best work yet.
Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
Foo Fighters are by no means an underground band, but Dave Groh’s credentials in the hardcore and metal scenes are undeniable. The band are different from their mainstream peers too, in that their label has absolutely no influence on their songwriting – they write the album they want, hand off production rights for 7 years and then retain those rights after that time period has expired. While incapable of writing a dud record, Foo Fighters’ last 3 albums have had some weak moments. Wasting Light is a return to their roots as they hired Butch Vig to record 11 of their biggest, best-crafted songs onto analog tape from Grohl’s garage. The end result is the band’s most complete album since There Is Nothing Left To Lose. 2011 proved to be a rejuvenation for Foo Fighters as they headlined multiple festivals, arenas, stadiums, and even club venues, culminating in a Grammy nomination for “Album of the Year.” Wasting Light is certainly deserving of the consideration.
Between The Buried And Me: The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues
Between The Buried And Me are princes of progressive metal and this EP, the first of a two-part concept album, only further establishes their legacy. Rife with intense growling, winding harmonies, complex rhythms, epic solos, and stylistic changes around every corner, there’s not a boring moment on Hypersleep Dialogues.
Former Thieves – The Language That We Speak
With their debut album in tow, Former Thieves emerged in 2011 as a legitimate hardcore act to be reckoned with. Implementing a guitar/rhythm heavy, stripped down, and dark-toned sound, akin to early Cave In and Cursed, Former Thieves prove their mettle (and metal) with The Language That We Speak. This album rocks from start to finish and is the perfect soundtrack for whenever you’re feeling mad as hell.
Balance And Composure – Separation
Balance And Composure’s mastery of dynamics, ambiance, and melody are on full display on their debut full-length. Their unique melding of indie, grunge, and emo vibes takes you on a trip that spans an entire spectrum of emotion. Separation is one album you’ll want to keep on “repeat” for a long period of time.
Cave In – White Silence
No doubt one of the most anticipated albums of 2011, Cave In don’t disappoint with the release of White Silence, their first studio full-length in 6 years. Mixing the raw furor and unpredictability of Until Your Heart Drops with the heavy riffage of Perfect Pitch Black, Cave In prove still capable of writing creative and compelling music even after a lengthy hiatus.
Touche Amore – Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me
Touche Amore are one of many bands who really came into their own in 2011. Not to discredit …To The Beat Of A Dead Horse, but Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me is a shining example of a young band hitting their stride. TA exhibit more depth, creativity, and maturity than ever before by treating each 1-2 minute song on this album as a mini saga of musical expression.
August Burns Red – Leveler
Without reshaping the wheel, August Burns Red bring a bolder intensity to their flavor of metalcore on Leveler. This album features all the thrashy riffs, breakdowns, complex rhythms, and stylistic transitions you would expect but with even greater concentration. Most notably, Jake Luhrs explores a wider range of vocal sounds and Matt Greiner showcases more taste and technicality in his drumming than ever before.
Of Virtue – Heartsounds
The debut full-length from the 5-piece metalcore outfit of Lansing, MI was a pleasant surprise when it popped up on my radar this year. The band’s sound is remarkably similar to that of Misery Signals, but Of Virtue have a little ways to go to match their level of artistry. That said, Heartsounds is a fine example of a talented young band with a promising future and the album as a whole even stands on its own quite well.
Hildamay – We Loved, We Lost
Hildamay burst onto the punk/post-hardcore scene in the UK this year with their debut EP We Loved, We Lost. “This House Became Our Home” and “Delicate” are the two brightest stars in this musical constellation, but the entire album is packed with compelling grooves, enchanting gang vocals, clever chord progressions, and drumming as tight as a noose around your neck. Welcome to the world, Hildamay!
Thrice – Major/Minor
If Major/Minor ends up the last studio album Thrice release as a band, what an album to go out on! While not much of a sonic departure from Beggars, this album features some of Thrice’s finest songwriting. Lyrically poignant as ever, Dustin Kensrue compliments and enhances the gritty, bluesy undertones of his bandmates with expertly crafted hooks and melodies. The album explores a variety of moods without ever becoming sluggish or boring. You’d be surprised to know these gentlemen experienced so much strife in the last couple years, because Major/Minor sounds of a cohesive band at the top of their game.
Polar Bear Club – Clash Battle Guilt Pride
Polar Bear Club carefully tread the line between refined veteran punk status and radio-rock sell-out on their latest album Clash Battle Guilt Pride. These are, no doubt, some of the band’s best produced, pop-appealing songs, but one can’t help but wonder if they lost some of their edge. Still, this is a very enjoyable album to listen to and they deserve credit for that.
La Dispute – Wildlife
The highly-anticipated sophomore full-length from La Dispute brilliantly showcases the latest evolution of the Grand Rapids, MI based art punks. The biggest change with this album is the switch in songwriting process. Instead of adding lyrics and vocals last, Jordan Dreyer flexes his creative prowess by devising the concept, lyrics, and sequencing of songs for the album first, while the instrumentals are composed after. This new method of collaboration between vocals and instrumentals accentuates the dark tone of the lyrical content. The end result grips the listener with the same breathtaking force as SATBOTRBVAA, but through a different approach. On Wildlife, La Dispute depart from the screamo, hardcore identity of their past and embrace the artistic, experimental version of their present.
Mastodon – The Hunter
From the triumphant intro of “Black Tongue” to the murky outro on “The Sparrow,” The Hunter is an epic journey of thrash, shred, sludge, and technique featuring Mastodon at their songwriting finest. On these 13 songs, the prog-metal giants figured out a way to seamlessly integrate “sing-along” like hooks and melodies into their thick and complex brand of metal. Mastodon have never been more fun to listen to and their live set just got even more lively.
Trash Talk – Awake
I don’t know if Trash Talk will ever change, but I know that I definitely don’t want them to. As long as they’re writing the most brutal, fiercely intense, raging jams they can compress into 1-2 minute segments as possible, they have one perfectly content fan in me. Awake is more of the glorious same as Trash Talk add 5 more gems to their catalog.
East Of The Wall – The Apologist
Progressive, dynamic, technical, jazzy, heavy, frenetic, melodic, all these words would describe East Of The Wall but still not do the band justice. I’ll say this, I haven’t heard an album that combined all these elements in a more natural, non-contrived way since the now-defunct The Number 12 Looks Like You’s Worse Than Alone. That is, until I heard The Apologist. The album is pure genius and needs to be on more people’s radars.
Animals As Leaders – Weightless
Weightless is but one more reason why Tosin Abasi is better than you. If you are not already bowing at the throne of the King of Djent, then bend thy knees! Or, just pop in the latest Animals As Leaders record because it will leave you floored. If it was possible to be even proggier than their self-titled debut, the band did it on Weightless. A spectacular display of skill, precision, creativity, and talent.
Gallows – Death Is Birth
I admit I was as wary as anyone when I heard Gallows were going to continue without lead singer, Frank Carter. Many consider Frank a legend – how do you replace someone like that? Wade MacNeil, however, proved that Frank is, in fact, replaceable. Opting for a faster, more straightforward approach with MacNeil’s voice in tow, Gallows show on Death Is Birth that they can continue to make excellent hardcore in Frank’s absence.
Pianos Become The Teeth – The Lack Long After
The new Pianos Become The Teeth record should come with a warning label: MAY ELICIT FEELINGS OF DESPONDENCY AND CAUSE EMOTIONAL TRAUMA. I mean that with the utmost respect, because it’s a credit to their ability as artists and musicians to make you feel what they feel. Art is an act of expression, and Pianos Become The Teeth stop at nothing to lay their souls completely bare on The Lack Long After. The result is dangerously compelling.
Childish Gambino – Camp
I understand this album may look out of place on this list. Hip-hop isn’t often associated with aggressive music genres, but Donald Glover is such an intriguing character, and his rapping moniker isn’t exactly a household name yet, and his latest LP is just so damn good that I had to include it on my list of memorable releases from 2011. Those who have been following Childish Gambino since his early mixtapes may be a bit taken aback by the level of production on Camp, but the pro level beats and audio actually coincide with Glover’s new swagger and advanced songwriting quite nicely. One of the hardest working men in entertainment is out to prove he’s a legitimate musician and Camp is further validation.