50 Ways to Make a Record Presents: The Top 5 Albums of 2011

23 Dec

5. Metronomy – The English Riviera [Amazon] [iTunes] [Insound]

With their first two albums, Pip Paine (Pay the £5000 You Owe) and Nights Out, U.K. four piece Metronomy established their niche with a somewhat-awkward-yet-completely-awesome blend of electronic synths, smooth basslines and subtle guitar riffs. With their third studio album, The English Riviera, Metronomy has shown that they know exactly what works for them and have gone a step forward by fully embracing it and perfecting it. The allure of this album comes with its undeniably awkward charm, with every song coming across as a little bit ‘off,’ and it is exactly that which makes this album so different and appealing when compared to everything else we’ve seen this year. From the charming presentation of “Everything Goes My Way,” with its subtle whistles and the calming vocals of guest artist Roxanne Clifford, to the amazingly groovy bassline on “The Bay,” to the catchy synth work throughout “The Look,” it all just works beautifully to Joseph Mount’s vision. And it is Mount himself who adds the largest dose of charisma to the project, with his lyrical style and vocal work working synonymously with the instrumentation that backs him up. The English Riviera shows Mount’s, and the entire band’s, ability to stand out above the rest. With a unique and visionary musical style and unquestionable talent, Metronomy have crafted an album that is one of the most charming and interesting packages released this year.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s A Corporate World [Amazon] [iTunes] [Insound]

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. dropped their debut album It’s A Corporate World this past June, I had no idea what to expect, but, after my first playthrough of the album and every playthrough since, I was outright impressed. Every song on the album feels like it should be there, as the record seamlessly goes from one track to the next with unwitting charm. From album opener “Morning Thought,” to the heartfelt “Nothing But Our Love,” to the summery and charming “Simple Girl,” to the energetic and passionate “We Almost Lost Detroit,” Daniel Zott and Josh Epstein have crafted an amazing album. In no way should this duo be known solely for their bizarre name, as their incredibly unique sound and undeniable talent show immense promise that shouldn’t be overlooked.

3. The Drums – Portamento [Amazon] [iTunes[Insound]

In their 2010 self-titled debut, The Drums carved a spot for themselves as an indie pop gem, and, while not doing anything particularly new, managed to create an incredibly unique and engaging persona. The band has taken this a step further with their sophomore effort Portamento, a twelve-song arch rife with dark undertones and charming subtleties. Following the departure of guitarist Adam Kessler, the New York outfit has picked up the pieces and carried forward to create an album that stands out as one of the most unique indie records this year. While it may not have the anthemic sounds of previous works, such as “Forever and Ever Amen” or “Me and the Moon,” Portamento delivers a dark yet wonderful package. The album’s lead single “Money” immediately jumps into a catchy and fast-paced array of guitar, bass, drums before Jonathan Pierce’s incredible vocal range is introduced, and “How It Ended” offers a sentimental and touching tale amidst a catchy combination of instrumentation. These songs, and the rest of the songs on the album, emote an incredibly sombre tale, one that focuses heavily on death and loss, but, surrounding these melancholy emotions are fantastic arrangements of instrumentation. By combining the ugly aspects of love, loss and life, conveyed through the brooding vocal work of Pierce, with a well-crafted exhibition of musical talent, The Drums have delivered a fantastic representation of how indie pop can and does work.

2. Holy Ghost! – Holy Ghost! [Amazon] [iTunes[Insound]

Earlier this year, DFA electropop duo Holy Ghost! released their self-titled debut album, a wonderfully crafted gem that blends the allure of ’80s disco house music with a crisp, modern sound. Each song is filled with layer upon layer of drums, synthesizers, pianos, vocals, bass, and subtle guitars that somehow combine to create perfectly synchronized throwbacks to ’80s and ’90s disco house. “Do It Again” energetically kick-starts the album, taking you through a fantastic dedication to the heyday of a genre that is making a comeback. “Wait and See” is unbelievably catchy, and has one of the best music videos of the year, “Hold On” quickly throws you into a magnificent soundscape of electropop goodness, and “Some Children” grabs your attention with its smooth basslines, groovy synthesizers and charming vocal work. Each song on this album is unique in its own way, but fit within the album as a whole, and there’s no denying that Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser are experts at making damn catchy music. Holy Ghost! have captured exactly what made a thirty-year old genre work and infused it with modern styles and techniques, as well as their own personal influences. The result? A fantastically well-put-together electropop dream.

1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver [Amazon] [iTunes[Insound]

Simply put, this album and albums like this are the reason I listen to music. With his self-titled sophomore album, Justin Vernon has crafted a magnificent, ten-song opus that encapsulates everything music should be. It feels happy when it should be, it emotes the sadness that we will and have experienced in our lives, it never feels forced yet it always feels real and genuine. While For Emma, Forever Ago did this, and was an amazing album, it always felt a little bit too simple and acoustic driven, but, with Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Vernon’s musical breadth has widened exponentially. “Beth/Rest” is, in itself, a symbol of Vernon’s foray into the realm of risk-driven experimentation. Using the soul pop genre of the ’80s as a muse, the song ends the album on the perfect note, evoking a passionate, joyful, and sombre conclusion to an incredible album. Vernon’s growth and experimentation is evident with each passing song, as one will offer something that the previous didn’t, and this adds a layer of depth that wasn’t fully realized in For Emma.

It isn’t just Vernon’s instrumentation that has evolved, though, as the solitary sadness heard on his debut has grown into something beautifully melancholic here, and, as each consecutive song on the album passes, this beauty takes a number of emotional twists and turns. Album opener “Perth” starts slow, building up to a percussion-driven intensity before slowing down again and seamlessly flowing into “Minnesota, WI.” “Holocene” is a masterpiece in and above itself, with Vernon’s vocals beautifully rising and calming at just the right moments, and with such brevity, to evoke a humanity that is oft absent from music. Whether it is the doleful happiness of “Towers,” the saddening childhood story of “Michicant,” or the solemn memories of a failed relationship in “Wash.,” the album conveys such powerful and meaningful messages. From beginning to end, from “Perth” to “Beth/Rest,” we are taken through a journey of emotional expression, of life and all its trials and tribulations. It is this which makes the album so incredible, because, no matter who you are or where you are, we all succumb to heartbreak, to struggle, and the albums themes, themes that are part of life, of growing up, manage to transcend the album itself, and it does so in such an organic way. It is a rare thing for an album to feel so organic, so seamless and unified, with each song feeling like it should be there, yet each song offering something that only it can provide. The humanity of the album is what stands out the most, with each song evoking exactly what it needs to, not feeling too forced or underutilized. I listen to music for this exact reason, because it acts as an avenue for the emotions, enjoyment, happiness, sadness, and all the things that makes me human, and, in this regard, Bon Iver, Bon Iver succeeds in every way.

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