2011 has been a brilliant year for music. There’s been so many good, and varied, releases that it’s been hard to wittle down a top ten of what we think were the best releases of the year. Eventually, we managed to settle on our choices and the list is as diverse as it is strong. If you haven’t heard any on the list, then listen to them the first opportunity you get. You won’t regret it.
We’ve already had one top ten albums of the year list from our writer Adam Lock. This is our second list made up of picks by WhatCulture!’s senior music writers Rhys Milsom and Morgan Roberts.
10: Florence and The Machine – Ceremonials
Following the almost stadium-size success of debut album Lungs, follow-up Ceremonials is the logical progression. Not only now filling the stadiums with fans, Florence and The Machine are now filling those stadiums with sound. It’s clear from the outset that the ambition for this release is bigger, and better.
The first album showed an inclination to art pop, but heavier on the pop and simplifying the art – however, with the freedom that release allowed, this time around Florence and The Machine have been allowed to flourish artistically.
The sound is still driven with its heart in pop and soul, but its head is now allowed to develop its art, leading to a more ambitious and out-there mindset. The production, instrumentation and arrangements gain the most from this, coming across experimental but entirely accessible. The lyrics, too, are taking on more expansive themes with running ideas of ritual and sacrifice, exorcisms and demons, drowning and a cleansing of oneself.
Not as instant as the first but showing the development and expansion of this generations Kate Bush, but already with the mainstream at her feet. MR.
Key tracks –Shake It Out, What The Water Gave Me, Leave My Body
9: The Horrors – Skying
With their third album comes The Horrors’ third evolution, and their third step closer to arena-conquering stardom. Long forgotten, though often referenced it seems, are the bands early days of derision of style over substance.
When their debut dropped its frenetic, garage-goth-punk ‘n’ roll, though a solid record it wasn’t enough to disprove those who saw the band as art school poseurs. However, Primary Colours, their second, soon put silence to that with its matured psychedelia and krautrock influenced layered songs, allowing things to groove and slow – welcoming critical acclaim and almost accolades. Skying sees them heading further into the limelight, whilst simultaneously taking another directional leap albeit into the past.
This album continues to develop on their penchant for layers and a more subdued atmosphere, this time taking in a more ‘80s synth inflection, brass arrangements, the fuzzy howls and dream-like layers of shoegaze, and even some anthemic choruses. Whilst not a perfect album, in places The Horrors lose themselves and things meander or get lost in the haze, with this album they’ve furthered developed their arsenal, gained A List airplay on mainstream radio and gained a handful of absolute classics. MR.
Key tracks – Endless Blues, Still Life, Moving Further Away
8: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Weighed down in setbacks, wasted self-funded sessions, a feeling in the band’s eyes of stagnation, misdirection and no purpose, resulting in a three year delay from Fleet Foxes’ critically acclaimed debut to their sophomore. It may sound like the resulting release, has avoided being a sophomore slump, and with a never more apt title.
Helplessness may have been the driving force of the band’s emotions during this period, guiding many of the lyrics too, however upon hearing this album, it’s quickly realised this band are far from helpless, far from lost and with a definite purpose; whether they know it themselves or not. In the gap between releases and scrapped ideas, Fleet Foxes have had time to mature their sound to its natural evolution; tighter yet more expansive are the arrangements, sharper are harmonies, more developed are the layers and structures, and more widespread and mature are the lyrics, taking in some heavy emotions and poetic imagery.
Whilst not an evolutionary leap from their debut, itself an example of a genre that has been done many times before, whether you call it folk rock, indie folk, psychedelic folk or whatever folk, what this release is, is a honing of their craft. MR.
Key tracks – Sim Sala Bim, Helplessness Blues, The Shrine/An Argument
7: Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
You’re missing out if this album wasn’t on your radar. It’s categorised as hip-hop, but because of the weird amalgamation of the spacious, dark, stimulating music, many people didn’t know where to place it. It’s a fresh take on the hip-hop genre, but the great rapping and stirring beats ensured that Shabazz Palaces retained traditional hip-hop verve and attitude. RM.
Key tracks: An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum / Recollections of the wraith / Swerve…The reaping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding).
6: Nerves Junior – As Bright As Your Night Light
For a relatively young band, this is an undeniable gem. It may take them the rest of their careers to come up with anything as brilliant as this again. (And if they do manage that, they’ll be a juggernaut of a band.) Even though their sound is all encompassing, it doesn’t suffocate them at all and each track moves effortlessly through, while maintaining a vice-like grip on the listener. It’s an album that will influence and inspire for years to come. RM.
Key tracks: Downtown Lament / Swimmer’s Ear / Kale.
5: James Blake – James Blake
An ice-cool, ethereal album. Blake couples warm vocals with minimalist electronic beats that swell the music to bursting point. Even though it can be classed as dubstep, it’s not in your face and can be listened to if you want to chill out or are gearing up for a night out. It’s anonymous with mainstream dubstep and also has a personality that dubstep sometimes fails to create. One of the hippest releases this year. RM.
Key tracks: The Wilhelm Scream / Lindisfarne / Limit To Your Love.
4: The James Cleaver Quintet – That Was Then, This Is Now
A few years climbing the ladder out of obscurity, through line up changes and excess aside, you could consider The JCQ truly born of 2011. The year they starred in a Lucozade commercial that assaulted you in the cinemas, that assaulted you on your TV screens and the internet. Though most importantly the year they released their astounding and abrasive debut album.
A youthful and exuberant collective almost completely unheard of, not through lack of trying, have released one of the best alternative British albums of the year, to critical acclaim and featuring in many a end of year list for best albums, including the top 10 in Kerrang! and let’s not forget this list. All this for a band that doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry yet.
The album itself filled with a youthful exuberance and eclecticism, spanning the range between punk, mathcore, hardcore, swing, ska, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. A techni-coloured sound, and given their age and this being their debut, it’ll only get more colourful. MR.
Key tracks – Chicken Shit (for the soul), The JCWho, Trading Water.
3: La Dispute – Wildlife
Three years since their debut may seem a while for a sophomore effort, but it’s not like the band haven’t been busy; touring relentlessly, releasing numerous EPs and collaborative efforts, whether with peers of the current wave of post-hardcore or acoustic singer-songwriters. Fuelled by this prolific work ethic, when we arrive at Wildlife, we find the band with newfound maturity and greater lasting impact.
Following on from their debut’s genre-splicing guidelines the band continue to mine their sound from post-hardcore, post-rock and the more melodic outreaches of screamo, all processed through a progressive filter when it comes to song structure and concept. Except with this release, it’s delivered with a keener precision and a grander sense of melody taking cues even from folk, blues and spoken word in parts, and whereas previously some might say there was a battle between vocals and music here they are synchronised perfectly, rising and falling in intensity together. Instead of competing for your attention, everything works together; intertwined, allowing you to hear the stories behind the vocals.
The lyrics, and the whole lyrical concept behind the album, being perhaps the strongest, most powerful aspect of this album; a collection of unpublished short stories by a fictional author dealing with his own losses and stories of his town around him, touching upon schizophrenia, child cancer, gang violence and a hometown in descent and disrepair. All written and delivered with such passion and conviction from vocalist Jordan Dreyer, combined with the band’s instrumentation, this album leaves a lasting impact. MR.
Key tracks – Safer In The Forest/Love Song For Poor Michigan, King Park, I See Everything
2: Letlive. – Fake History
From the opening track, ‘Le Prologue’, you know you’re in for an intense, passionate, vigorous listen. However, there’s more to this album than it just being an outlet of anger – it’s an incredibly textured piece of work. It has intrinsic melodies, singalong choruses, savage hooks and even includes a jazzy piano denouement. Letlive. is effectively a hardcore band, as the lyrics and vocal style convey – many of their songs explore modern society and how we mindlessly accept the world for what it is – but because of the depth of this album, it has an appeal that will endure with varied music fans for years to come. It’s an album that opens your eyes (and ears) to how effective music can be when it’s done well. RM.
Key tracks: The Sick, Sick 6.8 Billion / Muther / Day 54.
1: Adele – 21
Without doubt, 2011 was Adele’s year. 21 is a beautiful piece of work that has touched hearts and souls on both sides of the Atlantic and has sold over 13 million copies worldwide. With Adele’s classic, giant, emotional voice, and the Motown, blues tinged music, it has a traditional yet modern sound. It’s an album that pulls you in: heart-rendering, tender, but still maintains a sense of underlying anger, which is true to how Adele must have felt when writing the lyrics after the collapse of an 18-month long relationship. It’s not just one of the best releases this year; it’s one of the best albums to have been released in a very long time. RM.
Key tracks: Rolling In The Deep / Someone Like You / Rumour Has It.