3 Dec 2011

Active Listener's Top Twenty Albums of 2011

Following on from my Top Twenty New Discoveries of 2011 and Top Ten Reissues of 2011 lists here's the biggie : The Top Twenty Albums of the Year.

Several titles that should be on here made it to the New Discoveries list so I've left them off here in the interests of keeping things fresh.

20. Opeth - Heritage
Continuing to evolve away from their death metal roots has cost Opeth a lot of their fanbase, but those willing to stick with this direction have been rewarded here with a very diverse album with their prog tendencies now embellished with some nice jazz and folk touches. The death metal vocal is now gone completely and we're left with an album that stands up well compared to the early seventies hard rock releases which inspired it.

19. Brett Anderson - Black Rainbows
Recorded before the Suede reunion this is the frontman's first solo album to revisit the classic glam guitar rock sound that made them famous, and is also his strongest solo album to date. Anderson has gone on the record as saying that the new material that Suede are working on will only see the light of day if it's exceptionally good. The material on here bodes well for us getting a listen at some point.

18. The Unthanks - Last
The Unthanks continue to drag the English folk tradition kicking and screaming into the 21st century with their best and most diverse offering to date. Covering material ranging from ancient traditionals through to Tom Waits and most impressively, King Crimson, the Unthanks never fail to claim total ownership of the material. For more excellent envelope pushing UK folk music, check out Jono McCleery.

17. My Morning Jacket - Circuital
After the lukewarm reception their previous album Evil Urges received, Jim James and co. have abandoned the wacky Princely funkathons and headed back to Z territory. Far from being a regression though they've taken Z's adventurous palette and painted a far more expansive picture with it, ranging from the intimate balladry of Wonderful to the prog funk metal workout Holdin On To Black Metal.

16. Megafaun - Megafaun
Formed by former members of DeYarmond Edison ( who also included a pre fame Justin Vernon of Bon Iver ) , Megafaun offer a diverse mixture of sounds here that would have to be loosely termed folk rock, but often sound more inspired by the beards of the Grateful Dead or even the Traveling Wilburries than those of say, the Fleet Foxes.

15. The Head and the Heart - The Head and the Heart
A fine debut from the American Mumford & Sons. However whereas the Mumfords have failed to make much of a positive impression on me, The Head and the Heart tone down the angst and offer a far more joyful experience.

14. Jonathan Wilson - Gentle Spirit
The perfect distillation of what made Californian canyon rock circa 1972 so great. Beautifully recorded with vintage gear this evokes America, Jerry Garcia and  most noticeably to me Graham Nash's underrated Songs For Beginners. I'd be a happy man if more new albums sounded like this.

13. Feist - Metals
Along with Joan as Policewoman, Canadian songstress Feist continues to lead the way for the Joni Mitchell inspired singer / songwriter crowd. The diverse, genre straddling arrangements grab you and don't let go until the slow-burning songcraft has you hooked. Habit forming music.

12. Active Child - You Are All I See
Of all the new hipster crowd making 80's synth based music in the over crowded current scene, Active Child has made the most unique statement  I've heard so far. His ethereal Bon Iver-esque vocals are affecting and his arrangements are just that little touch more epic than those of his competitors. Lovely.

11. Veronica Falls - Veronica Falls
Veronica Falls debut album is a refreshing throwback to the days of the Throwing Muses and the Pixies with the slightly dark jangle of early nineties Flying Nun. The male backing vocals sound just like the Bats in fact. Come On Over, their updating of Crimson & Clover is required listening as are the wonderful Beachy Head & Stephen.

10. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
St Vincent's evolution into the indie generation's very own Kate Bush continues with her strongest album yet. Great songs and very adventurous Eno-eque production flourishes. One of those rare albums, which is instantly appealing but leaves plenty to reveal for multiple listens. Rewarding stuff.

9. Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest
A long time coming, The Harrow and the Harvest is everything you expect it to be. Timeless songsmithery which sounds like it's just found it's way down from the mountains, intricate and beautiful guitar accompaniment from David Rawlings and a sparse warm production which leaves plenty of room for the vocal and guitars to co-exist. And most importantly this is Welch's strongest set of songs to date.

8. Other Lives - Tamer Animals
This is a pretty stunning piece, equal parts beardy nu-folk and grandiloquent indie ala the National, with big sweeping movie score orchestrations. One for fans of Fleet Foxes. The National, Midlake and the Leisure Society.

7. Jonny - Jonny
A U.K indie supergroup fronted by Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's Euros Childs, this sounds like it was a whole lot of fun to make. Mixing everything from Beach Boys sunshine pop to Kinks harpsichord flourishes to hypnotic kraut rock this is an affectionate and infectious homage to all of their favourite bands.

6. Bachelorette - Bachelorette
Apparently the last release as Bachelorette by Annabel Alper's who is now working in a group format, naming her album simply Bachelorette seems to confirm that she intends this as her definitive statement. The folk elements of past releases are downplayed and we're left with an incredibly strong set of synth pop classics which brings to mind everyone from Ladytron to Jon & Vangelis. Great.

5. Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing
Moving on from Destroyer of the Void's Queen fixation, Blitzen Trapper have now set their sights on Southern Rock and predictably assimilate all of the essential elements of that sound effortlessly into their own. Great hooks abound on instant classics like Might Find It Cheap.

4. The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time
A triumphant return for  the Olsen / Louris fronted Jayhawks with an album that sounds like it could have been the natural follow up to 1995's Tomorrow The Green Grass. From the classic 60's pop of She Walks In so Many Ways to the darker undertones of Black Eyed Susans this offers everything which made the Jayhawks great. One of the great comeback albums - and there's not many of them around.

3. Bon Iver - Bon Iver 
A much more ambitious release than Bon Iver's much loved debut, this is a grower which a lot of people were confused by when it first hit the shelves. The solo acoustic guitar sound of the original has been shelved in favour of a a large ensemble with more brass and some thunderous percussion, but still has room for moments of unspoiled melancholy and the odd Phil Collins moment. Lovely

2. Malachai - Return to the Ugly Side
The follow up to their instant classic 60's inspired debut drops everything which made the debut so great and is an entirely different beast. This is the dark hangover to the Ugly Side of Love's party. In the nineties this would have been called trip hop, but here it's evolved into something far more cinematic.

1. The Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Here, Pecknold has managed the difficult task of holding onto the elements that made people fall in love with the first album, without stagnating. The lovely CSN harmonies are still intact, but there's an added scope and ambition to be found on more progressive epics like The Shrine / The Argument with it's multi song structure and free-jazz breakdown. A very impressive sophomore release in a year that's seen more than it's fair share of them.

Honorable mentions to : P.J Harvey, Wilco, The Felice Brothers and The Phoenix Foundation who were all pretty close to making the cut.

What are your albums of the year? I'm always keen to hear something new that I might have missed.  Let me know in the comments section.


  1. Great list, Active Listener. My favourites are the Gillian Welch, Head and the Heart (think you may have copied me!) and Malachai, which I thought would have been too trip-hop for me but I really like it. Thanks, love the blog.

  2. Enjoyed poking around your blog and reading this list which intersects with my own tastes by about 50%. A few items on here I'd never heard of and am about to peruse in itunes to check 'em out. I run a similar-ish vinyl blog over at wordpress.

    My own list would include Wild Beasts - Smother, and the Phoenix Foundation - Buffalo. I'm one of those who still remains slightly confused by the Bon Iver. I bought the whole Megafaun catalogue this year but have yet to work my way up to the 2011 effort yet. Looking forward to it. The Bonnie Prince is not so bad either.

  3. Hi Alan
    Thanks for the kind words. I'll give the Wild Beasts a listen - I didn't quite connect with their first album but sometimes it takes me a couple of attempts to really latch onto a band. The Phoenix Foundation would definitely have made it onto my list, but it's been out here in New Zealand for a couple of years now - good to see it get a U.K release this year though and to hear they've got some U.K fans. Their back catalogue has some great stuff in it - definitely check out Pegasus if you can find a copy.
    All the best

  4. Good list! Looks like several that I need to check out. Nice to see Megafaun and the Jayhawks on here. I'm one of the few who liked Evil Urges more than Circuital, I guess. My list is here: http://www.sixwatergrog.com/2011/12/six-water-grogs-best-albums-of-2011.html?utm_source=BP_recent

  5. Hi Lanny
    Nice to hear from you.
    I must admit I am a big fan of Evil Urges too, but we seem to be a minority. What's wrong with a band having a bit of fun? Critics need to lighten up a bit I reckon.
    I've been meaning to check out that Amiina album on your list too...

  6. http://sundaysmile23.blogspot.com/2012/03/welove-folk-music-bestbandbestsong.html best of folk band what do you think