Thursday, December 1, 2011

The First XI of 20XI

As much as I don't really see a lot of point in dividing music into calendar years (arbitrary 365 day period!), the truth is that very little new music gets released between the end of November and the start of February.  So there is a certain logic to year-end lists, even if you subscribe to the theory that January 1 is just another day.  And on that note, I am proud to present my favourite 11 albums of 2011...

11. DJ Shadow - The Less You Know, The Better
When I listen to DJ Shadow these days, it tends to not be the studio albums as much as some of his live mixes - Funky Skunk, and Los Angeles 10/31/09 in particular, but also Live! In Tune and on Time.  It's those live mixes (particularly the first two mentioned) that really showcase Shadow's eclectic taste, masterful turntable skills, and his ear for a good groove.  What I enjoy about The Less You Know, The Better is that it captures that same groove and varied musical palate that is such a highlight of his live mixes.  There are nods to hip-hop, electro, rock, turntablism, drum and bass, soul, funk - and yet it all comes together as a coherent, interesting whole.  A great reason to put the headphones on and groove out.

10. Black Country Communion - 2
Certainly the best supergroup album of the year, although that isn't necessarily saying much.  2 is a huge step up from their debut, and it's great to hear this band really evolve their own unique sound - equal parts classic rock, hard rock and blues.  A couple of things really shine about this record, in my opinion.  The first is Glenn Hughes' vocals - powerful, genuine and a real highlight.  The second is the quality of the songwriting - accessible yet never simplistic, with plenty of detail and some nice twists.  That four such quality individual talents can put together an interesting, balanced rock record which is undoubtedly more than the sum of its parts should tell you everything you need to know.

9. Machine Head - Unto the Locust

Although I'm pretty new to this band, it's not hard to appreciate the quality of Unto the Locust.  It starts with the aggressive, unpredictable and unrelenting I Am Hell (Sonata in C#) and pretty much goes from there.  The dynamic balance between full-on thrash and quieter, acoustically-driven sections keeps things interesting throughout in a way that harkens back to the likes of Master of Puppets.  Top-notch metal songwriting and musicianship - I am really looking forward to catching MH at Soundwave early next year.

8. Beastie Boys - The Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2
As unlikely as it sounds, three old white guys have produced one of the year's best hip-hop albums.  Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 is a brash, bouncy romp which mixes the irreverent party attitude of old-school Beastie with plenty of fresh, contemporary beats.  Consistently enjoyable and consistently fun.

Check out my personal favourite track, Here's A Little Something For Ya:

7. Graveyard - Hisingen Blues
I was hooked on this record - and this band - from the opening 10 seconds of Ain't Fit to Live Here.  It literally sounds like these guys were on a roadtrip in 1971, cranking plenty of Cream and Steppenwolf in the van, when they accidentally drove into a timewarp that brought them into the present day.  But a one-trick pony they are not - whilst there is plenty of hard-rock boogie, there are also some fantastic slow-building tracks (Uncomfortably Numb and The Siren).  A very exciting upcoming band, these lads from Sweden - watch this space.

6. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light

This is the closest thing to a standout album that the Foos have produced since their self-titled debut.  The quality of the first five songs, in particular, is just mind-bogglingly good.  In fact, the insanely good opening quintet of Burning Bridges, Rope, Dear Rosemary, White Limo and Arlandria might just be the best run of songs on any Foos record.  The only downside of this is that it sets the bar high for the album's second half - in this case, unreachably high.  I mean, the rest is still really good, it's just not the rock revelation that the first half is.

And yeah, White Limo is still the best music video of the year, maybe ever:

5. Megadeth - TH1RT3EN

It's an absolute delight to hear Dave Mustaine pushing the boundaries with brutal, snarling, pedal-to-the-metal tracks like Never Dead and Sudden Death, even after 12 albums, career-threatening injuries, and almost 30 years.  TH1RT3EN is another reminder that Megadeth are the only Big Four band that have managed to be consistently interesting, innovative and relevant.  A great balance between technicality (Sudden Death, Never Dead), infectiousness (Public Enemy No. 1 and Whose Life (Is It Anyway)) and straight-up honesty (13).

Also, props for an excellent video involving gangster monkeys.

4. Mastodon - The Hunter
The Hunter eschews the prog-metal extremities of its predecessor, Crack the Skye, in favour of a much more direct approach.  And in doing so managed to produce such utter gems as the foreboding Black Tongue, the catchy Curl of the Burl, the ritalin-deprived Blasteroid, and the brutal Spectrelight - all insanely good tracks.

If I had one criticism of this album, it would be that it meanders a little through the middle, and if it were up to me (which it is, thanks to the wonders of modern technology), I'd insert the two hard-rocking bonus tracks The Ruiner and Deathbound somewhere in the middle.  But in saying that, it's still a fine metal album by a great band.

And whilst we're on the topic of great videos of 2011, we have Mastodon's hilarious Adult Swim-produced video for Deathbound.  Don't watch this if you have any issues with the concept of a puppet apocalypse.

3. Symphony X - Iconoclast
When I was first introduced to Symphony X a few years ago, I initially concluded that they were a bit like Dream Theater but not as good.  Anyway, fastforward to 2011, and Symphony X have rather turned the tables by releasing a double album which (at least in my opinion) pretty much crushes Dream Theater's latest effort.  With 12 tracks spanning 83 minutes (and a Matrix-like concept about machines conquering the planet), it's certainly not an easy listen, but progressive metal never really is.  The pairing of lead guitarist Michael Romeo and singer Russell Allen is probably the best and most enjoyable in metal, following the dissolution of Nevermore, and both are highlights throughout this epic effort.

And for the record, there's a single disc version floating around as well, but make sure you get the double.

2. Soundgarden - Live on I-5
You can debate all you like whether it's legitimate to include live records on lists like this (my opinion: live albums are OK, singles collections/b-side collections/greatest hits are not), but in my opinion this is a damn fine live album.  Stunning performances of most of the best Soundgarden tracks (not just singles), and a couple of very well-executed covers make for a live album that is pretty much outstanding from start to finish. 

Also, totally off topic, but I realised the other day that most of The Day I Tried to Live is in 15/4 time.

Anyway, amongst the many highlights:


1. Rose Hill Drive - Americana
I always thought RHD had it in them to make a genuinely great album.  Americana is that album - or, if we are lucky, the first of many.  One of the most crazy, clever and unabashedly fun rock albums you could hope to hear - and for me personally this album reminds why I love music so much.  It gets stuck in my head, it makes me smile, and I just can't stop listening to it. But for all its accessibility and sheer rock-out-ness, it's also detailed and clever.  Anyway, stop listening to me gush about it and just go get it (digital is your best bet as the physical release is a little tricky to track down).  DO IT!

These two videos should give you some sort of idea just what you're in for...

Anyway, coming up next, a discussion of some of the albums this year that DIDN'T make this list.  For various reasons, ranging from almost-but-not-quite to sheer godawfulness.

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