2010 was a HUGE year for new music, this year not so much. Interestingly enough, what I've found is that it is quite a bit easier to whittle down a large list of great new releases than a smaller one. Hadn't seen that coming.
Also, another thing I realized this year, about the time I started thinking about this list late last week, is that not only did I not buy as much new music this year, but I spent more time than I have in quite a number of years into specific albums; deep, almost drowned analyzing time imbibing albums, many of which were metal. Black Metal to become even more specific; a relatively new fascination for me. And I'm not talking about the corpse-painted pedestrian variety - 2011 was definitely the year I found that the most interesting and experimental things being done with metal are being done under the umbrella of Black Metal.
Anyway, let's do the list. Top films to follow in a day or two. Also, note the usual disclaimer: I'm not sure if the order is important here – this is simply the best five albums that I heard that were released in 2011.
5) TV On the Radio - Nine Types of Light: I have loved this band since Mr. Brown turned me onto them with their debut E.P., released on Touch and Go Records in the early rays of the previous decade. I've watched them expand and mature, their songwriting growing and becoming – frankly – more and more amazing. However - they've never made my list before and I believe that is due to one simple fact: previous albums have felt slightly uneven. The singles from their last two albums, i.e. 'Wolf Like Me' from 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain and 'Dancing Choose' from 2008's Dear Science were the harbingers of both albums, but sound –respectively – pretty much nothing like the rest of those albums. In retrospect – and I have no proof, this is just a gut feeling – I believe the singles are generally the songs where the music, i.e. the catchy-as-hell rock rhythms are written first and then the vocals are tailored to them, whereas when I listen to a full TVOTR album I get the distinct impression that for most of the rest of the songs the vocal melodies are written first and then the music is structured around them. This is cool, but as a result it usually takes me several sessions of critical listening to really 'get' the albums as a whole, and then the singles seem a bit out of place. I've always wanted to hear what a full album of TVOTR rockin' out would sound like; Nine Types of Light is not that – in fact you will find my above my observation falls flat here (let it just be said I would still one day like to hear that album) – but it is, I believe, closer to a more complete synthesis of the two approaches. Lead-in single Caffeinated Consciousness is also catchy-as-hell, but it is so in a more vocally dominant way. Yet the music is multi-layered and hard-hitting, even when soft or subtle. The entire album has bright, thick textures of rock, dance and the kind of strategic bravado one normally associates with music Magus Peter Gabriel. However, unlike Mr. Gabriel, TVOTR hasn't chosen to severe their relationship with 'fun', so that the end result is an album that is thought-provoking, super-listenable, up-lifting and overall A DAMN GOOD TIME!!! (amazing then that bass player Gerard A. Smith left our world shortly after its release. Gerard, you left the world with something fantastic; thank you!!!)
4) Blut Aus Nord - 777 Sects/The Desanctification: I won't consider it cheating to couple these two albums together as one entry because they – as well as the third part arriving some time in 2012 – are all chapters in one massive album. I have no idea what the hell they are about, but let me tell you; that experimental, mind-expanding Black Metal I was talking about earlier? This is the best and brightest* of it here. Far beyond any of their other work, the 777 albums have next to no vocals, elements of ambient, trip hop and dance music, and a razor sharp straight-line right into the darkest spiral of madness this side of michele bachman's therapist's couch.
3) David Lynch - Crazy Clown Time: Take the spooky, ethereal atmosphere of David Lynch's films, temper it (much like he did visually for Inland Empire) with a modern, urban noir – here manifesting as an almost Underworld-like flair for dance music – and throw in the twisted psychological make-up of his previous album BLUE BOB (with John Neff) and you have easily one of the most interesting and atmosphere-heavy albums in years. "Twisted and Beautiful" is how many (including myself) often describe the man's films; same with his music (although musically I find there is usually a little bit more HOPE involved).
2) M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming: Anthony Gonzalez's double album bravado almost frightened me at first; I was so caught-up on first single 'Midnight City' that I couldn't bring myself to give the other twenty-one songs a chance. Once this leveled off I found that listening to Hurry Up was akin to plunging into a hyper-real, psychedelic arena of wonderment that pulled at my heart strings by somehow evoking and re-installing every significant sound/song archetype my subconscious had been cataloging since my childhood. And then I saw them live and I was reduced to an emotional jellyfish for an hour and a half. The word Masterpiece does not fall short.
1) Fen - Epoch: Like Blut Aus Nord I'll speak of Fen under the context of 'Black Metal' simply because to seek to create a different classification is to become bogged down in the most unnecessary of tasks; genre names can sometimes be okay (mostly not) but are really just 'tags' by which we can communicate various grouped characteristics and ideas in a short, easy burst. So yeah, Black Metal will work for Fen, even though musically they sound like no other Black Metal band I know of. Or metal band. Or rock band. If there was a genre 'Storm Metal' that might be more appropriate, because this band and this album specifically create sounds/songs that seem like the language of a storm, the same way mid-period Tom Waits created music that seemed the language of intoxication, or John Zorn has created music that seems the language of Azathoth. Fen's Epoch is literally the sonic equivalent of staring at something in the distance through the veil of an April downpour. It's not studio trickery or effects – it's the passion and creativity of the band as they tap into something much bigger than themselves and somehow translate it into a language other human beings can relate to and understand.
Honorable mention goes to tUnE_yArDs - Whokill, which completely blows me away with its strange yet almost danceable afro beat-meets-Talking Heads and probably a whole host of other artists whose albums are on 'the list' but I still haven't had time to check out.
* Bright in an appropriately 'Dark' capacity, that is.