Arts in Review

The Cascade’s Albums of the Year (2011)

The Cascade’s picks for the best music albums released in the past year



Contributors: Dessa Bayrock, Joe Johnson, Aaron Levy, Michael Scoular, Joel Smart, Nick Ubels, Tim Ubels, Amy Van VeenEmail

Print Edition: January 25, 2012

20. (tie) The Roots – Undun 

In addition to their duties as house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, tirelessly creative American hip hop group The Roots spent 2011 working on their thirteenth record, Undun, a concept album about inner city poverty. Picking up from where their masterful 2010 album How I Got Over left off, the group readily incorporates indie rock, R&B, and neo-soul into their darkly soulful creation. – N.U.

20. (tie) Rich Aucoin – We’re All Dying to Live 

Aucoin is probably the most talented and accomplished musician not to have their own Wikipedia entry in the world. Check out the new video for “It”. Check out songs like “Brian Wilson is A.L.I.V.E.”, or “Push”, just check it out. Several years in the making, with 500 contributors from across the country, it’s not just Rich who’s trying to live here, we all are. – A.L.

20. (tie) Foster the People – Torches 

With their debut album, every track continues to drive with the same high tempo as found in their first single, “Pumped Up Kicks.” But what’s offered is so much more depth than what may be expected from a single radio listen. To say the least, the album is very unique. – J.J.

 19. Wilco – The Whole Love

After close to two decades of making music together, Wilco does not still fit the same musical blueprint they began with. In fact, besides singer Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt, the entire line-up has changed. The band moves forward with The Whole Love, a sometimes gloomy, quaint, and bittersweet alternative rock record that is a joy to listen to. – T.U.

17. (tie) Radiohead – The King of Limbs

In 1997, Radiohead released one of the most influential albums of the ‘90s. In 2001 Radiohead changed the face of popular and independent music. In 2007 Radiohead reinvented the way music gets released and paid for. In 2011 Radiohead failed to fail to continue to release ground breaking, beautiful, and life-affirming music with King of Limbs. Every song a journey of its own, every side a story of intrigue ripe for the type of interpretation literature majors struggle with in the work of Yates and Joyce. – A.L.

17. (tie) Young the Giant – Young the Giant 

A very cool album perfectly suited for the summer. It was placed so high because it connects perfectly in that relaxing, not too slow or too fast spot. The instruments and vocals play together so sweetly that it’s hard not to fall into the album. – J.J.

13. (tie) The Weeknd – House of Balloons

Great production, song writing, and performing are all absolutely essential elements of a successful piece of music, especially when it comes to hit song writing in the hip hop world. As chronicled in a July 2011 NPR article, each of these individual elements may cost as much as $20,000 in order to fully produce and package a hit song. The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye didn’t have that kind of cash. He didn’t have a team of Lana Del Rey-esque handlers and demographic analysis specialists. But his body of work, assembled over maybe three years, and culminating in his debut release, House of Balloons, is head and shoulders above everything anyone else has done this year in the world of electronic and urban record production. – A.L.

13. (tie) The Decemberists – The King is Dead

The Decemberists have all the hallmarks of a great indie band. Their latest album is equal parts catchy, contemplative tunes and thought-provoking lyrics. In The King Is Dead, they’ve created the quintessential summer album: light, lazy, philosophical, and undeniably infectious. “January Hymn,” is the perfect sound for heartbreak, and “Calamity Song,” on the other end of the spectrum, is about the Appalachian zombie apocalypse; neither should be missed. – D.B.

13. (tie) Battles – Gloss Drop

It seems almost reductive to call Gloss Drop frenetic, loud or creative. Battles’ second album both embraces the best qualities of progressive and experimental rock while abolishing the genre’s tendency for longer compositions to settle for being “listenable” or “catchy” and usually end up “repetitive” and “droning.” Gloss Drop’s stops and starts still jolt on a tenth spin, its incessant beats and riffs reverb long after the album has ended. This is not music to write a paper to. – M.S.

13. (tie) Adele – 21 

Adele’s 21, an inescapable album this year, suffered the fate of most popular choices – the overplay. The first time “Rolling in the Deep” was played, her powerful vocals and spurned lyrics grabbed the attention of all those who heard before its incessant radio time began to grate on everyone’s patience. Thankfully, this has had no bearing on the quality of the rest of her album – from “Turning Tables” to “I’ll Be Waiting,” Adele has opened up into a growing force in her sophomore album. – A.V.

 12. Other Lives – Tamer Animals 

Unlike anything else you’ve heard this year. Other Lives is one of those special bands that brings about 30 instruments on stage wherever they play. They upstaged Bon Iver at the Orpheum in Vancouver last year as the opening act, and are now set to tour with Radiohead. Though Tamer Animals can range from eerie atmospheric climbs to warm melodies with pleasant vocals, a cohesive, grand identity drives the entire album. It’s hard not to listen to the entire album each time you turn it on. If you only look up one album from this entire list, I recommend that it be this one. It could change your life. – J.S.

10. (tie) Cults – Cults 

Indie pop bands aren’t exactly hard to find at present, but Cults is the only one with Madeline Follin, whose rhythmic shouts on “You Know What I Mean” and heartfelt/spiteful vocals on “Never Heal Myself” make the NY duo’s debut stand out in a crowded genre. She even makes reverb effects sound good. Bandmate Brian Oblivion knows just when to jump in on choruses, no song overstays its welcome and the sound design manages to steer just clear of muddled overproduction. The open joy of initial hit “Go Outside” is engulfed by the stellar songs that follow, making Cults one of the strongest debuts in a year filled with them. – M.S.

10. (tie) Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo

With the glitz and angst of contemporary indie folk rock coming to the forefront, it’s nice to have an album that contains old-fashioned melodies, both relaxing and clever. Philly-based Kurt Vile attracted significant attention in 2011 for Smoke Ring for My Halo, an album that honours folk music history, while adding a new chapter. – T.U.

9. The Black Keys – El Camino

In their third record with producer Danger Mouse behind the helm, The Black Keys have tightened up their sound into a glam rock send-up of the story of rock and roll. Dan Auerbach’s warm, gruff, and earnest vocals are recast as greasy and exist at various levels of irony as he explores such profound topics as “Gold on the Ceiling.” – N.U.

8. Male Bonding – Endless Now

Male Bonding’s most recent effort Endless Now solidifies their place in the lo-fi punk rock revivalist movement with bands like Wavves and Yuck. Their opening track “Tame the Sun” gives the listener a nice overview and impression of the album to come with noisy guitars full of hooks that seem to wail out into the distance. – T.U.

6. (tie) Yuck – Yuck 

Yuck’s debut record was one of the great surprises of 2011. One of the many ‘90s alternative nation renaissance acts to emerge in recent years (see Japandroids, Cymbals Eat Guitars, No Age), the London band’s self-titled album is much more than ragged guitars, angular melodies and mid-tempo riffing. Yuck’s remarkably personal take on this style is unique for the group’s ability to move between loud and quiet numbers with the ease and sensitivity of Yo La Tengo. – N.U.

6. (tie) The Bats – Free All the Monsters

Most bands that are almost 30 years into their career usually spend their time planning reunion tours or writing songs about their glory days, but this not true of The Bats. Their eighth studio album Free All The Monsters is fluid and full of striking vocals, with crisp layers of warm guitars washing underneath. – T.U.

5. Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Mirror Traffic

With Beck at the helm, Stephen Malkmus has created his most focused and interesting record post-Pavement. Most tracks feel like the drums and bass are chasing around Malkmus’ lead guitar until they all cave into one another, with Mirror Traffic demonstrating Malkmus’ keen sense of curiosity when it comes to song writing. – T.U.

4. Sloan – The Double Cross

Very few bands are able to produce the level of consistently good material that Sloan still puts out this far into their career. The Double Cross—its title a reference to the band’s twenty years of producing music together—is perhaps the finest collection of power pop songs the band has ever put on one record. Overflowing with classic Sloan harmonies and hooks, the band also manages to branch out into disco-inspired creations and delicately picked acoustic numbers with great ease. – N.U.

3. Real Estate – Days

On their second record, New Jersey’s Real Estate have built on the success of their eponymous debut and assembled a mature, assured collection of minimal jangle pop songs. The cyclical song structure and dark subject matter are offset by a breezy, yet kinetic melodicism. It’s an album that reveals more about itself with each listen, its apparent simplicity masking a mastery of subtlety and repetition. – N.U.

2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

From opening track “Montezuma” to the closing number “Grown Ocean” there comes an unmistakeable polished unity to Helplessness Blues – it’s hard to believe this is just the second studio album for Seattle-based folk rock band Fleet Foxes. Gentle, passionate and unapologetically harmonious, this unique brand of baroque pop is both instantly familiar and something so new and special you’ll have to listen to it over and over. We at The Cascade recommend track seven for obvious reasons. – J.S.

1. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

In the two years since they released their dazzling self-titled debut, San Francisco duo Girls have elevated their simplistic 1950s Americana allure to something heavier on Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Fearlessly expressing his yearning for love, sex and friendship in this life, Owens ambitiously assembles a wide variety of songs that feel infinitely relatable. – T.U.

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