Albums of the year
Every passing year brings a list comprising the best albums and we figured that this year that list may as well be created by us. So here it is. Feel free to get on Twitter (@stevenwoodhead) to take delight in, discuss, disagree with, or disparage our choices.
The People’s Key Bright Eyes
Bright Eyes have never been interested in making the same record twice and The People’s Key underlines that thinking. Encapsulating folk, country, blues, gospel, electronic, punk, pop (breathe) and rock, Bright Eyes have pretty much covered it all.
And The People’s Key is the perfect blend of all of these. There are elements of synth rock (with which they experimented on 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn), while Ladder Song sees a return to the raw, heartfelt emotion of their earlier work. Conor Oberst spits out his words with such passion that you can actually feel his pain.
It’s an album that gets better and better with each listen as the songs and melodies slowly reveal themselves and seep into your subconscious.
Lyrically, inspiration is taken in abundance from science fiction writers and the way in which technology affects the human connection. The album is interspersed with a spoken word-stream of consciousness by Denny Brewer and these spiritual messages strangely fit with this theme.
If, as rumoured, this is Bright Eyes’ last album, it’s a fitting career high.
Watch: Jejune Stars, Shell Games
The King Is Dead The Decemberists
2009’s The Hazards of Love seemingly split The Decemberists’ fan base in half. A seventeen-track prog-metal/folk opera telling the tale of a woman falling in love with a mystical, shape-shifting forest creature wasn’t going to please everyone was it?
This year, however, the band returned with a collection of stripped-back, country-folk pop songs with no discernible narrative. Gone are the twelve-minute epics – in their place, ten short and sharp stomps of beauty.
The amalgamation of twelve-string guitars, harmonica, accordions, banjos and violins reminds of Neil Young’s Harvest. The primary influence, though, is R.E.M. with Peter Buck appearing on three tracks.
There’s not one weak track on offer here and the scaled-down approach doesn’t hinder the album’s creativity. In fact, there are delicate little touches that delight throughout.
Watch: Calamity Song, This Is Why We Fight
Daybreak Saves The Day
The band’s seventh album is more of an up-tempo affair compared with Sound the Alarm and Under the Boards – the first two albums of their trilogy.
While both of those albums were dark and heavy, Daybreak is about acceptance, peace and hope. From the epic, eleven-minute title track opener, to the heart-wrenching final notes of Undress Me, it’s an altogether more uplifting and emotional journey.
Chris Conley pours his heart out to reveal a reassuring new-found peace with both himself and the world.
The resulting songs are well-crafted and the melodies as catchy as ever. Undress Me is the perfect end to the trilogy, leaving behind all the unrest and uncertainty felt throughout, closing (for once) on a positive note. I’m excited to see where they go next.
Watch: Deranged & Desperate
England Keep My Bones Frank Turner
Four albums in and there’s seemingly no end in sight to Frank Turner’s winning streak. His rise to the top is sure to continue next year and it’s no more than he deserves – Frank’s done it all himself.
His non-stop touring has taken him anywhere and everywhere there is to go and he’s built a strong fan base, all while continuing to write good tunes.
On England Keep My Bones, Frank carries on doing what he does best – good old fist-punching folk-punk anthems. In fact, with songs like I Am Disappeared, If I Ever Stray and Redemption, this latest effort may well be his best yet.
Never one to shy away from controversy, he’s raged against Thatcher, bankers and, in this case, religion. Glory Hallelujah – a song that both sounds and is titled like a hymn-boasts ’There is no God; we’re all in this together.’ He’s written an anthemic hymn for the atheists.
My only criticism is leaving Song for Eva Mae off the album, but when you consider how many great tracks this guy writes, it’s no surprise that the odd one has to miss out from time to time.
Watch: Peggy Sang The Blues, If Ever I Stray, I Still Believe
Collapse Into Now R.E.M
No band before or since R.E.M. has consistently produced album after album of solid gold. And when you consider they have done it over a career spanning thirty years, that’s some achievement.
From 1983’s Murmur onwards, they have deviated from the rulebook and done things on their own terms, in their own way. Collapse into Now – their last album – perfectly encapsulates this.
The amps are turned to eleven on full-on rockers like Discoverer and Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter, but there are also bittersweet tender ballads such as Oh My Heart and Every Day is Yours to Win.
Pure pop perfection is achieved with Uberlin and Mine Smell Like Honey, while Patti Smith’s appearance on final track Blue is a breathtaking and poignant way to close both the album and the history of the band.
Watch: ÜBerlin, Mine Smell Like Honey
The King Of Limbs Radiohead
The first few times I played this album, I have to admit it passed me by. Nothing other than Lotus Flower really stood out. But it is definitely an album that rewards time invested in listening to it, as its genius slowly but surely reveals itself.
From awkward opener Bloom, where the bass and drums seem oddly out of sync with one another, to the haunting Give up the Ghost, the album twists, turns and excites at every stage.
It’s a concise, sharp snapshot of where Radiohead are as a band right now. You never know quite what to expect, but then they’ve never really acknowledged the idea of pleasing the masses.
Instead, they look for a direction which takes their interest and this is what fans love them for. If you’re hoping for OK Computer II, forget it – Radiohead have moved on. And if this is the result of them continuing to evolve and innovate, it’s fine by me.
Watch: Lotus Flower
Endgame Rise Against
With their sixth album Endgame, Rise Against have produced the sort of punk-rock album that Green Day should be producing: one full of fist-pumping, politically-charged anthems that appeal to the masses without pandering to a trite formula of what ‘should’ be popular.
Since leaving Fat Wreck Records for a major label, the Chicago-based quartet has never compromised lyrically or musically on style or integrity.
Endgame is drenched in hugely anthemic and melodic choruses that are still heavy punk songs at heart. There are tracks about war and Hurricane Katrina, while Make it Stop (September’s Children) addresses the idiocy of homophobia – inspired by a spate of teens in the US taking their own lives.
It is inspiring stuff delivered with passion and venom – two things lacking from many bands today.
Watch: Help Is On The Way, Make It Stop (September’s Children), Satellite
Between The Concrete And Clouds Kevin Devine
Brooklyn-born Kevin Devine returned in 2011 with his sixth full-length album Between the Concrete and Clouds. Known for his introspective and political lyrics set against the melodic backdrop of an acoustic guitar, Kevin u-turns slightly here in cranking out the electric guitar.
Indeed, this is the first record he’s made with the backing of a full band.
There are shades from influences such as Nirvana, Pixies, Pavement and Elliott Smith throughout an album containing pop songs dripping in fuzz and distortion.
The title track is a stand-out tale, which finds him questioning his faith in religion as he switches from Catholicism to atheism.
Watch: Off-Screen, 11-17, Between The Concrete And Clouds, I Used To Be Someone
Hurricane Season Dan Andriano In The Emergency Room
Dan Adriano’s appearances on Alkaline Trio albums have always been highlights for me; If We Never Go Inside and Fine being two great examples. So, I was pleased when I heard that he was pursuing a solo project and, unsurprisingly, he hasn’t disappointed.
He steps away from the gothic punk-pop of his day job into a reflecting, enduring and (mostly) acoustic album – and the transition is seamless.
His vocals sound better than ever while the melodies and lyrics are as strong as you’d expect them to be.
Most tracks are just Dan and his guitar, and they benefit from this no-frills approach, although naturally there are one or two fully-fledged rock-outs such as Let Me In and the Costello-esque On Monday.
Listen: This Light, Say, Say, Say, From This Oil Can
Feist’s appearance on Later with Jools Holland in October was enough to convince me to check this album out and I certainly wasn’t let down.
On Metals, Leslie Feist trades in the pop gloss of her previous album The Reminder for a more sophisticated and mature offering. Those expecting an album packed full of pop anthems and catchy hooks tailor-made for iPod ads will find little here, but Metals is magical all the same.
Its melodies unfold over time in a less obvious, but far superior way with chaos and tensions created within the music battling with the beauty of her vocals.
From the chants of A Commotion and Graveyard, to the delicate, tender and heartfelt strums of Comfort Me and Bittersweet Melodies, the arrangements are exceptional and unexpected in equal measure.
Watch: How Come You Never Go There
Best of the rest
11. Manchester Orchestra Simple Math ▪ 12. Noah And The Whale Last Night On Earth ▪ 13. The Dangerous Summer War Paint ▪ 14. Young Statues Young Statues ▪ 15. Rival Schools Pedals ▪ 16. Yellowcard When Your Through Thinking, Say Yes ▪ 17. Roddy Woomble The Impossible Song & Other Songs ▪ 18. All Get Out The Season ▪ 19. PJ Harvey Let England Shake ▪ 20. Wye Oak Civilian.