Best of 2011: The Albums

As much as I dislike the whole sense of fake hosanna surrounding new year’s, there’s one thing I have always loved and that is the end-of-year lists by any music or cultural magazine. Here is my list for this year, which I will break down into albums and DVD’s. Having said that, I do have to state that I thought 2011 was a mediocre year when it comes to new releases for both Metal and Pop music, the latter mainly caused by radio. Seriously people, if Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Alexis Jordan and Coldplay are the best things you can think of, you’re not quite looking good enough. Adele is alright and I even love ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ by Gotye, but playing these songs hundreds of times a day doesn’t exactly add to the listening experience.

Without further ado, here’s part one; the albums:

1. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light

Often criticized for not being “something new”, that’s exactly what’s so good about this album. The Foo Fighters don’t reinvent themselves on this album, they just find a way to do what they’ve always done much better and more streamlined. Melodic and heavy go hand in hand on these album rather than contrasting each other and it is very much a no compromise Rock album. The band sounds inspired and energetic all the way through and in that sense ‘Wasting Light’ is the only good post-nineties example of great Arena Rock. Even the ballads, which have the tendency to drag on Foo Fighters albums, are amazing. Something new or not, ‘Wasting Light’ is Dave Grohl’s most consistently awesome set of songs ever and even surpasses ‘The Color And The Shape’ in that sense.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rope’, ‘Bridge Burning’, ‘Walk’,  ‘I Should Have Known’, ‘White Limo’

2. Vader – Welcome To The Morbid Reich

Death Metal supremacy. Something you won’t hear me say often, but Poland’s ultimate Metal machine shows it’s possible. In an obvious nod to their old days (‘Morbid Reich’ was the demo that made them underground stars in their early years), Piotr Wiwczarek and his men made an album that combines the best of their entire catalog. Usually, I have a preference for their slower material, but even the fullspeed blastbeat assaults (‘Decapitated Saints’) on this album are downright amazing. There’s even more than a few references to traditional Heavy Metal (‘Only Hell Knows’, ‘Don’t Rip The Beast’s Heart Out’) and as such, this is possibly the most complete album Wiwczarek has ever been a part of.

Recommended tracks: ‘Come And See My Sacrifice’, ‘I Am Who Feasts Upon Your Soul’, ‘Black Velvet And Skulls Of Steel’

3. The Answer – Revival

Always an entertaining band, but what the Northern-Irish band does here surpasses even my expectations. ‘Revival’ shows a band that is fully capable to fill the gap left by the sad split of The Black Crowes by playing Bluesy Hardrock with vocals that are full of Soul. The Crowes were definitely more rootsy than this, because what The Answer mainly does is rock and they do it well. ‘Revival’ is easily the band’s best album as they have never sounded as fresh and vibrant. And slightly less heavy than on ‘Everyday Demons’, but that only adds to the general Bluesy Rock ‘n’ Roll swag displayed on the album. Also, Cormac Neeson is one of the few traces of hope I have left that the Soulful Rock singer isn’t a dying breed. Obligated for any fan of Rock music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nowhere Freeway’, ‘Trouble’,  ‘Vida (I Want You)’

4. De Dijk – Scherp De Zeis

Incomprehensible lyrically for those of you who aren’t Dutch (checking out ‘Hold On Tight’, which they recorded with Solomon Burke on vocals is definitely a reccomendation for you), De Dijk’s blend of Blues, Soul and Rock is almost as American as it gets. Especially on ‘Scherp De Zeis’, which is to me their best album they recorded since their classic ‘Niemand In De Stad’ record. I loved its direct predecessor (‘Brussel’), but they traded almost all of their French chançon tendencies for a Soulful Blues swing here. The result is an amazing set of Dutch Rock songs which nobody should miss out on. And for all the foreigners… Get over the lyrics and just give this bit of great music a chance. I don’t understand the lyrics to the African music I listen to either.

Recommended tracks: ‘Laat Het Niet Over Zijn’, ‘Kan Ik Iets Voor Je Doen’, ‘Altijd Bij Me’, ‘De Blues Verlaat Je Nooit’

5. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow

Initially, there was my disappointment that Kate Bush’s six-year gap between the brilliant ‘Aerial’ and this album only resulted in seven songs. Until I saw they lasted 65 minutes together. ’50 Words For Snow’ is easily Kate Bush at her most introspective, with Kate’s piano, her haunting voice and a chilling atmosphere as main ingredients. Most songs can appear meandering for people not into her music, but to the fans of her work, this is a dream-like experience. Especially ‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street’, the brooding duet with Elton John, is an experience that should require no other activities other than listening to the song. The title track spots another brilliant duet, this time with Stephen Fry, reciting rather than singing. If there’s one thing you can expect from Kate, it’s things that you can’t expect and ’50 Words For Snow’ is no exception.

Recommended tracks: ‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street’,  ’50 Words For Snow’, ‘Lake Tahoe’

6. For All We Know – For All We Know

Within Temptation guitarist Ruud Jolie also writes stuff of his own and frankly, I like it better than what he actually does with his main band. For All We Know stands for emotional and moody Progrock which isn’t very heavy, but hits very hard nonetheless. Part of this is due to the brilliant find that is singer Wudstik. His heartfelt vocal delivery lifts Jolie’s atmospheric and multi-layered songs to an even higher level. The results are amazing. And there’s no escaping that atmosphere on the album. For the best results, listen to it with the lights dimmed. Recommended…no…a must for fans of Porcupine Tree, Pain Of Salvation (Kristoffer Gildenlöw and Léo Margarit are the album’s rhythm section!) and ‘Brave’-era Marillion.

Recommended tracks: ‘Busy Being Somebody Else’, ‘Down On My Knees’, ‘When Angels Refuse To Fly’

7. Mastodon – The Hunter

The band that is so unique that their sound is undescribable strikes again. Psychedelic Sludge Metal? Maybe… After the psychedelia heaven that was ‘Crack The Skye’, I wondered how they were going to top that. And they didn’t. But what they did is basically the next best thing. Stylistically located between that album and what used to be their second best album ‘Leviathan’, ‘The Hunter’ hits quite hard, but also still has its share of trance-like moments. All combined into one package that is – despite what the description of their sound might make you think – surprisingly digestable. Brann Dailor is by far the best modern Rock/Metal drummer there is and although some have typified his style as hyperactive, I think he does nothing but enhancing the music. And with two killer songs with space puns in their titles (‘Blasteroid’ and ‘Stargasm’), how can you go wrong here?

Recommended tracks: ‘All The Heavy Lifting’, ‘The Hunter’, ‘Dry Bone Valley’, ‘Spectrelight’, ‘Curl Of The Burl’

8. Warren Haynes – Man In Motion

More southern Soul and Blues than anything else, Warren Haynes’ newest solo album is based around his powerhouse vocals rather than his stellar guitar qualities compared to his brilliant main band Gov’t Mule. And it’s both great. Haynes’ second proper solo album (everything that came after ‘Tales Of Ordinary Madness’ consisted of live acoustic albums) is notably different from Gov’t Mule, yet sounds warmly trusted. His backing band – including The Meters’ fabulous George Porter Jr. on bass – is excellent, playing in service of the music and making the extended jams that most songs end up being exciting climaxes. And what can we say about Haynes’ raw, emotional vocals and tastefully Bluesy guitar work that hasn’t been said before? They don’t make them like this anymore too often.

Recommended tracks: ‘River’s Gonna Rise’, ‘Man In Motion’, ‘Hattiesburg Hustle’

9. Arch/Matheos – Sympathetic Resonance

Or “how Jim Matheos needs his former singer to get his edge back”. Jim Matheos teaming up with original Fates Warning singer John Arch is a dream come true for most Prog Metal fans. Original Fates guitarist Frank Aresti, bassist Joey Vera and the mindblowing Bobby Jarzombek on drums complete this dream team. Fates Warning had such a unique sound which had a lot of traditional Heavy Metal influences combined with their complex structures and unconventional rhythms, that even many non-Prog bands were influenced by them. However, ‘Sympathetic Resonance’ isn’t simply a rehash of ‘The Spectre Within’ or the near perfect ‘Awaken The Guardian’, it’s generally much heavier than those classics. John Arch’s voice sounds eerily similar to how it sounded those days though, although he hardly sang in all those years (not counting the ‘Twist Of Fate’ EP). In the end, this fantastic album is much better than anything Fates Warning’s done in recent years and – I can’t emphasize this enough – Bobby Jarzombek is unbelievable.

Recommended tracks: ‘Any Given Day (Strangers Like Me)’, ‘Stained Glass Sky’, ‘On The Fence’

10. Iced Earth – Dystopia

If I was still 15 years old and obsessed with these Floridian Power Metal giants, ‘Dystopia’ would have topped this list without a doubt, because it is the first amazing album they released in over a decade. Matthew Barlow’s departure made me careful in expecting a good album, but new singer Stu Block is better than I could ever expect him to be. Also, band leader Jon Schaffer decided to throw the overkill of bombast overboard, focusing on his trade mark high speed palm muted riffs, soaring melodies and powerful choruses instead. The result: pure American Heavy Metal. Also, I have the feeling that Iced Earth is a collective once again, though basically all the music is still written by Schaffer. As childishly fanboyish as I was when I was 15 is in the past, but ‘Dystopia’ is as close as it gets for me now!

Recommended tracks: ‘Dark City’, ‘Iron Will’, ‘Boiling Point’, ‘Dystopia’

11. Loudness – Eve To Dawn

Why any label refuses to release Loudness’ consistently great output outside of Japan is beyond me. Especially when it’s their best studio album since ‘Disillusion’. ‘Eve To Dawn’ combines the modern, almost Thrashy aggression of Loudness’ more recent work with the traditional Heavy Metal melodies and slightly Proggy structures of their early albums. The album’s direct predecessor ‘King Of Pain’, a relatively heavy affair, was already a new highlight in Loudness’ discography, but this album even tops it. New drummer Masayuki Suzuki really shines – I love his style – and guitarist Akira Takasaki is in typical stellar form. Suzuki even gets his first writing credit with the awesome ‘Survivor’. The album even manages to surprise with the unpredictable twists in ‘Comes The Dawn’ and ‘Keep You Burning’. The only dud moment is the closing track ‘Crazy! Crazy! Crazy!’, but furthermore, this is just a killer Metal album. We need more bands like these in Europe, seriously.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Power Of Truth’, ‘Survivor’, ‘Hang Tough’, ‘Come Alive Again’

12. Vektor – Outer Isolation

Debut album ‘Black Future’ made the Arizona Thrashers a sensation. Naysayers criticize them for ripping off Voivod, but though their dissonant chords, unexpected twists and sci-fi themes are obviously inspired by the Canadians, there were obvious Black Metal influences and David DiSanto’s shrieking vocals had a more than passing Sadus resemblance. Above all, the band has a sound that is unique, which is a luxury in the current Metal scene. On ‘Outer Isolation’, the Black Metal influences have been toned down a bit, but the one-of-a-kind sound stays. While not as mindblowing as ‘Black Future’, I like the Thrashed-up version of Vektor, while the overall sound is still spacey. A recommendation for any open minded Metalhead.

Recommended tracks: ‘Tetrastructural Minds’, ‘Outer Isolation’, ‘Venus Project’, ‘Fast-Paced Society’

13. De Staat – Machinery

They have always been a strange animal, with their Dutch name, English lyrics and almost undescribable style. Shreds of Rock, Rap, Electronics, Industrial and even some fake Vaudeville, main songwriter, singer and guitarist Torre Florim never turned down any genre to create a sound that is truly his own. But where ‘Wait For Evolution’ was essentially Florim’s solo record, ‘Machinery’ seems to be a band effort primarily. The album is more conistent, more coherent and above all just better. The rhythm section of drummer Tim van Delft and bassist Jop van Summeren (the rest of the band occasionally bangs some percussion as well) just kills and although I can’t follow where Florim’s mind goes, I do like where it goes. A couple of years ago, I was worried about the state of Dutch music. Now, with bands like De Staat around, it seems there’s nothing to worry about.

Recommended tracks: ‘Old MacDonald Don’t Have No Farm No More’, ‘Sweatshop’, ‘I’m A Rat’, ‘Ah I See’

14. Devin Townsend Project – Deconstruction / Ghost

Technically two separate albums, but they were sold together and worked on around the same time span, so I’ll take it as one spot here. ‘Deconstruction’ was supposed to be the heaviest chapter in the DTP story and while it’s not quite as heavy as Strapping Young Lad (though ‘Pandemic’ and ‘Poltergeist’ come close), it’s definitely Dev’s craziest album so far. With a full orchestra and large choir backing him among the usual wall of guitars, samples, multi-layered vocals and humor, the result is almost too overwhelming. Opening track ‘Praise The Lowered’ initially made me think I put on ‘Ghost’, because it’s so mellow. When ‘Ghost’ was announced as the “ambient” album, I expected something like ‘Devlab’ or ‘Hummer’. Luckily, there are actual songs on here. The atmosphere is dreamy, soothing and relaxed. A great contrast between the two albums and that’s exactly what makes Dev’s stuff so great. Not quite as good as the respective equivalents ‘Addicted’ and ‘Ki’, but almost. Also, check out the amazing box set ‘Contain Us’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Juular’, ‘Fly’, ‘Heart Baby’, ‘Planet Of The Apes’, ‘Praise The Lowered’, ‘As You Were’

15. Vieux Farka Touré – The Secret

Tinariwen already released a great album with ‘Tassili’, but guitar prodigy Vieux Farka Touré takes the cake when it comes to Malian music. Guest appearances by Derek Trucks, Dave Matthews and Jon Scofield may draw any western music fan into this album, but the truly redeeming value is Touré’s fret work, which is as virtuoso as it is atmospheric. This is the Sahara sound translated to the 21st century. ‘The Secret’ is definitely Touré’s most guitar oriented studio album and that was a wise decision, as his guitar work is his greatest talent. The most interesting guest appearance comes from his late father Ali Farka Touré; on the album’s title track, father and son jam as if they are trading life experiences. As for me, I can’t help getting sucked into the desolate atmosphere of the Desert Blues, although Touré can be just as life-affirming when he needs to be.

Recommended tracks: ‘Amana Quai’, ‘The Secret’, ‘Lakkal (Watch Out)’, ‘All The Same’

Stay tuned for my DVD list of 2011!

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