Top Albums of 2011

This year in music, no albums came out that I would consider classic. When it came time to put together this list, there was nothing that jumped out. I debated back and forth, and I really think that at one time I had each of albums 1-5 in the #1 spot. I am pretty sure 6-14 could probably all be rearranged as well, that’s just the way that it went musically for me this year. I also, for whatever reason, listened to like no hip-hop; nothing that came out this year really resonated with me, so there is not 1 hop-hop mention. NOTE: Some songs on some albums may contain explicit language, but I don’t think there is anything extremely vulgar, anyway, listen to with care!

4 that just missed:

Florence and the Machine “Ceremonials”

Josh Garrels “Love and War and the Sea in Between”

tUnE-yArDs “WHO KILL”

Elbow “Build a Rocket Boys”

THE TOP 10

10. O’Brother “Garden Window”-A great live performance can do a lot for a band. O’Brother was a band that every band I liked would always rave about. They raved about how great and talented they were and about just how much potential they had. I never really got that from listening to the couple of EPs they had out, but when I saw them live, this all changed. They put in so much emotion to their performance that I was blown away. When their album came out, I rushed to buy it and was not disappointed. It retains the band’s live energy and all the pent up emotion singer Tanner Merritt has in his voice. At times heavy, at others soft and beautiful, O’Brother’s first full length is solid.

9. Thrice “Major/Minor”-One of my favorite bands has released another solid album here. This time, instead of completely changing up their sound (like they have done with every album since 2003’s “The Artist in the Ambulance”) they progress it from their last effort “Beggars”. Where the rawness of “Beggars” failed, “Major/Minor”‘s slightly upped production really works well, showing the band’s ability to craft wonderful songs. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we hear from them.

8. Beirut “The Rip Tide”-Zach Condon’s project is a wonderful blend of deep vocals, acoustic guitars, and gypsy sounding music influenced by styles all over the world. In the last few years, Condon has expanded his sound to include a lot more electronic production (something I felt was a downgrade from his previous efforts.) With “The Rip Tide”, Condon combines his world gypsy influence with his electronic, making for a nice blend of the two. Since he settles for middle ground, it never reaches the potential that Condon has in every song he makes, but then again, since it is Beirut most of it is absolutely wonderful.

7. Thursday “No Devolucion”-The veteran emo group’s latest and final record may as well have been their debut for me, because it was the first I had ever paid full attention to. It was a good time to get into them to, because, as most critics agreed, this was their fullest and most mature work of their career. The songs are atmospheric and catchy, meant to be taken seriously. The heavy parts of the album don’t work as well as intentioned, but they are mostly kept to a minimum, leaving room for what really are a beautiful bunch of songs.

6. Admiral Fallow “Boots Met My Face”-I don’t know a single person that has ever heard of this band (other than the people at Paste Magazine), but these guys from Scotland put together a great record this year (or I guess technically last year when it was released in their homeland). The best way to describe them is like a mix between Mumford and Sons and Frightened Rabbit. Like the aforementioned Mumford their songs often reach a crescendo of fast paced picking with shouted vocals that are some of the funnest parts of any album this year. Check these guys out, they are worth it.

5. Gungor “Ghosts Upon the Earth”-Gungor put more effort and intentionality into this album than any other one I heard all year. Every single sound appears for a purpose and they do a lot with it, combining the music and theme throughout. Gungor may have created the best worship album ever, at least out of those that were purposefully trying to make a worship album. There are a few songs that though they are put together really nicely, don’t quite work for me and honestly that is probably the only thing that keeps it from the top spot.

4. The Decemberists “The King is Dead”-When I first heard the latest album by the Decemberists, I thought ‘oh great, another band going for that country/folk feel’. It felt like a huge gimmick from a band that does not usually create music within this genre. After a couple of listens, I was totally into it. While their other albums go for lengthy, epic storytelling, this one revels in harmonica, acoustic driven folk and sometimes less is more. Getting away from the grand operatic album schemes has lead the way for songwriting that is more touching, which in my book works way better.

3. Sainthood Reps “Monoculture”-My favorite new artist of the year combines the post-indie rock of Brand New with the loudness of a 90’s grunge/punk act. They nail both the heavy parts of the album and the poetic softer songs that the band include in its range. At times they do lean toward sounding a little like Brand New (one of the members was a touring member of that band), but the talent and potential shines. Lyrically, the band mourns the loss of culture and creativity and the creation of a “monoculture” in our society. We live in a place where many settle for the norm; for conformity and thankfully Sainthood Reps is here to speak out against this by creating one of the best albums of the year.

2. Manchester Orchestra “Simple Math”-Kept wanting to rank this album lower, but when it came down to it, I loved just about every song on it, and that I can’t ignore. The band expanded their sound on this album, adding more horns and strings in nearly every song, while Andy Hull’s voice remains spot on. The diversity that often accompanies each Manchester Orchestra album is here with heart wrenching ballads, upbeat guitar rock, and even funky guitar riff-lead songs. Thematically, the album deals with marriage and God and as the title track says “what if everything we thought was right was wrong?”

1. Bon Iver “Bon Iver”-I did not believe the hype. There was no way this dude was as good as everyone said. As more and more sources I trusted kept hyping the album I decided to give the stream on NPR’s First Listen a shot. After about 10 seconds I was hooked. Justin Vernon creates grand symphonies of epic proportions on the smallest of musical scales. This album was the one that I could count on and enjoy the most out of everything I listened to this year. They are beautiful constructions that go beyond the bearded dude with a guitar montra that he was previously known for, at times even using a 90’s muted keyboard effect with auto tuned vocals which works surprisingly well and still maintains the feel of the whole foresty folk feel of the album. This is music for the soul.

Honorable mentions: Adele “21”, Set Your Goals “Burning at Both Ends”, Maylene and the Sons of Disaster “IV”, Cool Hand Luke “Of Man”, Cold War Kids “Mine is Yours”, The Civil Wars “Barton Hollow”, Son Lux “We Are Rising”, Seryn “We Will All Be Changed”, Switchfoot “Vice Verses”, Needtobreathe “The Reckoning”, The Hawk in Paris “HIS+HERS”, Hawkboy “Ep”, Gideon “Costs”, Defeater “Empty Days and Sleepless Nights”

The Top 30 Songs of 2011

Not much to say other than these are my top 30 songs of the year. There are 22 different artists. The most songs by 1 artist is 3. Check the playlist out on Spotify: The Best Songs of 2011

30. “Hunter” by Sainthood Reps

29. “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars

28. “Never Let Me Go” by Florence and the Machine

27. “When Death Dies” by Gungor

26. “Virtue” by Gideon

25. “White Owl” by Josh Garrels-Not on Spotify, so not included in the playlist. Check it out here. Also check out his fantastic album “Love and War and the Sea in Between” for FREE here

24. “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes

23. “Lippy Kids” by Elbow

22. “Vice Verses” by Switchfoot

21. “To Whom it May Concern” by The Civil Wars

20. “Royal Blue” by Cold War Kids

19. “Simple Math” by Manchester Orchestra

18. “Lay Down” by O’Brother

17. “Words in the Water” by Thrice

16. “Life’s a Happy Song” by Jason Segel and Walter

15. “Magnets Caught in a Metal Heart” by Thursday

14. “Certain” by Set Your Goals

13. “Towers” by Bon Iver

12. “Bizness” by tUnE-YaRdS

11. “Blinded” by Thrice

The Top 10

10. “Only if For a Night” by Florence and the Machine-Florence’s voice telling this tale of some ghostlike lover/friend that may or may not have died which all might be a dream makes you able to forgive her for telling such a confusing story and even actually care about whatever it is she is talking about.

9. “Deer” by Manchester Orchestra-A stripped down song basically showcasing Andy Hull’s amazing voice while simultaneously questioning God and his marriage. It is heartfelt and wonderful.

8. “Holiday Makers” by Sainthood Reps-The opening riff and vocals are just so slick and catchy and smooth that it’s impossible not to like, well I think so anyway.

7. “Old Balloons” by Admiral Fallow-It starts slow with its piano and picking and builds into a rompin’ blast of a song.

6. “June Hymn” by The Decemberists-As the title shows, this is the Decemberists version of a hymn, an acoustic harmonica riddled ballad about the past.

5. “Four Bulbs” by Admiral Fallow-A definite part of my calm down playlist as it is one of the most soothing songs I heard all year. Definitely has a depressing tone to it, but at the same time feels really reflective and full of meaning.

4. “Someone Like You” by Adele-I love a sad song and Adele absolutely nails the sad song here. The sad piano, the internal argument, the power and emotion in her voice all make it great. Kind of hated that it became such a huge hit, because it made it feel as if she was cheating on me by expressing her sorrows to the rest of the world and not just me. It’s okay Adele, I’ll be here when you record your next break up song. NOTE: Apparently Adele’s whole album has been taken from Spotify, so it is not on the playlist.

3. “A Candle’s Fire” by Beirut-A perfect Beirut song, with horns, acoustic guitar, a gypsy tone, lead by Zach Condon’s booming deep voice. It has a strange similarity to “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” which is an awesome song, so it works.

2. “Perth” by Bon Iver-It’s so small, yet reaches the highest of highs from it’s soft opening to it’s grand musical crescendo with drums and horns. This intro to the album hooked me from its first few moments and lead the way for what is one of the best albums of the year.

1. “Virgin” by Manchester Orchestra-A grand scaled creepy ode to keeping a marriage together that slowly builds toward an epic children’s choir lead all the way by Andy Hull’s passionate quivering voice. Stands alone as the song of the year.

Rango

Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski’s latest collaboration takes place far away from the storming seas that the Black Pearl swayed on and finds itself in the deserts of an unknown location, likely somewhere in California or Arizona.

Depp plays Lars a lizard in this animated feature who creates plays with inanimate objects while in his cage as somebody’s pet. He longs for meaning, for some sort of tension to occur in his life outside of his plastic environment. His wish comes true when his cage is thrust from the vehicle he rides in (no backstory is given to his prior life) and he is forced to survive in the desert. A place, that technically, he is made for, but has yet to ever live in.

As the story continues, he eventually finds a town called Dirt, where he makes up a new identity for himself, a tough cowboy like figure named Rango. After a few accidental victories over the town’s bullies and a bird that haunts the town, he is thrust into the sheriff’s position; one that apparently is refilled often.

The town is in a water crisis and with the water supply running low, it is up to the sheriff to both protect the existing water supply and to look out for the people he rules over. Of course, he is not alone in this and in charge of the town is the mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty), who controls when the water is to be given out.

From here, the plot is fairly predictable. There is a corrupt leader, our hero tries to save the day but somehow fails and ends up revealing that he is not the hero he claimed to be, he is thus outcast while the town suffers at the hand of the corrupted leader, the hero realizes that within his true self he has the ability to save the day (and figures out the key to the whole problem) and returns to face his fears and the corruption that lords over the town eventually getting the girl in the end.

Its unoriginal plot structure wasn’t the most pathetic I’ve ever seen, but when you’re sitting in the theater trying to determine how much time is left based on what point the movie is at in the typical hero archetype, you know there is some sort of a problem.

Rango never really seemed to add up. Subtle parts that seemed like they would come back to mean big things thematically, never really appeared again. There are certain shots, characters, and interactions that would have lead down interesting paths had they been pursued, but evidently Verbinski wanted a more cookie-cutter like film. It seemed like it either wanted to go a lot deeper than it did and failed, or they had to cut scenes out for time/marketing purposes.

Depp is great as the voice of our false hero and the animation is fantastic. The filmmakers really attempted to go for something different animation and editing wise and  this was certainly successful, giving the film a more artsy edge to it than its other animated competitors. Just Rango himself looked amazing, and it is a wonder how they were able to make his eyes look like they did. If only they would have put more of that focus and originality on the plot, we could have had a pretty good film on our hands, instead it turns into a run-of-the-mill animated film that is not really worth recommending.

2.5/5

Of Gods and Men (2011)

Of Gods and Men is a movie about values, convictions, faith, tolerance, martyrdom, mission, community, brotherhood, outreach, it’s a movie about living, and it’s a movie about dying.

It takes place in Algeria in the mid-90’s, focusing on a group of French  Trappist monks who have taken a vow of poverty in order to reach out to a largely Muslim community. The monks fit in with those around them beautifully, providing free medical services, participating in the town’s market, and even attending children’s birthday parties. Their relationship with the community is one of the best interfaith portrayals of tolerance as both get along, helping and loving each other, while still maintaining their beliefs with conviction. The monks are never seen proselytizing, but always acknowledge whom they serve.

The people of the community’s lives are interrupted by a civil war in Algeria and their lives are threatened when a radical Muslim group begins causing chaos all around. This becomes especially personal to the friars when they hear (and we see) that the rebels have attacked and killed a group of Croatians who live in the country to provide aid. The scene in which monastery leader Christian hears of this news is one of the most saddening scenes I have seen in a while; the way his face drops is utterly heartbreaking.

From here, the monks must make a decision. The Algerian government suggests that they get army protection, something the monks are unwilling to do, because they do not believe in violence or in using a corrupt government for protection. Christian and the six other brothers residing in the monastery must make a decision… Should they stay in the monastery and risk their lives? Or should they flee, saving themselves and potentially helping out other communities elsewhere around the world. The town desperately needs what they provide and abandoning it in its time of need would be tragic. Should they give up on their calling in order to seek safety? They are a group of people who have already given up nearly everything for their beliefs, are they willing to give up absolutely everything? At the same time, they also question what laying down their lives would actually accomplish. Would it be for the sole purpose of the glory in martyrdom? In beautiful long shots these questions are asked.

The friar’s acts of mass and liturgy serve as the only background music to accompany the entire film and is almost like the canvas to which the entire film is painted on. Each song fits what is happening dramatically and allows for the monks to express their trials, doubts, and fears beautifully.

The entire situation gets even more complicated, when they are approached by the terrorists themselves and asked to provide medical aid to injured members. The monks face pressure from both sides of the war to help, but must follow their allegiance to their God above all. The scene where this situation is presented is one of the best in the film, I won’t spoil it, but I will say that Christian handles this terrifying predicament in a way I can imagine Jesus or the early Apostles handling it. It shows a wonderful, uncompromising way of dealing with your enemies that is so refreshing.

No matter what your experience with the Christian faith, there is still plenty to admire and enjoy with this movie. The passion exuded by the monks is awe-inspiring and the love that they show for their community is an example all should follow.

For those of the Christian faith, it is an absolute must see. It expresses all the love, the mission, and the struggle that is contained within the true Christian and shows how to put those desires into action. Though at times it is sad, it also remains uplifting and is an image people should share and watch for a long time to come.

5/5