If you want to see the full list, simply follow the link below. Due to time and convenience I only felt compelled to flesh out the top 10 here. Also, I'm lazy. Or smart. Or both.
Be sure to speak up and tell me what you think of my picks and if are disappointed by the lack of an album that you are personally fond of from last year.
Young Prisms- Friends for Now
Shoegaze breaking into Brandon's top 10? What a shocker! To be fair, I didn't foresee this album breaking so far into my list, but Young Prisms has the ability to channel the classic 90's shoegaze sound, and make it fresh again. Also, they are further proof that I simply can't satiate my appetite enough of this genre, when it's performed so well. I could name a few songs that rise up a little higher than others on the record, but from beginning to end the wall of noise atmosphere barely lifts its pressure from the ears. And yet, instead of feeling punished, it's simple bliss that I'm left with.
The New Division- The Rookie
For an EP to break into my top 10, it has to be pretty darn solid. Borrowing in fair amounts from synth-pop and the recent chillwave explosion, The New Division combines both styles and through their surprisingly strong songwriting craft, make their debut effort one to remember. Every song carves itself into my memory and it was easily one of the most addicting releases I spent time with all year.
Coming off the heels of their highly successful first record, The Malediction Fields, a record that was brimming with their own laudable brand of atmospheric black metal and post-rock, Fen had much to live up to in their second time around. I'll be the first to admit that my own expectations being as high as they were, Epoch was initially a disappointment. Even after 2 or 3 listens, nothing was sticking. The band opted to shed some of their black metal influences to showcase a sound that is closer to pure post-metal, albeit with harsh vocals. Perhaps that was the toughest hurdle to overcome but I did manage to, and know what? Epoch is pretty darn satisfying. It has more than a few highlights scattered about and the atmosphere Fen excel at is on display. It may take some extra effort, but Fen's continuing path is one worth wandering along.
PJ Harvey- Let England Shake
Another release that really demanded patience out of me. A couple cuts jumped out at me right off the bat, e.g. "Let England Shake" and "The Glorious Land". The latter of those has brilliant usage of a Calvary horn charge right at the beginning. But it's not just the horn being there that I find affecting, but the fact that it almost comes off as deflated, juxtaposed against the melancholic tone of the music surrounding it. Yes, brilliant. Anyway, I needed to share more intimate moments with Ms. Harvey and it paid off in spades. The deep lyrics, the songwriting, the vocals, folk instruments like the mandolin...it all comes together beautifully. Let England Shake would be higher but it wasn't able to sustain my incredibly enthralled interest all throughout, about right after "England". But it does pick back up again toward the end. As with any of my picks for 2011, time will likely cause me to like it more, or maybe less. But I lean toward the former when thinking about where I'll stand with Let England Shake in the months to come.
Deafheaven- Roads to Judah
I found out about Deafheaven fairly early in the year, and while initially impressed, the true value of Deafheaven blossomed when I realized how consistently pleased I was with repeated listens. While it's easy to write them off as showing too much in the way of Wolves in the Throne Room-isms, Deafheaven favor a more shoegazey sound and, quite frankly, Wolves in the Throne Room haven't blown me away since their debut. Also, they don't really sound terribly alike. Why I'm even bringing this up I'm not sure. Deafheaven deserve to be taken on their own. The ferocity and relentlessness of their performances is what stands out more than anything else with these guys. Rest assured, this energy translates live as well. These guys are legit. I just hope they're able to continue with this success.
Washed Out- Within and Without
It only takes the opening seconds of "Eyes Be Closed" for me to realize what I've always known: Oh, how I love this man's music. Goosebumps, chills, tranquility, floating...all of these are characteristic reactions to Washed Out. Life of Leisure was an intoxicating rush of eargasms and a mainstay for me when I seek the essence of chillness. While not a perfect album, Within and Without is still Washed Out doing what he does best, conjuring those same feelings out of me. The production is a bit more crystalline and fuller, and while the lo-fi bedroom/hazy quality has gone away, the atmosphere remains the same. If Life of Leisure was a haze of chillness, Within and Without is a surge of chillness. If that doesn't make sense then, well, fuck you. Just listen to the album.
Fleet Foxes- Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes return with their sophomore record and it sure does impress these little ears of mine. Compared to their debut, Helplessness Blues feels much more sprawling, a little more connecting, and exhibits a turn of maturation. I know these all sound like cliches to describe a second album from any band, but it's true. It shows these gents are out to prove they aren't one-trick ponies. Rest assured, Fleet Foxes still give off that we-write-music-while-chopping-wood-and-sit-around-our-cabin-while-smoking-pipes vibe going on, which is part of what I love about them. But also, the huge hooks that dominated their debut are actually still here, albeit in smaller doses. Because all of the songs are interlaced this time out, the highlights rise and fall, allowing the music to carry on naturally, without sounding like it's solely focused on standard structures. At least, that's how it felt to me. It's not an easy album to describe but it's extremely satisfying nonetheless.
Ulcerate- The Destroyers of All
Two years ago, this band put out probably the death metal release of the year. So it's only fitting that their subsequent record not only matches it but arguably surpasses 'Everything is Fire'. They're basically a direct descendent to Gorguts, but is that really such a bad thing? I say no. The dizzying technicality of their style is still omnipresent, as is the oppressive atmosphere which they're able to inject into a genre that largely has none. I would also say that their complex arrangements and instrumentation only serve to enhance that chaotic atmosphere/"this world is fucked" feeling they emit. What's different this time around is the variety. They've added in a lot of atmospheric sludge to the mix, which works really well. The songs shift, causing the tempo to slow down for awhile to absorb the dissonance, before launching into heavy and fast sections again. Rest assured this is the most interesting and most gratifying death metal experience that I had all year.
Cold Cave- Cherish the Light Years
Love Comes Close was a slice of 80's synth pop pie, with a touch of darkness, that kept me coming back. What's different this time out? Basically everything. The production is cleaner and shiny but it proves a perfect match for this mish-mash of New Order inspired electronic/new wave sounds which I am notoriously a sucker for. How is this different than the previous album then, you ask? One might say this is Love Comes Close but taken to the next level, and on steroids. Trust me, there's a stark difference. Not to mention every song has absurdly infectious melodies and moments. This is precisely what I want from a sophomore album after a very enjoyable and promising debut.
Midnight Odyssey- Funerals From the Astral Sphere
It's not easy to stand out, let alone leave the listener awe-struck, especially when it comes to a saturated genre such as atmospheric black metal. But that is precisely what Midnight Odyssey has done. With only one man behind it all, it becomes even more impressive, and further proof that one person is all it takes anymore to produce some of the best music around, regardless of genre. It allows for a focus of vision and a cohesive consistency. Oh, and did I mention this album is a double hammer? Yes, it comes on two discs for a whopping two hours of music. And not on one song is there any semblance of faltering. Listen to this already. Favorite of 2011.