Welcome back to The Rock Show, where it’s all about the music! Last year I started a tradition of putting together a list of the best albums of the year – granted, I missed the boat on a few albums (namely Alter Bridge’s AB III and Young the Giant’s self-titled debut), but I’ve been much more vigilant this year. In addition, I’m going with the top sixteen this year as opposed to the top twelve last year. Why not? So, without further ado, here’s the list of what are, in my opinion, the top sixteen best albums of 2011.
16. Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You
I’ve never been a huge fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but I do enjoy some of their later stuff (namely the singles from Californication and By the Way). When I heard that there was going to be a new RHCP album I really wasn’t interested, but hearing “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” on the radio gave me a little bit of hope. It’s definitely a catchy tune very reminiscent of the Chili Peppers songs that I prefer, so that was a plus. When the album came out I decided to pick it up, and it definitely surpassed my expectations. The first run of seven songs or so especially are very consistent. A few of the songs aren’t really my cup of tea (“Even You Brutus?” is way too rappy, for example), but there are quite a lot of keepers, as well. It fits well with the later-era Chili Peppers sound, and the new guitarist suits the music. Overall a pretty decent album, and without question one that deserves a spot on the list of best albums of the year.
15. Company of Thieves – Running From a Gamble
Not quite indie rock, not quite pop, not quite alternative, Company of Thieves has a very interesting and unique sound. The debut single from the album, “Death of Communication,” is probably the catchiest song out of the collection, but there’s a lot of variety here and a lot of different styles at play. Some of the songs are almost bluesy at times, some are really upbeat and poppy, some have a really retro sound, and on and on. The vocal melodies are mostly catchy, but some songs have very odd melodies – that’s not a bad thing, it’s just something you have to get used to. It’s definitely an album that requires multiple listens to appreciate, but there’s a good bit of potential here. Some of the songs are very enjoyable, some of them are strange (in a good way), and all of them are interesting if nothing else. The uniqueness is very refreshing, though, and that’s what ultimately makes this one of the best albums of the year.
14. Steven Wilson – Grace For Drowning
Steven Wilson is the frontman of the British progressive rock band Porcupine Tree (as well as a few other projects), and Grace For Drowning is his second solo album. The songs in this collection are very reminiscent of Porcupine Tree – they’re very complex and proggy, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Some of the songs are amazingly well-crafted, but others seem to meander aimlessly. Songs don’t need to be twenty-two minutes long if there isn’t a whole lot going on in them. Wilson’s voice is phenominal, which makes the shorter, less complex songs very good as they tend to have a lot of vocals. Some of the longer works do suffer from a lack of direction, however (“Deform to Form a Star” being a very notable exception). What really makes the album interesting is the fact that it’s heavy without having a typical heavy metal sound. The guitars are minimal (the album has a lot of electronic influence), yet it still feels very dark and loud in spots. Wilson’s ability to craft intricate songs is still very impressive, especially when it hits hard, and that makes this album one of the best of the year.
13. Grouplove – Never Trust a Happy Song
Grouplove has gotten a nice boost in their popularity thanks to their most recent hit, “Tongue Tied,” being featured in a certain computer company’s commercial. For me, however, exposure to this band (like a number of others) came from Letterman. The album is quite enjoyable in a bubbly, feel-good kind of way. They’re definitely an indie band – you can hear the pretension and arty-ness in every single note. It’s a bit rough, but it’s a debut album, so that’s to be expected. There’s a lot of variety, especially since the band has two different singers, and the songs are quite different from each other. There’s also what seems like a lot of experimentation – the sound of the album is quite unique in its variety. Most of the songs are catchy and enjoyable to listen to – there are a few duds (“Naked Kids” being almost laughably bad), but that’s to be expected from a debut album, especially from a band that sounds like it’s trying to be different. It’s a promising start, and they’re definitely a band to keep an eye on, which makes them a perfect addition to this list.
12. 3 Doors Down – Time of My Life
I must say, I never gave 3 Doors Down the credit they deserve. I always thought of them as bubblegum (I think “Here Without You” from Away From the Sun was the likely culprit of my judgments), but when I decided on a whim to give their debut album, The Better Life, a spin, I realized that I’d been criminally misjudging them. Looking past some of the poppiness of their hits, they actually have a lot of songs that rock really hard. This is true of their new album, Time of My Life, as well. Even the lead single, “When You’re Young,” has an edge that surpasses the pop-style that colored my opinion of them in the past. The album sounds very similar to most of their other material, but between great vocal melodies (“Heaven” is a great example) and some awesome rock riffs (“Believer”), its a very solid and consistent sounding album. A few songs are a bit weak (“What’s Left” most notably), but overall it’s a strong album. It’s always fun to rediscover a band like this, which probably adds to my liking of the album a bit. Still, it’s one that’s keeping the rock genre alive, and it’s deserving of a spot on this list.
11. Seether – Holding Onto Strings Better Left to Fray
This is, without question, the most accessible Seether album, and also the easiest to listen to. Past Seether albums have had a raw, angry edge that seems to be missing from this effort. That’s not to say that this is a bad album – it’s just different. There are actually quite a few heavy tunes on here (the opener “Fur Cue” is the best example), but the majority of the album sounds like some of the typical hard rock that’s out there. The album has a very produced sound, for lack of a better way to describe it, as opposed to the rawness of the earlier material. However, there is a catchiness to the songs that past albums just didn’t have. Honestly, I think this is a welcome change, as by their third album (Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces) their sound was getting very repetitive and bland. This album offers something new, and I think it’s the first album to do so. The drawback is that the path they’ve chosen isn’t a very original one. Much of their music sounds like the same hard rock that all the other bands are playing. Still, the songs are good, and that’s really all that matters.
10. Bush – The Sea of Memories
This is the long-awaited comeback album that’s been in the works for a while. The first single, “The Afterlife,” came out over a year ago, and the album just came out back in September. It sounds like Bush – there’s really no better way to describe it. Most of the songs are upbeat, but there are a few that rock pretty hard. Some of the choruses are a bit lacking lyrically (“The Afterlife,” “Heart of the Matter”), but some are very well-done (“The Sound of Winter”). The album as a whole is fairly average – for all the low points there are just as many high points. The closing track, “Be Still My Love,” is an especially high point, but it also illustrates the album very well. Some of the melodies are a bit weird, but some of them are very good even if the lyrics behind them are a bit repetitive. Overall, the sound of the album beats the majority of the hard rock stuff out there – Bush’s sound has always been fairly unique. The album has its highlights, and they make up for some of the more lackluster moments. It’s great that Bush is back, touring behind a new album and not just the hits no less, and this is a good album to get them back on track.
9. Rev Theory – Justice
Just from the opening riff of “Dead in a Grave” you can tell that this is going to be a kickass album. It seems heavier than the standard hard rock out there right now, but it also has melody that seems to sneak up on you. For being a hard rock album as such, it is surprisingly easy to tell the difference between the songs, and the choruses are actually pretty catchy at times. The album is very riff-heavy, something I really like in hard rock music, and there a lot of great lead guitar licks that make it more dynamic that just loud chord progressions. Most of the songs are just really well-put-together, and surprisingly so. Most hard rock bands like this tend to be very predictable and a lot of the songs are usually loud, angry, and screamy with little in the way of dynamics. Rev Theory really does manage to keep things interesting all the way through while still remaining loyal to the hard rock genre that’s been dominating the airwaves of late. It’s refreshing to hear good hard rock that differs from the masses, even if only a little, and for that this album is definitely one of the best of the year.
8. Chevelle – Hats Off to the Bull
I think the biggest difference between Chevelle and the majority of the hard rock bands on the radio is the vocals. While most of the hard rock acts have a very similar rough, growly vocal style, Chevelle has a style that is very reminiscent of Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle, Puscifer). As a result, Hats Off to the Bull has a level of vocal melody that a lot of hard rock doesn’t. The melodies are edgy, and they suit the music very well – there’s a lot of energy in the music and a sense of urgency in the vocals that really makes it sound intense. It’s a very accessible album, and the songs are quite catchy despite the dark sound. I’m familiar with Chevelle’s older singles, and this album’s material fits well with what I do know of the band’s catalog. In addition, it has succeeded in making me want to dig back into the discography, so that’s an extra bonus. Overall it’s a collection of great rock songs, making it an excellent album for the list.
7. Evanescence – Evanescence
In all honesty, I’ve never been that big a fan of Evanescence. I always thought they were a bit lame – they had that one good song followed by that one really lame song (“Bring Me to Life” and “Call Me When You’re Sober,” respectively) and then disappeared for a while. However, when the new album came out I decided to preview the songs and see how it sounded. This album saved the band for me without question – Amy Lee’s vocals are very good, and there definitley aren’t any lame songs. The tunes are catchy and the music is full of hard rock and metal that provides a great backdrop for the vocals. Some of the songs have a haunting quality to them (“The Change,” for one), some of them just flat-out rock (“The Other Side”), but they all do a great job of redefining this band. There’s hope all throughout the album that the band isn’t dead (despite lineup changes that ultimately seem to be for the better), and after hearing this album I can say for certain that I like what this band is doing now. When an album can change my opinion of a band it always earns that album extra brownie points, and as a result the new self-titled collection ranks fairly high on the list.
6. Yes – Fly From Here
When dealing with classic rock acts putting out albums decades into their careers, there will always be fans who aren’t satisfied. No, this is not Fragile, or Close to the Edge, or 90125. No, the album doesn’t feature Jon Anderson or Rick Wakeman. However, Fly From Here is a collection of very well-crafted songs. Maybe the fact that I haven’t been a Yes fan for forty years helps me to objectively view Fly From Here apart from the rest of the catalog, but when this album is taken for what it is there’s no doubt that there are some very beautiful songs on here (“Hour of Need” being a prime example). The “Fly From Here” suite that opens the album has a lot of variety in sound, and it really has some catchy vocal passages and rocking guitar lines. The rest of the tracks have their highs and lows (the closer “Into the Storm” being one of the highest highs), but overall it’s a very warm album with a lot of sonically pleasing moments whether they be from Benoit David’s vocal parts or the band’s brilliant musicianship. The album is proof that Yes can still create quality songs, even though the lineup changes and increasing age of the band has caused its fanbase to splinter.
5. Rise Against – Endgame
Rise Against has been and still is a band that eludes me. Most of their early material is to punk-oriented and aggressive for me to really get into, and I’ve never been a fan of the politically-influenced music. Therefore, it was a big risk for me to give their newest album a try, but I’m very glad I did. I said most of what I want to say already in my review of the album, so I’ll keep this fairly short. Ultimately, the album doesn’t really change my opinion about the band, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome of an album. The dynamics and melodies are the clear bread-winners here, as most of the songs have a level of complexity that seems suited for more progressive music yet still remain very catchy. It’s not perfect, but it holds itself well as a more accessible album (especially for people like me who prefer longer songs with tempos in the 100s instead of the 300s) than earlier efforts. As stated before, the most important thing is that the songs are good. Realistically, that is the only fact that makes a difference, and that’s why this album ranks so high.
4. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
I’ve found that late night talk shows are a great way to get introduced to new music. As an avid fan of Craig Ferguson I almost always catch the musical guest at the end of Letterman’s show, and every so often I catch a brilliant new band. Then when that brilliant new band opens for the Foo Fighters and I get to experience them live for myself and they totally kick ass, it’s all but a guarantee that their album will rank high on this list. The Joy Formidable are one of the most interesting new bands of the year, and their album absolutely rocks. It’s hard to explain exactly what I love about the album, but it probably has to do with the extremely creative and original sound that they bring to the table coupled with the surprising accessibility (something that seems to be a requirement of the best albums, I’ve noticed). The singles (“Whirring” and “A Heavy Abacus”) are very catchy, and the musicianship is interesting, especially the drums. It’s an album that is surprisingly good right away, and then it gets better with repeated listens. It’s a wonderful debut, and it really makes me want to know where they’re going to go next – something all the best albums need to do.
3. The Pretty Reckless – Light Me Up
Another Letterman band, and another one of my new favorites. The band is fronted by actress-turned-rockstar Taylor Momsen, and her voice fits the band’s hard rock style better than most female rock vocalists of our generation (yes, that includes both Amy Lee and Lacey Mosley, in my humble opinion). The band is nothing to sneeze at either, and they add some very appropriate guitar licks and drum fills, as well as tasty bass lines (“Since You’re Gone”). For the most part, catchy vocals propel the album to success as they always do, but well-crafted songs also work to the band’s advantage here. There is a lot of sonic variety on the album, from in-your-face rock (“Zombie,” “Goin’ Down”) to upbeat alt-rock (“Light Me Up,” “Miss Nothing”), to softer acoustic songs (“Nothing Left to Lose,” “You”), and Taylor’s voice accommodates the different styles very well. The album shows a potential for this band to explode in the near future while still retaining a quality that many debut albums lack, and it doesn’t hurt that they’ve already toured with a number of big-name acts including Evanescence and Guns N’ Roses. This is definitely a band to watch, and this is definitely a record to listen to.
2. Incubus – If Not Now, When?
I’ve talked a lot about this album as it is, both in my review of it and my review of the show I attended, so there’s little I can say here that will add to the conversation. This is a very divisive album among Incubus fans, without question. It shows a very different side of Incubus, one that I enjoy quite a lot. However, the quality of the songwriting is still very reminiscent of older material – the lyrics are still very creative and unique, and the music, while softer and much less aggressive, is still quite complex. Brandon Boyd’s vocals are showcased very well, and the melodies of the album really make some of the songs stand out (“Isadore” and “Promises, Promises” are some of the best examples). Even without the fast-paced, funk-metal sounds of their first few albums, the band can still write quality songs. This album is definitely a maturation of the band’s songwriting, and I welcome the change – hopefully the next album will be even more different and push the band’s style into even newer territory. As I see it, this is an experiment that went well, and that always makes an album stand out for me.
1. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
In all honesty, I would have sworn that the Incubus album was going to beat this one before If Not Now, When? came out, but Wasting Light is simply too solid a collection of songs. Yes, it’s the obvious choice for best album, but there’s a reason for that – it’s an incredibly good album. No need to mince words here. With the exception of One By One, no other Foo Fighters album is even close to being as consistent and high-quality as Wasting Light, and most other albums this year don’t hold a candle to it either. Every song on the album is a winner (even “White Limo” has its merits). There’s really not much else to say about it – it was one of the most anticipated albums of the year, and it delivers without disappointment.
So that’s it – the best albums of the year. Based on everything I’ve heard, read, and seen about new music in 2012, we have a pretty big year ahead of us. Here’s to the coming 366 days of great new bands, new albums, new concerts, and new songs. Happy New Year, everyone!
~The Rock Show, where it’s all about the music! Keep listening!