Stadium Prog, Rock, Pop and Folk Unite! JP Picks His Top 5 Albums of 2011

Another year rapidly draws to a close and, over the past twelve months, a plethora of amazing artists have released brilliant music for our thirsty ears.

We here at Biff Bam Pop! are big fans of music. Huge. Our lives, probably like yours, revolve around it at every moment: those uplifting tunes in our ear buds when we’re walking the west end with a swagger in our step, those melancholy sounds that keep us company during the downswing of a failing romance, the excessive beats per minute that make us raise our hands high in the air, our fists clenched in joy or even the sweet melodies that we hum while in the shower on a lazy Sunday morning.

Since 2008, we’re been giving you short lists of what we think the best albums of the past year have been. My mathematical criteria for picking “best albums” is pretty straightforward: a musical and lyrical artistry inherent in the songs, an emotional resonance that colours my moods and, of course, the number of times I actually listened to a particular album (multiplied by how often I think I’ll be listening to it in the future).

Without further ado, then, here’s what I hear as the Top 5 albums of 2011:

5.  Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!

Bettering their seminal, Mercury Prize winning album, 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid, was always going to be a tough ask for Elbow, so beloved was that recording. Still, with Build A Rocket Boys!, the English prog-rockish musicians found a way to create engaging, innovative songs holding an emotional significance that rivals the best moments of their previous offerings.

In general, Build A Rocket Boys! is a quiet, introspective dénouement from The Seldom Seen Kid, a melancholy recording that pulls memories from childhood, adolescent friendships and first loves into the present day – a sort of sermonising of journey, from boyhood to manhood, and all of the experiences contained therein.

The eight-minute long The Birds kicks off the album, sounding artsy and distinctly Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The song is a slow burn with a middle organ and bass-led payoff that leads the listener to a glorious musical finish. Jesus Is A Rockdale Girl, meanwhile, is the emotional heart of the album – a quiet instrumental, punctuated with soft, warm, keyboard interludes. The majority of the album, musically and lyrically, takes its queue from this particular track. Still, Elbow has always been known for peppering their releases with stadium-sized rock and Build A Rocket Boys! is no different: the  menacing rock’n’roll snarl of Neat Little Rows, the first single from the album, accomplishes this in grandiose fashion as does the infectious sing-along, Open Arms.

Build A Rocket Boys! is an outstanding contribution to the oeuvre of a band that truly relishes colouring our world with unexpected sounds and beautiful musical flourishes – a definite enjoyment.

4. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Let England Shake is a different sounding album than any of PJ Harvey’s previous works, something she definitely set out to accomplish during the recording process. It’s a sparser sounding album, firstly, but never bereft of coloured soundscapes or inherent emotion. Sure, her career in music has always been defined by eruptions of anger, sweetness and biting commentary, and these ideals are still on display in Let England Shake. But here, Harvey seems more driven then ever before – a relentless pursuit of self-expression with remarks aimed squarely at a twenty-first century, middle-east, war-embroiled England.

Harvey is a ghostly narrator in the opening title track, coolly detached while exclaiming “The west’s asleep, let England shake, weighted down with silent dead” – a theme echoed on every subsequent song. But this is not necessarily a dark album – although images of soldiers, damned mountains, orphans, damp earth, rifles and fetid rivers permeate. Instead, it’s a quiet but bitter treatise on the fall of England’s majesty, a washing out of the blue, red and white Union Jack until only a decayed gray and a rotten brown remain.

But Harvey doesn’t exclude the rest of the “west” from her rancour. In The Last Living Rose, she begins with a virulent judgement of “Goddam’ Europeans!” – the external culprit of England’s woes, all immersed within a beautifully romantic finish that ends with the word “quiver”, a testament to both the Let England Shake thesis as well as the emotional state of the album listener.

Deservedly so, Let England Shake won this year’s Mercury Prize, the second such prize for PJ Harvey – the only musical artist who has ever done so. The album, though probably not for all, is a superb artistic achievement and deserves your listening.

3. Sam Roberts Band – Collider

Collider, the Sam Roberts Band fourth studio album, sees the rock-pop musicians running strong on all cylinders, a culmination of all their previous offerings. There’s infectious guitar and guitar solos a-plenty here, but bass riffs and some superb drumming stand this recording apart from their previous works. And yeah – there are songs with flourishes of saxophone solos! It’s not the first time the band has used this instrument in their songs but it’s the first time it has taken such prominence, a use that delivers a toe-tap, a head-shake and a fist-pump like never before.

First and foremost, Collider is a great summer rock’n’roll album – something to play loud, preferably within earshot of lots of friends. That’s not to say it’s isn’t great listening in other seasons, Collider just seems to have a “heat” and a “soul” to it that’s best heard in June, July and a hazy August.

Sam Roberts Band move expertly from hard-rock stadium anthems like I Feel You to radio friendly sing-alongs like Longitude with a deft skill, an expertise gained in near ten years of playing together. There’s fun here in Collider, with great songs containing lyrics teeming with biting political and social observations to introspective thoughts on failing relationships. “Is love enough? Yes it is. Is hope enough? I hope it is” sings Roberts in Tractor Beam Blues, a lyric eliciting a raucous question-and-response play with the audience at a recent concert.

I found myself listening to Collider more often than many of the other 2011-released albums – a testament to a positive mind set, perhaps, but most definitely an action correlated to the high quality of the songs. Everyone who loves music should hear this record.

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

If Bon Iver is on your stereo, it must be raining outside.

Not one for a Toronto West-Queen-West indie-folk hipster aesthetic (although there certainly seem to be days), I fell in love with the lush sounds inherent in Bon Iver’s eponymous second release. It’s a sensual album containing songs titles of locations: Perth, Minnesota, Calgary to name but a few and the subject matter consists of self and the relationships one has with people and their surroundings.

Over ten musicians join front man Justin Vernon on Bon Iver, all of them playing multiple instruments, all of them adding their own colours to songs, truly a collaborative process. You can see this evident in the video attached below, a live recording by the band of the song Calgary on the Colbert Report earlier this year. Two drummers?! It’s not often you see that. A bass saxophone? One that is played entirely against expectations!

And that is the hallmark of Bon Iver. Yes, it’s a soft and affecting – often emotionally draining album, but it creates a sense of purpose for itself, one of beautifully painted landscapes that often veer into unexpected territories both sonically and emotionally.

It probably was raining when I first heard Bon Iver, but it was a warm, welcome rain – the kind that brings spring with it. Simply a marvellously rich sounding album.

1. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean

Well, indie-folk music definitely had a strong year in 2011.

With Kiss Each Other Clean, the fourth studio offering from Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine, the musician was finally able to hit that genre-crossing sweet spot that invigorated more pop-rock, prog-rock and blues music lovers, opening their ears to Iron & Wine’s musical class for the first time. Yes, there was backlash as some older fans felt left behind but the truth is that Beam was pushing himself into new and creative musical directions but never straying too, too far from his southern U.S. sense of Americana. He is a product of South Carolina, after all.

Whether it’s the seven minute prog-ramble of Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me, a track that wouldn’t look out of place on an Eno-produced Paul Simon record, all plucky electric guitars, sizzling saxophone and warm horn section against a background of programmed loops, or the slow, deliberate poetry amidst a canvas of fuzz feedback, sweet keyboards and quietly wailing voices in Walking Far From Home, a folkish sense of Christianity is never far behind in Beam’s lyrics.

The man writes timeless stories here that harken both ‘O Brother Where Art Thou and Milton’s Paradise. “Saw a wet road form a circle and it came like a call from the Lord” sings Beam, a phrase that is at the heart of Kiss Each Other Clean – the discovery of a religion that espouses a clear sense of illumination.

The songs that comprise Kiss Each Other Clean are springtime lovely – fresh and supple, catchy, revitalizing and meaningful. They echo every decade of the past fifty years, from bluesy to soulful to folky to rocking, all graced with a twenty-first century production and direction aesthetic, a timeless record for today that is as much a history of music as it points to what music can still become.

Illumination indeed!

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