lists, music

My Favorite Albums of 2011

I am honored to have my musical “Best of” list featured on IndieVisionMusic for the second year. Personally I like to call it my “favorites” list since “best” is kind of subjective and I’m always changing my mind about my old lists as I discover more music from that year that I initially missed. Anyway, I thought I would use my personal blog to go through my list with a little more detail and some links. Hope you enjoy! (It looks like a lot of these albums are on sale right now for $4.99 on Amazon MP3… so get them soon if you’re interested! – I finally picked up HANDS and Dominic Balli just yesterday!)

Honorable Mentions

JJ Heller – Deeper; Sleeping Giant – Kingdom Days In An Evil Age; A Plea For Purging – The Life and Death of A Plea For Purging; August Burns Red – Leveler

30. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light

Fun rock album that makes me feel like I’m playing Guitar Hero or something. Most of the album is pretty standard but the message and passion of the closing track alone is enough for it to make my list.

Favorite Track: “Walk”
I’m on my knees / I’m praying for a sign / Forever, whenever / I never wanna die / I never wanna die…. I’m dancing on my grave / I’m running through the fire / Forever, whatever / I never wanna die….
Release Date: April 8, 2011
US Sales Info: 640,000 so far; 1st #1 album with 235,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

29. Weird Al – Alpocalypse

The King of Parody does it again with his first full album in five years. It’s hit and miss, but the hits are fantastic, from a ruthless Gaga mockery to the technology-minded original “Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me.”

Favorite Track: “Party In the CIA”
Yeah, we’ve got our black ops all over the world / from Kazakhstan to Bombay / Payin’ the bribes like yeah / pluggin’ the leaks like yeah
Release Date: June 20, 2011
US Sales Info: #9 debut (best ever) with 44,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

28. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

Nice catchy album by the folk band.

Favorite Track: “Don’t Carry It All”
Let the yoke fall from our shoulders / Don’t carry it all, Don’t carry it all
Release Date: January 18, 2011
US Sales Info: #1 debut with around 70,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

27. John Mark McMillan – Economy

I haven’t had any tracks really stand out to me yet on this new one from the creative worship rocker, but I like the general sound of it.

Favorite Track: “Chemicals”
Everybody’s drilling for a fountain of youth / But sometimes in these fountains they drown
Release Date: November 1, 2011
US Sales Info: #95 debut with 5,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link

26. Life In Your Way – Kingdoms

I’m not familiar with the band’s previous material, but I checked out their new release after joining Come & Live! It’s got a pretty good ambient hardcore kind of vibe along with some good spiritual lyrics.

Release Date: October 25, 2011
Come&Live! Link | Amazon Link

25. Coldplay – Myloto Xoto

The previous album from the Brit superstars (Viva La Vida..) is still their best, as this one is too poppy and dancey, and even a lot of the lyrics are disappointingly simple. But Coldplay is too good to produce a whole album without at least a few stellar tracks.

Favorite Track: “Us Against The World”
Oh morning come bursting the clouds, Amen. / Lift off this blindfold, let me see again… And sing slow-ow-ow-ow it down
Release Date: October 24, 2011
US Sales Info: 900,000 so far; third #1 album with 447,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

24. MUTEMATH – Odd Soul

The songs are as energetic as ever and the music videos are as creative as ever, but this alt-rock-or-whatever band continues to grab me less and less with each release. Perhaps it’s partially because Paul Meany’s spiritual journey seems to be continuing to become more hazy – and less relatable to mine.

Favorite Track: “Blood Pressure”
Why can’t you be more like your older brother? …Why can’t you do a little more for Jesus? 
Release Date: September 27, 2011
US Sales Info: #24 debut with 13,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

23. Relient K – K is for Karaoke

A collection of mostly straight-forward Relient-K-ified renditions of pop songs (along with a couple of slight curve balls) from the last few decades. Relient K didn’t do a whole lot with these songs that inspire and/or amuse them, and they’re nowhere near the quality of the band’s original material, but they still sound good.

Favorite Track: “Africa” (originally performed by Toto)
I bless the rains down in Africa
Release Date: October 4, 2011
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

22. Mat Kearney – Young Love

It doesn’t stack up to the quality of the simple acoustic / spoken-word vibe of Nothing Left to Lose, one of my all-time favorites, but I like this catchy pop album better than City of Black and White.

Release Date: August 2, 2011
US Sales Info: #4 debut (best ever) with 44,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

21. La Dispute – Wildlife

What mewithoutYou could have been if they had veered towards intensity instead of charm (and for the record, I like both). Regetfully I haven’t listened enough yet to have a favorite track; there are a lot of thought-provoking lyrics.

Release Date: October 4, 2011
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

20. O Brother – Garden Window

Intense indie post-rock or whatever.

Favorite Track: “Lay Down”
Abba Father are you sleeping / As we toil through your gardens keeping / I’ll lay down and begin to grow / Right beneath your garden window
Release Date: November 15, 2011
Amazon Link 

19. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

The harmonies are stunningly beautiful and the songs are gorgeous. I’m glad Joy Williams is finding more success in a more artistic style, but the lyrics are so melodramatic I can barely stand them – and I’m not sure I agree with some of them, either. Still, I can’t completely ignore the talent displayed here.

Favorite Track: “To Whom It May Concern”
Oh how I miss you but I haven’t met you / Oh but I want to / Oh how I want to
Release Date:
February 1, 2011
US Sales Info:
230,000 so far; #12 debut with 25,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

18. My Epic – Broken Voice

It’s more acoustic and not quite as intense as Yet, but there’s a lot of good songs and a lot of good writing.

Favorite Track: “Alone”
For that one moment / You looked just like me / Your Father left you / and You died completely alone.
Release Date: July 5, 2011
Amazon Link

17. Emery – We Do What We Want

Emery returns to form with a self-described “heavy” album. The screams are fierce, the breakdowns are copious, and the dynamics are wide and entertaining as they oscillate between loud and soft, dissonance and melody. The album is advertised for its heaviness, but it’s got a handful of electronic keyboard riffs and some really nice melodic vocal lines and tradeoffs. There’s even an acoustic ballad! Through the lyrics Emery maintains that brilliant combination of crushing melancholy and regret for past mistakes with repentant pleas for restoration and a brighter future.

Favorite Track: “Fix Me”
We’re just caught in the thought that we deserve to be free. / Fix me. Father, fix me. / I’ve been waiting so long to feel this heartbeat… / We’re just caught in the thought that we deserve to be free
Release Date: March 29, 2011
US Sales Info:
#76 debut with 8,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

16. Becoming The Archetype – Celestial Completion

From the opening strings and operatic four-part choral arrangement to the Dennis Culp ska-trombone interlude, these metal guys are almost trying too hard to be creative amidst the crushingly brutal guitar work and breakdowns, but it mostly works. Scripture references and Latin phrases permeate the epic songwriting about light, darkness, and redemption. The focused control increases its force, and this is accessible heavy music at is finest.

Favorite Track: “The Resonant Frequency of Flesh”
There was a time
 / When we all sang the song of death /But now our bodies resonate / Our living souls reverberate / The music of eternal light
Release Date: March 29, 2011
Amazon Link | Wiki Link 

15. Hillsong United – Aftermath

I don’t think it’s as good as their previous studio album, All of the Above, but it’s got classic Hillsong worship themes of surrender and devotion with crafted layers and rhythms that stretch their sound farther than ever before. Though when it comes down to it, they’re essentially pounding deep drums and chugging big guitars for an hour, no matter how much they decorate with strings and piano, or break things up with an occasional experimental interlude. Still, it all sounds a lot more earnest and exciting than the watered-down pop anthems that usually make it onto the radio. (My full IVM review)

Favorite Track: “Like An Avalanche”
And I find myself here on my knees again / Caught up in grace like an avalanche / Nothing compares to this love, love, love
US Sales Info: #17 debut with 28,000 first-week sales
Release Date:
February 15, 2011
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

14. Danielson – The Best of Gloucester County

It’s hard to find truly unique music these days, but Danielson comes pretty close, if only for his persistently yappy vocals. The musical structures and instrumentations pile on the charm in the first half, while the second half is more reserved and experimental, sometimes flittering instruments around with no discernible rhythm. Through it all we get the delightful sounds of a wise and joyous heart.

Favorite Track: “You Sleep Good Now”
A voice says “Cry out” / I say “Oh what should I cry?” / “All men are like grass” / We all wither, but you stand.
Release Date: February 22, 2011
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

13. Seryn – This Is Where We Are

For all the power of the Internet, word-of-mouth is still a great way to discover new music. My friend Sam introduced me to this indie folk band that had played at a youth conference. They’ve got a harmonic, rhythmic vibe following the footsteps of Gungor that sounds something like Mumford & Sons with less energy, or Fleet Foxes with more.

Favorite Track: “We Will All Be Changed”
Oh you lift your rusty brow / Little thoughts have weighed your vision down… We can shape but can’t control these possibilities
Release Date: January 25, 2011
Amazon Link

12. HANDS – Give Me Rest

Underoath’s Define The Great Line was my first heavy album, and I’m still a sucker for intense, talented, melodic hardcore – all I need is some good, relatable lyrics. This is it.

Favorite Track: “Give Me Rest”
You are the end and I am fading. Will I rest with you for all of time? Is my name in there? Give me rest… I was wrong and You were right / Give me rest
Release Date:
July 5, 2011
Amazon Link

11. Timbre – Silent Night

I don’t usually include Christmas music in my regular lists, but this was too good not to. Siblings join the harpist and add cello, piano, and more for some stunning classical arrangements. (My full IVM review)

Favorite Track: “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
Release Date: November 25, 2011
Bandcamp Link | Amazon Link

10. The Ember Days – Emergency

Full of prayers for unity and declarations of praise and surrender, the much-anticipated full length from The Ember Days is one of the best worship albums of the year, featuring a solid production and execution of their dynamic, driving passion. Some may feel there’s a bit of formula in the way nearly every song crescendos into a post-rock pounding session, but it’s all done very well and sounds great, and it’s a treat to experience the dynamics and talents of this group of musicians feeding into an atmosphere of worship. (My full IVM review)

Favorite Track: “Unite Your Bride”
Lord, come unite your bride / She’s hurting deep inside.
Release Date: August 30, 2011
Come&Live! Link | Amazon Link

9. Switchfoot – Vice Verses

The dark rock vibe of Nothing Is Sound meets the anthemic ballads of Hello Hurricane with a little bit of the experimental spunk of Oh! Gravity mixed in, and this might be the band’s most cohesive release since The Beautiful Letdown. We know where Switchfoot has come from and where they are going as they challenge us to embrace the tensions of life through their matured rock and roll sound that is equal parts passionate energy and confident restraint. (My full IVM review)

Favorite Track: “Where I Belong”
I’m not sentimental / This skin and bones is a rental / And no one makes it out alive / Until I die I’ll sing these songs / On the shores of Babylon / Still looking for a home / In a world where I belong / Where the weak are finally strong / Where the righteous right the wrongs / Still looking for a home / In a world where I belong.
Release Date: September 27, 2011
US Sales Info: 93,000 plus several weeks off the chart; #8 debut with 45,000 first-wek sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

8. Deas Vail – Deas Vail

The indie pop/rock band from Arkansas continues to progress their sound, and the album is full of catchy tunes and subtle time signature shifts. While I don’t think the lyrics and music quite live up to Birds & Cages (my #2 from 2009), it’s another step in the right direction for the group.

Favorite Track: “Quiet Like Sirens”
Release Date:
October 11, 2011
US Sales Info: #114 debut (best ever) with 4,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link

7. Explosions In The Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

The famous instrumental troupe delivers another solid album full of lush guitars and sweeping grooves and even a little bit of vocal sampling. It all works together to create a sonic treat that is safe to listen to over and over again.

Release Date: April 26, 2011
US Sales Info: #16 debut (best ever) with 19,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

6. Dominic Balli – American Dream

Dominic Balli is just a white dude from California who likes reggae music – and he’s pretty good at it, too. Mixing reggae elements with rock guitars and modern pop layers, Balli comes off somewhere in the neighborhood of Matisyahu meets POD meets Bob Marley. It’s a fresh and catchy sound that stays interesting throughout the album, and it’s topped off with smart lyrics that effortlessly quote Proverbs or wax poetic about the purpose of life while offering hope and encouragement. This was one of my favorite complete surprises of the year!

Favorite Track: “Daisy’s Song”
When that storm comes like a hurricane / And the sun seems far away / We will not fear the wind / We will not fear the waves  
Release Date: July 26, 2011
Amazon Link

5. Gungor – Ghosts Upon the Earth

Early next year we will receive what is apparently the last album from David Crowder Band, but Michael Gungor seems perfectly aligned to pick up the mantle of creative worship music that unfolds on the tantalizing edge of the CCM world. It’s clear that this will be an enjoyable album right from the opening antics of “Let There Be.” The multiple layers of vocals and instrumentation weave in and around the honest lyrics to create an invigorating sound, and I hope there is a lot more of this to come in the future.

Favorite Track: “Brother Moon”
In You we live / In You we move / In You we have our being
Release Date: September 20, 2011
US Sales Info: #43 debut with 9,500 first-week sales
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

4. Thrice – Major/Minor

I didn’t connect with Thrice’s latest quite as much as Beggars (still my undisputed #1 of 2009), but I still found it to be one of the year’s best albums. The music generally sounds heavier and more distorted, but it treads a balance of intensity and restraint that becomes more apparent with each listen, like a foggy picture that becomes sharper over time. Meanwhile, Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics continue to solidify his standing as one of my favorite songwriters. He continues to cleverly express Scriptural themes with prosaic metaphors, but he turns it up another notch on this one, pleading with his mainstream fans to really listen to his sober words and consider their spiritual destiny. (My full lyrical analysis here.)

Favorite Track: “Treading Paper”
But linger on, just for a moment, until we can ascertain / If something’s wrong with me – or the assumptions of these self-indicted brains / Because I contend that all of this is more than just a meaningless charade / That each and every moment is a bottle with a message hid away
Release Date: September 20, 2011
US Sales Info: #18 debut with 20,000 first-week sales
Amazon Link
| Wiki Link

3. Matisyahu – Live At Stubb’s Vol. II

I don’t usually like live albums enough to buy them, much less feature them all the way up at #3 for the year. But Matisyahu is something special. He and his band unleash an impeccable set list of old, recent, and new material, and no song sounds just like the album version (avoiding my favorite live album complaint). Some tracks seem faster; some seem slower; some linger in ten-minute grooves of guitar solos and dubstep and vocal freestyling. This is everything that a live album needs to be – and more.

Favorite Track: “Youth”
Release Date: February 1, 2011
US Sales Info: (couldn’t find reliable info)
Amazon Link | Wiki Link

2. Seven Swans Reimagined

A cornucopia of indie musicians pay tribute to a classic album from the classic indie musician Sufjan Stevens. Some of the remakes are more layered than the originals; some are more restrained. It’s a real treat to hear Sufjan’s influences expressed through the nuances of the indie world, from the simple picking of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to the percussion party of The Gregory Brothers to the reverbed instrumentation of Derek Webb to the reckless vocals of Half-Handed Cloud. Finally, the subtle yet distinct voice of David Crowder welcomes us to “The Transfiguration,” brilliantly transforming through a horn arrangement and a cascade of electronic loops. What fun!

Favorite Track: “The Transfiguration”
Release Date: March 29, 2011
Bandcamp Link | Amazon Link

1. Josh Garrels – Love & War & The Sea In Between


The folk artist effortlessly transitions from the layered indie sound of Jacaranda to the the folky campfire sounds of his older work or of Lost Animals to a continuing development with soundtrack-worthy offerings. The musical grooves would still be interesting and encouraging without the lyrics (there aren’t many musicians who can get away with five wordless tracks on an album), but it’s the poetry that really sets Josh Garrels apart, expounding upon oceanic themes to celebrate adventure, life, love, community, and home. (My full IVM review)

Favorite Track: “Rise”
Though they may surround me like lions / And crush me on all sides / I may fall, but I will rise… Take courage sons, for we must go under / The heart of darkness, and set them free / But don’t lose heart when you see the numbers / There’s no measure for, the faith we bring
Release Date: June 14, 2011
Bandcamp Link | Amazon Link