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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

JohnRCC's 2011 Roundup

Only a few days late!
Anyway, I haven't even listened to fifty newly-released albums this year, let alone enough to make a top fifty list and have some left over to give out extra awards. So what I've done instead is simply review every album I've heard this year, then giving out some additional awards for special album categories and other goings-on in the music world. So let's get started:

The Reviews

Adele - 21
Look past the monotony of the singles from this album (and the fact that they're played waaaay too much on the radio; if the point of pop music is to get into people's heads then mission fucking accomplished I guess), and be pleasantly surprised that the rest of this album is worth listening to, for both the more upbeat rock songs and the downright soulful ballads. [7]
Rumour Has It

Anthrax - Worship Music
It's been said this is the best big 4 album of the last 10 years, which is quite frankly a load of balls (and we all know that, because St. Anger only came out 8 years ago :V). But anyway. On its own merits, Worship Music sounds like a bastard cross between the Anthrax of old and the more commercial NWOAHM bands like Avenged Sevenfold. And trust me, this is not a good thing. [4]
Fight 'Em Til You Can't

Black Stone Cherry - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
The thing I liked about BSC's 2006 debut was that it was simple man music. It's the kind of album you'd have blaring out of the stolen stereo in your pickup while driving around looking for alligators to shoot. 5 years later though and the band have done some soul searching, and now their songs are about more emotional topics like feelings and butterflies and being massive sissies. Not to say the album itself is bad - the non-ballady songs are extremely competent southern-tinged blues rock - the band just needs to man the fuck up again. [6]
Blame it on the Boom Boom

Destruction - Day of Reckoning
If there's one thing that struck me about this album, it's how extremely like a standard thrash album it was. Riff here, shout there, shredding solo everywhere, and so on. It felt severely as if it was simply going through the motions. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing (hey, thrash is thrash), but it didn't leave much of an impression on me. [6]
Day of Reckoning

Devin Townsend Project - Deconstruction
In terms of the Devin Townsend Project as a whole, "Deconstruction" is the 'fuck everything, question everyone, cheeseburgers AAAAAAKGKGKJHGK' album, and as such is probably the closest any of Townsend's music has been to Strapping Young Lad since... well, Strapping Young Lad. Complete with ridiculously complex arrangements, a plethora of guest musicians (including Ihsahn of Emperor and Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth) and even a sixteen-minute suite with full orchestra, "Deconstruction" is the most bizarrely complicated - and probably most compelling - thing Townsend has done in a long time. [9]

Devin Townsend Project - Ghost
Here then is the chalk to Deconstruction's cheese(burger), the yin to its yang, and some other bullshit metaphors. "Ghost" is intended as and very much is a chillout album, with none of Townsend's usual harsh vocals or heavy playing. The usual wall of sound production is still present, but this time the sonic space is filled more with synthesisers and flutes and such. Overall "Ghost" is a lovely relaxed album, with my main criticism being that many of the songs are actually quite repetitive, in a new-agey, ambient sort of way. [8]

Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn of Events
An enjoyable if slightly unoriginal effort from one of my favourite bands. Read my full review here. [6]

Duran Duran - All You Need is Now
One of the most popular bands associated with '80s cheese has been largely out of the public eye since the release of their last album. 2007's "Red Carpet Massacre". This is the first post-'85 album I've heard by the new wave boys, and one thing that can be said for them is that their '80s vibe is still alive and well. Most of the tracks on the album have that clean, new wave production, specifically the title track and "Safe (In the heat of the moment)". Sadly, as with any retro synthpop album it made for the singles, and as a result some of the album tracks have an unmistakable whiff of filler about them. Still though, the album as a whole is very solid and harks back to the time when the band were at their peak (especially on "Before the Rain", which sounds suspiciously like 1982's "Rio" album closer "The Chauffeur"). [7]
Blame the Machines

Evile - Five Serpent's Teeth
It would appear Evile is the proud owner of The Big Book of Heavy Metal Cliches, your ultimate go-to resource for all aspects of being a decent metal band. It includes how to imaginatively name your songs (e.g. "Cult", "Eternal Empire"), how to have lyrics about blood and death and spooky spooky ghosts, and how to relentlessly copy Slayer. Though as I mentioned about Destruction earlier, sometimes the appeal in thrash lies not in creativity but in sheer balls. Unfortunately, "Five Serpent's Teeth" appears to be lacking in the balls department as well. [5]
Eternal Empire

Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Although Foo Fighters currently are the radio-friendly mainstream rock band, it could quite easily be forgotten that they do put out some good, honest hard rock now and again. "Wasting Light" is the closest the band have had to an old-fashioned classic rock album, complete with a punchy opener in "Bridge Burning", softer, more introspective tracks in "I Should Have Known" and "Back & Forth" and some balls-out riffing in "White Limo". Not that this is the best album of 2011, but it's certainly one of the Foos' strongest and certainly worth a listen. [7]
Bridge Burning

Gorillaz - The Fall
Some of you may be familiar with the term "Third Album Syndrome", in which a fledgling band will set out with enough material to record one or two albums, but then they go off on tour and suddenly the record label is at their door demanding new songs. They try to write under pressure, and it shows. Well former Blur man Damon Albarn has taken this notion to its logical extreme and written, recorded, and released an LP while on tour. The whole thing was done on an iPad, and - with fear of repeating myself - it shows. The album seems dull and uninspired, with few interesting ideas that don't really go anywhere. It was a novel way of doing things, but ultimately it didn't pay off. [2]
Revolving Doors

Havok - Time is Up
Returning once again to the theme of thrash balls, this new album by Denver-based Havok kicks off with a rocket to the face in one of the best album openers of the year, "Prepare for Attack". From here on out, the album is forty-two minutes three seconds of pure insanity that refuses to let up. It could be argued that this outright refusal to just slow the fuck down at all is a point against it, Havok are a band who know what they're good at, and they do it very well indeed. [8]
Prepare for Attack

Hell - Human Remains
It's debatable whether this album should even be included in the 2011 roundup. It was written, rehearsed and even partly recorded way back in the mid-'80s, and was only postponed due to the death of guitarist/vocalist Dave Halliday. What the modern incarnation of the band have done then is reformed to pick up the pieces, so "Human Remains" really is a traditional NWOBHM album disguised in 2011 production. Nevertheless, it was released in 2011 so I'll include it as such. And as far as proper British metal is concerned, Hell is among the best there's been in some time. "Human Remains" may adhere shamelessly to those heavy metal cliches I mentioned earlier, but they're all pulled off with such style it makes me feel like it's 1982 and NWOBHM is still riding high. [9]
Blasphemy and the Master (I couldn't find a studio version)

Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne
As someone who admittedly knows very little about hip-hop, I was apprehensive about listening to a joint album by two of the most popular modern hip-hop artists. I've heard all too much about autotune in hip-hop recently, but thankfully Jay-Z is pretty strongly against it himself. Unfortunately, West does his best to make himself heard on this album, and it shows as about half the tracks are reminiscent of his 2010 opus "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy". But judging the album on its own merits, "Watch the Throne" features some very catchy tracks, the best of which being the lead single, "Otis". [7]

Joss Stone - LP1
A rich, fulfilling (if at times slightly pornographic) return to basics for the soul singer. Read my full review here. [8]

Justice - Audio, Video, Disco
I only got into Justice near the start of 2011, by getting hooked on their 2007 debut and listening to it over and over for a few months. Given then that I was almost at the point of listening to "Cross" once per day when the French house duo announced their second release in August, I wondered how on Earth they would be able to best their first. And while it's true that "Audio, Video, Disco" is by no means as good as "Cross", it shows how the pair have taken their sound in a more mature, album-based direction. It's easy to hear the arena rock influences on the opening chords and drum fills of "Horsepower", and the theme set at the start is pretty consistently held throughout. One could argue it's a lot more tame than their previous album, but it's obviously the direction they've chosen to take here. [8]

Lazuli - (4603 Battements)
It was through a contributor of this very blog that I first heard about Lazuli (thanks Xylem), though at the time I listened to this album once, thought "that was pretty decent" and then completely forgot about it. Only recently did I give it a few more spins and discover just how fantastic this is. "(4603 Battements)" is modern French prog done to perfection, with great songs (and I mean SONGS, the longest track on the album is a mere 7:20. Not that I don't like the really long prog songs, but this is a nice change), spine-tingling instrumentals and overall a great atmosphere. Great job. [9]
Dans le formol au muséum

Los Campesinos! - Hello Sadness
LC! are an oddity in that they are an indie pop band with shouty, cockney-accented vocals, more "quirky" instruments than you can shake a piccolo at and - at times - a laughable approach to pretentious bullshit lyrics about relationships. But that's not why they are an oddity. They are an oddity in that they are all of this yet they don't get on my nerves like most other similar bands. 2011 saw the release of "Hello Sadness", the 4th album from the rowdy lot, but it's clear right from the off that this is a much different album to, say, "Hold on Now Youngster". For a start, lead singer Gareth's voice appears to have dropped about four octaves since those heady days of 2008, and although the lyrical content remains as "artsy" as ever, it's no longer delivered like the entire band have been chugging red bull and boost bars all evening (although their gigs certainly feel like that). And believe me when I say this is very much in their favour. The songs on the album are delivered with both energy and modesty, and they haven't yet outstayed their welcome, which given my stance on indie bands is a MASSIVE achievement. [9]
Songs About Your Girlfriend

Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu
I'm going to come straight out and say it: "Lulu" is alright. That grinding sound you hear is the teeth of my fellow Court in the Act contributors, but it is alright. Sure, it's not the best thing either party has done by a long shot, but what you have here (and what I'm tempted to say is the focal point of the album, minus grandpa Lou's stories) is atmosphere. I listened to Lulu while walking to work at 6AM a few days ago, and the atmosphere it created in the cold was simply sublime. Yes, I agree it's repetitive and I also agree it's just too damn long, but it really works best when considered an ambient album. In particular, "Cheat on Me", the 11-minute closer to the first disc, passed almost without me noticing, as the sound created by the instruments almost blended into the background. So, "Lulu", is not the best album of 2011 by far, but it has its niche and fills it well. [5]
Iced Honey (I was going to put "Cheat on Me" here, but there were no videos of it)

Mastodon - The Hunter
It would seem Mastodon have gone soft. Gone is the pure aggression of earlier releases such as "Remission". In place is a more technical side of the band, allowing their progressive side to come through even stronger. And mostly, this works in their favour. While some of tracks seem like filler (such as "Blasteroid" and "Thickening"), the album managed to hold my attention throughout, with one of the least-Mastodon tracks on there (the title track) being the most surprising, and ultimately the most rewarding. [8]
Dry Bone Valley

Megadeth - Th1rt3en
If there was any band that are a caricature of themselves, it would be Megadeth. Especially since Dave went off on his whole 'satanic forces' tangent (also you just read that in Mustaine's voice), everything the band has done has seemed exaggerated and just plan silly. "Th1rt3en" is the epitome of this silliness, in one succinct package. Everything about this album reeks of lack of ideas. Never mind the fact that some of the tracks have been floating about for about 18 years (no seriously - "New World Order" and "Millennium of the Blind" appear as bonus tracks on my copy of "Youthanasia"), there's little to none of Megadeth's past creativity or energy. Simply put, this band is not ageing gracefully. Though, given how good 2009's "Endgame" was, this was a huge disappointment. [5]
Public Enemy No. 1

Mitochondrion - Parasignosis
"Parasignosis" was another album I listened to during my quest to like all music earlier this year. However, like "(4603 Battements)", once I'd heard it I kind of brushed it to one side and went on my merry way. Coming back to it now, about 8 months later, it's certainly grown on me. Maybe it's because I developed a liking for Godflesh in the interim, and the pounding, mechanical drums on this album are reminiscent of "Streetcleaner". It may also be the production, which as far as I can tell (though I don't know much death metal) is second to none. Either way, this is an extremely infectious album that was certainly deserving of that much more favourable second listen. Also there's a lovely ambient drone track at the end. [8]

Opeth - Heritage
I should need to give very little background to this album. Chances are, if you are interested in metal in any way, shape or form, you already know about Opeth's bold new direction and the various points for and against it. Well here's my two cents. There's no denying Opeth are good musicians. It was Åkerfeldt and his band of cronies who put out still life, which had its pure prog moments in "Benighted" and "Face of Melinda", and they were executed perfectly. But the question remains as to whether a whole album in this style would work. And the answer is a resounding... 'sort of'. While all this crazy jazz fusion requires a lot of talent to pull off, on record it sounds ever so slightly too refined. I'm tempted to make the Dream Theater comparison here, where the music as a whole feels a little soul-less. It's prog for prog's sake. That's not to say the album doesn't have its moments. For example, the solo at the end of Häxprocess had me by the balls throughout. "Heritage" is a good album, it just doesn't match up to Opeth's previous work in terms of both emotion and songwriting. [7]

Peter Gabriel - New Blood
Peter Gabriel's voice is one I will never tire of. No matter how old or raspy it gets, I will always have a special place in my heart for the sound of the former Geneis frontman. Continuing on from the orchestra project which began with "Scratch My Back", an orchestral covers album, Gabriel has now focused his attention on his own songs, providing us with lovely orchestral versions of some of his lesser-known gems, such as "Intruder" and "San Jacinto". Not content to just transcribe each instrument to strings, woodwind, etc, Gabriel has enlisted the help of John Metcalfe and the pair have more or less completely re-arranged each track specifically for orchestra. This has resulted in some spell-binding renditions of PG favourites of mine, such as the originally world-influenced "The Rhythm of the Heat". A Wonderful companion to "Scratch My Back", however now Gabriel needs to stop fooling around and finish up "I/O". [9]
San Jacinto

Primordial - Redemption at the Puritan's Hand
Now this is folk metal done superbly (is that a word?). There's none of the cliche of certain other folk metal bands (which isn't always bad, but shut up I'm getting to that). The feel of the album is that of a religious outcast backed against a wall of sound, shouting his final desperate words to his persecutors. But enough analysis, how about the music itself? As far as folk metal goes, this can't really be done any better. There's something about the atmosphere created by the instruments, the production, and the vocals that I can't quite put my finger on, but sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear it. My only real qualm is that the songs are each perhaps a teensy bit too long (the shortest clocks in at 6:19, the longest 9:21, the average about 8:00). Although I'm not too familiar with earlier Primordial (I've heard it leans more towards the black metal side of things), I'm not really sure how this can be bested by the band. [8]
Lain With the Wolf

SebastiAn - Total
I found out about SebastiAn the same way absolutely everyone else did: through Justice. I downloaded his debut album "Total" as I heard in was similar in its fidgety style to Justice's 2007 masterpiece "Cross". A sticker I saw on the retail version proudly boasted '22 TITRES' (22 tracks), however when you cut out the filler tracks which are less than a minute long each, you're left with more like fourteen proper tracks. But what a fourteen these are. The fidgety house label could not be more accurate, with quick and erratic samples being used to create a jarring yet wonderfully compelling sound. Although SebastiAn is slightly more 'obnoxious' (a term I use to describe dance music that lacks all subtlety, e.g. Skrillex, Pendulum, etc.) he thankfully known when to rein it in so the often abrasive sound of the album doesn't wear out its welcome. A must for all fans of the 'other' French dance duo. [8]

Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning
Steven Wilson certainly is a strange one. Jack of all trades, master of- some, actually. In his art rock side (I haven't yet delved much into his more experimental work with IEM and Bass Communion yet), the Porcupine Tree frontman is very difficult to fault. With his second solo offering in the form of "Grace for Drowning", Wilson has attempted to make an all-out jazz prog album. Cue the inevitable comparisons with "Heritage" (instigated by Wilson himself as he named GfD and Heritage as part of an 'odd trilogy', to be completed by the Wilson/Åkerfeldt collaboration "Storm Corrosion"), "Grace for Drowning" is better than "Heritage" in every respect. Referred to as two separate albums in one package, we have here 1 hour and 20 minutes of simply amazing music, which draws on many of the different types of music Wilson has made throughout his career (such as Porcupine Tree on "Sectarian", Blackfield on "Postcard" and bits and pieces of IEM on the 23-minute epic, "Raider II". However, what this album does so much better than "Heritage" is emotion. On every track you can tell Wilson is singing (or playing, in the case of the instrumentals) from the heart. And that improves this album vastly. [9]
Deform to Form a Star

Turisas - Stand Up and Fight
If ever it was manly to wear make-up, put on costumes and jump about on-stage with a violin, Turisas proved it. 2007's "The Varangian Way" has been one of my favourite albums this year, and I was looking forward to seeing how "Stand Up and Fight" would top it. Unfortunately, it hasn't. But fear not! "The Varangian Way" is a worthy opponent, and even coming close to its splendour is an achievement. The trademark Turisas silliness is still present and strong, and the whole album smacks of self-parody, but the songs swell with victorious melodies, singer Warlord Nygård rallies his troops with powerful vocals, and overall it's an album that just makes me want to go out there and break stuff. With a broadsword. Its only falldown is that some tracks feel padded with an arguably weak string section. [7]
The March of the Varangian Guard

Vektor - Outer Isolation
You know all those negative comments I've been making about thrash cliches throughout this article? Well, Vektor have just taken those comments and fired them out of a cannon directly up my arse. I would say Vektor transcend classification, but they don't. What we have here is quite clearly thrash, but it's pulled off with such technical mastery and such aggression that it doesn't sound like any other thrash I've heard. The follow-up to 2009's "Black Future", "Outer Isolation" is like a two-ton slab of man being ejected from a spacecraft, only to burn up on re-entry and land slap-bang on my speakers. And unlike some other thrash, which feels like an hour straight of 'AAAAAAAAAAAGH', "Outer Isolation" is like an hour of "AAAAAAAAAAAGH" with a purpose. And its purpose is to fuck. You. Up. Fantastic. [9]
Venus Project

Yes - Fly From Here
How do yes cope on only their second album without the iconic voice of Jon Anderson? Okay, I guess. Read my full review here. [6]
Fly From Here Part I - We Can Fly

Additional Awards

The 'You'll Never Beat Roger Dean' Award for best album artwork/packaging:

Mastodon - The Hunter (Special Edition)

The Atlanta sludgers have always been known for their highly trippy artwork, but they've really outdone themselves on their fifth release. For "The Hunter", the band chose not to use longtime collaborator Paul A. Romano, instead opting for the services of psychedelic woodworker AJ Fosik (a.k.a. the man with the best job title in the world), who created this bizarre cow/deer... thing. But what makes this album packaging great for me is the bonus little interactive activity you can do, where you can hold the album artwork up to your webcam on the Mastodon website, it plonks a 3D model of The Hunter on top of your head, so now you can be the mascot for your favourite trippy weirdo band. Try it out here (I think you need the special edition version, artwork pictured above).

The "£2.50 Transaction Fee" award for best live act:

Roger Waters - The Wall Live

Well holy shit this was amazing. I got the chance to see The Wall Live in London back in May, and it was worth every penny. The Wall being one of my favourite albums of all time ever, this stage production brought the album that I loved back together with the theatrics of the original 1980-1981 Pink Floyd tour, its grandeur multiplied by a million. A blast start to finish.

The "Jackson Pollock on a Carousel" award for most erratic album:

Devin Townsend Project - Deconstruction

I'm not entirely sure what Devin had in that weird little mind of his when he set out to make "Deconstruction", and I'm not sure I want to know. All I know is that this album (and the DTP as a whole) is one of the most varied pieces of work I've heard, and thankfully that works in its favour.

The "Universal Scrobbler" award for most listened to album of 2011:

Pink Floyd - The Wall (262 Scrobbles)

What can I say? The Wall is one of my favourite albums and I spent a shitload of time listening to it this year. As far as 2011 albums are concerned, though, the new release I listened to most this year is Total by SebastiAn, which certainly surprised me.

The "Creme de la Crap" award for worst album of 2011:

Gorillaz - The Fall

I had a hard time picking this one, but then I remembered The Fall was released this year. Huh, that was easy.

The "Creme de la creme" award for best album of 2011:

Los Campesinos! - Hello Sadness

It may not have been the highest rated, it may not have been the one I listened to most, but simply put it's the one I enjoyed the most. So here's looking forward to seeing these guys in 2012.

And here's looking to seeing you guys in 2012, it's been fun.

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