Please note: This list is made up of my personal picks, not the results of the Readers Poll, which is ongoing — if you haven’t added your top 11 to that yet, please do.
It was an impossible task to keep up with everything that came out this year. I’ll say flat out that I didn’t. There are records that I just didn’t get to hear, and I should note at the outset that this list is mine. It’s based on my personal opinions, what I listened to the most this year and what I think 2011′s most crucial releases have been.
I’ve spent the better part of this week (and last, if brain-time counts) constructing this list, and I finally got it to a point where I feel comfortable sharing. Since last December, I’ve kept a Post-It of names, and all year, I’ve logged bands I’d want to consider for the final top 20. In the end, there were 78 bands and more that I didn’t get to write down for whatever reason. 2011 was nothing if it wasn’t overwhelming.
But here we are, anyway, and it’s done. Let’s get to it:
20. Suplecs, Mad Oak Redux
Released by Small Stone. Reviewed Nov. 5, 2010.
This is nothing if not a sentimental pick. Last year, I put Electric Wizard in the #20 spot because the record wasn’t out yet, and this year, I’m putting Suplecs (interview with bassist Danny Nick here) in just because I couldn’t imagine this list without them. Until literally a few minutes before I clicked “Publish” on this post, there was someone else in this spot, but ultimately, it had to be them. The New Orleans trio’s first record in half a decade wasn’t what I listened to most in 2011, it wasn’t the best album, or the most important, or career-defining, but when it came right down to it, god damn, I was just happy to have Suplecs back. It had been too long.
19. Elvis Deluxe, Favourite State of Mind
Released by Harmony Records. Reviewed June 14.
After a while, I was kind of shocked to find myself continuing to listen to Favourite State of Mind, the second album by Polish rockers Elvis Deluxe. The record’s dynamics didn’t immediately open up to me, but once I dug into the songs, I was wowed by their balance of catchy hooks and substantial-sounding riffs. The album was genre-relevant without being genre-minded, with vocal changes, organ, atmospheric shifts and a whole host of moods and turns. After hearing their 2007 debut, Lazy, I wasn’t expecting much out of the norm from Favourite State of Mind, and I’m still thrilled by just how wrong I was, and “Take it Slow” is among my favorite single songs of the year.
18. 40 Watt Sun, The Inside Room
Released by Metal Blade. Reviewed Aug. 11.
The gloomy opening statement from former Warning guitarist/vocalist Patrick Walker turned heads around the world with its unabashed emotional conviction, which was so much the central focus of the record as to be made a novelty by those who don’t usually consider doom an emotionally relevant genre (the widespread arguments against that notion I’ll leave for another time). What most stood out to me about The Inside Room was how the sentimentality translated into a gorgeous melodic sensibility and resulted in a lonely mood that was engrossing. On that level, it was easily among 2011′s most effective releases. It made you feel what it seemed to be feeling.
17. Sigiriya, Return to Earth
Released by The Church Within. Reviewed May 27.
It was an album that lived up to its name. Return to Earth marked the remaking of one of heavy rocks most stoned outfits: Acrimony. But, as Sigiriya (interview with drummer Darren Ivey here), the four-piece (down from five) would show that the years since the demise of their former band had found them progressing as musicians, resulting in a sound less directly stoner, more modern, more earthy. The songs, however, were what made it. It’s still a rare day that goes by that I don’t hum at least part of the chorus of “Mountain Goat” to myself, and if Return to Earth was a new beginning for these players, I can’t wait to see where they go next.
16. Totimoshi, Avenger
Released by At a Loss. Reviewed Aug. 16.
In addition to being Totimoshi‘s first album for At a Loss following the end of their deal with Volcom, Avenger was the first Totimoshi record since 2003′s ¿Mysterioso? not to be produced by Page Hamilton, and where 2006′s Ladrón and 2008′s Milagrosa moved away from some of the noisy crunch in the guitar of Tony Aguilar (interview here), Avenger managed to be both a return to form and a progression of the band’s melodicism. It seems, as ever, to have flown under most radars, but Totimoshi continue to refine their songwriting and have become one of the heavy underground’s most formidable and least classifiable bands.
15. Grifter, Grifter
Released by Ripple Music. Reviewed Aug. 30.
With their 2010 EP release, upstart British trio Grifter informed us that The Simplicity of the Riff is Key, and on their self-titled Ripple Music debut, they put that ethic to excellent use, resulting in straightforward, catchy songs that were as high-octane as they were low-bullshit. The ultra-catchy “Good Day for Bad News” showed Grifter at the top of their form, and with a dose of humor thrown in, Grifter was the drunken stoner rock party you always wanted to be invited to and, of course, finally were. Now if only I could get Skype to work and get that interview with Ollie Stygall moving, I’d be happy to tell him personally he put out one of 2011′s most kickass rock records.
14. The Book of Knots, Garden of Fainting Stars
Released by Ipecac. Reviewed June 16.
I don’t know what’s most impressive about The Book of Knots‘ Garden of Fainting Stars — the songs themselves or that they were able to make any songs at all. With upwards of 20 guest spots around the core four-piece, the third in a purported trilogy of records from the avant rock originalists was an epic in every listen. Songs like “Microgravity” and the Mike Watt spoken word “Yeager’s Approach” pushed the limits of both genre and expectation, and miraculously, Garden of Fainting Stars was cohesive and enthralling in its narrative aspect. If it really was their last album, it was triumphant in a manner befitting its expanding-universe thematics.
13. Ancestors, Invisible White
Released by Tee Pee. Reviewed July 5.
Had it been a full-length, Invisible White would be higher on this list. Many out there who were enamored of Ancestors‘ 2008 Neptune with Fire debut have gone on to bemoan the Californian collective’s shift away from extended sections of heavy riffing and tales of sea monsters and other things that go “doom” in the night. I’m not one of them. The Invisible White EP was a brave step along a fascinating progression, and as Crippled Black Phoenix didn’t release a new album in 2011, I was glad to have Ancestors there to fill that morose, contemplative void, and I look forward to seeing how they expand on the ideas presented on Invisible White (if they decide to stick to this direction) for their next full-length.
12. Elder, Dead Roots Stirring
Released by MeteorCity. Reviewed Oct. 5.
Speaking of shifting approaches, still-young Massachusetts trio Elder also moved away from the Sleep-centric methods of their 2008 self-titled debut on the follow-up, Dead Roots Stirring. Still based very much around the guitar work of Nick DiSalvo (interview here), Elder songs like “Gemini” and the über-soloed “The End” pushed an influence of European heavy psych into the band’s aesthetic, and the result was both grippingly heavy and blown of mind. As an album long delayed by mixing and business concerns, when Dead Roots Stirring finally arrived, it was a relief to hear that Elder, though they’d varied the path, were still headed in the right direction.
11. The Gates of Slumber, The Wretch
Released by Rise Above. Reviewed May 5.
Hands down the year’s best traditional doom release. The Wretch so gleefully and so earnestly employed the conventions of ’80s-style doom — most especially those of Saint Vitus and Trouble — that even though the lyrical and musical content was miserable, I couldn’t help but smile as I listened. Songs like “Bastards Born” and “The Scovrge ov Drvnkenness” pushed The Gates of Slumber away from the barbarism the Indianapolis outfit had been touting on their last couple albums, including 2008′s Conqueror breakthrough, in favor of a more purely Chandlerian plod. “To the Rack with Them” remains a standout favorite and a line often referenced in my workplace dealings.
10. Weedeater, Jason… the Dragon
Released by Southern Lord. Reviewed Jan. 6.
I don’t know what you say to someone at this point who doesn’t like Weedeater. It just seems like a terrible way to go through life, without the madman ranting of “Dixie” Dave Collins (interview here) echoing perpetually in your ears, or never having witnessed their ultra-viscous fuzz in person. Jason… the Dragon was one of the earliest landmark releases of 2011, and practically the whole year later, it retains its hold, whether it’s the stomping fury of “Mancoon,” the lumbering groove of “Long Gone” or the surprisingly melodic “Homecoming.” The hard-touring, hard-hitting band did right in recording with Steve Albini to capture their live sound, and Jason… the Dragon was their strongest outing yet in terms of both songwriting and that unmistakable quality that makes Weedeater records Weedeater records.
9. Rwake, Rest
Released by Relapse. Reviewed Sept. 6.
I was surprised to see Rwake crack the top 10. Not because their first album in four years, the Sanford Parker-produced Rest, wasn’t superb, but because of how much the songs on the album stayed with me after listening. The Arkansas band’s last outing, Voices of Omens, was heavy and dark and had a lot going for it, but Rest upped the songwriting on every level and together with frontman CT (interview here) adopting a more decipherable shout over most of the record’s four main extended tracks, Rwake felt like a band reborn, and theirs was a highlight among several 2011 albums that showed there’s still room for individual growth and stylistic nuance within the sphere of post-metal.
8. Hull, Beyond the Lightless Sky
Released by The End. Reviewed Oct. 14.
It was back and forth, nine and eight, between Rwake and Hull for a while, but when all was said and done, the fantastic scope of Beyond the Lightless Sky gave the Brooklyn triple-guitar masters the edge. With a narrative structure behind it and a breadth of ambience and crushing, post-doomly riffing, Beyond the Lightless Sky was the defining moment that those who’ve followed Hull since their Viking Funeral demo have been waiting for. In concept, in performance, in sound and structure and heft, it absolutely floored me, and of all the heavy records I’ve heard with the tag applied to them in 2011, Hull‘s second full-length seems most to earn the tag “progressive.” A stunning and groundbreaking achievement.
7. Mars Red Sky, Mars Red Sky
Released by Emergence. Reviewed Aug. 29.
One of 2011′s most fascinating developments has been the boom in European heavy psychedelia, and the self-titled debut from French band Mars Red Sky was among the best releases to blend a jam-based sensibility with thick, warm fuzz and memorable riffs. Together with the sweet-hued vocals of Julien Pras (interview here), those riffs made for some of the most infectious hooks I heard all year on songs like “Strong Reflection” and “Way to Rome,” and where other bands jammed their way into psychedelic oblivion, Mars Red Sky were able to balance their focus on crafting quality songs, so that although they sounded spontaneous, the material was never self-indulgent or lacking accessibility. One just hopes they don’t lose sight of that musical humility their next time out.
6. Grayceon, All We Destroy
Released by Profound Lore. Reviewed on March 8.
There was a point earlier this year at which I had forgotten about All We Destroy. After reviewing it in March, I simply moved on to the next thing on my list, and the thing after, and the thing after. But before I knew it, in my head was the voice of Jackie Perez Gratz, singing the line “As I live and breathe” over her own cello, the guitar of Max Doyle and Max Doyle‘s drums. It got so persistent that, eventually, I went out and bought the record, because the mp3s I’d been given to review simply weren’t enough. That was probably July, and I don’t think I’ve gone a week since without listening to Grayceon. So although I classify it in the same league as Rwake and Hull in terms of what it accomplishes in and for its genre, All We Destroy gets the extra nod for the fact that I simply haven’t been able to let it go. And though I’ve come to further appreciate “Shellmounds,” “Once a Shadow” and “A Road Less Traveled,” the 17-minute “We Can” — from which the above-noted lyric is taken — remains the best single song I heard in 2011.
5. Red Fang, Murder the Mountains
Released by Relapse. Reviewed Feb. 16.
On paper, this one should’ve flopped: Band with minor buzz and a cool video hooks up with indie rock dude to record an album of dopey riffs and beardo bombast. Instead, Red Fang‘s second album and Relapse debut became the 2011 vanguard release for the Portland heavy underground, which is arguably the most fertile scene in the US right now. They toured the record widely, and made another killer video for the mega-single “Wires,” but the reason Murder the Mountains is top five material is because it’s lasted. It was February that I reviewed this record, and March that I interviewed guitarist/vocalist Bryan Giles, and I still can’t get “Into the Eye” and “Hank is Dead” and “Number Thirteen” (especially the latter) out of my head. When it came down to it, the songs on Murder the Mountains lived up to any hype the album received, and I’m a sucker for quality songwriting. I mean, seriously. That key change late into “Number Thirteen?” It’s the stuff of the gods.
4. Graveyard, Hisingen Blues
Released by Nuclear Blast. Reviewed Feb. 25.
I wasn’t particularly a fan of Swedish rockers Graveyard‘s 2008 self-titled debut. Even watching them at Roadburn in 2010, I was underwhelmed. But when I heard Hisingen Blues and was able to get a feel for what the retro-minded foursome were getting at stylistically — and most of all, that they were acknowledging that they were doing it without being glib or ironic about it — I found the material irresistible. We’re getting into seriously indispensable records now; ones that I’ve been unwilling to leave home without since they came, in, and Graveyard‘s Hisingen Blues has been a constant feature in heavy rotation. Everything from the devilish testimony of the title-track to the wiry guitars of the chorus to “Ungrateful are the Dead,” to the Skynyrd-ified solo capping “Uncomfortably Numb”: It’s been a year of revelry in all of it, and since they overcame my prejudice to impress on such a level, Graveyard (interview with drummer Axel Sjöberg here) are all the more deserving of their spot on this list.
3. Sungrazer, Mirador
Released by Elektrohasch. Reviewed Sept. 9.
What I hear in the second album from Dutch trio Sungrazer is the heralding of a new generation of fuzz rock. Taking influence from their forebears in Colour Haze and Kyuss, the three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Rutger Smeets (interview here), bassist/vocalist Sander Haagmans and drummer Hans Mulders followed and surpassed their stellar 2010 debut on every level, playing heavy riffs on expansive psychedelic jams and still finding room for some of 2011′s most memorable choruses in songs like “Sea” and “Goldstrike.” In so doing, Sungrazer affirmed the character of next-gen European fuzz and placed themselves at the fore of their scene, with touring and festival appearances to support. For their warmth of tone and for the fact that I spent the better part of the summer streaming the record through the Dutch website 3voor12, there was no way they were going to be left out of the top 20. It wasn’t until I sat down and actually put the numbers together, though, that I realized how vital Mirador actually was.
2. Lo-Pan, Salvador
Released by Small Stone. Reviewed Feb. 16.
I was lucky enough to be sent some rough listening mixes of Ohio outfit Lo-Pan‘s Small Stone Records debut (following a reworked reissue of their Sasquanaut sophomore full-length), and in my email back to label head Scott Hamilton, I told him I thought he had a genuine classic on his hands. A year, I don’t even know how many Lo-Pan gigs and listens through Salvador later, I still feel that way 100 percent. If you were from another planet, and we got to talking at a bar, and you asked me what rock and roll should sound like in the place where I’m from, I’d hand you Salvador. I still think they should’ve started the album with “Generations,” but if that’s my biggest gripe, they’re clearly doing alright. “Bird of Prey” was the best live song I saw all year, and I saw it plenty, and cuts like “Bleeding Out” and “Struck Match” set the standard by which I’ll judge American heavy rock for a long time to come. Like the best of any class, Salvador is bigger than just the year in which it was released, and at this point, I don’t know what else to say about it.
1. YOB, Atma
Released by Profound Lore. Reviewed July 6.
This is as good as it gets, and by “it,” I mean life. YOB‘s last album, 2009′s The Great Cessation, was my album of the year that year as well, and I knew from the second I heard the self-produced Atma that nothing to come this year would top it. Like Ufomammut‘s Eve in 2010, Atma brings the entire genre of doom along with it on the new ground it breaks, refining what’s fast becoming YOB‘s signature approach even as it pushes ever forward. I still have to stop whatever I’m doing (not exactly good for productivity) whenever “Prepare the Ground” comes on, and songs like “Adrift in the Ocean” and “Before We Dreamed of Two” were humbling. Seriously. Humbling. Listening to them was like looking at those photographs from the Hubble that cover trillions of miles that we’ll never know and reveal gorgeous colors where our naked eyes only see black. If that sounds hyperbolic, thanks for getting it. YOB guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt (interview here) is, almost in spite of himself, one of American doom’s most crucial contributors, and with Atma, he and the rhythm section of bassist Aaron Reiseberg and drummer Travis Foster released what is without a doubt the best album of 2011.
A few quick housekeeping items and we’ll call it quits. First, honorable mentions. If this list went to 25, also included would be The Wounded Kings, Earth, Larman Clamor, Olde Growth and The Atlas Moth. Roadsaw were also in heavy consideration, so they’re worth noting, as are many others.
Obviously, I couldn’t include them, but two of my favorite releases in 2011 also came from Blackwolfgoat and HeavyPink, and I’m thrilled and honored to have helped put them out in the small way I did.
And as I said above, there are records I didn’t hear. I haven’t heard the new Black Pyramid yet. Or Orchid. Or a bunch more that I could go on listing. I’m only one man and this is only my list, for better or worse. Again, I really do hope you’ll contribute yours to the group poll, the results of which will be out Jan. 1.
I’ll probably have some more to wrap up 2011 as the month winds down, but until then, thank you so much for reading this and the rest of the wordy nonsense I’ve put up the whole year long. Your support and encouragement means more than I’m able to tell. Here’s to 2012 to come.
Tags: 40 Watt Sun, Ancestors, Dixie Witch, Elder, Elvis Deluxe, Graveyard, Grayceon, Grifter, Hull, Larman Clamor, Lo-Pan, Mars Red Sky, Olde Growth, Red Fang, Rwake, Sigiriya, Sungrazer, Suplecs, The Atlas Moth, The Book of Knots, The Gates of Slumber, The Wounded Kings, Top 20 of 2011, Totimoshi, Weedeater, Yob