While compiling this list, it became apparent that the majority of the releases in this Top 11 for ’11 were, in fact, follow-up releases from artists who have either had a long and prolific career and are continuing to put out impressive albums or artists that so impressed with their debuts that their sophomore efforts were eagerly anticipated. Here they are in no particular order, complete with a disclosure that the word “anticipated” will be used to the point of it losing all meaning.
Phantogram Nightlife EP
The debut album from Phantogram, Eyelid Movies, is best digested in small pieces, taking a moment to appreciate the boy/girl vocal dynamic (the duo that makes up the band – Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter) and the thumping trip-hop texture from which the guitar forcefully emerges at times before returning to it’s place among the lightweight synth-driven wall of sound. Then understand that maybe an EP was the best thing that Phantogram could release as their much-anticipated follow up, a short dose of what’s to come.
Washed Out Within and Without
One of the only debut albums on this list, the solo efforts of Georgia native Ernest Greene combine wistful vocals with a shoegazing southern hip-hop blend that creates a truly unique sound that became the talk of the “blogosphere” when he released tracks onto his MySpace page. Within and Without was released to critical acclaim on SubPop records and has reached the top of lists like this since its debut in June.
M83 Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
M83′s critically-acclaimed Saturdays=Youth was a hit with everyone except its creator. Said Anthony Gonzalez (the brains behind M83) in an interview with eMusic.com, “Sometimes when you listen to the finished product, you feel like you could have done better, and that’s exactly what happened with Saturdays.” While citing influences for his newest effort that range from My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless to Smashing Pumpkin’s Melon Collie & the Infinite Sadness and the movie Tree of Life, perhaps the most telling thing about “Hurry Up We’re Dreaming” is that Gonzalez is actually satisfied with how it came out. So should fans.
We Were Promised Jetpacks In the Pit of the Stomach
In the indie rock world, the term “instant classic” is a phrase that’s bandied about a bit too much by the army of music bloggers looking to predict the success of an album so they can look back and say, “I said it would be back in 2010, look in my archives.” However, with as little hyperbole as possible, We Were Promised Jetpacks’ debut Quiet Little Voices deserves that label; gritty, raw, emotive and earnest. With their much-anticipated sophomore release, In the Pit of the Stomach, the Scottish rockers continue to march down the path they blazed on their debut. The album was recorded before their guitarist, Mike Palmer, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and released after his chemo and treatment was completed, but the band says not to look for references to that experience, even within tracks titled “Medicine.” Either way, the songs still contain that same sense of urgency and Adam Thompson’s vocals still beg you to sing and scream along. If you get the chance, you should see them live and do exactly that.
Explosions in the Sky Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
Can these guys do any wrong? The Austin-based instrumental outfit released yet another gem of an album, anticipated to the level of whatever superlative would be above anticipation. Even though the TV show that propelled them into mainstream consciousness, Friday Night Lights (RIP… shed a tear), is done, this release makes it quite obvious that EiTS will continue to make brilliant, goosebump-inducing pieces of music for as long as they want to do so.
Braid Closer to Closed
In the mid to late-90s world of DIY post-hardcore rock, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more respected and loved band than Braid. After the band split in 1999 and went onto their own respective ventures (Hey Mercedes and The Firebird Band were two such outfits), reunion shows and new recordings were fodder for rumor mills, blog posts and forum threads. In 2004, the Chicago boys found their way back to each other for a brief US tour with a couple of shows in Japan, but no newly recorded material. Enter 2011 and fans finally have something concrete around which to wrap their inner college-aged selves. Closer to Closed is not Frankie Welfare Boy Age Five (their debut album), it’s not even reminiscent of Movie Music II (their “final” studio effort). It is poppy deliciousness that sees original vocalist Bob Nanna sharing mic time with guitarist Chris Broach in a grown-up and well-produced version of those albums. It’s a satisfying, if nostalgic, collection of songs that points a way forward with a gentle nod to the past. And for the love… it’s a new Braid album!
The Appleseed Cast The Middle States EP
While usually considered to be contemporaries of late-90s post-rock acts (like the aforementioned Braid) that garnered, what has become, the dreaded “emo” label, The Appleseed Cast actually hasn’t stopped releasing albums since then, making them more prolific than most of their peers from that era. Starting with 1998′s The End of the Ring Wars, they have released seven full-length albums, four EPs and contributed to a number of compilations. Along the way, their sound has grown and matured from the guitar-driven wall of sound that characterized their debut to intricately subtle and dynamic arrangements that have become more a vehicle for Chris Crisci’s emotive vocals. The Middle States EP continues this evolution while giving fans of the band something new and fresh to sink their teeth into. They may have a formula, but it always equals good music.
Surfer Blood Tarot Classics EP
Another highly-anticipated follow-up EP, Surfer Blood returns with their trademark power pop slash retro surf rock sound to fill the gap between full-length efforts. Sounding like the bastard child of a three-way between The Beach Boys, a reverb pedal and the Pixies (evident on the track “Miranda” and fitting since Surfer Blood are touring with the Pixies this fall), Tarot Classics bridges the sound that captured the music world’s attention on their debut, Astro Coast, while also exploring a mellower side that hasn’t been seen from them before. Wrap that all up in frontman John Paul Pits’ distinctive vocals and you have a perfect release for the fall, still sun-drenched from summer but with a hint of the upcoming winter.
Maritime Human Hearts
Not on most critics’, or even most fans’, radar, Maritime has built up a stable of solid indie pop efforts that should come as no surprise to those who recall seeing the members in high-profile post-rock acts the Promise Ring and The Dismemberment Plan. In the past, vocalist Davey Von Bohlen could hardly have been accused of having a great singing voice, but who cares. The way he yelped and crooned through every Promise Ring album and even the first Maritime album, Glass Floor, was comforting and endearing. Now, that voice has grown and matured and presents as expressive and confident; the perfect layer to place over the well-constructed and intricate hooks of guitarist Dan Hintz.
The Joy Formidable The Big Roar
Take shoegaze legends like My Bloody Valentine or Swervedriver, give them Emily Haines from Metric and the layers of production from Siamese Dream, speed it up a bit, turn it up to 11 and you have the arena-ready debut from Welsh rockers The Joy Formidable. The sound on The Big Roar is not incorrectly-named, it’s huge. Feeding off each other, and often competing for attention, the guitar crunch plays a perfect compliment to frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s powerful vocals. While there’s not a whole lot of dynamic range on this album (some, just not a lot), if you want to just bury your right foot in the floorboard and leave everything in a blur, hit play and go.
Papercuts Fading Parade
As a whole, Papercuts’ follow-up album – and debut for SubPop - is a hushed, churning, wistful and perfectly-crafted piece of reverb-soaked dream pop. In its individual pieces, the album provides the listener with folk-inspired textures and washed out sections of synth-laden noise that all work together to create an album that impresses itself upon you in a wholly unassuming way. It’s like the quiet kid in the corner; he won’t scream for your attention or make sure you know he’s there, but if you sit down, engage and listen, you’ll find a depth and intricacy lurking under the surface that will entrance you for years to come. Plus, they opened for Explosions in the Sky on a recent tour, a ringing endorsement.