Top 25 Albums Of 2011

1  Imaginaerum by Nightwish

Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen claimed that Floyd‘s The Wall was a huge influence on the Finnish band’s epic conceptual album Imaginaerum. It was a bold claim, and one that didn’t fill me with optimism – because how often do records that use Floyd as a touchstone measure up to the source of their inspiration? I was prepared to be underwhelmed, but scarcely ten minutes into my first listen to this record, I had to stop the CD and start again, because my jaw was on the floor and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Imaginaerum is an intense experience, 75 minutes tackling the things that cause us to lose our sense of innocence and wonder. Mortality is the chief theme, but childhood fears, regret and the rosy tint of nostalgia are examined in unrelenting detail. It is a staggeringly moving record – on my first listen, I was a complete wreck by the time I was halfway through and the second half of the record is even more intense. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Song Of Myself, the last third of which is a fabulously evocative spoken-word poem that still breaks me every time I hear it.

This was to be the band’s last album before the band’s unfortunately acrimonious split with vocalist Anette Olzon, something I was very sad about at the time. Less so now, knowing both the band and Anette moved on to happier times, but she certainly left on a high as far as the music goes. Nightwish’s finest hour, and one of my favourite records of all time by any band, Imaginaerum could only ever be at the top of this list.

2  Ceremonials by Florence + The Machine

Florence + The Machine had turned in a great debut album with Lungs, but I was wholly unprepared for how huge a leap forward Ceremonials represented. This is a hugely cathartic record, an hour-long counselling session that drags all your neuroses out into the light and renders them powerless. I always come away from Ceremonials feeling invincible. Particularly thrilling are the utterly joyous Shake It Out, Heartlines and Spectrum, a trifecta of positivity that can dispel the darkest of moods. There’s darkness too, courtesy of the claustrophobic What The Water Gave Me, and the spine-chilling Seven Devils. Basically, all of life is here. Florence Welch has never made a bad album, but for me this remains her crowning glory.

3  A Dramatic Turn Of Events by Dream Theater

All eyes were on Dream Theater as they prepared this, their eleventh studio album. Drummer and founder member Mike Portnoy had departed the band after the release of their previous album, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, and an intense audition process had handed the drumsticks to Mike Mangini. Would the band survive such a seismic shake-up? Thankfully the answer has to be, “Like, for sure, OK?” A Dramatic Turn Of Events was easily their best record since 2005’s Octavarium, reintroducing a stronger melodicism and some less dense arrangements alongside the fusillades of virtuoso playing that fans were familiar with. Gentle acoustic-based songs like Beneath The Surface and Far From Heaven rubbed shoulders with the anvil-heavy Build Me Up, Break Me Down and juggernauts like Outcry and Bridges In The Sky, culminating in the phenomenal Breaking All Illusions, which for me has to be one of the most evocative and intricate tracks they’ve ever delivered. An absolute delight from start to finish.

4  50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush

When Aerial arrived in 2005, following a twelve year drought, it was quite an event. We only had to wait half as long for more new material, and when it arrived, it was not one album but two. Kate Bush albums were starting to fulfil that old adage about buses: “You wait an age for one, and then two come along.” The other record, Director’s Cut, was comprised of older songs given a new twist, so it wasn’t a shock to see it enjoy a somewhat muted reaction. 50 Words For Snow, on the other hand, was made up of entirely new material, yet didn’t seem to capture people’s imaginations in quite the way Aerial had. Why? Most likely because it wasn’t the sort of album that people had imagined. A seasonal record, yet not remotely festive, 50 Words For Snow takes a typically Bush-like approach to several disparate winter tales: from the sweet-natured fun of the Stephen Fry-narrated title track to the windswept Lake Tahoe and the beautifully tragic Elton John-assisted Snowed In At Wheeler Street, the album showcases longer, deeply atmospheric songs that feel less written than grown. It inhabits a wonderful hushed world all of its own that’s effortlessly evocative of the deep of winter and a lowering sky above the falling snow. It’s not an album I find easy to play at any other time of year as a result, but this has been one of my go-to winter albums ever since its release. An unexpected but completely beguiling record.

5  Chameleon by Magenta

Chameleon seems to be Magenta’s ‘difficult’ album, largely because it eschews traditional Magenta tropes; rather than the epic progressive rock of their other albums, Chameleon is more earthbound, focusing instead on shorter tracks with all lyrics written by vocalist Christina Booth. Whilst there’s no question that Magenta excel at long-form progressive rock, I love this album for its diversity and for its determination to be something a little different. Magenta supremo Rob Reed is such an effecive songwriter that the move to shorter tracks in no affects the drama and melodicism that he imbues into everything he does, and – possibly because she’s penned the lyrics herself this time – Booth produces some of her most dramatic and powerful vocal performances to date, especially on the shimmering, impassioned Red and the savage Raw, two tracks that couldn’t be more different in sound and mood. The prog rock snobs can sneer at the shorter tracks and whine about “selling out” all they like – Chameleon is further proof that Magenta have more in their arsenal than some of their detractors would like to believe.

6  Night Of Hunters by Tori Amos

After producing four very long and diverse albums, Tori Amos tried her hand at a very different record for her twelfth release. Recorded for classical label Deustche Grammophon, Night Of Hunters did away with the more traditional band format that Amos had been using and elected to stick to orchestral arrangements underpinned with her virtuoso piano playing. The album tells the story of a woman who undergoes a transformation on the eve of the demise of her current relationship, guided by spirits who show her how misuse of the ancient traditions of “the hunter” and “the hunted” haunt her relationships, enabling her to face her demons and emerge more self-aware and comfortable with herself. It’s a moving and deeply involving story, beautifully arranged, and Amos herself puts in a phenomenal performance. For me this is her best record since 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel; wonderfully creative and with a great deal to say.

7  Paper Monkeys by Ozric Tentacles

There’s an old argument that says that you only really need to own one Ozric Tentacles album as they’re all so similar. Whilst it’s probably true that if you like one Ozrics album, you’re unlikely to find any of the other problematic, anyone who’s actually listened to more than one Ozrics album knows that there’s actually a fair amount of variety in mood and feel from record to record. Paper Monkeys is one of the band’s most organic and energised records, and probably their most inspired and complete album since 1999’s stunning Waterfall Cities. From the elegant groove of opener Attack Of The Vapours to the knotty, complex Lost In The Sky and the epic Will O’ The Wisps, this is classic stuff that showcases this veteran band at their best for some time.

8  Visions by Haken

Hopes were high for Haken’s second album after their incredible debut, Aquarius. Once again they took a single story and made an incredibly involving album out of it. Visions tells the story of a boy haunted by seemingly prescient visions of his own death, and the lengths to which he tries to avoid it from happening. Once again, the band turn in an album brimming with fearsome instrumental skill but also an unerring sense of drama and fine sense of dynamics that will feel familiar to Dream Theater fans without ever resorting to xeroxing their legendary style. I was properly obsessed with this record upon its release – even more so than I had been with Aquarius – and the story has lost none of its appeal, even after I knew the twist in the tale – and naturally, there is one.

9  Grace For Drowning by Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson’s second solo album was a very different beast to 2008’s Insurgentes. Wilson’s work remixing King Crimson‘s back catalogue for their latest round of reissues had clearly had an impact, as there is a distinctly Crimonseque air about some of the material here: not least the staccato drama of instrumental Sectarian and the architectural ambition of the 23-minute Raider II, themed around the bloody killings of Dennis Rader, the ‘BTK Killer’. There’s a great deal of variety here, though – far more than any of his other solo albums which each tend to have their own very specific mood and feel. Here the Crimson-alike drama is interspersed by traditional balladry, choral music, eerily menacing electronica (the still-chilling Index) and the theme music from imaginary films. I remember being much better pleased with this at the time than I had been by the atmospheric but comparatively unadventurous Insurgentes, little realising that Wilson’s subsequent solo albums would be even more to my liking.

10  Wounded Rhymes by Lykke Li

Swedish chanteuse Lykke Li’s finest hour, for me. This, her second album, is comprised largely of haunting torch songs, concerned with lost – or doomed – love, infatuation and soured affection. Driven principally by notably sparse arrangements – many tracks rely on little more than handclaps, drums and funereal organ to back up Li’s tormented vocals – Wounded Rhymes definitely lives up to its title. That’s not to say that there isn’t variety: the decidedly erotic Get some and the baleful I Know Places are poles apart in sound and mood, and Jerome and Rich Kids Blues are as nagglingly memorable as closer Silent My Song is as bleak and wintry as the album’s cover art. This might be the definitive break-up album, bereft of hope and comfort, yet the sound of a survivor nonetheless. Li has never sounded so powerful or so assured before or since.

11  The Unforgiving by Within Temptation

Dutch symphonic metal legends Within Temptation elected to make a slightly different album after the huge crossover success of 2007’s The Heart Of Everything, dialling up the electronics and themeing the entire record around stories and characters conceived by collaborator Steven O’Connell and the band. This approach worked extraordinarily well, allowing the band to write the soundtrack to their own unmade film. The album is packed with highly memorable songs, every one seemingly equipped with killer pop hooks that most bands would kill for: tracks like Shot In The Dark, Faster and Where Is The Edge are perfect showcases for Sharon den Adel’s stunning voice and the arrangements are lavish without ever sacrificing the crunch that makes the band’s material so appealing. This is the sound of the band at their most confident and accomplished.

12  Falling Deeper by Anathema

On the face of it, Falling Deeper is that most dreaded of things, “the acoustic record”; Anathema unplugged, if you like. They’d dabbled with this idea on the previously released Hindsight, but Falling Deeper takes things much further. The track listing is comprised of material from the band’s very early days as a doom metal band, but shorn of the trappings of the genre and refitted for their more progressive modern-day sound, the material sounds fresh and vital, reinvented to a degree that is utterly fascinating. Dave Stewart’s lush orchestrations lend the entire affair an otherwordly beauty, and guest appearances from vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering) are the icing on an already lavish cake. If all bands took this much care over an ‘acoustic’ record (some electric guitar still features), then the world would be a happier place.

13  Fly From Here by Yes

Just when we were starting to wonder if there would ever be another Yes studio album – their last studio recording was 2001’s Magnification – along came Fly From Here. Having taken up with new vocalist Benoit David, Jon Anderson having suffered the ignominy of being passed over due to an extended illness, the band, short on new ideas, took the opportunity to return to material they had demoed in the late 70s, around the time of their album Drama. The lengthy title track is redolent of that era, but has been beautifully rebuilt with a classic Yes sound and sounds wonderful, even if David’s vocals lack the sheer emotion of Anderson’s delivery. The rest of the album manages to be both familiar and confident, and the general impression is that of a band that has recovered its muse – comfortably their most impressive release since the studio material recorded for the Keys To Ascension albums in the mid-to-late 90s. Alas, as is now traditional for Yes, more line-up changes and a taste for touring their classic output stymied this process of creative rebirth, but this is an excellent record that reminded me just why I’ve loved this band so much over the years.

14  Heritage by Opeth

Swedish metal giants Opeth went progressive rock with a vengeance for Heritage (hence the title – the band were paying homage to the bands that had inspired them). Whilst the band had always had a progressive ethos (concept albums, long songs that moved through a series of distinct movements, use of traditionally progressive instruments such as mellotron, and so on), they indulged it here in a much more overt way. Gone were the harsh death metal influenced vocals, and much of the guitar pyrotechnics, and in their place was a progressive rock album that plainly owed a great debt to the 70s giants that shaped the genre. Initially, like many others, I was confused myself; then, as I discovered I was enjoying myself, I had misgivings that perhaps the album was too much in thrall to its inspirations – standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that. But whilst that may be true, the more time passed, the more I found myself enjoying the record, and although it’ll never be my favourite Opeth record, its strangely sparse, spectral mood is wonderfully atmospheric and the material, and the performances, are strong if not strikingly original. From the self-mythologising sleeve art to the music itself, Heritage is a spooky treat.

15  Bilateral by Leprous

Norway’s Leprous plainly didn’t suffer from ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. Bilateral, the band’s second record, was a sizeable step forward for the already-ambitious band. Combining their trademark precision metal sound with an increasingly large palette of moods and styles, the record showed a band who had plainly grown in confidence and technical skill a great deal since they had made their debut album. Bilateral is quite an experience, the songs introspective one moment, brash the next, veering wildly and gleefully between fierce metal and irresistibly hummable anthemic rock, Einar Solberg’s extraordinarily flexible vocals a thing of wonder as they swung between his soaring clean voice and death metal growls, sometimes within the same verse, never mind the same song, with impressive ease. The band have made more accessible records since, but possibly nothing quite so vivid or ambitious.

16  The City Sleeps by Touchstone

Touchstone’s third album feels like a natural extension of the splendid Wintercoast, albeit with a slightly darker, more contemporary tone. There’s still some of the dark humour that infused the band’s previous work in songs like Good Boy Psycho and the feel-good TGIF anthem Throw Them To The Sky, but that’s leavened by the sinister undertones of tracks like Corridors and the title track, or the real-world critique of mass advertising that underpins These Walls. In a sense Touchstone were never quite the same after this record: keyboardist/vocalist Rob Cottingham was featured a lot less on the subsequent Oceans Of Time, and it wasn’t long after that was released that both he and vocalist Kim Seviour left the band, removing key components of the band’s sound. But The City Sleeps is a welcome reminder of what made this band such a force to be reckoned with: powerful, melodic and memorable material played with real care. They were a great live act, too – definitely one of the most enjoyable prog acts of recent years.

17  The Hunter by Mastodon

After making four of modern metal’s most spectacular records, it might be tempting to compare Mastodon’s The Hunter as the moment they dumbed down for the mainstream, just as some (not me!) feel Metallica did with The Black Album, or Megadeth did with Risk, but as always with Mastodon the truth was not so easy to pin down. The Hunter did concentrate on shorter, less evidently progressive fare for the most part, and it was not conceptual as the previous three albums had been – but then bands shouldn’t be kept in amber. What The Hunter delivered in spades was huge riffs and big choruses: songs that have proven their worth since as staples in the live set. It also provided some moments of genuine pathos: the title track, a tribute to guitarist Brent Hinds late brother, fairly drips with emotion, and the closing The Sparrow is a truly haunting album closer, closing with a choir of disembodied voices to spine-tingling effect. Mastodon had always been a metal band that knew a lot of neat tricks; The Hunter proved that they were versatile enough to transcend genre completely.

18  The Octopus by Amplifier

Amplifier’s most feted album, The Octopus is surpsingly difficult to describe or to get to grips with. For one thing, it is huge: over two hours of music spread over two CDs, much of it decidedly progressive in tone, with a precise but very dense production. Listening to the whole thing in one go is a bit like temporary brain surgery, a reality-altering experience that recalls nothing so much as being trapped in a basement with a heavy metal variant of Hawkwind – sort of the opposite of sensory deprivation. For those that take the time to get to grips with this difficult record, though, there’s so much to enjoy. For one, it is chock full of killer riffs, and is possessed of the space for the band to really stretch out and play around with them. The songs are also some of their most effective: from lengthy freakouts like the title track and Interstellar to the brilliantly short and sharp rockers like The Runner and the wonderful Golden Ratio. The band continues to make great records, but they’ve never been as fearless as they are here before or since.

19  Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.

Part of me still mourns the fact that this band is no longer active. R.E.M. were one of a handful of bands that I truly discovered during my time at technical college, when my listening diversified spectacularly. I’d been aware of them before that time, but had never really appreciated them, so I discovered them between the release of Green and Out Of Time and never found myself trapped in the idea that they might have somehow sold out by signing to a major label – something that was evidently nonsense the moment you heard songs like Country Feedback or World Leader Pretend.

Collapse Into Now is their farewell record. Evident in retrospect (not least because of Michael Stipe’s cheery farewell wave, as seen on the cover), but not at the time it was released. Back then, I remember my general reaction was one of delight that they’d made a record that still showed its teeth but which showcased so many of the band’s stylistic tendencies on a record that somehow still managed to form a cohesive whole. The band had made braver, more fearless records – this was essentially them playing to the balcony – but it’s a record full of positivity, sadness and sly humour, accompanied by big, chiming riffs and beautiful introspection as only these Athens, GA legends could render it. As farewells go, this is as gracious and perfect as any in all of rock music.

20  Let England Shake by P J Harvey

After the eerie minmalism of 2007’s White Chalk, Polly Jean Harvey re-emerged with Let England Shake, a record for our times if ever there was one. It is themed around war and conflict, and is unflinching – even harrowing – in its approach, refusing to gild the horrors of war with the kind of glib words about sacrifice and honour that so often accompany any commentary on war and its aftermath. The lyric to The Words That Maketh Murder are entirely typical of Harvey’s blunt approach: “I’ve seen and done things I want to forget / I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat / Blown and shot out beyond belief / Arms and legs were in the trees.” This is not an album about ‘the glorious dead’, just the appalling human cost of war, at the front and at home, and it is sobering, at times heartbreaking and disturbingly immersive. For me, at least, it’s one of Harvey’s best records – and given how consistently brilliant she has been, that’s no small praise.

21  The Enigma Of Life by Sirenia

Sirenia’s second album with vocalist Ailyn effectively saw songwriter Morten Veland pick up from where the previous album, The 13th Floor, had left off. If anything, The Enigma Of Life was even more sly about the way it mixed hooky pop choruses with grinding riffs and lyrics focusing on death, mortality and depression; as before, Ailyn’s sweet vocal style and Veland’s obsession with the darker side of life made for a wonderful tension. It could fairly said that this is Sirenia’s pop album, but that’s not to say that it lacked for drama or the occasional elaborate touch: the longer running time of the title track allowed for a more progressive approach, showing that Veland still possessed the instrumental sophistication and ambition of the early Sirenia records when he chose to indulge it. Possessed of a beautiful string arrangement, elaborate structure and a wonderfully atmospheric slow burn, it closed out the album in style whilst hinting at the even more ambitious material that was soon to follow.

22  Director’s Cut by Kate Bush

Kate Bush’s other album of 2011 is a very different proposition to the elemental feel and wide open spaces of 50 Words For Snow. Director’s Cut takes apart and reimagines tracks from Bush’s previous albums The Senusal World and The Red Shoes, with predictably mixed results. It’s incredibly difficult to approach these new versions without the perfection of the original songs foremost in your mind, so the album faces an uphill struggle from the start. The record is perhaps best approached like a recording from a parallel universe, the same yet different – and on that basis, at least some of the revisitations are successful, or at the very least intriguing. Perhaps most successful are some of The Red Shoes tracks: Top Of The City is spectacular in its new clothes, given more space and tension, whilst Lily is given a weighty, almost funky new reading that proved its worth when it was performed in its new arrangement at Bush’s spectacular live shows in 2014. Some tracks are less successful: This Woman’s Work lacks the intensity it originally had, and the rebooted Rubberband Girl is completely bonkers. Bush’s new visions for her songs may not always pan out, but they’re always intriguing. And when they do work, it’s clear her singular gift for arrangement remains undimmed.

23  Dead Son Rising by Gary Numan

Gary Numan’s career, which had seemingly been in freefall throughout the nineties despite serving up some solid albums, had been thoroughly reinvigorated by 2000’s Pure, a Numan classic and huge favourite of mine (consider that a spoiler for my top 25 of 2000). Having rediscovered his mojo and honed a heavier, Nine Inch Nails-inspired sound, Numan continued to plough this new furrow to great effect. Pure was followed by the very similar Jagged in 2006, but there were already signs that the law of diminishing returns might ultimately set in. Happily, although it was definitely in the same wheelhouse, Dead Son Rising still felt fresh and contained some modern Numan classics like the title track, the boisterous Big Noise Transmission, and the tense, brooding For The Rest Of My Life, which has been a huge personal favourite since the album was released.

24  Biophilia by Björk

I’ve  always found Björk’s music intriguing and often endearingly weird, all the better for being unexpected and prepared to jettison conventional ideas about structure and arrangement. Biophilia is perhaps my favourite of her albums – although Vespertine and Post both run it pretty close – for just that reason. Quite apart from the fact that I enjoy that the album is so heavily themed around nature and the environment (always themes I find inspiring – they don’t call me HippyDave for nothing), the sheer invention of Biophilia is staggering. New instruments are created and employed here (Gravity Harp, anyone? Gameleste?), and the songs are otherworldly, constructed largely around vocals and exotic harmonies, and frequently dispensing with conventional structures, disorienting and thrilling by turns. It’s also the only record I can think of where a group of pendulums transmit the movements of the Earth to a harp to form the basis of a song (Solstice). As always, Björk’s fearless vocalising can be an acquired taste, but this is a bold, colourful, fascinating record that I’m still discovering new things about years after its release.

25  Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars

There was nothing new or clever about what The Civil Wars did, but they did it so well that it was no great surprise when they started shifting thousands of copies of this, their debut album. Built largely around acoustic guitar, piano and the duo’s wonderful vocals, the record is strangely timeless – like it could have been recorded at any time over the past seven decades or more, or tomorrow, or next year. Part homespun blues, part folk, part gospel, part country, it’s a wondrous little melting pot that just somehow worked. The duo had met entirely by accident, paired up by chance at a songwriter’s retreat, so it was perhaps not a shock to discover that their partnership was as mercurial and riven with discord as their writing had been immediate and instinctive. They managed a fine but less astonishing eponymous follow-up before somewhat acrimoniously going their separate ways, but the real magic lies here.