Top Ten Albums of 2011

2011 has been an incredible year for new music. In fact, I can’t remember another year when I bought so many new release, which makes the traditional end-of-year list especially hard this time round.

So, after much deliberation and consideration, here’s my completely personal and subjective list of ten best albums released in 2011.

10: Uriah Heep – Into the Wild
70s veterans Uriah Heep have undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. Even if this album doesn’t really break any radically new ground for them, with their trademark combination of searing guitar and Hammond organ they rock far harder than any band in their fifth decade of existence has any right to.

9: Steve Hackett – Beyond the Shrouded Horizon
Much like Uriah Heep, the former Genesis guitarist has hit something of a purple patch recently, with his third album in two years. It’s a rich, ambitious album that combines some heartfelt songwriting with his distinctive symphonic liquid guitar style that has rightfully made him the godfather of prog guitar.

8: Anathema – Falling Deeper
A largely instrumental set by Liverpool’s Doom-metallers-turned-proggers, containing radical orchestral reworkings of material from their earlier metal years. It’s an album for which you should sit back and let the huge atmospheric soundscapes wash over you.

 

7: Touchstone – The City Sleeps
The rising stars of the British female-fronted progressive rock scene deliver a strong third album, with a highly melodic mix of prog, hard rock and metal than builds on the success of their previous album “Wintercoast”.

 

6: Within Temptation – The Unforgiving
In which the Dutch band opt out of the symphonic metal arms race in favour of a far more rock-orientated album that emphasises Sharon den Adel’s incredibly powerful vocals over overblown arrangements. More varied than previous albums, there’s an emphasis on big anthemic choruses that ought to have a lot of crossover potential.

5: Chantel McGregor – Like No Other
Chantel’s debut album proves she’s far more than just a virtuoso guitarist, and far more than just a blues artist. It’s a hugely varied album demonstrating her talents as a singer-songwriter who can do hard rock, folk and pure pop as well as she can do blues-rock guitar wig-outs.

4: Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events
The band which more or less invented prog-metal deliver their best album for years, proving that Mike Portnoy’s departure, far from finishing the band, has given them the kick up the backside they needed, with more emphasis on composition than instrumental showboating.

3: Liam Davison – A Treasure of Well-Set Jewels
The solo album from Mostly Autumn’s second guitarist was an unexpected surprise, with some great songwriting and big atmospheric arrangements reminiscent of the early years of Mostly Autumn. Great guest performances from supporting cast including Iain Jennings, Gavin Griffiths, Anne-Marie Helder and Heather Findlay, but none steal the spotlight from Liam’s own contributions.

2: Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning
With his second solo release, Steve Wilson has taken a step away from the metal stylings of recent Porcupine Tree albums in favour of swirling Mellotrons and spiralling saxophones. The resulting jazz-tinged album sounds like a cross between 70s King Crimson, Canterbury-scene prog, and the ghost of Porcupine Tree past.

1: Opeth – Heritage
Sweden’s finest drop the death metal growls and go all-out prog with perhaps the most musically ambitious album they’ve done to date. Far more varied than their earlier non-metal “Damnation”, it manages to sound both gloriously retro and absolutely contemporary at the same time.

With such a strong year, there are many more great albums that would have appeared in many years’ top tens, so honourable mentions for Also Eden’s progtastic “Think of the Children” Magenta’s excellent “Chameleon”, Matt Stevens unclassifiable instrumental “Relic”, very solid releases from veterans Yes, Journey and Megadeth, and Mastodon’s “The Hunter”.

I’ve also made the decision to exclude live albums, but I will mention Mostly Autumn’s powerful “Still Beautiful”, Heather Findlay and Chris Johnson’s beautiful “Live at the Café 68″, and The Reasoning’s hard rocking “The Bottle of Gettysburg”.

And there are a few albums I’ve yet to hear, and since it’s too close to Christmas to be buying albums for myself. So the reason for the absence of Nightwish’s “Imaginaerum”, Kate Bush’s “50 Words for Snow” and Morpheus Rising’s “Let The Sleeper Awake” is not that I don’t think they’re good enough, only that I haven’t heard them yet. Perhaps, for the purposes of end-of-year lists, the year should run December to November, so that late-year releases count as next year?

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10 Responses to Top Ten Albums of 2011

  1. Grae says:

    Tim, a great list! I’ve yet to hear the Heep’s album so can’t comment on that one, but the rest are all great releases in their own way. Perhaps not the 10 I’d choose, but you’ll have to wait until nearer the year’s end for that list.

    As always, a good read, keep up your blogging/reviewing, this ex-pat is living vicariously through them!!

  2. Carole says:

    Interesting list. I love the Opeth and Steven Wilson albums myself and Within Temptation should be interesting. I’ve liked them for a while, but some of their stuff misses the mark for me. She’s a great singer though.

    I’d agree that Dream Theater need to cut down on the widdling and work on the structures. When they are good, they are really good, but they miss the spot far too often.

  3. Great list! I agree on most of them… Wouldn’t mind squeezing in Wolverine (Communication Lost), Knight Area (Nine Paths) or Symphony X (Iconoclast) though. Wolverine would’ve probably made no.3 on my list, give them a try if u haven’t. I have to check out Chantel McGregor, sounds interesting!

  4. Scropenoggin says:

    Like the list-I do agree about Dream Theater, the album’s great, and Steven Wilson also. Thanks for some food for thought-Glad Opeth have ditched the growly stuff, I kept hearing “the king’s got hemorrhoids” and “savage banana tree” in all that supposedly scary growling.
    Best wishes

  5. Robert says:

    “Bombast” by Phantanima should definitely be added to your list of CD’s that you intend to listen to.

  6. Tim Hall says:

    @Scropenoggin – I’d got use to the growling vocals; and liked the way Åkerfeldt used to swap between that style and clean vocals. They work well on their heavier material, but his clean voice suits the music on “Heritage” far better.

    @Robert – Not heard of Phantanima – What are they like? I’m guessing they’re bombastic, going purely on the album title.

  7. Robert says:

    Tim – Phantanima is an innovative band that covers a lot of dynamic territory. There are some prog-rock and metal influences, but the writing and musicianship have an accessible entertainment value that is not common among “progressive rock” bands. There are clips of them online – I hope you check them out!

  8. bethnoir says:

    I’ve been enjoying Opeth too.

  9. Steve says:

    Most of the bands that I follow didn’t release an album in 2011. The best of them for me were the debut album from Chantel McGregor and the the Liam Davison solo album. Both of these would be pushing for the top in most years Top Ten’s. From the rest of the albums on your list, I really should get round to checking out the Uriah Heep album. Within Temptation sounds interesting, and maybe see how the Touchstone album compares to the first two.

    Totally different story in 2012, so many new albums to look forward to. Already had Heather & Chris, Kelly Richey and Billy Walton. And in the next couple of months – Mostly Autumn, Stolen Earth, Panic Room, Larry Miller, Erja Lyytinen, and (hopefully) The Reasoning. With more to follow, 2012 could be one of the best years for new albums.

  10. Tim Hall says:

    In addition to MA, PR and SE, I’m really looking forward to Storm Corrosion (Mikael Åkerfeldt and Steve Wilson). Anathema’s new one is reportedly very good too.

    I’m hoping Heather Findlay will have a new studio record (whether it’s a full-length album or another EP) by the end of the year.