2011 saw some stupendous debut albums, with rookies that have us drooling for what comes next.
1. Fitz and the Tantrums – Pickin’ Up the Pieces
Scott: There is some confusion as to when this album actually came out. I’m pretty sure the actual release date is August of 2010, instead of January of 2011, but we missed it last year, so we are throwing it up on this year’s lists. It’s kind of cheating, but I’m ok with that.
Fitz and the Tantrums, aside from having an awesome name, are also a rookie band that is certain to be in the Hall if they can keep up the good work. Retro is so in right now. As this list makes clear, bands are looking backward with quite a lot of energy; whether bands are hearkening back to 1960/70’s folk, 1950’s pop, or in The Tantrums’ case: sexy, sexy soul music. Fitz and the Tantrums make music that is fun and infectious. They probably win the award this year for music that gets stuck in my head the most. It’s a normal event in the Small household for Emily or me to be dancing around, absentmindedly singing / don’t come back, any time / i’ve already had your kind / this is your payback / moneygrabber / I hope this is a group of people who will be making music, dressing to the nines, and inspiring me to shake my ass for a long, long time.
Brian: This album is fun and soulful. It will put you in a good mood. The songs take notes from and have elements that hearken back to classic R & B and soul music from the 1960s. The album was purposely made without guitars. In an interview, leader singer Michael Fitzpatrick stated that he wanted “to try and make a big sounding record without guitars … For me, I just feel like in any music that has a band, the guitar is always there, it’s always featured, it’s always prevalent. I’m just sick of hearing it.” Leaving the guitars out, the album is keyboard and synth heavy, and much like the soul of the 60s, relies heavily on a tight and talented rhythm section. I have only heard good things about their live shows, and after being called one of the hardest working bands in the industry, the future is big and bright for Fitz and the Tantrums.
2. The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart
Scott: The children of a proud Seattle, The Head and the Heart have had quite the year. They’ve launched out of local fame into moderate national fame with no end to their ascent in sight. Among other honors, they’re #21 on Amazon’s best 100 albums of the year, and #5 on Paste’s best new artists list. With music and vocals that are sweet and honest, it’s easy to see why The Head and the Heart continue to endear themselves to those who hear them, and Seattle will continue to look on with love as TH&TH’s audience continues to grow.
I love them with my head and my heart.
Brian: Another Seattle band. Another BRILLIANT Seattle band. Sunny, folky goodness. They have drawn obvious comparisons to Mumford & Sons because of the way both bands feature tight, vocal harmonies. Being compared to Mumford is not at all a bad thing. When it really comes down to it, the bands are not as similar as Pitchfork would have you believe. Those bastards. The album is musical sunshine. The band has put together an album of songs that begs to be sung along with.
3. Gardens & Villa – Gardens & Villa
Brian: Funky and sometimes shoegazey, Gardens and Villas hail from Santa Barbara (Brahbrah?), CA. Their music is fun and eclectic, drawing from a wide array of influences. This is album is … I mean, did I mention it was eclectic? I listen and I hear shades of Beach House (“Chemtrails”), the Beatles (“Sunday Morning”), and even Ennio Morricone (“Carrizo Plain”)! Yet, for all it’s variety (I haven’t even mentioned the flute, yet), Gardens and Villa’s sound is surprisingly consistent, held together by the amazing vocals of Chris Lynch (he plays live shows with a quiver of flutes slung over his shoulder!) and the presence of spacey and funky synths. Having read what I’ve just written about this album, it sounds like it wouldn’t work, but, let me tell you … it does. Very much so. I liked this album way more with every listen.
Scott: It’s funny that Brian would make a Flight of the Conchords reference above (can you find it?). The reason it’s funny is because I discovered this band because of my Kiwi friend Gabrielle, whose interview with the band can be read here.
In line with what Brian was saying above, so much comes together in this album that it would be easy for it to become muddled and fall apart. Instead, it all comes together and makes for an album that I, like Brian, fall more in love with every time I hear it. I guess I’m a sucker for synthesizers and falsetto harmonies.
I love them with my gardens and my villa.
4. Cults – Cults
Scott: This band converged on my summer and sunk its claws deep into my heart. It was everywhere. Playing on KEXP, performing at The Capitol Hill Block Party, and finally taking over my iTunes. Old school pop music that somehow really works, They also seem like sweet kids from my brief experience watching them live this year.
I’m really excited to hear what comes next, because, like Phantogram last year, this was an album meant more to be a demo which took off faster than anticipated. Will all of their albums be cult themed? If it is, with Jim Jones out of the way, my hope is that next up is Waco. Or, better yet, those people who thought the spaceship was going to come take them to heaven.
If this is what Cults are like, consider me initiated.
Brian: This album feels familiar. Not the “This sounds like everything else out there” or “Nothing new” familiar, but the melodies feel like a warm bed. The trend these days, as far as bands go, seems to be the boy/girl duo, so as these types of bands increase, it is going to take more talent for separation from the rest. Cults have made a statement with this debut album. Every song is like a warm bed you don’t want to leave. The melodies are like that old baseball glove that is so perfectly broken in. Infectious and catchy from the first to the last song, Cults should have no problem standing above water in a sea of boy/girl duos.
5. The Civil Wars
Scott: If either Joy Williams or John Paul White had released this album as a solo release, it still would have been one of the best albums of the year. Instead, it’s the result of the duo joining forces, creating an album of vocal harmonies that are breathtaking. I’m sure glad these two eventually found each other, because this collaboration makes it sound like they were born to sing together. The songwriting is also deeply moving. The perfect creative storm.
Brian: There are very few voices out there that mix more perfectly than the voices of Joy WIlliams and John Paul White. This album deserved all the acclaim and attention it received. This duo has made an album that is so rich melodically and in harmony. There are songs that burst forth joyfully from mouths and guitars, and there are songs that seep melancholy out of every pore. It is this balance that makes this album so real and true to life. To make music that perfectly captures the rapture and the rupture that is joy and sorrow. You’d be hard pressed to find an album to equal the cover to cover beauty of The Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow.