10 Underrated 2011 Albums You Need to Hear

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Nature abhors a vacuum, and the music industry abhors a lack of lists. These days, it isn’t enough to just sit down in December and choose your favorite albums of the year — and so, with July 1 about to roll around, music writers everywhere have been amusing themselves making lists of the best albums of 2011 so far. The same names seem to be cropping up everywhere — James Blake, PJ Harvey, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, etc. — and while they’re all worthy choices, they also amount to a fairly homogenized consensus view that’s already starting to exclude a bunch of other fantastic albums that have been released over the last six months. As such, we thought we’d pull together a selection of albums that have been largely or completely ignored in the recent frenzy of listomania.

Julianna Barwick — The Magic Place

Perhaps the most overlooked album of 2011 to date, The Magic Place has been almost entirely absent from any of the lists we’ve seen — the redoubtable Anthony Carew of about.com has nominated this as his best album of the year thus far, but pretty much everyone else seems to have completely spaced on it. We’re not sure why, because The Magic Place is one of the most beautiful things we’ve heard this year. It’s almost entirely vocal-based, layering wave after wave of vocal tracks that create grand washes of sound, unlike just about anything else anyone is making at the moment and yet never remote or forbidding. It’s ambient music that commands listening, abstract sound that’s warm and welcoming. If you’ve not heard it yet, you owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy.

Wild Beasts — Smother

Another album that seems to have been inexplicably and universally forgotten despite getting excellent reviews across the board on its release last month. Even the British press hasn’t been particularly hyped on it, with the NME too busy bigging up the New New New New Rock Revolution and everyone else talking about PJ Harvey and Pulp and Suede reunion shows. But really, anyone who loved Suede and/or Pulp should be right up with Smother, as should anyone else with the remotest fondness for literate, theatrical, heartfelt pop music.

Snowman — Absence

Australian four-piece Snowman broke up earlier this year, but they left the world one hell of a fantastic legacy: their third and final album, Absence. The record has received some coverage in the British press — perhaps because the band were based in London for a couple of years — but it’s sadly sunk without a trace stateside. It’s a remarkable piece of work, preserving the dark atmosphere of previous albums but marrying it to a sound that’s less abrasive and more goth-influenced than before. It makes for a great testament to a great band — even if Snowman are no longer with us, their work is still well worth investigating.

Kode9 & the Space Ape — Black Sun

This mightn’t be quite the genre-defining masterwork that people were hoping for from Hyperdub founder and dubstep pioneer Kode9, but it’s still one of the best albums that’s dropped in the last six months. Although its centerpiece (the title track, which we’ve embedded above) is wordless, the rest of the album is invested with a real lyrical depth, a dark portrait of a possible future that’s mirrored in Kode9’s ominous sci-fi soundtrack. It’s an album that embraces the limitless possibilities of the electronic palette and also proves that, even as dubstep moves further into the realms of crossover commerciality, the genre can still provide genuinely innovative music.

The Dirtbombs — Party Store

A fascinating concept — guitar-based covers of old Detroit techno tracks — that’s carried off with aplomb. Our techno purist friends aren’t exactly showering this with praise, but we’re all for it. If you’ve never heard a killer garage-rock version of Derrick May’s classic “Strings of Life,” you’ve never lived!

Times New Viking — Dancer Equired

There’s been the occasional grumble over the years that Pitchfork is too powerful, and that its reviews have killed peoples’ careers stone dead. Whether or not that’s the case is ultimately subjective, but there’s no doubt that a negative review from the ‘Fork can make life difficult for a band. Quite why they decided to turn on Times New Viking, who’ve always enjoyed good reviews up until now, is unclear — even the review in question doesn’t do a particularly good job of explaining what’s allegedly wrong with Dancer Equired, and to our ears it’s a thoroughly decent record that stands comparison to any of the band’s previous work. But the result seems to have been dramatic, because this album isn’t getting any love at all in the mid-year round-up. Curses.

Woods — Sun and Shade

We gushed about this album when we mentioned it in our music-to-stream roundup a few weeks back, and it’s been a fixture on our stereo ever since. Woods are one of those bands who’ve been there and thereabouts over the last couple of years while never quite getting the recognition they deserve, and sadly Sun and Shade doesn’t seem destined to change that, despite the good reviews it enjoyed on release. This is a shame, because Sun and Shade is as good as anything else Woods have released — all sunny psychedelia and the occasional dose of ’70s German influence — and the perfect soundtrack for a hazy summer afternoon.

Com Truise — Galactic Melt

Another recent favorite from our streaming adventures, this sci-fi analog synth workout is an absolute belter of a debut album from New Jersey producer Seth Haley (aka Com Truise). It seems to have been getting a bit of love in recent weeks, but its release date (June 14) is obviously too recent for it to be figuring in the minds of the list-making fraternity. Hopefully such oversights will be rectified when the time for end-of-year listomania comes around.

Metronomy — The English Riviera

Like Wild Beasts, this seems to be one of those albums that the British like and the Americans don’t — even the title seems to suggest that it’s a distinctly English proposition. But really, The English Riviera‘s appeal is universal — it’s smooth, electronic pop that recalls the likes of Phoenix much more than it does the more abstract electronica that Metronomy have made in the past. Like Sun and Shade, it makes for a fine summer soundtrack, and it really should have got a heap more attention this side of the Atlantic than it has done thus far.

Motion Sickness of Time Travel — Seeping Through the Veil of the Unconscious

Apart from having the best moniker of 2011, Rachel Evans has also released not one but two records this year. We’re still to properly digest her new album Luminaries and Synasty (mainly because we haven’t nabbed a copy as yet — curses), but her first album Seeping Through the Veil of the Unconscious is vying with Julianna Barwick for the title of our favorite release of the year thus far. (Quibblers may note that it’s technically a 2010 release, but unless you’re one of the 80 people who laid hands on the original cassette, the 2011 vinyl release is probably the most relevant point of reference here.) If you like the album’s gorgeous minimal drone stylings, you may also want to check out the excellent mix she did for erudite techno blog mnml ssgs here.