Thursday, January 26, 2012

Totally Unauthorized: 2011 Album of the Year Awards

I've learned a great deal in my first full year publishing to this site. I've managed to listen to and review
a great variety of music and draw from a considerable amount of resources, which was one of my goals for the site.

But I've entertained the notion of possibly narrowing my focus, or streamlining my processes in some way. I suppose it's somewhat of a reaction to the year in music. Despite it being a solid year, I don't feel like it captured the magic of 2010.

Last year featured legendary releases from Arcade Fire, Deerhunter, Orphaned Land, and Crystal Castles, and very solid albums by Best Coast, Kanye West, and Jamey Johnson. So what did this year bring us? I've laid out my top 10 albums, but first a few miscellaneous categories to touch on:

Best New Artist

James Blake

This was a pretty tight race between James Blake and Yuck. I had to side with the UK dubstep DJ due to his unique perspective and sense of innovation. Blake possesses a deep and creative mind, and it shows on his debut LP. 

Characterized by minimalist electronica and soulful vocals, it's an album that leaves you with something new to discover with each new listen. Each note is like a watercolor brushstroke upon a downbeat canvas. I usually have to be in the right mood to fully appreciate this record, but the potential shown here is more than enough for Blake to grab the Best New Artist crown.

Biggest Disappointment of 2011
  Lupe Fiasco
The third album can often be considered a make or break moment in an artist's career. It appeared that Lupe Fiasco was on schedule to launch himself into the stratosphere following a pair of albums that were critically acclaimed but flew under the radar commercially.

But a funny thing happened along the way. Lupe found himself saddled with Atlantic Records. Lasers presented Lupe the opportunity to develop his voice and take his sense of introspection to new heights, but Atlantic instead opted to deliver an album mostly filled with soulless pop rap. It's designed to be good for a weekend on the dance floor but little more.

Very little about this record feels like Lupe Fiasco, save for maybe "Words I Never Said" and the stunning "All Black Everything." Lasers should have been Lupe's chance to unveil his talent to a wider audience. Unfortunately, corporate greed and politicking doomed that vision from the start.
 Most Overrated Album 
 Bon Iver
 Bon Iver

Don't get me wrong; this is still a good album. However, since its release this summer, Bon Iver has witnessed a gargantuan groundswell of support that I can't find myself getting on board with.

It seems as though Justin Vernon's sole purpose was to impress people by showing them how emotional he can be. An endeavor like that is flawed from the get-go. True emotion is something that should just show through naturally in your music without having to do anything special.

The sense I get is that Vernon was trying to be emotional simply for the emotion's sake. It's like he's saying, "Hey, look at how emotional I am! Isn't that awesome?" I know many people have deeply connected with this record, but ultimately I just can't feel what he's talking about here.

Parody of the Year
Brock's Dubs
Jenna Haze - My Jeans

Culled from the ashes of Rebecca Black, Jenna Haze sought to wreak havoc on our ears with -- what else? An ode to designer jeans. At least the good news is that's incredibly easy to poke fun at, and Brock's Dubs has time and time again proven to be one of the best at insightful criticism and gut busting humor.

Brock replaces Haze's saccharine auto tune screech with a throaty, deep pitched voice while mocking the superficiality her clothing obsession. If you also happen to like seeing cars drive off cliffs, this might be the vid for you.

Best Live Show
    Tune Yards at Exit/In

Merrill Garbus of Tune Yards experienced a breakout year with the release of w h o k i l l, and she was even awesome enough to bring her live set right up to our doorstop in Nashville. Garbus is an artist now hitting her stride, and that fact alone was enough for the Exit/In to crackle with intensity.

Not only did we get the chance to hear almost all of the songs on the album that night, it also became evident that there are several elements in the music that are much more clearly defined when hearing it live. Those thick basslines and the raw power of her ukulele are obvious examples. Innovation, personality, and originality make Tune Yards an act you won't want to pass up.

10. Cities Aviv - Digital Lows

When Gavin Mays released his debut album, Digital Lows, on his bandcamp account, it went virtually unnoticed. This is a real shame, because Mays has managed to put his own spin onto the genre and put out a product that feels fresh, unique, and full of life.

The main attraction of the album are the beats, which move around from 70s soul to banging, clanging electronica to the downbeat backing sounds of Memphis horror rap. Digital Lows is also striking because it manages to capture a broad variety of feelings.

Sometimes you are going through hell, sometimes you feel jubilant, other times you may find yourself getting wistful over past loves, and every now and then you just want to say to hell with everyone. All this is delivered through Mays's steady tone and unflinching flow. It's a promising start for a great young artist who should only continue to improve.

9. Yuck - Yuck

A band like Yuck raises an interesting debate. How closely can you emulate your influences before you lose your own identity? UK rockers Yuck wear their influences on their sleeves, taking cues from Sonic Youth, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., The Stone Roses, and a whole host of other badass 90s rock outfits.

The instrumentation is solid, but nothing groundbreaking. So are they really just a case of a band riding the coattails of a previous generation of superior bands? The big chink in that argument is that the songwriting here is just too damn good. The aural assault of "Get Away," "Holing Out" and "The Wall" bring to mind the sun soaked joy of a summer day and the unbridled excitement of youth, while softer touches like "Suicide Policeman" and "Sunday" show off the Pavement style alt rock balladry the band has managed to capture so well. It's true that Yuck borrows heavily from their influences, but it's also clear that there is no one else capable of interpreting these sounds quite like this.

8. Opeth - Heritage

Like last year, there hasn't been much in metal that has excited me. I feel that I am losing interest in this form of music. Amon Amarth and Obscura put out technically sound releases, but I find myself coming back to Opeth as my favorite.

The first half of the album is a delicious cornucopia of sounds and senses; there's a quiet melodic piano piece, vibrant and driving hard rock, delightful blends of folk and rock, along with Opeth's own patented blend of progressive metal. The second half is more folky and progressive, and I admit I tend to space out a bit on these tracks.

But there's also sludgy Sabbath sounding riffs and twisted flute solos. What's not to like? Heritage stretches itself out in front of our imagination as the perfect embodiment of Mikael Akerfeldt's1970s inspired dreamland.

7. Ott - Mir

I have a sneaking suspicion that Ott always dreamed of being an astronaut or scientist, but he ended up producing electronic music instead. His third album, Mir, is a veritable smorgasbord of ideas. Like an all you can eat buffet; each track gives you a little of this, a little of that, and then a little something different.

He moves around from dastardly dubstep to tripped out techno reggae, and even makes time to slow it down and get insightful at times. But what doesn't change throughout the record is Ott's zany and bizarre sense of personality. This may have been a banner year for electronic music, but you won't find anything more bizarrely enchanting as Ott's Mir.

6. Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning

This also takes the cake for most underrated album of the year. Why is no one talking about this record? It's so great! Anyhow, Steven Wilson, genius songwriter behind Porcupine Tree, takes advantage of the opportunity to go all King Crimson on us and releases one of the best progressive rock records in a while.

Each song has plenty of mellow and heartfelt verse/chorus parts in that are reminiscent of Porcupine Tree, but the defining trait in most songs is the darker, twisted, more experimental solos of various nature. The sound is sometimes dramatic, like you're gearing up for some epic battle. Sometimes it's subdued, and sometimes it's downright unnerving. But it will always make you think -- precisely what progressive rock is meant to do.

5. The Decemberists - The King is Dead

Colin Meloy is a master architect of sounds and melodies. Part wordsmith and part mad scientist, he's crafted overblown colonial epics and dramatic rock operas, but The King is Dead sees him opting for a different route. The formula employed is much more simple here, drawing your attention to the warmth of the bright, vibrant harmonies.

This music is much like a sugar rush, but it's also very organic and earthy at the same time. Violins, steel guitars, and other assorted instruments provide a very folky yet also countrified feel. The lyrics possess a layer of density, but are also intriguing and well worded. Meloy proves that sometimes cutting out the fat can be a highly effective method for moving forward.

4. The Black Keys - El Camino

After releasing their breakthrough, Brothers, last year, it seemed that the Black Keys 2011 release, El Camino, would be one of the best pure rock records of the year. Focusing on their love of blues, along with some slight tinges of soul, El Camino establishes itself as a very straight ahead record. The formula is predicated upon large, catchy choruses designed to get your foot tapping and have you humming along. Along the way you get great guitar work and the catchy and driving drum beats of Patrick Carney. No matter your preference, there were few artists able to match Dan Auerbach's sense of cool in 2011.

3. Panda Bear - Tomboy

The electronic genre had an incredible showing in 2011. James Blake, Ott, Balam Acab, and Toro Y Moi all had great releases, and then there was a Sepalcure album that came out of nowhere and blew my mind. But the spoils will go to Noah Lennox for the terrific Tomboy. He draws from his experience in Animal Collective, elaborately and meticulously layering his audio files to create a lush and vibrant backdrop.

In fact, I can't think of when I've heard a record with a sound like this. There's a very fluid feeling, as though I'm riding an inner tube down a river while listening to the album. But he also takes cues from the Beach Boys in the way the harmonies are gloriously constructed. These two elements combine to forge a sound that is deeply moving and instinctively unique.

2. Tune Yards - w h o k i l l

It is fitting that the original title of this album was Women Who Kill. In 2011, Merill Garbus of Tune Yards proved she was capable of slaughtering pretty much anything in her path. W h o k i l l is a fascinating blend of several different genres that come together in a way that is bold, full of personality, and totally unique. Garbus seamlessly merges Caribbean, African, and pop styles to create a blender blowing combination.

"Gangsta" and "Bizness" show off the patented power and aggression in Garbus's compositions, "Powa" gives us a peek at her emotional prowess. At times, w h o k i l l is a bit out there and may not be for everyone. But if you love innovation and creativity, it's hard to do much better.

1. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

The ultimate album of 2011, Helplessness Blues masterfully combines folk, melody and emotion in a way no one else could. The Fleet Foxes expand on the pastoral promise of their debut by crafting increasingly complex harmonies and by forging challenging and unique instrumentation. Permeating through it all is the mellow and melodious voice of Robin Pecknold, as clear and crisp as a cool glass of amber wine.

This is an album full of daring tales of adventure and regret, daring and disquiet, wonder and introspection. It's awe inspiring how a simple tune like "Blue Spotted Tail" can fill you with the same sensation you get from staring up into the starry night sky. Few have covered as much territory, or articulated it as thoroughly as Mr. Pecknold and the Fleet Foxes did here.

Top 50 Songs of 2011

Almost as important as the top albums of the year are the best songs. There were no shortage of great songs in 2011 in almost every conceivable style and genre. I personally feel indie rock, alternative, and the electronic genres had the strongest years, but it is easy to find great quality in virtually all forms of music. I have complied a simple list for 50-21, with detailed descriptions of my Top 20 songs:

49. Bright Eyes - Ladder Song

20. Iron & Wine - Big Burned Hand

Sam Beam never fails to come up with something tender and endearing, but this prime cut from Kiss Each Other Clean shows he's also quite the funkmaster. It opens with a horn section designed to make you get down, which sets the tone for the rest of the song. This leads into Beam's mythical story about gods of war and gods of love, and I quickly gather that his intention is to put you in the mood for some sweet passionate lovemaking. The realm of gods has been oft discussed, but never has it made us want to shake our booty quite like this track does.

19. Radiohead - Lotus Flower

Behold the power of good old fashioned hypnotism. There's a time and place for spacing out, and the pounding hypnotic rhythm of the bass and drums provides the perfect soundtrack for getting sucked into a trance. But it goes beyond that. The Chinese Lotus Flower is known for its pure and pristine qualities, and Thom Yorke cleverly ties that in to a theme of turning over a new leaf and experiencing rebirth - much like that of the lotus itself. Those searching for a new beginning may find Yorke's words leave an indelible impact.

18. Sepalcure - Pencil Pimp

I've always been something of a closet fan of intelligent dance music, particularly something with an edge to it. Here, Sepalcure has conjured up something that could be suited to the dance floor, but isn't necessarily restricted to that environment. The opening beat and vocal samples are sure to get your glowsticks in motion, but the song quickly takes on an ominous tone with some oppressive and slightly psy-trancey synth coming in over the top. Along the way, there is enough variation packed in to easily make for a great club stomper, while also offering food for thought.

17. Ott - Squirrel and Biscuits

Ott released one of the trippiest and zaniest electronic records of the year, and his originality and sense of personality was one of 2011's bright spots. The bouncy beat at the beginning is a sure fire to bet to get your head bobbing and your body rocking, and the distorted warbling vocal midway through is a humorous touch, but the real highlight comes near the end with the introduction of totally tripped out Indian scat vocals. And the outro synths near the end make for the perfect climax. Listening to Ott is not like being on a trip. Listening to Ott is like being on a trip while floating over a dance floor in suspended animation, on another planet.

16. Obscura - Septuagint

When German tech death metal masterminds Obscura were faced with the task of following up the critically acclaimed Cosmogenesis, what did they do? They slayed like none other, of course. This opening track from their third album, Omnivium, threw listeners for a slight curve with its Metallica-esque acoustic opening and power build up. But. of course, it wouldn't be long before the churning cauldron of guitars began to mix with the guttural vocals of Steffan Kumerer.

This time around, though, Obscura proved they were more diverse with acoustic sections and clean vocals thrown into the mix. The soft and organic touch is a perfect counterweight to the skin shredding carnage the band is so well known for. With songs like Septuagint as evidence, it seems unlikely that Obscura's rage will be quelled anytime soon.

15. Panda Bear - Last Night at the Jetty

Noah Lennox has always been an innovator. It is this spirit that perfectly informs "Last Night at the Jetty." Like the rest of the Tomboy album, it possesses a fluid and free flowing vibe. Listening to this song is like floating down a waterway, while also feeling decidedly dreamlike. Lennox

14. Gretchen Parlato - Winter Wind

Gretchen Parlato is one of those rare women who can convince you she is knockout using only her voice. Her sultry vocal summons forth a passionate intensity that will leave you rapt and mesmerized. The melody of the piano and the thunderous rolls on the snare are invigorating, but  her voice cuts through it all as crisp as an autumn breeze. This track is constantly in motion; there's a definite sense of urgency. And it all comes pouring out in the final sequence, with Parlato desperately trying to convince you to hold on - "it's the time of your life." If you've never felt electrified by jazz, it's high time you gave Gretchen the chance to sweep you off your feet.

13. Cities Aviv - Doom x Gloom

I have yet to find a rapper who can deliver such ordinary statements yet make them sound so profound. Gavin Mays has the type of voice that can make you want to run through a brick wall, but he can also make you think. Doom x Gloom evokes a mysterious mood, while borrowing elements from the Memphis horror rap scene. Mays's proclamation that "we fuck broads and the cross and they gulp the semen" is sure to make an impression, the majority of the mood in this song derives from the hellish cycle of drug use and abuse. Digital Lows was an album capable of striking up many moods, but the feelings generated by Doom x Gloom may well stick with you the longest.

12. Sleep Over - Romantic Streams

Forging the perfect blend of emotion and melody, Stephanie Francotti's catharsis as displayed in Romantic Streams is one of the year's most riveting moments in electronic music. Characterized by wispy vocals that seem to float up from a dreamlike vat, and somewhat dated sounding but soothing electronics, it may give you the urge to close your eyes and drift away into a neverending void. That's pretty powerful stuff.

But you may want to do you best to stay rooted in reality, lest you miss out on the pounding drum section near the end that punctuates Francotti's magnificent ethereal vocal. When all is said and done, the feeling provided by this song is akin to swallowing a sweet warm cup of milk and settling in to a blissful slumber.

11. Black Keys - Little Black Submarines

And then Dan Auerbach bared his soul. It begins with some pretty acoustic strains and Auerbach's Jim Croce-like attempt to have a telephone operator patch him through to his love. The acoustic guitar stands in stark contrast to the firestorm of catchy rock found elsewhere on El Camino. But it's much deeper than that. There are touches of Zeppelin that certainly enhance the effect, but it is perhaps the pained clarity of Dan's regret that leaves the strongest impression.

When the loud feedback begins to fill your eardrums, you know shit's about to get real. Auerbach releases the full wroth of his pain and anxiety, as this time he is appealing to the operator to "patch me back to my mind." The impact is increased by the picture perfect performance from drummer Patrck Carney. Truly, we haven't heard drum fills this spot on since Ringo beat the skins on "A Day in the Life." When it's all done, you feel like you have a new perspective on what it is to lose.

10. Trash Talk - Gimmie Death

In my younger days I toyed around with the notion that most hardcore was targeted toward disaffected middle class high school kids seeking an outlet for social pressures or family issues. If there were any notions of that still in my mind, Trash Talk came and totally kicked them straight out the window. Lee Spielman's disillusionment with the world around him sets the stage for one of the most visceral displays of the year. The wall of guitar aggression and the tightly compacted drum rolls wash over you like a tsunami of aggression. Make no mistake, you don't have to be a hardcore kid to feel what he's saying here.

9. Tune Yards - Gangsta

The breakout success of Merill Garbus has been one of the highlights of the year. Combining afro pop with pulsing rhythms, thumping basslines, and her own bold personalty, Garbus has established a sound that's out there even by Pitchfork standards. It's not for everyone, but personally I was sold on my initial listen. There's so much going on in this song, from the omnipresent bassline to the vocally syncopated police sirens to the way Merill's voice goes from high and fluttery to raw and back again. And the subject matter, which deals with violence on the streets where Garbus used to live, adds a rough edge to the mix. Love them or hate them, Tune Yards are a powerful new creative force whose light doesn't seem to be dimming soon.

8. Opeth - Slither

Ronnie James Dio was a man who meant much to many/ Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt is no exception. When I heard him speak about Dio at the Cannery Ballroom this October, it was readily apparent what a large influence the man was upon Akerfeldt.  So it's no surprise that Slither, the track Akerfeldt wrote to commemorate Dio's memory, was one for the ages. Slither attempts to capture pure headbanging ecstasy and turbocharged guitar assault that so many 70s rock bands like Rainbow used to make a name for themselves. It sounds nothing like a typical Opeth song, save for Akerfeldt's otherworldly vocal. And if you ever get to hear it a live show, keep a tight grip on your sandals -- the moshers go totally apeshit on this one.

7. Wilco - Born Alone

Comeback would be an apt word for Wilco in 2011, and this track was instrumental in keying that success.  It opens with a set of impeccably selected mellow pop/rock chords, not at all out of the ordinary for this one time alt-country band. The lyrics focus on cleverness and wordplay, as though Jeff Tweedy seems to basking in reflection. "I am the rider at the wheel of order/ marching circles at the gate," he declares. It leads into a heavy outro which gets totally wistful and reflective. In a time when rock is seeking to innovate so much, it's comforting to know there are people who are capable of sticking to the basics and doing it right.

6. The Decemberists - Down by the Water

Perhaps the greatest sing along of 2011, Down by the Water combines folky schmaltz along with sugary pop harmonies to create one of the catchiest and most fulfilling songs of the year.  Most of the magic lies in its stripped down and laid back nature. The acoustic guitar, the accordion and tambourine combine with the harmony between Colin Meloy and Gillian Welch to form an instant winner. And as always, Meloy is busy scouring the dictionary while he pens his lyrics. In just a few short lines, he is able to construct a vivid depiction of a sleepy small time port town. Pyrotechnics and big egos may dominate music headlines, but The Decemberists demonstrate that sometimes simplicity is key.

5. Amon Amarth - War of the Gods

Amon Amarth may occasionally draw criticism for being stuck in their mold, but when they're at the top of their game it's not tough to see why they stick to what they know. Nothing goes to waste here; every riff and progression on guitar sounds crisp, clear and clean. The build up and solo are a textbook demonstration of how dual guitar harmonies are meant to work, and the drums provide the perfect backing for the out of control guitar noodling. And that's without even mentioning that Johan Hegg's hearty growls about conflict between Norse gods lends a truly epic and legendary feel. War of the Gods is an iron forged piece of metal so hot you can still feel the steam rising from it.

4. Raekwon feat. Black Thought - Masters of Our Fate

If there was ever a rap song fit to serve as a soundtrack to a decisive battle, this would be it. A Winston Churchill sample surely doesn't hurt the levity of the track; you can practically hear him clenching his steely fingers as he speaks his message of courage and resolve. And it's spotlighted by a pair of emcees you would never want to meet in a dark alley. Raekwon comes in, speaking about the harsh realities of life. But even he is shown up by the mighty Black Thought, who opens one of the best rap verses ever with a statement we can all relate to -- "bridges I burn some, lessons I learn some, money I spent some, lent some, earn some." By the time it finishes you will surely understand your destiny lies in your own hands.

3. Iamamiwhoami - ;John

This is the Mac Daddy of production work. This song alone could provide a semester's worth of study on how to arrange .midi files like a boss. The main melodies are upbeat, catchy and danceable, but at the same time leave you feeling like you're stuck in a dark depressing hole you will never climb out of. There's quite a bit going on, from heavy sludgy synths to low fat beats and shimmering dancefloor electronica. Swedish starlet Jonna Lee shows off her impressive range as she weaves a tale about being subjugated, dominated, and cast aside. But through it all, she keeps on dancing. It manages to capture a feeling of jubilation while also managing to feel dreamy, isolated, and surreal.

2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

In terms of delivering true honesty from behind the mic, Helplessness Blues is about as good as you're ever going to do.  This is Robin Pecknold's clarion call of self assertion, and he couldn't have put it any more eloquently. The instrumentation is first rate, the message is empowering, and the lyrics create a powerful and vivid sense of imagery. The most jaw dropping feature comes about halfway in when the time signature changes. It's practically like two top tier songs rolled into one. This is the part where the Fleet Foxes get to show off their patented pastoral sound and lovely vocal harmonies. Pecknold has clearly laid forth his masterwork here.

1. Steven Wilson - Deform to Form a Star

As if descending from the heavens themselves, Steven Wilson's classical progressive odyssey Deform to Form a Star takes top song honors for 2011. Wilson isn't the most virtuoso musician, but every element of his compositions come together brilliantly. The piano is beautiful and melodious. Every chord he picks out seems to have been carefully mulled and considered before being inserted into the final mix. His vocals are mellow and downbeat, focusing on a sense of loss and desolation.

But the chorus shines brightest, with a mystical quality that could practically penetrate the cosmos itself. If that isn't enough, there are also a pair of magical guitar solos that drive home the point. In a year filled with powerful songwriting and unprecedented innovation, Steven Wilson captures the #1 spot by simply being divine.

Totally Unauthorized 2011 Video Game Year in Review

There's no questioning 2011 was an incredible year for gaming. There was something for you no matter what you were into. Hardcore puzzler? Racing aficionado? Maybe you enjoy RPGs or multiplayer shooters. Heck, there was even a new Zelda game. When reviewing everything I'd played this year, I noticed that many of those well known, well renowned games that had drawn a large amount of hype or critical acclaim.

Rather than sprinkle them all throughout the year, I thought it would be fitting to make one large recap post taking a look back at the year in gaming. Of course, I couldn't help but name my own personal GOTY at the end. The only major GOTY contender I wasn't able to sink a major amount of time into was Skyward Sword (due to my not owing a Wii). However, I did play the first couple hours of it and came away feeling like it could easily be one of the best games of the year. Some of what I have here are GOTY candidates and some are not. Regardless, here's my say:
Dead Space 2

Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle in your eye.

EA had a big task in following up one of the most acclaimed horror shooters of its generation. The original Dead Space has become endeared by fans for its unique atmosphere and focus on survival, but everything about the sequel just feels bigger, better, and more badass. Instead of being trapped aboard a lonely mining ship, you're given the liberty to explore an entire sprawling space station. The necromorphs are sicker and more twisted than last time, with plenty of awesome new ways to fight them.

And there's also more attention paid to the story, as Issac Clarke wrestles his inner demons while trying to stay one step ahead of the morally conflicted station director Tiedemann. The frightening atmosphere that fans loved in the first game was curtailed significantly here, but what Dead Space 2 sacrifices in fear factor it more than made up for with improvements across the board.

Portal 2 
Okay. Look. We both said a lot of things that you're going to regret. But I think we can put our differences behind us. For science. You monster.

In what was already a fantastic year for puzzle games, Portal 2 easily stands as a game of the year candidate. When Valve introduced the original Portal, the concept of shooting portals into walls to get around bowled gamers over. This time, the focus is on expanding the narrative, adding to the quirky cast of characters, and installing additional wrinkles with brand new puzzle elements.

You're no longer confined to just shooting portals; now you redirect lasers to activate switches, create tunnel-like bridges, and there are also a few different varieties of gel that allow you to sprint, bounce, and portal your way to new heights. The puzzles are much more intricate and difficult this time around.

Character-wise, Glados is back, along with her hilarious attempts to degrade you. But there are some newcomers; Wheatley is a reactor core with a British accent who is a bit intellectually bereft. You'll also meet Aperture founder Cave Johnson, a take on 1950s military/scientific researcher who seems to care more about results than the safety of his test subjects. But no matter how you view it, Portal 2 is easily one of the brightest of 2011. On this there will be no stalemate.

L.A. Noire
Dealing with corruption is like chasing shadows. You never know whether the guy you're talking to is on the pad, or whether it's your partner, or maybe even the watch commander. So who do you trust, Cole? I made up my mind a long time ago. 

I've always been in a odd position when it comes to Rockstar Games. I don't like the GTA series, and Red Dead Redemption bored me, but I loved this game. L.A. Noire challenges you to enter the mind of the suspect and use your own gray matter to crack open the case. Ever read a good mystery novel? L.A. Noire is chock full of them. The main appeal of the game for me was in trying to predict how each case was going to play out and to recognize what evidence adds up and what doesn't.

The facial recognition system is awesome. Some of the interrogations with the murder suspects are among the most intense moments I have experienced in gaming. If there's a negative point, it might be that the story isn't that great near the end. This game may have disappointed some who wanted nothing but pew pew pew. But the characterization, film noir atmosphere, and innovation should be ample evidence to prove that L.A. Noire is worth a shot.

Alice: Madness Returns

The train is coming with its shiny cars. With comfy seats and wheels of stars. So hush my little ones, have no fear. The man in the moon is the engineer.

From the demented mind of American McGee, comes the demented tale of a girl named Alice. The big hype over this game revolved around the unique art style. Creative and distinctive level designs were not only a treat to the eye, but gave you incentive to keep playing to see what was next. Where else can you go to wander through Japanese villages while fighting samurai wasps with a giant croquet mallet?

The story focuses on an mentally scarred Alice, who is struggling with her emotions in the wake of a gruesome fire that took out her entire family. The production values are nice, but it becomes clear Spicy Horse isn't that experienced when it comes to developing major console games. There are a few issues in the gameplay. The God of War style hack and slash gameplay is fun at first, but quickly grows old.

I got tired of the fights against the ruins. I didn't like how they kept drawing out the battle by concealing their weak points. Many of the checkpoints are awkwardly inserted, and toward the end I felt like they were just throwing slide sections in there just to pad the length of the game. The platforming is fun enough, but the quadruple jump they give you takes most of the challenge out of it. So you're left with a game that is easy on the eyes, but comes nowhere close to living up to its potential.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
These people, they're like ghosts, always hiding in the shadows, always hiding behind lies and proxies.

When I think of cinematic gaming, I think of the opening to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. You're plunged into a secret web of corporate spies and espionage, all centering on the ground breaking research of a dazzling scientist known as Dr. Megan Reed. It is a future where humans are being fitted with robotic augments to turn them into superhumans. There isn't a detail left to chance in Edios's futuristic techno-digital world. It's beautifully defined, straight down the steampunk newscasters broadcasting in the bottom corner of David Sarif"s computer monitors.

Hell, I wanted to grab a bag of popcorn while watching it.

You control of Adam Jensen, security director for Sarif industries, who is tasked with locating a kidnapped team of scientists. You're accompanied by a strong yet compassionate fighter pilot, a douchey but dependable IT specialist, working for a boss you trust about as far as you can throw. The gameplay is based heavily on stealth, and you die quickly if the enemies catch a whiff of you.

Though it is possible to play as a shooter, the mechanics don't support that very well. I had more fun trying to sneak around and silently pick off guards one by one. And when you aren't busy fighting the opposition, you can debate them. There are a few sections where you are presented with a text options and you attempt to talk a character into helping you or giving information. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has already gained much love, and in my opinion deserves even more.

Dark Souls
Take care out there. None of us want to see you go hollow...
When it comes to mood, atmosphere, and downright badassery, few can top Dark Souls. The penultimate dungeon crawling series returns, and once again captures the epic feel and jaw gnashing difficulty of its spiritual predecessor, Demon's Souls. The major upgrades this time around include expanding the game world and streamlining the weapon upgrade system.

The environments are some of the most lushly imagined and beautifully rendered I've seen. Mystic forests, silent tombs, and demonic palaces spread out before you, and you'll also find some of the greatest boss designs ever. They're so totally mind blowing that I just can't ruin them for you if you haven't played. And it possesses one of the most simple but effective combat systems to date.
There are tons of hidden secrets too, if that's your bag. My main caveat is that the difficulty was a bit much for me. Demon's Souls was my 2009 game of the year, and I ran through it without too many problems. This in no way prepared me for Dark Souls. I made a good run through the game, but ran into a brick wall with the end bosses. It's not really a legitimate complaint, but it's not something I feel like selecting as my personal game of the year. Still, it's hard to find a world more enchanting, combat more heart pounding, or an experience more fulfilling.

Batman: Arkham City
So you know my name? Good, because I know everything about you. I know your darkest secret, your ultimate weakness; I know that you are Bruce Wayne.

Most developers would probably be satisfied if they could point to a game like Arkham Asylum as their crowning achievement. Leave it to Rocksteady to go and improve on an already fantastic formula. From the get-go, it feels like something is unique about this game. The plotline sees Bruce Wayne headed to Hugo Strange's penitentiary, Arkham City, but as an inmate, not as the Caped Crusader.

I thought it started slowly, mostly due to the fact that it felt virtually identical to Arkham Asylum in the beginning. Many sequels attempt to expand upon their core gameplay or streamline it, but Arkham City does neither. Rather, it expands the game world, adds in sidequests, and takes its time building up a sense of tension within the story. Major plot points are slowly unveiled. It also doesn't hurt to be able to pick from one of the most memorable vaults of villains ever conceived. Little seen masterminds Hugo Strange, Ra's Al-Ghul and The Penguin are given center stage here, and the quests to hunt them down are exhilarating.

To spice things up, there are also sections where you switch off to Catwoman and get a chance to play around with slightly different physics. It's a brilliant mechanic that I hope games will take notice of. By combining stealth, refined beat 'em up gameplay, and dark twists in the storyline, Arkham City easily stands as one of the year's flagship titles.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

There's a clocktower in Hereford where the names of the dead are inscribed. We try to honor their deeds, even as their faces fade from our memory. Those memories are all that's left, when the bastards have taken everything else.
For years I never understood the hysteria over Call of Duty. Then I realized there are different types of games meant for different people, and perhaps I'm one of those not meant to totally get it. Still, I at least check these games out to see what the fuss is over. The Modern Warfare 3 storyline concludes the trilogy, and the campaign mode is besmirched by two common flaws: it's short, and what little you get is packed with filler. 

Although there's plenty of action, the story doesn't really begin to pick up until about 2/3 of the way through the game. Seeing as it only took me 6 1/2 to beat the campaign, take that as you will. In terms of multiplayer, you pretty much know what to expect. Although there is a new mode called Kill Confirmed, which requires you to pick up dogtags in order for your kills to be counted on the scoreboard. I suppose that makes it a bit more objectivey. 

The only part of the game I somewhat liked was the new horde mode, very similar to the co-op modes in Uncharted and Gears of War. I also liked some of the two player spec ops missions; I enjoy having to work as a team to complete a mission. But it all boils down to the fact that I just can't get into this twitch arcade multiplayer no matter how I try. So the legions of COD fanboys can go on being rabid over this game, and I can go on not caring.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
 All men dream - but not equally. Those who dream by night, in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity... But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.

Coming into the year, Uncharted 3 was one of my most anticipated games. Its predecessor was one of those rare games that virtually achieved perfection in both its singleplayer and multiplayer modes. Uncharted 3 takes us to the desolate, arid desert sands, while expanding on Drake's relationship with Sully. The desert setting is really nice, and the core gameplay is still as solid as ever, but Uncharted 3 seems to put too much focus into adding pointless bells and whistles to the multiplayer when that focus could have been better invested elsewhere.

The buddy system was massively hyped, but it's basically just a glorified way to spawn on a teammate. And I barely ever use the class slots. For what it's worth, the multiplayer does feel more fleshed out this time around. The medal kickback system allows you to cash in medals for some nice weapons and upgrades, and I enjoy some of the new game modes. I had fun with Free for All and Three Team Deathmatch, and there are more maps in the co-op and even a new game mode as well.

The singleplayer, however, is not as good as it should be. There are glaring plot holes, and the villains are paper thin. In addition, there are a few sequences that almost feel like they were ripped straight from Uncharted 2. I did like some of the directions they tried to go with the story. At several points, Drake's friends feel he is going too far and pushing too hard in the pursuit of treasure. But most of the key plot points don't feel fully fleshed out and leaves the player wanting more. Drake's actual deception is touched on so briefly that I couldn't even remember what it was by the time the game was over. As it is, Uncharted 3 is a captivating experience but does show some chinks in the armor.

Totally Unauthorized's 2011 Game of the Year:

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Dovahkinn. You have tasted the Voice of the Greybeards, and passed through unscathed. High Hrothgar is open to you. 
No trendy pick here. No other game this year offered a more expansive world or different styles of gameplay, and no other title came close in terms of quality content available. It begins with a dragon sighting that breaks up the execution of rebel leader Ulfric Stormcloak, and it will lead to a battle to determine the future of Skyrim itself. Along the way you will come to know what it means to be dragonborn.

The possibilities are endless. You can be a thief and silently cut down your foes, take on the role of warlock and bolster your spellcasting and alchemy skills, or become a barbarian and straight up go Rambo on everyone. If you've got a taste for blood and dark contracts, you may fancy becoming an assassin for the Dark Brotherhood. Or maybe you say to heck with all of it and just join the bard's college.

There are so many well written storylines waiting to be unearthed, and each will have you guesting at what twist will come next. I've dumped most of my time into the Thieves Guild, hot on the trail of a shadowy traitor and restore the Guild to its former glory. It doesn't hurt that my character has gotten filthy rich in the process. Come to think of it, that actually ties in perfectly to the reason this is game of the year. Thanks to the depth of the world and the variety of possible playstyles, Bethesda has done more than virtually anyone else to give you the greatest bang for your buck.