50 Favorite Albums of 2011

I’m still digesting this year in music. There has been so much. I feel like I’m going to keep finding out about albums that went under my radar for many years to come after this. So while I’m not feeling as confident as I’d like to be putting this list together, it’s still my ritual to do so around this time of year. It’ll at least help the digestion process, I think. Also, I’m really hungry right now, so I think I see where that metaphor is coming from.
I’ll never understand people who think there isn’t any good music today.
Well, here we go. If I have time later this month I might update this blog posting with pictures of the album covers, but I just don’t have time right now.

50. Firefox AK – Color the Trees

49. Baby Monster – Baby Monster

48. Kanye West and Jay-Z – Watch the Throne

47. The Field – Looping State of Mind

46. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

45. Rustie – Glass Swords

44. Atmosphere – The Family Sign

43. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

42. Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde

41. CIVIL CIVIC – RULES

40. Drake – Take Care

39. 13&God – Own Your Ghost

38. Comet Gain – Howl of the Lonely Crowd

37. Nik Freitas – Saturday Night Underwater

36. The Horrors – Skying

35. Bibio – Mind Bokeh

34. Panda Bear – Tomboy

33. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

32. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation

31. Pallers – Sea of Memories

30. Atlas Sound – Parallax

29. Beirut – The Rip Tide

28. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s A Corporate World

27. Wild Beasts – Smother

26. Starfucker – Reptilians

25. Zee Avi – Ghostbird

24. Memory Tapes – Player Piano

23. The Weeknd – House of Balloons

22. The Antlers – Burst Apart

21. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

20. TV On the Radio – Nine Types of Light

19. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Sonically, this album is divine, majestic, peaceful. The instruments are all captured fully and layered delicately. The themes and mood since “For Emma Forever Ago” haven’t changed much, but Bon Iver’s songwriting has matured so much. The ambition in the arrangements make this an album that stands tall. My only complaint about this album maintains since it came out– I feel like the vocals shouldn’t have been given the same immaculate touch of engineering as everything else. In an album that feels so natural and pure, it somehow seems artificial that the vocals are as well. I want to hear imperfections. I want to hear them waver more. I suppose at the end, the mood is more consistent this way, but I can’t help how I feel. Still, it’s a amazing album.

18. BRAIDS – Native Speaker
This was one of the first albums this year to capture my attention. It feels like it came out so long ago. Similar to Local Natives, I feel like this band has picked up from where Animal Collective left “Feels.” On this album, BRAIDS have created some of the best experimental/art rock out of the Canadian scene that seemed asleep this year. Despite these influences, they do have a distinct sound. The vocals here are spot-on in terms of stylistically matching the music and they also keep the energy of the album feeling urgent and vibrant. There are some really tightly woven rhythms here driven by entrancing drums and bass. The guitars have been softly reduced into “bleeps and bloops” for the most part, and they sprinkle so delightfully over the rest of the textures. No crazy boundaries are being pushed here, but I’m glad this kind of music is still being made.

17. Future Islands – On the Water
It’s hard to find anything to complain about this album, but it’s also hard to find anything to completely rave about. I suppose the only thing to complain about is that by the end it’s a bit monotonous. And the thing to rave about is Sam Herring’s vocals. They’re a bit raspy, but they are so emotional and dramatic. It’s perhaps the thing that keeps the album so listenable for its entirety. The production here is great but I feel like it’s missing enough fluctuations in mood, volume, tempo. Yet, despite these complaints, I found myself listening to this album a lot. On some level, I feel like I’m still digesting it and have yet to fully appreciate it. But for now, I do acknowledge that I like it enough to put it here on this list.

16. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
It’s refreshing to hear hip-hop that’s this well-produced, listenable, and lyrically compelling without being so narcissistic or insecure (the Internet would do itself a favor if it replaced all the hype surrounding “Camp” with this album). Section.80 is such a fantastic ode to its classic influences of Tupac and Nas. But somehow it doesn’t feel like a simple imitation. Lamar holds his own weight here with confidence, not arrogance or pretentiousness. It’s got everything I could ask for in a hip-hop album.

15. Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix
I think the strangest thing about this album for me is how unique it sounds versus how risky it feels. Sonically, the album stands out well. This band has found a special niche and it’s wonderful. There are some really catchy indie pop jams here that manage to be both fun and introspective (as most good indie pop usually is). But somehow, I don’t really feel like they are pushing the boundary too much. It’s not a complaint as much as it is an observation. I feel like the existence of this kind of band is only natural considering the progression of music up to today. They don’t fill any voids; they add on to the pile. But they are an absolutely welcome addition.

14. The Roots – Undun
While still relatively new, it was immediate how good this album was. And I’m not even that big of a fan of The Roots. But in this album, they have have a new found urgency and dedication to the themes being explored. The concept is one of the most beautifully executed this year. It takes a few listens to realize that it’s a story in reverse. But beyond that, the production is so fantastic here. It’s an album quite easy to put on and listen the whole way through without question. The tracks transition so well. It’s consistent without feeling repetitive, which is a pitfall of many artists. It’s the attention to detail here that keeps the album floating along. The variety of instruments, the lyrics, the layering — all of these things keep the album listenable against what is a somber story.

13. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
The expert musical arrangements on Helplessness Blues show the band’s quick maturity. Their dedication to both folk music’s roots and progress are apparent in their homages to a classic sound while staying true to their own careful aesthetic. The vocals are up to par with any other Fleet Foxes release here. It’s hard to find anything to complain about here. Maybe it’s a little stylistically dry and doesn’t beg me for as many re-listens as other albums. But it’s hard to dispute what a lovely work of craftsmanship and heart this album is. This album’s accomplishments are peerless in the realm of folk today.

12. Washed Out – Within and Without
I think the title of the song “Feel It All Around” succinctly captures what this album is all about. Hell, so does the album title. And artist name. It’s like you already know what you are getting into before you listen: dreamy, hypnotic, electronic rhythms that have a way of staying with you the entire day. For some, even taking the time to listen to this album is avoided because a quick synopsis of the style sounds so trite. Washed Out stands in a sea of other 80s-influenced bands with drum machines and synths who sing catchy tunes. What separates Ernest Greene (Washed Out) from his peers is simple: he has mastered the style and delivers it with absolute finesse.

The strings surprised me on this album — they don’t stand out, they meld so organically with the rest of the textures. It’s proof of how well these songs were engineered. The layering is so exceptional. The album is great if you are at home and chilling out, but it’s also great to blast in the car. It’s perfect to listen to while hanging out with someone. It sounds even better alone.

11. The Rapture – In The Grace of Your Love
The Rapture–one of the founders of the disco-punk genre–need little introduction. I maintain that this was one of the most underrated albums of the year. It’s unfortunate because it does share a flaw many albums this year shared: inconsistent quality. But when this album shines, it shines so brightly. The title track as well as one of the best singles of the year, “How Deep Is Your Love?” are hard to contend with. But “Sail Away,” “Children,” and “Never Gonna Die Again” come close enough to be content with.

10. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney (and Portlandia) fame has not lost her touch. But she has found revitalization through Wild Flag. This album is full of so much energy and direction that it’s almost difficult to believe it was put together by such veterans. The album’s only flaw–once again–is track consistency, suffering a bit in the mid-section. But it’s never bad, and each track does feel distinct and interesting. There are some really catch songs here, and they are as vibrant as the album’s cover.

9. Junior Boys  It’s All True
This album is so tightly produced. Every beat, every word lands so gracefully in its place. I feel like this is Junior Boys’ most consistently good album to date. They’ve always had a knack for minimal, catchy dance tunes, but it took them a while to get just the right formula. They found it here, and it’s been extremely pleasant to listen to. I caught these guys live this year and expected it to be be good, but they caught me off guard with *how* good they brought their sound to the live environment. It made me realize what expert musicians they really are.

8. Wolf Gang – Suego Faults
I’m not sure if this album simply went under the radar for a lot of people or they just don’t share my love for this over-the-top, 70s-prog influenced indie pop. I suppose at the least, fans of fun. (Nate Russ) should check this out, since I don’t think it’s for everyone.

But god damn is this album catchy. “Lions in Cages,” “The King and All of His Men,” and “Stay and Defend” are just perfect pieces of pop. Similar to fun., you can hear a lot of Queen influence. But I feel like they have done an excellent job of crafting their own distinct sound here; most importantly, their songwriting is stellar. There are well-balanced highs and lows. They are definitely more confident with their upbeat songs, but even slower ballad jams like “Midnight Dancers” surprised the hell out of me. If you get sucked into this album and its sound, it can be difficult to stop listening to.

7. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
This album was polarizing. But I don’t think it was between “love” and “hate” as much as it was between “entranced” and “bored to shit.” I think perhaps depending on my mood I can find myself to be either one. So, I empathize with the people who felt the latter. Nonetheless, I felt the former for most of my listening experience. I think when we eventually look back on this decade, most will recognize this album as an epic, ethereal masterpiece.

M83’s dedication to their sound is apparent right from the start. The Intro track stands as one of their best balances between ambient and pop, which are two disparate styles finding themselves merged as one beautiful beast on this album. Songs like “Midnight City” — the album’s highly buzzed-about single — as well as “New Map” and “Steve McQueen” are masterwork crafts of shoegazey dream pop. But I think the best moment on the album once again goes back to when they perfectly blend all of their styles together. That moment being the song “Wait,” which stands as the most gorgeous track on the album. What makes the song so great is not only the juxtaposition of ambient and pop, but also happiness and sadness. The best songs are usually those two things at the same time.

6. St. Vincent- Strange Mercy
Annie Clark gained quite a few admirers this year–me included, at least more than I already admired.  I enjoyed her last album, 2009’s “Actor,” but I feel like it was missing a stylistic edge. She found one here on Strange Mercy. I don’t think she will continue the style as it has mostly filled its purpose on this surreallistic conceptual album. I overuse the adjective ‘haunting’ but I really have no choice but to use it here. When you’ve got lyrics like “best find a surgeon, come cut me open” aligned next to perfectly lo-fi, drowning synths and horns and punctuated with unkempt electronic guitars, there are few other words one can use.

No matter how bizarre and edgy the production of this album is, Clark’s voice is still the main attraction here, which is a testament to her skill as an artist. There are few vocalists today who could carry this album through the dissonant production and caustic themes with such elegance. Every word of her delivery is emphasized so deliberately, creating the perfect mood. This is why I love her so much more than someone like Adele. Maybe Clark doesn’t have quite her range in sound, but she has so much more of a range of style and character and intrigue.

5. James Blake – James Blake
Earlier in the year, I had it rattling around in my head that this might be my favorite of the year. I still love this album, but I feel like its second half pales in comparison to the first. “Unluck,” “The Wilhelm Scream,” “Lindisfarne I & II,” and of course the superb Feist cover “Limit To Your Love” all serve as some of the best tracks this year. The rest of the album is certainly interesting, listenable, and challenging, but I don’t find myself returning to them nearly as often as these first tracks.

Out of all of the artists ‘doing this kind of thing’ this year, James Blake is probably the most stylistically definitive. His minimalistic, desolate R&B textures are so simple, yet so distinct. I want to stress that point because it’s a bit unbelievable that he even pulled it off. His music is often compared to dubstep, but it’s much closer to Burial than Skrillex. At the end of the day, though, I think the style is more coincidental of the times. Blake is successful right now because of his great production, gripping emotion, and excellent voice — he has more than a passing fad at his disposal. His new EP, “Love What Happened Here,” just makes me even more excited for what awaits in the future from James Blake.

4. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Black Up was an obvious victor for my favorite hip-hop album of the year. Ishmael Butler brings so much experience and maturity on this album; yet, it’s so laid back and seemingly effortless. Don’t let his nonchalant delivery confuse you–the style and production of this album was clearly a labor of love. Lyrically, the album is surreal and witty, yet down to earth. The album is strange and dark, but never wallows for long.

Every track stands strong on its own, yet they all fit together so well. Everything from the bass blasts of “French Curl” to the exceptionally layered “Swerve… the Reeping of All That is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)” is worth listening to repeatedly. I’m not sure why most of the track names sound like they should be on a post-rock album, but I guess don’t have an issue with it. The album has some quirks, but nothing unforgivable. It’s not just rare in hip-hop, it’s rare in music in general to find such impressive dedication to songwriting and style.

3. Active Child – You Are All I See
As I mentioned in a previous blog post about the ‘state of music today,’ I’ve never been a huge fan of R&B. But this album in addition to several more this year have left me wondering what I’ve been missing all of these years. Active Child is Pat Grossi. His vocal performance on this album could be summarized with words like enchanting or and the music could be described as divine. But I’m not sure these words do the album’s sound justice. And certainly a trite statement like that doesn’t, either.

You Are All I See certainly stretches a bit outside of the realm of R&B in most of these tracks. It’s “Hanging On” and “Playing House” that garner most of the R&B influence, which are also (probably not coincidentally) the two best tracks on the album. While the quality is never *quite* as amazing as the aforementioned top tracks, they are consistently good. Songs like High Priestess, Ancient Eye, and Way Too Fast are haunting and beautiful. The only fault is that the tracks do start to blend together a bit — songs like Sword and Shield are good, but ultimately feel like a hodgepodge of rehashed ideas from other tracks.

I submit that the album is far less than perfect. But I can’t deny how frequently I’ve listened to this album in comparison to others. Between Pat Grossi’s fantastic voice and the heavily stylized, ear-pleasing production, this album is hard not to listen to again and again. The album strikes an cathartic mood with pinpoint accuracy and delicacy. This is why, for me, it is such a great album and one of my favorites of the year.

2. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
This album is so sweet and sugary that it feels like it should be a guilty pleasure. But there’s no shame at all in loving this album. Titular track “Belong” stands as one of my most-listened to songs of the year; and while I’m not a big fan of music videos, “Heart in Your Heartbreak” is just wonderful. All in all, the album is consistently great, assaulting the listener with a bombardment of catchy melodies, bittersweet lyrics, and refined production.

My love for this album was not immediately, however. Following their self-titled debut album, I expected something equally raw and distorted. When I encountered the careful production of this album, I felt like they had abandoned their sound. And while perhaps they did lose a bit of nostalgia and quaintness from their old sound, it does allow their actual songwriting to stand out much better. I feel like tracks stand out more on this album than the previous, since they don’t all bleed together in the same drowned-out lo-fi production.

Needless to say, when I returned to this album later in the year, I fell in love with it. For the most part, the track quality is consistent–there are only two varieties- “immaculate” and “amazing.” If they were all the former, there’s no question this would be my #1.

1. Destroyer – Kaputt
In the end, this was not a difficult choice. As many amazing albums as there were this year, this one shines on another level of creativity. “Meticulous” is the only word I can think of to describe his character actor-esque performance on “Kaputt.” It’s a style that permeates throughout every sound, every word. It’s commendable enough to arrange captivating sounds and words, but to create a captivating characters and surreal stories on top of that is rare–especially in a world of so much self-conscious doubt of our own identities.

The fourth wall is something rarely even constructed in music. And perhaps for the right reasons — artists seek to create a personal connection with their audiences. Any kind of ‘wall’ impeding this connection would usually be seen as counterproductive. But we are cutting the medium short if we only allow music to be full of confessional anthems and disconnected poetry. Music–like any other creative medium–has the capacity to provide escape and to introduce us to unfamiliar worlds captured/created by the artist. Not that Bejar is the only one doing this. Tom Waits, for example, is one of the most prolific storytelling musicians.

This kind of theatrical, dramatic delivery is not new to Bejar, either. He’s a chameleon of an artist that is probably already working on a new style, like an actor looking for the next big role. Except he brings his own roles to life through his music, which is perhaps why it all feels so unique and unclassifiable. Most of the mood and imagery captured on “Kaputt” is viewed through the lens of a 1980s post-disco drug-induced haze. Bejar gracefully enveloping himself within this scenery without making it feel contrived or trite. He never breaks character except perhaps on the eleven-minute epic “Bay of Pigs” which was initially released on an EP back in 2009. On “Kaputt” it serves more as an dreamy after-thought, but still fits well within the overall aesthetic.

The album’s remaining 8 tracks contain a satisfying maze of musical motifs. These recurring themes are more directly conveyed in the lyrics, but the mood itself carries so well from song-to-song even despite each track being distinct with careful songwriting and delicate, pleasing, rarely dissonant textures. Musical influences include soft jazz, chamber pop, disco, and dream pop.

Bejar’s vocal performances also tap into these influences. His smooth, confident delivery manages to strike such compelling juxtapositions as self-deprecating and arrogant; hilarious and melancholic; hope and loss; love and disgust. As much as Bejar’s strange character seems like a wandering, coke-addict playboy, he is identifiable because he is lost–lost in love, lost in life, lost in himself. There are many artists that takes you places by creating a particular mood. But on Destroyer’s “Kaputt”, you can make out everything from the blood-like smell of rust in the air  to the gaudy wallpaper peeling off the wall as well as the exact level of intoxication of the bizarre man sitting next to you, telling you his life story.

 

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Posted on December 16, 2011, in Music. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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