Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: The Year in Culture

Overall, 2011 was a disappointing year in terms of the arts I follow, particularly coming off the high of 2010. But there were still many movies to see, albums to hear, songs to dance to, and television to watch. Once again I felt compelled to share my unsolicited opinions about my favorite cultural works of the year. Below, please find my lists:

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Top Ten Movies of 2011

I saw a lot of films this year but ultimately I found 2011 to offer a relatively meager selection of good movies. I failed to warm to Terrence Malick's Tree of Life the way others have (I'm still not sure what that movie is about) and actually didn't find my favorite film of the year until I saw it a week ago. But if I struggled to find movies I loved, there were plenty I liked and a few I was fond of even if they were imperfect (Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is a good example). Below are my favorite films of 2011:

10) Melancholia
Lars Von Trier's latest is a story about the end of the world and, more disturbingly, what it feels like to think the world is ending. As with all of Von Trier's films, the themes are not particularly life-affirming, but the technical mastery is top-notch and this time around the aesthetics are beautiful. In chronicling one woman's (a marvelous Kirsten Dunst) depression, Von Trier's has found a natural vessel for his characteristic misanthropy. And yet, the film leaves a mark more triumphant than pessimistic -- you leave the theater much happier than any of the film's characters.

9) Contagion
Director Steven Soderbergh looks at the spread of a viral pandemic with an appropriately clinical eye, giving equal attention to the ensuing hysteria and the work of managing it and finding a cure. The scenario is terrifying -- you'll never look at the spread of germs the same way -- which only makes the resolution all the more exhilarating. With an excellent ensemble led by Kate Winslet, as a CDC agent managing the response, and Jennifer Ehle, as the researcher who finds the cure, Contagion interweaves a variety of stories about the impact of the virus, and while some are markedly more effective than others, the film as whole is at once harrowing and thrilling.

8) Margin Call
JC Chandor's debut film is surprisingly compelling for how much of the movie is just talk. Set in the New York offices of an investment firm on the eve of the financial crisis, Margin Call tells the story of the crisis from the eyes of the bankers and analysts who were responsible for it. But the film is more Mamet than Wall Street -- Chandor is less interested in the details of what happened than in the underlying motivations and emotions that make these men (and one woman) tick. With a stellar cast led by Kevin Spacey and Zachary Quinto, Margin Call is a small movie that makes a big impression.

7) Take Shelter
About 98% of Take Shelter is fantastic. And then that last 2% is...frustrating, but I'll get to that later. In Jeff Nichols' haunting film, Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a man who starts having apocalyptic visions and begins mortgaging his financial well-being to prepare for their potential fruition. As his neighbors and eventually his wife (Jessica Chastain) start worrying for his mental health, Curtis continues his mission unabated, walking ever so dangerously on the edge of sanity and financial ruin. Take Shelter is fascinating as blue collar allegory of our modern day depression -- the paycheck to paycheck living that leaves everyone vulnerable. And it's also a searing portrait of obsession, as Shannon gives an indelible performance as a man committed to protecting his family in the face of unbelievable visions. I didn't love the ending because I found it unnecessary, but it's in keeping with movie's ongoing suggestion that modern living is far more precarious than we realize.

6) Bridesmaids
The best comedy of the year, Paul Feig's Bridesmaids is an uproariously funny story of Annie (Kristen Wiig) and her ongoing failures at being a good maid of honor to her best friend (Maya Rudolph). More impressively, the film is also emotionally honest, capturing not just the hilarity but the real life anxiety, insecurity, and competitiveness that all thirty-somethings feel as they watch their friends move to different stages of life. But ultimately it's the funny moments that make this film great -- the dressing room scene alone would have earned Bridesmaids a spot on my list.

5) Martha Marcy May Marlene
The most impressive debut of the year, Sean Durkin's psychological thriller about a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, in a breakthrough performance) who escapes a cult is an ingenious exercise in structure and form -- Durkin keeps his audience in a state of anxiety similar to Martha's, as both what she experiences and what we see remain slightly off-kilter. In flashbacks to Martha's time under the spell of her cult leader (John Hawkes), we see the root of her unease and the seductive nature of his charm. And by the end of the movie, we realize Durkin has cast a spell of his own.

4) The Interrupters
The best documentary of the year, Steve James' The Interrupters follows members of Chicago's CeaseFire, a group of ex-cons and former gang members who try to interrupt urban violence before it claims lives and escalates into street warfare. James, as he did in Hoop Dreams, shows admirable restraint with his camera and is rewarded for his patience -- the footage he gets is both gripping and eye-opening. What he captures is the systemic nature of the causes of urban violence -- the culture and situations that lead to unnecessary deaths and urban decay. But The Interrupters is important not only for its lens on our society's problems, but also for its focus on the many reformers who have escaped past mistakes to lead lives of incredible integrity and courage. They may be fighting an unwinnable war, but the violence interrupters offer inspiration in every battle they fight.

3) Hugo
Martin Scorsese's tribute to the cinema of yesteryear is disguised as a children's tale about an orphan living in a Paris train station, but don't let that fool you -- Hugo is about much more than the adventures of a child. Rather, Scorsese uses Hugo's story as an entryway to tell the fascinating tale of film pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who in old age is forced to work at the same Paris train station that houses the story's titular character. It's only appropriate that Scorsese uses this story, about a cinematic innovator, to pursue his own experiments in innovation -- Hugo is notable not only for its lovely story, but also its subtle and effective use of 3D, which is put to better use here than it has been since Avatar.

2) Certified Copy
At the start of acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's latest film, we watch an art historian (William Shimmel) take a seemingly innocent trip with a Frenchwoman (Juliette Binoche) who appears to be a fan of his work. But over the next two hours, the relationship starts to evolve and change in ways that are bewildering and fascinating, and it becomes clear that Certified Copy is a relationship drama where the central question is about the relationship -- is it old or is it new, is it significant or is it all just a game? Certified Copy suggests that whether real or fake, a genuine article or an artificial copy, the emotions and memories can be resonant and meaningful in any case.

1) A Separation
I didn't anticipate that my two favorite films of the year would be foreign ones (let alone both by Iranian directors!), but when I saw A Separation last week, I knew it was my favorite film of the year. Asghar Farhadi's domestic drama initially appears to be about an Iranian couple's impending divorce, but it soon turns into a much bigger tale about the impact of that separation -- on the care of the elderly, on the well-being of the children, on the couple's status under the law and in their community. By constantly shifting the perspective and withholding just enough information to make the audience feel secure in their judgment, Farhadi undermines expectations and lets sympathies shift so that by the end everyone and everything we've seen is clouded in ambiguity -- just like life itself. A Separation is a remarkable feat of storytelling and the best film of the year.

Top Ten Television Shows of 2011

As bountiful as the year was in terms of good television, there were fewer great new shows in 2011 than in past years -- only two series that premiered this year made my top ten (though I did not get a chance to see Showtime's Homeland, which debuted this fall to acclaim). Still, the good programs that returned were in fine form, both in drama and in comedy. Below are my favorite TV shows of the year (note there will be spoilers in some of my write-ups):

Honorable Mention:
Bob's Burgers (Fox); Happy Endings (ABC); Men of a Certain Age (TNT)
These three TV programs fell just shy of making my top ten, but I wanted to give them some attention since they're all worth watching. Bob's Burgers, the best program on Fox's animated comedy block, is a strange and often hilarious show about an eccentric family that runs a burger shop. The voice actors are phenomenal -- particularly Kristen Schaal and Dan Muntz as Bob's daughters -- and the writing is very sharp, making it my favorite new comedy of the year.

ABC's Happy Endings, meanwhile, started off as a generic Friends retread but slowly evolved into something more distinct, taking full advantage of its talented ensemble of young comedic actors to tell stories that are often very silly and also very funny. Adam Pally, as a gay character who is pretty much the opposite of the stereotype, tends to steal the show, but the whole cast is very likable. It's the best Friends clone since How I Met Your Mother.

TNT's Men of a Certain Age was canceled after its second season, which is a pity because the show was unique for its understated examination of the everyday obstacles and occasional victories that are a part of growing older. Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher, as the men of the title, gave impressive performances that made viewers care about the small scale dramas of the characters. The show is canceled, but Men of a Certain Age is worth catching on DVD if you haven't seen it.

Now to the top ten:

10) Treme (HBO)
In its second season, David Simon's series about New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina started to tell the story of the city's rebuilding a year after the storm, showcasing not only the political machinations involved in the redevelopment but also the devastating increase in crime and the strain on government resources that usually follow a destructive event. But as with Simon's best work, the sociological and political messages are secondary to the growth of the characters, and this year Treme told touching stories about many of them, such as Ladonna's (Khandi Alexander) difficult recovery after a trauma, and Antoine's (Wendell Pierce) efforts to get his own band off the ground. In the backdrop, the culture of New Orleans was portrayed as vividly as ever, enveloping the narratives and serving as a reminder of why The Big Easy is worth fighting for.

9) Downton Abbey (PBS)
I'll admit, Downton Abbey doesn't really add much to the existing collection of period British dramas that address the old world class structure and the upstairs, downstairs dynamics of lords and their servants. But damn if the show isn't so much gossipy, melodramatic fun. Immaculately capturing the early 20th century period in which its set, Downton Abbey focuses on the trials and tribulations of a noble family struggling to find a suitable heir, as well as the abbey's loyal servants who face their own series of challenges. While the characters are often one dimensional, the excellent cast and the deliciously arch dialogue are more than enough to keep you riveted. You can catch up on the short first season on Netflix streaming before the second one begins next week on PBS.

8) Game of Thrones (HBO)
Like Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones is another genre show, but also like Downton Abbey it quickly transcends the genre with its universal themes of duty and honor, superb writing, stellar ensemble cast, and incredible production values. In adapting George R.R. Martin's fantasy novels, creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have ably melded the necessary exposition with fantastic action (and, as fits a show on HBO, sex), creating a crossover hit that appeals to both fantasy fans and good television fans alike. The last few episodes in particular barreled forward with such momentum, piling on the double-crosses, deaths, and premonitions, that by the end of season one it took restraint on my part not to pick up immediately one of Martin's books to see what happens next.

7) The Good Wife (CBS)
When The Good Wife first premiered, the initial hook was its ripped from the headlines story of the betrayed wife of a powerful politician. It's to the producers' credit that they never turned away from that interest in the happenings of the real world and have instead embraced it, but without resorting to unsubtle Law and Order-style rip-offs of current events. Rather, The Good Wife stays relevant by incorporating very modern conceptions of technology and office politics into its byzantine story lines, and by letting each case of the week advance the development of the show's fascinating cast of characters. For three seasons in a row The Good Wife has been the most sophisticated drama on broadcast television.

6) Community (NBC)
Over the course of its three seasons, Community has proven itself to be the most inventive sitcom on television. Creator Dan Harmon builds episodes like puzzles, often using different perspectives, narrative structures, and homages to create fully-formed stories that manage to be groundbreaking and still consistently hilarious. This season alone brought episodes featuring different timelines, multiple genre homages, and, in my favorite episode of the season, a clip show with flashbacks to events that viewers hadn't seen before. Harmon's experimentation does not always yield magnificent results, but with a stellar cast and his able writing staff, the results are more often brilliant than disappointing. Here's hoping Community's upcoming hiatus from the NBC schedule will be brief -- I'm eager to see what Harmon comes up with next.

5) Friday Night Lights (DirectTV/NBC)
In its last season, Friday Night Lights went out on a triumphant note both for the series and for the Dillon Lions. Showrunner Jason Katims took a sizable risk when he introduced a whole set of new characters and retired some old ones, but by the end of the show we cared as much about the Lions' Vince Howard as we had the Panthers' Jason Street. And that's because, ultimately, Friday Night Lights was never very much about a specific football team; rather, it was about the community of Dillon and all the hopes, dreams, and challenges that found their way onto the football field. At the center of it all was one of the best marriages ever depicted on television, between Coach Taylor and his supportive wife (the superb Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), guiding posts of support not only for the players and students under their watch but also for each other. They, and this wonderful show, will be missed.

4) Justified (FX)
In its debut season, Justified was a very good show that still struggled to figure out how to incorporate Elmore Leonard's distinct voice -- the show is based on one of his crime stories -- into a serialized drama about a trigger-happy lawman named Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). By the end of the second season, those struggles vanished, yielding way to a fully-realized, perfectly wrought story of one man's relationship with his hometown and its history. Set in the deep Appalachia of Kentucky, Justified spent its second season focused on Raylan's entanglements with the Bennett clan -- controllers of the Harlan County pot trade -- and specifically their manipulative matriarch Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, who deservedly won an Emmy for her performance). But in addition to the fascinating new characters, this season also added more depth to Raylan and his slippery adversary Boyd (Walter Goggins), creating rich stories that mined the shared history of the characters to full effect. The third season, which begins in January, cannot come soon enough.

3) Breaking Bad (AMC)
Vince Gilligan described his idea for Breaking Bad as the story of Mr.Chips turning into Scarface, and in its fourth season the transformation was complete -- Walt (the always amazing Bryan Cranston) ended the season in control of his fate, masterminding his way to freedom from Gus (Giancarlo Esposito, in the performance of the year) and a reconciliation with Jesse (Aaron Paul). Along the way, we were witness to some breathtaking scenes -- Breaking Bad continues to be the most visually arresting program on television -- that ratcheted the suspense to such incredible heights that you'd be forgiven for looking away. But that's what makes Breaking Bad such compelling television -- no show has a better understanding of pacing, patience, and how to deliver a payoff. If I didn't like this season as much as season three, it's only because the last minute twist left me slightly cold for seeming a little too clever. But that just speaks to what I've come to expect from this show -- and what better deserves our high expectations than the best drama on television?

2) Parks and Recreation (NBC)
The funniest comedy on television is also the sweetest, and that may be why Parks and Recreation is such an incredible show. Showrunner Michael Schur and his writers have created a world where even the silliest elements of the show are grounded by the heart of the characters and the skill of the performances. This season introduced a new crisis in Pawnee, as the Parks and Recreation division decided to put on a harvest festival to help address a budget shortfall. The episodes that revolved around the festival made up the most consistently funny stretch of TV all year, and also brought in new characters played by Adam Scott and Rob Lowe who fit perfectly into Pawnee's already expansive universe. Parks and Recreation is a comedy, but it delivers something more impressive than laughter: pure joy.

1) Louie (FX)
Louis CK's show defies categorization because it's unlike anything else on TV. I loved the show's first season, but nothing could prepare me for how bold and inventive the second season turned out to be. This season, CK delved even deeper into his profession, showcasing what it means to be a working comedian, often with the thanks of excellent guest stars like Joan Rivers, Dane Cook, and Doug Stanhope. But it's telling that CK is more interested in the lives of comedians than the comedy itself, since his show is ultimately about life -- what we're responsible for, how we should live, and what we shouldn't take for granted. He tackles these subjects through prisms as different as the Afghanistan War and evangelical Christianity, but underneath it all is his deep, abiding interest in how we behave and what we value. He's made the most humanist program on television and the best television show of 2011.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Best Albums of 2011

To be honest, I thought the year in music was a disappointing one -- I think any of my top 5 albums from last year would have been at the top of my list this year. Moreover, there were few stellar debuts from new artists, leaving my list filled with returning acts. Given the limited offerings this year, I'm hoping 2012 brings better things. Still, there were highlights in 2011 -- below are my favorite albums of the year (including embeds of the full albums so you can listen to them yourselves):

25) The Decemberists - The King is Dead
The Decemberists have a well-worn shtick and never veer to far from it, but they’ve benefited from leaving behind the prog-rock excesses of their previous albums and returning to their more simple roots. The result is a very entertaining album, no matter how familiar it feels.
Best tracks: “Don’t Carry It All”, “Calamity Song”
The Decemberists - The King is Dead by Suds on Grooveshark

24) Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
The second album from San Francisco’s Girls is a more confident, diverse effort than their debut, as songwriter Christopher Owens covers terrain as disparate as sunny beach pop to psychedelic rock. The genre experimentation isn’t always successful, but the ambition is part of the album’s appeal – at this rate of growth, their next album could be extraordinary.
Best tracks: “Honey Bunny”, “Forgiveness”

Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost by Suds on Grooveshark

23) Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes
The Swedes have always had a knack for writing catchy pop music and Lykke Li fits firmly in her country’s tradition. While none of the songs on her latest album equal some of the pop highs she’s hit on previous ones, it’s her most cohesive, consistent outing to date.
Best tracks: “Get Some”, “Sadness Is a Blessing”
Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes by Suds on Grooveshark

22) Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What
I’ve always been a fan of Paul Simon’s beautiful solo work and his first album in five years finds him in prime form. At 69, his songs on his latest album are appropriately contemplative, with titles like “Afterlife” and “Rewrite”. But the delicate melodies and clever turns of phrase remain, no matter the subject matter.
Best tracks: “Rewrite”, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”
Paul Simon - So Beautiful Or So What by Suds on Grooveshark

21) Real Estate - Days
New Jersey’s Real Estate sound like they should be from another place, somewhere more suited to their jangly guitar pop and sunny melodies. As with their first album, Real Estate’s music can sometimes be too gentle, but the laid back charm is ultimately too tough to resist
Best tracks: “It’s Real”, “Wonder Years”
Real Estate - Days by Suds on Grooveshark

20) Raphael Saddiq - Stone Rollin'
With retro acts, it can be tough to tell where inspiration ends and imitation begins. I’ll admit to having that problem with some of Rafael Saddiq’s music, but there’s no denying his talent for honoring the soul and R&B styles of the 60s. In his best songs, he expands on the traditions he so capably mimics.
Best tracks: “Good Man”, “Movin Down the Line”
Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin' by Suds on Grooveshark

19) Wild Flag - Wild Flag
Sleater-Kinney was always a bit too “difficult” for my taste, so I was genuinely surprised when Wild Flag, featuring two of Sleater-Kinney’s band members, put out such an accessible record. Filled with short, energetic songs and strong guitar hooks, Wild Flag was one of the best debuts of the year.
Best tracks: “Romance”, “Boom”
Wild Flag - Wild Flag by Suds on Grooveshark

18) The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar
I first heard this Welsh band two years ago, when their very impressive debut EP was released. Half of their first full-length album is comprised of songs from that EP, and those songs remain the strongest on the record – big pop songs with wall of sound melodies and undeniably catchy hooks. The new material sadly doesn’t add much, but it’s worth listening to this album for those EP songs alone.
Best tracks: “Whirring”, “Austere”
The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar by Suds on Grooveshark

17) Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know
21 year old Laura Marling has made my albums list with each of her three albums, and her latest continues to demonstrate what a powerful musician she is, straddling the lines between folk and rock with ease. She’s firmly established herself as this generation’s heir to Joni Mitchell.
Best tracks: “The Muse”, “Sophia”
Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know by Suds on Grooveshark

16) Florence & The Machine - Ceremonials
There’s grandeur to all the songs Florence Welch sings – her skill knows no other mode than big and bracing. In fact, everything about her second album is big, from the long track list to the majestic wall of sound she delivers on nearly all the tracks. It is a big production in the best way.
Best tracks: “Shake It Out”, “No Light, No Light”
Florence and the Machine - Ceremonials by Suds on Grooveshark

15) The Antlers - Burst Apart
Brooklyn trio The Antlers followed up their superb first album about death with a sophomore effort about doomed love – happy-go-lucky these guys are not. But they always do justice to their weighty themes, crafting songs of beauty that emerge from the noise and tragedy that surround them.
Best tracks: “I Don’t Want Love”, “Hounds”
The Antlers - Burst Apart by Suds on Grooveshark

14) PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
On her tenth album, England’s PJ Harvey tackles songs of war, utilizing an eclectic array of genres and sounds to make her protest. The message and the music are arresting, a reminder that some of the best art is inspired by conflict.
Best tracks: “Let England Shake”, “Written on the Forehead”
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake by Suds on Grooveshark

13) Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation
Trevor Powers, the man behind Youth Lagoon, recorded this album all alone in his bedroom and the resulting tracks feel appropriately intimate and enchanting. The Year of Hibernation is a pop album that feels littered with contradictions – hazy yet bright, welcoming yet distant. The constant throughout is Powers’ talent.
Best tracks: “Cannons”, “Afternoon”
Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation by Suds on Grooveshark

12) St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
On her third album, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) strips away the delicate gloss that was there on her previous efforts and lets her manic, guitar-driven rock impulses come forward. The result is an album filled with powerful moments and wild flourishes, and her best outing yet.
Best tracks: “Cruel”, “Surgeon”
St. Vincent - Strange Mercy by Suds on Grooveshark

11) tUnE-yArDs – Whokill
tUnE-yArDs (aka Merrill Garbus) is a one-woman force of nature, for there are more unique sounds in a single Tune-Yards song than in most albums. Her sophomore album is a treasure of “how is she doing that” moments, from her vocal manipulations to her endless drum loops. She may be the only musician today who is making music no one could come close to imitating.
Best tracks: “Gangsta”, “Bizness”
Tune-yards - whokill by Suds on Grooveshark

10) Drake – Take Care
Given that he doesn’t sing and even his rapping can be overly plaintive, I didn’t expect to like Drake very much. But his second album is just too interesting to dismiss; whether he’s rapping about the aunt who took care of him, the shame he feels at hitting on a married woman, or the superficiality of his stardom, Drake is one of the few hip-hop artists who puts all his inner turmoil in his music. It’s tough not to be mesmerized as the drama unfolds.
Best tracks: “Look What You’ve Done”, “Make Me Proud”
Drake - Take Care by Suds on Grooveshark

9) The Black Keys – El Camino
The duo from Akron just keeps getting better, as they add just enough polish to their elemental garage rock to make their sound at once radio-ready but still fundamentally rough around the edges. If their latest album is not quite as good as Brothers, their previous album, it speaks more to how good that album was than to any deficiency on the part of El Camino, which features some of the band’s best songs.
Best tracks: “Lonely Boy”, “Gold on the Ceiling”
The Black Keys - El Camino by Suds on Grooveshark

8) The Weeknd - House of Balloons
The best hip-hop album and the best debut of the year, House of Balloons was the first and best of three albums put out by The Weeknd in 2011. His laconic singing/rapping style, often disturbing lyrics, and masterful understanding of mood and atmosphere make for a seductive musical experience, one made all the more amazing for how effortless it seems.
Best tracks: “High for This”, “Loft Music”
The Weeknd - House of Ballons by Suds on Grooveshark

7) Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
Death Cab returned this year with an album that was less mopey and emo than their usual fare and consequently I found it to be a tremendous outing, chock full of gorgeous instrumentation, great pop hooks, and Ben Gibbard’s typically meaningful lyrics. I hope the end of his marriage to Zooey Deschanel doesn’t send Gibberd into a bout of melancholy because I find Death Cab so much more satisfying when they’re eager to share their happiness rather than their despair.
Best tracks: “St. Peter’s Cathedral”, “Monday Morning”
Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys by Suds on Grooveshark

6) Fucked Up - David Comes to Life
The best and, accordingly, most accessible hardcore album I’ve ever listened to, David Comes to Life is punk rock epic told in 18 tracks about a couple falling love and then…well, I’m not sure what happens then. Lead singer Damian Abraham yells the lyrics with such aggression – most of the time I have no idea what he’s saying – that the narrative is really beside the point. What sticks are the cascading, pulsing melodies and the increasing intensity of the music as the album progresses – Abraham puts his whole heart and soul into each word he screams and his effort and ambition make a lasting impression.
Best tracks: “Queen of Hearts”, “The Other Shoe”
Fucked Up - David Comes to Life by Suds on Grooveshark

5) Wye Oak - Civilian
The third album from Baltimore’s Wye Oak is filled with such lush instrumentation and gorgeous vocals it’s hard to believe there are only two people involved in the project. With its big, bold guitar hooks and lovely harmonies, Civilian is easily Wye Oak’s best album yet.
Best tracks: “Civilian”, “Holy Holy”
Wye Oak - Civilian by Suds on Grooveshark

4) Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital
Now that Wolf Parade has officially broken up, fans of that band – I was a big one – must rely on the solo projects of its former members to get our fix of propulsive, innovative indie rock. Fortunately, Dan Boeckner’s Handsome Furs is one of the best acts around today, routinely producing high energy, heart pounding rock songs both in the studio and in concert (they were my favorite live show of the year). Their third album is a thrill ride from beginning to end, and while the band may not be as creative as some of the others on this list, they remain one of the most consistent.
Best tracks: “Repatriated”, “Cheap Music”
Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital by Suds on Grooveshark

3) Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Seattle’s Fleet Foxes followed up their stellar debut with a gorgeous sophomore effort, fully featuring the band’s lush vocals and beautiful harmonies. This time around they’ve added some additional instrumentation, like zithers and Tibetan singing bowls, to enhance their robust, woodsy sound.
Best tracks: “Battery Kinzie”, “Montezuma”
Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues by Suds on Grooveshark

2) Wilco - The Whole Love
I haven’t really enjoyed a Wilco album for the last decade, but The Whole Love reminded me of how much fun it can be to listen to a Wilco album when the experimental instrumentation and layers of noise the band is known for are used in the service of a strong melody. It may be unfair to call it a comeback, but for my money The Whole Love is the best work the band has done since their masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Best tracks: “Art of Almost”, “I Might”
Wilco - The Whole Love by Suds on Grooveshark

1) Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Justin Vernon’s magnificent debut album featured such spare, fragile melodies that I don’t think anyone expected his follow-up to be the synthesizer-filled, instrument-heavy album he produced. But it speaks to the size of his talent that Bon Iver is as impressive an accomplishment as Vernon’s debut, with the more expansive melodies showcasing his delicate vocals in ways that are even more expressive and moving than before. Bon Iver continues to move and impress me – it’s my favorite album of 2011.
Best tracks: “Holocene”, “Calgary”
Bon Iver - Bon Iver by Suds on Grooveshark

The Top Ten Songs of 2011

As usual, most of the best songs of the year came from artists on my best albums list, and I tend to exclude those songs on this list so I can highlight a few other discoveries. Moreover, a couple of the songs on this list are early highlights from albums that will be coming out in 2012, suggesting next year could be a bountiful one for good music.

Now on to my top ten:

10) Tennis - "Marathon"
The Civil Wars got all the attention, but for my money the duo behind Tennis were the better of this year's new pop music pairs. “Marathon” was the most enjoyable track on their cheery debut album.

9) TEEN - "Better"
Teeny Lieberson, the front-woman of the all girl band TEEN, knows her way around a good melody from her days as the keyboardist in Here We Go Magic. This song is pure pop perfection.

Teen BETTER from FAR EYE on Vimeo.

8) M83 - "Midnight City"
Featuring one of the more recognizable beats of the year, M83’s “Midnight City” was the best techno and most danceable track of 2011.

7) Azealia Banks - "212"
20 year old Azealia Banks’ viral hit is equally raunchy and infectious, and both the filthy lyrics and the earworm beat are mesmerizing.

6) Dum Dum Girls - "Coming Down"
Writing about coming down from a medicated haze, the Dum Dum Girls utilize their garage band sound to capture the washed out, foggy feeling of being in an altered reality and produce a song of touching beauty.

5) Lisa Hannigan - "A Sail"
Singer songwriter Lisa Hannigan has made my songs list before, and while her second album was on the whole too inconsistent for my taste, this track epitomizes her talent for writing utterly infectious melodies with lovely lyrics.

4) Bhi Bhiman - "Guttersnipe"
Singer songwriter Bhi Bhiman is a friend, but his talent is what earned him a spot on this list. The first single from his upcoming self-titled album, “Guttersnipe” puts Bhiman’s powerful vocals and genre-melding (he fits comfortably within the traditions of country, folk, blues and soul) songwriting on full display.

Bhi Bhiman "Guttersnipe" from Bhi Bhiman on Vimeo.

3) Destroyer - "Poor in Love"
I’ve always had a hard time warming to Dan Bejar’s band Destroyer – I prefer his poppier, more accessible collaborations with the The New Pornographers – but I can’t deny the beauty of his lyrics and the unique nature of his melodies. This is my favorite song on his acclaimed album Kaputt.

2) Charles Bradley - "Heartaches and Pain"
I have an admitted soft spot for soul tunes – see my top song pick of last year – so it’s no surprise I was immediately entranced by Charles Bradley’s beautiful and heartbreaking tale of his brother’s death.

1) Alabama Shakes - "Hold On"
Hailing from the small town of Athens, Alabama and led by a dynamo of a lead singer named Brittany Howard, the Alabama Shakes merge southern rock with classic soul to produce a sound that feels at once familiar and utterly original. This song, from their first EP, heralds a big talent and some very bright things to come.