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

1 comment:

  1. What? no Black Lips, White Denim or Peter Bjorn & John?