60 Favorite Albums of 2011: #20-1
Here’s the final leg of this journey. I’d love to tell you my opinion of any album that didn’t make the list in the comment section if you ask.
20 :: Mastodon | The Hunter
I dabbled in metal this year, and from what I could tell it was an excellent year for the genre, with a number of envelope-pushing releases getting crossover praise from the music crit establishment. But the only metal album I returned to with any frequency was the poppiest one of all. The Hunter is also the most pop-oriented release to date from these Atlanta indie metal vets, but charting at #10 on Billboard (whatever the hell that means anymore) didn’t mean sacrificing one ounce of their insane chops.
>>>Key track: “Stargasm”
19 :: St. Vincent | Strange Mercy
Annie Clark seems to do her best to play up her porcelain doll appearance, perhaps because that makes it all the more revelatory when her songs burst forth with tectonic ripples of distortion and weirdness, battling it out with her beautiful voice. There’s nary a weak track on Strange Mercy, but the run of songs that makes up the first half is downright breathtaking, showcasing her nontraditional pop instincts and her fantastic ear for composition at their very best.
>>>Key track: “Cruel”
18 :: Elzhi | Elmatic
The cojones on this guy, right? To remake Illmatic (Illmatic!) with a live funk band — let alone a funk band that looks like a bunch of middle-class dudes picked from the crowd at a Tigers game – and think that your verses won’t shrivel in comparison with Nas’s? Well, maybe that’s how it would appear if Detroit native and Slum Village alumni Elzhi were a more hubristic rapper. (Take your pick, that covers pretty much all other rappers.) But he released this mixtape quietly with few claims of greatness and, hey, it ended up being great. Listen for the skilled and faithful reproductions of those immortal DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Large Professor beats, or listen to hear a guy who should be way more famous slice and dice his way all over a classic. Either way, listen close, because Elmatic has a lot to love.
>>>Key track: “Life’s A Bitch (ft. Royce da 5’9″ & Stokley Williams)”
17 :: James Blake | James Blake
You know, for all the uproar about dubstep this year (SHUT UP, PEOPLE), for the mountains of praise James Blake received on the strength of just a few EPs in 2010, and for the central role he plays in the conversation about the present and future of pop music, this is a pretty understated album. If it was more blustery and, let’s say, statement-y, wouldn’t it be higher on my list? Or perhaps it’d be a letdown like Joker’s The Vision and wouldn’t be on here at all. The middle road was the right road for James Blake, but don’t let its politeness trick you into ignoring its painstaking construction, its compelling replayability, or its subtlety.
>>>Key track: “The Wilhelm Scream”
16 :: The War On Drugs | Slave Ambient
Slave Ambient is the sound of one of the best current up-and-coming bands finally making good on their tremendous potential. I quite liked Wagonwheel Blues but on this Philly group’s sophomore album, they build fortresses out of monolithic synth drones and layered guitar riffs and launch cannonball drums out from the ramparts. At the peak stands Adam Granduciel, undermining (and yet somehow enforcing) the grandiosity of it all with his apathetic drawl. Read my review here.
>>>Key track: “Come To The City”
15 :: Colin Stetson | New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges
Touring Band Member All-Star of the Decade and experimental baritone saxaphonist Colin Stetson opens his second album with some foghorn-like blasts from his massive instrument. It’s a visceral sound that conjures visceral emotion, like a warhorn signaling the start of a battle. When you’re listening to Judges for the first time, don’t expect those visceral emotions to stop. As the climax of “The Stars In His Head” arrives, it feels like that herd of judgment-horses from the cover is bearing down and will trample you. I could talk your ear off about the fascinating methods Stetson employed to record this album, but what really matters is that gutpunch feeling I’m left with every time Judges ends.
>>>Key track: “The Stars In His Head (Dark Lights Remix)”
14 :: Wilco | The Whole Love
Ah, the burden of expectations. Wilco has been my favorite band for some years now and, as such, it’s extremely difficult for me to properly evaluate their albums – for a while I thought The Whole Love would land in my top 5, for sure. Let’s back up a bit: following the diminishing returns of Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), my expectations of their future releases were not exactly high (though my love for all things Wilco is unwavering). But as I listened to the pre-release stream of The Whole Love that the band offered on Labor Day, explosive opener “Art of Almost” and great single “I Might” were followed by track after track of consistent Wilco goodness. Since the fall, my initial excitement over “the best new Wilco album since A Ghost Is Born!” has faded, but the strength of this LP remains, and it’s proof that Tweedy & co. haven’t run out of tricks.
>>>Key track: “Art of Almost”
13 :: M83 | Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming [my version]
I recently posted about my resequenced version of M83′s expansive fifth LP, and while I have yet to hear anyone else’s opinion of my hack job, I have to say it did the trick for me. Where previously I felt disconnected or even annoyed when listening to Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming front-to-back, cutting some of the less-developed tracks and half of the pleasant-but-flow-breaking instrumental interludes allowed me to zero in on this album’s many strengths, which you must be familiar with if you read about music at all this year. Moments of pure, excess-based catharsis on par with Spiritualized in their prime occur frighteningly often. When people look back on what was happening in music in 2011, this album will be right there, as epic as ever.
>>>Key track: “Midnight City”
12 :: Big K.R.I.T. | Return of 4eva
Third Coast champion Justin Scott aka Big K.R.I.T. aka King Remembered In Time constantly dwells on crowns and nobility, but his warmhearted charisma and humility easily outshine this obsession, even when he’s boasting. Plus, who’s to say he’s not destined for a Southern rap crown of his own, considering the level of popularity he’s reached without releasing an official album. All over this masterful second mixtape, he shows his talent, if not as a rapper, than as an incredibly gifted producer, and even more importantly, as a deep thinker who can smuggle his philosophy into pop music. But oh, that production. Vintage Southern rap bangers jostle each other for room for close to an hour, and just before they might get tiresome, he transitions to a reflective, quieter closing suite, peaking with the exquisitely somber ballad “The Vent.” Then, for kicks, he ends the whole thing with a Luda and Bun B-assisted”Country Shit” remix, just to remind us where it all started.
>>>Key track: “Dreamin”
11 :: Real Estate | Days
Music to listen to while you: drive around your hometown, pine for a fling that never was, read some initials carved in a tree, drink a Budweiser in a koozie by a pool filled with leaves, bike past your high school, sit on top of a hill, buy ice cream from the ice cream van, cook hot dogs in the backyard. Real Estate play what it sounds like inside our heads on a weary Sunday, spinning unremarkable but universal experiences into sonic gold. Not the shiny, precious metal gold; more like the color of the fading light in late afternoon in September. Read my review here.
>>>Key track: “It’s Real”
10 :: Feist | Metals
I wasn’t relying on Leslie Feist’s third LP to be anything more than pleasant, but damn! How do people not realize this is her best album? Her voice, guitar playing, and songwriting skills have only gotten stronger, and over the course of Metals she gives us a near-flawless collection of tunes that are mature and complex but still utterly popworthy– from the lurching march of “A Commotion” to the pastoral bliss of “The Circle Married The Line” to the swirling vertigo of “Anti-Pioneer.”
>>>Key track: “The Circle Married The Line”
09 :: Cut Copy | Zonoscope
Zonoscope was one of the first albums I heard in 2011. My brother was visiting me at school and my ears perked up when he pressed play on “Need You Now” and I heard those opening bars from across the room. I listened to the album most incessantly in January and February, but it stuck with me all year, providing the soundtrack for dance parties (both during college and post-), road trips, a strange late night in a McDonalds parking lot, walks home in the sweltering D.C. summer, lonesome drives in the fall in New England, 3am subway rides in New York in December. Its globe-spanning psychedelic dance party from the future sounds just as pristine alone, on headphones, as it does on shitty blown-out speakers in a beer-soaked room with your friends. The masses didn’t raise it up onto a pedestal like they did In Ghost Colours, but it was a big part of my life in the strange and uneven year of 2011 and I don’t expect that to change any time soon.
>>>Key track: “Need You Now”
08 :: Fleet Foxes | Helplessness Blues
Better than any other band I’ve yet discovered, Fleet Foxes capture that feeling of being overwhelmed by the beauty and confusion of being alive. You can hear it in the hymn-to-nature title track from the Sun Giant EP, which introduced them to the world. You can hear it in those wordless howls at the beginning of “Ragged Wood,” from their self-titled debut. And you can hear it all over their sophomore LP, and though things are a little twistier and more baroque this time around, that same gratitude for the gift of life always shines through. Quoth “Bedouin Dress”: “Just to be at Innisfree again.” On “The Shrine/An Argument”: “Apples in the summer, all cold and sweet / every day a’passin complete.” And “Grown Ocean”: “I will see you someday when I’ve woken / I’ll be so happy just to have spoken.” Their complex arrangements and impassioned delivery perfectly match the sentiment of these lyrics, and as long as they keep creating that feeling on record, I’m hooked.
>>>Key track: “Helplessness Blues”
07 :: The Weeknd | House of Balloons / Thursday / Echoes of Silence
I’m cheating, I know. But it seemed to ridiculous to put each piece of The Weeknd’s 2011 mixtape trilogy on here separately, and they all deserve a place on this list, right? Even Echoes of Silence, released just two weeks ago, makes an incontrovertible case for its place as a pivotal part of the Weeknd saga, one of the most fascinating, tradition-busting, genre-bending, revolutionary music stories of the past year. Abel Tesfaye and his production team began shrouded in smoky mystery, like the black and white photo that adorns the cover of House of Balloons. And, like its cover, Thursday (my personal favorite), saw them blooming into full color, taking Tesfaye’s tales of debauchery on a psychedelic genre exploration. Echoes of Silence adds the final nine tracks to this 27-song cycle, cementing The Weeknd’s place on the forefront of R&B, even though they haven’t appeared on TV, played a concert, or sold an album.
>>>Key tracks: “The Morning” / “The Zone (ft. Drake)” / “XO/The Host”
06 :: Destroyer | Kaputt
Bon Iver may be the consensus critical pick of the year, but in my eyes, no one got as much love this year from critics, musicians, and everyday music fans as Dan Bejar. He deserves every single note of praise, as Kaputt, his unexpected masterwork, is a sumptuous, unique, immersive listening experience. Dense without being difficult and nostalgic without being ironic (two extraordinary feats in today’s indie landscape), Kaputt sees the elusive Bejar guiding us through some of the most romantic and tuneful songs 2011 had to offer. Read my review here.
>>>Key track: “Kaputt”
05 :: Yuck | Yuck [Deluxe Edition]
As if the 12-track, 49-minute Yuck didn’t offer enough instant-classic favorites, this youthful British four-piece had to add the stellar six-track B-Sides EP to the pile. Re-released together as the Deluxe Edition, these two records signal the entrance of one of 2011′s brightest new talents. Their sound may be 90s-nostalgia-inducing, but songs like “Get Away,” “Rubber,” “Georgia,” “Operation,” “Milkshake,” and “Stutter” are of such high quality that they can be enjoyed on a level completely separate from nostalgia and genre-referencing. Daniel Blumberg clearly has enough of a preternatural feel for how to put together a song that you could adorn his creations with tropes from any genre and they’d be great. They’d be forgiven for slowing down their pace in 2012, but you won’t see me asking them to do so.
>>>Key track: “Get Away”
04 :: Drake | Take Care
I scoffed when people claimed that Drake was a game-changing rapper in 2009. I think I was rightly skeptical, because he hadn’t proved himself at that point. When I surprised myself by loving Thank Me Later, I let some of that skepticism fall away. Now that Take Care (which I would call the most “zeitgeist-y” release of the year) has been out for a couple of months, it seems silly to argue that Drake is anything but a game-changing pop star. Leading rap’s current charge through R&B, dance music, and ambient while relating some of the most true-to-life moments of humanity (just listen to him rapping about growing up with his aunt in “Look What You’ve Done”) to be found on a release in any genre this year, Aubrey Drake Graham has entered the upper echelon of the most complex and immortal pop figures alive today.
>>>Key track: “Marvins Room”
03 :: Bon Iver | Bon Iver
Justin Vernon is obsessed with place names, and it’s fun to think of the real title of this album — Bon Iver, Bon Iver — as a town called Bon Iver in the state of Bon Iver. The album’s lyrics have almost no literal meaning, so devices like this are helpful — it’s why critics focused so much on the place-named track titles and a few key phrases (“I was not magnificent;” “Third and Lake is where we learned to celebrate”) in their interpretations of Bon Iver. But it’s the music here that counts, and Bon Iver is, from a compositional standpoint, leaps and bounds beyond Vernon’s already-incredible debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. It’s a classically-minded song cycle that exists outside of any musical trend of the past five years and legitimately sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard. So it’s no surprise that it followed in the footsteps of Merriweather Post Pavilion and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as the most critically titanic release of the year.
>>>Key track: “Holocene”
02 :: Girls | Father, Son, Holy Ghost
As Girls, Chris Owens and Chet “JR” White seem to define “song” differently than the majority of their indie contemporaries. Just look on either side of them on this list: Bon Iver and Braids look at songs as little capsules in which to experiment with texture, timbre, atmosphere, mood, intensity, rhythm, etc. But Girls subscribe to some more traditional definition, the one people like Lennon and McCartney and Neil Young and Randy Newman and Van Morrison and other immortal songsmiths had (and have) in mind when they created (and create) music. Some confluence of lyrical resonance and the mysterious tricks that the right chord progression can play on the emotional centers of our brains.
The degree of perfection to which Owens achieves that confluence places him on a ladder ascending towards those all-time greats. It helps that Owens, White, and their band are expert tour guides of rock music’s touchstones, and that the sounds they make could not have been recorded, mixed, and mastered more perfectly than they are on Father, Son, Holy Ghost. I don’t have any particularly evocative adjectives for the music to be found on Girls’ sophomore album — just that it contains the best collection of songs, you know, song songs, released this year.
>>>Key track: “Vomit”
01 :: Braids | Native Speaker
Where to begin with this incomparable debut from Montreal’s Braids? Last year I had Kanye at #1, and this album could not be more different. Where My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy projected itself out into the world in 50-foot-high neon letters, and was received with universal love, Native Speaker folds in on itself, questions only begetting more questions. Its reception consisted of going completely unnoticed by almost everyone, except for a few people like me, who found some deep personal connection with it, and fell head over heels in love with it, and well as head over heels into it, like Alice down the rabbit hole.
Maybe it was that I listened to Native Speaker almost daily while writing my thesis, but its songs sound to me like the sound of my brain working. It has a mechanical quality — with Austin Tufts’ drums, Raphaelle Standell-Preseton’s vocals and guitar, Katie Lee’s synths, and Taylor Smith’s bass interlocking perfectly like the gears of a clock — but it sounds organic as well. It’s both propulsive and dreamy, both mathematical and flexible, both earth-shaking and pensive. Comparisons to a huge variety of other groups — Animal Collective, Cocteau Twins, Mogwai, Gang Gang Dance, Spacemen 3, Battles, Mew — all ring true but fail to define why I love, love, love this album. As I mentioned in the intro to this list, this appreciation is deeply subjective, and I don’t feel more “sophisticated” for hearing something in this album that other people don’t. It’s absolutely worth a listen, but I have no idea whether anybody will feel the same way about it as I do. I do know that Native Speaker soundtracked the firing of my neurons in 2011, and became an irreplaceable part of my brain in the process.
>>>Key track: “Lemonade”