Ladies and gentlemen: Your top 15 albums of 2011!
15. Mastodon – The Hunter
I haven’t really listened to metal since middle school, and then it was mostly Metallica. Nevertheless, I made sure to check out Mastodon’s The Hunter, which surprised me as a serious offering true heavy metal. Crank up those headphones and listen to this one the whole way through.
Mastodon – Black Tongue
14. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs
Anything Eddie puts out will be on a best album list for me. He could release an album of blowing his nose and I’d probably love it. So the fact that these ukulele songs are actually good makes it even better, and makes me comfortable putting this album on the best of 2011.
Eddie Vedder – Dream A Little Dream
13. Girls – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
These guys are truly coming into their own with this album, moving past the simple songwriting structures of the past to more expansive endeavors. While the album may be a bit stylistically jumpy, it makes up for it by ensuring that every single song is great.
Girls – Vomit
12. The Antlers – Burst Apart
Wide sounds, big emotions, and a thumping bass drum are what these guys do best, and on Burst Apart they do it better than they’ve ever done. Peter Silberman has come into his own as a falsetto vocalist and the band’s swelling sound meshes perfectly with his voice. And while the previous album worked off overarching musical and storytelling themes, this one goes a step further by letting go of themes and making sure each song flows well into the next. It’s an album of unique and complete ideas that still work together as a whole; a work of short stories as opposed to a continuous narrative. And while continuous narratives are exciting, I’m glad the Antlers stepped out of their comfort zone to make this kind of album. It’s beautiful and belongs in the top albums of the year.
The Antlers – Won’t Want For Love
11. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
It’s hard for me to properly review anything by MMJ, as I basically think everything they release is gold. There’s such an energy to this Lousiville band that seems missing in other acts which always comes through in their music. Though primarily a live band, these guys are no strangers to the studio, and this album shows that. Just like Evil Urges did, Circuital takes MMJ off in a new direction that’s unique but still tied to their previous body of work. More anthemic (“Victory Dance”), acoustic (“Slow Slow Tune”, “Wonderful”), and crazy (“Outta My System”, “Holdin On To Black Metal”) than what they’ve released in the past, My Morning Jacket has once again taken an successful experimental step towards musical dominance.
My Morning Jacket – Holdin On To Black Metal
10. Childish Gambino – Camp
So it’s all a joke. It’s all real. I have no idea. And I don’t really care anymore. But Donald Glover wowed me on this one. An album that is both absent of shtick and full of it. A musician who has no idea whether or not he’s serious. It could’ve seemed overthought, silly, and, like most albums released by actors – bad. But it’s not. It’s very very good. The production. The beats. His flow, which seems to always be a bit off, but in a good way. His mixtapes have been amazing, but the album is just fantastic. Which is why Mr. Gabino has made it to my top albums of 2011.
Childish Gambino – Hold You Down
9. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest
I discovered Gillian Welch this year, around the time that my roots/bluegrass obsession began. If you haven’t heard of her, you’re probably wrong; chances are you’ve heard her sing on the O’ Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, or on one of the many collaborations she participates in. As for this album, The Harrow and the Harvest is a stunning piece of work; a must-listen for any fans of bluegrass, blues, country, or roots music.
Gillian Welch – Scarlet Town
8. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
No woman’s voice manages to be so creepy and beautiful at the same time, as does Annie Erin Clark’s (AKA St. Vincent). The music is a never-ending barrage of musical goodness that sounds like no one but St. Vincent. Her voice and the music she writes are patently her own, and this album shows her explosive talent and the level of creative genius she can attain. Every single time I’ve listened to this album, I’ve wanted to listen to it the entire way through – and I have. And if this doesn’t prove the greatness of an album, I don’t know what does.
St. Vincent – Cheerleader
7. Kanye West and Jay-Z – Watch The Throne
This one aged quite nicely. They hype and hoopla of the initial release of this album marred, to some degree, our ability to truly see this album for what it was. But months later, it’s clear that this is one the best albums of the year. Kanye’s production, beats, and lyrical absurdity/hilarity/brilliance combined with Jay-Z’s voice, perfectly smooth flow, and sense of dominating cool he brings to every verse he opens his mouth makes this album one of the best superstar collaborative rap albums we’ve seen.
Kanye West and Jay-Z – No Church In The Wild
6. Lima Finn – FOMO
A brilliant work of pop-rock which by all means should be dominating FM radio. Mr. Finn’s songwriting skills are better than any pop/rock star/producer out there, yet he remains the favorite of a limited number of indie-rock fans. It’s frustrating and stupid, and just affirms to me the stupidity and vapidity of masses, who are more obsessed with Lady Gaga – who may be creative and innovative in her style, persona, and presence, but whose music is boringly derivative and rarely brings anything new to the table – than with the excellent Liam Finn. If radio pop music is Two and a Half Men, then Liam Finn is Arrested Development. Let’s just hope he doesn’t go anywhere before everybody realizes what they’re missing.
Liam Finn – Jump Your Bones
5. Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile – The Goat Rodeo Sessions
Classical and bluegrass are two genres which aren’t necessarily thought of in the same sentence. One gives off the impression of dirty underground bars with rowdy patrons and homemade alcohol. The other evokes high class, tuxedos, and proper etiquette. Stylistically too, the music varies greatly – one is studied and hopefully mastered and doesn’t leave much room for improvisation. The other is many times self-taught and almost entirely improvised. Yet, they do share one important facet – the love of four unbelievable musicians. All masters at their own instruments (Yo-Yo Ma – cello, Stuart Duncan – fiddle/mandolin/banjo, Edgar Meyer – bass, Chris Thile – mandolin), these musicians have come together to release an album of overwhelming music, that marries bluegrass and classical in a way that didn’t really seem possible before them.
Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile – Goat Rodeo
4. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
From folklore to folk music, so too the transition from The Hazards of Love to The King is Dead. And it’s a welcomed change; even though THOL is my favorite Decemberists album, it wasn’t something that could’ve been repeated and the band was wise not to try. TKID, however, is no simple album. The songs are a beautiful collection of folk rockers – a nice treat in this world of overproduced indie rock. Plus, that Meloy and co. made the music video for “Calamity Song” as a tribute to the eschaton debacle in David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest just made me love this band even more. I’ve repeated more often than not that The Decemberists are fast becoming one of my favorite bands, and thus this is our #4 album of 2011.
The Decemberists – Calamity Song
3. Wilco – The Whole Love
Jeff Tweedy continues to inspire. This album is a beautiful step forward in the Wilco canon; something that can’t necessarily be said for the band’s last few albums. Lyrically, Tweedy is great; a confused poet, focusing more on the way they words sound together than what they actually mean. But of course Wilco always was about meaning through music and feel, as opposed to nakedly obvious lyrics – so this is to be expected. The album is bookended by two of the best Wilco songs ever: “Art of Almost” takes advantage of Nels Cline’s talent as one of music’s most creative noisemakers to produce a cacophonous symphony that’s both anxiously Kafka-ian and beautiful at the same time. “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is a demo of an acoustic guitar and piano line that the band jammed on for about 12 minutes, which made it on the album because of its perfect imperfections. The best Wilco album in years, this is our #3 album of the year.
Wilco – Art of Almost
2. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
The world seems obsesses with irony these days. Not a classical understanding of irony (“A mode of speech in which the literal or implied meaning of the words is the opposite of the intended meaning.” a-la Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage), but the one dominating popular culture, in which one will wear Christmas sweaters, listen to Train, Journey, or Bon Jovi, and will gush about why Republicans are hilarious. All of these things will fit loosely into the definition of irony since the hipster in question is indicating by their over-excessive love for the unpopular that they actually hate that very thing. This is all and good, and gives the ironic speaker the warm feeling of satisfaction that accompanies putting something else down. But what it doesn’t do is tell you what that person actually does like. Sure, you think “Soul Sister” is a dumb song. But what’s a good song? This shtick allows people to make fun of what they claim to hate without risking their own cred by revealing what they actually like.
M83’s Anthony Gonzalez has no such qualms. There is no shtick to this man. This is a musicians who, unapologetically, set out to write, produce, and record an epic album. He ran the risk of a. failing and b. being ridiculed by the very fans his music is consumed by. Yet, his determination to make something truly great prevailed and he released the double album (heresy!) Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. This isn’t the place for a deeply-delving review of the album (check that out here), but it is the place to declare that Mr. Gonzalez succeeded in the best of ways and thanks to him we have our #2 album of the year.
M83 – Intro (feat. Zola Jesus)
1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
No longer limited to the acoustic-guitar-meanderings of a cabin-bound-hermit, Bon Iver (the album) has elevated Bon Iver (the band fronted by Justin Vernon) to the status of a true band; full songs dominated not only by vocals but by instruments as well, a production quality that not only exceeds the DIY standard of his previous offerings but also the industry standard, and a hauntingly-beautiful expansive album that’s no longer just for bearded hipster kids, but for all music fans alike. Brilliantly, Vernon has been able to maintain that level of intimate emotion that was captured in his earlier rawer albums in this heavily produced monstrosity of an album. That ability to not only draw people in by the intimacy of scratchy vocals and an acoustic guitar, but with multi-part, multi-instrument, magnificently written pieces isn’t easy to come by. Either you fail miserably and sound like you’re trying too hard, or you succeed brilliantly. The best classical composers were able to manage myriad sounds, instruments, and feelings in their music. With Bon Iver, Justin Vernon has mastered that skill. Masterfully composed, expansively produced, and brilliantly executed – Bon Iver is without a doubt the best album of the year.
Bon Iver – Holocene