Top Albums of 2011

11/28/2011

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably begin by admitting I am not a music critic nor a musician. In fact, prior to this list I had never intentionally listened to 10 full albums from a single year. So what madness drove me to listen to nearly 30 albums over and over again for almost a month in order to publish my non-authoritative consensus? Well, discounting the reward that comes from the writing process, the expansion of my artistic horizons, and my desire to be part of the great artistic discussion, I just think my music taste is better than other people’s.

That’s right.

Though I’ve got no objective criteria nor adequate perspective to back up this claim, I am convinced that I like better music than you do. And with that as my premise,  I feel it is my sacred duty to profess my impeccable taste to the lowest common denominator masses that perhaps a few lost souls might be saved from the land of top 40 dreck.

If that admission sounds arrogant or perhaps counter-productive to my goal of getting you to read to the next paragraph, then consider the above claim as a challenge. I want you to prove me wrong. Tell me what I wrongfully skipped, what I didn’t adequately consider, or where I missed the boat entirely.

But seriously, I’m writing this list because there are some bands with some incredible music that I am crazy about, and I think everyone should listen to them. And since my lists usually get a decent audience (as opposed to Facebook statuses, tweets, or shouting outside my house) I’m going to use the small podium I have.

Below is a list of all the albums I’ve listened to from the last year, chosen by a number of criteria like critical consensus, my enjoyment of the band in the past, and recommendations from Mac Wilson who is a DJ at 89.3 The Current in Saint Paul, MN.

All Eternals Deck – The Mountain Goats
Angles – The  Strokes
Arabia Mountain – The Black Lips
A Smoke Ring for My Halo – Kurt Vile
Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Ceremonials – Florence and the Machine
Circuital – My Morning Jacket
Codes and Keys – Deathcab for Cutie
Cults – Cults
Era Extrana – Neon Indian
Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – M83
In the Grace of Your Love – The Rapture
The King is Dead – The Demeberists
King of Limbs – Radiohead
Let England Shake – PJ Harvey
Mylo Xyloto – Coldplay
Only in Dreams – Dum Dum Girls
Portamento – The Drums
The Rip Tide – Beirut
Rome – Danger Mouse
Slave Ambient – The War on Drugs
Tomboy – Panda Bear
Torches – Foster the People
w h o k i l l – tUnE-yArDs
The Whole Love – Wilco

So without further ado, I present my top albums of 2011. And yes, there is a lot of quote whoring. Please, record companies, feel free to use me on any advertisement you see fit.

10. Cults – Cults

The widespread success of Cults (the band), who trail only Foster the People as the breakout talents of 2011, shouldn’t surprise anyone. Cults (the album) is one surefire hit after another, paying homage to nostalgic high school prom anthems of yesteryear. Of course, in their time those 50’s dance songs were more than successful mood setters. They provided a voice for young angst in a repressed culture that demanded conformity, and in that spirit Cults uses their crowd-pleasing aesthetic to express less-than-pleasant emotions for adults. Easy as it might be to get lost in the airy vocals and catchy hooks, this is a very angry album that tells the story of  relationship destroyed by suppressed emotions and simplistic moral and romantic ideals. Lead singer Madeline Follin sings with bitter sweetness, “Please don’t tell me you know the rules to go by. I can run away and leave you anytime,” in Oh My God, or “Tell me all the things you thought weren’t right about me in my life,” and, “Yeah I try to heal myself, and turn around cuz someone else. But I can never heal myself so f–k you,” in Never Heal Myself. The voices of famous cult leaders litter the background of many songs to add even more vitriol to the tyrade, but in spite of all of this the mood isn’t oppressive at all. In fact, the musical atmosphere is downright sunny, and I defy you not to dance to any one of the first three tracks. More than creating an ironic contrast that invites the listener to “grow up” or creating a cult-like euphoric atmosphere, the optimistic musical temperature (especially as the album closes) is meant to find catharsis in spite of the bad feelings, much like those old songs we talked about earlier. Cults might not be the most inventive album ever, but it might be one of the most likable released this year. I’m definitely drinking the cool-aid.

9. Circuital – My Morning Jacket

Conventional wisdom says that My Morning Jacket’s best days, album-wise, are behind them, lost to their more definitive early period of It Still Moves and Z. Well, no disrespect to those two classic albums (which I own and love) but Circuital could be my favorite MMJ album. I’m at least entertaining the notion. It’s probably not as ambitious, nor as sprawling and unique as those other two, but with Circuital the band might have found the most perfect fusion of their sci-fi electronic and southern folk rock sensibilities, as well as the best representation of their power as aesthetes. Repeated silences and the restraint of key moments to a small handful of instruments create a sparse but surprisingly effective journey through time and space. Take the album opener, Victory Dance, which is almost six minutes of little more than a couple guitars, drums and vocals: a pretty standard rock album track. But the strategic placement of of a single gong and the careful injection of background vocals transform it into an other-worldly experience. The next track, Circuital, which is over 7 minutes long, does the exact same thing even more impressively, and once disbelief has been suspended the album moves effortlessly from softer ballads like Out of my System and Wonderful (the Way I Feel) to pulpy satanic rock like Holdin Onto Black Metal and makes it all feel like part of the same journey. When closer Movin Away kicked in with its level 4 piano lesson intro, I really felt like something profound has happened. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but I just felt like it had. Maybe that was an illusion, or maybe the overarching performance really made even the simple songs like Out of My System slightly more profound. After all, everything looks more complete when viewed from outer space.

8. w h o k i l l – tUnE-yArDs

The first time I popped on w h o k i l l, I’d just spent several hours wrestling with Panda Bear’s Byzantine video game soundtrack Tomboy and was ready to give up on the whole “listening to music” thing forever. But before I was done shouting, “Really Pitchfork? 8.5? And Up From Below is a 4? REALLY?” I became aware that there was a noticeable change in the room. I was still listening to dense, chaotic orchestration, but I didn’t feel like I needed to be high to appreciate it. And then like those old Capris Sun commercials I was whisked away in a horrifying silver blob to another dimension. This second album from Merrill Garbus’s tUnE-yArDs project is a lot catchier, a lot more accessible, and much more direct than its predecessor, but it still keeps the big ideas rolling at an impressive rate. Garbus said the album title’s strange spacing was meant to reflect, “what we get from texting and emailing all the time, when nothing is ever exactly right.” (I’d like to thank Wikipedia for that bridge sentence) Miscommunication is certainly an aesthetic theme, with Garbus wielding chaotic dissonance like a mace. It gives the impression that this was recorded in a big room with white walls and wood floors by an army of beatnicks armed with horns and tambourines and saxophones and spoons and home apploances and stuff they found in the dumpster behind the building – there’s probably some guy painting in the corner and some woman who is turning the lights on and off for effect – and up front is Merrill Garbus, the psycho genius conducting and singing with faux hipness those ridiculous songs titled Gangsta, Bizness, and Killa as though anyone present has ever set foot in a crowd where those words are used regularly. And yet the literary themes are nowhere near so elaborate. In the opener, My Country, Garbus sings things like,  “When they have nothing, why do you have something?” and, “The thing about living a lie is just wondering when they’ll find out.” Police sirens echo behind Gangsta and tales of authoritative violence feature prominently in Riotriot, Doorstep, Powa, and Killa. It’s a dissonant album for a dissonant world, except in the music Garbus finds order even while trying to subvert it.

7. Arabia Mountain – The Black Lips

While there is an actual Arabia Mountain in Georgia, the title of the sixth LP from the Black Lips calls to my mind some imaginary, seedy amusement park off some long-abandoned highway. All the rides are decorated with scantily-clad beauties in distress and poorly painted pictures of Spider-Man and Scooby Doo they obviously never bought the rights to. There’s a ton of rides scavenged from failed traveling carnivals and likeminded amusement parks that died just a bit earlier, and despite the fact that the whole place looks like it could topple down any second, it’s a lot of freaking fun. If that sounds like somewhere you’d like to visit (be honest, who wouldn’t) then this is your album. It trades in classic-sounding rock songs that almost universally clock in under three minutes and subverts them with garage band energy and punk irreverence (these qualities most perfectly blended in Spidey’s Curse, a song based on an elementary school educational video about sexual abuse that used Peter Parker for brand recognition). The catchy tunes pile up quickly (I’ve heard Family Tree, Modern Art, Raw Meat, and Time all on the radio, and nearly everything would make a great single), and eventually its hard not to be really impressed with how well these guys distinguish every track while sticking with the same approach. The Black Lips might not be the most popular band on this list, nor are they the most distinguished, but like the Arabia Mountain in my mind, sometimes the side attractions are the most enjoyable.

6. Slave Ambient – The War on Drugs

I would make a big deal about how Adam Granduciel’s vocal quality and lyical density draw comparisons to Bob Dylan, or perhaps how The War on Drugs’ anthemic optimism might be called Springsteen-esque, if I had noticed either of those things the first five times I listened. Slave Ambient is a wonderfully layered album, moody and un-ironic on the first few listens and perfectly satisfying in that state. The occasional line like, “Wonderin where my friends are goin and wonderin why they didn’t take me,” might register with the ears and further crank up the teen angst-meter, but the primary impact of Slave Ambient is atmosphere; thick, nostalgic, sun-drenched atmosphere. It’s one of those albums I would have loved as a teenager, walking through the streets of suburbia at dusk and melodramatically trying to find poetry in every little thing that went by. The whole affair is so definitive of the spirit of summer that even as I listen to it on the wrong side of Thanksgiving, I feel like I should walk outside to fireworks, bonfires, and kids buzzing around the park excited to be out past curfew. Listen to the whole album or pick any single track and I’m immediately tansported to those long days of vacation when everything just felt… more. What’s the grand message or big idea underlying all this indulgent nostalgia? Eh, I dunno. I’m sure there is one. I’ll probably get around to that eventually. All I really care about now is that of every album on this list, I find this the most compulsively listenable.

5. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – M83

M83’s latest is one of the rare instances where a critic need not be ashamed to use the words phantasmagorical or epic, even right next to each other. It’s a sprawling, two side, 21-track adventure through a half-waking nightmare that for some reason the dreamer enjoys. You know the creepy, strangely lucid dreams you had when you were 5 years old after watching some movie that shamelessly exploited youthful sentimentality? (mine was The Brave Little Toaster) These guys made an album about that; an unapologetically sugary celebration of cereberal innocence (say that ten times fast) that – with its joyous choirs, dour saxophones, and twinkling synths – makes 80’s emo sound downright subdued by comparison. Every track, whether it’s an opulent four minute sax overture like Midnight City or a short, somnambulent interlude like Train to Pluton, blends effortlessly into the larger whole until its easy to just get lost in the dream. I found it hard on the first few listens to distinguish each track on its own as the behemoth moved closer to the hour mark, but I bet it would be even harder to stop listening. (I wouldn’t know. It’s never happened) It’s every bit the compulsively listenable, cathartic, sinfully melodramatic, phantasmagorically epic ride that was promised us. I can’t think of a more likable or accessible album I heard all year. Come to think of it, I’m curious why Pitchfork liked it so much. (Just kidding, I really do love Pitchfork. But that 4 for Up From Below… Home by itself is worth at least a 6! And 40 Day Dream! Come on!)

4. In the Grace of Your Love – The Rapture

Considering my film major roots, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding the movie/music comparisons so far, but there’s just no way around this one. If Fellini ever wrote an album, he would be trying to make this. I think The Rapture intended for that comparison, as their latest is a rotating carnival of Fellini staples from Italian beach culture to Catholicism to youthful romantic yearning. Just listen to how intense and idealistic the passion described in opener Sail Away is, followed by the equally passionate but bittersweet Miss You. Tracks Like Roller Coaster and Children hop up and down like the calliope music that sets the festive pacing of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. And just like Fellini managed to capture the chaos of combating desires that is life, The Rapture have created a contradictory album that accesses different layers of love at its most raw and uncensored. By the end I felt like the surfer on the cover, arms sprawled out as though he might be in a state of rapturous bliss; or perhaps as though he has just been crucified. Either way love is the cause, and either way the album is perfect.

3. All Eternals Deck – The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle, the totalitarian songwriter behind The Mountain Goats, represents everything respectable about music. He spent the 90’s screaming his poetry with musical accompaniment into a boombox, and while his popularity has grown in recent years, he has stayed true to that initial spirit. His skills as a lyricist are legendary, and his skills as a musician are underrated only as they are eclipsed by the former, with each album taking advantage of the new tools and opportunities his increasing fame has provided him. This is the third consecutive Mountain Goats album where the band consists of Darnielle, his long-time collaborator Peter Hughes, and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, and the results keep getting more and more solid. I need to be upfront here and admit my bias. I am a HUGE Goats fan. I own everything I can get my hands on (some of that 90’s stuff is more difficult) and I listen to all of it all the time. In my opinion, Darnielle’s storytelling makes for some of the most re-listenable albums I own. Here especially he’s wrapping his music around some big stuff, and he’s telling a lot of diverse tales to get there; from a cowboy crawling through the desert after a vampire attack to Lisa Minelli remembering her mother, Judy Garland, as she passes her star on Hollywood Blvd. The angry songs like Estate Sales Sign are wonderful to shout to, and the softer, more reflective ones like Outer Scorpion squad move the listener closer to the soul in torment Darnielle so hopes to channel. There are musical surprises like the barbershop quartet in showstopper High Hawk Season, and the two closers, Never Quite Free and Liza Forever Minellia, first explore with Darnielle’s trademark irony the idea of heaven and the release after escaping the pit of despair, and then with his trademark humanity the distant future after great tragedy. (It’s very similar to the 1, 2 punch of Love, Love, Love and Pale Green Things that close the band’s 2005 masterpiece, The Sunset Tree) Every song is worthy of consideration, both a musical and literary work of art. In other words, All Eternals Deck is just another impressively consistent outing from the Mountain Goats. Which makes sense. When benevolent, dictatorship is the most effective form of government.

2. King of Limbs – Radiohead

In an increasingly pop-heavy music scene, Radiohead insists on serving up straight whiskey. (if these guys still released on a major label, that would be a surefire quote on the Youtube ads) Lost in King of Limbs are the final remnants of radio-friendly hooks from the indie juggernaut, and what’s left is the best musicians in the world striving with the tensile strength of the very medium to create increasingly complex images and ideas. There’s not a single to speak of on this album, and you really can’t address it on a song by song basis. I find it easier to sum up as one big 8-part symphony where they trade in paranoid androids for a highly theatrical introspective into the spirit of the forrest: a king of limbs presiding over his kingdom as plants bloom and dead trees stand resolute against the setting sun. The steady percussion transposed with nature sounds and Thom Yorke’s creaking voice put the seasoned listener within the mind of an imagined being that feels almost too real to be untrue; inverting the natural fear of standing alone in a bleak woods at night and suggesting, for this brief moment, that we sit on the other side of the rift observing ourselves. It all brings into question just how far out in front of the pack Radiohead is. This album is so stark and vivid, immediately penetrating suspension of disbelief to make me consider that maybe our dying forrests really might be moaning out in some unspoken language against the changing world. A good number of bands can paint impressive pictures, but of everything I’ve heard, only Radiohead can truly create life.

1. Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes

In the spirit of fairness I tried the entire top 5 in this spot, but there was never much question. When I consider my anthem of 2011, there will always be Robin Pecknold’s ethereal voice presiding over a thick, heavy summer of my discontent. When I first heard the Helplessness Blues single on the radio, with all its talk of “functioning cog(s) in some great machinery serving something beyond me,” and declaring, “If I had an orchard I’d work til I’m sore,” I thought the station had dug up some lost Simon and Garfunkel classic. It seemed like a 60’s revolution song from back when people actually cared about any of that stuff. People don’t sing to my generation that way, and yet after a closer listen I knew they were pointing at me. It was, after all, me and my generation who, “was raised up believing I was somehow unique; a snowflake disntinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see,” no matter how much the orchestration tried to convince me this song was written in some forrest in the middle ages. On the other hand, there’s a bold universality to Helplessness Blues as the band moves from topic to topic, exploring a wide range of the questions of man’s existence as though they were writing the first folk album ever. One minute it’s growing older in Montezuma, and the next it’s a call to simplicity in Helplessness Blues, and the next its the cosmological mystery of the orbs in Blue Spotted Tail. The album makes our modern age, in all its distilled plasticity and relentless commercialism, sound like something earthy and elegant; all we need to do, it suggests, is redirect our focus. Maybe my generation finally is ready to grow up, and maybe these guys just caught the revolution spirit a bit sooner than I did. If this album is going to be the standard, then I’m all for it.

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7 Responses to “Top Albums of 2011”

  1. lydiarussell said

    Good list. Granted, I think Bon Iver should have made top ten….but that is neither here nor there.

    Also, hate to be this person….but you may have spelled ‘Decemberists’ incorrectly

    • Thanks Lydia.

      The new Bon Iver and I are still getting used to each other. That was one of the albums I listened to the most, and I just couldn’t make peace with it. I don’t know. Some day I’m sure it will click with me, but it just hasn’t yet.

  2. How have we never discussed our mutual My Morning Jacket love? I had no idea you were a fan. Anyway, wonderful write-ups. I haven’t listened to half this list. Maybe I’ll do that someday. When I have money.

  3. Lindlee said

    I highly approve of your number 1.

  4. nice job. very impressive reviews with outstanding writing.

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