It’s well-documented that I’m a huge, hopeless music geek, and I love lists. So even though I spent three pages in The Bulletin’s GO! Magazine pontificating about my favorite records of 2011, I still can’t resist the urge to (A) rank them, and (B) get them all in one place online. So here we are.
Below, find my best effort at a list of my 50 favorite records of the past year, with a few words about several of them. For some, you’ll see no words where it looks like there should be words, and maybe I’ll fill those in sometime, but for now, I’m all typed out.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading. And truly: I could talk about this kind of stuff all day, and would love to hear from you in the comments!
50. Holcombe Waller, “Into the Dark Unknown” (Napoleon)
49. White Fence, “Is Growing Faith” (Woodsist)
48. Wilco, “The Whole Love” (dBpm)
47. Telekinesis, “12 Desperate Straight Lines” (Merge)
46. Chris Thile & Michael Daves, “Sleep With One Eye Open” (Nonesuch)
45. The Very Best, “Super Mom” (self-released)
44. Mogwai, “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” (Subpop)
43. Jonny, “Jonny” (Merge)
42. Gui Boratto, “III” (Kompakt)
41. Ryan Adams, “Ashes & Fire” (Pax Am)
40. Grails, “Deep Politics” (Temporary Residence)
39. Beyonce, “4” (Columbia)
38. The Felice Brothers, “Celebration, Florida” (Fat Possum)
37. Das Racist, “Relax” (Greedhead)
36. Jovontaes, “Things Are Different Here” (Hello Sunshine)
35. Big K.R.I.T., “Return of 4Eva” (self-released)
34. Veronica Falls, “Veronica Falls” (Slumberland)
33. Real Estate, “Days” (Domino)
32. Wooden Shjips, “West” (Thrill Jockey)
31. Givers, “In Light” (Glassnote)
30. Clams Casino, “Instrumentals” (self-released)
As underground hip-hop’s current “it” producer, Mike Volpe is the man behind the syrupy sound of Lil B, A$AP Rocky and other rappers du jour. But on this free mixtape (and his “Rainforest” EP), those guys are nowhere to be found, giving Volpe’s ambling beats and blurry samples space to unfold in slow motion and mushroom into the staticky sky.
29. Com Truise, “Galactic Melt” (Ghostly International)
28. Tim Hecker, “Ravedeath 1972″ (Kranky)
Canadian ambient adventurer Tim Hecker’s 2011 album is a sonic monument to the quickening battle between warm, organic lifeblood — music — and the cold, digital sheen that envelops it more completely every day. At first listen, “Ravedeath” is a rippling wash of synthesized noise, sometimes sublime, sometimes harsh. But beneath the studio effects lives an Icelandic church organ that swells and sighs proudly and beautifully, as if trapped under ice and fighting to breathe.
27. Apex Manor, “The Year of Magical Drinking” (Merge)
26. Serengeti, “Family & Friends” (anticon.)
Buzzy and a bit bent, Serengeti’s introspective, observational rap style and warm, poppy beats fly in the face of hip-hop conventions: They feel like a welcoming hug and a long, deep conversation.
25. F–ked Up, “David Comes to Life” (Matador)
24. Peaking Lights, “936” (Not Not Fun)
Sprawling and viscous, this husband/wife duo gently drifts through opiate dub-pop jams for the terminally chill. Just when it feels like they’re going nowhere, you’re there.
23. AgesandAges, “Alright You Restless” (Knitting Factory)
22. Pistol Annies, “Hell on Heels” (Columbia)
21. The Psychic Paramount, “II” (No Quarter)
Six years after its previous album, this New York City trio returned to deliver 2011’s most relentless slab of noise. From the opening seconds to the final salvo, “II” is a pummeling exercise in rhythmic experimentalism, where wave after wave crashes into your subconscious. If you can keep your head up, though, there’s beauty to be found in the spaces between.
20. Ringo Deathstarr, “Colour Trip” (Sonic Unyon)
19. Cahalen Morrison & Eli West,
“The Holy Coming of the Storm” (self-released)
It takes a vibrant spark to make old-time music sound fresh and contemporary in 2011, which may be this Seattle-based duo’s greatest strength. And that’s saying something, because Morrison and West showcase an abundance of skills on their excellent debut album: unconventional melodies, dazzling bluegrass picking and rich, intimate atmosphere that somehow feels both throwback and modern.
18. Street Gnar, “Poking the World With a Stick” (Night-People)
Lo-fi burbles, cyclical guitars, gritty garage rock and spaced-out grooves, all filtered through the carefree perspective of Kentucky skate kids with nothing but cool on their hands. Street Gnar sounds like the Millennial update of Pavement’s “Gold Soundz.”
17. Other Lives, “Tamer Animals” (TBD)
Other Lives’ sound is intoxicating. The Oklahoma band’s beautiful blend of spectral melodies, lush harmonies and elegant orchestral Americana sounds like it was taken straight out of some decades-old heartland hymnal, bound in worn leather, of course.
16. David Mayfield Parade, “The David Mayfield Parade” (9th Grade)
Pity the live-music lover who classifies David Mayfield as a novelty becuase of his hyper, comedic live show. In fact, the songs here reveal a man with his heart on his sleeve and a finely tuned ear for classic pop music, usually sung with a twang and glazed with a retro vibe. “I Just Might Pray” and Mayfield’s cover of “Sea of Heartbreak” are terrific, while the stunning “Breath of Love” is one of the prettiest tunes of the past few years. It will surely stop you in your tracks.
15. Jeff the Brotherhood, “We Are the Champions” (Infinity Cat)
Remember Weezer’s “In the Garage,” where Rivers Cuomo played guitar and felt safe? This scuzzy, fuzzy, Tennessee duo sounds like that garage’s house band.
14. Adele, “21” (XL)
My 20-month-old’s favorite dance soundtrack. For that reason alone, it should be here. Also: It’s really, really good. But you already knew that.
13. Foo Fighters, “Wasting Light” (RCA)
America’s best mega-rock band returns to form by going back to basics (recorded in a garage, analog gear, Butch Vig on the knobs). “Wasting Light” is a wall-to-wall, arena-sized slugfest where the only thing bigger than the hooks is the bombast. Best effort in 14 years from the mainstream’s most affable bros.
12. Shabazz Palaces, “Black Up” (Subpop)
After dropping two game-changing EPs from the shadows in 2009, Palaceer Lazaro’s first full-length steps into the light just long enough to send soul-shuddering bass down the spines of conventional rap cats everywhere. Smeared synths, subterranean beats, otherworldly vocals and Lazaro’s vanguard style come together to form a vision of hip-hop’s future.
11. The Vaccines, “What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?” (Columbia)
This new English band’s debut album is packed with exhilarating and fully formed guitar pop, an airtight approximation of what would happen — besides hysterics at the NME — if The Strokes jammed with Jesus and Mary Chain. Also home to “If You Wanna,” the catchiest song of 2011.
10. Hauschka, “Salon Des Amateurs” (FatCat)
For years, German pianist Volker Bertelmann — aka Hauschka — has composed exquisite avant-classical music on “prepared” pianos, with all manner of items — corks, aluminum foil, paper clips, tape, bottle caps, etc. — modifying the instrument’s guts. The result is playful, lively and inventive. On “Salon Des Amateurs,” he goes a step further, tightening tones and quickening the pace until his songs morph into organic dance music, replete with quirky melodies and a powerful sense of locomotion. It’s as if Bertelmann’s piano is a heaving heart, pushing pulsing hyper-rhythms straight to your ears.
9. White Hills, “H-p1″ (Thrill Jockey)
Here’s a quick peek behind the curtain: White Hills’ “H-p1” was the final album added to this Top 10, and only after nosing out The Psychic Paramount’s “II” for noise-rock supremacy in 2011. In the end, it was this New York power trio’s equal penchant for thick, lumbering globs of heavy psych and glittery astral jams that gave it an edge. At 72 minutes long, “H-p1” is a heavy lift, and its concept — the evils of consumerism, corporate control and our disconnect from humanity — doesn’t lighten the load. But when White Hills digs into another deep, narcotic groove, you’ll forget about all that stuff anyway.
8. Washed Out, “Within and Without” (Subpop)
After the blown-out warble of his excellent “Life of Leisure” EP helped spur the chillwave movement/backlash, Ernest Greene’s first full-length (for indie-rock giant Subpop, no less) faced both high expectations and a gang of digital haters dying to scoff. “Within and Without” exceeds the former and lays waste to the latter. It’s everything great about Washed Out — pulsing beats, chiming synths, shapely melodies done dispassionately — polished and fortified for repeated spins, but not stripped of the breezy, buoyant aesthetic that makes those repeated spins so irresistible.
7. Yuck, “Yuck” (Fat Possum)
Depending on your perspective (and perhaps age), the four fresh-faced navel-gazers in Yuck are either well-versed revivalists of ‘90s indie rock or shameless rip-offs with a dearth of ideas baiting nostalgic thirtysomethings. The answer: Who cares? The songs are there. Sure, the band sounds like a wax-museum stand-in for Dinosaur Jr.’s squealing solos, Kim Deal’s bouncy bass lines, Teenage Fanclub’s gorgeous choruses and Steve Malkmus’ detachment. But if you’re going to build a Frankenstein, why not use the best parts? Yuck has all the best parts, and gloriously fuzzy guitars to deploy them.
6. Patrick Stump, “Soul Punk” (Island)
Welcome to the makeover of the year. Patrick Stump Version 2.0 is sleeker than he was as the frontman of emo hitmakers Fall Out Boy, a 21st century pop star if pop music valued huge, crunchy hooks over huge, sugary synths. “Soul Punk” is Stump’s solo debut (he wrote and played every note), and it’s a powerful, densely packed set of 10 relentlessly catchy tunes that recall early-’80s Michael Jackson and bounce back and forth between encouraging optimism and world-weary, but upbeat, gloom. (Greed is a favorite target.) No matter the subject, however, “Soul Punk” oozes pure fun from top to bottom.
5. The Decemberists, “The King is Dead” (Capitol)
Listen closely to the sixth album from Portland’s beloved Decemberists and you can almost hear the whoosh of a pendulum speeding past. “The King is Dead” is Colin Meloy and company’s finest album in at least five years (maybe eight), and it’s an obvious retreat from the ostentatious 2009 prog-opera “The Hazards of Love.” Here, the band focuses on what it does best: Freshly cut, folk-based story songs spilling over with vibrant acoustic strums, Meloy’s distinctive voice and soaring melodies, and acres of rustic charm. “King” is endlessly and effortlessly listenable.
4. Kendrick Lamar, “Section.80″ (Top Dawg Entertainment)
Hip-hop saw a surge of young, talented MCs this year, but none showed more promise than Compton, Calif.’s next big thing. Kendrick Lamar’s greatest strength is his rapping: pliable and compelling at low speeds, freakishly fast and laser-guided when he hits the gas. His rhymes are tight, too; see the cinematic tragedy “Keisha’s Song” or the moral dilemmas in “Kush & Corinthians” for examples. But Lamar’s most underrated skill may be his impeccable beat selection, which gives “Section.80” a hazy, mellow, old-soul feel. Street smart with an exposed heart, “Section.80” is 2011’s best rap record by far.
3. Moon Duo, “Mazes” (Sacred Bones)
What a year it was for Ripley Johnson. The hirsute psych icon’s best-known band, Wooden Shjips, drew rave reviews for its fine new album “West,” while Moon Duo — his gig with keyboardist Sanae Yamada — made an even better (if lower profile) record. “Mazes” is 44 minutes of blackout bliss, a slowly spinning swirl of brain-clouding psychedelia that perfects the nexus of stoney drones, frazzled echo-pop and steady, motorik throb. At once both stubbornly experimental and totally accessible, Moon Duo provides the ultimate, heady soundtrack for the eternal head-nod.
2. Frank Ocean, “Nostalgia, Ultra” (self-released)
When 2011’s hype machine focused on shock-rapper Tyler, the Creator and his Odd Future hip-hop crew, it allowed the group’s resident crooner to fly a bit under the radar. Self-released on Ocean’s Tumblr, “Nostalgia” is a smooth and slyly addictive slice of ultramodern R&B, powered by both original beats and hit tracks by MGMT, Coldplay and The Eagles. Melodically, Ocean is mellifluous, and lyrically, he’s infinitely more interesting than the loudest mouths in his crew, tackling emotionally charged themes (morality, insecurity, mortality, etc.) with confidence, vulnerability and a sharp wit.
1. Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues” (Subpop)
The second album from Seattle’s Fleet Foxes is a peek into Robin Pecknold’s mind, where surprising success has put his brilliance and self-doubt at odds. Against sweeping ‘60s folk-rock and honeyed harmonies, Pecknold takes on the burdens of maturity and expectation; he decries his own selfishness, longs to become “someone you’d admire” and dreams of being a useful cog rather than a unique snowflake. Good luck with that, Robin. The fact is, no young songwriter working today matches Pecknold’s mix of talent, ambition and perfectionism, traits that should reward listeners for decades.
Tags: Best of 2011