Your web-browser is very outdated, and as such, this website may not display properly. Please consider upgrading to a modern, faster and more secure browser. Click here to do so.
TOP 10 ALBUMS OF THE YEAR:
I realized that top 10 lists aren’t fun unless you rank the albums. Having said this, I’ll never be exactly sure about where I’d put each of these. I hope you enjoy!
10. Wilco – The Whole Love
So I was pretty sure that “Art of Almost” was going to be a strong indication of what the rest of The Whole Love was going to sound like. You start the record and you think, “Ooh, hell yeah! Wilco moving in another, more badass direction! Music is saved!” as I’m sure a lot of other listeners thought. Turns out, Wilco’s newest release isn’t much different than what they’ve previously put out. Hell, one of the genre tags on the site I got this album from was “dadrock.” This label might seem like a low blow, but I couldn’t give two shits about it. The album is enjoyable from start to finish, and I’m always in the mood for some Wilco (psst—I like all of their albums). They’ve got Spoon-like consistency. High points include “Born Alone”, “Standing O”, and the title track, not to mention the absolutely delightful twelve-minute finale—though I’m not sure who in the Sam Hill Jane Smiley is.
9. Crystal Stilts – In Love with Oblivion
Having been buried under a layer of digital dust for six or seven months, listening to this one again has proven its ability to stand the test of time. Ever since Our Lord and Savior Anthony Fantano recommended In Love with Oblivion back in April, I’ve held this record in pretty high esteem. Like many records in recent memory, Crystal Stilts’ second LP embraces an all-too-familar retro, lo-fi nostalgia. It’s got that crisp, post punk guitar tone, a swampy fuzz coating goddamned everything, and the general feeling that most of its songs belong in a classic Scooby-Doo chase sequence or a 1960s high school Halloween dance. I nearly forgot about vocalist Brad Hargett’s haunting baritone, which is a key part of Crystal Stilts’ dated vibe. I spend so much time describing what the record sounds like because one of the bigger selling points on In Love with Oblivion is the atmosphere that the band’s collective timbre evokes. It’s a unique release, and it’s one that doesn’t hide its influences. Most importantly, these guys just know how to write catchy-ass songs. Check out “Through the Floor”, “Alien Rivers”, “Death Is What We Live For”, and “Prometheus at Large.”
8. James Blake – James Blake
James Blake needs space—a whole lotta space. I read somewhere (we’ll say it was Pitchfork, okay? I don’t research my shit) that Blake considers the time between individual notes as important as the notes themselves. This is about as sparse an album as they come, and when something is so musically stripped down, every sound matters so much more. Luckily for him Blake makes it work (surprise, surprise), composing eleven hypnotic, soulful tracks whose simple beauty makes his music quite accessible, even for listeners who aren’t normally fans of electronic stuff. There’s a lot to love here, from the repetitive wonder that is “I Never Learnt to Share” to the barebones “Lindisfarne” mini-suite and that lovely Feist cover. The finale, “Measurements,” (my favorite) closes out the album brilliantly, in which Blake takes an already gorgeous vocal melody and amplifies it five-fold using his own backing vocals. The album lags a bit between “Limit to Your Love” and “Measurements”; it’s a span of songs with nothing that really surprises me, and melodies that don’t hook me. They’re pleasant enough, though, and Blake’s self-titled first LP remains a strong indicator of many more impressive releases to come.
7. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
I read somewhere that this record was produced in part by a musician/producer who rose to prominence in the metal community. That’s believable. Many of the tracks on All Eternals Deck display more subdued vocals, which naturally puts the spotlight on the instruments (you know, like how metal sounds). Now, I’m not typically a lyrics guy anyway. I tend to enjoy the way a particular phrase or vocal hook sounds rather than attempt to dissect its meaning. Maybe my mind is elsewhere when I listen to the Goats. Who knows? And I understand that this is not why people like the Mountain Goats. Or why you should like the Mountain Goats. That’s all right. “Damn These Vampires”, “Age of Kings”, “Beautiful Gas Mask”, “Never Quite Free”—all examples of how the dudes behind Darnielle have begun to show some real musical prowess. From the heartbreaking (“Outer Scorpion Squadron”, “Never Quite Free”) to the hopeful (“For Charles Bronson”), All Eternals Deck turned out to be a very memorable (and in my opinion, overlooked) album.
6. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
I implore you to listen to this record on a road trip. Seriously. It’s almost as fitting as American Water when it comes to travel albums—its shoegazy Americana carrying you swiftly, but gently, toward the horizon. This is goddamned picturesque stuff, people. Take it however you will, but it’s hard to argue about the quality of these twelve tracks. Among them you’ll find a load of material strikingly reminiscent of Bob Dylan or Neil Young—or maybe Springsteen or even those Deerhunter guys. It’s hazy, it’s driving, and most of all it’s expansive. Slave Ambient is a pretty huge record, which makes the open road a rather suitable juxtaposition. My only qualm with it is that it features too many ambient interludes. “The Animator” functions as a perfectly dreamy transition piece, whereas “City Reprise #12” seems kind of pointless, especially since “Original Slave” is only two tracks away. These are minor complaints, as I have no problems with how these songs sound. The best tracks are “Your Love Is Calling My Name”, “The Animator/Come to the City”, and “Baby Missiles.”
5. Battles – Gloss Drop
I’ve posted about this album once before—about how I didn’t get it, but how I eventually came to understand and respect the meaty grooves and bleeps and bloops that lie within. It’s a testosterone-fueled record (but it’s not without its sweeter moments), and it’s so clean you could eat off of it. The production value on Gloss Drop is through the roof, but at the same time, something about it feels much more intimate, much more human than its predecessor, Mirrored. Gloss Drop lacks many of the robotic, machine-like qualities that dominated Battles’ first album. By that I mean I can picture three guys in a studio hammering out these tunes—an image that Mirrored failed to invoke. I really appreciate the effect. The songs on this thing are fun as hell, and the featured vocalists are a major treat (props to Kazu Makino and Yamantaka Eye especially). Overall, I’m very pleased with how this grew on me. Favorite tracks include “Ice Cream”, “My Machines”, “Sweetie & Shag”, and “Sundome.”
4. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic
Let’s first address my alleged love affair with anything Malkmus. All right then. Now allow me to say that every song on this album is fantastic. Well, most of them, anyway. There’s something about the laid-back, offhand musical effort that Stephen Malkmus consistently puts forth that communicates solace, clarity, and reassurance. He’s like an old friend. It’s in his voice, it’s in his virtuosic, smirking guitar lines, and it’s especially in his oddball lyrics. I’ll admit that I wasn’t too impressed with Mirror Traffic when I first heard it. It’s got too many songs; it doesn’t take enough risks. You could argue that the latter is true, but why should they risk a new sound when their bread and butter never fails to please their core fanbase? This may not be one for the critics, but I certainly enjoy it from start to finish, mostly due to Malkmus’s undeniably charming songwriting and storytelling. I’m looking at you, “No One Is (As I Are Be)”, “Senator”, “Brain Gallop”, “Share the Red”, “Fall Away”, and “Gorgeous Georgie.”
3. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Oh, Christopher Owens, you sensitive, vulnerable man. Sentence fragments be damned, the second full-length from Girls is truly the bee’s knees. A lot of shit has happened to Owens, and he’s sure as hell not afraid to write songs that serve as earnest reflections on less-than-beloved life events. On much of this record, however, these earnest reflections have a tendency to build into soaring, gospel-infused, guitar solo-laden anthems that threaten to flat-out bury Owens’s meek vocals (“Vomit”, “Forgiveness”). The selling point here is that these watershed moments on Father, Son, Holy Ghost don’t translate as the least bit corny or banal. You feel Owens’s catharsis. In fact, you’re almost proud of the guy. Even the tracks with more modest builds give the listener a sense of clarity and emotional release (“Just a Song”, “My Ma”). Like #6 on this list, this album feels enormous at times, but unlike Slave Ambient, it has the ability to feel particularly small (“Just a Song” and “Forgiveness” intros, “Jamie Marie”). That is hella admirable, and it’s this heterogeneity that gives Father, Son, Holy Ghost extraordinary replay value.
P.S. My opinion on “Die” is that it kicks ass, in case anyone was wondering.
2. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Annie Clark is a genius when it comes to knowing how to wrestle just the right sonic textures out of a guitar. Regardless of what “sonic textures” even means, it’d be hard to argue that Strange Mercy doesn’t belong near the top of a year-end list. A big reason for this is Clark’s masterful guitar work, not to mention that voice of hers. Layer on heaps of distortion and some eerie synthesized orchestral flourishes and you’ve got yourself a fine St. Vincent record. Insanity is a major theme across all three of her albums, and the music provides an excellent complement to lyrics about just how much of a mess Annie Clark really is. Take “Surgeon” for example—the swirling synth and urgent bass line provide a perfectly ominous backing for lyrics pleading over and over for someone to “come cut…open” the narrator. On the very next track, we’re treated to a wild electro-freakout at the climax of “Northern Lights.” Much of what I love about Strange Mercy are the contrasts between the ugly and the beautiful—the gritty and the clean, with Clark’s own voice providing the “beautiful” and “clean” in most cases. Her largely distorted instrumental backings and unsettling lyrical content generally lend the “ugly” and “gritty.” You’d be hard-pressed to find contrasts as compelling on the other records on this list. It’s what sets Strange Mercy apart, and it’s what will (hopefully) help this album remain an intriguing listen years from now.
1. Destroyer – Kaputt
The best way to listen to Kaputt is in your car or in your living room through a decent speaker system (a good pair of headphones will do as well). The important thing is being able to hear each of the individual instruments. Kaputt is a record with a lot of different textures, and Destroyer is made up of, like, seven or eight people, so it’s easy for the richness of a particular phrase to go unnoticed. It’s also a super well-produced record, and it’s a lot of fun admiring how nuanced and full each of the songs sound. I’ll say this, though: I don’t know enough about the 1980s to be able to talk about music of that era in reference to this album, but I do understand where people are coming from when they tag it as smooth jazz and soft rock. I mean, give the title track a listen. Dat bass. Dat saxophone. These two don’t necessarily dominate the album, but they’re fundamental parts of Kaputt’s velvety sound. I saw these guys live this summer, and the performance could not have been more laid-back. Lead vocalist Dan Bejar strutting around lazily like he was on Quaaludes or something. It was one of my favorite concerts, and it delivered everything that made this record one of 2011’s best—Bejar’s trademark sprechgesang, the smooth-as-fuck woodwinds, the perfectly complementary guitar lines, and the effortless percussion. In 50 minutes of music, there isn’t a bad track, and that’s an extraordinary feat to pull off. Favorites: “Savage Night at the Opera”, “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, “Kaputt”, “Bay of Pigs (Detail).”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
I can’t put this in the top 10 because it’s only thirty minutes long. It’s not that short albums are bad. I mean, here it is! In HONORABLE MENTIONS! Anyway, it’s obvious to me that UMO weren’t trying for album of the year or anything, which is admirable. Their self-titled debut has some great songs on it (“Thought Ballune”, “How Can U Luv Me”, “Little Blue House”), and I really look forward to these guys releasing something a little more fleshed out in a year or so.
TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
“Second Song” instantly hooked me, with its quiet entrance steadily building to a Bee Gees-style falsetto funk-chorusTM. I thought it was going to be one of my year-end favorites, but it never stuck. It never evolved into anything more than a collection of ten decent songs, among which there were some truly outstanding ones (“You”, “Killer Crane”, “Repetition”). Maybe I wanted it to be Dear Science or Return to Cookie Mountain, and my expectations were too high. And to that notion I say, “Probs.”
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
This one is my own fault. I burned myself the fuck out on this one by having it playing continuously in my car’s CD player for over a month during the summer. On a personal level, Helplessness Blues suffered the same fate that High Violet did last year. I’m going to chalk up these misfortunes to really loving the albums rather than laziness. But this is 2011, folks, and Fleet Foxes have crafted an incredibly warm record (who expected anything different?), full of emotional depth, and rife with tons of sing-along value. Sadly, I fear that I have permanently ruined it for myself, and its spot in HONORABLE MENTIONS exists as the painful memory of this.
The Antlers – Burst Apart
This is a tough one to write about. First of all, I commend the trio on their ability to discount the perception that Burst Apart should be an emotional epic, just because they’re the Antlers, and their sound is associated with devastation and depression (sidebar: their Twitter is surprisingly entertaining). I came to this record later than I ought to have, and I am pleased with the album as a whole. However, I’m convinced that there are just a few bad eggs that are keeping it from the top 10. For instance, “Rolled Together” is wonderful, but the two songs that flank it don’t do much for me. As a result, the whole middle section of only a ten-song album leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. Luckily “Tiptoe” through the end redeems it, but the few songs that fail to impress me drag the album down. Sorry I couldn’t be more concise, but a proper characterization of this album eludes me.
Beirut – The Rip Tide
A pleasant little album, but that’s all, really. I could characterize this as I did Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut. I really do love a number of songs on The Rip Tide. It’s a nice change of pace from all the Balkan folk business. To me, though, it doesn’t feel complete. By that I mean it should be longer, and it should convey a sense of telos with the final couple of songs. Instead, I just felt like it should have a few more tracks. Nonetheless, I listened to this a lot, and I still enjoyed most of what I heard (“Santa Fe”, “East Harlem”, “Payne’s Bay”, “The Rip Tide”).
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien
This, lady and gentleman, is the one album from the HONORABLE MENTIONS that I could easily swap out with one or two of the albums in the top 10. Cymbals Eat Guitars are a little less manic on this record. They’re noticeably more mature, and the songs are less sprawling. BUT. The hooks are still there, Joseph D’Agostino’s yelps are still there, the sforzandos are still there. The tunes are solid, homie (“Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)”, “Keep Me Waiting”, “Definite Darkness”, “Secret Family”). The only thing keeping Lenses Alien from the top 10 is failure to pull together a cohesive side two. It feels a little aimless is all, and it doesn’t close as nicely as I would have hoped.
tUnE-yArDs – w h o k I l l
So this album grooves, and it’s got some serious soul, but it never really grabbed me the way one of the big-time, top 10 albums did. More than half of the songs are thoroughly enjoyable and strong as stand-alones, but the album lacks any meaningful direction or arc. I’ve given it a few listens, but it fails to satisfy me on a level that would merit giving it a highly coveted, top spot on MusicFan Stephen’s 2011 Albums. They were pretty impressive live, though.
Y U NO LIKE:
Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Hey! It’s Mister Number One himself! This album is pretty in the way that one of those stereotypically pretty girls is pretty. By the same comparison, I also think it’s kind of boring. I will, however, go on record as saying that I am in the “Beth/Rest”-is-awesome camp. Also, “Holocene.” But other than those two tracks, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Bon Iver’s 2011 Falsetto-Infused Slurfest.
Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
A lot of people enjoyed this one, but I thought it was only just okay. Granted, Eastern/Middle Eastern-influenced music and I have never seen eye to eye, so I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe I thought it would awaken my sexy inner belly dancer. Instead it just didn’t sound exciting. After three listens I didn’t want to come back to it.
Panda Bear – Tomboy
Most would agree that Tomboy isn’t as good as Panda’s “breakout” album Person Pitch (by “most,” I refer mainly to critics), but I’m willing to bet that those same people would still list it as one of their top albums of 2011. This is not the case with me simply because I found myself listening to it repeatedly—not because I loved it, but because I was looking for something to love. Though I found a few of the songs enjoyable, I thought most of it was too homogenous and lacking anything that really surprised me (the transition in the middle of “Good Girl/Carrots” on Person Pitch is an example) or made a song or set of songs sound interesting.
Fucked Up – David Comes to Life
I discovered that I’m not the biggest fan of having a story shouted at me. That said, I am a Fucked Up fan, and I will be giving this more listens. Though I admire the ambitiousness of it, I just can’t take something as loud and as driving as this for 77 minutes. It’s possible that there’s some element of Canadian musical genius that hasn’t revealed itself to me yet, so we can more or less file this one in the below category.
I’M STILL GETTING AROUND TO:
(so be easy, folks)
Yuck – Yuck
Real Estate – Days
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
Page 1 of 9