Alright, with minimal ado, here are my ten (or eleven) favorite albums I heard in 2011. I listened to a hell of a lot this year, making this list harder to compile than usual. I spent the whole damn year in the car, driving to job interviews, commuting to work, checking out apartments of various quality. In a year of life-changing transitions, music becomes even more important to me, as a constant keeping me sane no matter how unpredictable and scary life becomes.
Unlike last year, when Janelle Monae released one of my favorite albums of all time, The ArchAndroid, there isn’t one thing that stands out as a clear, number one favorite, so these are presented in no particular order. A lot of these were surprises, some by artists that I was totally unaware of before this year. Perhaps even more surprising is that veteran bands could still surprise me. Wilco’s eighth LP, and The Roots’ thirteenth LP turned out to be some of the most exciting, vital stuff they’ve ever come out with. I’ve always been of the mindset that bands tend to start strong and keep making music with diminishing returns over the years. Maybe as a young person, I was misled by the clearly incorrect notion that young bands are where innovation and change comes from, but those veteran bands showed that sometimes change comes from a bunch of amazing, aging musicians competing against their past selves to prove that they still have that same spark.
Anyway, here’s the list. It’s obviously subjective, which is why I would love to hear anyone else’s top ten and discover music I might have missed. But these are the albums from 2011 that stick with me, that told a journey, that contained those moments that make you drop whatever you’re doing and simply marvel. I hope you give these a listen and enjoy them too - my spotify playlist, featuring many favorite tracks from the year, is available here for your sampling pleasure.
Let’s dive in!
Honorable Mention: Deerhoof - Deerhoof vs. Evil
This one didn’t quite make the top ten because it’s essentially just Deerhoof doing its usual weird thing, without anything particularly new or earth-shattering. It was, however, done extremely well, with some of their most accessible, hooky songs to date, without sacrificing any of their uniqueness. “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness,” one standout, seems to be some sort of superhero anthem mixed with wistful love song. Strange, and outstanding.
The Top Ten
Cults - Cults
Cults is a deceptive album, hiding dark, introspective lyrics under sunshine and catchy melodies. My love for Brill-Building/Girl-Group pop songs certainly means I was predisposed to like this album, but the duo doesn’t just lift tried-and-true chord progressions - it adds a unique spin and a refreshing darkness. It’s a lot more Shangri-Las than Shirelles. All of the songs are well-crafted little gems, simple but perfect, and the songs, from opening cut “Abducted” on, deal with a lot of the more unpleasant, unseemly aspects of modern life. “Never Heal Myself,” a bouncy ode to a wounded psyche, toes that line well, but it’s the massive late-album anthem “You Know What I Mean” that fully explores that back-and-forth dynamic between poppy feel-goodery and moody introspection. It sounds like that juxtaposition would be awkward or gimmicky, but instead, the album is a sort of escapist fantasy, about keeping up an old-fashioned, optimistic attitude even in a world where it’s increasingly hard to buy into that idealism.
The Roots - Undun
This one showed up late in the year and just blew me away. It’s wildly ambitious, not only telling a narrative story but doing it chronologically backwards. The hooks throughout are massive, particularly the guest spots by neo-soul singers like Bilal. And it’s risky in the best way, ending with a bizarre art-jazz, Sufjan Stevens-infused four-part suite. Not bad for an ensemble with not only twelve previous LPs, but a day job as Jimmy Fallon’s house band. But, as with all of the Roots’ albums, it’s really ?uestlove’s party. Just listen to that drum fill that kicks in to start “The Other Side,” or his wild free-form soloing in that closing suite. I’ve read a description of The Band’s Levon Helm as “the only drummer who can make you cry,” but clearly that was from someone who never heard ?uestlove. The drumming on the album pushes everything forward with a propulsive, insistent rhythm. He’s now reached the level where his beats are indistinguishable from the classic soul hip-hop artists used to sample. He’s simply amazing, and so is the whole album.
Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
Here’s a classic snotty-kids-with-guitars band who just does it right. What elevates it to another level, for me, are the little touches that make some of the tracks sound like outtakes from George Harrison’s solo catalog. There’s a seventies-inspired scuzziness to the guitar lines, and artfully deployed piano lines, that evokes that post-Beatles psychedelic era. Opening track “Weekend” sets the tone well, the first of many songs that starts off one way and evolves in unexpected ways as the song goes on. Every song on this album is a small little journey, starting with an already-strong melody and developing it in new directions. There’s a restlessness there that fits their youthful persona - they seemingly have too many ideas to let a song just stay in one mood. Tracks like “Smile” show that the best is yet to come, that even when tackling heavier, slower material, the band shows that same kind of adventurousness. Of everything I heard this year, this band is the one with the most potential. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.
Mayer Hawthorne - How Do You Do?
Mayer Hawthorne is a nerdy white guy from Detroit who happens to be able to do a killer Curtis Mayfield impression. It’s always tricky territory when someone tries to revive classic soul sounds devoid of their political and racial context, but what lets Mayer Hawthorne dodge that thorny territory is that his second album is really a meditation on his relationship with the music he loves. It’s classic soul filtered through his life, through hip-hop, through Detroit’s subsequent collapse, dealing with the legacy of Motown instead of just pretending nothing post-Motown ever happened. Beyond my heady, pretentious views, it’s an undeniably fun album, full of great jams ideal for singing along loudly in the car. “You Called Me” might be one of the most joyful tracks of the year, but “The Walk” is the best kind of groovy. The album strikes a good balance between more serious tracks and the kind of retro-soul party jams that get the crowd moving.
Mister Heavenly - Out of Love
Mister Heavenly made an album so weird and idiosyncratic that they had to invent a new term to describe it: “doom-wop.” It sounds like a mix of hard-edged indie rock and old-school doo-wop, a combination that only these collaborators could come up with. The band includes members of The Unicorns and Man Man, and though you might think that the idiosyncratic visions of those two groups wouldn’t mesh well, they find a very interesting middle ground. Some of the songs echo the past, but with a twist, as in the case of “I Am a Hologram,” but tracks like “Pineapple Girl” or “Reggae Pie” evolve into something else entirely. It’s a great-sounding album, with an unbelievably high energy level. It honestly sounds like it could fall apart into chaos at any point, but never quite does, and that’s the mark of something special. A great surprise.
The Go! Team - Rolling Blackouts
There’s a reason my first real article for this blog was a glowing review of this album. The Go! Team throws every element imaginable into a blender and what comes out the other side sounds like an unholy blend of old educational videos, cheerleader chants, and out-of-control marching bands. It’s schizophrenic at times, changing radically between moods, but it’s never boring, and never goes where you expect. The best thing about this album, in particular, is the way it appropriates definitively un-cool genres of music and embraces their weirdness. “Super Triangle” sounds like something you would hear while watching a laserdisc in high school, while “Yosemite Theme” could pass for something piping through ancient speakers at a National Park. That willingness to experiment, to draw from even the least hip, least explored corners of functional music, makes this band so much fun, and the album is wall-to-wall insanity.
Wilco - The Whole Love
Wilco had honestly nothing to prove at this point, but this album makes a definitive statement that this is still a band that matters, a band that will push themselves to create something unique and amazing. When “Art of Almost,” already an amazing track, kicks back in after most bands would have ended it, you know that the band is swinging for the fences. It’s a great-sounding record, the first release by their self-run label, and every instrument has a phenomenal quality. You can listen all the way through the album focused just on the bass, or drums, or the keyboards, and have an equally rewarding, totally different experience each time. This is a band where any one of the members could be fronting their own band, but they combine their talents in an amazing way. Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting is at it’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot best, oblique lyrics and all. By the time you get through the last song, an extended take where you actually hear the band in the process of learning the song, it’s hard not to be floored. It’s a document of an amazing group of musicians at the peak of their ability.
tUnE-YarDs - W H O K I L L
I didn’t quite get this one at first, but it’s definitely one where listening to a song a few times reveals interesting layers. The way the songs are constructed, a weird wall-of-sound involving seemingly endless variations of Merrill Garbus’ singing piled on top of each other, is a great showcase for the potential of the human voice to create beautiful, strange sounds. I’ll admit that as a very non-political person, the clearly political content of this album went way over my head (she hates the police I guess?) but I don’t think understanding her points is necessary to appreciating her sound, a mix of afro-beat, a cappella, and quirky indie-girl pop. Many of those things can be disastrous if done wrong, as can the ukulele, but she somehow puts it all together magnificently. An amazing piece of work, and something I predict will be one of the more influential albums to come out. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking - nothing sounds quite like this, and I want more!
Dum Dum Girls - Only in Dreams
This one makes the list entirely on the merit of two songs, embodying opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Opening cut “Always Looking” is a rollicking explosion of punky energy, mixing Kristen Gundren’s high-octane vocals, cool backup singing, and kick-ass guitar lines. Later in the album, you get “Coming Down,” an emotional peak I didn’t know this band was capable of hitting, culminating in one long, haunting note sustained by Gundren as the band smashes away melodramatically. Clearly, the glue holding together these disparate halves is Gundren’s powerhouse of a voice, but the point is that this album contained some of the best straight-ahead rockers and some of the best ballads I heard all year, all over the course of one album. Something for everyone! Seriously great stuff.
Beyonce - 4
Oh, Beyonce. You are fantastic. Let’s run this down: opening track “1+1” kicks off a run of some knockout power ballads, some of the best Beyonce’s ever done. But what makes the album truly astounding is the sequence of tracks my friend affectionately refers to as “the killer three” - “Love On Top,” followed by “Countdown,” then “End of Time.” All three are unbelievable jams. “Love on Top” is an incredible piece of retro-soul bliss that changes keys seemingly just to highlight how undaunted Beyonce is by any challenge. “Countdown,” one of the weirdest pieces of mainstream pop all year, uses a marching band and incomprehensible lyrics about a “bouf” effectively to create something that this white boy can describe only as “bumpin.” Finally, underappreciated gem “End of Time” alternates between funky brass and a powerful blast of vocals. Those three, in sequence, combine to form an unstoppable block of incredible invention, catchiness, and soul, and they are easily my most listened-to tracks of the year. Beyonce, with this album, proves that something immensely popular can still be innovating, bold, esoteric, experimental, and just straight-up great music. 4 is Beyonce’s best album, and gives me hope that mainstream music can still be amazing.
Alright, that’s too much of me! Please, please, please feel free to agree, disagree, debate, or suggest alternatives. I do this to share my favorites with my friends, and I want them to do the same so I can discover more music, especially stuff I’ve overlooked.