Best Albums of 2011
By The Single Malt Theory.
December 26, 2011
It’s that time. There’s been a lot of music this year, some good, some awful. Here are the winners and losers.
1. Bon Iver (Paste, N.P.R., Pitchfork)
2. P.J. Harvey, Let England Shake (N.M.E., Mojo, BBC, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, No Ripcord)
It all often comes down to two or three albums that are head and shoulders above the rest, and this year was no exception. Bon Iver and Let England Shake were, really, the only sensible choices, and I found them running neck-and-neck up until the very last week. Being forced to split them, Bon Iver’s sheer depth and landmark status in the rising career arch of a man who may very well currently be music’s most important artist was the deciding factor. For all its inventive greatness, Let England Shake was a more narrow concept album and may not reward repeated listens as much as Bon Iver, which is a bottomless treasure-drove of mood and wistful hidden meaning. Justin Vernon has certainly come a long way from that log cabin in the middle of a frigid Wisconsin forest, and for releasing the most complete, universal and, yes, “important” album of the year he edges out previous winner Polly Harvey and becomes the first-ever two-time winner in the fourteen-year history of this list.
3. My Morning Jacket, Circuital
Even when compared to the talented “bearded” subgenre spawned by “At Dawn”, which includes Band Of Horses and Fleet Foxes, MMJ remains the head of the class. In a great year (see below) which included an awesome headlining gig at Lolla and the band’s first toe-dipping foray into the mainstream, Circuital should have been a career landmark. The only reasons why it probably was not are hardly attributable to its quality:
- Bon Iver and Let England Shake were simply, markedly better and
- The band’s catalogue is approaching historically-great proportions, so they may have already peaked, in a sense.
They’ll have to settle for having released the third-best album of the year. There are worse fates than that.
4. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost (Stereogun)
Not a surprise to see them here, and the quality of their debut Album and the wonderful follow-up EP and single suggested that they were in for a breakout, but it’s still a little surprising to see how quickly these guys have matured and morphed into something close to the complete package. Whereas the first album’s influences (Elvis Costello,pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys) were proudly worn on its sleeve, F.S.H.G. sounds like nothing that has ever been released before, without sounding inscrutable or foreign. They are here to stay, and will almost certainly be a mainstay of future lists to come.
5. Adele, 21 (Rolling Stone, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Amazon.com)
Has there ever been a more overexposed recluse than Adele, circa-2011? You could hardly swing the proverbial dead cat without hitting something or other related to the young British chanteuse. The fact that every one of the media outlets that ranked 21 as the Album Of The Year is a decidedly mainstream outlet serves as a sad reminder of how wide is the divide between the mainstream and the (much) higher-quality rest of the pool, but 21 is still a wonderful step forward in the career of a spectacular talent for whom stardom was always in the cards.
6. tUnE-yArDs, W H O K I L L (Slate)
By far the most unlikely album to have wound up as a stone-cold critical darling, it is also by far the most original piece of recorded music released in 2011. Merrill Garbus’s voice and inflections may set off car alarms and set dogs a-barking, but it is also an extremely moving instrument.
7. Wilco, The Whole Love
8. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
9. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes
Filling that much-needed funkified eclectic MIA void that was left empty by, well, MIA herself and, more specifically, her absolute artistic disintegration, the intriguing Swede leaves behind a lot of the childish singsong that I had once found so terribly annoying and gimmicky, and focuses on sheer songwriting and craftsmanship. She does sound like MIA a little too much in spots, though, which is not bad, if not original, either.
10. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
To you, the Decemberists fan who retched at The Hazards Of Love’s Fairport Convention-meets-King Crimson-meets Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” and demanded a return to the jingle-jangle morning of Picaresque, I tell thee (because Colin Melloy would never use the word “you”), this is your album. Hey, look! Gillian Welch sings in it. And Peter Buck plays on it like it’s 1991, too!
11. Dávila 666, Tan Bajo
In an example of Hives-like chutzpah, the boys have crafted a legend and backstory all their own, whereby they absorb influences far and wide and concoct the lo-fi behemoth that is their sound and set out to rule the world, or at least make YOUR world a little cooler. Given that their base of operations is the isolated and minuscule Puerto Rican indie scene, they really have no choice, in fact, but to craft their own tradition and go at it alone, and boy does it work. Sounding pretty much like what Times New Viking would sound like if Menudo svengali Edgardo Díaz wrote their tunes, and incorporating Chess Records guitars (“Obsesionao”, coming soon to a Taco Bell TV commercial near you), drugged-out SoCal melodies and handclaps (“De Verdad”), and girl-group/Brill Building harmonies (“Yo Sería Otro”), this is one seriously awesome young band that deserves to be feted as Puerto Rico’s most audacious and original no-frills, gimmick-free musical export.
12. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Filter)
13. Todd Snider, Live: The Storyteller
14. Paul Simon, So Beautiful Or So What
Like Dylan in the late-90’s and early aughts, Paul Simon has released a remarkable stretch of great music in the last couple of years. Featuring what is likely the first leadoff-track Christmas song ever released in April and none of the self-importance that, to me at least, has marred a large chunk of his solo career, this is one solid and satisfying album and suggests that in music, unlike sports, excellence at a late age is possible without any chemical enhancement.
15. Real Estate, Days
16. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring For My Halo
17. Destroyer, Kaputt
18. The Kills, Blood Pressures
Given the amount of mainstream press these guys got off Jamie Hince becoming Mr. Kate Moss, followed by a very-well received performance in the festival circuit, I was extremely surprised to see that Blood Pressures made nary a ripple in the critical consciousness, judging from their absence in virtually every major Best Of list. Pity, because this album suggests that these are two artists at the peak of their powers, and that Allison Mosshart may have learned a thing or two from Jack White. Her singing, for one, is better than it ever has.
19. The Dodos, No Color
20. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (PopMatters)
21. Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
Saying that the fact that 2011 was the year I finally “got” The Foo Fighters and, in particular, the concept of Dave Grohl-as-a-frontman proves their awesomeness is admittedly un-scientific, but fuck it, it’s my list.
22. The Black Keys, El Camino
I’ll be honest: I thoroughly enjoyed this album, and do respect them for releasing good albums in consecutive years, and also respect them for evolving sonically and sounding more and more like a band, instead of a guy on guitar and a guy on drums, but this album was overrated by a too large segment of the critical mass. Yes, it’s good and catchy and fun, but Brothers was better, and one gets the sense that it’s a hollow-backed cardboard front for a great album; a fun fluff of a sugar high that’s bound to die down with repeated listens. Did I mention it IS good? Well, let me stress and repeat that it is, and that’s why it made the list.
23. Panda Bear, Tomboy
24. Atlas Sound, Parallax
25. TV On The Radio, Nine Types Of Light
26. The Features, Wilderness
27. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (Under The Radar, Consequence of
28. Rave On, Buddy Holly
29. Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde
A veritable summer-singles reservoir. Music this sunny has no business being from Chicago.
30. Wolf Gang, Suego Faults
Will the Kills-sounding-like-Jesus and Mary Chain-with-James Jones samples gimmick last? Will they even exist, say, five years from now? Who cares, really…?! This is as good a fun, catchy summer album as any, in a year in which many such albums were released.
32. James Blake
33. Foster The People, Torches
I once saw a local government worker who couldn’t have possibly graduated past the Olga Tañón phase of her listening life sitting at her desk and whistling along to the whistling part in “Pumped-Up Kicks” as it wafted forth from Puerto Rican radio. THAT’s when Foster The People jumped the sharp-toothed fish for me. It was a good run, though, including an energetic (if lightweight) turn at Lolla, and an album that features a string of singles that is catchier than ebola.
34. Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots
35. The Antlers, Burst Apart (Drowned In Sound)
No, they are not singing about cancer anymore, which is good, but I can’t help but think that, in moving past the concept album, er, concept, The Antlers have lost a whole bunch of luster. It’s gooooodddd, don’t get me wrong, but, well, it’s nowhere near as captivating, remarkable, moving or interesting as Hospice.
PREVIOUS BEST ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
2010: The National, High Violet
2009: Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion
2008: Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
2007: Amy Winehouse, Back To Black
2006: The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America
2005: Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine
2004: Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
2003: The White Stripes, Elephant
2002: Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2001: Natacha Atlas, Ayeshteni
2000: P.J. Harvey, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
1999: Moby, Play
1998: Garbage, Version 2.0