The Top Tens, 2011: Top Ten Albums

Posted on Dec 21, 2011

Top Ten Albums of 2011

This has been an oddly egalitarian year for music — there have been a lot of excellent records, but nothing, in my mind, that’s an indisputable classic (unlike Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz last year or Portishead’s Third a couple of years back). I am curious if that is a product of our new ADD-infused music culture — where Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody and MOG (my personal favorite) have us moving onto the next album before we have even had a chance to digest what we just heard. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. I know that I’m less in love with the albums of 2011 then I have been in the past, but I’m also impressed at the musical kaleidoscope that’s been in my rotation — there’s punk, black metal, ukulele music, avant jazz, indie rock, psych rock and more represented on this list, and any one of these records could be higher or lower on the list, depending on my mood.

Let’s start with five records that didn’t make the Top Ten, but easily could have.

Honorable Mention (alphabetical):

Blut Aus Nord – 777: Sect(s) & The Desanctification – Parts one and two of a singular and bleak trilogy from enigmatic French black metal auteur Vindsval that brings to mind Godflesh’s best work.

Bon Iver – Bon Iver – Wisely trying something different after the beautiful simplicity of For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s self titled follow up has far more hits than misses.

Cults – Cults – Though they wear their 50’s girl group doo wop via David Lynch influences on their sleeve, the album’s persistently catchy hooks are undeniable.

Thee Oh Sees – Carrion Crawler/The Dream – Bobs and weaves like a drunken boxer. This is what is probably what it sounds like when an immensely talented psych rock band gets wasted and presses record.

Wilco – The Whole Love – Their finest album since A Ghost is Born. Songs such as “Art of Almost” and “Standing O” live up to the band’s brilliant live show.

The Top Ten Albums of 2011

10.       Trash Talk – Awake & Deafheaven – Roads to Judah

Two EPs from two very promising, but very different, heavy bands. San Francisco quintet Deafheaven slowly build and layer monolithic and surprisingly tuneful, shoegazey black metal. Los Angeles’ Trash Talk, on the other hand, slam through five gut shots of punk in just under nineteen minutes. Expect heads to turn when these bands release their full-length debuts in the near future.

9.         Man Man – Life Fantastic

This ragtag group from Philadelphia has always kinda sounded like Nick Cave’s drunken, slightly insane cousins. The great thing about Life Fantastic is that Man Man have managed to keep their quirky charm and circus-folk sense of anarchy while writing the catchiest songs of their career. Album opener “Knuckle Down” sets the tone with a head-nodding beat and a wood xylophone melody. “Dark Arts” plows forward with sneering, yelping menace, while “Shameless” could actually be classified as a cracked ballad.

8.         The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

These Philadelphia based pysch jammers used to back Kurt Vile, and listening to Slave Ambient, it makes a lot of sense. Both artists share an affinity for classic folk rock, but The War on Drugs have taken that love to a more interesting place. Slave Ambient sounds a bit like listening to Tom Petty underwater, or Bruce Springsteen at the end of a long tunnel. The record is woozy, druggy, with moments of clarity bursting through, such as the swinging “Your Love is Calling My Name” (you can almost see Courtney Cox dancing in the front row) and the slow-burner “Come to the City.”

7.         White Denim – D

Prog rock is almost never considered cool, nor is it hardly ever considered “fun.” White Denim, with their brilliant LP D, bring sunny, jammy fun to the genre. The band’s technical chops, from drummer Josh Block’s jazzy rhythms to Steven Terebecki’s rolling bass lines to Austin Jenkins and lead singer James Petralli’s serpentine guitar lines, are undeniably impressive. But, during the Allman Brothers-esque “Burnished/At The Farm” and the rollicking “It’s Him,” unlike most prog/jam-rock albums, you forget the technique and just nod your head along to the excellent songwriting. And, to boot, D has the year’s best jazz flute solo on “River to Consider.”

6.         Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

David Comes to Life is a work of towering ambition from the punk-in-name-only Toronto quintet Fucked Up. What other “punk” band would release a 78-minute opus with a three-act, fourth-wall breaking plot featuring true loves finding and losing each other at a light bulb factory? What other punk band would bury their 1-4-5 chords in dozens and dozens of layers of distortion and eschew simple song structure for winding, dizzying instrumental codas? Hirsute frontman Pink Eyes barks his way through pages of lyrics, but its really his bandmates that carry the record – drummer Mr. Jo keeps the pace flying throughout and sonically quotes Keith Moon on more than one occasion, and guitarists 10,000 Marbles, Gulag and Young Governor unleash a seemingly endless array of hypnotic hooks, especially on “Under My Nose,” “A Little Death,” and album highlight “I Was There.”

5.            Portugal. The Man – In The Mountain In the Cloud

Some may balk at the good vibes and lead singer John Gourley’s hippie-dippy lyrics, but I’d be lying if I said I listened to any other record more in 2011 than Portugal the Man’s addictive In The Mountain In The Cloud. At first, I felt like this record (much like My Morning Jacket’s Circuital) was more a jumping-off point for Portugal the Man’s phenomenal live show than a fully formed record. But I found myself humming the melodies to “Everything You See” and “Got it All” almost immediately, while Pink-Floyd slow-build of “Sleep Forever” the moodier atmosphere of “All Your Light” leave room to savor the band’s brilliant technical chops and mature songwriting. If they keep writing records like In The Mountain, I’m thinking this band’s audience is going to get bigger and bigger as the years go on.

4.         Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

I have to admit, if I don’t get a good first impression of a band, it’s hard for me to be converted. Girls’ 2009 record, Album, struck me as incredibly phony and forced – in spite of his undeniably compelling life-story, I just wasn’t buying the hippie-pop Girls’ mastermind Christopher Owens was selling. That being said, listening to Father, Son, Holy Ghost, I can admit, at least on this record, Owens’ brings a level of songwriting craft that borders on genius. The album has two types of songs – the meticulously crafted pop tune and the guitar driven, druggy epic. The pop tunes, like the Beach Boys influenced “Honey Bunny” and the doo-wop swing of “Love Like a River,” will be stuck in your head the moment you hear them. Owens channels Spiritualized and Floyd more than Brian Wilson in the album centerpiece “Vomit” and the stunning, seven-minute gospel tinged “Forgiveness.” And yet for all the record’s variety, Father, Son, Holy Ghost feels like the work of a very unique voice that I’ve learned to appreciate.

3.         Colin Stetson – New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges

I’m fully aware that I’m maybe a little over-eager in throwing superlatives at bands and records that I admire, but Colin Stetson’s New History of Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges is quite literally an amazing album. It’s amazing not only because Stetson (who tours with the Arcade Fire and Bon Iver) somehow crafted such a full-sounding, utterly unique album by himself on a saxophone, but also because, in spite of being a “never heard anything like it” album, Judges is actually very accessible. Whether Stetson is beatboxing his way through “Red Horse,” circular breathing himself into an ominous frenzy on “Judges,” or fluttering through the free jazz madness of “The righteous wrath of an honorable man,” he keeps the audience engaged with startling rhythm and memorable melodies. Even the oddly clipped voiceovers in “A dream of water” and “Lord I can’t keep from crying sometime” don’t feel forced – they only add to the brilliantly evocative landscape that Stetson has laid out.

2.         The Antlers – Burst Apart

Brooklyn indie-rockers The Antlers’ previous album, Hospice, was a real grower. Ostensibly a concept album about a terminally ill patient and a hospice worker, was full of beautiful melody and aching emotion emerging from long periods of musical fog. Their latest, Burst Apart, brings the band’s strengths into startling clarity. Burst Apart may lack the overarching narrative of Hospice, but the musical and textural focus throughout the records ten songs makes this very much an album-album. Lead singer Peter Silberman’s haunting vocals anchor the record’s emotional core, and erupt into a ghostly howl on album opener “I Don’t Want Love.” “Rolled Together,” the album’s foggy centerpiece, develops with slow assurance, while “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” recalls the icy robo-rock of Radiohead’s OK Computer days. And album finale, “Putting the Dog to Sleep,” uses echoed guitar stabs and a mournful organ melody to squeeze every bit of honest pathos out of Silberman’s metaphorical sick-dog-as-sick-relationship lyrics.

1.         Tune-Yards – W H O K I L L

It’s been a tough call deciding which 2011 album was “the best,” but every time I considered one of the other very fine albums on this list, I was always drawn back to Tune-Yards because of the clarity and focus front-woman Merill Garbus’ vision. Both lyrically and musically, Garbus has one of the most unique voices in indie-rock today – imagine Bjork if she had spent a decade studying Fela Kuti – and on W H O K I L L she finally has captured the perfect music to accompany her subversively hilarious and compelling lyrics. The addition of bassist Nate Bremmer to Garbus’ established ukulele, drum and vocal loop sound has underscored songs like “My Country” and “Bizness” with danceable shimmy. Lyrically, W H O K I L L is endlessly rewarding – Garbus tackles everything from female body image (“I gotta do right if my body’s tight, right?” in “Es-so”) to income inequality (“my country tis of thee/sweet land of liberty/how come I cannot see a future within your arms?” in “My Country”) to sexual fantasy and male power (Garbus’ narrator dreams of making love to the policeman who shot her brother in “Riotriot”). The real key to the greatness of W H O K I L L though is that the heavy nature of many of its observations are delivered with such wit that the album is actually a brilliantly entertaining, fun and funky ride – this is a super-smart record that never feels like homework. Here’s hoping Garbus inspires a new generation of female songwriters to take the creative, musical and lyrical risks that Tune-Yards so brilliantly pulls off on W H O K I L L.

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