In terms of quantity, it has been a pretty good year for music. My albums list has been narrowed down to 30, which means there were worthwhile albums (TV on the Radio, Kate Bush, Wild Beasts) left off. That said, it wasn’t a great year for ‘perfect’ albums. There is really only one album I was totally in love with, as opposed to most years where there are at least three. Still, everything from #2 to #20 is really awesome, and the rest are really good. You may also notice I favour populist albums. I just think they’re better. Sorry.
Here we go!
30. Kendrick Lamar – Section 80
Kendrick Lamar – “Rigamortis”
There are some rappers who amaze me because their rhymes sound effortless. Kendrick Lamar has the opposite effect. It sounds like he’s trying really hard, and that’s the appeal. Here’s a young Compton rapper who seemingly idolizes 2Pac, Kanye and Bone Thugs, and he struggles to stretch his voice and ideas into that kind of legendary territory. Despite a couple of duds and some offensive content, we end up routing for him because his efforts are so endearing. That, plus there is a nice array of interesting beats and plenty of ‘oh shit’ moments within the tracks “ADHD”, “Rigamortis” and “HiiiPoWeR”.
29. Atlas Sound – Parallax
Atlas Sound – “Te Amo”
This may sound backhanded, but Parallax is really just another great album by Bradford Cox and nothing more. Following the last three Deerhunter records and the last two Atlas Sound ones, these songs kind of feel expected. Yup, there are ghostly vocals, weird effects and deceptively simple chord structures. It’s all fairly run-of-the-mill. But that doesn’t mean this album is disappointing. In fact, it’s really comforting. Feeling blue? Alone? Looking for a strange, haunted pop album to seep through your headphones? Bradford has got you covered.
28. WU LYF – Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
WU LYF – “L Y F”
When WU LYF released Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, they were all hype. Something about not doing interviews or whatever. Unfortunately, the hype seems to have bitten them in the ass, because they’re pretty much left off all major year-end lists. This is a shame, because their record is really good and it deserves notice. These songs are spacious, heart-warming indie-rock with unintelligible vocals barked all over them. They’d all be singalongs if we could make out the words. Instead we must settle for dancing wildly and shouting jibberish…which might be better, actually.
27. Austra – Feel It Break
Austra – “Lose It”
I ignored Austra’s Feel It Break when it was first released, for no good reason really. Maybe I just didn’t see the appeal of another Canadian electro-pop act. There are certainly enough of those. But now when I listen to the record, I understand that Austra is much more than Canadian hype. It’s dark, arty and accomplished in a way that transcends Polaris Prize nominations and Q radio appearances. It’s more New York or British or something, not that geography matters (but it kinda does matter?). Regardless, Feel It Break is solid pop.
26. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation
Youth Lagoon – “July”
Youth Lagoon makes the kind of cutesy indie-pop most people got sick of in 2006. But The Year of Hibernation doesn’t sound contrived or pandering, mostly because it feels so honest. The yearning vocals are thickened with reverb, the guitars are noodly and crunchy, and the beats are mostly ripped from Handsome Furs. It’s the kind of stuff you’ve heard hundred times before, until the genuine longing and bleeding-heart poetry of the words buries deep into your mind. All of a sudden, Youth Lagoon feels new.
25. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
The Decemberists – “Don’t Carry It All”
The Decemberists started as kings. The band’s first record, Castaways and Cutouts, was the best they’ve ever been. Both Her Majesty and Picturesque were lesser albums but still classics in their own right. The Crane Wife was pretty good, but definitely a little long-winded, and The Hazards of Love was basically a bad album. For The King Is Dead the band decided to trash their formula of complex themes and extensive thesaurus use, and instead they churned out some easy-goin’, breezy country tunes. Compared to their previous achievements, The King Is Dead is underwhelming, but on its own the album is completely enjoyable. The old incarnation of the band may be dead, but the new Decemberists feels kinda nice.
24. SBTRKT – SBTRKT
SBTRKT – “Wildfire”
I don’t know much about this whole dub-step thing. Apparently it’s popular? But a lot of people are really sick of it? Skrillex or something? But SBTRKT, with its stupid abbreviated title and the creepy mask, is called dub-step and it’s really good! So it can’t be all shitty. To be fair though, I don’t think SBTRKT is pure dub-step. There is too much singing, too much fun, too much Basement Jaxx-style variation for this record to be only one genre. Or we could just say it’s ‘techno’. There.
23. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Bill Callahan – “America”
Ever since his days as Smog, Bill Callahan has always been divisive. I can see why people dislike him. There’s the monotone voice, the sparse instrumentation, and the impenetrability of it all. But for those of us who click with it, Apocalypse is another gift. These songs take the plush melodies and arrangements of 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle and stretch them into epic jams and soulful meditations. With each release, Callahan has been getting fuller, more direct, more melodic and even more confessional. Mostly, he’s just getting better, and I can’t wait to hear what’s next.
22. The Horrors – Skying
The Horrors – “Still Life”
It could be because I’m from North America, but UK hype bands never really appeal to me. I’m indifferent to the Libertines, Arctic Monkeys, the Klaxons, Kasabian, Mumford & Sons, and many others. For some reason, however, I’m into the Horrors. I really like the band’s last album, Primary Colours, and I like this year’s Skying even more. While their sound is largely derivative of legendary bands like the Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, and Suede, there is something irresistibly fresh about this well-written, well-produced and totally hip rock record.
21. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
Kurt Vile – “Baby’s Arms”
Like Real Estate and his former band, The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile specializes in lazy tempos, wiry guitars and reverberated pop. But he’s also got a Dinosaur Jr. vibe to him. Like J. Mascis, you get the sense that Vile is well-read in classic rock. There are hints of Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan scattered throughout Smoke Ring for My Halo. But also like Mascis, the record sounds effortless; as if the songs sort of spill out of him.
20. Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine
Toro Y Moi – “New Beat”
All of the best bands that were labelled ‘chillwave’ back in 2009 have transcended the pitfalls of that genre. Some bands, like Toro Y Moi, broke free by altering their style. With Underneath the Pine, Toro Y Moi no longer sounds like he’s maxing and relaxing on a California beach. Instead it sounds like he’s alternating between acid trips with the Flaming Lips (“Good Hold”) and sipping tea with Stereolab (“How I Know”). The end result is a genre-hopping slab of masterful pop.
19. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
The War on Drugs – “Brothers”
I just want to take a moment and say: check out The War on Drugs’ last album, Wagonwheel Blues. It’s a better album than Slave Ambient. With that out of the way, I can safely say this record signals that these guys are here to stay. Slave Ambient is a shimmering sprawl of propulsive Springsteen ballads, combined with the lazy bounce heard from newer bands such as Real Estate. It’s also a great road record.
18. Washed Out – Within & Without
Washed Out – “Amor Fati”
Speaking of chillwave, 2011 also saw the release of Washed Out’s excellent Within & Without. Unlike Toro Y Moi, however, Washed Out succeeded this year not by changing things up but by expanding on his established sound. Yes, this record still sounds like chillwave or glo-fi, but because of the strength of the songs and the beefed-up production from Ben Allen (producer for Animal Collective, Deerhunter, etc…) Within & Without feels much more than a genre footnote. It will be a summer staple for years to come.
17. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
M83 – “Midnight City”
Since 2003’s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, M83 has been churning out really good synth-pop/shoegaze records. But with this year’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, it finally seems like this guy will go down as one of the 21st century’s greats. Everything here is bigger: the synths bubble, the beats bounce harder, the singing is much more expressive, and even the track listing is doubled. Most impressive is the lack of filler. Almost all great double records contain a fair bit of fluff (White Album, Sign O’ the Times, Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), but every song here counts.
16. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
Iron & Wine – “Tree By the River”
Reading the blogs, I’ve noticed that Kiss Each Other Clean is the record where many Iron & Wine fans jump ship. I find this curious not only because this is a great album, but also because it’s much better than 2007’s critically lauded The Shepard’s Dog. I think Shepard’s Dog is very good, but it has some throwaway songs. Kiss Each Other Clean, on the other hand, trims the fat. This album contains 10 folk tunes, alternating between sweet ballads and menacing funk. Also unlike The Shepard’s Dog, this is the record where Iron & Wine perfects the full-band sound. Every instrument sounds vital, fresh and exciting.
15. Fucked Up - David Comes to Life
Fucked Up – “The Other Shoe”
Throat-shredding vocals are not for everyone. For this reason, David Comes to Life will not find broad appeal (despite Fucked Up’s Spin magazine covers and Polaris Prizes). Still, underneath Pink Eyes’ screams is melodic, dense guitar pop, not unlike the Hold Steady or Les Savy Fav. Propulsive, tuneful indie-rock is attractive on its own, but Fucked Up’s hardcore roots make this record feel original. The record’s concept can get buried under some unintelligible lyrics and a hefty running time, but everything still feels like a cathartic rush.
14. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
EMA – “California”
Normally, trashy Californian punk/indie rock is not my style (I’m thinking Wavves, Best Coast, No Age, etc…) but EMA is an exception. The reason is probably the album’s versatility and emotional resonance. Past Life Martyred Saints sounds sometimes like grunge, sometimes like post-punk, sometimes lo-fi, sometimes pristine. Throughout these stylistic changes is a naked confessionalism that really draws me in. Despite its occasional brattiness and too-cool-for-schoolness, Past Life Martyred Saints is substantial and varied.
13. James Blake - James Blake
James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”
People often complain about Pitchfork boosting a shitty new artist just so the website can seem ahead of the curve. Sometimes these people are justified (Odd Future) and other times they need to shut up and listen. James Blake is an example where people need to listen. After seemingly coming out of nowhere in 2010 with three acclaimed EPs, Blake announced he’s the real deal with his self-titled debut full-length. Combing an effortless blue-eyed croon with piano balladry and warbled dubstep beats, Blake has made one of this year’s best chill-out records.
12. Real Estate - Days
Real Estate – “It’s Real”
Despite the well-received release of their excellent 2009 self-titled record, Real Estate really only made a significant impact with this year’s Days. Still, it’s a surprise that the band is making an impression at all, considering how unassuming and simplistic their sound is. Combining the sleepy melodies of the Sea and Cake with the jangle of early R.E.M., Real Estate aren’t an in-your-face band. But if you spend some time with these summery sweet tunes, you won’t be able to get them out of your head.
11. Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise
Nicolas Jaar – “Space Is Only Noise”
Although Space Is Only Noise came out early this year, I really didn’t give it a chance until this autumn. At first I tried to give it a deep listen, but I’d either get bored or I’d fall asleep. However, I stuck with it and soon discovered it was one of the year’s great electronic albums. Despite its slow start, Space Is Only Noise increasingly reveals new pleasures as each song goes by. The saxophone in “Keep Me There”, the Ray Charles sample in “I Got a Woman” — there are gems everywhere. This is the grower album of the year.
10. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
St. Vincent – “Cruel”
There are many talking points to St. Vincent: Annie Clark’s looks, the music’s tension between beauty and menace, her technical chops, her collaborations, etc… In my mind, however, the best thing about Strange Mercy is that it’s just a kick-ass rock record. Sure, there are some weird melodies and interesting instrumentation, but when I’m driving or doing the dishes and this record is on, I am pretty much just nodding my head and rocking out.
09. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
Shabazz Palaces – “Youlogy”
Like Madvillain or the Def Jux records last decade, Shabazz Palaces is just weird enough for rock purists to enjoy. Essentially Black Up is the token indie-rock rap record. Still, I shed no tears for Drake, Kanye or Jay-Z. This truly is the best rap album of 2011. The production, on its own, is not unlike something you’d hear on a Prefuse 73 album (a really good Prefuse 73 album), but the vocals from former Digable Planets member Ismael Butler is what sets Black Up apart. Helium-voiced, smooth and effortlessly cool, I could listen to this guy all day.
08. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact
Gang Gang Dance – “Chinese High”
Gang Gang Dance’s Eye Contact is the most genre-less album on this list, in a very refreshing way. While most of the record could loosely be described as dance or indie music, there are also elements of hip-hop, noise, dub, teen-pop, and even jam-band wanking. With so many vegetables in the stew, Eye Contact should sound like a mess. Instead it’s one of the most thrillingly cohesive records of the year.
07. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
PJ Harvey – “The Words That Maketh Murder”
No one is really saying it, but Let England Shake is the comeback album of the year. Sure, PJ Harvey has maintained light praise and a devoted following in the past decade, but nothing has come close to the widespread acclaim that has met this record. I can’t really speak for her previous output, but Let England Shake is definitely worthy of the accolades. With its distinct vision and expert playing, this is one of 2011’s most vital rock records.
06. Beirut - The Rip Tide
Beirut – “Santa Fe”
I can’t think of a record that’s been slept on more this year than Beirut’s The Rip Tide. I understand why: it’s not nearly as bombastic as his previous two full-lengths, and it can go unnoticed next to the year’s many ‘big statement’ records (David Comes to Life, Let England Shake, etc…). The Riptide may be a minor album; it’s a breezy half-hour of lovely and lovelorn European-tinged ditties. Still, every time I put it on I can’t get the songs out of my head.
05. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l
tUnE-yArDs – “Gangsta”
Although this isn’t her first record, I can’t think of an artist who’s made a bigger “Hello World!” statement this year than tUnE-yArDs. This album hits the same lyrical, rhythmic and vocal bases as the Dirty Projectors did with 2009’s Bitte Orca. But everything sounds bigger here: the horns in “Bizness”, the riffing in “Powa”, the screams in “Gangsta”. It’s all very impressive.
04. Destroyer - Kaputt
Destroyer – “Savage Night at the Opera”
Maybe we should’ve gotten the hint with 2009’s electronic Bay of Pigs EP, but Kaputt still feels like the biggest WTF departure of the year. Destroyer, known for knotty guitar pop with hyper-literate lyrics, all of a sudden turned into a cheesy lite-disco romantic. This is the kind of thing I would’ve hated as a kid, but Kaputt sounds too smooth, too bouncy, too sexy for my current ears to ignore.
03. Radiohead - The King of Limbs
Radiohead – “Bloom”
2011 was the year people finally turned on Radiohead. Not to say The King of Limbs was universally panned, I just think the lukewarm reception feels almost worse. I also think the tepid reaction is unwarranted, as this record sounds like the most inspired Radiohead we’ve heard in a decade. I like all the things people are complaining about: the dense rhythms, the warm buzz, the unabashed prettiness. This album stands up with the best Radiohead output. I just hope history remembers it this way.
02. Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Bon Iver – “Holocene”
Ah Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, the most widely praised and most divisive album of 2011. The divisive thing is predictable. Any time a folk superstar decides to change musical directions, people go ape shit. Them bearded folkies love their beardy folk somethin’ fierce. I, on the other hand, am more on board with the critical praise. Bon Iver’s thick instrumentation and forays into soft-rock may repel some people, but I love this album’s beauty, courage and sincerity.
01. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes – “Someone You’d Admire”
Here it is, my # 1 by a mile: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues. While this album has received near-universal acclaim, it’s not as praised as the band’s 2008 debut full length. I believe this is a result of a change in collective tastes (moving away from indie-folk) rather than a remark on the album itself. I say this because Helplessness Blues improves on the self-titled debut in every way. There is more melody, more experimentation, better harmonies, and simply better songs. Helplessness Blues feels like it will be the most timeless, best remembered record of 2011.