2011 has been another good year for music, with a deep list of very good albums released. This depth has allowed me to extend my usual Top Ten list to a Top Twenty that could easily have gone to 25 or 30 without me breaking a sweat. That said, ordering the below albums was a little harder than usual because for me there weren’t any truly mind blowing albums released this year. Ordinarily there is at least one album, if not two or three, that stand head and shoulders above the rest and demand the top spot(s), but that did not happen for me in 2011. In fact, had this year’s #1 album been released in 2010 it would have been at most #5 on that list (behind Titus Andronicus, Kanye West, Owen Pallett, and Dessa).
I think a big part of my not seeing a true #1 album this year is simply a matter of taste. A whole lot of lists are putting Bon Iver, Bon Iver at the top but that album simply does not work for me. While I loved For Emma, its follow-up feels like it is trying too hard (although it would appear successfully) to cross over into the pop realm and sanded off the rough edges that made For Emma so fantastic. I was even more disappointed in Watch the Throne, which comes off as nothing more than self-indulgent ego stroking. Add to these disappointments the fact that I’ve never been a fan of Fleet Foxes or My Morning Jacket and some of the years best reviewed albums are off the table for me.
That said, these are the albums that have made 2011 a year that will be on my iPod for a long time:
#20: The Antlers – Burst Apart
#19: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
#18: Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams
#17: Tom Waits – Bad As Me
#16: Beirut – The Rip Tide
#15: Low – C’Mon
#14: M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
#13: The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
#12: Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972
#11: Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
The ’90s returned with a vengeance this year, and as someone who spent his formative years in that decade, each of the ’90s retro albums spoke to me. The best of the bunch, however, was Yuck’s self titled debut. From the opening track, the fantastic “Get Away” that will have a spot on my year end mix, the guitar rock just doesn’t let up and transports me back to the First Avenue Mainroom during my teenage years.
Hip hop experimentation seems to have mostly stopped over the last few years with the genre settling into an artist’s flow backed by beats of varied originality. While a number of hip hop and rap artists have brought forth fresh flows and lyrics, the lack of risk taking when it comes to the music itself could potentially lead to stagnation. Shabazz Palaces, however, will never be described as stagnant. The group has carved out a niche for itself in experimental hip hop and with Black Up created the most challenging and unpredictable hip hop album in years.
On Forever, Sleep ∞ Over blends obvious influences of ambient and shoegaze to create soundscapes that are at once both pleasant and slightly unnerving. Often this dichotomy is so strong that while Stefanie Franciotti’s alter ego often gets filed under the “dream pop” genre label, the songs on Forever make me fear for anyone who has dreams like these.
I am an unapologetic lover of everything Wild Beasts have released. This fandom stems from a fascination with the sensuality the group is able to create through their lyrics and Hayden Thorpe’s singing. While Smother is a bit more stripped down than Limbo, Panto and especially Two Dancers, this sensuality is in some ways heightened through being allowed the room to breathe.
Unlike Wild Beasts, until Strange Mercy St. Vincent’s work has always felt to my ear like it was missing something. I’ve enjoyed Marry Me and Actor, but always felt a disconnect with what I knew intellectually was the type of layered, off-kilter pop for which I’m usually a sucker. My first listen to Strange Mercy finally clued me in on what I was missing: Annie Clark’s guitar. Despite being a well known guitar goddess, the first two St. Vincent albums seem to have handicapped her by not letting her show off what she does best. On Strange Mercy she doesn’t hide this talent and the album works because of it.
The Sacred Bones label has put out a lot of good dark indie over the last few of years and Conatus is the pinnacle of those albums. Anchored by her operatic voice and clearly influenced by industrial music, Nika Roza Danilova creates epic songs that demand to be listened to in a tent in the arctic. Only a landscape as barren and harsh as that can provide the context to fully appreciate Conatus‘s scope.
EMA utilizes some ’90s nostalgia on Past Life Martyred Saints, but it’s secondary to the real theme of the album: emotion. Erika M. Anderson bares her soul on this album like few are able to do in such a public setting. It truly is as naked as a person can be while fully clothed, and it is the same crushing emotion that caused the downfall of her prior band Gowns. Hopefully as a solo artist EMA will have the ability to keep putting out records like this, but I’m going to hold my breath because I don’t know how anyone could keep it together while doing what she does.
I don’t think I can really say anything about the sudden appearance of The Weeknd that hasn’t been said repeatedly already. So I’ll just say the hype is deserved. The ability to create such provocative darkness in both House of Balloons and Thursday is amazing to me, and I greatly look forward to what is to come.
Colin Stetson is an artist I was introduced to in 2011 by my friends at emusers.org, and I am sincerely grateful for the introduction. Colin Stetson creates music that really is like nothing else that has ever been recorded. Judges is experimental to an extreme, but remains full of life and appears at first listen to be created using several different instruments. The truth of the matter, however, is that every sound, even the obviously percussive ones, is created via Stetson’s bass saxophone. It really is flabbergasting.
As mentioned previously, I’m a sucker for layered, off-kilter pop, and Merrill Garbus does that as well as anyone right now. w h o k i l l is more fleshed out than her debut LP BiRd-BrAiNs, but doesn’t lose any of the textures that make her such a fascinating artist. Garbus continues to explore weighty topics, continues to confound the listener with the direction a song is headed, and continues to do it with a smile. She just does it better.
An author and editor at MiG, Craig lives in Minnesota with his wife and son and is an attorney in his real life. Once upon a time Craig played the trumpet and spent four years in the Hawkeye Marching Band and pep band. These days Craig finds himself most often listening to experimental rock, hip hop, and post punk, but you can see everything he's listening to at: www.last.fm/user/cafreema Craig is not ashamed to admit the first concert he ever attended was New Kids on the Block.
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