Top 25 Albums of 2011

So.  I counted yesterday and I have heard about 250 albums from 2011.  Here are those I have deemed above the ninetieth percentile!

This is a yearlong project for me, so I’m pretty excited to unveil this.

25. Wounded Rhymes – Lykke Li

Compare the momentum of “Get Some” to the gentleness of “Sadness Is a Blessing” for proof this Swede’s success isn’t specialized.  Both sexual and sensitive, Wounded Rhymes is a grower of an album demonstrating both sex and love in rock and roll.

24. Generation Indigo – Poly Styrene

Released before the X-Ray Spex singer’s death, Poly Styrene’s final album is one of the year’s most instant pleasures, with the ones at the front about PETA-friendly sneakers, internet romance, and her kitsch being my favorites.  Though her releases were scattered thin over the span of her thirty-year career, Generation Indigo confirms that this force’s talent never faded.

23. 4 – Beyoncé

The peak here are her romantic actualization songs in slots eight and nine, but Beyoncé’s fourth album is an all-over-the-place success, rocking a song by Frank Ocean, a spiteful kiss-off, and a hyperactive girl power anthem.  4 is certainly unfocused, but it comes out as Beyoncé’s finest product to date.

22. Let England Shake – PJ Harvey

Her pretensions would be off-putting if not for her charming confidence in them.  With the music recalling World War I in that the melodies were a little weaker prior to the 1920’s, PJ Harvey slings her anti-war messages through nonviolent music.

21. Past Life Martyred Saints – EMA

Erika Anderson’s music sounds as bruised as her soul.  “Milkman”’s beat, “Grey Ship”’s build, and the way that “California” floats ominously above you demonstrate her strange approach to grandiosity, which seems engineered to drag you down into the torture she feels.

20. Strange Mercy – St. Vincent

This music quickly rolls from frantic to calm to climactic.  Emotionally battered but trying to smile about it, Annie Clark makes Strange Mercy an album of Bizarro-world pop music, but with a guitar that softly crunches and the prettiest voice in all of indie.

19. Black Up – Shabazz Palaces

With lyric sheets sometimes too dense to comprehend, Ishmael Butler’s rapping is supported by the best and most bonkers production in 2011 hip hop.  Butler and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire buck so much hip hop convention, clearing some space out so they can just space out.

18. Relax – Das Racist

Succeeding even when not trying, which is a lot of the time, Das Racist makes Relax their most consistently rewarding listen, even if the first half of Shut Up, Dude can hardly be topped.  Not having made any bank on their two 2010 mixtapes, they focus their debut album on money and joke about how little they make, but with albums like that, they may yet get their Michael Jackson money.

17. Go-Go Boots – Drive-By Truckers

Mike Cooley is the band’s songwriting rock like always, so Patterson Hood’s flexing of his storytelling muscles (resulting in amazing songs about Thanksgiving family drama, a priest who gets away with killing his wife, and a cop losing his mind, his badge, then his family) and the decision to cover Eddie Hinton not once not twice but thrice is what keeps this from being a minor release in Drive-By Truckers lore.

16. Nine Types of Light – TV on the Radio

Dear Science having conquered in 2008, the war is over and TV on the Radio can return to be lovers.  Though Nine Types of Light sometimes abandons the band’s edge, this results in not dullness but softness, like the pillows you throw yourself on after a hard day’s work.  A few moments on the back half are dodgy, but even on past masterpieces was the band ever so successfully intimate.

15. Sky Full of Holes – Fountains of Wayne

No band this year could make you believe in early Beatles like Fountains of Wayne, their guitar pop mastered and their voices making you give feel for two fools who misspend other people’s money.  Each song, like any dip in the ocean, is frivolous but unfailingly results in depth and delight.

14. All Eternals Deck – The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle’s best album, 2002’s Tallahassee, was carried by melodies as frail as its central relationship, so All Eternals Deck has surprisingly robust tunes, strong arrangements, and surprising developments, including Darnielle talking less and singing more and honing his skills at being everything from solemn to uplifting.  Like The Mountain Goats’ last album, All Eternals Deck is a meditation on life itself, and new approaches allow Darnielle’s musings to reach further.

13. So Beautiful or So What – Paul Simon

The first way we could look at this title is as a self-evaluation of his canon.  Lord knows I tend to only reach for the perfection of his 1972 self-titled or 1985’s world-changing Graceland despite modest success elsewhere.  The second way is to think of it as an ultimatum for his future music, and, his ambitions bared, he satisfies it here. Though he lays on his Christanity rather heavily, that just makes his music seemed more entwined in the fabric of space-time.

12. David Comes to Life – Fucked Up

This rock opera, more Quadrophenia than Tommy, was envisioned with such grandiosity that any task involving it becomes difficult, including sitting through it and no doubt creating it.  Yeah, this is too long, with the best moments crammed at the front and fourth-wall-shattering side stories sounding cooler in concept than in music, but with about five walls of guitar hitting you at once, the effect is overwhelming even when the album is less outstanding.

11. House of Balloons – The Weeknd

Abel Tesfaye is a guy with a robotic approach to his emotions.  He and his prey are so wasted that they operate on autopilot, and Tesfaye’s ultra-sincere pleas, like “Wicked Games,” sound like they come from someone too drunk to settle down his thoughts.  Switching between dark and fun, one always laced in the other, House of Balloons’ music materializes surprisingly completely for something so born out of a haze.

10. Femme Fatale – Britney Spears

This is a Britney Spears album that fifth grade me would not have recognized as a Britney Spears album.  With interruptions, Ke$ha vocal tricks (?!) and dubstep breakdowns (?!!), Femme Fatale might be a better marker for the current state of radio pop than anything else, and it uses the aforementioned aspects purely for good, somehow making’s inanity and Ke$ha’s writing high points.  Its most special moment is quiet (“How I Roll”), but its near constant unapologetic bombast sends it over the top.

9. Western Teleport – Emperor X

What kind of dork opens an album with, “I found a used organizer with a picture of a cylon inside/The model looked like her?”  Afterward, he spends the chorus reminding himself, “don’t think of her.”  His voice and sound wavering between John Darnielle, Dan Bejar, and Craig Minowa, he seems like the type of romantic who needs helping out, but if he can find moments of sweet release like “Allahu Akbar,” I might be the one who should be learning from him.

8. Hell on Heels – Pistol Annies

Wild Flag wasn’t the greatest girl supergroup of 2011, and that title goes instead to Pistol Annies, the no frills, no bullshit country outfit consisting of superstar Miranda Lambert, somebody Ashley Monroe, and nobody-until-now Angaleena Presley, who with “Lemon Drop” and “The Hunter’s Wife” churns out two of this ten-song album’s best tracks.  The hellfire beneath their boots is most apparent beneath their most innocent-sounding tunes, like Presley’s two and Lambert’s “Trailer for Rent.”  Then they have their mission statement: “Somebody should have set a bad example/Teach all the prim and propers what not to do/Nobody around here wants to ramble/What the hell?  That’s what I was born to do.”

7. Watch the Throne – Jay-Z & Kanye West

In early August, journalists were allowed a first listen of Watch the Throne in a planetarium, which is just the sort of image I needed to get over my hopes for a masterpiece left over from Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  Jay-Z brings the personality, Kanye West brings the edge, and they both bring Frank Ocean.  West has finally bought himself a spaceship (and a wonderful Otis Redding sample) and flown away after Beyoncé helps the duo lift off and “Niggas in Paris” twinkles in the night sky before going supernova.

6. Take Care – Drake

Drake now seems to be as unimpressed by his success as I had been.  On Take Care, he painstakingly constructs his setting, the Torontoan nightlife he shares with wingman Abel Tesfaye of The Weeknd, and then shrugs at a life in which he always has a girl he can sleep with and every night is a celebration.  Take Care is compelling because Drake’s chronic lack of fulfillment is difficult to sympathize with, furthering the tragedy of his character.

5. 21 – Adele

Heard on its own, “I’ll Be Waiting” is uplifting, and you might think that even though Adele’s heart has been broken, she can still love.  However, listen to “He Won’t Go” two songs before it and it becomes apparent that the girl is willing to give up who she is to salvage a relationship that needed killing.  These eleven songs come together to paint a picture of Adele’s youthful reaction to something she has called “the biggest deal in my entire life to date.”  As she attempts to get over him just to show him that she can, the album’s central concept makes itself apparent, and was right in front of us all along: her age.

4. Father, Son, Holy Ghost – Girls

Christopher Owens’ Girls debuted in 2009 with Album, which got off on its frivolity.  Even when Owens put stock in Laura being his friend forever, he kept his chin up and grinned.  Lightweight by nature but not by tone, Broken Dreams Club found Owens building cheeky songs around hyperbolically sad lyrics, but Father, Son, Holy Ghost finds him straight-faced at all times.  Even when excited to find love or excited having found it on “Honey Bunny” or “Magic,” Owens never holds back, demonstrating the folly he fully explores on the maniacally affected “Vomit.”  Father, Son, Holy Ghost finds Owens, an expert melodist and songsmith, painting portraits of his persona, and with regards the feelings he accesses, his songs now penetrate deeper.

3. Strawberry – Wussy

Wussy’s fourth studio album is perhaps the antithesis of their first, Funeral Dress.  Each is eleven songs long, but while Funeral Dress is a collection of quiet, careful, scattered songs, Strawberry is a series of vitally connected, reckless, and loud guitar songs.  From the first note of the album, a ‘bloop’ that ripples until you recognize that it is out of place in the band’s canon, you figure that something must be wrong in the relationship of singer-songwriters Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker, and when you hear Chuck’s pulverized and grounded songs responding to Lisa’s escapist and airborne ones, you realize you might be listening in on of a spat.  This is perhaps an understatement when at the end, Lisa sees the sky break in two, so Strawberry has us caring deeply about both Chuck and Lisa, hoping their partnership might find its way off the rocks despite such conflict creating an album that so rocks.

2. w h o k i l l – tUnE-yArDs

Previously satisfied softly singing to smaller audiences, 2011 found Merrill Garbus able to make nations shake harder than PJ Harvey could ever manage, and things never quake like they do during the climax of “Riotriot,” in which Garbus feels attracted to the officer whose arrest of her brother instigates civilian pandemonium.  With stories that never shy away from being strange, grooves that never feel obligated to be smooth, builds that are never ashamed to become too loud, but melodies at its heart that are perfectly accessible, w h o k i l l is the kind of pop masterpiece whose abilities to id-engage would be hard to anticipate but seem so obvious now.

1. nostalgia,ULTRA. – Frank Ocean

You might feel the impulse to hear this as solid but amateurish R&B, even with Frank Ocean effectively distancing himself from the not-so-casual homophobia and misogyny exhibited in the rest of his Odd Future collective, but make no mistake: this is some visionary shit.

His involvement detached but his delivery dramatic, Ocean’s attention to detail and metaphor allows even the slightest song here (“Dust,” in which the narrator is spurned by a creative muse and quits writing) to be the most upsetting.  He sighs a longing tale with an ultra dose of nostalgia on top of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing,” imagines sexual discovery in the Garden of Eden to MGMT’s “Electric Feel,”concludes that American weddings “don’t mean too much/they don’t last enough” after observing a matrimonial fling set to Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and effortlessly knocks the wind out of each original track with which he tangles.

Just as adept at being an architect as a thief, the music hazily hops over a tale of a girl Ocean wishes got him as high as her ice blue bong, he stresses about how romantically-influenced the intentions of his songwriting are before he starts to mentally compete with Drake and Trey Songz, and tries to make everyone smile on “Swim Good,” counteracting images of broken hearts and black suits just with the way he sings “funeral.”  Be they built or borrowed, the sets in the background beautifully complement Ocean’s perfectly presented scenes, and each of them is so varied but so vivid, each skyscraping but standing singularly.

Special mentions

Yuck – Yuck

Wild Flag – Wild Flag

How Do You Do – Mayer Hawthorne

Dye It Blonde – Smith Westerns

Turtleneck & Chain – The Lonely Island

Bad as Me – Tom Waits

The Greatest Story Never Told – Saigon

Ancient & Modern: 1911-2011 – Mekons

Sepalcure – Sepalcure

An Argument with Myself – Jens Lekman

Published in: on February 2, 2012 at 10:13 PM  Leave a Comment  

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