By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, we all began to witness the early ramblings of the best music 2011 had to offer. And, though all of the huge national publications offer suggestions that prove crucial in developing our own opinions of such, we often (myself included) become downright frustrated by the overwhelming swell of influence. Hype is a ferocious and powerful animal. Some of us find ourselves taken by unanimous praise, be it justified or not, while others are steadily turned off by the assumed dilettantism of the whole thing. That is, no one wants to like something because they’re supposed to. I promised myself I’d steer clear of that debacle this year.
And so, I took a page out of Kevin Arnold’s dad’s book and popped two Alka-Seltzer pills into a short glass of water, squeezed my aching eyes between my thumb and pointer-finger and cued up some of the year’s noteworthy albums to form some opinions of my own; no hype, no hatred. Because, it’s like my college roommate would reiterate with great tenacity in each of our long-winded musical debates: you can’t disprove aesthetics. That being said, check out my suggestions for the top ten albums of 2011.
10. El Camino – The Black Keys
The Keys have effectively expanded their sound with the continual aid of Danger Mouse while managing to reinforce their distinctive status as a blues/rock/pop machine… again. Danger Mouse’s presence in the album is louder, though it isn’t over-the-top, as was criticized of 2008’s Attack and Release. El Camino is ambitious in that it is a much bigger sound than The Black Keys have ever attempted, but it is no doubt a refined adjustment to the band’s newfound arena status. Filled out with an array of keys, synth and female backing vocals, El Camino might be the best thing yet from these Akron, Ohio rockers. Having just tiptoed their way onto the year’s best list, The Black Keys are still with it because they haven’t abandoned their sound and they still don’t take themselves too seriously; kind of like, let’s say, Kings of Leon did years ago. Let’s just go ahead and shamelessly say it: Long live The Black Keys.
Listen to: “Dead and Gone”, “Nova Baby”
9. W h o k I l l – tUnE-yArDs
It’s safe to say that you will definitely not mistake w h o k i l l for any other artist or album you’ve heard this year. Moreover, after several listens you just might find yourself asking, “wait… do I actually LIKE this album?” The triumphant “Gangsta” introduces a motif based on an old European police siren that, with its heavily distorted harmony, will scramble your innocent little brain. Technically the first studio effort (the first album BiRd-BrAiNs was recorded completely on a handheld voice recorder) tUnE-yArDs’ 2011 release will either disgust or fully entertain you. For the sake of my credibility, hopefully the latter. Scratch that–hopefully both. The truth is that amongst the absurdity, the musicianship is present. In the midst of all the hyped music this year, that means a lot. Alright, that’s the last time I’ll use “hype” as a device.
Listen to: “My Country” “Gangsta”
8. Father, Son Holy Ghost – Girls
On first listen, the second studio album by Girls grabs you immediately with the shameless, high-spirited surf-rock anthem “Honey Bunny”, which boasts one of 2011’s catchiest hooks declaring, “They don’t like my bony body / They don’t like my dirty hair / Or the stuff the I say / Or the stuff that I’m on.” Really though, watch the video. He’s right. But Father, Son, Holy Ghost was an unmistakable improvement for the young band since their debut album. It catches you at the right moments without being too cheesy, John Anderson’s guitar work has developed exponentially and the overall sound of the record is shaped by 60s psychedelia such as The Beatles and Beach Boys as well as 70s rock balladry a la Deep Purple and even Pink Floyd (as specific as the moaning female vocals). Father, Son, Holy Ghost won’t floor you, but it will surprise you and for sure stick with you. And not in a Lady Gaga way, in a way where you’ll say to yourself, “Yeah, I’ll listen to that one again.”
Listen to: “Honey Bunny” “Saying I Love You”
7. Undun – The Roots
For their eleventh album, The Roots tightened their belts, got personal and really went for it. For the first time, the Philly legends created an acutely crafted piece escorted by a common theme. The album follows the life story of Redford Stephens, a fictional character who gets bested by the inevitable impact of an upbringing in treacherous conditions. To do the idea one better, The Roots lay their story out in reverse-linear order, opening with “Dun”, the death of Stephens and finishing with a short four movement instrumental at the character’s birth. Track for track, the album demonstrates the type of soul and R&B that Frank Ocean can only dream of and the type of hip-hop that Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, though I hate to say it, fakes. It’s hard to deny the flamboyant, oxymoronic quality of this one – harsh, yet touching in lyrical content and fierce, but delicate in sound. Yes, The Roots may be known now to play along with the antics of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon as the show’s resident house band, and last year’s Wake Up passed by many of us, but whatever you do, don’t miss this one. It’s moving and extravagant and even ties in some love for (what??) Sufjan Stevens. Indeed, Undun is a great accomplishment for the band – a proper concept album.
Listen to: “Sleep” “Make My”
6. Slave Ambient – War On Drugs
If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and experience the surreal drone that is Slave Ambient. I’m embarrassed to confess that I initially denounced this album as another boring shoegazer of 2011, but with a few extra listens I soon absorbed the undeniable depth that it holds over the head and out of the reach of comparable acts like Kurt Vile or Real Estate. The content is full and heartwarming and beyond question a fresh taste from Philly. Personally, I can’t stand that the passive listener will invariably compare any nasally wailing vocals to Bob Dylan, but I must make an exception in this case. When lead singer Adam Granduciel’s voice lazily wanders to the higher marks of his range, you hear a slight echo of Dylan’s groan over the raucous noise of his “electric years.” I also do not usually subscribe to the “drown your music in reverb” idea, but in this case, it does a little more than create a low-fi sound. The album has consistently exceptional grooves and without said device, Slave Ambient wouldn’t be, well, ambient. The wistful styling of War On Drugs takes over in a calm, non-intrusive manner, yielding a clear contender for the year’s best.
Listen to: “I Was There” “Baby Missiles”
5. The Rip Tide – Beirut
Beirut’s latest is not only a pleasure to hold in your hands (distributed with a cloth cover) it’s a sunny, nostalgic joy to listen to as well. It’s colorful, rich and a notable augmentation of the band’s earlier work. Not that any of Beirut’s albums deserve to be trashed (I celebrate the extent of their catalog) but the overall completeness of The Rip Tide is just plain factual. And, unlike the albums of some contemporaries whose melodramatic saturation leaves you punch-drunk (I won’t mention who, but I will say they made everybody’s annual list, got a few Grammy nods and sound like a hound-dog baying at your back door. Ok, it’s Bon Iver), Beirut’s third full-length flies by filled to the gills with tasteful, lavish brass pleasantry. A guaranteed warm and easy listen, The Rip Tide is a must.
Listen to: “A Candle’s Fire” “Vagabond”
4. Strange Mercy – St Vincent
Strange Mercy is by far the most fun you’ll have while feeling uncomfortable and on-edge since experimenting with drugs back in college. An untamed, screeching guitar and exploratory synth will shake you to the core while Annie Clark’s creamy, velvet voice soothes your soul. The album is freakishly indicative of its title. Especially on the first few listens, Clark’s painfully honest lyrics and insistently wacky instrumentation will bring you to the brink of even wanting to turn the record off, but the reward of not doing so comes to you in full effect with the awkwardly addictive hooks and chilled-out moments. It is indeed a strange type of mercy you experience with St Vincent’s third studio album. To a narrow mind, it can be a little challenging, but you know what? Get over it. You could say the same thing about most of the picks on this list. If you don’t understand the pure splendor of Strange Mercy, well, you just aren’t supposed to. Move along now.
Listen to: “Cruel” “Surgeon”
3. Let England Shake – PJ Harvey
You don’t have to be familiar with the exhaustive catalog of Polly Jean Harvey to recognize the significance of her magnificent achievement Let England Shake. Harvey’s brilliant, brazen insight is apparent in every second of the album, each track a conceptual episode exploring a unique facet of the prominent running theme. In both historical and modern context, Let England Shake examines the topic of war and it’s residual effects, the perception of such echoing throughout the album’s musical and lyrical patterns. Having cited lyrical influence from Russian folk music, it’s no wonder you hear vocal melodies with distinct traditional folk tendencies over auto-harp influenced, high-end guitars. The uncharacteristic, wily spookiness of Harvey’s voice would turn some away, but the heavy, often morbid lyrical content could not be supported by the vocal quality exhibited in her works prior. Harvey herself acknowledged the necessity of vocal experimentation brought on by the intensity of the album’s underlying conviction. It’s a refreshing surprise to hear such an earnest, sobering album that is still exciting and (it almost feels odd to say) fun. The peculiar hooks will mesmerize you, wandering in and out of relative keys seamlessly. Of course, no remarkable war piece is complete without the presence of nationalism, and this indie veteran creates no exception with an abundance of lines reminding the audience of her allegiance. “I live and die through England,” declares the Dorset native. Is it possible to lay it on thick without overdoing it? If not, PJ Harvey has invented a new way of doing things with her illustrious experimental offering, Let England Shake.
Listen to: “Bitter Branches” “The Glorious Land”
2. Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes
Ah yes, the anti-sophomore slump! Helplessness Blues was one of the first great albums that I noticed in 2011, mainly because of the intense anticipation that had steadily built up in the wake of the band’s successful self-titled debut. The ultimate 20-somethings album, Helplessness Blues grabs hold of its listeners with a homesick, yet warm persistence. In the introductory track, Robyn Pecknold reflects “So now I am older / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now, what does that say about me?” –a scary question to consider if you are currently or have already approached that point. The album steps back and embraces what seems to be (for Pecknold) a relatable quarter-life crisis which, after mulling over the episodes that bring us to adulthood, unfolds a simple reminder of the fragility of life. See that? You can’t even talk about this album without getting a little sappy. The profound charm Fleet Foxes creates with Helplessness Blues is too much to take, too much to ignore. It is painful, hopeful and shamelessly lovable. Not to gloat, but we saw this pick coming from the moment it was released.
Listen to: “Battery Kinzie” “Lorelai”
1. Life Fantastic – Man Man
All hail the mighty, mighty Man Man! Apparently one of the most overlooked albums of the year, Life Fantastic showcases an unexpected characteristic of balance. Declared “contained chaos” by lead singer Honus Honus, Man Man got humble and (for the first time) worked with an outside producer to spawn a more mature creation that still holds true to the goofy barbarism we come to expect from the band. Mike Mogis, a staple to the Saddle Creek scene, is assuredly the best choice as the album’s producer with his orchestral prowess and ability to lasso the far-out ideas of the acts he’s worked with, bring them back to Earth and still have them sound unadulterated. From both a musical and lyrical perspective, Man Man’s latest effort is a bipolar journey. Opening with the impassioned toxic lust story “Knuckle Down”, the band promptly launches its audience into a blissful state of play with “Piranhas Club” (perhaps the year’s best song) only to rip them back down into a dark, inky sea with “Steak Knives.” And so continues the album. As a whole, each track is strikingly gritty (thanks to the sultry growl of Honus Honus) but will still get to you in one way or another, be it by way of tenderness or abomination. Not to mention “Oh, La Brea” at the conclusion of the album, which seems to serve as an accurate summation of the honesty Man Man offers with its abruptly screamed “Tarpits!” and its gorgeous, delicate orchestral finish. Life Fantastic is intense and beautiful, precious and frightening. It is the greatest effort yet from the Philadelphia natives and stands out with great authority as the best album of 2011.
Listen to: “Piranhas Club” “Oh, La Brea”