If we had to choose a single word to describe the best music of 2011, that word would be “ambition.” The sheer artistic ambition of our favorite musicians gave them the freedom not to confine themselves to expectations pertaining to specific genres, but to redefine genres in their own terms.
In 2011 genre definitions simply couldn’t confine ambitious musicians such as the Roots, Fucked Up, and Bon Iver. The Roots on Undun and Fucked Up on David Comes to Life exploded the notion of the concept album (which, with some notable past exceptions, was traditionally the bailiwick of rock and prog) and brought it to bear on sonically epic, thematically adventurous, and character-driven hip-hop and punk records. Likewise, Bon Iver on their self-titled release created a brilliant mash up of post-rock, folk, and ambient styles that drew in the listener with heartfelt lyrics whose introspective minimalism was unmatched.
We hope that the ambition demonstrated by the Roots, Fucked Up, Bon Iver, and all the other artists on our lists continues into 2012 and beyond.
Top Ten Albums of 2011 – Mike Mierendorf
10. Death Cab For Cutie – Codes & Keys (Atlantic)
9. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Naive)
8. Thievery Corporation – Culture of Fear (Eighteenth Street)
7. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
6. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead (Capitol)
5. Childish Gambino – Camp (Glassnote)
The first major label release from Childish Gambino – more popularly known as Donald Glover, aka Troy on Community – is a hip-hop album filled with endless one liners, deep pop-culture and social references that whiz by faster than you can catch them in one listen. Camp is a fun, angry, and sarcastic view of what the public expects Glover to be and what Gambino thinks he is. He drops “it like the NASDAQ.”
Key Track: “Heartbeats”
4. Various Artists – The Muppets Soundtrack (Walt Disney)
The Muppets may seem like an odd choice but guess what? Thanks to Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords), who served as Music Supervisor, The Muppets is pure childhood excellence.
Key Track: “Man or Muppet”
3. Cut Copy – Zonoscope (Modular Fontana)
The third major release from these Aussie’s isn’t as good as 2008’s In Ghost Colours, but it’s awfully close. Filled with dancey 80s’ synths and beats, it’s easy to see why they were such a popular hit this year at Lollapalooza. With plentiful comparisons to Depeche Mode and Men at Work, Zonoscope is a welcome change to a year that culminated with Now That’s What I Call Music! 40.
Key Tracks: “Take Me Over,” “Pharaohs & Pyramids”
2. The Black Keys – El Camino (Nonesuch)
Released on December 6, El Camino is a late comer to the party, but it perfectly caps the year. Echoing the Clash and the White Stripes, the Black Keys’ seventh studio album is another step in the right direction for this talented duo. The definitive album for 2011 that is meant to be played loud.
Key Tracks: “Little Black Submarines,” “Hell Of A Season”
1. The Roots – Undun (Def Jam)
Also released on December 6, Undun is art. Undun is a masterpiece. The Roots, despite their full-time gig on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, have found a way even to outdo themselves. Undun is the group’s 13th album, and they battled away any unlucky demons in a dark, jazzy, funky concept album about a man named Redford Stephens, which a Sufjan Stevens song inspired. It’s the Roots’ most ambitious album to date, and they nailed every aspect of it. Filled with beautiful music from start to finish, it truly is the best of the year.
Key Tracks: “Kool On,” “Stomp,” “Redford”
Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam)
MuteMath – Odd Souls (Warner Bros.)
She & Him – A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge)
Various/ Daft Punk – Tron: Legacy – R3CONF1GUR3D (Walt Disney)
Various/ Two Door Cinema Club – Transit Theory Remix – EP (Glassnote)
Washed Out – Within and Without (Sub Pop)
Wye Oak – Civilian (Merge)
Top Ten Albums of 2011 – Paul Gleason
10. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints (Redeye)
9. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo (Matador)
8. Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord)
7. Radiohead – The King of Limbs (Self-Released)
6. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Naive)
5. Wild Flag – Wild Flag (Merge)
Wild Flag’s debut album was one of the nicest surprises of the year. Guitarist-singer Carrie Brownstein and drummer-singer Janet Weiss hadn’t worked together since Sleater-Kinney’s brilliant 2005 swan song, The Woods. In Wild Flag, guitarist-singer Mary Timony, most famously of Helium, and keyboardist-singer Rebecca Cole of the Minders, have joined them to create a pop-punk supergroup of sorts. And Wild Flag is pop-punk at its finest – sort of the direction that Sleater-Kinney could have taken had they followed up 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One in a similar, poppy vein. Brownstein remains one of the most innovative and imaginative guitarists of her generation, and Weiss hits hard on the drums and provides great harmonies for Brownstein’s and Timony’s lead vocals.
Key Tracks: “Romance,” “Future Crimes,” “Glass Tambourine”
4. Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow (Fish People/EMI)
Well over thirty years into her career, Kate Bush on 50 Words for Snow continues to surprise and challenge listeners. Her music has always been very sensual, surrealistic, and emotionally charged (see, for example, her best album, 1985’s Hounds of Love), and 50 Words for Snow is no exception. But this time around, she shares the mic more with other singers, while delivering a minimalistic, introspective, sparse, and meditative sweet of lengthy songs on love, which at times remind the listener of Scott Walker’s and Antony’s torch songs. Her vocal collaborations with Elton John (!), Andrew Fairweather Low, and actor Stephen Fry are, in particular, very moving, and even melodramatic (but in a good way).
Key Tracks: “Wild Man,” “Snowed in on Wheeler Street,” “50 Words for Snow”
3. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes (LL/Atlantic)
Only two albums into her career and at the young age of twenty-five, Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li has already put together quite a career. Wounded Rhymes is darker and more mature than 2008’s excellent Youth Novels, demonstrating Li’s willingness to explore emotions such as anger and frustration. Vocally, Li deserves the highest praise; her voice, in its tone, range, and emotional capacity, evokes Ronnie Spector’s. And, musically, producer Björn Young has created a wall of sound that recalls the work of Ronnie’s ex-husband, 60s’ studio wizard Phil Spector, but simultaneously embraces the lighter, electro-pop of Youth Novels.
Key Tracks: “I Follow Rivers,” “Get Some,” “Sadness Is a Blessing,” “Unrequited Love”
2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Island/Vagrant)
PJ Harvey is a rarity. Like David Bowie during his great period of innovation in the 1970s, she possesses an uncommon talent for experimenting with various genres of music without ever sounding trite or trendy. Whether she records power-trio grunge (1992’s Dry and 1993’s Rid of Me), electro-pop and dance (1995’s To Bring You My Love and 1998’s Is This Desire?), introspective dream pop (2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea), or stark singer-songwriter musical confessions (2007’s White Chalk), Harvey submerges herself in new genres and transforms them rather than letting them transform her. Winner of England’s Mercury Prize, Let England Shake is her first true crack at political folk music, and it is a smashing success. Taking on such subjects as historical and modern-day warfare, economic equity, the rights of children, and the decline of the England’s global influence, Harvey even experiments with new instruments such as the saxophone and the autoharp. Let England Shake is an aesthetic and politically relevant high point in Harvey’s already classic catalog.
Key Tracks: “Let England Shake,” “The Glorious Land,” “The Words That Maketh Murder”
1. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life (Matador)
When I first heard the opening two tracks of Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life – “Let Her Rest” and “Queen of Hearts” – I started to cry, overcome by the energy and sheer riskiness of the music. David Comes to Life, which manages to retain the band’s hardcore punk sensibility while achieving a newfound sense of melody, is a complex concept album about a light-bulb factory worker, David, who accidentally kills his lover Veronica before realizing that he is a character in a story narrated by Octavio St. Laurent, with whom he fights for control over his personal story and his life. The album’s story, which evolves dramatically over four musical acts, only works because of the conviction with which Fucked Up performs it. This conviction demonstrates an earnestness, enthusiasm, and passion that recall the best work of the Clash, Fugazi, U2, and, more specifically, character-centered concept albums such as the Who’s Tommy (1969) and Quadrophenia (1973) and Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade (1984). David Comes to Life is the best album of 2011 because of its unabashed belief in the ability of music to convey emotion and artistic risk in a complex and yet accessible way.
Key Tracks: All of them, really, but I’ll mention only the singles: “The Other Shoe,” “A Little Death,” “Ship of Fools,” “Queen of Hearts”
araabMUSIK – Electronic Dream (Duke)
Atlas Sound – Parallax (4AD)
Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)
Björk – Biophilia (One Little Indian/Polydor)
Earth – Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I (Southern Lord)
Iceage – New Brigade (WHAT’S YOUR RUPTURE)
Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise (Circus Company)
Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam)
Jesu – Ascension (Caldo Verde)
Low – C’mon (Sub Pop)
Mastodon – The Hunter (Reprise)
The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck (Merge)
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (NULL)
Paul Simon – So Beautiful, So What (Hear Music)
Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum)
The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)
Wire – Red Barked Tree (Pink Flag)
Top Ten Albums of 2011 – Mike Madden
10. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light (Interscope)
9. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong (Slumberland)
8. The Rosebuds – Loud Planes Fly Low (Merge)
7. Destroyer – Kaputt (Merge)
6. Wilco – The Whole Love (dB8pm)
5. Dirty Beaches – Badlands (Zoo Music)
What do Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, and David Lynch all have in common? I can only assume Dirty Beaches… and millions of other young men who never made anything of themselves because they were too busy listening to Roy Orbison in their mothers’ garages while practicing their Presley swivels in full-length mirrors and watching Blue Velvet in its reflection. Enough said? Okay, listen to “Horses” and try to take yourself away from that mirror. Listen to “True Blue” in the alley next to your neighborhood bar and sway in the moonlight before returning to your friends. You will have a smile on your face and something interesting to say.
Key Tracks: “True Blue,” “Horses”
4. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther)
I never thought I would label anyone as an acceptable surrogate for Ariel Pink for mainstream consumption, but it appears that Christopher Owens might be that man. When Owens sings on “Honey Bunny,” “They don’t like my bony body / They don’t like my dirty hair / Or the stuff that I say / Or the stuff that I’m on,” you get the sense that he considers himself to be a grand joke, even though he has the world in his hands and his fans adore his charisma. But Owens really doesn’t present himself as a caricature; rather, he comes off as a person with real issues, and he’s not afraid to spill them on his records. On “Vomit,” Owens claims, “Nights I spend alone / I spend ’em runnin’ ’round looking for you, baby.” You can’t help but sense the longing for connection to the real world that we don’t get on the equally great Ariel Pink albums. Let’s just hope that Owens never reaches Kurt Cobain’s iconic status, so that we can keep him all to ourselves.
Key Tracks: “Honey Bunny,” “Vomit”
3. Jay- Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam)
Coming off their best albums yet, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 and West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the Roc-A-Fella duo take a nice two-stop cruise to the Deep Beats and Sample Surplus islands. While the title “Niggas in Paris” might seriously allude to a new class of hip-hop intelligencia taking over the world, Jay and Kanye take it easy on this track, even mocking the its silliness by including a Will Ferrell snippet; and that’s okay. The duo have earned the right to make a fun album – but don’t misinterpret their intentions as flippancy. When the bottom drops out on “Niggas in Paris” and the bass starts buzzing, you know the album is no joke.
Key Track: “Niggas in Paris”
2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
Perhaps no other current songwriter so blatantly leans on Romantic lyricism like Robin Pecknold. Helplessness Blues is a pleasant breath of fresh air in the rather stifling hyper-realistic music of 2011. Pecknold, however, doesn’t entirely ditch the grimy streets for the countryside. On “The Argument/A Shrine,” an epically arranged track about love lost, Pecknold reminds us that the Fleet Foxes are real humans, not ethereal forest creatures. Pecknold’s vocals reach an aching apex when he belts, “In the ocean washing off my name from your throat / In the morning, in the morning!” But the catharsis only bursts for a moment before the band returns to its more typical mode of slow, melodic folk with which the track starts, pulling us out of ourselves. As the song concludes, Pecknold’s soft vocal melody leads us into a trickle of plucked acoustic guitar notes, slow drums, and atmospheric strings and accordion, before a blare of atonal trumpets sounds, like so many elephants grazing some barren landscape.
Key Track: “The Argument/A Shrine”
1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjagwuar)
With this eponymous release, Bon Iver have not only created a better album than For Emma, Forever Ago, but they also have cemented a new genre of music – “Progressive Ambient Folk,” perhaps. Bon Iver leader Justin Vernon redefines what Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Rós have been doing for years – creating sonic chasms of longing and hurt – by adding his minimalistic and introspective lyrics, which ground his music in the real world. In “Holocene,” Vernon reveals, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent / … / And I could see for miles, miles, miles.” “Holocene” is the most radio-friendly track on the album and the most hypnotizing.
Key Track: “Holocene”
Adele – 21 (XL)
Danny Brown – XXX (Fool’s Gold)
Radiohead – The King of Limbs (Self-Released)
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (4AD)
(NOTE: To purchase any of the albums listed here, just click the album thumbnail photos)