Best Music of 2011

For a music lover, is there really such a thing as a bad year in music? Well, let's see: In 2011, we lost underground legends Gil Scott-Heron and Bert Jansch. We lost Louisville record store staple (and Record Store Day creator) ear-X-tasy. in Cincinnati, our main national indie venue, The Southgate House, is closing its doors at the end of the year. The White Stripes, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth (bands I figured would never break up) broke up. Analysts continue to predict the doom of the compact disc, however despite what these people say, people still buy music if you put it out there (see Adele, Drake).

The releases inadvertently reflected the times. There were a lot of good albums, but no obviously great album. The things we were supposed to get excited about didn’t excite me. Adele, Foster the People, Yuck or dubstep (whether you prefer James Blake or Skrillex) didn’t really do anything for me. M83 made an album that sounded like M83; Wilco made an opening track that sounded nothing like Wilco! ...Then the rest of the album sounded like Wilco; Feist made an album that didn't sound like an iPod commercial; Bon Iver made an album that sounded like Bruce Hornsby. Well, sort of.

Despite what might sound like complaining, I really did love a lot of music this year (the M83, Wilco, Feist and Bon Iver albums were actually all pretty good). The following are the best albums I was able to get my hands on before the end of the year, with apologies to some that didn’t make it into my hands by the time I wrote this, including a dozen or so local albums from Cincinnati musicians, Iceage, Atlas Sound, DJ Quik and Bonnie “Prince” Billy – just to name a handful:

30 M83 Hurry Up We're Dreaming
A drop from Saturdays = Youth if you ask me, there’s still a lot to like about this ambitious 2-disc album. This music seems best listened to if you're really determined to do something, or discovering something very shocking about yourself. It’s spiritual music without really being faithful to any particular religion, and sometimes it works, sometimes you’re just a little bored.

Key Tracks: "Midnight City," "Claudia Lewis," "Soon My Friend"

29 Wild Flag Wild Flag
Carrie Brownstein is more the loose cannon in her new band, and it's a decent fit - though I do occasionally miss the calmer, melodic element she brought to Sleater-Kinney. Mary Timony's songs pretty much sound like new Helium songs, and that's not something I've needed, but I'm not going to turn it down.

Key Tracks: "Romance," "Endless Talk," "Black Tiles"

28 Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx - We're New Here
This album was a tough sell for me - why remix an album that just came out a year ago? But I think Jamie xx does reboot some of Scott-Heron's songs in an effective way, but there are also a few misfires. When it works, it achieves the same power as the source material. Worth it for the stirring "My Cloud," that was somehow left off the original album.

Key Tracks: "My Cloud," "Ur Soul and Mine," "I’ll Take Care of U"

27 TV on the Radio Nine Types of Light
Was this supposed to be a bad album? Glancing through other best music sites this year, you would think it was. Sometimes I think Pitchfork just sticks with a band long enough for it to develop and fanbase, then moves on to the next. While certainly not game-changing like Return to Cookie Mountain or Dear Science, this is still a strong album by a band who works from a unique palette and has the possibility to create great moments. Is it a "happy album"? Not really. Does it matter that it was recorded in LA? Not even slightly. Keep going TVotR - I'm still on board.

Key Tracks - "You," "Killer Crane," "Caffeinated Consciousness"

26 Raekwon Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang
The Wu-Tang were surprisingly quiet this year. Raekwon's "No RZA" album didn't make waves once it was finally released, and seems more like a companion piece to Ghostface's Apollo Kids, a similarly low-key, but consistent album. They even featured many of the same guests (Method Man, Jim Jones, Rick Ross, each other). Black Thought, who served up one of the best verses on Ghost's album, comes out of nowhere and delivers the same on Raekwon's. Must be all those Jimmy Fallon monologues. Points deducted for the terrible, wtf?, longest track “Rock N Roll” which does Raekwon the disservice of making you wonder if maybe he really does need an editor like RZA on board.

Key Tracks: "From The Hills," "Molasses," "Masters of Our Fate"

25 The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Belong
Following up the mastery of an amazing debut is tricky, but the Pains of Pure at Heart navigated it pretty well. They brought in a big name 80s/90s producer (Flood) and produced a cohesive collection of 90s-style alt rock. Occasionally, it veers a little too close to its source material (the intro of the opening track wouldn’t sound out of place on a prime Smashing Pumpkins album), but the style suits the band’s wall of guitars attack well. Bonus points for unintentionally name-checking my girlfriend in their songs.

Key Tracks: "Heart in Your Heartache," "Anne with an 'E'," "Even In Dreams"

24 Lykke Li Wounded Rhymes
Youth Novels still ranks high on my favorite albums in the last 5 years, however it’s definitely a front-loaded record that’s maybe about 10 minutes too long. Lykke Li seems aware of this herself – Wounded Rhymes clocks in at just over 40 minutes and is a lot more consistent throughout. It’s a wise sophomore effort move from an effort that shares a lot of the same themes (love, love lost, being depressed – probably due to losing love) and Lykke Li musters her same damaged, rejected-in-high-school tone that makes you think it’ll all be OK after you cry for six days straight.

Key Tracks: "Youth Knows No Pain," "I Follow Rivers," "Silent My Song"

23 Jessica Lea Mayfield Tell Me
Produced by the Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, this is 2011’s most under-appreciated gem. The theme is clear throughout: simple (and sometimes futuristic) country arrangements with the focus on Jessica Lea Mayfield’s voice and lyrics that would make Loretta Lynn proud – and maybe blush. She’s got the charisma to pull it off too, playing the young, but already cynical woman at once charmed and repulsed by a long line of hapless morons trying to win her heart.

Key Tracks: "Our Hearts Our Wrong," "Grown Man," "Sometimes at Night"

22 Smith Westerns Dye It Blonde
In an apparent attempt to steal the glittery electro-pop crown from MGMT, and as far as wistful upbeat tunes about be young forever, the Smith Westerns did a pretty good job delivering. Strong debuts often leave a more lasting impression, but the Smith Westerns slowly disappeared from view from the collective critic consciousness by the end of the year. I stayed with the band, even through an awkward performance in Atlanta, and this album, leading off with the unshakable “Weekend,” is worth a look.

Key Tracks: "Weekend," "End of the Night," "Dance Away"

21 Daniel Luppi and DangerMouse Rome
I love pretty much everything involved with this: spaghetti westerns, fake film soundtracks, DangerMouse’s never-ending obscure project list, Jack White, using Norah Jones’ voice in new and interesting ways, etc. etc.

Key Tracks: "Season’s Trees," "Two Against One," "The World"

20 Bon Iver Bon Iver
OK, here’s the thing. This is a good album. It’s an above average album and there's no doubt that it makes my list. Here’s something else – it's not the Album of the Year. While Justin Vernon easily beats out Sam Beam in the bearded folkie expanding his sound in 2011 award, this isn’t Album of the Year material. And "Beth/Rest" gets my vote for worst song on a best album contender of the year. OK, rant over. Beyond the hype, this album is still excellent and seems destined to win itself some Grammys in a post-Arcade Fire world.

Key Tracks: "Holocene," "Towers," "Michicant"

19 Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks Mirror Traffic
18 Tom Waits Bad As Me
17 Low C'mon

Here are a set of artists that, even 20+ years into their careers, cannot be blamed for not taking a dubstep late career detour. Their music is consistent, and they tinker with their sound, but in the end they have developed a fanbase that keeps them moving forward. Their albums can often only be measured in relation to their previous efforts and critics – it must be said – tend to get bored with them, which is completely unfair. 

Stephen Malkmus teamed up with Beck (surprisingly for the first time) to create an album that harkens back to the Jicks’ pre-extended jam Pavement days. Things are maybe a little weirder than usual and Malkmus humor (like one of his characters being defined by his love of soft rap) that make the whole album coast along effortlessly.

Key Tracks: "Tigers," "Brain Gallop," "Stick Figures In Love"

Tom Waits thankfully ditched the beatbox percussion noises of Real Gone and got a little crazier – another welcome change. Opener “Chicago” nearly falls apart as it wanders to its chorus and sets the tone for the whole album. Just as things seem to be heading to safer ground, out comes “Hell Broke Luce” – between its antiwar sentiment and kitchen sink found sound barrage – is one of the most insane songs Waits whose can turn Cole Porter and Disney songs into freak shows.

Key Tracks: "Chicago," "Hell Broke Luce," "New Year's Eve"

Low continues to take parts of their sound, and Alan Sparhawk’s not-so-slow side project Retribution Gospel Choir, and toss in a few threats to all those Al Green imitators out there, to create one of their most consistent albums since Things We Lost in the Fire.

Key Tracks: "Witches," "Especially Me," "Nothing But Heart"

16 Cut Copy Zonoscope 
Adapting another style of late 80s electro-pop that seems to have launched a thousand bands (New Order! Depeche Mode! And Many More!). Cut Copy stand out from the crowd with their songs that adore the style, but create something new out of it. Plus they sound like they're having a great time, which makes you want to shout "yeah! yeah! yeah! whoo!" right along with them.

Key Tracks: "Need You Now," "Where I'm Going," "Alisa"

15 Radiohead King of Limbs
Great. The year I shell out the extra money for the expanded deluxe packaging explosion, they release a 40-minute album that, for the first time since - I don't know, Pablo Honey? - has attracted mixed to negative opinions. Oh well. I still like it and maybe there will be a demand for clear vinyl in the year 2027.

Key Tracks: "Little by Little," "Lotus Flower," "Separator"

14 Panda Bear Tomboy
Not the revelation of Person Pitch, Tomboy – with it’s often delayed release date – seemed doomed to suffer a sophomore slump (well, if you don’t consider Animal Collective works as part of the Panda Bear canon), but when it finally came out, it successfully delved further into the hazy, layered world of Noah Lennox. Beautiful and occasionally brilliant, this album drones so good.

Key Tracks: "You Can Count On Me," "Last Night at the Jetty," "Afterburner"

13 Beastie Boys Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two
I missed out on 1998’s Hello Nasty and 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs and completely avoided 2007’s instrumental The Mix Up, so I think I was finally ready for a new Beastie Boys album. After I discovered the first single “Make Some Noise,” and its accompanying all-star video (continuing where the “You Gotta Fight for Your Right (To Party)” video left off), everything hit me with just the right amount of nostalgia that I could’t resist. Smart collaborations with Nas and Santigold certainly helped.

Key Tracks: "Make Some Noise," "Too Many Rappers," "Here’s a Little Something For Ya"

12 Unknown Mortal Orchestra Unknown Mortal Orchestra
A lot of debuts caught my attention this year. Let's start with New Zealand’s UMO, who combine a uniquely 60s psychedelic sound with a modern sensibility that caught me by surprise. If one song encapsulates this sound on the record, it’s “How Can You Luv Me?”  It sounds a little bit like Prince fronting a garage rock band. How can you go wrong?

Key Tracks: "Ffunny Ffriends," "Jello and Juggernauts," "How Can You Luv Me?"

11 Cults Cults
Usually samples of Jim Jones (of Jonestown fame) wouldn't really do much except creep me out. And believe me, they still do. However, the band somehow managed to successfully relate the feeling of being a teenager with the feeling of being in a religious cult - no easy feat. It might end up being a trick that only works once, but it's nonetheless effective.

Key Tracks: "Abducted," "Go Outside," "Oh My God"

10 Washed Out Within and Without
Previously known to me as the "composer of the Portlandia theme song," Washed Out (performer name for Ernest Greene) wins my coveted Chillwave Album of the Year award. If you're going to relax with some friends on a beach somewhere, this is the album you should play.

Key Tracks: "Amor Fati, "Soft," "You and I"

9 Frank Ocean Nostalgia, Ultra.
Mixtape rap is still dicey waters for me. The idea of giving away a free album of music still leads me to believe that it must still kind of suck (call me old school). I got this album for free, but that's more because Frank Ocean became so frustrated with Island Def Jam sitting on it for so long, that he took the initiative and released it himself. It was a good move. Ocean has easily moved into the top spot of my favorite member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future, the generally controversial group that rose to fame like a rocket after a particularly memorable performance on Jimmy Fallon at the beginning of the year. Frank is usually dispatched to sing the hook of their better songs, but when left to his own album, his persona is established as a likable music lover who doesn't aim to shock and whose record collection is wide enough to include Coldplay and Radiohead. Some unusual sample choices keep this from being a definitive classic, but the album is strong enough to leave you wanting more. 

Key Tracks: "Strawberry Swing," "Novocaine," "Songs for Women," "Love Crimes"

8 Destroyer Kaputt 
Remember the 80s? Man, they were corny. Except, what if we could be proven wrong? Maybe fluttery extended sax solos were actually awesome. Upping the ante of last year's Ariel Pink album, Destroyer (aka Dan Bejar) went beyond quirky late 70s FM rock that your dad loved and delved into the smooth early 80s FM lite jazz-rock that your cool uncle loved. Bejar has been around forever, but I've never really been much of a fan (let's just say the description "reedy voice" doesn't do much to get me excited), but this album converted me. The dedication to the concept alone is admirable – there's no winking, just the right amount of irony, an equal amount of sincerity, and no copouts - e.g., no "real song" at the end. It's as though you've discovered a lost album from a 80s group who's biggest influence was Roxy Music's Avalon. It also makes you change your opinion about that music - in the right hands, music that made you cringe can actually be poignant, powerful. And that's how Bejar (and not Justin Vernon) made me a believer in 1982 in 2011.

Key Tracks: "Chinatown," "Savage Night at the Opera," "Downtown," "Bay of Pigs (Detail)"

7 Kurt Vile Smoke Ring For My Halo  
Slackers are back and Kurt Vile is their hero. He doesn't care about selling out ("Puppet to the Man") touring is boring ("On Tour") losing friends is no biggie ("Runner Ups"), girls are easier to watch from afar ("Peeping Tomboy") and when you get one, might as well just chill out all the time ("Baby's Arms"). J Mascis would be so proud. Of course it just has to be an act - there's no way someone wouldn't have to work at unique guitar work, a seemingly endless amount of tunes, and lyrics that are effortlessly smart and introspective. Man, if so, maybe this is my least favorite album of 2011.

Key Tracks: “Jesus Fever,” “Puppet to the Man,” “Runner Ups,” “Peeping Tomboy”

6 Drake Take Care
It was really tempting to drop Drake into the top 5, maybe even in the top 3. Take Care has a feature-film sized 80 minutes run time complete with a mix of pop songs and occasional spoken word pieces that deftly shifts between Top 40 and artistic statement. Even with all the chances it takes (I would never imagine hearing a song like “Marvin’s Room” on the radio), there's hardly any filler - even in the deluxe version. (Just kidding about that. A little marketing trick - every version is the deluxe version). The music matches the character Drake continues to play - the cool, sensitive rapper who can't decide if he wants to settle down with that special someone or just roam the city and hook up with the first person who gives him a look. Such a 2011 problem.  

Key Tracks: "Cameras," "Make Me Proud," "Look What You’ve Done"

5 PJ Harvey Let England Shake
Hey - it's PJ Harvey v. 10.2! And she's World War I grunt! Huh? On paper, in the air, via telegraph, there's disaster potential galore - British female songwriter best known for writing songs about botched and messed-up relationships (lick my legs...) writes a theme album about English soldiers in WWI. Or maybe it sounds perfect - I think I've lost my ability to tell the difference. Either way, compact with contemplative and powerful melodies throughout and an excellent use of her band to fill in the gaps, PJ's songcycle is another reason the album format should never die.

Key Tracks: "The Words That Maketh Murder," "On Battleship Hill," "England," "In The Dark Places," "Written on the Forehead"

4 Jay-Z and Kanye West Watch The Throne
As audacious as an album could be in rough economic times, Watch The Throne was an exercise in over-the-top indulgences: expensive production, big guests, packaging, and plenty of refs to the finer things in life. But when it comes to this album, it’s just best to stop asking questions, sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a double-bill, but it’s Jay who really benefits most from the pairing. Kanye’s ego surprisingly takes a backseat – his best moments are behind the scenes. Jay is masterful throughout, for a man who once asked “What More Can I Say?” seems like the answer is “a damn lot.”

Key Tracks: "Ni**as in Paris," "Otis," "That's My Bitch," "Welcome to the Jungle," "Why I Love You"

3 St. Vincent Strange Mercy
Annie Clark explored her wild side in 2011 – if you’ve seen her perform live, you know that this isn’t new to her repertoire, but indulging it in her recordings was something of a risk, for someone best known for making intelligent pop songs. It pays off well – with the unhinged moments creating tension even in the usually calmer stretches on St. Vincent albums. And I always give big points to artists who aren’t afraid to let their sound evolve.

Key Tracks: "Chloe in the Afternoon," "Cruel," "Cheerleader," "Dilettante," "Year of the Tiger"

2 Real Estate Days
Initially it was difficult for me to admit that this album deserved the 2-spot. It’s a deceptively simple album, around 40-minutes long with around 8 minutes devoted to languid instrumental passages. But in its simplicity, it works. To me, Real Estate are still champions of the “beach band” genre – their music is equal parts sunny and melancholy. Not only do they give you the feeling of relaxing with the sun on your face, they’re also able to create the longing to return once you’re back in the cold city.

Key Tracks: "Green Aisles," "It's Real," Municipality," "Three Blocks," "Younger Than Yesterday," "All The Same"

1 Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
Sometimes the lyrics do matter. I connected with Robin Pecknold's experiences about growing older and where he's supposed to function immediately, which bumps it up a lot in my estimation. He manages to do so, both musically and lyrically, in a consistently moving way that I found more of myself in than anything else this year. In 2011, that's what it took to be my Album of the Year.

Key Tracks: "Montezuma," "Bedouin Dress," "Helplessness Blues," "Lorelai," "The Shrine/An Argument," "Blue Spotted Tail"