Saturday, December 17, 2011

The 2011 Ultimate Music Megapost: The Top 15 Albums of the Year

15. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean

January, oh so long ago, brought with it a new album from Iron & Wine, their first full album since “The Shepherd’s Dog”. Talk about a challenge, since “The Shepherd’s Dog” is high on my all-time list (I listed it #5 of the decade). The results are enduringly positive, especially on tracks like the lush “Walking Far From Home” and the soft, moving “Godless Brother in Love”. It may not be the #5 album of the decade, but #15 of the year isn’t so bad.

14. Death Cab for Cutie – “Codes and Keys”

Now that front man Ben Gibbard has lost indie darling Zooey Deschanel, I expect big things from Death Cab’s next album, and maybe we can all win from his loss. Until then, we get an album from the then married Gibbard, and the tone is swelling with more optimism than has ever been seen on a Death Cab album before. Title track “Codes and Keys” swells we strings and uplifting lyrics, and one of the year’s best (and one of their best ever), “You are a Tourist”, headline an album that’s brightest spots remind us why Death Cab are the kings of Northwest indie.

13. Mutemath – “Odd Soul”

Before this year it was actually Mutemath that owned the last five star review from me. “Odd Soul” gets an ever-so-solid three and half stars, and maybe I can finally stop thinking of Mutemath as the band that wowed the Idaho version of me back in the day. “Odd Soul” has a pep to its step, led by tracks like “Blood Pressure” and “One More”. But don’t forget their grip on the slow stuff: “All or Nothing” and “In No Time” showcase with a band with talent for both song structure and mood.

12. Frank Ocean – “nostalgia/ultra”

One thing is for certain, this is my favorite free album of all time. Handed out on his tumblr following a record label dispute, Frank Ocean’s “nostalgia/ultra” can be hit and miss, but the hits are more than memorable and the album is interesting to the core. There is a dark and misty mood to the drugged up crooning on “Novacane”, which provides quite the contrast to the pseudo-cover of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing”. “Swim Good” might be radio-ready, and don’t forget to notice the piano that underpins the chorus. Ocean’s best characteristic, though, is the vulnerability underneath his player ways, showing no fear singing a song called “There Will Be Tears” that deals honestly with the subject of his absent father.

11. The Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow”

I’ve written so much about missing Nickel Creek that I’m starting to annoy myself. The Civil Wars are healing my pop-folk-bluegrass wounds though, and they do it passion and originality. Case in point is “Poison & Wine”, one of the more emotionally riveting songs I’ve heard. They don’t stop there, with “Barton Hollow” adding a jolt to the somber mood and “The Violet Hour” providing the year’s best pure instrumental.

10. Foster the People – “Torches”

It must have been a crazy year for Foster the People, who somehow rode the tidal wave of an unexpected pop hit with “Pumped Up Kicks”. The craziest thing? Listen to the album, because it’s actually really, really good, and “Pumped Up Kicks”, while good, is not nearly the best. Foster the People have that knack for catchiness but don’t sacrifice the intriguing and interesting elements in the music. The swarm at the end of “Houdini” is what did it for me, but don’t miss the electro-rock of “Helena Beat” or the simple piano drive behind “Warrant”.

9. Gotye – “Making Mirrors”

Here’s a prediction, doomed to fail I’m sure, but worth saying: somewhere in 2012 Gotye will release “Making Mirrors” in the United States and everyone will fall in love with “Somebody That I Used To Know”, the absolutely irresistible, poppy breakup track that had my wife concerned about my shifting tastes. If this happens I will willingly admit loving it through and through and singing to it awkwardly loud in my car. Peel past this immediate crowd pleaser and the album has more to offer: the soaring “Save Me”, the pulsating “Eyes Wide Open”, and the tepid “Giving Me a Chance”. This is a genre shifter, hard to peg, but listen after listen I love it, even if I can’t explain it.

8. M83 – “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”

Here is an album that is a lesson on cohesiveness. Taken on their own, track by track, I calculate an average rating of 1.95 stars per song. Taken together, the album is the 8th best of the year. In between the amazing power of album bests “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen” lies a swarming symphony of electronics, alt rock, and moods. Bookended by stellar tracks called “Intro” and “Outro”, this album in unshuffleable and begs to be given an uninterrupted 73 minutes of darkness on your next road trip.

7. Coldplay – “Mylo Xyloto”

We’ve all heard the Coldplay jokes, but I’ve held strong. Even I’ll admit “X&Y” wasn’t their best, but with “Viva La Vida” and “Mylo Xyloto” even the ultimate hipsters at Pitchfork (I love you, Pitchfork, but it’s true) have to concede and bow to the goodness. Everything divisive about Coldplay is evident in “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”, a song with a title so wimpy and ridiculous that only the reality of the song’s awesomeness can make up for it. Fact is, “Mylo Xyloto” is a strong album, front to back, bolstered by some of the more un-Coldplay tracks to date, like “Major Minus” or “Princess in China”. Whether they are exploring new territory or delivering very Coldplay-ish tracks like “Paradise” or “Up With the Birds”, Coldplay manage to make an album that’s 100% strong, 100% interesting, and 100% still them.

6. The War on Drugs – “Slave Ambient”

Every year there’s an album that comes out of nowhere, led by a band I’ve never heard of. This year the band is the unbelievable War on Drugs and the album is “Slave Ambient”. Combining the distant, psychedelic rock and moods of The Verve with the Americana of Bruce Springsteen, the band puts together an album which such beauty and polish that it’s hard to believe they recently played a free show at a bar in Cincinnati. “I Was There” is the album’s best track, but it’s hard not to mention the grandeur of “Come to the City” or atmosphere of “Brothers”, which provided a migrant like myself with my lyric of the year when a pensive front man thinks aloud, “Wondering where my friends are going/And wondering they didn’t take me”.

5. Radiohead – “King of Limbs”

Watching Radiohead’s “King of Limbs” special on Palladia showed me a couple of things. First, they care about every tiny little sound you hear as much as it seems like they do. Second, the album really IS meant for and sounds like a small, dimly lit room. “King of Limbs” is the latest offering of the most consistent band in the world (tied with Spoon, I suppose), and it’s a perfectly amazing addition to the Radiohead discography. “Bloom” and “Little By Little” set the stage in a big way, and they aren’t even close to the two best tracks. That honor belongs to the moving “Codex” and the irresistible “Lotus Flower”.

4. The Antlers – “Burst Apart”

Count me as one of probably many people who doubted whether The Antlers could ever conceivably follow up “Hospice”, one of the most gripping albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of becoming obsessed with. But on “Burst Apart” front man Peter Silberman proves that he’s more than just a flash in the pan, opening the album with one of the year’s best tracks, “I Don’t Want Love”. Elsewhere, stellar tunes like “French Exit”, “Parentheses”, and “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” show that The Antlers don’t have to be singing painful epics or diving into a complicated concept album in order to be great. This album did nothing but grow on me.

3. The Strokes – “Angles”

The critics of the world are pretty united that “Is This It” is essentially not only The Strokes’ best work, but is an album worthy of a home on many a decade-level or all-time list. Truth is, I think that album is very very good, but I don’t believe it is as great as it’s labeled. This is why I admitted in my initial review that I have no shame in admitting that is in 2011, long past the era of The Strokes’ peak popularity, that their best album has been created. From the opening guitar line on the catchy and amazing “Machu Picchu” to the toe-tapping “Under Cover of Darkness” to the amazing “Taken for a Fool”, this album should not be dismissed as a forgotten album from a band past their prime. This is a gem.

2. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”

Give me a few more months, and maybe every song on this album will be at least a four star. It’s just that good. Emerging from the massive success of their folk-pop opus of a debut album, Fleet Foxes may have had nowhere to go but down. But they didn’t just equal their stellar debut, they topped it. “Montezuma” sets the stage, with an introspective Robin Pecknold imagining his own death bed while the trademark harmonies swell around him. Tracks like “Sim Sala Bim”, “Lorelei”, and “Helplessness Blues” could be career defining for some bands, but on this album they are practically standard issue. But they save the best for last with “Grown Ocean”, the biggest and most propelling song they’ve ever made.

1. Bon Iver – “Bon Iver, Bon Iver”

I’m pretty certain that I practically broke this album due to overplaying it for the entire month of July, and I can practically feel the summer Ohio heat listening to it. From the opening snare drum on “Perth” to the soothing pensiveness of “Calgary”, this album has no flaws. The guitar work on “Minnesota, WI”? The visuals on “Holocene”? The gentle piano on “Wash.”? Special, to say the least. And then there lies “Beth/Rest”, the so-called controversial and almost Richard Marx-ish track, borrowing from some of the most criticized styles in music. I find no controversy in it; it is a pure and simple amazing song, beautiful in every way and emotionally stirring, just like this entire album. It’s the perfect end to a perfect album

Just Missed:

· The Black Keys – “El Camino”

· Boy & Bear – “Moonfire”

· Drake – “Take Care”

· Florence + The Machine – “Ceremonials”

· Mat Kearney – “Young Love”

· My Morning Jacket – “Circuital”

· NEEDTOBREATHE – “People and Things”

· Panda Bear – “Tomboy”

· Sarah Jarosz – “Follow Me Down”

· The Weeknd – “Thursday”/”House of Balloons”

· Youth Lagoon – “A Year of Hibernation”

Check out the Top 50 Songs of the Year


  1. Nice list, I'm really enjoying that Antlers album as well. (In fact, it's number one in my best of 2011-list.)
    I will have a listen to Angles again, maybe I can hear the greatness now, because I can't say I thought it was all that great upon first listen.

    Also, do you know Wild Beasts? Their last album ('Smother') was absolutely amazing, and I'm wondering why it doesn't show up on more best of-lists.
    Seeing your favorite albums, I'm pretty sure you'd enjoy it as well.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I'm in the minority on Angles, so maybe it just hit me at the right moment, but I keep on liking it. I have heard Wild Beasts and they'll have a track in my top 50, but album as a whole didn't grab me I guess. Did you ever hear "Thankless Thing"? They released it as a single and it has got to be my favorite by them.

  3. Yeah, I have heard it, it's a very good song indeed. I can see what you mean concerning the album, I must say I thought it wasn't as good as as their first and second album (in that order), but still good enough to be in my top ten.
    If you're interested, this is my top ten for 2011:
    1. The Antlers - Burst Apart
    2. Wild Beasts - Smother
    3. Maritime - Human Hearts
    4. Kanye West and Jay Z - Watch the Throne
    5. Ghostpoet - Survive It
    6. The Roots - Undun
    7. Washed Out - Within and Without
    8. Death Cab For Cutie - Codes and Keys
    9. Smith Westerns - All Die Young
    10. Home Video - The Automatic Process