Favorite Albums of 2011

Honestly, this is the hardest year in memory for building my annual “favorite albums of the year” list. I’m not entirely sure why. I refuse to use the fogeyist “no good music came out this year” statement — I (mostly) don’t believe that to be true, even though I will admit that as I get older, I’m considerably less interested in what I hear from the indie-rock blogosphere. Instead, I’ll admit that it’s probably my fault: I didn’t invest as much time this year checking out new artists — it was a busy year. Also, I turned a lot of my music-listening attention backwards towards artists and albums I missed (primarily feeding my new-found Nilsson obsession, which then fueled a still-growing Newman obsession, which then fueled a still-growing Wainwright obsession.) And lastly, a good part of my time after September was spent listening back through the R.E.M. catalog, as the announcement of their retirement did nothing but make me want to listen continually to my first and favorite band. (I’ll try and save the R.E.M. eulogy for another post).

Still, there were a handful of new albums I really loved this year, and a bigger handful of albums I truly like and might grow to love as time goes by. Instead of the arbitrary numerical ranking I’ve done in the past – which I always question as soon as I click “Publish” — I’m going to separate this list into two clumps of records: the ones I love right now, and the ones I like right now.

2011 Records I Love

  • Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
    OK, so I’ll break the rule I set in the last sentence and make this grand declaration — Helplessness Blues is easily my favorite record of the year. This record is fantastic on all fronts — songs, sentiment, production, playing — but ultimately, this works for me because of those unreal vocal harmonies. Also, the mind-boggingly great show they put on at the Ryman just a few weeks after the release date helped.
  • War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
    The best driving record of the year. Classicist rock played over a complimentary ambient/drone record, synced up Wizard-of-Oz/Dark-Side-of-the-Moon style. Really integrates heavy experimentation in sound without sacrificing or obscuring undeniable songwriting. The pairing is so simple and effective, it’s sort of a “why didn’t I think of that?” record.
  • Real Estate – Days
    Jangle jangle jangle, with a big debt to early R.E.M. and The Feelies. Obviously love at first listen.
  • Radiohead – The King of Limbs
    I disagree with the general assessment that this is Radiohead’s first disappointing record (they already made one…it was called Hail to the Thief). This is the most subtle record they’ve ever made, but it’s successful in two things: dialing down the histrionics (these dudes are middle-aged, after all — writing another “Just” would just be embarrassing) and making an affecting IDM record that sounds like it’s played by a band. Even Kid A (note: this is not me saying that The King of Limbs is as good as Kid A) sounded like a tracklist of band songs + electronica songs; King of Limbs meets in the middle. If you’re not at least significantly impressed by the rhythmic complexity herein, you’re not really paying attention.
  • Tom Waits – Bad as Me
    Best Waits record since Mule Variations — I chalk it up to shorter song forms and a willingness to mix tunefulness with weirdness. Particularly great side 2, with some of his finest noir ballads (“Kiss Me,” “Back in the Crowd”) plus some very fine unhinged barnburners (“Satisfied,” “Hell Broke Luce”).
  • Wilco – The Whole Love
    A comfortable Wilco record without sounding bored (like Wilco the Album). Not perfect, but some moments — like “I Might,” “Black Moon,” “Red Rising Lung,” and “One Sunday Morning” — are among Wilco’s best.
  • Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic
    I still scratch my head at how many Pavement uber-fans (ahem, Jay Erter) haven’t really given Malkmus’ solo career a shot. I still contend that his first self-titled solo record is brilliant — it was my gateway into Pavement since they weren’t at all on the musical radar in my hometown. Mirror Traffic is significantly more consistent than any record he’s made since, and it was in heavy rotation this year.

2011 Records I Like

  • Tristen – Charlatans at the Gate
    My favorite record this year by a local Nashville artist.
  • Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
    Skip “America!” (annoying), but “Baby’s Breath” and “One Fine Morning” are great.
  • Bon Iver – s/t
    Here’s the thing: I like this record. A lot. But I also totally get how someone might hate it for being toothless, pretentious, and full of mush-mouthed sentimentality set to Peter Cetera keyboards. To each his own; for now, at least, I really like this album.
  • Vetiver – The Errant Charm
    Granted, Vetiver makes wallpaper indie-pop but sometimes wallpaper music is exactly what I need.
  • R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
    Not the best R.E.M. record (Reckoning or Fables for me); not even the best R.E.M. record on Warner Bros (Automatic or Monster for me); not even the best R.E.M. record since Bill Berry left (Up or Accelerate, for me). But still, a very good R.E.M. record — a few clunkers, nothing terribly embarrassing, and a few songs that sound vital (“Discoverer,” “Mine Smell Like Honey”). I’m happy they quit on the back of two solid records and one phenomenal live record (Live at the Olympia) instead of after the missteps they took between 2000 and 2007 — I just wish I had gone to see them on the Accelerate Tour.
  • Yuck – s/t
    90s rock revival part one, leaning towards the Dinosaur Jr. sound.
  • The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
    90s rock revival part two, leaning towards the Smashing Pumpkins sound, but with a girl singer. Starts really strong but gets boring towards the end.
  • St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
    I verge on loving this record. I really do love most of it, but I can’t help but feel like Annie Clark could make a truly great record if she’d hold back some on the keyboards and stop fussing with the arrangements so much. Live videos of these new tunes put her and her guitar front-and-center, and it’s so much more engaging. Still, I think she’s brilliant and I really look forward to what she does next.
  • Jessie Baylin – Pleasure Center EP
    I just crossed paths with this, and liked it immediately. The songs are good but the production shines, and we can thank Richard Swift for that — excellent example of the production complimenting the songwriting.
  • TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
    Almost forgot about this one. Put it back in rotation a few weeks ago and was surprised at how much I liked it. TVOTR’s most tuneful, soulful record — works very well for them.
  • Richard Swift – Walt Wolfman 12″
    Even Richard Swift’s toss-off EPs and 12″s are awesome.
  • Atlas Sound – Parallax
  • Unknown Mortal Orchestra – s/t
  • CANT – Dreams Come True
  • Washed Out – Within and Without
  • Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine
  • William Tyler – Behold the Spirit
    Hooray for Nashville!
  • The Features – Wilderness
    Hooray for Nashville!

Random Mentions (New and New to Me)

  • Harry Nilsson – Nilsson Sings Newman and Son of Schmilsson
    It’s funny how you can be familiar with an artist but it takes the right input for it to really click. Late last year I went from being aware of Nilsson to obsessed with Nilsson (mostly because of the fantastic “Who is Harry Nilsson” documentary), and this year I assembled and dissected the full catalog. Harry is one of those artists that I can’t believe I didn’t love before turning 30, but I had so much fun this year digging into his catalog. I think Nilsson Sings Newman is his masterpiece — a perfect record of his incredible voice, his sense of mischief, and his willingness to try any idea. Funny that it’s not a record of his songs, but still — it’s basically the best record of ballads ever recorded (scientific fact, I think). Son of Schmilsson is my favorite record of his original songs: I’ll admit it’s more uneven than Pussy Cats or Nilsson Schmilsson, but to my ears it best captures Harry’s cult of personality, which swings wildly from being beautifully sentimental, to slyly funny, to outright bawdy, to irreverent, and back to self-serious.
  • Matthew Sweet – Altered Beast
    Been a casual fan of Matthew Sweet since high school, but I recently acquired this record (thanks, Dan) and am scratching my head at why I never dug deeper than Girlfriend and 100% Fun.
  • The Strokes – Angles
    I was prepared to totally hate this album, because First Impressions of Earth was such a staggering turd of a record. I was surprised: I think about 40% of Angles is actually really great, particularly “Two Kinds of Happiness,” “Taken for a Fool,” and “Gratisfaction.” The 60% that isn’t great is either tolerable or terrible..
  • The Decemberists – The King is Dead
    Another band that I had grown tired of after a huge misstep (Hazards of Love = turd), but was pleasantly surprised by the new record. As with Angles, it’s not perfect, but there are a handful of great songs and this definitely puts the band back on track.
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