My 11 favorite albums of 2011

With 2011 drawing to a close, I set out to make a top ten list of albums, as I do each year. After several weeks of listening to my favorite 25 or so albums of 2011, conveniently found on an itunes playlist named ‘2011″ (very creative name, I know), I was able to gradually remove albums from the list that, while very good, just weren’t up to par with the albums that eventually made the cut. What I wound up with, though, is not a top 10 list, but a top 11 list, because not one of these albums did I want to leave off the list of my favorites of the year. But hey, this is 2011, so I thought it even better to make a top 11 list. Who the fuck decided that ‘top 10’ was the convention, anyway? It sure as fuck wasn’t me, so I’m doing what I want.

And here they are: my top 10 11 albums of 2011. Enjoy.

11. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Lyrically, I’d call this Harvey’s best, most cohesive album, touching on themes both political and personal, tying them together seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly. Musically, it’s melodies are more infectious than her past work, but not in an irritating way. There are some ideas here that took a little while to grow on me, but once the album sunk in, it became a mainstay on my ipod for a majority of 2011. The most memorable listening experience: starting the album on the last leg of a 20 or so mile mountain biking ride and getting the adrenaline surge I needed to climb that final, grueling hill.

10. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

That guitar sound! Wow! The sophomore effort by Girls came as a real shock to me, as I was left feeling lukewarm by their debut. I almost slept on this album, expecting it to be similar in scope to Album, but I’m glad I changed my mind and gave it a few attentive spins, because the guitar just sounds so fucking good. I like how the albummanages to shift between styles: moody psychedelia, dreamy, chill guitar pop, jangly indie, almost thrashy guitar shredding, dirty, bluesy solos, and but makes it all sound like it fits perfectly together by means of pure, solid songwriting. I’m not sure about the lyrics, as I haven’t paid close attention, but they seem to be saying some things about some things, I suppose.

9. Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact

I’ve gone back and forth on this one all year. At one time during the summer, when I was spending a lot of time well, let’s just say ‘partying’, I thought that no one could possibly top this album, that its kinetic beats, weird, tripped-out vocals and generally bizarre atmospherics would be the soundtrack to my life for the foreseeable future. Then, my mind cleared up, the glowsticks stopped showing up in my dreams between festivals and shows, and I put it away. Toward the end of the year, in my efforts to assess the year in music, I gave it a few more listens, then a few more, and what I found is a solid dance album that occasionally loses focus, but is more often than not just really fucking fun to listen to.

8. The Roots – Undun

The Roots are on the run of their career lately, and it’s hard to call this a culmination of their latest efforts, because it comes from a different place. Where the previous few albums have often been successful exercises in stylistic explorations, this album is driven by a tight, cohesive purpose, not the least of which is the lyrical narrative it follows from front to back, exploring serious existential themes without become overly preoccupied with the heady concepts presented. Musically, the production is solid, sounding more tight and focused than the Roots have ever sounded on record before. We’re still waiting for that great instrumental masterpiece from the Roots crew to match their live show, but on Undun they’ve shown they can present a thematically cohesive album that really moves.

7. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Radiohead’s most difficult album to love is complicated, lyrically inaccessible, melodically distant, deceptively redundant and on the surface, distressingly incomplete. Upon its release, numerous theories sprouted from the perplexed fans who thought “is this it?” Whether it’s brilliant, very good or bad is matter of opinion, and I’ve held all three at various times since its release. Seeing them perform the material live has improved the general flavor of my still-shifting opinions on this difficult work, but I really can’t deny that TKOL has been a consistent part of my musical gestalt in 2011, and one that has more often than not given me favorable feelings and contemplations.

6. Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts

A softer, gentler Thurston, complete with chamber-musicy string sections, soft-spoken, contemplative lyrics, peaceful, relaxing vocals and some of the most lovely sounding acoustic guitar you’ll hear on record this year. DT is just really solid songwriting, helped not a small amount by Beck’s masterful production, which focuses heavy on creating space for the strings to flourish and grow, creating a sleepy, but not-too-dreamy atmosphere. Occasionally, the music resembles a stripped down, embryonic Sonic Youth noise section played with lighter instruments and with attention paid to melody over tones. Great for late night drives to nowhere, or somewhere, or both.

5. Wild Flag – Wild Flag

Wild Flag just fucking rocks, that’s all there really is to say. I’m not even really sure what they’re singing about, but it seems to fit with the general hectic feel of the music very well. There’s not really a downer on this album, it just keeps going til the final psychedelic garage-rock jam on “Black Tiles” ties the loose ends together and blows them up. This shit is just really fun, and I’m really grateful it’s there.

4. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

One of the best debut albums in a long time, and one that really feels like a debut. The peculiar thing about this album is that the things that originally turned me off, such as her lyrics, which I initially found kind of trite, and the laboring rhythms, have eventually grown on me to be some of the things I like best about it. This is yet another album on this list which, like the Girls release, gets bonus points because I just LOVE the general sound of the guitars. But, where the Girls album has crisp, polished guitar sounds, this record has a lush, moody, distant sound at times that just draws me in and doesn’t let go. “The Grey Ship” is my favorite song.

3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

There’s nothing I can write about this album that hasn’t been written by a thousand people before me. One thing I can say is that, at times throughout the year I doubted its value, didn’t feel like listening to it, and let it sit unlistened to for relatively long lengths of time. But, each and every time I put it on to listen again, all doubts erased from my mind. The sophomore effort from Bon Iver is a collection of moody, melodically infectious sonic vignettes that are fun to sing along too, strangely enough. The palette of sounds on BI,BI lends itself to discovery after many, many repeated listens. A classic album.

2. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

A complex, shapeshifting, mind-fuck of a hip-hop record that can only be truly heard after you’ve already tried to hear it countless times. Black Up is challenging, but the rewards are worth the effort it takes to truly appreciate it on its own terms. At times dense and even incoherent, it is a masterful collage of sounds and words that relentlessly challenges its own tendencies, thus challenging the listener to follow it in the unusual directions it tends to choose. This can be frustrating at times, because a groove starts and you just want it to continue, but then it stops and starts somewhere else, but after a while this all makes sense. This is a deliberate album that exists in a constant state of becoming, and that is one of the hardest challenges for musicians to meet

1. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic

My favorite album of the year is also the second album on this list produced by Beck Hansen. His production definitely adds something to the songs on this record, but not to the extent that I really think it wouldn’t be my top album had someone else produced. This album is just perfect from start to finish. Malkmus gives us the best guitar work of his career, propped up by his expert backing band. The lyrics are focused, even when the focus is on being unfocused, and the vocals are classic Malkmus. There’s not a song on this album I don’t like, and that’s not even something I can say for the first three Pavement albums.  In the end, though, this is my favourite album simply because it has given me the most joy of any of the albums on this list. From the opening image of a person streaking in Birkenstocks, MT is just a lot of fun, and it’s nice to have a fun album that features such masterful songwriting and instrumentation. This is a modern classic that I suspect will only grow in stature once the dust of 2011 settles, and with which Stephen Malkmus has finally surpassed the output of his former band.

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2 Responses to “My 11 favorite albums of 2011”

  1. this is a great list, much of the music i hadn’t heard of, and even the stuff i’ve heard of (like pj harvey) i don’t have that particular record. the shabaz palaces track just listened to, playing chess. really mellow, reminds me of dr octagon but really mellow. good times.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. Shabazz Palaces is great stuff. Maybe you found out, but it is actually the current project of the guy who used to call himself Butterfly, who was in the group Digable Planets (They had a hit in the 90’s “Rebirth of Slick (Cool like Dat)”.

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