Well, we’ve made it! At long last, I’m extremely proud to present to you my Top 10 Albums of 2011. It’s been a long and arduous road to get to this point. If you’ve stuck with me through it all, let me just say how much I appreciate it. What you’ll find in the Top 10 below are the records I feel represent this past year in music the best. They went above and beyond the rest of the records I heard to hold a special place in my heart. One that I’ll probably forget about by the time this thing rolls around again next year. But for now, I hope you’ll enjoy this and maybe even discover something new from it as well. It’s been a pretty fun ride as far as music has gone this year, and it makes me wonder what 2012 will bring. I may have a post on that before the end of the year. We’ll see. As of this posting, I’m also set to take a small year-ending 2 week vacation, as I could use a little time away from updating this site every day. I hope your holidays are fantastic, and we’ll officially catch up in January. Should you be so inclined however, I may post a couple of pieces for you to glance at during said vacation. Keep an eye out. Alright, so without further ado, please enjoy this final piece of Listmas, my Top 10 Albums of 2011. Oh, but first, do yourself a favor and catch up with the rest of the list:
And now, for the last time this year, click past the jump to read My Top 10 Albums of 2011!
10. Iceage – New Brigade
Sometimes you need to just get back to basics. There’s a certain purity in it; the raw, uncompromising truth of music made with no frills whatsoever, charging straight at you at full speed. What constitutes full speed? How about playing 12 tracks in 24 minutes? That’s what Iceage manage to pull off on their debut full length New Brigade, and they do it with an energy and aplomb that is almost entirely absent from popular music today. You don’t hear punk rock records like this anymore. By that same token, you don’t see punk rock shows like Iceage’s anymore either. Intense moshing and bodysurfing and stage diving and limbs flailing to the point where it’s virtually a guarantee you’ll be walking away in far worse shape than you walked in. Unlike some punk bands, who take up anti-establishment or general “fuck everything and everyone” stances, Iceage may be angry, but their politics or whatever they’re talking about on their album comes across as largely unintelligible (but in English, despite being from Denmark). They’re spitting fire, and fire doesn’t so much have an agenda outside of burning up anything that comes near it. In our increasingly buttoned-up, calm world, it’s absolutely a treat to find a record that throws out all the rules and openly throws caution to the wind.
9. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Sub Pop records does not do hip hop. At least they didn’t do hip hop until earlier this year, when they signed and later unleashed a record from Shabazz Palaces. It makes a lot more sense if you listen to their record Black Up. It is anything but your normal hip hop, instead challenging almost all that we know about the genre. The tracks are difficult to get into, mostly because they avoid verse-chorus-verse structures and hooks, preferring instead to transform as they see fit over their duration. Few of them end in the same place they started, and there are even detours such as mindless chanting or poetry-inspired readings rather than straight rhymes. The topics are also not your traditional fare of money, guns and women, instead focusing more on individuality and figuring out what truly defines you as a person. It makes sense that Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of legendary hip hop collective Digable Planets is the main force behind Shabazz Palaces. He’s been around long enough to be fully familiar with how the genre works and also knows exactly how to upend it. Black Up is one of the most intriguing and brilliant hip hop records I’ve heard in quite some time. I can only hope it inspires other acts to take similar risks in the near future.
8. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Annie Clark knows her strengths and she plays to them. At least that’s the vibe I got from her third album Strange Mercy. Touring around her last record “Actor”, I saw St. Vincent live 3 times, each one took the flowery, pretty and expansive arrangements from that album and turned them into intense, hardcore guitar ragers. It should come as no surprise then that Strange Mercy is very much a guitar album, the other elements cut away to make room for pure shredding. It’s a little bit of a shock to the system at first, to hear Clark get so much grittier and raw, but you also can’t help but be drawn in by it. The buzzy gallop of “Cruel”, the scalpel-like precision of “Surgeon” and the sprightly picking of “Neutered Fruit” all make for remarkable analysis of her immense guitar talent. Of course you don’t earn a Top 10 spot on a year-end list by just being great at your core instrument. That silky voice and smart songwriting sensibilities are more than on display across Strange Mercy as well. It may not be her most commercially viable record to date, but it does feel like the one most reflective of her personality and skills.
7. Cut Copy – Zonoscope
I love a great dance record. If you need proof, just have a glance at my Top 10 Albums from 2010. Out of the many beats and hooks I heard this past year, Cut Copy’s were by far the strongest and most enticing. What they lack in the emotional/heart on the sleeve lyrics of LCD Soundsystem, they more than make up for with inventive and addictive melodies. The band’s last album, 2008’s In Ghost Colours, charmed me in a similar way, but outside of a few exceptionally strong singles, I never quite become obsessed with it. Zonoscope, however, is worthy of obsession, which is why so much of my time was taken up in 2011 listening to this album. The first five tracks in particular feel like punches to the dance floor gut, one after the other after the other. And though a track like “Need You Now” doesn’t necessarily offer anything new from the band sonically, the intense Beach Boys-style harmonies of “Where I’m Going”, the structural/stylistic anomaly of “Pharaohs & Pyramids”, and the 15 minute album closing freak-out “Sun God” both show great strides forwards for these boys. Not only that, but the key difference between Cut Copy’s last album and this latest one is night and day…literally. The former is a great darkness and neon lights record, while the latter brings in the sunshine and feels much more like an upbeat celebration. I’ve been celebrating this record in all conditions, light and dark, hot and cold, happy and sad, and guess what? It’s great no matter how you hear it, so long as you do.
6. James Blake – James Blake
Call me a touch behind the times, but I never listened the 3 EPs James Blake released last year. The guy built up plenty of hype off those EPs, but I was really looking forward to see how he’d handle a full length album. Turns out the guy knows what he’s doing, and in spite of technically being a musical artist I feel like the true credit for his album belongs to his amazing skills as a producer. With so many of the tracks built around remarkably minimal arrangements, Blake needed to make the absolute most of every little piece of music. Many of the open spaces were filled with his own voice, a quivering falsetto that draws on easy comparisons to Antony Hegarty. Unlike his sparse and beautiful cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” that provides a gooey center to the record, the rest is far less straightforward and easily decipherable. That’s okay though, because the creativity and passion on display is second to none, and the often odd twists and turns the songs take are like puzzles begging to be solved. Pieces of songs start and stop almost at will, Blake’s voice doubles and triples on top of itself in harmony, and the words “verse” and “chorus” have no place here. Instead, simply sit back and let the R&B, dubstep and electronica sounds send your mind into a glorious place beyond tradition and rational thinking.
5. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Good for Christopher Owens. After coming out of the gate at more or less full speed with the incredible debut record titled Album, Girls immediately set the bar high for anything they’d attempt in the future. Last year’s Broken Dreams Club EP was almost equally as great, hinting at a number of possible directions the band could head in for their second long player. Turns out the direction they picked was the most lucrative one possible, expanding on the 50s sound of their first record and then pairing it with 70s-style full-fledged psychedelic epics. Opening track “Honey Bunny” has a technicolor gallop to it, while “Alex” right next to it feels like it was cut from a similar cloth. It’s when “Die” lands with some heavy metal riffage that you get a real sense of the sea change this band has gone through. Throw in the remarkably Pink Floydian “Vomit” and the epically dark “Forgiveness” and you’re face to face with an uncompromising and emotionally stripped journey through Owens’ life, love and relationships. Very few records are made with this sort of honesty and forthrightness, and while the subject matter can be difficult and awkward, the sound itself charms in exactly the way a great classic album should. As to whether Father, Son, Holy Ghost will attain the adjective “classic” itself, we’re just going to have to wait and see how things hold up over time. At this point though, it’s hard to argue against something so excellent.
4. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Not to say that we don’t “get it”, but Americans are having a much harder time falling in love with Let England Shake than the Brits are. That should come as little surprise, actually, given PJ Harvey’s royalty and loyalty status in her homeland. She’s a decidedly English artist with an English way of doing things that tends to rub many others the wrong way. And though her latest album tackles the all-too-common topic of war, it does so not with the punk rock ethos of Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor but rather in a staid and mournful tone that is more of a studied examination than a call to arms. She’s not trying to condemn the tragic battles that took place – even as it sometimes sounds like she is – but closer examination suggests she’s more looking for the reasons why such conflicts have to occur in the first place. She does this with both earnestness and flourishes of black humor. Through it all Harvey takes on a much denser instrumental palette than she has her last couple albums, breaking free of the harp and piano arrangements of White Chalk and rocking out with some guitars or bouncing about with a bit of xylophone. But the real accomplishment of Let England Shake is how it manages to educate, analyze and entertain all in one fell swoop. It may come across as stuffy and rigid at times, but it’s also silly and overzealous too on both the lyrical and musical sides. The more time you spend with it, the easier it is to understand and enjoy. In some ways, those are the best sorts of albums.
3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
This past summer, when reviewing Bon Iver’s second and self-titled record, I commented that “Beth/Rest” was a test. A test to see the limits Justin Vernon could push up against and whether or not he could succeed with what’s ultimately an extremely uncool song. I admire the guy for the guts it took to unapologetically jump off that deep end and close out an otherwise incredible record with a song that your parents are supposed to love. You can hear the Bruce Hornsby, the Journey, and the Peter Cetera oozing out of every pore of that song, so much cheese it’s bound to keep your ears constipated for weeks. I’ll go so far as to say if it weren’t for “Beth/Rest”, Bon Iver would be sitting at the top of this list right now. Instead, it settles into third with grace and aplomb, because Justin Vernon and his band have crafted a beautiful and serene masterpiece that, to quote his own Autotuned vocal off the Blood Bank EP, has left him “lost in the woods.” It sounds little like the sparse acoustic guitar and vocal of For Emma, Forever Ago, in which Vernon famously locked himself inside a Wisconsin cabin, down on his luck in love and life, and crafted a great record. On Bon Iver the story continues down a fictional road, one in which he leaves said cabin and wanders off into the vast wilderness by which he’s surrounded, looking for answers and to gain some footing in life. Watch the videos crafted for each of the songs on this album on YouTube, and you’ll notice that every one involves either trees, snow, ice, streams, beaches, oceans, clouds and a host of other natural elements. It’s the perfect visual accompaniment to a record that feels both at peace with nature but also entirely consumed by the mysteries of it. There’s so much emotion here, and in almost every way Vernon’s search for answers to the big questions in life is also our search as well, he just knows how to channel it better.
2. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
How Anthony Gonzalez pulled this off is a mystery to me. Well, come to think of it, given M83’s back catalogue, the success of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming should come as only a small surprise. Ambition can be a very dangerous thing when placed in the right hands, and it appears in this case it paid off in spades. The double album is always an immense risk, trying to piece together a cohesive statement out of so much more material, and every second has to be dynamite or else you can fall flat on your face and never recover. Not only does the material have to be fantastic, but the way in which you order it is essential too. Front-loading, back-loading or even middle-loading can get you in trouble because once all the peaks have been reached, the valleys remain, and nobody wants to listen to valleys. In other words, you keep the hits generously spaced apart, and then buttress those spaces with intriguing interludes and momentary flights of fancy. Again, M83 knocks that out of the park too. “Intro” and “Midnight City” kiss you with their sweetness, then “Claudia Lewis” tempts you with more before “New Map” surges to the forefront and reinvigorates you just in time to see “Steve McQueen” come around and start that slow descent into your final destination. I haven’t even mentioned the expansive arrangements required to mount such a task, with synths soaring through the sky, full orchestras blowing the roof out, and choirs sending the message to the heavens. It sounds so huge on record; imagine what it took to put all of it together. Gonzalez knows, because he was the one that did it. Confidence abounds on this record, and you can hear it in every element, most notably in his own voice, which has gone from a calm almost whisper to a force of nature complete with yelps. This is his coup de grace, his proverbial masterpiece, and the legacy he’ll leave behind. It may never rise to the heights of his inspiration such as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but that’s more the fault of the state of the music industry today and the excess of music available at our fingertips. I can only hope I remember how incredible this album is 10 years from now. I hope you can too.
1. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
Here it is, friends: my favorite record of 2011. It’s been out since the spring, and I have yet to grow tired of a single second of it. 2009 was the year Merrill Garbus first came to us, hat in hand, album recorded on a laptop microphone, and kindly asked us to give her a chance. The record was BiRd BrAiNs, and upon hearing it I wanted nothing to do with it. Lo-fi recordings are fine with me provided they’re passable, but this was where I drew the line. There was so much about it that felt completely unprofessional, particularly the intense crackling that would occur whenever the vocals or an instrument would soar too high. Having no control over your levels and soaring into the red where the microphone can’t handle it will ruin your record if it happens enough. And so, tUnE-yArDs earned my disrespect and a special kind of anger once I saw all the underground praise for that first album. The thing was, even for much of 2010 I kept hearing about it and began to wonder what I was missing. “This band may be great for other people, but not for me,” I told myself.
Enter w h o k i l l. Here’s how it went down: in my sheer stubbornness, I was convinced this would be the record where people finally saw what I had been seeing the last two years, which was that tUnE-yArDs isn’t very good. First came the single, “Bizness”. I didn’t bother listening to it. I didn’t want to listen to it. Then came the video for “Bizness”. A week went by after the video premiered, and after many people that I respect all seemed to be ecstatic about both song and video, I figured 4.5 minutes of torture would be better than an entire album full of it, so I gave in. From that point onward, it was all over for me.
With all the dancers and the face paint, the video for “Bizness” looks a lot like people dancing in a cult. Merrill Garbus was their leader, preaching to the unconverted and converts alike. Her message came through loud and clear to me that day, mostly because the recording of the song was loud and clear. Yes, crafted lovingly inside an actual studio with professional engineers and the like, w h o k i l l actually SOUNDS like a normal album, even though it is anything but. It’s not just the real recording equipment that makes this album shine above all the rest though. First and foremost it’s that voice! The way Garbus stretches, bends, loops, and even converses with it, not only belting it out when needed but also making weird little sound effects like police sirens rather than going for the real thing. It’s charming and endearing, but also proves the power of the human voice. In 2011, that’s proving to be more powerful than ever, whether you’ve got a microphone or not (see: Time Magazine‘s Person of the Year – The Protester). Someday somebody’s going to create an entire record a capella and will make it sound like the backing of a full band. Who knows? That might be Merrill Garbus’ next thing. For this record though, she’s more than content to play a host of roles, from her Valley Girl affectation on “Es-So” (“I gotta do right if my body’s tight, right?”) to something closer to straight rapping on “Gangsta” and “Killa”.
Which brings me to my next point: w h o k i l l is not bound by any sort of musical genre. There are so many styles and flavors explored on this record, sometimes even within a single song, that to box it under anything other than a broad spectrum “experimental” tag would be mislabeling it. Folk, pop, Afro-pop, jazz, R&B, hip hop, world music and a few more bits all play a big part in this album’s overall sonic palette. As we see more and more musical genres stealing influence from one another and taking songs in new and exciting directions, here’s something that feels like the next level of where we’re already heading. The thing about it is, not everyone is ready for it. The shameless and often haphazard way Garbus flits from one arena to the next can rub some the wrong way, creating the suggestion that maybe she has little to no respect for any of these styles. On the contrary, she uses genre like people use direct quotes in term papers, which is to say out of respect and credibility to the source. Now of course depending on the situation any number of quotes can be taken out of context, and by connection so can these songs. While I cannot speak directly as to the artist’s intentions, I suspect that Garbus is simply playing with a box of toys and if she sees or hears something that interests her, she’ll pick it up and play with it awhile in the hopes of finding something true to her own identity and self-expression.
The core and key to w h o k i l l is ultimately self-expression. Listening to this record is almost an entirely upbeat and joyous experience. It was clearly made with love and passion and a wide-eyed goofiness that preaches a certain joie de vivre you can’t help but absorb. The sheer bravery it takes to make a record with such a carefree spirit and unflinching honesty is immensely admirable. So even as she’s almost snarkily wondering where she truly fits into this world (“My Country”) or winds up falling in love with a policeman that shows up to arrest her brother (“Riotriot”), she’s also a very real woman with very real issues. One of my favorite songs of the year is “Powa”, which is essentially a love song about the pleasure obtained from sex (which, from a female perspective, is a rarity in music), but also deals with some severe body issues as well. That’s a theme carried over from “Es-So”, which is a bit more intense about it and hints at an eating disorder. How much truth is in those lyrics vs. fiction is debatable, and Garbus isn’t necessarily fond of talking about it. The lyrics speak for themselves, and either you identify with them or not. While certain things I definitely can’t relate to, that they’re even being discussed at all is a small miracle in itself. Hopefully those that can truly benefit from songs like these are put in the right position to discover them. As for me, I’m in awe of everything about w h o k i l l. It taught me the grand lessons of giving second chances, standing up for what you believe in, and not being afraid to let your freak flag fly. As one of the few (if not only) people that is placing this record atop their Best of 2011 list, I hope this piece of impassioned writing convinces you to give w h o k i l l another listen so you can figure out exactly how it can affect your life for the better.