Part of me wishes I had more time to write intros to these individual blocks of 10 albums. Ultimately, it’s the least important element of these countdowns, because the albums with numbers next to them are the real point. So I’m just going to leave this one short and sweet. Today we reach the halfway point in our countdown, then promptly move past it. With each passing day and number, my love for these records grows stronger. Writing about them again in little pieces for this bit of Listmas is a nice refreshing of perspectives I took any number of months ago. I hope you’re enjoying this so far. We’ve only got a couple days left. If you’d like to do some catching up, here’s a couple links to show you what you’ve missed.
And now, click past the jump to read my Top 50 Albums of 2011: #30-21!
30. Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde
After their self-titled debut album earned them plenty of buzz that was both figurative via online praise and literal via the actual songs being caked in poor fidelity, Smith Westerns got smart, got an actual recording budget, and returned with “Dye It Blonde”. Not only did the new, cleaned up version of the band prove themselves more dynamic when their songs aren’t obscured, but their shift in direction away from 60s Britpop and into 90s Britpop was a perfect adjustment to the sound that would become the zeitgeist of 2011. Now a bit older and wiser than they were a couple years earlier, their songwriting and song compositions only got better as well, with notorious earworms such as “Weekend”, “Imagine, Pt. 3” and “All Die Young” leading the charge towards memorability while also grasping closely to our own memories of songs and bands we’ve previously loved. This is music fully reflective of youth and living life to the fullest, of parties and girls and at times pure idiocy because you don’t know any better. If only those times, and this record, could last forever.
29. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
Unlike a few bands that chose to change their sound along with the times, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have remained true to their 90s revivalist sound ever since they emerged in 2009. Yeah, two years is no big deal in the scheme of things, but when tastes change at the drop of a hat it almost seems like the band was psychic in predicting trends. Or was it the tastemakers, calling them up from the depths of the unknown? Either way, “Belong” marks the continuation of the sound established on the band’s self-titled debut, only with a little more of the good and a little less of the bad. The songs ring true with a higher fidelity, Kip Berman’s vocals are at the front of the mix and more powerful than before, and the hooks are sharp to the point where they’d be hits were this 10 years ago. As it stands now, they’re just really dynamite songs not enough people are paying attention to. Just try to resist the pull of “Heart in Your Heartbreak” or “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now”. The band also gets more ferocious and louder than they did on their debut, suggesting a potential path to head towards next time. As it stands though, one place “Belong” truly belongs is on this list.
28. The Black Keys – El Camino
Good for The Black Keys. They’ve managed to take the same blues-inspired sound they’ve had for the last 10 years and finally translate it into commercial success. It really started last year on their album “Brothers” when their song “Tighten Up” and its catchy whistle landed like an atom bomb amongst the general populous. As that was the singular song off that record produced by Danger Mouse, they decided to have him produce the entirety of “El Camino”. The result? 11 tracks that all sound like giant hits. Gone are the slower, more psychedelic moments, replaced by energy and hooks. If people were looking for an heir to The White Stripes throne, The Black Keys have clearly volunteered to take up that mantle. From the barn-burning first single and opening track “Lonely Boy” to the bounce of “Gold on the Ceiling” through the quiet-loud Led Zeppelin dynamic of “Little Black Submarines”, it’s tough to say the band does much wrong at any point on this album, their finest to date. Part of me feels it’s a little premature to be placing this record on a year-end list given it’s super late December release date, but I’m also confident it will earn its keep there in the year to come.
27. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Lykke Li is the saddest pop star I know. Then again, I don’t know a whole lot of pop stars. Still, dressed in all black with copious amounts of eyeliner, you’d hope she’d crack a smile every now and then. But the song title (and lyrics to) “Sadness Is A Blessing” pretty much explains it all. Some people prefer to avoid happiness. But that doesn’t mean “Wounded Rhymes” is a dark, torrid affair that will lower your mood. Instead, it’s more often than not a mood elevator, getting your blood pumping and feet moving on the dance floor. One of Lykke Li’s strengths is her ability to channel that darkness within her into other forms of expression, so you can be taken in by the animal instincts of “Get Some” or the stealthy seduction of “I Follow Rivers” without succumbing to the damage and desperation that runs as their undercurrent. There’s nothing on “Wounded Rhymes” that hits as hard as a couple of the singles on her debut album “Youth Novels”, but the development and maturation of Lykke Li makes it nearly as compelling anyways. Maybe as she continues to grow both as an artist and in popularity, she’ll find room for some sunshine and color in her life.
26. Panda Bear – Tomboy
Ah Noah Lennox, a man ripe with promise both courtesy of his work in Animal Collective but also thanks to the brilliance of his Panda Bear albums. “Person Pitch” was his magnum opus, a psych-pop record that was ahead of its time and left many crying from the rooftops proclaiming him a genius. How do you follow up something like that? The short answer is, you don’t. “Tomboy” is one part retreat, and another part consolidation. In the 4 years since “Person Pitch”, music has adapted and caught up with what was done on that album. Or to put it a different way, that record spawned a large number of copycats, all hoping for similar success. Instead of trying to figure out what the next evolution of that sound might be, he instead chose to focus on simpler, shorter songs on this album. In turn, “Tomboy” holds a lot more in common with Lennox’s 2004 solo debut “Young Prayer” than it does “Person Pitch”. But spend enough time and consideration of it, and there’s still plenty to discover. See, Lennox hasn’t actually given up on the strides he’s made, but rather tried to streamline them and make them better, stronger, and easier on the ears. It doesn’t quite have the same potent result, but you can’t help but be drawn in anyways.
25. Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow
If you would have told me 3-4 months ago that Kate Bush would be releasing one of the best albums of 2011, I would have laughed in your face. The prospect of a faded 80s rock star putting out her first album in 6 years does not invite phrases like “eagerly anticipated” to be used. Everybody likes an underdog and a comeback though, which is why it’s heartening to see Bush do so well with “50 Words for Snow”. There are many things that work about it (obviously), not the least of which is how thematically sound it is, maintaining a similar tone, mood and subject matter for the duration. This is very much a winter record, with a sadness running through it like the blustery winds, but it’s also very beautiful, like the morning after a light dusting of snow. Bush’s voice has grown deeper and more emotionally aching with age, and her songwriting skills as rich and detailed as ever. The record runs 7 tracks and 65 minutes, with the shortest piece running just under 7 minutes and the longest clocking in at over 13 minutes. This allows everything to breathe just a little bit more and truly allows the listener to become enveloped in the stories and fantasy worlds the lyrics project. When even a song with the absurd topic of having sex with a snowman can hold a serious and important weight to it, you know you’re onto something powerful.
24. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
One of the best things about the 90s, in my opinion, was the angst. Angry people making angry music that was honest and true to their feelings. If you hit puberty during that decade as I did, you hopefully found solace in things like grunge and other similarly styled genres of music. Times have changed, and so has music, but with the revival of the 90s sound in 2011, a little bit of angst made its way back as well. Erika M. Anderson (EMA) was a big part of making that happen, and the songs on her debut solo album “Past Life Martyred Saints” bring a unique perspective to a classic sound. Clearly she’s dealt with a lot of pain and anguish in her life, as evidenced by tales of physical and mental abuse, both afflicted and self-inflicted, on tracks like “Marked” and “Butterfly Knife”. It’s a little scary to be exposed to such internal turmoil, and mighty powerful as well. She approaches it all with such conviction that you have to accept it at face value and not performance art. But even on the songs that are tamer or less dark than the rest, there’s plenty of engaging and unconventional instrumental work to grab you by the throat. A song like “California”, which is an excellent rant against the titular state, also has a backing soundtrack that feels downright apocalyptic. The whole thing really comes together in a dark way where you don’t so much want to listen to the album over and over again, but still walk away with a great appreciation for the immense talent behind its creation.
23. The Weeknd – House of Balloons
Mixtapes are made and released each and every day, most of them made by nobodys hoping to gain exposure. But it takes more than simple mash-ups or careful segues to find true brilliance. Using and re-appropriating samples in unique ways with additional, at times original, content is the true key to success, and that’s a big reason why The Weeknd emerged as one of 2011’s most exciting and best acts. In some respects, the “House of Balloons” mixtape when it first arrived was fulfilling a destiny that had been hinted at for quite some time – R&B’s embrace of indie culture. Base electronica elements and beats meet soulful vocals and hip hop styles meet samples from Beach House, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Cocteau Twins, among others. There’s a little bit of a WTF element about it, but surprisingly and to his credit, The Weeknd proves inspired. And entertaining as this 50 minute concoction can be, it’s also immensely dark, drug-infested and predatory. There’s barely a song that drifts by without copious mention of drug use or sex, and you definitely get the feeling not all of it is consentual. It’s super creepy and self-loathing much of the time, yet there’s some strange, twisted beauty across it as well that seduces you in. Consider it forbidden fruit, offered up at your lap with the price of free. Such temptations are extremely difficult to resist. Go ahead. Just a taste. Just this once.
22. Washed Out – Within and Without
In a face-off between the glo-fi/chillwave artists, Washed Out won against Toro y Moi. What impresses me even more is that “Within and Without” is essentially Washed Out’s debut album. Sure, there were a couple EPs the preceeded it that yielded quite a bit of hype, but at the time it felt like Ernest Greene was just playing along with a number of other genre peers before making a break for higher ground. That higher ground meant significantly upping production values and crafting a set of songs that fit together so neatly you barely noticed the breaks in between them. This record works so well that I’ve been using it the last few months as my “sleep music”, in that it helps me to drift off to sleep. Ordinarily any album that causes you to pass out might as well be placed under the label of “boring”. To me, Washed Out possesses the definition of the word “chillwave” because it chills me out as the waves of calm wash over me. Have no fear though, because I love it for other, more awake reasons too. Songs like “Eyes Be Closed” (an allusion to sleep…not my fault, nor is the album cover of two people in bed), “Amor Fati” and “You and I” are gorgeous, relaxed and surprisingly addictive. In many ways, listening to this record feels better for my health than taking any prescription drug. More fun too.
21. Cults – Cults
Anybody who’s even halfway “in the know” about music could have told you at the end of 2010 that Cults would become big in 2011. Wouldn’t you know it, they managed to deliver on that promise with their self-titled debut album. It has the nerve to feature their massive hit “Go Outside”, which until that point had only been available as a limited edition 7 inch single. But really the band proved they were more than just a hyper-addictive indie pop song. The album unveiled treasures like opener “Abducted”, which sent the melody skyward and pulled in ears via tractor beams. The insistent “You Know What I Mean” played up a 50s girl-group side of the band we hadn’t heard before. And “Never Heal Myself” was shockingly brash for a band that seems to tread so lightly otherwise. Clocking in at right around 30 minutes, the band truly worked off the motto “all killer, no filler”. It finishes up and never overstays its welcome. They might not be the most inventive group in the world, but that will only get you so far anyways. Dynamic songwriting and hooks will push you the rest of the way, and Cults certainly have that in spades.
TOMORROW: My Top 50 Albums of 2011 #20-11!