Yesterday was a whole lot of fun, crossing off the bottom 10 albums on my Top 50 Albums of 2011 list. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together. Today we hit Part II, in which #40-31 will spike your blood sugar. If you’re reading this, I’ll now drop a “hint” for you as to what the #1 album might be, just to satisfy your curiosity. I’ve yet to find a publication, in print or online, that has agreed with my choice for Album of the Year. That doesn’t so much tell you what it is, but more like what it isn’t. There should be a good 5-6 records at least you can cross off as candidates for that top slot. Just another couple days and you’ll know the full story. Until then, please check out yesterday’s 10 albums if you have yet to do so. Here’s the link to that.
And now, click past the jump to read my Top 50 Albums of 2011: #40-31!
40. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
After so many records, The Mountain Goats have become a band less about forward momentum and innovation and more about consistency. John Darnielle and the boys have taken the band to the place it needs to go and stay without really a dip in quality. The lyrics are the key, and Darnielle holds fast in his ability to very actively engage the listener with stories and emotional moments. The variety of topics addressed on “All Eternals Deck” are refreshing compared to the religious themes of “The Life of the World to Come” and “Heretic Pride” (to a degree). That he can go from a topical zeitgeist like “Damn These Vampires” to actress Judy Garland’s tragic end on “The Autopsy Garland” to the pep talk of “High Hawk Season” in the bat of an eye brings a nice level of anticipation to hear where he’ll venture next. And as dark as it goes, there are plenty of lighter, more carefree moments to try and balance that out, which is kind of nice. For me, this is the best Mountain Goats record since 2005’s “The Sunset Tree”, and given the rate this band puts out records, that’s saying something.
39. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
Every year in advance I reserve my #1 slot on this Top Albums list for either a record from Radiohead or TV on the Radio. Both bands have proven themselves highly capable and highly qualified to make records that blow the competition out of the water. TV on the Radio have been on a hot streak for almost their entire existence, with critical acclaim especially high for their last two albums “Return to Cookie Mountain” and “Dear Science”. The ball had to drop sometime, and “Nine Types of Light” is where that happened. Not everything you release can be perfect, even if in an ideal world it would be. The primary issue involves ballads, and “Nine Types of Light” is loaded with them in its first half, and they work at varying degrees of success. Then tracks like “New Cannonball Blues” and “Keep Your Heart” sound like territory the band has covered and done more with on previous records. Still, the band’s more energetic moments still feel pretty potent, as “No Future Shock” and “Caffeinated Consciousness” are among the band’s best songs to date. And even some of the more lackluster songs are better than most anything by any other band. Sorry boys, I can’t quite hand you that #1 slot this year.
38. Braids – Native Speaker
Braids are a really cool band that never exploded like I expected them to this year. Their debut album “Native Speaker” was released in January, a tough month to remember much about given it was so close to a year ago. Despite touring quite a bit these last 11 months, I still feel like not enough people are talking about this band. Perhaps it’s too difficult for some to process. At 7 tracks, over half of which cross the 6 minute mark including a pair of 8+ minute cuts smack dab in the middle, it’s not the breeziest or most upbeat listening experience. Yet it’s very creatively stimulating, weaving all sorts of sounds, beats and textures into a remarkably minimalist structure that is never flaccid or boring. Raphaelle Standell-Preston boasts a powerful and expressive voice to the point where she can repeat the same phrase a dozen times and make it sound unique each time. Her occasional bouts of swearing are equally charming as well. If you ask me, this is one of the most underrated records of the year. Check this band out if you haven’t before, or maybe give them another try if you already have once.
37. Marissa Nadler – Marissa Nadler
This past summer, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marissa Nadler. She was kind, cordial and held a dark and mysterious sadness about her. In other words, she’s very much the person you hear on her records. I’ve got a genuine admiration for that, because so many singers and songwriters feel that their music is a performance art or acting rather than a heartfelt expression of your true self, no matter if you’re happy or sad, energetic or subdued. As such, Marissa Nadler’s self-titled album isn’t flashy or filled with catchy pop songs that force you into liking them. She’s made another record of extremely well-written songs that make for a quiet soundtrack to a gloomy day. Her consistency and strength remains impressive, and just because she’s not shredding like Annie Clark of St. Vincent or in-your-face angsty like EMA doesn’t mean her music is any less great. She may not be innovating, but she is one of the best of the more traditional singer-songwriters making music today.
36. Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital
Really until “Sound Kapital”, Handsome Furs were simply a side project of Wolf Parade, something for Dan Boeckner and his wife Alexei Perry to do with their spare time. It wasn’t even Wolf Parade’s hiatus that pushed Handsome Furs into the spotlight, but rather an ever-increasingly challenging and thrilling development of their sound. In order to properly challenge themselves on their third full length, Boeckner put down his guitar and decided to focus almost entirely on keyboards and synths. The result has the band breaking out their dancing shoes and taking a trip back to the 80s. Fun as it is, there’s some serious heart and emotion at the core of this album too. Many of the songs were informed by a trip Boeckner and Perry took to Burma where they witnessed persecution of all sorts, including musical. So even as “When I Get Back” and “What About Us” make you want to party like there’s no tomorrow, moments like “Serve the People” and closer “No Feelings” make sure you know there’s a social conscience present as well.
35. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation
Trevor Powers, aka Youth Lagoon, is one artist that could definitely be labeled as part of the “Class of 2011”. His debut album “The Year of Hibernation” hits all the necessary hallmarks of bedroom recorded indie pop. There’s the degraded audio quality, the reverb-laden instruments and vocals, and an uncanny knack for catchy songwriting. Powers proves himself to be an exceptionally strong arranger, piecing together such minimal sounds and turning them into expansive and engaging pop. There’s a strong sonic resemblance to Modest Mouse’s earliest material, though Youth Lagoon plays it straighter and in some ways more compelling. From the steady bounce and addictive whistle of “Afternoon” to the slow burn firework sparkle of “July”, these songs are infused with the spirit of childhood and the possibility that anything was possible. Play this record loudly as you drive through some wide open countryside and you’ll truly understand what makes it so worthwhile.
34. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Oh, what’s a year-end countdown without a little hip hop. My feelings on this Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration are only a little mixed, the negative side brought on mostly because of the incredible work both artists have done on their own. Part of what makes “Watch the Throne” such a great listen is because Jay and Kanye are two completely different people with two completely different ways of doing things. To people that don’t listen to a lot of it, hip hop is hip hop and there’s not a whole lot of disparity, only talented and untalented. Yet Jay-Z is very much an impersonal and straightforward artist, impeccable at finding a great hook and then coming up with a topic to go off on. Kanye is intensely personal, revealing almost too much in his tracks while also striving for innovation and grandiosity all at once. Together they may be less than the sum of their parts, but each clearly had an influence on the other, and there’s a certain pleasure to be derived from hearing both guys step just a little out of their comfort zones. And yeah, it’s still a really damn good hip hop record.
33. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
There’s a part of my brain that tells me to not like Kurt Vile. There are a number of potential reasons for this, including the fact that his last name is vile, which the dictionary says only has negative connotations. In spite of this, I give the guy the benefit of the doubt, and wouldn’t you know it, he defies any surface logic my brain can generate against him. His fourth full length “Smoke Ring for My Halo” is his best to date, filled with plenty of familiar folk singer-songwriter tropes, but made exceptional by the words and voice of a man that you’d imagine has lived a very long time and has seen more than his fair share of tragedy. The truth is, Vile’s remarkably young and by equal measure remarkably talented. He scored a minor hit with “Baby’s Arms” this year, and that along with songs like “On Tour” and “Puppet to the Man” are only a few highlights on a record packed with them. We feel like we’re hearing his personal inner dialogue through much of the lyrics, and his achingly throaty voice cries with emotion. The more you take the time to study it, the better and more powerful it becomes.
32. Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine
I tried fo so long to resist the glo-fi/chillwave movement, convinced it was only a passing trend that would wear itself out over a year or so. Yet as acclaim was poured upon a number of artists working within said genre, I’m always compelled to try and figure out what others are hearing that I’m not. I like to think that 2011 was finally the year those puzzle pieces finally fell into place, and “Underneath the Pine” had so much to do with it. See Chaz Bundick, aka Toro y Moi, actually threw some studio polish onto his new album, it felt as if the cotton in my ears had been removed and the clarity was strikingly good. The instrumental palette got wider, moving beyond simple synth-pop to organs and live drums and piano and a host of other noisemakers. So too did the songs, as the choruses became more expansive and catchier as well, where songs like “New Beat” and “Still Sound” provide the supportive evidence. Maybe it took Bundick some time to grow into his own skin, or maybe it took me some time to grow into mine. I like to think it was a little of both.
31. Wild Beasts – Smother
One of the things I absolutely love about Wild Beasts is how completely in control they are. Throw your expectations out the window, because the band doesn’t care about what you want, or what the label wants. They’re going to do what they want to do. As such, “Smother” found them significantly stripping back the sound of their last album “Two Dancers” to go much darker and much, much sexier. In many ways this record could be considered mood music, something to put on when you bring a date back to your place in the hopes of getting laid. It could come off as creepy but thankfully Hayden Thorpe’s vocals exude only the purest of passion, even as he intones a line like “I take you in my mouth like the lion takes its game”. But you don’t need to have sex on the brain to appreciate this record. It’s worthy of close examination for the work with electronica and percussion alone, but its creativity and intensity really bring it close to perfection no matter what angle you listen for.
TOMORROW: My Top 50 Albums of 2011 #30-21!