Friday, December 16, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011

I can't even pretend I listened to every new album worth hearing this year. And now that some of the "official" lists are out, I realize that any list I make here is likely going to be terribly incomplete. For instance, you won't see Adele's 21 on this list, despite the fact that it's apparently amazing.

I did listen to a lot, though. And let's be clear... this was an underwhelming year. I'm pretty sure even if I included a certain British chanteuse and Bon Iver, this list would still be a struggle. Unlike last year, which was a veritable cornucopia of bad-ass tunes, this year swung and missed more often than not.

Anyhow, let's try this. As always, second opinions provided so you don't think I'm nuts.

Honorable mentions

Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne - You know, it's good. My issue was more that both of these guys are so much more than good. Maybe I need to chill out, but I kept feeling this could have been so much more.

Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation - My hat's off to this kid. I heard this was made in an Idaho bedroom... and it sounds like it. In all the right ways.

The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient - Thisclose to being on the list. The suite of songs surrounding "Come to the City" is arguably one of the year's best stretches of album.

The list

10) Foo Fighters - Wasting Light 
Second opinion: Spin

So few bands just know how to rock the hell out and Dave Grohl's band continues to do things that a whole faction of politicos in his home state of Virginia probably wants to make illegal. From the first chords of "Bridge is Burning," it's all vintage Foos, but without anything to prove. Perhaps it's the reintegration of Pat Smear into the mix, because while this band has hit more than it's missed, this is the first disc since The Colour and the the Shape - Smear's last effort with the band - that hit this hard.

9) Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
Second Opinion: Los Angeles Times

I was sitting at a 4th of July party when first track "White Noise" came on. The song is anything but. It was one of those moments where conversation had to be stopped to inquire just what this was. And months later, I'm still listening to it... and the rest of the album. Layered with themes and beats, every song brings a new scene to mind and propels itself into the next. It's fantastic work.

8) Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
Second opinion: Entertainment Weekly

If they're going to make us wait until who knows when for a new Postal Service album, at least the Bellingham, WA outfit that is Death Cab can put out music that makes the wait oh-so-much-more bearable. It's more of a slow burn than a lot of their recent previous work... no New Year, no one possessing your heart. But it's a slow burn that goes deep. Opening with "Home is Fire" is strong, but things are still rolling by the time "Underneath the Sycamore" comes along. And between - and after - is all good melodies, strong lyrics and many moments that glisten.

7) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

I have a friend who has seen this band live and says they suck. And I believe her. I remember seeing Smashing Pumpkins and being completely underwhelmed. How could a band that sounds so good in the studio just... suck live? I haven't seen POBPAH live, so I don't know if it's true. But I did hear this album. Produced by Flood and Alan Moulder - who happened to make the Pumpkins sound good on CD - Belong changes the game for this band. The indie shoegaze of the band's debut pales in comparison to this. It's an argument for your favorite indie band to work with a real producer. The opening title track just kills. And for the next four songs, it stays that good. Songs that we didn't know this band could write... much less perform. If an album took my by surprise this year, it's this one.

6) Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto
Second opinion: Spin

It had to happen: a Coldplay album not superior to its predecessor. From such great heights, this is still a great listen. So many experiments work, including "Princess of China" with Rihanna. "Paradise" is everything a Coldplay track should be. What's missing? Hard to say, though it feels like urgency. On every Coldplay disc to date, especially Viva la Vida, it seemed like the band wasn't just trying new things and trying to be the best... it felt like they thought it was important. This album is hardly going through the motions; indeed, it features some of the more ambitious experimentations the band has tried. It's more that, for the first time, some of the tricks don't charm. Would that every band's slight misfire could be as good as this.

5) Radiohead - The King of Limbs
Second Opinion: The Guardian

An odd album, to be sure, but the patient reap giant rewards. The morose front end of the album challenges listeners to more than any material since Kid A. "Morning Mr. Magpie" manages to keep that front end energetic despite Thom Yorke's contention that his melody has been stolen. It comes back in "Little by Little," which is, plainly vintage Radiohead. What blows you away are the closers, though. "Give Up the Ghost" is a gift that keeps on giving, revealing new sides to itself with every listen. Final track "Seperator," though, is the true killer. Nearly a perfect song, it proved to be the album's most provocative, building speculation of a quick follow-up album (sadly wrong), but doing what any good performance should do: leave you wanting more.

4) Lady Gaga - Born this Way
Second Opinion: NME

Not even gonna apologize for this one. Not one bit. Why don't more pop artists take risks? Take the artist part to heart? Find me another pop artists that could make a song like "Judas" - easily one of the year's best singles - and do it in a way that isn't just there to shock. DJs had to be salivating over the possibilities with a song like "Schie?e", which shouldn't work but does. Sure, everyone got tired of "Edge of Glory," but it's the songs that didn't get the airplay where Gaga gets to push the limits. Dare I say this had the feel of an album that foretells great things? On The Fame Monster she made defining pop. Here, she tries every weapon in the arsenal with more success than not, but the question is what does she do with the lessons learned? Hopefully, it something epic.

3) Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

I'm sorry, but this is what Mumford & Sons don't do. Introspective to points of pain, Fleet Foxes build on their previous work with gloriously beautiful complicated music. You go from the pulsating "Battery Kinzie" to songs like "The Cascades" that just shimmer. Of course the harmonies remain, but the musicianship reaches new heights. Every piece works to a grand extent.

2) Mates of State - Mountaintops
Second Opinion: NPR

The album opens with "Palomino," which, as far as I'm concerned is the single best song of the year. Everything this band does well is done more than well on this track and the tracks that follow are easily the best we've heard from this two-piece... and they've hit some nice highs before. On previous albums, there were always standout tracks, but never have these Mates put together such a complete set of songs. Wearing the challenges of marriages on their sleeves on a song like "Mistakes," synthing it up on "Sway" or putting the dance beat in "Maracas," every move the band makes seems to work. I was lucky enough to see this band live in LA this year and the power of their material just explodes off the stage... something that this album captures to a great degree.

1) Washed Out - Within and Without
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

A choir director I once sang with used to say that there was nothing more amazing than a big group singing very softly. That's not quite what's happening here, but the feeling you get is the same: intense despite the volume. At times, the album goes almost ambient, rocking you into a state of marvelous contendedness. Other times, it lulls you... into a dark corner. I still don't know what the lyrics to this album are. And I don't care. The voices might as well be instruments. No other album comes close to evoking the kind of response that this one does. And, to top it off, it has the year's hottest album cover (look it up and you tell me).

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