Thursday, January 5, 2012

Year-End Report: Top 50 Albums of 2011 10-1

It was quite the undertaking counting down my Top 50 Albums of 2011 but I came out unscathed. There is plenty to be excited about in the world of music; not just these albums, but also the fact that music sales are up for the first time since 2004. The times they are a-changin': digital sales finally beat out physical music sales for the first time. Additionally, vinyl sales are up a whopping 39%! I purchased a great deal of this Top 50 on vinyl and if you have a record player, there is nothing like it. Whatever your medium, I encourage you to purchase anything you have discovered here. I hope you've enjoyed the countdown so far. The Top 10 is an unpredictable list full of great albums you need to hear. Give everything a spin and let me know what you think! With further ado, I give you my favorite albums of 2011:

10. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes were given the impossible task of following a debut that was universally acclaimed as one of the finest of the past decade. So how did they fare? In my humble opinion, Helplessness Blues blows their debut out of the water in every aspect. "Montezuma" sets the stage for a folk-rock masterpiece with it's poignant lyrics and gentle acoustic structure. The glorious harmonies that have become a staple of their songwriting and the main attraction for many fans are in full-swing on the title track. Their bravest composition yet, "The Shrine / An Argument" takes the listener on an epic journey through lush instrumentation and inspired arrangements. If there was an album tailored made for the vinyl resurgence, this was it. From the elegant packaging to the warm analog sound, Helplessness Blues was a must-have vinyl purchase.

Favorite Track: "Helplessness Blues"

9. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Annie Clark has reached new creative heights on her latest album as St. Vincent. The most underrated facet of her music is her guitar playing. She gets incredibly unique guitar tones that compliment her unhinged and impassioned playing style. The dichotomy in songs like "Cruel" are what make the album such an intriguing listen. In the song, she pits sweet strings and soaring melodies against harsh guitars and galloping rhythms. The lyrics are much more confessional this time around with lines such as "I spent the summer on my back" from "Surgeon". It adds to the emotional punch that is Strange Mercy.

Favorite Track: "Cruel"

8. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l

The idiosyncratic work of Merrill Garbus as tUnE-yArDs finally reached the audience it deserved in 2011. She positioned herself at the forefront of creative writing with w h o k i l l. The songs within are composed of patchwork samples created by the multi-instrumentalist that seamlessly blend together folk, punk, rock, R&B, funk, jazz, and Afro beat. "Gangsta" is an excellent reference point. It begins with a vocal sample that sounds like a siren going off before heavy brass and hip-hop beats come crashing in together. The song is centered around a question that I'm still struggling with today: "What's a boy to do if he'll never be a gangsta?" As a writer, the only complaint I can lay on tUnE-yArDs is for the hyper stylized band name and album title.

Favorite Track: "Gangsta"

7. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic

Coming off a successful year of Pavement reunion shows, Stephen Malkmus sounds rejuvenated on his latest album with the Jicks. It certainly benefits from having Beck attached as a producer. The songs are catchy and not far removed from the best of Pavement with lyrics that are beyond clever. It's rare to hear an album with 15 tracks and no filler, but each song on Mirror Traffic has it's own distinct personality, establishing a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. The opening riff of "Stick Figures in Love" is the best to come out of 2011. "Senator" holds the title for best chorus of 2011 with the catchy declarations of "I know what the Senator wants / What the Senator wants is a blow job." It also generated a controversial NSFW video featuring Jack Black that I'm surprised more people aren't talking about, especially with the current political climate.

Favorite Track: "Stick Figures in Love"

6. TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light

It's usually a pretty big event when TV on the Radio releases an album. This year things stay quiet around the group; both in terms of hype and sound. Nine Types of Light is a gorgeous album full of love songs that present a calmer, more organic version of TV on the Radio. The lyrical content is exceedingly deep. While explaining the meaning behind "You", singer Tunde Adebimpe shows just how profound they can get stating, "It's a song about the feeling you get sometimes when you're expressing how much you care about someone but resorting to these beautiful sounding lies. You're the only one I ever loved? It's a terrible thing to say to someone because it's most likely not true." The more upbeat tunes like "New Cannonball Run" show that they can still create groovy, buzzing songs for the dance floor. They also made available a visual re-imagining of the record that includes a music video for every song on the album. It is simple splendid.

Favorite Track: "You"

5. Mikal Cronin - Mikal Cronin

Known for his work with Moonhearts and Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin finally stepped out into the noise-rock spotlight with his 2011 self-titled debut. One of the year's biggest surprises, each song is distinctive and establishes him as one of the best garage composers. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better hook than the one in "Apathy" and the groovy shoegaze onslaught of "Green and Blue" puts all other noise-pop to shame. The album has a large sonic palette with "Hold on Me" even recalling dreamy 50's ballads. The live performance of earworm "Get Along" below has me dying to catch him live.

Favorite Track: "Apathy"

4. Future Islands - On the Water

The Baltimore trio Future Islands continue their impressive progression with On the Water. Released only one year after the remarkable In Evening Air, the record evokes contemplative strolls down a beach, even employing the sounds of the ocean as an instrument on "Tybee Island". Although they largely rely on new wave synth sounds, the group also possess an underlying punk influence that provides a distinguished driving force to their songwriting. Frontman Samuel T. Herring's distinctive vocals carry the music with an operatic and theatrical delivery. These vocals result in many powerful anthemic songs like "Balance" and "Give Us the Wind".

Favorite Track: "Balance"

3. DestroyerKaputt

Dan Bejar is in an elite class of indie composers. Recording under the name Destroyer, each of his albums have tackled a different style while maintaining a superior level of quality. On Kaputt, he digs into crates of records from 80's am radio for influence. The meticulous composition of ambitious tracks like "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker" and "Bay of Pigs" severe as the perfect example of Bejar's unmatched talent. Songs with more traditional pop structures such as "Blues Eyes" and "Poor in Love" are among his catchiest and feature lyrics that you can sit and contemplate for hours. This isn't to say that it is overtly serious. If you don't pay attention, you may miss witty gems like "I sent a message in a bottle to the press / It said, 'Don't be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves'." The title track also spawned everyone's favorite WTF video of 2011.

Favorite Track: "Poor in Love"

2. The Black Keys - El Camino

Blues rock duo The Black Keys have risen to become one of most important bands of our generation. They didn't achieve this overnight as some pedestrian music fans may have assumed. They have been churning out fantastic records since 2002. El Camino is their seventh following the breakout of Brothers, which held the same position on 2010's year-end list. It's not entirely surprising that they have reached a massive audience with the amount of crossover potential they posses. The duo perfectly recapture the dirty rock and roll sound of the 70's and add traces of roots blues and progressive indie rock. Danger Mouse is once again in tow and serves almost as a third member. The songs here are dirty blues numbers with more crunch and bigger hooks than they ever had. Opener "Lonely Boy" may be their most accessible yet and also provided one of the best 'first listen' videos the internet has given us thus far. "Run Right Back" has one of the best licks Dan Auerbach has written with the guitar sounding as if it were weeping through the speakers. This is a band that plays with feeling and you can hear it on every track on the record.

Favorite Track: "Run Right Back"

1. YuckYuck

One of the biggest stories of 2011 was the resurgence of the 90's, and Yuck were right at the center of it. They were the ultimate example of how the 90's revial craze can result in an ingenious record. You don't have to reinvent a genre to have the best album of the year. Yuck hearkens back to a time when it was enough to simply write a great record. The band sound like a combination of my favorite alternative rock bands. Take the searing guitars of Dinosaur Jr., the creative rhythms of Sonic Youth, and the innovative songwriting of early Smashing Pumpkins and you'll have a good idea of what to expect. Every track on here sounds like a classic. It is a diverse and fully realized album from the opening confessions of "Get Away" to the shoegaze assault of "Rubber". The latter utilizes a My Bloody Valentine-esque wall-of-sound and resulted in one of the most gripping live experiences of 2011. The band rounded out the year with several unforgettable music videos and a bonus disc of b-sides that are just as strong as anything that made it on the album. Yuck really did take the world by storm and established themselves as the best new act of 2011. I can not be more exhited to see where the band goes from here.

Favorite Track: "Rubber"

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