Best of 2011

Okay, okay, I know how ridiculous this seems. 2011, really? But, hey, you like music, I like music. And as dated as this list may be, I still wanted to pass it along to you. I lived off of a 2010 deep-dive for the past eighteen months or so, venturing out a little here and there, but mostly pounding into what I found during that calendar year. But then I got bored, so I needed to go out and find more music. While this list is the by-product of a truly absurd exercise in procrastination, it’s already worth it to me, as much of this will be rolling around my head for months to come. As I started thinking about a 2012 list (I’m already working on it), I simply couldn’t let 2011 slip by, and chances are at least some of this is new to you anyway.

Honestly, if this thing provides you with even one song you love, we all win. My selfish hope, as it is every year, and has thus far consistently proved out, is that you’ll continue to ply me with your own recommendations, in the comments below or throughout the year. This little community, however nebulous, is how I keep up with music, and ultimately how I find music that holds a lot of meaning for me. Thank you for that.

Oh, a sad disclaimer: please pardon the typos and grammar. I’m working without a net here.

And now, to the giant playlist, and the album list beyond it . . .

PLAYLIST

>> Listen on Spotify

ALBUMS

1. WHOKILL by Tune-Yards
Songs: Gangsta, Powa, Bizness
With a bullet. As Bill Deville of The Current said of this record, a star is born. Every song is just a storm of sound, delivered in ways I promise will be new to you. Merrill Garbus clearly reads the world differently than most of us, and thankfully is gifted enough to transcribe it. Her style is such a mash-up it’s often difficult to decipher who or what influenced it, but it’s accessible enough that you’ll be rapt with attention from the very first note. Driving all of this is one of the most commanding voices in music, powerful, confident, yet soft and inviting at times. Garbus is her own genre, though she could probably care less. A truly creative force.

2. Kaputt by Destroyer
Songs: Chinatown, Savage Night at the Opera, Suicide Demo for Kara Walker
Just a sonic leap from his past work. Dan Bejar has always been interesting, often a little too much so, trying a bit too hard at times. Referencing themes of his past albums, there’s a distinct vibe of late nights on the street, either after hours or between bars, but there’s some high perspective here, an ease and confidence that marks a grand departure. I’m not sure if he’s working with a new producer or it’s just maturity, but this one creates its own space, perfect for a slow evening of cocktails and mild contemplation. Kaputt recalls sounds of the 70s and 80s with horns, synth, bass, and keyboard, but there’s nothing dated about it, and it’s not a cheap facsimile of the era either. He really owns it here, a real breakthrough.

3. Civilian by Wye Oak
Songs: Two Small, Deaths, Dog Eyes, Holy Holy
Civilian marks another surprise from an established band, delivering a more measured but inspired approach from beginning to end. Wye Oak is comprised of just two people, but they produce a big, haunting sound thanks to incredible guitar work from Jenn Wasner, and percussion that lends a strong, guiding hand to each track. There is a dark edge to this album, enough to give it gravity without being overindulgent. If they continue growing like this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them completely blow up with their next release.

4. King of Limbs by Radiohead
Songs: Morning Mr. Magpie, Little by Little
Their best album since Kid A. And though it is certainly reminiscent of that seminal work, it’s a bit more playful, softer in ways. I’m not quite sure which is more amazing, the fact that this band—true vanguards, progressives—has become as popular as they have, or that they can continue to grow despite all the attention.

5. The Harrow & the Harvest by Gillian Welch
Songs: Dark Turn of Mind, The Way that It Goes, Tennessee
Welch very well might be the best songwriter of this generation, and it’s time she got the recognition she deserves. She’s very firmly entrenched in Americana, and that might not be your bag, but you have to respect her craftsmanship, which is masterful. _Harrow_ isn’t particularly exceptional by Welch’s standards, a tick below her very best albums, but it’s as good as anything after that, which is to say it’s fantastic. An old soul runs through ever song she’s ever recorded, on full display here, with destitute country folk, unrequited lovers, and boozy work-hands telling their tales, acquiescent to their hard-knock situations. Her partner, Dave Rawlings, continues to compliment her perfectly in harmony and with arguably the best guitar hand in the business. Just more of the same here, thankfully.

6. Strange Negotiations by David Bazan
Songs: Wolves at the Door, Eating Paper, Strange Negotiations
Bazan has been a fixture in indie circles for years, first heading the variable outfit Pedro the Lion before going solo in 2006. It’s proved to be a great move, as his work since has had a lot more conviction, enhancing his often deeply personal songs. _Strange Negotiations_ is his best to date, mixing in a steady, hard driving guitar that really accentuates his style, refocusing verses that, in the past, might leave you feeling uncomfortable, but here come off as powerfully honest, emotional statements.

7. Prologue by The Milk Carton Kids
Songs: Michigan, Milk Carton Kid, Hammer to Hold
Absolutely gorgeous, often just plain arresting. This is a duo of true singer-songwriters, and boy do they have chemistry. Not just with the harmonies, either. Based on guitar play alone, this album could make a strong argument for the list even if it were solely instrumental. A beautiful mix of heartache and professed love, its sincerity keeps it from ever being sappy.

8. The Head and The Heart by The Head and The Heart
Songs: Cats and Dogs, Ghosts
This was technically released in 2010, but literally days before 2011, so I’m including it. The Doe Bay session videos (above), sent along by one Ms. Abbi Uhrick, really put this over the top for me. You’ll hear some Beatles influence here, lots of harmony and melody, done flawlessly with mature lyrics that belie the ages of this assemble of 20-somethings.

9. Apocalypse by Bill Callahan
Songs: Drover, Baby’s Breath
All kinds of subtleties play seriously and beautifully in Apocalypse, as they often do in Bill Callahan’s music. He’s really evolved since his days as Smog, developing a lush sound, sometimes dark, sometimes dreamy, but always contemplative, and always complimenting his striking baritone voice. It’s only seven songs long, but it’s as deep and full, both lyrically and sonically, as anything I’ve heard for this year.

10. Don’t Act Like You Don’t Care by Luke Temple
Songs: More than Muscle, Why Would I Lie, So Long So Long
Temple fronts Here We Go Magic, a Pac Northwest band with a strong cult following. Don’t Act, his third solo effort, is the work of a writer to be sure, a mix of stories made all the more intimate by Temple’s vocal range and his playful, rambling guitar. The sound is upbeat throughout, though the lyrics sometimes betray that sensibility, just the way I like it.

11. Dirty Radio by Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside
Songs: I Swear, Thirteen Years Old, Where Did You Go?
The debut album for this Oregon-based band, introducing you to a style that’s retro at its roots, blending bits of blues, jazz, and soul into a sort of rockabilly fusion. You’ll surely think of the Squirrel Nut Zippers upon first listen, though this is more definitively rock and roll, with Ford’s booming voice featured centrally throughout.

IN THE ARGUMENT

Open Flames by Bruce Peninsula
Eclectic quartet from Toronto uses a choir and a cacophony of percussion to create dark, sprawling tunes. Tracks featuring Neil Haverty’s gravelly voice are especially captivating.

Wounded Rhymes by Lykke Li
A bit more on the pop side of the spectrum, but there’s not a bad track on the record.

Go-Go Boots by Drive-By Truckers.
As ever, it’s really good, song to song, but it falls a little short of last-year’s effort.

Blessed by Lucinda Williams.
Just shy of sixty, and she’s still making real music, relevant and exceptional.

Departing by The Rural Alberta Advantage.
If you don’t listen to anything else on this list, please download “Good Night.”

Come Back To Us by Release The Sunbird.
Solo effort from Rogue Wave’s frontman. Less rock, more folk, every bit as good.

Father, Son, Holy Ghost by Girls.
Your token hipster entry for 2011. Damn good, from start to finish.

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83.
An ambient-electro epic. Borrows heavily from 80s club sound, but just enough.

LOST

How Do You Do by Mayer Hawthorne.
His first studio album, this was supposed to be a big deal. Outside of “A Long Time,” an amazing song, the lyrics drag it into the gutter.

The Whole Love by Wilco.
Several sources indicated this was a return to better days, but it sounds just as dull as the last couple releases. I just don’t know how the band that put out Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born could create three consecutive thoroughly mediocre albums.

Kiss Each Other Clean by Iron & Wine
His earlier work was so earnest, so sincere, but he’s starting to tread into jam-band territory. I’m all for shaking things up, he’s proved he can transcend his stripped-down style, but this album is not a good example of that. I fear we’ve lost Sam Beam for good.

FOUND
  • Grey Oceans by Cocorosie (Thanks to the estimable Mr. Reeves)
  • Ohio by Over The Rhine (Thank you, Kris Patton. Took me too long to get to this)
  • Let’s Kill Saturday Night by Robbie Fulks (Thank you, Jim Standerfer. Even better listening to it with you in my living room)
  • When I Pretend to Fall by The Long Winters
  • Desire and Dissolving Men by Wheel
  • Fear of Flying by David Karsten Daniels