Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Top 50 Albums of 2011


The year 2011 did not set any new standards in music. It was not 2010. The top 3 albums from last year are easily better than anything from this year. But in many ways it was a year of new beginnings, as many new talented artists released surprising debuts (James Blake, Katy B, Youth Lagoon, Cults, Washed Out) and seasoned artists pushed their music in new directions (M83, Beirut, Radiohead, Mates of State, Destroyer, Danielson).

This was the Year of Electronic Music. The seeds that were sown in 2010 bore fruit in 2011. James Blake is perhaps most symbolic of this trajectory, but the influence of electronic music can be seen everywhere. The rise of dubstep as a legitimate and serious mode of pop music is perhaps the most exciting development.

My pick for the most surprising album goes to Mates of State for Mountaintops. I’ve long been a huge fan of their music, but the last few albums have been lackluster compared to their earlier work. The new album does not retread old ground, but it brings back a lot of the old magic. It is one of their best albums ever. My pick for the biggest disappointment is an easy one: TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light. After the stunning achievement of Dear Science, I expected something truly magnificent and groundbreaking for their follow-up effort. Unfortunately, it is their least engaging and most uninspired product. No doubt the loss of bassist Gerard Smith on April 20 due to lung cancer was a huge blow to the band. I can only hope that they are able to recover soon and fulfill the promise of their earlier albums.

What follows are my top 50 albums of the year. Only the top 25 are ordered in a way that I feel more or less confident about; the bottom half are open to (nearly daily) revision.


1. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Each year seems to have at least one album that expands the definition of “epic.” In 2011, that album was the stunning two-disc work by Anthony Gonzalez.

2. Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Overrated? Hardly. But even if it is, it’s for good reason. Justin Vernon’s sophomore album does much more than merely assuage those worried that his debut might have been a lucky accident born out of an unrepeatable revelatory experience in the Wisconsin woods. And if I hear one more complaint about the cheesiness of the last song, I might lose it.

3. The Antlers, Burst Apart

The Antlers had a tough act to follow after their beloved Hospice, but this is, I think, the superior album. It might be the album I listened to most in 2011, and it will probably be the one that has the longest listening life.

4. James Blake, James Blake

Blake came on the scene in a big way with three magnificent EPs in 2010. His self-titled debut brought his singular (post-)dubstep vision into full focus. Of all the albums from this year, this one still strikes me as the most artistically impressive.

5. Katy B, On a Mission

Katy B was for 2011 what Robyn was for 2010: a supremely talented female artist producing club-ready music without the mainstream recognition that each deserve. Kathleen Brien was indeed on a mission this year, and it paid off beautifully.

6. Handsome Furs, Sound Kapital

The husband-and-wife duo of Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade fame) and Alexei Perry fulfilled their promise with their third album, Sound Kapital. This album did for me what Sleigh Bells did last year: it gave me total sonic bliss. It was as if someone had extracted the magical kernel within Apologies to the Queen Mary and dressed it within the garb of electronic indie pop. It was love at first listen.

7. Youth Lagoon, The Year of Hibernation

The debut album by Youth Lagoon, the stage name of Trevor Powers, was perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the year. His catchy, atmospheric, dreamy, shoegazy sonic concoction delivers some of the year’s biggest musical thrills.

8. The Field, Looping State of Mind

Swedish minimalist techno artist, Axel Willner, doing what he does best. His third album is his best yet.

9. Dominik Eulberg, Diorama

I want to live inside the landscapes of this album. It’s no surprise that the German musical artist occasionally works as a park ranger. If I had to pick a soundtrack for the year, it would be Diorama.

10. Cults, Cults

The Cults debut album—self-released in June—is just about the perfect summer pop album. Its effortless blend of post-punk, power pop, and shoegaze makes me happy every time.


11. Beirut, The Rip Tide

12. Washed Out, Within and Without

13. SBTRKT, SBTRKT

14. Arrange, Plantation

15. Cut Copy, Zonoscope

16. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes

17. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues

18. Radiohead, King of Limbs

19. Mates of State, Mountaintops

20. Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact

21. Destroyer, Kaputt

22. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost

23. Thundercat, The Golden Age of Apocalypse

24. Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972

25. Wild Beasts, Smother

26. Danielson, The Best of Gloucester Country

27. The Horrors, Skying

28. Marissa Nadler, Marissa Nadler

29. Richard Buckner, Our Blood

30. WU LYF, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain

31. AraabMuzik, Electronic Dream

32. John Maus, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

33. Neon Indian, Era Extraña

34. Moonface, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped

35. Nguzunguzu, The Perfect Lullaby & Timesup EP

36. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient

37. Wilco, The Whole Love

38. Panda Bear, Tomboy

39. Real Estate, Days

40. Apparat, The Devil’s Walk

41. Los Campesinos!, Hello Sadness

42. Drake, Take Care

43. Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2

44. tUne-yArDs, Who Kill

45. Boom Bip, Zig Zaj

46. Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean

47. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up

48. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead

49. Com Truise, Galactic Melt

50. Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck

14 comments:

Unknown said...

David:

First of all, thank you for including Girls on this list, and as high as you did. I actually think *Father, Son, Holy Ghost* was better than *Album* and you had that at, what #5 or so in a better year for music. But still, thanks at least for putting them above Wilco, though they should be above Radiohead.

But man, do you like bank your indie cred on this list or what? Because other than that I can't think of a single reason why Florence + the Machine's *Ceremonials*, or Lady Gaga's *Born This Way*, or the *Foo Fighter's *Wasting Light*, or the Roots' *Undun* is not on this list. Not a single one of them!

But thanks for listening to all this music for me.

David W. Congdon said...

As much as I love Lady Gaga, I think her new album is pretty lame and generic compared to her earlier work. I don't like Foo Fighters one bit. The Roots are very good, but nothing very exciting; their best work is behind them, I think. Flo + Machine is great, and they might deserve a top 50 slot. I didn't listen to that album beyond the first time, and it just didn't stick in my mind. Maybe some more listens would change that.

As for Girls, I was being pretty generous. I think it's an accomplished album, but I don't enjoy listening to it all that much. Not my type of music.

Unknown said...

So these are you *personal* top 50 albums from 2011? Like your favorites? I totally get that.

(That was me, Nate Kerr, by the way above. I don't know why it showed up as unknown.)

David W. Congdon said...

Hey Nate, nice for you to drop by. I don't see reason (or way) to distinguish between "favorites" and "best." Every list is personal, isn't it?

Unknown said...

Of course. I suppose I was just more interested in why those albums in particular were not among your favorites. I'm just impressed you've listened to enough albums to have a top 50. I could do a top 10, but that would only be because I think maybe I've only listened to 10 new albums this year! ;-)

Did you give Tom Wait's new album a listen?

David W. Congdon said...

Tom Waits belongs to a long of albums that I wasn't able to get around to. My list would no doubt look very different if I had listened to some of these other albums.

Also, I should clarify my comments about Lady Gaga. I absolutely love her stuff and I think her new album is far more theologically interesting than her earlier work (hence my appreciation for Peter's work). But I was very disappointed in terms of its musicality.

DanO said...

Personally, I didn't find the Tom Waits album super exciting. That said, it's still a Tom Waits album, which means it's better than most everything else (IMO, of course). Also makes me hope that he will tour again...

I would have WU LYF a lot higher, and Girls would be up there as well (a bit of a surprise for me based on their earlier stuff). I'm glad to see The Antlers so high because I thought Burst Apart was kick-ass (although I preferred Hospice, mostly because events in my personal life resonated very strongly with that album when it was released... which sucked but made for some great listening!).

I'm a sucker for The Mountain Goats so I would have them higher (NB: I tend to rate albums, not on their coherence or whatever else, but based upon the number of songs found on the album that resonate with me personally). Also, I noticed that you didn't mention The Airborne Toxic Event and, although I didn't dig their earlier stuff all that much, their 2011 album was amongst my favourites.

I was somewhat disappointed with Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. Also enjoyed Cults and Lykke Li.

Tim said...

Hi David,

Here are a few albums that you might have missed. I'm not sure how they rank, but there is a lot of great music on them.

(1) Hayes Carll KMAG YOYO
(2) Bill Callahan Apocalypse
(3) Charlie Parr & The Black Twig Pickers Glory in the Meeting House
(4) Wooden Wand and the Briarwood Virgins

David W. Congdon said...

I have a couple of those on my list of albums to listen to. I will definitely check these out.

Unknown said...

Nice list, David.

Also surprised not to see Flo + Machine, but I'd add PJ Harvey_Let England Shake_; Crystal Catles_II_; Apparat_The Devil's Work_; and St. Vincent_Strange Mercy_.

St. Vincent was particularly awesome.

David W. Congdon said...

Apparat is #40, but I've been listening to and loving that album so much that I'd be willing to bump it up a good 15 places. St. Vincent is another album I left off only because I hadn't listened to it enough, but it definitely deserves a spot. Many other albums as well.

kylejacobritter said...

Please tell me you accidentally forgot about PJ Harvey's "Let England Shake." It was, without a doubt, the best record of 2011, and didn't make your list of top 50 (!!).

David W. Congdon said...

I never listened to it in time. I've listened to it once so far, and it's quite good. Not sure yet if it makes my top 20, though. I'll have to see.

kylejacobritter said...

It's one of those slow burners that will be in your top 5 by the time you've played it for a week. I promise. Thanks for the list!