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.
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.
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