This time of year is perfect to catch up and reflect on the music that has released throughout the past 11 and a half months. We started our annual year-end summary of favorites earlier this month with our 100 favorite songs of 2011. We took a look at our favorite long-form releases with our 5 Favorite Mixtapes and 5 Favorite EPs of 2011 lists, and then our 30 Honorable Mentions of the Year. We wrap up our year-end retrospective with our 40 favorite albums of 2011. After this, we can officially look to 2012 – and we're already excited about several of the albums lined up. *Note: Links lead to Spotify streams.
BEST ALBUMS of 2011
40 Wild Beasts – Smother
20 BEST ALBUMS of 201120 Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
For as much as Lykke Li looks to the 1960s for her inspiration, Wounded Rhymes sounds thoroughly modern. With Björn Yttling’s (of Peter, Björn, and John) aid, Li sends bubblegum pop melodies through the prism of garage rock, and the result is music as muscular as it is moving. Wounded Rhymes is a leap forward for Lykke Li, and perhaps, a stepping-stone to an unqualified masterpiece.
Vital Tracks:"I Follow Rivers" / "Youth Knows No Pain" / "Sadness Is A Blessing"19 Drake – Take CareIn more ways than I can count, Take Care is a farewell to the up-and-coming mixtape Drizzy and the beginning of a 25-year-old veteran having full command of his verbal arsenal.
Vital Tracks:"Marvin's Room" / "Take Care" / "Lord Knows"18 Youth Lagoon – The Year of HibernationWith The Year of Hibernation, Trevor Powers establishes Youth Lagoon as an innovative new voice in dream pop. His ability to directly tap his emotion and nostalgia into unique, considered, and beautiful music that’s at once sublimely cathartic, intimately confessional, and effortlessly catchy is truly stunning.
Vital Tracks:"Afternoon" / "17" / "July"17 JAY-Z & Kanye West – Watch the ThroneWatch The Throne had the potential to be a victory lap for Kanye West and Jay-Z, and to some extent it still is. This album is built on two cults of personality and two larger-than-life personas. Yet in execution it is remarkably intimate, noteworthy more for eschewing grandeur than for exalting it. Gold cover and pompous title aside, Watch The Throne furthers the legacy of Jay-Z and Kanye West in an unexpected way, displaying the artists in a more laid-back setting than anticipated. In retrospect, it all makes sense; the album’s final couplet is a fitting one. “We victorious. They’ll never take the joy from us.”
Vital Tracks:"Niggas In Paris" / "Otis" / "Made In America"16 PJ Harvey – Let England ShakeLet England Shake is almost too good at being suffocating. It is the dark twin of Stories from the City, the War to its Love. And just as the latter forever invites you to return to its joyful city streets, the former dares you to confront the wreckage of its battlegrounds. Let England Shake is PJ Harvey’s love letter to England and all that she has endured, an album easier to admire than to stomach.
Vital Tracks:"The Words That Maketh Murder" / "The Glorious Land" / "The Last Living Rose"15 TV on the Radio – Nine Types of LightNine Types of Light is a tricky album, one that sneaks up on you and slowly grows, until it has found a place within the TV on the Radio canon that you might have, at first blush, excluded it from. Although it lacks some of the sheer studio awesomeness of the band’s first three full lengths, it replaces that urgency with a closeness and familiarity previously unseen, as if the band turned down the “Compelling” knob on the mixing board and compensated by dialing up the “Comforting” channel. Nine Types of Light isn’t a departure so much as the evolution of a group that has seen – and listened to – a little more of the world since they first joined forces.
Vital Tracks:"Second Song" / "New Cannonball Blues" / "Repetition"14 Lady Gaga – Born This WayBombastic and schmaltzy, brimming with lyrical howlers, and all wrapped up in a ludicrous Heavy Metal cover-art package, Born This Way is as tasteful as teased hair and acid wash Daisy Dukes. Pop music is rarelythis patronizing and emphatic. The blaring monotony of the album wears you down. Which is a shame, as Gaga can be her most emotive when she’s alone with her piano. But here’s the thing. Born This Way succeeds through sheer force of will, even with its flaws. Lady Gaga has created fourteen incredible pop songs that manage to survive her ambition and execution.
Vital Tracks:"Marry The Night" / "Yoü & I" / "The Edge of Glory"13 Radiohead – The King of LimbsThere are no songs on King of Limbs that sounds like anything other than Radiohead – the band hasn’t lost its muchness. But from the center of its established sound, these songs unroll like feelers, connected but experimental, resulting in a record that is, paradoxically, cohesively disconnected. It doesn’t have the technical purpose of OK Computer, or the ideological vigor of Hail To The Thief, but it manages to sound familiar and new simultaneously. King of Limbs finds one of the greatest bands we have ever known pushing their sound into a new sphere, remaining relevant at the risk of alienating some fans, rather than slipping slowly into the comfortable fog of repetition and compromise.
Vital Tracks:"Lotus Flower" / "Give Up The Ghost" / "Codex"12 Cults – CultsClocking in at a few ticks past half an hour, Cults takes the airy vibe of the band’s attention-catching single, “Go Outside,” and develops it into fuller form, coaxing it in different directions and establishing an updated signature sound. The result is an album full of comfortably similar songs, but with an underlying complexity that renders the record an easy one to fall for. Looking to lyrically analyze a falsely cheery album that is full of self doubt and confusion? Look no further. But, weirdly enough, this album fits the bill for a play-in-the-background summertime record just as well. Cults is fun, strangely deep, and endlessly familiar. Singer Madeline Follin’s heavily reverbed voice is playfully presumptuous, imbued with both entitlement and mirth.
Vital Tracks:"You Know What I Mean" / "Go Outside" / "Abducted"11 Florence + the Machine – CeremonialsOn the album’s transcendent final track “Leave My Body,” Florence Welch gives up the ghost and escapes her mortal coil and her past at once. It’s a fitting conclusion: Ceremonials does the same. For every harp glissando, choral incantation, hammering drum, celestial dalliance, unselfconscious moment of sincerity, and most of all, nod backward, Ceremonials is at its core a stellar pop album draped in exquisite and perplexing cloths. Naked underneath is a major new Artist who is worthy of that capital A. Her remarkable Album is too.
Vital Tracks:"Shake It Out" / "Never Let Me Go" / "No Light, No Light"Read on for our Top 10...
10 BEST ALBUMS of 2011
10 Girls –Father, Son, Holy Ghost
With Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Girls have crafted an album that is built around injecting universal melodies with their unique cocktail of insouciant lyrics, playful time schemes and the innate ability to warm all of our broken hearts right before they shatter them all over again.
09 The Antlers – Burst Apart
Burst Apart is a portrait of The Antlers as young artists, getting through heartbreak step by step, and painfully exposing that process to the world. This isn’t a happy album, but it’s a hopeful one, and its honesty is evident in every syllable of the record. Here we see Peter Silberman, to use his own words, “pulled together but about to burst apart.” It’s beautiful.
08 James Blake – James Blake
James Blake’s self-titled debut is a paradox. Somehow, this icy, minimalist electronic album oozes warmth and swells to an immense size that seems impossible. It gives a face to the anonymous dubstep sound pioneered by Burial. James Blake is ethereal music that makes you feel.
07 Panda Bear – Tomboy
Serious music, meaning music that is worthy of serious consideration, is usually categorized by the false antipodes of fleeting decadence and existential dread. Panda Bear makes serious music, no doubt, but he offers a third way: he acknowledges the ills of the world, but never succumbs to them. It sounds like self-help for the indie crowd, and maybe that’s true. But it’s amazing how kind and true words can suddenly become palatable when they’re presented this expertly in song.
06 St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Strange Mercy is Clark’s most whole, poignant work to date. It’s an exciting evolution for St. Vincent’s sound — a visceral album full of beauty and chaos. And, perhaps most exciting, it sounds like Annie Clark is still just beginning.
05 Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
As odd as the music is, alternating between spacious and heady to dense and dark, Black Up is straight hip-hop. It’s singularly concerned with technically great rapping and hard-hitting beats. It’s hard to recognize it as such, though, because it doesn’t sound like any other hip-hop album ever made.
04 Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
If there is one coup on Bon Iver, Bon Iver that stands above the others, it is Justin Vernon’s ability to fluidly evolve his sound without losing himself in the process. So many variables have shifted since For Emma, and yet Vernon has managed to keep himself grounded. Perhaps the best example of Vernon’s growth comes on the album’s third track, “Holocene.” The song’s introduction bears strong resemblance to an earlier Vernon track, “Hazelton,” off of a 2006 EP, but gone is the wounded sharpness in his voice. Instead, the song thrives on subtlety, tying together three disparate tableaus – an alcoholic Halloween in Milwaukee, Vernon’s years in Eau Claire, and a shared joint on Christmas night – with a deft touch that was only hinted at on Vernon’s earlier releases.
03 Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Helplessness Blues, like Fleet Foxes, is mixture of folk, mountain music, country, and Celtic blues, but never dismiss it as “Americana.” Fleet Foxes make a particular kind of mongrel music, by which I mean music that is thoroughly American. No other band today can take an abstraction that wide and fraught and make it seem so authentic and intimate.
02 tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
Complex and introspective, W H O K I L L explores highs and lows with a high powered beam – it turns over stones that, frankly, are being left undisturbed by the vast majority of artists out there. But it manages to do so with such a deft hand that it nearly goes unnoticed amid forty plus minutes of enjoyable and innovative music. W H O K I L L is a stunning album from an artist who seems to find sounds in the corners where no one else is looking.
01 Nerves Junior – As Bright As Your Night Light
It’s a bit scary to see a band release this fully realized masterpiece so early in their career. Scary in the sense that they might fall into the same sophomore slump that has plagued nearly every promising act of the past decade (the list is rather long). What gives me hope that Nerves Junior won’t ensnare themselves in this self-fulfilling prophecy, is the fact that they are very aware of themselves and don’t let their own sound suffocate them, but instead use it as a vehicle for the “mapping of countries yet to come”. Regardless of their future endeavors, As Bright As Your Night Light is timeless — a template for those to follow and never quite replicate.
The Sandwitches – "In The Garden"
Akron/Family – S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNTMother Mother - EurekaTyler, The Creator - GoblinSaigon - The Greatest Story Never Told
Saigon - "The Invitation" f/ Q-Tip & Fatman Scoop
WU LYF - "Heavy Pop"
Braids – Native Speaker
Braids - "Lemonade"
Zomby - "Natalia's Song"
Toro y Moi - "Good Hold"
Tennis - "Pigeon"
Washed Out - "Amor Fati"
Beastie Boys - "Say It"
See also:Our Favorite Mixtapes & EPs of 2011
*Note: Links lead to downloads (Mixtapes) or Spotify links (EPs).
*Can't believe Weeknd hasn't dropped Echoes of Silence yet.
BEST EPs of 2011
1. Jens Lekman - An Argument With Myself
2. Burial – Street Halo
3. Clams Casino – Rainforest
4. Toro y Moi – Freaking Out
5. Dom – Family of Love
Special Regard: Darkside - Darkside *This just and haven't had the time to really dive in, but after a handful of listens, I know it deserves a spot among the best EPs of the year.