Thursday, December 15, 2011

Best of 2011 - Albums of the Year

Welcome back to another end-of-the-year extravaganza with the first of Genres & Judgements' Best of 2011 lists. Even more-so than last year, I took it upon myself to listen to a ton of new music this year. I was a little lazy from September until mid-November, so if there's anything I missed, it probably came out during that period. That said, I'm feeling pretty confident about this list.

Some of you may wonder why some albums were left off the list, and the quick answer is that, for me, they just weren't good enough. For example, you'll get no argument from me that Adele's 21 wasn't great, but I only listened to most of the tracks twice (according to the stats in iTunes), and not since the beginning of the year when it came out. So for me, I have to be drawn into repeat listens for an album to qualify as one of the top releases of the year. Plenty of good albums met this fate, including new ones from three of my favorite bands: Wilco, Explosions In The Sky and Radiohead.

What follows are the 10 albums I couldn't stop listening to in 2011. Click on the links to stream a track from each album.
10. Nostalgia, Ultra
Frank Ocean
This mixtape was released for free download on Ocean's Tumblr page in the spring, and blew more than a few of my friends away, as the fervor on my Facebook feed could attest. With this release, it's safe to say he's established himself as one of the cornerstones of the new R&B movement going on right now.
Track 12: American Wedding

9. Blood Pressures
The Kills
Jack White's supergroup The Dead Weather released one of my favorite albums last year, which led me to checking out Alison Mosshart's main band for the first time. This is probably an oversimplification, but with Blood Pressures, The Kills often come across as a less-intense version of The Dead Weather. (Yes, I know The Kills have been around for far longer, but I discovered them after TDW.) But this isn't to say it's a weaker album. There's intense drive of anxiety from Mosshart's primal howls and Jamie Hince's gritty guitar riffs streaming throughout this album that makes you come back for more.
Track 2: Satellite

8. The Rip Tide
While a bit less adventurous as previous efforts, Beirut mastermind Zach Condon managed to solidify his place as an indie folk darling while still managing to achieve popular success. It's a short album, clocking in at under 35 minutes, but that trimmed a lot of fat from what could have been a bloated effort with less-worthy songs tacked on.
Track 3: East Harlem

7. Cults
Being that this is mid-December, I really can't convey enough how fantastic of a summer album this is. Just makes you wanna put the top down, drive and smile.
Track 2: Go Outside

6. Watch the Throne
Jay-Z & Kanye West
There probably wasn't a more anticipated release this year than this one. While Throne lacks the breakaway hit you might assume a partnering of this magnitude would produce, there isn't a dud track on it. Some complaints that this is just a Kanye album with lots of Jay-Z on it seem weak to me; West has always struck me as the stronger producer of the two and it's reflected here, but Jay-Z's lyrics are almost always superior. In other words, the collaboration works, with each feeding off the other's strengths. Rumors have already been floated for a sequel.
Track 2: Lift Off (feat. Beyonce)
Wanna see what else is on the list? The remaining five albums are after the jump.

5. El Camino
The Black Keys
El Camino has only been out a little more than a week at the time of this writing, but within a few seconds after hearing the beginning of this album, there was no doubt that it'd be in contention for this list. The further into the track list I explored only reinforced that initial impression. The Black Keys seem to have embraced more of their pop-music side, as this album explodes with echoes of Thin Lizzy and Cheap Trick.
Track 1: Lonely Boy

4. House of Balloons
The Weeknd
It may have been only days, but now it seems like the sudden appearance of The Weeknd on the music scene lasted weeks before anything was known about the 21-year-old phenom behind this mixtape. A synthesis of R&B, hip-hop and electronic beats playing against lyrics that often yearn for something to fill the emptiness after the party's ended, House of Balloons was the first of a planned trilogy of mixtapes for 2011. The second entry, Thursday, wasn't quite as powerful as House, and as of this writing, the third, Echoes of Silence, is still a week away from being released. The Weeknd's clearly been busy this year and has stood out as someone to keep an eye on in the future.
Track 7: Coming Down

3. Bon Iver
Bon Iver
Perhaps the best thing about Justin Vernon's music is that it is entirely unpredictable what he's going to come up with next. I hadn't been aware of him before Mike and Mark both placed him on some of their mixes here on LBM, but his unique use of autotune and curious instrumentation brought him to the attention of even Kanye West on his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last year. This self-titled effort includes moments that are boisterous, while still never abandoning the sparse beauty so many fans fell in love with on For Emma, Forever Ago. Taken as a whole, Bon Iver outdid even Emma, in part by injecting more soul into his soundscapes, as well as continuing his musical meditations with fervor and triumph. I'd ask what can't this guy do, but I feel as though I'd embarrass myself attempting to answer it.
Track 7: Wash

2. Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes
I love this album. With swirling vocal arrangements that would make Brian Wilson and CSN a little jealous, Fleet Foxes took a mammoth step forward from their debut album with Helplessness Blues. Close your eyes, and you're likely to be transported to another place and time. Can't remember the last time an album did that to me.
Track 4: Battery Kinzie

1. Father, Son, Holy Ghost
I dare you to name a more diverse album from 2011, because I certainly didn't find one. Each track shifts into another rock genre than what preceded it, hopping from surf rock to 70s metal to pop ballad. Despite their liberal sonic utilization of rock's hallowed past, never once here do Girls sound like they're ripping off an artist they've been inspired by - their sound is their own.
Track 4: Saying I Love You

Worst Album of 2011

More of the Best of 2011
The Year In Television
Films Of The Year

2011 Genres & Judgements Mixtures
'Member The Ed Lover Dance, Dawg?
Rivers Thaw
Fuzz Box
A Good Man Is Hard To Find

Genres & Judgements: Best Albums of 2010

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