2011 has presented the hardest time for me to narrow down my favorite albums into a top 10. For the first time I genuinely have listened to and liked enough albums to make a list much larger than 10 but the process has made me really decide which albums I liked the best. Among the many honorable mentions include: Danny Brown- XXX, Tim Hecker- Ravedeath, 1979, Iceage- New Brigade, The War on Drugs- Slave Ambient and Thurston Moore- Demolished Thoughts. Hit the jump to read my top 10 albums of 2011.
10.) Atlas Sound- Parallax
Compared to his work with Deerhunter and even Atlas Sound releases, Parallax is an incredibly intimate album. Bradford Cox has never been one to hide his emotions in his music and Parallax finds him exploring these emotions with some of the strongest songwriting of his career. Beyond the intimacy of the album, Parallax finds Cox continuing the embrace of pop-music that he showed off in Halcyon Digest without sacrificing what makes Atlas Sound so great. With songs like ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Lightworks’, Cox is able to write genuinely catchy and stand-out tracks while maintaining a sense of isolation and experimentation.
9.) Beirut- The Rip Tide
I had no positive expectations for this release. Based off early singles and lack of buzz, I fully anticipated letting The Rip Tide slip by. Then I listened. Each of the nine tracks on The Rip Tide is a perfectly crafted, orchestral pop tune that proved all my initial doubts wrong. With this release, Zach Condon stripped down most of his notoriously excessive instrumentation to a minimum. The flugelhorn solos have been sacrificed and in their place is a new found maturity in Condon’s songwriting.
8.) The Uptights- At the Wörthersee Hotel
At just over 20 minutes, At the Wörthersee Hotel is the shortest album on this list and its brevity is what makes it such a strong listen. Taking influence from more recent lo-fi bands and 80s punk-rock, The Uptights have an infectious style that is hard to stop listening to. Through the album’s course, the band blows through punk tracks like ‘Norris Wallpaper Inc’ and pop tunes like ‘Hairdresser’ in under two-minutes each while still managing to make some of my favorite tracks from this year. I also give credit to The Uptights for releasing the only album on my top 10 which I don’t know how to properly pronounce.
7.) ASAP Rocky- LIVELOVEA$AP
Probably like most people, the first introduction I had to ASAP Rocky was the music video to ‘Purple Swag’. Also, like most people, I didn’t really know what to think of the Harlem rapper. As he released more material (‘Peso’, ‘Bass’) it became more and more obvious that Rocky was more than just an undeserving buzz artist. With the release of LIVELOVEA$AP, Rocky showed off that he was not only one of the most talented new faces in hip-hop but also that he has a whole crew of talented rappers and producers. When I first heard Rocky had signed a 3-million deal with Sony I wasn’t convinced he would be able to live up to the hype, after listening to LIVELOVEA$AP I know Rocky earned every dollar.
6.) James Blake- James Blake
James Blake was one of the first albums I listened to this year and definitely the first that floored me. For a few days (because of iPod difficulties) James Blake and Sung Tongs were the only two albums that I could listen to and I was fine with that. Whether or not you agree with the claim that Blake is the “savior of dubstep”, he was the first on a wave of amazing electronica this year that seemed to be a collective response against the testosterone-soaked music currently dominating the mainstream. Blake is also easily one of the most realized and talented producers of the minimalist/dubstep revival. I’ll probably never blast one of his songs at a dance, but with a pair of headphones on James Blake is an amazing ride.
5.) Fleet Foxes- Helplessness Blues
Helplessness Blues didn’t have the same immediacy as Fleet Foxes self-titled debut from 2008. However, as it stuck with me over the course of 2011 it only got better. Although Fleet Foxes isn’t trying anything entirely new with the album, Helplessness Blues takes everything that was so great about the band from their debut and matures and refines them. It took the band three years to make the album and it is clear that they needed the time. Not a single one of these 12 tracks is wasted and every time I listen through I like it more and more. With all the electronic infused music coming out, folk or acoustic music can easily be sold as novelty or gimmicky. Fleet Foxes doesn’t need any gimmicks, on Helplessness Blues they are making the most beautiful music they can the only ways they know how.
4.) Ducktails- Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics
Ducktails III got me through 2011. Ducktails’ 30 minutes of sun-soaked guitar and experimental pop stayed on constant repeat all the way through the year since its January release. There wasn’t any one moment where I realized how much I was into the album, instead, each of the tracks grew on me. Even as I replayed and replayed the record, I never grew tired of the music. By the time it was summer, I had already known most of the tracks by heart and I found even more reason to listen as they fit the warm temperature outside perfectly. None of these tracks amaze, but that’s not the point.
3.) BADBADNOTGOOD- BBNG
I never anticipated that by the end of this year I would be listening to and really digging jazz. I don’t think a lot of people that listen to BADBADNOTGOOD anticipated that either, which is why BADBADNOTGOOD is so… well, good. They’ve introduced jazz to a generation of skinny jean wearing hipsters who prefer the music of Legend of Zelda, MF DOOM and New Order more than Herbie Hancock. Even though I admit that I am very undereducated in the realms of jazz musicianship, I know that these guys are amazing. The way they are all able to jam and move with each other’s instruments is stunning. And it doesn’t hurt that these guys come up with killer songs to cover.
2.) Shabazz Palaces- Black Up
In a year dominated with experimental hip-hop, Shabazz Palaces found themselves as undisputed kings. Without being part of any movement or crew, Shabazz managed to craft a fully-realized and stunning world within their album Black Up. Nothing about this album follows traditional hip-hop norms, yet, at its heart the themes and sounds of Black Up are pure hip-hop. Butler’s unique flow weaves metaphors and abstract imagery with criticisms of the music industry. I don’t know what Shabazz Palaces plans to do with the project as Butler’s old group Digable Planets may be reuniting, however, I am confident that Black Up will be one of the most important albums in hip-hop in the next decade.
1.) Real Estate- Days
It took me a while to warm up to Real Estate’s self-titled 2009 album, however, since I did I haven’t been able to stop listening to the music from the New Jersey natives or their many side projects. Days was easily one of my most anticipated albums of this year and, unlike some of the other albums I was hyped for, Days lived up to and exceeded all my hopes. Its deceptive simplicity is one of the reasons why Days works so well. The album is over 40 minutes of gorgeous music that doesn’t need much more than guitar, bass, drums and vocals to create fantastic soundscapes. In the current music environment of lush production, exotic influences and bold statements, the biggest risk Real Estate take is their confidence in not taking many risks at all. The guys in Real Estate understand that even if they deep personal motivations or obscure inspirations for their music, good music will always be good music.