One of my favorite years of music in recent memory was 2010, which obviously gave these past 12 months a tough act to follow. Indeed, the sounds of 2011 were especially kind to studio experimentation as well as musicians with more organic inclinations. "Good music" didn't come from a singular source or genre; the more eclectic your tastes were, the more you would probably enjoy. It also helped if you knew your history; some acts went retro and succeeded (Dawes, Fleet Foxes), others jumped back 25-odd years and bored me senseless (Destroyer, Bon Iver). In reality, there was no real motif or pattern to the sonic trends of the past year, unless that was the point all along.
For the first time I can think of, my top three albums were all recorded by women. These three highly disparate female artists --a British singer-songwriter, an art-rock hippie freak, and the Swedish heir apparent to Bjork-- made more compelling music than anyone with cajones could these past 12 months. Also, a disproportionate number of discs in my top five are second albums, so one can safely assume that the seeds of this list were first planted in 2008 or 2009, when most of these artists were still considered "promising" and "auspicious" but in reality were a short distance from fulfilling or exceeding anyone's expectations. Hindsight is also 20/20, so it's too soon to tell if any outright masterpieces dropped in '11; I'm merely ranking these selections by how I enjoyed them.
After some intense mental debating --which explains the two-day delay-- I have whittled down my list of best albums down to a "mere" twenty. Sorry, fans of Company of Thieves, Beirut, and The Strokes: maybe next year.
1. 21, Adele. The second full album I listened to this year --behind Cake's comeback disc Showroom of Compassion, which incidentally was merely okay-- ultimately proved to be the commercial and critical high-water point of the past 12 months. Don't get the idea that I'm just drinking the Kool-Aid; this is a collection of incredibly beautiful songs. The themes of heartbreak and yearning that dominated her 2008 debut 19 are extended here, but now the pain feels mature and fully formed. "Rolling in the Deep" was a monster hit in the US and her native Britain, and deservedly so; some of you are probably still annoyed from hearing it a thousand times, but the stark gospel blues of her first #1 smash will almost certainly hold up better than all the synth-heavy crap that populates CHR radio now.
2. Whokill, TuNe-YaRdS. Speaking of young artists coming into their own, anyone who openly challenges the wit and focus of experimental indie-rock needs to speak to Merrill Garbus immediately. Also known (or virtually unknown) for her work in Sister Suvi, Miss Garbus turned her second solo effort into a freaked-out, technicolor menagerie. Like a bull in a candy shop, Garbus is not only pushing the limits of her slapdash instrumentation --mostly a bass, a three-piece horn section, and her own vocal looping-- she's having a lot of fun and wants everybody to join in.
3. Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li. Another sophomore effort that belies any youthful assumptions. Sounding less precocious and more confident, this promising young Swede may seem like a Scandinavian answer to Lady Gaga but she's far less inclined to write a hit single or mimic Madonna. Striking a rare balance between cathartic and atmospheric, Rhymes is carried by Burundi drums, creepy echos, and Li's forceful weapon of a voice.
4. Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes
5. James Blake, James Blake
6. El Camino, The Black Keys
7. Barton Hollow, The Civil Wars
8. Let England Shake, PJ Harvey
9. The King of Limbs, Radiohead
10. Nothing is Wrong, Dawes. Yes, another second album. Part of the same Laurel Canyon scene that begat Buffalo Springfield and Crazy Horse decades ago, Dawes is a rootsy, midtempo kind of band that emulates their forefathers so much that they could almost be mistaken for a forgotten '70s act. The emulation is not lost on their unwitting mentors, as Jackson Browne and Benmont Tench both lend a hand on the disc. Standout tracks like "If I Wanted Someone" and "A Little Bit of Everything" channel Browne, Joe Walsh, and Warren Zevon so effortlessly, to call this ersatz classic rock is to completely not understand what these kids are striving for.
11. Suck It and See, Arctic Monkeys
12. Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, Beastie Boys
13. Nine Types of Light, TV on the Radio
14. The Big Roar, The Joy Formidable
15. Mockingbird Time, The Jayhawks. Arguably the most pleasant surprise of 2011 was the reunion (and creative renaissance) of one of the great alt-country acts of the early '90s. Picking up where 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass left off, the songwriting tandom of guitarists Gary Louris and Mark Olson sound and act as if they never broke up. It's circa-1992 Jayhawks all over again: evocative songs, striking vocals, and musicians playing with a big heart.
16. Yuck, Yuck
17. Goblin, Tyler, the Creator
18. Mirror Traffic, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
19. Circuitual, My Morning Jacket
20. Only in Dreams, Dum Dum Girls. This past year proved quite prolific for this all-female noise-pop quartet. First there was the He Gets Me High covers EP, which frontwoman Kirsten "Dee Dee" Gundred more or less recorded by herself, than their enchanting second full-length disc. It's not a perfect album by any means, but Dreams has a certain honesty and consistentcy that has me looking forward to the Girls' next project.
Worst Album: Lulu, Lou Reed & Metallica. Apologists will call this two-disc set brave and challenging. Everyone else will deem this 87-minute effort as artless, chaotic, bloated, repetitive, and above all a complete mismatch of two aging talents.
"Money Grabber," Fitz & The Tantrums
"Weekend," Smith Westerns
"Sydney (I'll Come Running)," Brett Dennen
"Pumped-Up Kicks," Foster The People
"Changing," The Airborne Toxic Event
"Second Chance," Peter, Bjorn & John
"Whirring," The Joy Formidable
"Down By The Water," The Decemberists
"Walk," Foo Fighters
Worst Single: "Miracle Worker," Superheavy. It's enough that Joss Stone is trying to sing reggae, but this slapdash super-group's leadoff song truly leaps from woebegone to outright godawful the moment Mick Jagger jumps in. What the heck?
Now that music videos as an art form have finally taken full advantage of YouTube et al. maybe it would be best to let all these wonderfully diverse clips speak for themselves.
1. "Crossed Wires," Superchunk. Bad kitty! Bad, bad kitty!
2. "Cruel," St. Vincent. It's a funny video in a sadistic, dry sort of way.
3. "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win," Beastie Boys feat. Santigold. "Each sold separately."
4. "Romance," Wild Flag
5. "Bizness," TuNeYaRdS
6. "Lonely Boy," The Black Keys
7. "Born This Way," Lady Gaga
8. "Conversation 16," The National
9. "She Smiles For Pictures," Big Troubles
10. "I Need a Doctor," Dr. Dre feat. Eminem
Worst Video: "Sexy and I Know It," LMFAO. Gaudy, insipid, and unintentionally homoerotic, this trust fund duo's follow-up to the annoying "Party Rock Anthem" doesn't quite know the difference between a Speedo and a Spee-don't.