Here we go with Part 1 of the Best Albums of 2011. Despite the general lack of great albums, it was still tough to completely cut the list down. Good moments and good songs dominated my attention much more than full records, and plenty of singles were worthy of repeated listens. So a quick Honorable Mention to Bright Eyes, Tune Yards, Foster the People, Real Estate and Bibio for being insanely close to the top 15. Now on to the proper list:
15. Bon Iver by Bon Iver // That’s right, it isn’t the best album of 2011. Not even close. It’s a very hit-and-miss affair, and too obsessed with being arty instead of just being good. The lyrics are nonsense, and the last song is just awful. But you know what? When it clicks, it’s unparalleled. The first four songs are stunning in their stark beauty. If only the rest were that good.
14. El Camino by The Black Keys // The Black Keys are a real problem for me. They’re consistently releasing the most entertaining record of any given year, but they rarely sound any different from album to album. Luckily, that doesn’t really matter. Their brand of blues rock is fun and, when at its best, a great thrill ride. “Lonely Boy” is a wonderful selling point, and the rest of the songs are worth a spin. Rock and roll, people!
13. Nostalgia/Ultra by Frank Ocean // It’s a mixtape, yes, but this collection of songs is brimming with creativity and exceptional R&B. I haven’t totally bought into the Odd Future hype, but this is certainly the place to start. It’s catchy, funny, meaningful and free. For some the “free” thing might be a sign of lower quality, but that’s certainly not the case here. Sheer musical quality wins out and you’ll thank yourself for downloading this collection.
12. Codes and Keys by Death Cab for Cutie // This is the weakest Death Cab record in many years. Too often, the songs meander without direction or sound like somebody was left to goof around with electronics. But when the music connects, it’s like vintage DCFC. “Codes and Keys,” and “Portable Television” hit strong and stick well. But the real winner (and what really elevates the album) is closer “Stay Young, Go Dancing.” It’s a legitimate mood booster and wonderfully fun.
11. Strange Mercy by St. Vincent // Surely you’ve heard the hype, but have you actually heard the music? It’s arty rock with enough kick to appeal to your basic guitar love. It’s also pretty, flowing and weird in a way that keeps you guessing (and entertained) for the whole ride. And it also has a great voice and strong lyricist leading the way. Don’t view it as a novelty because Annie Clark is a woman. That’s stupid. Pick it up because it’s fantastic music.
10. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes // Unlike their debut EP and album, the 2011 release by Fleet Foxes doesn’t feel as magical or refreshing to me. But that’s really selling Helplessness Blues short. The vocal harmonies are still pitch perfect, the guitar work is intricate, and the production is clear, helping to bring out the beauty of every human and manufactured instrument. The big changes to the sound come from the content of the lyrics. Thoughtful, meaningful words give each song added weight and reward repeated listening.
09. The King of Limbs (From the Basement Edition) by Radiohead // The actual record is not the best Radiohead has ever done. In fact, it’s really disappointing. But the From the Basement version is fantastic. The songs come alive with a kind of energy that they never had in the original studio. Dense songs become more accessible and rhythmically simpler. Individual instruments are heard more clearly, and emotions are more powerful. Replace the original with this version – it’s worth it.
08. Belong by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart // Belong isn’t far removed from the first Pains record, and that’s a good thing. I’m not always sold on shoegazer-type guitars, but this band is excellent at blending the noisy aesthetic with pop hooks and audible vocals. That blend is exceptional across the record, but is really great in record highlights “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” and “Belong.” Also noteworthy: synth shows up again, and isn’t cheesy for the second record in a row. Nice.
07. D by White Denim // A late addition to the list, but a fast riser. This record feels heavily of Bends-era Radiohead blended with psychedelic rock. On paper, that sounds like a forced combination, but the result is spectacular. Guitars and vocals alternate nicely between spacey-chime and psych-whirl. Song structures are easy to follow but not always typical and the drum patterns are pleasantly complex. White Denim sounds like a fearless band out exploring where their limits may lie. And if D is this good and they’re just starting to experiment, we’re in for very good things.
06. C’mon by Low // I’m a terrible indie fan. I had never listened to a record by Low before. While you’re busy judging me, let C’mon stand on its own. The record is simply majestic. Big guitars draw you into the sweeping melodies. Fantastic singing leads each song to wonderful, sometimes heart-breaking places. And while each song fits the same style, every track is exceptionally memorable. From the bells of “Try to Sleep,” to the dark chug of “Witches,” the stunning beauty of “Especially Me,” and the showstopping anthem that is “Nothing But Heart,” every track has something that will tug at your ear and brain. The best thing I can say about C’mon: it hits you and keeps growing. This is a keeper.