A Slice of Fried Gold

Favorite Albums of 2011

Wednesday, January 4, 2012
The last part of my favorites lists of 2011 is my favorite albums of 2011. I'm doing things a little bit differently than usual, as I'm typically pretty methodical in breaking down a top 20. Because of my trip, I fell way behind on music, and for those who are obsessed with music it becomes pretty obvious that staying on top of what's new and what's good is a full time job in a lot of ways. With the trip and a job search going back-to-back, my music obsession waned and I became more of a casual fan.

Plus, 2011 really was the year of Spotify for me. I pretty much only listen to music on there at this point, and with my driving time now more focused on podcasts, there's just less time for new music.

That said, it seems like 2011 was a pretty solid year for music. My list is after the jump and in in more of a general order, favorite to least favorite, and proves that I favor old favorites to the new hotness those kids these days are listening to.

Beirut - The Rip Tide

Homer pick! Homer pick!

Yeah, it's true, Beirut is part of my holy trinity of favorite artists (which also includes Sigur Ros and Spoon), meaning that they earn a little favoritism from yours truly. But that only gets you so far (Spoon's last album didn't even make my top 20 last year). Zach Condon took me the rest of the way, as I truly love every track on The Rip Tide. As soon as I picked up this album, I must have listened to it twenty times in a row, becoming completely obsessed with the pop amazingness that Condon had created here.

The biggest bummer of it is that it is only nine tracks long, but I'd rather have nine tracks I love any day over twenty plus that I like. Beirut just makes music that I love. That is a fact.

Standout Track: East Harlem

Washed Out - Within and Without

This was the first album I started listening to after I got back, as I hopped on Spotify and became basically hypnotized by every track on this album. It's an amazing, hypnotic and constantly changing album that finds a base in its very core with some deeply set pop sensibilities (they are there, I swear).

Every year, one album comes out that I find to pair with almost anything, and it quickly becomes a favorite. Washed Out is the winner this year, in that "Within and Without" is brilliant for anything from a nice fall drive, exercising, reading, writing...you name it. This is 2011's winner of my "Soundtrack of my Life" award, and that is one hell of a claim for a band that I'd truly never heard of before late July.

Standout Track: It's hard to choose, but either "Eyes Be Closed" or "Far Away"

Aeroplane - In-Flight Entertainment

The guy who hired me on to ADN kills me. We were talking on gchat one day and he basically ruined the last month of my year by telling me to listen to Aeroplane. Sure enough, I did, and it's basically been the only thing I've listened to since. Sure, it's not technically an album by one artist, as it is producer Aeroplane putting together a mix of new, lesser known tracks, in a seamless fashion, but man, this is pretty much amazing.

For something that is a slew of artists thrown into a mix, it is incredible how well everything fits together. It's like they were all originally crafted by one voice and then distributed to a range of musicians who all provided their own spin to them, and it makes this 61 minutes and 33 seconds of musical awesomeness. The blend of styles and genres is intoxicating, and about as much fun I've had all year listening to music.

Standout Track: Well, it's a huge mix, but if you want to pick one track, I'd go with Herr Styler's "Zero Ghosts Out the Door"

St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

I love St. Vincent. In fact, one of the biggest bummers of my world trip was the fact that St. Vincent came to perform here while I was gone. Really. St. Vincent came to Alaska for the one five-month stretch that I was out of the country. How weird is that?

I've loved all of St. Vincent's work so far, and Strange Mercy is arguably on par with 2009's Actor as my favorite album she's put together to date. It's a diverse, beautiful and strangely aggressive album that gets under your skin in the way the best music does. St. Vincent is stellar at producing music that is lush in its darkness, sharing the beauty she finds in the underbelly of life.

For me, the one thing that this album lacks perhaps is a single track that really kills me like Actor's "Black Rainbow" did. Still, that could just be because the whole damn thing is so great, and it's hard to find something wrong with that.

Standout Track: Cruel

Childish Gambino - Camp

This album surprised me maybe more than anything this year, in that it's an actor-turned-rapper who is, frankly, pretty damn incredible. Donald Glover (aka Troy on Community), is predictably clever, nerdy and funny on this album (he was a writer for 30 Rock after all), as he drops surprising lines that reference anything from Human Centipede to Fantastic Four villain Annihilus.

What was surprising about it though is how damn emotionally honest it is. Glover confesses everything about his life in a way that feels like the musical equivalent of a really good autobiography, walking people through what it's like to live his life. Sure, the guy is a celebrity, but that doesn't mean when he speaks honestly his life will be any less turbulent than yours or mine. Confessing things like he does in album closer "That Power" makes him all the more amusing and real.

I also want to give him credit for having an outrageously versatile voice. The guy can sing, his rapping sounds like anything from himself to Kanye to Lil' Wayne, and his range makes all of his songs work all the better. The production is incredible as well, and the beats and layered samples never distract, only enhance.

If you like hip hop, I'd highly recommend this. One note though: it absolutely sucks to write to. I find it impossible to not pay attention to the lyrics.

Standout Track: Outside

M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

Everyone has a different favorite M83 album (and by everyone, I mean people who actually listen to M83), and it seems that this is the year that most agreed "holy crap, this is the one we're all going to love."

And it's with good reason. This album is really a double album filled with standout tracks, and it really is M83's most epic effort yet. It's a sprawling, constantly inventive record that touches on a lot of things that he has figured out that he has done really well throughout the years.

Oddly enough though, every time an M83 album comes out I find myself really liking it but never quite loving it. This record for me falls short in that it feels maybe a little less personal then his previous ones, as songs like "Graveyard Girl" in the past really draws you into the storyteller underneath the beautiful noise. For me, the only track that does that on par with his previous efforts is "Raconte-Moi Une Histoire," an adorable and unforgettable track that stands out just for being so different than everything else on here.

That said, this is a really beautiful album, and I think it's something I may come to appreciate more over time. As it stands now, it's a very good album, with potential to become a great one in my mind.

Standout Track: Raconte-Moi Une Histoire

The Roots - Undun

This was a late add to my list, but man, this is an absolute fantastic album. I mean, sure, it gets bonus points from me because it features and is influenced by Sufjan Stevens. But still, for fans of well crafted hip hop, brilliant musicianship and concept albums, this deal should be catnip.

While it features guest performers like Big K.R.I.T., Stevens, Aaron Livingston (who kills it on "Sleep", and others, this really is all about The Roots. This doesn't really feel like any of their albums, or really, any other hip hop albums in recent memory. It's very soulful, stressing their storytelling and providing a sonic background that emphasizes the mood and words all the more. Every member of the group is on point from track one, but their third interpretation of Sufjan's "Redford," titled "Will to Power," is ?uestlove and avant-garde pianist D.D. Jackson reinterpreting it in a new, unexpected way. It needs to be heard to be believed.

Standout Track: Make My

The Antlers - Burst Apart

It seems like a decent amount of bands on this list benefit from myself catching them live during this year, and The Antlers are one of those bands. They came up to Anchorage this year and greatly impressed me as an incredibly tight and expressive live band, beautifully portraying the tracks from last year's record Hospice and this year's Burst Apart. The latter is a lot lighter than Hospice, but most funerals have happier playlists than that album.

A lot of the tracks, like lead tracks I Don't Want Love and French Exit, could even be called "playful" if only for The Antlers, with ambling rhythms and soulfully harmonized near falsetto vocals highlighting the sonic peaks and emotional valleys of those tracks. This album has all of the emotional vibrancy of Hospice, but is more my style than that album simply because it goes a lot lighter in the gloom department. If you get a chance though, do catch these guys live. Phenomenal live performers.

Standout Track: I Don't Want Love

Wilco - The Whole Love

Historically, I like not love Wilco. They make some really great music that for the most part (things like "A Shot in the Arm" or "Either Way"), but it also just isn't really my style.

That said, with this album Wilco took a chance and did something a little different. They fuzzed up their music, added some electronic pizzaz to it and for me, it ended up coming out as my favorite album they've released yet. The emotional content or strong songwriting that so many love from this band isn't gone, it just comes in a partially altered form, but as something that is still entirely recognizable as Wilco.

And for those who prefer the classic stylings of the band, the closing track, One Sunday Morning, is a twelve minute stunner that immediately became one of my favorite songs they've ever released. Just a phenomenal track, and maybe my favorite song of the year from anyone.

Standout Track: One Sunday Morning

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. - It's a Corporate World

Every year, there has to be a quirky random album in the mix, and this year it comes from the hilariously named Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (which makes me happy because it reminds me of Everything is Illuminated). The record highlights this duo's exceptional ability at crafting poppy, fun tracks that highlight their stellar harmonized lyrics and driving rhythms. This isn't something that is likely as "good" as many of the albums that precede or follow it on this list, but man, this album is a whole lot of fun and has a ton of soul at the same time. It's like musical sunshine, and who doesn't need a little more of that?

Standout Track: Simple Girl

James Blake - James Blake

True story: I could not stand James Blake when I first heard him. He came out with an EP called CMYK in 2010 and I couldn't help but be bored to tears by it.

Then, when I was in Barcelona at the Primavera Sound music festival, I couldn't help but go see him perform. I don't remember if I felt compelled to do so or if there was just a hole in my schedule, but either way, I went. And man, while his music is pretty heavy on the electronic and the auto tune, this guy can really make his music magic live.

Granted, this album came out while I was gone, so he had other material to work with, but the amount of heart and soul he put into every song made me want to close my eyes and get swallowed up by the slow jams he created. It helped a lot that he had a drummer that looked exactly like Harry Potter (note to bands: want me to like you? Dress like Harry Potter), but it was really the music that did it for me.

Then I picked up his self-titled debut full length album and man, this is some powerful, soulful stuff. Very few artists can make something like "I Never Learnt to Share," with its minimalist lyrics and layered auto tune vocals stacking on top of each other, work, but Blake turned it into a jam that is effortlessly powerful. That's kind of the deal with this record. For a heavily electronic record, it's really stripped down and focuses on the soul of his words, voice and music. As a producer, it was a brilliant idea for Blake to do that, as it highlights his strengths as a songwriter and musician all the better.

Standout Track: Unluck

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

When I was going to see Sufjan Stevens in London, I was sitting in my seat before the show when I started chatting with the middle-aged guy who was wearing a dapper suit and generally seemed like a pretty gregarious chap. Very British, of course, as we were in London. No less, we started talking about music when we got onto Sufjan's "Age of Adz" album. We talked about how some people weren't really into it, but, as we were at a Sufjan show that was mostly "Age of Adz," we both clearly liked it. Then this conversation happened.

British guy: "To me, it's Sufjan's 'Kid A.'"

Me: "Oh yeah? Why do you say that?"

British guy: "When 'Kid A' came out, everyone was down on it because it wasn't 'OK Computer.' But as time passed, people started to realize what it really was, which was simply a great album. Now it's one of the best albums of the past decade."

Me: "I could see that."

British guy: "Have you listened to 'The King of Limbs'?"

Me: "A little bit. I streamed it a few times right before I left. I thought it was really good."

British guy: "I love it. Honestly, not that many do, but as time passes, I think people will learn to love it like they do 'Kid A.'"

Now, I'm not sure The King of Limbs will ever approach the levels of Kid A. But I can say this: I've seen it on almost no end of the year lists that I've read, and I find that crazy. It's Radiohead doing Radiohead things, expanding on their sound while focusing on certain aspects that they do well. It's more ambient and a little less pop driven than many of their efforts, but it's a great album that excels as headphone music for when you need to be productive. That's a valuable asset to have in my music rotation.

Standout Track: Bloom, but really, this is a full album experience

The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient

This is an odd album in a lot of ways for me, because it's obviously a new album but it feels like a fuzzy throwback to musicians of yesteryear. To be honest, it feels like there are influences of people ranging from Bob Dylan to Tom Petty to Mark Knopfler in here, but without any one of them winning out to create a pastiche when this band is very capable of creating their own sound.

The interesting about this album is that it is soulful and feels sad in some ways, yet while listening to it, I find it hard not to just feel good. It's anthemic at times but also feels really thoughtful, taking time to hit emotional notes that will resonate with the listener. Interestingly enough, it's mood music for me at the same time. Sometimes I really, really enjoy it, and other times I'd much rather listening to anything else I can get my hands on.

Standout Track: Come to the City

3 comments:

Bobbie said...

Taking the plunge and checking out some of your favorites.

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