Many people called 2011 one of the best years for music in a long time. While I haven’t been interested in music long enough to affirm that statement, I do know that I discovered some great albums, by both baby-faced newcomers and grizzled veterans alike. My favorite albums of 2011 are a pretty diverse bunch, but luckily they all have the important qualities of being accessible and rewarding. Give them a chance. You won’t be disappointed.
10. Deer Tick – Divine Providence
It’s quite a departure from their previous 3 albums, but Divine Providence is filled with the kind of boozy rock and roll that you wish you knew more of. Straying away from their signature alt-country/folk sound, Deer Tick manages to release 12 solid songs with titles such as “Let’s All Go to the Bar” and “Clownin’ Around,” both of which perfectly summarize the energy, carelessness, and generally raucous nature of the album. Listen, drink, repeat.
For fans of: forty minutes of rollicking good fun.
9. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math
It was always going to be difficult (nigh impossible) for ManOrch to top their 2009 album Mean Everything to Nothing, at least in my book. Simple Math has its moments of greatness (Pensacola, April Fool), but ultimately falls a little short. The level of production has increased tremendously, which works for some songs, but the persistent “smooth” sound tends to take away from what could have been an absolutely superb follow up to one of my favorite albums ever. A gallant effort, with some really great songs, but inevitably somewhat disheartening.
For fans of: powerful rock with a few too many string arrangements.
8. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
For many of favorite bands, 2011 seemed to be a year for change. Bright Eyes was no exception. The People’s Key completely abandons songwriter Conor Oberst’s often folksy sound in favor of jangling 80s guitars and buzz-saw synths. This doesn’t take away from the usual insightful songwriting, though. Rather, the new sounds only add to the already intricately layered album. Oberst is a man who’s going to do what he wants, and he’s going to do it well.
For fans of: Did I mention that the album contains several monologues about lizard aliens controlling Earth?
7. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
To start, let me say that Strange Mercy was one of the most peculiar records I listened to this year. Normally, my musical tastes are somewhat tame, but there was something special about this album that I couldn’t (and still can’t) capture in words. Perhaps it’s the sheer creativity that’s appealing; the album has it in spades. Maybe it’s the way Annie Clark’s ethereal voice seems to rise and fall, melting in and out of the soundscapes with her trusty electric guitar. Regardless, inside of the strange chord changes, eclectic guitar playing, and obscure lyrics lies something special that’s unapparent on the surface. Strange Mercy is an album that needs to be heard to be believed.
For fans of: hipster-approved art pop
6. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling’s third album, is full of folk songs that are both intimate and robust, oftentimes simultaneously. She channels Bob Dylan in the way her songs are both fiercely original, yet accessible. The lyrics are poetic, evoking a bygone style of language that’s too often forgotten in today’s music. At the ripe young age of 21, Laura Marling has released three albums to critical acclaim and won the hearts of many fans the world over. Makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life.
For fans of: Bob Dylan, female empowerment, language
5. Childish Gambino – Camp
It seems like every year a hip hop album always seems to sneak its way onto my list. This year it’s no different, and Childish Gambino’s Camp happens to be the album of choice. For the unfamiliar, Childish Gambino is the rap name of Donald Glover, a multitalented guy who has written for 30 Rock and currently stars on the NBC show Community. This being said, Camp sounds like it was made for fans of these shows. Glover spits out verses at breakneck pace, referencing everything from Rugrats to Sufjan Stevens to The Human Centipede, and beyond. The album is just the right mix of swagger, pop culture, and clever, self-conscious songwriting.
For fans of: NBC’s Thursday night comedy, alarming numbers of sexual reference
4. The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?
Breezy, reverb-tinged, retro pop-rock that warrants repeated play during the summer months. What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? took over my June and July, providing the energy and sun-soaked enthusiasm I usually needed to start my day. Most of the songs on the album clock in under three minutes, bobbing along with a kind of youthful carelessness that I rarely find anymore in music. With the kind of emotional and musical weight seen elsewhere on this list, it’s nice to have a band just play for a while. It’s a debut from four young lads from England; what did you expect from The Vaccines?
For fans of: garage rock, sunshine, happiness
3. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
For an album I didn’t get into until mid-December, it sure made an impact. With Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 somehow creates a soundtrack to my dreams. Call it what you will (I like indietronica), the songs on this ambitious, sprawling double-album get lodged in your head and refuse to let go. There are catchy 80s-esque pop songs (Midnight City, OK Pal), soft and hopeful ballads (Soon, My Friend), and even an entire song dedicated to a young girl’s dream about frogs (Raconte-Moi Une Histoire). Sometimes I’ll forget I’m listening to the album. It’s not because it’s forgettable or boring; it’s because the songs somehow mesh with my mind in a way that’s incomprehensible, yet comforting.
For fans of: eclectic French electropop, music getting inside your head.
2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
We all know the story about Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon abandoning society and embracing heartbreak to write his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. In his sophomore, self-titled effort, he abandons his solitary gig and invites friends. The result is a staggering. Layers of sound and instrument float in and out tracks, all supported by Vernon’s ghostly falsetto. The album has great depth, both musically and lyrically. Vernon writes in a kind of stunted, ambiguous, and image-rich style that any Modernist poet would be proud of. This vagueness is countered, curiously, by his song titles; many of them are references to places, either specific (Minnesota, WI, Calgary) or imaginary (Hinnom, TX). Always an enigma, Justin Vernon and Bon Iver manage to create one of the best albums of the year, a slice of sonic beauty that everyone should hear.
For fans of: having to chew your music before you swallow it
1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Every time I listen to Fleet Foxes, I want to go outside. Whether rain or shine, sun or snow, the images conjured up by Robin Pecknold and Co. make me want to run outdoors. It’s not that the songs are specifically about nature in a literal sense. They tend to be tiny snapshots of a moment in time, captured flawlessly in the mood of the music and the language of the lyrics. The songs propel me into the open because they’re full of life. They’re full of the kinds of soaring melodies, fantastic imagery, and heartfelt lyricism that seem bigger than oneself. In the title song, Pecknold sings about how we’re raised believing being unique and self-serving is the best way to live. In the same verse, however, he sings: “And now, after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be/A functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.” This is the great triumph of Helplessness Blues; it’s an album that functions as something greater than the sum of its individual parts. It’s about life, and why we’re living it.
For fans of: honest and life-affirming folk music, crazy awesome harmonies
Well, that’s the list. Definitely pick up or listen to these albums. If you’re cheap, they can all be found on Spotify. If you find me on there, I have a playlist which contains a couple songs from each album. Check it out here: Best Albums of 2011.