When the end of the year rolls around, it dawns on me that it’s time to put together my “Best Of” lists. It’s a daunting task, and one that comes with risk of heavy criticism and/or incredible envy from megafans out there who wonder how in the world I come across all of this music and fit it into my already busy life. Don’t worry, I know you exist. (Kidding. Seriously.)
I find it very important to start this time of year with a predecessor: I am not perfect. I haven’t listened to every single album that was released in 2011. Something tells me it’s actually not possible. There must be more than 8,765 hours of music that was released in 2011. So obviously there may be things that I have missed. But what I can say is that I have listened to a TON of music throughout the year. Whether it’s through my own perusing, PR contacts getting in touch with me, trusting my blogger friends when they recommend an artist or an album, or artists asking me themselves to listen to their releases, I have listened to hundreds of albums over the last twelve months. And through it all, I have somehow come to the conclusion that these 20 constitute the best that I heard.
I tend to have a very eclectic taste, so you’ll find a very wide variety of music genres and types on this list. Though we live in an era of free singles and file sharing, I really encourage you guys to purchase any and all of these albums. I’ve provided a purchase on iTunes link for each one of them. Just click on the name of the album. Support the artist. It’s what your mother would want you to do. Unless you’re using her credit card. She might not like that. But do it anyway.
*All write-ups below are written by Lydia, unless otherwise noted
Click through to continue reading and sample one song from each of our Top 20 Albums of 2011
20. James Vincent McMorrow, Early In The Morning
Making a big splash and a name for himself in 2011 was James Vincent McMorrow, whose album Early in the Morning was released in January and immediately slated to make my list, as his wistful voice and powerful lyrics won my heart from the get-go. His music proved to have staying power throughout the year, and James Vincent McMorrow will forever be a name I’ll look out for.
19. The Antlers, Burst Apart
Before ‘Burst Apart,’ I wasn’t a huge fan of The Antlers. I thought perhaps they were too much of a hipster downer band. But then came Burst Apart. At the discovery of the pure orgasm that is “I Don’t Want Love,”–the first song off the album–I was hooked. Amazed at the stories told through their songs, I started listening–and loving. Though I’m not sure this album quite lives up to Hospice (now that I’m over the fact that it’s an emotional album, I’ve released it’s truly a masterpiece), it’s a powerful collection of songs that stand for independence and recover from the traumatic stories told in their previous record.
18. Atlas Sound, Parallax
When I first turned on Parallax, the opening track, “The Shakes, came on and I nearly orgasmed. I’m not even kidding; it’s THAT good. The album is a mix of electronic sounds and indie-rock songs that carry me away into another world if I shut my eyes and just listen. It’s catchy and memorable, and though I don’t believe the title track is the greatest, other songs on the album such as “The Shakes,” “Mona Lisa,” “Angle is Broken,” “Terra Incognita,” and “Lightworks” make it too hard to put this album anywhere other than on this list of Best Albums of 2011.
17. Cults, Cults
If ever I need a pick me up or a tune to do a girly dance to, I turn on Cults. This album has marched through 2011, maintaining its poise for the entire year. As I said back in June, “their songs spark the need to dance, to go outside, to soak up the sun, and to glue a smile onto your face.” I’ve found myself recently feeling like I’m over lo-fi and chillwave reverb sounds, but Cults make it sound good. I can’t get enough of this duo.
16. Drake, Take Care
There seems to be controversy over whether Drake should make this list or not. Personally, I think that Drake brings a different perspective to “honest hip hop.” Most people hear that phrase and are hoping for childhood stories of selling drugs or other tales of the struggle to get to the top. Drake, however, talks about the troubles that can come once you get to the top. Sure, it’s a life of luxury, but it isn’t all picture perfect. Graced with beautiful production and emotional rhymes from Drake, I can say with pride that Take Care‘s alternative approach to honesty earned it a well-deserved spot on the Top 20 Albums of 2011 list.
15. Childish Gambino, Camp
Childish Gambino’s debut album, Camp, might have been hyped on the blog scene more than any other album this year. (Okay fine, that’s bold, since Ye and Jay put out an album and Drake released another.) Clearly inspired by Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, ‘Camp’ lived up to most expectations. Donald Glover wrote clever rhymes and incorporated all into a story that explains who he really is. He not only made a name for himself, but he justified his persona as a young, successful black man who loves books, graduated from college and grew up with a father at home. The music is enjoyable and you can listen repeatedly and probably understand a new side of Donald with each listen. Definitely one of the best releases of 2011.
14. Megafaun, Megafaun
I think Megafaun has always had trouble branding themselves becaue their talents are so diverse and—quite frankly—so are their sounds. When I see them live, they can teeter on the edge of a punk rock band. And then they pull out a banjo and my mind quickly gets blown. Their 2011 album, Megafaun, emphasized their ability to not only play, but also master the genre of folk music. Their songs are complete with sounds of nature, layered harmonies and instruments ranging from horns to guitars to drums to pianos. The varied voices throughout the album is a nice twist, and it’s hard to resist drooling over the raspier voice of Brad Cook over an acoustic guitar and piano instrumental. Megafaun has covered so many bases throughout their existence, but this album is by far their biggest splash. It’s simply delightful.
13. Bombadil, All That The Rain Promises
Durham, NC-based band Bombadil surprised me with their incredible album of 2011, All That the Rain Promises. Not to say I wasn’t expecting a solid album, but their trip to record the album in Happy Valley, Oregon led to utter greatness. The record features a whole host of songs that vary from the instrumental acoustic song “Avery,” to a gospel-inspired song, “I Will Wait,” to a humorous (really, you’ll laugh) story in “A Question.” Their sound is unique–dare I say, unparalleled by any. All That the Rain Promises is a resplendent return to the stage for Bombadil, who had not released a new record for two years.
MP3: “Avery” – Bombadil
12. Adele, 21
Maybe it’s Adele’s voice, or maybe it’s the classic sound of the piano and a solitary voice, but I’m convinced that 21 is an album that our children will be able to listen to someday and ask us what life was like in the early 2000’s. Her timeless charm comes through in her music, which spans from having R&B and soul undertones all the way to country and pop nuances. It runs the gamut, but most of all it showcases the power of a young lady’s voice to bring together massive crowds around the sound of something simply beautiful.
11. Foster The People, Torches
I’m sure there are bloggers out there who shake their heads at this pick, mainly because of the disgusting amount of spins “Pumped Up Kicks” got on radios around the world this year. But if you take that out of the equation, you have to remember that bloggers themselves fell in love with that single over a year ago, and then Foster The People released the rest of Torches, which featured so many incredible songs, it blew me away. I nearly melted the first time I heard “Waste,” but that was before I heard “Warrant.” Those two tracks take the cake, but the whole album is honestly something that could get me through each day with a smile on my face.
10. M83, Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
I would say that if you’re a fan of music and life then you’ll like this album. Because that’s what it is. It’s both the full realization of 80’s-inspired synth rock and a collection of ideas about life. Behind each melody lies a message about childhood, dreams, imagination, and growing up. The album takes the listener through the stages of life, while maintaining a nostalgic, yearning tone throughout. Oh, and it challenges Coldplay for the most dramatic song title of the year: it’s “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea” vs. “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall.” I hope 2012 can answer this question. -Arjun
MP3: “Splendor” – M83
9. The Postelles, The Postelles
The Postelles is doing something that is kind of unique in this era of music: making songs that your parents would like. These songs are straightforward and easily accessible and instantly lovable. Naturally, some of them are hit-or-miss. You may find one track annoying, but the New York band will make a point of making it up to you with the next track. –Arjun
8. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
This album succeeds on so many levels. Lyrically, it’s reflective, whimsical, and sometimes depressing, sometimes not. Sonically, it’s raw, purposeful, and sometimes densely layered, sometimes not. The album as a whole tells a story about love, loneliness, and well, that feeling of helplessness as we grow older. I think the album culminates at its title track when the narrator comes to the realization: “What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?” Self reliance swag. –Arjun
7. Kendrick Lamar, Section.80
Kendrick Lamar is one of the more underrated hip-hop artists out there right now. He’s got a group of followers who are die-hards, but he seems to have yet to really burst onto the big scene. He certainly deserves to after releasing an album like Section.80 in 2011, which proved his ability to create unique flows on all sorts of beats. In a genre where the non-fans seem to think that every song sounds the same, Kendrick proved an incredible feat—almost every one of the songs on his own album sounded different. Some are more party tracks, others are socially conscious–but almost all of them are incredible hip-hop songs with strong lyricism and great, jazz-infused beats. It’s clear that Kendrick Lamar has a lot to say about his generation, his surroundings, weed, the rap industry—the list keeps going—and lucky for us, he delivers it in a way that keeps me begging for more. Seriously. Tell me “Rigamortus” isn’t one of the more enjoyable rap songs to listen to. You can’t. You won’t.
6. Beirut, The Rip Tide
When I listened to The Rip Tide for the first time, I felt a bit as if I had been taken on a trip back to colonial days. The trumpets, the strings, the tinges of classical instrumentalism that were paired with an operatic voice like that of Zachary Francis Condon’s seemed almost too good to be true. In such a triumphant album, though, Condon avoided seeming unapproachable or pompous because the songs are incredibly intimate. The album seems to go with the theme of timelessness that is putting many of these albums toward the top of my list of Best Albums of 2011.
MP3: “Santa Fe” – Beirut
5. The Roots, Undun
The Roots came out of nowhere at the end of the year with a killer album. Unfortunate that it was released so close to the end of the year, if they gave a hoot about making Best Of The Year lists, but it’s The Roots—what do they care? The album was a joy to listen to, start to finish. For the most part, they did what they do best—created a big band sound in hip-hop and blend singing with rhyming—and sandwiched it between orchestral openings and closings, creating a novel of sorts, yet managing to keep the excitement of climax steady almost all the way through. There are some good features on the album, but most of those come in the form of singers, keeping Black Thought in the spotlight, which is just as it should be.
4. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Girls put out an album this year that transcended time and pushed boundaries. Their sound spanned from an acoustic, Beatles-esque motif in “Just A Song” to much darker and heavy pattern in songs like “Vomit” and “Die,” which had undertones of punk and metal. The reminiscence that’s incurred when listening to this album can likely occur across generations of listeners. It’s incredible how they built off of influences from our pasts, but made a sound all their own. What’s consistent throughout most of the album is a sense of emotion so deep it would burn if it weren’t for the sweet sound it’s delivered in. What I might like best about this album is that I wouldn’t even know how to classify this album within a genre, and that might be just what Girls was looking to do in Father, Son, Holy Ghost.
MP3: “Magic” – Girls
3. Youth Lagoon, The Year of Hibernation
For a debut album, The Year of Hibernation might claim the adjective “epic.” Trevor Powers, the one man show behind Youth Lagoon, displays his prowess of musical construction on this 10-song record. He proves his ability to turn a song that starts with minimal and lo-fi sounds and build it into something grandiose, melodic, and—quite frankly—immortal. The album feels like an adventure into Powers’s artsy mind: a mosaic of colors, sounds, and memories that feel warm and close to home. It blew me away almost more than any other release of the past year. My favorite line from the album came in the song “17:” When I was 17, my mother said to me, ‘Don’t stop imagining. The day that you do is the day that you die.’
MP3: “17” – Youth Lagoon
2. Dawes, Nothing is Wrong
Dawes was new to me this year, and they took my playcount by storm. It started with the opening track off their 2011 album Nothing Is Wrong, “Time Spent in Los Angeles.” I fell in love immediately. As soon as I heard the rest of the album, I knew that I had stumbled across a true gem. It’s reminiscent of The Avett Brothers and Fleet Foxes, but is a sound all its own. From folksy guitar to acoustic piano sections, Dawes manages to cover a wide spectrum of sounds in an 11-track album. The best part of it all? I can honestly say I love every song on the album. Oh, and Dawes might have written one of my favorite lines of the year in his song “Million Dollar Bill” — When it hits me that she’s gone/ I think I’ll run for president/ Get my face put on the million dollar bill/ So when these rich men that she wants/ Show her the ways they can take care of her/ I’ll have found a way to be there with her still.”
1. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
This one was a given for me, as the album was on repeat all throughout the year since the day it was released. The poetic mastery, the haunting abilities of Vernon’s vocal range, and the power of the instrumentals on their own proved that Bon Iver was more than a band that could put together a fantastic album while recovering from heartbreak; Justin Vernon and Co. are here to stay. And I’ll be riding that train until the day I die.
MP3: “Perth” – Bon Iver