2011: A Year In Music

The slew of year end lists that tend to consume the internet never ceases to amuse me. Ranking art is in many ways a pointless exercise. My list of 2011’s best (insert art form here) will never be the same as yours. Still, as HitFix columnist Melinda Newman expressed in her Top Albums of 2011 piece, best of lists offer the opportunity to expose readers to music that they might not  have listened to otherwise.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve read upwards of twenty Best Albums of 2011 lists to familiarize myself with any albums that I might have missed during the calendar year. Some, like Wild Flag’s eponymous debut, P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake, and Radiohead’s The King of Limbs garnered admiration from me more than adulation, which is why they don’t appear on my list. Others, like Common’s The Dreamer/The Believer, Robin Thicke’s Love and War and M83’s Hurry Up We’re Dreaming I simply didn’t get to sit with long enough to include.

The list below is reflective of my year in music. It features 40 terrific albums that I implore you to seek out, if you haven’t already. Remember, Spotify is your friend.

40. The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh

I reviewed this album back in March, shortly after its release. And, for the most part, my feelings remain the same. Though a bit tedious to consume in one sitting, Smart Flesh houses some of this year’s finest songwriting.

39. Deer Tick – Divine Providence

Divine Providence is an album best played loud. It’s messy, raucous, and delightful.

38. Eric Church – Chief

Church makes everything about Chief seem effortless. With songs like “Drink In My Hand” and “I’m Getting Stoned,” he manages to play off country music conventions, while simultaneously make those conventions more palatable for general audiences.

37. Tune-Yards – w h o k i l l

w h o k i l l can best be defined as sound candy. It’s hand to describe this album aesthetically beyond that, because every song is so different and complex.

36. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead/Long Live The King

Another album that I reviewed earlier in the year. The King Is Dead is a solid album and the recently released Long Live The King EP is a nice compliment to said album.

35. Lady Antebellum – Own The Night

While it doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by the trio’s sophomore record, Need You Now, Own The Night is still a fine collection of country-pop. Moreover, current single “Dancing Away With My Heart” is one 2011’s best songs.

34. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s A Corporate World

Containing 3 of the 4 songs featured on the duo’s Horse Power EP, It’s A Corporate World could have easily become a bit of a retread. But, the album’s other songs are so darn good that it doesn’t matter. This album + a cold drink + a day at the beach = heaven.

33. Gavin DeGraw – Sweeter

Gavin DeGraw makes the type of music that fits squarely into my “sweet spot.” You can’t help but sing along to “Not Over You” or feel the raw emotion in DeGraw’s voice on “Spell It Out.” It’s sad that radio largely ignores DeGraw.

32. Fink – Perfect Darkness

Perfect Darkness is mood music at its finest. Maudlin? Sure. Angry? Often. But, that’s the point. Bravo!

31. Various Artists – Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Soundtrack

Breaking Dawn: Part I wasn’t just a terrible film, it was probably the worst of the series. That being said, the soundtrack is nothing short of sublime. If the reward for sitting through telepathic wolf conversations was Sleeping At Last’s “Turning Page,” then I’m sort of OK with these movies existing/thriving. Other highlights include Angus & Julia Stone’s “Love Will Take You,” The Features’ “From Now On” and Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years.”

30. Childish Gambino – Camp

A year ago I was practically begging people to listen to Childish Gambino. Now, his music is getting play on the biggest Top 40 radio station in the country, Z100. Needless to say, 2011 has been a very good year for actor/writer/rapper Donald Glover. On Camp, Glover tackles a myriad of issues that other rappers simply don’t (isolation, rejection), while maintaining the tongue-in-cheek brand of rhyming that characterized his earlier work.

29. Miranda Lambert – Four The Record

2011 was a big year for Miranda Lambert. She married longtime beau Blake Shelton, released an album with her friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley (under the moniker Pistol Annies) that went to #1 on the Billboard Country Albums Chart, and cemented herself as the first woman of modern country music with the release of her 4th album, Four The Record. Their is nary an individual who could pull off something like “Fastest Girl In Town” with the same panache as Lambert, but it’s her ability to switch gears and deliver a song like “Nobody’s Fool” that makes her so hard to compete with.

28. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

Coldplay delivered a far more  jubilant record in Mylo Xyloto than I think anyone was predicting. Even lead single “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall,” which on paper seems like it’ll be an exercise in melodrama, ends up becoming a celebratory anthem. As a concept album, Mylo Xyloto doesn’t quite live up to the expectations set by Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. But, as a body of work, its impressive nonetheless.

27. Beyonce – 4

For all intensive purposes, 4 was a commercial failure. Even the album’s most successful single, “Love On Top,” couldn’t crack the Billboard Top 10. Creatively, however, 4 is a wildly successful effort from the current queen of R&B. While most pop stars spent 2011 embracing the Euro-Dance stylings of Calvin Harris and Benny Benassi, Beyonce chose to go in an entirely different direction. Embracing her soul roots, B delivers some truly wonderful tracks like “I Miss You,”  “Best Thing I Never Had” and the infectious “Countdown.”

26. Trent Dabbs – Southerner

You may not be familiar with Trent Dabbs by name, but you’ve probably heard his music in at least one of your favorite TV shows. Southerner is a bit of a detour from the norm for Dabbs, who trades in his typical acoustic-pop sound for an album that dabbles in country, southern rock and even a bit of folk. “Neil Young” is the standout track here, but the entire album is aces.

25. The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence

21 Year Old, Abel Tesfaye (better known as The Weeknd) burst onto the music scene in March when he digitally released House of Balloons, the first of 3 albums in the Balloon Trilogy. Largely regarded as an R&B artist, Tesfaye borrows from Hip-Hop, Pop, and even Rock music. From “High for This” to “The Morning” to “The Birds Part 2,” The Weeknd delivered some of this year’s more intriguing songs.

24. The Black Keys – El Camino

Another solid effort from one of few great traditional rock bands making music today.

23. The Roots – undun

A surprisingly quick turnaround saw The Roots release two albums in 2010, both of which were noteworthy, before returning to the studio to record undun. Eleven albums into their career, The Roots are willing to take risks like having Sufjan Stevens compose an entirely instrumental track for their concept album about the death and life of a fictional character named Redford Stevens. That flair for the experimental pays dividends.

22. Frank Ocean – nostalgia, Ultra

Released independently by Ocean, after his label Def Jam more or less refused to, nostalgia, Ultra samples from rock bands of yesteryear like the The Eagles, and some of today’s bigger acts like Coldplay and MGMT. Ocean has a knack for telling stories that resonate with today’s youth, which became clear when single “Novocain” took off at radio this summer. He’s also willing to tackle issues like religion, abortion, and government, which I appreciate.

21. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

A layered album that deals with the depression that comes from getting older as well as any I’ve ever encountered. Go listen to “The Shrine/An Argument” right now, if you haven’t already heard it.

20. NeedToBreathe – The Reckoning

For a while this fall, it seemed like every single commercial on my Spotify account was for this album. Eventually, I gave in, listened to it all the way through, and was thoroughly impressed. On their 4th album, NeedToBreathe do a terrific job melding their Christian Rock roots with the contemporary Southern Rock sensibilities that helped Kings of Leon take off. Lead singer Bear Bryant’s voice soars on tracks like “Slumber” and “Keep Your Eyes Open” and the rest of the band (including his brother Bo) match him musically.

19. Ghostwridah – American Alien

Still bubbling under the radar, Ghostwridah produced one of 2011’s strongest Hip-Hop offerings. Available on BandCamp for a nominal fee, American Alien is filled with witty lines and introspective thoughts from the Miami native.

18. Blind Pilot – We Are The Tide

I stumbled upon this album a few months back after The Secret Circle star Brit Robertson took to Twitter to rave about it. We Are The Tide is charming album with a big sound. Lead singer Israel Nebeker is surrounded by vibraphones, ukeleles, keyboards, trumpets, and various other instruments, all of which give the album texture. Add this new sound to Nebeker’s already potent lyrics and you have magic.

17. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

Codes and Keys is probably this year’s most underrated album. Yes, it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album, but it also bore the brunt of critical backlash from journalists and fans who expect Death Cab to make lachrymose music and nothing else. This album is littered with some of 2011’s most well written tunes. “St. Peter’s Cathedral” is the kind of grandiose track people who aren’t Ben Gibbard wish they could write and “Stay Young, Go Dancing” slays me.

16. J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story

I’ve been a fan of Cole going back to 2007 when he released his first mixtape, The Come Up, so it was gratifying to see him have such a lucrative year. Staying true to form, Cole produced almost the entirety of Cole World himself, a rarity in the Hip-Hop world. He rides over the beats with such comfort that one could mistake him for a veteran, when in reality this is his first proper release.

15. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Wounded Rhymes is a brisk but gripping album that covers the emotional spectrum of a twenty-something with remarkable accuracy. Few songs have better captured the feeling of unrequited love than her aptly titled “Unrequited Love.” Then there’s “Get Some,” which Li claims isn’t about sex. I call shenanigans.

14. Kelly Clarkson – Stronger

Pretty much the same story as Beyonce’s 4. Great album. Underwhelming sales. Under-performing single. Worthy of your time, money and attention. Kelly Clarkson has one of the most impressive voices in all of music and she gets to belt on Stronger. If “What Doesn’t Kill You” doesn’t become a radio smash, I may give up.

13. Ben Howard – Every Kingdom

A last minute addition to this list, I had never even heard of Ben Howard until five days ago. Screenwriter Noah Hawley featured the UK born singer/songwriter on his December Playlist, which I just got around to listening to. After hearing Noah’s selection, “The Wolves,” I knew I needed more. Over the last few days, I’ve listened to Every Kingdom a ridiculous number of times. It’s that good.

12. Sleeping At Last – Yearbook

Yearbook is an expansive collection of music recorded and released between October 2010 and September 2011. Each month, singer/songwriter Ryan O’Neal (aka Sleeping At Last) released an EP containing 3 songs evocative of the season and time in his life. These EP tracks were then packaged as one giant sized album that can best be described as a musical treasure-trove.

11. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong

2011 was the year I really “discovered” Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, who also happens to make up 1/3 of the band Middle Brother, and for that I am incredibly thankful. Goldsmith is a masterclass songwriter with the type of weathered voice that smacks you in the face. That Nothing Is Wrong didn’t make my Top 10 is indicative of how many great albums were released in 2011. I’m not a particularly emotional individual but even I was moved by the album’s closing number “A Little Bit of Everything.”

10. The Head and The Heart – The Head and The Heart

The Head and The Heart’s eponymous debut has a lot of things going for it, including the damn near perfect lead single “Down In The Valley.” Vocalists, guitarists, and songwriters Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell formed the band a little more than two years ago and, in that time, they’ve developed something really special. Even though they’re twenty-somethings, The Head and The Heart’s music has this enduring sensibility and the lyrics that Johnson and Russell have crafted are pretty spectacular.

9. Middle Brother – Middle Brother

When Deer Tick’s John J. McCauley III, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez announced earlier this year that they’d be joining together as Middle Brother, no one knew quite what to expect. What the trio delivered in March was an album that combined all of their best attributes. For more on the album, read my full review HERE.

8. Drake – Take Care

Not only did Drake avoid the proverbial sophomore slump with Take Care, he actually improved upon his 2010 debut Thank Me Later. Take Care is in no way the party record many were expecting but, rather, a contemplative refrain from a man struggling to deal with his new found fame. Most of the production on Take Care is handled by fellow OVO member Noah “40” Shebib but additional work from Jamie xx, Chantal Kreviazuk and The Weeknd give the record an added layer of depth.

7. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

A translucent fog hangs over most of Bon Iver’s sophomore album. Justin Vernon’s vocals are dirtier and more obscured than they were on For Emma, Forever Ago, while the music behind him is louder and more expansive. This is an intentional decision, one that works surprisingly well. Every song on this album has a sense of purpose and place. Together they form a collage of places that Vernon and company have traveled to in the last several years, taking you along with them.

6. Hunter Hayes – Hunter Hayes

20 year-old Hunter Hayes makes me feel like an underachiever. This year alone, he released his self-titled major label debut (on which he played every single instrument), opened for Taylor Swift on her Fearless Tour, and recorded a duet with Victoria Justice for the Footlose soundtrack. Hunter Hayes also happens to be the best Country album that saw release in 2011, so there’s that.

5. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math

Andy Hull’s songwriting + the rest of the band’s instrumentation = great. That’s “simple math” you guys. Boom! Nailed it.

4. Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials

Florence Welch has a way of making the mundane sound monumental and Ceremonials is a great example of that. Entertainment Weekly writer Kyle Anderson put it best in his review of the album, “If her acclaimed 2009 debut, Lungs, was a scrappy shrine to survival and empowerment, its follow-up is a baroque cathedral, bedecked with ornate tapestries made of ghostly choirs, pagan-rhythmic splendor, and a whole lot of harp. And though that sounds like a mess of New Age goop, Ceremonials genuinely rocks.”

3. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne

To say that this is 2011’s best Rap album would be an understatement. Watch The Throne is an expertly produced piece of Pop Art, and a return to form for Jay-Z, who misfired with 2009’s The Blueprint 3. Every song on this album has a grandiose feel to it, but there’s also an intimacy to the lyrical content of tracks like “Made in America” and “No Church in the Wild,” both of which feature Frank Ocean.

2. Adele – 21

21 will almost certainly win the Best Album prize at this year’s Grammy Awards, which I’m more than OK with. That Adele was able to catch on with the mainstream music buying audience was something of a miracle, albeit a welcomed one. Honestly, I thought it would be years before a straightforward ballad gained headway at Top 40 radio; “Someone Like You” managed to do that this year. This album is, in no uncertain terms, a classic.

1. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

In a year full of promising debut albums, Barton Hollow topped them all. In fact, it topped EVERY album. When I wrote my review of album in February, I initially closed the piece with “We’re only 1 month into 2011 and we may have already found the year’s best album.” That line was cut by my then editor, who thought it was inappropriate. Guess what? I was right. There was no album that I revisited more often during the course of the year than Barton Hollow, and every time I find something new to appreciate about it.

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One Response to 2011: A Year In Music

  1. Pingback: 2011: A Year In Television « TV Musings and Thoughts

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