Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Best Albums of 2011

I still find myself to be more concerned with trying to appreciate the whole history of modern music than making sure I stay up to date, but I did a decent job of buying new albums. Most of it is from the year's first half, though.

Best of 2011

8. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes' second album isn't as original as their first, and for good reason - it's pretty much the same thing again. Still, that same thing is very enjoyable, and it's hard to fault the band for sticking with what they know and can do well. A folksy but still distinctly rock-influenced sound, and nice vocal harmonies playing off the singer's strong voice. I find it hard not to like it a lot.

Favorite Song: "Helplessness Blues"

7. James Blake

Most people probably think they have a pretty good idea of what dubstep is, but I doubt many of them think of something like this. James Blake likes to use the bass, but he does so sparingly, just like all of the other elements at his disposal. It's very sparse music, perhaps too sparse in some places, but the results are often worth it, slowly building up to and then releasing tension in profoundly effective ways. Plus the guy has a great voice, something you don't usually hear about electronic musicians.

Favorite Song: "I Never Learnt to Share"

6. Radiohead - The King of Limbs

It's unusual for there to be a new Radiohead album that isn't a huge game changer, but that doesn't mean a perfectly normal album by them won't still be really good. And The King of Limbs, despite being a bit lean on running length, is definitely good. Its eight tracks experiment with sounds and styles the band has played with before, but does enough with them to make it definitely worth plenty of listens on its own. They're a band that's expected to reinvent music every time out, but as long as they stay as good as this, I'll be fine with it.

Favorite Song: "Give Up the Ghost"

5. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this considering my vague memories of having heard St. Vincent before, but I guess it turned out to be her most straightforward record. It's pretty much her guitar, her voice, and some drums, with a few bells and whistles here and there. It's accessible but also unique, a nice match of elements that are familiar with ones that feel distinct. She has a really nice voice, and most of the main vocal hooks have a tendency to get inside your head and stay there for a while. It turned out to be a really good blind buy.

Favorite Song: "Chloe in the Afternoon"

4. TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light

Perhaps the band's least exceptional album, but the core of what they do is just so interesting me that I can't help but like it a lot every time I hear it. I'm not sure if they'll ever get back to a dirtier and more soulful sound, but simple high quality indie rock infused with the influence of African American culture is plenty fine on its own. Just a fun album all the way through.

Favorite Song: "Will Do"

3. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

Hurry Up is a double album, but a pretty slight one. On one hand that's a bit disappointing since it doesn't feel as grand as some other albums in the same format, but on the other it's pretty remarkable that something that lasts this one is so easy to get all the way through. The music freely mixes elements of electronic and rock, and produces a number of catchy, memorable songs. Maybe a bit too much time is spent on minor experiments and mood pieces, but the overall effect is a highly enjoyable listening experience.

Favorite Song: "Midnight City"

2. The Antlers - Burst Apart

Bust Apart is not as emotionally powerful as The Antlers' last record, but it was never going to be. They decided to shift gears a bit and do something with more of an electronic sound to it, without abandoning their roots, and I like it a lot, if maybe not as much as Hospice. There's nothing too showy over the top here, it's just a bunch of songs that flow well together and are filled with beautiful noises. It doesn't demand attention, but if you do listen, it's very good.

Favorite Song: "No Widows"

1. Panda Bear - Tomboy

This is a case where I'd probably have a hard time really identifying and explaining why I liked this album so much, or why I'm so comfortable calling it my favorite of the year anyway. I'm also noticing just how many of these artists are heavily using synthesized elements and becoming mildly concerned. But it's all probably pretty simple. I've mellowed out and don't really look for aggression in my music much these days, and a lot of artists who grew up when popular music was no longer exclusively relying on traditional instruments are finding new ways to use different sorts of sounds and create something unique and meaningful with them. Tomboy is not really unique, but it's finely crafted and infectiously entertaining throughout.

Favorite Song: "Afterburner"

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