Someone asked if I read the other “albums of the year” lists before I put out mine. I try my best to avoid them until I finish mine, but I did scan NPR’s to make sure I didn’t forget anything. I’ll be scouring all of them now. Here is the conclusion of my top albums of the year list. Be sure to list yours in the comments and look out for the songs of the year list (and mixtape).
#20 – #16
#15 – #8
7. Cut Copy – Zonoscope (cop it here for $3.99 last I saw)
Aussie outfit Cut Copy pulled back on the electro anthems that made In Ghost Colours a dance party in 2008, but not too much. Good thing Cut Copy happens to excel at driving guitar rhythms ( “Where I’m Going”, “Hanging On To Every Hearbeat”) just as much as their trademark addictive, electro grooves (“Take Me Over”,”Need You Now”). “Need You Now”‘s bubbling synth and soaring hook made for one of my favorite album openers of 2011.
Australian Dance Off: “Blink and You’ll Miss The Revolution”, “Hanging On To Every Heartbeat”, “Take Me Over”, “Need You Now”
6. The Black Keys – El Camino (cop it here)
I don’t particularly discriminate against anything these fellas put out. While I do prefer the days of just Dan on guitar and Pat on the drum kit, the Akron, OH duo’s progression consistently shows one steady attribute: No matter how many other instruments and effects are added to the Black Keys’ mix, they know how to make infectious hits. “Dead and Gone” and “Nova Baby” sparkle with ’60s style back-up vocals and twinkling keys, while “Gold On The Ceiling” and “Run Right Back” could have been a Brothers left over with furious electric organ. Fans of past albums will no doubt love the way “Little Black Submarines” teases with an acoustic opening before turning into a bruising blues rock masterpiece a la “I Got Mine”. Its easy to just say “Danger Mouse co-produced it, thats why its good”, but I think Dan and Pat had just as much to do with how great this album sounds.
Walk of Rock: “Lonely Boy”, “Little Black Submarines”, “Gold On The Ceiling”, “Nova Baby”
5. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (cop it here)
Double disc efforts seem like daunting listens in days where albums don’t get attention like they used to. M83 offered up a refreshing reason why the album format should live on. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming breezes by, but pauses long enough to command attention with synergy of electronic pop (“Midnight City”), new wave (“New Map”, “Steve McQueen”) and ambient elements (“Splendor”, “Intro”, “My Tears Are Becoming A Sea”) from past M83 releases. Is it alright if “Reunion” and “Claudia Lewis” sound straight outta Duran Duran’s playbook circa Rio? I’ll support it.
Dreamscapes: “Steve McQueen”, “Midnight City”, “Intro”, “Wait”
4. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (cop it here)
Three years was definitely worth the wait. Robin Peckhold & co’s debut was a genius work of folk gems, including “White Winter Hymnal”, “Your Protector” and others. Helplessness Blues is in the same vein, but feels much more complete. The harmonies more eloquently arranged (“The Plains/Bitter Dancer”, “Battery Kinzie”), the stories more interesting (“Helplessness Blues”, “Lorelei”) and the instrumentation more grand (“The Cascades”, “Battery Kinzie”). To come away from an album feeling as though you’ve listened to something epic even after multiple listens is pretty astounding.
Mountain Magic: “Battery Kinzie”, “Sim Sala Bim”, “Helplessness Blues”, “Grown Ocean”
3. The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient (cop it here for $5)
Slave Ambient is definitely not something me from 20 years ago would be listen to, although it does sound like it came from that era of alternative rock. The War On Drugs more than aptly conjure memories of My Bloody Valentine painting narratives of heartbreak (“Best Night”) with elements of shoegaze (“City Reprise #12”) and art rock (“Your Love Is Calling My Name”). Lead singer Adam Granduciel has a voice that many have compared to Bob Dylan, but on “Come To The City” he sounds more like Bruce Springsteen sharing sights from a journey that leads right back to a past love. While we are making comparisons, “Baby Missles” could even be the American answer to Arcade Fire’s anthem “Keep The Car Running” with fiery harmonica and awash with synth.
Slave To The Art: “Your Love Is Calling My Name”, “Come To The City”, “Baby Missles”, “I Was There”
2. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes (cop it here)
As I witnessed not too long ago, Lykke Li wasn’t going to sick back idly in 2011. If Youth Novels was a set of diary entries of a budding songstress, Wounded Rhymes is a collection of confident statements of a chanteuse. From pained lyrics of heartbreak (“Unrequited Love”, “I Know Places”, “Jerome”) to boastful taunts of sexual power (“Get Some”, “Love Out Of Lust”) and desperate love (“I Follow Rivers”) Li gives listeners an open look into her soul. “Sadness is A Blessing” is one of the most powerful in turning a song about a bittersweet break-up into an anthem.
Regal Rhymes: “Sadness Is A Blessing”, “Silent My Song”, “Youth Knows No Pain”, “I Follow Rivers”
1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (cop it here)
You know the story by now. Justin Vernon heads to a cabin in the north Wisconsin woods after a band and gf break up. From that journey comes For Emma, Forever Ago, a breakthrough album for Vernon and one of the best of 2008. Not long after, Kanye West hears of Bon Iver after then gf Amber Rose chooses a Bon Iver show over one of West’s. West eventually invites Vernon to Hawaii to work on what becomes Kanye’s first masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Between those events, the Bon Iver frontman had time to contribute to a few compilations, join a couple side projects (Volcano Choir, Collections of Colonies of Bees, GAYNGS) and get a day named in his honor.
I wouldn’t say that collaborating in the studio with Kanye shaped Bon Iver, but I would say it was an influence. While Emma was a heart-breaking, bare bones, solo affair, everything is bigger, grander and more polished on Bon Iver. Vernon expanded the number of instruments to include everything from classical strings to synthesizer to French horn and saxophone. Surprisingly, pedal steel guitar makes more than one appearance doesn’t come off like a cheesy country ballad. Even vocal effects used so well on the Blood Bank EP, pop up on various occasions but work best on ’80s inspired (Bruce Hornsby anyone?) celebration of life piece, “Beth/Rest”. The narratives of Bon Iver still focus on love and heartache, but this time around have a less gut wrenching approach. Vernon touches on the roller coaster of young love (“Michicant”, “Towers”), falling out of love (“Calgary”) and isolation (“Perth”). There isn’t a single skippable track, but “Holocene” stands out as a majestic composition with subtle guitar strings and percussion while Vernon’s hushed vocals reference the realization that he is just a small piece of a larger moment in time.
Wisconsin Wonders: “Towers”, “Holocene”, “Michicant”, “Perth”
Hype Machine also has this hand best of album picker that you can share with friends. I highly recommend it.