Given all the music I’ve come to listen to over the last several years (300 plus LPs and EPs this year so far), you’d have thought my appreciation for the midyear list would’ve come sooner than 2011, if for no other reason than I try to be Zen about such chores. And while I know I’ve shrugged them off in the past as being a bit meaningless, I’ve moved on since, well, last July and I now see their purpose; re-visitation and repeated listens. Because the truth is, if you want to fall in love with something you need to spend time with it.
And time spent I have. All 13 of these LPs have been on heavy rotation over the last six months – some since January, some as near as two weeks ago – and all of them I’ve loved coming back to, gleaning more with each lyric memorized and each song sung aloud.
In the end, however, I narrowed it down to these few because these are the ones I felt compelled to say something about. In some ways – save for a few – the order is arbitrary, meaning next week (including my honorable mentions) things could look very different (okay, a little different).
Nevertheless, it’s a fine list. But knowing what I know about what’s out there on the future release horizon, I imagine it might look a little different come December. Or, maybe not. Maybe 2011 – like a lot of fine LPs – is frontloaded and this will be as good as it gets.
The best 13 albums of 2011 (so far)…
13. Blackbird Blackbird Halo LP
The biggest news related to the genre of chillwave/glo-fi this year will probably be the release of Washed Out’s Within and Without on uber hip indie label Sub Pop (which is a fine and pleasant record), when it should be this collection; a grab bag of B-sides, rarities (funny) and remixes from the San Francisco’s producer’s prolific output. And this is exactly why it should be news; these are castoffs. Still, don’t let the grab bag nature of the album fool you, Halo LP feels like a perfectly sequenced whole. Last year’s Summer Heart was good… this is better. The album can be grabed for “name your price” on Blackbird’s bandcamp site.
12. Frank Ocean nostalgia/ultra
You know it’s hard not to have affection for an artist with the audacity to sample The Eagles’ un- ironic magnum 70s epic “Hotel California” (oh, and I do have a soft spot for it), stretch it out a minute longer, keep the lead, and then reshape it into an equally epic story of marriage and divorce. So there’s that, but there’s also the great DIY R&B songwriting instincts, a Prince like nastiness where needed and just enough abstraction around the edges to keep it fresh.
11. Lake Giving & Receiving
Straddling a line between the 80s soul pop of China Crisis, horn driven R&B and folk rock, Lake accomplish something phenomenal; a sound drawing from clear influences while still sounding wholly original. This is an LP full of good, straightforward pop songs that feels anything but straight.
10. The Decemberists The King is Dead
Not the best Decemberists’ LP (see The Crane Wife), not even the third best (Picaresque and Castaways and Cutouts) , but that hardly matters when a record is this consistent, melodic and focused. Of course all the beloved Colin Meloy elements are here, they’re just hung from a more countrified, jangle pop line is all. And sure there are explicit nods to REM and Fleetwood Mac, but if you’re going to steal (all right, honor), why not do it from the best? Truthfully, I can’t get enough of this record.
9. Braids Native Speaker
Patient, cinematic and endlessly interesting, imagine the whimsy of Kate Bush’s voice and delivery fused with Afro Pop guitars and rhythms, and you might feel the soil between your toes from where Native Speaker is blossoming. With half the album’s songs clocking in at over 6 min., the album accomplishes something special; despite the meandering and building nature of the songcraft, one never loses interest. In part, this is due to Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s airy vocal delivery – twee one moment, full and emotional the next. A beautiful, beautiful LP from this Montréal band.
8. The Weeknd House of Balloons
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, are ever present and not easily separated from contemporary, popular music’s rebellious side. In fact, rock ‘n roll – in no small way – gets its mojo from the first two in that clichéd expression. But R&B, on the other hand, while often dripping with sexual energy, rarely gets down in the dirt with the drug part. At least, not to the extent House of Balloons does. Feeling a lot like the auditory flipside to the movie Kids, this is a slow burning, grimy, frightening exploration into the darker side of youthful sexuality. Released as a free mix tape, Balloons has generated a lot of hype, and while it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, the hype is justified.
7. Bon Iver Bon Iver
Of all the albums I’ve anticipated coming out this year, this was at the top of my list. Not quite as emotionally focused or instrumentally sparse as 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, at the heart of this sophomore eponymous release is still the haunting falsetto of Justin Vernon. And that’s what keeps it all together, even on head scratchers such as the syrupy Steve Winwood/Bruce Hornsby influenced closer “Beth/Rest”. And even though the palette here is larger, the production cleaner and the lyrical content more abstract, it’s that beautiful, unique voice that transcends it all.
6. Gang Gang Dance Eye Contact
Think Dead Can Dance meets Lene Lovich meets disco and you might have a sliver of the picture of what this neo-goth electronic group’s spaced out dance gems are all about. Never taking itself too seriously or sacrificing weirdness for melody, this is an album that begs to be taken as a whole while clearly understanding the value of a good hook.
5. James Blake James Blake
If there were another album in 2011 that so beautifully articulated that the machine has a soul, I’m not sure what it would be. And that’s a pretty heady trick to begin with — anthropomorphizing the machine in a way that makes you want to cuddle up and spoon with it for hours. But that’s why this album is so mesmerizing, and why I keep coming back to it, in spite of the post-dubstep, locked in rythms, vague message and heavily processed vocals – all of which I’m quite down with – this is a soul record first and foremost.
4. Cut/Copy Zonoscope
The third LP from this Australian group, Zonoscope owes as much to Australian new wave icons Icehouse as it does modern dance music. Fusing elements of electro, psychedelic rock and new wave, Cut/Copy have created an album that feels like a night out at the club. Sequenced to perfection and capped off with the epic trance infused 15 min. plus “Sun God”, the DJ DNA that runs strong in this group, is ever more apparent and greatly appreciated. The best dance oriented album of the year.
3. Mathemagic II
Measured, shimmering, reverb drenched, with a heavy dose of pre-sunrise beach vibe thrown in for imagery’s sake, this is the quintessential summer soundtrack for 2011. Male/female vocals harmonize, wraparound your heart, ebb and flow like a coastal eddy marine layer you hypnotically welcome and then burns clear beneath a sunny pop song structure, its gold. A warm, narcoticly paced wonderment.
2. Mirrors Lights and Offerings
We’re living in a time where calling a lot of today’s music derivative – while often true – is a bit pointless. Because in and of itself, what difference does it make? But here’s the thing, while it may be pointless to label it as such, more often than not it leaves one craving for the real thing. This is not the case with Lights And Offerings. In fact, Mirrors have created an authentic dark synthpop wonder that stands with the best of the earliest recordings by Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Human League or OMD. With hooks that run for miles and not a weak spot to be found, this is the album I’d hoped OMD’s comeback LP last year had sounded like.
1. Destroyer Kaputt
Not missing a step between 2009’s epic nu-disco masterpiece Bay of Pigs EP (a portend of brilliant things to follow) and this equally masterful LP, Destroyer have crafted two of the most compelling pieces of songcraft I’ve heard in a long time. Smart, Emotional, groove laden and laced with saxophones (not an easy thing to pull off since the 80s – the saxophones, that is), Kaputt is an unqualified pop accomplishment of quixotic depths. Hyperbole aside – and history will bear this out, mark my words – this is one of independent music’s finest moments.
Honorable Mentions (Very):
Big Spider’s Back Memory Man; Shabazz Palaces Black Up; COOLRUNNINGS Dracula Is Only The Beginning; Holy Ghost! Holy Ghost!; The Generationals Actor-Caster; Beastie Boys Hot Sauce Committee Part 2; People Like Us Welcome Abroad; Panda Bear Tomboy; PJ Harvey Let England Shake; Hezekiah Jones Have You Seen Our New Friend; Monogrenade Tantale; SBTRKT SBTRKT; tUnE yArDs WHOKILL; Two Beasts Smother