As always at this time of year, we've asked some of our resident music critics what their favorite albums of 2011 were. Three writers weighed in last week, and this week, we present three more opinions on the matter.
(in no particular order)
In the Annals of Pointlessness (which are kept in the Catacombs of Futility, out past the Cliffs of Insanity), few things have risen to the level of the following list. Making it even more pointless is the Internet, where you could conceivably spend the rest of your entire waking life reading nothing but top-album lists from 2011, and they'd mostly comprise the same 150 or so records from the past year. You'd also read the words "chillwave" and "dubstep" so many times that your brain would dribble out ya ears.
Loath as I am to add to that morass, add to it, I must, under the terms of my multimillion- dollar contract with the Tucson Weekly.
Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne (Roc Nation/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
The good news: Jay-Z and Kanye both released a 2011 album, and it's the SAME ONE. The bad news: It's a little too indulgent of Kanye, and the whole isn't necessarily greater than the sum of the parts. The good news II: It's a Jay-Z and Kanye album! Like, together! It gets the people goin'!
Wye Oak, Civilian (Merge)
This deservedly appears on most year-end best lists. It's a blissed-out (read: female singer) yet melancholic tour of indie-rock touchstones with obvious Sonic Youth and Bettie Serveert influences.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Fat Possum)
Somehow, U.M.O. bottled Andy Summers' guitar sound from Zenyatta Mondatta and used it to ask the excellent question: "How can you luv me / when you don't like me, bay-bay?"
The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch)
They keep getting better with each release. Adding Danger Mouse to the mix certainly didn't hurt, but I suspect they're keeping a photo of REO Speedwagon in their attic that gets uglier by the year.
tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l (4AD)
The most sonically inventive album of 2011, from New England beat-looper Merrill Garbus, a chick who sounds like a dude who sounds like a chick, as one intrepid YouTube commenter put it.
Tom Waits, Bad as Me (ANTI-)
It feels like his best record released in any year that starts with a 2. But as I sit here and listen to Real Gone for comparison, I'm not so sure. Anyway, it's great. It's Tom Waits; you either appreciate him, or you're a dummy.
Mariachi El Bronx, Mariachi El Bronx (II) (ATO)
I know what you're thinking—take a shitty punk rock band, and have them record a mariachi album, and put it out on Dave Matthews' label—that must be 4chan trolling the Vans Warped Tour crowd. But the truth is, that shit somehow works. Undoubtedly, some mariachi purists would have a problem with it, but if you stay off the mariachi-purist chat boards, no worries.
Marcellus Hall, The First Line (Glacial Pace)
The first time in my life I ever cried upon first listen to a song was to this album's "One Drop of Rain." That means either it's extremely moving, or I'm "emo." Probably both.
Lenguas Largas, Lenguas Largas (Recess)
The second full-length from Lenguas Largas is the best local album released in 2011. It's as nimble a slab of melodic punk as I've ever heard. If it had been released as 10 tracks of static plus the anthemic "I Feel," I still would have included it on this list.
John Vanderslice, White Wilderness (Dead Oceans)
The woefully underappreciated Vanderslice again demonstrates that he is deserving of wider renown, that he is a reliably excellent songwriter, and yet ... and yet.
(in order of preference)
Did I listen to Adele? No. Did I like Bon Iver? Sure, like, not LIKE. Musically, 2011 seemed at first pass paltry, but ended up proving too fertile to stop at 10 spots. So, here is my list, as well as a list of near-misses. Also, the fact that the Beach Boys' Smile finally—as The Smile Sessions—saw the light of day in 2011 is too transcendent to ignore or overstate (read: buy, listen and love it already).
1. Tom Waits, Bad as Me (ANTI-)
At 62, Waits indicts contemporary America with profound relevancy and rancor on this stellar release. There's lounge-noir, trash-heap rock and drunken flamenco, with Waits' inimitable bleat and worldview to brilliantly guide the way. A wonderful album that cuts to the bone and plucks the heartstrings in equal measure.
2. Destroyer, Kaputt (Merge)
A gorgeous album whose lush, indulgent atmospherics (smoky saxophones, trickling guitar figures, synthesizer arpeggios) belie Dan Bejar's prickly outlook and distant vocals. The most acridly charming and classy statement of apocalyptic fervor released in some time.
3. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther Sounds)
This young outfit beefed up their already impressive resume with this stunner that's sacred without sacrificing the profane, soulful without embracing the saccharine. Fragile pop melodies buttress against throttled glam guitar reveries so perfectly that they seem like kissing cousins.
4. The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch)
Too fun to ignore and too skillful to dismiss, this thrilling, concise release of fuzzy boogies, terse rockers and gutsy glam found the Black Keys remaining astoundingly relevant when its well-worn formula seemed destined for impoverishment.
5. Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm)
From the swaggering crunch of "I Might," to the bubbly grind of "Whole Love," to the breathless, wounded beauty of "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," Wilco grandly strutted back into the spotlight.
6. Drake, Take Care (Cash Money)
The 2011 contender for The Great Bummer hip-hop album. Lachrymose club anthems deliriously peppered with bathic serio-comic commentary. ("I've had sex four times this week, I'll explain: Having a hard time adjusting to fame." Hi-larious.)
7. Eleanor Friedberger, Last Summer (Merge)
Eclectic and delightful, Friedberger's solo outing is a breezy throwback to the '70s glut of singer-songwriter chanteuses; yet, be it vamp or hoedown, Friedberger struts with iconoclastic appeal.
8. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo (Matador)
Injured and flagrant, this album of baleful and blissful psychedelic folk has insidious charms. Vile's jangly guitars, snarled drawl and hazy atmospherics prove immensely entrancing.
9. The Caretaker, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (History Always Favours the Winners)
An eerie, ethereal and evocative album derived primarily from crackly 78s. A potential gimmick turned haunting by its ties to Alzheimer's and the deft musical ear of the Caretaker (James Kirby).
10. Fucked Up, David Comes to Life (Matador)
And now for something completely different: a sprawling, ambitious prog-rock-hardcore opera that is every bit as mind-blowing and batty as that sounds. Tough and vulnerable, it's a relentlessly invigorating, smartly executed guitar symphony.
And, when you've exhausted those options (and need a break from Smile), give these a spin: Okkervil River, I Am Very Far; Wu Lyf, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain; Bright Eyes, The People's Key; The Roots, Undun; Handsome Furs, Sound Kapital; Los Campesinos!, Hello Sadness; PJ Harvey, Let England Shake; Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne; EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints; Arctic Monkeys, Suck It and See.
(in order of preference)
1. Tom Waits, Bad as Me (ANTI-)
f you agree—in any way—that "Hell Broke Luce" in 2011, then Bad as Me is the record to turn to for some wisdom and advice amid the chaos. Dark, preposterous, incensed and confrontational, Bad as Me encapsulates a year that saw misery boil over into anger. The message Waits delivers, through stomps and shouts: This year's optimism is found in revolt.
2. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)
Adam Granduciel takes some cues from Dylan and Springsteen, but Slave Ambient is on an entirely different sonic plane. On a dense bed of layered loops, ambient tones and swirling textures are striking and forceful rock songs, a sort of classic rock from some alternate universe.
3. Wye Oak, Civilian (Merge)
Psychedelic folk might be an accurate label, but it falls far short of capturing what's so successful about Wye Oak's dynamic sound. "Civilian" is my top song of the year, a gathering storm—tense, beautiful and otherworldly—that then explodes with chaotic energy.
4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
Justin Vernon buried his quiet, somber muse and set out to chase a multihued adventurous one on Bon Iver. It's a provocative shift, but the album's complexity feeds off an exploratory urgency that pushes the songs into a bigger world, with rich instrumentation and an impressive depth and fluidity.
5. Richard Buckner, Our Blood (Merge)
An esoteric and challenging songwriter, Buckner is second to none. Our Blood is an album of resuscitated and patched sounds, of peripheral intrusions, of expelled breath. Its songs are full of strange and seemingly disconnected details, short on explanatory meat, but marvelously evocative.
6. Roadside Graves, We Can Take Care of Ourselves (Autumn Tone)
Using S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders as a cornerstone, the Roadside Graves explore the struggles of outsiders everywhere, with a sprawling sort of Americana that expertly keys in on the songs' emotional shifts.
7. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear)
On his best album since Graceland, Paul Simon is both meditative and fearless, writing songs with restless curiosity to probe spirituality, mortality and the endless, mysterious power of love.
8. Akron/Family, Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT (Dead Oceans)
An album written on a Japanese volcano and recorded in an abandoned Detroit train station, this is a musical collage of ideas and sounds, pushing the experimental boundaries of folk music.
9. Murs, Love and Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation (BluRoc)
One of hip-hop's most distinctly talented lyricists, Murs teams with producer Ski Beatz on an album of odes to love and marriage, international travelogues and vivid narratives.
10. Crooked Fingers, Breaks in the Armor (Merge)
Sparse in sound and blunt in lyrics, Eric Bachmann's latest is an album about vulnerability and perseverance, songs that speak to intensely personal struggles.
Honorable Mention: As one of the organizers/producers of the Luz de Vida compilation, it's hardly fair for me to include it in the list. But it's a stunning collection of songs that meant more to me this year than any other music.
Wilco, The Whole Love; Mr. Gnome, Madness in Miniature; Amos Lee, Mission Bell; Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues; The Low Anthem, Smart Flesh; Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest; The Roots, Undun; Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean; Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde; Generationals, Actor-Caster; St. Vincent, Strange Mercy; Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo.