I don’t think there’s much merit in independent bloggers/writers counting down an ordered list of 20 or 30 albums. I’m interested in reading huge lists like Pitchfork’s and the Pazz & Jop poll, because dozens or hundreds of critics participate; they represent an actual critical consensus. But how am I supposed to parse out the difference between #15 and #14 on my own personal list? Does it have any actual meaning, for me or for anyone reading?
With that in mind, I’ve split my own coverage of my favourite 2011 albums into two segments: 5 albums I’ve grown to love and revisit repeatedly, and another group of 10 that I feel strongly about and spent a lot of time with throughout the year. I could easily list another 15 or 20 honourable mentions, and I’m neglecting plenty of records I listened to a lot, but at some point I need to restrain myself.
As I’m sure you’ve gleaned from the title, I’m starting with that second group of 10 albums I enjoyed a lot but didn’t quite love. They’re getting listed in 2 chunks of 5, and the first one is below:
The Antlers - Burst Apart
The Antlers aren’t impacting the Billboard charts in a meaningful way or earning multiple Grammy nods, but Burst Apart takes the emotional, woodsy rock offered up by Bon Iver this year and refines it. The melodies are more insistent and less wandering and the vocals are stronger (“Rolled Together” and “Corsicana” are two of the finest vocal performances in rock this year); of course, the album has slipped completely off the map. I loved Bon Iver, Bon Iver initially, but after a half-year or so of listening Burst Apart has endured, remaining as fresh and direct as it was in May.
Atlas Sound - Parallax
Parallax is a tough nut to crack, because it traffics in the sort of intimacy and personal connection that doesn’t get absorbed on the first listen. After spending hours with these songs, cracks in their cold façades begin to reveal themselves: the easy shuffle of “The Shakes”, the bubbling layers of “Te Amo”, the raw pain and ensuing apotheosis rolled into “My Angel is Broken”. When the shambling “Lightworks” winds down, it feels like sunrise after a long, lonely night. If nothing else, Parallax is a continuation of Bradford Cox’s undeniable hot streak and another collection of unadorned, striking tracks that are wholly his.
Beirut - The Rip Tide
The Rip Tide is a triumph of simple songcraft over empty bombast. I spent all summer enjoying the breezy, joyous pop of “Santa Fe” and “Vagabond”; when temperatures started to drop, I transitioned nicely to the starker landscapes of “Goshen” and the title track without pause. The Rip Tide remains worthy and listenable across seasons, weeks, and months because its melodies are timeless and it remains consistent across its nine tracks. This is probably my pick for the year’s most underrated album.
Drake - Take Care
Is it possible to enjoy Take Care without engaging in the personal dialogue surrounding its creator? Drake has become so divisive that he inevitably distorts listener perception of his music. Drake might be sensitive, he might be an asshole, and he’s probably both - that’s an argument I don’t want to delve into. But there’s no denying that when evaluated purely for its musical merit, Take Care represents a huge leap in every regard over Thank Me Later. His rapping ranges from sufficient to strong on every track, his guests all pull their weight, and few records can match the strength of 40’s production. The album’s highlights run the gamut from innovative pop (“Take Care”) to unprecedented emotional minimalism (“Marvins Room”) to massive, glitzy bombast (“Lord Knows”). On top of that, Take Care inspired some of the year’s best music writing from people like Sean Fennessey and Zach Baron, veterans with respected taste and chops. At this point, what else is there to say? I think everyone knows where they stand on Take Care by now; I’m firmly in the “like” column.
My Morning Jacket - Circuital
2011 was a strong year for wily veterans of indie rock and folk: Bill Callahan, Wilco and Ryan Adams all released records ranging from “very solid” to “quite good”. Circuital is the record from that realm that I liked the most (just edging out The Whole Love), and I still find myself coming back to its balance of old-fashioned, well-executed rock and MMJ’s sublimated experimental tendencies. There’s something for everyone to enjoy on this record: the lengthy, loose jamming of the title track, the fluttering melodies of “The Day is Coming” and “You Wanna Freak Out”, the pure tenderness of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”. Personally, I enjoyed all of it.
Yesterday I started end-of-2011 coverage (unimaginatively dubbed Greatest Hits) with a first chunk of albums I liked a lot but didn’t quite love. Here’s the second bundle of 5:
Neon Indian - Era Extraña
Era Extraña drew me in with its fantastic, memorable singles and then trapped me with its unique brand of dizzy, future-shocked romanticism. First, those singles: I’d put up this album’s triptych of “Polish Girl”, “Fallout” and “Halogen (I Could Be a Star)” against any other 2011 record’s best three. I can’t say enough about them: all three explode from gooey, synth-laden verses into these titanic, starry-eyed choruses. They dwarf you as you listen. After their effects wear off, the rest of the album starts to sink in: the humid atmospherics of the “Heart:” series, the pop-glitch of “Hex Girlfriend”. Era Extraña is the sound of Alan Palomo murdering chillwave and bringing it back to life as a lovelorn cyborg.
Panda Bear - Tomboy
Roughly a week ago, Rawkblog proprietor Dave Greenwald posited the following questions: “Do you remember that Panda Bear even put out a record? Could you name a single song from it?” I think Tomboy was destined to fall through the cracks from the very beginning, devoid of the sunny glow and euphoric release that defined Person Pitch. It’s a very dark album, rich with mysticism and desolate moments; even its most melodic entry (the sublime “Last Night at the Jetty”) is underlined by longing and failing memory. Its climax and defining track is the angry, clashing maelstrom of “Afterburner”, and relief doesn’t arrive until the soothing waves of closer “Benfica”. It’s an album that forces you to confront ugly, misshapen sounds and uncomfortable ideas. Tomboy was never going to match Person Pitch; honestly, I’m glad it didn’t try.
St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Strange Mercy is another album that crept up on me over multiple listens and wormed its way into my heart. It’s a testament to the quality of these songs that they still find ways to surprise me, even after spending hours with them: the lurching “Dilettante”, the jittery art-funk of “Surgeon”, the lyrical unpleasantries of the title track. And if “lurching” and “jittery” don’t sound particularly appetizing to you, there’s always “Cruel”, Annie Clark’s turn towards the pop light that’s one of my favourite cuts from 2011. If you haven’t given the album a chance, don’t get scared away by the seasick atmosphere or the guitar crunch; let Strange Mercy find your weak point.
tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l
I like this album so much that it’s included despite possessing the most frustrating artist/album name combo of the year. w h o k i l l is a record defined by its balance between moments of ecstatic joy and uncomfortable, unrelenting darkness. The juxtaposition of sweet musical elements and startling lyrical imagery, like the flighty coo of “Policeman shot my baby as he crossed over my doorstep”, remains fresh and intriguing months after the first listen. The peaks of “Powa” and “Bizness” are still undeniable too, although my favourite song from w h o k i l l is “You Yes You”, a beacon of unfiltered optimism. Everything’s going to be OK, everything’s going to be alright, I put my back into it, hit repeat.
Washed Out - Within and Without
Within and Without represents the other path of chillwave evolution: where Alan Palomo moved into the future and embraced glitchy electronic landscapes, Ernest Greene looked to the (recent) past, to trip-hop and R&B. (I suppose Chaz Bundick traveled even further, into the realm of ’70s jazz-pop, but I digress.) Within and Without is a sweaty, humid record: synths and percussion hang heavy and low over every single track. I spent all of July and August grooving to the muted thump of “Echoes” and the glittering sheen of “Soft”, and to my surprise they still play relatively well in the frosty Canadian December. Between Era Extraña, Within and Without, and Toro y Moi’s quite-solid Underneath the Pine, 2011 offered plenty of proof that chillwave’s leading men could support the style that initially defined them with individual chunks of musical substance.
Until this weekend, I placed Watch the Throne on the other side of the like/love divide. I spent a lot of time listening to it, in a variety of environments (At work! At home! At parties! While running!) but my feelings for the album leaned toward tremendous respect rather than adoration.
Let’s rewind to last Friday night. I am standing in a crowded group of friends, Christmas lights strung around the room, couches moved to the perimeter. A party playlist drawn up on Spotify is tossing out inoffensive dance cuts and frat-friendly rock. I think I’m clutching a Boddington’s at this point.
The next song was “Niggas in Paris”, and I don’t think I’m making an overstatement by saying I completely lost my shit. In some ways, it was a transformative experience: surrounded by some of my best friends, hopping and dancing, yelling out every word in perfect time without spilling a drop. I was balling so hard motherfuckers wanted to fine me. I unleashed my inner Jay and ‘Ye for the first time.
Here’s the thing: this happened multiple times for the rest of the night. For “Otis”, I sang along with Redding and pretended to drive the infamous skeletal Maybach. When the beat dropped in on “Who Gon Stop Me”, I pumped my fist as my friend Hammond jumped off the couch; The Throne made me punch someone in the face. By the early hours of the morning, I was standing on one of the couches too, a sweaty, Throned mess. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to.
The next night, my friend Rolfe and I went to another bash where we exerted considerably less control over the stereo. We walked in the door and were greeted by the digital coo of Jason DeRulo. Within an hour, we had somehow commandeered the laptop DJ station. Our first choice: “Niggas in Paris”, round 2. We couldn’t resist the gold-plated pull, the Hermes verses, the sophisticated ignorance. We needed The Throne.
I love this album.
I’ll briefly allow myself a more serious argument than “it’s so fun to rap to at parties!” Watch the Throne is actually one of the year’s most subversive and educational records via its combination of sociopolitical dialogue and wide-ranging appeal. What other album could’ve had drunk college boys bemoaning the lack of ethnic women in the realms of high art and fashion? What other duo could’ve sneakily administered the clueless public a healthy dose of Otis Redding and James Brown and Nina Simone? There are surprises on the other side of the coin too: how many people who would describe themselves as “hard” were treated to (and loved) Jay-Z whispering “shhh, don’t wake Nana?” It might not be seamless, and it might not be perfect, but its supermassiveness and lasting prominence cannot be denied. (What other 2011 record is spawning memes a full quarter after its release?)
Watch the Throne finds itself in an odd situation: very few records have spawned as much legitimate serious critical discussion, and yet I think that same hyper-intelligent criticism detracts from one of the album’s greatest strengths. Strip away the income-gap rap concerns and the social ramifications of “Murder to Excellence” - how many 2011 records are this fun? I dare you to find a more gleeful, giddy, purely joyous nine-minute stretch than “Niggas in Paris”-“Otis”-“Gotta Have It”.
When I boil down everything I have to say and everything I feel about Watch the Throne into a single statement, it comes out something like this: only one or two other records this year have consistently made me feel this happy. What more can I say? They’re killing ‘em.
While revisiting Helplessness Blues, I kept coming back to a single memory from last winter. It was April, and still frosty in Timmins; I was running in jacket and tights, with socks over my hands in lieu of actual gloves. It was around 6:00, and the sun was starting to sink beneath the tree line. I crested the last of a series of hills, and was greeted with a sweeping view of the city glowing in purples, reds and pinks. I was listening to “Grown Ocean”, and Robin Pecknold sang, “I’ll be so happy just to have spoken.” I stopped my watch and stood there for a minute, breathing heavily, because it had been a really shitty few months and this seemed like the kind of “special moment” I could look back on later as some sort of turning point. And it was!
I’m having trouble evaluating Helplessness Blues with much objectivity, because the songs on this album are inextricably tied to the transitional period that was March and April of this year, to feeling alone and desperate and - yes, helpless - and then doing something about it. This is an album of yearning: for a more certain future, for a life with purpose, for connection with friends and lovers. For some, this reads like maudlin post-adolescent blather, but these are messages and themes that are entirely resonant for me in 2011. I can relate to worrying about growing up, and measuring myself against my parents and role models, and feeling disillusioned about our now-innate sense of exceptionalism. And it’s reassuring to hear all of these fears and concerns wrapped up into a warm, gorgeous, masterfully crafted record.
Yes, gorgeous: sometimes the sheer beauty of Helplessness Blues can be overwhelming. This is not an album that relies on gimmickry or trends to lure in listeners. Simple melodies are painted over with intricate harmony and complex arrangements to great effect on songs like “Lorelei”, which lays down a pleasant guitar line and then bursts into frame with a dozen other components. The band has other weapons, too; they’re masters of rolling along at a steady pace and then abruptly shifting gears, launching into a new segment of harmony or making greater use of space. On “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” and the title track, the effect is akin to switching from standard to high definition. It’s breathtaking.
The album delivers a killer blow with “Grown Ocean”, which is perhaps my favourite closer of the year. It’s different from the rest of the record, more propulsive and brighter and hopeful, with a giddy stomp that sweeps everything up and carries it along. “In that dream, I could hardly contain it / all my life, I will wait to attain it.” It’s bursting at the seams with optimism and promise for the future. In a live version recorded at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, Pecknold can’t contain himself, exploding into a near-shout when singing the above line. I completely understand that, because “Grown Ocean” makes me feel that way too, like the worst is over and it might’ve just been a bad dream. The first eleven tracks break my heart, and this one puts it back together. I love this album.
I’m not going to break new ground by noting that 2011 has been another year of super-accelerated musical hype and reception. Bands push out their debuts in January and February and feel like seasoned indie vets by November and December. (Say what you will about Lana del Rey, but she’s been chewed up, swallowed, digested and excreted months before releasing an actual record.) With that said, the gradual progression of Real Estate has been really refreshing: they put out a debut, toured, went back to the drawing board, and emerged with Days, a record that improves in every way over their first.
I think part of my affection for Days is tied to the magnitude with which it improves over its predecessor. One of my favourite things to witness as a legacy-minded music fan is a young band “making the leap”, separating themselves from their contemporaries and showcasing a newfound level of potential. Initially, Real Estate was just one member of a class of beach-minded guitar-poppers that emerged c. 2009; none of their counterparts have released even a single with this level of maturity or craftsmanship, much less an entire album.
I want to tackle those two descriptors, because “maturity” and “craftsmanship” are big words to throw around without support. Days is remarkable for having a clear, direct, well-defined aesthetic. The band takes a standard brand of melodic guitar-rock and very quickly creates their own style, and works within that realm for the entirety of the album without feeling stale or overdone. They can play bouncy and straight-forward (“It’s Real”), wistful and bittersweet (“Wonder Years”), and simply pretty (every song). They even hint at something a little more anthemic with “All the Same”, the slowly-unspooling closer. All of these songs are built upon the same basic template, and it’s a testament to the strength of their melody and structure that they don’t quickly become boring.
When Days was released, many people jumped on a fairly-obvious comparison to recently-retired American heroes R.E.M. However, I think there’s another band with whom Real Estate shares a few commonalities (and I’ve mentioned it before): Deerhunter are a little more seasoned at this point, but they experienced the same progression from rough early efforts to increasingly well-made, cohesive albums. Their touchstones are more diverse (kraut, shoegaze, doo-wop, etc.) but both groups are clearly influenced by various progenitors without seeming derivative. Last year Deerhunter put out Halcyon Digest, a major leap forward and an album that only they could’ve made. Real Estate isn’t quite there yet, but Days is their own giant step towards taking on the mantle of “the great American rock band”. I love this album.
Since releasing “Run the World (Girls)” in mid-April, Beyoncé has ran the Internet. Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane: the breathless press releases and ensuing culture-aggregator blog posts, the mini-documentaries, the comprehensive album coverage, the music videos, the unintentionally viral videos, the live DVD, the Babyoncé, the faked Babyoncé, and the GIFs. Oh, the GIFs! Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook are supersaturated with Beyoncé at this point.
So yes, I’m well aware that the corners of the Internet I make my nest in have embraced one of the world’s preeminent pop stars with wide-open arms. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like 4 is a secret treasure I’ve uncovered, a collection of songs created for my eyes only. It’s mine! It’s all for me! And perhaps that is 4’s greatest triumph, the translation of the super-universal into the utterly personal.
4 takes simple lines of lyrics that read fairly bland on paper and turns them into mantras imbued with all sorts of meaning. “I know you don’t care too much but I still care”, “I miss you like every day”, “We like to party”, “Finally! You put my love on top.” Its musical versatility is underrated: the Princely drama of “1+1”, the languid, goopy synths of “Party”, the retro-minded glamour of “Rather Die Young”, the ebullient Whitney-isms of “Love on Top”, the militarism of “Run the World (Girls)”. There’s “Countdown”, the one song on the record that transcends genre and comparison, other than calling it Beyoncé Music. No one else could’ve created it: it required this woman at this point in her life (married, mature, child-ready) with this culture’s emphasis on instant pleasure and its meme economy. That’s another thing about 4: no other pop record suits the present so well. Gaga keeps one eye locked on thirty-year old rock cheese and excess with Born This Way, Adele’s 21 is a callback to the good ‘ol days of monolithic adult-aimed pop, and Rihanna is a sex-starved cyborg who transcends simple concerns like time. In this way, 4 is the pop album of 2011.
I’ve listened to 4 in almost every conceivable scenario since its release. I’ve listened at home, at work, while studying, while running, while reading, while angry, cynical, lovesick, drunk, hungover, while asleep. Beyoncé has been my mother, sister, confidante, and lover. She can be whatever you need her to be: you project onto 4 and it delivers what you’re looking for in your pop music. In one way or another, it will bring you joy.
I’m going to read many, many takes on 4 over the next few weeks. Better writers, worse writers, incredibly personal reflections, technical musical analysis, chart performance recaps, GIF compilations: they’re all coming down the pipeline and cascading down onto my dashboard. And honestly, I really believe that none of them will match the passion and the honesty of whatever I’ve said about the album, because that’s what 4 does: it makes you feel like no one could possibly love it more than you do, like no one could reach the depths of your fandom. It’s pop music for everyone that slowly morphs into something wholly personal and just for you. I can’t imagine living without it. And I hope that this became painfully clear despite my incoherence in the paragraphs above: I love this album.
First, a confession: writing about Kaputt intimidates me. Maybe that’s a measure of my reverence for this album: I want to do it justice and handle it with care, and I’m not sure if I’m good enough. But it’s the end of the year, and this is my favourite record of 2011, and I can’t let December slip by without attempting some sort of definitive statement. I hope I accomplish something by trying and passionately failing.
After some very, very long-winded album talk, I’m going to do my best to keep this list fairly short. These are 30 of my favourite songs from the past year. I don’t have the requisite software to create a Spotify playlist; if someone ends up throwing one together out of boredom/the goodness of their heart, I’ll reblog this with a link attached. (Also, the few songs bolded are the ones I love a tiny bit more than all the others. I’ll be listening to them for a very long time.)
Araabmuzik, “Streetz Tonight”
Azari & III, “Reckless (With Your Love)”
Beirut, “Santa Fe”
Beyoncé, “Love on Top”
Bill Callahan, “Riding for the Feeling”
Cass McCombs, “County Line”
DJ Shadow, “Scale it Back”
Drake, “Take Care”
Eleanor Friedberger, “Roosevelt Island”
Fleet Foxes, “Grown Ocean”
Jamie xx, “Far Nearer”
John Maus, “Believer”
Lady Gaga, “The Edge of Glory”
M83, “Midnight City”
Neon Indian, “Polish Girl”
Neon Indian, “Halogen (I Could Be a Star)”
Panda Bear, “Last Night at the Jetty”
Pure X, “Voices”
The Rapture, “It Takes Time to Be a Man”
Real Estate, “It’s Real”
Sandro Perri, “Changes”
St. Vincent, “Cruel”
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, “Forever 28”
The Throne, “Niggas in Paris”
Toro y Moi, “Still Sound”
Washed Out, “Soft”
I like to wrap things up at the end of the year by reviewing cold, hard scrobbles (via Last.fm). It’s one thing to claim love for an album, and another thing entirely to back up that love with hours upon hours of listening. So did I really love every album I waxed poetic about? Let’s find out.
The first metric I use to gauge an album’s popularity is as simple as it gets: how many times did I listen to its tracks? Here are my top-20 most listened to albums by that standard, ties included:
Beyoncé, 4: 806
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues: 686
Destroyer, Kaputt: 660
Panda Bear, Tomboy: 546
Real Estate, Days: 469
Drake, Take Care: 464
Beirut, The Rip Tide: 385
The Throne, Watch the Throne: 369
Neon Indian, Era Extraña: 336
Toro y Moi, Underneath the Pine: 327
tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l: 302
Radiohead, The King of Limbs: 280
Atlas Sound, Parallax: 279
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Mirror Traffic: 244
My Morning Jacket, Circuital: 239
Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver: 234
M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming: 215
Washed Out, Within and Without: 189
James Blake, James Blake: 174
Cut Copy, Zonoscope: 170
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy: 170
I’m relieved to see that this matches up pretty closely with the albums I loved/liked. There are a couple overachievers in the form of Toro y Moi, SM and the Jicks, and Cut Copy; in each case, their relatively high scrobble counts can be credited to singles I loved (“New Beat/”How I Know”/”Still Sound”, “Stick Figures in Love”/”Forever 28”, “Need You Now”/”Where I’m Going”/”Alisa”).
In order to paint a more accurate picture of my listening habits for the year, I like to convert the units of measurement from track plays into total time listened. In order to do this, I divide the number of plays by the number of plays to obtain an average number of album playthroughs, and then multiply by the album’s length in hours. This isn’t completely foolproof; albums with especially popular singles (here’s looking at you, M83!) or longer tracks may end up with less accurate results. If I listened to “Blue Eyes” 15 times and “Bay of Pigs” 100 times, all of those extra minutes are lost to calculation error. With that said, there weren’t any situations quite like that, so I’m confident the results are pretty accurate.
The artists above, reranked in terms of hours spent listening:
Fleet Foxes: 47.54
Panda Bear: 41.28
Real Estate: 32.40
The Throne: 26.06
Neon Indian: 21.41
Toro y Moi: 19.32
Atlas Sound: 18.81
My Morning Jacket: 17.94
Cut Copy: 15.80
Bon Iver: 15.35
Washed Out: 14.12
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: 13.73
James Blake: 10.06
St. Vincent: 9.65
My first, most immediate though: damn, that’s a lot of time spent listening to music! There were 7 albums I spent at least an entire day with; if that’s not love, I don’t know what is. Kaputt and 4 were separated from their contemporaries by a fair margin, which is what I expected; those albums were a cut above the rest for me this year. An easier way to illustrate the relative time spent with albums is normalized listening time, where the hours spent listening to each record are expressed as a percentage of the highest value. 4 cracks the 90% mark, but following that there’s a fairly precipitous decline: only 5 other albums mustered even half of the time I spent listening to Kaputt. The time I spent listening to Strange Mercy, the last entry, equals only 15.77% of the time spent with Dan Bejar & crew. The lesson here: 61.17 hours is a long, long time, and Kaputt is awesome.