The 10 Best Albums of 2011

December 22, 2011

This is the first of my annual End-of-Year “Best Of” posts. In the music category, I’m adding a “Best Hip Hop + R&B Albums” and “Best Metal Albums” to showcase a greater number of excellent albums, many of which just didn’t make the final cut for the overall “Best Albums of the Year” list but are worth the mention anyway. Those articles will be up within the next week or two; and since I am able to discuss more complete albums than usual, the rule for “Best Songs of the Year” which used to exclude songs taken from the albums which made the album list will be revised to allow songs from any album–so I will post a “25 Best Songs of 2011” article which will rank songs, some which were on album-picks and some that weren’t with the focus being on great songs that work in and of themselves as single pieces of work out of any album context, be they a radio single or not. Last of all, there will be the usual “Best Films of the Year” and “Best Comics and Graphic Novels.” As always, thanks for reading and feel free to leave comments!

10) Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots

There’s not much to add regarding this pick that I didn’t mention in the glowing review I gave it upon its release back in February. It’s simply another great DBT record. It doesn’t rank with the absolute best the band has ever done–epic classics such as The Great Southern Rock Opera or Brighter Than Creation’s Dark— and it is just a notch below last year’s The Big To-Do, but even an “average” record from the Truckers now that they’re at their peak is still miles ahead of most other working bands who record and tour these days. It is obvious that the recording process for this record was directly on the heels of last year’s record because Go-Go Boots has a very similar feel as The Big To-Do. While that record had more full-on hard rockers, this one plays a bit more like a DBT mixtape, consisting of some long-form story songs (“Used to Be a Cop,” “Go-Go Boots,” “The Fireplace Poker”), pure country Mike Cooley gems (“Cartoon Gold,” “The Weakest Man”), perhaps the last Shonna Tucker country-rock ballads we’ll ever get to hear on a DBT record now that she’s leaving the band (“Dancin’ Ricky,” “Where’s Eddie”), and the closest DBT has come to a potential hit radio single (“Everybody Needs Love”–if only there were enough good stations left to play such a thing). Along the way there are great Patterson Hood Americana guitar songs (“I Do Believe”) and heartland rockers (“Mercy Buckets”). Everything here is really solid stuff, it showcases the band at the collective best of their best-yet lineup. It’s sad to see Shonna go since she was such an integral part of this period in the band’s history and since she offered such a refreshing bit of variety as a female singer/songwriter, but at least she’s leaving on a high note. Here’s hoping to see what lies up ahead for the best working, recording, and touring band still on the road in America this side of the E Street Band.

9) Skeletonwitch: Forever Abomination

Skeletonwitch delivered an album overflowing with fist-in-the-air riffs on Forever Abomination: riffs that thunder, twist, turn, layer, and mix-in everything from classic Thrash staples, Death Metal breakdowns, and punk-like face-melters, to almost hidden classic rock and roll chords buried underneath all the other riffs. There were more progressive and groundbreaking heavy albums this year, more varied experiments in metal, better technical skills displayed, and certainly better lyrics, but this American metal band that mixes the best of extreme metal sub-genres to make a (relatively) more palatable expression succeeded in making the best metal of the year anyway. Skeletonwitch tread the same tired lyrical ground that too many Black and Death Metal bands from around the world do, and that’s really their weakest point. But knowing that they’re really just metalheads themselves, ones with no real ideological agenda other than  to make music they want to hear and to party a bit makes the apocalypticism seem more than a little tongue-in-cheek. No one really thinks the band truly has to fight off a “horrifying desire to kill” or that they anticipate a bloody cosmological war between demons and angels. In interviews they express that even their most supernatural song lyrics are just poetically camouflaged recountings of daily toils, life on the road, and everyday stress–and even their most over-the-top lyrics never cross the boundary from storytelling to perversity in the way some metal lyrics do in the pursuit of shock and awe. Really though, the band realizes their musical mission is all about sonic intensity and layers of inspiration for the air-guitarists at home. As such they’ve done away with the polished production of their last record, dropped the vocals low in the mix, amped up the guitars, and compacted things in tight like a vintage punk record. Vocalist Chance Garnett still rasps in the same Black Metal blood-curdling intonation as before, but lower in the sound-mix it comes across as even creepier; occasionally he drops down into a Death Metal baritone, and he always manages to successfully twist those vocals around the frenetic guitar and drum work of Neil and Scott Hendrick (guitars), Eric Harris (bass), and Derrick Nau (drums), even at their most intense level of Thrash. Skeletonwitch manage to find melody in the heaviest of crunching sound, and the m0re you spin this record the more those melodies click, from the acoustic preparation at the beginning of track 1 to the ridiculously fast album closer “My Skin of Deceit.”

[Note: Forthcoming 2011 posts will cover the ten best metal records of 2011 and a rumination/semi-apologetic of Skeletonwitch style metal lyrics]. 

8) Tom Waits: Bad As Me

When Bad As Me dropped this fall, many critics rushed to hail it as the best Tom Waits record since his quirky, eccentric career highpoint of the early-mid 1980s albums Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones. What too  many of them were overlooking is how consistently excellent Tom Waits has been on more recent records like Mule Variations, Blood Money, Real Gone, and Orphans. But I think what many were sensing was how great everything here sounded on that initial spin. Many of Waits’ records take time to settle in, but Bad As Me grabs you from the get-go and shows a full display of Tom Waits being the best artist he can be, doing what he does best. Not to mention that 2011 is the perfect time to hear Tom Waits doing this–channeling the great depression era for the great recession, making vaudeville and carny-barker blues and tin-pan alley jazz sound fresh and frightening in his alternatively gothic manner. There’s the hopeless song about hope “Chicago,” the eerie highwayman song “Face to the Highway,” the excellent anti-war cacophony of “Hell Broke Luce.” The timeless yet ancient sounding heartbroken ballads “Pay Me” and “Last Leaf.” All in all, you couldn’t ask more from a Tom Waits record and he always delivers something that you can’t get anywhere else. Bad As Me ranks with the best albums in his already highly esteemed catalog, and it was certainly a good year to hear from this quirky old friend.

7) Rise Against: Endgame

I really didn’t know Endgame was going to make my list until December this year. It makes perfect sense that it is here, although not until I began finalizing the order of my picks this month did it dawn on me I was forgetting to include it. There were a lot of albums I thought would make the cut this year, a lot of almost-picks, and when I spotted Endgame on that list I realized that once it made sense to include it, it quickly shot up higher than the last spot on the list. I’ve listened to this record regularly all year-long and it took me until the end of the year to realize that I have enjoyed it as much as I have. I’ve always liked Rise Against but have never found any of their albums to be truly great; singles like “Re-Education Through Labor” have always made my singles list on this site because they’re powerful, potent forms of political and social protest and commentary couched in emotionally warm and satisfyingly punchy neo-punk hard rock songs. Yet none of their albums have ever sustained that level of quality from start to finish, although Siren Song of the Counter Culture came pretty close back in 2004. Well, nothing on Endgame is quite as excellent as “Re-Education,” but everything on the album comes in just a hair below that classic, and nothing wears thin or gets old on repeat listens, so Endgame turns out to be the best Rise Against record of their career thus far. This is the type of record we needed more of in 2011; a reminder of the real issues, issues the politicians all too often obscured, skimmed over, or fought against in greed and ignorance while those at the bottom of every social strata suffered. There are calls to try our best to fill the shoes of the true leaders of generations past and not sell out on the passionate beliefs of our youth (“Architects”), cries of condemnation over those left without the help they thought was coming (“Help is on the Way”), an emotional tribute to those who suffered for their sexual identity and a demand to support anti-bullying efforts (“September’s Children”), as well as plaintive questioning of the national endorsement of violence and war (“Survivor Guilt”). Best of all, these sentiments are all sealed with appropriate fury and musical melody. No chords are too original, the music is never as raw as vintage punk or as technically excellent as great rock or metal, but the band plays well consistently, creating much more than serviceable vehicles for their pleas. These are all solid hard rock songs, hard rock with enough punk thrown in to prop up the lyrics without scaring off punk newcomers, and vocals that simply sound good without becoming the end in themselves. A great record to introduce Rise Against to someone new and a record long-time fans can be happy to receive also.

6) Wilco: The Whole Love

If you haven’t paid attention to Wilco by now, there’s really nothing left to say to convince you of what you’re missing. For the past fifteen years they have been nothing short of fantastic, consistently releasing quality records that rarely tread the same space twice and that never really falter in any way. They were at their most experimental from 2002-2004 with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. They have since scaled back to concentrate pretty much solely on straightforward Wilco-style rock songs, songs with great guitar and drum parts, smart lyrics, and warm pop melodies. Last time around they seemed to be content in doing their thing in the most basic, yet entertaining, manner possible (Wilco: The Album). So it is with a welcome surprise to hear The Whole Love open with the feedback, intentional distortion, and computer-blip of “Art of Almost.” That song gives way to a clear and perfect opening verse-chorus-verse Wilco song but ends with a terrific extended jam session that is apt to leave most longtime Wilco fans cheering by the time the snares begin to truly rock. The industrial background under-girding the entire song lets listeners know Wilco is ready to mix in some of their old experimentalism again. Of course, most of the songs that follow slide back into the same musical territory of their last record, but that’s far from a bad thing because Wilco has their full rhythm down pat now. The Whole Love is the best start-to-finish Wilco record since Foxtrot. The boardwalk organ and punchy vocals of “I Might,” the soulful bounce of “Dawned on Me,” the finger-picking and infectious hook of “Born Alone” all rank with the best Wilco moments of their exceptional career. Like with the guitar work and vocals of the frontman of the band in at the second slot (up ahead), George Harrison’s ghost appears to be inspiring Tweedy here quite a lot, especially on “Open Mind.” Everything on this record could be a 3-4 minute radio staple if it were the golden age of radio again, except for the 12-minute album closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend”). You might expect from the time-stamp on that song it would be a last-minute excessive excursion into pretension marring a great record, something that might even be forgivable for such a band on such a record, but you’d be wrong. It’s really just a beautiful, understated ballad that wouldn’t have been out of place on the earlier more Country music influenced Wilco records and it ends things very nicely here.  So please, don’t miss out on experiencing a band as artistically great as this while they’re happening in the present.

5) TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light

Albums like Dear Science, and Return to Cookie Mountain garnered TV on the Radio practically universal critical acclaim if not mainstream attention or huge sells. Like a few other artists on this list, I’ve followed and admired this band’s music for awhile now but it was this year’s release that really caught me and won me fully over to the band. Nine Types of Light may not be as experimental or “artsy” as Science, but it is just completely catchy and enjoyable and that’s what does it for me. After the brief spoken intro of the opening song Second Song” gives way to a keyboard and turntable-accented dance song of art-disco proportions and  a Prince-like falsetto croon complete with “Oooh-ooh”s, the band had me on board for the full ride…and many, many repeat listens. There’s the dreamy, almost chillwave ballad “Keep Your Heart,” the nineties throwback love song “You,” and especially the two hard-funk post-rock masterpieces “No Future Shock” and “Cannonball Blues.” Radiohead done as a funk band on the album closing “Caffeinated Consciousness” just ties up  a nice, quick, unbloated and excellent rock record. Not since the early eighties heyday of Prince fronting of his many band assemblies or the fully electrified live performances of Talking Heads have we had the pleasure of a such a bold, fearless, left-field foray into the true potential of artistic funk-rock as the current career of TV on the Radio and this latest release, at least for me, shows off what they are capable of doing the best.

4) Dawes: Nothing is Wrong

There are a lot of throwback bands who try to mine classic rock and make something new sound vintage and instantly classic upon release; to do that successfully though, a band or artist must make it seem as if that instant vintage sound is mere happenstance, a byproduct of good taste and sharp influences. To simply sound dated upon release is the possible outcome such a neo-classicist risks when proudly wearing older influences on their sleeve. Couple that risky proposition with the particular batch of influences a band like Dawes surely has–CSNY, Jackson Browne, The Eagles, and other sunny California rock from the 1970s–and the result most  certainly should have been bland, cheesy, or tired. Yet that’s not the case in the slightest. Nothing is Wrong instead is an album that certainly could have been released at the height of Laurel Canyon folk-rock popularity but one that when released now works even better by reminding modern ears how warm, refreshing, and downright pleasant and entertaining vocal harmonies, folk-rock breakdowns, and easy emotionalism by way of a four-piece rock band really are. The lyrical path lead singer/songwriter Taylor Goldsmith travels could easily derail from earnest to pretentious, but aside from a flat line or two out of the entire record, these songs really don’t do that in the way a band like the Avett Brothers unfortunately do quite a bit more often. It helps that when they falter–say in the breakfast litany from the album closing song “A Little Bit of Everything”–an excellent and emotionally resonant line, one simple and direct and universally honest immediately follows. Even if the lyrics don’t work for you though, they’re easy to brush aside when there’s a great multi-part harmony around the corner (as in the excellent end-section of “Fire Away”) or a full-tilt guitar and drum solo (check that same track). There are great suitcase-in-hand Americana jams (“Time Spent in Los Angeles”), dreamy ballads (“Moon in the Water”), Crazy Horse style rock songs (“If I Wanted Someone”), even poignant ex-sailor mini-epics (“So Well”). Dawes have crafted a throwback instant-vintage record that succeeds in sounding timeless rather than dated and there were no better harmonies or more successful earnestness on display anywhere else this year.

3) Bon Iver: Bon Iver

Bon Iver takes listeners with him on a trek through fictional small towns all across America on his self-titled second album. Bon Iver is a record that maintains the high-level of artistic quality that the tremendous “Blood Bank” single set in 2009. This is a record and an artist that make for an unlikely pop phenomenon, but many with ears to hear it from all corners of the listening public found something unexpected and exciting with it this year. Bon Iver mixes indie folk minimalism with unexpected lush production, thus creating a textured, beautiful sort of quietism. He croons in his familiar falsetto, sometimes layering a bit of auto-tune in simply for the additional texture, occasionally dropping to a baritone, but always quiet enough to make listeners lean in as if in private conversation with the artist. The lyrics ring true in their emotional intensity though on face value they really make no sense to most of us–reading them reveals no great truths, it’s in the expression of them that Bon Iver explicates a personal truth for each of us in that we hear our stories in his croon. Every increase and change in sound, every drum solo, horn note, plaintive moan, and guitar lick accentuates the impact of the quieter moments, making everything flow out with power and beauty. Though there are great songs here–“Holocene,” “Minnesota, WI”, and the keyboard laden eighties throwback “Beth/Rest,” this is not a singles-driven affair. Perhaps more than any other record this year, Bon Iver is a cohesive piece of work whose parts work best in one single whole. An emotionally trying yet satisfying travelogue through towns which really aren’t fictional after all since we’ve all been there in our own ways, Bon Iver was the perfect record to experience at the tail-end of winter early this year and at the onset of a new winter as 2011 draws to a close.

2) My Morning Jacket: Circuital

My Morning Jacket, like many other artists on this list, finally released the album I wanted them to this year. Circuital just clicks with me on every level, just like TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light album did; both are bands that I’ve admired and followed for some time and both finally crafted the work I hoped for from them. I’m certain arguments can be made for other albums by both bands to be their creative bests, but different albums work for different people and especially in the case of My Morning Jacket, this album just works excellently for me. You never know what type of record you’re going to get with MMJ–a 1970s inspired AM pop record like Evil Urges, a rollicking hard southern rock record like It Still Moves, or this–a proggy, spacey set of neo-folk, post-hippie jam songs and Americana style ballads. Bandleader and singer Jim James retains the George Harrison vibe he channeled on his recent Tribute To solo EP and works with it subtly, appropriately sparsely, and wonderfully here. His voice has never sounded better, his melodies more charming, nor his lyrics more complete–sometimes witty and sly, sometimes heartfelt and earnest, sometimes prophetic and apocalyptic. The dance-around-the-fire psychedelica of “Victory Dance,” the epic biblicality of “The Day is Coming,” the tenderness of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” and the looking-back unashamed but not wistful to return of “Outta My System” are just as good as anything Neil Young has ever done, circumnavigating similar terrain to that folk-rock great but without copying any of the same vibes either. Not to mention the pure awesomeness of “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” complete with a children choir and all.  There are little proggy textures similar to the Who’s ventures into alternative ways of doing thoughtful rock and roll all over the place, especially in “Metal” and “First Light.” “Slow Slow Tune” is the best song Ween never recorded; the album-closer “Movin Away” is such a gem of pure beauty, it leaves you floating off warmly from a record that is remarkable from start to finish, a record with influences clearly all over the place but with a creative individual like James at the helm of the ship such influences never overtake the band’s original creativity. If I’ve given James too much credit I should stress that it’s clear that everyone on board is going all out, the band plays as tightly and remarkably as ever. Critics rave over MMJ’s live presence and performance but they’re just as good on record. Past records may have opened up the space quite a bit more to show off the full measure of everyone’s talent, but the quiet restraint on display on such great but often peaceful songs is no less evident of the mastery each participant has with their instruments. The best MMJ record I have heard to date and I can’t wait to hear what comes next.

1) Lupe Fiasco: Lasers

We may never know what Lasers  would have been like if Lupe been able to make the exact record he wanted. What we have here is an artist at the peak of his creative and artistic potential burdened by ridiculous label and corporate demands, so it is rather surprising that the album turned out as excellent as it did. The road to release for Lupe’s latest was a long one; Lupe claimed he had the record finished more than a year ago yet his label (Atlantic) sat on it for so long that fans began to wonder if it would ever see the light of day. Singles were released as far back as the summer of 2009 (“Shining Down” which didn’t even make it onto the final version) to promote the pending release of Lasers and when the final product remained unheard fans began an online petition calling for Atlantic to go ahead and release the album already. Perhaps Atlantic realized the scope of talent they were dealing with in Lupe and were trying their hardest to harness that for mass appeal, but in doing so they failed to realize that Lupe at his best isn’t really meant to be a mass-appeal hip hop star. He’s a smart, political, alternative hip hop trailblazer closer to Talib Kweli or Dead Prez than he is to modern pop-rappers like Drake or Kid Cudi. The polished hook-laden album that Lasers became appears to most observers and fans as the label’s attempt to force hit singles out of a rapper not tailored to mainstream tastes. Yet despite everything, Lasers is a great album nonetheless. In a year in which practically everything great in music was flawed by some imperfection or blemish, this record stands as the leader of that pack in showcasing brilliance in spite of potential missteps. Looking back on all 0f my album picks this year I knew which would make it to my top four but not what order they would fall in until a week ago; my top three each had a moment in which they were my number one, but when it comes down to it, this is the one I played the most this year, the one I most often enjoyed in different contexts, the one I’ll likely revisit the most in the years to come, and the one that best marks my 2011. It’s hard to say for certain which aspects of Lasers bear the mark of studio meddling the most and doing so is completely speculative, but it seems safe to say that such meddling kept this from being the true testament to Lupe’s creativity that it could have been, but it just as well could have quite possibly produced results of pop excellence that we would never have gotten had Lupe been left to his own devices. Lasers certainly isn’t the epic that 2007’s The Cool was–that album is easily one of the top five hip hop records of the past ten years–but there is no guarantee that it could have been or surpassed that anyway (though I don’t doubt such an album is coming from Lupe someday).  Lasers really is a political pop alternative hip hop record, one that sounds great, one that can potentially appeal to listeners who have ignored all prior Lupe, and one that even in its most shiny pop moments finds unique ways of being delightfully subversive even in its mass appeal appropriation.  And it’s not like Lupe is adverse to catchy hooks and hybrid sounds–Matthew Santos crooned acoustic guitar coated hooks all over The Cool no more “disruptively” than the multiple hooks and choruses which abound on this present work. The hooks here  just craft Lupe’s emotional cadences and political protestations into actual songs that will stick with listeners who might otherwise be turned off by the artist’s far left-of-center stances.

The one-two punch of the two opening tracks are the best lead-ins for a body of work found in record stores and online all year. “Letting Go” covers the ground that Kid Cudi so tirelessly attempts to dominate in its emo-rock inspired pathos and tone in a much more timeless manner. It braces the listener, preparing the ears to hear the single best song of the year, “Words I Never Said.” You don’t have to agree one hundred percent with every political sentiment espoused in “Words” to feel the rawness, honesty, and emotional intensity that Lupe delivers there to an audience deprived of such fearless and heartfelt expressions, an audience weaned on current popular music to set their concerns far lower than the global scope Lupe purveys therein. To break up the intensity the album sets back a little with a peppy, backpack rap singalongs like “Til I Get There” and “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now,” songs that could have been Food and Liquor outtakes but which give plenty of room for Lupe’s adept verbal wordplay. “Out of My Head” seems like the most tailored for radio (and perhaps label initiated) track here, but it comes across more than a little bit positively subversive simply by being the most upbeat, uplifting and clean hip hop love song since Will Smith and early LL Cool J (minus the cheese), despite featuring the mind-in-the-gutter young R. Kelly devotee Trey Songz on it’s hook. Gladly we keep Lupe’s best single thus far at the mid-album point, “The Show Goes On,” which is just as good now despite being released last year before the album temporarily returned to the shelf. The anti-suicide “Beautiful Lasers,” and the encouraging “Coming Up” remind listeners of the positive vibes and community building hip hop is capable of outside of the club. Though the guitar riff and hooky chorus of “State Run Radio” is a bit generic, it doesn’t diminish the excellence of Lupe’s verses which succinctly condemn hyper-capitalism , classism, materialism, dumbed-down mass consumption and war.   “Break the Chain” is simply a good retro dance floor song, but one with content unlikely to be found in any other club song of the past five years. “All Black Everything” is a lyrical masterpiece, flipping The Dream’s tired sexploitation slogan into a label for proud black consciousness and a re-imagination of world history without its racism as a plea for a better future in lieu of the impossible rewritten past. John Legend helps close out the album with a soaring and soulful hook on “Never Forget You,” in which Lupe opens up on his own personal history as much as he is apt to for some time.

Lasers isn’t perfect and it’s not the best hip hop record of all time; it is the best one of 2011 though, and the brilliance, passion, and determination of its creator help make it the best album of the year period. There isn’t a bad verse here and even though some of the beats and hooks fail to enhance the full potential of those verses, they never detract so much so that the art is ruined. Sometimes those melodies, even ones potentially unwanted by the artist, help create unexpected and unanticipated moments of pop greatness. Public Enemy and Dead Prez rarely if ever harnessed their fiery presence in the form of truly approachable (for the masses) popular music. The case can certainly be made that such art isn’t meant to be presented in such a way. But it’s a bit hard to really complain that at least one Lupe album is now available that retains his political and social genius even while harnessing it into a fully approachable pop format.

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4 Responses to “The 10 Best Albums of 2011”

  1. beau said

    Awesome list!

  2. […] that the “Best Albums of 2011″ and “25 Best Songs of 2011″ lists are up, I’m moving into more genre-specific […]

  3. […] record made the cut onto my “Best Albums of 2011″ list at the #9 spot. You can read it here. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted […]

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