favorite albums 2011: number one
1. Wye Oak - Civilian
“Expansive” isn’t a descriptor you hear a lot for a two person band. That it feels perfectly appropriate in this instance is a testament to how effectively Wye Oak conjures up vistas of vast plains, deep oceans and wide open skies on Civilian. It was one of those albums that snuck up on me over the year. I liked it immediately the first time through, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized just how much I liked it. Jenn Wasner’s voice is heavenly, and her guitar-playing keeps racing her vocals up, up and away, while Andy Stack spirals keyboards and drums around the two of them. In terms of sheer gorgeousness, this album overwhelms all other 2011 albums that I heard this year. A few favorite moments: Wasner’s voice vaulting into that ecstatic upper register at the end of “Holy Holy”; the chorus of “Fish” soothing away the strange mystery of its verses; “We Were Wealth” slowly building up to a massive culmination of reverb that functions as a palate cleanser to better experience the simple quietude of “Doubt” that ends the record. The album flows perfectly, each song enhancing the ones around it, teasing out continually new sonic facets of the band’s inimitable sound. Once I realized I was saying “Wow, that sounds incredible” to myself at least once per song over the entire course of Civilian, it made my album of the year choice much easier.
favorite albums 2011: number two
2. Real Estate - Days
I appreciate bands that do wistful well, and Real Estate does it better than most. I loved their first album wholeheartedly and naturally assumed that they would keep going back to that lo-fi well of autumnal beauty until it ran dry. It was surprising to play the first track on Days and hear every single instrument in perfect clarity where before, everything had blended into a wash of warm guitars and fuzzy drums. By the time “Green Aisles” started playing, I knew this was going to be a new favorite and not just for 2011. The interplay between Martin Courtney’s and Matthew Mondanile’s guitars is fluid and dynamic, both of them trading guitar lines effortlessly (a chemistry that is quite evident at their live shows, from what I’m told). All of the lyrics here are filled with nostalgic yearning for everything from Saturday morning cartoons to walks down windswept tree-lined avenues, but the songs never come across as forced because the plangent melodicism on display here is second to none. Not to say that there aren’t purely happy moments to be found as well - “Kinder Blumen” is the most joyful instrumental Real Estate has ever written, and “It’s Real” has a chorus of “oh”s I can’t help but smile at when it arrives. But the mood here is still by-and-large autumnal. If their first album Real Estate was a rainy cloud-filled day in October, Days is its crisp clear counterpart in early December. Which isn’t to say I won’t be listening to it year-round for a long time to come. I always relish finding new albums that provide simple solace from whatever’s on my mind at any given time, and Days has officially joined the pantheon.
favorite albums 2011: number three
3. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Annie Clark’s sense of rhythm and melody is utterly her own. I was trying to come up with comparisons to other bands/musicians in my head for a long time before writing this up and had no luck. For example, the beats on “Neutered Fruit” sound like it could be a slowed-down hip-hop track, but the guitar dancing around the drums is as angular as it comes these days, and the lyrics and vocal delivery have a distinctly mid-’70s rock and roll mysticism on it. There, I’ve managed to describe one song. It feels like Strange Mercy is the culmination of St. Vincent’s first two albums, as she had songs similar to these on both Marry Me and Actor, but never as fully-formed and omnipresent as they are here. The production is a beautiful mix of deep bass lines rumbling below shimmering guitar tones, with unobtrusive electronics rounding out the edges (John Congleton may have my vote for Producer of the Year here). Wonderful variation abounds over the course of these eleven tracks: “Cruel” deserves to be a Top 40 hit, “Champagne Year” is a torch song par excellence, and “Northern Lights” has the loudest breakdown of any St. Vincent song ever, a wall of brain-scrambling guitars and electronics that allows the subdued title track that follows it to function as a much-needed breath of fresh air. A mysterious and dark tone certainly hangs over the album, but with a voice this beautiful and melodies this innovative, it’s hard not to feel exhilarated by the end of it.
favorite albums 2011: number four
4. The Antlers - Burst Apart
This was my night-time album of the year. You know, that one particular album that somehow seems to come out every single year that is just perfect to throw on when it’s dark outside and quiet inside. Of course, I also listened to it on the bus and in the car a lot, too, and I would never say that it can only be listened to after 5 PM (hey, it gets dark early now here in Portland). But the coos in “Hounds”, the half-whispered lines in “Rolled Together”, the eerie soundscape backing up the existential wondering in “No Widows” - I have to think there were at least a few recording sessions for this beauty in the wee hours of the morning. Peter Silberman’s voice can sometimes toe the line when it comes to histrionics, but when it’s in the service of an incredible ballad like album-closer “Putting the Dog to Sleep”, all is forgiven. Front-to-back, not a bad song to be found here, and there is enough rhythmic/melodic variation to keep them from bleeding into one another, while still maintaining a consistently mysterious mood. Winter nights are going to be a little easier to bear this year thanks to Burst Apart.
favorite albums 2011: number five
5. Low - C’mon
Low makes spine-tinglingly beautiful music, and I mean that quite literally. There is always at least one moment on every album that gives me those shivers that I only get when hearing something indescribably beautiful. The best albums have these moments strung across their entire length, and Low has managed to do just that with C’mon. The verses in “You See Everything” have my favorite Alan-Mimi harmonies on the entire album (the fact that this decision was relatively easy for me to make speaks volumes here). “Majesty/Magic” is the most aptly-named song I have come across in some time - Alan gently sings over those first slow guitar strums that you can feel just building, until finally “Oh, majesty, oh, magic” becomes a mantra that seems to be describing the sheer sound of the song itself. I’m really glad that the past decade has seen Low move from strictly quiet, repetitive instrumentation to a much more nuanced and dynamic sensibility. They do quiet/loud more effectively than any other band, and it’s because most other bands are only worried about the loud part of that equation. Low’s career began with that quiet calling card, so they devote just as much attention to the spaces in between notes and chords. What makes a song like “Nothing But Heart” so powerful is that they take their time fleshing out the hushed, bare melodic bones on display in the opening bars. It culminates in the loudest, most layered wall of guitars I have ever heard in a Low song, and yet somehow this doesn’t feel excessive - it feels earned. No one does those spine-tingles better.
favorite albums 2011: number six
6. Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
I could listen to Bill Callahan sing about almost anything. The man’s voice is one of the richest and most interesting I have ever heard, and if this was all he had going for him, it would still be enough to get me to pick up whatever his latest album was. But when you combine this with the lyrical prowess on display throughout Apocalypse, you have a certifiable gem. I love the way he plays with not just words in his songs, but even syllables, sounds. I challenge you to find another singer who would imitate the sound of a flare gun firing, then exploding after a few seconds, right in the middle of a song without it sounding ridiculous - indeed, having that particular utterance be the cherry on top that just makes the song so unforgettable. The instrumentation is all subdued strumming with the occasional slight flute or piano embellishment (think a more westernized Astral Weeks), conjuring vistas of endless empty plains, Callahan’s voice always soaring above it, pontificating on…well, you can interpret it how you wish. That’s the other wonderful thing about the man’s lyrics and delivery - I can clearly hear every word he is saying, but it’s only multiple listens later that I realize how intricately crafted every single line of every single song is. It feels like he is actively encouraging you to tease the words apart, make of it what you will. OK, excepting “America” - that song is inexplicable, hilarious, and I can’t stop listening to it: “Well, it’s hard to rouse a hog in Delt-uh-uh…” Just sit down in a quiet room, give the first track ‘Drover’ a listen, and if you like what you hear, you’re in for quite a ride.
favorite albums 2011: number seven
7. Radiohead - The King of Limbs
You would think that since Radiohead has been my favorite band since freshman year of high school, they would have more to live up to with a new album than anyone else in my musical universe. But they have this way of sneaking up unannounced and just dropping new music on the world, thus evading any anticipatory lead-up to THE NEW RADIOHEAD ALBUM. I appreciate this, since it lets me just listen to the new songs and take them for what they are - and on The King of Limbs, they’re quite beautiful. Short and sweet, the eight songs here function as a showcase of everything Radiohead does best. Chopped-up vocals backed by skittery drums and bass pulses that sneak their way up to subwoofer-testing rattles? See “Feral”. Delicate piano ballad with subdued birdsong in the distance that sounds like they actually recorded it in a secluded clearing in the woods? “Codex” has you covered. It feels like the band has reached the point where all of this comes naturally - I hear the guitars’ effortless interplay, the fluid bass lines, the hyperactive but unobtrusive drumming, and think, “Yes, this is the band I know and love, continually refining what they do best”. While I wouldn’t mind another artistic leap to who-knows-where on the next album (OK Computer—>Kid A-style), the songs here are uniformly excellent, a potent distillation of everything I’ve loved about them over the years. That’ll do just fine for now.
favorite albums 2011: number eight
8. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
This album probably had the toughest job of any of my top ten this year, as I was excited from the moment I heard the magic words “M83” and “double album”. My expectations were sky-high, and thankfully, Anthony Gonzalez didn’t disappoint. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has the lushest production values of any album on this list, and uses them to their full potential to transport the listener to a world of night-time drives through swirls of lights and light speed travels through seas of stars, a world where absolutely anything is possible. “Midnight City” throws you into a fast car speeding down exhilarating lanes of neon all night long. “New Map” runs the gauntlet from epic electro to downtempo ’70s synths in just four minutes, and this actually works! And ”Steve McQueen” might be my favorite song of the year by anyone - no other song so successfully conjures up that long ascent to the top of a roller coaster, or has a chorus that then proceeds to drop you out over an ocean reflecting a sky full of endless galaxies back at you. Yes, this song is pure joy, and yes, that description is also completely over the top. But maybe it says something about this album that said description actually approximates how spectacular it is to play this album at full volume and lose yourself for its seventy minute run-time. My favorite part of listening to double albums is feeling like there is always more to discover, more songs to listen more closely to, and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming ought to provide fertile ground for those explorations for a long, long time.
favorite albums 2011: number nine
9. Panda Bear - Tomboy
I quickly grow tired of many albums that have seemingly indiscernible lyrics on first listen. My mind seems to think it’s not worth the effort to pick them out, but simultaneously feels bad about being that lazy, so those particular albums tend to be purposefully forgotten in short order. Not so with Tomboy. Maybe it’s because I loved Panda Bear’s album Person Pitch so much only after countless listens, but I made the effort to actively listen and actually detect what Noah Lennox was singing so melodically about over the course of Tomboy. Lo and behold, it’s a wonderland of brotherly friendship, wistful longing and romantic sentiment. While I loved being immersed in the worlds that Lennox created in these songs through his lo-fi instrumentation and loops, his lyrics keep getting simpler and (strangely enough) ever more affecting. I’d recommend devoting some solid headphone time to Tomboy in order to fully appreciate the way this guy can turn a simple phrase like “and I’ll call you my friend” into a gorgeous mantra that will stay stuck in your head for days. It doesn’t hurt that the guy comes up with harmonies that Brian Wilson would have killed for, and when someone sounds this happy just to be singing on every song, it’s a joy to listen to from start to finish.
favorite albums 2011: number ten
10. The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient
Adam Granduciel’s voice has a slightly more melodious Dylanesque tone to it, especially in the way he delivers his lyrics, dispensing them matter-of-factly over the band’s dreamy landscapes of layered guitars. The Stone Roses immediately come to mind as a reference point for the sound of Slave Ambient (though it’s definitely a bit more countrified), and it’s easy to get lost in the album as songs bleed into each other and melodies are repurposed over the course of its forty minutes. From foot-stompers like ‘Baby Missile’ that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Tom Petty album, to more contemplative numbers such as ‘It’s Your Destiny’ whose guitar tones shade into British folk territory, Slave Ambient is paced perfectly and would be equally enjoyable to listen to on a long road trip as it is to zone out to on headphones at home. The production is a wonderful blur of washed out rhythm guitars and muted drums, with crystal clear lead guitar lines echoing over the top of it all, as Granduciel sings in world-weary tones about loves, regrets and fate. That this all managed to sound so new was a wonderful surprise, and made The War on Drugs one of my favorite discoveries of the year.