I was fortunate enough to be a participant in voting for One Thirty BPM's Top 50 Albums of 2011. Having an inside look at a big site making their big year-end list really made me realize how divergent the opinions of the blogosphere illuminati can be. It seems like I should know that by now — that everyone has wildly different opinions and tastes — but when you're following the currents of the indie rock blogosphere, you sometimes wonder how all these people know what narrative to build. Is it a musical elite thing? Do they have skill sand knowledge and expertise that hone in on the same objectively good album?As it turns out, everyone's just true to their personal tastes, everyone will be apathetic to someone else's #1, and the best album of the year is just whatever landed as everyone's #7. Below is my top 10 albums for 2011 — or at least it is for right now. Arranging the music of an entire year into 10 spots is difficult and sometimes feels arbitrary, so it's hard to stick to one list for very long. This isn't even the exact order I voted on, and if I could go back and change it, this still might not be the order I want. There's a reason I submitted my votes under the wire.
But that's just the run of the mill trouble that comes with thinking about art. It's all just feelings and thoughts, chiseled into defined ideas until it feels right by us. These are the things I liked best in 2011, at this very moment. Card subject to change
10. The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient
When I listen to this album, I think of Bob Dylan. That's not the first touchstone people tend to name, but when I hear opener "Best Night" kick into high gear, it sounds like the modern iteration of the perfect wall of sound in "Like A Rolling Stone." Adam Granduciel doesn't write like Dylan, but there are constant moments where he hits a familiar inflection. He works so well in those strange, weary Dylan melodies, where the vocals don't play as you expect them to, they just sort of swerve and evaporate into the air. It's like if Prime Dylan was backed by Broken Social Scene singing someone else's songs.
9. Real Estate - Days
I didn't get into this album at first because I have a tendency to just zone out and get lost in hypnotic indie rock sounds. The style is the same through out, and as a result, it didn't immediately grab my attention. When I gave it a fair shake — that is, listening to it instead of playing it in the background while I did other shit — I found that these are viscid melodies for mellow times. It's pure, textbook indie rock. It's youthful and bright, full without heaviness, warm and earnest and above all, easy to like.
8. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
I wasn't too hooked on St. Vincent's "Marry Me" or "Actor." We have an unfair tendency to compare female singers with each other, as if "female singer" were a genre, and I was comparing her to Feist and Newsom and whoever else I was stuck on. That said, this album shattered my expectations. When "Marry Me" wasn't emulating some classic jazz lounge singer aesthetic with a twist, it felt like a confused mish mash of pretty moments that took too much work to get there. Strange Mercy feels like it has its eye on the ball, and all the experimental excess of her composition seem refined and palatable. Her voice works so well as a duo with the album's soundscape: her voice and the buzzing of "Chloe in the Afternoon," her voice as the smooth build up to the pounding kick drum on "Cruel," her voice laying above the mournful strings that occupy the far back reaches of "Year of the Tiger." It's not only interesting to listen to, but sincerely appealing, which I couldn't say about her last album.
7. WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
I've had trouble "getting" lo-fi because if I can't make anything out due to sound quality, it's hard for me to parse specific emotion out of it. WU LYF isn't a lo-fi band, but they are incoherent in their singing. Despite this, though, the pure emotion comes through clean. Trying to sing along to them will net you as much success as singing along to growling death metal, but it's powerful, melodic stuff. You don't need to hear all the words to a song like "LYF," just that beautiful church organ, those giant distant drum hits and one demented lyrical hook: "I love you fo'eeevvaaaauuuugggh"
6. The Weeknd - House of Balloons
What I admire most about The Weeknd is his clarity of intent. When "House of Balloons" appeared out of thin air on the internet, he knew the mythology he wanted to build around his name, the imagery he wanted to attach to his work, and the thematic undercurrents that would run through his style. It's like Lana Del Rey's marketing campaign, but less pandering and it feels convincingly enough from a real person. Outside of all of that, this is just a really good R&B album that borrows from great places while tearing down walls. It's got the spacious darkness of Burial and the mysterious, minimal beauty of The XX and Beach House. It even samples "Gila," which is crazy — I would never have believed that song would work as a sample in an R&B jam. It's melancholy for parties, darkness made cool. An antidote to the pop music cheese.
5. Los Campesinos! - Hello Sadness
It's conceivable that one day I'll be tired of Los Campesinos!, but right now that's not happening. I've written a ton about this album, and it is probably going to be a permanent part of my playlist.
4. James Blake - James Blake
I didn't vote for this ablum anywhere because for some reason, I thought it came out in 2010, and I may have misread Wikipedia when I checked. Although that fact shames me, it's not like James Blake isn't tearing up the world of dubstep anyway. When making fun of dubstep became a meme (wubwubwub) I was initially confuse because the aggressively ugly noise of Skrillex was never my touchstone. My frame of reference was always Burial: beat-based but down tempo, thick with nocturnal atmosphere and more suited to walking through abandoned cities at night than dancing. James Blake has a Michael McDonald soul voice, but he uses it in the weird new midnight tones of dubstep ballads. I'm drawn to the way he multitracks his voice to give it texture and mystery. James Blake has to get huge — someone with this much emotional hook and cutting edge style has to be making waves with the elite cultural tastemakers in mass media.
3. Tom Waits - Bad As Me
Waits is crazy. As one of the revered living legends of music, you would think he would have fallen off the deep end by now like a few of his coevals. You would think he would've entered some awful electronic phase that would sound dated quickly. But, no, he knows what he's great at and never stopped doing it. The interesting, cartoonish performance songs like "Get Lost" and "Hell Broke Luce" bring a twisted smile to my face, but I'm a sucker for his ballad work. The story on "Pay Me" sounds true from the opening line ("they pay me not to go home") and it continues through the accordion and tremolo. I'm looking forward to playing "New Year's Eve" when it gets dark next week.
2. Yuck - Yuck
The song "Get Away" may be my song of the year. It starts out with simple rock chord, something out of my adolescent CD collection, and then it turns into this gorgeous Dinosaur Jr.-esque riff that bleeds out into the air and says everything about the song. When the vocalist belted out the hook, "Oh I can't get away!" I was sold. I wanted two. When we look for music that moves us, we have a tendency to go for the softer stuff, the ballads and the acoustic and the confessionals. The driving electric guitar solo is underestimated. While it's not all that Yuck does on this album, it's definitely what they do best. It's hard not to air guitar to this record when it's at its best. The overall effect is that Yuck feels like the coolest new band today.
1. The Antlers - Burst Apart
I wasn't sure if The Antlers had another great album in them. I knew that my endless love for "Hospice" came from the harrowing story arc and portrait of tragedy, and you can't tell the same story twice. When the unique drama of the narrative is taken away, did The Antlers have the chops to put out another classic? It's clear now that that's a stupid question. It turns out they have many other weapons. Instead of trapping you with one grand story and metaphor, they carefully jammed out this serene, devastating album that contains miniature dramas in every song. "I Don't Want Love" is the new king of indie anti-love anthems, purely through twinkling guitar work and a falsetto that leaps and dives like a lifeline. "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out" is the most rockingest Antlers song I've ever heard. "Corsicana" is like a far away lullaby. "Putting the Dog to Sleep" is a magnum opus of loneliness and doubt. More than anything, I'm relieved that they had it in them,because it means we'll be getting 5-star Antlers work for years to come.
Things it hurt to leave off this version of my fluid, ever-changing list:
- Shabazz Palaces, Black Up
- Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
- Cults, Cults