Bon Iver

Keeping up with the music theme briefly, I thought I might put up my best albums of 2011 list. I have a thing for making year-end lists two months into the next year. This stems from some mental hiccup I have regarding perfection, or more specifically some need to make sure I get it right the first time. Take for example my best of 2010 list, which if made now would likely include the egregious snubbing of Tim Kasher’s solo album ‘The Game of Monogamy.’ What was literally the last cut off of last years list, this year would easily place in the top five. The point I am trying to make here is that the reasons we may have for liking a certain song is one of the most difficult things to understand, explain or quantify in all of human existence. This list is my best attempt to do just that – representing my feelings towards the world of music in 2011, I also include an epic 50 track ‘best of 2011’ spotify playlist featuring music discussed in this article.

Black keys El Camino

20) The Black Keys – El Camino

Hot on the heels of the excellent ‘Brothers’ the Keys release ‘El Camino.’ It has all of the catch and rhythm of ‘Brothers’ but it doesn’t contain quite as much soul – which is what I think made ‘Brothers’ so special. 

Manchester Orchestra Simple Math

19) Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math

I am a sucker for emotionally charged vocals and loud music – and Manchester Orchestra is well known for both. ‘Simple Math’ is no different – featuring singer/songwriter Andy Hull’s timeless struggle with family life, and faith, among other things. 

Days Real Estate

18) Real Estate – Days

Real Estate sounds similar to early REM – that slow, melodic, layered yet still catchy rock is imprinted on every track of ‘Days.’ There is something about the early parts of this album that gets inside me and resonates emotionally that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Bon Iver

17) Bon Iver – Bon Iver

I always find it interesting when a ‘band’ self titles their second album, and after just one listen it’s pretty clearly why Bon Iver did just that. This album sounds nothing like ‘For Emma…’ In a lot of ways that is a good thing though, as I just cannot see Justin Vernon even approaching that album again in terms of overall quality. ‘Emma’ was a once in a lifetime achievement, similar to Jeff Magnum’s ‘In The Aeroplane over the Sea.’ ‘Bon Iver’ goes in a distinctly different direction with way more instrumentation and a ton more polish. 

Opeth Heritage

16) Opeth  – Heritage

Heritage feels much lighter than previous Opeth albums, in fact I would say that there is very little ‘metal’ on this album – and not a single growl. This is a full on prog release, pushing the band much further in my direction. All said, Opeth are insanely talented musicians and they blow me away several times on Heritage.

Feist Metals

15) Feist – Metals

Feist 2007 album ‘The Reminder’ – notable for the hit ‘1,2,3,4’ – was something of a guilty pleasure album for myself and I’m sure a lot of others. What she has done with her follow up – despite not making a song as catchy as 1,2,3,4 (but who can really?) – is to craft a significantly better all around album.

Young the Giant

14) Young The Giant – Young The Giant

Speaking of guilty pleasures, Young the Giant’s debut album probably would be my favorite album of all time if I was 13. Even though I’m not 13 anymore my sensibilities haven’t change so much that I am unable to appreciate a fun, melodic pop rock album with a lot of heart. If you think they are ‘too mainstream’ for you give them a shot, if not then they are probably the only band on this list you’ve heard of, jkjk.

My Morning Jacket Circuital

13) My Morning Jacket – Circuital

I never really got into My Morning Jacket, but for whatever reason this album caught me more than expected. Maybe it’s the catchy songs, or the simple ones, or maybe I’ve just warmed up to Jim James vocals over the years. I cannot say – Circital just seems to have that ‘something’ that I’ve always been looking for. 

Head and the Heart

12) The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart

The Head and the Heart simultaneously sounds like something I have heard a million times before and something unique and fresh. I think it is that new twist on something familiar that draws me in.  I’ve heard them described as ‘pop folk’ and I think that is a pretty apt description.


11) Thursday – No Devolution

A big return to form from 2009’s ‘Common Existance’ – ‘No Devolution’ is Thursday staying true to their roots but realizing that they can never make another ‘Full Collapse.’ I love the experimentation from the band here even if I do miss the production on Jeff Rickely’s old vocals. As usual, the lyrics here are often touching, while not being as dark as they were on early records like ‘War All The Time.’ If ‘Stay True’ is the last song Thursday ends up writing it will be a fitting end to an exceptional group. Fans love to ask Jeff about the meanings behind his lyrics and the lessons he’s trying to pass on. On the albums closing track the meaning is clear, follow your dreams, listen to your heart, life is hard but you can pull through.

War on Drugs Slave Ambient

10) The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

I feel somewhat ashamed for never having listened to The War On Drugs prior to Slave Ambient – something that seems to be a running theme with this years’ list (most egregious being M83). This album feels like modern – post electric – Dylan, perhaps what he would be making if he were re-born thirty years ago. I like the sound of that new genre name, “Post electric Dylan.”

portugal the man in the mountain in the cloud

9) Portugal. The Man – In the Mountain in the Cloud

Portugal is quite the prolific band, an attribute that sometimes hurts bands I think. 2010’s follow up to the excellent 2009 album ‘The Satanic Satanist’ didn’t catch me at all. Now with their 2011 release Portugal. The Man are back! Catchy, fun, and you won’t feel bad if you sing along.

Radiohead King of Limbs

8) Radiohead – The King of Limbs

The King of Limbs is just too short. The album contains some of the bands best work, but just not enough of it. What is upsetting is that ‘The Daily Mail’ and ‘Staircase’ were released not too long after the album – if those two tracks are included then Radiohead’s first release since 2007 might be in contention for album of the year – although still not nearly as good as the amazing ‘In Rainbows.’

Decemberists King is Dead

7) The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

TKID lacks the epic expansion of ‘The Hazards of Love.’ This was a conscious decision on the part of the band to limit their songs to smaller, more easily digestible pieces. In many ways, this is the antithesis of Hazards, which made it difficult for me to get into the album originally. Still, TKID grew on me a ton – every song on here is just so well written and constructed. I still believe that the Decemberists are the best band making music today. 

m83  hurry up were dreaming

6) M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

This is just an all around fantastic album – in virtually every way. Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes and playing virtually every instrument in existence – albeit some probably simulated – there is bound to be at least one song on here for anyone to love. It is insanely difficult to write a brief description of something so insanely dynamic and expansive, which I think is a real testament to the album. ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ is unquestionably a shot at greatness and while at times I feel like its ambition gets the better of it, for the most part I think they were successful.

Blackfield welcome to my DNA

5) Blackfield – Welcome to My DNA

Considering their pedigree, it is not surprising to see Blackfield up so high on this list. What may be surprising is that Steven Wilson wrote only one of the songs. Lending his vocals to about half of the tracks, in many ways this is Aviv Geffen’s album. Prior to this release, I think the Blackfield albums had been Wilson trying to write pop songs, where as ‘DNA’ features Geffen writing pop songs for Wilson. The result is probably Wilson’s most accessible work, and a real notice for attention from Geffen – although I’d recommend just skipping track two, not sure what is up with that. 

Antler Burst Apart

4) The Antlers – Burst Apart

Sophomore slump? Don’t get me wrong, ‘Hospice’ is a great album deserving of all the praise it received but I get the feeling that if ‘Burst Apart’ were released first it would be ‘Hospice’ being held to unrealistic expectations. ‘Burst Apart’ is just a better album, and that is no knock on their debut. 

Steven Wilson Grace for Drowning

3) Steven Wilson – Grace For Drowning

Steven Wilson is a true artist. ‘Grace for Drowning’ is Wilson’s second solo album and 2011 marks another year where Wilson contributes to more than one album on my best of list (including ‘Heritage’ by Opeth and ‘Welcome to My DNA’ by Blackfield).  ‘Grace’ is a sprawling double album featuring 12 tracks – the last two taking up more than a half hour – which takes the listener on quite the journey. From soft, mellow harmonies and piano solos, to jazzy interludes, a couple of mellow ballads and ultimately heavy, droning, industrial guitar driven segments, Wilson has mastered so many elements of his craft that ‘Grace for Drowning’ defies genre definition. 

Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues

2) Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

I get the feeling that Fleet Foxes third album will finally reach the top spot on my list following back to back finishes in the number two spot. To reach the top spot albums typically need to be extremely consistent throughout and consistently great. Fleet Foxes has never made a bad song, but much like on their debut I find myself always going back to the same few songs – for this album its ‘Montezuma’, ‘Someone You’d Admire,’  ‘The Shrine / An Argument’ & ‘Grown Ocean’ – easily four of the very best songs to be released all year long.

Girls Father Son Holy Ghost

1) Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Father, Son & Holy Ghost begins with the sugary pop of ‘Honey Bunny’ where singer Christopher Owens sings about chasing after girls – ‘so many girls.’ The opening is textbook pop songwriting, to the point of near cliché. Peppy rhymes about finding love right around the corner and background harmonies about it lasting ‘all all waaayyys!’ It is at this point that a music snob like me could easily dismiss Girls as an act shooting for top 40 stardom, but somewhere around the bridge that seems to change. The music slows, the rhyming stops, and Owens sings about his mom and how “she really loved me, even when I was bad.” What begins with ignorant pop bliss ends with Owens search for real, unconditional love. The album that proceeds is a like-minded take on Owens’ struggles and triumphs – but mostly struggles – with women. The music, much like the opening song, is an eclectic mix that flows with the mood – from kick ass guitar solos to timeless pop sensibilities. The happiest moments are fun and poppy, and the darkest moments are ragged and heavy. Ultimately Girl’s ‘album 3’ is one of those rare, artfully constructed records that effectively communicates something more than just notes played over musical instruments – but rather some piece of a persons’ soul that art alone is able to convey.