Best Music of 2011

Top 50 Albums of 2011

on December 16, 2011, 12:00am
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year end albums Top 50 Albums of 2011

At this year’s Record Store Day – the April one, not the November shindig – I felt something that hadn’t occurred to me in probably 10 years. I felt excited to hold a record. Standing in line, clutching the inside of my far-too-thin hoodie (thanks, Chicago wind), I paced back and forth in my mind, thinking, God, I hope I get this album. The item in question? Big Star’s unreleased Third.

Of course, I didn’t get it. Nobody did. The store didn’t even receive a copy. So, instead, I spent a couple bucks on some singles, bit my lip, and went home somewhat satiated. But, for the 45 minutes prior to that moment, it was something slightly alien, but moreover familiar. There used to be a time when you couldn’t get an album.

Not everyone can remember that feeling, but they should. Prior to the digital revolution, music was somewhat of a privilege. As a child, you might spend weeks saving up money for something that takes less than two clicks to grab now. Don’t get me wrong — it’s liberating. But value gets partly tossed aside now. It really shouldn’t.

The album is by far the most integral facet of the music industry. People throw out EPs, toss in singles, but albums really mean something. If it’s even halfway decent, it’s essentially then a collection of perfected thoughts, emotions, and creations that are meant to be consumed, examined, and experienced. This year, we had far too many experiences – seemingly overloaded by an open-door policy of music thanks to Spotify.

That didn’t stop us, however, from finding 50 albums we thoroughly enjoyed.

-Michael Roffman
President/Editor-in-Chief

50. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

ryan adams ashes fire Top 50 Albums of 2011

In 2011, a record like this with precise craft, honest and bare songwriting, and gorgeous, subtle polish seldom gets made. Ashes & Fire is a mainstay because of its demeanor: authentic, exposed, and sublime. It’s a departure from the soaring years with the Cardinals and the rowdy solo work of yesteryear. Instead, Ryan Adams is mellow and content; his voice gleams from artfully sparse production (see: “Dirty Rain”). A tightly focused survey of the remaining ashes of his past, the album subtly questions what to do with all that history in light of a different self and becomes a modern classic in the process. -Liz Lane


49. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar

the joy formidable the big roar Top 50 Albums of 2011

The Joy Formidable may very well be the most appropriately named band to make their full-length debut this year. On The Big Roar, the Welsh trio’s brand of hook-laden guitar pop is a delight to behold as Ritzy Bryan’s urgent delivery transforms song after song into something anthemic. Their swirling layers of guitars and rapid-fire percussion pack enough of a forceful punch to live up to the other half of the band’s name. Full of catchy choruses and relentlessly energetic guitar crunches, The Big Roar is a stadium-sized album amidst a sea of clubs. -Frank Mojica


48. Astronautalis – This Is Our Science

astronautalis this is our science Top 50 Albums of 2011

On This Is Our Science, Astronautalis, aka Charles Andrew Bothwell, sounds as convincing singing about a turbulent relationship on “Secrets on Our Lips” as he does spitting verses on cryogenic experimenter Robert Nelson on “Midday Moon”. But it’s not just for intellectuals: Bothwell duets with Tegan Quinn on “Contrails” and features rapper P.O.S. on the album’s title track, gaining both indie and hip-hop street cred. This diversity catapulted Astronautalis’ fourth album into the iTunes top 10 downloads when it was released. In addition, producer John Congleton’s signature desperate, moody arrangements add emotional depth to This Is Our Science’s largely intellectual material. -Harley Brown


47. Ty Segall – Goodbye Bread

ty segall goodbye bread Top 50 Albums of 2011

At just 24 years old, Goodbye Bread is Ty Segall’s fifth full-length, and again he plays every instrument. The stats are impressive, but this spotless collection of West coast garage tunes handily earns this spot. Less howl-y and punky than previous releases, Segall varies his influences from John Lennon (“I Can’t Feel It”) to smokey blues rock (“The Floor”), all loaded with warm, fuzzy reverb. Songs like “Comfortable Home (A True Story)” show the young artist’s growth into a more personal songwriter, his half-languid falsetto more revealing than ever. It’s mellower, sure, but it’s also some of his most carefully considered output yet, leading to some of his best. And there’s still plenty of stomp and roll. -Benjamin Kaye

46. Summer Camp – Welcome to Condale

summer camp Top 50 Albums of 2011

The cover of Summer Camp’s Welcome to Condale features a woman in a bathing suit doing a keg stand. So appropriate for an album that tempts the imagination, concocting this place called “Condale” where the kids are hot, the music spacey and romantic. The album is jaded Americana (even though the band is from England), conjuring images of the boardwalk, $2 beer specials, and sand in your hair. Their foreign nature only makes their fascination with American culture that much more apparent. This is an album for losing your virginity in the backseat (“Last American Virgin”), getting sunburned by the lake (“Summer Camp”), and smoking your first joint (“I Want You”). It doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that it relishes in the cliché while embracing a nostalgic beauty that makes the frivolity of youth so universal. -Summer Dunsmore

45. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne

kanye jay watch the throne Top 50 Albums of 2011

Watch the Throne, likely the most widely anticipated album of the current decade thus far, sounds exactly like what it is: Two of hip-hop’s most powerful overlords reveling in knowing that they’re just that. In barely 45 minutes, Yeezy and Hov plow through the likes of bionic pop-rap (“Lift Off“), borderline-dubstep (“Who Gon‘ Stop Me“), exotic grandeur (“Murder to Excellence“), and bare-bones soul (“Otis”), all of which is – this cannot be overstated – immaculately produced. Plus, with these two guys constantly playing verbal ping-pong, the whole album is indubitably and nearly incessantly fun. And that’s really all it ever needed to be. -Mike Madden

44. Yuck – Yuck

yuck Top 50 Albums of 2011

Admittedly, every sound on Yuck’s self-titled debut is one we’ve all heard before. Rather than embracing one particular influence, Yuck seamlessly pays tribute to nearly all of indie rock’s greatest legends from song to song (e.g. Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr.). Sure, there is a revitalization of the fuzzed-out sounds of the late 80’s and 90’s here, but Yuck also taps into the spirit and emotional highs and lows that made those bands so intriguing in the first place. Sometimes, it’s not what you do but how you do it that matters. -Frank Mojica

43. Mikal Cronin – Mikal Cronin

 Top 50 Albums of 2011

A few months back, our own Jeremy D. Larson wrote that the tone of Mikal Cronin’s self-titled debut falls “somewhere between Velvet Underground’s Loaded and The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells.” For one, he’s right. Yet moreover, the album exudes this sentimental presence that recalls ’60s mainstays like The Byrds or Jefferson Airplane. It’s a hazy experience that’s quite addicting, like a 151-glazed night in your college heartbreaker’s dorm room. (What? Stay with me, folks.) Check into Cronin’s living room stunner “Hold On Me”, a track that frolics with mousy percussion and cyclical acoustics. It’s a moody think piece. Not moody in the sense that you’re out to scratch the world’s eyes out, but sort of like that welcoming isolation you pine for from time to time. Fact: Sometimes being alone feels better. With a voice and ear like Cronin’s, it’ll always sound better. -Michael Roffman

42. Kendrick Lamar – Section .80

kendrick lamar section 80 Top 50 Albums of 2011

Twenty-four-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar is a native of Compton, CA, but you’re not likely to figure that out while listening to Section.80. Its beats bear almost nil resemblance to the storied G-funk of the city’s past. Rather, the album is built around electro-tinged, blurry near-boom-bap that gives Lamar more than enough room to do whatever he chooses on the mic, something he takes full advantage of. Plus, his finest verses (found on “A.D.H.D.” and “Fuck Your Ethnicity”) occasionally evoke 2Pac at his least thuggish. No small feat there. -Mike Madden

41. Washed Out – Within & Without

washed out within and without Top 50 Albums of 2011

Two years ago, Ernest Greene was just beginning to take Washed Out beyond a childhood bedroom side project. After a year of Sub Pop signage and this full-length debut, Within and Without, Greene is headed beyond being another chillwave act with synths. This album is devastatingly gorgeous, submerging listeners in Washed Out’s world of dense, warm vocals (“Eyes Be Closed”),  gloomy love songs with strings (“Far Away”), and jaunty pop  (“Before”). Within and Without is a kaleidoscope of discovery, uncovering directions Greene’s counterparts have yet to explore. -Lauren Rearick

40. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

the mountain goats all eternals deck1 Top 50 Albums of 2011

All Eternals Deck is a marvel, overflowing by turns with apathy, cheerful quirk, barely contained rage, and quiet wistfulness. And that’s just the first four tracks. John Darnielle’s vocal range is on full display here, laid over desperately driving guitars on 13 tracks as varied as they are meaningful. There are so many juicy pockets of lyrical cleverness here (see: “Estate Sale Sign”, “Prowl Great Cain”, and “For Charles Bronson”) that the album requires repeat listens to soak them all in. Fortunately, we’ve had most of 2011 to do just that. -Megan Ritt

39. Danny Brown – XXX

danny brown xxx Top 50 Albums of 2011

The greatest treasure of Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s breakthrough mixtape, XXX (an acronym that alludes to sex, drugs, and Brown’s age), is that it delivers as many ridiculous and hilariously clever lines as any other release this year. A brief sampling: “Sorta like Squidward and his clarinet/I’m in ya bitch mouth,” “You softer than Flanders’ son/Don’t make me put hands on son,“ “I‘m higher than Swizz Beatz’s hairline.” Oh, and the oft-dissonant, largely trimmed-down production has its moments, too (“Blunt After Blunt”, “EWNESW”, “DNA”). -Mike Madden

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38. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica

 Top 50 Albums of 2011

Daniel Lopatin has been making progressively bigger waves with each release since 2008’s Russian Minds, but Replica is easily his best, most accessible full-length to date. Rather than the swirling analog haze that colored his previous work, the album sees Lopatin mine the discarded junk culture of yesteryear for a singular, strangely dystopian vision of the future more akin to that of a science fiction author than a musician. From the piano-laden “Power of Persuasion” to the meditative ambiance of “Submersible”, Replica is remarkable music unlike anything else on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter. -Möhammad Choudhery

37. Real Estate – Days

real estate days album cover Top 50 Albums of 2011

Ben Folds chronicled the suburbs with white boy angst. Arcade Fire did it with melancholia. Real Estate takes a more laid-back approach, shrouding their simple, yet relatable, lyrics about suburban New Jersey (the songs have straightforward titles like “It’s Real” and “Wonder Years”) in a fog of hazy guitar solos and precise rhythm that could take place anywhere in the nation, as long as it’s not a city. Like a high school summer, it feels relaxed and alluringly repetitious. And isn’t that the point? -Dan Caffrey

36. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

bill callahan Top 50 Albums of 2011

For anyone who thought Bon Iver was the definitive impressionistic album of the year, Bill Callahan’s latest proves to be its strictly Americana counterpart. Hell, just look at the cover art. With Apocalypse, Callahan turns the Americana landscape into an ocean of sounds. Over a fiddle, an organ, a pedal steel, and reverb swells, Callahan becomes America’s most forward thinking country/folk singer still making music rooted in those old-time standards. “DC-4-5-0,” Callahan laments in the last moments of Apocalypse.  It’s an interesting sentiment, a powerful statement made without any real words. It’s the record’s Drag City serial number. As Callahan closes the door on yet another chapter in his demented world of horses, gunslingers, and cattle prodding, he is well aware that he’s doing so. It’s the question of where he’ll head next that makes the current state of his affairs all the more fascinating. In the meantime, we’re glad he’s leaving off here. -Drew Litowitz

35. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra

umo Top 50 Albums of 2011

Anonymity and avoiding press in the hyper-mediated blogosphere turns out to be a pretty effective tactic for getting some attention – especially for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, whose music turned out to be as difficult to place on the genre spectrum as it is to put a face on their online presence. With the release of their self-titled debut, the heavy hooks of Bandcamp viral “Ffunny Ffriends” find a home in a tightly performed but cheaply produced space odyssey – an intricate mix of psychedelics, speedy guitar riffs, and otherworldly vocals. Frontman Ruban Nielson’s knack for melody (who can resist “How Can U Luv Me?”) and treating the voice as an instrument proves to be the icing on the cake, validating the weird internet hype and translating the buzz into legitimacy. -Caitlin Meyer

34. Adele – 21

adele21 Top 50 Albums of 2011

A lot of people may roll their eyes at the inclusion of Adele’s 21 to year-end lists, but you can’t deny the staying power and grip the album has had on popular music. Love her or hate her, you couldn’t walk past a stereo or TV that wasn’t playing Adele this year. Being a pop music juggernaut doesn’t mean the album shouldn’t be respected, however. From the infectious “Rolling in the Deep” to the heart-wrenching “Someone Like You” to the vengeful “Set Fire to the Rain”, the album is solid front-to-back. Adele’s voice is a one-of-a-kind, jazzy, smoky, emotional powerhouse, and the fact that she is still topping charts months after the album was released shows she has a complete right to be on everyone’s year-end list. -Nick Freed

33. Cut Copy – Zonoscope

cut copy zonoscope Top 50 Albums of 2011

Leaner, meaner, and with more percussion. That’s the gist of Cut Copy’s excellent (and Grammy-nominated) follow-up to In Ghost Colours. Zonoscope sprawls into epic, tribal sounds and Beach Boys vocal harmonies, retaining its New Order moodiness and evoking sounds of native Australian ’80s new wave. If you went to a festival this summer, chances are you heard one of these hip-shaking beats wafting across a simmering summer vista. Do yourself a favor and listen to them again. Re-live your summer. -Paul de Revere

32. Gotye – Making Mirrors

gotye making mirrors cap blackard Top 50 Albums of 2011

One-by-one the countries of the world are falling in love with Gotye. The Austrailian multi-instrumentalist’s third album, Making Mirrors, has found its way into U.S. playlists in the wake of his video for “Somebody that I Used to Know” featuring Kimba. In it we see Gotye, with the charming anarchistic boyishness of Sting, singing with the heartrending honesty of Phil Collins. Ultimately it’s Collins’ bandmate Peter Gabriel that Gotye gets compared to the most, and for an obvious reason – the album is a musical wonderland of deeply layered and sophisticated pop sounds the likes of which we haven’t heard since So. From the Miracle Mile-like nuclear romance of “Eyes Wide Open”, to the lavish electro-reggae of “State of the Art”, Making Mirrors is sonically diverse, and with Gotye’s disarmingly genuine lyrics, it pulls madly at our heartstrings. -Cap Blackard

31. Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow

kate bush 50 words for snow Top 50 Albums of 2011

The most precious thing Kate Bush possesses is a rather magical way of thinking, and her latest record reflects this through utilizing an array of idiosyncratic collaborators (Elton John, Stephen Fry, her son Albert “Bertie” McIntosh) and characters ranging from a romantic snowman to a Yeti. Snow is a perfect inspirational touchstone for Bush, because when it falls, it makes everything seem more clear and yet retains a dreamlike quality. 50 Words for Snow is the musical equivalent of a long, yearning sigh, with songs like “Wild Man” and (almost 14-minute-long) “Misty” inhabiting a half-lit world that at different turns takes in driving beats, haunting piano, and spoken word to create the kind of unusual, inventive, and expansive sound Bush has become synonymous with, and she remains a sensual metronome of sorts (especially her voice, so unwavering and true) –  comforting and necessary in this increasingly confusing world. -Siobhán Kane

30. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

thewarondrugsalbumart 1024x1024 Top 50 Albums of 2011

Despite the subtraction of Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs keep chugging along with their latest effort. Slave Ambient is a 12-track wallop filled with Dylan-esque vocals, instrumentals, and, yes, ambience. Singer/guitarist Adam Granduciel takes us through the rough-and-tumble landscape where we find the catchy, constant stream of “Best Night”, the steady thumping of “Your Love Is Calling My Name”, and the acoustic-driven coda of the elegiac “Black Water Falls”. The guitar play between Granduciel and Dave Hartley is second to no one this year. -Justin Gerber

29. The Men – Leave Home

the men leave home Top 50 Albums of 2011

The Men nailed their demands to the door of the Church of Punk/Hardcore and peaced-out for greener pastures. The melting pot that resulted on Leave Home is an alarm call for purists and tourists alike. It plays like a record-collector’s wet dream with obvious hat-tips to Spaceman 3, Joy Division, The Wipers, and whatever else is in The Men’s milk crates. But there’s no prerequisite to feel the primal churning squalor of  “L.A.D.O.C.H.”, a song specializing in blunt trauma force to the guts-bag. The cocaine-surf instrumentals, relentless noise punk, and post-punk kraut-rock tunes that quake with the words, “Can you push them away?” over and over are all hurled into a storm of angular guitars, walls of drums, knives, fists, and sweat that doesn’t ever let up. This album’s so far from pure that if you snorted it you’d land straight in the ER. Man, that’s what’s so great about it, though. -Jeremy D. Larson

28. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo

kurt vile cover Top 50 Albums of 2011

Smoke Ring for My Halo is probably the easiest album to digest in 2011. That is, if you enjoy a good daydream. With his spidery guitar scales, sunset-staring vocals, and uber-melancholic lyrics, Kurt Vile sucks you in. It’s so easy to get lost here. Right off the bat, “Baby’s Arms” acts as a wormhole, to which you’re sliding into repetition and soul-seeking rhythms. From there it’s pure moonshine. Down quick, hard-hitting. Producer John Agnello keeps things at home, as well, which is where Vile belongs. We like our singer-songwriters close to us, and it doesn’t get any more intimate than this. Looking for a friend? Consider this album your new roommate. Just don’t expect him to do the dishes. Though, he’ll certainly keep you company. Always. -Michael Roffman

27. Childish Gambino – Camp

childish gambino camp Top 50 Albums of 2011

If Drake is the MC who made it cool to rap and emote, then Childish Gambino (aka actor/comedian Donald Glover) helped evolve the style into something far more nuanced and outlandish. Thanks to his comedic background, Gambino peppers his tracks with catchy rhymes and clever quips galore (like the line from “Sunrise”: “I’ve seen it all, like I’m John Mayer’s penis hole”). He’s an MC who understands the power of beats and an appealing production style, which he demonstrates on cuts like the menacing “Bonfire” and the electro-heavy “Heartbeat”. But it’s his wide-open emotional sentiments that make the LP shine outside the confines of its genre. Whether he’s confessing his detachment from the black community in “Backpackers” or sharing the pain of his childhood heartache with “That Power”, Gambino wears his heart on his pink polo shirt, readily rubbing into listeners’ faces at any given moment. Looks like the joke’s on us after all. -Chris Coplan

26. Wild Flag – Wild Flag

wild flag wild flag Top 50 Albums of 2011

Wild Flag aren’t Sleater-Kinney 2.0, and that wound up being a good thing. The highly anticipated debut from the Sleater/Helium/Minders supergroup is a new beast entirely, harder rocking than anything they’ve done before. While Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony’s voices will stir up a few warm, familiar memories, the overdriven guitars and psychedelic keyboard breakdowns make an outstanding case towards a new era for these musicians. Wild Flag stands as an impressive debut, with or without the band members’ all-star pedigrees. -Austin Trunick

25. Panda Bear – Tomboy

panda bear tomboy2 Top 50 Albums of 2011

The journey of Panda Bear’s latest LP, Tomboy, was more akin to that of a hip-hop album than an indie solo record. After the first single dropped in the summer of 2010, Panda Bear announced a late fourth quarter release for his follow-up to the critically acclaimed, Person Pitch. Like countless rappers before him, Noah Lennox delayed his album again and again, finally releasing it on April 12th. The album is sonically smaller than Person Pitch but not any less ambitious. While wholly longer than its predecessor, the individual songs are short and to the point, resulting in fantastic, succinct blasts of space-age pop like “Last Night at the Jetty” and “Surfer’s Hymn”. -Carson O’Shoney

24. SBTRKT – SBTRKT

sbtrkt Top 50 Albums of 2011

London artist SBTRKT has swept the world this year with his self-titled debut LP, rocking festivals and small venues alike. A leading proponent of post-dubstep sprinkled with a tad of R & B soul, his sound provides something astoundingly unique for the music scene: pure, unbridled novelty. “Wildfire” is the album’s standout track, its main synth bass line too infectious to ignore on the dance floor. “Living Like I Do” is stylistically different, evidencing more trance-like influences, and it shows the diversity of the album. Singing about love and heartbreak, with beats sometimes dizzying, sometimes morose, the album is an emotional exposition of SBTRKT’s affinity for the music medium. -Summer Dunsmore

23. The Weeknd – House of Balloons

theweeknd1 Top 50 Albums of 2011

The Weeknd really took this year by storm, in case you hadn’t been paying attention. It’s been a hurricane of success – the 21-year-old Toronto native is seemingly unstoppable. But it all started with the twisted allure of House of Balloons. From heavy hitting single fodder like “Wicked Games” and “High For This” to unsung heroes like the mellow “Coming Down”, or the Beach House-sampling “The Party & The After Party”, The Weeknd created a cohesive album equal parts grime and glamor. Multiply some of the tightest production this year by Abel’s pure upper register and you’ve got a winner. Now multiply that sum by uber-enticing lyrics of grotesquely beautiful over-indulgence, and what’s the outcome? An album that goes down smooth, but also leaves your esophagus battered, bleeding, and hurting oh so good. -Winston Robbins

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22. Thundercat – The Golden Age of Apocalypse

thundercat the golden age of apocalypse Top 50 Albums of 2011

Super-bassist Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, is only 27, but he already has the sort of resume most only dream of, logging performance credits with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Erykah Badu, along with a full-time gig as bassist for thrash-fusion legends Suicidal Tendencies. Someone this good could only play sideman for so long, though. After lending his virtuosic talents last year to Flying Lotus’ magnificent beat odyssey Cosmogramma, Lotus returned the favor by producing Bruner’s stellar debut, The Golden Age of Apocalypse. But make no mistake. This is Thundercat’s Golden Age, his smooth bass runs and smoother falsetto starring throughout. The beat-heavy “Daylight” and dreamy rework of George Duke’s “For Love I Come” are obvious highlights, though Thundercat’s distinctly cosmic presence and unparalleled skill make for essential listening from start to finish. -Möhammad Choudhery

21. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

girls father son holy ghost Top 50 Albums of 2011

Christopher Owens’ sweet, puppy dog eyes timbre convinces just about anyone that despite substance problems, scars of a former religious cult, heartache, and anxiety, everything is just alright in the present. Father, Son, Holy Ghost harnesses music’s spiritual characteristics in a conspicuous manor, as Owens and his band mates cleverly balance yearning gospel pangs with snotty, west coast retro rock. There’s paranoia (“Die”), choir loft church organ soul (“Vomit”, “My Ma”, and “Love Like a River”), and an overall smart execution of style no matter what Girls’ carefree fuck-it-all style says (see: “Just a Song”). Their sophomore album shows that Girls have honed in on a truly distinct sound that pulls from past influences, but manages to sound wholly original and really, really good. From poppy, riff-heavy opener “Honey Bunny” to the emotional apexes of the final three tracks, Father, Son, Holy Ghost plays as a complete and fantastic album. -Liz Lane

20. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

tom waits bad as me Top 50 Albums of 2011

How fitting that in the same year as his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Tom Waits released an album that reminds us precisely why we love and still need the old rain dog. In crisp, vibrant bursts, Bad As Me revisits and revitalizes numerous styles and sounds from across Waits’ nearly 40-year career. But this record is much more than an old beatboxing junkman’s recycling project. Whether it be the tender frankness of lover’s plea “Back in the Crowd”, the cool chill of life’s autumn felt on “Last Leaf”, or the jarring nightmare of wartime romp “Hell Broke Luce”, Waits’ finest songs still shine a brief light upon those who often go unseen and unheard, which is precisely why we need him. Yes, we like to “stomp, whistle, and scream” and “dance with a soldier’s glee” (whatever that entails exactly), but Waits also knows that we need to cry in our beer, howl at the moon, and occasionally have our lives dignified by a stranger sparing a moment to listen to our sad stories. The fact that Bad As Me somehow manages to make it all so goddamn fun is what makes him Tom Waits. -Matt Melis 

19. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

fucked up david comes to life Top 50 Albums of 2011

From a deceptively quiet beginning roars Fucked Up’s epic punk opera, David Comes to Life. Composed of 18 tracks that form four acts, the eponymous David rises and falls through love, loss, and ultimate redemption, which might not be as notable a project if the entire thing wasn’t screamed into your headphones by Fucked Up’s own Damian Abraham. Fortunately, Abraham and his backing guitars manage to ratchet out many levels of emotion amidst the chaos (and if that’s not the sound of heartbreak, then nothing is), turning David into not just another noisy punk album but a meaningful, moving journey through that most universal of emotions – love. -Megan Ritt

18. Atlas Sound – Parallax

atlas sound parallax Top 50 Albums of 2011

Bradford Cox has never been one for compromises, in performance or on record. Every single release under the Atlas Sound moniker or in collaboration with his fellow Deerhunter bandmates has been a thorough representation of his tenacious artistic vision at the current time. Parallax, though in part an homage to the Neil Young and Patti Smith singer-songwriters of yore, is no exception to this trend, replete with Cox’s trademark creative guitar inventions, alien soundscapes, and queer punk attitude. Dealing with neglect, personal perception, and, yes, romance, the album shelters some of the catchiest (“Mona Lisa”), starkest (“Flagstaff”), and most intricate (“Amplifiers”) songs in Cox’s body of work thus far. It is this exact contrast of the candidly sweet with the unabashedly weird and unexpected – the acoustic noise with the controlled studio work – that makes Parallax and Cox’s music in total the unique gift to modern music that it is. -David DiLillo

17. The Horrors – Skying

thehorrors skying Top 50 Albums of 2011

Skying is a paragon of how to face the pressures of matching initial critical success with a follow-up: Nut up, evolve, and do something people might not expect. The Horrors lock their goth-outlined, post-punk gaze down on their pop-laced shoes and dive into ’80s influences to put together an album encapsulating their progression as a band. Faris Badwan’s vocals have been raised and fleshed out; everything is subtler, tighter, and more atmospheric than 09’s Primary Colours, all of which works to this album’s favor. From the insanely absorbing rumblings and synths of “Changing the Rain” to the spellbinding repetitions of “Moving Further Away”, each track could soundtrack a John Hughes film as easily as a hazy dance scene. By being brave enough to vary their sound, The Horrors are proving to be a band capable of understanding and managing growth – something not every act can accomplish. -Benjamin Kaye

16. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

 Top 50 Albums of 2011

The songs feel more captured than recorded, like the studio just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch the drones, the noise, the insipidness, and the catharsis. The connection between each of the nine tracks is loose; some howl with feedback and noise, while others play at a grunge revival, and then there’s the cantillation of “California”, a homily so raw it has the congregation squirming in the pews. But the wide palate of Erika M. Anderson is the prize of the record. Her knife is sharp and knows who to cut and where and how and can do it in a hundred different ways to leave someone just as marked as she is. Couple that with the cool breeze of a west coast girl who knows how to write a catchy melody, and the masochism of Past Life Martyred Saints really becomes something very real and addictive. -Jeremy D. Larson

15. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

radiohead king of limbs Top 50 Albums of 2011

Radiohead has attained a status such that every album it releases is expected to reach groundbreaking heights, introducing the world to some new luminous idea that will set the bar for all pop and rock music yet to come. It’s understandable, because Radiohead has done that a couple of times. But while The King of Limbs doesn’t do that, it does nothing to earn unwarranted hostility either. There are several gems that have etched a permanent place in Radiohead’s oeuvre, including the invigorating “Bloom”, the wordless wonder “Feral”, and, of course, “Lotus Flower”. If Radiohead is finished making instant classics, it will be no tragedy if The King of Limbs is a sign of things to come. -J. Harry Painter

14. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

fleet fox helplessness blues Top 50 Albums of 2011

Over 12 spiritually emotional tracks, Robin Pecknold marries his flawless vocals to harmonies and expertly woven instrumentals, all in a rich and satisfying circle. The songs are charged with memorable, soaring melodies, and Pecknold’s observational, first-person lyrics are teasingly profound. On the title track, Pecknold sings, “If I know only one thing, it’s that everything I see/of the world outside is so inconceivable/that often, I barely can speak.” Fortunately, he still does. A hallmark is usually pretty small to the naked eye. When this record is dusted off in 30 or 40 years, you will surely find the word classic etched somewhere discreet. -Tony Hardy

13. Beyoncé – 4

 Top 50 Albums of 2011

Born from bits and pieces of Fela Kuti, Broadway musicals, and Lionel Richie, 4 is simultaneously one of Beyoncé’s most musically diverse and personal records. It’s a master class, of sorts, of pop music over the last 40 years. From the mega-sized R&B/show tune/love anthem of “Countdown” to the old-school swag of “Party” featuring André 3000, 4 is a hit factory extravaganza – only with more substance. It’s incredibly personal; far deeper than anything else in her otherwise emotionally available career. Yet it’s also quite compact, doing away with some fluff and filler that plagued her past LPs. Already, we’re bubbling over with joyous anticipation for what 5 has to offer. -Chris Coplan

12. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

colin stetson new history warfare vol 2 judges Top 50 Albums of 2011

This year, bass saxophonist Colin Stetson went from little-known indie symphony stalwart (having backed everyone from LCD Soundsystem to Tom Waits) to a solo force in his own right. Nothing could encapsulate his stratospheric shot to prominence better than his second long-player, a formative mesh of free jazz, thrumming drone, and beautifully structured songwriting. Even more impressive is that the disc is composed solely of single takes without any overdubbing or looping. That’s right. Other than vocal contributions from Laurie Anderson and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, the alternately cacophonic and startling, beautiful noises are coming straight from Stetson’s sax, proving his instrumental mastery and writing genius. -Adam Kivel

11. The Antlers – Burst Apart

 Top 50 Albums of 2011

Burst Apart couldn’t have been more appropriately titled, as it signifies the complete departure from the moving darkness of Hospice, the adherence to genre norms, and, most importantly for the band, The Antlers’ status as a one-man show. The creative talents of Peter Silberman, Darby Cicci, and Michael Lerner seamlessly fuse together throughout Burst Apart‘s 10 tracks to create everything experienced in their live show and, more markedly, a mesmerizing collaborative vision. Dynamism becomes the key word as the record progresses. The shifts from “Rolled Together”‘s hypnotic groove to straightforward rocker “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” are executed without pause, without the emotive lyrics suffering in the least – proving anew that maybe, as long as you’re The Antlers, you really can have it all. -Caitlin Meyer

10. Drake – Take Care

drake take care cos Top 50 Albums of 2011

Hip-hop’s a jungle full of bloodthirsty lions decked out in diamonds and looking for their next target. But suddenly a young lion emerges into a clearing: Drake. While his counterparts are all about pure thuggery and bragging ad infinitum, Drake’s sophomore LP changes the landscape with heartfelt, emotional confessions of lost love and personal inadequacies.

From the baller anthem of “Headlines” to the drunken loneliness and outbursts in “Marvin’s Room”, Take Care is Drizzy’s declaration of his own shortcomings in the middle of a white-hot ride up the charts, a spellbinding narrative if there ever was one. Drake has taken the work of his first, slightly disappointing record and shown himself to now fully understand the delicate balancing act he must endeavor. In essence, Drake has rewritten the rules of the rap game, adding much-needed depth to the swagger contest of modern verse slangin’. All hail the new king of the jungle. -Chris Coplan

9. Destroyer – Kaputt

destroyer kaputt  Top 50 Albums of 2011

According to Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar, Kaputt‘s coke rock aesthetic was never intentional. There was no irony, no hidden homage to Roxy Music and latter-day Steely Dan as many music fans and critics thought. It was just how he heard the songs. Whether you believe that insistence or not, the album’s enchanting mood and charismatic weirdness are undeniable. Bejar’s time-traveling tales of cryptic romance and doomed nightlife are laced with electronic drums, smooth jazz flute, and dreamy saxophone, the sonic equivalent to a Thomas Pynchon novel viewed through the glitzy fracture of a disco ball.

Opener “Chinatown” wraps the listener in the record’s world of slowly dying neon, the title track flits back and forth between what’s more appealing, cocaine or women (the band never bothers to decide), and album centerpiece “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” escorts us through 400 years of the American party scene by way of a brown paper bag. The lyrics are impenetrable, and none of it probably ever happened, but that doesn’t keep us from feeling like we were there. -Dan Caffrey

8. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

 Top 50 Albums of 2011

It’s rare to make music that people have never heard before; but on w h o k i l l, tUnE-yArDs have done just that, combining ancient African musical traditions like polyrhythms with looping and other modern technologies. More importantly, with songs like the irresistibly anthemic “Bizness”, Merrill Garbus has expanded from a blog-cherished eccentricity to a universal must-see. Her arrangement of two saxophonists, a bassist, and her own vocal and percussive instrumentation has rarely, if ever, been seen in music history. Not only that, her husky, yet lilting, squawk—which veers from eerie on “Wooly Wolly Gong” to famously siren-imitating on “Gangsta”—demonstrates noteworthy versatility.

With w h o k i l l, Garbus has ascended to the ranks of groundbreaking female artists like Lauryn Hill and MC Lyte, whom she emulates on “Doorstep” and “Killa”, respectively. Like other female artistic idol Bjork, she uses her voice nontraditionally, at times to convey a political message (i.e. call-and-response loops that sound like monkeys, singing the lyrics to “America”, on “My Country). Despite all this ground she’s covered, Garbus continues to challenge herself like on “You Yes You”, when she asks, “What’s that about?” when she starts to sing about personal satisfaction and, thus, perhaps complacency. Songs like the atonal, stop-and-start “Es-so” exemplify w h o k i l l’s aural challenge because it sounds more pleasing with each listen, challenging the listener to meet Garbus on her level instead of vice versa. And, ultimately, the effort is worth it. -Harley Brown

7. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

m83 hurry up were dreaming Top 50 Albums of 2011

With Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 set out to capture the stuff that dreams are made of – and succeed. This is nothing new in the world of dream pop and electronica, but M83’s ability to distil childhood longing and teenage nostalgia into spirit lifting, anthemic, synth opuses is second to none. He captures it. If you were a dreamy kid, adventuring at night, and trying to live out your dreams in the day – these songs crystallize that special feeling, that certain time, that tragic, beautiful, ever-fleeing youth. It’s an incredible thing to put on some headphones, curl up in bed, and go back.

Picking up where Saturdays = Youth left off, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming‘s sound matures while its subject matter remains in the same vein. That said, this is not a repeat performance. Anchored by far more analog instruments, and a thematic concept that spans two discs, M83 uses the space he’s created to its fullest with both gripping singles like “Midnight City” and affecting, transcendental instrumentals and interludes. “Claudia Lewis” recaptures the lavish art pop production of the ’80s and lovingly reinstates it as the ideal sound for rooftop dancefloors. “New Map” couples epic modern synth tracks with a smooth 70’s flute and sax arrangement for an exciting new sonic experience. With Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 has proven himself as the most exciting electropop act of the current age – a musical mind inevitably looking back, but always pushing forward. -Cap Blackard

6. James Blake – James Blake

james blake album cover Top 50 Albums of 2011

It’s almost hard to remember the pre-Bon Iver owl hoot collaboration days of James Blake, but believe it or not the debut album that took the blogwaves by storm is less than a year old. James Blake is the London post-dubstep singer-songwriter at his most consistent and most focused, with not a misstep to be found through 11 tracks. It’s easy to write Blake off as a one-trick pony if one merely samples a song or two, but this album is so far above that that the criticism is criminally uncalled for.

James Blake isn’t a conceptual journey, but, sonically, each track offers something not heard in the track preceding it. Whether it’s full-on dubstep throbbing as on “I Never Learnt to Share”, straightforward, soulful piano balladry as on “Give Me My Month”, or vocal manipulation and sampling as on “To Care (Like You)”, Blake’s first and so far only full-length album holds the listener’s attention despite being chock-full of unabashed minimalism. It’s not just an extended experiment in fun new sounds, however. There are sing-along moments aplenty, from the Feist cover “Limit to Your Love” to the hook-heavy “The Wilhelm Scream” and sentimental album closer “Measurements”. If Blake has set the bar so high here that he never matches it, that’s one thing, but it cannot be justly denied that the bar is nonetheless high and worthy of all the shameless imitation it will inspire. -J. Harry Painter

5. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light

 Top 50 Albums of 2011

Badass pop-rock is back, and Dave Grohl is driving the truck. Two things (other than being led by a Nirvana alum) have made Foo Fighters wildly successful for almost 20 years: an acute pop sensibility and a goofy sense of humor. They’re both present on Wasting Light, but there’s something even more important: a thrashing, hard rock attitude and sound that kicks you in the face and makes you want more. Part of this is due to the much lauded return to analog recording on this album, and the garage band sound is quite literal, since it was recorded in Grohl’s garage-cum-studio.

Grohl’s expertly crafted melodies are much more lyrical than a typical hard rock song, but from the opening dissonant strumming of “Bridge Burning”, it’s clear that the Foo Fighters are returning to some of the grungy-ness of that early ’90s alternative sound. Amidst the tight vocal harmonies of “Dear Rosemary” or the power ballad “I Should Have Known” or the über-poppy “Arlandria”, Foo Fighters deliver a bona fide metal track in “White Limo”, with Grohl’s screaming vocals and a heavy chromatic guitar riff. No wonder they put Lemmy in the video. When Grohl said, “never lose faith in real rock and roll music” at this year’s VMAs, this was the sound he meant. -Jake Cohen

4. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

PJ HARVEY – LET ENGLAND SHAKE Top 50 Albums of 2011

On her ambitious eighth album, PJ Harvey crafts a lush ode to her homeland that is brutal and uplifting, admonitory and exalting. Through evocations of The Great War (WWI) and other conflicts, Let England Shake paints an achingly beautiful picture of a country built on the lives of young soldiers and broken promises, simultaneously praising its glory while lamenting its modern stagnation and bloody history. A polarity of sentiment, grandiose without the pretense, explores the conflict of patriotic love (“The Last Living Rose”) with sociopolitical dissatisfaction (“England”).

The poetic resonance is breathtaking, and Harvey makes you feel it. Her voice, flooded with emotion, soars and swirls amidst autoharps and horns, creating a sonic landscape unlike anything she’s done before. It’s strikingly passionate, with a hauntingly marching momentum that pulls you in to her tales of war and hope. The sound is bolstered by recording in a repurposed church, adding a hallowed echo perfectly suited to the subject. Its success is immutable; the album nabbed this year’s Mercury Prize, making PJ Harvey the first artist ever to receive the distinction twice. Though the music and lyrics give strong grounds to call this album an all-time great, the honors bestowed on it cement its place in the annals of musical, nay, artistic masterpieces. -Benjamin Kaye

3. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

 Top 50 Albums of 2011

Shabazz Palaces isn’t ushering hip-hop into the future, it’s already there, waiting with a grin, and will probably be long gone before anyone else gets there. Ishmael Butler is “Palaceer Lazero” is Shabazz Palaces, almost twice the age of other rappers. He’s past the style, the swag, the hustle and constantly braces himself against the status quo. His dexterous raps on Black Up often stand in direct opposition to the other, their arguments are infallible: “We run the latest feelings, they just re-rap through the givens/them are talk first, we are observe and listen.” Taking it further, Black Up doesn’t just offer a counter point, it offers a solution, and that is simply that music and life boils down to one thing which is what he repeats on “Are you…Can you… Were you? (Felt)”:  “it’s a feeling.”

This is the rebirth of soul music, something you can feel, and something that can transport you to a world teeming with strange musical lifeforms, manipulated beats and bent beyond recognition. He can wax poetic, claiming he’s “free to chain my will onto the wings of my instinct,” or simply ask if a girl he fancies if she “fucks with Kobe or Lebron?” Never heard that last one until like my 50th listen. What came to develop after many quests alongside Black Up was a relationship. Rarely does a rap album aim for this kind of connection or challenge the listener in a way that doesn’t scream “didactic” or “boring”. It’s one of the most personal albums that takes the 70’s funk ethos, filters out all the pomp and sequin capes, and forms concentrated jewel. It’s heavy, dense, sparkles with hope, radiates love, is hot to the touch, and dope to the ears. It is, in fact, a feeling. -Jeremy D. Larson

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

bon iver bon iver bon iver Top 50 Albums of 2011

Justin Vernon is out of the cabin. With Bon Iver he begins his return to civilization, now accompanied by throngs of sensitive fans and new street-cred courtesy of Kanye West. On this journey, Vernon could have followed the blueprint of For Emma, Forever Ago: churn out new songs dominated by an acoustic guitar and stripped-down production. However, he opted to go in a new direction with a fleshed-out, proper band and Bruce Hornsby as a muse.

Bon Iver needs to be heard in order from beginning to end, as most great albums do. The deceiving hush in the opening moments of “Perth” begins the journey to “Beth/Rest”, a synth-driven, kitchen-sink track with a guitar solo straight out of A Momentary Lapse of Reason that still polarizes fans months after its release. But that’s the beauty of Vernon’s risk-taking throughout the album. He didn’t rest on his laurels and create For Emma: Vol. 2. If anything, he created Bon Iver Mach 2, now with saxophones. The inclusion of the best song of the year, the gorgeous acceptance found within “Holocene”, didn’t hurt the album’s placing as our second-favorite album of the year, either. -Justin Gerber

1. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

 Top 50 Albums of 2011

“He thought there was going to be so much—more than he had ever dreamed possible… instead there was absolutely nothing.” It’s a line that sounds stripped from the best of Annie Clark’s songs; except that it isn’t. It belongs to Marilyn Monroe, in one of her diaries that dates back to April 1955. But how tragic, and how intimate, is that? Here’s Monroe, one of the most widely sought after figures in the history of pop culture, digressing on the fear of disappointment, especially to a loved one. It’s a recurring element in much of her personal writings. It’s also one of the driving motivations for Clark’s best work to date, Strange Mercy.

“Oh America, can I owe you one,” Clark laments by album’s end on “Year of the Tiger”. It’s one of the most poignant and culturally relevant tracks of the year–a bombastic herald to the States’ end times, when capitalistic whores die at the hands of coffee makers. What bitter, insightful precision. Look to your town squares, your universities, your banks, and your financial districts. It’s a mercurial year for Americans. The track’s sort of wavy, lazy distortion exemplifies that. We’re wary of the errors, we’re indignant of our culture, and we’re starting to wake up.

But there’s a deeper sense of self-awareness that Clark exhibits here. It goes back to Monroe. She hints that, despite the culture’s pre-conceived notion that all is equal, it’s anything but that. People scoff at the misogynistic, heavily racial days of Mad Men every Sunday (y’know, when it returns), but it’s not too far off today. It’s still, in many ways, a man’s world, and Clark underscores this error. On “Surgeon”, she cries out how she “spent another summer on [her] back” and of things that let her “get along, get along,” and later on the title track, she insists she’ll remain by her “lost boys.” This idea couldn’t be any more boldly stated than on “Cheerleader”, where she calls members in her family “honest thieves,” chalking it up to an America “with no clothes on.” So, why stay? As she suggests later into the album on “Champagne Year”, “it’s not the perfect plan, but it’s the one we got.”

It’s dense, morose stuff, though you wouldn’t really notice. Clark has spent far too much time etching out adventurous rhythms, crossbreeding genres in each track; you’d be remiss to even acknowledge some of its lyrical madness. It’s a delightful listen with a foreboding underbelly, if you will. Take the transition from funky treading to its synth-laden baths at the end of “Dilettante”, for instance. That’s the sort of stuff a guru carves out. But, Clark proves worthy of that title earlier on (if she hadn’t via 2009’s Actor) with “Cruel”, this year’s most attractive pop song with the most invaluable question of ’em all: “How could they be casually cruel?” Is she being rhetorical, or does she desire an answer? Hopefully the former, because quite pathetically nobody has the answer. Christ, what does that say about us? -Michael Roffman

50. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
49. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
48. Astronautalis – This is Our Science
47. Ty Segall – Goodbye Bread
46. Summer Camp – Welcome to Condale
45. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne
44. Yuck – Yuck
43. Mikal Cronin – Mikal Cronin
42. Kendrick Lamar – Section .80
41. Washed Out – Within & Without
40. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
39. Danny Brown – XXX
38. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
37. Real Estate – Days
36. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
35. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
34. Adele – 21
33. Cut Copy – Zonoscope
32. Gotye – Making Mirrors
31. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
30. The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
29. The Men – Leave Home
28. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
27. Childish Gambino – Camp
26. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
25. Panda Bear – Tomboy
24. SBTRKT – SBTRKT
23. The Weeknd – House Of Balloons
22. Thundercat – The Golden Age of Apocalypse
21. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
20. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
19. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life
18. Atlas Sound – Parallax
17. The Horrors – Skying
16. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
15. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
14. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
13. Beyoncé – 4
12. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
11. The Antlers – Burst Apart
10. Drake – Take Care
09. Destroyer – Kaputt
08. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
07. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
06. James Blake – James Blake
05. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
04. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
03. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
02. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
01. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

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