Top Ten Albums of 2011

I am, as anyone who has spent ten minutes talking with me knows, a bit obsessed with music (also, comic books, but that’s a totally different post). I try to keep up with new stuff, but there’s always just so much coming out, and all the old stuff I’m discovering that I hadn’t heard before, and all the other stuff I had heard before but really liked and wanted to hear again and again…it’s tough to keep up. That being said, there were a couple of albums I just did not get to this year that I really wanted to listen to. Stuff like They Might Be Giants’ Join Us, Calexico’s Selections from Road Atlas (1998-2011), or Deer Tick’s Divine Providence. I’ll get to them eventually, especially now that we’re in that dead time of new music releases that is the post-holiday time, but in the meantime, here’s the stuff I really liked this year.

Honorable Mentions (things I listened to and rather enjoyed, if not enough to really gush about):

William Elliott Whitmore, Field Songs: A pretty solid album, though not as engaging as Ashes to Dust (still my favorite of his).

Cake, Showroom of Compassion: It’s kinda nice to see these guys, fifteen years later, still doing their thing their own way. Sure, John McCrea might actually almost sing once in awhile now, and there’s occasionally no irony in his delivery, but it’s pretty much the same as it ever was, and what it was wasn’t broken.

Tom Waits, Bad As Me: A new Tom Waits album is always welcome, and this one hit some pretty sweet spots, but it just didn’t have the oomph that I wanted it to have. There really wasn’t a standout track for me, which is probably why it didn’t make my top ten.

The Submarines, Love Notes/Letter Bombs: These songs feel like they were custom-made for iPod commercials. Take from that what you will.

Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive: A solid outing from Earle, the only tragedy being that the standard version of this album does not include his cover of the title track, a wonderful rendition of the old Hank Williams tune.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs: I think somewhere along the way, Radiohead and I headed off in different musical directions. I’m not sure which of us went wrong, but I’m not sure I really want to follow where they’re going anymore. Didn’t they used to play guitars and stuff?

R.E.M., Collapse Into Now: The final album from these guys isn’t too shabby, but it’s not really anything spectacular. Not a whimper, not a bang, but somewhere in-between.

The Top Ten (the albums I couldn’t stop listening to):

10. Old 97’s, The Grand Theatre, Volume 2: Picking up where last year’s The Grand Theatre, Volume 1, left off, this finds the band in fine form, cranking out poppier songs than were found on the first disc. You can hear them having fun with their music, which is always appreciated.

9. The Black Keys, El Camino: This picks up right were Brothers left off, sonically. They’re mixing in more old-school soul and whatnot with their standard minimalist blues, and it really adds some depth to the sound. It’s highs aren’t as high as on Brothers, but it’s a leaner record without a lot of the filler that weighed down the middle part of the earlier record.

8. Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots: I mentioned the song “Everybody Needs Love” from this album in my iPod list yesterday, but honestly the rest of the album is pretty damn solid, too. These guys (and gal) are great storytellers in the Johhny Cash/Merle Haggard tradition, crafting sagas of hard liquor, harder luck, and infidelity that has all of the disturbing allure and attraction of a massive accident on the side of the highway.

7. Jonathan Coulton, Artificial Heart: I hadn’t really heard of this guy, then discovered he was responsible for the hilarious and whimsical song at the end of the game Portal. I decided to check this album out, and feel I’ve been deeply rewarded for doing so. His songwriting is top-notch, and this album would be worth it for “The Stache” alone, his paean to fuzzy upper lips.

6. Okkervil River, I Am Very Far: These guys become more awesome with each album. I still find it entertaining that “White Shadow Waltz” is not, as one would expect, in 3/4 time. Also, drums are used almost as punctuation in these songs, sharp cracks that accent the rest of the music and the convoluted lyrics perfectly.

5. Wilco, The Whole Love: This sounds like the album Wilco has been trying to make since A Ghost is Born. There’s a little something for everyone here: “Born Alone” could have fit in alongside anything on Summerteeth or Ghost, oddly enough, while “Dawned On Me” sounds like a Ghost outtake. “The Whole Love” itself is a distillation of everything the band is right now, a mission statement along the lines of “Wilco (The Song),” only even better.

4. 8in8, NightyNight: It was an ambitious if slightly ridiculous premise: get four like-minded souls in a recording studio for 8 hours to write and record 8 brand-new songs on the fly. The final product may have fallen short of that goal (only six songs in something like 10 hours, when it was all said and done), but the music they created was fun, whimsical, and more than a little emotionally engaging. Besides, it features Neil Gaiman singing a song about Joan of Arc wandering around a park in London in the modern day, and what’s not to love about that?

3. Beirut, The Rip Tide: The is the most streamlined album Beirut’s done, and it still features so much accordion and brass that it’s not even funny. It is, however, fantastic: I remain in constant awe about how this band creates such depth in the music. It’s almost operatic in places, but not pretentious or overwrought. It’s a nifty trick to pull off, and The Rip Tide walks the tightrope perfectly.

2. Portugal. The Man, In the Mountain in the Cloud: Oddly enough, I found out about these guys while sitting in a community college cafeteria over the summer. Regardless of how I discovered them, they sound like what would happen if the Flaming Lips started an Oasis cover band, and there’s nothing about that sentence that isn’t brilliant.

1. The Decemberists, The King is Dead: This may be the least-unified album thematically by the band in many years, but it makes up for that by being the most consistently great album they’ve done in years. There is a unifying concept to the record, though not in the same way there was for The Hazards of Love or The Crane Wife. For The King is Dead, they’ve stuck to a particular style for most of the record: a loose, country-ish, folky rock sound that creates a cohesion despite the lack of an overall theme. Many of the songs do share a longing for pastoral simplicity and a desire to be surrounded by good friends and family. The album came out back in January, but I’ve listened to it so many times already it feels like I’ve had it for years. I had to remind myself it actually came out this year.

So, that’s the list. Agree? Disagree (in which case, you’re wrong)? Let me know your thoughts and your favorites from this year!

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