Going To ’11: Albums of the Year

Best Cover Art of 2011?

At the start of the 2010, I made a goal for myself to read one book a week—a goal I ended up abandoning by, I believe, the end of January. (Do you realize how much reading that entails?) In 2011, I tried to keep it more manageable: I made a plan to listen to one new album per week. While I once again fell short of my attempted goal, this time I came a lot closer to completing it and, as a result, I ended up listening to far more new music this year than any year since high school.

You would think that this would make compiling a Best Of list easier, but it did not. Unlike last year, when my number one album was never in doubt, 2011 lacked a standout record. This is not to say there weren’t great albums released, but there were none that had the impact of The Suburbs, or This Is Happening. Over at The A.V. Club, Steven Hyden called this year “The year of no Important Albums,” and while I don’t really like the term “Important Album” (important to whom?), I pretty much agree: This was a year of a lot of Very Good albums, but few Great ones.

All of this made assembling a list very tricky: I can proffer a list of a few dozen albums from ’11 that I enjoyed, but pruning that list and ranking them is harder. I can’t say for sure that I like my seventh-favorite album from this year that much more than I like my seventeenth-favorite.

Nevertheless, when the founders of NPI settled this blog so many months ago, they set it in stone that all opinions must be ranked and presented in list form, so, bound by my duty, I present the Top Ten Albums of 2011:

10) Last Summer — Eleanor Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger’s voice is indisputably better than her brother’s, yet, when I listen to The Fiery Furnaces, I tend to prefer Matt. His matter-of-fact voice meshes better with the storytelling style. On Eleanor’s first solo album, though, she has found a way to marry her voice to a more straightforward pop sound, without losing the quirky playfulness she excels at.

9) The Whole Love — Wilco

My first reaction to almost every Wilco album ever released has been lukewarm, and it was no different with The Whole Love. It wasn’t until I realized that “One Sunday Morning”—the album’s last track—was over twelve minutes long that I realized how much I was enjoying this album. The fact that such a long song could seem to end so quickly was just one illustration of how durable and rewarding the whole album actually is.

8) Zonoscope — Cut Copy

Like a lot of bands, Cut Copy is classified as “Electronic” because that’s how they started out. Listening to Zonoscope, though, it’s hard to tell where the electronic music ends and the rock music begins. “Where I’m Going,” for example, is the kind of rock song that any band would want to produce—of course, not many could. This album also has two of my favorite song titles of the year: “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution” and “Strange Nostalgia for the Future.”

7) Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming — M83

I’m usually wary of double albums, particularly for an electronic artist. Who has the time? When I finally got around to Hurry Up, though, it was completely worth it. It doesn’t hurt that the second track—“Midnight City”—is one of the best songs of the year. But Anthony Gonzalez knows how to take his foot off the gas in ways that don’t sound like lulls or filler.

6) Nine Types of Light — TV On The Radio

When Nine Types of Light came out, I described it as less adventurous than TV on the Radio’s earlier albums (which was really an unfortunate theme of new albums this year). That’s still a problem—an album doesn’t usually sound more ambitious over time—but there’s still so much to like about this group of songs, whether it’s the frenetic sound of “Repetition,” the laid back precision of “You,” or the subtle complexity of “Killer Crane.”

5) Kaputt — Destroyer

My first reaction to this album was that it sounded like really cool elevator music, thanks to the muted jazz sounds Dan Bejar highlights throughout the record. But this really only reinforces the unique sound of Destroyer. Bejar is one of the most unusual—and funniest—songwriters around. He works in so many genres, and in such unusual ways, that there are few analogs for his songs. Kaputt might be the fullest example of his solo work yet.

4) All Eternals Deck — The Mountain Goats

There are usually a few big obstacles to enjoying a Mountain Goats record: John Darnielle’s occasionally grating voice, the low-fi production, the highfalutin concepts. As the songs have become more autobiographical and professional-sounding there was a risk that the band would lose its unpolished essence, but All Eternals Deck does not have that problem, and any reservations I’ve had about previous Mountain Goats’ albums also seem silly. The new songs are raw and often aggressive while simultaneously infectious, and Darnielle’s songwriting has never been better.

3) El Camino — The Black Keys

For the second consecutive year, I’m putting a Black Keys album at #3 on the list. I wish I could say the coincidence wasn’t intended, but it’s sort of a placeholder spot. The album is less than a month old, and while I really like it now, who knows how I’ll feel about it two weeks from now? El Camino is shorter and less epic-sounding than Brothers, but it’s also potentially more fun. Only time will tell…

2) Bon Iver — Bon Iver

Of all this year’s highly anticipated albums, this was the one that best lived up to expectations. An ideal follow-up to a critically beloved debut (like For Emma, Forever Ago) sounds both the same and different, a tricky feat that Bon Iver achieves. Justin Vernon’s voice and gentle arrangements are still there, but they are layered more richly. Bon Iver has (hopefully) shed the horrific genre label known as “indie folk” and become one of the most original and hardest-to-classify acts around.

1) The King Is Dead — The Decembrists

When putting together these lists, there’s usually a bias in favor of albums that come out at the end of the year (although this year’s list is not an example of that). Albums that have come out more recently are fresher in your mind, and you generally haven’t gotten sick of them yet. The flip side of this, though, is that the longer an album has been out, the more time your thoughts and feelings about it evolve. The King Is Dead has been out for almost a whole year by now, and whereas at first I tended to confuse its accessibility with some kind of slightness or triviality, it now sounds like The Decembrists are finally staying out of their own way, creating an album that is fun and simple, while also being dense and rewarding.

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