Top 20 Albums of 2011

Please read my words about these music records that I listened to and thought were good.

20. TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light

After a pair of masterfully ambitious rock productions made them critical darlings, these hyper-creative Brooklynites shipped their operation to California at the turn of the decade. And while it’s easy to give too much credit to the city where a recording was made, Nine Types Of Light sure does sound like TVOTR’s “L.A. album.” Overtly catchy melodies are the order of the day, with bright, relatively sparse production backing up Tunde Adebimpe’s newfound romanticism. As a result, we get some of the most unexpected, and memorable, love songs of the year. “You’re the only one I’ll ever love” isn’t exactly a tattoo-worthy lyric, but coming from a guy who used to sing about werewolf coupling, its sincerity is shocking.

19. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic

Rock musicians typically don’t know how to age. The first time they see a shock of grey in their styled-to-look-mussed-up hair, they either double down on their denial and make music that proves they “still got it,” or go off the “reinvent myself” deep end. Which just adds to the pure pleasure of listening to Nick Lowe in the 21st century. With The Old Magic, the 62-year-old pub rock/new wave legend gives us his third straight offering of gently smirking tunes about loving, losing, and getting older all the while. It’s beautifully written material from an artist who’s comfortable in his own wrinkled skin, and a production that keeps its genre jumping to a minimum – relying mostly on soft vocal jazz arrangements and sprightly Buddy Holly shuffles to support Lowe’s curious, cooing voice. Because when you’ve got metaphors for failed love that are as wonderful as “Stoplight Roses,” you don’t need much else.

18. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

If you already hated Coldplay, their fifth album wasn’t gonna change your mind. But as somebody who has always been a sucker for the band’s sweeping choruses and earnest “love is nice” aesthetic, Mylo Xyloto had me digging in my heels as a fan. For the first time since its melancholy debut, Coldplay has a defined goal here – marry their arena-baiting elements with those of modern pop and R&B. And with the help of uber-producer Brian Eno, they get the concoction just right, foregoing the usual piano balladry for shimmering synthesizers and throwing a bigger spotlight on Jonny Buckland’s dynamic guitar playing. “Princess of China,” a duet with Rihanna, is a microcosm of this mini-evolution, aiming for Billboard charts, festival stages and crowded dance floors, without ignoring its polarizing, sensitive-guy roots.

17. Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels

Here’s what Carrie Underwood couldn’t quite pull off with that car-upholstery-vandalism song. Hell On Heels is the debut album from Pistol Annies, a country supergroup comprised of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Like Underwood’s hit, this is chart-baiting female empowerment country, but the comparisons end there. Yes, these ladies are sick of male bullshit, but they go deeper than petty revenge fantasies (although those crop up here and there, most entertainingly on the killer title track). With little more than guitar, fiddle and pedal steel to guide them, the Annies sing about shotgun weddings, pill addicted tour hounds, embarrassing family squabbles and various trailers of tears. The vocals are as plain and true as the tunes; all three members have the kind of friendly, Dolly Parton drawl that lends a sickly sweetness to lines like “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire.”

16. Feist – Metals

It appears that Leslie Feist got just as tired of that iPod commercial as we did. Her third record is titled appropriately, if only because it’s an emotional palette of dark and darker greys. How decidedly un-twee are we talking? “What does sadness see?/The mirror has a mirror in its teeth/That’s what sadness sees,” the vocalist shares over the sullen acoustic chords of “Comfort Me.” Then, right when you’re starting to wonder if this is poignant or insufferable, a big “la-la-la” chorus kicks in, and you’re won over, whether you felt like moping around or not. This is what’s so compelling about Metals – there are hooks-a-plenty here, but they’re weighted down so elegantly, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a lake, feeling strangely at home.

15. Mastodon – The Hunter

The conceptual insanity of Mastodon’s first three records – a water, earth and sky cycle with story lines that I dare you to try and follow – was a big part of their appeal. No metal band has provided better fodder for nerd arguments (“Who’s more powerful, Cysquatch or Megalodon?”). But The Hunter finds the band in a different place. They’ve moved on from the soul-searching grandiosity of Crack The Skye, content to hunker down and just make thunderous rock music. They’re still on their zoology jones, singing about owls and octopi, snakes and swamp creatures, but The Hunter‘s purpose is quintessentially human – to get the party started. When the post-apocalyptic aliens arrive to analyze our civilization, this record will explain why things that made us feel good were described as “kick-ass.”

14. Drake – Take Care

Drake’s 2010 debut Thank Me Later was remarkable for its mix of monster rap hooks and confessional booth R&B. For his follow-up, the 25-year-old has put all his eggs in the latter basket, revealing himself as the antithesis of “throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care.” Take Care is a long, sumptuous gaze in the mirror, with the artist rapping and singing in equal measure over soft beds of synths. It’s a perilous road for any pop star to take, but Drake manages to come off honest, acknowledging his ego and the tax bracket that boosts it, while struggling to find a meaningful relationship with anybody beyond his trusted crew. “We live in a generation of not being in love,” he theorizes on “Doing It Wrong,” a gorgeous bit of quiet storm R&B. Then all the melodrama gets punctuated by a lyrical harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder, and Take Care’s beautiful contradiction is driven home – this is self-centered music that treats its listeners with class.

13. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

The King of Limbs is a short piece of work by Radiohead standards, which was seen as a disappointment by some. I see it as a sign of the band’s maturity. This is a magnificently dense recording, a world of lurching synths and frantic polyrhythms that unfold like a strange, binary orchid – but only after multiple listens. If it went on for an hour, it would wear down the most devout listener, much like the second half of Hail to the Thief. Plus, the band rewards us by ending the record with a pair of immediately accessible tunes – the gorgeously eerie piano ballad “Give Up the Ghost” and the lite electronica boogie of “Separator.” The only problem I have with TKOL is that it doesn’t feel like a momentous occasion, the band having painted cold, beautiful landscapes like this before. It’s an ingeniously layered production of eight well-written songs, something that could only disappoint a Radiohead fan.

12. Beyoncé – 4

Were it not for an uncharacteristically awkward guest appearance from Kanye West, 4 would be the perfect Beyoncé record, a fantastically sung, finely tuned exploration of love’s ups and downs. Her vocals have never been better, relying less on Mariah acrobatics and more on emotional shading, turning treacle like “Best Thing I Never Had” into a quality pop ballad. All the singles are excellent, from the Sam Cooke-riffing ballad “1+1” to the hyper-charged family values jam “Countdown.” And the deep cuts present varied interpretations of popular R&B, from the unrequited belting of “I Care” to the breezy, ’80s Whitney groove of “Love On Top.” All of them work except for “Party,” a half-finished-sounding summer jam that relies way too much on Kanye’s worst couplet ever: “You a bad girl and your friend’s bad too/We got the swag sauce, we’re drippin’ Swagu.” Luckily, the rest of 4 is so indelible, you can just hum one of its choruses and pretend that you didn’t just hear an endorsement for the most disgusting thing in the grocery store.

11. The Cars – Move Like This

When a game-changing classic rock band decides to get back together these days, it’s to make bank on a tour, where they play their most famous record front to back and avoid new material like the plague. So when The Cars reunited in 2010, it was refreshing, and more than a bit ballsy, that they jumped right into the studio. Of course, it’s easier to respect a choice when the results are so great. Move Like This opens with “Blue Tip,” which picks up where the band left off, fusing synthesizer earworms with rock guitars and Ocasek sing-speak to create an off-kilter pop chestnut. “It’s Late” and “Sad Song” show that they haven’t forgotten the “Drive” ballad formula either. You could call it a time capsule, but these lovingly crafted synth-pop songs just happen to fit snugly in today’s ’80s-obsessed musical landscape. Move Like This should make us reassess our rock dinosaurs – shouldn’t they still have the urge to create? Isn’t that the least we should expect from them? Which means the next time Roger Waters or The Police ask you to drop $150 to see them trot out the oldies, it’s OK to say, “No, I deserve more from you guys.”

10. The Weeknd – House Of Balloons

Band names are by no means crucial to an artist’s success (Radiohead’s a pretty awful one when you think about it). But Canadian singer Abel Tesfaye has come up with a moniker that adds even more depth to the codeine-addled bump n’ grind R&B that’s his stock in trade. On his debut mixtape as The Weeknd, Tesfaye paints explicit pictures of twisted Friday and Saturday nights, with hazy melodies and underwater drum machines to remind us that every bout of wee-hour debauchery has its aftermath. “You wanna be high for this,” Tesfaye assures us on the opening cut. Don’t trust him, though. House Of Balloons is enough of an altered state on its own. A party album for the id with arrangements that swoon like the morning after, this is a gateway drug to one of the most compelling new artists of 2011.

9. Lil B – I’m Gay (I’m Happy)

Upon hearing that Lil B was releasing an album called I’m Gay, you had to wonder if he was setting himself up for the same backlash that Sasha Baron Cohen experienced with Bruno. Would this attempt at exposing homophobia be seen as kind of homophobic itself? One listen to the record puts those concerns to rest. A concept album it’s not – the title isn’t mentioned lyrically. But it does fit Lil B’s “love everything, make cheddar” philosophy, which he elucidates in simple, straightforward couplets (e.g. “Karma is real/And you gotta love it”). There’s plenty of materialism here, but it’s tinged with a sense of gratitude. Not to mention songs like “Open Thunder Eternal Slumber,” which pleads for fair pay for plumbers. The sample choices line up perfectly with this P.M. Dawn-meets-Cash Money aesthetic – interpolated soul ballads keep things grounded, and the Spirited Away-sampling cut “Gon Be Okay” beautifully overdoses on positivity. As an antidote to hate-fueled rap, I’m Gay (I’m Happy) doesn’t just do its title justice – it transcends it.

8. Shugo Tokumaru – Port Entropy

It was a banner year for Beach Boys lovers, thanks to the revelatory Smile Sessions box set and a Brian Wilson album of Disney covers (although I admit I haven’t been brave enough to listen to the latter. Sounds like it could be OK, but I fear a tire fire). Then there was Shugo Tokumaru’s Port Entropy, a ingenious and eccentric slab of sunshine pop that’s a direct descendant of Wilson’s and Van Dyke Parks’ most famous creations. Melodies runneth over here, from the children’s choir mantra of “Tracking Elevator” to the psychedelic chorus of “Lahaha,” but Port Entropy would be just a nice record if it weren’t for its arrangements. Each cut has its own distinct personality, with the Japanese multi-instrumentalist digging through his toy trunk for a seemingly endless mix of interesting combinations. “Lahaha” is a magnificently twisted concoction of glockenspiel and flute; “Linne” a piano and trumpet ballad; “Malerina” a pizzicato reggae jam. So if The Smile Sessions has you thinking that they just don’t make records like they used to, Port Entropy is here to prove you wrong. You crusty old coot.

7. Big K.R.I.T. – Return Of 4Eva

When rappers try to give themselves their own colorful mythology, they’re playing with fire. For every Wu-Tang, there are a dozen Nastradamuses. Which makes Big K.R.I.T.’s debut mixtape all the more remarkable. With a name that stands for “King Remembered In Time” and an album title that he describes as a “movement” on its opening track, the Mississippi artist sets the bar sky high before he even gets his first 16 bars off. But Return Of 4Eva’s dreamy, Organized Noize-esque production and measured, introspective lyrics deserve such luxurious boasts. Whether he’s baiting naysayers on “Dreaming,” reminiscing about career struggles on the gorgeous “American Rapstar,” or describing the frightening allure of drug dealing on “Lions & Lambs,” there’s a hard-earned knowledge in K.R.I.T.’s voice that makes them all different paragraphs from the same essay. By the time you get to the record’s heartbreaking tour de force, “Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism,” the movement’s got you whole.

6. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

Even though the ’90s are far behind us, in 2011, the term “slacker” still dredges up visions of flannel and limp bangs. But before the record companies and film studios started telling us how cool slackers were, slackers were actually kind of cool. The way Bob Dylan lazily dropped those “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue cards, it seemed like the guy could’ve given a shit, and didn’t we love him all the more for it? It’s this image that comes to mind when I listen to Kurt Vile’s deceptively ramshackle Smoke Ring For My Halo. The man delivers every lyric of these stoner folk songs in a gentle mumble – from the sarcastic “Society Is My Friend” to the romantic “Baby’s Arms.” But instead of coming off like some half-assed bedroom album, SRFMH creates a compelling headspace. Vile’s slacker vocal stylings are likely a put-on; the guy could probably hit all the notes if he wanted to. But I say bring on the posturing – there’s something captivating about this singer who sounds like he doesn’t care if anybody hears him, who just wants to get some things off his chest and then go to bed. Something strangely and indisputably cool.

5. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

There was good reason to anticipate the release of PJ Harvey’s eighth album this year, a conceptual work about her homeland and the wars it fought during its centuries as a world superpower. Harvey’s last notable work was 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, another album about a specific place, New York City. But if you pardon the pun, Let England Shake blows Stories out of the water. This isn’t a collection of protest songs, or an allegory for specific conflicts in the modern world. It’s a record that gets right into the trenches, and the heads, of British troops throughout history. The language is harrowing, with descriptions of body parts hanging from trees sitting alongside strident patriotic cries, streaking them with regret. And while the music is understandably subdued, with Harvey’s signature dark chord changes leading the way, there’s also beauty to be appreciated, with the singer’s voice rising above the somber acoustics and digital ephemera of “England,” telling us about “the country that I love.” By the time you get to the gut-wrenching Gallipoli singalong “The Colour of the Earth,” the history lesson’s over. But the feeling lingers.

4. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

Yes, Tom Waits is avant garde. His voice is a hyper-expressive growl. His fusion of raw Chicago blues and garbage can-bashing performance art is jaw-droppingly creative. Now that we’re getting close to the 30-year anniversary of Swordfishtrombones, the record that changed it all, it’s awfully easy to forget that before he became the bizarre, trend-bucking artiste, Waits was a loungey singer/songwriter, releasing piano-heavy, Edward Hopper paintings of records throughout the ’70s. Bad As Me, his 19th record, keeps the bar high in terms of legacy-worthy freakiness – especially the whacked-out boogie of “Get Lost,” which is Waits as psycho Elvis impersonator – but it also reminds us of the sensitive hotel bar crooner of old. “Kiss Me” is a crackling, “let’s spice up the marriage” time capsule of a ballad, a quiet, achingly sexy left turn after the screwy, anti-soulmate blues of the title track. And then there’s “New Year’s Eve,” which closes things with a gorgeous, drunken bout of nostalgia. When Waits breaks into “Auld Lang Syne,” you’re reminded of another old standard he knocked out of the park in 1976, “Waltzing Matilda.” Right then and there, it’s the best of both worlds.

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

In a year marked by politicians explaining why the rich should get richer, we got an album from two of the most talented beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. And when you consider that on Watch The Throne, Jay-Z & Kanye West reach some spine-tingling heights on the backs of some crazy-expensive samples, this makes for a quintessentially American success story in 2011. Sure, it’s probably unfair that West might be the only producer out there with the clout to license “Try A Little Tenderness,” but there’s no use whining about it, because he also happens to be the best person for the job. The resulting cut, “Otis,” is a magnificent swash of braggadocio that boldly reframes Redding’s theme – in the place of a tender lover making life “easier to bear,” we now have obscene wealth. Both MCs egg each other on, resulting in some propulsive egomania (e.g. “Welcome to Havana/Smoking cubanos with Castro in cabanas”). It’s the precise formula we hoped for with this pairing – huge, luxurious productions, and a palpable sense of one-upsmanship on the microphone. The best example of it might be the RZA co-production “New Day,” which finds Jay and ‘Ye pleading with their hypothetical future children over a haunting beat that runs Nina Simone through AutoTune (!!!). It’s not a track by track masterpiece a la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but on Watch The Throne, these superstars spread the wealth so generously, trickle-down economics almost starts to make sense.

2. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

If PJ Harvey made the war movie of the year, then Bill Callahan made the western. On Apocalypse, his third solo effort under his own name instead of Smog, the singer-songwriter tells tales of cowboys sympathizing with their cattle, marriages dissolving in the dust of the prairie, and panoramic vistas that enchant the minds of men. But a traditional country album it’s not – meditative folk is Callahan’s bag, with arrangements that act as delicate foundations for his beautiful, mournful baritone. It’s circular, entrancing stuff, a cowboy Astral Weeks, an attempt to document how small our country can make us feel, and how proud. “It takes a strong/Breaks a strong mind,” Callahan sings about the American wilderness. “And anything less makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.” He could be singing about his own record.

1. James Blake – James Blake

The cover of James Blake’s debut album is a nice bit of synesthesia – a portrait of the artist soaked in icy blue undertones, his face blurred to the point where he’s looking at you from two different places at once. It’s the perfect visual interpretation of Blake’s voice on this record, a silky, soul-inflected alien in a purely electronic world. On “The Wilhelm Scream,” it’s rich and full, dancing lightly over atmospheric synths; on “Lindesfarne I,” it’s distorted and chilling, comparing hope to kestrels through washes of pitch correction. Blake pines for happiness throughout, over distant, subterranean electronics that belie his optimism. It’s a Sade album for a Terminator future, where a singer clearly has soul, and the machines try to strip it from him every step of the way.

Honorable Mentions: Bon Iver – Bon Iver; Heidecker & Wood – Starting From NowhereLykke Li – Wounded Rhymes; My Morning Jacket – Circuital; Wilco, The Whole Love; Wolves In The Throne Room – Celestial Lineage; Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

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