Well, 2011 is over, and that's kind of scary, but I think I'm more thrown off by the fact that my birthday is tomorrow and that day always seems so far away. None of that matters though, because the end of the year really means year-end list time. I think I'm thrown off by this more than anything else because you've got to go over the whole year and decide which albums rank higher or lower than this album and that album. Generally, these lists seem predicated on what album is technically better than a group of others. I'd like to think that it should be a mix of that, but also what you actually listened to and enjoyed throughout the year. So, without further ado, here's my "Top 10 Albums of 2011."
In 2009, touring with newfound success and popularity alongside his backing band The Cardinals, Ryan Adams stated that he was retiring from music. It was a sad day, but he had released over 10 albums and was battling health issues so it was somewhat understandable. Luckily, the man apparently has a ton of unreleased material, which he drew from about a year or so after his announcement for the release of the double album III/IV.
Ok, so he was done. Well, to our surprise – and excited ears – news broke that Adams would be releasing an album of all new studio material this year. That album turned out to be Ashes & Fire, and boy was it something special. It displayed a new level of detail and focus, starting a wonderful new chapter in Adams’ amazing career. Backed by gentle percussion, strings, piano, and enriching electric guitar leads, Adams’ acoustic picking and strumming and well-aged voice sound as beautiful, memorable, and ageless as the wind-swept countryside.
Hear the whole album here.
Ryan Adams - "Ashes & Fire"
9) Wye Oak – Civilian
Baltimore’s own Wye Oak keep on getting better and better, and Civilian proves that. In many ways, Civilian is one of 2011’s most overlooked gems – if only because we haven’t heard more people talking about them. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have grown into such an immense, awe-inspiring force of nature, embodying the stature of their namesake. Civilian is well-groomed, majestic, haunting, and oh so beautiful.
Wye Oak - "Holy Holy"
8) Holy Ghost! – Holy Ghost!
At last, NYC duo Holy Ghost! released their eponymous debut album, and boy was the wait worth it. I had my say here in my review of the album, a flawless introductory statement that mines elements of disco and weaves them into the infectious fabric of electropop. You’d be hard pressed to find many other debuts as even and impressive from the past year. There are enough hooks and grooves to last for days. Plus, a totally non-ironic, super effective Michael McDonald guest spot on the closing track confirms this to be one of the best dance/pop records of the year.
Holy Ghost - "Wait & See"
What can I say? It seems as though every time the Beastie Boys release a new album, it’s a real event – and rightfully so. Outside of being one of the most innovative acts in music, they’ve also been one of the few consistently great groups, as well. In one way or another, they manage to reinvent themselves with each release and the case is no different here. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is a synth-heavy effort full of infectious funk pacing, fuzz, distortion, and trademark Beastie charm.
Hear whole album here.
Beastie Boys - "Make Some Noise"
6) Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Arguably the first classic rock ‘n’ roll record of recent memory. Girls came to everyone’s attention on a huge wave of buzz with their debut, which lead many to believe they didn’t have a ton of staying power. Broken Dreams Club proved they were something special and worthy of that buzz, and Father, Son, Holy Ghost solidifies them as one of the most consistently great bands of this era. It’s a near masterpiece that places Girls far above many of their contemporaries, with compelling songwriting that suggests the band has existed for longer than a mere four years. My review of the album is here.
Girls - "Vomit"
Much like Simon, this selection was pretty much a given, because, like Simon, I’m a big fan of the band, especially since the release of last year’s How I Got Over – which made my top 10 list for 2010. Yes, I didn’t really catch on to The Roots until last year, so I’ve been trying to make up for lost time. Undun is billed as a concept album about a man who was killed a number of years ago, chronicling his life and death in reverse. Once again, The Roots prove why they are truly legendary, creating what can only be considered a classic opus. The strength of The Roots as a band is their subtly, keeping up with the sharp, intense flows of Black Thought and guest MCs without overshadowing or distracting from their stories and lessons; if anything, ?uestlove and co. make each MC sound increasingly powerful, and fierce. Considering undun didn’t drop until December 6th, I’ve had less time with it than many of the other albums on this list, but I certainly will be spinning this one many more times down the road.
The Roots - "Make My" (Feat. Big K.R.I.T.)
Todd Goldstein started Arms before Harlem Shakes disbanded, and after that buzzworthy band split, Arms became his primary focus. What started as a more lo-fi, bedroom, indie rock/indie pop solo project has now grown to a full-fledged band with four members. Summer Skills has been an album I appreciate more with each listen for a variety of reasons. If there’s one thing to say about Goldstein as a songwriter, it’s that he doesn’t just write compelling or engaging songs. He has this knack for giving the music a sense of adventure, or rather wonderment, without losing a sense of purpose or casting the songs in an overly spacey, wild context; he subtly instills a pinch of mystery to the core of his songs, drawing you deeper inside. For lack of a better word, Summer Skills is absolutely dynamic, with its ‘60s-style group vocal harmonies, creative arrangements, intricately layered percussion, and diverse range of instrumentation; fast, slow, upbeat or mellow, it all works so well. Goldstein comes across as a rather affable dude, and so, with any luck, Summer Skills ought to bring Arms more attention and their much-deserved success. As I’ve said on The Twitter, if you like “the indie rock” and haven’t downloaded this album yet, you’re doing it wrong.
Arms - "Fleeced"
I’ve made it pretty clear on the site that 2011 was the year I really got into hip hop, specifically in regards to production. Exmilitary was one of the first hip hop releases of the year that I discovered and fell in love with. It might be ranking at number three, but this is probably the one album I listened to more than anything else in 2011. Yes, this is technically labeled a “mixtape,” but it really plays like an album with how well-rounded and focused it is. Whether rapping over Zach Hill's furious drumming, samples of the Beastie Boys, old garage rock and psych, or even Black Flag, leader MC Ride is aggressive, beyond passionate, and powerful; his cadence and emphatic delivery are nearly inescapable. Not only is this one of the year’s best overall releases, it’s also one of the best hip hop releases of the year. I can’t wait to hear what’s next.
Hear the whole thing here. Download it for free here.
Death Grips - "Thru the Wall"
In case you missed it, this pick and placement shouldn’t be all that surprising if you caught my review of the album. Shabazz Palaces was shrouded in mystery before we discovered it was the product of Digable Planet’s Ishmael Butler. Black Up sounds like the future of hip hop, tackling a variety of themes from race to love in a sort of abstract but direct and honst way. It might have been the mystery shrouding the project initially that made the music seem especially magnetic, but it was Shabazz Palaces refreshing take on the structure and boundaries of hip hop that kept people around. In my review, I mentioned that there weren’t really hooks, which is something I regret saying now. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Black Up, it’s that, much like a mystery, the more you examine it, the more you discover – and nothing is more rewarding than an album that allows for this to happen.
Shabazz Palaces - "An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum"
1) Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming
62 years. That’s the age at which soul singer Charles Bradley finally saw the release of his debut album. It was a longtime coming, the product of a difficult life: homeless as a child, working odd jobs from New England to Alaska, brother shot to death. Bradley’s saving grace and hope all grew out of his passion for music; his unrelenting spirit to follow his dream kept him alive. No Time For Dreaming sounds timeless – like an overlooked classic – that could have kept up with James Brown. It’s authentic funk, soul, and R&B that’s drenched with a man’s heart and passion for life. Sonically, it might not be anything new, but Bradley’s performance and story make this debut something truly amazing that, despite its gritty undertones and title, proves dreams can come true. It’s a real Cinderella story and an album that deserves all the praise it gets. My review.
Charles Bradley - "The World (Is Going Up In Flames)"
Cheers, 2011. Here's to 2012.