The Voice picks its favorites: Best Albums of 2011
With 2011 behind us, it’s time to take a look at the studs and duds in the music industry from the past year. In a year where Adele’s “21” sold more than 15 million albums worldwide — the most in any year since 2004, according to the New York Daily News — many of the world’s lesser known musical artists put out great LPs for fans new and old to enjoy. Unfortunately for listeners, music historians and anti-torture activists everywhere, Metallica and Lou Reed did collaborate on perhaps the worst album of all time, titled “Lulu,” but not even the tarnishing of the former Velvet Underground member’s reputation could overshadow some of the great tracks and albums that came out in 2011. Below are three editors’ favorites.
5. Nine Types of Light — TV on the Radio
A more relaxed and love-filled album than 2008’s nearly-perfect Dear Science, TV on the Radio focused more on seducing their listeners rather than confronting them as they usually do. Exceptional production from Dave Sitek (who also worked on Theophilus London’s album) really shines through on songs like “Second Song,” “Keep Your Heart,” “You,” “Will Do” and “Caffeinated Consciousness.” Unfortunately, the album lags a little bit after “Killer Crane,” a slow, solemn tune that was recorded soon before bassist Gerard Smith died.
4. James Blake — James Blake
2011’s best debut also turned out to be one of its best albums. The inclusion and layering of some aspects of dubstep may normally make an album seem cold, but the British artist’s product feels exceptionally inviting. The album also makes sure that each song builds to a thrilling peak, which is felt especially in “I Never Learnt to Share,” where halfway through the song a brilliant electronic riff rips through the fog of Blake’s soulful croon. Other terrific songs include “Unluck,” “Limit to Your Love” and both parts of “Lindesfarne.”
3. The Whole Love — Wilco
Okay, maybe I’ve been playing a lot of Chicago’s best band lately, but The Whole Love is such a successful reboot after 2009’s mediocre Wilco (The Album) that I had to mention it in high esteem. The unique Wilco sound (you don’t really notice how much is going on behind Tweedy’s crooning) is on display after Tweedy and co. had to “forget how to play the old songs.” In “Dawned on Me,” we can see Wilco’s playful side, “Whole Love” shows off a tender, emotional moment for Tweedy, and on “Art of Almost,” Nels Cline proves that amazing solos aren’t only on Sky Blue Sky. Highlighted by the 12-minute closer “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” Wilco reminds both fans and new listeners that they can still pack an emotional punch, too.
2. Undun — The Roots
Philadelphia’s famous rap group features an amazing rhythm section led by drummer ?uestlove, bassist Leonard Hubbard, and pianist Scott Storch, fronted by Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter’s smooth flow. They’ve put out excellent albums in years past, but nothing like Undun, a Benjamin-Button-like story of a man dying in reverse. They’ve brought great rappers along with them, like Big Krit, Dice Raw and Truck North, and they’ve delivered on the ambitious project’s potential. Redford Stevens, the man whom the album focuses on, is growing up in a hopeless urban area trying to make something out of nothing. The album’s tragic conclusion is highlighted by a three-part movement written by indie star Sufjan Stevens.
1. Bon Iver — Bon Iver
Justin Vernon has come a long way from the solemn For Emma, Forever Ago, and he’s no longer isolated himself in the woods. He’s hung out with Kanye West, headlined festivals, and his album is a dream-like exploration of familiar heartbreaking themes. What’s amazing is that it all feels so new (save for the awkward closer “Beth/Rest,” which sounds like 80s synth-infused love songs). He travels and records with a band, giving his songs the rhythmic and melodic edge that his complex lyrics demand. While almost every track on Bon Iver is impressive, what makes the album so amazing is that it all flows together tremendously, with the transitions between each song — both thematic and musical — continuing to weave all the threads together into a magnificent album.
5. Cormorant — Dwellings
This unsigned Bay Area metal band has quickly risen to the top of the underground scene, combining aspects of several subgenres (mostly progressive metal, black metal and death metal with a touch of Thin Lizzy-style hard rock) with vocalist/bassist Arthur Von Nagel’s defiantly non-clichéd lyrical style to make a truly unique young band. Songs like “The Purest Land” hit hard with heavy riffing, while epics like the closer “Unearthly Dreamings” weave complex musical paths. This is the best metal band to come out of America in the past five years.
4. Disma — Towards the Megalith
“Supergroups” are a rarity in death metal. The genre has only been around for about 25 years, and it does not have aging stars that need to collaborate with others to stay relevant. But Disma, featuring vocalist Craig Pillard of the legendary Incantation and guitarist Daryl Kahan and drummer Shawn Eldridge of New Jersey veterans Funebrarum, released a monster slab of metal that sounds like it was recorded in a cavern—or more simply, they released exactly what the genre needed in this era of young bands trying to outplay each other with pure technical skill. The riffs here are all simple, but effective, and the atmosphere is as dark as it gets. This album can be streamed on NPR.com.
3. Foo Fighters — Wasting Light
One of the world’s greatest singles bands releases an album that is great in its entirety. Dave Grohl and company gathered at his house, and with the help of a few friends (like Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic) created what could be the strongest album in the Foo’s discography. “Bridge Burning,” “Rope” and “Walk” stand out among the long line of great Foo Fighters singles, but album cuts like “Arlandria” and “One of These Days” are the backbone of the year’s best mainstream rock release.
2. And So I Watch You From Afar — Gangs
This instrumental band from Northern Ireland is too busy writing fun riffs and pounding drumlines to need a vocalist. The band has strayed away from their roots as a post-rock band in favor of pure instrumental math rock in the vein of labelmates like Adebisi Shank and The Redneck Manifesto. Songs like “Search:Party: Animal” are explosive the whole way through, rather than building up to a generic crescendo. Look out for this band in the underground in the next few years.
1. La Dispute — Wildlife
For their sophomore effort, this Michigan post-hardcore band took everything that was great about their 2008 debut, “Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair,” and improved upon it. Vocalist Jordan Dreyer makes every word drip with melodrama while showing himself to be a more mature songwriter than before and not taking the focus entirely away from the band’s strong instrumentation. No longer is every song about an anonymous woman ripping his heart out. “Safer in the Forest/A Love Song For Poor Michigan” reflects on the condition of the band’s home state. The climactic “King Park” details a drive-by shooting and the gamut of emotions that both the shooter and the family of the victim run through. Wildlife is certainly one of the most powerful albums of the year, and a sign of great things to come from a young, hard-working band.
5. James Blake — James Blake
I don’t like the term “post-dubstep” It’s how some people describe this album, but it has never made sense and sounds silly. It is an electronic album, but the star of the show is the way Blake used his voice to change the expectations that tend to come with electronica. Standout tracks include the sparse re-working of Feist’s “Limit to you Love” and “I Never Learnt to Share.” The most exciting part about the album is that Blake was only 22 when the album was released. What he does next is sure to be something to watch.
4. Take Care — Drake
“Take Care,” Fucked Up’s “David Comes to Life,” and with the three Weeknd mixtapes, Toronto brought their A-game this year. The standout album amongst the bunch, though, was “Take Care.” From its immaculate production to Drake’s growth as a rapper and lyricist, the album was the best hip-hop release among many contenders. Drake samples Jamie xx’s cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “I’ll Take Care of You” with terrific results, and Rihanna provides one of the best hooks of the year. The album also gets points for featuring Andre 3000, a figure who has been sorely missed in the music community.
3. Strange Mercy — St. Vincent
Strange Mercy is the fruition of what Annie Clark started in Marry Me and Actor. “Surgeon” is the song that is most striking, as well as “Cruel,” both songs showing off Clark’s vocals and her guitar skill, as well as “Northern Lights” which truly shows the skills she’s got. When Clark unleashes her guitar with a minute left in the song, it is the best moment on an album filled with great moments. “Cheerleader” is another stand out track, and in many other years help secure Strange Mercy asthe top album of the year, were it not for two strong contenders. For those interested, check out St. Vincent live on May 8 in Columbus if you can swing going to a concert during finals week.
2. Father, Son, Holy Ghost — Girls
Girls’ debut album, “Album” was a promising start and the ep “Broken Dreams Club” showed growth, but “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” eclipses them both, at the precise moment when the choir kicks in on lead single “Vomit.” From there, the influences are worn on Christopher Owens’ sleeve. “Honey Bunny” is one of the best opening tracks of the year, rooted heavily in the past, while “Love Like a River” recalls the Beatles, specifically “Oh Darling.” Owens grew up in a cult and still seems to be discovering music that the rest of us are instinctively familiar with, so like Blake, it’ll be interesting to see what he does next.
1. Bon Iver — Bon Iver
Obvious choice. It was the best album of the year from the moment I heard it, and nothing really competed with it. “Holocene” and “Towers” are simply beautiful songs, and make up for the dreadful tone of the keyboard that starts of “Beth/Rest.” In fact, “Beth/Rest” is the only weak spot on the album, but the strength of every other track demonstrates why it’s the best release of the year. “Holocene” is also the second best vocal performance of the year, Justin Vernon’s ghostly falsetto is only outclassed by the best song of the year, “Countdown” by Beyonce.