Saturday, December 10, 2011

Andy's top 10 albums of 2011 (with playlist)

As we prepare to post our collective list of the year's top 50 albums, some of us are posting our personal favorites. Below is the top 10 list from Andrew Careaga.

I spent a lot of 2011 isolated from the world of pop culture. I read fewer books and watched fewer movies than I have in ages. Thankfully, I wasn’t cut off from the world of music. With the U.S. launch of Spotify last June and Google’s launch of a new cloud music service soon thereafter, I had access to new music (and, thanks to the Google service, favorites from my own library) during a hectic summer. With much of my time spent shuttling between home, work and hospitals, the ability to access music on the go helped keep me sane.

2011 turned out to be a good year for the kind of music I like, which is a mix power pop, some standard rock'n'roll, and a brand of indie I would classify as folk- or Americana-inspired. I downloaded several decent albums (it’s OK to still call them “albums,” right?) and even broadened my listening a bit. Thanks to @amazonmp3’s big promo last spring, I even purchased my first Lady Gaga album, Born This Way, for the stupid low price of 99 cents. That promotion had a downside for Amazon, though, as demand from all Gaga’s little monsters choked the company’s servers.

A handful of works from 2011 may stand the test of time and make it to a future best-of-decade list. We’ll see about that in another 9 years or so. For now, let’s take on 2011.

As for my criteria, the albums that I can keep on repeat for extended periods make it to the top of my list. Since I also listen to much of my music on the go, while running or at the office, as opposed to quietly sitting somewhere with headphones on, like a true audiophile, I also take into consideration the adaptability of music to my default environments. These days, most of my music is in mp3 format. What can I say? I've become more utilitarian in my old age.

Here are my picks (accompanying Spotify playlist linked at the bottom):

10. John Hiatt - Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns

I was thrilled to find out that Mr. Hiatt was releasing an album this year. As raw and bluesy as the title implies, troubador Hiatt tells tales about hard luckers, down-and-outers and ex-cons but balances the blues with paeans to fast cars and undying love. His ode to New York after 9/11 is powerful and heartbreaking.

9. Wanda Jackson - The Party Ain’t Over

The 70-something rockabilly songstress was once known as the female Elvis. But decades after the King’s departure, Ms. Jackson shows no sign of leaving the party as this Jack White-produced album gives testament. In her gritty, whiskey-drenched style, she brings new life to hard-country standards (“I’m Busted”), rockabilly classics (“Nervous Breakdown,” “Shakin’ All Over”) and even Bob Dylan (“Thunder on the Mountain”). White’s influence breaks through on nearly every track, and he performs on several. This is as much Jack White’s album as it is Wanda’s.

8. Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest

Mellow and melodic, with that old-timey influence that Gillian Welch brings to all of her recordings.

7. Peter Bjorn and John - Gimme Some

Nothing sophisticated here. Just good, harmonic, jangly power pop from this trio. Three thumbs up.

6. Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials

Florence Welch may have the most amazing pipes in the business today, as demonstrated on Florence + The Machine’s previous release, appropriately named Lungs. Florence can belt it out with the best of them (read: Adele) but can tone it down to a smooth, luxurious honeydripper voice, channeling Annie Lennox. On Ceremonials, she not only benefits from the backing of great musicians, but also from slick production. An outstanding album.

5. Bon Iver - Bon Iver

Gotta admit, I wasn’t even planning to listen to this at first. I was so disappointed with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, even though it was the darling of most music critics, that I had abandoned hope. But I gave it a shot, and found this self-titled release to be the most majestic thing I’ve heard in a while. The ghost of Aaron Copland must have been guiding singer-songwriter Justin Vernon as he envisioned tracks like “Calgary” and “Holocene.” Bon Iver is a big album. This is not a disappointment.

4. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

This band, named for a galaxy (Messier 83), certainly produced one of the most out-of-this-world concept albums that I heard this year. The dreamscape mixes a range of influences, form the stylings of Peter Gabriel’s So to School of Seven Bells to classic Pink Floyd. And you never quite know where the dreamscape is going. For example, track 5 -- “Wait” -- starts off like a commercial for Cialis but ends up sounding like it should have been on Dark Side of the Moon. This album is uneven but beautiful.

3. Foster the People - Torches

An album full of catchy tunes that just kept growing and growing on me, despite my best efforts to ignore it. The L.A. band’s “Pumped Up Kicks” has to be the earworm of the year. Every track on this album is catchy, and if you can get past the poppiness to tune in to the message of the lyrics, so much more the better.

2. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead

Finally! The Decemberists drop the sea shanties (for the most part) and create a roots-rock album I can appreciate. Lots of Neil Young influence, and with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck contributing his distinctive style to some of the best tracks (“Calamity Song,” “Rox in the Box”), The King Is Dead stands strong as the year’s runner-up album.

1. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now

Even before R.E.M. announced that they were breaking up for good, I had more or less christened this as my album of the year. But the band’s announcement cinched it. R.E.M. has always been masterful at articulating self-aware alienation and putting it to music. With their previous release, 2008’s Accelerate, the band wavered a bit. But they returned to form with Collapse Into Now, their strongest release since Automatic for the People. There isn’t a weak track on the album. Favorite tracks: “Oh My Heart” (about post-Katrina New Orleans), “UBerlin” and “Every Day Is Yours To Win.”

Playlist on Spotify


  1. Great list, Andrew. Here's my Top 10 with favourite tracks:

    10. Wild Flag, "Wild Flag" - Black Tiles
    9. The Black Keys, "El Camino" - Little Black Submarines
    8. Radiohead, "King of Limbs" - Morning Mr. Magpie
    7. TV on the Radio, "9 Types of Light" - Will Do
    6. Bombay Bicycle Club, "A Different Kind of Fix" - Bad Timing
    5. The Joy Formidable, "Big Roar" - Buoy
    4. Arctic Monkeys, "Suck It & See" - Library Pictures
    3. Wilco, "Whole Love" - I Might
    2. The Kills, "Blood Pressures" - Pots & Pans
    1. Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues" - Lorelai


  2. Josh - thanks for sharing your list. I think you might see a few of those on other members' lists, and on our collective top 50.


    P.S. - I completely overlooked the Arctic Monkeys album this year, and the Kills.