Monday, December 19, 2011

Best albums of 2011, part 2 (our top 25)

Previously, we posted our collective picks for albums 50 through 26. Today we bring you our top 25 albums for 2011.

25. Wye Oak - Civilian (2 votes, 93 points)

Singer Jenn Wasner has a smokey, emotive stoicism that leaves you feeling as though you were there when it all happened. The music doesn't let you down, but it's not upbeat by any stretch of the imagination. Still, one of my favorite albums of this year. Very much a "time and place" album. - RB

Jenn Wasner is a great songwriter, a great singer, and a great guitarist. The result is almost magical. And no, this isn't cheery listening, but "Holy Holy" and "Civilian" are epic tracks. - dw

24. James Blake - James Blake (3 votes, 97 points)

In a time when dubstep is becoming the new Autotune, James Blake manages to take it in a new, quieter direction. And he pretty well succeeds at it. - dw

Another album I should placed higher. Quickly becoming one of my current favorites. Haunting. Like the love child of Bon Iver and Crystal Castles. - GR

23. P.J. Harvey - Let England Shake (4 votes, 98 points)

I'm not a huge P.J. Harvey fan, but it was nice to hear from her again. This album is a sort of love letter from the artist to her homeland. - AC

Yes, it is a very British record from a mercurial woman who would make an entire album played on spoons and a washboard if she could. But like a good, old single malt, you have to know what you're drinking to appreciate, and if you know what you're drinking, you're going to know what's great and what's brown liquor. And you have to tolerate a certain amount of peat and smoke to understand what's great. Polly Jean Harvey makes albums about being British. And being British means confronting their recent wars, the grief over what was lost in the Great War and what has been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and really, what does being British mean? Her words are at times grotesque (Soliders falling like lumps of meat, e.g.), but every word is well-thought and well-crafted. Much as how The Suburbs was less about "here's what's wrong with the suburbs" and more about "these are stories from the suburbs," this is an album about being British, not about how horrible the British are. And in the hands of one of the greatest woman rockers in history, it's a beautiful declaration of ugly, lovely love for England. - dw

22. The Black Keys - El Camino (3 votes, 101 points)

Since our deadline to submit albums happened before this one was released, I didn't include El Camino in my list. Now I wish I had. It's a terrific, loose album -- the Black Keys unleashed. - AC

Gave it a listen. To borrow a roller derby reffing term, this would have had no impact on my list. - TN

I've been listening to The Black Keys since I was writing for Australian indie/punk rock magazine Blunt and was tasked with reviewing Thickfreakness and one of their shows in 2003. They've come a long way from recording lo-fi blues on a Tascam 388 and not being able to sell out a club with a capacity of 250. They were a revelation back then, and they're something I look forward to every couple of years now. This album is really solid, if a little watered-down from their previous offerings. Still one of the best of 2011. - GR

El Camino puts the pedal to the metal with the opening track Lonely Boy and never looks back. One of the best of 2011. - MG

Shoulda had it out two weeks earlier, fellas. - CD

I wish I'd been able to listen to this one before we put our lists together because I'm really enjoying it so far. It appears they've opted not to make the album available on streaming services, but this one is actually worth buying. - AW

21. Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto (4 votes, 103 points)

Yes, it’s Coldplay, and I feel like I’m not supposed to like Coldplay. But Mylo Xyloto is pretty catchy from beginning to end. - AC

I wasn't thrilled with the first single, but the album is solid. -CD

It's so funny that Andy said he feels like he's not supposed to like Coldplay. That's exactly how I feel. Why is that? Whatever, I like this album a lot and included it in my top 10. - AW

20. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds (4 votes, 106 points)

The Oasis front man spreads his wings and flies solo. A nice effort. I was surprised to see it make the top 20 of our list. - AC

Me too. Really enjoyable listen. I feel like these guys should get together with Beady Eye and make a record together. -CD

Noel Gallagher's first solo effort since the demise of Oasis is surprisingly fun to listen to. Especially when compared to the atrocity that is Liam Gallagher's Beady Eye. Just goes to show that Noel was Oasis. - JG

19. The Drive By Truckers - Go-Go Boots (4 votes, 112 points)

I keep hoping that the Truckers will get it together and create an album as cohesive as their magnificent Southern Rock Opera. This isn’t it. It has its standout tunes, most notably the first track “I Do Believe” and “Everybody Needs Love,” but even for a die-hard DBT fan like me, some of the southern gothic shtick is starting to get old. - AC

Any album by the Athens, Ga. roots rockers is bound to contain wonderfully twisted storylines, cheating lovers and dead bodies. In that context, this album does not disappoint. - TN

18. TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light (4 votes, 115 points)

This one didn't make my personal top 50. Rather disappointing, I think. - AC

I didn't find it disappointing. Maybe a little overwrought, not as good as earlier works, but still a great piece of indie pop. - dw

Not their best, but even that's better than most everything else out there. - GR

17. Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne (4 votes, 123 points)

Everything about this album is "boys behaving badly and loving it." The beats are off the charts, the rhymes superfluous but fun. La Roux and Bon Iver (yes, that's him) check in and Frank Ocean is hip-hop's rookie of the year after contributing his vocals on the lead track "No Church In The Wild." - RB

This album would be so much better if Kanye never opened his mouth. - GR

16. Foster the People - Torches (3 votes, 131 points)

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. - AC

"Pumped Up Kicks" was the single of the summer. Other decent tracks, but just couldn't get into the whole album. - TN

This felt like a guilty pleasure. A lot of enjoyable songs, but it's more hooks than craft. The definitive party album of the year. - dw

This is a great album to play over and over when you're doing something tedious at work. I really like it, and I haven't gotten tired of it yet (which says something). - AW

Bonus: For those of you sick of "Pumped Up Kicks," try the acoustic version:

15. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow (5 votes, 132 points)

They shift gears, play well off each others vocals and give the best country album of the year on Barton Hollow. Standout tracks for me include "Barton Hollow, I've Got This Friend and Girl With The Red Balloon." - RB

I did not like this album. I know they promote themselves as being a collaboration between two non-lovers, but maybe for as destructive band relationships can be (sometimes taking out a promising duo like Eastmountainsouth or ultimately leading to the end of the band like Sonic Youth), that relationship tension is what creates the interesting sound. The Civil Wars are uninteresting. - dw

Love. I don't even know what else to say. It's a beautiful album. - AW

14. Adele - 21 (6 votes, 136 points)

At the ripe old age of 21, Adele has become heiress to the jazz-pop singer throne vacated by Amy Winehouse. - AC

Heiress? She damn well stormed into the throne room and took the chair herself this year. After years of white British girls nibbling at the edges, Adele blows right past Amy and Joss Stone to get into the jazz/pop singer pantheon so dominated by Americans. And she's only 21. - dw

Absolutely stunning album. I hope Adele sticks around a lot longer than her predecessors. - GR

Adele just kept resurfacing this summer. I kept trying to avoid her and with each track -- from "Rumor Has It" to "Rolling In The Deep," she just kept showing up on my radar. - RB

While not my type of music, Adele has a voice that can't be denied. One of the few albums that my entire family enjoys. - MG

There's no denying that the girl's got a voice. It's so very refreshing to see a truly talented female artist getting recognition, one who doesn't need to be autotuned or choreographed. - AW

While Adele's incredible voice can't be denied, the songwriting on 21 is mediocre at best. I mean, there's only 1 song on the entire record! - JG

13. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now (4 votes, 162 points)

How on earth did this make it only to the No. 13 spot on our list? Collapse Into Now was my pick for album of the year. Ah, well, that's consensus for you, I guess. Even before R.E.M. announced that they were breaking up for good, I had more or less christened this as my favorite album for 2011. 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.” - AC

If this is how R.E.M. is going out, it's a good way to go. - dw

One of the most important bands in the history of American rock goes out on top. - MG

12. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (5 votes, 163 points)

I didn't enjoy this when I first heard it. Then I revisited and felt differently. There is no real parallel for what Fleet Foxes output these days. Emotive, ethereal and even sophomore slump from these guys. -RB

Unlike Ron, countless revisits didn't help me find much love for this album. A Brian Wilson-like tenor kicks off the opening track, “Montezuma,” and gives me some hope for this album. But despite strong lyrics and mellifluous, flowing tunes, there’s a little too much mellow and not enough flow for my liking. Helplessness Blues is too inconsistent to hold my interest for long. “Sim Sala Bim,” for instance, starts out quietly, and rather boringly, but then transitions quickly into a mandolin jam fit for Led Zeppelin IV. Then the next track, “Battery Kinzie,” begins like a bad Simon and Garfunkel song. Too often, as with the experimental“The Shrine/An Argument,” the songs just fall apart. Still, tunes like the title track demonstrate Fleet Foxes have amazing talent. If they could just put it all together. - AC

I don't get it. Probably never will. - TN (Me too. -CD)

Man, so much hate for the Foxes. And yeah, maybe I'm biased by being a Seattleite, but seriously. Right after Fleet Foxes' eponymous album came out, I was at a Seattle bloggers event and talking music to, among many, No Depression and New York Times music writer Kim Ruehl. "I think Fleet Foxes sounds like the second coming of Fairport Convention," I said. Kim gave me this look like I'd just suggested that George W. Bush was the second coming of Abraham Lincoln. But Helplessness Blues, I think, reinforces that idea -- it really does sound like a throwback to those heady, glorious days of British folk in the early 70s, but with their own American twists. They're better than Mumford and Sons. I just wish the rest of the world (and the rest of the reviewers!) would finally acknowledge it. - dw

My top album this year. And I don't regret it. These guys are always shoehorned into the folk category, but I think that's underselling what they're doing. - GR

Yeah, never understood the hype around Fleet Foxes. Still don't think they're that original. - JG

11. Cults - Cults (4 votes, 170 points)

Usually when I play bands people haven't heard of, they complain. When I played Cults this summer, folks consistently asked me who they were. Upbeat, fun and containing a tinge of 60s pop flavor, Cults hit the scene with aplomb. - RB

A nice debut by Madeline Folin and Brian Oblivion. Jingly shoegaze pop that features sampled quotes from various cult figures and psycho killers. Nice relevant touch, no? - AC

10. My Morning Jacket - Circuital (7 votes, 171 points)

Jim James and company have finally put together an album that feels cohesive, even while showcasing the band's diversity of talents and stylings. - AC

To be brutally honest, this album bored me. I tried, I really tried to like it, but ultimately I gave up. - dw

I'm with Dylan. I suppose if I sat in a dark room with headphones and really dug in, but... nah. -CD

I'm a fan of My Morning Jacket, and while not their best album, I thought Circuital was good, and one of the better albums of the year. - JG

9. Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys (6 votes, 184 points)

Until this album, I was not much of a DCFC fan. But Codes and Keys has made me rethink my preconceptions. Some great lyrics on songs like writing and a tighter production than previous efforts. - AC

>This is a comfortable and tidy record, which is to say fairly uninteresting in Death Cab for Cutie terms. Is it wrong that I hope Ben Gibbard's breakup with Zooey Deschanel will bring the band back to better material? - TN

My list had a heavy Seattle/Northwest bias this year. But this album didn't make the cut. DCFC is repeating themselves of late, and like a photocopy that's been recopied over and over, they're losing definition. - dw

An average effort from DCFC. I gave it several listens when it came out, but only a couple of songs have stuck. - MG

I got this one from the library too, didn't like it, brought it back. My wife had the next hold on it; she loved it. Whatever. -CD

Sorry. Once again Gibbard & Co. leave me disappointed and wishing for the sounds of Photo Album or Something Like Airplanes. - JG

8. Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire (6 votes, 191 points)

As far as Ryan Adams and I are concerned, the rawer his music the better. This album has some terrific tracks, typical of Adams’ superb songwriting style. But overall I think Ashes and Fire suffers from a bit too much production, and maybe too many guest appearances (like Norah Jones). Still, solid writing, with tracks like “Lucky Now” offering Adams’ fans a glimpse of the artist confronting his own mortality. - AC

It takes some getting used to, this happier and mellower Ryan Adams, but the outstanding songwriting and songcraft remain. "Lucky Now" is easily one of the top singles of the year. - TN

One reviewer called this album "Saturday morning housecleaning music." It's a nice sounding album, but it sounds like background music. And Ryan Adams shouldn't be background music. - dw

It's a pleasant listen and it's still unmistakably Ryan Adams. His mindset has changed, and I'm happy for him. I think there's a lot of fuel back in his tank, which can only be a good thing. Not oozing bare emotion like his past work, which is a bit of a let down, but it remains in my rotation. - GR

Ryan Adams is the kind of guy I should like, but I just can't seem to fit him into my groove anywhere. This album did nothing for me. - CD

I have a confession. I have never once listened to Ryan Adams. I couldn't even name a Ryan Adams song if you asked me to. I promise to check him out in 2012. - AW

Besides loving the story behind this album, this is the best record Ryan has written since Jacksonville City Nights. It proves that he is able to write good songs even when he isn't strung out of his mind on God-knows-what substance. Solid, not his best, but one of the better albums of the year. - JG

7. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (6 votes, 197 points)

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 sounding like a commercial for Cialis but ends up sounding like a missing cut from Dark Side of the Moon. This album is uneven but beautiful. - AC

I liked this album, but to be honest, I'm still digesting it. I couldn't go without recognizing it, because it's very good. -RB

6. Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest (7 votes, 223 points)

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

I can't believe how disappointed I am with this album after the eight year wait. It's dull and a little too lifeless. I won't say this is Gillian Welch's Duke Nukem Forever, but come on, Gillian, you're better than this! - dw

There is something about the combination of Gillian Welch's voice and acoustic guitars that I find haunting and memorable. I've been burning a lot of midnight oil to this one lately. - MG

5. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead (6 votes, 238 points)

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 one of the year’s best. - AC

R.E.M. released their best album in years. The Decemberists, however, released the best R.E.M. album in years. - dw

The King is Dead sounds exactly like it was ripped off of Damion Suomi's self-titled album of two years ago. Did I like it? Yes. But I loved Damion Suomi's album. Was I underwhelmed? TOTALLY. - JG

4. Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials (6 votes, 248 points)

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. - AC

The combination of Florence Welch's tour-de-force vocals and the imaginative arrangements on this set can be breathtaking. Captivating tracks such as "Only If For A Night," "Shake It Out" and "Never Let Me Go," among many others, show that Flo has leapt to the top ranks of female singer-songwriters on today's scene. - TN

Easily one of the best albums of the year. Just a joy to listen to. - RB

Florence Welch is the best female vocalist going, and that's saying something. A tour de force and one of the year's best. - MG

Nope. I don't get the hype. Horrible vibrato, ridiculously poor pitch, crappy production, and some of the most boring songwriting I've heard in a long while. - JG

3. Feist - Metals (7 votes, 250 points)

I've never had a Feist album where I could get more than one or two song to hold my attention at a time. Metals is easily her most accessible release to date. In the past, she's always demonstrated a vocal range that few can match and even a kind of soul that doesn't get invoked nearly enough in indie singer-songwriter tunes. Standout tracks include "The Bad In Each Other, The Circle Married The Line, Undiscovered First & How Come You Never Go There." - RB

Her follow-up to can't match the sterling standard set by "The Reminder," but listening to her voice deliciously treat words like cherished lovers is always a pleasure. - TN

Metals eschews some of the poppy hooks of The Reminder for something that sounds more parlor music. But it brings out an intimacy and a maturity in her voice and her lyrics in the process. And I'd agree with Ron on Feist having a kind of soul voice now, and I think it suits her well. A nice album for a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon. - dw

Feist makes me fall in love with female vocals (even more so than usual) every time I fire up this album. I made a playlist in iTunes of all the music I have with women on lead vocals just because this album made me want to consistently listen to more. I haven't felt this way about a vocalist since Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses, The Breeders, Belly). - GR

Feist has grown up and her sound has matured. This is a good thing and a great album. - MG

2. Wilco - The Whole Love (6 votes, 264 points)

After a couple of rootsy, meandering albums, Jeff Tweedy and company get experimental again, with shades of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot reverberating throughout The Whole Love. There are some bright spots here, but unlike that earlier effort, this one doesn’t quite gel. On The Whole Love, the band saved the best for last, the 12:04 anthem “Once Sunday Morning.” - AC

I'm thankful Wilco managed to wander back toward the era that saw it emerge from the Alt-Country pantheon and become the manic, vibrato-saturated, avante roots rock

A great album. The Art of Almost may be my favorite song of the year and the epic One Sunday Morning is a song I'll be playing until my dying days. - MG

What do you say? Better than Wilco The Album, not as good as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost is Born, but definitely harkening back to their better stuff. Tweedy is hit or miss, but this album he hit. - JG

1. Bon Iver - Bon Iver (7 votes, 306 points)

I 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 many music critics, that I had abandoned hope. But I gave Bon Iver 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. - AC

One of the interesting notes about Bon Iver is that while it got the most votes of all the reviewers, it failed to garner a single first place vote. It didn't finish first on my ballot (settling for third) because I felt the two albums ahead of it were better technically and more daring. That said... this is miles ahead of For Emma. I've gone back to Bon Iver over and over again all year long and found something new every time amid the melancholy. It's about the only album that makes me stop what I'm doing just to listen to it. Yes, "Beth/Rest" is the Howard Jones/Kenny G collaboration that thankfully has never happened, but the rest of the album is quiet genius. - dw

I expect this to be album of the year for most critics. The fact that our little band of eclectic higher ed music critics also voted it #1 is a testament to its wide ranging appeal. - MG

Weird. This doesn't sound anything like Bon Jovi at all. I'm going back and listening to "Slippery When Wet" instead. -CD


  1. A little bewildered that Ashes & Fire was so far ahead of Laura Marling's record. But whatevs.

  2. I'm more bewildered as to how DCFC could crack the top 10 with what was a boring record.

  3. Hell, Feist is in our top THREE, and it doesn't GET any more boring than that.

  4. Odd to see Feist atop Florence + The Machine because I bought the two albums at the same time and found Flo's record so much more interesting. Oh, the little arguments in the microreviews are quite entertaining.

  5. I still need to check out Feist. And a lot of these other bands. And, if I'm to make good on my promise to check out Ryan Adams, any recommendations on where to start?

  6. I think our annual experiment can serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to achieve consensus. While Bon Iver made it close to the top of many reviewers' lists, it was not the No. 1 choice for any of us. In the end, none of us got our top pick. We settled for something that may have been a top-five selection for a few of us and not on the radar for others.

    Maybe for future efforts, we should create a tournament, with brackets a la March Madness. That might give some of the underdogs a chance for an upset.

    Or maybe it would be better just for all reviewers to post their personal top picks.

  7. @Alaina: Asking where to start with Ryan Adams could lead to the virtual version of a bar-room brawl among music geeks. I find "Gold" his most accessible record if you disregard some filler. This statement often brings umbrage from others who dismiss it as "too slick" and "not raw enough," which generally follows with a recommendation of "Heartbreaker," which I personally don't even like as much as his "III/IV" outtakes collection. It will all end in tears. But because you're a friend, there's my recommendation.