Thursday, December 15, 2011

Best Albums of 2011

25. The Antlers - Burst Apart
24. Panda Bear - Tomboy
23. R.E.M. - Collapse into Now
22. Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto
21. Cut Copy - Zonoscope
20. Atlas Sound - Parallax
19. Cults - Cults
18. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
17. tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L
16. Washed Out - Within and Without
15. Real Estate - Days
14. Yuck - Yuck
13. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
12. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
11. Wilco - The Whole Love

10. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
9. Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde
8. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
7. Pains of Being Pure of Heart - Belong
6. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up

5. Cass McCombs - Wit's End

This was my little secret of the year, an album that I played repeatedly but told no one about. I'm afraid it wouldn't translate well, and that the same things I love—the mesmerizing tranquility of it all—would bore people to tears. I do know this: It's one of a handful of albums like Tom Wait's Alice and Lucinda Williams's World Without Tears that begins with a haunting, downbeat number which is somehow as invigorating as a two minute punk rant. This feels like the introduction to his world, and it's a sad one. In fact, things only get more terrifying from here on out.

4. Bon Iver - Bon Iver

There are no great singles here. When I'm done listening to the album, I often wonder what exactly happened. Did I really finish this again, or did it skip a bunch of tracks? I'd be angry if I didn't always have a reason to dive back in, to try and figure out what I've been listening to on repeat. It is not commercial, and I'm not quite sure how it will stand up. But it is a piece of work that deserves the time sunk into it.

3. Destroyer - Kaputt

Combine two of my least favorite things—Destoyer and 80's soul pop—and what do you get? How about one of the most confusingly awesome spectacles of the year. Filled with reverbed sax and awkward dance tunes, this should have been one of my least favorite albums of all time. I never understood the appeal of Destroyer until last year's Bay of Pigs EP, which is luckily repeated here. Normally he seems purposefully eccentric, but this genre exercise gave him some much needed constraints.

2. Kanye West and Jay-Z - Watch the Throne

I'm pretty adamant that we shouldn't judge art on moral grounds and that lyrics are just one aspect of what goes into a song. So the arguments about this being just an obscene product to pitch during the Great Recession really bored me. Plus it's borderline insane. For every line about excessive luxury, there is another that celebrates black icons. For every reference to Margelia jackets, there is another about the murder rate in Chicago.

Rolling Stone deserves special condemnation. After giving the album a paltry 3 ½ stars, noting the same tired "luxury rap" criticism, they then decided to anoint the album as the second best of year. This act allowed them to basically have their cake and eat it too; they could express their condemnation, while also showing that they were hip enough to understand what the rest of us already knew.

Never in my whole life have I heard an album bumped from as many cars as Watch the Throne. It didn't matter if you were black, latino, or white, this album was everywhere during the Chicago summer. While MBDTF seemed purposefully uncommercial, basically every track here was calibrated for radio airplay. Even the second half, which grows increasingly dark and introspective (why is that the critics never talked about this?), is filled with concise songs.

But I have to admit that the first half, the one filled with all the songs about greedy consumerism, is my favorite. Why? Because Jay-Z and Kanye are fucking hilarious, and listening to them trip over themselves trying to top each other with ridiculous lines was one of the great joys of 2011. "Otis", in particular, sounds like they were duking it out over every single line. Sure, it has no great meaning, and you can't call it poetry, but when was that ever the fucking point? Since when do great pop songs have a moral compass? Don't we want our crazed stars to try so hard to make us happy that they'll start acting truly bizarre?

1. The Field - Looping State Of Mind

Like Panda Bear's Person Pitch, The Field's Looping State of Mind is an experience that doesn't make a whole lot of sense initially, and yet is completely mesmerizing if you let go and submit to it. Besides the title track, I couldn't tell you the name of any of these songs, and yet each has more plays on iTunes this year than any other album. It wasn't even close. That should count for something, right?

Unfortunately, I worried that part of that reason was that I can work to it. Is there anything more lame than that? Though I once loved music that would control me, now I'm searching for albums that I can completely ignore. Of course, it is one of those albums that is great to write with playing in the background. But part of its power is that it makes me write BETTER and FASTER. It sharpens air, condenses time. Put it on, pick an assignment, and it's done. It is better than most drugs.

And yet, it also works when the keyboard is pushed back and the wine comes out. I have this album at my disposal everywhere I go. On my computer (MP3), turntable (vinyl), car (CD), and iPod (MP3, again). There aren't many moments that wouldn't benefit form this album (working out, walking the dog, walking down the street). I know this sounds strange, but that's because this album makes no sense and yet is impossible to stop listening to.


medina said...

I must admit I don't get the Cass McCombs, and Watch the Throne, unfortunately, is on my "must listen to" list. I'm surprised that a wordless album topped your list, but I have to say I like it.

I am also surprised M83 was so low. What happened there?

Michael said...

nice list; I'll have to listen to the field again. I can't get behind watch the throne as an album, although I love some of the singles. I thought that "Otis" was just awful, though; the production sounded like someone looped a .wav file. What happened to the intricacies and taste of the blueprint there?

Nick said...

I kind of gave up on M83 after a few listens, and only recently got back into it. It's so long, I feel like I still haven't gotten it. I'm still trying.

The production is definitely not as well done, but I'm wondering if that was sort of the point. I feel like they were trying to make this really ornate, well-crafted album, and then were like "fuck it, let's just rap," which led to the fun party cuts.

Gold Skulltulla said...

Wow, surprised to see The Field on top! Not because it's not great, just unexpected I suppose. Sorry to say I'm with Michael on "Watch the Throne" also.

I hear ya on M83 being a daunting listen. I think it's incredible when you can take it in as a whole, but you do have to clear you schedule.