The Year in Music: Our Favorite Albums of 2011

1. Panda Bear – Tomboy

Teased out for the better part of a year and a half, Panda Bear’s follow-up to indie-lodestone Person Pitch, Tomboy is probably the best album of the year 2010 and one of the best of this year. Like Person Pitch, Tomboy arrived in fits and starts, with nearly half of the album released on singles before the final big album statement. There was even worry if the album would get finished, as Noah Lennox kept polishing his tracks, well-beyond the expected street date. As it sits Tomboy is not just a collection of great electronic singles but a well thought-out cohesive world of sound, capturing the darkness, unease, and spiritual anxiety missing from much of Animal Collective’s work. Sonically it’s not that different from Animal Collective’s 2009 watershed album Meriwether Post-Pavilion, with the stacked on beats, whirls, and panoramic production. But it is much more inward, celestial, and monochromatic. The first half is definitely the sunnier part, with the later half containing mournful songs like “Alastair Darn,” “Afterburner,” and the mesmerizing “Sherzade.” This is also the album the breaks Lennox as a worldclass songwriter, who shows he can turn a pretty lame sentiment like friendship bracelet into a loving, yet mournful, ode to the people you love. – CD

2. Booker T. Jones The Road from Memphis

The Stax legend returns in fine form. How do you top a Grammy-nominated comeback and debut on ANTI- records (2009’s Potato Hole) that paired the artist with backing band Drive-By Truckers and featured guest spots from Tom Waits, Neil Young, and Andre 3000? The answer: hire ?uestlove and the Roots as backing band and record an album that sounds twice as raw, kicks twice as hard, and features guest appearances by Lou Reed, Jim James, Sharon Jones, and Matt Beringer of the National. Road delivers a solid mix of instrumental covers (including stripped-down takes on “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley and “Everything is Everything” by Lauryn Hill) and songs with lyrics that speak to the deep pride and affection Jones and guests have for Memphis (or how that translates to the Bronx, in Reed’s case). Though this release flew under the radar for many, it served as the soundtrack to countless parties, dinners, and Saturday mornings for us throughout 2011. – PL

Highlights: “Progress,” “Representing Memphis,” “The Hive”

3. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

Peter says they sound like Tom Petty. Like that’s a bad thing. Sure there’s the Dylan-esque vocals, the unabashed Petty-isms, with just oh so a splash of Springsteen. But what makes this wonderful album stand out its cohesiveness. Combining the gush-aw of classic rock with weird, wild, and pervasive noise, Slave Ambient is worthy of its title. No album this year felt more like an album, and one of Slave Ambient‘s major strengths is its reprises and textures. However, for all it’s density and straight-trucking momentum, Slave Ambient is full of balls-out beautiful passages, anthems, and moments that give you the rock n roll hives. “Come to the City,” the album’s centerpiece, lays out a propulsive, mechanical beat amid a squall of precise, yet expansive guitar work, with lead singer Adam Granduciel’s vocals sinking through the mix. Easily one of the most electrifying musical moments of the year and it gets reprised in a three-minute instrumental later on the LP. – CD

Highlights: “Come to the City” (my favorite song of the year), “I Was There” “Brothers”


4. Atlas Sound – Parallax

Opening track “The Shakes” starts the album off at a strong rollicking pace, but more noteworthy is that it sounds like Deerhunter than anything on Cox’s previous two releases under the Atlas Sound moniker. But the inverse could be said about last year’s excellent Halcyon Digest by Deerhunter, with its winding, sprawling story songs more reminiscent of Atlas Sound’s sonic palette. Here Cox finds a happy medium over the album’s course, marrying the best elements of both projects into a more complete and mature sound. Parallax also sees Cox successfully expanding his musical reach, drawing an almost latin feel from the natural rhythms of shakers and maracas, while retaining the bedroom-pop acoustics and experimental sounds that reinforce the notion that this is his music, un-tethered from the influence of band-mates and rock-posturing. But it’s also his to share, and like a good host, Parallax invites you into the warm comforts of it’s perfect pop with an instant familiarity that guarantees repeat listens. – PL

Highlights: “Mona Lisa,” “Lightworks,” “Te Amo”


5. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

In which the gravel-voiced crooner returns from a seven-year absence with one of the most accessible and defining albums of his career. Waits is in top form on Bad as Me, with immaculate production, some skilled backup blues-men, and a suitcase full of songs that perfectly encapsulate the facets of his musical personality, without turning to the experimental parody of Real Gone or theatrics of Blood Money / Alice. “All aboard!!!” shouts the crazed conductor on opening track “Chicago”, where he promises us things will be better. But our narrator reveals his true self on the title track, singing “I’m the hat on the bed, I’m the coffee instead… I’m the blood on the floor, The thunder and the roar…The boat that won’t sink…I won’t sleep a wink…No good you say? Well that’s good enough for me.” From such manic brawlers Waits turns on a dime back to his jazz crooner persona for numbers like “Kiss Me (Like a Stranger)” and even sweeter sides. Take a seat in the smoking car and pour yourself a drink, then another.

Highlights: “Talking at the Same Time,” “New Years Eve,” “Bad as Me”


6. Real Estate – Days

When New Jersey’s Real Estate released their self-titled debut in 2009 critics praised (and criticized) the album’s lackadaisical evocation of summer beachy good times and worn focus. What was often misunderstood about that album, as thin and unassuming as it could be, was how reminiscent it was of that weird stretch of the year of not-summer, not-winter, and not really quite autumn. With their sophomore effort, Days, Real Estate put forth a resoundedly autumnal album, vamping their production and spit-shining their melodies. While Real Estate may have come across as lazy and spontaneous (part of its charm, I’d say) Days feels fully conceptualized, with nary a wrong note or vocal, and mixed to perfection. – CD

Highlights: “Easy,” “Kinder Blumen,” and “Younger than Yesterday” (a synth-laden remake of a melancholic song off of their EP Reality)


7. Thee Oh Sees – Carrion Crawler/The Dream

Sharks always gotta swim and Thee Oh Sees always gotta be pumping out music. Carrion Crawler/The Dream is only the band’s second album of the year, after the middling, albeit, weird-in-a-good-way, Castlemania, a singles collection, and a killer split with Total Control. Trading the bric-a-brac and homespun nature of Castlemania for concision, Carrion Crawler/The Dream starts things right with the perverse and heavy-hitting first title track and things only get better from there. Easily Thee Oh Sees’ most accessible record since Help, Carrion Crawler/The Dream benefits from better production and more classic garage rock influence than previous releases. Though there’s still the band’s trademark biting, frenetic rock n roll convulsions, everything is not exactly reined in, as much as it is heightened and focused. – CD

Highlights: “Carrion Crawler,” “Contraption/Soul Desert,” “Heavy Doctor”


8. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

In Rainbows was a gimme, a mulligan, but here it is, here is “the worst album” by the so-called “best rock band of the world.” You were waiting for this failure, satiated by the mysteriousness surrounding its release. You thought this one was going to be free didn’t you? But instead they want you to pay for it. The gimmick the band is touting this time is that The King of Limbs is the first newspaper album. What the fuck does that mean? That you can read it?—oh wait, it’s just some confetti and a fake newsletter written by the band packaged with the special boutique version of the LP. Oh well. Damn, it’s short. Only eight songs long. You feel gypped don’t you? These songs are terrible and in such small proportions. Why is it that our biggest heroes disappoint us when we most want them to? Not that Radiohead is incapable of making a bad album and disappointing us. It’s that, excised from the hype and the gimmicks, what you perhaps don’t realize is The King of Limbs is not that album. Short, yes. But also pristine, modest, and oftentimes beautiful, and ending with the band’s best closing track since Ok Computer’s “The Tourist.” Radiohead have always struggled with the big album format, trying to top themselves with each LP in terms of scope and sound, playing with the expectations of their audience. Arriving three and a half years after the “experimental” release of In Rainbows, The King of Limbs fucks with expectation by being trim, folky, and wiry. But more than toying with format and expectation, The King of Limbs showcases a top-notch group expanding their musical palette to include more muted and subdued sounds. – CD

Highlights: “Codex,” “Separator”


9. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

I’ll admit—This was my favorite album of the year (an opinion not shared by my Projector cohorts). But I myself wasn’t a big fan of Bon Iver prior to this newest release. Sure, I was familiar with Justin Vernon’s work, but the troubadour-folk of his debut and auto-tuned romanticism of the subsequent Blood Bank EP didn’t do much for me. However, indie super-group GAYNGS (which Vernon provides guitar and back-up vocals for) was right up my alley, which happens to bear a slight resemblance to the smoke-and-glitter-filled alleys of Purple Rain. Vernon imbued his sophomore solo album with the same ‘80s pomp that GAYNGS plays to the point of satire, but trades the influence of Prince for Phil Collins, and well, okay it still sounds a bit like a modern Seals and Kroft (especially closer “Beth/Rest”). However, if there’s one thing Bon Iver has over its predecessors, it’s effortless range. The vague and subjective lyrics lend themselves to a more intensely personal and interpretive experience than the raw emotion of For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon no longer has to bare his soul or raise his voice to make a statement that moves people, and that is the definition of artistic growth. – PL

Highlights: anthemic songs like opener “Perth” and singles “Holocene” and “Calgary”, which have plenty of movement of their own, while moving the listener.


10. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic

The king of pub rock and self-anointed “Jesus of Cool” has been strumming his guitar for four decades now, producing perfect low-cut pop tunes to cure the common hangover. At first listen, his latest coffee-and-cigarette slow-burner The Old Magic sounds deceptively effortless and intimate. When Lowe conceptualized the album, I imagine him putting on a quality pair of headphones listening to some moody numbers by Geraint Watkins or Robyn Hitchcock to find inspiration. The album is like a good read— easy to follow and when it it’s over, you immediately read it again. Each individual song could spawn its own album or serve as the lead single, but this just proves that Lowe sees the value of individual pop tunes creating an effervescent collection. – AP

Highlights: “Shame on the Rain” and “Stoplight Roses” cast a similar calm spell, whereas the upbeat “Sensitive Man” and “Restless Feeling” nicely compliment the album’s more intimate and introspective numbers.

11. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

If Bon Iver borrowed influence from the Phil Collins era of the 80s this year, M83 brought the full-blown John Hughes-ness of that decade to this sprawling double-album. Combining the ethereal and relaxed atmosphere of Anthony Gonzalez and co.’s early work with the instantly gratifying anthems of Saturdays=Youth and Before the Dawn Heals USH.U.W.D. is a career highpoint for the group. It may be an album that requires repeat listens to fully appreciate, but once you get past the hugeness of the opening tracks (especially grandiose single “Midnight City”) you’ll find just as rewarding treasures, like the playful “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” and lush soundscapes that might provide a fittingly dreamlike soundtrack to your daily routine. – PL

Highlights: “Intro (feat. Zola Jesus)” “Midnight City,” “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”


12. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne

The best hip-hop album of the year (perhaps even the last five), but at a time when that honor doesn’t carry much weight. Some serious bangers, a flashy tour to support, and two rap giants proving they’ve got the lyrical skills to back up their mogul incomes. It doesn’t outdo Hova’s Black Album or Blueprint 3 for me, but it sure as hell goes harder than Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or 808’s and Heartbreaks. Jay-Z says to look forward to solo albums from both and a sequel to Throne in the coming year. We’ll wait and see how much fatherhood slows down his swagger. – PL

Highlights: “Ni**as in Paris,” “Who Gon’ Stop Me”


13. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Wherein indie rock’s ultimate manic-pixie-dreamgirl crush proves once and for all that she can shred with the best of them, stitching pop-hooks with menacing electronic glitches so well that listeners hardly notice the immense layers to her songs. And this might be her finest set of songs yet, honed and crafted to perfection. St. Vincent is an act that demands to be seen live, where Clark leads her band through the quiet and the loud in a spectacle of smoke and lights that beckons to her prog-rock leanings. Contrast has always been a major part of her music, and Strange Mercy‘s juxtapositions of harshness, softness, truth, lies, cruelty, and kindness feel especially pointed and potent. – PL

Highlights: “Chloe in the Afternoon,” “Surgeon”


14. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Though great in on its own merits, Apocalypse doesn’t reach the heights of his stellar second post-Smog album (2009’s I Wish We Were an Eagle) but it’s also a perfect entry-point for newcomers to Callahan’s work, at once both idiosyncratic and controlled, above all casual and welcoming. Much like this year’s releases by Tom Waits and Atlas Sound, here we get all the components of the songwriter in a blender, and the end result leaves something for everybody. Especially if you’re looking for simple, mellow country Americana for the end times. Callahan’s not worried about making any lists past 2012. – PL

Highlights: the slow-building “Riding for the Feeling” and the acerbic rambling of “America!” which closes on the apropos line “Well everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention.”


15. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo

On his fourth album the former The War on Drugs member sheds some of the lacerating fuzz and high-tilt energy that made his previous releases so invigorating, resulting in clearer songs with clearer structures. Although less meandering than say Childish Prodigy or God is Saying This to You, Smoke Ring for My Halo retains Vile’s psychedelic urges and demented folk stylings. – CD

Highlights: “Baby’s Arms,” “Jesus Fever”


16. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

The year’s most menacing release, Black Up proves that, while rare, there are second acts in American hip-hop. Former Digable Planets member Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler reinvents himself as Palaceer Lazaro and his new outfit constructs some of the headiest, most adventurous hip-hop tracks of the last five years. Lyrically deft and sonically off the map, Black Up is full of head-toggling beats, low bass grooves, and diced jazz loops. While much of the production details are very of the moment—Flying Lotus’ incapacitating bass warbles, slashed-up drum beats, and monstrous zig-zags of synth—Shabazz Palaces’s attention to mood and atmosphere gives Black Up a lasting ferocity. – CD


17. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’

One of the year’s most criminally overlooked albums. R&B legend Saadiq makes a logical progression from 2009’s The Way I See It, doing away with guest features (other than a brief appearance from Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nakano) and pushing his retro soul stylings into a tier beyond that of peers and imitators like Aloe Blacc and Cee-lo Green. Saadiq’s come a long way from his days in new jack swing r&b pioneers Tony! Toni! Toné! and we’d like to see more people take notice. Catch him live if you ever get a chance, and consider yourself converted. – PL

Highlights: Chuck Berry-invoking rockers like opener “Heart Attack” and “Over You”, the bittersweet soul arrangements of “Go to Hell” and “Good Man”


18. The Strokes – Angles

Julian and the boys finally return, albeit to mixed reviews and under-enthused reactions of a musical landscape that seems to forget we once credited these guys with “saving” Rock’n’Roll proper. Angles is a fine return to form, and sounds like the most logical progression from their first two albums (let’s just forget First Impressions of Earth happened). Many noted that Casablancas was largely absent from the writing process, perhaps hinting this reunion won’t last long, but the end result was an album that highlights the other bandmembers’ skills and writing talents, while Casablancas (the penultimate “front man”) adds the magic of his solo work post hoc. This might seem like a studio-engineered frankenstein, but whether or not this monster has a soul it’s certainly not lacking in charisma and flair. – PL

Highlights: “Gratisfaction,” “Machu Pichu,” “Under Cover of Darkness”


19. The Roots – Undun

After the anger of Game Theory and Rising Down, and the dopey sweetness of Wake Up and How I Got Over, comes Undun— a concept album spinning the tragically short life-story of Redford Stephens, a fictional product of inner-city New York  born in the mid-‘70s and gunned down as a young man in 1999. Yet this is no hip-hop opera. The existential rhymes, seemingly created with a shared vision, avoid outlining specific events and instead focus on serious ruminations on the character, as if each vocalist saw elements of himself and figures of their past in Redford. Featuring a surprising appropriation of a Sufjan Stevens song and guest appearances from newcomer Big K.R.I.T., as well as familiar Roots cohorts Dice Raw, Phonte, and Bilal, Undun sees the Roots finally returning to the signature sound of their best albums, while pushing past the stigma of their late-night house band dayjob into truly original territory. – PL

Highlights: “Make My,” “One Time,” “Lighthouse”


20. Crystal Stilts – In Love with Oblivion

Crystal Stilt’s singer Brad Hargett may sing like Brad Garret suffocating on a dry cleaning bag, but his bloodless vocals shouldn’t prevent you from digging deep into their new album. Besides, his thundering voice compliments the spectral greaser rock created on their second LP. Opener “Sycamore Tree” begins with a menacing 45 seconds of clattering organ, jagged strings, and chirping synths—reminiscent of the overture of 2001: A Space Odyssey—before vaulting into a bouncy, indelible surf riff. The rest of the songs likewise ape the best elements of a garage rock with interesting, peculiar twists. “Death is What We Live For” starts out as a Gun Club-style blues track and then develops halfway into a bullfighting song. Throughout the album, guitars shimmer, synths crumble, and farsfas wail, making In Love with Oblivion a much more sunnier and colorful affair than Crystal Stilt’s debut Alight of Night. – CD

Highlights: “Sycamore Tree,” “Through the Floor,” “Shake the Shackles”


Is our list missing some of your personal favorites? Then check out Flavorwire’s re-cap of other publications’ picks and what they say about their readerships.