This is in all likelihood the last of the best of 2011 lists to be coming out, and it is in fact my second. As it turns out, I had overlooked some great releases in my original list, and the new additions are in bold.
The Elite (10-1)
These are albums to not only buy but treasure for the wealth of musical excellence each has.
The critical consensus has this as the album of 2011—even earning a grammy nomination or two. And that’s for good reason. It’s a work of beauty and grace—an ambient album to keep and come back for—to explore as Justin Vernon does. It’s an album that is simultaneously austere and grandiose.
In arguably the prettiest album of the year, Marissa Nadler serves up folk tunes that are simple and moving. From “In Your Lair, Bear” to “Daisy Where Did You Go?” this album is like a sweet dream after an even sweeter lullaby.
undun is a dense and beautiful elegy about the life of a typical life on the streets. Here The Roots take a turn for the better with a slow and often orchestral hip hop album with a message. It’s short but it’s well dun.
Where undun is soft and exact, Black Up is gritty and expansive. An extremely dark album, reviews of Black Up often deal in abstractions, as do the lyrics. It is music that is sometimes tough to come to grips with, yet is almost always worth exploring.
Heavy and ambient beats back this excellent Harlem rapper in the year’s best hip hop mixtape. My praise for this album is often somewhat hyperbolic and possibly premature, but with the A$AP Mob working on a whole bunch of releases this year, I expect people will catch on. And when they do, they’ll look back to this album as a pristine example of a budding hip hop star.
5. Smoke Ring for My Halo & So Outta Reach EP – Kurt Vile
Smoke Ring for My Halo and its companion piece the So Outta Reach EP are great. That’s the long and short of it. These are two melodic and excellent pieces of indie rock.
Parallax marks a surprising overlap of sounds with Bradford Cox’s other project/band, Deerhunter: both have a neo-1950s pop sound. Parallax takes that sound and expands on it, with all the electronic goodness of Atlas Sound. It’s Cox’s least weird album of his side project Atlas Sound, and it plays exquisitely.
Strange Mercy is an extremely heartfelt work by St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. It’s an album that is fascinating musically and lyrically. It combines a pop art sound with guitar driven experiments to make an album that doesn’t sound as weird as those two things normally would when combined. It provides for very satisfying listens.
Let England Shake’s heavy anti-war lyricism can sometimes distract from the music, but that same powerfully anti-war sentiment empowers the music, resulting in wonderful folk rock. The anger of Harvey comes off, and in its intensity, strikes the listener in the face. It results in a painful hurt and a great listen.
2011 was The Weeknd’s year. From House of Balloons to his work on Take Care to Echoes of Silence to a Lady Gaga official remix, the indie blogosphere was captivated by his work and with good reason. Dark, ambient, fascinating beats with dangerously introspective and brutally honest lyrics make for the strongest release of the year, and a fantastic step forward for R&B and dubstep. One of these albums would have been enough to land him at the top of my list, all three make him one of the best.