2011: Best of

by Sean McCarthy

So, for about ten years, we've been told that the Internet has fractured popular music to the extent that there would be no more "blockbuster" acts of universal appeal. That theory had to undergo revision this year with the release of Adele's 21. It dropped in January and for the rest of 2011, it stayed in the Top 10. Other artists have accomplished similar feats over the past decade (see Norah Jones or even Adele's most compared peer, the late Amy Winehouse), but Adele managed to lure hip-hop fans into her world as countless remixes of her songs hit clubs – all the while 21 could be heard in coffee houses, shopping malls, and even in high schools.

The only other story to rival Adele's massive popularity is the continuing dominance of the iTunes store and Amazon. Thanks to Amazon, in 2011, art became a helluva lot cheaper, and in some cases, almost too cheap. Lady Gaga's million-plus first week sales was a hallow victory, given that the majority of those sales was from a $0.99 Amazon promotion for Born This Way's first week sales. Other artists such as Atlas Sound and Girls found new listeners as their albums won raves, but little mainstream airplay. Most people would not take a gamble buying a $14.99 album based on a good review, but for a cost of $3.99 (a little more than the cost of two singles), more and more listeners were willing to give these artists a chance. At least ten albums (and a few more outside the ten) were worth not only the full $15, but a trek to your still-viable record store.

10. The Field – Looping State Of Mind

Synth-heavy/techno music routinely gets derided for being empty and soulless. But The Field has managed to defy this label, mostly by releasing Pink Floyd-sized ambitious albums. On Looping State Of Mind, Axel Willner continues this trend. With almost seven minutes to work with for each song, Willner sculpts out each track as if it were its own mini epic.


9. Girls – Father Son Holy Ghost

The San Francisco group Girls made it on to a ton of Top 10 lists a few years ago with their debut Album. However, as bracing as Album was, I couldn't fully hop on the bandwagon. The Elvis Costello comparisons were just too prevalent. Lead singer Christopher Owens' voice seemed just a bit too snide. But with their EP Broken Dreams Club, it sounded as if Owens suddenly decided he didn't have to jump and scream in the room to get attention. Father Son Holy Ghost is the payoff for Owen's newfound sense of patience. Owens gives each track ample room to breath, and each listen only magnifies how much stronger his songwriting has come in a few short years.


8. The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient

Kurt Vile departed The War On Drugs to create his own stab at greatness this year with Smoke Rings For My Halo. However, Slave Ambient edged out Vile's album by a nose by Adam Granduciel's collection of songs that somehow blend early-‘80s era R.E.M. with late-80s Tom Petty, while working a bit of early '90s shoegazeing into the mix – and not having a single track sound like a dated throwback.


7. Fucked Up – David Comes To Life

Concept albums have become the norm for bands, but few bands could pull off a concept album tactic where the main character actively fights the narrator for control of the story. Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham takes a scorched Earth approach to the 18 tracks on David Comes To Life. The 70-minute running time may sometimes feel like a marathon, but Fucked Up manage to reveal something new with each spin of David Comes To Life. It's the musical equivalent of a rugby scrum: you don't know where you're going to get hit next.


6. Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots

In what will be Shonna Tucker's final album with the Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots was a great way to go out. Existing as a companion piece to last year's The Big To-Do, Go-Go Boots initially sounded like To-Do's B-side compilations. But each subsequent listen further fleshed out Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley's array of schemers, burnouts, and romantics. The centerpiece of the album comes midway through with "Used To Be A Cop" and "The Fireplace Poker", two songs so expertly detailed, they belong on a "best short stories of 2011" composition.


5. Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital

Summer's biggest surprise came with Sound Kapital, an album that was almost a betrayal of the guitar-heavy Face Control. The heavy use of keyboards threatened to date Sound Kapital, but when you have tracks as addictive as "Bury Me Standing" and "Repatriated,” don't expect Sound Kapital to age much in the next decade or two. The husband and wife duo of Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry recorded Sound Kapital after their tour through Asia including the country of Myanmar. No overt political messages are on Sound Kapital, just a nervous and vibrant sound of survival.

4. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Their justly celebrated debut album showed folk music could still be an outlet for the adventurous. On Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes have lost none of their ambitions. Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset's harmonies give each of the tracks on Helpless Blues a distinctness, but as a whole, it reaffirmed a listener's faith in the album. "All of the sirens are driving me over the stern," Pecknold sings on "Bedouin Dress." Pecknold made that stressed-out journey sound downright heavenly.


3. TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light

 As good as Dear, Science was, it seemed like all of the critical praise heaped on that album was in reaction to being late in the game to praise their previous album, Return To Cookie Mountain. It seems the reaction to Nine Types Of Light was the correction. While the album did receive a good share of praise, it seemed to actually get forgotten as fall came around.

It's time for a reevaluation. Nine Types of Light is the sound of a band wearied not by wars, hype, or fame, but of a far simpler ailment: love. Kyp Malone does some of his finest falsettos on Light, including the grounded, beautiful "Killer Crane" and "You." The band can still rock the rafters (see "No Future Shock"), but their honed nuance resulted in their best work to date.


2. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

It was almost a yearlong campaign defending Merrill Garbus to the vehemently anti-hipster crowd in 2011. And who could blame them? Garbus fits the hipster musician stereotype to a 't': a liberal college background that eventually led to her working as a puppeteer, she usually dons face paint, and her instrument of choice is unconventional (the ukulele). So, what separates her indie peers? Try the beats. The ambulance-siren like nervousness of "Gangsta" practically jumps out of your speakers, while the exuberance of "Powa" is as infectious as influenza. It's too early to see if w h o k i l l will shape the landscape, or will age as well as Bloc Party or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. But her undeniable sincerity makes you not care about staying power. w h o k i l l lives in the moment, future be damned.


1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

PJ Harvey has been one of this generation's greatest shapeshifters. White Chalk debuted a Harvey's ghostly new voice on an album that was bleak even for her. On Let England Shake, that voice examines the ghastly horror, devastation, and brutality of war, mainly early turn of the 20th century wars. It's a nationalistic album, but only in that behind patriotism comes an awesome cost. Harvey has already contributed at least two undisputed classics in rock. With each listen of Let England Shake, it's safe to say that she just contributed a third. In 2011, it was Let England Shake, and everything else.


Disappointments of the Year

Lucinda Williams – Blessed

Had I listened to a local artist, or an opening band perform some tracks off of Blessed, I would have thought this artist would be someone to watch once they refine their craft. But Lucinda Williams has set the bar so high for herself that her last few albums have felt like nothing more than half-finished efforts. That trend continues with Blessed. Good news first, she can still break your heart, like in the aching closer "Kiss Like Your Kiss." And the first listen of "Awakening" practically gave it an automatic induction into the elite circle of Williams' best songs. But sadly, the same can't be said for the other tracks on Blessed. "Soldier's Song", contracts the mainland world from the battlefield, but the clichés used on the song make it hard to work up any type of emotion for the listener. And if we wouldn't give an artist like Chris Martin of Coldplay a pass for writing lyrics like "We were blessed by the homeless man / Who showed us the way home" and "We were blessed by the blind man / Who could see for miles and miles," we sure as hell shouldn’t give Williams a pass.

Miranda Lambert – Four The Record

Kerosene, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Revolution helped make Miranda Lambert a sort of ambassador of contemporary country and its alt-country detractors. Bucking easy covers in favor of embracing less commercial material by the likes of John Prine, Lambert's voice and killer chops were like a shot of Wild Turkey. But as Revolution firmly entrenched itself onto the album charts for well over a year, the money poured in, and it showed on Four The Record. Painfully overproduced, the rave-ups on Four seem more like the occasional scrap of red meat thrown to fans rather than a fully thought-out song. We don't expect Lambert to continually play the role of hard-drinking trouble doer forever, but on Four The Record, listeners will likely wait the entire album in hopes that the Lambert of old will surface just long enough to scuff the unneeded gloss from this effort.

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