Now I recognize how late this is, but I didn't bother posting this for a while because I hadn't quite absorbed into this set of bests for a while, and I spent a lot of this last month going over them one more time around and re-editing... and now I can say that I've got the most buzz apart from all the other best-of lists out there on the internet.
2011 wasn't necessarily more talented than the last batch by its predeceasing year, but it was a lot fucking cooler. I've come to recognize that these subjective lists are just as representative of how my year went just as much as the music I listened to. I didn't hear anything in particular that was a work of articulate arrangement. But in that haze was a large spread of clarity. 2011 was kind of like hangover from the last decade.
That's something I loved; a lack of realization that what happens now will shape the legacy of everything for another decade. A lot of bands began looking like Wilco circa 2005; incredibly fun but divisive in fanbase. I didn't hear anything genuinely surprising, mostly because I think we've become so consumed in media that heads or tails doesn't matter. So when I would hear something good I would be genuinely satisfied. In other words, because of my disappointment in everything, all good things were a surprise.
I've spent a few years doing this now, four to be specific, and I always enjoy this, so let's go for it.
20. Wild Flag Wild Flag
To paraphrase something I heard on the internet: "Riot Grrrl isn't dead, it just goes to bed at a more reasonable hour". I've heard some of their live stuff, which is something I love because it doesn't sound as quiet and polished as this, but the fact Wild Flag is a band, and that they assembled to make music, should speak to the testament to how badly women need a better representation in the rock community. For that, Wild Flag means the world to me.
19. Wu Lyf Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
18. The Ravoenettes Raven in the Grave
Perhaps the decade rule of spoils is finally exposing people for who they are, and I always knew The Ravoenettes were this good. Ever since I heard "That Great Love Sound" in my preteens, I was always looking for something this kicking and up-tempo, and for the most part, Raven in the Grave pulls it off rather well.
17. The Roots Undun
I'm exhausted about hearing how much more "roots" The Roots have gotten. There will never be another Phrenology, and we really should stop trying to reinforce that bullshit. The reason The Roots have been able to remain The Roots is by being a part of the original ethos of hip hop, and yes a lot of those bands have passed in the process, but I don't know why this band was ever doubted. I've seen them live and almost weekly on late night television, and ?uestlove will never lead them in the wrong direction. Yes this album is great, but did anyone ever really doubt that? It doesn't sound like anything else. It just sounds like The Roots.
16. Justice Audio, Video, Disco
People were really batting this one around for a while, and I think it got left in the mire. When I finally got around to dusting this off, I realized this was what I was hoping to hear more of from the previous LP. There's a strange 70s quality to this (Iron and Wine did something similar), except Justice veered off closer to glam/arena rock on this, and I love glam/arena rock... and the 70s in general. I don't generally party, but when I do I can imagine it would be to something like this. Supplementally, Justice also produced some of my favorite music videos from last year, only validating the virtuoso skills further.
15. Kurt Vile Smoke Rings For My Halo
Seeing the split from The War on Drugs, I can now tell who got its Americana kicks. It was probably my favorite part of the band, and now that Vile is solo, I like his very specific type of organization. For something with a lot of giddiness, it still maintained a lot of rugged individualism about it.
14. My Morning Jacket Circuital
At this point, I doubt My Morning Jacket even cares about the game. Jim James has molded his status, the band has made so many good or great albums, started a neo-Traveling Wilburies, and then they still had 15 years to do whatever they want. They still don't use their status lightly, and the last project didn't get any less heavy. It felt, in many ways, like The King of Limbs of My Morning Jacket's career; still amazing, but probably not their best, so just hold on a little tighter and we got something else coming up.
13. M83 Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is one of those albums I consider stricly as "headphones music". Listening to my laptop speakers doesn't quite do much of anything, but when you put the headphones on, the music becomes a horse of different color. Merriweather Post Pavilion comes to mind when I think of this notion. I'm not going to jam to it, I'm not going to drive around blasting it (with the exception of a long road trip), but I can definitely absorb it at 7:00 AM wile I'm wearily riding the bus to work. What makes Hurry Up, We're Dreaming so distinct is that it is flawless and incredibly long. The self-titled track speaks to it immediately, then it trails off for a while, then it's rocking again, then is slows with the pace of a Pink Floyd b-sides release. Because of it's rhythm it becomes enjoyable, but because of its epic fluidity it because a psuedo-materpiece
12. Arctic Monkeys Suck It and See
My favorite surprise by far. Two reasons I loved this so much:
1. I forgot that Arctic Monkeys existed
2. I forgot that Arctic Monkeys know how to write great lyrics.
I remember in high school how afraid I was that Arctic Monkeys could veer into that obscurity of Brit-Indie-Pop that consumed so many, and I thought that they've always done their best to keep above the benchmark. The lackadaisical approach to Alex Turner's lyrics works around the music just demonstrating its "I Don't Give a Fuck" theme all the better, which is great because last summer was so hot I didn't want to do much either.
11. Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter Marble Son
Perhaps the most classic rock of anything on this list. Veering off 8-minute tracks still hold a cohesion, and then it settles the dust to simple call and responses, and not to mention, that it's the first real female band lead I've seen in a while, and she fucking works her band in an orchestral way with the kicky little rock pace I hear floating the whole thing along.
10. Gruff Rhys Hotel Shampoo
I would have rated this higher if more than Rhys' first track was fucking amazing, which it was, but the rest wasn't. I was hooked listening to the first 30 seconds, and from their it veers back and forth. To be fair, I've never absorbed any of Rhys' work with Super Furry Animals, but to create anonymity on a well polished work like Hotel Shampoo allowed me to be more virginal and honest with the LP. This may not have been the best, but I'm curious to know where this guy runs off to in his future endeavors.
9. Chad VanGaalen Diaper Island
Chad VanGaalen is perhaps one of few singer/songwriter acts that I enjoy, and mostly for that fact that it is the basics, but used for such hardened benefit. For something so downbeat and mellow, it really did have some phenomenal lyrics, which made me mentally categorize him with the likes of Sufjan Stevens and The Tallest Man on Earth, with a strange dash of Neil Young. Even as I compile this I still assume it's the most underrated of any on my list, and I'm still wondering if I should have ranked it higher. At times it can get both Americana and electronica while still holding its individualistic integrity.
8. Youth Lagoon The Year of Hibernation
Every now and again I like to give shoutouts to my Columbian homies (and by that I mean the river in the Northwest), but usually it's for posterity or self-indulgence. This however was different because it was both parts more authentic and exceptional, especially for a place as alien as Idaho, which is rare for its talents (Built to Spill, anyone?). Idaho is a lot like Eastern Washington; barren, epic, warm, and sweet-aired, and I think Youth Lagoon hits it right not just as music, but as a representation of the great Western void before you reach The Pacific Northwest. People laugh at Napoleon Dynamite because of it's sheer absurdity, but I've known enough people from Idaho to know that these are stereotypes, and realistic ones at that. What I thought Youth Lagoon did, besides make an amazing album, was legitimize a little known music community of stale and compassionate electronics in a land devoid of an identifiable culture.
7. Iron & Wine Kiss Each Other Clean
I'll tell ya, this was a tough one to swallow, but in the end I should have known Sam Beam mimicking 70s pop was a very good thing. To be fair, I haven't really gotten much past Creek Drank the Cradle, partially because Garden State, and partially because I didn't really feel anything between then and now was really that engaging. This is something I suspect Beam realized, and I think that this was a great move, because for the most part it keeps that slow and easy going pace of Iron & Wine and adds an element of jazzy horns and minor electronics and has it pick the pace up a bit, which was always Beam's largest hinderance (and for good reason). After going over the tracks a third time, I realized that Iron & Wine finally figured it out, and instead I was the one who was sorely mistaken.
6. The People's Temple The People's Temple
I went through a huge lo-fi garage rock thing this year (oh wait, that was every year since I was 14), and in my mind I can tell you this album is exactly what Central Utah sounds like, which is ironic because the band is from Michigan. As I'm getting older I'm learning to hate Pitchfork more and more, and so subsequently I end up listening to a lot more albums that receive lower ratings than a "Best New Music" stamp. I'm sorry but Gang Gang Dance is not music, it's sound art. You can go listen to John Cage performances and eat mushrooms. I'll hang back with the social awkwards and listen to something with a conscience. ANYWAYS, I can't remember the actual rating, but The People's Temple got a low one, but I persisted always and found a huge, and at times, uncollected menagerie of aggressive echoing guitars and a fading loud shout-box of neo-psychedelic throwbacks.
5. The Decemberists The King is Dead
My former roommate is the only equal I have in the world of music, and I say that with full arrogance and sincerity. So when I obtained a copy of this CD, we got in the car and decided to drive to the Goodwill in town. We put in on very hesitantly, first with a certainty that we knew it was going to suck. Then 1:30 passed from the first track, and we were confused, because we both knew something very good was happening. Then the third tracked slipped through our audible senses, and by the time we were five tracks in, we knew that this was probably the best Decemberists album we've heard since Picaresque (this point alone was highly contested). People say The Decemberists got back to their roots in this last one, but I honestly think they finally got a chance to get some breathing room and get comfortable again because it doesn't sound like Her Majesty The Decemberists, it sounds more folksy, but they lyrics hold sway, and I think that shines as to why they are bettter now than they were a decade ago.
4. Aloe Blacc Good Things
Mayer Hawthorne was good but not great this year, and really to be reiterating another Sharon Jones LP or neo-soul album from Daptone Records would be bias and cheap (both of which I often am). I cut out all my other soul picks because Aloe Blacc does it all in one. His thumps and beats are more saturated and appealing than all other freshmen attempts last year, and he makes some great fucking social statements (when I was laid off from my previous job, "I Need A Dollar" became a heavily rotated song for me). I hold true to the notion that social statements are really the largest and most important theme in soul music, and only a select few have done it correctly (Curtis Mayfield is perhaps the best example). Perhaps the most intimate (obviously) of any LP on this list.
3. Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
It's probably the nostalgia that gets me with this. I worked briefly at an anonymous retail position in which the title track was played over and over and OVER AND OVER again while I would be racking clothes, and the only thought I could think everytime I heard it was "posers". Not Fleet Foxes, they've already built enough steam to validate their medieval-folk schtick. I'm referring to most people. Like the hip predaseccors (The Strokes, Vampire Weekend, et. al.), they were prone to be completely fucked by public dissent. Fortunately, they remained almost entirely unscathed, and just as determined and focus as before. With their success the embodied a mentality we saw a lot of this year; the desire to be normal and interwoven.
2. The Black Keys El Camino
This was tentative on a lot of lists, partially because it came out so late in the year that most didn't have time to properly analyze it. However, I did. I'm amazed how after ten years since The Big Come Up, we've still got fanboys crying foul for something as "genuine" as their first album. Since El Camino came out, people have been driving comparisons to the origins of hard rock (although leaning closer to bands like ZZ Top than those as artisanal as Led Zeppelin, which I always envisioned instead of the further). I think it's the second best of the year because I've never seen a band from the previous decade pull off something both so engrossing (financially) that was so engrossing (muscially). A lot of stink came from the band crying fowl on the industry, and I think it was a little late to make such accusations, but they had a point, and subsequently a theme, to their new album; You too can make good music and good money at the same time.
1. Unknown Mortal Orchestra Unknown Mortal Orchestra
What a kick in the ass. Unknown Mortal Orchestra is like the upbeat younger cousin to some great Guided By Voices machine. It takes the best parts of its hazy fuck-around, but instead of kicking in some sadness, it drops a jam, and a stomp, and a hook. I found myself dancing like a fucking idiot to something you could barely make out the lyrics to. Tame Impala had a similar trance over me. Unknown Mortal Orchestra seems to have a great ability to pop a lot crisper than most which I think might be their greatest trait. If you removed the layers of reverb and fade, I would still enjoy listening to it.