Amidst a year filled with financial uncertainty, political hurdles, and overseas turmoil, a plethora of fantastic albums arose. We had the much awaited Jay-Z/Kanye album, some rookies returning with highly anticipated sophomore albums, and some oddballs that seemed to come out of nowhere. Assigning a number rank to any album is a tedious task in itself. We could sit and debate why one album is one rank higher than the other for hours. To avoid that whole process I have listed my top albums of 2011. They are in no special order.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Pains) won me over early with their self-titled album some months ago. They excel in creating a gritty, stripped down, muddy sound that is laced with simple, cheesy lyrics. Belong expands on this sound even further by making great use of former Smashing Pumpkins producer, Mark Ellis. If you are fan of the Smashing Pumpkins then you are familiar with their grungy, almost torn distortion that reigns throughout their entire catalog. Ellis helps the Pains create a similar sound of their own that further adds depth to contrasting sounds of a dainty synthesizer and over-simplified drums.
Highlights: “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now”, “Strange”, “Belong”.
Destroyer – Kaputt
Don’t let their name fool you, Destroyer is just one of many recent bands to bring back brass instruments to indie. The main weapon of choice, the saxophone, livens up the album and makes for great relaxing background music. Mixed into the ensemble are perfectly placed warm guitar solos, along with some variation between backup singers.
Highlights: “Chinatown”, “Savage Night at the Opera”, “Kaputt”.
tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
Other than experimenting with the most annoying way to type a band/album name, Tune-Yards experiment with the vocal limits of lead singer, Merrill Garbus. Her voice can create such differing sounds that I was convinced there were two singers until seeing them live. This isn’t an album you can easily sit down and listen to all the way through. Experimentation, again, is rampant as Garbus seems to be searching to create songs that defy the status quo of predictable chorus/verse transitions.
Highlights: “Bizness”, “Powa”, “Gangsta”, “My Country”.
Panda Bear – Tomboy
Panda Bear and Animal Collective have quickly rose to near superstar status among the indie world. As true pioneers of our time through their unique collaborations of experimentation I’ve come to expect a lot. Panda Bear’s last album, Person Pitch may be one of the best albums of all time. Again, the hype was at full force. As I listened to the album a couple times through during its original release I was disinterested. It wasn’t until on a 10 hour plane ride that I tried giving it a second chance. From that point on, Tomboy was playing on my iPod constantly for weeks. The best songs are always the ones that grow on you and this album is full of them. Panda Bear is getting even better at creating multi-layered harmonies that further expand his voice and talents as a singer. Not to mention the instrumentation throughout this album. You can’t have one without the other. The vocal tracks twist in and out of syncing with melodies in a way that creates a perfect symbiotic dependence.
Highlights: “Last Night at the Jetty”, “Afterburner”, “You Can Count on Me”.
Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation
If you’ve seen my Youth Lagoon album review you already know that I adore this album. Not only do the upbeat singles beg to be listened to, his slower more complex songs consistently keep this album in my queue. For more on this album, check out my review here.
Highlights: “Cannons”, “July”, “Afternoon”, “17”.
My Morning Jacket – Circuital
I’ve always been a content fan of MMJ. Not including one of my all time favorite albums, Z, my support for MMJ has been minimal. Yes, it’s hard to deny that “One Big Holiday” is a fantastic song, as is “Magheeta”. However, their albums are usually riddled with just as many filler tracks as stellar ones. This is where Circuital holds the edge. From front to back this album has no filler. They are all solid rock songs with the signature My Morning Jacket crescendo to a killer guitar solo aplenty. Seeing this band live gives you even more respect for their studio albums. As much as Circuital captures in the recording, seeing the same tracks live put these musicians on a new level. They love to perform, and they love to impress.
Highlights: “Circuital”, “Holdin’ on to Black Metal”, “First Light”.
Neon Indian – Era Extrana
As much as I love Neon Indian, his first album left me with an unrealistic expectation of his follow-up sophomore attempt. Though this album is still very song and attempts to evolve the chillwave genre, some parts fell short for me to push this up to the ‘top album’ tier. ‘Polish Girl’ may just be one of the best songs released this year, but only a handful of others come close to the same caliber.
Highlights: “Arcade Blues”, “Polish Girl”, “Hex Girlfriend”.
The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
I still really love this album, but after going through it several times, I still have trouble telling each song apart. They have that sort of relaxed, smooth, alternative sound that is easy to listen to but at the same time never seems to jump out at you.
Highlights: “Best Night”, “I Was There”.
Yuck – Self Titled
As an old time grunge lover, it’s hard not to like Yuck’s debut album. They capture the unpolished sound that was pioneered here in the Emerald City. While some tracks focus on the heavier aspect of the garage-band sound, others are more refined and feature oddly catchy melodies. Personally, I prefer the heavier side of Yuck, although there are a few slower jams that still make it on my playlists.
Highlights: “Get Away”, “Operation”, “Holing Out”, “Georgia”.
Overall, I wanted this list to highlight some of the lesser known artists that deserve a little more attention. There were plenty of other albums that could have easily joined this list, however, we have three more top lists coming and I’m sure the other writers won’t skip a beat on giving credit where credit is due.
Thanks for looking. Let me know what you think in our comments section.