Top 40 Albums of 2011 (20-1)

And then there were 20.  For those that have followed BDWPS.com all year (all two of you), you may see some entries on albums that look very familiar.  Instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, I decided to save myself time by simply copy and pasting my thoughts on the album from months past.  I hope this isn’t disappointing, but I am only one man and this hobby of mine can be a lot of work. Whatever way I can cut corners I will.  

And now, the Top 20 Albums of 2011…

20. Colin Stetson

“New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”

[Constellation; 2011]

The fact that I loved “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges” before even seeing Colin Stetson’s incredible live show assures me that my judgment wasn’t blinded by the experience. Probably because “New History” contains some pretty magical, innovative stuff.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything like what Stetson does here. I don’t even need to focus on the difficulty found in his abilities to play a saxophone riff endlessly without taking a proper breath AND singing with his howling vocal chords at the same time.  Impressive, yes, but Stetson also writes some brilliant songs, both mystifying and enlightening.

The album was recorded with dozens of microphones, located in various parts of the room and on different parts of his sax (including the innards). As a result, you are brought into an atmosphere never explored in music (to my knowledge): the belly of the beast; the heart of the saxophone.  The bass saxophone echoes and squeaks from within as the pads pound out a slurpy beat (spit valves are for wimps) while Colin’s constant circular breathing blows through the cavern like a chilling wind. This is an album for any kid in beginner band who ever wondered what it sounds like inside their instrument. The answer? Remarkable.
“The Righteous Wrath Of An Honest Man”:

19. J. Mascis

“Several Shades of Why”

[SubPop; 2011]

When I first got J. Mascis’s “Several Shades of Why” I didn’t expect much. Mr. Mascis without his trusty Jazzmaster and his wall of Marshall amps is like Samson without his locks. Or at least I thought as much. With all the distortion and guitar soloing gone, Mascis’s true strength is finally revealed: his songwriting.  Neil Young has said that all great songs should sound just as good without effects and Mascis proves this sentiment with 10 delicate songs of love and loss that are warm and welcoming.

With effects all but gone, a vocalist’s strengths or weaknesses are put right out there for all to hear. But as we’ve learned over the years, Mascis’s distinct croaking vocal style is strangely an asset. On “Seven Shades of Why” this is especially true with it being backed by the pairing of an acoustic guitar and strings (I can’t help but wonder if Mascis’s friend Thurston Moore had a hand or at least an influence on this album).  Don’t worry, Mascis guitar prowess is still on display, in this case, finger picking his way through one bittersweet ode after another.  Then again, one of my favorite moments on “Seven Shades of Why” is when Mascis’s guitar returns to the stomp box for a quick Dinosaur Jr guitar solo at the end of “Where Are You,” just a quick reminder that he still has plenty of Guitar God power in his back pocket if his long silver locks ever do get cut off.

“Several Shades of Why”:

18. Real Estate

“Days”

[Domino; 2011]

It’s no coincidence that the first song on “Days” is a song entitled “Easy.”  I can’t think of a better word to describe Real Estate’s music – it’s easy-going, it talks of an easy lifestyle, and sounds easily constructed. But there in lies the secret to the band’s success.  On the surface the songs seem pretty basic, but once you actually stop and try to deconstruct their craft you’ll find the intricacies hidden beneath the cheery reverb. They are the NBA equivalent of Tim Duncan, racking up a double double every night, unbeknownst to those watching or playing against him.

The real beauty of this album is found in the lyrics, an homage to small town life.  A common theme in rock and punk songs is the idea of escaping the clutches of small town, but Real Estate go the opposite route, wishing for a return to innocence.  Being a product of a small farm town in Iowa, when I listen to this album I can’t help but think of my younger days in the uncomplicated streets of my hometown, where doors were left unlocked and children were allowed to play after dark without fear of predators in the night. The aptly named “Wonder Years” speaks of the yearning for that same feeling felt with a first love, “Municipality” is a cry out to return to a simpler town, and “Green Aisles” speaks of the endless cruising done by teens up-and-down main street.  In the end, Real Estate make a case for small town living singing “our careless lifestyle, it was not so unwise.”

 “Wonder Years”:

17. Mr. Dream

“Trash Hits”

[God Mode; 2011]

Music critics are most commonly people who can’t play music themselves, or if they do, not very well. I fit into this category – unfortunately I’m better at writing about music than actually writing music (although I continue trying to shift the scales).  Mr. Dream are an exception to the rule.  Adam Moerder has been a contributor to the New Yorker and Pitchfork while Nick Sylvester has made his mark at the Village Voice and also Pitchfork. The two met in college while writing for the Harvard Lampoon. I know what you’re thinking – Harvard graduates who also happen to be pretentious music critics? Believe me, I didn’t want to like this album. I really didn’t. But damn it if “Trash Hit” isn’t one of the finest post-punk albums of the year.

One would suspect that the over-analysis that goes into being a music critic would tarnish their music, but Mr. Dream have obviously done their homework over the years, studying the greats (Pixies, Nirvana, Jesus Lizard, Big Black, Guided By Voices) and taking a dab from here and a dab from there to create their tribute to the indie greats of yore. But any schmuck with a guitar could ape a Nirvana song and call it nostalgia; Mr. Dream do much more than that. They’ve dusted off sounds of the past and reinvigorated them with an excitement and energy that a band like Yuck could only dream of.  Instead of simply causing one to remember their youth, the music on Mr. Dream’s “Trash Hit” will make you feel like you did the first time you heard “Doolittle.” And for a moment, you’ll fall in la la la love all over again.

“Holy Name”:

16. Jay-Z / Kanye West

“Watch the Throne”

[Def Jam; 2011]

Many would like you to believe that “Watch the Throne” is an album with the sole intent of glorifying riches, power, and fame. The title of the album and the golden cover art only further this misconception. You’ll hear lots of bragging, name dropping, and arrogance throughout “Watch the Throne,” but don’t be mislead. This album actually has a heart to it.

“New Day” is a four and a half minute reflection on what type of father’s these two friends will make.  With Jay-Z’s upcoming fatherhood, the song becomes even more endearing.  “Made in America” glorifies those than came before them with a chorus of “Sweet King Martin/ Sweet Queen Coretta/ Sweet Brother Malcolm.”  It also portrays a simpler time when little Jay-Z was begging grandma for apple pie and Kanye was promising his mother he’d make her proud someday.  “Murder to the Excellence” focuses on the rampant black on black crimes in the big cities of the United States, specifically Jay-Z’s Brooklyn and Kanye’s Chicago.  While many MCs still glorify violence, Jay and Ye take the unpopular stance that Bill Cosby got grilled for taking years ago, asking the people to look at themselves instead of placing blame elsewhere.  It’s a mature stance, and this is a mature album.  The elder statesmen are still flaunting their riches, yet they show compassion for those who support them. That’s more than can be said about King Richard I.

“Murder to the Excellence”: 

15. Bon Iver

“S/T”

[4AD / Jagjaguwar; 2011]

Let’s face it – Bon Iver’s music will never be the personal little hideaway that you once escaped to on “For Emma, Forever Ago.”  Once the obscure Wisconsin native who wrote a heartbreaking album in a secluded cabin, Justin Vernon is no longer in hiding. I once saw him perform in a small club in Austin – he’s now selling out theaters. He once sang alongside Sean Carey – he’s now performing with Kanye West. He once denounced the Grammy’s – he’s now nominated for four.  He once played bass for the Rosebuds – now he plays ad man for Bushmills.

No, this is no longer the little Wisconsinite that could; he did. So to expect another album of intimate, heartbreaking songs is asking a little much.  Don’t get me wrong, the same sentiment is found on his 2011 self-titled release, but he’s taken his falsetto choir into a more spacious setting.  While his last album was created in a cabin, this album feels like it’s more suited for the Sistine Chapel.  The personal touches are replaced by intricate musicianship.  The drums pound dramatic and orchestral at times. The contributions of phenomenal musicians like saxophonist Collin Stetson and string arranger Rob Moose help create an atmosphere that is larger than life.  This is no longer one man, but an army of musicians, helping portray one man’s vision. As Joni Mitchell once sang, “Something’s lost, but something’s gained.”  If Vernon had simply tried recreating what made him famous in the first place, we would all be calling him a hack. He had to leave the confines of his past and take his sound into larger environs.  The lyrics are also not nearly as personal as before, now seeming more abstracted and distant.  And therein lies the secret to this album. Yes, Justin Vernon has stepped out of the cabin for all to see, but by obscuring his message, he has found a refuge within himself.

“Wash.”:

14. True Widow

“As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth”

[Kemado, 2011]

On first listen, the trio of True Widow may not resemble Low and others of the slow core variety, but upon closer look you’ll find the same wall of ethereal droning as the back-bone of True Widow’s sound.  True Widow refer to themselves as a “stonegaze” band, yet the approach is the same.  Like a slow, dismal march through a storm, “As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth” trounces from track to track at a steady pace, always teetering on the verge of a distorted explosion that never comes. This is what makes this album so great; it works like a Henry Ford era machine, constantly turning and grinding away with Nikki Estill’s angelic voice countering the crunching sludge of Dan Phillip’s guitar work.  The combination is both terrifying and rousing, causing one to feel both depressed and inspired at the same moment.

Last year I couldn’t get enough of Quest For Fire’s “Lights From Paradise,” and in 2011 True Widow have continued this obsession with this plodding sound. Maybe I’m just going through a stone-gaze-phase and this album isn’t nearly as incredible as I find it, but I doubt it.

“Blooden Horse”:

13. Death Grips

“Exmilitary Mixtape”

[Third Worlds; 2011]

Not only is “Exmilitary Mixtape” the best rap album of 2011, it might be the most unique rap album of the past 10 years. Death Grips is the side-project of Hella drummer Zach Hill, and his mastery of the “unpredictable” surprisingly translates well to hip-hop with 48-minutes of nightmarish madness.  The beats are glitchy and jittery, the bass lines booming and foreboding, and the screaming vocals violent and cannibalistic: basically, it’s an Aphex Twins album for the world of hip-hop.

The entire album plays like a mix-tape (because it is I suppose) with each song blending into another vicious attack, resulting in a nonstop assault on the listener. Hill’s love of music is apparent with samples from all ends of the spectrum: Pet Shop Boys, Link Wray’s “The Rumble,” Black Flag, and even audio of Charles Manson. The use of the Manson audio to open the album is no mistake.  “Exmillitary Mixtape” resembles what is probably going through Manson’s head at this very moment.

This summer  first season I watched the entire season of “Game of Thrones” and as I revisited “Exmilitary Mixtape” for this list, I couldn’t help but thinking of Khal Drogo: savage, fiery, and sadistic.  Stretching boundaries like Tribe Called Quest did in the 90s, Death Grips could easily be called Tribe Called Dothraki.

“Guillotine (It Goes Yah)”:

12. Chad VanGaalen

“Diaper Island”

[SubPop; 2011]

Lo-fi is a term thrown around a lot these days in the music industry, but rarely is it accomplished without even trying. Chad VanGaalen’s “Diaper Island” isn’t intentionally lo-fi; the production value is up to the standards one would expect from  a SubPop record. Instead of trying to mask his sound in tape noise, VanGaalen goes lo-fi via another route – his instruments. You’ll find very few changes in terms of guitar effects or vocal stylings. Every song is soaked in a foggy reverb that comforts the listener amidst the solitude established.  VanGaalen relies on his songwriting to get your attention, not overdubbing and using samples.  The result is an album that seems pretty laid back and modest, and I guess it is. But it is also an album that is dense in memorable melodies and vivid imagery.

“Diaper Island” is not an album for an A.D.D. nation and I’d certainly not suggesting this as music for your next house party. It’s meant to be listened to alone where you can give it your full attention.  It certainly won’t wow you with its technical prowess; instead it will lull you into a calming dream world of melodic splendor.

“No Panic / No Heat”:

11. Bill Callahan

“Apocalypse”

[Drag City; 2011]

Truman Capote once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness approach saying, “It isn’t writing at all – it’s typing.”  I suppose he would have the same response to Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse.” I say this because of the album’s rambling lyrics that wander about like a Bedouin in the desert. Prior to “Apocalypse,” Callahan used themes as a scaffold to his stories; on “Apocalypse” his stories wander in search of a theme, sometimes never arriving at their destination.  This experience is often close to the heart with Callahan singing about his own confusions or channeling those emotions through his characters.

Callahan has never been one to follow songwriting norms, and on “Apocalypse” he has stretched his terrain to the unexplored. His songs are sparser, more personal, and more perplexing than anything he’s done since his days with Smog. He rarely aims to give us answers but puts us in his mind’s eye, giving us the task of trying to answer them ourselves. Whether its his personal story of seclusion as a musician on “Riding For the Feeling,” or his tale of a lonely cowboy on “Drover,” this is an album about the “Apocalypse” within; the endless, draining apocalypse of our heart and soul and how “ this wild, wild country/ It takes a strong, strong/ Breaks a strong, strong mind.” If that’s not songwriting, I don’t know what is, Mr. Capote.

“Drover”:

10. Fucked Up

“David Comes To Life”

[Matador; 2011]

In 2008 I placed the band’s “The Chemistry of Common People” in my top 10, saying that it saved hardcore. The band is back to their savoring ways, this time resurrecting rock n’ roll.  The riffs on “David Comes To Life” tear out the speakers with sharp edges that cut their way into your brain.  This is the type of riffage you’d find on a Bon Scott era AC/DC album, and the wall of guitar carnage is comparable to the multi-layered assault of Queen’s Brian May. Unlike May, who sat in a studio for weeks at a time recording a guitar over a guitar over a guitar, Fucked Up utilize three guitarists, often recording all together in one take. It’s truly teamwork at its finest with each guitar not simply backing the other up, but providing flourishes to fill the entire canvas. The result is a blue-collar rock opera.

Pink Eye’s vocals are the one piece in the band maintaining that hardcore sensibility, barking out one anger-laced tale of heartbreak after another. Unlike “The Chemistry of Common People,” this album never rests to take a breath. It is one backbreaking anthem after another for 80 minutes straight. As you’d expect, this can be a bit daunting, yet it’s totally fulfilling (if you can survive the Armageddon).  Any other band would have cut out songs or saved half of them for the next album, but Fucked Up aren’t like any other band.

“Ship of Fools”:

9. Snowman

“Absence”

[Dot Dash; 2011]

It’s depressing to think that this is Snowman’s last album, breaking up before it was even released.  At least we have “Absence” as a final testament of their greatness.  An easy approach to reviewing an album is comparing it to what has come before. Whether it sounds like Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” or Ziggy Stardust, the use of compare and contrast helps guide the reader toward what they are in for with a certain album. With “Absence,” my guiding light is, well, absent.  It is both brooding and sinister like Earth and Pyramids, but you’d be hard-pressed trying to find any distortion here. It’s filled with harmonizing, ghostly vocals, but it is far and away from anything resembling Bon Iver or Panda Bear.  It has the synthy pulse of Four Tet and Flying Lotus, but the drumbeats take more from tribal territories than dance clubs.  There is no need to pigeonhole it: this is Snowman; this is “Absence.”

The atmosphere of Snowman will have your mind reeling with visions, your heart beating with anticipation. The music within the album will transport you to a temple of both solitude and mystery. It somehow calms the soul, yet builds a tension within.”

“Hyena”:

8. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

“Mirror Traffic”

[Matador; 2011]

If you’ve actually read all the entries on this list (really?!), then you’ve probably already grown sick of references to Pavement.  I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m always searching for the next Pavement, although no such thing ever really comes to fruition. You would think the most obvious place to look for this replacement would be Pavement head man Stephen Malkmus, but after his last release with the Jicks “Real Emotional Trash,” I decided he’d moved on. While “Real Emotional Trash” was a great album of guitar thrashing fun, it wasn’t the snarky, deadpan Pavement fill-in I’d hoped for.  So imagine my surprise upon first listen to “Mirror Traffic,” questionably Malkmus’s finest songwriting since
Brighten the Corners”… okay, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I shouldn’t dare compare it to the greats, but there is no denying that “Mirror Traffic” is damn good.

It has all the ingredients that made Pavement so endearing: the slacker guitars, the dry, sarcastic vocals, and the silly intermissions that make every moment of a Pavement album so joyous. “No One Is” has the patient lope of “Wowee Zowee,” “Senator” has the bombast of “Brighten the Corners,” and “Asking Price” has the unpredictable twists and turns of “Slanted and Enchanted.” But don’t be mislead, this isn’t a Pavement’s greatest hits album; it’s Malkmus’s latest hits. Keep ‘em coming sir.

“Tigers”:

7. Fleet Foxes

“Helplessness Blues”

[SubPop; 2011]

The first time I heard the opening line to “Helplessness Blues” first track “Montezuma,” I couldn’t help but have an emotional reaction: “So now I am older / than my mother and father / when they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” A few weeks back a friend of mine on Facebook posted the exact same lyrics, and I wondered how many other aging drifters out there connected to Robin Peckfold’s tender lyrics.

I think that’s what makes “Helplessness Blues” such an incredible album. I’m not sure if it’s the lyrics, the guitar arrangements, or Pecknold’s serene voice, but I listen to this album and feel like it is a private, personal experience. The fact that thousands across the world are having that similar encounter tells me that this is more than a simple folk album. It somehow creates community through intimacy, if that makes any sense. I saw the band perform at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and despite the thousands of fans, it still felt like it was just me, the band, and the music.

I often listen to music too much with my ear, analyzing them more than necessary, but with Fleet Foxes, I listen with my heart. I can’t necessarily break down what they do that is so great; okay, I could (harmonizing, break-downs, etc) but I don’t want to. The songs stir up the nostalgia and regret felt with old age, yet for some reason I don’t find it to be a total bummer of an album.  Despite song after song of depressing tales, I sense in Pecknold’s voice a grain of hope. By the time the final track arrives, “Grown Ocean,” the narrator has realized that he can’t change his mistakes, so he continues on as the wide-eyed walker introduced on “Battery Kinzie,” always moving forward toward an unknown horizon.

“Grown Ocean”:

6. Andrew Jackson Jihad

“Knife Man”

[Asian Man Records; 2011]

2011 was a year defined by protests – Egypt, Libya, and of course those lovable Occupy folks. So it isn’t any wonder that one of the best albums of the year is Andrew Jackson Jihad’s “Knife Man,” an album of songs looking out for the 99%.  Songs like “No One” and “Zombies By the Cranberries” sympathize with the downtrodden, singing of our country’s “no ones” and how its hard to look out for the poor when you’re struggling yourself.  But it’s not just an album of feeling sorry for those down on their luck. Sean Bonnette and Ben Gallaty use their folk/punk/americana sound to fight the man whether it be saying  “Fuck God anyway” on “Gift of the Magi 2″ or threatening to “fuck the devil in his mouth” on the aptly named “Fucc the Devil.”   Heck, not even the sun is safe with the opening line of “Hate Rain On Me” when he sneers “I wish I had a bullet fucking big enough to shoot the sun.”  It doesn’t matter how large and powerful their enemy, this fearless duo will take them on.  They even take a critical look at themselves on “American Tune” singing “I’m a straight white male in America / I’ve got all the luck I need.”

But this isn’t simply an album of fightin’ the power.  The band’s poignant messages on how we treat each other are all expressed in a way that is sharp, witty, and down right hilarious (think Mountain Goats meet Okkervil River). And although they feel bad for the less fortunate, there are also moments where they express their own inner struggles and how it affects their art.  Despite the band’s ability to make you think and laugh, my favorite result of listening to “Knife Man” is its ability to make you feel.

“Hate Rain On Me”:

5. Destroyer

“Kaputt”

[Merge; 2011]

Last year on his EP “Archer of the Beach,” Dan Bejar included the song “Grief Point,” an eight-minute ramble about his confusion on the role of music in his life and the lives of his listeners. Fortunately he had one more album for us all to enjoy, and he’s made sure not to follow expectations.

While many artists draw their musical inspiration from 80s sounds such as new wave and post-punk,  Destroyer borrows from the most unpopular of 80s music forms – smooth jazz. Yes, smooth jazz: electronic piano plinks, cheesy saxophone solos a la Kenny G, echoed trumpets, and new agey synth walls fit for a massage parlor.  Rather than going with lo-fi which he perfected decades before it was cool, the songs on “Kaputt” are done in the most produced of all musical forms.

He’s not using the form ironically like Beck used funk for “Midnight Vultures.”  Bejar’s said in interviews that this album is about America, and if so, the smooth jazz form conjures up the 80s, a time of superficiality and indulgence, both prominent attributes of “Kaputt.”  Despite these two unsavory elements, Bejar has created one of the most honest albums of 2011 via one of the most superficial genres.   He sings with confidence on songs that will make you feel like you’re alone, roaming city streets in the fog at night in search of something: a taxi, another drink, or a long-lost love.  When he sings that “we built this city on ruins,” he’s not only playing off the Jefferson Starship song, but he’s also making a statement about the state of our nation today. As expected, Bejar is still writing tongue in cheek lyrics that are both amusing and insightful. Let’s just hope this isn’t the last we get from one of America’s finest songwriters.

“Kaputt”:

4. War On Drugs

“Slave Ambient”

[Secretly Canadian; 2011]

My obsession with Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring for My Halo” has been well documented here at BDWPS (more on that in a bit), so it’s no coincidence that another one of my favorite albums of the year came from his former bad the War On Drugs “Slave Ambient.”  The absence of Vile is difficult to discern thanks to Adam Granduciel’s ability to pick up the reigns. Both these 2011 albums feature a distinct distinct Tom Petty sound, which ironically, I never found to be distinct before now.  Yet there it is, the steadfast drum beats, the anthemic rock guitars, and of course, the crooning style that Tom Petty stole from Bob Dylan years ago.  And maybe therein lies the true influence; legend has it that Vile and Graduciel met at a party a decade ago and hit it off due to their shared love of, not Petty, but Dylan. The entire driving force behind The War On Drugs was to create a modern interpretation of “Highway 61 Revisited.”If taking Dylan’s harmonica, narrative lyrics, and nasal vocals then adding a wall of reverb and krautrock synths results in something that sounds like Tom Petty, than I suppose the comparisons are merited.

On the surface every song on “Slave Ambient” has that oh so familiar rock n’ roll pop song demeanor, but the lyrics and the wall of synthesizer drone constantly takes each song into a cozy, lush direction that is somehow, always unexpected. It sneaks up on you; enveloping you in a mist of disorienting proggy atmosphere.  It sounds like such a simple pairing, yet I can’t think of another artist who has so masterfully taken these two unique colors and mixed them so subtly.

“Baby Missiles”:

3. St. Vincent

“Strange Mercy”

[4AD; 2011]

In the past, I never had much interest for Anne Erin Clark’s music project. The bits and pieces I’d heard seemed to be the same old ho-hum, run-of-the-mill songstress affair we’ve heard before.  I didn’t quite get why the album “Actor” was so critically acclaimed.

This past year my ill-will toward the band all changed when I first saw their performance at the This Concert Could Be Your Life show, a 10-year celebration of Michael Azerad’s indie rock bible Our Concert Could Be Your Life.  St. Vincent chose to play Big Black’s “Kerosene” and the result was extraordinary.  Clark stepped onto the stage and ripped through a searing, caustic rendition of the classic song, transforming before my eyes from another Juliana Hatfield into an indie rock goddess worthy of sitting on the throne next to Steve Albini.  This one performance changed everything, or at least I thought.

Then, a few days later, like Dorothy walking from black and white into Oz, I had my moment of clarity. Incredible.  Simply incredible. The keyboards weren’t the mess I’d first assessed them as, rather a funky, Stevie Wonder era burst of adrenaline, taking songs of loneliness, uncertainty, and despair and making that agony somehow sexy.  The guitars were not simply random bleeps, rather perfectly placed accents on the vivid, haunting stories found in Clark’s lyrics. Oh, and to simply say that the lyrics are all doom and gloom would be foolish. Her narratives take strange twists that can be either ironic or funny (or both) all the while furthering a message that digs deep into your soul/mind/heart and makes you question everything.

“Dilettante”:

2. PJ Harvey

“Let England Shake”

[Vagrant/Island Def Jam; 2011]

One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t pay attention in history class during high school. I could blame my lack of historical knowledge on my mediocre teachers, but it is entirely my fault for being too preoccupied with girls, sports, and rock and roll.  Now, when in a discussion with others that pertains to anything in history (American or world) I find that I know almost nothing.

This lack of knowledge becomes even more frustrating when listening to “Let England Shake,” PJ Harvey’s intricate collection of songs about England’s history. The songs focus primarily on WWI, although the remnants of this war have apparently cast a shadow on modern Britain (this is an assumption based on PJ’s lyrics; not on anything I learned in history class).

I find myself listening to “Let England Shake” again and again due to its collection of memorable songs, each distinct in its own way.  And although I don’t know anything about the Gallipoli campaign, the Anzac trench, or Battleship Hill, PJ provides enough hints for even a dolt like myself to grasp the message within her imagery of  “a pile of bones,” “Deformed children,” and soldiers that “fall like lumps of meat.” The lyrics read like a book of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry.  Harvey creates a unique dichotomy by pairing her gruesome descriptions of war within high-spirited songs that range from reggae, pop, and folk.  As a result, the ugliness of war is anesthetized and treated in the same way it is in a textbook, revealing the facts in a way that is disconnected from those that lost their life.  In the end, that’s the message of the album; all the soldiers died so that the ideal Britain could live on, when ironically that British ideal is now dead itself.  I guess I learned something after all.

“Bitter Branches”:

 1. Kurt Vile

“Smoke Ring For My Halo”

[Matador; 2011]

For those that have followed BDWPS.com, “Smoke Ring For My Halo” was inevitably going to be the number one pick; it was a given. I don’t think I’ve connected with an album so personally since listening to Elliot Smith’s “Roman Candle” in college.

On the surface, Kurt Vile’s album doesn’t seem like much more than a collection of slow strum-bling and mumblings of a sarcastic, disaffected youth.  But this isn’t just some jangly, patch-work of songs; a closer analysis and you’ll quickly see that every song is intricately constructed within a lush, cave-like environ that only magnifies the creaks and buzzing of Vile’s acoustic.  While he seems all alone with only the ghosts of his band the Violators hiding in the background, the production hugs his vocals and creates an ambiance that is one part groove, and one part melancholy.  Much like Neil Young’s ‘On the Beach’ or Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ each song on ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’ is distinctly different, yet they all feel to be a part of the same world. It never feels like Vile is giving much effort, but don’t be fooled. This man is wearing his heart on each note captured on this album.

Vile’s lyrics also portray this feeling of indifference, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that there is a lot of pain being masked behind his nonchalance. For example, on “Ghost Town” he mumbles: “Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes / but I don’t pay ‘em any mind. / Then again, I guess it ain’t always that way.” Instead of a message facing adversity with “I will survive,” Vile’s lyrics convey a feeling of simply giving up and continuing his journey of “Sleep walking through a ghost town.”  These white flag mantras are throughout the album, whether it be giving up on religion, society, love, or life.

“Society Is My Friend”:

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110 Comments

Filed under Top Albums Lists

110 responses to “Top 40 Albums of 2011 (20-1)

  1. writerintherough

    Great post. A lot of this is music that I probably would never know about, but really like it. I have a hard time finding music that is unique and meaningful. I would say all these artists are both of those, even the ones that I didn’t particularly care for.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks a lot.

  3. I’m so stoked that you chose “Smoke Ring For My Halo” as number one. I instantly fell in love with this album this past summer. I’ll always love it. I saw Kurt Vile at Capitol Hill Block Party in Seattle back in July. Unfortunately the hipster elite of Seattle weren’t particularly welcoming to him. He was the very first person in the line up on the very first day. Nobody had yet taken the time to work the bugs out of the sound system and it sounded terrible. Kurt and the Violators ended up being the test run performance of the weekend. It was such a shame too because the sounds of that album envelope the listener in an amazing emotional sound-scape. Kudos to you for giving Kurt Vile the recognition he deserves.

    • android50

      Agree! A fabulous album by an incredible songwriter. I saw him in concert twice this past year and both times I felt the audience didn’t give him nearly enough love. I’m sure in a few years he’ll be much more well-known and appreciated. His recent “So Outta Reach” EP is awesome as well.

  4. Smoke Ring For My Halo by Kurt Vile is definitely my favorite album of 2011.

  5. rmv

    i know none of these albums, and i’m okay with that. i’m still waiting for someone to explain exactly what “talent” jay-z possesses.

  6. I’m not familiar with any of those, but I always like expanding my horizons, so I’m going to check them out. Thanks for the reviews. :)

  7. The video for Destroyer’s Kaputt was the most awesome thing I’ve seen in a long time.

  8. Fleet Foxes are amazing! I have helplessness blues in my car right now. It is the soundtrack to my life right now. ‘I was raised up believing I was somehow unique…..’ Bon Iver is quite wonderful too.

  9. Well rounded albums. I’m especially happy for Chad Van Gaalen, P.J. Harvey ( an all time fav of mine) and Kurt Vile. As for non-rap enthusiasts I say check these titles out and you might see why sometimes rap is good.

  10. This list is disturbingly devoid of Mastodon. The Hunter is a fantabulous album.

    • android50

      I’m a fan of Mastodon and have “The Hunter,” but I have to admit I only gave it a few listens. I guess I need to give it another chance.

  11. Great List! I’m glad to see a local Calgary boy on the list (Chad VanGaalen), and my choice for favourite album on their (Let England Shake). Half of these albums I haven’t listened to so I will have to check out the singles you put on. For some more ideas for great songs check out the list http://imveryape.wordpress.com/2011/12/31/the-best-songs-of-2011/

  12. Superb detail. Like some of the other commenters, I haven’t heard everything on the list, but your blog makes me want to do so. My take on the year is slighter, but we converged on “Let England Shake”. I’ve been listening to a few more 2011 albums recently and Bon Iver is definitely one that I’d now have on my list. I also really like an album another blogger recommended which is a jazzy album by Gretchen Parlato, called ‘The Lost and Found”. I’d never heard of it but think it is excellent.

    John

    http://sillzja.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/music-my-best-of-2011/

  13. Hello..Interesting perspective. I have heard Dylan’s work described as ‘magic words’…for he could paint a metaphoric image..or one of true image..pass it along and find a moral. His simplest and also deepest, in day to day life was ‘John Wesley Harding’. His earliest works are all I know to play, arrange and sing. ‘Forever Young’ is a wonderful, albeit simple song. Dylan, yes, was attempting the impossible. He was trying to show something true to a world created by politics and money. At least put those thigngs in perspective.
    An old friend and I discussed the possibility of ‘propeganda’ concerning Bob Dylan, right even down to was he a ‘hired gun’? Not seriously now but those were extreme times. Too soon for his message as does happen many times with artists. Even at that..the world, comprending or not, validated his work overwhelmingly. He wss awarded a Phd at a young age..even with a knowledge of Dylan I read the book ‘Down the Highway’ by H, Sounes. Found some interesting ommissions. Peace Tony

  14. Hello..I apologize for the typos..Peace Tony

  15. I did a list too, I like yours as well. I wish I had time to write a small synopsis like you though :(

  16. Red Toenails

    Only heard of one of the albums. I’m so out of the loop.

  17. Love this post and your blog. Great recommendations here, very diverse. I would like to follow your blog, but I don’t see a follow button anywhere.

  18. StrangeLittleGirl Photography

    Nice to see a top album list that doesn’t include Adele LOL She’s great but there is a lot of other music out there. I was pleased to see PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, I feel like I’m the only person in my life that got into the album…all my friends and family continue to wrinkle their noses. It has a special atmosphere to it, like an old movie for your ears. I loved the videos Seamus Murphy put together for the songs, it just made the whole experience even more beautiful.

  19. EllieAnn

    Oh excellent taste, I like your style. I believe every one of these should be in the “best of 2011″ list.
    My favorite is not in the list. I adore The Decemberists The King is Dead. I can’t get enough of it.

  20. VLovesElvis

    Thanks for the heads up–I’ve heard some of these, but most not. Check out “A Winter Tale” by Bobby Long. He’s wonderful.

  21. Glad to see the Colin Stetson album on here. I guess I am missing something with the Kurt Vile disc. I only really got in to “Baby’s Arm”, the rest kinda sounded bland to me. Maybe I am getting old…..
    On the FF “Montezuma”, it seems like a lot of people connected with those lyrics which to me ultimately made the album more appealing.
    Anyway, great list. We have a few similar choices, but mine is only 10

    http://firstorderhistorians.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/cals-best-of-2011-best-albums/

  22. The wonderful thing about WordPress Blogs, especially those chosen to be “Freshly Pressed,” they take to places of knowledge one would never thought of exploring.

  23. Christina

    Lots of new music I would love to check out :)

  24. Thanks for this. Introduced me to lots of unheard music, well worth listening to . What a wonderful opportunity this web thingy is. Amazing.

  25. Pingback: photON 2011 «

  26. Kaiwin

    I totally agree with your taste in music, love Fleet Foxes!

  27. Great list. I was just in a fancy 5 star hotel in Thailand in the club lounge surrounded by suits, the background music was forgettable MOR comilation but suddenly a track from the J Mascis album came on. It was very weird.

  28. Wow! So many fabulous sounding artists/albums for me to explore… I have not heard a lot of these before. Fleet Foxes and Jay-Z/Kanye- totally agree! Also, check out MICHAEL KIWANUKA… retro soul to make you swoon… love your blog!

  29. Thanks man, I agree with a lot of the posted Artists that I did know- and have found a lot of new ones through reading. I agree about Fucked Up saving hardcore but haven’t heard that release, so I’ll have to listen to their vigilante antics saving rock n’ roll this time. Like the poster above me; I love The Decemberists “The King is Dead” it is perfectly written and flawlessly put together. If you haven’t yet, you should give it a shot.

  30. This is a super great list, some new ones thanks!
    Check my 2011 list… :)

  31. A great selection of music and the Kurt Vile tour last year was great. As was the Sarabeth Tucek tour and I would add her album “Get Well Soon” .The Fleet Foxes are a band I beleive could grow huge this year.

  32. Very cool list! Thanks for the new music inspiration!

    Cheers!

  33. I miss the days of going into cd stores and spending hours just listening to all kinds of music

  34. not a bluegrass album in the bunch…maybe top 40 alternative and pop albums but not a one made my list…well i dont really have a list, so i’ll just hush now…interesting read though and found some albums i will definitely hunt down and hear…and no Tom Waits?!?!?!

  35. nice compilation of the list.

  36. never heard any of them. not likely to either. although ‘desolation row’, ‘visions of johanna’, and ‘sad eyed lady of the lowlands’ are three of my all time favorites.

  37. Good list, I can honestly say I only know 5 artists here. But am glad to have some new ones to discover!

  38. Great list. Good choices and some albums I don’t know to check out. Take a look at me and my bands top picks of the year too – http://justlikepictures.co.uk/?p=567

  39. Ben

    A good list. All these things can do is reveal an album that may have missed. My contribution is Anna Calvi’s self-titled album. It’s beautiful and the perfect accompaniment to ‘Let England Shake’.

  40. plenty of stuff to check out there *****

  41. lookathimnow

    Thanks! I’ve enjoyed going through your list.

  42. This is a pretty stellar list, even if I haven’t heard several of the albums listed. Nice work!

  43. stockedfresh

    I like this taste, I’ll have to check all of these bands out.

  44. Great post. you gave me a lot of stuff to check out (and at the perfect time too, i was getting so bored of my collection)
    check out my year in music list… tell me what you think.

    http://wp.me/p1FrNQ-i9

  45. capedconstablecaleb

    Now I want to listen to so many new albums! What I love about the end of a year and all these lists is not places or statuses but finding new music I missed throughout the year. Thank you!

  46. Thanks for sharing…Some of them have such good album covers :)

  47. First time here – won’t be the last. I’m always looking for new music and am looking forward to giving some of these a listen. Gotta follow you – thanks so much!

  48. Watch The Throne was my favourite album of 2011. <3 Since then I have downloaded nearly all of Jay Z's albums. And I am a massive, massive fan of Ye.

  49. Andrew Jackson Jihad eh? The great review helped, but the name alone makes me giggle with curiousity. Thanks for airing out some new names!

  50. Great choices, my friend! Excellent post!

  51. Pingback: Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs | A Troika

  52. Great list, my fav there would be War on Drugs. Great blog! If you have a moment please visit my music site, I too did best of 2011 http://alternativeworldspin.wordpress.com/

  53. Great job on the list… Some really interesting (and diverse) stuff here–liked Bon Iver, Snowman, Death Grips and St. Vicent most. [also, I'm about to buy a Fucked Up download right now. :)]

    I don’t think I believe Andrew Jackson though. lol

    Keep up the great work. ;)

  54. Some great choices. Fucked Up is awesome I love your description of their album and Kurt Vile is a nice choice for #1. I love how warm it sounds.

  55. I’ll second the Anna Calvi suggestion. Loads of stuff on here that I haven’t heard though, like the way you’ve not stuck to one genre (or even five!).

  56. Tragically I have only heard of two of these albums.

  57. Pingback: Top albums of 2011…according to this person. « A New Covenant

  58. mzanita

    A unique list with lots of albums I hadn’t heard of yet. Love PJ, she’s in my top three of the year as well.

  59. bacchus713

    As with many replies, I haven’t heard many of these bands. But looking at the reviews of bands I do know, I realized I’m in the right place to discover new music. For those of us who aren’t blessed with a good college radio station are forced to find “good” new music wherever we can. Thanks for keeping my ears happy for weeks to come.

  60. neilzyeung

    Great list! Fucked Up released one of the best of the year, even if I didn’t love it as much as “Chemistry of Common Life.” It’s such a sprawling work-out of riffs… Would make a much better concept rock-opera than “American Idiot” =P

  61. wow! i sadly don’t know any of this albums/musicians but i love finding new music! i’ll look out for them, i really liked the sound of “Society is my friend”
    thanks a lot for the post!

  62. A lot of these artists I had heard of before, but I discovered a couple new ones. I’m always thankful for a post about new music, I’m always looking for some!

  63. Great blog! I may be new at the whole blogging thing, but I know exceptional writing when I read it. Your Bon Iver review? Probably one of the best I’ve read, and I’ve read a few, including my own. Love the fact that you’re succinct and delve into the heart of the matter without all the rambling. Keep it up; and I am so glad I found you. Several of your choices I’ve never heard of and I like that because it keeps me digging; and things stay fresh that way. Peace.

    http://mittenmouthmusic.wordpress.com

  64. This is a fantastic list! Thank you for taking the time. You can view my top 10 of 2011 below.

    http://mattjaderston.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/top-10-albums-of-2011/

  65. epic list! and so much downloading to now do in 2012!

  66. loulougardner

    Love, love, love Bon Iver, but I think PJ Harvey is very over-rated.

  67. Nice list. Since you are interested in the sidetracks of modern music I recommend you Dutch singer-songwriter Blaudzun. You can listen to all of his records on Spotify.

  68. Thanks for taking the time to write…T

  69. Eva McCane

    so glad i checked this blog out! i’ve had intentions of downloading some new music but haven’t had any direction. this is a great help!
    http://www.icouldntmakethisshitup.wordpress.com

  70. Great top list! Greetings from Poland:) ~b69s

  71. hazeyjane119

    Jay-Zed? Can Ye? Are they in there just for a laugh? All the others, yes. but.. WTF??

  72. Thanks for your sharing. These song are lovely

  73. Pingback: Max Barry–”Max reviews the classics: Mary-Kate and Ashley #20″ (maxbarry.com, 2004) « I Just Read About That…

  74. reneeabaker

    Hi: Perhaps you’d like to write about my project to discover the next great American author? View project details at: http://rkthb.co/5083

  75. Thanks for introducing new music into my day!

  76. The Self-Taught Writer

    What about Hurry Up We’re Dreaming by M83? that album is amazing! deserves number 1 for me if not the top 5.

  77. Pingback: Music I listen to Andrew Jackson Jihad (my new addiction) « Rays music blog

  78. Where do you find your music???? Your like an earthworm for underground-esque artists. Haven’t heard of the majority of these people, and that excites me.

  79. Well done there. As a DJ it’s great to get people’s opinions on great music. Some of this I have to admit to never even hearing of so I look forward to investigating further. Thanks alot.

  80. In regards to your PJ Harvey section where you say you don’t know much about history, I suggest as a writer you start reading and learning about the subject. It provides a lot of context for things not only in music, but in all aspects of life. Nice blog

  81. Watch The Throne is the best album of 2011. Nice post buddy!!!!! Keep up with great blogging brother.

  82. Finally someone didn’t make a list of the Cliche’d albums. So great!

  83. elizabethweaver

    Thank you for this well considered post!.

  84. Josselin Morales

    I was personally very disappointed by the fleet foxes album…. but Watch the throne is AMAZING!!

  85. WOW! Nice work! I am excited to listen to them all! THANKS!

  86. Great list. Love seeing Fleet Foxes on it. They took it to the next level w/ their 2nd album.

  87. This is a great list! I know the majority of them but there are some I’ll have to check out. Even after having 5 of my friends “Best of 2011″ you still have some I’ve never heard!

  88. Hi there would you mind letting me know which hosting company you’re working with? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 different internet browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most.
    Can you recommend a good web hosting provider at a honest price?
    Thanks a lot, I appreciate it!

  89. Pingback: Matt Bonner – Our DIY NBA Hero | Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs

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