Of all the different forms of media I have consumed in the past year, music was right at the top. (Well, probably podcasts were first and then music. Comic books round out the top three.) A lot of it was finding things that I had missed out on – Sufjan Stevens’ albums, Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Anamanaguchi, Fitz and the Tantrums, and the much-beloved M. Ward, for example. But some of this year’s music was actually from this year, and some really struck me.
I do want to note that three rap albums – Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, Childish Gambino’s Camp, and Das Racist’s Relax – were all considered for this list, but each missed the cut for different reasons. I really enjoyed Watch The Throne, though not to the same degree I liked Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and certainly not to the degree the gravitas of the project seemed to demand; that said, it’s probably number 6 on the list. I’ve only heard the first half of Camp so far, though it’s pretty damn good. Finally, Relax didn’t seem to jive with me as much as Das Racist’s first mixtape, Shut Up, Dude, did – it wasn’t the kind of album where the rapping was particularly remarkable, at least not as much as their debut.
With that said, here’s my five favorite albums of 2011:
5. Alabama Shakes – Alabama Shakes EP
I belabored quite a bit over including this on the list, because it’s only four tracks, but the Alabama Shakes’ debut is the kind of production where you want the band to get back into the studio and record a full album right now. Band leader Brittany Howard has an incredibly emotional, powerful voice – and some pretty substantial guitar skills (as seen here), to boot – and the country-rock band works really well together. The Alabama Shakes have the talent to be pretty big in the next couple of years.
My favorite song on the EP is the second track, “I Found You”:
4. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Bon Iver reminds me of how ridiculous the Grammy Award for Best New Artist has become. Among this year’s field for the award are The Band Perry, whose hit single “If I Die Young” was first released in June 2010 and whose album squeaked in under this year’s Grammy purview by only a month; Skrillex, whose third solo album came out this year (to be fair, it is kind of awesome that a dance music artist like Skrillex was nominated – I suppose the only thing more surprising than that would have been for Girl Talk’s album All Day to have been nominated for a Grammy); and Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver, which began in 2008 with For Emma, Forever Ago, an album that received fairly widespread critical acclaim.
In any case, Bon Iver’s second, self-titled work is a remarkable shift from For Emma. Now featuring an actual band (instead of Vernon shacking up for a couple of months in a Wisconsin cabin, writing and multitrack recording), Bon Iver furnishes a fuller sound, but not without the emotional resonance For Emma exuded. Surprisingly, Bon Iver gave the band a slightly more melancholy sound, but still flecked with a few moments of happiness – a formula that has given Vernon a great deal of success.
Favorite songs on the album: “Holocene” and “Wash.”
3. Wilco – The Whole Love
I spoke fairly at length regarding Wilco’s latest effort, The Whole Love, in this blog post.
Favorite song on the album: “Art of Almost”
2. Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do
I also spoke about neo-Motown artist Mayer Hawthorne’s second album, How Do You Do, this time in a video on AccioNerds.
Favorite songs on the album: “A Long Time” and “Dreaming”
1. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
Much like last year’s choice for favorite album, Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid (an album that with a little bit of time may end up among my top favorites for all time), Tune-Yards’ (I’m going to forgo the crazy capitalization here) second album is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. And while with Monáe, I’ve had a point of comparison (I generally describe her as James Brown, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and David Bowie thrown together and put into a tux), Merrill Garbus stands very much alone in Western music. With 40 minutes of Garbus’ almost hypnotic drum and vocal looping; the very welcome addition of a horn section (creating a much fuller sound compared to Tune-Yards’ debut album, Bird-Brains); dark, occasionally off-putting lyrics; and Tune-Yards’ eccentric – and to some, equally off-putting – sound and rave-esque, glow-in-the-dark look, w h o k i l l was made to be either a tough pill to swallow or a great treat, with little to no ground in between. Fortunately for me, listening to w h o k i l l has been a truly unique, truly wonderful experience.
Favorite songs on the album: “Es-So” and “Bizness”