What is a New Year without Best Albums of the Previous Year lists? We’re sure you’ve seen more than enough already, and from zines with more clout than we have, but we think our list is one of the best of the year. Below, read a little bit about each of our Top 30 Albums of 2011 (plus a few honorable mentions), and head over here to see our Top 100 Songs of 2011.
The list was culled from eight different staff members’ personal lists (all of which you can see in the last tab) using a straightforward system that rated each album based on where the writer ranked it. A modifier was then added based upon how many lists the album appeared on. Alongside the artwork, artist, and title, we’ve included a link to our review of the record, a few sentences about the album to titillate your interest, and a stream of a track off the album.
We had fun compiling the list and we hope you have fun reading it. Enjoy!
-Jordy Kasko, ed.
When VH1 finally released I Love The 90s, I was ecstatic; Yuck’s self-titled debut gives me the same feeling. Oh, how I miss the angsty vocals, distorted guitar and grungy style of my youth! And Yuck takes me right back — it’s filled with subtly catchy songs that combine punk rock, grunge rock, and pop-rock with the beginnings of indie rock (all the best genres!) — all grounded in two decades, a combination of the sounds of the ’90s and of the ’00s. “The Wall” and “Georgia” are warm and fuzzy while “Operation” and “Suck” are lo-fi and murky; however, it is the moody pop-rock of “Shook Down” which highlights the album. Yuck’s debut is clearly influenced by the past, leaving the question of what will happen to them in the future — perhaps “Shook Down” and one-off single “Milkshake” are the answer. Nevertheless, Yuck is a delicious throwback to when being a moody teenage wallflower was the cool thing. The sunny-sounding angst is executed sublimely; Yuck let the past shine through in a way that is joyfully reminiscent but not painfully repetitive — a grand accomplishment in a time when many musicians are falling short while attempting to emulate the past. -Jessie Manire
Stream: Yuck – 6 tracks from Yuck
After four outrageously epic, high-concept albums, it appears that the most daring thing that Georgia’s Mastodon could do is make a straightforward rock record. That may have been their intention, but nothing is every straightforward with this psychotropic metal quartet. After 2009’s jaw-dropping Crack the Skye, there was little room for the band to go upwards (they travelled to space, hell, and Tsarist Russia in the album’s crazy back story), so they have spilled sideways instead. The result is The Hunter, an album built on contradictions and a sheer lack of common sense. This breed of eccentric, obtuse metal is quite the fashion these days. The American sludge metal scene is crammed full of bearded men with kaleidoscope eyes and a Neurosis-sized chip on their shoulders, but no-one does it quite like Mastodon. They continue to make killer albums full of inventiveness and manic vitality that is damned hard to match. The Hunter is a summary of everywhere the band has been over the past 12 years and everything they have been in that time. The only remaining question is, where to next? -Ricardo Kerr
Stream: Mastodon – “Curl of the Burl”
I’m discovering a new love for R&B thanks to the progressive, experimental adventures of Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd. The Toronto-based singer owns a smooth, emotive, soaring voice to complement his skills composing dramatic, dreamy contemporary R&B. After he exploded onto the scene with the moody “What You Need” early in the year, he released a wonderful mixtape in March entitled House Of Balloons. His second offering, the unannounced nine-track Thursday, bears many similarities to House Of Balloons: the number of tracks, the 50-minute playtime, the memorable buzz singles (in this case, our Song Of The Day-ed “The Birds (Pt. 1)” and “Rolling Stone”), the foreboding, sexy soulfulness. Together, they are a pair of mixtapes that shouldn’t be missing from your iTunes under any circumstances at the close of 2011. -Jordy Kasko
Album Streams: The Weeknd – House of Balloons and Thursday
I spent four years talking about nationalism in both history and literature courses, so I’m goddamn prepped to deliver a 10,000 word diatribe on this album and its portrayal of war (specifically the Great War, where “soldiers [fell] like lumps of meat”) and England (“Goddamn Europeans/ Take me back to beautiful England,” for example — and the British press loved it). But I’ll spare you the pain, because no matter how much Let England Shake stamps and limps through British folk music (quite the contrast from Polly Jean’s last piano-based album), the xylophones and autoharp tell their own story. It is a complex one based not just in the nationalist English mythos, but on worldwide influences that show through during Harvey’s music and lyrics alike; for the album’s true focus, war, affects all societies, regardless of their nationalistic tendencies or whether they can chant “Oh America, oh England.” “Not one man has, not one woman has/ Revealed the secrets of this world,” Harvey asserts on “In the Dark Places,” but she seems to understand the secrets of England, and she reveals them through chants, out-of-tune bugle parodies, the zither (“On Battleship Hill”) and the violin (“England”), and a sense of Englishness that looks back much more often than it looks forward. It’s not always pretty, but then again, neither is war — or nationalism. -Jordy Kasko
Stream: PJ Harvey – “The Words That Maketh Murder”
Low have been around since 1994, but chances are you’re either a huge fan or the name barely sounds familiar. Releasing their 9th album, every one on an indie label, the band have been labeled “slowcore” for most of their career, despite the fact that — well — they’re just a mellow rock band. Subgenre overkill can make anyone sound cool, but C’mon is more than just a genre: it’s one of the band’s least experimental albums to date, swapping innovative tendencies for husband-and-wife duets with soaring melodies and a storytelling sensibility that moves from Hold Steady-on-heroin (“Witches,” “Done,” “$20″) to an utterly morose Cyndi Lauper (“Especially Me,” “Nightingale”). But their most moving moments reflect the reason they’re on a label called Sub Pop — “Try to Sleep” and “You See Everything” play with folk, classic rock, pop melodies, and Low’s entire back catalogue. It’s quite a tender sound, and most tender on the heartfelt 8-minute “Nothing but Heart.” -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: Low – C’mon
There are many ways to judge an album’s worth, but one of the potentially most revealing is to answer the question “did the creators accomplish what they intended to and hoped to accomplish?” In the case of Danger Mouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi’s spaghetti western soundtrack, the answer is a loud affirmative. Rome‘s music reflects its origins: recorded in a city with millennia of history on dusty analog equipment, its soaring strings, plucky Mediterranean guitarwork, medieval choirs (Cantori Moderni), and tinkling bells come together into an album that sounds as rustic as it does emotionally relevant, as melancholy as inspiring, as tender as it is harsh — as shoot-em-up as it is peaceful vineyard.
But a movie is nothing without its stars, and the cast of two in Rome is the perfect duo. Danger Mouse and Luppi could not have chosen better than Jack White and Norah Jones, two artists whose bluesy vocals and emotive lyrics are as authentically vintage as they are fresh. Each singer gets three songs apiece, and the rest of the startlingly short 35-minute album (seven minutes per year!) is reserved for nine instrumental tracks, three of which are one-minute interludes. But both singers milk their performances for every lira (ahem…euro) they’re worth, with White mourning that “it’s just you and me against me” as if he were truly facing down his archenemies in “Two Against One,” and Jones crooning that she hopes she doesn’t “wind up on [her] back” in during “Black.” The music of Rome isn’t so much an album, per se, as it is an experience; it is best listened to in its intended order. -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi – Rome
On his most stripped-down release to date, traveling singer-songwriter Cass McCombs comes across as a Nick Drake or an Elliott Smith, set up in a classy lounge and asked to entertain for 47 minutes. Blues, soul, jazz, world — they’re all present here, from the frail falsetto of the heart-and-soul chorus of “County Line,” a highlight, to the jazz piano of “Saturday Song” and the instrumentation of the 9.5-minute finale, “A Knock upon the Door,” which juxtaposes elements of a Renaissance fair with baroque instrumentation and a slight flamenco feel. “Memory Stain” is even more baroque, featuring lachrymose harpsichords (bet you didn’t know they could be lachrymose!) and Brahms-like piano. McCombs is not so avant-garde as he is proficient in the entire history of Western music. It’d be easy for such heartache and experimentation to come off as pretentious, but McCombs is as genuine as they come. -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: Cass McCombs – Wit’s End
One day in my ninth-grade music class, the teacher organized us into groups of about five people with instructions to create polyrhythms. He explained the African tribal origins of the polyrhythm and then set us to work; about twenty minutes later all the groups had come up with something and we moved into the auditorium to perform them. They were very bad – don’t blame us, we were only 14 – but I think most of us got something out of it. Little did I know that what I learned so long ago would apply specifically to this record, the second LP from New York City trio Battles. What makes Gloss Drop remarkable is its attention to polyrhythms in all the compositions, as well as its refusal to adhere to conventional pop meter and cadence. Battles are the band that everybody in my class had in mind (though they were hardly a band at that point): such complex, stimulating rhythms are rarely found in music today. “Dominican Fade” is perhaps the best example on this album of a traditional polyrhythm that builds and builds, incorporating more instruments with their own unique beats as the song progresses.
Discussing composition further, time is also a major component here, as many of the songs lurch in and out of irregularity. Another element used to great effect is counterpoint – in fact, it might be the band’s defining characteristic. If one really considers it, counterpoint is just polyrhythm with actual notes; in many of the great Bach pieces the bassline moved independent of the melody, as did many masterworks by other baroque composers. Therefore, though it is odd to label Gloss Drop “baroque,” the claim is much more accurate than many of the albums critics tend to label “baroque pop.” -Alex Hall
Album Stream: Battles – Gloss Drop
For my money Tom Waits is one of music’s greatest storytellers. Every tale of barroom saints and hookers with hearts of gold draws the listener one step closer to believing that they have seen these things. When Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year he left us with a strange pearl of wisdom: “They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with… like it’s a bad thing.” In the wake of this enigmatic comment arrives Waits’ seventeenth album, Bad as Me, a difficult album that will most likely yield no hits. The seven years since his last proper studio album (the impeccable Real Gone, which was followed by the three-disc odd-and-ends collection Orphans in 2006) have done little to dampen his prodigious belly fire. He can still play an angel when called upon to do so, but he plays an even better devil.
Tom Waits is the ideal archetype for musicians who want to get stranger (and cooler) as they age disgracefully. Bad as Me is more ballad-heavy than most of his post-2000 albums, with songs like “Last Leaf,” “Kiss Me,” and “Back in the Crowd” holding prominent positions. On these tracks his sweet sentimentality is so infectious that you can’t possibly say no to them. These moments of tenderness make the rip roaring rockers that much more potent. Any fan of Waits has long been anticipating this album and it will not disappoint. It is a well-known fact that bluesmen never die (look at BB King and Chuck Berry), so Tom Waits still has plenty of good years left in him, and I can only wonder where and when we will next meet. -Ricardo Kerr
Stream: Tom Waits – “Back in the Crowd”
26. Blink-182 – Neighborhoods
If you were a disenchanted, restless teenager when you found Blink-182 and are still a disenchanted, restless adult, this album may find a home with you. Balancing arena-worthy choruses, soaring alternative rock songwriting, emotive and personal lyrics, a punk defiance, and a disillusion with the world, Neighborhoods may not be Blink-182′s most raw, fresh, and loud release to date — but it may very well be their most complete. The band have grown up while staying young and relevant, and listening to the album for the tenth or twentieth time, I can’t help but stare at their name until it becomes meaningless. It’s only after I succeed that the name “Blink-182″ can start to take on the qualities of Neighborhoods and become redefined in my head. -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: Blink-182 - Neighborhoods
The sophomore release by this Swedish artist raised eyebrows with its unabashedly direct songs: from the melancholy, space-filled acoustic “I Know Places,” with its slide-guitar outro; to the tense, badass background of “Get Some,” where Lykke Li doesn’t spare words: “I’m a prostitute/ You gon’ get some.” While she may indeed be speaking of power rather than sex, the song loses none of its charm. Other tracks like “Youth Knows No Pain,” which combines the same bass drumming with ’70s psychedelic rock, and “I Follow Rivers,” which rocks melodies worthy of old Britney material over chant-worthy African instrumentation, ensure that this 10-track album doesn’t waste any of its 41 minutes. American female-fronted pop rarely bares itself like this. -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
As if the band name’s eccentric capitalization wasn’t enough to scare you away before you ever heard their music, the album title might make you wonder which investigatory owls are crawling around tUnE-yArDs’ second album. The thing is, “investigatory owls” are the least weird image that this album invokes. And despite the fact that it sounds like a British guy wetting himself artistically, tUnE-yArDs is the project of one Merrill Garbus, of NEW England. Merrill’s medley spans British sirens and lyrics about “Rastas” with random hooks inserted (“Gangsta”), falsetto jump-rope power-pop (“Powa”), quirky soul-pop (“Killa”), and fake electronically-enhanced bird sounds providing the background to acrid vocals and ridiculously catchy hooks (“Bizness”). And remarkably, the album works. Sure, it’s not something you’d want to play for your grandmother — or, for that matter, anyone who currently thinks you’re sane — but it’s the cutting edge of weird fetish-pop (the fetish being anyone’s guess) for 2011. And, as a matter of fact, it’s one of the year’s wackiest, kinkiest releases. -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
Parallax is the new album from Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox. His solo project, Atlas Sound, has usually shown a stripped-down, lonely version of Cox compared to Deerhunter: the album covers for 2009′s Logos and 2008′s Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel both show a naked, vulnerable Cox with his face shielded by a blinding white light. On his third album as Atlas Sound, Cox still mourns love and loneliness, but he does so in a more confident and upfront manner, as represented by the album cover — Cox’s face is shown up-close and unaltered by photo editing, half of it obscured by shadow.
Whereas on older Atlas Sound tracks Cox’s vocals drowned behind oozing, ambient sonics, on Parallax he lets his voice shine on top of more poppy melodies and hooks. Cox’s knack for writing a memorable song shines most on “Mona Lisa,” a track that was previously released with a number of other demos on the Bedroom Databank series. Here, and on most of the tracks on Parallax, Cox explores his vocal range. Cox’s experimentation with his own voice is most successful on “Te Amo,” where he plays high-pitched vocals against floating instrumentation, creating a beautiful contrast and making his voice seem like an instrument on its own. -Jessie Manire
Album Stream: Atlas Sound – Parallax
On their spectacular pair of 2011 releases, jangle pop/noise rock group Dum Dum Girls show maturity in their lyrics and in singer Dee Dee’s vocals. Kicking off with the He Gets Me High EP in March, the first track (“Wrong Feels Right”) immediately presaged a great year for the band with its 2.5-minute blast of distorted pop and self-awareness. Capping off with an all-too-fitting cover of The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” one of our favorite cover songs of the year, the EP delivered four tracks that made many fans impatient for an album. Amazingly, Dee Dee captured a soul on fire even better six months later on September’s Only in Dreams: when she belts “I don’t know/ Where to go/ To get away from this sorrow” on “Heartbeats,” it is utterly heart-wrenching. “Coming Down” shows the Dum Dum Girls on a completely new playing field; at 6.5 minutes, the song is twice — even thrice — as long as most of their others. Its slow beginning and sorrowful crescendo make it a ballad unfitting for the faint-hearted.
Only in Dreams and He Gets Me High are pieces of art. They recreate an experience and the feelings therein for those who choose to really delve into them. The songwriting on the albums (along with the stronger vocals and devilishly delightful guitar parts) prove that the Dum Dum Girls are here to stay. In a world of bedroom-pop girl groups, Dum Dum Girls have the ability to dive past their genre’s jangly, adolescent surface into a world of emotional complexity and sadness that we can all relate to. -Jessie Manire and Jordy Kasko
Stream: Dum Dum Girls – “Wrong Feels Right”
Album Stream: Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams
The Black Keys’ seventh album, produced once again by Danger Mouse, is stuffed full of playful songs like rockin’ lead single “Lonely Boy.” There are literally too many excellent tracks to mention. “Gold on the Ceiling” sounds like an authentic relic from some 1969 compilation, like the darling sweaty bastard child of The Animals and Canned Heat. You cannot go five minutes without encountering an absolute barnstormer. Just try and listen to “Run Right Back” without developing a serious case of shimmy-and-a-shake in your dancing shoes. It rides a guitar line that would make Keith Richards proud as punch. Even the quiet, contemplative numbers like “Little Black Submarines” are heavy in their own way — the song explodes at the halfway point. This does cause a few minor problems, though: on any other album “Money Maker” or “Sister” would be considered excellent songs, but on El Camino they suffer from being put between two even better songs.
El Camino clocks in at a tasteful 38 minutes, long enough to get your money’s worth but not so long as to be tedious and full of filler songs. This carefully-chosen brevity makes the listener hungry for more. which is the sign of an excellent album. You always want to keep the people coming back for another helping. And who can blame them? I cannot recall the last time I heard an album with so many killer guitar riffs that make you want to get your James Brown on. Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney have hit an exceptional mid-career stride that many would kill for. With rumors of more solo albums to come, as well as another Blakroc hip-hop album in the works, the future is certainly bright for this endearing pair of jokers. -Ricardo Kerr
Album Stream: The Black Keys – El Camino
20. Feist – Metals
Metals is natural, simple, and surreptitious. If something can be both stealthy and simple, would not its simplicity be hidden? If it is not immediately simple, is not the greatest joy recognizing its simplicity? While Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock is an apt analogue to Metals, it was complex by pretending to be simple, whereas Metals is first, last, and always a pure, virgin, and simple album. There are raw pleasures in this record: the riff in “The Bad in Each Other” is sublime, the delight in navigation of “Caught a Long Wind” is unadulterated, the cross-eyed first notes of “Anti-Pioneer” are wonderfully strange, and the padded footsteps in the studio morphing into the beat for “Undiscovered First” is beautfully clever.
The singles for Feist’s last three albums are indicative of Metals’ evolution. “Mushaboom” wryly incorporated a Canadian town into an indie pop number, and “1234” was rather off-kilter for a song with such a memorable melody, but “How Come You Never Go There” [read the review] employed time changes, alliteration, and assonance with surprising venom, and without so much as a chorus for the listener to grab onto. Perhaps Metals is more like Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden than Laughing Stock, then, because we are starting to see Feist’s aesthetic shift gradually rather than all at once. Still, many could see this simplicity as mere laziness, and as such it will be as divisive an album as The King of Limbs was for Radiohead. Both albums attempted to purify their limbecks, and I think both succeeded. Metals is a statement, though: where The King of Limbs showed Radiohead didn’t have to reinvent themselves to make a good album, Metals showed Feist at her finest because she reinvented herself. This record is among the best of the year, though it is much too modest to let you know. -Alex Hall
Stream: Feist – 4 tracks from Metals
This is by far the coolest hip-hop album of the year; Pitchfork loved it, it avoids choruses and hooks, it was released on Sub Pop, and it’s very, very, very sub-pop. If you want woozy, experimental, educated hip-hop, visit Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler’s latest effort. It’s not easy, it’s not pretty, it won’t appeal to many music fans — but tracks like “Recollections of the Wraith” and “Swerve… the Reeping of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)” show a talented, ambitious, and minimalist rapper who isn’t going to settle for anything less than idiosyncratic, personable, unique tracks. -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
French for “royal road,” Rue Royale are a folk/pop duo, a husband-and-wife team named Brookln and Ruth Dekker. He hails from St. Louis, Missouri, while she was raised in Staffordshire county, England. The Anglo-American lovers originally based their music in Chicago, but recently relocated to Nottingham, England — a wise choice considering the lively British neo-folk scene, and the fact that Americans seem to have a fetish for any music they perceive to be British. The duo released a wonderful self-titled debut in 2008 and continue to grow as songwriters on their most recent release, Guide to an Escape, incorporating increasingly varied song structures and volumes. The opening salvo of tracks are among the best Rue Royale have written, beginning with the piano-led crescendo of the title track (a lovesong doppelgänger to Mumford & Sons‘ opener “Sigh No More”) and ending with Ruth tearing her own heart out on “Flightline,” which The Tune named Song Of The Week in June.
As the album proceeds, the duo spell out their own Guide to an Escape, a cairn to mark their wanderings — Brookln guesses that he’s “Meant to Roam” and ends up hiking hand-in-hand with Ruth even though he “still [hasn't] got a clue of what is food or foe”; elsewhere, the duo sing of “buildings made of stone” on “Foreign Night,” philosophize that “truth and time walk hand in hand” (if you walk too, can you find truth in time?) on “Crater,” and reminisce in a duet about their younger, foolish years on closer “The Search and Little Else,” which moves forward by looking back: “In my younger years I thought I had for myself/ An answer for everything …/ And in the wilderness I often ran like hell/ Never to let give in: I’m for the search and little else.” Wiser men than myself have posited than true happiness is achieved not by reaching a goal but through the search itself; Rue Royale seem to have reached this conclusion on their own, and when they humbly relate it to you in words that you can sing and melodies that you won’t forget, you might finally accept it yourself. -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: Rue Royale – Guide to an Escape
On their third album, Smother, Wild Beasts — a British band led by countertenor Hayden Thorpe — move even further towards the poetic history of their home in the Lake District. No longer is their music as “ugly” as it is elegant — now it’s just elegant. The sexuality is as naked as ever, but it is the sensual, voluptuous sexuality traditional to soul and R&B music, not the lascivious, carnal sexuality of the strobing, sweaty club. “Bed of Nails” is this album’s answer to “This Is Our Lot” — it replaces the excited pronouncement “I couldn’t be more ready” and the quick stroke of the guitar (do I really need to remind you of Prince’s phallic silhouette?) with throbbing, intimate basslines and lines like “surround me like a warm bath.” It would be a sickeningly sweet statement if it weren’t followed by “I want my lips to blister when we kiss.”
But even when Wild Beasts turn wilder in their thoughts (“you plug the hole in void,” “you shove my body from the skin,” “whose wholesome heart bobbed down on me?”), there is an overwhelming sense of intimacy, like Thorpe is singing to a lover, not a hook-up. “I take you in my mouth like a lion takes his game” is one of the first lines of the album, but Thorpe’s quivering, tender vocals (Antony Hegarty but less douchebaggy) are sung over a piano and — yes! — a pulsing synthesizer. And there there’s “Plaything,” the album’s orgasm, which penetrates the dulcet notes of the dominating line “you’re my plaything” with the incessant bass-snare hits of Nine Inch Nails‘ “Closer.” The song never reaches ejaculatory climax, however, saving that moment for “End Come Too Soon,” where Thorpe mourns the inevitable end of intercourse.
Finally, there is the poetry of Smother, which alludes to the Lake District’s history. “Albatross” is a breathtaking letter to the ornithologic omen from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” while “Bed of Nails” uses Mary Shelley’s (another Lake District visitor) monster from Frankenstein in a literary nerd’s new favorite metaphor: “when our bodies become electrified, together we bring this creature to life.” Wild Beasts have created an album that is as sonically poetic as it is lyrically poetic, that is as sensual at its soul as it is in its execution. It is smoother than their two former albums, possessed with a quiet tension that permeates its 42 minutes. It is an album worthy of the love that will be made in its presence, and an album that represents the poetic history of the Lake District. And more than anything it is an album for all of us who have a wild sexual beast inside, but express it through our gentile and loving actions. -Jordy Kasko
Stream: Wild Beasts – “Albatross”
As you plod through the ups and downs of existence, don’t you sometimes wish there were a soundtrack created just for you and each episode of your life? Well, The Rosebuds (Kelly Crisp and Ivan Howard) have made their own. From the very week they were married, when they formed the indie power pop group The Rosebuds, their music has provided a soundtrack to their relationship — a decade-long episode in their lives which, presumably, is the most important and life-changing thing that has ever happened to both of them. Their albums chronicle their marriage, from the carefree power-pop of 2003′s The Rosebuds Make Out to the discussions of families, children, confronting the world together, and confronting the first issues of their relationship (“Hold Hands and Fight“) on 2005′s Birds Make Good Neighbors. And in 2009, a year after Life Like‘s release, the two split up, deciding to remain together as a band despite their failed relationship. It is this storyline — a moving, relatable one — that inspires the band’s fifth album (and hopefully not their last), Loud Planes Fly Low.
Make no mistake: like Fleetwood Mac‘s classic release Rumours, it is a break-up album. Lyrically, the timeless themes of the end of love are the same: blaming oneself, desperate attempts to resuscitate what’s died, wondering about the future, regretting the past. The difference is the sounds — where Rumours was consistently upbeat and major-key, Loud Planes Fly Low focuses musically on the melancholy and stark sadness that Rumours only touched upon briefly. There are no “Don’t Stop“s here, no “You Make Loving Fun“s. Instead, it is an album born of dark nights and long days, and it takes influence from indie pop, new wave, and Night of the Furies– the only Rosebuds album that bests it.
As usual, Ivan dominates the lead vocals, but Kelly’s mezzo voice appears consistently, singing alongside Ivan and taking the lead on one song, the standout “Come Visit Me.” It is a beautifully lachrymose disco tune, featuring one of the most pitifully poignant lines The Rosebuds have ever written: “I need something to happen now, even if it fucks me up.” Ivan reciprocates with two acoustic numbers, “Without a Focus” and “Worthwhile”; evidently he wept as he sang the latter. And no wonder, as lines like “We could go on wishing all our lives/ I would go on wishing we did it right,” and “Though you’re here, I’m still alone inside” paint a tragic picture of the end of the couple’s relationship.
As you can see, the lyrics are the focus of Loud Planes Fly Low. And no wonder, for both Ivan and Kelly have a lot to say. For five albums, they’ve allowed their music to express their relationship, and even in divorce, they need it in order to express their feelings in a way that no other medium can so fittingly. These five albums have created a soundtrack for the couple’s relationship, from beginning to end, and it is very nearly worthy of a movie for that soundtrack. If you’ve gone through the end of a decade-plus long relationship, you may find many of the feelings on this soundtrack familiar, and love the album for it; if not, allow the words of maturity, experience, and sadness to speak to you, and hope you never understand what it feels like to sing “We overlooked it every day/ A thing of beauty, it just went away.” -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: The Rosebuds – Loud Planes Fly Low
15. Cults – Cults
In early March 2010, a three-track EP hit the internet hard, led by a Best New Music rating from Pitchfork for the sunny glockenspiely indie pop number “Go Outside.” At first the band was a mystery, but as information began trickling in and Columbia Records signed the two with barely one live performance under the belts, the EP’s background was revealed: it was written by a Manhattan duo, Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin, who attended NYU and made music for their friends. And thanks to the magic of the internet, the anti-social duo (infamous by now for avoiding the public eye and admitting they’re uncomfortable with their newfound popularity) recorded an entire album before their band celebrated an anniversary.
And what an album it is. Cults is a startlingly professional debut from a couple of NYC nobodys, an album that is infinitely more insightful and complex than its 3-chord structures and lilting melodies imply. If not Album Of The Year, it’s at least Album Of The Summer– a fitting soundtrack to those all-too-short days by the pool, cruising with the windows down, or sipping a cold alcoholic drink. -Jordy Kasko
Stream: Cults – “Abducted”
I was ashamedly oblivious to the hype surrounding Blake’s February release, but it put me in a unique position because I came in blind. There is a certain mystery to James Blake, regardless if you’ve heard it twenty times and are acquainted with the English producer’s back catalog; thus it was even more of an enigma to me on my first listen. Eventually, I did look into two of Blake’s older works, EPs entitled CMYK and Klavierwerke.These EPs have been used as ammunition for critics who disparage Blake’s lyrics and songwriting, as they are entirely instrumental electronic pieces, but I see them as a logical progression to the unfurling of a greattalent. For instance, CMYK’s “Postpone” shows the same understanding of syncopation Blake would later utilize on his LP, and its crescendos are reminiscent of those on “Unluck.” Klavierwerke is the first time Blake uses his vocals, however sparingly; furthermore, the title track and “I Only Know (What I Know Now)” are perfect exercises in time and silence, two elements that have come to define James Blake.
The self-titled LP is a synthesis of these qualities, but it is also an improvement upon them. The “Lindisfarne” polyptych borrows heavily from CMYK’s “Footnotes,” but the former track achieves a warmth the latter never could, as it contrasts Auto-tune with a surprisingly organic guitar sample. The vocals hinted at in Klavierwerke now form the most dense instrumentation on the record, for entire songs live and die by Blake’s meticulously orchestrated choral arrangements (“Measurements”). And the beat is always there, even if it is as subtle as a tape click on “Why Don’t You Call Me?” Sure, he could always flesh out his songwriting (though I think the minimalism of the record is one of its most endearing traits), but if James Blake applies himself, he could very well become one of the defining talents of the decade. -Alex Hall
Stream: James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”
Chillwave won’t last forever, and Chazwick Bundick (coolest name in music) knows that as well as anybody. Which is why he broke the “genre” wide open on his second full-length, the groove-heavy Underneath The Pine. The tracks — only nine non-instrumentals — are coated in sticky, like they’re all one inch under a layer of honey. Though this is somewhat due to the excellent production and liberal reverb, the missing ingredient on Bundick’s last album plays a big part: the songwriting. His choruses are understated earworms, from the bass-driven falsettos of “Still Sound” and “Got Blinded” to the addictive “New Beat” to the album’s terminal track, “Elise,” the consummate funky lovesong. “Knew this was always gonna happen/ In the breaking down when I thought I would have it/ Now I can be fine looking at your smile,” Bundick emotes…and then you realize that he’s only 24 and he’s got a hell of a future ahead of him. Fuck chillwave — this is just damn sticky pop music.
The first proper follow-up to Pine, the Freaking Out EP, doesn’t vary from the Pine formula — a smart move. Of particular interest is strutting opener “All Alone,” which moves like Pine‘s “Still Sound” but fills in each open space with snappy synths. Bundick has a talent for making a busy song sound streamlined, and his organized chaos also stands out on “Saturday Love,” a cover of a 1985 R&B hit by Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal. The five-minute original is whittled down to four minutes of cake-layered sweetness and synthpop, but it somehow maintains the suggestion of R&B elegance. Awash in production that is as balmy and aqueous as a lagoon, Freaking Out is still purely a summer album, and between these two releases, Toro y Moi had a wonderful 2011 and deserves the high spot on this list. -Jordy Kasko
Stream: Toro y Moi – 2 tracks from Underneath the Pine
Stream: Toro y Moi – “All Alone”
12. Adele – 21
Big-voiced British soul artist Adele blew into the music scene in 2008 with her debut album 19 but didn’t quite break the barrier to America until her release of this year’s 21, an album titled simply as an homage to her growth since her debut. And how could an album not be amazing with help from producer Rick Rubin and collaborators including Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic), Jim Abbiss, and Francis “Eg” White. Most of the content deals with the heartbreak and loss following the explosive end to a relationship with a longtime boyfriend (who recently has tried suing for entitlement to the profits garnered); however, the content never loses taste, and manages to bring Adele’s pain, regret, and loss to life without being angsty. Suggested listening if you’re not into jamming the entire album: “Rolling in the Deep,” “Rumour Has It,” “Turning Tables,” “Set Fire to the Rain,” “I’ll Be Waiting,” and “Someone Like You.” -Michelle Thompson
Video: Adele – “Rolling in the Deep”
As its title suggests, the opening track on Real Estate‘s latest album, Days, is an “Easy” listen. Its gently swirling and seductive sound makes it a great listen for a relaxing, introspective autumnal day. A touch tighter and a notch neater than their 2009 debut, Days paints a nostalgic picture through coming-of-age themed lyrics and carefully created melodies. The opening line of “Easy” presents the album’s theme: “Back when we had it so easy/ I would surrender completely.” This sentiment reoccurs throughout the album and is helped along by instrumentation that is precise and at times mimics jangly guitar parts of yore (think ’60s surf rock and ’90s college rock). The circling guitar parts and swooning sounds dominate the listen, as the vocals are mixed back; Real Estate’s instrumentation is so enthralling that I barely noticed that “Kinder Blumen” marched by sans lyrics. Days takes over a listener’s mind. We can all relate to the thematic concept of this album, as we all sometimes long for the simplicity of the past. The track “Green Aisles” states what we all have thought at some point: “Our careless lifestyle, it was not so unwise.” Real Estate may be imagining an ideal past, but they are also making the best of their musical present. Days has an emotive, cohesive, and strong theme that is backed by beautifully complex yet subtle and lulling sounds. -Jessie Manire
Album Stream: Real Estate – Days
Everything about this album is huge; nothing is humble. These are two artists self-tasked with “watching the throne” — why? Because “a nigga gotta watch the throne.” If you want a deeper explanation than that, well, you probably won’t enjoy the album. Hov and ‘Ye spend 12 tracks (16 if you get the easily-attainable deluxe version) bragging, name-dropping sports stars and cars that cost more than your house, “taking it to the stars,” philosophizing about the black man in modern America — for an album written by two rich guys that is ostensibly a celebration of being rich, Watch The Thronecovers a hell of a lot of material. And the important part is that it does so with flair — a flair that no other artist quite reins in. The Throne make it their bitch. Isn’t that watch Jay-Z and ‘Ye have always been about — making music their bitch?
And they succeed, if only because they posture so insistently and skillfully that the listener simply has to assume that they’re correct in taking the “throne” of rap music for themselves. There are moments of introspective brilliance, such as the opening track “No Church in the Wild” (which we recently declared Song of the Year) and the double-sided “Murder to Excellence,” and there are moments of indulgent, enjoyable tracks that are high on wit and low on substance (“Lift Off,” “Niggas in Paris,” “That’s My Bitch,” “H•A•M”). Both sides of the coin are worth your time, and they provide an interesting bipolarity to Watch the Throne that makes it all the more listenable. Even if you’re not a fan of rap, this isn’t an album to miss. -Jordy Kasko
Stream: The Throne – “No Church in the Wild (ft. Frank Ocean)”
2011′s Codes and Keys does not take the band down many paths they didn’t explore on Plans and Narrow Stairs — even the foray into reverb-heavy U2 arena rock on “You Are a Tourist” was heralded by “Marching Bands of Manhattan” and “Cath…” — but instead, Gibbard refines his staircases into elevators, mounting each song as if it were an empty skyscraper waiting to be furnished. Each of the 11 tracks is meticulously crafted, and each second is used to its fullest extent; also, for the first time, a Death Cab album is tracked perfectly. The result is possibly the strongest — and definitely the poppiest — in the band’s seven-album arsenal. Rawness has found its way into even the most radio-friendly of the band’s past pieces, but now that rawness has been channeled and controlled.
But what about the songs as standalone pieces? No, you’re not going to find songs about following your lover into the grave; no, stalker anthems and bird metaphors are absent. Gibbard has walked out his front door, “unlocked and open,” and seen “so many possibilities to not be alone.” His lyrics are less abstract and more concrete, and they confront love in the absence of God (“Unobstructed Views”), allowing Mother Nature to heal the wounds of the past (“Underneath the Sycamore”), poetic interpretations of grand architecture as a vain endeavor for afterlife (“St. Peter’s Cathedral”), and glances into the lives of “Some Boys” that “don’t know how to love”…which, despite, the third person, feels quite autobiographical. Codes and Keys is a pop-rock masterpiece. It could well be argued that Death Cab have released 44 straight quality album tracks, something only a handful of bands in history have accomplished. Pop-rock has a new figurehead, and it’s Death Cab for Cutie.
Stream: Death Cab for Cutie – 5 tracks from Codes and Keys
On “Love Like a River,” Christopher Owens admires a girl because “She’s as free as heaven on a breeze” — and that is an apt description of the varied musical styles on Father, Son, Holy Ghost. A list of comparisons or influences would be lengthy and imprecise; though you may feel as if you’ve heard each note of the album before, it’s only because Girls nail the production, songwriting, and overall aesthetic of the ’70s so closely that it invokes feelings of déjà vu. ”Saying I Love You” is a shared mojito on a summer afternoon, “Vomit” is an epic gospel rock masterpiece, “Just a Song” flits through its seven minutes like a pop-song butterfly, “Magic” and “Honey Boney” are jangle-pop at their finest, “Jamie Marie” is an acoustic ballad, and “Die” roars with a blues-rock intensity that filters Led Zeppelin through “Helter Skelter” and tops it with a taste of Ronnie James Dio. The miracle is that despite all these diverse styles Father, Son, Holy Ghost never feels awkward or choppy. It almost plays like the world’s most perfectly-tracked greatest hits album.
The most interesting quality of Father, Son, Holy Ghost is that one of the reasons it’s so good is that it’s so bad. ”Just a Song” whimpers like an overwhelmingly cute pet, the gospel singers on “Love Like a River” are almost too predictable, and there’s a song titled “Honey Bunny,” for god’s sake. But Owens pulls it all together with his unstoppable charisma, his passionate performances, his dirty charm, and his ability to turn a platitude into a brand-new discovery. The geniuses among us realize that clichés are overused because they speak to experiences and emotions shared by an entire culture — and they utilize those universal concepts to their fullest. So while Father, Son, Holy Ghost feels familiar, it isn’t trite. In fact, it just may be the best classic rock album in decades. -Jordy Kasko
Stream: Girls – 4 tracks from Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Sam Beam decided to challenge himself with the new Iron & Wine album. He decided to make “more of a focused pop record [that] sounds like the music people heard in their parent’s car growing up…that early-to-mid-’70s FM, radio-friendly music,” rather than another mostly-acoustic folk adventure like his previous albums. But Kiss Each Other Clean isn’t merely a ’70s throwback record; it’s a folk-indie pop-lyrics-centered ingenious wunderkind that happens to recall the sweet melodies of a time when there wasn’t yet a War On Drugs or a 9/11 or an Internet. It is a mash-up of genres, influences, and ideas; and it follows in the next logical steps from the more pop-friendly moments of Shepherd’s Dog. It dances between doctrines like an unstable government, one minute describing lovers’ nostalgia in “Tree by the River” and the next reminding the world that “a pig has to lay in its piss” on “Rabbit Will Run,” which is lyrically the strongest track on the album – and possibly in Beam’s entire catalogue.
After epic closer “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me” (which we recently named the second best Song of the Year) works itself to a cacophony and finally rests on the straining, incomplete notes of a saxophone, you have to sit and take in the song – as well as its message of unfinished vitality – with an air of humility. There is always something else to “become” – hell, even Sam Beam might have a better album somewhere inside of him – and that is an important lesson to remember. Not to mention that there are only a handful of people in the world who could ever write an album that touches the human condition as gently and as skillfully as Kiss Each Other Clean. -Jordy Kasko
Stream: Iron & Wine – “Walking Far from Home”
This is without doubt the biggest album of the year. I’m not talking popularity — I’m talking scope, sonic magnitude, the ability to pump the body & soul so full of the power of music that, gorged like a balloon, it floats away towards heaven. Florence and Co. only showed flashes of this potential on Lungs, and now that it’s realized, I think it’s safe to say that Florence Welch is the closest to a female Bono that we’ll ever hear. Ceremonials is filled to the brim with 56 minutes (over only 12 songs) of some of the most epic pop-rock you’ll ever hear. While Michelle Thompson called it an “aural tempest,” it seems much more organized to me, much more deliberate. When I listen to Ceremonials, I hear a call to the gods of music, a gospel hymn to rock that is as joyous as it is beautiful. Every single song, from the crescendo of first single “What the Water Gave Me” to the Sarah MacLachlan-on-steroids of “Never Let Me Go,” is a momentous occasion for filling every corner of the room — hell, every corner of the world — with music.
But that’s Ceremonials‘ one weakness. Every song asks for all of your heart, all of your brain, all of your courage — none simply let you sit by the side of the yellow brick road and enjoy the scenery. Granted, it’s not Florence’s goal anyway, but it’s hard to swallow 12 straight monstrously huge tracks. The album seems to take itself a little too seriously, and it could’ve benefited from some of Lungs‘ self-awareness and variation. But that’s a very small criticism in the face of an album where every single song is sculpted so skillfully that it seems to have no crack, no weakness. The music is hopeful and moving as it floods your ears, while the lyrics are emotional and abstract enough for anyone to sing along and feel that the song was written just for them. It’s an essential album of 2011, and I will be listening to it for years. -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: Florence + the Machine - Ceremonials
Animal Collective member Panda Bear’s last effort, 2007′s highly-acclaimed Person Pitch, was one of the most difficult (and simultaneously rewarding) albums of the ’00s. But this time around, Lennox forgoes the experimental electronics and ambiguous vocals. Instead, the artist became a singer-songwriter, laying aside his synthesizers and picking up a guitar in order to compose the tracks on Tomboy. Once written, he sat back down in front of a computer and added layers upon layers to the album, creating a final product in which there are very few guitar-like sounds — but the pith of the album remains pop songs, written on a guitar. Gone are the 12.5-minute romps through flowery aural fields; Tomboy is all about the 4-minute, hook-filled, dynamic composition.
The result is an album that pulses tangibly with color, with intensity, with luster. It leads the listener through an intertwining tale of swirling sonic sorcery, echoing with pop trademarks even as it emits creativity from every corner. “You Can Count on Me” opens the album with a 2.5-minute masterpiece that fills its own fissures with incomprehensible mutterings and appetizers of futuristic noise, but the song barely feels over when the percussion and highly-distorted (yet gentle) guitar of the title track “Tomboy” take over. The next track, “Slow Motion,” is something of an M.I.A.-meets-Vampire Weekend moment, featuring an unstoppable groove and electronically-enhanced vocal leaps over the carelessness of a sunny pop song. There are elements of the chillwave fad here too, although it may not be the “hip” thing to point out.
And when Tomboy occasionally dismantles the pop, the album doesn’t miss a beat, nor does it provide any throwaway interludes. After the addictive “boom-boom-boom-clap!” of “Last Night at the Jetty,” the aptly-titled “Drone” draws out each of its notes in long threads, sewing together the pattern of a dreary-yet-comforting hymnal on a church organ. The final chord, held for 1:25 (over a third of the song!) is positively erection-inducing — which may be somewhat inappropriate for a “hymn.”
After the wintry gusts of closer “Benfica” withdraw back into hibernation, Tomboy’s 50 minutes seem like the ghost of an album, and they have haunted me with their beauty ever since. The album isn’t worth the perfect score that Merriweather Post Pavilion receives, but Panda Bear has created one hell of a piece of art. Whether or not you consider it pop — and whether or not you have some sort of stigma towards so-called “hipster” music — this is one of 2011′s required listens, as it deftly combines modern trends in the indie world with sacrosanct rituals of mainstream music from the last century. And it does so just as indie music is breaking into the popular arena with undeniable force. -Jordy Kasko
Stream: Panda Bear – “Last Night at the Jetty”
We have only ever known Bon Iver as Justin Vernon, the former member of DeYarmond Edison who holed up in a cabin in northern Wisconsin and wrote For Emma, Forever Ago on a guitar. It was Vernon’s record, and Bon Iver was merely a moniker, much like Beirut was once just Zach Condon. In the wake of his success, Vernon was passed around from one indie act to another, appearing in albums by All Tiny Creatures and Lia Ices, as well as his Volcano Choir project. The culmination of this was his role in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a record that opened up entire new avenues of exposure for him. Therefore, everybody who knew Vernon thought they knew Bon Iver.
But Bon Iver is not simply Justin Vernon anymore. It’s bigger than him now. The ideas and thematic material broached on this album are so complex and intricate that one man could hardly execute it. Bon Iver, Bon Iver is so much more than one guy freezing in a cabin: the record explores Mingus territory, employing saxophonists Mike Lewis and Colin Stetson for the most satisfying instance of woodwinds since Destroyer’s Kaputt; Neil Young is channeled by pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz; and the most shocking moment of the album comes at “Beth/Rest,” when Bruce Hornsby (the one name you will see in every single review of this record) and Luther Vandrossian soft rock are summoned for Bon Iver’s most moving ballad since “Re: Stacks.”
For Emma was focused because it was faithful to Vernon’s vision of a man alone, but Bon Iver, Bon Iver focuses even more acutely, categorizing the nature of change: For Emma and the Blood Bank EP were winter albums, but this one moves to spring; vision can widen and ambition can multiply; etc. His falsetto is the common link between all the songs, and it sometimes crops up unexpectedly, like on “Hinnom, TX.” and “Calgary.” That falsetto sometimes soothes the listener when Bon Iver moves into unfamiliar territory, just like Thom Yorke’s (Radiohead).
This is a record that really challenges the listener: the immediacy of “Blood Bank” is nowhere here, and the most accessible song, “Perth,” is buried in the same kind of murk that The National’s “Terrible Love” was – though “Perth” seems to exploit it better. But the unparalleled focus of the record makes the effort to understand it endlessly rewarding. Furthermore, one realizes that this is not just an eponymous work, but an epitomic work; that is, the record isn’t Bon Iver by Bon Iver, but Bon Iver, Bon Iver – the album and the band are one. Just like the titular “Emma,” Bon Iver is not so much a person as it is an idea, and on this album the idea is radiantly clear. Never before have I seen an American songwriter approach 10 tracks so ruthlessly and brilliantly. -Alex Hall
Stream: Bon Iver – 2 tracks from Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Canadian supergroup Swan Lake must have been founded on the notion that it would be a good idea to take three of the most distinctive voices in indie music and put them on one album. Dan Bejar is one of those voices, and though he is as adept a songwriter as Spencer Krug and as bewilderingly crazy as Cary Mercer (well…), Bejar is unlike any other musician in contemporary music. Kaputt, then, is unlike any other of his band Destroyer’s studio albums, because instead of falling back on the literary brand of European blues he is famous for, he decided to adorn the album in mid-period Bowie and nu-disco. And Mr. Bejar, Carly Simon has something to say to you: “Nobody does it better.” “Song for America” finds him drawling more languidly than he used to on a song more accessible and radio-friendly than any of his other compositions. “Blue Eyes” is wry in a way so infinitesimally rare to modern songwriting. “Chinatown” works a groove that is more in the pocket than that piece of lint stuck in your jeans. The consistency of the album is amazing, from the great bass work of fellow New Pornographer John Collins to the inclusion of the backup singers who seemingly exist only to gently parody the whole operation. The record is also haunted by the omnipresence of brass and woodwinds, which conjure images of broken outfits like KC and the Sunshine Band, Donna Summer, and Gloria Gaynor rising from the ground to play a disjointed funeral dirge. But Bejar’s commentary is the most compelling element of Kaputt, for when he “took a walk/ and threw up in an English garden,” his audience realized just how wonderfully uncommon Destroyer is. Besides, “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” is my favorite song of the year. -Alex Hall
Stream: Destroyer – “Kaputt”
Musically, Radiohead’s eighth full-length draws more heavily from Kid A than either of Radiohead’s last two releases, foregoing the guitars of “Go to Sleep” and “House of Cards” for an almost exclusively electronic approach. When delicate acoustic chords do appear on album highlight “Give up the Ghost,” they nearly disappear behind vocal distortion at times—nearly as ghostlike as Yorke’s mournful dirge of “don’t haunt me” that loops for the entire track.
One might be tempted to call The King of Limbs minimal, and perhaps it is—but the adjective still doesn’t seem quite right. Songs like “Little by Little” and “Feral” are not so much minimal as organized. They’re just as busy as, say, “Bodysnatchers” from In Rainbows, but the music has direction, clarity, and precision. If Radiohead can be accused of lacking anything over their past few releases, it is exactly these qualities. Now, the controlled chaos that concludes “Little by Little” provides the perfect background for Yorke’s melancholy falsetto to murmur, “I’m no idiot, I should look.”
As usual, Radiohead’s lyrics are determinedly abstract, but they never approach obtuse. The imagery is astounding, from the extraterrestrial uneasiness of “Bloom” (“I’m moving out of orbit, turning in somersaults/I dive into those eyes/Jellyfish swim by”) to the “fast-ballooning head” of single “Lotus Flower.” Mirroring the music, the lyrics too are more organized than past albums; they say more with less. Yorke seems at times to be channeling Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, especially when he slides gently into the piano-led “Codex.” The lyrics are a small poem, assuring the turbulent mind that “you’ve done nothing wrong” and that jumping into “a clear lake” soothes worries because “the water’s clear, and innocent.” The nature sounds that conclude the song, juxtaposed with the electronic bliss, are almost enough to elicit tears.
The most important aspect of The King of Limbs, however, is how personal the album feels. It suspends overt creativity, genre-bending, and In Rainbow’s pure outpouring of material in favor of a direct, emotionally-charged album. Just when everyone thought Radiohead was running low on surprises, they introduced another one—and it helped them create their most fulfilling work in a decade. -Jordy Kasko
Album Stream: Radiohead - The King of Limbs
Where there is a charming innocence to Fleet Foxes‘ music, there is also the essence of profound and universal peace. A handful of writers have already said as much (certainly not as summarily), but the difference is that they wrote about the bearded Seattle band’s 2008 album Fleet Foxes. A magnificent work of art, its mirror reflection — the Sun Giant EP — was somehow even more breathtaking, and both were a large step forward from the guitar-centered rock on the band’s 2006 self-titled debut EP. Nevertheless, with only 5 years of music and approximately 25 studio recordings spanning one album and two EPs, Fleet Foxes’ future direction has been as uncertain as any band in the business. Now we have one more clue. And, by god, it’s a doozy.
There was one elephant in the room that the band had to confront with Helplessness Blues: a monstrous decision on whether to sway towards folk-inspired indie pop (like “Mykonos” and “White Winter Hymnal“) or whether to focus on their wilder side (“Heard Them Stirring,” “Blue Ridge Mountains“). The former may have been the obvious choice — Fleet Foxes’ skillful harmonies and baroque propensities lend themselves deftly to bucolic pop. But the band announced before and during their recording process that they wanted to improve their lyrics (which, admittedly, were probably the weakest link on Fleet Foxes) and focus on the rawness of the music by recording many of their parts, including vocals, in one long take. Thus, we accurately expected a folkier, pastoral record — and Fleet Foxes are one of the few folk bands who can deliver above and beyond all expectations.
If I may proffer a small bit of advice: don’t listen to Helplessness Blues with any expectations. As any veteran of marital psychology knows, expectations are like cyanide to a relationship — and they’ll mar your rapport with this album, too. It took me at least five listens to get past my preconceived notions, and my disappointment at the lack of a standout folk-pop track in the vein of “Mykonos” is just now fading as it is replaced by reverence. Specifically, reverence for the quiescence of Helplessness Blues — the way the album does not muscle itself into the listener’s ears, but rather impels the listener to hearken to its beauty, to strive to absorb every note, to reach out and feel the (nearly) tangible emotion behind the words.
This is music au natural. It is exceedingly easy to botch — a band striving for simple beauty can flippantly overshoot their mark, creating unconvincingly affected songs, or alternately undershoot, forgetting that bombast and, yes, even the presumption of grandeur are necessary elements of a truly understated band. But Fleet Foxes fall into neither trap, putting just enough roar (“no matter what I do!” in “The Shrine,” the pop-rock inclinations of “Battery Kinzie”) behind their purring. It is this mixture that christens Helplessness Blues with bona fide emotion; the album stands naked before the listener for its entire 50 minutes.
To the songs themselves, there is a sharp division between the two halves of the album, a quality that lends an air of vinyl authority to Helplessness Blues. The first half is somewhat more assertive, more hook-laden, and — frankly — better. It is universal music at its most personal, and Robin Pecknold‘s lyrics, while still frequently dubious, are now dubious in a truly poetically abstract manner. He yearns for W.B. Yeats’ idealized island of Innisfree in “Bedouin Dress,” philosophizes that “in dirth or in excess, both the slave and the empress will return to the dirt, I guess” on “Montezuma,” and gently reminds the wayward son that “all of us walk so blind in the sun” on “The Plains/Bitter Dancer.” Many of the album’s lyrics speak to a human condition of helplessness mentioned in the title — the desire to, Walden-like, transcend the limits of shyness, of self-doubt, of the fear of living life to its fullest.
After the confessional “Helplessness Blues” (which establishes a circular pattern wherein the quieter beginning of a song gives way to a more immediate center, and then returns for a reprise of the introduction — also found on “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” and “The Shrine/An Argument”), the album turns a corner, however. “The Cascades” is a rare instrumental from Fleet Foxes, almost a musical interpretation of Tennyson’s poem “The Brook,” after which Pecknold and co. break their sound down to its roots on “Lorelai” and “Someone You’d Admire,” gradually building up to the album’s finale, the oddly four-on-the-floor-driven “Grown Ocean.” Don’t worry, Fleet Foxes aren’t dabbling in electronic music — but the bass drum graces them with a Mumford & Sons feel that lasts until the last 30 seconds, when Fleet Foxes turn circular again by reprising lyrics from “Battery Kinzie.”
After repeated listens, Helplessness Blues reveals itself not only as a clue to Fleet Foxes’ future — doubtless a glorious one — but as a work of art in its own right. Fleet Foxes was named best album of 2008 by various critics, and now Helplessness Blues scores our top album of the year at The Tune. The transcendent folk elicits a peace of mind and a recollection of our inner selves that helps us to escape the ratrace and the materialism of our present society and re-focus on ourselves, heal our minds, and put the time and effort into our relationships that they deserve. Helplessness Blues thus reveals itself not as charmingly innocent, like Fleet Foxes, but as charmingly profound. -Jordy Kasko
Stream: Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
Stream: Fleet Foxes – “Battery Kinzie”
Stream: Fleet Foxes – “The Plains/Bitter Dancer”
Well, there you are. Those are our Top 30 Albums of 2011. Scroll down to see each staff member’s individual list, and keep coming back to The Tune, as we will be posting quite a few other interesting Best of 2011 lists in the approaching week or two.
Active Child – You Are All I See
Architecture in Helsinki – Moment Bends
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Wolfroy Goes to Town
The Dangerous Summer – War Paint
EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
Emmy the Great – Virtue
William Fitzsimmons – Gold in the Shadow
Foster the People – Torches
Ganglians - Still Living
Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do
Hooray for Earth – True Loves
Justice – Audio, Video, Disco
Chuck Ragan – Covering Ground
Real Estate – Days
Scattered Trees - Sympathy
William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom
Thrice – Major/Minor
TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
Wilco – The Whole Love
50. Feist – Metals
49. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
48. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
47. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
46. Summer Camp – Welcome to Condale
45. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
44. Dessa – Castor, the Twin
43. Washed Out – Within and Without
42. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
41. Ladytron – Gravity the Seducer
40. Dredg - Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy
39. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math
38. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
37. Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing
36. Portugal. The Man - In the Mountain in the Cloud
35. Junior Boys - It’s All True
34. YACHT – Shangri-La
33. The Horrible Crowes - Elsie
32. Pinemarten – If You Thought There Was Any Doubt
31. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter IV
30. The Rapture - In the Grace of Your Love
29. Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams / He Gets Me High EP
28. The Weeknd – House of Balloons / Thursday
27. The Antlers – Burst Apart
26. The Strokes – Angles
25. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi – Rome
24. Male Bonding – Endless Now
23. Yuck – Yuck
22. Childish Gambino – Camp
21. Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine / Freaking Out EP
20. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials
19. Low – C’mon
18. Cass McCombs – Wit’s End
17. City and Colour - Little Hell
16. Wild Beasts – Smother
15. Panda Bear – Tomboy
14. Blink-182 – Neighborhoods
13. Cults - Cults
12. Jay-Z + Kanye West (The Throne) – Watch the Throne
11. Penguin Prison - Penguin Prison
10. The Black Keys – El Camino
9. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
8. Rue Royale – Guide to an Escape
7. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
6. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
5. The Rosebuds – Loud Planes Fly Low
4. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
3. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
2. Destroyer - Kaputt
1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Kasabian – Velociraptor!
Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine
Emmy the Great - Virtue
The Strokes - Angles
Hooray for Earth – True Loves
20. Daughter – The Wild Youth EP
19. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math
18. The Antlers – Burst Apart
17. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
16. Dredg – Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy
15. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
14. Wild Beasts - Smother
13. Low – C’mon
12. Florence & the Machine - Ceremonials
11. Cass McCombs – Wit’s End
10. The Rosebuds – Loud Planes Fly Low
9. Rue Royale – Guide to an Escape
8. M+A – things.yes
7. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
6. Panda Bear - Tomboy
5. Destroyer - Kaputt
4. Active Child – You Are All I See
3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
2. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
1. Destroyer – Kaputt
2. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
3. James Blake – James Blake
4. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost5. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
6. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
7. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
8. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
9. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
10. Drake – Take Care
11. Wye Oak – Civilian
12. Wild Beasts – Smother
13. Feist – Metals
14. Metronomy – The English Riviera
15. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
16. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
17. Real Estate – Days
18. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer
19. Atlas Sound – Parallax
20. Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow
20. Yuck – Yuck
19. Cut Copy – Zonoscope
18. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
17. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
16. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
15. Ty Segall – Goodbye Bread
14. Tennis – Cape Dory
13. The Weeknd – House of Balloons and Thursday
12. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
11. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
10. Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine and Freaking Out EP
9. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
8. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
7. Cults – Cults
6. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
5. Washed Out – Within and Without
4. Atlas Sound – Parallax
3. Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams and He Gets Me High EP
2. Real Estate – Days
1. Panda Bear – Tomboy
1. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
2. Mastodon – The Hunter
3. That Handsome Devil – The Heart Goes to Heaven, the Head Goes to Hell
4. Primus – Green Naugahyde
5. Puscifer – Conditions of My Parole
6. Tom Waits – Bad as Me
7. Opeth – Heritage
8. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
9. The Black Keys – El Camino
10. Battles – Gloss Drops
11. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part 2
12. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi – Rome
13. Wilco – The Whole Love
14. Kasabian – Velociraptor!
15. DJ Shadow – The Less You Know the Better
16. Graveyard – Hisingen Blues
17. Seasick Steve – You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
18. Ancestors – Invisible White
19. Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps
20. Cake – Showroom of Compassion
1. Adele – 21
2. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials
3. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
4. Hugh Laurie – Let Them Talk
5. Feist – Metals
6. Snow Patrol - Fallen Empires
7. Portugal. The Man – In the Mountain in the Cloud
8. Rise Against - Endgame
9. Incubus – If Not Now, When?
10. Explosions in the Sky - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
11. Blink-182 – Neighborhoods
12. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
13. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
14. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
15. 2Cellos – 2Cellos
16. Jack’s Mannequin – People and Things
17. Is Tropical – Native To
18. Björk – Biophilia
19. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
20. Tom Waits - Bad as Me
Cults – Cults
Tori Amos – Night of Hunters
Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
1. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
2. Balam Acab - Wander/Wonder
3. Future Islands - On the Water
4. Chad Vangaalen - Diaper Island
5. Earl Sweatshirt - Earl
6. Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine
7. Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation
8. Real Estate - Days
9. The Dodos - No Color
10. Panda Bear - Tomboy
11. Destroyer - Kaputt
12. Salem - King Night
13. Thee Oh Sees - Castlemania
14. White Fence - Is Growing Faith
15. Gauntlet Hair - Gauntlet Hair
16. Thee Oh Sees - Carrion Crawler
17. Danny Brown - XXX
18. Battles - Gloss Drop
19. Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
20. RxRy - A (Alpha)
Maria Rosaria di Lecce
20. Robin Thicke – Love After War
19. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
18. Vanessa Carlton – Rabbits on the Run
17. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It and See
16. R. Kelly – Love Letter
15. Mary J. Blige – My Life II… The Journey Continues
14. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
13. REM – Collapse into Now
12. Beyonce – 4
11. The Vaccines – What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?
10. Keb’ Mo – The Reflection
9. Lady Gaga – Born This Way
8. James Blake – James Blake
7. Jay Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne
6. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
5. The Kooks – Junk of the Heart
4. Florence + the Machine – Cerimonials
3. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
2. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
1. Adele – 21