Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Best of 2011 // The Albums

There was no giant record of 2011 to hang our collective hat on--when reading through other lists, the choices are fragmented and scattered across a wide variety of genres, moods, and styles. That has become par for the course in the digital age, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. Everyone is finding their own personal "best" album of the year, something they can call their own and have a real emotional connection to. I had a few of those powerful moments this year, more so than in recent memory. If there is one defining theme to this list, it's that they all share a similar headspace: they're reaching for the stars while trapped on the ground.

There's no particular order, as these records meant different things at different times. Take a gander, listen, and buy the albums from the artists--they could use your help and attention.

Words/songs after the jump.

Fleet Foxes // Helplessness Blues

For all the skyward reaching of their multi-part harmonies, what’s most striking is the earthiness of this record. Robin Pecknold gets personal with doubt and youthful frustration, leaving questions hanging like clouds over the brisk arrangements. The songs tap into the current anxiety about wanting to belong to something bigger than ourselves, but they trade oversharing and whining for obtuseness and universality. Same conversation, different voice, but it harmonizes by cutting to the core. 
Fleet Foxes // Grown Ocean

Real Estate // Days

Whereas their first album traded in shaggy beach jams, Days wraps itself in a melancholic mist--and it won't let you go once you dive in. The lyrics are simple, detailing the minimal moments that make up the days of our youths. But the main draw are the guitars, coiling and uncoiling with patient precision, just like the suburban roads Real Estate sing about.

Real Estate // Green Aisles

The War On Drugs // Slave Ambient

After laboring in the shadow of fellow Philly friend Kurt Vile, the War On Drugs finally step into the spotlight. It's a beam of their own making--Slave Ambient is one of the most fully-realized, immersive records in recent memory, a veritable ocean of warbling guitars, synths, and Adam Granduciel's lonesome croon. It's the perfect atmosphere for his wanderin' and wonderin'.

The War On Drugs // Best Night

Kurt Vile // Smoke Ring For My Halo

Meanwhile, Kurt Vile continues to live in the shadows. He's found a way to unify the spirituality of American Primitive guitar playing with gritty folk melodies, pulling out big ideas and a dreamy restlessness along the way.

Kurt Vile // Puppet To The Man

Dirty Beaches // Badlands

A record that serves as the soundtrack to a million midnight car rides, Badlands is all about mood and style. Dirty Beaches plays up the '50s greaser shtick, but darkens the edges with motoring rhythms and a production style that's the very definition of lo-fi. But beneath the grime is a tender heart, one that can't help but howl at the full moon.

Dirty Beaches // True Blue

Shabazz Palaces // Black Up

And out of the ether comes Shabazz Palaces. Ishmael Butler, an early '90s hip-hop luminary, sets his course for the stars and comes back with an album that unites rap, free jazz, and the avant-garde. Mystical, challenging, dark, and dense, Black Up ups the hip-hop game with a sound that's lightyears ahead of anybody else. I'm free, you know I'm free.

Shabazz Palaces // Free Press And Curl

Amen Dunes // Through Donkey Jaw

The mysterious Amen Dunes continues to make warped psych-folk, but Through Donkey Jaw expands the palette a bit with full-band arrangements, synthesizers, and a commitment to melodies that are both odd and oddly catchy.

Amen Dunes // Swim Up Behind Me

Barn Owl // Lost In The Glare

Towering instrumental post-rock--made by just three guys. The San Francisco group has long been on the radar thanks to their unique guitar playing, but this time around they recruit a drummer, and the steady plod is the perfect complement to these psychedelic soundscapes. Who says you need to a camera to make a cinematic moment?

Barn Owl // Turiya

Wye Oak // Civilian

The Baltimore duo tones down the quiet-loud dynamics of their last album, but Civilian maintains that trademark power. Jenn Wasner's fiery songwriting and the muscular arrangements prove why this is one of the sharpest bands around, even when they're in heading into headier territory.

Wye Oak // Two Small Deaths

Unknown Mortal Orchestra // Unknown Mortal Orchestra

The mysteriousness at the heart of Unknown Mortal Orchestra's debut is part of its appeal. Where the hell do these guys come from? It doesn't matter; what does is the record's mixture of sun-damaged psych-rock, glittery glam, and breakbeats. It's undeniably modern: pilfering the past to create a crude future that can stand on its own merits.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra // Thought Ballune

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