Best Albums of 2011

It’s traditional for end-of-year lists to start with a self-aware apology. I’ll gloss over the standard part, because I assume you already know how silly and arbitrary this process is, that it’s only meant to reflect my own opinion, and so on. The only part that really gives me pause is how incomplete it is. I do this as a hobby, which means that I’m generally only reviewing the albums I’ve chosen to buy (or in a couple cases, borrowed from friends). This year, I reviewed 67 albums, only 32 of which were actually from 2011. I still have about 15 more from this year that I have yet to review. Now, I listened to part or all of a couple hundred albums online before I decided I was interested in the ones I bought, but it’s still a limited sample.

So, I’m sure I’ve missed a few gems. But at this point in my life, I’m pretty confident in my ability to find the music I’m most likely to enjoy. So I think it’s fair for me to pick a top 5 for the year. Even if I did buy and review a couple hundred more of the year’s popular albums, I think that these ones would manage to stay within the top 10.

I don’t really feel like there was a runaway #1 this year, but I’m comfortable defending each one’s position near the top. Yes, even the albums that no one else picked.

1

The King Is Dead cover

Decemberists - The King Is Dead

Nine months after reviewing this, I’m sometimes a little surprised that I gave this an A. It may be a great album by a great band, but it’s just another Decemberists album, right? But when I read my review, I remember what a surprising new direction this seemed like at the time. It’s rare for an album to redefine my view of an established band so easily, but then, this is a rare album.

2

Bad As Me cover

Tom Waits - Bad As Me

A celebration of all that is Tom Waits, Bad As Me didn’t break new ground so much as compress the best aspects of his career into a dense 45 minutes. From the weird to the soulful and the energetic to the calm, that’s a lot of ground to cover. However, this album accomplished it with a series of great songs that manage to feel familiar and original at the same time.

 

3

Teenage & Torture

Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers - Teenage & Torture

Shilpa Ray has been largely ignored by most people, but I still maintain that they are one of the most promising young bands around. Both the vocals and music can slip as needed from an art-punk frenzy to a silky smoothness, all with a single-minded focus on Ray’s intense vision. The lyrics are occasionally too simplistic (not that you’ll pick out the details through the distortion), but she’s driven by all the right demons. Ray could someday become the best frontwoman in rock.

 

4

David Comes To Life cover

Fucked Up - David Comes To Life

A bold rock opera, David Comes To Life provides both the brutal catharsis and abstract flights of fancy that fans expect from Fucked Up. The band accepts almost no creative limits (except maybe the storage capacity of CDs, which they took full advantage of), and this allowed them to apply their modern-day vision and excesses to a gimmick usually associated with the vision and excesses of the 1970’s. Fucked Up is one of the best things to happen to the music scene in the past decade.

 

5

Going Out In Style cover

Dropkick Murphys - Going Out In Style

Punk rock may be fading from relevancy, but this album makes a compelling case for it as a vehicle for tradition and community. I’ve wavered several times on including this on my list, because I think most people see it as a solid effort by an established but over the hill band. Each time I listen to this again, though, I realize that nothing could be further from the truth. As a band that always brought maturity and perspective to punk rock, the Dropkick Murphys are actually improving with age.

 

Other notable albums in 2011 included stylistic departures from PJ Harvey and Hank3 (specifically his Gutter Town album) along with a stylistic return by Steve Earle. The only debut to stand out among the year’s best is The Vaccines‘ short but perfect slice of youthful pop. I don’t know if the lack of debuts (that plus Shilpa Ray’s sophomore album) is disappointing for a blog called “Cult of the New”, but that’s the way music worked for me this year. I’m also surprised by how rock-dominated my top five were, though that’s balanced out well by the runners-up. The list is definitely male-dominated, as well. It looks like the ratio is about right, as one fifth of the albums I reviewed this year were female-fronted. I hadn’t noticed that before though, and I plan to keep an eye on that in the coming year.

I think it also makes sense to do a top 5 from the non-2011 albums I reviewed this year. These may not be new, but they’re all great as well:

1

Grinderman - Grinderman 2 cover

Grinderman - Grinderman 2

Nick Cave recently announced that this side project is breaking up, but it ended on a high note. Grinderman found a level of intensity and catharsis that even Cave rarely attained. This band may be gone now, but its influence is still here in a rejuvenated Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

 

2

A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C) cover

Ray Wylie Hubbard - A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C)

This old country bluesman has been cranking out albums for decades, but he still may not have reached his peak. Age and experience are great attributes in this style, and he mixes country wisdom with artistic culture in a way that feels perfectly natural for those often-opposed worldviews.

 

3

First Four EPs cover

OFF! - First Four EPs

This punk rock supergroup now sings about being old and misanthropic instead of young and angry, but with the same energy and honesty that its members always had.

 

4

It's All Been Said cover

Jayke Orvis - It's All Been Said

Though Orvis isn’t new to the country scene (he was previously a member of the .357 String Band), his first solo album truly shows his potential. Excellent bluegrass chops meet more complex country approaches, with rich, varied results. If this album has a flaw, it’s that Orvis still sounds too experimental and unfocused. But those moments that could have been discarded as outtakes reveal an exciting potential for this young talent.

 

5

Harlem River Blues cover

Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues

Earle, on the other hand, has finally been around long enough to stop being considered a young talent. Just in time, too, as Harlem River Blues is his first truly unique and personal vision. Country radio may be ever more derivative and unoriginal, but artists like Orvis and Earle are showing us just how much potential the genre has when people follow their own muse without concern for format or tradition.

 

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