2011 in Review: The Best Albums

The dividing line between this year’s honorable mentions and my top 10 is pretty thin. In fact, you could flip the entire list and I’d still be pretty satisfied with those picks. 2011 turned out to be a very good year for music. Yet there were very few classic albums. No Suburbs, no Merriweather Post Pavilion. That being said, I probably listened to more music in this calendar year than any year prior. (Working in a record store will do that.) So here are my honorable mentions–in alphabetical order–along with my ordered top 10. As the weeks go on, I’ll be adding my picks for the year’s best music videos and a Spotify playlist of the year’s best tracks, including an alternate list made up solely of cuts from albums I liked, but didn’t find their way into my top 10 or runners-up list. Here we go:

Honorable mentions: Adele – 21, Battles – Gloss Drop, Cut Copy – Zonoscope, the Decemberists – The King is Dead, Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials, Friendly Fires – Pala, M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Sarah Jaffe – The Way Sound Leaves a Room, Tom Waits – Bad as Me, The Book of Mormon (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

10. David Ramirez – SerialBox Presents EP (serialboxpresents.com)
This Austin singer-songwriter will often be compared to two Ryans in the coming year: Adams and Bingham. He’s got a similar sound and great lyrics, but these four songs are better than anything either of those guys have put out in a while. His full-length will be devastating.

9. Gungor – Ghosts upon the Earth (Brash)
So much of Christian music comes off as disingenuous and derivative, which is why Gungor is such a breath of fresh air. They’re not trying to sound like anyone, and their lyrics are direct and penetrative. You won’t be singing any of these songs at church, but they’ll stick with you throughout the week, not just on Sunday.

8. The Roots – Undun (Def Jam)
It would be easy to think that working for the Man would turn Illadelph’s favorite sons soft. But nothing could be further from the truth. After last year’s terrific How I Got Over, ?uestlove and co. get over another hurdle: topping that album. Based on a character created by Sufjan Stevens, the album chronicles his tragic life from end to beginning, ending with free-form jazz and a contemporary classical mini-suite. It’s transcendent.

7. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (4AD)
After her startling debut and challenging follow-up, Dallas’ own Annie Clark continued to impress with her darkest and most beautiful album yet. Her guitar playing: jaw-dropping, her lyrics: devastating.

6. Childish Gambino – Camp (Glassnote)
Far and away the year’s most impressive debut, but also one of the year’s more divisive albums. Donald Glover’s alter ego dishes rhymes that – for the most part – sound new and exciting. Sure, the Kanye (and Kid Cudi) comparisons linger, but for his first legit full-length, the kid’s got a bright future ahead of him, especially if he keeps writing songs this personal and beats this catchy.

5. Kirk Franklin – Hello Fear (Verity)
Our reaction to music – and all art, really – is informed by where we are personally. What speaks to us one minute may irritate us the next. But then there are those albums that really hit you at an exact moment. And Kirk Franklin’s 11th studio album hit me like a punch in the gut. Brutally honest, it’s an album for those knee-deep in the struggle, trying to find hope amidst uncertainty. While lots of Christian songs go for impersonal “Someone is having a rough time” lyrics, Franklin speaks power without being preachy. Spiritually and musically, he’s a great example.

4. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
Let’s be honest for a second: Were it not for the endless hype and mythologizing, everyone would realize For Emma, Forever Ago is only a pretty good entry in the pantheon of break-up albums, but certainly not a classic like Blood on the Tracks or Rumours. Luckily, Justin Vernon felt like he had to back up all that endless goodwill he’s earned over the years. His second album is fuller, richer and sunnier than his debut. Where Emma was frigid, Bon Iver is warm. And that lends itself to multiple listens and finally gives his hype some justification.

3. Seryn – This is Where We Are (Spune)
My original top 10 last year included this Denton band’s demo EP. That was probably jumping the gun a bit, because this studio-recorded full-length was worth the wait. I’ve had this album since January and it still sounds as gorgeous as the first time I put it in my car stereo. This could easily have hit No. 1.

2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
Going back to albums hitting you at the right moment, Fleet Foxes’ follow-up also traffics in uncertainty. It see-saws between hope and despair, with the latter often winning out. But it’s also about journeys and quests, and how neither give you clear answers or directions, but how that ends up being for the best. Life can sometimes be helpless, but it needn’t be hopeless.

1. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (Saddle Creek)
Apologies to all the terrific music that came out after mid-February. It wasn’t really a contest after Bright Eyes released their final album. Combining all the best parts of their fluid sound, the People’s Key is a great last dance, one final hurrah to a storied career. Many 2011 albums could be alienating or off-putting, but the People’s Key exists as a gift to everyone, or at least everyone who enjoyed Conor Oberst’s musical output, especially from 2005 on.

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