Childish Gambino – Camp
Donald Glover of “Community” is the nerdy version of Kanye West.
The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart
Really good folk rock, but a little too paint by numbers. Like the STP to Mumford & Sons’ Pearl Jam.
Lisa Hannigan – Passenger
Just got this a week ago, haven’t had enough of a chance to digest it. Really good though.
10. The Black Keys – El Camino
I did not like this album as much as Brothers. But it has started to grow on me with repeated listenings. These guys have assumed the mantle of The White Stripes for best two-person band in the world. While it may not have a “TIghten Up” or “Howlin’ For You” on it, El Camino still has some really enjoyable songs with some catchy hooks. “Lonely Boy” was the first single, but I think “Gold on the Ceiling” will be the bigger hit. And “Little Black Submarines” sounds like a Keys’ tribute to “Stairway to Heaven.”
Gold on the Ceiling
Little Black Submarines
Run Right Back
9. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
I liked this album because it’s not a band on cruise control resting on its laurels. They’re still playing around with their sound. It sounds very much like the logical progression from 2008’s Narrow Stairs, and especially the really good The Open Door EP in 2009.
Stay Young, Go Dancing
8. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Some bands don’t always seem genuine in the kind of music they are making; like they’re trying to cash in on growing trend and just throw out genre cliches. Not the case with these guys. Solidify their folk rock bona fides with a really good sophmore album here.
The Shrine/An Argument
Blue Spotted Tail
7. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi – Rome
Danger Mouse is one of the most prolific musical talents out there right now. When he’s not making records in Gnarls Barkley or Broken Bells or on his own, he’s producing other people’s album, like The Black Keys’ El Camino. This year saw him collaborate with Italian musician Daniele Luppi for yet another unique mashup of talents. This album took five years to assemble, and it’s a tribute to the old spaghetti westerns of the 60s. In fact, they reassembled much of the choir that recorded some of those great scores. So on several tracks, you’ve got what Rolling Stone called the “operatic vowels” of 76-year-old Edda Dell’Orso. And then on several other tracks they have Jack White and Norah Jones on vocals. And with talk of a movie being made to fit this album, color me intrigued.
Theme of “Rome”
Season’s Trees (ft. Norah Jones)
Two Against One (ft. Jack White)
Black (ft. Norah Jones)
The World (ft. Jack White)
6. Foster the People – Torches
Was there a more infectious hit this year than “Pumped Up Kicks?” I think not. And even thought it was probably overplayed, it didn’t wear on me. And while it seemed like they might be one of those bands that had one huge hit and was never heard from again, the rest of this album is also really catchy and enjoyable. In fact, some of their other songs are seeping into our collective unconscious without us even knowing it, most notably “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls)” which is featured in a couple of Nissan commercials.
Pumped Up Kicks
Call It What You Want
Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls)
Life on a Nickel
5. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
This band is like the indier version of Arcade Fire. Multi-intrumentalists, lots of influences, and very creative, impressive, and enjoyable songs. Sadly, this band lost its bassist to cancer this year. But this is a great album to make as your swang song. They’re another band that just seems to keep raising its own bar and then exceeding it. These guys make really good, really artful, indie rock. There is not a wasted track here. “Will Do” is a great single. “Caffeinated Consciousness” sound like it should have come from a 80s artist like Prince or INXS.
Keep Your Heart
No Future Shock
New Cannonball Blues
4. Wilco – The Whole Love
Wilco was a band I had heard great things about but never gave them a listen. Then Amazon had all of their albums available for $5 in September in the lead up to the release of this album. So I dove right in and the music was every bit as good as advertised. And when I got to this album at the end of the month, it didn’t let me down either. Much like my #1 on this list, this may not be their most experimental or ambitious album, but it is comfortable and accessable in a good way, without compromising the things that make the band great. “Open Mind” is one of the most beautiful, relaxed love songs I’ve heard this year and one of my favorite songs of the year.
Dawned on Me
Rising Red Lung
One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)
3. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
If you don’t listen to Iron & Wine, you are missing out. His early stuff is very stripped down and a lot of solo stuff. But on his last two albums he has expanded his horizons and really delivered in ways that you wouldn’t have expected from his earlier folky roots. I could easily make this my #1 album of the year if it weren’t for how much I enjoyed the next two albums, but it is just a beautiful album. “Walking Far From Home” and “Me and Lazarus” are two of my favorites of 2011.
Walking Far From Home
Me and Lazarus
Godless Brother In Love
Glad Man Singing
Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me
2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
It seems my ears have fallen for the indie singer-songwriters. Bon Iver made one of the best albums of the 00s with For Emma, Forever Ago back in 2008. And he builds on that with an equally impressive follow-up here. But it’s also a progression. While For Emma was made in the seclusion of a cabin in the woods which is really conveyed through the stripped down nature of the album, this one is bigger, more indulgent, and experimental. Auto-tune properly used even finds it’s way into some of the tracks.
1. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead (BONUS: Long Live the King EP)
There may have been better overall albums released in 2011. There may have been more technically impressive albums in 2011. But there was no album I enjoyed more than The King Is Dead. The Decemberists have a reputation of making really progressive, complex, conceptual rock. Whenever the term “baroque rock” is attached to your band, it can be a double edged sword. They’re also famous for their large vocabulary. At their best, their high-concept music is elegant and enjoyable. At their worst, it feels like a college thesis and inaccessable. All of that is to say that those high-concept aims are largely abandoned in The King Is Dead. In its place is a band who looks like decided to relax just a bit, put down the book reports, and have fun making an album in the best traditions of R.E.M., Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Neil Young. In fact, they even got R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to guest on three tracks. It’s hard not to want to start into the chorus of “The One I Love” when you hear “Down by the Water.” The album is folksy, a little country at times, and pure Americana. And then they capped it off by adding a EP at the end of October that included 6 songs that were culled from the making of The King Is Dead. And all of those are enjoyable too. I got this album back in late January of 2011 and I didn’t listen to anything else as regularly as this one. The impressive thing for me, is that there isn’t one pin-pointable track where I can use it to say, “This is the standout track.” What it makes it so enjoyable for me is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts with this.
Don’t Carry It All
Rise To Me
Down by the Water
This Is Why We Fight
Foregone (Long Live the King)
I 4 U & U 4 Me (Long Live the King)
Row Jimmy (Long Live the King)