You know, I’m just going to jump straight into it this year. The usual caveat emptors – as always, with these lists – exist, and I’m trusting you lot to be smart enough to know that by now. So, without further ado, here we go…
10. REM – Collapse Into Now
Although “Collapse Into Now” seemed to fly largely under the “hype radar”, it’s a completely worthy final album for a band of REM’s stature. Tunes like “Uberlin” and “Oh My Heart” stand up as some of the best in their catalogue, and reminded you of why REM matter so damn much. A band that absolutely poleaxe you with emotion, I’ll always bear fond memories of REM. And this was a great way to go out.
Standout track: Uberlin
9. Gotye – Making Mirrors
There’s this strange dichotomy going on in this record. Gotye manages to keep the album slightly off-kilter – ever so slightly “weird”, for lack of a better word – but at the same time, it remains an instantly accessible album too. I have no idea how Wally De Backer manages to walk that tightrope so skilfully, but he pulls it off with aplomb – as evidenced by the fact that he absolutely owned the ARIAs this year. Although this release was sold largely on the strength of singles “Someone I Used to Know” and “Eyes Wide Open”, it really is an album that you need to listen to in its entirety to understand De Backer’s talent.
Standout track: Eyes Wide Open
8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Here We Rest
Dudes, it’s country and I dig it. Not a complicated record by any means, but no less a profound one. Jason Isbell seems to have hit back into his stride here, and following some forgettable tracks in his past solo efforts, “Here We Rest” hints that there’s still some greatness in the ex-Drive By Trucker yet. There’s still the occasional misstep in this album, but the highs – such as Alabama Pines and Codeine – make you forget all about that. Hell, this is the most honest record on this list. And I respect that.
Standout track: Alabama Pines
7. Ryan Adams – Fire & Ashes
A great album, but I can’t help feeling that this was Ryan and my break up record. It’s beautiful, polished, and undeniably Ryan… but just as I’m not the same person I was when I first heard Whiskeytown, Ryan’s grown and changed too. And while I find that a super-happy thing, I found listening to this album strangely tinged with this unshakeable feeling of sadness. A feeling like this is where DRA and I part ways. On good terms, don’t get me wrong… but parting ways, all the same.
Doesn’t change the fact that it’s a cracker album though.
Standout track: Kindness
6. Feist – Metals
So I doubt anything from Metals will be picked up for an iPod commercial, like “1234” was back in 2007. This is a far darker release, but it still allows Feist to intelligently play in that indie/mainstream stream that she so confidently straddles. It’s quite incredible how she’s managed to put together a release that will please both record execs and those who were hoping she wouldn’t shun her roots after the breakout hit of “1234”; not many artists could pull it off in such a stylish manner. But, you know the best part? I don’t think Feist gives a crap about any of that. I think she’s just doing what she’s always done… making music that matters to her. We need more like Leslie out there.
Standout track: Graveyard
5. The Antlers – Burst Apart
You know, I never quite understood the buzz about The Antlers’ Hospice, but man… did they turn me around with Burst Apart. There’s something absolutely haunting about this album. That floating, fragile voice from Peter Silberman filled with emotion, those ethereal chords, that reverence… the first time I heard this record, it was like the first time Radiohead woke me up. “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” absolutely blew me away when I first heard it, and the album closer on this album, “Putting the Dog To Sleep”, is some of The Antlers’ best lyrical work to date; and, not for nothing, is absolutely heartbreaking.
Standout track: Putting the Dog to Sleep.
4. Portugal. The Man – In the Mountain In the Cloud
There’s just so much going on here. Portugal. The Man somehow manage to sit in a life raft, floating on top of layer upon sonic layer, and pull it all together with killer licks and melody into a hook-filled album; all the while making it look easy. While John Gourley’s vocals aren’t for everybody, I can almost guarantee you’ll find yourself humming along to 90% of these tunes. With choruses that were made for sing-a-longs, I think this is my favourite release of theirs since I first heard “Church Mouth” back in 2007. The only reason this isn’t higher in this list is that the album feels frustratingly unfinished; but it hints at greatness.
Standout track: Sleep Forever
3. Charles Bradley – No Time for Dreaming
That voice! That voice. You listen to Charles Bradley sing, and from the first turn of phrase you can tell dude has paid his dues. After decades of chasing his dream, Charles Bradley has finally released his debut record with Daptone Records at 62 years of age, and has it ever been worth the wait. Backed by the incomparable Menahan Street Band, this is a soul album as it should be: a release filled with authenticity. Unlike some of his younger contemporaries, Bradley was actually around to see folks like Otis Redding and James Browne perform in their prime, live. So when he sings, you’re listening to the days when funk and soul meant something. They say you can’t sing the blues until you’ve lived a full life… well, ladies and gentlemen, Charles Bradley has 6 decades worth of emotions to pour into his songs. And he’s not going to waste a second.
Standout track: Why is it so hard?
2. The Roots – Undun
From what I can tell, I’m kind of in the minority with my admiration for that album which has me puzzled. A concept album that tells – in reverse – the tale of Redford Stephens’ rise and death in just 40 minutes, it’s a fleeting piece of brilliance from The Roots. Listening to this album is a completely different experience; and yes, I mean experience in the purest sense of the word. With The Roots’ skill with narrative, it’s near impossible to listen to this album without having a full-on movie playing in your head. And Black Thought is so clinical, so aggressive on this album it’s friggin’ scary.
Depressing, oppressive, slightly off… and brilliant.
Standout track: Make My
1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
You know, when I first heard Bon Iver‘s sophomore album, my initial reaction was: whooo boy, this is going to piss a lot of people off. The album was undeniably brilliant, but such a departure from For Emma, Forever Ago that I thought fans may have found it hard to adjust to. Sometimes I underestimate people, and it was a pleasant surprise to see this album praised by… well, pretty much everyone.
When I first wrote about this album, I said “This is one of those albums that takes a few spins before it’s the memory of your favourite girlfriend’s scent. That comfortable, warm smell of strawberry vanilla.”. And I still stand by that. It’s timeless.
Unapologetically leaving the “cabin in the woods” mythos behind them, Bon Iver is the most confident and complete sophomore release I have ever heard. I can’t wait to see where Justin and Co. go next.
Standout track: Towers
And there you have it, folks… agree or disagree, those were some of my favourite albums for 2011. For those of you who have Spotify, I have all the above albums (plus one or two that didn’t quite make it onto the list, but who were in the running) available for listening here. Oh… and Merry Christmas, everyone!