The best albums of 2011

December 25th, 2011 at 9:03 pm

After 11 1/2 months of listening to some pretty solid albums, here are my thoughts on the best albums of the year. I recently lamented I was having a difficult time deciding on a top record — there were a lot of good records, but I don’t think this year featured a lot of great records. I also think the AV Club does a good job of summarizing my thoughts.

Also, here are a couple other ways to experience these albums. First, after each album, I’ve embedded a link that says ‘Spotify.’ If you’re logged into that service, the link will take you directly to the album, when possible (the No. 1 album, sadly, cannot be streamed, per the band’s request).

If that doesn’t work for you, tune into KUAF at 91.3 for a session where Ozarks at Large host Kyle Kellams and I discuss our top tunes. We’ll play samples from a few of the cuts, including those from albums found below. Our chat takes place in the noon hour and repeats in the 7 p.m. time frame Jan. 2.

Disagree, or know something I missed? Let us know here.

Now, to the list…

10) “The Hunter” by Mastodon — It’s not often that “metal” and “melody” are used as descriptors for the same kind of music, but that’s what Mastodon pulls off with “The Hunter.” From the bludgeoning provided by the opener “Blood Tongue” to the closing song “The Sparrow,” the Georgia band offers a set of well-crafted songs that alternate between sung and screamed. They provide plenty of heavy here.

“The Hunter” on Spotify

9) “Civilian” by Wye Oak — At it’s heart, the third album by Wye Oak is a folk record. But the two-piece band from Baltimore has explored all the rough edges of that genre, most pointedly in the unrequited-love-meets-guitar-crescendo surge of “Holy Holy.” Alternately charging and halting, this record will stick with you.

“Civilian” on Spotify

8) “Cults” by Cults — Although Cults’ self-titled debut album touches on some darker elements, those feelings are cloaked in the sugary sweet vocals of Madeline Follin. Joined only by guitarist/percussionist Brian Oblivion, the Manhattan duo could be confused for breezy summer fare unless some introspection is given to the lyrics. Clocking in briskly at just less than 34 minutes, it feels meatier than what a duo with access to a few guitar chords ought to be capable of.

“Cults” on Spotify

7) “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars — Continuing a trend of less is more (and duos) The Civil Wars have distilled their blend of folk and country into a few ultra-pure elements: guitars and voices. The Nashville duo’s debut “Barton Hollow” is equal parts haunting and beautiful. Singles such as “Poison & Wine” don’t provide the full depth of this album, which sounds like it comes from two people who have been singing together their entire lives, not a couple of songwriters who met at a Nashville coffee shop in 2009. I further predict that a song by The Civil Wars will be included on every mixtape/playlist about love or loss that is assembled in the next year or so.

“Barton Hollow” on Spotify

6) “Bon Iver” by Bon Iver — Justin Vernon, the artist-in-chief of Bon Iver, returns from the isolation of his previous album (2008’s brilliant “For Emma, Forever Ago”) for a more lush sound, but considering how sparse the previous release could be, this album doesn’t veer too far into the land of the overwrought. Returning are Vernon’s unmistakable falsetto and sense-of-place emotion. I don’t love this album as much as I did, “For Emma…” — that’s a tough task — but Vernon has made another essential album.

“Bon Iver” on Spotify

5) “The Whole Love” by Wilco — I’ll be the first to admit that Wilco’s eighth studio effort, “The Whole Love,” drags a bit in its middle. But bookending are two of the best compositions in Wilco’s long and storied career: the guitargasm called “Art of Almost” and 12-minutes of highs and lows in “One Sunday Morning.” Wilco has fully finalized their transition from pop-heavy alt country darlings to full-on progressive rock band, and with mixed results along the way (some beautiful songs on “Sky Blue Sky” and a largely forgettable “Wilco (The Album)”). They mostly hit the mark here, even when they stop the guitar solos long enough for a ditty such as “I Might.”

“The Whole Love” on Spotify

4) “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” by M83 — Ambitious as a double disc release are the contents of Anthony Gonzales (he’s M83)’s dance floor electronica as captured in “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” This record is a soundscape of many layers, with heavy on drums and beats and surprises along the way. That may all be best captured in the second track “Midnight City,” a combination of shuffling beats and vocals that swell into a saxophone-induced climax meant to cause spontaneous dancing.

“Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” on Spotify

3) “Days” by Real Estate — It’s fitting that perhaps the most easy going of these albums kicks off with a song called “Easy.” Best described as surf rock, this 10-song collection feels like a nice, calm breeze. Highlights abound, including the track “It’s Real.” Which is exactly how one feels about Real Estate after a cruise through this disc.

“Days” on Spotify

2) “Death of a Decade” by Ha Ha Tonka — The one (semi) local band on this list, I was introduced to Ha Ha Tonka at Wakarusa in early June, bought this album and have rarely stopped listening to is since. It too is a straight-ahead rock record, though the southern Missouri band’s instrumentation leans them toward bluegrass. So does the group’s multi-part harmonies, which are best captured on tunes such as “Hide It Well.” This album is probably the least familiar to those scouring best-of lists, but do yourself a favor and play this album about five times and see if you don’t agree with me.

“Death of a Decade” on Spotify

1) “El Camino” by The Black Keys — It feels unfair to have two lists in a row with The Black Keys in the top five, but if they are going to put out a stellar album every 12 months, there isn’t much I can do to avoid it. The duo has one-upped themselves with “El Camino,” a riff-rocking, thunder-drumming collection of fist pounding tunes such as “Lonely Boy” and “Gold on the Ceiling.” There are surprisingly tender moments buried here, too, such as “Run Right Back,” about a guy who keeps chasing after a doomed love and “Little Black Submarine” which starts life as a folk ballad before exploding into a frenzy of guitar.

Honorable Mention: “Departing” by Rural Alberta Advantage, “The Harrow and the Harvest” by Gillian Welch, “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2” by The Beastie Boys, “It’s a Corporate World” by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., “Burst Apart” by The Antlers, “Circuital” by My Morning Jacket