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 â 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) âThe Hunterâ by Mastodon â Itâs not often that âmetalâ and âmelodyâ are used as descriptors for the same kind of music, but thatâs what Mastodon pulls off with âThe Hunter.â From the bludgeoning provided by the opener âBlood Tongueâ to the closing song âThe Sparrow,â the Georgia band offers a set of well-crafted songs that alternate between sung and screamed. They provide plenty of heavy here.
9) âCivilianâ by Wye Oak â At itâs 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 âHoly Holy.â Alternately charging and halting, this record will stick with you.
8) âCultsâ by Cults â Although Cultsâ 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.
7) âBarton Hollowâ by The Civil Wars â 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 duoâs debut âBarton Hollowâ is equal parts haunting and beautiful. Singles such as âPoison & Wineâ donât 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.
6) âBon Iverâ by Bon Iver â Justin Vernon, the artist-in-chief of Bon Iver, returns from the isolation of his previous album (2008âs brilliant âFor Emma, Forever Agoâ) for a more lush sound, but considering how sparse the previous release could be, this album doesnât veer too far into the land of the overwrought. Returning are Vernonâs unmistakable falsetto and sense-of-place emotion. I donât love this album as much as I did, âFor Emmaâ¦â â thatâs a tough task â but Vernon has made another essential album.
5) âThe Whole Loveâ by Wilco â Iâll be the first to admit that Wilcoâs eighth studio effort, âThe Whole Love,â drags a bit in its middle. But bookending are two of the best compositions in Wilcoâs long and storied career: the guitargasm called âArt of Almostâ and 12-minutes of highs and lows in âOne Sunday Morning.â 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 âSky Blue Skyâ and a largely forgettable âWilco (The Album)â). They mostly hit the mark here, even when they stop the guitar solos long enough for a ditty such as âI Might.â
4) âHurry Up, Weâre Dreamingâ by M83 â Ambitious as a double disc release are the contents of Anthony Gonzales (heâs M83)âs dance floor electronica as captured in âHurry Up, Weâre Dreaming.â 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 âMidnight City,â a combination of shuffling beats and vocals that swell into a saxophone-induced climax meant to cause spontaneous dancing.
3) âDaysâ by Real Estate â Itâs fitting that perhaps the most easy going of these albums kicks off with a song called âEasy.â Best described as surf rock, this 10-song collection feels like a nice, calm breeze. Highlights abound, including the track âItâs Real.â Which is exactly how one feels about Real Estate after a cruise through this disc.
2) âDeath of a Decadeâ by Ha Ha Tonka â 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 bandâs instrumentation leans them toward bluegrass. So does the groupâs multi-part harmonies, which are best captured on tunes such as âHide It Well.â 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 donât agree with me.
1) âEl Caminoâ by The Black Keys â 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 isnât much I can do to avoid it. The duo has one-upped themselves with âEl Camino,â a riff-rocking, thunder-drumming collection of fist pounding tunes such as âLonely Boyâ and âGold on the Ceiling.â There are surprisingly tender moments buried here, too, such as âRun Right Back,â about a guy who keeps chasing after a doomed love and âLittle Black Submarineâ which starts life as a folk ballad before exploding into a frenzy of guitar.
Honorable Mention: âDepartingâ by Rural Alberta Advantage, âThe Harrow and the Harvestâ by Gillian Welch, âHot Sauce Committee Part 2â by The Beastie Boys, âItâs a Corporate Worldâ by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., âBurst Apartâ by The Antlers, âCircuitalâ by My Morning Jacket