Sound Sounds: The Best Records of 2011

One of the things that gets really old fast is listening to people complain about the caliber of music to come out in any given year. “This was the worst year for music, ever,” they say, like complete assholes. This is what you say when you’re too bored to be clever about things. I have never had any problem coming up with a slough of albums to write about at the end of the year, to be honest. Why would I? My only real problem has always been trying to narrow down my selections to a certain number, and then rate them in any given order. This, too, gets boring. Last year, however, I decided to simply talk about the albums that stood out, in no order, and with no limit. It turned out pretty well, I think!

So, without further ado, I give you the albums that I found worth hearing in 2011. Like any of my lists, it is by no means complete; I didn’t listen to everything I wanted to this year, nor did I listen to certain albums as much as I had wanted. This is just a representation of the things that I concerned myself with the most in the last 12 months. Enjoy.

Also, P.S.: I always end these things with a long-winded thank you to the people in my life. I’m not going to really bother with that. I’ll make this quick, though: To Kelly, Yousef, Arya, Darren, and Jordan, thank you.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Good morning, Mr. Magpie.

One of the best parts about being a crazy-big fan of Radiohead is the month or two that comes after the release of a Radiohead record. You hear so many different things about it, you’d think that there were several different versions of the record floating around, and everyone had heard a different copy. It’s almost like a pretentious game of Telephone. I regret never getting a chance to write about The King of Limbs when it was released, but I want to correct that mistake here. During one of those conversations (with a friend I had run into on Record Store Day), it was put like this: “If you liked OK Computer, you’ll like In Rainbows. If you like Kid A, you’ll like The King of Limbs.” This is a basic – but not far off base – assessment of the rift that the record opened up in the Radiohead fanbase. It was like they had released Lulu. But I’m getting side-tracked. The King of Limbs is quite possibly the most stripped-down record Radiohead has yet produced, which is a sentiment that I’m forced to strip away from In Rainbows, for it now doesn’t deserve it. The album has a lot of depth to it, and though it may not be the strongest of the band’s albums (they can’t all be heartbreaking works of staggering genius, people), it’s still better than a lot of the records we all heard in the last year. The King of Limbs, to me, sounds like the sound of a band that has made three undisputable masterpieces, two simply genius ones, one bore, and one dud (I’ll let you debate which goes where), that just wants to enjoy themselves after 18 years. Why mess with that?

Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean

Become the leaves.

Sam Beam and I have always been friends. He has always embedded his music with a strange beauty, like an atheist trying desperately trying to write church music. I’ve never been disappointed by his albums, and Kiss Each Other Clean is by no means the exception. From the first song, “Walking Far From Home,” you know that it’s undeniably an Iron & Wine record: Beam at the center, with the rest of the circle almost indistinguishable from the last time. He delicately reinvents himself every time he comes out, and his experimentation, inexplicably, always works to his advantage. Kiss Each Other Clean is striking in beauty, and will give you goosebumps like every other one of his records. Sometimes, being reliable isn’t a bad thing: he may not have tiptoed past his comfort zone very much since Iron & Wine became a full-on band, but I won’t ever begrudge him that.

Bjork – Biophilia

I conquer claustrophobia.

It’s very possible that we all assumed Bjork was going to save the world with Biophilia, and it’s still possible for her to do so. Biophilia is Bjork’s most grand album in years, and yet it somehow still feels incredibly down to earth. It’s the antithesis of what she was going for with Volta, or for that matter any record she’s done before this one. She has always been a true free-thinker, and Biophilia reassures us that, no matter what she’s doing, she knows full-well where she’s going with it. With this, she reached in every direction, for the sky, for the galaxies outside our own solar system, and for the cells inside our own bodies. It comes off like her attempt to vocalize her amazement that it is truly strange to exist, and to exist as we are. I don’t want to gush too much about the record (just read my review for more of that), but Biophilia may very well be, in the years to come, widely regarded as her most flawless album. Is it? That’s for you to decide.

Drake – Take Care

I'll take care of you.

To me, any End of the Year list for 2011 is going to feel slightly incomplete without the inclusion of Drake. He’s still a new star, and yet he feels like he’s been around for the last decade, just in the background of every R&B wunderkind’s mixtapes and debuts, just waiting to emerge from the darkness, and take his spot among the greats. Take Care comes as a breath of fresh air: it’s an album that was released into a market flooded by artists dwelling on the upsides of excess and fame, and came to ask an important question: What’s the downside? Take Care speaks to us from an alien place, where our own excesses and hang-ups are reflected back at us, and reminds us of a world where people will camp out in parks for weeks on end to bring to attention the fact that our society is slightly off-kilter. It’s not a political message by any means, but it’s a message that rings clear as a bell just the same; for all of the excesses that Drake indulges in during Take Care, you immediately see each and every problem, lain bare in front of you. That’s a pretty impressive statement to make, for a star rising as quickly as Drake.

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

I've seen America on my back.

It’s really hard to get over how remarkable Annie Clark can be. She’s in the background of a couple of your favorite bands, and once she came to the foreground, she proved that her ability to self-improve as a musician is, at present, unmatched. Each of her records has been better and more breathtaking than the last, and Strange Mercy is no exception. It’s her own ode to the excesses of the lives we lead when we’re not at home, but it does it in a much different way: with violent guitars and incredibly ugly imagery. All of the beauty that covered Actor in ’09 has been boiled away with battery acid, leaving a tragic picture that can be embodied in one simple line: “I’ve had good times with some bad guys I’ve told whole lies with a half smile.” Strange Mercy came out just a little too late for 2011 to be Clark’s year, but if there was one single musician who deserved for it to be, it was her.

EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

Twenty kisses with the butterfly knife.

It was half impossible to write about a record like Past Life Martyred Saints, especially since everything has already been written by the rest of the blgosphere. So, I’ll condense it down for you, here: Erika M. Anderson (aka EMA) is just now putting out her very first solo album, and somehow, she’s managed to make it sound so assured and fully-realized that you could easily believe this was her fourth album to date. Her voice comes through speakers like a strange clarion call, rising above the din of a thousand women trying to be Leslie Feist, and it’s clear she wants to forge a brand new path, and to hell with whoever wants to copy that. Her songs burrow their way into your skull and lodge themselves there, and yet they never come off as sickly, infectious, or catchy. The record, while rough around the edges, is one of the biggest things I’ve heard from anyone in the last year, and it’s absolutely magnificent. The blogosphere blew up this year because of Anderson, and I regret not getting in on that bandwagon when it came ’round. It took me a few months to hear Saints, but I’m a true believer now.

Tyler, The Creator – Goblin

I'm not a fucking role model.

You could easily argue that Tyler, The Creator will never make a song as untouchable as “Yonkers.” There wasn’t an inch or that song that felt uncomfortable: it was the sound of a genius poking his head in. People are still debating the artistic credibility of the rest of Goblin, but let me ask the naysayers a question: what else were you expecting? A Common record? I don’t mean to sound harsh, but Tyler is an extremely talented rapper, and though his subject matter may sometimes be questionable, he weaves a story together in a way that only his missing comrade Earl Sweatshirt is capable of. “Listen deeper than the lyrics,” he asks us at the end of “Sandwitches,” and this is the best advice you can be given about Goblin: ignore the fact that the imagery is violent. Listen to the stories being told, and how they are put together. “Fish” may be about a fisherman doing unspeakable things, but you can’t deny that it’s a beautiful song. The same goes for “Her,” which is Tyler’s way of explaining that, underneath his rough exterior, he still has feelings, and it still hurts when his love interest gets back together with the guy who’s not good enough for her. It’s entirely possible that he is the Eminem of the open-book-hip-hop generation, why deny him his right to stretch out? Even if you consider Goblin to be a misstep, and a waste of the promise shown on the Bastard mixtape, you can’t deny that it’s the work of a confused boy who has a lot of directions he wants to go. I, personally, see it as a triumph, and I’m willing to ignore its flaws (there are flaws – I just think they’re outweighed by the positives), and I’ll gladly await the release of Wolf next year.

The Antlers – Busts Apart

Put your trust in me.

Okay, no: Burst Apart isn’t the same album that Hospice was. Why would it be? Burst Apart is the less open brother of that album, and though its stories are less personal, they are no less moving. Its sound is incredibly lush, almost humid in production, and the way it plods along comes off as somehow ancient in origin. Its predecessor bore an air of hope, which is strangely absent from this recording: you wouldn’t expect a song called “Putting the Dog to Sleep” to be the most optimistic song on the record, but it is. I can’t tell you what I expect to come next from The Antlers, because after listening to Hospice as many times as I did in the last year, I thought I had them figured out. Burst Apart is the most beautiful of curveballs, and it’s truly a sight to behold. In short: you need to hear this record.

The Decemberists – The King is Dead

Give my best to Springville Hill.

I’m never going to stop loving The Decemberists. When The King is Dead came out, I was a little wary. The Decemberists are a band who have always been reliable for long-form, carefully crafted novels in nine-minute song form, or albums based on Japanese fables. But then I came to respect the fact that, for every “Mariner’s Revenge Song” and “Crane Wife 1 & 2,” there was a “Red Right Ankle,” “Of Angels & Angles,” and “Eli, The Barrow Boy.” What I didn’t realize, initially, was that The King is Dead was simply an album of those short, wonderful songs that took place in between the “California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade”‘s of their records. The record is not as flawless as The Crane Wife or Picaresque was, but to be fair, they deserve a break from being incredibly epic, don’t they? If you want to hate The Decemberists, that’s just fine by me. I can understand finding their over-the-top, hyper-literary style to be too much to bear, but I’m never going to complain about it, and they’ll always occupy a massive space in my heart.

Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

One for you, and one for me.

The People’s Key doesn’t sound like Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Cassadaga, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, Fevers & Mirrors, Letting off the Happiness, or Lifted. Really, those albums didn’t sound like each other, either. The People’s Key is a lonely, affected pop record, with its sensibilities warped in the hands of maestro Conor Oberst. It comes across less drunken than he ever has (indeed, the last American tour date in support of the album found Oberst to be completely sober), and it suits him surprisingly well now. It lacks a definite agenda, and it brings to the table a fair few incredibly infectious songs that stand out as some of the best in his songwriting career to date. And, yes, it does have the obligatory “punch-you-in-the-gut-with-sadness” track (here being “Ladder Song,” possibly one of the most beautiful he’s ever written). It’s unmistakably a Bright Eyes record, but it feels ever so slightly different. He’s grown a lot since Letting off the Happiness was released, but then again, he was 18 when that album came out. This is a more assured Conor Oberst, and though it’s rumored to be the last ride for Bright Eyes, I look forward to whatever he does in the future, no matter what name it’s under.

Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Pt. II

Too many rappers, not enough emcees.

When a band takes a seven-year rest in between record, you start to have a feeling, deep in your gut, that it isn’t going to be that great. To the 5 Boroughs was a heartfelt detour from the normal Beasties formula, but it was regrettably their weakest record. I won’t hold that against them, though. New York is so integral to Beastie Boys, and that was a record that served as an open letter to their wounded limb. Listening to Hot Sauce Committee Pt. II, however, you’d think that record never happened. Even its strange experiments (behold the incredibly infectious reggae detour “Don’t Play No Game I Can’t Win”) feel as good as any Beasties track. They’re the best band that sounds like every line is written in all-caps (I’m serious, think about it), and though I had my doubts, I found myself incredibly impressed by the end result. It’s    the album we won when we fought for our right to party, and it proves that, even though all the members are in their 40s, they can still bring the noise with a lot more passion than just about everyone else around them.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Oh my, what I used to be.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said about Fleet Foxes? As one of the more gorgeous bands of the blog-hype era, Fleet Foxes stand alongside Bon Iver as musicians who really can’t go that far with their trademark sound. Though, as we have seen from both this year, that hasn’t stopped anyone from progressing. Helplessness Blues really isn’t that far removed from where we left the band on Fleet Foxes and the Sun Giant EP, but the sound is a hell of a lot more worldly. They’re still channeling the heart and soul of Americana, but it’s now infused with a wealth of world music. Robin Pecknold, who sounded so assured of himself on songs like “Mykonos” and “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” now makes the man on those songs look like a shy 15-year-old boy; he’s confident, and his soaring voice towers over everything in a way that seems ever-so-slightly removed from the man singing back in ’08. They are one of the few bands in the blogosphere that you really can’t argue about: they make pretty, folk-tastic lullabies that can be loved immensely by your kid sister and by your 64-year-old grandmother, and sung loudly on your bike ride home from work. You would think their sound would get slightly tired, but I don’t see it going anywhere, and it’s only going to get stronger.

James Blake – James Blake

There's a limit to your love.

The thing that infuriates me about American fans of Dubstep is that they’re all to accustomed to the machismo and testosterone-fueled dance-partying that is so much a part of what American Dubstep producers make. A man like James Blake won’t sell to those people, because you can’t really dance to him at all: he makes downtempo songs to play during your lovemaking, and adapts Feist songs. He doesn’t wear a stupid mask, or have a terrible haircut. He’s what Randall Munroe would look like if he made beats instead of math comics. James Blake the record has a lot of promise, and though it is woefully stripped down, it can be construed as a good thing: it leaves him a lot of room to evolve and shift gears as he goes along. It remains to be seen if he has an Untrue in him, but I wouldn’t doubt it. Blake has a beautiful soul in it, and though it was made more for bedroom floors than dancefloors, it stands as a triumph of what was originally envisioned for the Dubstep genre. My praise and hats off to Mr. Blake.

The Weeknd – House of Balloons / Thursday

You're the life of the party.

I didn’t have the pleasure of enjoying The Weeknd before we all found out who Abel Tesfaye was. I came late to the party, and missed the persistent hand-wringing and questioning of every nook and cranny of every song. I enjoy this, honestly; I got over that musing when I first heard jj two years ago. Now that the veil has been partially lifted, we see who has made these two impeccable records. House of Balloons doesn’t sound like the work of a young producer, it sounds like the work of a seasoned veteran, and Thursday is exactly the same story. Tesfaye’s production is lush and dreamlike, and it works as a perfect counterbalance to the sinister things buried under his powerful and assured voice. There’s rampant drug use and a couple group-sex sessions, and somehow he composes all of this in such a way that you don’t even bat an eyelash. Tesfaye could very well be the most impressive and promising new artist of the year, and I, for one, am extremely excited to see where he goes with it.

Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Still alive for you, love.

As discussed above with Helplessness Blues, there’s really only so far you can go with folk rock. If you’re Radiohead, you can change your style as you please, but if you’re a decidedly folk band, you have to adapt. It’s like being Tom Hanks in The Terminal: you can go anywhere you please, do whatever you want, but you can’t leave this place. What separates the one-hit-wonders from the true artists is how they adapt within that restraint, and whether or not they grow as an artist whilst staying in the same pot. Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) is the kind of man who can pull that off, and it shows in Bon Iver, Bon Iver: he’s a man who could have easily never released another album after the immense hype that came like a wave following the new-heartbreak masterpiece For Emma, Forever Ago, but he decided to keep going. What followed was a natural progression of his sound, and a solidification of his wonderful craft. It doesn’t feel like it was recorded in a cabin, it feels like it was recorded in the world itself, and that depth makes for fantastic repeat listens. Bon Iver is not a hi-fi recording, and it doesn’t need to be. He’s almost definitely go the money to make a record that sounds impeccable, but it’s possible that he never will. He seems content with keeping his music so insular in fidelity, and it adds to the general aesthetic of the music. If Vernon were to stop now, he would have proven to everyone that he isn’t just “that guy who made a record in his cabin,” and we could all be content with that. It’s clear, though, that he’s not done. Here’s hoping he doesn’t run out of the beauty he’s so good at melting into his records.

Tom Waits – Bad As Me

You're the same kinda bad as me.

It’s possible that Tom Waits doesn’t have a bad record in him. It’s even possible that he doesn’t have a bad song in him. I’m by no means a Tom Waits expert, but as an outsider looking in, I’m thoroughly pleased with Bad As Me. For my money, Waits in the modern era has surpassed Bob Dylan on a side-by-side comparison of solid storytelling chops (I know, I know, don’t question this, I’m merely saying Waits is more consistent), and Bad As Me is proof of that. It shows him at his most demented (the insanely infectious “Hell Broke Luce” showcases him at his most psychotic and unhinged) to woozy and heartfelt (“New Year’s Eve” adapts “Auld Lang Syne” in the best way possible), and everywhere in between, and at no point do his story-weaving abilities waver. Bad As Me is a travelogue of the brawlers, bawlers, and bashers we’re used to in any Waits record, but their lives are now justified, rather than simply examined. Waits is 61 as of this writing, and it’s entirely possible that he may simply keep making music until he expires. What’s clear though is that, maybe, at this point in his life, he feels the need to atone for the sins of his characters, too, before it’s too late. Whatever he’s doing, though, it made for a fantastic listen.


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