Maybe it is fitting that it has taken me until April Fool's Day to finally finish writing this. It certainly feels foolish to be going on about last year's albums a quarter of the way through the current one. But I am stubborn enough to post it anyway. I'd pretty much settled on my favorites back in February, but I needed to get that piece about what star ratings mean to me out of my system first (only partly to create some padding between this post and last year's favorite albums post), and then life intervened a little, and, well, here we are.
All the usual caveats apply. These are the albums from 2011 that most impressed me out of the couple dozen I actually purchased and listened to. There are obviously many records, including some critically acclaimed ones, that I never got around to buying, whether out of prejudice, ignorance, or simply lack of time. Maybe three years from now I'll finally ‘discover’ that Bon Iver album and wonder how the hell I managed to ignore it, but that's how things go.
Even more than last year, I feel uncomfortable presenting these as a ranking. There was no one album that blew all the others away. Instead, there were several very strong albums, and distinguishing among them involved some pretty fine hair-splitting. It probably doesn't help that a number of them came out (or I only found) very late in the year, so it took some extra time to process them. Anyway, here's what I liked, divided into some rough clusters.
Try as I might, I couldn't settle on a single top album for the year. There were two excellent candidates, and I decided to just go ahead and call it a tie:
- Stephin Merritt, Obscurities: Technically (according to an arcane formula, the geekiness of which even I am ashamed to expose to the world) my top-ranked album for the year, but since it largely consists of older, uncollected songs, I feel like it's cheating a bit to give it sole possession of the top slot. On the other hand, where most bands' ‘rarities’ albums are interesting primarily for novelty value, this collection of afterthoughts and cast-offs contains several great, ‘hit’-level songs: Rats in the Garbage of the Western World (a 1995 b-side); the ‘single version’ of 1998's I Don't Believe You; the heart-wrenching acoustic Buffalo Rome version of Plant White Roses; and the previously unreleased tracks The Sun and the Sky and the Sea (an outtake from 69 Love Songs that's as lovely as almost any of the tracks that made the album) and When You're Young and In Love. Of the rest of the album, I'd only really consider The Song from Venus expendable.
- The Coathangers, Larceny and Old Lace: I liked these Atlanta girl-punks' first two albums, but I'll concede they are a bit uneven. This record is leaner and meaner than its predecessors, better reflecting the intensity of the band's live shows, which can be best summarized with the single word ‘ferocious’. There's no fluff on this album, but for top tracks, I'd single out Hurricane, Trailer Park Boneyard, Johnny, and Chicken:30.
In the running
These three albums come in just slightly behind my top finishers. All three are extremely solid, just maybe not quite as densely packed as those two. They are each pretty different in flavor, so may not appeal equally to all tastes.
- Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost: Building on their strong 2009 debut Album, and solid 2010 EP Broken Dreams Club, Girls' sophomore album mixes roughly equal parts jangly, sun-drenched pop and delicate, heart-tugging ballads, and then throws in a curveball like the hard-driving, distortion-heavy, Die for good measure. Maybe it's just a reflection of my mindset this past year, but all my favorites were weepers: Just a Song, Forgiveness, and Jamie Marie.
- JEFF the Brotherhood, We Are the Champions: Their sound is big, heavy, and driving, fusing elements of psychedelia, metal, and garage rock into a furious sonic whirlwind. But what makes this band amazing is that it's just two guys—Jake and Jamin Orrall—making all that racket. And having seen them play live, I can attest to the fact that their sound is not the product of studio magic. I saw them three times in the past year, in some of the most unlikely and inhospitable venues Philadelphia has to offer, and they never failed to bring the house down. I literally cannot comprehend how they are able to generate that density of sound out of one guitar and one drumset. Top tracks: Shredder, Mellow Out, Stay Up Late.
- Yuck, Yuck: Every year or two a band comes along that doesn't seem all that distinctive, has no remarkable backstory, but still manages to push all my buttons in precisely the right way. Tokyo Police Club was kind of like that for me last year. This year, it's Yuck. This record is pretty much straightforward, guitar-centric indie rock. If that sounds unenthusiastic, it's really just because I can't put my finger on why their songs appeal to me so much. But appeal they do. Critics seem to like comparing them to vintage Dinosaur Jr., and I can hear some similarities there, but I will venture that an apter comparison is another band from that 90s New England indie scene, Small Factory. And if you knew about my intense love affair with that short-lived band, you'd understand that comparison as being high praise. Top tracks: The Wall, Georgia, and Sunday.
Though I am putting this next group behind the preceding ones, none of these records are slouches. Any of them could have cracked the top 5 with one more ‘loved’ track. Like I said, it was a deep field this year.
- Those Darlins, Screws Get Loose: I only investigated this Nashville sorta-country band because Rhett Miller wouldn't shut up about them on Twitter while they were on tour with the Old 97's, but once I did, I almost immediately developed one of my imaginary rockstar crushes for all three of the Darlin ladies. I saw them live over the summer, which only made me like them more (and drummer Linwood Regensburg also charmed me with his encyclopedic knowledge of the '93 Phillies). This is their second album, and comparing it to their debut (which I only found after listening to this one) is instructive. Whereas Those Darlins (2009) leans heavily on their country-gal identity, Screws Get Loose has a punkier edge (all the more pronounced in their live show) that, for me, makes them much more interesting. Top Tracks: Screws Get Loose, Be Your Bro.
- The Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck: I can't claim to have been hip to the Mountain Goats back when ‘they’ were just John Darnielle and a cassette recorder. I only got on board in 2006, when I finally got around to listening to 2004's We Shall All Be Healed. But since then, they've become one of my very favorite bands, so much so that they are now neck and neck with Yo La Tengo (who are, as ever, my rock-n-roll heroes) for the top slot on my Last.fm most-listened list. So it pretty much goes without saying that I'm going to like whatever they put out. All Eternals Deck falls somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of my favorite tMG albums, but it's still an album I wholeheartedly endorse. Also, they put on a great show in Philly last April. Top Tracks: Damn These Vampires, Estate Sale Sign.
- Wye Oak, Civilian: This album was recommended to me by my most reliable informant (who also pointed me toward Yuck), and he once again justified my faith in him. My initial reaction was that it possessed
a bit of a Cat Power vibe, but without the sameyness that tends to make Cat Power tedious after a little while. That's probably unfair to both bands, but I do hear a similarity in Chan Marshall's and Jenn Wasner's vocal styles. In any case, the album stood up to repeated listening and by year's end had gotten its hooks into me. Top tracks: Civilian, Holy Holy.
- Wussy, Strawberry: If there's one album I'm going to look back on in another year and wonder how I didn't rank it higher, it's this one. Wussy is another of my favorite bands going (and Robert Christgau agrees with me), but it always seems to take me a while to fully appreciate each new album, and this one only came out in November. The two best tracks on the album—Wrist Rocket and Waiting Room—have ‘Perfect Song’ potential, and I am probably still undervaluing a couple others. Since Christgau has extolled Wussy's virtues more eloquently than I ever could, I'll just express my dismay at the almost criminal lack of appreciation for this Cincinnati quartet. I understand that much of the music I like might not be to everyone's taste, but I honestly don't understand how anyone who claims to like rock music can't fall in love with this band.
- Los Campesinos!, Hello Sadness: Another late-year release that I perhaps have not fully digested yet. A lot of my feelings about the album are filtered through having seen them play in Philly just after it was released. One observation from that show (besides the fact that reports of Gareth's abandonment of the glockenspiel have been greatly exaggerated) is that for a band that gets categorized as indiepop or even ‘twee’, they inspired a surprisingly active mosh pit. And I think similar contradictions crop up throughout their music. They shift gears from ruminative elegies to driving rave-ups, occasionally—as in one of my favorite songs from this album, Baby I Got the Death Rattle—in the course of a single song. Lyrically, they often affect an air of cynicism or grim humor that belies deeper longing and regret, as in my other favorite song from the album, Songs About Your Girlfriend, in which the narrator boasts of his previous exploits with the titular girlfriend (
I always made her purr like a cat) only to confess his ultimate failure a moment later (
But I never made her smile like that). I think Los Campesinos! are at their best when all these tensions are in play, which is perhaps why I can't quite buy into a more straightforwardly ‘sincere’ song like To Tundra, however lovely it might be in its own right.
- The Decembrists, The King Is Dead: My final endorsement for the year is also the most surprising, at least to me. Prior to 2006, I had managed to steer clear of The Decembrists, despite increasingly loud buzz surrounding them. Curiosity, however, finally got the best of me early that year. I bought 2005's Picaresque, quickly got hooked, and in short ordered gobbled up Castaways and Cutouts (2002) and Her Majesty the Decembrists (2003) as well. Then they signed with a major label and released The Crane Wife (2006, though I didn't get it until 2007), and I hated that album so thoroughly that I wrote them off completely (though I continued to enjoy those first three albums). I ignored The King Is Dead despite its chart-topping debut and continued to do so despite positive critical rumblings. But I finally broke down at the end of the year and grabbed it and was shocked to discover that I really liked it. Well, most of it. Even on those early albums, they would occasionally lapse into a certain earnest sentimentality that I find almost unbearably cloying, and there are a couple songs on this record that share that weakness. But the high points of this album, and there are several, more than make up for those. In particular, I love the addition of Gillian Welch's vocal harmonies on Rox in the Box and Down By the Water, the peppy apocalypticism of Calamity Song, and the towering defiance of This Is Why We Fight. For those, I am willing to forgive a couple clunkers.
Whew. We've finally reached the end. Once again, I've made an 8tracks playlist that includes most of the ‘Top Tracks’ mentioned above, plus some additional songs I liked from albums that didn't make the cut for this already ridiculously verbose list (including The Baseball Project, Das Racist, PJ Harvey, Kidstreet, Me & Stupid [a Bettie Serveert side-project], The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Tapes 'n Tapes, Tom Waits, and wavves). Enjoy!
(Hey, lookit! 8tracks has gotten onboard with HTML5. It's still ‘beta’, but I guess I'll be going through my old playlist posts and swapping out the Flash widgets for the new code.)