The best music of 2011
Every year, The A.V. Club invites its music writers to pick their favorite albums of the past 12 months. (Since we vote in mid-November, this takes us back to December 2010. That means late 2011 albums like The Roots Undun will be eligible next year.) Then we ask that they disperse 100 points over no more than 15 of those records, and we tally up those points to come up with our annual best-of list. Since we’re music fans constantly on the lookout for new albums to obsess over, we’d really appreciate you telling us what records we’re insane for not listing. There’s also a decent chance that your favorites ended up on at least one of our writers’ ballots, which we’ve also made available for perusal. Finding consensus wasn't easy in such a wide-ranging year with no clear-cut "best" albums. (Out of 16 ballots, we had 16 different No. 1 picks.) Happy reading and listening—and we hope you find something here that you love.
Florence + The Machine
(18 points, two votes)
Florence + The Machine’s anthems are packed with enough grandeur and drama to stand alone as small-scale operettas. In crafting a coherent follow-up to her debut, Lungs, Florence Welch and producer Paul Epworth ran the risk of being unnecessarily limiting, but Ceremonials managed to be bigger and balanced. The record is a dark, brooding affair, filled with sinister references to death, demons, and ghosts, and Welch’s banshee wail is rarely restrained. A perfect blend of majestic and morose, Ceremonials establishes Welch as one of the most boundary-pushing divas in the business.
(18 points, three votes)
The biggest-selling album of 2011 by a wide margin, 21 is a reminder that records still have the power to be dominant forces in pop culture. While it spun off monster singles like "Rolling In The Deep" and "Someone Like You"—the latter had such an impact that it became the subject of its own Saturday Night Live sketch—21 hangs together as a personal statement by a young artist with a seemingly boundless future and a voice that can move mountains, not to mention millions of people. [Editor's note: Because of an accounting error, this album originally was left off of our list.]
(tie) Washed Out
Within And Without
(18 points, three votes)
There was no shortage this year of young nebbishes working alone in basements, bedrooms, and garages to create synth-driven electro-pop songs intended to turn the space between your headphones into a romantic dreamscape straight out of Drive. But few were as successful as Ernest Greene of Washed Out, whose breakthrough album, Within And Without, elaborated on the handcrafted chillwave of his early EPs on songs that skip along on warm drum machines and murmuring vocals that sigh like lovesick teenagers. It’s intimate music that Greene has made to sound big and grand, and on tracks like “Amor Fati” (one of 2011’s best singles), the mood is intoxicating.
(20 points, two votes)
Britney Spears’ level of participation in her own music has always been debatable, even when she receives writing credit on her albums. But the appeal of Britney Spears, Pop Juggernaut has always transcended such concerns. Yes, Spears’ vocals and their computerized edits add a nice layer to Femme Fatale’s ecstatic, hook-filled proceedings, but there’s no denying that the directors behind the scenes are due a significant portion of the props. The pop perfection of Dr. Luke and Max Martin is well documented, and their magic can be heard on seven of Fatale’s 12 tracks. Almost everything here sounds like it was made for dance floors, and the hypersexual lyrics follow suit.
The Greatest Story Never Told
(22 points, two votes)
For a long time, the title of Saigon’s debut appeared prophetic: The album had been pushed back so many times, many Saigon fans wondered whether it would receive an official release, or remain one of rap’s greatest what-ifs. Thankfully, The Greatest Story Never Told finally came out this year, and proved more than worth the wait. Most rap albums suffer from a dearth of substance; if anything, Greatest Story suffers from an excess of substance. It’s an album of unusual focus and intensity from a rapper with a lot to say and a compelling way of saying it. Executive producer Just Blaze snagged big-name guests like Jay-Z, Q-Tip, Bun B, and Devin The Dude, but for all their star-power, the guests never outshine the passionate host.
(22 points, three votes)
The fires of young fury burn bright, and Denmark’s Iceage—whose four members are barely of drinking age—show just how blinding that blaze can be. New Brigade is an exceptional, precocious debut, a dark triumph of Scandinavian hardcore and post-punk gloom. Frontman Elias Rønnenfelt sings/moans in incomprehensible English over lurching guitars and throbbing drums. And though the album clocks in at just 24 minutes, it’s anything but a quick thrill. It batters and bruises, leaving behind pummeled bodies and wracked heads. From start to finish, New Brigade is a force to be reckoned with again and again.
12 Desperate Straight Lines
(22 points, 4 votes)
Bells, whistles, and tricked-out synthesizers are great and all, but there’s still something great about a straight-up pop record like Telekinesis’ 12 Desperate Straight Lines. Singing drummer Michael Lerner teamed up with Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla to make Lines, an unabashedly catchy record about a soul-crushing breakup. At a tight 32 minutes, it’s no magnum opus, but when every song, from the sunny opener “You Turn Clear In The Sun” to the marching-band-ready closer “Gotta Get It Right Now” is tight and right, there’s no need to pad an already-great record with subpar material. It’s so well constructed that fans will find new favorite quirks and tracks with each listen, making 12 Desperate Straight Lines just as good the 100th time as it was the first.
(23 points, two votes)
Dylan Baldi formed Cloud Nothings as a one-man bedroom project a couple of years back, when he was still in his teens. His first full-length crackles with a kind of pent-up energy being released furtively into GarageBand behind closed doors. The punky, shambling rock is heavy on hooks and attitude (“You’re so ugly / I don’t really understand why you’re famous” goes the scoffing “Not Important”), but also an awkward sweetness (“Should Have”). But as adolescent as Cloud Nothings can seem—Baldi’s voice even cracks in “Not Important”—it isn’t simplistic. Baldi has genuine musical chops—check his pre-Cloud Nothings piano instrumentals on MySpace—and writes surprisingly intricate guitar parts for music that could get away with the basics.
(25 points, two votes)
Destroyer’s Dan Bejar writes and performs in quotation marks, but he never lets irony get in the way of a good song. For Kaputt, Bejar tries on a costume made of ’80s soft rock and finds it suits him just fine. He layers tracks with warm synthesizers, dated electronic effects, cooing female backing vocals, gated snares, and sax solos—so many sax solos. It’s a break with the sound of Destroyer’s past efforts, but really, it feels like the album Bejar has been building up to for years. His world-wearier-than-Bryan Ferry voice demanded he someday make his Avalon. And here it is.
(tie) Wild Flag
(25 points, two votes)
Following Sleater-Kinney’s 2006 breakup, a crippling case of burnout kept Carrie Brownstein from making music for years. But since Wild Flag is the result of all that waiting, who can complain? A sort of super-group of indie-rock luminaries, Wild Flag reunites Brownstein with Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss and adds Mary Timony (Helium) and Rebecca Cole (The Minders). The band road-tested the album’s songs for months before recording, so Wild Flag doesn’t sound like a one-off goof. It sounds like a bold statement of purpose from a group of veterans who are as self-assured as ever.
(25 points, three votes)
Sporting the greatest misnomer of the year, Yuck makes a big, buzzing statement right off the bat with the album-opener “Get Away,” and the English outfit doesn’t let up for nearly an hour on its self-titled debut. With a sound that instantly brings to mind ’80s and ’90s bands like Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, and Ride, Yuck might be the best entry in the Shoegaze 2.0 sweepstakes. Yuck isn’t groundbreaking, but the strong songwriting and exquisite delivery suggests that this band will stick around long enough to create its own legacy.
(tie) Frank Ocean
(25 points, three votes)
After being cold-shouldered by his own label—Island Def Jam, which signed him a year earlier—Odd Future’s Frank Ocean took the bold step of releasing his solo debut on his own as a downloadable mix-tape on his Tumblr. Nostalgia, Ultra became a runaway Internet hit that showed off Ocean’s coaxing croon as well as his outré songwriting skills. Sweetly romantic, yet pensive and moody, Nostalgia is an R&B record for manics, from the hazy lament of “Novacane” to the inward-looking contradiction of “Songs For Women” to the clever pop remakes of The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing.” It would seem for Ocean that the best revenge isn’t living well, it’s giving away his best stuff for free.
So Beautiful Or So What
(27 points, three votes)
It isn’t a “comeback” per se—Paul Simon never stopped making good albums—but So Beautiful Or So What finds the 69-year-old singer-songwriter in the most creatively fruitful place he’s been in roughly 20 years, bringing all his stylistic tricks to bear on a set of clever, catchy songs. Perhaps Simon is feeling his age and contemplating eternity; that would explain So Beautiful’s unusually urgent feel, exemplified by songs like “The Afterlife,” in which he imagines his first day in heaven, dealing with bureaucracy. Or “Rewrite,” in which a man plans to completely remake himself, though he isn’t sure anyone will care. Throughout this record, Simon sings about people trying to get right with God, while God passes by cursorily. But Simon does so with a bounce and passion that makes existential despair a delight.
(28 points, three votes)
The majority of modern pop music—the really mainstream stuff—is built on complex artifice, with well-crafted images designed to look spontaneous. (See: Katy Perry.) And maybe that’s the case with Drake, too, but the Canadian rapper is so convincingly conflicted—not to mention talented—on his second album, Take Care, that he seems like a rare voice that’s been rewarded for opening up completely. “Marvin’s Room” slowly details the shame—shame! in hip-hop!—of drunk-dialing an old flame whom he knows is attached; “Make Me Proud,” featuring Nicki Minaj, is all sex-swagger; “Look What You’ve Done” details Drake’s autobiography via his relationship with his aunt, complete with a heartbreaking voicemail message. It’s almost everything his breakthrough mix-tape, So Far Gone, was, but that his first proper album wasn’t—namely great.
Bad As Me
(29 points, three votes)
Largely dispensing with heavy themes and avant-garde trappings, Tom Waits indulges in a little playtime on Bad As Me, delivering 13 songs in a variety of styles—from roadhouse rockabilly to spooky atmospherics—nearly all sung in a warm growl. As good as Waits’ work has been in the ’90s and ’00s, it’s refreshing to hear him mix more entertainment in with the art. Even when Bad As Me gets rowdy, as on the jumped-up “Get Lost,” it just sounds like especially raw rock, not lunacy. And when Waits strips down to piano, reverberating guitar, and stand-up bass on the still-in-love song “Kiss Me,” he recalls his pre-Swordfishtrombones persona, now older and less glib. It’s a nifty piece of re-invention: a man transforming back into himself.
TV On The Radio
Nine Types Of Light
(30 points, three votes)
Answering the uncertainty over whether the band’s hiatus might be permanent, TV On The Radio urged everyone to relax with its most sentimental, seductive record yet—an album that argues that the apocalypse is a pretty good excuse to get it on. Falling in love against a backdrop of fatalism has always been one of TV On The Radio’s favorite subjects, but it’s rarely been expressed as unguardedly as on ballads like “You” or “Will Do,” while the opener, “Second Song,” employs the Prince-derived funk first hinted at on 2008’s Dear Science and aims straight for the heart (if not the pelvis) in setting the tone for the record’s passionate streak. But while Nine is definitely a sleeper, its patient mood embodied by its slowly rolling, breezy centerpiece, “Killer Crane,” it also contains some of the band’s most fiery moments in “No Future Shock,” “Repetition,” and “Caffeinated Consciousness,” all of which channel contemporary anxiety and paranoia into pure giddy abandon. Of all our many worries about the future, wondering whether TV On The Radio is still capable of good albums isn’t one of them.
The King Is Dead
(30 points, four votes)
Going one step beyond back-to-basics, The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead sounds like it could’ve been recorded around 1986, before the band existed. Leaving the multi-part prog exercises and baroque history lessons behind for now, frontman Colin Meloy reverts to the simplicity of Richard Thompson, The Kinks, The Smiths, Bruce Springsteen, and R.E.M.—paring away all excess, in other words. The gambit wouldn’t work, though, if Meloy’s songs weren’t so rock-solid, ranging from the stirring “Don’t Carry It All” to the winsome “June Hymn.” Whichever tack The Decemberists take, there are no complicated metaphors or elaborate narratives here, just vivid emotions expressed through boozy, shout-along choruses and snappy rhythms.
Jay-Z and Kanye West
Watch The Throne
(33 points, four votes)
The pairing of Jay-Z and Kanye West was never going to live up to expectations. (The absence of a monster breakout single like “Empire State Of Mind” certainly didn’t help.) Yet with players this titanic, Watch The Throne couldn’t be anything other than a seismic cultural event. Tellingly, Throne thrives less on collaboration than on competition. Kanye isn’t content to play fawning little brother any more, and Jay-Z isn’t about to concede the throne without a fight. Watch The Throne thrives on the bristling tension between Kanye’s live-wire energy and rule-breaking abandon, and Jay-Z’s innate cautiousness. It’s an album of the moment—a point underlined by the presence of Frank Ocean on two tracks—yet it has the substance to endure.
(34 points, three votes)
Annie Clark spent the year proving via surprisingly ripping covers of Big Black and The Pop Group that she refuses to be pinned into the fragile, flowery world where so many female artists are slotted. But all she really had to do was release Strange Mercy. Her third album of byzantine baroque-pop pares down some of its predecessors’ quirky theatrics, perfecting her razor-edged balance between lullaby swoon and lunatic freak-out with the help of producer John Congleton, who deserves equal credit for creating unnerving space and engineering the explosiveness of those manic-depressive states. The skittering, paranoid “Cruel,” the smacked-out “Surgeon,” and the gender-smash of “Cheerleader” are the album’s most obvious standouts, but the weary, Raymond Carver-like character sketches “Champagne Year” and “Year Of The Tiger” are every bit as powerful, with Clark painting a picture throughout of recognizably universal existential crisis. And like those live performances, she faces those anxieties head-on, then leaves them behind in a purging of pure, shredding catharsis.
(35 points, three votes)
In spite of reports to the contrary, fans of classic guitar-pop records can still count on several worthy releases every year. (Many of them are on this list.) But even amid another good crop of jangly, hook-filled albums in 2011, the second full-length by introspective New Jersey band Real Estate stands out as something special. Days is remarkable for its lack of aggression; the songs aren’t flashy or assertive, they just lie back and ruminate on slow-motion melodies and gentle rhythms, confident that the treasures buried within will be discovered by those who spend time with the record. Considering how incredibly pretty Days is, it welcomes such attention.
House Of Balloons
(35 points, four votes)
The photo negative of a thousand R&B loverman come-ons, The Weeknd’s House Of Balloons emerged mysteriously (or at least what passes for “mysteriously” in the social-media age) to map the seamy, manipulative side of seduction. The tales of parties, after-parties, and after-after-parties are engrossing on their own, but the alchemical interaction of Abel Tesfaye’s tenor and Doc McKinney and Illangelo’s spacious production is what makes this one of the moodiest, most disturbing records of the year. Come for the rush of sample-trampling, like the Siouxsie & The Banshees-abetted “Glass Table Girls,” but hang around for the bitter, post-nasal drip of that track’s second half, as Tesfaye joylessly spins the night out ever-longer with drugs, drink, and girls. Because all that’s left when the party ends is waiting for the next one.
The Whole Love
(36 points, four votes)
It’s been a while since the words “daring” and “bold” could describe a Wilco album, but The Whole Love is a reminder of just how enterprising the band can be when it hits the reset button. As fresh starts go, The Whole Love joins Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as an expansive exploration of unconventional arrangements, quirky instrumentation, and abrupt rhythmic detours. The record isn’t, however, a mere play at recapturing past glory. The Whole Love has its own narrative, its own risks, its own tension between bleakly afflicted ballads and beautiful, rich atmospherics. This is a record of strong contrasts—charming and somber, elegant and chaotic, energetic and sublime—and the group wades through the swamp of competing styles and moods with casual aplomb.
(37 points, four votes)
Low hasn’t really been the quieter-and-slower-than-everybody-else band for a few albums now, but it never lost the gift for creating songs that owe much of their power to their deliberate pace. C’mon broods through foreboding songs filled with characters stuck in situations they can’t seem to escape, even if those situations exist only in their own heads. “You try to sleep ’cause there’s never enough,” Alan Sparhawk sings on the album-opening “Try To Sleep,” and the bright xylophone does little to offset the despair just beneath the surface. So it goes throughout C’mon, which mixes delicate harmonies, insistent thuds, and a creeping sense of dread that never fully materializes. It’s a long, dark night of an album; the final track, “Something’s Turning Over,” only sounds cheerful if you don’t pay attention to the words. But it’s as compelling an album as Low has made, and ample evidence that the band remains vital and inventive deep into its career.
(43 points, five votes)
In the years since Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, countless singer-songwriters have tried to recreate that album’s wistful, wintery feel. Some of the more flagrant imitators even made their own sojourns to the woods, as if running water was all that stood between them and poetic inspiration. It seems unlikely, though, that many of those same musicians would be intrepid enough to attempt anything like the intricate mood-pieces of Bon Iver’s deft second album. A sweeping work condensed into a tight, 10-song suite, Bon Iver flows from one picturesque scene to the next, at a purposeful but never hurried pace. With all its downy synthesizers, red-light saxophones, and ornate string and woodwind accompaniments, the album could have turned out busy and overworked, yet its arrangements swell and retract so organically that it never feels cluttered—even at its grandest, the record retains the intimacy of Bon Iver’s comparatively sparse debut. This is a fuller, better-rounded meal than For Emma, and even more so than on that album, Justin Vernon sings in incomplete thoughts and abstractions, which imparts an air of mystery. “To fide your name, it’s something fane,” he whimpers on the opener, “Perth,” as if in code. Even when his lyrics are nonsense, the emotions behind them are vivid and unmistakable.
David Comes To Life
(59 points, six votes)
There wasn’t any real reason to expect David Comes To Life, Fucked Up’s third full-length, to be special. As consistently gripping as the ambitious Toronto punk band is, it reached the point in its career where most groups can just coast on whatever’s comfortable. For Fucked Up, that cozy spot is an overlap of ethereal distortion, melodic sprawl, rock-opera narrative, and the burly bellow of frontman Damian Abraham. Formula-wise, David isn’t any different—it’s just done brilliantly. Witty, wasted, shimmering, passionate, and so fucking epic it makes the heart stagger, the disc’s 18 tracks unpack the meandering tale of a pair of young people falling together into some elaborate spasm of destructive love. Honestly, the big picture isn’t that important; in spite of the arc, each song is a concise slab of self-contained, anthemic aggression, and Abraham comes out swinging with dozens of desperately cathartic, lung-ripping sing-alongs. The phrase “dying on the inside” never sounded so grimly uplifting as it does when chanted on “The Other Shoe,” offset by the acidic sweetness of guest singer Jennifer Castle. Dying, of course, lays the groundwork for rebirth, which is one of the themes that beams brightly throughout the album. Then again, at this point, it seems that every new Fucked Up album aims to be a rebirth—and David is as glorious an awakening as anything Abraham and crew have created to date.
(72 points, seven votes)
Year-end chart-toppers tend to be a bit more bombastic than Wye Oak’s fantastic third album. (See our list from last year, with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the clear winner.) But a huge part of Civilian’s appeal is how quietly but forcefully insinuating its songs are, from the loping, static “The Alter” to the chugging-but-understated “Holy, Holy.” Like most great albums, it’s a grower, but once listeners tune in to the frequency of Jenn Wasner’s mournful, husky vocals and Andy Stack’s drums-and-keyboard undercarriage, its gorgeous barbs will hold. Civilian is the sound of a band coming off another great record—2009’s The Knot—but taking everything that made it great up yet another notch. Wasner proves herself a master guitarist and lyricist who’s finally hit the exact mark she wants, both with her words and her six-string squall. Lyrically, Civilian can be simultaneously pitch-black and soaringly hopeful; musically, it’s equally adept at punching and soothing. (Live, the duo is shockingly muscular, and they clearly love playing these songs.) Maybe it’s 2011’s darkest album by the band with the brightest future.
Find each contributor’s ballot, with plenty more year’s-best-music picks, plus more year’s-best coverage to come, at avclub.com/section/best-of-2011.