Because we at Little by Listen enjoy letting you know what the best of the best is, we have opted to force upon you our Top 20 albums of 2011. Constructing this list was much simpler than the top 20 songs, and thankfully didn’t end with me burning down Wes’ house or digging up Todd’s childhood pet and leaving it for him to find in his bed. In fact making this list was a little too easy, possibly because Todd had a cold nose while we were making it, and probably just wanted to get the process over with. Or maybe because Wes needed to tend to his beehives to collect some holiday honey (honey is coincidentally the name of Todd’s childhood pet btw). Please enjoy the list we have so meticulously crafted, and feel free to throw your entries in the comments so we can immediately dismiss you as philistines with no taste.
20. War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
This album makes all of us just want to be highway ramblers for the rest of our days. The weary Americana rock band fuses Springsteen’s heart, Dylan’s warble and shoegaze aesthetics to make Slave Ambient one true delight.
19. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne
While we are still a little sore that “H.A.M” didn’t make the final cut, Watch the Throne still delivered on ambition, even if occasionally faltering on execution. Jay-Z and Kanye resist the urge to pack their joint effort with guest spots, knowing that they are in fact quite enough to satisfy any hip-hop lover’s needs.
18. Panda Bear – Tomboy
The theme album for the next World Cup; the sunniest Animal Collective member fuses Beach Boys pop with experimental world sounds. The songs are chopped, swirled, sliced, and flipped upside their head, constantly keeping us fascinated.
17. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
PJ Harvey sings about…England; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Harvey, per usual, does not employ a particularly beautiful voice. Instead, the varied and occasionally balky voice employed on Let England Shake, is used to perfectly add significance that resonates far beyond the end of the album.
16. Yuck – Yuck
An amalgamation of all that was good in 90’s rock; from Sonic Youth experimental srock (“Rubber”) to Dinosaur Jr. driving guitar rock (“Operation”) even to sweetly sung Smashing Pumpkins ballads (“Sunday”). These young Brits did what the early rock ‘n’ rollers did best: copy us Americans.
15. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Different does not always mean interesting, or even good for that matter. In the case of Black Up, different means both of these things, just for beginners. What begins as a challenging listen is ultimately greatly rewarding, and sometimes even catchy.
14. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain
The messy garage punk band takes some new cues from retro-style producer Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Adele) to summon the spirits of ghastly rock & roll. The Brooklyn foursome deliver some of their best songwriting yet, done with incredible tact but still with their ferocious delivery.
13. Kurt Vile – Smoke Rings for my Halo
This gritty rock album is the musical equivalent of Shawn Marion. He never seemed to me to do anything great, but did everything very, very well. Not necessarily an MVP in any given year, but a consistent performer nonetheless. This album has the benefit of having one of the best titles of the year.
12. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
Tom Waits has certainly garnered some love for his music and acting here on Little by Listen, and our end of the year list is no different. I didn’t have the highest expectations for Bad As Me, but the musical belt-sander delivered a latter-career gem that is a true testament to how talented he really is.
11. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
Every track on Past Life Martyred Saints sounds like Nirvana’a “Rape Me” procreated with PJ Harvey. Perhaps non-coincidentally Erika M. Anderson covered Nirvana’a “Endless, Nameless” this year and also released a single presumably about the state of California literally raping her. I am not sure another album so emotionally raw will rear its head for quite some time.
10. The Black Keys – El Camino
“If a man does away with his traditional way of living and throws away his good customs, he had better make certain that he has something of value to replace them.’”. What we once held most dear in our love of the Black Keys is mostly gone, that being grittiness and dirty, filthy blues feel. But The Black Keys have not left us without adequate replacement, enter power-pop crunch and Danger Mouse making a damned racket.
9. Cults – Cults
Cults self-titled debut is pure pop fun to the last drop. But don’t get us wrong, Cults pack in their fair share of substance to go along with their style, highlighted by hit single “Go Outside”, and throwback gem “You Know What I Mean”.
8. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
Not the most ambitious My Morning Jacket album by a long shot, Circuital still delivers more than enough riffing, wailing, and surprises to make this album another in a long line of successful MMJ offerings. Covering a variety of different styles, Circuital manages to be a cohesive album, which is a feat unto itself. I don’t want to discount how awesome Jim James is, but can we really expect another Z? I don’t think so.
7. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
A deep cut of Americana, from a bunch of Washingtonians, that varies from great road music to introspective ballads. Helplessness Blues can be an album that as a whole may find a difficult place for a certain mood, time or place, but the fact remains each song is a carefully crafted ode to something.
6. Radiohead – King of Limbs
The Radiohead album that finally captured Austin’s attention, the divisive King of Limbs, focuses more on sonically perfect, but often understated, ballads. Thom Yorke keeps it pretty, and we likey.
5. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
The old woodsman Justin Vernon fused his woodsman sounds with a bit more electronica for his self-titled LP. With wistful sounds in some points, and aggressive noise in others, it is always balanced out with the sweet tone of Justin’s voice. A new direction from the widely praised For Emma, Forever Ago, but a direction we love nonetheless.
4. Antlers – Burst Apart
The Antlers were not simply a one-hit wonder with Hospice. Their follow-up, Burst Apart, is proof-in-point that a band can grow in a more accessible direction without sacrificing substance. The sculpting of sounds is immaculate, even if the message is a little less poignant than Hospice, which is not necessarily a knock since Burst Apart is not a concept album.
3. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
In the past several years, I can only pinpoint Tunde Adebimpe (pre-Nine Types of Light) as having a more primal delivery than Merrill Garbus on whokill. Merrill declares vocal warfare on the microphone, speakers, listener, and whatever/whoever else her vocals reach. There is even a rumor going around that the sonic waves caused by Merrill’s voice reaching a concert-going Todd’s tidy package caused the poor lad to ejaculate on his tummy.
2. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
St. Vincent’s previous albums were full of potential, but everything didn’t really add up to a cohesive product. Strange Mercy took the leap to excellence without pandering to girl-pop norms. All at once foreboding, invigorating, and delicate, Strange Mercy doesn’t hold back.
1. M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
While partially a product of being a double-LP, it still must be said that you are going to be hard-pressed to find more great songs on one album this year than you will on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Although 80’s music has influenced current releases more and more, M83 takes new wave to extravagant highs. I just wanna dance, daddy.
For more 2011 Best of Coverage: