July 1, 2011
photo via cubagallery
We’re halfway through 2011 which means it’s time for the annual mid-year recap of the best albums of the year so far. If there’s a theme for 2011 so far it’s been defying the sophomore slump with Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, The Antlers, Lykke Li, STRFKR and The Rural Alberta Advantage all providing some of the best music of the year. There’s also been plenty of reliable favorites like The Mountain Goats, Junior Boys, The Decemberists and Iron & Wine and a good number of debuts bidding for time from my eardrums this year. As before, I’m listing my favorite 15 albums in chronological order with a few that didn’t quite make it below. So without further ado, these are the best albums released in 2011 so far.
The Decemberists – The King Is Dead (January 18, Capitol)
After the unfortunate side-step that was Hazards of Love, The Decemberists, one of the most consistently excellent indie bands, have made a triumphant return with The King Is Dead. Gone are the lengthy prog-opera jams and in it’s place are a collection of brisk, stripped-down folk rock songs that recall 80’s-era R.E.M. (and at times, even feature Peter Buck). Colin Meloy’s expert songwriting and poetic lyrics are in top form on exquisite tracks like “Calamity Song” and “June Hymn”.
Destroyer – Kaputt (January 25, Merge)
The last couple years has seen many indie artists reclaiming the vintage 80’s soft-rock sound, but no artist has done so with such awe-inspiring results as Destroyer’s Dan Bejar. Kaputt strikes a balance of being faithful to the sound, with it’s palette of smooth jazz sax solos, airy synths and soulful back-up singers, and creating something entirely new that’s both whimsical and stunning. This album further elevates the eccentric songwriter as one being of the most unique and talented voices of our generation.
Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (January 25, Warner Bros)
Iron & Wine has grown a lot as an artist since his lo-fi whisper folk beginnings and with Kiss Each Other Clean, he continues to evolve. Opening with a breathtaking electronica-tinged gospel tune, “Walking Far From Home” the album is full of gorgeous, densely orchestrated tunes that sees see Mr. Beam expanding his horizons even further with offbeat percussion, woodwinds, and doo-wop back-up singers all working together to support his striking melodies.
Cut Copy – Zonoscope (Februrary 8, Modular)
With it’s wall-to-wall synths and a string of dancefloor-murdering climaxes, Zonoscope is Cut Copy’s most exhilarating album yet and also their most bombastic (take “Sun God”, the 15 minute dance-pop behemoth that closes the album). The album is chock full of blissed-out jams like the irresistibly catchy synth-pop banger “Need You Now” and the lush dream-pop of “This Is All We’ve Got”. This is the album I want blasting out of my car with the windows open on a sunny day.
Radiohead – King of Limbs (February 16, Self-Released)
While there’s some truth to the cries of King of Limbs being Radiohead’s most elusive and obscure album, with it’s sublimity comes a deep-seated beauty that’s most clearly seen in the magnificent second half (although the densely-packed first half has it’s share of treasures as well). Like all the band’s work, it takes more then a few spins to absorb it all and I’ve continued to notice precious new details emerging throughout the album on every listen.
The Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing (March 1, Saddle Creek)
Although the temptation for any previously-unknown indie band would be to say “their old stuff was better”, with Departing The Rural Alberta Advantage have crafted another album full of intense, passionate folk-rock songs. The band’s stripped-down arrangements, gripping vocals, and explosive drumming are as visceral as ever, most clearly seen in incendiary and engaging songs like “Stamp” and “Barnes’ Yard”.
Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes (March 1, Atlantic)
Three years after Swedish pop singer Lykke Li released her charming debut album, she takes on new territory with her sophomore release, a beautifully-constructed, melodramatic breakup album that owes as much to 60’s girl-groups then to her Swede peers. The album moves from desolate, dark ballads like “Sadness is a Blessing” and “Love out of Lust” to the fiery upbeat swagger of “Get Some” with ease, Li playing both parts with magnetic tenacity.
Starfucker – Reptilians (March 8, Polyvinyl)
Early this year Starfucker became one of my new favorites with the release of Reptilians, the groups second full-length album. The album takes you on an exciting, space-like journey through the world of superb synthesizers and stellar melodies. The Portland-based band has mastered the combination of cool vibes ( “Mona Vegas”), reverberating vocals (“Born”) and upbeat dance hooks (“Julius”), with each song providing the listener a different experience than the last. – XE
The Mountain Goats – All Eternal’s Deck (March 29, Merge)
On his 18th studio album, John Darnielle has made another spectacular collection of songs that ranks among his best work. All Eternal’s Deck doesn’t have an over-arching theme which gives the illustrious singer-songwriter opportunity to make a looser, more diverse album with jagged folk-punk, stripped-down acoustic, jubilant folk-pop and even a song that features a haunting a capella backing choir. Darnielle’s knack for clever word play is still as riveting as ever and the impeccable production and dramatic arrangements add a palpable weight to those lyrics.
TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light (April 12, Interscope)
I’ll admit I wasn’t too keen on this album at first, but I’ve come to appreciate the more sophisticated, refined direction the band is headed on Nine Types of Light. It doesn’t quite kick out the jams as often as Dear Science, but I’ve now found the soulful, intimate love songs like “Second Song” and “You” to be just as satisfying, and when the band does kick it up a notch on spastic stompers like “New Cannonball Blues” and “No Future Shock” they show they can rock the dancefloor just as effortlessly as the bedroom.
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (May 3, Sub Pop)
I’m not sure there was any album this year met with as high expectations as Fleet Foxes’ follow-up to their beloved debut album. The Seattle quintet were able to triumphantly exceed all of them with an album that builds upon the ideas of their debut and then completely surpasses them. The band goes for a much wider scope both musically, where psychedelia and prog-rock now inhabit the pastoral folk landscape and lyrically with Robin Pecknold’s emotional soul-searching making the achingly pretty music even more meaningful. And of course, the band’s stunning vocal melodies and multi-part harmonies are still in a league all of their own.
The Antlers – Burst Apart (May 10, Frenchkiss)
Listening to The Antlers second album, Burst Apart was both an emotional and intensely gratifying experience. The somber lyrics heard on almost every song convey the albums poignant theme perfectly, especially when combined with velvety synthesizers and frontman Peter Silberman’s truly stellar vocals. Silberman’s delicate falsetto and cooing creates a dramatic yet ethereal mood, heard most prominently in “No Windows” and “I Don’t Want Love”. Burst Apart manages to surpass the bands already fantastic first album, Hospice, making this album one of the best of the year. – XE
Cults – Cults (June 7, ITNO/Columbia)
Cults seemed to have come out of nowhere, but the bands self-titled debut album quickly gained its well-deserved popularity. Contrary to what one might think, Cults isn’t just your typical female-driven, 60’s themed, poppy Brooklyn-duo, as a distinct element of mystery and darkness hovers over the entire album. Madeline Follin’s powerful vocals go as far as giving me goosebumps every time I hear the intense and climactic “You Know What I Mean,” a song that truly exceeded my expectations. With its unpredictable turns and overall display of true talent, Cults was a refreshing surprise. – XE
Junior Boys – It’s All True (June 14, Domino)
I appreciate a band that finds their niche and perfects it from album to album and that’s exactly what Canadian electronica duo Junior Boys have done. The band has never sounded better then on It’s All True, which features some of the their most dynamic and infectious dance-pop tunes all culminating in the masterfully-structured 9-minute closer, “Banana Ripple”, a tour de force of bursting synths, pulsating rhythms and layered falsettos.
Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver (June 21, Jagjaguwar)
Bon Iver’s debut was a deeply emotional work that touched many people on a personal level. For all the understated beauty that was contained in those songs though, I far prefer this album with it’s richer tones and increased sonic landscape. Bon Iver, Bon Iver takes the strummed acoustic guitar and Vernon’s phenomenal vocals that we all know and love and adds some of the most colorful and enchanting instrumental arrangements that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. And while “Beth / Rest” has become a divisive issue for some, I personally love it.
Bodies of Water
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
Leave your favorite albums so far this year in the comments. Thanks for reading!