It took me a long time to make this, yes, but mostly because there were some albums I just could not figure out how I felt about (also, because I am very slow). I marked those with a *, in case you were wondering. Those were the ones it took me the most listens to come to some sort of conclusion about. I did the whole list, of everything I listened to this year, so it’s long and probably the order could change. The top twenty link to my favorite song from each album.
So, 2011 – for me, it was all weird R&B and girl singers (I guess every year is girl singers?). Most of my favorite albums were ones that took an established genre – female singer-songwriters, r&b singing, psychedelica, even 70’s Steely Dan jazz – and twisted it into something new and strange. Or, sometimes, didn’t twist at all, just inhabited it so carefully and fully that it became something new. Also, Bon Iver.
1. Drake – Take Care
Oh, I have so many feelings about this album. Duh. I wasn’t sure it was the number 1 because not all of it is perfection, but still there is nothing else I want to listen to, right now, and tomorrow, too. I’m still unpacking it. “Take Care” is so gorgeous, and probably Rihanna’s best performance. “Marvin’s Room” is such a wrenching, bizarre triumph. “HYFR” is such a clever, strange song. This album just wraps you up, it’s like being buried in it. It’s one long, concentrated statement, one big feeling. It’s an incredibly impressive thing to release, even if it doesn’t always work. What doesn’t work actually makes it more interesting, I think. Keep it up Drake. (But maybe some fun songs, too, next time? And not like, “I’m having fun on the outside” but like actual fun. And not “Make Me Proud”).
2. James Blake
I just love James Blake to pieces. This album is just…it’s so new, you know? Maybe I don’t listen to enough spare techno and cutting edge dubstep, but I just found this so different and complex, but also so approachable. It’s just singing over drumbeats, like anything else is, but it ends up sounding so strange and unlike conventional songs. There is so much space in these songs, so much hang time, so many strange noises and rhythms underneath. And yet I never feel like it’s weird to be weird, I’m never put off. If anything, it sounds more intimate, more relatable, more human, more careful. It’s just so cool.
3. Destroyer – Kaput
This is the single album I listened to more than any other this year. I’ve always loved 70’s loungey stuff – I was the only person who ever listened to Aja in my house – and Dan Bejar does a delightful job inhabiting that sound, and reminding me everything I like about it. But I think I listened to this so much because it works in any context – in the background, in the car, it’s just good stuff, catchy and interesting and smooth. And then when you want to pay attention, really listen to the lyrics and pick it apart…well, then it just gets even better.
4. St Vincent – Strange Mercy*
St Vincent has been in my periphery awhile, and I’d always sort of been like, “Oh, sure, girl singer with a guitar and winsome eyes, yeah I got it.” But then I listened to this album (how great is that cover btw?) and whoa. I was just blown away. There’s a spikiness and a creepiness to her that I adore, and this album just balls out rocks. Like it’s all loud angry guitar solos and wailing and some nice driving keyboards. It’s like Annie Clark – pretty and sweet, but those eyes can turn nasty.
5. Drive Soundtrack
Most of why we all liked Drive (that wasn’t for the jacket) was all for the soundtrack. I have listened to these four songs – well, a lot. And also to instrumental tracks, and I downloaded the whole Desire album (the rest isn’t as good, duh). Riding in buses at night, strutting to the subway, working on things at night, getting ready to go out: there is never a time when listening to this stuff doesn’t make you feel neon and tortured, satiny and beautiful and fragile, badass and awesome.
6. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
I need to spend more time with this one – this is the Age of Adz of 2011. But it’s just so easy. It comes on and I’m like, sure, of course, let’s listen to this. And then again. And then listen to it again. Finger plucking and a gravelly voice, good melodies and some interesting production, sunny songs about sad things or sad songs about nothing. It’s such a simple formula but when it works, it works, amirite?
7. Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra*
Look, this song has an 8-minute R&B reworking of “Hotel California” about a rushed marriage. Of course I like it. But the whole thing is great in that 2011 R&B way, where we take these great sounds and beats and his croony, almost sleazy voice, and make it much more interesting. And clever! Frank Ocean is a great lyricist, and he’s really wry, and self-aware, in a very, uh, un-Odd Future way. And he just sounds good, at everything he does. If it wasn’t so stuttery and understated, “Swim Good” could be a B.o.B. song, it’s that catchy. No wonder the biggest names in hip-hop picked him out.
8. Bon Iver
What, I’m not gonna put this on here? This thing is beautiful. Well-crafted, expansive, huge, captivating. This is the consensus pick, not because anyone is settling or its the lowest common denominator, but because everyone likes it. It’s special, and it is not hard to realize that.
9. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost*
I am still not completely sure how I feel about this one – the funnest, catchiest, easiest songs are at the beginning, and so every time I listen to it, it’s “Wait, what was I thinking, this is fantastic!” and then a slowing of songs and a slowing of my enthusiasm. But the later songs are good, too, they just take some more unpacking. I like Girls’ fast fun stuff, I always have, but I’m learning to love the unfolding breakdown that is “Vomit,” the sweetness of “Love Life,” the longing shuffle of “Myma.” There’s so much in this album, so many different styles mashed up into this weird thing, with Christopher Owens’ unique but totally endearing voice on top. I think I love it.
10. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
MMJ is another band that had been around for awhile, and that I never quite got. But this album is so fun! It’s like a psychelidic, jam band kind of thing, but with tight, careful songs, and great choruses. It’s wooly and loud and big and totally unironic. It’s like all the best parts of the barefoot sway in the grass kind of dancing – organic and heartfelt and goofy and so easy and now I’m just smiling, this album is great.
12. The-Dream – 1977*
It’s a The-Dream album. It’s all kiss-offs, huge sputtering synths, and falsetto. What are we still talking about? Also I am totally ready to accept Casha as our new Diva, “Silly” is just excellent.
13. The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Thursday*
Frank Ocean, Drake, and the Weeknd are all this big, ‘let’s turn R&B inside out and make it about things it didn’t think it was about.’ The Weeknd is (are?) also fantastic to listen to.
14. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80*
You know that great song on Take Care, “Buried Alive,” where Kendrick Lamar raps about rap and women and driving around not knowing what to do with himself and worrying about his career and authenticity? Did you know there’s a whole album of that?
16. The Roots – Undun*
Look, the Roots are professionals.
17. The Black Keys – El Camino*
Not as good as the last album, but still way better than it needs to be. The Black Keys are no fools.
19. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues*
Who hasn’t felt like that?
21. Cut Copy – Zonoscope*
22. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes*
23. Wild Flag*
24. Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full of Holes
25. ASAP Rocky – LiveLoveASAP*
26. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer
27. Battles – Gloss Drop
28. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
29. Wilco – The Whole Love
30. Lady Gaga – Born This Way
31. LMFAO – Sorry for Party Rocking
32. Smith Westerns – Dye It Blond*
33. Big Sean – Finally Famous
34. Adele – 21
35. Rihanna – Talk That Talk
36. Bright Eyes – The Peoples Key*
37. The Decemberists – The King is Dead
38. Okkervil River – I am Very Far
39. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter 4
40. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes & Keys