I listen to a lot of music, but I simply can’t listen to everything. That’s why I’m saying explicitly that this is not a “best of” list. This is just my opinion, my favorite records of the year. If I listened to more albums, there may have been some others on this list as well, but 2011 is over, and this is what I’ve come up with. I am numbering them, but the main ranking is through tiers. The first tier consists of my favorite albums and the ones I consider to be objectively excellent. The second tier consists of my other favorite albums, ones that were just a step below my top five. The third tier is honorable mentions. These albums are fantastic as well, but for one reason or another, they didn’t make the final cut.
Without further ado:
TIER ONE: The Best of the Best
1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver: Ever since this album came out, I’ve known it would be my album of the year. It’s eerily beautiful soundscapes contrast the stark acoustic guitar driven folk of For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon’s first full-length album under the Bon Iver moniker. It’s lyrics, abstract and at times nonsensical, captivate and seem true, even when you have no idea what Vernon’s haunting falsetto is singing. It’s lush, gorgeous, and close to perfect in my opinion. Song picks: “Calgary” and “Holocene”
2. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy: For some reason, I always thought that I didn’t like St. Vincent. I’d heard of them (I didn’t even realize it’s really just Anne Clark, one woman), but never tried to listen. When Strange Mercy came out to tons of positive buzz, I figured I’d give it a try. By the end of the first song, I was hooked. I quickly developed the highest admiration for Clark, as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. The girl can sing, and the girl can shred. The sometimes caustic and otherworldly guitar parts are the opposite of her beautiful voice, but it works. They compliment each other, and contrast each other in all the right ways. Song picks: “Cheerleader” and “Dilletante”
3. O’Brother – Garden Window: Moving into some entirely different territory than my first two picks, I’ve heard O’Brother described as “indie metal.” In a way, I think this is an accurate description–the experimental band is heavy, but they also display certain elements of “indie.” I’ve talked about this album before, so I’ll keep it short this time around. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. There are moments of explosive instrumentation, sounds of fury and fervor fill your speakers, and other moments of beautiful stillness, of calm and quiet. It’s a breathtaking album, and it’s hard to believe it’s the first full-length record for O’Brother. Song pick: “Lay Down”
4. Kevin Devine – Between the Concrete and Clouds: This fall has been a season of Kevin Devine for me. I’ve been drawn to his music more than I ever have before, and I’ve grown to appreciate all of his records. I can’t pick a favorite album; it’s always changing. That said, I think Between the Concrete and Clouds is Kevin Devine’s most cohesive album. The songs just fit together; nothing feels out of place. He drops some of his wordy intellectualism for a more poppy style, but the quality of the lyrics remains first rate. The more spartan word choice strikes me as more hard hitting in many cases. Song picks: “I Used to Be Someone” and “Awake in the Dirt”
5. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones: I slept on Frank Turner for a long time–too long. The first time I listened to England Keep My Bones was the first time I really listened to Frank Turner. My first thought was, “How did I ignore this guy for so long?” Every track is memorable and well-executed. Lyrically, it spans range of topics including: drugs, death, remembrance, English pride and history, self worth, love, and religion without losing steam along the way. When I listen to this record, I feel a strange surge of English pride right before I remember that I don’t have any heritage on that island country. When an album can make you feel like that, you know it’s good stuff. Song picks: “I Am Disappeared” and “Glory Hallelujah”
TIER TWO: Other Personal Favorites
6. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck: Another excellent effort by John Darnielle. Lush and varied instrumentation, complete with some barber shop quartet sounding backing vocals in “High Hawk Season,” it a wonderful album. 13 solid songs. Hearing them live only increased by appreciation of All Eternals Deck and Darnielle’s songwriting. Song pick: “Damn These Vampires”
7. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key: Conor Oberst went on a completely different direction with the long awaited follow-up to 2007’s folksy Cassadega. The songs are more accessible, in my opinion. I can put this record on any time and listen to it. Themes of spirituality and humanism hold the album together amid the abstract lyrics and bizarre spoken word interludes. Favorite tracks: “Jejune Stars” and “Haile Selassie”
8. La Dispute – Wildlife: When I heard about Wildlife, the concept and the acclaim, I gave La Dispute a shot. They blew me away. With lyrics more like poetry than anything, it’s one of the most emotionally devastating and hard-hitting albums I’ve heard all year. It’s beautiful in its anguish and rage, writhing with pain and more emotions than I can list here. Wildlife is not for everyone, and it’s not an easy listen. It’s long, and can be arduous (the only reason it’s not ranked higher) because of how deeply emotional it is, but it’s worth it. Song picks: “King Park” and “Harder Harmonies”
9. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math: Manchester Orchestra’s most ambitious album showcases the addition of strings on several tracks as Andy Hull tries to tackle a strange concept. He said that the album is a collection of conversations between himself, his wife, and God–who he’s talking to at any given time, even Hull doesn’t always know. Simple Math‘s only fault is it’s ambition. At times, the strings don’t seem to fit; they’re just not always necessary. Simple Math remains an enjoyable listen and a great effort by the Atlanta quintet. Song picks: “Simple Math” and “Apprehension”
10. Thursday – No Devolucion: The first time I listened to No Devolucion, I didn’t know what to expect, and I had no idea it would be Thursday’s last album. It’s completely different from Thursday’s previous efforts, but it might be their best work. Lead singer Geoff Rickley’s voice doesn’t stand out loudly in the mix, and it fits perfectly. Each instrument blends, along with Rickly’s voice to create some beautiful and haunting songs. Song pick: “No Answers”
11. David Bazan – Strange Negotiations: It took seeing David Bazan live for me to really appreciate this album. When I went to see Bazan in June, I definitely thought I preferred his first album Curse Your Branches, but his performance changed everything. I fell in love with Strange Negotiations. I finally understood it. Hearing Bazan explain the story behind “Virginia” and then play it was heartbreaking. After that night, I had a new appreciation for this record. Song picks: “Wolves at the Door” and “People”
TIER THREE: Honorable Mentions
12. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost: If I had gotten around to listening to this album sooner, it would probably be ranked much higher. I’d also have more to say about it. I wasn’t a fan of Girls’ acclaimed record Album that was released in 2009, but I reluctantly gave this a listen. I couldn’t ignore it–it’s simply fantastic.
13. The Horrible Crowes – Elsie: Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem’s side project did not disappoint. His soulful howl delivered first rate lyrics in a unique package, explore terrain far beyond what many Gaslight fans are used to. When I first heard this album I was thoroughly impressed, thought it was a lock for my albums of the year. I listened to it constantly for a while, and then the magic wore off. I still think it’s great, but it just didn’t have the staying power I need to be one of my absolute favorites of 2011.
14. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life: This is album is without a doubt a masterpiece. It deserves all the acclaim it has received, but at 80 minutes long, it’s rather exhausting. I like to take a record and listen to it all the way through, I can’t easily do that with David Comes to Life, but I can still appreciate the triumph of art that it is.
15. Dave Hause – Resolutions: I saw Dave Hause play a solo show a few years ago with Brian Fallon, and he grew on me. I like his solo work much more than his material with the Loved Ones, the Philly punk band he sings for. Resolutions is a great album, showcasing some excellent songwriting by Hause.