LIST: My 10 Favorite Albums of 2011

I’m happy to finally update this blog for the first time in months with write-ups for my 10 favorite albums of 2011. Before I get to the long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from that album.

20. Cold Cave: Cherish the Light Years (“Confetti”)

19. Washed Out: Within and Without (“Amor Fati”)

18. Radiohead: The King of Limbs (“Give Up the Ghost”)

17. The Strokes: Angles (“Taken For a Fool”)

16. Wilco: The Whole Love (“Dawned On Me”)

15. Cults: Cults (“Abducted”)

14. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (“Grown Ocean”)

13. The Black Keys: El Camino (“Lonely Boy”)

12. Panda Bear: Tomboy (“Friendship Bracelet”)

11. Real Estate: Days (“It’s Real”)

Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2011.

10. Dum Dum Girls: Only in Dreams

We’ve seen an influx the last few years of girl-driven California indie pop, including Best Coast, Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls. The latter group, led by the velvet-voiced Dee Dee, became my favorite of the bunch this year with the aces EP He Gets Me High and their second full-length, the perpetually-jangly Only in Dreams. There isn’t much variation to the song structure and the drumbeats on several tunes are virtually the same. But the surf-guitar sound on tracks like opener “Always Looking” and single “Bedroom Eyes” make this record stand out. In a year when so many acts were attempting to mask their words, Only in Dreams is refreshingly straightforward. There’s depth here too, with three-chord sermon “Coming Down” and the melancholy sadness of closer “Hold Your Hand,” which conjures the feelings of being with a loved one as they slip away to the great gig in the sky. For my money, Only in Dreams hits its peak on mid-album rocker “Heartbeat.” Dee Dee’s voice has been endlessly compared to Chrissie Hynde, perhaps my favorite female vocalist. On “Heartbeat,” Dee Dee reaches Hynde-like heights of beautiful, deep confidence. “Take it away,” the chorus pleads over and over. On Only in Dreams, Dee Dee and her ladies only give, and they give just about everything.

9. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost

The story of Christopher Owens, the genius behind Girls, reads like The Blind Side but with a white kid with a guitar. Born into the Children of God cult, Owens had an older brother who died due to the cult’s beliefs and a mother who prostituted herself on its behalf. Later, Owens was taken in by a Texas millionaire and then moved to San Francisco, where he started Girls. Their debut album, fittingly titled Album, was a ‘60s-style rock triumph, but Owens takes the more fleshed-out group further on Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Opener “Honey Bunny” is an honest examination of Owens’ shortcomings over with one of the happiest-sounding guitar tracks of the year. “Alex” is about a girl Owens pines for, with the common refrain of “Who cares?” describing feelings going both ways. “Die” rocks unlike anything on Album while the building “Vomit” takes the band to a mountainous crescendo. There’s plenty of playful tracks like “Saying I Love You,” “Magic” and “Love Like a River,” but the album also displays an incredible amount of depth, nowhere better than on “Forgiveness.” You can hear Owens’ heart break as he croons “nothing’s gonna get any better” and “no one’s gonna find any answers.” His acoustic guitar and the plodding keyboards tell the story before the mid-tune breakdown and emotional solo. The song’s final words always give me chills: “I can see so much clearer / When I just close my eyes.” Without a doubt, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is one of the best albums of year to just sit back, close your eyes and love.

8. Bon Iver: Bon Iver

Speaking of back stories, this is one you may be more familiar with: Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon wrote and recorded the project’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago in a remote Wisconsin cabin. For his second act, Vernon went quite a bit bigger. A cabin couldn’t possibly hold back Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort. Every song on Bon Iver feels massive. From the marching drums and guitar of “Perth,” the soft arpeggio brilliance of “Holocene,” the folky touches of “Towers” and the quiet strength of “Wash.,” it’s no wonder this is the record where Vernon crossed over into mainstream accolades. My biggest issue with Bon Iver is Vernon’s continual insistence in recording with multiple tracks of his lead vocal, which masks his incredible falsetto voice and typically mangles understanding of what he’s singing. Vernon’s live performances are usually more powerful than his recorded work. Still, it’s hard to not be enraptured by Bon Iver’s soft sonic mastery from beginning to end. And it’s the end that seems to get people talking. Easily the most divisive indie rock song of the year, closer “Beth/Rest” very easily could be mistaken for an easy listening ballad in the mold of Bruce Hornsby or Richard Marx. But, dammit, the song is amazing. You have to respect the hell out of Vernon for taking a chance like this and pulling it off in a totally non-ironic and completely earnest fashion. The degree of difficulty, and effortlessness of Vernon’s sound, makes Bon Iver an indelible highlight of 2011. He sure is a long way from that cabin now.

7. Foster the People: Torches

Admit it: a year ago, you’d never heard of Foster the People. Now, it’s impossible to exist without hearing them. Their debut, Torches, exploded this year in a maelstrom of viral hits and tunes you’d hear everywhere from movie trailers to coffee shops to car commercials. For 2011, they were next in a line of synth-dance-indie-pop-rock groups to gain insta-fame, following in the footsteps of MGMT and Passion Pit. The common thread of the groups is that beyond the hype and the annual chorus of fans saying “I knew them back when…” it really comes down to the solid sounds they’ve forged. At first, I wasn’t crazy about Torches, thinking songs like “Color on the Walls (Don’t Stop)” cribbed a bit too much from the MGMT playbook. But unlike many albums I heard this year, there wound up being cohesiveness to the overall product that simply worked. Mark Foster and Co. created a sound that so many millions will closely associate with where they were in 2011. Each song is different but so clearly comes from the same place: “Waste” brings heavenly choruses; mega-smash “Pumped Up Kicks” creeps along a bouncy beat and tells a story about why you probably shouldn’t play with guns; “Houdini” and my personal highlight “Call it What You Want” are whacked-out dance-a-thons that undoubtedly birthed hundreds of unplanned hipster dance parties this year. Truth is, to some, it’s probably already uncool to like Foster the People. Anyone who tries to say that is trying too hard to be cool themselves. Love Torches now, and wait to see who’ll be the Foster the People of 2012.

6. Arctic Monkeys: Suck It and See

Arctic Monkeys were the first band around my age I loved. Debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and sophomore Favourite Worst Nightmare defined my college years with tight punkishness while 2009’s Humbug was a step back with mostly hardcore sludge. It came out after college during a strange time for me. This year, Suck It and See was released when I was starting to figure things out. Clearly, Arctic Monkeys also figured things out, with an album that culls from their best work. Lead singer Alex Turner, who mostly yelled early on, is now a bona fide hard rock crooner. Standout tracks “She’s Thunderstorms,” “Black Treacle,” “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” and “Reckless Serenade” combine bouncy riffs with rocking attitude. Heavier tunes “Brick By Brick” and “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” were the best songs not on Humbug. “Library Pictures” is a blast-from-the-past, an angry rant befitting the Sheffield boys’ early days. But it’s the end of the album that hits home hardest, showing the band’s maturity as they enter their mid-20s. Closer “That’s Where You’re Wrong” (starts 1:50 into video) is their best song since “Fluorescent Adolescent.” This sounds of a band that’s waged the battles of youthful expectations, coming out the other side with their talents and brains intact, reaching a point where they’ll be supporting the Black Keys on a 2012 arena tour. “That’s Where You’re Wrong” shows how far they’ve come with Suck It and See. Two-and-a-half minutes in, Jamie Cook launches into a high-pitched solo as the song turns triumphant. “Don’t take it so personally,” Turner says. “You’re not the only one.” Maybe getting older, and wiser, isn’t so bad.

5. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde

I’m pretty sure the guys in Smith Westerns are tools. I saw them at Great Scott and while they played well, the long hair of brothers Cullen and Cameron Omori were in their respective faces the entire time. Cullen quickly unplugged his microphone and ran off stage at the end of their set without playing an encore. These Chicagoans, weaned on Beatles and T-Rex records, will soon realize their audience is the wrong group of people to piss off. But with Dye It Blonde, they’re at least in a mature place when it comes to their recording style. George Harrison is smiling in rock heaven, knowing his signature guitar sound lives on. “Weekend” is a piece of glam perfection that goes a bit deeper than just having fun on a weekend. Because to Cullen weekends are never fun “unless you’re around here too…” Showing a bit of their age and feelings of mortality, mid-record masterpiece “All Die Young” winds down with a massive chorus and a truthful refrain: “Love is lovely when you are young.” “Dance Away” is awfully danceable, “End of the Night” chugs along with some really fun riffs, “Only One” recalls the Britpop of the late-80s and early-90s. The final tune, “Dye the World” has perhaps the best guitar work on the entire album and ends with an awesome melancholy riff. Dye It Blonde is the work of a band trying to find its way in the wide world of indie rock. Between their garage-y debut and this very polished second effort, I’d like to think their best work is to come. I’d also like to think they wouldn’t be douchebags when I see them again in January.

4. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

The fourth studio album from these Brooklyn indie heavyweights was released on April 12. Eight days later, bassist Gerard Smith died following a bout with lung cancer. Nine Types of Light was likely written and recorded with the knowledge Smith was undergoing the fight of his life. Because of that, an odd darkness permeates much of the album and gives it an aura unheard on their other records. Even upbeat songs, like ironically titled opener “Second Song,” lead single “Will Do” and the truly repetitive “Repetition” all feel like something is desperately wrong. This album lacks the star power of 2008’s Dear Science but works nearly as well. The frantic “No Future Shock” introduces us to a brand new dance craze conjuring the plight of many today. “Keep Your Heart” features lengthy coos from Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, who come into their own as vocalists. The finest moments come in the form of a mid-album sandwich with “Will Do” providing the tasty filling and two of the best pieces of bread ever baked up by TV on the Radio. (OK, that was lame. Sorry.) “Killer Crane” is similar in feel to the epic Dear Science ballad “Family Tree” and explodes with sad beauty. It includes what has to be the most depressive use of banjo I’ve ever heard. The light touches of synthesizer, followed by slight acoustic strumming take it to another level. Just one song later, they strike a decidedly different tone. Dripping with sex, “New Cannonball Blues” reaches down into the deepest recesses of their funkitude. Only “Golden Age” can rival this song’s access to the dirty and forbidden. There aren’t many bands with the range of TV on the Radio. Nine Types of Light is an incredible exhibition of that range. Although things will never be the same, I hope they never lose their ability to reach for new places.

3. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong

Over the last few years my musical tastes have made a significant shift. There was a time when I hated anything that wasn’t guitar-bass-drums with no frills. You could play piano, but it better not be plugged into anything. As you can tell from this list so far, and the two albums to come, I’m way more open to machine-made sounds. Yet Belong, the second album from New York indie cool kids The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, is an effort I would have appreciated at any point of my life. Their self-titled debut touched on many of the late-‘80s fuzzy British themes. On Belong, they creep forward a few years, pumping up variations on the ‘90s alt-rock I grew up on. Working with ‘90s mavens Alan Moulder and Flood probably had something to do with that. These short guitar-pop joys fly by quickly. The first three tracks are wonderfully breezy, with single “Heart in Your Heartbreak” the most adorably fun song of the 2011. “The Body” frenetically recalls yesteryear, with a video that will make you hate yourself for growing up. There’s a deep longing in “Even in Dreams” not previously experienced by this band. “Even in dreams,” Kip Berman wails, “I will not betray you,” followed by the crashing Clinton-era guitars and cymbals. The final two songs here, “Too Tough” and “Strange,” harkens back to their My Bloody Valentine-tinged debut with some of the finest shoegaze you’ll hear anywhere. Do The Pains of Being Pure at Heart do anything supremely different or special? If this were 1994 I’d say no. But in an indie world where nostalgia rules the day, they used Belong to separate themselves from the thundering herd. “Our dreams are coming true,” Berman coos over and over on “Strange.” Here’s hoping this band’s dream continues to come true for years to come.

2. M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Two years before his death, Irish literary titan James Joyce published Finnegans Wake, a novel considered incomprehensible at the time and only slightly more understood by readers and scholars more than seven decades later. One thing is universally recognized about Finnegans Wake: Joyce was attempting to synthesize in words what we experience in dreams. He spent 17 years writing the book, mostly in France. That also happens to be the home country of Anthony Gonzalez, the progenitor of M83, a group now six albums into their career. Unlike Joyce, Gonzalez spent just three years crafting this breakthrough release, the double-disc Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Gonzalez has tried a similar feat here: a musical form of what happens when we sleep and dream the things we dream. Don’t mistake what you hear on this album for anything close to reality. Over the course of 79 minutes there’s little Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming doesn’t possess: huge synthesizers, frenetic guitar work, perfect drumming, beat-you-over-the-head obvious lyrics, what-the-fuck-is-he-saying unintelligible lyrics, unreal bass fills, well-placed saxophone solos, train sound effects, clarinet bursts, heavenly choruses on heartfelt ballads, a song named after a ‘60s movie star, ghastly instrumentals and a little girl yammering about magic frogs. Yet so many songs are based on simple chord changes and themes, things you know you’ve heard before but just never placed like this. “Intro” is a grand opening with gigantic synths; “Reunion” rollicks with tremendous guitar work; “Claudia Lewis” lives and dies on an astounding bass line and a vibe straight out of 1987;  “Steve McQueen” probably has nothing to do with Steve McQueen but sounds damn amazing. M83 reaches their peak on the second song and lead single “Midnight City,” which was far and away the best song I heard in 2011. The unmistakable synth hook leads into an awesomely fun jaunt that always gets my head weaving. “Waiting for a car,” Gonzalez and company sings, “waiting for a ride in the dark,” and later, the most affecting line of all, “the city is my church.” From there the song elevates along a simple progression, leading to the final heightened refrains and the sax solo everyone’s been talking about since it came out. Is it out of place? Does it belong in any song released in 2011? That’s the great thing about Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Nothing Gonzalez does here is what you can expect because, well, we can never expect what we see in our dreams. The album has flaws; it could have been shortened by a few indulgent instrumentals and the dirge of slow ones like “Wait,” “Soon My Friend” and others make the pacing somewhat odd. But there’s no denying Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming will go down as one of the classic indie albums of this era. James Joyce would indeed be proud.

1. Cut Copy: Zonoscope

I had never listened to Cut Copy, the Aussie electro-pop quartet of nerdy-looking dudes led by Dan Whitford, before their third album, Zonoscope, was released in February. That’s probably why I never got caught up in the “oh, it’s really good but not as good as In Ghost Colours” line of thinking that seemed to pervade the criticism of this near-perfect album. Listening to this for months without being influenced by the greater star power of In Ghost Colours allowed me to fully appreciate Zonoscope‘s ‘80s-inspired indie electronica for what it truly was: the most complete, most listenable and most memorable album of 2011 for me. Leading off with the builder “Need You Now,” Zonoscope contains everything we want from indie pop these days: catchy hooks, well-placed drums, synthesizers everywhere, sneaky-great guitar and bass work and lyrics that leave the deciphering up to you. The bassy fun of “Take Me Over” includes wonderful synth work through the choruses. There’s the clap-along stomp of “Where I’m Going,” the Bananrama vibe of “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution,” the Cars recalling on “Alisa,” the longing of “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat.” It finishes on 20 minutes of deadly serious dance-punk, a stretch Cut Copy picks up the baton from the dearly-departed LCD Soundsystem as purveyors of raw emotion in the electric indie world. “Corner of the Sky” hits a funky verse about 2:30 in that makes you feel like Whitford and his drones are going to reach out through the speakers and grab you. The final 15-minute jam “Sun God” is borderline creepy, with obsessive lyrics sung over and over: “Please please please please please / Won’t you give your love to me?” and “Are you gonna give me your love? / Love won’t be enough” among them. Eventually the lyrics go away and we’re left with a kraut-rockish jam that dissolves into a barrage of synth blasts. Again, no band I heard in 2011 released anything like this. Where Zonoscope separates itself from the pack is the astounding “Pharaohs & Pyramids,” a dance romp that takes the listener to Egpyt and beyond. There are prickly synths, cryptic lyrics and excellent percussion leading up to a breakdown with Whitford yapping about disco sounds and lights (which is something he does a lot). The breakdown zooms into a wild build-up then a euphoric burst of energy, a veritable volcano of sonic bliss. A plaintive guitar solo even shows up midway through. Every amazing sound on Zonoscope, everything great about the album and everything great about music in 2011 is rolled into these last two minutes of “Pharaohs & Pyramids.” So many different tastes have resulted in the creation of so many different sounds. Maybe disco indie rock isn’t your thing. But there’s a ton of diversity on Zonoscope, and the quality of all the different sounds makes it my favorite of the year.