BEST OF 2011: Albums | Songs | EPs/Singles | Discoveries | Photos | Bootlegs
10. Beyonce – 4
There were more artistically consistent efforts this year, albums that charted higher, divas whose GIFs earned more reblogs. But no one belted as boldly as Beyonce Knowles this year. With 4, she offered a collection with more hooks-per-inch than a mountain climbing convention. At its virtuosic apex rests “Countdown,” a track spread like the endless platter of a Vegas buffet; the sharp, simple “Love on Top” proves all she needs is a song. Production-wise, it’s still astounding to hear her dip so easily into post-blog house pop on “Party” or into James Blake ambient on “I Miss You.” When she declares “This beat is crazy” on “Run the World (Girls),” it might be the first time in pop history that that’s actually been true. Bey runs the world. We’re all just tweeting in it.
Existential Angst in Beyonce’s 4
9. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Like a bottle of wine or a pair of particularly beat-up work boots, Bill Callahan keeps getting better with age. For all its connotations of fire and brimstone, Apocalypse is a peaceful, funny record, mourning a personal loss in one moment and winking at David Letterman the next. Along with his recent classics A River Ain’t Too Much To Love and Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, it reveals an artist who has whittled a decade-plus career down to his very best qualities. Let’s hope we get a few more Callahan records before the end of the world.
8. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
The King of Limbs may be minor Radiohead, sure, but why must every record stomp with dinosaur feet? Like Kid A and Amnesiac before it, The King of Limbs is not an album that will do your work for you — but on the other side lies an endless horizon and unparalleled wonder. Patience, grasshopper.
Review | All Posts | “Give Up The Ghost”: MP3
7. North Highlands – Wild One
Wild One offers an idiosyncratic, hypnotic take on folk-pop: singer Brenda Malvini has a way of repeating lyrics like a mission or a mantra, wringing melodic and emotional possibilities out of a slender palette. It has a way of deepening the feelings in songs such as “Bruce”: by the fourth time she reaches for “When it gets warm / I’ll be better to you,” the cold’s clinging to your bones. It helps that the band performs with National-esque crispness, but Malvini’s vocals — as humbly pretty as they are boldly affected — make this one to remember.
“Benefits” Video | “Bruce”: MP3
6. Seeker Lover Keeper – s/t
Seeker Lover Keeper’s debut album doesn’t drop stateside until next year, but the agony of going one moment longer without the Australian trio’s harmonies in your life would be worth any plane ticket. (Or 10-second Google search.) Sally Seltmann (ex-New Buffalo, “1234” co-writer, solo charmer), Holly Throsby and Sarah Blasko have made one of the most effective supergroup albums ever, a collection that goes from strength to soft-strummed strength. While it spans gentle electro-pop, rough-edged rock and plaintive folk from three separate songwriters, it all sounds as seamless as the Chicago bubble — and once their vocals join in another spirited chorus, far more revelatory.
Review | “Even Though I’m a Woman”: MP3
5. Twin Sister – In Heaven
If you wanted a sequel to “Lady Daydream,” my favorite track on Twin Sister’s tktkkt EP, In Heaven delivered. (Apparently, most people did not want a sequel to “Lady Daydream.”) The album nods to the Talking Heads (“Bad Street”) and, uh, anime soundtracks (“Kimmi in a Rice Field”) while maintaining the band’s own jubilant weirdness: I don’t know who inspired the wonderfully silly movie-star ode “Gene Ciampi,” but it’s better that way. If “Saturday Sunday” plays like a synth-pop big sister to Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” it’s cause for celebration. Heaven can wait, at least until I get tired of this record.
Review | “Stop”: MP3
4. Minks – By The Hedge
Captured Tracks’ most ambitious band is also its most purposefully obscure: it throws double-vision anthem “Out of Tune” — the only 2011 song that literally sounds like a sun-warped ’80s tape, holler at you later, Altered Zones — at you a mere three minutes in and drops a guitar instrumental two tracks later. But the experimental moments bristle with purpose, not indulgence, and when the band reveals its pop aspirations on “Funeral Song,” “Ophelia” or goth-duet-of-the-year “Cemetery Rain” — well, holy shit. Robert Smith hasn’t sounded this revelatory in, oh, ever?
Review | Live Photos | “Cemetery Rain”: MP3
3. Real Estate – Days
Real Estate’s Days is a plain, simple record, a piece of work that — like Hemingway or Sriracha sauce — either agrees with you or doesn’t. If you can’t hear it calling your name from the treehouse behind your childhood home, that’s a shame. As for the rest of us, well, it’s been real.
Review | Concert Photos | All Posts | “It’s Real”: MP3
2. ARMS – Summer Skills
What more can I say about this album? That as the indie rock of the last 15 years ceases to matter, that ARMS insist on sounding better, trying harder, playing sharper and feeling deeper than anybody else? That I’ve been waiting to hear this record since the band played these songs on a 40-degree afternoon outside an Austin coffee shop over a year ago? That I want to curl up inside of the title track and live there forever? Because that’d all be true. Too many songs these days, indie and otherwise, sound like they weren’t begging to be made, that they weren’t burning holes through busted hearts and agile fingers. They sound like dollar signs. Summer Skills sounds like home.
Review | All Posts | “Dog Days”: MP3
1. Destroyer – Kaputt
At time when indie-fan consensus seems more predictable than ever, Kaputt has fallen astoundingly low on most of this year’s best-of lists. (Credit where it’s due.) I’m not sure why. Did the promos, which landed in my inbox well over a year ago, arrive too early? Was Dan Bejar’s clever commentary on the HOT SAX revival simply over the heads of the M83 set? Dozens of listens later, it doesn’t matter. Kaputt is a Destroyer masterpiece (one among many), as clever a winking career suicide as it is an earnest, on-trend tribute to the cocaine-chasing death of the disco era. He wrote a song for America; who knew? Hopefully, uh, everyone.
Review | Video: “Kaputt” | All Posts | “Chinatown”: MP3
Raleigh – New Times in Black and White
Fell in love with the band’s chilly chamber-rock production. Still waiting to feel the same way about the songs.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s a Corporate World
Too much EP recycling to really list this on its own, but still the bearer of a handful of inventive, charming tracks.
Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo
I think I’d like this a lot more if I smoked a lot of pot.
Seapony – Go With Me
This band has a better record in them, especially if they dump the trendy production style in favor of a more classic twee sound, but Go With Me gathers plenty of fine songwriting. The underrated volley to Tennis’ sloppy garage lob.
Shugo Tokumaru – Port Entropy
No 2011 album sounded as fun to make as this one. Tokumaru handles both exuberance and grief with equal aplomb.
Alessi’s Ark – Time Travel
Folk that’s adorable in a way Zooey Deschanel would kill for.
Hannah Peel – The Broken Wave
This is a completely gorgeous slice of songwriter-pop and I’m not sure why I latched onto Seeker Lover Keeper over this collection. Not enough attention span, I expect.
International Waters – 1994
The Austin indie-pop act’s proper debut is remarkably dreamy — so much so that the songs are hard to keep track of. Still, strong melodies and nicely liquid production.
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