The moment we have all been waiting for is finally here! And by “all” I mean both of us. Numbers 20-11 were all solid albums, and the order could probably change at any time depending on my mood. But my top 10 has been pretty much set in stone since the second I heard all of these albums. Some are old favorites, some are artists I’d never heard of until this past year, but all of these discs stood head and shoulders above anything else I heard all year. So without further ado I now present to you my picks for the best albums of 2011………


10. Vijay Iyer with Prasanna and Nitin Mitta – Tirtha 

Sounding unlike anything else in contemporary jazz, Tirtha completely blew my mind. Vijay Iyer’s piano stylings are clearly rooted in classic jazz, but his phrasing is uniquely his own. Prasanna uses his guitar to mimic a sitar, relying on deep vibrato, crazy bent notes and slides, and a rhythm-lead hybrid that fills in the gaps inherently present in the trio format. Classical Indian virtuoso Nitin Mitta pounds out complex polyrhythms that move the songs forward and provide an always interesting push and pull with the other instruments. The occasional vocals add a sense of framing to the creative improvisation and lush atmospheres. Easily the best jazz album of 2011, this disc comes highly recommended to anyone who is a fan of jazz, classical Indian music, or just good music in general.

 

9. Mike Viola – Electro De Perfecto 

I’ve been a big fan of Mike Viola since the late 90’s and his Candy Butchers, especially their 1999 album Falling Into Place. His music has always been the perfect mix of classic power pop, garage rock, and witty singer-songwriter rants like those of idol, Elvis Costello. That being said, his last few albums have been a confusing mixed bag, alternating between stripped down and over-produced, culminating in 2007’s weirdly electronic Temple Of Static. The title of this album is rather misleading – the electronic experiments of his previous release are nowhere to be found on Electro De Perfecto. But this album does have the perfecto part down. This is Mike’s catchiest set of songs in years, the lyrics are full of wit and sarcasm, and the music is the perfect mix of grit and polish. Pop fans take note, this is how it’s done.

 

8. Matthew Sweet – Modern Art 

This is quite possibly Matthew Sweet’s most difficult album to digest. The melodies and hooks are still here, it just takes a little work to get to them. The arrangements on Modern Art are unlike anything Sweet has ever done, taking unexpected twists and turns before delivering the payoff we all so crave. Subtle electronics and synths pop up at times, and there’s plenty of random noise and studio chatter. Jangly Byrds guitars rub up against moody piano and folksy acoustic, but nothing ever sounds as straightforward as you’d expect, thanks to a bevy of psychedelic production touches. Stylistically, Modern Art is all over the place, encompassing pop, folk, blues, and orchestral arrangements. All of this would be meaningless without good songwriting, and that’s exactly what sets this apart from other experimental pop records. While these songs might take a while to sink in, once they do there’s no looking back. This album doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does frame classic pop in a fresh new context. If that isn’t modern art, I don’t know what is.

 

7. Boston Spaceships – Let It Beard 

Robert Pollard is one of the most prolific musicians of our time, and while he never completely bombs, he doesn’t always hit the mark. It’s to be expected that when you write as many songs as he does, some of them will be better than others. But this, sadly the final album by his Boston Spaceships side project, is quite possibly the best thing he’s done since the heyday of Guided By Voices. He recruits a handful of stellar guitarists, including J. Mascis, Colin Newman, and Steve Wyn to take this already strong set of songs to the next level. Parts of Let It Beard play out like a rock opera, while others sound like a tutorial on writing the perfect lo-fi pop song. This disc rocks hard when it needs to, but isn’t afraid to show its sensitive side or tap dance on the line between grand artistic statement and self-indulgent noodling. In other words, there’s something here for everyone.

 

6. The Head And The Heart – s/t

Okay so technically I’m cheating. This album was originally released in 2010 on the band’s own budget. Through relentless touring and word of mouth, it was a huge hit in the band’s hometown Seattle, and SubPop remastered the album, tacked on a few songs, and gave it the national release it so deserved in early 2011. That’s good enough for me, and this album is way too good to not include on my list. The Head and the Heart occupy a nice little space somewhere between the current crop of folk rockers (The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Fleet Foxes) and piano heavy pop (Ben Folds, Michael Penn, early The Old Ceremony.) The songs are amazingly strong and well constructed, and everything is played and sung to perfection. Beautiful three-part vocal harmonies, layers of percussion, and tastefully restrained violin compliment the piano and acoustic guitars that usually take center stage. There’s a great vibe from start to finish, and even if you’re listening to this album for the first time, you can’t help but sing along to these homespun tales of love and life.

 

5. The Submarines – Love Notes/Letter Bombs 

Husband and wife duo Blake Hazard and John Dragonetti (aka Jack Drag) are now on their third album of sickengly sweet pop, and evidently the third time is the charm. In addition to having the best title of the three, Love Notes/Letter Bombs is the strongest album they’ve ever released. The poppy electronica is dialed down a bit and more organic instruments are employed, including a baritone ukulele on “Ivaloo,” but most of these songs still groove and pulse with the same energy that characterized their earlier work. Blake takes almost all of the lead vocals, and as strong as her vocals are that’s definitely a good thing. But Dragonetti is no slouch, and his few lead vocals and tasteful harmonizing compliment her nicely. “Fire” and “Tigers” are two standouts that should have dominated top 40 radio, but lucky for us fans they didn’t, and the Submarines are still our little secret, a band we can whip out anytime a friend says pretty and peppy pop music can’t blow your mind.

 

4. The Jayhawks – Mockingbird Time 

Mark Olson returns to The Jayhawks after 15 years away, and it doesn’t take long to realize that the combination of him and Gary Louris is what really defines the band. Not to say that the albums they made after his departure in 1996 weren’t good, they most definitely were. But there was just something missing that kept them from reaching the highs of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass. The shared songwriting and singing of Louris and Olson and the return to a folksier sound give Mockingbird Time the feel of those two classic albums, yet updated, refined, and more mature. They let loose on “High Water Blues” and “Hey Mister Man,” turn in their best jangle pop tune to date with “She Walks In So Many Ways,” and strike emotional gold with “Tiny Arrows.” Every track is a winner, with great songwriting, strong hooks, virtuoso playing, and crystal clear production. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another decade and a half for a record this good.

 

3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

I never really understood all the hype surrounding 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Sure it was a nice album, but nothing to write home about. Maybe Justin Vernon felt the same way, as he’s spent the past few years trying to escape the sound of his debut album. Building on the experimentation of the Blood Bank EP from 2009, this self titled record shatters any preconceived notions of what Bon Iver is all about. The mood here is still dark, but not so much in that crying-in-a-secluded-cabin way. This time out things are grand and atmospheric, with lots of spacey guitars, sultry sax, moody synths, and layer upon layer of pounding drums. Vernon’s lyrics are still full of heartache, but they’re much more poetic and obscure. Bon Iver’s song titles have a running theme of place, perhaps intended to be a travelogue of a man trying to get away from his demons. The propulsive percussion of “Perth” and “Calgary,” the beautiful violin of “Towers,” the chiming guitar of “Holocene,” and the soft rock keyboards of “Beth/Rest” add up to an album that nothing short of a gorgeous masterpiece.

 

2. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs 

When Radiohead suddenly dropped The King Of Limbs without any warning in February, two things were readily apparent – fans and critics would be evenly divided between those who thought it was a revelation and those who constantly compared it unfavorably to past releases, and that no matter what your opinion was, it was clear that this would be the album to beat. Its short running time and the final line of “Separator” gave rise to rumors that a sequel would follow, but The King Of Limbs is as complete a statement as Radiohead have ever made. There appears to be a sort of musical story arc, starting out with the jittery and glitchy “Bloom” and gradually mellowing and focusing before coming full circle with the laid back groove of “Separator.” “Feral” is a near instrumental with deep dub inspired bass, “Codex” is quite possibly the most gorgeous piano ballad they’ve ever recorded, “Little By Little” injects a touch of flamenco, and “Give Up The Ghost” rides a mellow folksy groove with layers of processed vocals. Despite the variety of sounds and styles, every song flows perfectly into the next, and the result is a whole that somehow is much more than the sum of its parts. Bonus points for the fabulous artwork and innovative packaging of the “newspaper” edition. The boys of Radiohead have crafted another solid addition to the best body of work in modern rock.

 

 

…….And the #1 album of the year is…….

 

 

1. Low – C’mon

Low spent the early part of their career perfecting the style that would become known as slowcore – soft, pretty, and played at a narcoleptic pace. Since their 1999 classic Secret Name they have continued to tinker with the formula, to somewhat mixed results. C’mon isn’t quite a return to their roots, but it doesn’t quite break any new ground either. Instead, it plays like the greatest hits retrospective that never was, touching briefly on all of the various styles Low has experimented with, but never staying in one place long enough to sound like a rehash of past ideas. Not as orchestrated as Secret Name, not as folksy as Things We Lost In The Fire, not as dark and brooding as Trust, not as upbeat as The Great Destroyer, not as electronic and detached as Guns And Drums, C’mon is completely its own thing, yet distinctively Low. Things start out a little creepy with “Try To Sleep” and then relax into a classic rock groove with “You See Everything.” “Witches” shows a little guitar firepower and “Especially Me” brings side 1 to a roaring and beautiful climax. “Nightingale” has a jazzy feel to it, “$20” is Alan Sparhawk’s self-proclaimed mission statement, and “Nothing But Heart” is the grand epic that every Low album needs. The production is perfect, mixing just the right amount of reverb and space to let these songs breathe. The vocal performances are possibly the best of their career, especially Mimi Parker, who sounds better than she has in over a decade. C’mon is an album that transports you to a special place of beauty and melancholy, and by the time the campfire sing along of “Something’s Turning Over” ends you immediately want to reach for the remote to hit repeat, knowing that you’ve just experienced something special, a timeless piece of beauty that is not only the best album of the year, but one of the best in recent memory. Do yourself a favor and get this now.

 

 

So there you have it, the ten best albums of 2011. I will now return you to your regularly scheduled blogging about random shit, already in progress.

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