This week, Paste staffers will be making their personal picks for the best albums of the first half of 2011. We reserve the right to rearrange these in our minds weekly, realize that some shouldn’t be on here at all and maybe even decide to add James Blake by year’s end. But right at this moment, here are my Top 20 albums of 2011 (so far).
20. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
Everything about the music and persona of John Paul White and Joy Williams is adorable. If that’s not a word that scares you off, you’ll probably love this record as much as I do. If it is, skip ahead to Yuck.
19. Yuck – Yuck
This year’s best don’t-give-a-damn, lo-fi guitar rock comes from London.
18. Wye Oak – Civilian
Jenn Wasner’s breathed vocals never rise above the wall of guitars, beautifully washing over rhythms instead of piercing through them. And the way all those “holy”s fall from her lips is righteous indeed.
17. Over the Rhine – The Long Surrender
After 20 years, Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiller have only gotten better as songwriters, and the addition of Joe Henry as producer is a match made in the perfect smoky dive.
16. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
The Philadelphia singer/songwriter’s fourth album is full of bright melodies and darker lyrics. It’s a throwback to early college rock that makes me want to play it on cassette.
15. The Belle Brigade – The Belle Brigade
Los Angeles, sister and brother Barbara and Ethan Gruska may have lacquered a radio-friendly pop sheen on their debut album, but they’ve also filled it with the kind of pop gems that radio used to play. There’s no song I’ve played more this year than “Losers.”
14. WU LYF – Go Tell Fire To the Mountain
These Manchester boys have made waves in the U.K. by spurning record labels and interviews, but their music is as carefully and artfully crafted as their mysterious image as World Unite! Lucifer Youth Foundation, with Ellery Roberts’ barked singing punctuating guitars that at once recall both Sigur Rós and My Morning Jacket.
13. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
Frank Turner has no use for irony. The former punk frontman believes, as Woody Guthrie, Joe Strummer and Billy Bragg before him, that his guitar is the best weapon against fascism, classism, hipsterism—really any “ism” west of anarchy or south of rock ‘n’ roll. But where the platitudes remain sincere, they’re bathed in carefree melodies.
12. The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh
The Rhode Islanders continue to follow their own muse, and this time it took them to an abandoned pasta factory, where they recorded a lovely, spacious follow-up to Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.
11. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Lykke Li is a little young to reinvent herself, but as hyped and hook-filled as her debut Youth Novels was, it was a piece of synth-pop candy compared to its languid and lush follow-up—a late-night confessional long after the dance-floor lights have dimmed.
10. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
There are few rock ‘n’ roll bands as musically ambitious as My Morning Jacket, who once again stretch themselves
9. Middle Brother – Middle Brother
This year’s superest super-group (with members of Dawes, Deer Tick and Delta Spirit) has out-monstered Monsters of Folk.
8. Cults – Cults
The self-titled, reverb-drenched debut somehow finds the median between ‘50s girl groups and Animal Collective. And it’s anchored by that unforgettable melody of “Go Outside,” the first song they ever wrote—in about an hour.
7. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Seemingly sprung from the same grain silo as My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes bring a quiet reflectiveness to their reverb-rock, as Robin Pecknold sings one of my favorite couplets of the year: “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.”
6. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
If 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog was a departure for an artist who began making bedroom recordings so quiet as to not to wake his first child, the new album is miles further down that road. The restrained urgency of those early albums are no longer held back on songs like “Rabbit Will Run” and “Glad Man Singing.” Beam might describe the new album as early ‘70s Los Angeles, but it also sounds like he borrowed a Vox Continental from The Doors and Stevie Wonder’s clavinet. What hasn’t changed are the compelling vignettes and unforgettable melodies that mark the bulk of his catalog.
5. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
It’s no surprise that Robbie Robertson and Jackson Browne have asked Dawes to back them in concert—Taylor Goldsmith and co. pull straight from The Band and Laurel Canyon to revive classic folk- and country-tinged rock.
4. Seryn – This Is Where We Are
With mostly acoustic instruments, this Denton, Texas, quartet builds nearly every song into a joyful crescendo adding voices—and urgency—as it progresses.
3. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest
It took Gillian Welch and David Rawlings eight years to create a set of songs that they liked enough to release. If fans have a difficult time grasping that, it’s because the duo has always made it seem like the songs just sprung fully formed from the Appalachian clay.
2. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
When you want to trade in your epic prog leanings for a little down-home folk-rock, step one should always be a phone call to Gillian Welch. She and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck help accent Colin Meloy’s songwriting with plenty of beautiful moments.
1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Bon Iver is one of the most satisfying responses to a hyped debut. It retains the beautiful melancholy of For Emma, but in nearly every way it’s just more. More layered, more diverse, more interesting. He brings in collaborators to do what they do best, but never at the expense of his sound and vision. It treads into new sonic directions without getting lost.