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The 20 Best Albums of 2011 (So Far) - Bonnie Stiernberg

June 29, 2011  |  9:26am

It seems like I was just putting the finishing touches on my Best of 2010 list, but we’ve already had what feels like a solid year’s worth of music over the past six months.

If quality records keep landing on our desks at this pace for the rest of 2011, finalizing our year-end lists is going to be a bit of a challenge—one we’ll gladly accept. In the meantime, here are my picks for the 20 best albums of the year so far.

20. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s A Corporate World
It’d be easy to dismiss this duo as nothing more than the latest gimmicky buzz band, but you’d be sadly mistaken. They deliver sunny indie-pop with the best of them, but there’s a hint of melancholy that sneaks its way into their cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit.”

19. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
The group’s follow-up to In Rainbows doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Sure, it’s not their best work, but it’s still one of the more interesting works this year. Besides, anything that brought the Dancing Thom Yorke meme into our lives can’t be all bad, right?

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18. Ezra Furman & The Harpoons – Mysterious Power
Furman’s wail has been compared to that of Gordon Gano for years, and it’s clear he owes a great debt as a writer to Bob Dylan (but really, who doesn’t?). But on his third LP, the singer-songwriter has truly come into his own. These songs all have the mark of an Ezra Furman track, and they’re all worth repeat listens.

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17. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It and See
Whether he’s chronicling “the type of kisses where teeth collide” on the catchy “Reckless Serenade” or lamenting “that’s not a skirt, girl, it’s a sawn-off shotgun and I can only hope you’ve got it aimed at me” on the title track, frontman AlexTurner brings the same smart turns of phrase he’s always contributed to the band’s catalog, only this time around we’re allowed a closer listen.

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16. Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde
I admit it: when it comes to buying into anything that takes a page from Marc Bolan’s book, I don’t need much convincing, and with this Chicago group’s fuzzy full-length debut I didn’t need any at all.

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15. Various artists – Rave On Buddy Holly
She & Him, My Morning Jacket, Patti Smith and The Black Keys are just a few of the heavy hitters who lend their talents to this tribute album, but it’s Lou Reed’s cover of “Peggy Sue” that steals the show.

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14. Peter Bjorn and John – Gimme Some
These Swedes have been delivering infectious indie-pop for years, but on Gimme Some they rock as well.

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13. Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming
This 62-year-old’s debut album was a long time coming, but it was well worth the wait. The pain in his voice is arresting, and we can only hope the Daptone soulman’s still got a long future ahead of him.

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12. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
Much has been made about this record being a return to form after the misstep that was 2007’s Evil Urges, but let’s lose that qualifier once and for all and just let this stellar record stand on its own.

11. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
I would’ve probably ranked this record higher if I’d had the time to give it more than a handful of listens; it’ll probably be closer to the top by year’s end. So far, I’m really digging what I’m hearing, so much so that I even kind of like “Beth/Rest.”

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10. Cults – Cults
I have no idea how many times I’ve heard this album at this point, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it numbered in the hundreds. It’s been on heavy rotation in the Paste office for months now, and the fact that I still can’t fight the urge to whistle along to “Go Outside” speaks to this duo’s staying power.

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9. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
There’s a quiet power to Robin Pecknold and company’s second LP, and if the title track doesn’t demand your attention with its beautiful, swelling vocals, nothing will.

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8. Tennis – Cape Dory
Whoever was behind the decision to release Cape Dory— Tennis’ gorgeous, beachy debut — in mid-January is a genius. On paper, it might seem odd to drop a sun-soaked album in the dead of winter, but while it’s chock-full of “ooh”s, “ahh”s and “sha-la-la”s, it’s not a summer album. Powered by nostalgia and just the right amount of cabin fever, this is a record meant for those of us longing to go somewhere — anywhere — as we wrap ourselves in another blanket, sip on a hot toddy, gaze out the window at snow-covered trees and dream of sand.

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7. Middle Brother – Middle Brother
On their self-titled debut, the members of this supergroup (John McCauley of Deer Tick, Matthew Vasquez of Delta Spirit and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes) sound as if they’ve been playing together for years. They take turns singing lead, and at times they’re so in tune with each other that the record starts to feel like a concept album.

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6. The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh
Smart Flesh is the kind of album that demands to be listened to, the kind you put on when you really want to hear something. It’s full of echoes, hushed vocals and stripped-down beauty, and the lyrics will make you feel like you’re listening to the soundtrack to a movie you haven’t yet seen.

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5. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
At times, Merrill Garbus is Annie Lennox, and at others, she’s Prince. One thing’s for sure though — she’s always entertaining, and her powerhouse voice makes W H O K I L L one of the year’s must-listens.

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4. Those Darlins – Screws Get Loose
The ladies (and sole gentleman) of Those Darlins deliver their finest material to date. When Jessi Darlin snarls, “Wanna put a bunch of eggs in the microwave and sit and watch them bustin’ out the shell,” you’ll want to, well, do just that.

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3. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain
The group’s first experience working with a producer turned out to be quite a successful experiment. On Arabia Mountain, Mark Ronson provides the Black Lips with just the right amount of polish while still retaining the garage grit we’ve all grown to love.

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2. Dawes – Nothing is Wrong
This Los Angeles outfit’s sophomore album somehow manages to simultaneously sound weary and optimistic. Come for the gorgeous Laurel Canyon harmonies, stay for the expertly penned lyrics.

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1. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
From the first notes of the fantastic, reverb-soaked “Walking Far From Home,” it’s clear that Kiss Each Other Clean picks up where 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog left off. Even with a handful of new elements, the album fits comfortably into the ever-transforming Iron & Wine catalog. It may be miles away from the stripped-down beauty of 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, but it’s the fruition of a series of gutsy moves by an artist who no longer needs to whisper.

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