The 50 Best Albums of 2011

Music Lists
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Every day between now and New Year’s Day, we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. We start with the year’s best albums.

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10. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
The Decemberists’ medieval rock opera The Hazards of Love pitted the band’s diehard supporters against those with little tolerance for Elizabethan syntax and folk-metal guitars. Released two years later, The King is Dead is a tuneful concession to the latter group. Most of the frills and festoons have been trimmed from the Decemberists’ sound, leaving behind a lean, rootsy mix of Americana and Celtic-flavored folk songs. Meloy still tosses multiple SAT words into his lyrics, whose portrayals of the American heartland owe more to William Faulkner than, say, Larry McMurty, but he doesn’t sound so overzealous here. Framed by crisp layers of pedal steel, acoustic guitar and harmonica, the album’s tracklist is an exercise in rustic restraint, with only one song topping the five-minute mark. Gillian Welch sings harmony on seven numbers, playing the Nicolette Larson to Meloy’s Neil Young, while former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck lends his familiar jangle. The King is Dead is one of the Decemberists’ most personal efforts to date, packing light and still packing a punch.—Andrew Leahey

9. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Maybe Anthony Gonzalez is just working his way back through the years, one album at a time. On his 2005 breakout as M83, Before the Dawn Heals Us, he took the shoegaze guitars of My Bloody Valentine and combined them with cinematic electronics with sci-fi trappings. For 2008’s Saturdays = Youth, he turned his space-loving disposition toward the John Hughes 1980s and all its synth-heavy jams. For his ambitious double-album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez digs even deeper into the ‘80s and even the late ‘70s, channeling Simple Minds here (“Reunion”) and Kraftwerk there (“Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”). As with everything the Frenchman’s done so far, the album is lush and ably produced, crescendo after crescendo. Zola Jesus guests, chiming guitars dominate and even some saxophone makes an appearance. Maybe he could tackle the Nuggets-era ‘60s next?—Austin L. Ray

8. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
The men of Dawes have certainly grown up since their debut album was released just two short years ago. The songwriting, musicianship and emotion are even more impressive on Nothing is Wrong than the band’s stellar debut. The influence of the North Hills and Laurel Canyon music scenes are still present as well, right down to Jackson Browne’s supporting vocals on “Fire Away.” And after two years of fine-tuning their live sound, all of the members of Dawes have become master musicians not only individually, but as a collective.—Wyndham Wyeth

7. Wilco – The Whole Love
The Whole Love sounds less self-conscious and more natural than anything Wilco has ever recorded, even though the music itself is full of rich, headphone-worthy details. It sounds a bit like every form of Wilco you’ve come to know and love over the past several years—basically a new millennium “Best of” package. Tweedy has called the album a split between “snot-nosed, obnoxious pop songs” and “atmospheric country,” and there certainly is a lot of that here. It’s the sound of Wilco out to prove nothing, driven only by their desire to craft great songs. In that regard, they’ve succeeded from start to finish.—Ryan Reed

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s A Corporate World
It’s A Corporate World isn’t just two guys on the same page, but the same syllable. “Vocal Chords” is a heady brew of vocals that beam like high-noon sun during their choral peaks, the marching thump of a drum machine and plenty of dancing digital distractions. “Nothing but Our Love” and “Simple Girl” set the diametric ends of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. experience, the former a mix of slow-machined drums and R2D2 on back-up vocals, the latter a well-crafted piece of indie-pop, with enough finger picking, electric keys, whistling and da-da-da-ing to make a death row inmate crack a smile. Overall, it’s an album full of songs Lloyd Dobler could have played during his window-call, boom-box confession of love. If he had, there’s a good chance that movie might have had an even happier ending.—Jeff Gonick

5. Middle Brother – Middle Brother
Very rarely does a supergroup manage to come up with something as good as the sum of its parts. Just like a movie starring a crowd of A-listers doesn’t necessarily equal anything Oscar-worthy (we’re looking at you, New Year’s Eve), it isn’t a given that a band with three frontmen will be able to effectively pool its talents. But on their self-titled debut, the men of Middle Brother sound as if they’ve been playing together for years. John McCauley (Deer Tick), Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) take turns singing lead, and from the first harmonies on “Daydreaming” it’s clear that we’ve got a true collaboration on our hands. At times they sound so in tune with one another that the record starts to feel like a concept album, like a time capsule crafted by the trio of rock ‘n’ roll troubadours to document their rise to fame.—Bonnie Stiernberg

4. 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. Although she can do ethereal and understated better than most, Garbus is truly in her element when she’s belting, her hurricane of a voice ripping through a uniquely layered soundscape of ukulele, bass, saxophone and percussion. On “Killa,” she proudly declares, “I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a don’t-take-shit-from-you kind of woman.” It’s nearly impossible to listen to a tUnE-yArDs track and not feel empowered.—Bonnie Stiernberg

3. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
Five years removed from their best album and three years since their worst, My Morning Jacket stood at a particular crossroads during the making of their latest record. Circuital is a return to form, and several tracks—including “Circuital” with its slow-building dynamic declaration and the ominous “Holdin’ On To Black Metal”—almost instantaneously can be placed among the band’s best songs. It’s an album partially infused with their classic warmth and partially dashed with intriguing progressions into unchartered territory. In doing so, the band has recreated the reverb-drenched twang of their earlier years, while successfully experimenting with some darker endeavors.—Max Blau

2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
After their eponymous debut album earned a well-deserved standing ovation from critics, Fleet Foxes set the bar high for their sophomore album. The alt-folk band was up to the challenge. Helplessness Blues is sweet and comforting at its worst and inspiring at its best. The foundations of many tracks are similar—the band frequently returns to the strumming, “ohhs” and “ahhs” that define opener “Montezuma”—but Fleet Foxes know how to layer sounds to add depth and make each song distinctive. The album is often about love — and the emptiness that often accompanies its euphoria.—Ani Vrabel

1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Not since a creek drank a cradle in 2002 had anyone so quietly overtaken the indie-music community as Justin Vernon did in 2008 with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. That post-break-up album was drenched in the kind of sadness that feels a lot like joy. Rather than wallowing in loss, the music was a hopeful contrast to lyrics like “Saw death on a sunny snow.” It was less like the end of a relationship and more like the promise of a new beginning. But it was only a beginning. Recorded in famous isolation, For Emma needed a band to reproduce it live. The Blood Bank EP followed, as did an open-ended hiatus which saw the bearded folkie make it harder to describe him that way, collaborating with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Gayngs on “The Gaudy Side of Town.” Interim songs like “Blood Bank” and “Brackett, WI” off the Dark Was the Night charity compilation were as good as anything on For Emma, but less sparse. When he finally announced a Bon Iver follow-up in March, few people expected a song set as hauntingly barren as the debut. And it’s certainly not. Bon Iver starts off quietly with a lovely little guitar riff on “Perth,” but a keyboard wash and military drums kick in before we hear Vernon’s falsetto. Three-quarters of the way through, the song has swelled to its peak, something he and his bandmates Michael Noyce, Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan became masters of while touring behind the debut. By track two, the band is highlighting Colin Stetson’s guest saxophone (magnificent later on “Michicant”) and Greg Leisz’ pedal steel, along with Vernon’s vocal range—he begins with a deep baritone before breaking into falsetto and then using his high natural register. And that’s what makes Bon Iver 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. “Hinnom, TX” gets most adventurous, with Deep-Voiced Vernon dueting with Falsetto Vernon in front of some slow, echo-y U2 guitars. But there are elements on nearly every song that erase the memory of “that folk guy with a guitar singing introspective, personal songs.” For Emma could be oblique at times, but the lyrics on Bon Iver often border on non-sensical. A majority of song titles reference places, but most meaning for the listener will come through the cathartic choruses.” “Still alive who love you.” “Never gonna break.” “I could see for miles, miles, miles.” And this one from “Calgary”: “So it?s storming on the lake, little waves our bodies break / There’s a fire going out, but there’s really nothing to the south / Swollen orange and light let through, your one piece swimmer stuck to you.” These all come as the music builds and emotions rise, and they’re the moments on the album which linger throughout the day.—Josh Jackson