I have mixed feelings about end-of-the-year lists: I enjoy reading them, mostly because I’m curious about what records friends and other critics enjoyed throughout the year, and I love that they help me catch up on music I missed or didn’t spend enough time with (because I obviously have listened to every single record that was released in 2011…).
What I have a hard time with is the argument of who made the “best” record. That’s not to say I refuse to participate in the list-making at work — I certainly suggested certain albums should be higher or lower on our list — but it can get a little ridiculous. When I make my own year-end list, it’s just my personal favorites: I don’t mean it to say that one album is definitively better than another in terms of music, lyrics, whatever, or that my picks are better than everything else that came out during the year, but this was the music I connected with, what I listened to the most and what had the biggest effect on me.
Also, because I do use other people’s lists to catch up on what I’ve missed, that means there might be music that came out this year that I’m just now starting to fall in love with (see: Kurt Vile). And if we’re talking about my favorite musical discoveries of the year, there are quite a few artists whose music I heard for the first time in 2011, but they haven’t released anything recently (Patty Griffin, everything Mark Kozelek, Kathleen Edwards — the latter has already made one of my favorites of 2012). And if you ask me in a few months what my favorite 2011 records were, my response might be a little different than the following list. But for now, these were my favorites; my top 10 are in an order that could easy change over and over again, and then a bunch of others I loved listed alphabetically.
ALSO: Here is a mix of 27 songs I really liked this year — from many of these bands — for your downloading pleasure. Enjoy!
9. Youth Lagoon, The Year of Hibernation
It took me a little while to connect to this; I don’t typically have a whole lot of sad, synthy bedroom music in heavy rotation, but this is so charming and wonderful.
Best tracks: “17, “Cannons”
8. Low, C’mon
Hearing C’mon was my first time listening to Low, and I’ve got a lot of catalog to catch up on, but this album is gorgeous, slow, and emotional. It’s probably worth noting that the song “Especially Me” makes me cry sometimes. OK, that might have happened as recently as this week.
Best tracks: “Especially Me,” “You See Everything”
7. Wilco, The Whole Love
Back in July, I got a preview of a few songs from this record, and my eyes were popping out of my head only seconds into album opener “Art of Almost.” The seven-minutes-plus track blew my mind: sorta experimental and very detailed with layers of electronic beats and guitar glitches, but with plenty of room for Jeff Tweedy’s vocals. While I certainly wouldn’t have complained if the rest of the record had gone a little more in that direction, this is the best album Wilco has put out in a few years. There are some amazing pop hooks here that remind me of the Summerteeth era — “Dawned On Me,” “I Might,” “Born Alone” — and I love it. (Recipe: potato salad)
Best tracks: “Art of Almost,” “Born Alone”
6. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
I was late on this! Two close friends (whose music tastes I trust more than most people’s) were insanely excited about the new M83 record, so I finally dove into the last one, Saturdays = Youth, right before Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming came out and wished I’d done it much sooner. M83 is filling the void left by LCD Soundsystem’s breakup earlier this year — their music doesn’t sound the same, but it gives me the same feeling. The first three songs are certainly the best, but I also love the weird, playful “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire,” narrated by a little kid telling a story about a magic frog. Just listen to it.
Best tracks: “Reunion,” “Midnight City”
5. The War On Drugs, Slave Ambient
The War On Drugs’ Slave Ambient was a grower: The first couple times I listened to it, I liked it but it didn’t really grab me. I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden I found myself listening to it nonstop, downloading their previous LP (Wagonwheel Blues, also amazing), and before I knew it I was obsessed with the band and this album. I was lucky enough to buy a last-minute ticket to see them open for The National earlier this week, and hearing them effortlessly fill the couple-thousand-seat Beacon Theatre blew my mind.
Best tracks: “Baby Missiles,” “Your Love Is Calling My Name”
3. The Weather Station, All of It Was Mine
I’ll refer you to my post about this one, too, as well as my eMusic review of the record. Gorgeous folk songs that found me at just the right time.
Best tracks: “Came So Easy,” “Trying”
2. Tune-Yards, w h o k i l l
Man, this record. Merrill Garbus (aka Tune-Yards) can be pretty polarizing, but I am a huge fan. This album blew me away on so many levels. Earlier this year I wrote a sorta-personal post about why this record hits so close to home, and it’s definitely gotten me through some stuff.
Best tracks: “Es-so,” “You Yes You”
1. Wild Flag, Wild Flag
I think why I love this album can be summed up pretty well by this Salon.com quote from Carrie Brownstein, about the song “Romance” (easily my favorite of the year): “It’s…about coming to terms with making nontraditional decisions. How to accept that your lot in life is to be a creative person and what that means as other people make decisions that take them away from that into more traditional roles or safe places. There is a certain amount of insecurity and uncertainty and risk that comes with kind of marrying yourself to music or art, and it’s figuring out a way to find acceptance and gratification in what you’re doing and to not judge yourself for it. And to just feel like: This is what I have and hopefully it’s enough.”
This album makes me feel like that, and I can relate to every part of what she’s saying: There absolutely was insecurity and uncertainty in deciding that after college I was going to move to New York to make a living writing about music (which didn’t seem like a realistic goal to many people); and in the couple years that I’ve actually been doing it, there are times that I feel like my career is kind of superfluous and I have to search for gratification and list out the reasons why what I’m doing actually means something in the bigger picture. And I’ve made nontraditional decisions in other parts of my life that I sometimes have to sit back and assess; remember that even though people might sorta raise their eyebrows at whatever I’m choosing to do in my life — in relationships, etc. — I’ve thought it through and I know for myself that what I’m doing is OK, it works for me, and it makes me happy. And this song in particular also makes me think of the huge role that music plays in my relationships with people in my life — a lot of the connections I have with some of those closest to me comes from us talking about and sharing music, which is what I think about when I hear the line “We love the sound, the sound is what found us/ Sound is the blood between me and you.”
Best tracks: “Romance,” “Glass Tambourine”
Some other albums I listened to a lot this year (I’m probably forgetting some…):
Army Navy, The Last Place
The Antlers, Burst Apart
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
CANT, Dreams Come True
Laura Marling, A Creature I Don’t Know
Jessica Lea Mayfield, Tell Me (featured in our spring music + beer guide)
P.J. Harvey, Let England Shake
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
Washed Out, Washed Out (recipe: peach-pineapple salsa)
We Are Augustines, Rise Ye Sunken Ships (recipe: peach-blackberry-ginger popsicles)
Widowspeak, Widowspeak (recipe: pumpkin nightcrawler cupcakes)
Yellow Ostrich, The Mistress (featured in our summer beer + music guide)