In our house, we’ve been talking a lot about music that strikes an emotional chord — what separates it from music that may be equally good (or better) but somehow falls short of that desert-island threshold? It’s the difference between intellectual engagement and visceral response, a distinction that’s often reduced to opinion and personal taste. But opinions can be surprisingly consistent: I was surprised to see that four of Pitchfork’s top ten are in my top eight. My surprise is silly and misguided, I recognize: If something moves me so intensely, there’s a good chance that it also moves other people. My ears aren’t more special than yours.
I know these end-of-year lists are the ultimate in December douchebaggery, but they are a way of finding great music I missed, and who doesn’t love to roll their eyes over other people’s terrible taste? Feel free to roll your eyes.
Like most people, I limited myself to albums that came out in 2011, even though some of the music I listened to and loved the most came out before then — R. Kelly’s Love Letter and Emeralds’ Does It Look Like I’m Here? top that list. They are both gorgeous and came out in 2010.
I’ve divided my picks into two categories. The first are those that astonished the living daylights out of me, that shocked me with their beauty and creativity. The second are those that didn’t blow my mind, but that I liked just as much. They still struck that ineffable something in my soul; they made me happy; in some way, I’m addicted to hearing them. What each of these thirteen albums have in common is that the first time I heard them, I immediately started the album over again. And then again.
Eight Albums That Blew My Mind
1. Kaputt by Destroyer
Recently, a dear friend mentioned that she could no longer listen to Destroyer because they are a favorite of her maggot-like ex-boyfriend. At this point, I considered flying across the country and punching him in the face. How dare he deprive someone I love of something I love? My intense feelings for this album might be getting a little repetitive, if not embarrassing. In the eleven months since it came out, I’ve written about it here twice, including one of my best posts ever and this one with a lot of pictures. It has remained my favorite album of 2011. If I could only listen to one of these albums on this list ever again, there would be no competition. Here’s the title track.
2. Self-titled by Anna Calvi
Is this the most underrated album of 2011? I think it is. This is mystifying to me. Calvi is a guitar virtuoso and an incredible, cinematic singer. She carries you along on a strange, fabulous ride populated with devils, fire and tortured love. Most importantly, it’s 100 percent pleasure. I wish this was what opera sounded like. My New Year’s resolution is to see her live in 2012. If you watch only one video here, please make it be this one: spines tingle. This is called “Desire.”
3. whokill by Tune-Yards
I first learned of Merrill Garbus a few years ago in the most unlikely of locations: a beige hallway in the extremely un-hip nonprofit where I used to work. Our department’s admin sidled up to me and said, “Hey, I know this woman from college, and I think you would love her music. It’s not like anything else.” She wasn’t kidding. Tune-Yards is probably the least pigeonhole-able musician around. She does whatever the hell she wants, and she does it to perfection. The first time I heard this album, I couldn’t stop laughing in amazement. If I could do a Being John Malkovich of anybody’s brain, it would be hers. Here’s “Bizness.”
4. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey
I’ve seen Polly Jean exactly once, when she opened for U2, my favorite band in the entire universe at that time. That was in 2001. Ten years later, I no longer buy U2 albums and Harvey is making her most creative music ever. It’s inspiring that a 42-year-old female has made one of the best albums of the year (according to just about everybody), but the most important thing is that this album actually predicted everything about 2011; Harvey is obviously a rock-and-roll psychic. Or maybe she has a time machine. People can’t not use the words textures and timely when talking about Let England Shake, and for good reason. Textures, timely, timely textures. This is the title track.
5. Strange Mercy by St. Vincent
I think music critics (I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they tend to be men) have finally reconciled themselves to the fact that Annie Clark is a rocker. See the picture up top. I know, boys, I know: She’s beautiful and fragile-looking. But if you’ve ever seen her go to town on a guitar, you know where she’s at — which is smack dab in the middle of making music. I’m afraid I’m sounding repetitive: Here’s another solo woman who is making rock music that evades comparison. But none of these ladies sound remotely like each other. The one thing they have in common is a seeming lack of boundaries, a determination to expand musical possibilities. Just, wow.
6. Self-titled by Bon Iver
Bon Iver’s first album is so beautiful and moving that once, after a very long day, it brought tears to my eyes as I was standing on the platform at the DeKalb Avenue subway station. There was no way a follow-up album could be as good. Except that it is, partly because it’s so very different. Every song on the album is named after a place, which is a straight ticket to the depths of my geography-oriented heart. My favorite song is called “Calgary,” but of course the one I’m posting here is “Holocene” — a music venue and bar here in Portland. It’s a great place, but nowhere near as pretty as this song. And the video is a little bit jaw-dropping.
7. Self-titled by James Blake
I don’t think that I’m typically a big fan of whatever genre of music this is, but the first time I ever heard the song “I Never Learnt To Share,” I began to see stars. This was because I had forgotten to breathe. James Blake is only 23, but everything is laid bare on this album. The best word we have for this in English is brave. This record is affecting without being the least bit affected; it’s passionate, but not overblown. RZ just yelled from the other room that this album is trendy bullshit and that I shouldn’t include it; but I don’t think anything this elegant and restrained could ever be classified as either trendy or bullshit. This isn’t a video, just the song.
8. Tassili by Tinariwen
That Muslim freedom fighters can become acclaimed psychedelic musicians is pretty amazing, but that they could transcend such extreme cultural barriers is nothing short of incredible. I’ve been a fan of this band for quite a while, and I’ve even seen them live. This album was recorded outside, in the Algerian national park of the same name. It sounds like the Sahara: sunny, dusty, remote. But it also totally rocks — and in a way that no Western psychedelic band ever will. And surely a bonus to being so acclaimed is having people like Nels Cline, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone travel halfway around the world to play on your album.
Five Albums That Carried My Soul
1. Mirror Traffic by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
This band’s first album kept me company as I traveled around Europe for a summer and this one gave me the psychic strength to move across the country. I will forever associate it with my final weeks in New York City. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite SM&J record, but it might be. What can I say, I love them all. Tigers are my favorite animal, but that’s not the only reason I identify with this song so strongly. This is definitely the cutest video of the batch.
2. Self-titled by Wild Flag
The drummer on that last album is the drummer on this one, too. Wild Flag came in at number 26 on my friend Dave’s end-of-year list. He writes: “Will you be mad at me if I softly whisper that I like this more than any Sleater-Kinney record? Pure rock ferocity by four of the best in the business.” I won’t, dude, because, um, I feel the same way. And I promise that this has nothing to do with the fact that our house is featured starting at 2:56. For real, I love this album so much that I actually forgot of my domestic ties to this video until I started watching it again just now. Hi house! This is the album you want when going for a run, psyching yourself up for a job interview or anytime you need a dose of awesome.
3. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
There are certain first records that are so beloved that you almost don’t want to hear a follow-up. Second-album-itis is a very real and unfortunate malady, but thank goodness it’s not one suffered by Fleet Foxes. Compared to their first, this album is somber and restrained — and every bit as well crafted and enjoyable to listen to. They are a fleece blanket for my brain on cold, rainy nights, like the one that is happening right now.
4. We Are the Tide by Blind Pilot
I first heard the song “We Are the Tide” at least a year and a half before this album came out, at one of the many Blind Pilot shows I’ve seen over the last several years. And here’s the thing: In the interim, I would occasionally get it stuck in my head, usually while walking or riding my bike. And I would think, “What the hell is that song? Because I definitely don’t have a recording of it. I wish I did.” That is how good this band is: They work their way into your brain the very first time you hear them, and just grow better with time. Up at the top, when I wrote that I’m addicted to hearing all of these albums, this was actually the one I was thinking of.
5. Watch the Throne by Jay-Z and Kanye West
Unless you spent the past year under a rock, you probably know that 2011 sucked in a whole lot of ways. Really, it was a terrible year for many, many people. At times like these, we need pure escapism. It keeps us from going crazy. If the escapism takes the form of two members of the one percent entertaining the rest of the ninety-nine, making us forget for a little bit, so be it. Sure, we paid them for it, but at least they gave us something of real value. Listen with friends.