Far from an objective declaration of the best music out there, the following is a list that we have compiled of our favorite albums of the past year. We like them because they make us feel good, because we relate to them in some strong personal way, or because, yes, we can’t ignore their pure objective beauty. In some cases, as with our number one album, it may be all of the above. In any case, we like these albums, and we present them to you as humble examples of God’s common grace in the form of musical creativity.
There’s something so thrilling to me about an artist willing to toss out previous expectations for him or herself and dream up something as ambitious as Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. The double-album is surreal and exciting In an interview with Pitchfork from earlier this year, frontman Anthony Gonzalez talks about the kinds of movies he played in the studio while working on the album. “A lot of Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Gus Van Sant. A lot of like experimental stuff like Maya Deren. I’m not gonna watch, like, Toy Story.” I found the quote pretty entertaining, as I had previously written about how Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming required the kind of childlike faith and acceptance that a Pixar film did. In many ways, I still stand by that comment. These kinds of films have a way of tapping into that spark within us that has become dulled down by years of disappointment and doubt. They have a way of speaking to us as humans — beyond any generational gaps or cultural enigmas that divide us into groups. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming did that for me.
A lot of people I know really liked a couple of the hits off the album such as “Midnight City” or “Claudia Lewis”, but we’re often bogged down by the numerous instrumentals and extraneous length of the album — and I can totally get that. However, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is the kind of album that will only let you in once you let your guard down. So I would encourage you to grab some headphones and dive into the 72-minute-long ride that M83 has constructed with an open mind and open heart — you won’t be disappointed. -Luke Larsen
I’ve listened to Gang Gang Dance for quite awhile now, but it wasn’t until Eye Contact that their music finally and truly clicked for me. It’s not that their music suddenly became more accessible: it’s still as crazy and chaotic and manic as ever. Listening to Eye Contact is akin to sending the radio dial scudding through the stations and catching snippets of this or that: some acid house here, some early 80’s goth/post-punk there, a wee bit of some obscure Bollywood soundtrack over there.Indeed, the album seems so full of sounds, ideas, and genres that it threatens to unravel at any moment, especially on songs like “Glass Jar” and “MindKilla”. That it never does, but instead, gets bigger and crazier without ever becoming less catchy or listenable, is a testament to Gang Gang Dance’s peculiar brand of genius. –Jason Morehead
I love hearing an artist make the leap.
Follow-up albums are a tricky business. “Jinx” has the adjective “sophomore” knitted to it for a reason. An artist’s album #2 can earn the “highly anticipated” tag by doing one of the following: displaying a rough-hewn sound that hints at future greatness (e.g. Sufjan Stevens’s A Sun Came) or melting minds with an out-of-left-field collection that’s so original it makes you wonder if the artist is up to besting it (e.g. Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender). While the 2009 debut from tUnE-yArDs, BiRd-BrAiNs, was more of the former (singles “Sunlight” and “Fiya” were standouts), it had the stylistic downsides of the latter. Here was the album’s press release catch: Merril Garbus, tUnEyArDs’ lead tunesmith, made the entire album using a handheld digital recorder and Audacity software. Sure, the collection demonstrated Garbus’s dexterous voice and askew ukulele-shredding, but how much further could she stretch that aesthetic? I was nervous.
When I heard WHOKILL’s lead single “Bizness,” I found my fears were unjustified. Garbus betters her debut in two ways. First, she ups her production values without sacrificing her music’s edge. The music retains its difficult, cacophonous moments, while trading up for the type of killer rhythm section only a studio can capture. WHOKILL swings, rocks, and flat-out grooves. Second, Garbus ups her lyrical game, not by dropping her confessional lyrics, but by projecting herself into more situations than simply relationships-gone-bad. National identity and gentrification get thrown in the pot along tales of body image and romantic love. She even tosses in a surrealistic lullaby. Her voice was always strong. Now that she’s got something substantial to say, it’s even stronger. I won’t doubt her again. -Jonathan Sircy
Trevor Powers isn’t doing anything that most independent song writers his age aren’t–melding hushed vocals, intimate melodies, and nostalgic lyrics. The difference between Powers and his contemporaries is that Powers is making such music imminently believable. Power masters to naturally build his particular brand of lo-fi into something vibrant and heartfelt. Consequently, The Year of Hibernation was the 2011 album that most fascinated me. I couldn’t stop listening to it and annoying my friends until they listened to it too.
Powers’ songs are not only refreshing in their tightly woven arrangements but also in their hopeful idealism. In “Cannons”, Powers sings, “I have more dreams than you have posters of your favorite teams / You’ll never talk me out of this.” While the end of such dreams is never quite revealed, the sentiment is welcome. There are brief moments of darkness throughout the album but whatever demons Powers is fighting all seem manageable. The Year of Hibernation is a delightful album about growing up–it’s naive at times and unabashedly nostalgic, but as I seek to live productively in an ever more complicated world, such nostalgic ventures become more and more necessary. -Drew Dixon
The time gap between Bon Iver’s 2008 debut For Emma, Forever Ago and this year’s self-titled Bon Iver was way, way too long. I’m still a bit annoyed about all that. But Mr. Vernon laid a sophomore album on us in 2011 that made the wait almost forgivable (almost).
Trading up from his signature haunting stripped-down acoustic ballads to a haunting full-on indie orchestra, Vernon’s soulful stylings led us weeping through ten magnificent songs that rang with wondrous ache, culminating in the glory of “Calgary” before slowly closing the door and leaving us alone once again. Bon Iver was heart-wrenchingly beautiful and brief, easily and surely one of the most well-crafted and moving albums of 2011.
And now that it’s all over, we get to wait yet again. *sigh* –Kirk Bozeman
Ten years ago, Josh T. Pearson was a wild-eyed prophet, a man on a mission from God to tell the world of an impending apocalypse and lead the faithful into the Promised Land of Texas. He was the frontman for Lift To Experience, a psychedelic rock band for the ages, and their concept album The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads was garnering acclaim left and right. Ten years later, and Pearson is a broken man singing wry songs of heartache. Divorce and break-ups will do that to you. Last of the Country Gentlemen is hard album to listen to, from Pearson’s brutally honest lyrics to his sloppy acoustic guitar-work to the album’s threadbare production. That, and most of the songs cross the ten-minute mark, often leaving Pearson gasping as he sings of betrayal, infidelity, guilt, and hatred. But sad songs are universal songs, and even if you’ve never experienced the pain of divorce, Pearson’s honest, no-holds-barred account makes for a compelling and captivating listen. –Jason Morehead
Musically, Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album felt like a gradual evolution from indie-folk band’s popular debut. There was some added instrumentation, more spontaneity, and tighter production, but it still very much sounded like the same band doing what they do best. Lyrically, however, Helplessness Blues turned the table on the idealist and fanciful themes of their self-titled album to find a As Occupy protests come to an end and another election cycle awaits, Helplessness Blues was almost prophetic in its depiction of a generation coming to terms with it itself. Frontman Robin Pecknold writes about debt and borrowing in “Bedouin Dress”, finding your place in the world in “Helplessness Blues”, and spiritual desperation on “The Shrine / An Argument”; it’s the kind of album that a generation can find itself in — like Highway 61 Revisited or Nevermind. I know those are big names to live up to, but to me, Helplessness Blues feels grand enough to fit all my hopes, insecurities, disillusions, and passions into it — and I don’t think I’m alone. –Luke Larsen
I discovered Jay Tholen at a time when I was frustrated with the majority of Christian music. Often times Christian music seems bent on making us feel better about ourselves by singing about how spiritual we are. Such sentiments are refreshingly absent from Tholen’s dense and deeply spiritual album Mud Pies or Bread and Wine. This is Christian music with which I can identify–it’s honest, self aware, and unabashedly truthful. There is an honest beauty to many of the songs that lend credibility to simple lyrics like “Jesus is real, He’ll never fail” and “You have reached into my heart and made it beat again for you.”
Tholen is a chip tune artist and if you are curious about what that means, you should listen to our end of the year music podcast in which we interviewed Jay. However, Mud Pies or Bread and Wine exhibits a fascination with more than 8 bit sounds as Tholen is sampling from a wide variety of sources–from old Christian music to newer sounds alongside classic videogame melodies. For various reasons, I have recently found the world of Christian contemporary music rather depressing lately. Consequently I will always remember Mud Pies or Bread and Wine as the album that made me excited about the possibilities of Christian music again. Also it’s 100% free to download! –Drew Dixon
I was blown away by M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming just like everyone else, but if I am honest, it wasn’t long before I was back to listening to Era Extrana which is often deeply reminiscent of Saturdays = Youth. Perhaps, its not fair to compare Neon Indian with M83 as they represent different genres but I just couldn’t get past how richly arranged Alan Palomo’s latest work is. So while “Midnight City” was the song I was often singing in my head, “Hex Girlfriend,” “Halogen,” and “Fallout” were the songs I found most enriched my commute.
Era Extrana represents Palomo’s most accessible work to date and at times almost feels reminiscent of more popular acts like Passion Pit or MGMT and yet it manages to refrain from relying to heavily on pop sensibilities. From start to finish Era Extrana is an album that demands close attention while still providing glorious escapes. –Drew Dixon
Honorable Mentions: These albums sadly couldn’t make the top 1o but some of our writers felt strongly enough to write about them anyway:
David Bazan broke up with God on his last album, 2009’s “Curse Your Branches.” Trading the role of storyteller for confessional poet, Bazan married raw lyrics to the most complex music production of his career. The results were mixed. It was as if Bazan’s theological doubt had been sublimated into his musical decisions. Good songs were hidden behind extraneous layers of studio gloss. Was it Dostoyevsky who wrote that in a world without God, every overdub is permitted?
In contrast, this year’s “Strange Negotiations” shows Bazan recapturing a vibrant, stripped-down sound while retaining his lyrical edge. The result is his best full-length since 2002’s “Control” when he was still recording under the Pedro the Lion moniker. Bazan continues to harbor antipathy towards Jehovah (the word “God” first appears on album opener “Wolves at the Door” as half of a profane adjective), but this album shows him doing more negotiating than railing. Every song features the word “you,” as Bazan’s turns his keen eye from the heavens to the people around him. The best songs trade “you” and “I” verses as Bazan exposes himself to the same alternating disdain and compassion as the people he’s addressing.
It’s all held together by tight, laser-focused music that features four-on-the-floor drums, supple bass lines, and Bazan’s increasingly ragged voice. Everything peaks in the bridge of album standout “Eating Paper.” “While this may be the rare occasion where high tides lift all boats,” Bazan wails, stretching his voice to the breaking point, “I’m keeping my head down under the water, ‘cause man, I’ve got to get there on my own.” Immediately, the drums cut out, replaced by handclaps. A piano joins the guitar riff. It sounds like a man physically trying to get there, and for at least one album, it works. –Jonathan Sircy
Wilco’s 2011 album The Whole Love represents a marked change in Wilco’s Wilco-ing of late. Moving away from the raw, analog reel stuff of Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), the boys gave us a wonderfully rich, ambient bit of mid tempo rock. Like really, really mid tempo. It kind of drags on in the middle and comes across as a bit boring at first, which is the reason it may not make a lot of top ten lists.
But eventually you shake the bias and start thinking – “this is the most layered and well-arranged Wilco album I’ve heard in a long time, and these really are some great songs”. I know it’s not quite Foxtrot, but you can always say that. After repeated listens, The Whole Love is definitely on my personal top 10 and deserves more attention than it received in 2011. Go Team Wilco. –Kirk Bozeman