WiAC’s Top 21 Albums of 2011

It’s been pretty quiet around here for awhile (so quiet that we’re pretty sure just our mom’s are checking this thing at this point) (hi moms!), but even though we haven’t been writing all that much, we promise we’ve still been listening to loads of good music. So putting this list together has been a good chance for us to finally put down how we feel about some of the great stuff we’ve heard this year. We just hope it’s as fun for you to browse through as it was for us to pull together!

Before reading on, just a quick note about a record that’s not on this list: The Head & The Heart’s debut record saw a major label release this year (on Sub Pop), and although we’ve probably listened to that absolute gem of a record more than just about any other this year, we didn’t include it on account of it being on our year-end list for 2010, since they self-released it that year. But just know this: under different circumstances, The Head & The Heart would most certainly top this list. So if you haven’t heard them yet, let that be your invitation! Because they are so great!

So with that out of the way, we’re ready to unveil our Top 21 Albums of 2011. Just remember that this list represents our favorite albums of the year, and not necessarily the best albums of the year. If we had to pick what we thought were the very best albums critically, this list might look a little different. But we’re not critics, so we’re not going to worry about who made the greatest artistic strides or whatever this year. These are simply our very favorite albums of the year: the ones that made us laugh, cry, dance, smile, press repeat, wet our pants, etc. Basically, this is what we’ll remember when we look back on 2011.

21. No Witch

by The Cave Singers [Jagjaguwar]

(buy it here)

I consider The Cave Singers previous album, Welcome Joy, nearly perfect in every way: it hit just the right note of Appalachian folk, foot-stomping sing-alongs, and barn-burning rock ‘n roll. This year’s No Witch didn’t quite hit the same dizzying heights for me, but it still ended up on my stereo more often than most records, simply on the strength of these guys’ musical charms. They lean heavier on the, well, heavier side of their sound this time around, making a darker record on the whole (see “Faze Wave” and “No Prosecution If We Bail” for example), but they still find room for that front-porch reminiscence they conjure so well (see “Swim Club” or “Clever Creatures”). -Chris

mp3: The Cave Singers – Swim Club

20. Megafaun

by Megafaun [Hometapes]

(buy it here)

I never stray too far from the folk / bluegrassey genre of music. For every one Black Keys song, I’m listening to two Daniel Martin Moores. Maybe that’s why I’m in love with Megafaun. Yep, love, real love. They seem to straddle that line. They’re a two-fer, or maybe Megafaun is actually a triple threat. Megafaun can be a folk, psych, rock, or any combination of these genres at anytime. The gentle strumming of a guitar accompanied by the good ol’ country boy voices can give way to a nifty little guitar riff at a moment’s notice. Is that a saxophone, with a guitar tha’s playing what almost sounds like a Christmas carol over drums reminiscent of a jazz tune? Yes, yes it is and it sounds awesome. Truly awesome. -Logan

mp3: Megafaun – State/Meant

19. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

by M83 [Mute]

(buy it here)

It was a pretty good year for the Saxophone. It got to duet with Justin Vernon’s gorgeous falsetto on “Beth/Rest”, the closing track on his latest (fantastic) LP. Then, in the hands of Kenny G, it got to be the winking punch-line of Katy Perry’s ridiculously infectious “T.G.I.F.” It even got to be legitimately artsy again with the release of Colin Stetson’s record, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges. But in no place did the saxophone shine quiet as bright as it did at the end of M83’s “Midnight City” – it’s the perfect cap to that swirling ode to the twinkling lights of LA, and the perfect encapsulation of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming as a whole – all wide-eyed wonder and unabashed nostalgia. Most simply, this is a record made especially for kids who grew up watching The Neverending Story and Flight of the Navigator on Saturday afternoons. Namely, kids like me. Also, there’s THIS. -Chris

mp3: M83 – Midnight City

18. undun

by The Roots [Def Jam]

(buy it here)

Give it a few more months and undun would certainly be higher on this list. But in only the short time I’ve had it I can already say with confidence that this is one of my favorite records of the year. Undun tells the unsavory story of fictional Redford Stephens, a young man from the projects of Philadelphia who gets caught up in the drug trade, finally losing his life to it. Black Thought gives the performance of his career as Redford, not so much telling a linear story as letting us in on the kids’ thoughts, hopes and fears before his inevitable demise, which itself is represented by a 4-part instrumental deconstruction of the gorgeous Sufjan Stevens piece, “Redford”. Several of the tracks are stand-outs on their own, but the record is clearly intended to be experienced as a piece, and as such is profoundly moving. -Chris

mp3: The Roots – Make My (feat. Big K.R.I.T. & Dice Raw)

17. Oblangle Fizz Y’all

by Reptar [Make Records Not Bombs]

(buy it here)

So this album may just be a 5-song debut EP, but it just didn’t seem right to disqualify one of my favorite releases of the year on a technicality… so here it is! The EP is full of spaced out pop fantasies, loaded with big hooks and a slanted sense of humor (take “Blast Off”‘s opening refrain for example: “I won’t call you if you don’t call me!” barked with the kind of fist-pumping anthemic energy usually reserved for less laconic sentiments). My feelings for this record can be most concisely communicated at about 0:57 on “Stuck In My Id”, right when that euphoric guitar riff kicks in and takes that song to a whole new level. Few songs rocked me harder than that one all year, and few album titles were more delightfully ridiculous than Oblangle Fizz Y’all. Count me in for whatever these guys are doing next. -Chris

mp3: Reptar – Stuck in My Id

16. In the Mountain In the Cloud

by Portugal. The Man [Atlantic]

(buy it here)

I once again wrestle with Portugal. The Man. Every year I have to tell myself, “Is this a favorite album or an album by a favorite band?” But really, why is Portugal. The Man one of my favorite bands? It is because they consistently (and frequently) produce top-notch music. So it is with In the Mountain In the Cloud, an absolutely spectacular addition to an impressive collection of albums by Portugal. The Man. When PTM signed with Atlantic after American Ghetto the blogosphere was awash with fears that creatively, PTM would never be the same and that they would go the way of many a talented band once that band signed to a major label. In the Mountain In the Cloud put those unfounded fears firmly to rest. Unlike Satanic Satanist few tracks off of Mountain feel radio-friendly and I really couldn’t be happier about it. Still far from being a difficult album, PTM seems to have focused on crafting an album that ebbs and flows from song to song like some musical ocean. -Logan

mp3: Portugal. The Man – Head is a Flame (Cool With It)

15. Watch the Throne

by Jay-Z & Kanye West [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam]

(buy it here)

An entire record of ego-tripping taunts and boasts about how wealthy and well-endowed these two guys are didn’t sound too incredibly enticing to me when I first heard about it. Honestly it still doesn’t sound that enticing. That’s probably why it took me months to even listen to the records first official single, the Memphis soul-sampling “Otis”. But I finally did, and that’s all it took. These songs are indeed ridiculously self-aggrandizing (rap music, right), but that doesn’t seem to stop them from also being all kinds of brilliant. Aside from the embarrassingly tepid “Lift Off”, every single song has a legitimate “holy crap” moment for me where I’m just reduced to shaking my head and smiling. Or, more accurately, shaking my butt and smiling. And you know what? Amidst all their grandstanding, they even found a way to squeeze in some rather eloquent thoughts on fatherhood, success, and black culture in America… aaand a couple Will Ferrell samples. So there’s that. -Chris

mp3: Jay-Z & Kanye West – Otis (feat. Otis Redding)

14. Metals

by Feist [Cherrytree/Interscope]

(buy it here)

Though hardly a metal album, Metals is definitely a bit more forceful than Feist’s previous two albums. For better or for worse Leslie Feist will forever be associated with her top hit and iPod commercial alum, “1 2 3 4”. I think for better, because really, that song is nearly pop perfection even if it taught a few unfortunate people an incorrect way to count. Let’s not forget though, Feist can rock when she wants to and she takes some time between gorgeous duets and swelling soulful songs to rock a bit in Metals. The highlight of my commute to school was “A Commotion”, when the drums and guitar are chugging along all building up a group of men’s voices repeating a jarring “A commotion!” which of course I imitated with a pretty low degree of accuracy. Still so great though. Right now, I think Feist has one of the most beautiful and dynamic voices in music, her voice can be whisper quiet one moment and explode the next, crafting dramatic highs and soulful lows that meld perfectly with the music. -Logan

mp3: Feist – The Bad In Each Other

13. It’s a Corporate World

by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. [Warner Bros.]

(buy it here)

Any record with “Morning Thought”, “Nothing But Our Love”, “Skeletons”, and “Vocal Chords” on it, deserves to be on this list without explanation. As a bonus, though, It’s A Corporate World also includes some additional great songs and a Gil Scott-Heron cover! Subsequently, this became my default album whenever I was in that what-should-I-put-on kind of funk, and it never disappointed. -Chris

mp3: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – Morning Thought

12. James Blake

by James Blake [Universal Republic]

(buy it here)

Truth be told, I feel a little stupid for including this album in my favorites. As I’m writing this I’m seeing James Blake appear on quite a few year-end lists and as I read these articles I can’t help but think, “Is this why I love this album? Is it really the dub-step, R&B, auto-tune, and techno combination that I find so alluring?” My only answer is, I guess. I don’t really know. Heck, when it really comes down to it, this is just a fantastic album that sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I’ve listened to it incessantly as I’ve written papers and studied, finding its music was unobtrusive but immediately captivating when my mind came out of that “finals fog”. I am entranced by the Blake’s voice and the minimalist soundscapes that seem to fill these tracks from start to finish. My favorite moment, hands down, on this incredible album is the beginning of “I Never Learnt to Share.” The way Blake melds his soulful voice with an ever increasing layering of sounds is something else. -Logan

mp3: James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream

11. Zonoscope

by Cut/Copy [Modular Records]

(buy it here)

I’m a newcomer to Cut/Copy. I can’t claim to have been a fan from the very start. It was only after Chris saw them perform at Lollapalooza and told me if I’m not listening to them, I need to start, because their next album is going to be amazing. Did Chris foresee Zonoscope on our 2011 list? Was it the fulfillment of a prophecy received under the hot humid Chicago summertime sun? I’d like to think so. Zonoscope is cheery, catchy, and above all else just a joy to listen to. Cut/Copy hasn’t moved too far away from its designation as an “electro-pop” or”synth-dance” group (and by no means am I saying they need to) but there is definitely more “rock” in this release than in previous albums and as evidenced by many of the other albums that are featured on this list, I love a little rock sprinkled into every genre. -Logan

mp3: Cut/Copy – Take Me Over

10. Mountaintops

by Mates of State [Barsuk]

(buy it here)

It’s no secret that I love Mates of State, and it’s a great feeling when a group you’ve championed for so long puts out another solid record. While there were those who maligned the Mates last album for its more palatable pop sound, they’d often also admit that it contained some of their strongest songwriting yet. Well those same detractors will likely find much less to fault here, as Jason and Kori have paired their latter-day songwriting chops with a sound more akin to their Team Boo/Bring It Back days. Basically, they’ve created a minor-level masterpiece of DIY feel-good indie-pop, and it’s fantastic. “Palomino”, “Maracas” and “Sway” constitute the most solid 1-2-3 punch they’ve ever concocted, and aside from a mid-album head-scratcher (the “Walking On Sunshine”-reboot, “Total Serendipity”), the rest of the record is full of gems that have wormed their way right through my ears and straight into my heart. -Chris

mp3: Mates of State – Palomino

9. Wounded Rhymes

by Lykke Li [Atlantic]

(buy it here)

Sadness is a blessing/sadness is a curse/sadness is my boyfriend/sadness I’m your girl.“ If you could read that without its distinct melody popping into your head, then you’ve been living life at a 10 instead of an 11 all year. Sorry. -Chris

mp3: Lykke Li – Sadness Is A Blessing


8. El Camino

by The Black Keys [Nonesuch]

(buy it here)

I think I’ve identified the one drawback to doing a “favorites” list rather than the more traditional “best of” year-end list. My favorites list tends to be unequally weighted with albums from the first six or seven months of the year. For an album to be a favorite it typically needs to sit with me awhile, go into remission, and then resurge with a vengeance. Those Q1 and Q2 albums have a chance to do that, Q4… not so much. This is why I was a little reluctant to put El Camino on this list. I mean, up until a few weeks ago I had only heard 5 songs from the album. With that said though, listen to this album and try to tell me that it doesn’t belong on favorite lists everywhere. El Camino is frighteningly catchy.”Lonely Boy” will stick with you for days. Dan’s chunky guitar, Pat’s indomitable drums, and the awesome (and oft times humorous) lyrics just make this one of my favorite and best (yep I said it) albums of the year. The Black Keys continue to be some of the most prolific artists making consistently incredible music (with perhaps Portugal. The Man close on their heels). -Logan

mp3: The Black Keys – Lonely Boy

7. All Things Will Unwind

by My Brightest Diamond [Asthmatic Kitty]

(buy it here)

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Ms. Worden perform these songs with ymusic at the MusicNOW festival in Cincinnati, and I can honestly say that I have seen few performances more moving than hers that night. I waited anxiously all year to hear these songs put down on record, and I can testify that they are as gorgeous in stereo as they were in that old civil-war era theater. All Things Will Unwind is a song cycle rooted in the concepts of motherhood and creation, executed with deceptive simplicity and dizzying musicianship. While it probably won’t be a record that receives broad acclaim, it will certainly be one that is quietly treasured by those who’ve found it. -Chris

mp3: My Brightest Diamond – I Have Never Loved Someone

6. Burst Apart

by The Antlers [Frenchkiss]

(buy it here)

I think one of the greatest feelings in the world is when you have your high expectations met. In a world filled with Prequel Trilogies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Let Down, it’s nice to know that your higher expectations don’t just mean a longer fall to crushing disappointment. It’s safe to say that Hospice by The Antlers (my top pick from 2009) is one of my top albums of all time and going into my first listen of Burst Apart I was rightfully apprehensive. Much to my relief, Burst Apart delivered and in a big way. “I Don’t Want Love” floored me, just knocked me right out, and the album never lets up. Song after song is just flawless. The strangely complimentary contradictions of Hospice are alive and well in Burst Apart. Peter Silberman’s voice is once again powerful but delicate, the music can be sparse but swell with unbelievable emotion, and the lyrics are softly-spoken but carry an incredible weight. However, this new album shouldn’t just be listened to in comparison of its predecessor, because Burst Apart is its own beast entirely. The Antlers have pushed forward creatively and sonically while expanding on what made their previous music so remarkable. -Logan

mp3: The Antlers – Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out

5. In the Cool of the Day

by Daniel Martin Moore [Sub Pop]

(buy it here)

What’s the famous Kix cereal slogan? “Kid tested, mother approved?” If we gave out individual awards for our favorite albums this is inevitably the award I would give to Daniel Martin Moore’s In the Cool of the Day. My mother’s Sunday morning ritual is to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir… and only the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. So I’ll admit I was anxious to see mom’s reaction on a Sunday when I was visiting where, unannounced, I replaced her Mo Tab with Daniel Martin Moore. In the Cool of the Day is a collection of old gospel standards as well as some new hymns penned by Moore. What makes this album shine is how Moore has taken the original hymns and not simply covered them, but re-imagined them and provided a fresh take on these gospel classics. This album is the ultimate in calming and soothing music, which is just what you need sometimes. Oh and thankfully, it was just minutes after the first song when Mom called from the kitchen, while making homemade rolls (God bless mothers), “Who is this Logan? Because I really like this and I don’t usually like your music.” Thanks Mom, but really what isn’t to love? -Logan

mp3: Daniel Martin Moore – In the Cool of the Day

4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver

by Bon Iver [Jagjaguwar]

(buy it here)

2011 has been the year of Justin Vernon. He’s everywhere. Bon Iver, Bon Iver is topping just about everyone’s year end list or cracking the top 5 at least. This is not without reason; Bon Iver has crafted something incredible. When Bon Iver, Bon Iver first came out last June I thought that perhaps the middle portion was a bit weak and that the strength of the album lay with the first and last three tracks. However, as I sat with this album it became clear that I couldn’t just discard a portion and favor a select few. I still adore “Calgary” and can’t think of a better song released this year, but the album as a whole is truly phenomenal. It seems ridiculous now to listen to “Calgary” without first listening to “Wash.” (which I considered the weakest track) and that is remarkable. While still having some standout tracks, Bon Iver, Bon Iver demands that you listen to it in its entirety and the true beauty of this album is only revealed after that. -Logan

mp3: Bon Iver – Calgary

3. Diamond Mine

by King Creosote & Jon Hopkins [Domino]

(buy it here)

Some of my very favorite records this year explored the concept of “place”, and none evoked a specific one as clearly and poignantly as Diamond Mine. A love letter to King Creosote’s and Jon Hopkins’ shared home of Fife, Scotland, Diamond Mine is quiet, touching, at times heartbreaking, at others reassuring. Always it transports the listener to another place and time entirely – Hopkins’ rich field recordings and Creosote’s bard-like voice evoking not only a nook of eastern Scotland, but the shared human experience of “home” and all that entails. It’s a profound record, full of subtle insights and poignant moments, and it’s meant the world to me this year. -Chris

mp3: King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – John Taylor’s Month Away

2. Departing

by The Rural Alberta Advantage [Saddle Creek]

(buy it here)

(Up for a little time travel? This past March The Rural Alberta Advantage so impressed me with Departing that after just a week with the album I wrote its entry into WiAC’s year-end favorites list. I still agree with everything wholeheartedly.) The cover art says it all about Departing. What I can only decipher as a photograph of some lonely snow-swept road in some dismal and distant stretch of Alberta prairie serves as the backdrop and tone of this icy album. Departing is cold and it’s beautiful. Relationships end as the ice begins to crack. Leaving companions cut paths through waist high snow. Frost freezes the engine of a car and does the same to hearts. It’s pretty bleak and it’s kind of perfect. However, for songs that describe chilly winters and even chillier interactions, the guitar, vocals, and drumming move along at times with an almost frenzied pace. (The drums guys, seriously, those drums destroy me) Departing is pure unblemished musical magic. -Logan

mp3: The Rural Alberta Advantage – Stamp

1. Helplessness Blues

by Fleet Foxes [Sub Pop)

(buy it here)

In an interview with Pitchfork back in December 2009 Robin Pecknold described the difficulty he’d had writing what would eventually become Helplessness Blues, and how he’d begun to eschew the idea that all music of value had to be novel or somehow revolutionary. Instead he described what he’d been working on as “…good songs that should exist in the world”. That struck me when I read it. It was something I immediately connected with. Why else create music (or any art for that matter), than to make something that deserves to exist? Something that makes the world better just for being in it? Now, with the finished record before me, I believe that Pecknold’s rather candid assessment was true: these are “good songs that should exist in the world”, and even though they tread on rather familiar stylistic ground, that doesn’t even begin to diminish their worth. Helplessness Blues seems to narrate a quest, a search for meaning presented in a series of questions – questions about who we are and what our place is in the world. As the narrator poses query after query, the record seems to ascend with his searching – from “The Plains” to “The Cascades” to “The Shrine” – until he ends up standing under heaven’s hung lights and contemplating his own ultimate end. It’s fitting then that the record itself ends with an unresolved melody, as if asking one final question about where we’re going and why. There aren’t many answers posited, but this record is a testament to the value found in the searching. It’s a gorgeous record, nearly perfect, and one that indeed should exist in the world. -Chris

mp3: Fleet Foxes – Montezuma

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  1. rickard’s avatar

    wow, this just shows how many great albums that were released in 2011. I made a list of 25 albums, don’t think that we have a single album in common.

    if interested, you can find my list here:

    http://rickardholmgren.wordpress.com/2011/12/13/best-of-2011-my-list/

  2. Cory’s avatar

    Glad to see some activity on WIaC! And of course the year end list is always a favorite. Thanks for the link to the m83 backup audition. It’s a real gem.

  3. Joe’s avatar

    I always look forward to this post. I’m amazed at how much new music you guys are able to get your hands on. I recognize a few names, but the majority are new to me. Keep on posting because WIaC is the only music blog that I follow. If you go away, I will start listening to Nickelback.

  4. james’s avatar

    yea! i’ve been waiting for this! excited to check out the recommendations.

  5. timmy v’s avatar

    next year’s list should contain the Mad Diving Barons. date’s been set! http://maddivingbarons.com/

  6. p.’s avatar

    Really good, dynamic list you have compiled. Always a treat to peek into the musical mind genius of WIaC!! Good stuff guys. Music has a way of exposing emotions in multiple levels and layers. This list has broad depth and I have found some new favorites. Thanks! Keep up the good work!!!

    -Please consider the environment before PRINTING this article 🙂

  7. p.’s avatar

    PS – The Antlers should have been higher on the list. . . After coming out with Hospice and now Burst Apart. . . good stuff all around. Glad to see them on the list again!
    Good music Tobs.

  8. Steve’s avatar

    Hey, I miss the posts. I hope this isn’t good bye forever.

  9. Jonny’s avatar

    I’m with steve. Love stalking this site from my office in Oakland, CA. All my favorite music seems to come from you guys. Hoping WIAC isn’t gone for good.

  10. Ty’s avatar

    I miss you guys!

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