1. Bon Iver's self-titled album was the uncontested best album of the year, and not just because Justin Vernon is Wisconsin's golden boy.
The concept behind each song on the band's second album involved taking us to intensely detailed sonic landscapes, where each sound was a different experience for the listener.
It's tempting, then, to imagine everything on Bon Iver came about through some sort of synthesizer manipulation. However the very organic nature of the album is evident as each of the band's nine members cycle through a dizzying assortment of instruments and sounds that range from a baritone sax to dozens of guitars to the rhythmic pressing of trumpet keys.
The depth of sound one can find on Bon Iver is what set it apart this year. It wasn't just Vernon's much-hyped falsetto: You can get lost in "Minnesota, WI" and "Calgary" the same way you can lose yourself in a physical location. And while the work that went into the album was on display in their live performance, you can find every detail on Bon Iver: 2011's finest album.
2. The Black Keys released El Camino a mere nine days ago, yet it took less time than that to recognize this is guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney's most successful album to date. Sexy guitar riffs and galloping beats permeate the entire 38 minutes of this musical delight, finally hitting the soulful, bluesy, garage-rock sound fans always knew was in them on the head.
With the production help of Danger Mouse, vintage organs blare and hand claps reminiscent of gospel choirs juxtapose old school sounds with a unique, modern twist-especially in instant favorites such as "Gold On The Ceiling" and "Stop Stop." Let me put it this way: Listening to El Camino makes me want to strap on my highest pair of heels, strut my stuff over to the nearest dive bar and wrangle the first bad boy I see. The best music tends to erase general rationality and inhibitions like that, and this distinguishing album is no exception.
3. The first thing that crossed my mind when I heard w h o k i l l was more or less "What the fu-." Then I opened up and paid just a little more attention to the dulcet tones coming through my headphones. "My Country" certainly doesn't seem accessible at first, but you can't turn it off. Between Merrill Garbus' interesting voice and wild instrumentation, there is a sound that thwarts my ability to explain. There is a tribal sound to the record that makes up for all of the discord that would otherwise prevent this album from garnering the kind of support it has.
"Riotriot" still has the tribal sound, but with a slower sound that keeps the record from falling into a rut. Not that there's a lot of danger of this record really sounding like anything else in your collection. In reality, Garbus' unique take on world music and R&B, among probably a dozen other genres, creates an album that belongs everywhere and nowhere, and certainly needs to go for a spin on your record player.
4. David Comes to Life is my favorite of Fucked Up's three albums and represents the band at the height of a remarkable nine-year creative arc. Once considered one of the most awe-inspiringly ambitious hard core bands in North America, Fucked Up no longer self-identifiy as punk rock.
Allow me to disagree. This album is punk rock as shit. Though Fucked Up were always hell-bent on putting together a varied and "big idea"-heavy body of work. Through some maniacal impulse, they structured David Comes to Life as a circular song cycle containing themes of Nietzschean eternal reoccurrence and the relationship between authorship and omnipotence. Yeah, it's heavy.
It also sounds great, a high-gloss shoe gazing arena-wannabe hopped up on molly instead of punk's more familiar dirty amphetamines. It retains physical impact and ferocity despite its overwhelmingly beautiful overdubbed confusion. This is a truly unique and highly enjoyable album, but get a lyric sheet. You're going to want one.
5. Youth Lagoon is the project of one Trevor Powers, a young man whose debut, The Year of Hibernation, was good enough to get my vote for album of the year. The anxiety in his voice is palpable, but at the same time it is obvious that he has overcome many of the issues that his songs are about. This honesty is what makes his music so amazing.
"Cannons" is the standout track, the beat makes the song feel like it should be fast, but the piano and vocals crawl along, creating a haunting effect, in the best possible way.
"Afternoon" is another standout, with a driving beat and Powers' quiet voice underneath this song makes it equally perfect for walking home in the snow or biking home in the sun, and the whistling and guitars make it even more infectious.
I can't wait to see Powers' second record, when it isn't recorded in his dorm room.
6. Although the low-maintenance cheer of Fleet Foxes' first album was refreshing, Helplessness Blues allows the band to stretch its legs and truly explore the depths of its sound. The group tackles lofty questions of existence and death, as well as the way they measure success, throughout the album.
Despite (and most likely because of) these desolate and frustrated themes, the compilation is pulled off with excellent form. The lyricism is nothing short of poetry, weaving in and out of complex motifs and vibrant imagery.
The vocal harmonies perfectly complement the rampant metal-tinged folk guitar work, and the group explores non-western styles in the raga "Sim Sala Bim."
The Seattle sextet had several wrinkles in its creative process while producing this album, but it was all worth it. The experience of struggling to find one's place in the world is no stranger to most of us, and it makes for a damn good listen.
7. Of the slew of mix tapes from the OFWGKTA collective that flooded the Internet in 2011, the effortlessly cool Nostalgia, Ultra stands apart from the jarring, angst-ridden sounds of the Los Angeles musicians. Odd-Future's fare is experimental rap, while Nostalgia, Ultra is pioneering R&B, and the voice behind it isn't the lava-coated growl of patriarch Tyler, the Creator, but the mysterious and dexterous falsetto of Frank Ocean.
As with the rest of his posse, Ocean's sound is fiercely idiosyncratic, a blend of irreverence and melancholy showcased beautifully throughout Ultra across a mix of original tracks and covers of songs from MGMT to Coldplay.
Romance is depicted on one of these originals. As for the melancholy, it surfaces on everything from the existential to the sensual. Our co-sign isn't the only one Ocean has received this year. Recent collaborations with Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Kanye West affirm his breakout year as just the introduction to "music-according to Frank Ocean."
8. In what might as well be called the "Year of Soothing Falsetto," the Antlers' Burst Apart just might have the most disarming and shocking vocals of any record released in 2011.
Lead singer Peter Silberman's voice is simultaneously packed with emotion and riddled with apathy, while the synthesizers, pianos and guitars that back him up only add to the airy, perfectly inorganic feel of the record. Meanwhile, the softened edges of his lyrics mask a raw destructive power that pushes through in cries of barely restrained fury.
This has been a year defined by the falsetto (Burst Apart is the third album on this top 10 showcasing a high-pitched frontman), but while Youth Lagoon and Bon Iver use the style to express an earnest warmth, the Antlers feels like it's been frozen out of kindness. Oscillating between tender and sinister, Burst Apart showcases some of the best vocals we've heard all year.
9. The get-down grooves of Mayer Hawthorne just never get old, and his most recent album How Do You Do is no exception. The throwback, feel-good aura of Hawthorne's album is pervasive and combined with the extremely relatable subject matter, just helps to cement the album among the best of the year.
Hawthorne's sound, reminiscent of ‘60s and ‘70s R&B, is more relaxed in How Do You Do. Delving into themes of love gone awry and one-night stands, his crooning melodies take on an almost juxtaposing form, especially in "Can't Stop," featuring infamous bad-boy Snoop Dogg. Among the ranks of other modern soul stars as the late Amy Winehouse and Adele, Mayer Hawthorne brings his own sensual swagger to the field.
Rife with nostalgic allure, How Do You Do is an easy listen compared to much of the indie albums getting hype in the top-10 lists (including ours). It is a breath of fresh air.
10. The charm of Foster the People's freshman work, Torches, comes from the instant-hit-single quality of nearly every track on the album. Yes, "Pumped Up Kicks" and "Helena Beat" have gotten excessive radio play, but there is so much more to be discovered. Take the hidden gem that is Torches' seventh song, "Houdini," for instance. If you are not attempting to sing the chorus after one or two listens, you weren't really listening.
The allure to all ages also makes this album a shining success. Middle-school kids to middle-agers can equally appreciate the synth sounds and whistle-inducing melodies woven throughout Torches, overloading each track with front man Mark Foster's bountiful energy. Seriously, at their live shows Foster dances around stage like he just drank five cans of Red Bull; it is fantastic.
If you need a shameless pop music fix, make Foster the People your go-to band of choice.