Connect with us

Features

The 25 Best Albums of 2011

The ladies truly dominate the upper reaches of our 2011 albums list in a way they haven’t ever before.

The 25 Best Albums of 2011
Photo: Atlantic

Every year seems like the year of the woman around here. But the ladies truly dominate the upper reaches of our 2011 albums list in a way they haven’t ever before: For the first time, our top three albums are all by female artists. Lykke Li’s sophomore effort, Wounded Rhymes, helped the Swedish electro-pop siren shift from adorable to adorably scorned, with prickly pop songs to match. Her collection of richly textured odes to love nearly earned across-the-board approval from our music staff, as did PJ Harvey’s eighth solo studio effort, Let England Shake. While the rest of the former goddesses of the 1990s alt-rock pantheon have started to limp into middle age, Polly Jean continues to mesmerize with her transformation as a musician, a poet, a woman, and a human being. Stefani Germanotta’s Born This Way transcended whatever irksome questions we still have about her authenticity, functioning best as a professional statement of purpose rather than a simple collection of pop singles. And hey, she annoyed the hell out of the hipsters, so she must be doing something right. As for the men, well, they didn’t do too shabby either. Bon Iver represents a new kind of commercially minded indie act, managing to find a way to appeal to Grammy voters without completely alienating his core constituency with an album that balances the stripped-down indie ethos with a decidedly ‘80s pop sheen. In fact, from Bon Iver to Patrick Wolf to Iron & Wine to Lady Gaga, it seems the ‘80s was the go-to aesthetic era of choice in 2011. Which, perhaps, means we should all get our stoned-washed jeans and plaid flannels ready to go for 2012. Just saying. Sal Cinquemani

Editor’s Note: Check out our list of the 25 Best Singles of 2011.


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

25. Yuck, Yuck

Yuck may not have the most original sound in rock history, but they have an unrivaled gift for producing addictive ear candy that makes their debut far more gratifying on first listen—and far more fun to sing along to on the 20th—than anything in the Pavement or Dinosaur Jr. catalogues. Whether it’s the harmonies on songs like “Georgia,” the blistering guitar solos that pop out of nearly every track, or the dramatic surge of the album’s majestic finale, “Rubber,” everything about Yuck is engineered for pleasure. It’s a triumph of scrappy melodicism, fulfilling the latent pop potential of lo-fi rock with track after track of tuneful thunder. Matthew Cole


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

24. Fred Falke, Part IV

So what if you only have one trick, so long as you do it well. Whether he’s remixing others, sampling for himself, or building grooves from the ground up, French trash-house genius Fred Falke leaves his unmistakable mark on everything he touches: crushed pulsations, EQ compression ramped up to insane levels, Green Giant basslines. Though technically a compilation enhanced with a few new tracks, the Jean-Michel-Jarre-drops-with-Daft-Punk-while-watching-Blade Runner vibe of Part IV still feels incredibly new. Or really old. Or both. Eric Henderson


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

23. Ben Sollee, Inclusions

He may take advantage of the gimmick of being the best cellist in pop up to a point (bless his heart, he even carted his cello around on a bike tour for much of the year), but it’s to Ben Sollee’s credit that he doesn’t rest on the novelty of his chosen instrument to sell Inclusions. His classical training has given him some unimpeachable technical chops, sure, but Sollee’s intuitive pop smarts make him a standout among 2011’s host of sensitive (read: boring) troubadours. Instead, it’s his ear for ingratiating pop melodies, his impossibly warm, lithe tenor, and his insightful, empathetic songwriting that make Inclusions one of the year’s strongest and most distinctive pop albums. Jonathan Keefe


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

22. Florence and the Machine, Ceremonials

I wasn’t always on board with Florence Welch and her machine—that is, her voice. It’s big, for sure, but also flawed. But that hasn’t stopped Adele, and it wasn’t long before I was drawn into the carefully crafted anthems of Flo’s sophomore effort, Ceremonials, which was produced by Paul Epworth, who, notably, helmed Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” The album is steeped in melodrama, with pump organs, choirs, and strings expertly deployed as pure pomp on already rousing singles like “Shake It Out” and “No Light, No Light.” But Welch is perfectly capable of doing delicate too, as evidenced by the gorgeously textured lead single “What the Water Gave Me” and “Never Let Me Go,” while tracks like “Lover to Lover” are reminiscent of the Eurythmics at their most soulful. Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

21. Young Galaxy, Shapeshifting

Songs of love and devotion, people as conduits, like planets, our obsession with thoughts of oblivion, where light and dark, fog and canyons, are dominant motifs. The members of Young Galaxy are a sincere lot of mystics, hopeless romantics whose incessant celestial musings, of emotions intertwining not unlike cosmic systems, can be choking, but each of Shapeshifting’s tracks, from the thunderous and effervescent to the misty-eyed and forlorn, stakes out its own very unique place in the sky—and, ultimately, our hearts. They earned their place here almost solely for turning “peripheral” into the source of one of the most unexpectedly catchy hooks of the year. Ed Gonzalez


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

20. Hank 3, Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town

Country music’s absurd authenticity fetish reached a tipping point this year thanks to a horde of sound-alike hacks crowing their rural bona fides and referencing genre legends over music that sounded alarmingly like that of Daughtry and Creed. But Hank 3, the only guy with any real right to name-check Hank Williams, offered a fantastically messy and foul-mouthed double shot of “Hellbilly” music with the fearless ambition, genre know-how, and outlaw spirit to drown out everyone else’s empty, impotent dirt-road anthems. His father may have famously made a complete ass of himself in 2011, but Hank 3 proved once again that the Williams family name still carries on a fine tradition. Keefe


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

19. Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact

For years, deep within the tribal noise exercises of Gang Gang Dance’s oeuvre, there lay the makings of an accessible album, so perhaps the release of Eye Contact isn’t that big of a surprise. The shock, rather, is that the worldbeat Manhattanites managed to do it without jettisoning any of their endearing peculiarities. Singer Lizzi Bougatsos’s morphing, multi-vocal contributions, for instance, are just as wild and dark as ever, beautifully unhinged and animalistic in tracks like “MindKilla,” “Glass Jar,” and “Sacer.” The band’s latest has more going for it than exotic appeal though: The forward-looking album also provides a tantalizing glimpse of where indie pop might be headed in the next decade or so. Which, in the end, makes Eye Contact not only a great album, but also a colorful, jungle-thumping augur of things to come. Kevin Liedel


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

18. Destroyer, Kaputt

With the lone exception of Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” no music this year has better captured the glitzy, breezy, unaware charm of ‘80s air pop better than Destroyer’s Kaputt. There’s an almost stark obliviousness to the album’s caricatural, glossy atmosphere, obtuse lyricism, and plethora of jazzy brass, but therein lies its allure: Dan Bejar exists in his own little bubble, making songs for himself as much as others, and leaving us narrative riddles that perhaps only he can ultimately decipher. Yet as confoundingly esoteric as Kaputt can often be, it’s still a joy to listen to: Luxurious and blissful and playful in a way that conjures up the psychedelic pop storytelling of Al Stewart. From the bouncy hotel lobby ballad “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” and the delicate melancholy of “Chinatown” to the almost ridiculous, full-on saxophone and vibes explosion that is the title track, Kaputt is the consummate balancing act of the cerebral and the irreverent. Liedel


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

17. Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne

Leave it to two of hip-hop’s vainest, most status-obsessed snob geniuses to come up with something as enjoyably gauche as Watch the Throne. Recorded in a swank Paris penthouse, the album is an expression of excess writ large, a veritable celebration of materialism. Kanye West continues his obsession with willful waste, chopping James Brown samples into ribbons on “Gotta Have It,” while Jay-Z crushes his recent midlife-crisis fears with majestic metaphors. A Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous episode in album form, it finds the two up to even more exaggerated versions of their old tricks. Jesse Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

16. James Blake, James Blake

A friend recently played me James Blake through his new subwoofer with the dial turned to about 5, an experience that nearly made our heads explode. It served as a reminder of how amazingly rumbly, strange, and unique of an album it is, a fact that may have been forgotten in the nine months since its release. Cloaked in a cloud of mystery, it defies the usual bedroom-recording template, with an expansive sound that ranges from creeping, percussively stripped-down R&B to eerie MIDI-inflected dirges, with textures that provide padding for one of the most uniquely smooth voices to come around in years. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

15. Patrick Wolf, Lupercalia

Lupercalia is the fourth consecutive Patrick Wolf album to score a near-perfect rating from Slant—by three different writers, no less. Following the dark, prickly narratives of The Bachelor, Lupercalia—named after an ancient fertility and love festival—finds the British singer-songwriter reprising the more lovelorn themes he addressed flawlessly on 2007’s The Magic Position. Lest we think Wolf is already running out of ideas at the tender age of 28, the synth-pop cut “Together” hints at his possible next incarnation. And even if repetition becomes his m.o., he sounds more confident than ever on album highlights like “The Days” and “Slow Motion.” We’re eagerly awaiting his inevitably near-perfect fifth album. Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

14. Drake, Take Care

Drake finally grows up with Take Care, shedding most of the crippling doubt that made him such a fascinating but inconsequential figure in the past. The album strikes a perfect mix of confidence and sensitivity, tempering its big, arrogant tracks with equally unsure expressions of neurotic anxiety. He still doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with his newfound fame, but on this immaculately produced effort, surrounded by top-tier guests, he at times sounds almost pleased with himself, even as he continues to struggle with lingering specters and insecurity and guilt. If he can sustain this balance, he could find himself perched at the top of the rap game. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

13. Meshell Ndegeocello, Weather

Combining Sade levels of sensuality with the intuitive, observational bent of a songwriter like Leonard Cohen, Meshell Ndegeocello is one of the most gifted and under-recognized musicians working today. Weather is her ninth album overall, and the third in a row that could plausibly be claimed as her best. Ndegeocello gives herself more fully than ever to her songwriter’s instincts, mixing folk, prog, and chamber-pop into a rich musical tapestry—one subtle enough to seem dull on a casual listen, but make no mistake, every song here has the power to enchant and beguile. Cole


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

12. TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light

“Ah, the bastards broke the world this time,” Kyp Malone intones over the disjointed, warbling opening of “No Future Shock.” TV on the Radio has always trended toward the apocalyptic, but Nine Types of Light takes that prophetic fear to a more immediate level. Here, the nervous, just-below-the-surface phobias of 2008’s Dear Science come bubbling up with some of the bluesiest, grittiest, and all-round rhythmical music TVOTR has ever produced. “No Future Shock” takes its time descending into a beating, brass-fueled hell until Malone finally demands: “Shake it, shake it like it is the end of time.” The group follows suit, delivering some of their best work to date. Liedel


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

11. Das Racist, Relax

Sure, the punchlines may not hit as hard as before, but it’s reductive to expect Das Racist, who’ve proven they’re on to something bigger than just being the indie version of the Lonely Island, to focus just on humor. And it’s not like the sarcastic “Man, I’m fucking great at rapping!” exclamations that punctuate standout single “Michael Jackson” leave any doubt that Das Racist knows exactly what their strengths really are. Relax lays those selling points plain. The album plays as audio tour through a museum of junk-culture detritus, and few acts are as consistently witty or inventive as Das Racist when it comes to sifting through a lifetime’s worth of pop-culture refuse and then reassembling it into something of real value. Keefe


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

10. The Weeknd, House of Balloons

The Weeknd began 2011 in total obscurity and ended it as the year’s most talked about new artist. The collaboration of producer Doc McKinney and singer Abel Tesfaye, House of Balloons is entirely without precedent in R&B. The gothic production aesthetic is influenced as much by industrial, trip-hop, and downtempo as it is by urban-radio mainstays like R. Kelly and The-Dream, while Tesfaye’s tortured falsetto conveys both vulnerability and predatory intent. It’s a lurid exercise in subterranean world-building, its depictions of dependency and desperation soundtracked by some of the catchiest, sexiest R&B jams you’ll never hear in the club. Cole


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

9. Wild” beasts, Smother

True to their name, Wild Beasts continue to build on and fully inhabit an undomesticated musical world far removed from the familiar grounds of their indie peers. The band’s experimentation in flaky, embellished baroque pop is ultimately a reward for its loyal audience: The weirder they get, the better Wild Beasts become. For those who stuck with them through Two Dancers, Smother is another masterful step in that surreal journey, albeit a quiet, sensuous one. Largely shouldered by the band’s two lead vocalists (a libertine cooer in Hayden Thorpe and the earthier, huskier Tom Fleming), Smother is both alluring and purposeful, not to mention full of beautiful surprises. What other group could achieve something like “Invisible,” an undisguised hat tip to the kind of soft, safe ballads one would expect from Phil Collins circa 1985, and still manage to infuse it with their own brand of unpredictable artistry? Liedel


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

8. Katy B, On a Mission

Katy B’s debut album is a euphoric journey that manages to make dubstep sound a little less ugly. Three out of the four singles that were released this year from On a Mission were shortlisted for our 25 Best Singles of 2011. That none of them cracked the final list speaks more to the embarrassment of riches from which we had to choose than to the weakness of the individual singles. Not to mention, some of the very best cuts haven’t even been released as singles yet. The single “Witches’ Brew” rides its oscillating synth line just as smoothly as the album’s closing track, “Hard to Get,” bobs along to its vintage deep-house groove. Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

7. Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Wisconsin breeds crazy, but it also allows for glimmering brilliance. There are flashes of both in Bon Iver, the connoisseur’s choice vehicle for robotripping this year. Justin Vernon’s second album boldly sheds For Emma, Forever Ago’s sequestered, no-fi realness in favor of a thawing, immersive, yet still remote existence outside of the cabin—though admittedly naming all the songs for near and distant locales may have been a tad too on point. While clearly some fans would have preferred everyone’s perceptions remain gruffly unaltered, others found it within their Movember hearts to allow this acoustic Robert Bly a chance to tap into his secret Björkian loins. Henderson


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

6. Tune-Yards, w h o k i l l

Merrill Arbus is theatrically, radically, self-reflexively weird, but she’s also the rare example of an artist earning that distinction completely. She goes about justifying her style in the same way she justifies her rampant borrowing from African polyrhythms, vocal approaches, and percussion, an activity many artists have engaged in recently with far less originality or success. In both respects, there’s the sense that a uniquely creative mind is behind all this, turning what could be dissonant, irritatingly obtuse music into something fascinatingly daffy instead. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

5. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy

Annie Clark’s last album, Actor, showcased a performer with a considerable range of talents, but there was scant evidence to suggest that she’d make a credible bid for guitar-hero status. Strange Mercy thrives on the interaction between the said and the unsaid, with Clark using her guitar to evoke the shuddersome feelings she can’t bring herself to vocalize. That means it has to make some pretty awful sounds, so Clark channels some of noise rock’s great guitarists (principally Steve Albini and Lee Ranaldo) to give voice to the voracious id lurking behind her coyly measured singing. Cole


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

4. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up

It was a banner year for independent hip-hop, and Black Up was the scene’s pièce de résistance. Shabazz Palaces managed to give rap both its most experimental album and its most compulsively listenable, and in doing so they vindicated the massive preparatory work done by pioneers like De La Soul, Anti-Pop Consortium, cLOUDEAD, and the Anticon crew. The rhymes are loose, funky, and cerebral, but the production is what makes Black Up such a masterpiece. The backing track on “King’s new clothes were made by his own hands” is a swelling, orchestral mass of loops that sounds like its being shaken as it plays—and it’s breathtakingly poignant. The subliminally appealing sonics work, like the album’s oblique political slogans, to nurture a consciousness that is both personal and shared. Cole


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

3. Lady Gaga, Born This Way

To call Born This Way one of the year’s best albums will come as heresy only to the pop-, queer-, and woman-averse who Lady Gaga assails throughout this magnum opus with the force of a Gatling gun. A self-consciously, some might say Warholian, act of re-appropriation, Born This Way rises cannily and hilariously phoenix-like from its primordial soup of influences, which includes chunks of Cher, Madonna, David Bowie, Queen, Klaus Nomi, Grace Jones, even Dead or Alive. With its relentlessly throbbing beats and plethora of fierce breakdowns, this resuscitated vintage would be perfectly content as the soundtrack to fashion weeks and underground sex dungeons the world over, though really it’s intended as a sincere ode to the bedazzled hearts of outsiders past and present, real and imagined, from Marilyn to transsexuals, Jesus to unicorns. Gonzalez


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

2. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes

Right from the get-go, Lykke Li’s Wounded Rhymes gets some. “Youth Knows No Pain.” Youth delivers it. Slinging her rigid vocal cords like a truncheon, the Swedish songstress sure knows how to bring a party down, purring and pleading in “Sadness Is a Blessing” (which sounds every bit like Phil Spector song bouncing off a curved funhouse mirror), adding twang to her pangs in “Unrequited Love,” retreating into a sad clown-infested trash compacter in the stark, album-capping “Silent My Song.” If Betty reached her emotional apocalypse listening to Rebekah Del Rio, you can be sure the spirit of Diane Selwyn is now perpetually being torn asunder to the strains of “I Know Places.” Henderson


The 25 Best Albums of 2011

1. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

Polly Jean Harvey has howled at the wind, men, cities, and scripture. Now she shakes her fists and barbed dulcet voice at England, the country of her birth. This bewitchingly strange album, so retrograde by design, not only invokes images of the Great War, both solemnly and sarcastically, to comment on a once powerful empire’s currently slacken political identity, but also sounds of yore—sounds, such as the perfectly utilized bugle from “The Glorious Land,” I’ve never heard referenced outside of old black-and-white Hollywood war dramas and Looney Tunes shorts. Of course, this being the product of Polly Jean, Let England Shake doesn’t simply rage against a nation’s history of war, past and present, and its place in the West. It’s also a canny confession from one of music’s greatest poets that her own evolution, as a woman and a musician, is forever intertwined with the light and dark of her birthland’s own. Gonzalez

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Sign up to receive Slant’s latest reviews, interviews, lists, and more, delivered once a week into your inbox.
Invalid email address
Advertisement
Comments

Trending