While my predilection for movie-related lists is all over this corner of the Interweb, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve tried to craft a ranking of the best albums of any given year. Part of the reason is that I think those sorts of music preferences are a little more slippery, with opinions subject to change as albums age. Songs that sounded fresh and amazing become tired, even hackneyed and annoying as repeated plays mercilessly erode their charm. The reverse is equally true, as there have been plenty of albums that I initially dismissed, only to have them insinuate themselves into my psyche as time wore on.
My duties as a music reviewer for Spectrum Culture mandated that I make a list this year and I spent more time than I care to consider agonizing over which releases belonged in which order. My list became just one of many votes for our collective Top 20 Albums of 2011, but, in the interests of being upfront about my attempt (and also, you know, filling a few digital column inches on a day that’s especially well-suited to looking back at the past year), here’s the Top Ten that I came up with.
1. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake — Polly Jean creates a set of songs that hit with a great novel’s depth and thoroughness. She writes about her home country’s rueful, imperialist past and the shadow it all still casts over current politics. And she does so by bending her magnificent voice in striking new ways that call to mind fellow pop eccentrics such as Kate Bush and Björk without every losing her own sharp identity. It’s a remarkable statement of fresh purpose from one of the most vital artists to emerge in the past twenty years.
2. Wild Flag, Wild Flag — Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney finally move on together from the dissolution of that great rock band, uniting with Mary Timony from Helium and Rebecca Cole from the Minders to create a fiery, tuneful quartet that showcases a keen understanding with every note of the inherent thrill in making music. There’s no gags or other silliness on the record, yet it conveys pure fun at every turn. I can also happily report that the infectious joy is fully present in their live shows.
3. Wye Oak, Civilian — The third album from the Baltimore duo Wye Oak paid off on all the handsome promise of their earlier releases. Songwriter, guitarist and lead singer Jenn Wasner worked with drummer Andy Stack to create songs of surging urgency that continually transformed in moving, inventive ways midstream. The whole album is richly evocative, capturing moods in the thick wash of sound that are softly bolstered by Wasner’s perfectly understated lyrics.
4. Cut Copy, Zonoscope — I think some people saw Zonoscope as a let-down compared to Cut Copy’s breakthrough release, 2008’s In Ghost Colours. For me, the bright, breezy disco insolence never sounded better. The band builds the whole album around the simple premise that there’s no tremendous pop hook that can’t be exhausted into happy submission, even as the mirrored ball at the center of the room keeps on spinning into eternity.
5. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes — The sophomore effort from the Swedish songstress is full of rhymes that bear some scars, all right. It’s also characterized by an abundance of surprisingly jagged rhythms and songs that swirl like punchdrunk dervishes. Li’s vocals bend and soar appropriately, drawing the songs ever deeper into the whirlpool of cracked glass beauty. It’s startling indie pop with bright, bawdy beats that seemingly strive to resyncopate the heartbeats of anyone listening in.
6. Black Keys, El Camino — After a couple of albums that tried to take their sound in new directions, The Black Keys have settled back into nothing more ambitious than cranking out blistering modern blues rock that could make a grown man break down weeping at the charcoal beauty of it all. Working again with Danger Mouse as a producer, the fearsome duo has proven that they still know how to rattle the rafters with the pointed force of their music.
7. The Decemberists, The King is Dead — I’ll admit that I’d about given up on The Decemberists, finding their grandly literate pining of diminishing interest with each new release. Turns out what they really needed was a sharp swerve into the fast lane of commercial aspiration. The King is Dead sounds like Colin Meloy and his cohorts were going to bound and determined to have a true hit album and they were going to lean on every one of their influences to do it, going so far as to recruit Peter Buck from R.E.M. to play on some tracks. Rather than being a crass sell-out, the approach brings a welcome focus, leading to their best record since they first set indie kids’ hearts aflutter.
8. The Roots, Undun — This album should arguably be higher and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the 2011 release that ages best. The Roots demonstrate without a doubt that their day job in late night television isn’t going to get in the way of them making great music and challenging themselves to reach new heights. A concept album with all of the cohesion but none of the pretension that the designation implies, Undun is an elegant hip hop symphony that feels as piercingly true as a street corner testimonial from someone whose hope just took its deathblow.
9. Vetiver, The Errant Charm — A lush and lucid offering from Andy Cabic, recording his fifth album under the Vetiver name. The Errant Charm is in-line with the folk-influenced albums that came before, but has different sonic undercurrents to the songs, giving the whole thing a fresh sense of discovery, of plains untraveled. It’s an album that’s quietly, movingly adrift.
10. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy — The third album from Annie Clark zooms all over the sonic landscape like an loopy cloud on an indiscernible mission. Nothing that happens here is expected and yet nothing feels out of place. This is what it sounds like when someone decides to bend the laws of physics just because it hasn’t occurred to her that she shouldn’t.