2011 was a superb year for music, probably my favorite year since 2007. It was difficult for me to rank these albums with the exception of #1. This is seriously the last list I am doing on here until my best of 2012 list.
#10 Das Racist - Relax
This album has found its way on more than a few top 10 lists this year by being compared to stuff like De La Soul or Beastie Boys (read: Hip Hop found acceptable to White Gen X "Alternative" press). After a series of incredible mixtapes that garnered quite a bit of internet buzz - but were horribly produced - listening to album that pairs their irreverent and complex rhymes with beats that match is simply exhilarating. I'm hoping this crew has a long and productive career.
#9 Atlas Sound - Parallax
Looking like an indie Rick Astley on the cover, I had no idea this Bradford Cox project would end up being one of my favorite albums of the year. Upon first listen I realized just how dense, expansive and brilliant this record is. Warm and tender moments like "Mona Lisa" blend in well with more complex tracks like "Te Amo" and "Terra Incognita"
#8 Boston Spaceships - Let it Beard
Set to be the final Boston Spaceships album - Let it Beard is the best Robert Pollard project since Guided By Voices' Isolation Drills in 2001. A stunning return to form Pollard finds success revisiting the pop-meets-punk-meets-psychedelia-meets-prog formula that made Guided By Voices the best band of the 1990's. This album came out during a pretty shitty time for me this year. I had a job I absolutely hated working at a hotel and listening to this album helped me make it to work each day. What more could you possibly ask from an album?
#7 Saigon - The Greatest Story Never Told
As time passes I think this album will be one of my favorite records released in this decade. In "Believe It" Saigon declares "I'm the new Public Enemy, I'm different than Yung Joc." Its a bold declaration, but an accurate one. The way he blends autobiography with a laser focus on ghetto issues certainly puts this album in the same building as Fear of a Black Planet and Illmatic. Its unfortunate that this album has been kept in record company purgatory until now. Its the dated references to Hurricane Katrina and passe production that keep it from being the universally praised lock for "Best Hip Hop Album of the Year" that it would have been has it been released in 2006 like Saigon planned.
#6 Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo
Kurt Vile has really been on a roll after leaving The War on Drugs. This sardonic love letter to mid age malaise is the culmination of his brief, but stellar solo career. Its his cool sneer that makes truly devastating songs like "Runner Ups" seem more bearable than they should be.
#5 The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient
Not since the days of Wilco and Son Volt releasing albums after Uncle Tueplo broke up have we seen this kind of quality duel between related bands. Even without Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs managed to release this instant classic. There may be some vague overtures to Tom Petty and even Bruce Springsteen but something about the euphoric drone of this album makes it distinctively 2011.
#4 Tom Waits - Bad As Me
This album is probably Tom's most focused effort since Bone Machine. Lean and Mean Bad As Me fits on one LP and is a stellar collection of concise and superbly crafted tunes. Simply put - this is one of the world's greatest living songwriters at the top of his game.
#3 The Roots - Undun
Between this album and last year's How I Got Over its clear that there is something special going on with The Roots. In an interview with Spin magazine Questlove mentioned that The Roots have felt like a new band ever since they started their gig as Jimmy Fallon's backing band. With Undun The Roots continue to build on the incredible textures first realized on How I Got Over. This is a theme album but the narrative is subtle enough to keep it from being overwrought. Undun is deep and elegiatic but upbeat tracks like "Kool On" keep it balanced. This album came out on December 6th and I have a feeling if I revisit this list this time next year I might rank it even higher. Its THAT good.
#2 Fucked Up - David Comes to Life
While fans and critics seem to love this album, it hasn't been without its share of detractors. I have heard some really strange criticisms of this record that include everything from the name of the band itself to the fact that listening to all 78 minutes in a row can be a drag because "it all sounds the same and the dude just screams the whole time." Regarding the name - its easily my favorite band name of the past ten years. Chosen to convey the disparate backgrounds of all the players involved the band could have easily been named "Fuck You" instead. "Alternative Rock" radio airplay? Fuck You. Something-for-everyone MOR Aesthetics? Fuck You. Indie twee precociousness? Fuck You. Its the bands adherence to its own Hardcore purity that has made Fucked Up the most creatively vibrant band of the past decade. Regarding the "sameness" - ITS A HARDCORE ALBUM. Repeat: ITS A HARDCORE ALBUM. Do these same people listen to Burnin' by The Wailers and whine "This reggae all sounds the same. You know what this album could really use? A Folk-Bluegrass breakdown!!!" Something about what music has become in the past decade has led people to pursue stuff that blends genres over something with focus and purity. I highly recommend heading over to Pitchfork TV and watching the band perform this album in its entirety. Its the unrelenting nature of David Comes to Life that makes it a classic. Having said that, its not without its flaws. The lyrics, while earnest and heartfelt aren't as expertly crafted as the riffs and guitar lines that they match up with. Still, its good enough for #2 on my list. And in 2011, that's saying a lot.
#1 Real Estate - Days
Another album attacked for its "sameness" (have people become that ADD with everything?) Days is just one of those albums that got right under my skin upon first listen. Outfits like Pitchfork have pegged this as a fall and winter album but its wistful nostalgia feels like waking up on a warm summer morning with a hangover. Its fitting that during the same year that R.E.M. retired an album would come out that encapsulates everything that made their sound great - the layered guitars, the understated vocals and melodies that are surprisingly complex given their pop sensibilities. This album is virtually flawless and as such, demands the top spot on my list this year.