The Top 20
1. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
I made a bold declaration when I first heard this album upon its release a few months ago that it would be my favorite album of 2011 and that has proven to be true. I think this is Annie Clark’s strongest, most personal work to date and her incredible songwriting and guitar playing talents are at their highest level. By far the album I’ve listened to the most this year and I don’t see retiring it any time soon.
Favorite track: “Cruel”
2. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
I have to admit, when I first heard that Polly Jean Harvey was heavily using the autoharp on Let England Shake, I couldn’t help but picture her as Catherine O’Hara’s character in A Mighty Wind. But there’s nothing funny or tongue-in-cheek about this brilliant, Mercury Prize-winning record. By reinventing her sound with every album, Harvey has ensured that she not only remains extremely relevant, but also totally unpredictable in the best way possible.
Favorite track: “The Words That Maketh Murder”
3. Anna Calvi, Anna Calvi
Of all the new artists I discovered this year, Anna Calvi is the one who impressed me the most. When I first listened to her self-titled debut, all I could think was, “If Nick Cave and Polly Jean Harvey had stayed together and had a daughter who played music, this would be her.” So it was no surprise to me when I learned that the album was co-produced by long-time PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis, and that Cave was a fan of Calvi’s and had invited her to be the supporting act for his group Grinderman’s European tour last year. Also, if Brian Eno agrees to sing back-up on your first album, you must be something special — and Calvi definitely is.
Favorite track: “Desire”
4. The Roots, Undun
Even though this album wasn’t unleashed upon the world until early December, I had been holding a spot for it in my top 20 list since I first heard about it. I was that confident in ?uestlove and the rest of the Crew that their new concept album would be brilliant and, as I’ve learned over the past several years, confidence in these guys is never misplaced (I was even more excited about Undun‘s release after hearing ?uesto talk about it on Aisha Tyler’s podcast a couple of months ago). I wasn’t even phased at hearing the words “concept album” because I knew their version of a concept album wouldn’t be trite and ridiculous — it is so very far from that. Every time I listen to it, I find something new to love and that, above all else, is the most important element of any great record. Would it be too much to ask that the Roots release one of my favorite albums of the year every year?
Favorite track: “Kool On”
5. Ane Brun, It All Starts with One
Ane Brun’s latest solo album is one I was anticipating the most this year and it did not disappoint. I have been a fan of Brun’s since I first heard the gorgeous “My Lover Will Go” from her brilliant 2005 release, A Temporary Dive. Delayed from an original 2010 release date, due to Brun’s touring with Peter Gabriel on his New Blood tour, It All Starts With One is probably her most ambitious and most diverse release. Produced by Tobias Fröberg and featuring contributions from Per Eklund (Lykke Li), Ola Hultgren (Loney Dear), José González, Peter Moren (Peter, Björn and John), and First Aid Kit, the sound on this album is full and orchestral while still focusing on Brun’s gorgeous voice. If you haven’t been paying attention to Ane Brun, now is the time to start.
Favorite track: “Do You Remember”
6. Lindsey Buckingham, Seeds We Sow
I know I sound like a broken record when I tell you how far back my love for Lindsey Buckingham goes (it goes back really far). So I was, of course, excited to hear that he releasing a new album this year. I was even more excited when I read an interview with him in which he declared that Seeds We Sow would harken back to the sound of Out of the Cradle, which is my favorite album of his. And it does! Actually, it’s even better. The experimental side of Buckingham has seeped back into this record, giving it a rich, more eclectic sound than some of his more recent albums. And that experimental side is his best — I hope it sticks around.
Favorite Track: “That’s the Way That Love Goes”
7. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
You certainly remember him from his Tony! Toni! Toné! days, but the portion of Raphael Saadiq’s career that you should be paying attention to is the current one. With Stone Rollin’, Saadiq continues to explore the old-school-soul-meets-modern-R&B sound he very successfully inhabited on his last album, The Way I See It, and amps it up a notch or twelve. I don’t know how long Saadiq plans to continue down this path of making retro-soul albums, but I hope it’s a while. And so should you.
Favorite Track: “Stone Rollin'”
8. Deerhoof, Deerhoof vs. Evil
A musician friend of mine turned me onto Deerhoof several years ago when he played me their Milkman album, telling me it would be one of the best things I’d hear all year. I quickly became obsessed with that record and have been a big fan of the band ever since. And while I’ve enjoyed their last few albums, Deerhoof vs. Evil is the first one that brought me back to that obsessive state I entered with Milkman — I’d even go so far as to say it’s my new favorite Deerhoof album.
Favorite Track: “Secret Mobilization”
9. Björk, Biophilia
If anyone else released “multimedia collection encompassing music, apps, internet, installations, and live shows,” I would probably roll my eyes at the pretention and ridiculousness of all of that. But Björk gets away with it because a) she’s Björk and b) because the result is one of her best albums. The science behind how she continues to blow my mind with basically everything she does is a mystery to me.
Favorite Track: “Moon”
10. Kimbra, Vows
So, this album hasn’t officially been released in the U.S. yet, but that should not stop you from seeking it out. If you are at all familiar with New Zealand-born Kimbra, it’s probably because of her collaboration with Gotye, which is pretty fantastic. Her debut solo album, which was released in New Zealand and Australia this fall, is even better. I can absolutely see this girl — she’s only 21, of course — taking the States by storm once Vows is released here. If you don’t want to take the plunge and buy an import copy of the album, you can get a little taste by downloading her 4-song EP, Settle Down.
Favorite Track: “Call Me”
11. Betty Wright & the Roots, Betty Wright: The Movie
For the second year in a row, the Roots show up on my year-end best-of list twice — once for a release of their own and once for a collaboration with another artist. You probably remember Betty Wright from her early-’70s hits “Clean Up Woman” and “Baby Sitter.” Steadily releasing albums in the ’70s and ’80s, Wright hasn’t been as active in the past 20 years, only releasing three albums, prior to this one, since 1990. So, when it came time to release what might be categorized as a “comeback album,” she couldn’t have made a better decision than to work with the Roots. On Betty Wright: The Movie (which wins my vote as Best Album Title of the Year), Wright and the Roots manage to successfully combine the ’70s funk that Wright built her career on with a modern hip hop/R&B sensibility that sounds in no way trite or dated, which it easily could have, considering it features collaborations with the likes of Snoop Dog and Lil Wayne. Let’s all hope Betty Wright: The Movie gets a sequel soon.
Favorite Track: “In the Middle of the Game”
12. Tristen, Charlatans at the Garden Gate
I don’t remember how I got turned onto Tristen’s music, but boy am I glad I did. Not only does she write lovely, catchy songs that defy categorization (pop? country? alt-country?), but she is one of the most energetic, engaging live performers I’ve encountered in quite some time. You’d be doing yourself a huge favor by catching one of her shows if she plays anywhere near your town.
Favorite Track: “Tadpole”
13. Adele, 21
Everyone loves this album and the voice behind it. It’s probably the most praised release of the year and it will undoubtedly win Adele a slew of awards. And the hype is well-placed because it’s a genuinely wonderful album. While I love Adele’s voice and her songwriting talents, I also love the fact that she looks, and sounds, like a grown woman with adult things to day. I hope that young girls look at her and realize that growing up to be a woman rather than just an adult girl is the far better option.
Favorite Track: “I’ll Be Waiting”
14. Dum Dum Girls, Only In Dreams
Do you like bands like the Bangles and the Go-Gos? Yes? Then you will love the Dum Dum Girls. I know that’s kind of a cop-out way to describe this band, but it’s all I can think when I listen to Only In Dreams, and that is in no way a bad thing. In fact, if those three bands toured together, I’d pretty much follow them wherever they went.
Favorite Track: “Bedroom Eyes”
15. Man Man, Life Fantastic
The first time I saw Man Man play live, it was in a gymnasium at some college in the middle-of-nowhere Indiana, which is actually the perfect place to see Man Man play a show. I was mesmerized by their crazypants, over-the-top performance and upon returning home, immediately purchased their most recent album, which was, at the time, 6 Demon Bag. I’ve seen them live a few times since and every performance is better than the last; the same can be said for their albums. Life Fantastic is a ton of fun and somehow captures the energy of their live performances, which I didn’t think was possible. Also, the video for my favorite song on the record, “Piranhas Club,” is one of my favorite videos of the year. I mean, how can you not love a little kid who is inspired to kick some ass after watching Cry-Baby?
Favorite Track: “Piranhas Club”
16. My Brightest Diamond, All Things Will Unwind
My Brightest Diamond is somewhat of an acquired taste, I will admit to that, and Shara Worden’s operatic voice can be at the same time beautiful and mildly annoying. But I love everything she’s ever released and I think All Things Will Unwind, which features pop-classical chamber ensemble yMusic, is her best album yet. Each song is like a little work of art, full of depth, richness and warmth, with a little bit of quirkiness thrown in for good measure.
Favorite Track: “High Low Middle”
17. Markéta Irglová, Anar
The debut solo album from the non-Glen Hansard half of the Swell Season is one of the saddest, most beautiful albums I’ve heard in a long time. I haven’t had much time with it yet, as it was just released in October, but it made me cry when I first listened to it and that hasn’t happened since I first heard Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes. That, boys and girls, is a high compliment coming from me.
Favorite Track: “Crossroads”
18. Twin Sister, In Heaven
I’ve been looking forward to Twin Sister’s debut album since I first heard a track from their Vampires with Dreaming Kids EP on some SXSW compilation. I’ve read reviews that have compared them to Portishead, Stereolab, and Cocteau Twins and I guess I can kind of see that? I mean, most of their songs kind of have this dreamy vibe to them, but I don’t think their sound can be pinned down as easily as that — nor should it be.
Favorite Track: “Bad Street”
19. Eleanor Friedberger, Last Summer
The incredible solo debut of the sister half of the brother/sister duo the Fiery Furnaces is the aural equivalent of sitting on the fire escape (or front porch, if you aren’t an apartment dweller) with your best friend, gossiping while drinking spiked lemonade and watching the sun set. And yes, I just wrote that sentence.
Favorite Track: “Roosevelt Island”
20. Tim & Jean, Like What
I like to dance. But you already knew that, right? So, naturally, I love dance pop. But not all dance pop — just the really good stuff. And this, my friends, is the good stuff. Tim & Jean haven’t yet found success in the States, as the Australian indie-pop duo’s first album has yet to be released here (allegedly, it will be some time in 2012). But I think they will; I predict legions of hipsters shaking their skinny asses to every track on Like What. You just watch.
Favorite Track: “I Can Show You”
The Other 20 (In No Order)
James Pants, James Pants
Tune Yards, W H O K I L L
Jill Scott, The Light of the Sun
Keren Ann, 101
Acrylics, Lives and Treasures
Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2
Juliana Hatfield, There’s Always Another Girl
The Rural Alberta Advantage, Departing
Lia Ices, Grown Unknown
Jessica Lea Mayfield, Tell Me
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Scandalous
Thao & Mirah, Thao & Mirah
Mates of State, Mountaintops
The Ettes, Wicked Will
Gruff Rhys, Hotel Shampoo
The Bangles, Sweetheart of the Sun
Poly Styrene, Generation Indigo
Acid House Kings, Music Sounds Better with You
Album That Disappointed Me, But That I’m Giving Another Chance After Being Blown Away By Seeing Some of the Songs Performed Live
Tori Amos, Night of Hunters
Guilty Pleasure That I Actually Don’t Feel One Bit Guilty About
Favorite New Song from a Greatest Hits Compilation
Sade, “Love is Found”
Artist Whose Debut Album I’m Most Anticipating in 2012
Favorite Comedy Rap Album That Has Entirely Too Many Tracks, Which Makes It Even Funnier
T.J. Miller, The Extended Play E.P.