It’s December, which means one thing for a guy like me: list making. I’m starting my “best of the year” series on my blog with my picks for best albums of the year. Here they are: my top ten list and honorable mentions for the best music of 2011. (You can listen to all 15 hours of this music on Spotify here).
10) Panda Bear, Tomboy: In his sophomore solo effort, Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) simplifies (if that’s the right word) from the sprawling ambitions of Person Pitch and yet creates an album that is equally layered and beautiful and I daresay more cohesive than his groundbreaking debut. Listen now: “Slow Motion,” “Friendship Bracelet.”
9) The Antlers, Burst Apart: Slightly more upbeat than their morose-but-beautiful debut, Hospice, The Antlers’ latest is an eloquent, moody, subtle pop album that sounds like something out of a foggy/jazzy David Lynch nightclub movie scene. Listen now: “French Exit,” “Putting the Dog to Sleep.”
8) M83, Hurry Up We’re Dreaming: This double-disc album from French singer/songwriter Anthony Gonzalez is simply epic. Lush, grand electronic anthems abound, alternately melodic, experimental, upbeat and somber. Listen now: “Midnight City,” “Steve McQueen.”
7) Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost: No album surprised me more this year than this one, full of so many pleasant twists and turns that you won’t even mind the few times it goes off the rails. It’s retro, rough-edged beach pop with a lot of soul. Listen now: “Honey Bunny,” “Jamie Marie.”
6) James Blake, James Blake: London-based producer James Blake offers a gorgeously subtle collection of dubstep ballads in this self-titled album, one of the best debuts of the year. Listen now: “Limit to Your Love,” “Measurements.”
5) Radiohead, King of Limbs: Radiohead’s latest didn’t make as big of a splash as their albums usually do, perhaps because we’ve come to expect masterpieces from them and this album feels somewhat less grandiose and significant. But make no mistake: Limbs is an incredibly well made record. Cohesive, relaxed, atmospheric, jazzy, a masterful collection that feels effortless and natural for a band completely at ease in their own skin. Listen now: “Morning Mr. Magpie,” “Codex.”
4) The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient: What is a true American rock sound in 2011? With their new album, The War on Drugs offer a stunning answer to that question. It’s an album that channels Dylan/Springsteen at the same time that it blends minimalism, electronica, shoegaze and punk in seamless fashion. An album for the road, for skylines of cities and big horizon sunsets, Slave Ambient is a poetic treasure of ambient nostalgia. Listen now: “Your Love is Calling My Name,” “Come to the City.”
3) Washed Out, Within and Without: “Glo-fi” and “Chillwave” may be an ambiguous genre descriptors, but Washed Out embodies it the best of any band, and Within and Without is their crowning achievement. The music is 80s, shoegaze, ambient, and yes, washed out. But mostly it’s just lovely. A dreamy, moody, sometimes danceable record for the morning after. Listen now: “Amor Fati,” “You and I.”
2) Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues: There are no finer melodies anywhere in music this year than on Fleet Foxes’ sophomore effort, Helplessness Blues. Expanding ever so slightly on the anachronistic folk balladry of their stellar debut album, Fleet Foxes offer a collection of songs here that are somber, poetic, nostalgic and just downright wonderful. It’s easy on the ears and soothing for the soul; a gourmet comfort-food album you return to more than most. Listen now: “Helplessness Blues,” “Someone You’d Admire.”
1) Bon Iver, Bon Iver: More daring, more accomplished, more significant in every way than the gorgeous masterpiece For Emma, Forever Ago. This self-titled album floors you on first listen and grows from there. There’s something so raw, elemental and earnest about Bon Iver’s music. Only Justin Vernon (the genius behind Bon Iver) could make a 90s power ballad (complete with a Kenny G-esque saxophone solo) feel like the natural, unironic culmination of his body of work and also, perhaps, the most sensible musical expression of our largely nonsensical musical moment. Listen now: “Holocene,” “Beth/Rest.”
Honorable Mention: Real Estate, Days; St. Vincent, Strange Mercy; Low, C’mon; Destroyer, Kaputt; Wilco, The Whole Love; Feist, Metals; Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne; Viva Voce, The Future Will Destroy You; TW Walsh, Songs of Pain and Leisure; Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What.