Ashley's Top Ten Albums of 2011
Top Ten Albums of 2011
2011 was not a great music year for me. This was hardly due to a lack of quality material; some awesome albums were released this year. I just wasn't listening to them. There were few days this year when I didn't feel completely overwhelmed in one way or another, and when I'm overwhelmed, there's nothing I crave more than comfort music. More often than not, my iPod playlists were filled with New Order, the Talking Heads, and other bands that peaked decades ago.

Fortunately, over the last month or so I've done a lot of catching up. Like, a lot a lot. On my fairly routine four-hour bus rides between Baltimore and New York, I've digested many of the albums I missed this year, and reacquainted myself with some that I had only listened to in passing. And while I think this year was a weak one compared to the bombast of 2010, there were still quite a few albums to be excited about.

10. PATRICK WOLF // Lupercalia

Essential tracks: The City, Armistice, House

This album got mixed reviews, and I can see why: it's very upbeat, and more pop-friendly than Wolf's earlier work. Frankly, I wish it were weirder and more experimental, too; I loved Lyncanthropy-era Patrick Wolf. But hell, he wrote a whole album about being in love, and sometimes, love takes you away from your weirder, darker tendencies. Fortunately, Wolf is enchanting in either mode; I love the spritely energy of "The City" and the silliness of "Bermondsey Street."

9. THE WEEKND // Thursday

Essential tracks: Rolling Stone, Lonely Star, The Zone

Some of the tracks on Thursday feel like Bizarro World versions of FM radio R&B hits. There are clear similarities, and yet every track by The Weeknd is creepier, denser, and more experimental than the average Usher song. Like its celebrated predecessor House of Balloons, Thursday is seductive and dark. Undoubtedly, the persona Tesafaye Abel adopts as The Weeknd is unsettling; on "The Zone," he croons "I'll be making love to her through you/so let me keep my eyes closed" over a throbbing base line. But it's also hypnotic, and even though he's currently overshadowed by his most famous supporter Drake, I think his potential to reinvigorate R&B is substantial.


Essential tracks: Whirring, Austere, Cradle

I first found out about The Joy Formidable when "Whirring" was featured on a summer mixtape I downloaded, and I've been enjoying their debut LP ever since. Even though they certain fall comfortably within the nu-gaze genre, it's refreshing to hear some badass guitars. There's something about the band (probably vocalist Ritzy Bryan) that pleasantly recalls the Breeders, and the 90s fan in me approves.

7. GIVERS // In Light

Essential tracks: Up, Up, Up, Ceiling of Plankton, Words

I haven't seen In Light on any other top ten lists this year, which is too bad. Maybe it's Vampire Weekend-induced fatigue surrounding white kids and Afrobeat. But GIVERS is a fun, energetic band in a sea of droll nu-gaze, and their long-awaited LP showcases an ear for danceable beats and charming melodies. I may be biased from having seen them perform live several times, but their one of my favorite new bands, and I hope they're successful.

6. WYE OAK // Civilian

Essential tracks: Civilian, Holy Holy, The Altar

There was a lot of talk circa 2007 about the Baltimore music scene, which included artists like Dan Deacon, Celebration, Spank Rock, and Double Dagger. There was no unified sound or agreed-upon aesthetic; instead, artists enjoyed the camaraderie of a small scene. Out of this DIYiest of DIY music scenes, Wye Oak emerged as a newly formed duo during the buzz year. In the years since, they've honed an ethereal, organic sound that perfectly compliments their intimate lyrics. The title track is easily my favorite, but the entire album is simple without being boring, and lush without being overwhelming.

5. CUT COPY // Zonoscope

Essential tracks: Need You Now, Where I'm Going, Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat

Anyone who's talked to me briefly about music knows that I'm a huge fan of New Order and other 80s synth pop bands. Though I've been a fan of Cut Copy for a couple of years now, Zonoscope is the album on which I think those earlier bands have been the most influential. The opening song "Need You Now" recalls the longing and desperation of older tracks like "Saturdays" and "Far Away," while others are pure dance anthems ("Pharaohs and Pyramids") or new-age glam rock ("Where I'm Going"). Cut Copy has the rare talent of taking densely electronic music, which can often come across as cold, and injecting it with more humanity than most bearded guys with acoustic guitars can muster.

4. FLEET FOXES // Helplessness Blues

Essential tracks: Montezuma, Helplessness Blues, Lorelai

Fleet Foxes has always been my favorite of the indie-folk set, and Helplessness Blues more than lived up to the hype generated by their self-titled debut. I love the lushness and warmth of this album. Not to cheese out too much, but the listening experience feels much like the orchard Robin Pecknold yearns for in "Montezuma:" earthy, bright, and structured. Talk about escaping the sophomore slump.

3. JAY-Z AND KANYE WEST // Watch the Throne

Essential tracks: Niggas in Paris, Lift Off, Otis

I had major reservations about this album. I don't think it's foolish to be wary of over-hyped collaborations; after all, it's possible to take two brilliant and accomplished artists and combine them, only to end up with an embarrassing product (see: Mick Jagger and David Bowie, "Dancing in the Street"). Fortunately, Kanye and Jay managed to put together an impressive, if occasionally uneven, album that chronicles their shared ambivalence about fame and wealth. But it's not all introspection; mostly, the album is two friends swapping humblebrags, and it's a delight to listen to.

2. TOM WAITS // Bad as Me

Essential tracks: Kiss Me, Chicago, Bad as Me

I love Tom Waits. I love this album. It's hard for me to even imagine saying anything about this album that hasn't already been said of nearly any album in his oeuvre. Bad As Me strikes a perfect balance between Waits' treasured ballads ("Pay Me," "Kiss Me") and his quirky, defiant clangers ("Raised Right Men," "Get Lost" "Hell Broke Luce"). There are so few artists that maintain greatness after a strong five-album run; this is Waits' 20th, and I think it's up there with my favorites (which, for the record, are Rain Dogs and Bone Machine).

1. TV ON THE RADIO // Nine Types of Light

Essential tracks: You, Keep Your Heart, No Future Shock

I really can't think of many active bands that are as consistently good and sonically interesting as TVOTR. Nine Types of Light is warmer than Cookie Mountain and Dear Science, and while I would have been just as happy with another album of straightforward postmodern anxiety, it's kind of nice when it's topped off with some encouragement to enjoy being in love. "You" may just be my favorite track of the whole year.

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