Rachel's Top 10 Albums of the Year
Rachel's Music Top 10 List
Writing a music list was sort of a stretch for me, seeing as my I-Tunes is typically full of terribly outdated albums. When I find something that I like, I usually listen to it for about 6 months solid before moving onto something else. My music tastes are positively glacial that way. But hey, I just graduated from college, and I'm all about growth and change and maturation, so in an attempt to make myself more relevant, here, dear readers, are my top 10 favorite albums of 2011!

10. The Strokes, Angles

Standout tracks: "Under Cover of Darkness," "Two Kinds of Happiness," "Taken for a Fool"

I've never really drunk the cool-aid when it came to the Strokes in the past. I mean, I wish I was cool enough to count them among my favorites, but they've never really hit me before. Angles, however, is an interesting exception. As a student of poetry, if you've had the pleasure (ahem) of meeting me, you've probably heard me talk about how much I appreciate restraint (because I'm a total hypocrite) or that really, art is just as much (if not more) about what you DON'T say as it is about what you actually do express. There's nothing overtly flashy about Angles, which harkens back to classic 60s brit rock while keeping the sound fresh, with a razor sharp guitar and simultaneously staid and pleading vocal, but somehow all the pieces manage to come together in a way that just works.

9. Beirut, The Rip Tide

Standout tracks: "East Harlem," "Vagabond," "Goshen," "Payne's Bay"

Beirut is probably the band on this list that most deserves the title "acquired taste." The drawling vocals, the sometimes-melodramatic lyrics, the staid instrumentation, are not for everyone, I admit. However, they are most definitely for me. With The Rip Tide, Beirut spins a nostalgic and sometimes heartbroken (and heartbreaking) yarn about love, loss, and growth. Also, I'm a sucker for a good horn section. The same can probably be said about strings. Beirut uses both to great effect in The Rip Tide, and paired with lead singer Zach Condon's velvet drawl, each track (especially the aforementioned standout tracks) really feature a perfect storm of elements, landing the album squarely on my list of the year's best musical showings.

8. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra

Standout tracks: "Strawberry Swing," "Songs for Women," "American Wedding"

One thing can be said about Frank Ocean for sure: the man knows how to use a sample. Very often, samples are manipulated superficially as a cheap way to draw in fans of the old track without doing anything new or different enough to really merit its inclusion. On Nostalgia, Ultra, Ocean proves that such things aren't always the case, mixing familiar melodies with amazingly wrought lyrics. And on the tracks that are all original, Ocean does just as well. Too often, rap and hip-hop becomes all about raunchy sex, violent activities, and cheap thrills, but Nostalgia, Ultra is the exact opposite. Always intelligent, sometimes scathing, and constantly compelling, Ocean has me eager to hear more, just as I'm completely satisfied with what he's already provided, an ironic feeling of vertigo that generally hooks me into an artist for the long haul.

7. The Decemberists, The King is Dead

Standout tracks: "Calamity Song," "Down by the Water," "Dear Avery"

Much like Iron & Wine (who will show up in a bit...), the Decemberists have set a high standard for themselves. The King Is Dead adds an interesting layer to the band's repertoire, and while perhaps not their pinnacle, it is definitely worthy of praise here. The intricate literary references woven throughout (I mean, the New York Times even discussed how smartthis band is), and the generally perfectly wrought lyrics throughout make me harken back to my days as a lit major. This is not music for passive listening, and, in that sense, it isn't for everyone, but it is definitely something I appreciate thoroughly. I've had a thing recently for folksy twang, and The King is Dead provides this in spades, even more so than the rest of the Decemberists' discography. The lyrics are still smart, and hey, there's a banjo. What isn't to love?

6. Portugal. the Man, In the Mountain In the Cloud

Standout tracks: "So American," "Senseless," "Everything You See"

In 9 out of 10 cases, the sort of thin, kind of whiney nasal vocals of Portugal. the Man would drive me up a fucking wall. However, when combined with some thoroughly lush accompaniment and intricately sparse and yet still moving lyrics, certain things can truly be forgiven. Bright, with just the right level of pop appeal, In the Mountain In the Cloud balances toe-tapping, head-bobbing, and aural appreciation nearly perfectly, with some hard-line guitar cutting through the 70s glam-rock inspired vocals in a way that provides great texture without being too overwhelmingly jarring. Somehow, In the Mountain In the Cloud manages to provide music for all moods, which, for me at least, is an element that almost always means good things.

5. The Black Keys, El Camino

Standout tracks: "Lonely Boy," "Money Maker," "Dead and Gone"

O, rock and roll, how good it is to see you. The Black Keys provided a real monkey wrench for this list, considering it came out just a week ago and really got me going pretty quickly. In these days of general indie easy-listening, full of people who know about three cords and don't know how to turn their amps up to 11, the Black Keys provide a great respite for those of us desperately seeking something loud, fast, and hard. There's something simple and clean about El Camino, but with each successive listen, you're able to pull out new parts that make this album a gift that keeps on giving. Also, it's just absolutely smashing at drowning out annoying coworkers when I have a million and three things to do, or providing just the right amount of adrenaline to power through those last few paragraphs on a blog post. O wait, did that just get too personal?

4. Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean

Standout tracks: "Walking Far From Home," "Rabbit Will Run," "Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me"

For me, Iron & Wine is bright afternoons spent in grassy meadows (under varying levels of intoxication, typically, but hey, let's keep this PG, shall we?). Kiss Each Other Clean, however, is a far cry from Our Endless Numbered Days or The Shepherd's Dog or The Creek Drank the Cradle. Here, Iron & Wine plays with instrumentation, introducing electronic elements (and the occasional horn section) to supplement and accompany the thick as honey vocals and nonsensically poetic lyrics that generally make me love Iron & Wine. This album's speed is unlike most other Iron & Wine, but ultimately, the album manages to maintain the singular sound that makes Iron & Wine distinctive while establishing itself as something new, different, and exciting, which truly is the ultimate test of any act's staying power. No matter how much I might like a first album, I don't want to just keep hearing it again and again in various iterations. Kiss Each Other Clean is Iron & Wine in an interesting new arrangement, one that defers to the sound but also pushes it to its edge in a way that I respect and admire.

3. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin'

Standout tracks: "Heart Attack," "Radio," "Good Man"

Stone Rollin' was definitely a bit of a surprise to me. I'd never heard of Raphael Saadiq before. And I'm generally skeptical of R&B these days. But Stone Rollin' definitely doesn't disappoint. Mixing classic Motown elements with new pieces and delightfully catchy (while still significantly eloquent) lyrics, Saadiq's silky voice harkens back to a better day in music. I generally love anything that plays with instrumentation, and with Stone Rollin', Saadiq finds a way to combine classic Motown backup vocals with strings, piano, and a spectacularly twangy guitar in a way that makes me smile (a lot). This album is the absolute perfect soundtrack for getting ready for a big night out, providing a nice (and less soul eroding) alternative to the typical pop fluff I listen to in preparation for an evening on the town. I swear, every time "Radio" comes on, I almost immediately start doing the twist, and while this may sound terrifying, it's actually a very high compliment.

2. Florence + the Machine, Ceremonials

Standout tracks: "No Light, No Light," "Seven Devils," "All This and Heaven, Too," "Landscape (Bonus Track)"

If you've read anything I've written about music for this blog, you know that I absolutely adore Florence + the Machine. I've seen them perform live twice, and after the first performance, I was ready to drop out of college and start some kind of religion that held Florence Welch as a deity. She is clearly some kind of bayou/fairy queen (I swear"¦at the second performance of hers I was lucky enough to attend, I discovered that she controls the weather. True story). While I figured that the sophomore outing would be something I appreciated, I was slightly apprehensive: with a debut like Lungs, how can you make a second album that's better? Ceremonials is a completely different animal, which is something I always respect about artists. Somehow, Florence manages to maintain the sound that made her first album such an amazing showing, while experimenting and advancing the band's music to a point that is new and intriguing. The entire album is a modernist novel stretched over fifteen tracks (twenty, if you got the deluxe version"¦which I highly recommend), a tale of sin and water and the constant question of redemption. Ceremonials deviates slightly from Lungs' sternum bruising percussion, adding many electronic elements that I would typically dislike, if not for the impeccable restraint Florence shows in adding them, and the sheer power of her voice (also, the harp. Who in modern music is using a harp to such great effect? Abso-fucking-lutely no one, that's who). Those vocals are not getting hidden by anything, ever. Ceremonials also utilizes some strange, chant-like choruses and accompaniments, playing up the overall themes of sin, sacrifice, and rebirth that makes me revisit my original thoughts on a Florence-centered religion (I mean, she's writing hymns). This album just gets better and better with each relisten, as you pick apart the poetry of the lyrics and dissect each textured level of instrumentation, so much so that I still find myself listening to it regularly, even after months.

1. Adele, 21

Standout tracks: "Someone Like You," "Turning Tables," "If It Hadn't Been For Love," "Don't You Remember," "Set Fire to the Rain"

Considering my love for Florence, it might come as quite a shocker that I would put anyone else at number one. Take this as a testament to how completely amazing 21 by Adele truly is. No other album this year has had the staying power of Adele (which is saying something, seeing as I have a habit of relistening to something about a million times when I first cross it's path). The sheer emotional power of the lyrics, paired with Adele's insanely impactful delivery, keeps me coming back for more. Somehow, Adele manages to tap into the emotions of every listener, even if we haven't been in situations anywhere close to as heartbreaking as the one's this spectacular woman depicts in her songs. Each track is enough to inspire some really serious belting and crying and Adele's vocals are absolutely awe-inspiring, so much so that I'm pretty secure in my assertion that Adele is single-handedly saving music right now.

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