Jordan's Top Ten Albums of 2011
Top Ten Albums of 2011
This has been a whirlwind year for me as a music fan. Beyond writing My Year in Lists, I have listened to more new music in 2011 than ever before. So when I say that 2011 was a great year for music, it should be noted that perhaps I've just realized how much excellence I've been missing in years past. This list took me literally months to write. From listening to all of the albums I could over the last year, to re-listening time and time again to those that made the cut (and those that got close, which I addressed yesterday). And so, without further ado, here are the ten albums I think outpaced all others this year.

10. Bill Callahan, Apocalypse

Essential Songs: "Drover," "Riding for the Feeling," "One Fine Morning"

No other singer working right now can wring feeling out of a lyric better than Bill Callahan, who recorded Apocalypse live in the studio with his band. A study in the power of silence and the meaning of space, Callahan turns in seven epic tracks that display his most confounding skill as a musician: his ability to sound meticulously crafted and carefree at the same time. At first blush, most tracks on Apocalypse sound as if Callahan sat down, picked up a guitar, and managed to perfectly lay out his feelings in sparse, impeccably constructed form. Yet the album's subtlety builds on re-listen, until it becomes clear just how much craftsmanship is present here. The album is about America, the end of the world, personal discovery, and both the solace and the loneliness that can be found in extended periods of solitude. If that sounds like a heady time on paper, it plays out in stark simplicity, so much so that the meaning behind the beauty may be lost until you take the time to ruminate over each track and recognize exactly how much depth each contains. When Callahan sings, on the closing track "One Fine Morning," that "It's all coming back to me now: my apocalypse, my apocalypse" it is like he is realizing it for the first time, and his delivery makes it the perfect mixture of curiosity and epiphany. Callahan is searching, endlessly, for the truth, yet the power is less in the answers he finds than in how compelling he manages to make asking the questions.

9. Florence + The Machine, Ceremonials

Essential Songs: "Shake it Out," "Never Let Me Go," "All This and Heaven Too"

Florence Welch is nothing if not ambitious. Yet fans of her admittedly baroque debut album, Lungs might find some surprises on her follow-up, which is all soaring vocals, rococo instrumentation and out-sized emotion. The album doubles down on Florence's theatrical side, which may alienate those not already enraptured by her, yet credit must be given to the songstress for her ability to hone in on a conception of romance with such constant passion and unswerving clarity. The album strikes a consistent tone, which would be alienating in its earnestness if it wasn't so well executed; it's all crescendo and catharsis, in a way that might be exhausting if it didn't manage to be so exhilarating. Welch is still the vocal powerhouse she was on her debut, yet this time she allows the instrumentation that backs her to keep up with her exaltation. This is a dark album, an exploration of sin, vice, and iniquity that manages to be invigorating even at its bleakest. Welch is unabashedly striving for greatness and soaring to heights she has never before attained in the process.

8. Tom Waits, Bad As Me

Essential Songs: "Chicago," "Back in the Crowd," "Last Leaf"

After spending much of the last two decades venturing further and further into the avant-garde, Tom Waits, who was just admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, gets back to basics on Bad As Me. His talent for imagery is as sharp as ever, and his ability to create a deranged, nightmarish carnival feel is in full force, yet this time out, he's less about the howling and more about inserting a degree of warmth into his darkness. With a guest appearance by Keith Richards on two tracks ("Satisfied" and "Last Leaf"), Bad As Me seems to be Waits coming to embrace his acceptance into the Hall of Fame by remembering what he can do at his best, and just how much of a badass he can be. The album is a fun mix of the genres Waits has played in throughout his career, from the frenetic clatter of "Chicago" to the rowdy "Get Lost," to the late night waltz of "Back in the Crowd" and finally to his tender, balladic side, on the late album winners "Last Leaf" and "New Year's Eve." This is a Tom Waits that is comfortable with his legacy. He's willing to stretch for his art, to be sure, but he also knows how to deliver an hour of Waits-standards that are sure to be the perfect gateway for any Waits newcomers while reminding longtime acolytes just why they've loved him for so long. And as always, his music goes down like a great glass of whiskey: smooth, warm, and a little rough around the edges.

7. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin'

Essential Songs: "Go To Hell," "Day Dreams," "Good Man"

Raphael Saadiq doesn't waste any time on Stone Rollin'. Jumping right into a grinding rhythm guitar and pulling listener's straight back into the mid-'60s heyday of R&B. Saadiq is never afraid to go outsized, with lush instrumentation throughout, yet even at his most ambitious, he never looses the inherent soul at the album's core. This is a work of pure passion"”Saadiq wrote all the songs, plays most of the instruments, and let's his voice carry each of the songs. He is not afraid to dart around the emotional spectrum, adding a hint of melancholy to "Movin' Down the Line," referencing Ray Charles (and managing to look good doing it) on "Day Dreams" and being willing to build small epics, like he does on the album-highlight "Good Man," a trouble-man soul song, immediately catchy and elegant in its misery. If it wasn't executed so well, Stone Rollin' might be best considered a throwback, a retro pastiche or a period piece retread. As it stands, however, the album has a vitality, a resonance that echoes across decades and serves as a reminder that good music played well will sound great in any decade.

6. Fucked Up, David Comes to Life

Essential Songs: "Queen of Hearts," "The Other Shoe," "Turn the Season"

When Fucked Up came up with their name, it was almost certainly a gesture to prove their hardcore bona fides"”they were a band that didn't care if you liked them, and didn't care if their name offended you. Something tells me that has changed, however, possibly because in the decade since the band's inception, their name has grown a whole lot less controversial (hell, Cee-Lo Green's beloved pop super-smash last year was called "Fuck You," and more people were irritated by the radio edit and the Gwyneth Paltrow derivation than by the obscenity), and possibly because David Comes to Life so resolutely reaches for a greatness that must yearn for recognition beyond the Toronto hardcore scene. This isn't to say the band are begging to become more popular; if they were, an 18 song, 78 minute rock opera probably isn't the best way into the heart's of the average American, just that their skill, ability, and ambition have clearly transcended their scene. A rock opera in four acts, David Comes to Life tells the age old story of boy-meets-girl, except that this time around he almost immediately loses her, is accused of killing her, and undertakes an existential journey to rediscover himself, learning along the way that loss is necessary to reinforce the vitality of life, and that love can redeem even the worst of us. At first listen, it's likely many will find the vocals of front man Damian Abraham to be grating and off-putting, yet where his rage-fueled howl originally seems to do battle with the lush instrumentation and the gorgeous female vocalists (Madeline Follin and Jennifer Castle), it becomes clear on re-listen that the sound is calibrated perfectly to approximate the journey of the main character. David is a scorned cynic, who find his match in Veronica (theirs is the type of romance forged with sweet nothings such as "let's be together until the world swallows us"), has his beliefs about the world reaffirmed when he loses her, and then slowly begins to realize that just because bad things happen does not mean the world is an inherently bad place. He starts from the dark (and yes, slightly obvious, but remember it is being said by a man slowly evolving) realization that "maybe our love was just a cliche and not unique because it happened to me," but soon realizes that there is good in the world, even if it is fleeting. For a densely plotted rock opera from the Canadian hardcore scene, David Comes to Life is damn catchy, from the sweepingly romantic "Queen of Hearts," to the nihilistic, furious "The Other Shoe," and to the spiteful growl of "Ship of Fools." Yet the album is more than just intelligent and melodically satisfying; it comes across as bracingly, refreshingly vital, carrying you on an emotional journey that is bound to leave even the most cynical and beaten down feeling rejuvenated. If this is the future of Fucked Up, it seems clear that not just their album's titular character has been reborn. On this album, as you listen to the story of David, you won't have to strain too hard to hear Fucked Up come to life. And it's a beautiful sound.

5. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo

Essential Songs: "Baby's Arms," "Puppet to the Man," "Society Is My Friend"

Kurt Vile manages to build a tone on Smoke Ring for My Halo that is so mesmerizing, so hypnotic, and so pervasive it will wrap itself around you and envelope you through the album's full run time. Strings buzz, guitars strum, and Vile tosses off wry lyrical observations in a casual way, making it all look easy. He sounds, for most of the album, like the smartest, most effortlessly talented guy at a party, the one who pulls out a guitar as the sun is setting and captures the late-summer atmosphere perfectly. Whether he is effusing lonesome melancholy as he does on "Baby's Arms," groove-y wit like on "Puppet to the Man," or engaging in a conversation with himself so private that the stream of consciousness lyrics almost make you feel like you're inside his head, as he does on "Ghost Town," Vile manages to land the emotions without ever leaving his sonic wheelhouse. To call Smoke Ring for My Halo consistent is to use the word in the best possible way: Vile knows exactly what he is getting at, and he lands the feeling in a way that will make you warm, carry you back to a better place, and keep you coming back to the album for another chance to revel in his laid back ambiance once again.

4. Frank Ocean Nostalgia, Ultra

Essential Songs: "Strawberry Swing," "Songs for Women," "American Wedding"

It can be hard to pin down Frank Ocean. His label, Island Def Jam, certainly thought so, which is why Ocean released Nostalgia, Ultra himself via his tumblr account. And it's a shame the album wasn't given the wide release and promotion it so richly deserves: Nostalgia, Ultra is a well crafted downbeat character study focused on a man who feels out of touch with the times, disenfranchised by his society, and ill-at-ease about hip hop culture and his place within it. On the one hand, he fits in too well for his liking to the culture of excess (singing about "cocaine for breakfast"”yikes" on the insanely catchy "Novacane"), but on the other, he is incredibly conflicted about his feelings towards the opposite sex, both in how he attracts them and in how he treats them (as he details on "Songs for Women," which should have been a huge hit this year, and on the Eyes Wide Shut sampling "Lovecrime"). He sees himself as a game-changer in the hip hop genre (sampling Coldplay, Radiohead, Stanley Kubrick and The Eagles, all to great effect), and he's probably right when he sings "this is some visionary shit," but he also recognizes his flaws and looks at the ways they hold him back. Whether he is admitting that, in spite of what the cool kids said about their deadbeat dads, he longed for a father, as he does on "There Will Be Tears," opining his various regrets on "Dust," or mulling over his ideal wedding before admitting any relationship he entered at this point would probably crumble on the epic "American Wedding" (which samples, in its entirety, "Hotel California"), which showcases Ocean at his best: playful, excessive, witty, hopelessly romantic, bold, and willing to reach just a little too far, while always keeping a critical eye pointed at himself and his flaws. Nostalgia, Ultra doesn't capture the excesses of hip hop as gorgeously or ornately as last year's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it does capture the man at its center, at both his best and his worst, and creates the year's most compelling hip hop album in the process.

3. Portugal. The Man, In the Mountain in the Cloud

Essential Songs: "Head is a Flame (Cool with It)," "Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujahs," "Sleep Forever"

In the Mountain in the Cloud is an album you won't see much love for in this season of lists, though I honestly couldn't tell you why. The newest (and, to my ear, the best) effort by Portugal. The Man has not received much attention from any mainstream music outlets this year, which is mystifying to me (unless everyone is annoyed by the randomness of the punctuation in their name, which is at least understandable). In the Mountain in the Cloud is a masterful demonstration of the continued vitality of psychedelic rock, an album that absorbs all of the texture of that venerable genre without getting too caught up in the flaws that can drag down psychedelia at its worst. Right out of the gate, with the album's casually clever take down "So American," Portugal. The Man shows that they know what works best about psychedelic rock, and have managed to channel its brightest side into a pop-fueled opus that is catchy, clever, and an all out blast from start to finish. The album could probably get by on its hazy, colorful sheen and catchy hooks alone, yet it runs an emotional gamut, discussing everything from aging on "Head is a Flame (Cool with It)," to the importance of community on "You Carried Us (Share With Me The Sun)," to the joy of sitting back, letting go of your stress and appreciating the beauty of things, like on "Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujahs)." And on the album's stellar final track, "Sleep Forever" the band comes to terms with the idea of death, denying the necessity of spirituality, viewing life in terms of its possibilities instead of fearing its inevitable (and permanent) ending. If that sounds depressing, it is to the band's credit that when they sing "I just want to sleep forever, never see tomorrow, or lead or follow, I don't want to work forever, know what I know, or beg or borrow," it doesn't sound downbeat so much as triumphant. And that is the true joy of In the Mountain in the Cloud, an album I have listened to more than anything else this year: if you listen close, you can hear Portugal. The Man figuring out exactly who they want to be, coming to terms with themselves, and making music that is all the better for it.

2. Adele, 21

Essential Songs: "Rolling in the Deep," "Set Fire to the Rain," "Someone Like You"

Adele's sophomore album, 21, is the best selling album of the year (unless something sprints past it in the last few weeks, though that seems incredibly unlikely), and it is the rare album that earns its omnipresence with every track. That Adele is only twenty one should humble all of us: the woman has a stunning voice with emotive power that could stop a charging bull in its tracks (and make it wonder if, instead of attacking, it should try dating her), a pop sensibility that beautifully mixes R&B with mainstream sensibilities, and an emotional depth that belies easy characterization. 21 is a break-up album at heart, in which Adele trades off scorning her ex ("Set Fire to the Rain"), begging him to come back ("Take It All"), and trying, tentatively, to move on (with the heartbreaking promise that she will find "Someone Like You"). 21 is an album about love, to be sure, but what's more impressive is just how lovable it is. Try not to fall just a little bit in love with Adele, who displays smarts, effortless sexiness, true empowerment and completely relatable vulnerability all within the span of an hour. It's enough to restore my faith in humanity that an album as beautiful, powerful, catchy, emotive, and intelligent as 21 has captured the popular consciousness. That Adele is a pop music sensation gives me hope for the future of pop music itself, which ain't bad for a twenty one year old kid with a voice like a hurricane and a broken heart begging to be repaired.

1. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues

Essential Songs: "Helplessness Blues," "The Shrine/An Argument," "Blue Spotted Tail"

When the Fleet Foxes released their eponymous debut in 2008, I was blown away by the stark folk power of their songs, lead by the crystalline voice of Robin Pecknold and backed by sparse instrumentals. I awaited their follow-up album with (unironic) bated breath, afraid that they may have peaked on their first time out. I needn't have worried, of course, as Helplessness Blues bests its predecessor in nearly every possible way. The sparse instrumentations have evolved into ornate melodies, the simple pastoral imagery has grown into a metaphor for escapism from the concerns of modern day life, and Pecknold (whose voice is still a powerhouse) has evolved as a songwriter. Where the stand out track from Fleet Foxes, "White Winter Hymnal," was about a childhood trauma, Pecknold now writes about his present day concerns as a man in his mid-'20s wondering if he has made something worthwhile of himself, and whether he is going in the right direction in his life. On the album's opening track, "Montezuma," Pecknold ponders in the album's very first line, "So now I am older than my mother and father, when they had their daughter, now what does that say about me?" Helplessness Blues spends the rest of its run time answering just that question, dealing with Pecknold's troubled relationship with his fame, his desire to do something substantial with his life, and, on the album's title track, his evolving views on what success and happiness mean for him (as he abandons the view that he has to be unique in any way, finding comfort in the idea that "...I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving some thing beyond me"). Yet what could easily have come across as overly indulgent introspection, instead it seems like an organic development for the band, which is expanding its repertoire, allowing for epics like the 8 minute "The Shrine/An Argument," and "Grown Ocean," which is near cacophonous in its speed and levels of instrumentation (especially when compared to the rest of the album), but never leaving behind the quiet power of the group's debut, on finest display in the blatantly philosophical "Blue Spotted Tail." Helplessness Blues is everything you can ask for from a sophomore album: it doubles down on the emotional resonance, moves the band forward in interesting and important ways, and is filled wall to wall with successes, whether the group is tinkering with how far they can go or just reminding listeners why we loved Fleet Foxes in the first place. Pecknold is asking important questions about the meaning of life, his place in the world, and whether any one can ever truly find peace the way we currently structure our lives. And he's sounding damn good doing it. Fleet Foxes didn't just top themselves with Helplessness Blues, they created a gem of an album that rewards multiple listens and stands at the top of the heap during a year when plenty of bands strived for greatness and a great number achieved it. If Pecknold aims to serve something beyond himself, Helplessness Blues is a damn good start to a career full of music that will make everyone's lives just a little bit brighter.

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