Foo Fighters, Bon Iver, the Beastie Boys also make Bigger Than the Sound‘s midyear list.
By James Montgomery
Well, we’ve reached the halfway point of 2011, and if you’re a fan of unfortunately named politicians tweeting photos of their bulges, terrorists getting shot in the eye and Austrian strongmen who have a thing for the help, well, congratulations on having the best six months of your entire life.
Of course, for the rest of us, there’s been plenty to help pass the time in 2011 — namely, a whole bunch of really excellent albums, from folks you probably know (Eminem, Lady Gaga) and some you more than likely don’t (the Weeknd, F—ed Up). But whether they’re household names or not, they’ve all helped make the first 180-or-so days of the year practically fly by — a feat that’s pretty amazing considering all the crap that’s happened up to this point.
So, like I’ve done in previous years, I’ve compiled my favorite albums of the first half of 2011 — a traditional top 10, followed by some honorable mentions too. If there’s something you haven’t heard, well, you’ve still got six months to rectify that. And the same goes for me: If there’s an album that I’ve missed (a definite possibility), I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. So, let’s get right to it. Here’s my list of the Best Albums of 2011 (So Far):
The Top 10
10. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Mirror Traffic: The elder statesman of erudite rock and good diction has been heading in a jammier direction for years now (on songs like “1% of One,” “No More Shoes” and, more recently, the Pavement reunion tour), but thanks to the production work of Beck, he’s finally honed those tendencies into an album that’s every bit as elastic as his previous efforts, yet oddly focused too. Songs like “Tigers” and “Senator” prove he’s still not averse to an angular verse (or in-depth investigations into the sexual proclivities of elected officials), but it’s on “28 Forever” — when he warbles, “There’s no parade/ I cannot rain on with my poison eyes” — where he finally seems to be coming to terms with his past as an oft-noted sourpuss. Call it clarity, call it maturity, call it whatever: It all makes for the best Malk record in years.
9. Foo Fighters, Wasting Light: The year’s best major-label rock record was born out of risk: Dave Grohl eschewed the sanitary confines of the big-bucks studio to record an album in his own garage, on tape, warts-and-all. And then he brought in Nevermind producer Butch Vig to oversee the proceedings. The end result is an effort that positively rips, one equally packed with crackling rockers (“Rope,” “White Limo”) and muscle-y, medium-rare mopers (“I Should Have Known”). In the process, he not only reinvigorated his band, but set the bar impossibly high for any of his contemporaries. As if they’d have the balls to try something like this.
8. The Weeknd,House of Balloons: Mysterious, majestically paced R&B courtesy of 20-year-old Canadian Abel Tesfaye, whose sensibilities (gorgeously layered atmospherics, keenly placed Siouxsie and the Banshees samples) belie his years. The trope of the troubled loverman isn’t exactly new, but rarely are matters of the heart played out as honestly as they are here. A constant cycle of druggy nights, desperate flings and depressing dawns, Balloons makes no apologies, and, really, it doesn’t need to. Not when the scenery is this engrossing, this sumptuous. Mood music for increasingly moody times. And, best of all, it’s free.
7. Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two: Really, this one could have gone either way. Especially after MCA’s battle with cancer forced the Beasties to scrap the first record (and, of course, To the Five Boroughs). But, somewhat shockingly, they delivered an album that’s a total blast, a mishmash of boom-bap rattle and pop-culture flotsam that, like all the best Beastie albums, manages to tread the line between highbrow rap and lowbrow entertainment. So even if Mike D did open up a restaurant with Ted Danson, you still believe he’s got enough swagger to go toe-to-toe with Nas. And on Hot Sauce, he does both.
6. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues: The folks over at Spin called it “the year’s most beautiful album,” and they’re probably right. Swooning, wide-screen vocal harmonies ebb and expand into the warm, finger-picked acoustics, creating atmospheres that are summery one minute, wintery the next. But it’s not all ethereal. In fact, frontman Robin Pecknold spends the majority of the album rooting through problems that are, in fact, very real: finding his place in the world and coming to terms with his disappearing youth. That balance is key to the album’s strength. Because for a band that indulges so much in the space of the studio, Helplessness Blues is rarely, if ever, self-indulgent.
5. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes: Psychoanalytic, somnambulant pop from the prodigiously talented 25-year-old Swede, Wounded Rhymes expands on the themes that she laid out in her stunning debut (2008′s Youth Novel) and imbues them with an otherworldly spirit. Not to mention the torchy leanings of the greatest of girl groups (the Ronettes, the Crystals, etc.). So while Li is still preternaturally somber (like on “Sadness Is a Blessing,” on which she keens, “Sadness is my boyfriend”), she’s also not afraid to get dirty, either, and it’s when she’s doing the latter — like on the aptly titled “Get Some” — that she truly shines.
4. Lady Gaga, Born This Way: It’s not a stretch to call BTW the year’s most-anticipated album, and perhaps in a nod to those expectations, Lady Gaga delivered an effort that doesn’t leave anything on the cutting-room floor. From the piston-pumping electronics of “Marry the Night” and the tarantula tango of “Americano” to the twitching, “Transformers”-huge techno of “Heavy Metal Lover” and the epic balladry of “You and I” and “The Edge of Glory,” this truly is an effort that tries very hard to be everything to everyone. And sure, it’s probably too long, but that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? And if she didn’t please everyone, well, she came pretty darn close, didn’t she?
3. Bon Iver, Bon Iver: Justin Vernon has done the impossible: follow up a beloved, much-mythologized debut album (you know, the one that was recorded in a cabin) with a record that’s just as good — if not better. He’s always been one for atmospheres, but never before have those atmospheres been so dense. Or so compelling. Here, he creates a singular, breathless world, building it with layers of echoing instrumentation and his own ghostly falsetto. There are moments where the sun shines through the cracks — a horn crescendo, a silvery sliver of bell — but for the most part, Bon Iver is a mesmerizing trip through a dewy dreamscape. And, in that regard, it’s a momentous achievement — even if the last song does sound like Bruce Hornsby.
2. Adele, 21: It’s nice when the year’s best-selling album also ends up being one of the flat-out best, but, in the case of Adele’s 21, we should’ve seen it coming. After all, she’s got the Grammy-winning pedigree. But this time out, she’s grown, and become a singer capable of both tremendous power (like on the smash “Rolling in the Deep”) and terrifying tenderness too (like on the smashing “Someone Like You”). A roiling collection of breakup ballads and revenge fantasies, there truly is no album quite like 21, and not only is its success justified, but it probably guarantees Adele will only add to her Grammy collection come February. Some things are inevitable.
1. F—ed Up, David Comes to Life: A wrecking-ball sorta rock opera courtesy of Toronto’s hardest-working (and, most likely only) six-piece punk collective, David Comes to Life tells the story of a downtrodden factory worker who may or may not have killed his true love. I think. Because, along the way, there’s also betrayal, heartache, bomb blasts, fisticuffs and a whole lot of plot-twisting shifts in narration too. Of course, the story behind the album is largely unimportant (if you want to keep score at home, here’s a handy guide) especially when the album itself hits so hard. The (multi-multi-multi-)tracked guitars squeal and chug for days, and frontman Pink Eyes’ screams are so visceral you can practically feel his blood welling up in your headphones. It’s an ambitious, ringing, raging success, the kind of record you’ll listen to over and over again, either to try and follow the plotline or just get pummeled by the sheer might of the thing. Either way, you’ll enjoy yourself.
Bad Meets Evil, Hell: The Sequel: Reunited with (and recharged by) Royce, Em reminds us that he’s still capable of littering the scene with lyrical shell casings, and Nickel Nine matches him shot for shot. Their friendly competition makes for a thrilling listen, and basically everything here burns with varying degrees of intensity — even the track with Bruno Mars.
Bright Eyes, The People’s Key: Unjustly overlooked for reasons not apparent to me, Conor Oberst’s seventh studio album is a latticework of sonic strips, wide-eyed (yet sorta hazy) ponderances of faith and science and, on “Ladder Song,” raw, positively aching ruminations on death. Not as great as some of his earlier works, but close. And that’s still better than 95 percent of everything else.
Curren$y, Covert Coup: One of approximately 750 albums he plans to release this year (and not the one that syncs up with “Weekend at Bernie’s” either), Coup bubbles along on producer the Alchemist’s hazy beats and Curren$y’s laconic, chronic delivery. If you couldn’t tell, this is the weed-iest album of 2011, by a smoky mile.
Death Cab for Cutie, Codes and Keys: Ben Gibbard finally gets happy, only, y’know, within reason. Because even the sunniest moments are dotted with dark clouds, and ultimately, this is an album that’s as much about alienation as anything else. After all, falling in love doesn’t fill the emptiness inside; it only makes it more pronounced.
PJ Harvey, Let England Shake: The iconic Brit shape-shifts with seemingly every record she releases, and on Shake, she’s reborn as an old-fashioned protest singer. The sad thing is, the subjects she’s singing about (conflict, bloodshed, man’s unending cycle of self-immolation) are just as timely now as they were 50 years ago.
Portugal. The Man, In the Mountain, In the Cloud: Guys from the same town that put Sarah Palin on the map (Wasilla, Alaska: Population 7,831) more than atone for that fact with an album that’s sprawling, psychedelic and crawling with ambition — the latter of which is also a pretty apt description for Ms. You-Betcha’s machinations too.
Radiohead, The King of Limbs: Maybe the most divisive Radiohead album of all time (or at least since Hail to the Thief), it may not necessarily rock, but that’s because it’s not supposed to. Instead, its main focus is creating a world that’s atmospheric and amniotic, and even if it doesn’t contain guitar solos like “Lucky” or “Just,” there’s still plenty to give you chills. Just not the chills you’re probably used to.
Tyler, the Creator, Goblin: Terrifying meta-commentary or simply the angry rantings of a 20-year-old kid who doesn’t know any better? Probably both. Homophobic? Sexist? Clever? Irritating? How about all of the above. It’s also visceral, wince-inducing, frightening and sorta funny too. But perhaps nobody does a better job of summing it all up than Tyler himself, when, on the (sorta) hook to “Radicals,” he growls, “Kill people, burn sh–, f— school.” Now that’s a mission statement.
YACHT, Shangri-La: New-age dance duo ponder the existence of the hereafter and discover that it may very well exist on earth (or within our own minds). Too bad we’re busy destroying both. A postapocalyptic party as foreseen by the Talking Heads and Giorgio Moroder, Shangri-La is as heavy on subject matter as it is on lithe, limber rhythms, so even when things get too heady, you can still let your hips do all the thinking.
Yuck, Yuck: The year’s best debut, one that channels the stray slack and sonic stumblings of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. And considering it all comes from a quartet of kids too young to remember prime-era indie rock, it’s all the more noteworthy. Maybe the stuff can make a comeback.
What did we miss? Share your favorites in the comments!