Humble Get No Respect

The 10 Best Albums And 30 Best Songs of 2011

Find the honorable mentions, and their NBA role player comparisons, here.

10. The Weeknd - House of Balloons

Not that I would ever champion the Baseball Hall of Fame’s vomit-inducing moral righteousness, but work with me for a second: to be considered for induction at such a museum, one oft-argued criteria is that Player X needs to be dominant for a set period of time. Longevity has its merits, but there’s a reason no one’s ever named a pet or branded a video game after Jamie Moyer. Same should go for year-end music lists. When I first heard House of Balloons, I couldn’t put it down. To someone who traditionally gravitates towards loud and fast rock music, this hazy R&B album was the most distinctive listen of my year.

Still, sticking the “breath of fresh air” label here seems wrongheaded, if only because the air in House of Balloons couldn’t be more contaminated. It’s a mixtape grounded amorality, and that starts with a) drugs, closely followed by b) sex. Yes, there’s a lot to like here even beyond The Weeknd’s general dissent towards decency. You don’t get this much blog buzz and indie insta-cred without a LP1 Beach House sample. Even still, House of Balloons would be forgettable without its lead voice, and 20-year old singer Abel Tesfaye nails it the entire way through.

The cool kids may have claimed The Weeknd first, but the pop-crossover success of this project feels inevitable. It may even be here already thanks to a guest spot on Drake’s massively popular Take Care. But whether or not The Weeknd continues to appeal to the skinny jeans crowd or evolves to something more mainstream, this debut mixtape will endure as a compelling listen.

9. Girls - Father, Son, And Holy Ghost

Part of me would love to hate this album, if only because it feels so safe. Don’t think Christopher Owens is a fool: after last year’s highly buzzed Broken Dreams Club EP followed a highly-buzzed debut full length, Girls sensed that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost was their chance to gain indie tenure and probably a little bit of cash. With that in mind, maybe it’s not so surprising that this is an album that seemingly aims to please everyone.

Everyone agrees that “Die” is some sort of rip-off, whether it’s Led Zeppelin, another ’60s/’70s hard rock band I’m unfamiliar with, or that one Wolfmother song. Still, there’s only a short list of tracks this year with as much juice, and none of them carries the same element of surprise as when you first hear “Die” in the flow of the album.

Points for creativity, too. In an indie culture when so many ideas seem played out, adding three soulful black chicks to sing back-up vocals and make Owens’ fragile-white-boy choruses pop is a stroke of genius. It provides an indelible ending to “Vomit”, and transforms opener “Honey Bunny” to the type of Motown-“Surf Wax America” mashup that only prime-era Gregg Gillis could cook up.

Girls even had to swagger-jack for their style: anyone who saw ‘em on Jimmy Fallon knows Owens’ Kurt Cobain get-up was too much to ignore. Even with everything considered, the song-writing here is strong enough and most of the tracks are likable enough to overcome any shortcomings.

8. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

I suspect that in 20 years when someone wonders what indie rock sounded like around the turn of the aughts’ second decade, Strange Mercy will be just as good of an answer as Vecktimest and Bitte Orca. So much of Annie Clark’s adoration seems to come from her unorthodox improvisational skills on guitar, but there’s still something about this album that’s undeniably professional.

Strange Mercy works on a number of different levels, but its lyrical introspection mixed with a hint of punk attitude is what vaults it into the conversation of the year’s best releases. In that sense, St. Vincent is easy to root for: she proved in a Pitchfork interview that she utilizes the correct touchstones and sometimes appears to make music for them, as much as anyone else. She doesn’t seem to want Passion Pit-type of crossover success, even if Strange Mercy certainly has that potential.

Lead single “Cruel” is as close as she gets. Clark looks like the type of chick who would have got her ass beat by her younger self for creating a song so overtly pop-y, but it’s a testament to her songwriting ability. “Surgeon” is even better, and a major candidate for track of the year.

As a whole, Strange Mercy is as accessible, slick, and polished as any album this year. It’s nearly bullet-proof.

7. Atlas Sound - Parallax

The people who fell in love with Deerhunter’s abrasively-named early lo-fi releases probably never would have expected Bradford Cox to one day open a solo album with the lyrics “Found money and fame”, but that’s exactly how Cox begins his third take as Atlas Sound. Cox is only rich and famous if the currency of the day is indie cred, but the fact that he’s even daring enough these days to put those words on record proves the progression he’s made over the last several years. 

Parallax is the best Atlas Sound album yet because it continues Cox’s shift to more straight-forwarding songwriting, a transformation that may have started with “Sheila” on Atlas Sound’s last LP Logos. Since then, Deerhunter wrote 2010’s best rock music thanks to a hint of power-pop and proved that Cox might be at his best when he’s most accessible.

Parallax feels like an obvious extension of last year’s Halycon Digest in that sense. Substitute an acoustic guitar for an electric one and songs like “Mona Lisa” and “Angel Is Broken” would have fit right in on my second favorite album of last year. Nothing here is as challenging — or some would argue as rewarding — as Logos’ “Quick Canal”, but it helps keep the pace brisk and listening easy. No complaints here.

6. Real Estate - Days

Fidelity can be a kiss of death in indie rock, but fortunately that didn’t scare off Real Estate from souping up its sophomore album Days. While 2009’s self-titled debut laid the groundwork for the band’s signature easy-breezy sound, Days sees Real Estate maximize its potential thanks to enhanced production and a focus on air-tight songwriting.

Spending a day with Real Estate is akin to floating down a lazy river with a Budweiser (and Sprite) in hand, a comparison that seems so obvious I honestly cannot remember if it’s an original thought or not. Regardless, Days still captures that dynamic and continues with the themes hinted on at on LP1. The Arcade Fire made suburban life seem meaningful, if not occasionally thrilling, a year ago, but Real Estate has no such agenda. “Mundane” hardly seems like a good adjective to describe a rock album, but Days makes it work.

Still, this album is at its best when the tempo speeds up, most notably with “It’s Real”. If the track isn’t the best song of 2011, it’s close. Closer “All The Same” might serve as the best portrait of Days, though. The song is almost seven and a half minutes long, but it never drags. Every note feels essential. This is the new Real Estate, and it’s not nearly as insipid as it might appear.

5. Cymbals Eat Guitars - Lenses Alien

Wordiness has its place in indie rock — see: The Hold Steady, Bright Eyes, the rest of my favorite bands, ect. — but it’s hardly a prerequisite. I mean, have you read the lyrics to “Midnight City”? But while ambiguity can be a virtue, the opposite is also true. Cymbals Eat Guitars’ sophomore effort Lenses Alien might not require a graduate degree, but good luck decoding Joseph D’Agostino’s lyrics without at least an above average score on the verbal section of the GRE.

On “Definite Darkness” alone, D’Agostino uses “parabolas” to describe his roads, “hypodermic” to describe his needles, and name-drops a “skinless and sinewy leviathan”, ie: a tough-to-chew biblical sea monster. Fuck capturing a feeling when you can delineate your thoughts so hyper-specifically. That verbosity is part of what makes this album more rewarding with each listen. Lenses Alien doesn’t passively wait for your engagement, it practically demands it.   

For as cumbersome as the lyrics are, everything about the music is ruthlessly efficient. Cymbals Eat Guitars’ touchstones here are obvious enough; it’s almost impossible not to think of Perfect From Now On when listening to these densely layered rock songs. While I fear the “‘90s” tag makes this album seem incorrectly mundane, D’Agostino probably wouldn’t be singing about his skateboard if he was scared of the comparisons. Lenses Alien doesn’t include a monster hook or a hit single all the way through, but its craftsmanship is irrefutable.

4. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

"Epic" is among the most abused words in the modern lexicon, serving to describe everything from college parties to YouTube videos. But listen to Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Anthony Gonzalez’s sixth LP as M83, and try to think of a more appropriate adjective to describe what you’re hearing. It might take a while. It’s no coincidence that Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming comes after M83 spent time touring with The Killers and Depeche Mode: the bombastic influence of Brandon Flowers et al. clearly seeps through on these songs even without knowing the backstory. Whereas Gonzalez’s last release, 2008’s widely acclaimed Saturday = Youth, could have soundtracked a John Hughes movie with its distinct ’80s synths, there’s no such feel to its follow-up. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is bigger in every way: in scope, in sound, in reception. Gonzalez cut the nostalgia and went straight for the gusto: this is his attempt to have M83 reach the heights of other electro-addeled French bands like Phoenix and Daft Punk. Each used a distinctive spin on old fashioned party rock to grab headlining slots at summer festivals around the world (no pun intended) over the last two years, and it’s no doubt Gonzalez has the same intentions. Just look at that lightning bolt guitar strap. This bro means business.

Perhaps the biggest compliment Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming can be paid is that it feels brisk, which is no small task for a double-album with a running time of nearly 75 minutes. Lead single “Midnight City”, deservedly named Pitchfork’s best track of the year, may never be as far-reaching as “1901”, but it’s very possible it’s the best rock song since. There are plenty of other worthy singles spread throughout the album’s other 22 tracks, too: “Wait” is cheesey as hell but reeks of the Smashing Pumpkins at their downtempo best, while “Steve McQueen” may not hit until track 19, but the wait is worth it. And if there’s a more inappropriately unassuming title to a track as, well, epic, as “Intro”, I certainly haven’t heard it.   

If Gonzalez would have trimmed this down to the best 12 tracks — minus the instrumental interludes and the song about a magic frog — Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming might top this list. The album is no worse for the additional minutes, though. It will sound just as great at Lollapalooza (or Coachella, or Bonaroo) as it does out of your headphones, probably better.

3. Jay-Z and Kanye West - Watch The Throne 

The reason there won’t ever again be a good halftime show at the Super Bowl isn’t because we lack contemporary artists with the required kilowatt power to throw a 20-minute party on the country’s biggest stage, it’s because the people who run the thing don’t have the fortitude to let Jay-Z and Kanye do it. It’s really the only choice that makes sense. Excess, wealth, pedal-to-the-metal production value, overwhelming corporate materialism: Watch the Throne and the Super Bowl were practically birthed from the same parents. What could possibly be more indicative of the American Dream — proper noun — than combining the two?

Alas, Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction ruined everything, and now all we get is Madonna. It’s a shame, because Watch the Throne's greatest triumph comes from its unblemished universal appeal. That's a real accomplishment, especially considering the level of inclusion its makers sporadically aim for. One of the best songs on the album begins with the line “LOLOLOwhite America / assassinate my character”; a few tracks later, Kanye, speaking on his unborn son, says “I might even make 'em be Republican / So everybody know he love white people”. Watch the Throne had a specific target demographic in mind during its creation, but galvanized every race, gender, and creed on Earth upon its release, save for a few too-snarky hip-hop bloggers. Is there any doubt that these guys are the closest thing we have to The Beatles?

The album that spawned "Ball So Hard University", ‘Dat Shit Cray’ tattoos, and more Internet memes than any record I can ever remember will almost certainly be the most indelible release of this year. It was a certifiable cultural event. These men are simply too good at being tremendously interesting.  I think Pitchfork’s year-end capsule summed it up best: “rap as reality is as important as rap as escapism.” It sounds so soulful, don’t you agree?

2. Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde

Yeah, everyone had a good time stomping their foot to “Be My Girl” in 2009, but didn’t the Smith Westerns still seem like a risky co-sign for the tastemakers of the day? Teenagers with a sound so raw usually don’t get this type of hall pass to the fast track. But with their sophomore album Dye It Blonde, Smith Westerns justified the hype. Surprisingly enough, this band cleans up real well.

A band so decidedly unlikable has to be damn on record to escape unscathed, and Dye it Blonde is somehow up to the task. Ex. 1: when the AV Club asked Smith Westerns why they chose to cover Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for its Undercover series, singer Cullen Omori — clearly inebriated — haphazardly grabbed his microphone and slurred “because we like pussy”. Rocks stars are supposed to be cocksure, but when did they get this annoying? For all of their faults, Dye It Blonde is still as enduring as any release this year. It’s reminiscent of the transformation underwent by Deerhunter before last year’s excellent Halycon Digest: muffled lo-fi noise to slick pop-rock, all thanks to a few added production dollars and a re-centered focus.

There’s something undeniable about guitar riff custom built to be sang along with, and Dye It Blonde has them in spades. If Smith Westerns made a misstep with this album, it was the release date: listening to “Weekend” in January just doesn’t do it justice. This much glam begs for a convertible ride down Lake Shore Drive, and nothing less. Need more convincing? I think this is the only album of 2011 without a skippable track. When you make an album this good, you can talk as much shit as you want.  

1. Yuck - S/T

At no point during my approximately 14,000 listens to Yuck’s self-titled debut album did I ever think it was the best release of the year. But while other albums came and went from weekly rotation, Yuck never left. This isn’t the most consummate album of the year, the most skilled or the catchiest. But when I went through all of the albums I listened to in 2011, I just couldn’t rank anything ahead of it.

Whether it was intentional or not, Yuck’s philosophy towards making rock music comes off as warmingly fragmented: the entire song doesn’t actually have matter, just parts. This album’s greatest highs hit only for a moment: the lead guitar in “Operation”, the abrupt beginning to “The Wall”, the solo that cascades over the end of “Shook Down”. Nearly every track on this album features a riff that deserves a fan-curated Tumblr dedicated to it. The lyrics are sometimes hard to hear and sometimes nonsensical, but occasionally memorable. And so often, Yuck is content with letting the guitar sing lead. It’s hard to play the “pop punk” or “emo” card here when prime-era Billy Corgan himself would envy these riffs.

Yuck could probably stand to chop off a few tracks — and hey, I said the same thing about The Suburbs, my favorite album of 2010. Cut this to 10 songs and I’d feel more comfortable making it No. 1. But as Yuck proved, completeness can be overrated. Sometimes you just need moments and Yuck provided them better than anyone.

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30 Best Songs Of The Year: Check out the Spotify playlist

30. Wavves - Poor Lenore

29. Alex Turner - Piledriver Waltz

28. Kendrick Lamar - Rigomortus

27. Neon Indian - Polish Girl

26. Surfer Blood - Miranda

25. Lil Wayne - Sorry 4 The Wait

24. Frank Ocean - Songs For Women

23. Lana Del Rey - Video Games

22. Drake feat. Rick Ross - Lord Knows

21. Bright Eyes - Shell Games

20. Fleet Foxes - Grown Ocean

19. A$AP Rocky - Wassup

18. Jay-Z and Kanye West - No Church In The Wild

17. Atlas Sound - Mona Lisa

16. Kendrick Lamar - Fuck Your Ethnicity

15. Cymbals Eat Guitars - Definite Darkness

14. Radiohead - Lotus Flower

13. The Weeknd - Wicked Games

12. Girls - Honey Bunny

11. Girls - Vomit

10. Lil Wayne feat. Rick Ross- John

9. The Strokes - Under Cover of Darkness

8. Jay-Z and Kanye West - Niggas In Paris

7. St. Vincent - Surgeon

6. Smith Westerns - Weekend

5. Real Estate - It’s Real

4. Yuck - Operation

3. Yuck - Get Away

2. M83 - Midnight City

1. Tyler, The Creator - Yonkers

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