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Top 20 Albums of 2011

December 9, 2011

There were a lot of great releases this year from the world of independent music. Experimental music made  a big splash this year; another one in which indie artists also earned crossover success. It was tough boiling down all of the great albums that came out this year to 20, but I’m satisfied with my outcome. I’ll use some of my notes from last year:

There are many artists who I admire and whose albums I enjoyed that didn’t make the list. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t make good music or were ignored, just that I feel that the artists who appear on this list had stronger cohesive albums. And also, I am just one man; I can not listen to every single album released this year. But from the many many albums that I did listen to this year, this is what I feel are the best.

20.  What Were You Hoping For? by Van Hunt

Van Hunt’s latest release is a relentlessly liberating alternative rock album. Music distributors have labeled the album R&B/Soul, but it’s obvious that they are ignoring the contents of the product. It is another case of the skin color of the performer determining the genre classification, instead of the music itself.  Hunt is a very gifted multi-instrumentalist who was pigeon-holed into a neo-soul typecast by Capitol Records (his former label). His third studio album is the first to be released from his independent label Godless Hotspot. Ignored by Pitchfork and other major alternative music publications, What Were You Waiting For is one of the most inspiring left-of-field rock albums to come out this year. “Eyes Like Pearl” and “Designer Jeans” is grungy psychedelic bliss, while “Moving Targets” is an example of Hunt’s ability to pen immaculate ballads. This album is Prince meets Jeff Buckley, but also an independent sound of its own. Hunt is one of the most underrated and overlooked artists of his time, and one of its finest songwriters as well.
Best 3 tracks: “Designer Jeans” ~ “Moving Targets” ~ “Eyes Like Pearls

19. Take Care by Drake

Just when people thought that Drake had fallen off and were growing weary of him, he started releasing ambient-based somber slow jams, reminiscent of So Far Gone. The atmospheric singles and leaks caught the attention of his critics and people begin to slowly climb back onto the Drake bandwagon. His sophomore album is darker in tone, casting a different shade on Drake’s evolving persona. Take Care makes this list, not because Drake is a popular buzz artist that shouldn’t be overlooked, but because it is quality material. Drake flowed effortlessly on tracks like “Lord Knows” and “The Ride,” and maintained his signature dreamy sensuality on his slow-jams (“Good Ones Go Interlude,” “Doing It Wrong”). Kendrick Lamar almost steals the show in his cameo on the  2 minute track “Buried Alive Interlude.” Drake sounds harder, more hood and seasoned; clearly Wayne is a huge influence on him. He might not be the happy-shiny teenager off of Degrassi anymore, but the darker grown Drake is the most honest one.
Best 3 tracks: “Lord Knows (feat. Rick Ross)” ~ “Cameras/Good Ones Go Interlude” ~ “The Ride (feat. The Weeknd)”
18. Nine Types of Light by TV on the Radio

“I Was A Lover,” once proclaimed TV on the Radio on Return to Cookie Mountain. The art-rock indie darlings switched things up with an album focused on love and romance. Missing is the avant-garde edge that drew so many to TV on the Radio. Nine Types of Light is its most accessible album yet. But with a band as talented as TV on the Radio, the softening doesn’t take away from their remarkable songwriting abilities. “Will Do” is a tender catchy alt-rock slow jam, while “Repetition” brings fearless energy to a predominately chill album. “Second Song” and “New Cannonball Blues” are two of the funkiest songs in TVOR’s catalogue, blasting listeners with vibrant explosions of brass. Sadly, bassist Gerard Smith passed away from lung cancer shortly after the release of the album.
Best 3 tracks: “Repetition”  ~ “New Cannonball Blues” ~ “Will Do”
17.  Parallax by Atlas Sound

Halcyon Digest made many end-of-the-year lists in the indiesphere last year. The stoned shoegaze and hazy garage-rock recalled Sonic Youth and Sigur Ros. Frontman, Bradford Cox, sharpens the best attributes of Deerhunter on his third solo studio album. “Doldrums” is one of the best songs under his belt; “Te Amo” is a ballad from outer space. Cox and several of his peers have perfected crafting multi-dimensional ethereal masterpieces. Cox shines on this album, even belting with the confidence of Bono on some tracks. He is more vulnerable than ever, but a rock star steps from out of the awkward nerd’s shadow. Another great Atlas Sounds album is further proof that Cox is a growing force to be reckoned with in indie.
Best 3 tracks: “Te Amo” ~ “Terra Incognita” ~ “Doldrums”
16. The Golden Age of Apocalypse by Thundercat

The Flying Lotus protégée has played with Erykah Badu, Bilal, and Shafiq Husayn. The bassist dives into synthed-out afrojazz funk on his debut LP. The lead single, “Daylight,” is of a Prince-like brilliance; it’s prosperous and deliciously eclectic. “Boat Cruise” is smooth jazz from the future. Thundercat brings an essential element of musicianship back into indie music. His futuristic jazz nods at Sun-Ra and pays homage to George Duke. And he sings too.

Best 3 tracks: “Daylight” ~ “Is It Love” ~ “Seasons”
15.  w h o k i l l by tUnE-yArDs

Sometimes the indiesphere can be boring, with mediocre indie bands copying off one another and sounding the same. But every now and then a new artist will break out and throw everyone else off guard; Merrill Garbus accomplished that after releasing her sophomore album. Indie appeals to white male suburbia, and have many artists who come from that perspective. Garbus sings about real issues and inequalities that are normally never discussed in indie music. A confidant feminist perspective is presented, as well as a voice from an urban environment. Garbus even brings up the issue of the lack of integration in gentrified areas; white hipsters could live surrounded around colored people in the city but still gravitate towards one another. On top of her unsantized earnest look at the world, Garbus is a very gifted songwriter, an eclectic genius. The messages of her songs could be heavy, but the presentation is either delicate or festive. Definitely the break-out artist of the year,
Best 3 tracks: “Gangsta” ~ “Bizness” ~ “Riotriot”
14. Watch the Throne by Jay-Z & Kanye West

Watch The Throne was an unleakable progressive hip-hop giant that dwarfed its competition at the time of release. Kanye cooks up some of his most experimental beats to date (“Niggas in Paris, ” “Who Gon Stop Me”), while Jay-Z spits with unwavering stamina. It was far more interesting and accomplished much more than releases from their sharpest critics. Only Jay and Kanye can successfully get people to ‘applaud their wealth’ in the middle of a recession…. all in the name of GOOD music.
Best 3 tracks: “Niggas In Paris” ~ “New Day” ~ “Murder to Excellence
(Check out the full-length review. Download my Screwed remix of this album.)
13. James Blake by James Blake

Blake stood in a league of his own with this year’s release of his self-titled album. It’s an avant-garde minimalist masterpiece, drenched in deep electronic bass and embellished with choppy vocals and haunting piano chords. His cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” nearly outshines the original. “To Care Like You’ is an avant-garde classic; “The Wilhelm Scream” is a soul ballad from another dimension. Blake, like Garbus, wasn’t afraid of taking the risk of being original.
Best 3 tracks: “The Wilhem Scream” ~ “Limit to Your Love” ~ “To Care (Like You)”
12. Bon Iver by Bon Iver

Quieter indie music today have a great intent of establishing a mood and tone to match the atmosphere and geography of the music. Bon Iver’s mellow ambient folk music has a Portland head, but a midwest heart. It congratulates the simplicity in life and nature, but highlights it with a subtle beauty. “Beth/Rest” is the biggest middle finger of the year, even more than that random saxophone solo on the Fleet Foxes album. The pink elephant dressed up as a 1985 Phil Collins-esque throwback manages to fit as a perfect closer to a great album.
Best 3 tracks: “Holocene” ~ “Michicant” ~ “Minnesota, WI”
11. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes is genuinely one of the most talented artists to come along in the last forty years. With that kind of pressure came big expectations for their sophomore effort; for the most part, they lived up to them. “The Shrine/An Argument” is a psychedelic epic, complete with an avant-garde saxophone solo. The title-track is an anthem for the young ambitious rural working class. While its debut album is a stronger LP, Helplessness Blues holds its own as a progressive folk project that can always fall back on its authenticity.
Best 3 tracks: “Helplessness Blues” ~ “Grown Ocean” ~ “The Shrine/An Argument”
(Check out the full-length review.)
10. Section 80 by Kendrick Lamar

Section 80
is the biggest sound to come from West Coast hip-hop since Dr. Dre. Backed by gifted up-and-coming producers like THC and Sounwave, Kendrick rhymes and flows the way a rapper is suppose to. His voice effortlessly glide over the beats like a saxophone in a jazz song.  On Overly Dedicated, Kendrick proved that he was the most talented out of all of the up-and-coming rappers of Generation Y; he pushes himself further as a lyricist on Section 80. His equal respect for the hood and his art is reminiscent of Tupac, while his spacey progressive production and monotone singing is reminiscent of Kid Cudi, except Lamar is what Kid Cudi could be if he had the lyrical skills of Nas.
Best 3 tracks: “Blow My High (Members Only)” ~ “Rigamortus” ~ “HiiiPower
9. Biophilia by Björk

Volta left a bitter taste in some fans’ mouths, not living up to their expectations. Others, like myself, were satisfied with the majority of the record. It’s always interesting to see which approach Björk will take to her next album, knowing that she has always been on the cutting edge in the indiesphere. Biophilia manages to be accessible without compromising its experimentation. Bjork incorporates rugged electronic beats  into some songs, as she did on Homogenic, as well as including elegant delicate ballads, as she did on Vespertine. The album contains moments like the timidity between verse one and two on “Moon” and the spazzed out drum and bass outro on “Crystalline,” that keep listeners coming back to it. “Virus” is one of Björk’s best ballads post-Vespertine; “Sacrifice” sounds effortlessly futuristic. Björk might never be able to top Homogenic, but the quality of her output is consistent and her voice seems to have grown more powerful, if anything. She always pushes the envelope as an artist and find new inventive ways to present music. Her creativity is her brand, and art is what we expect her to deliver. Björk’s music is like the moonlight, forever radiant.
Best 3 tracks: “Crystalline” ~ “Virus” ~Sacrifice”
8. The King of Limbs by Radiohead

Radiohead is so overestimated that anything that it puts out short of absolute brilliance will be under the scrutiny of the hyper-critical indiesphere. Even a mediocre Radiohead album is still a great one when compared to releases from its peers. The King of Limbs came off to some fans as a short collection of B-Side worthy material, instead of an LP packed with top-shelf material. The reaction to The King of Limbs made more of a statement about how spoiled Radiohead fans are than about the quality of the actual music itself. People got so caught up with the idea that these collections of songs weren’t instant classics, that they forgot that they were still good songs. “Bloom” is probably one of the most gorgeous experimental pieces the band has ever composed, while “Give Up The Ghost” is just as moving as anything off of “Ok Computer.”
Best 3 tracks: “Give Up the Ghost” ~ “Feral” ~ “Lotus Flower
7. Suck It and See by Arctic Monkeys

What was a fun party indie rock band in 2006 managed to evolve into a full-blown grown rock and roll band with a vintage streak. Suck It and See is a reminder that the Arctic Monkeys is much more than hype; quality and substance was put first in their latest effort. “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair,” echoes Alice in Chains; “Brick By Brick” is like a lovechild between Stone Temple Pilots and Black Sabbath. Alex’s voice is less nasally; you can hear him singing from the gut more. The Arctic Monkeys delivered a more solid rock album than their mainstream contemporaries. Its evolution  as a band is the kind of quintessential growth that many indie bands need to develop if they want relevancy and longevity. It is not only a highlight of the year, but of the AM’s career.
Top 3 tracks: “Brick By Brick” ~ “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala” ~ “Library Pictures”
6. Tomboy by Panda Bear

If Washed Out produced the definitive chillwave album this year, Panda Bear produced the prototype. Noah Lennox churns out fuzzy psychedelic jams that can best be described as Animal Collective for grown-ups. His mature approach to the music on Tomboy only finely tunes and strengthens his avant-garde soundscapes. It sounds like state-of-the-art experimental music. “Drone” is one of the most brilliant pieces to ever be composed in alternative music. “Alsatian Darn” is a captivating drowsy sing-along, one of the catchiest songs in Panda Bear’s catalogue. “Scheherazade” is ethereal and otherworldly, the sounds from an extraterrestrial yoga session. Lennox has already proved that he can push the limits of what’s legitimately accepted as ‘music.’ He’s found a way to stay true to his artistic core, while crafting well-put together well-written alternative music that will serve as a testament to its time.
Top 3 tracks- “Drone” ~ “Slow Motion” ~ “Scheherazade”
5. Stone Rollin‘ by Raphael Saadiq

Stone Rollin’ isn’t just another vintage throwback album. It is America’s rock and roll and rhythm and blues history relived for 37-minutes from a contemporary artist. It is a shining example of the kind of immaculate and epic songwriting that current artists have grown further and further away from. There are no big super-producers. There is no team of writers. It is just one incredibly talented and gifted man with the desire to produce quality music. It’s an expansion of the classic soul sound heard on The Way I See It, but instead of the smooth Motown-esque influence, Saadiq channels the more amplified side of early black pop music. What sets Saadiq apart from his contemporaries is his outstanding talents and intricate approach to composing music, with results that are effortlessly authentic.
Top 3 tracks: “Radio” ~ “Stone Rollin'” “The Answer”
(Check out the full-length review)
4. Strange Mercy by St. Vincent

Like Sufjan Stevens, Annie Clark (who performs under the stage name St. Vincent) is an eclectic multi-instrumentalist who often takes an unconventional approach towards writing her music. Discombobulated song structures and odd time signatures doesn’t guarantee success for experimental music. But if the work is presented in a way that challenge how listeners interpret the music, or if it makes a meaningful impact on them, the unconventional becomes potent. Clark’s music is more accessible than Bjork’s, but far more adventurous than the output from pop divas that sucked the blood out of indie electronic producers. Her avant-pop sound is just as catchy as it is peculiar, and shows her sharpening her skills as a producer and composer. Strange Mercy not only holds up to Clark’s previous efforts (Actor and Marry Me), but is a reminder that she is in a league of gifted musicians whose talents greatly exceed their reputation.
Best 3 tracks: “Cheerleader” ~ “Surgeon” ~ “Champagne Year”
3. Undun by The Roots

There are numerous ways to approach telling a story through music. On The Roots eleventh studio album, a fictional character by the name of Redford Stephens juggles his demons, hopes, and the darkness of his reality, choosing to take the path traveled too often by young men in the inner-city. The album starts with his death and moves backwards track-by-track to the morning of his last day. Sometimes inventive storytelling is lost with concept album attempts, but The Roots managed to keep it refreshing. The structure of the album isn’t its only intriguing attribute, the music itself is some of the strongest work the Roots has produced since Phrenology. “The Kool” is reminiscent of vintage Kanye West productions; Bilal takes listeners to church on “The Otherside.” Black Thought proves himself to be probably the most consistent rapper in hip-hop, spitting quality rhymes from album-to-album (since its 1993 debut, Organix) without showing any signs of slowing down or wavering. The album ends with three instrumental pieces (two classical, one avant-garde), that are different takes on Sufjan Steven’s piano-driven instrumental, “Redford” (which appears as track 10 on the album). It is truly one of the most beautiful hip-hop albums ever composed, and offers further proof that ?uestlove is as brilliant a composer as Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield.
Best 3 tracks: “Kool On” ~ “Make My” ~ “Tip The Scale
2. Father, Son, Holy Ghost by Girls

While some artists decided to tone things down and play it more safe this year, others turned up the notch and pushed the boundaries, defying all conventions. Girls sophomore album doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but is the much needed lubrication for it. Whenever an exceptionally talented band emerge out of the indiesphere, it’s noticeable. Girls, a San Francisco-based duo, makes music that lives up to the reputation of its hometown… free-spirited, bohemian, unapologetically artistic. Their rich sound hints at the colorful pop of the Beach Boys, as well as the humble angst of Sonic Youth. “Vomit” is an avalanche of grungy guitars, crashing down on the indie-pop flavors of the months that dominated most of the year. “Honey Bunny” is vintage bliss, a cocktail of the Velvet Underground, Buddy Holly, and Pink Floyd. Even the random incorporation of a soulful gospel-inspired background singer doesn’t feel out of place on this album. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is one of the best albums this year because each song is like a testament to the power of the music experience. Quality prevails over style; solid songwriting is intact. It is one of those albums that you pull out when your squarer friends start complaining about there ‘not being any good music anymore.’ It’s a symbol for contemporary greatness.
Best 3 tracks: “Vomit” ~ “Just a Song” ~ “Die”
1. Black Up by Shabazz Palaces

Out of all of the artists that released adventurous left-of-field music, Shabazz Palaces was most effective at presenting it in a solid cohesive album that flowed beautifully from track-to-track. Like last year’s chart topper (Kanye West- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) it is a well-crafted progressive hip-hop album, strong on rhymes and production. Shabazz Palaces is comprised of multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire and Digable Planets MC, Butterfly. Its spaced out futuristic beats would even make Mr. West jealous. While some hip-hop producers lightly incorporate experimental elements into their music, Shabazz Palaces dwell in the avant-garde, creating their own brand of psychedelic afrocentrism. Of course, past black artists such as Sun-Ra and Funkadelic have already dived deep into outer space on their LPs, but Shabazz Palaces serve more as an extension to the their legacy. They are a part of lineage of black artists who not only wasn’t afraid to think outside of the box, but wasn’t afraid to think outside of time and space. Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Sa-Ra are in the same vein. Black Up is a feast for the ears, multi-dimensional intelligent psychedelic hip-hop. The music is just as intriguing as the song titles. “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum” is dark, mysterious, and profoundly hypnotic. “Clear some space out, so we can space out,” as rhymed on “Recollections of the Wrath,” is like a mantra for the duo. Black Up transcends genre, race, and culture. It’s an album that so many are unaware exist, but still prevails as the most impressive release this year.
Best 3 tracks: “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum” ~ “Recollections of the Wrath” ~ “The Kings New Clothes Were Made by His Own Hands”
Listen to the entire album here.


Honorable Mentions

Washed Out- Within and Without
Toro y Moi- Underneath the Pine
The Antlers- Burst Apart
The Black Keys- El Camino
Lil’ B- I’m Gay
Talib Kweli- Gutter Rainbows
Beyonce- 4
Feist- Metals
Tom Morello- World Wide Rebel Songs
Adele- 21

3 Best Mixtapes of 2011

Vicki Leekx
 by M.I.A.

Nostaligia/Ultra by Frank Ocean

House of Ballons
 by The Weeknd


Song of the Year (whether you hate it or love it)

Foster The People- “Pumped Up Kicks”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2011 1:36 pm

    Nice list!

    Also, I pretty much died laughing at the end. I’m was listening to “Pumped Up Kids” while reading your post.

  2. December 22, 2011 6:04 am

    I am really diggin this post. Found your blog on 20sb (I’m Angela Ladyhub on there). Great blog!


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