Best Albums of 2011: 31-40 December 19, 2011Posted by Matt in Best of 2011.
Tags: Amy LaVere, Best of 2011, Bright Eyes, Das Racist, J Mascis, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Lucinda Williams, music, Radiohead, Smith Westerns, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, Wye Oak
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And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, it is time for the list.
As an avid music lover and collector, I have published lists online for the past few years detailing my favorite releases from those times, and this year is no different. It has been an incredible year for music, with great releases by hugely popular artists as well as many by lesser known, below-the-radar ones, and thanks to both the regular MP3 deals on Amazon and the presence of Spotify, I have procured and listened to more new music than ever before in 2011. Please feel free to give your comments and critiques each day this week as we work our way through my 40 favorite albums of 2011.
40. Jessica Lea Mayfield – Tell Me
I saw Jessica Lea Mayfield open for the Black Keys a few years ago and quickly fell in love with her voice, so I made sure to listen to her latest album when it was released this year. At just 21 years old Mayfield seems to have already grasped the art of restraint in her music, not going over the top with her vocals and instead letting the songs speak for themselves. She comes across as genuine and unpretentious in songs like “Our Hearts are Wrong,” when she sings “My self esteem / Is heating up the room / You’re intimidating as all hell / but I ain’t scared of you,” and perhaps that realness is what attracts me the most to her music.
39. Wye Oak – Civilian
Employing an incredibly rich sound that belies their status as a two person band, Wye Oak have crafted one of the more beautiful and dark albums of the year. “Holy Holy” takes a driving guitar and a foreboding undercurrent, mixes it with vocals in ___’s almost childish style, with lyrics like “Holy, holy, holy / There is no other story / It is madness seeking mastery / We will be who we want to be,” to create an album that, regardless of its early release date and the number of great works from this year, was unforgettable. There’s a line from the title track that has stuck with me all these months, “I wanted to give you everything / But I still stand in awe of superficial things.” Exactly.
38. Various Artists – The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams
The legendary Hank Williams was one of the greatest and most prolific songwriters to ever grace the genre of country music. By the day of his untimely death at age 29, he had written and recorded hundreds of songs, much of which remains the standard by which all country music is measured to this day, more than six decades later. So, when a notebook of unfinished and unrecorded songs by Williams was discovered, who better to complete the work than fellow legend Bob Dylan. For the task, Dylan recruited a wide variety of artists, both young and old, from Merle Haggard and Levon Helm, to Jack White and Norah Jones, and all together they did Hank proud. Personal favorites from the album include Dylan’s take on “The Love that Faded” and White’s version of “You Know That I Know.” This is a must-hear, both for Williams fans and those of younger generations who may not have discovered his genius yet.
37. Bright Eyes = The People’s Key
Album releases by Bright Eyes have long been a hit-or-miss proposition with me. I’ve been a fan of Conor Oberst’s songwriting and wavering vocal style for years, so I’m always quick to listen to each new release. The People’s Key stands as one of their better ones, showcasing the indie folk style that put them on the map. It kicks off with a strange sci-fi soliloquy about lizard people from another dimension that came to earth long ago, and from there the band takes over with a flourish. The superbly catchy “Jejune Stars” is the kind of song that reminds you of Oberst’s incredible talent as a pop songwriter. It’s definitely a good album and certainly worth a listen.
36. Das Racist – Relax
Experimental rap outfit Das Racist doesn’t easily fit into any predetermined categories in the music world. Combining lyrics loaded with satire over danceable beats, they are truly a one-of-a-kind outfit. In a genre that often takes itself too seriously, you can’t help but like nonsensical lines like “I’m DJ Khaled / I’m a Daikon radish,” and any listener has to chuckle at the song “Rainbow in the Dark” with lyrics like “I’m at the White Castle / (I don’t see you here, dog) / Tiny ass hamburgers / Tiny ass cheeseburgers / Tiny ass chicken sandwiches / It’s outlandish, kid.”
35. Amy LaVere – Stranger Me
Memphis’s own Amy LaVere is one of those many artists toiling away in today’s world that should be heard by everybody, and never is that more clear than on this, her latest release. LaVere’s sound is dark and dusky, dripping with Southern Gothic styling, creating a riveting, out-of-the-mainstream work. The opening track, “Damn Love Song,” stands as one of my favorite kiss-off songs in recent years, I can just imagine a guy asking her to write him a song and her answering him with opening lines of this song, “Right now / I’ll do it right now / Here’s your damn love song / And don’t it say it all.” “Red Banks” carries on the dark “murdering your man” motif of “Killing Him” from her first album and makes it clear that she’s definitely not a girl I’d want to be involved with. But, I still enjoy her music.
34. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
Thom Yorke’s critically lauded, groundbreaking band is perhaps rightly considered by many to be the greatest of the past two decades. From The Bends to OK Computer to Kid A to In Rainbows, they have time and again shown themselves ready and willing to break the mold and start over just for the sake of doing so. I like The King of Limbs pretty well, but I must admit that it hasn’t hit me in the same way as their past works. After several listens over the past months, I’m still not quite sure what to make of it, but Radiohead is the type of band whose albums seem made to grow on a listener. Is it brilliant? I’m not quite sure. I like songs like “Morning Mr. Magpie,” and I like the overall structure of the album, but I’m still wrestling with my overall feelings. Then again, maybe that’s a sign of its brilliance.
33. Smith Westerns – Dye it Blonde
With bands like Magic Kids, Girls, and Smith Westerns starting to break through, it’s a good time for psychedelic, bubblegum pop in the indie music world. On Dye it Blond, Chicagoans Smith Westerns wear their T. Rex influence in bright letters on their sleeves while crafting some fun, bouncy tunes that will appeal to even the most hard hearted person. With lyrics like “Weekends are never fun / Unless you’re around too,” the band exudes the innocence of a past time and the jangly guitars will wrap their arms around you and not let you go.
32. Lucinda Williams – Blessed
Years ago Lucinda Williams famously sang, “You took my joy, I want it back.” Well, judging from her latest release, she finally found it. At the age of 58 she remains one of the preeminent songwriters in the music world, but now, having conquered inner trials and tribulations, she is taking a look outward and focusing on the plight of others. In the title song she sings, “We were blessed by the minister / Who practiced what he preached / We were blessed by the poor man / Who said heaven was within reach,” and with this latest release you can see that she believes it, that maybe heaven is closer than we ever imagined. The album reaches its crescendo with the wonderful “Awakening” in which she, in a moment of looking both back and forward, says “In the awakening, in the awakening / I will honor the mistaken / I will honor the truth / In the awakening, in the awakening / I will honor the forsaken / I will not mourn my youth.” It’s a beautiful thing to witness someone coming into their own.
31. J Mascis – Several Shades of Why
As the vocalist and guitarist for the long-running Dinosaur Jr., the brand of fuzzed out noise created by J Mascis has been the stuff of legend. So, given that his name has been made with heavy distortion and high volume, it may seem out of character when you consider that this solo work is a sparsely orchestrated acoustic affair, but you can safely put any doubts aside. He sounds perfectly at home on this collection as the apparent brokenness in his voice takes center stage. The easy strumming of “Listen to Me” kicks things off with a flourish, and the plain-spoken nature of “Is it Done” will stick with you, but the song that captures me more than any other is the excellent “Not Enough,” one that sounds as though it would be perfectly comfortable in the loud, Dinosaur Jr. setting, but that captures new and different aspects of emotion and sound when done acoustically. J Mascis is a master at what he does.