The beauty of piecing together a year-end list is the spread of various genres that have managed to capture your interest. With this installment of our continuing Top 50 Albums of 2011, there is much more diversity than the first ten which resulted in an interesting sampling of the previous year's music. These ten albums collectively have influences from styles that include indie rock, classic rock, country, world music, rap, soul, and post-rock. I urge you to check them all out because it's often surprising what you end up liking.
As Arctic Monkeys continue to expand their sound, their fans become increasingly polarized. The darker, Josh Homme-influenced Humbug had some fans longing for the carefree days of their debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. Suck It and See is more immediately appealing than Humbug but still retains Homme's (Queens of the Stone Age) influence in songs like the driving opener "She's Thunderstorms". Alex Turner's lyrics are more intriguing than ever especially when crooning over the gentle, shimmering "Piledriver Waltz". The overall sound of the record presents a more mature band (despite the title) and one that can still write a song as irresistible as anything on the radio. Closer "That's Where You're Wrong" is the culmination of all this and might be the best song they released yet. I know I am in the minority, but I honestly find this to be their strongest and best effort yet. The record also turned over two fantastic NSFW videos. The second is for the excellent b-side, "Evil Twin", which serves as a squeal to a-side "Suck It and See".
Favorite Track: "That’s Where You’re Wrong"
39. Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing
Blitzen Trapper let their influences take center stage with American Goldwing and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It is a straight-up 70's southern rock record. While other critics had an issue with the band's infatuation with classic rock, I was grateful that they took the initiative to write the great southern rock album we always knew they had in them. This is one to listen to with a bottle of whiskey in hand. "Street Fighting Sun" is one of the best stage-strutting, dirty blues songs that The Rolling Stones didn't write. Midtempo numbers like "My Home Town" and "Girl in a Coat" recall the best of The Band. The always wonderful Sub Pop has made a stream of the entire album available on YouTube which is embedded below.
Favorite Track: "Street Fighting Sun"
38. Drive-By Truckers - Go-Go Boots
With the amount of quality albums they have released consecutively, it's hard not to declare Drive-By Truckers the most underrated band currently in operation. Anyone longing for the heartland rock of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers needs to hear this record or at the very least "Used to Be a Cop". On Go-Go Boots, the group perfects the now lost tradition of storytelling that is coupled with twangy, bluesy riffs and shuffling rhythms. Songs like "Go-Go Boots" and "The Fireplace Poker" tell the story of a preacher who is cheating on his wife and hires some guys to kill her so he can collect insurance and be with his mistress. It is allegedly tied to this story. "Mercy Buckets" ends the record with a country ballad that wears its heart on its sleeve and contains a guitar solo that will send electric chills down your spine. It's a heavy statement but Go-Go Boots is on par with their best efforts.
Favorite Track: "Mercy Buckets"
37. Okkervil River - I Am Very Far
Okkervil River dropped the weighty concept approach from The Stage Names and The Stand Ins for their latest effort, I am Very Far. The result is more upbeat rockers as opposed to the pensive folk-rock that lined the previous two efforts. Frontman and principal songwriter Will Sheff creates literary tales and lush arrangements on tracks like "We Need a Myth" and "Your Past Life as a Blast" that match anything he has previously done. I am Very Far makes a great case for Sheff being one of the more innovative and important songwriters of our generation. Standout "Hanging from a Hit" is a languid waltz that sounds like you are sitting beside Sheff in a lucid dream as he conveys his most personal moments.
Favorite Track: "Hanging by a Hit"
36. Beirut - The Rip Tide
Zach Condon put his worldly experience to good use on his third outing as Beirut. The compositions on The Rip Tide are breathtaking while embracing influences from all around the globe. I believe this is the only album on my list that has a widespread Balkan influence. "Sante Fe" and "Payne's Bay" are among his most memorable songs and contain several jaw-dropping moments. The latter's repetition of "Headstrong / Today, I've been headstrong" exemplify the inward gazing lyrics found throughout. The album is short but sweet. With only nine songs, and not a bad one in the bunch, you can't help but be hungry for more! Condon is truly the master of orchestral indie pop.
Favorite Track: "Payne’s Bay"
35. Wild Flag - Wild Flag
By now, you know Wild Flag is a supergroup featuring singer/guitarist Mary Timony (Helium), singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia), keyboardist Rebecca Cole (The Minders), and Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Stephem Malkmus & The Jicks). Many reviews for Wild Flag's debut state that they have something to prove and that they are out to show that girls can still rock. I think it is the exact opposite. This album is their victory lap. They have already proven all they need to in their past endeavors. This is the after-party, pure rock and roll fun. Wild Flag are looking new bands dead in the eyes and saying, "You want to be a rock and roll band? This is what it should sound like." Carrie's excellent comedic work in Portlandia also translated into their music videos, creating two of the year's best. They also put on one hell of a live show.
Favorite Track: "Racehorse"
34. Danny Brown – XXX
The first listen to Danny Brown is quite a shock to your system. His high-pitched vocals border on oppressive and his flow can be described as uneven and chaotic with lyrics that are often offensive yet hilarious. These seemingly negative attributions are actually his greatest assets. Like a good disaster movie, you stay glued to every minute wondering where it will take you next. The production is all over the place in the best ways. "Monopoly" is the clear winner with it's painfully clever lyrics and rapid-fire delivery. The compelling tripped out beats found in "DNA" and "Outer Space" make sure you stay for the duration of the trip. At one point he was poised to sign with G Unit, but they said his pants were too tight and didn't want to associate with his "hipster" image. Looks like he is now ready to stake his claim as rap's most distinctive MC. You can download/stream the entire mixtape in my previous post on him.
Favorite Track: "Monopoly"
33. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
As has been the case with their previous albums, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will has served as the soundtrack to many of my travels. Whether it was visiting friends and family in Pennsylvania or driving down to Texas for SXSW, this album's sonic twists and turns complimented long hours following the curvature of the road. The pulsing dynamics of "Rano Pano" and "George Square Thatcher Death Party" made sure I was always pushing forward and sprawling epics like "You're Lionel Richie" made the time spent in my head much more interesting.
Favorite Track: "George Square Thatcher Death Party"
32. Cults – Cults
Cults were bound to breakout in 2011 after their viral single "Go Outside" hit every blog on the internet. The duo of Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin approached the attention admirably with a debut that captured the charm of that song and spread it across the entire record. Their self-titled debut proved to be one of the year's most addicting releases. Their sound adequately utilized influences from soul, R&B, and 60's girl groups and turned them into appealing indie pop gems. The soulful "You Know What I Mean" demonstrates how powerful Follin's vocals can be when she lets go of the childlike innocence. Other highlights include "Bumper" which successfully borrows the melody from Richard Swift's "The Bully" (one of my favorite songs) to create an intriguing back and forth duet between Oblivion and Follin.
Favorite Track: "You Know What I Mean"
31. The Antlers - Burst Apart
I'll admit that I didn't think Hospice was the masterpiece most other critics did. I've seen many publications rank it up there with Arcade Fire's Funeral and although I did like it, I didn't believe it to be on that level. However, similar acclamation would be fitting for The Antler's followup in Burst Apart. It is an inspired mix of complex textures that takes the listener on a heartbreaking journey. They take their Radiohead influence and flip it on its head to create a new breed of progressive indie rock on tracks like "I Don't Want Love" and "Every Night My Teeth are Falling Out". "Putting the Dog to Sleep" is 2011's most undeniably moving song and was a bona fide showstopper when I caught them live. If you want to dig deeper into these introspective songs, vocalist and guitarist Peter Silberman has provided a track-by-track analysis.
Favorite Track: "Putting the Dog to Sleep"