[Disclaimer: This is probably going to be far more honest and neurotic than Iâ€™d like it to be, so skip to the lists if you donâ€™t want to read me wax poetic about music.]
Thereâ€™s a thought that my mind keeps turning over that goes something like, â€œWhy should anyone care about whatâ€™s on your best albums of 2011 list, Grace?â€ Thatâ€™s a pretty good question, if you ask me. I recently challenged some of Oklahoma Cityâ€™s preeminent music aficionados to a Best Of debate, which quickly transformed into a live, on-air event on TheSpyFM.com. The fellows I hit up for this display were Jonathan Fowler, Nathan Poppe, Ferris Oâ€™Brien, and Ryan Lacroix with Ryan Drake moderating.
My mom once told me that Iâ€™ve enjoyed music since I was a baby. She told a story where I would chew my toddler snacks in syncopation to the Mozart she was playing in the background. So Mozartâ€™s German dance for orchestra in C major became â€œChompChomp. ChompChomp. Chompchompchompchompchompchompchomp.â€ (Iâ€™m really sorry I typed that out.)
I can go back far in my memory, and music was always a presence. Thankfully, I had a mom who liked good music so I was raised on Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Cockburn (10 points to anyone who knows who that is!), REM, The B-52â€™s, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and Roy Orbison. There was a stretch of my youth where I listened only to the oldies station. I even won a pizza party for my 6th grade class by writing a letter to the station about my favorite songs. Later she introduced me to Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Ryan Adams, Beckâ€™s Midnite Vulture, The Star Room Boys, Jucifer and other excellent bands What Iâ€™m trying to say is that Iâ€™ve loved music my entire life, but distilling that love into a single, tidy phrase that explains the whys and wherefores is next to impossible.
Music has been around since the dawn of mankind. It was used as a form of communication, as a method for passing down oral history, and I have a feeling that early Homo Sapiens probably used an animal-skin drumbeat to get the ladies in the mood. As such, music has become a part of our DNA â€“ itâ€™s intertwined itself throughout our daily lives as a cultural signifier, human unifier, and sonic amplifier.
There are memories that I have that are sharpened or recalled by listening to certain songs. After a fight with a family member when I was 16, I was nursed out of a brutal depression by REMâ€™s Lifeâ€™s Rich Pageant. I used to drive around at night with my friends and blast Le Tigreâ€™s This Island on my college campus. The first boy I ever loved shared headphones with me on the beach at South Padre Island as we listened to Weezerâ€™s Island in the Sun. When I was 18, an atheist friend got really mad at me for playing Hallelujah off of Ryan Adamâ€™s album Demolition while she was in the car, mistakenly thinking I was trying to piss her off with a religious song (itâ€™s not a religious song, she was just an idiot). There are far more stories I could tell, each more personal than the next, but suffice it to say that I thrive on music. I seek it out. Finding a new band that I love is as thrilling to me as finding a cache of treasures.
In the indie scene especially, music knowledge has become a competition – wrapped up in ego. So, conduct an experiment next time you find a band you like. Strip away the band, the band members, the label, the venue, the hype, the critical feedback, etc., and just listen to the music. In that pure vacuum of appreciation, form your opinion. I write about music as an appreciator. I donâ€™t subscribe to the pretentious Pitchfork school of â€œtrying too hardâ€ music journalism. I like what I like, and I basically hope youâ€™ll find something good in all of this too.
Thatâ€™s what this is all about. I am, at my core, a fan. I write about music, I help out with The Buffalo Lounge in several capacities, I play the harmonica, but none of those external pursuits strike at the core of the passion that underscores all of my actions. Therefore, Iâ€™m removing ego from the equation. If you want to read a list by someone who sincerely loves music, then read on. If you donâ€™t give a shit about my opinion, Iâ€™ll try to supply some cogent reasons as to why I picked the bands on my list.
Best in Show
(All albums arranged by Song Title, Band, Release Date and Label)
Collapse into Now â€“ REM â€“ March 8, 2011 â€“ Warner Brothers
[In an effort to be upfront, Iâ€™ll tell you that I bumped Destroyerâ€™s Kaputt (originally #4 on my list) in order to wedge REM in the #10 slot. If youâ€™ve never listened to Destroyer, youâ€™ve probably seen their latest album on enough Best Of 2011 lists to develop a desire to check it out. You donâ€™t need my help with that. Yes, it was one of my favorite albums of the year, but in a fair fight, I had to stick with my decision to bump it in favor of REM.]
Iâ€™m a pretty inconsistent person because Iâ€™m open enough to logic and reason to change my mind about things. My one consistency is that REM has been my favorite band since I can remember. When I lived in Athens, GA, my mom drove me by Michael Stipeâ€™s houses. Sheâ€™d tell me stories of sighting him around town. I begged her to steal a napkin from him to give to me and she told me, â€œNo, Grace. In Athens, we protect him from people like you.â€ My REM bootleg collection requires its own library. I fancy myself as the biggest REM fan on the planet, but thatâ€™s all just an arbitrary notion in my head. That being said, I didnâ€™t enjoy their last two albums very much at all and Iâ€™m the kind of fan who even loved Up and Reveal.
For that reason, I was wary of Collapse Into Now, but from the first track, Discoverer, I relaxed. This album is classic REM all the way through. Iâ€™m so glad they returned to their well-established roots. If I were just developing a love for REM, Iâ€™d have trouble figuring out where this album fit in the timeline of releases. It sounds like it could be sandwiched between Automatic for the People and Monster. I was devastated by the news that the band was breaking up, but I knew it had to happen someday. I think they were the best and most influential American band of all time, and I will forever love them. Iâ€™m so glad that they went out on top with a solid, beautiful record. Their final song, Blue, should turn into any true fan into a puddle of nostalgia and tears. This is one album where it becomes radiantly clear that REM is doing what they do best: being REM.
I want Whitman proud
Patti Lee proud
My brothers proud
My sisters proud
I want me
I want it all
I want sensational
This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive.
Smoke Ring for My Halo â€“ Kurt Vile â€“March 8, 2011 Ato Records/Red
Kurt Vile very well could have toiled in obscurity, but the Internet has a way of digging out the talented and putting them at the forefront. This album and his earlier EP â€œSquare Shellsâ€ became a critical success due to their promotion by certain popular music blogs.
Slightly fuzzy guitars lend a lo-fi grunge quality to this album. With insular song lyrics, itâ€™s as if Vile is talking to himself. As a listener, youâ€™re relegated to realm of the voyeur, as his inner struggles are made apparent in a palpably moving way. This record is like a more layered and complex version of Elliott Smith. Stand-out tracks: Jesus Fever, Society is My Friend, In My Time, Smoke Ring for My Halo.
Nothing is Wrong â€“ Dawes- June 7, 2011 â€“ Ato Records/Red
Taylor Goldsmith keeps busy these days splitting his time between lead singer of Dawes and another band very worthy of your time and attention, Middle Brother (a self-described â€œSuper Fan Groupâ€ boasting members of Deer Tick and Delta Spirit). This album belongs clearly in the folk rock genre, but it never strays far from pop roots. Catchy melodies, solid song structure and nostalgia-drenched lyrics make this an album that you can enjoy from start to finish.
Hello Sadness â€“ Los Campesinos! â€“ November 14, 2011 â€“ Arts & Crafts
The first time I heard Los Campesinos was back in 2007 when I was going through a particularly rough time. In short, this band kind of rescued me from the doldrums because of their light-hearted spirit and radiantly fun music. This 7-piece band hales from Wales, England, so expect some Brit pop influence found among their almost orchestrally complex arrangements. This album is more polished and studio-quality than previous ones, but that only makes it sparkle all the more. If you want to listen to a band thatâ€™s fun, smart, and ridiculously infectious, try out Los Campesinos! Bonus: they come up with just about the best song titles Iâ€™ve ever seen.
The Year of Magical Drinking â€“ Apex Manor â€“ January 25, 2011 â€“ Merge Records
After his band, The Broken West, split up, Ross Flournoy returned home to Pasadena, CA to a life of isolation. Stranded without a car and depressed to the point of alcoholism, Flournoy turned inward. When NPR announced a contest to create a song in a weekend, Flournoy took up the challenge and wrote and recorded â€œUnder the Gunâ€ in a day. He ended up winning the contest, and from there recorded a full-length album that was released at the beginning of this year. This album blazed through the indie music scene like a flash of lightning. Everyone was predicting that this would be the album of the year, and then the fickle ninnies at Pitchfork forgot about it. I didnâ€™t forget. This is still one of my favorite albums of the year. I was planning on seeing Apex Manor play live, but Flournoy cut the tour short this summer to go into rehab. What youâ€™ll find on this album is a painfully honest sojourn through the life of a lonely man. He describes his horniness, depression, and apprehension in a way that even the happiest and most well adjusted among us can identify. Standout tracks: Under the Gun, Teenage Blood
Father, Son, Holy Ghost â€“ Girls â€“ September 7, 2011 â€“ True Panther
For their third album, Girls decided to shed some of the richer qualities of previous recordings for a stripped-bare sound that chances to illuminate genius song structure. Sometimes, itâ€™s the simpler things that are the best, and this is one such example. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a small album with a big sound that sparkles like a gemstone amid a pale desert of over-produced, over-hyped â€œindieâ€ monstrosities. For something thatâ€™s pure, light and a little irreverent, I highly recommend this album.
Helplessness Blues â€“ Fleet Foxes â€“ May 3, 2011 â€“ Subpop
The guys in the debate on TheSpyFM.com gently mocked my pick, but I stand by it. This album sends my head and heart in about 10 different directions at once. It makes me want to return to a bygone era. It makes me want to plant a garden. It makes me want to become a Captain of Industry only to abandon my wealth and power for the love of a good woman (it also, apparently, gives me gender confusion). It makes me want to read Poe Ballantine on a Greyhound headed West. It makes me want to put my head in the sun. In short, Helplessness Blues evokes a strong, emotional reaction in me.
There is a golden, buttery richness to the harmonies on this album, which are transparently lifted from Simon & Garfunkel. You know what? I donâ€™t care. If I could eat every song on this album, Iâ€™d explode into a star. There is an eternal quality to this beautiful, folksy album that causes a sense of yearning for a time that has long since passed.
Ashes & Fire â€“ Ryan Adams â€“ October 11, 2011 – PAX-AM/Capitol Records
In my humble opinion there are three perfect albums: Patti Smithâ€™s Horses, REMâ€™s Automatic for the People and Ryan Adamsâ€™ Demolition. Whatâ€™s funny to me is that Demolition is intentionally flawed, as it is a collection of completely raw and untouched demos by Adams that were released without any polish or correction. I think itâ€™s perfect. Iâ€™ve loved a lot of the Adams canon, but Ashes & Fire really struck me for how different it was.
I thought hard before making this statement, but I think itâ€™s the best thing heâ€™s done since Cold Roses. The lyrics are gorgeous and heartfelt, but there is an inherent maturity to them. I think Adams has grown up a lot in the past few years and that heâ€™s done with bullshit antics on stage that made him a hipster icon and the poster child for rebellion. I feel like my life reflects and keeps pace with his transitions in music. For the time being, Iâ€™m right where heâ€™s at, and this album resonates with me to my core.
Camp â€“ Childish Gambino â€“ November 15, 2011 â€“ Glassnote
Iâ€™m not going to make anyone happy with any explanation for liking this album. Most people hated it. I love it and I listen to it pretty much every day. My suspicion is that Donald Glover is pulling an Andy Kaufman. His rapper persona (aka Kanye Westâ€™s annoying kid brother) is either bizarrely sincere or itâ€™s pulling the wool over our eyes. I choose to believe the latter. I think heâ€™s making a big statement about the nature of rap music. As Ryan Drake, the moderator for our debate points out, he doesnâ€™t need the money. Heâ€™s already an accomplished actor and comedian.
The thing is, Glover loves music â€“ he makes all the beats himself. The attention-seeking lyrics are hilarious, and I think itâ€™s all completely intentional. I love Kanye West just as much as the next music appreciator, but I can only take so much of him crying about how rich he is and what his wealth has done to him. It feels like Glover is revisiting the banal ideas inherent in rap music and by rapping â€œseriouslyâ€ about them, is in effect, making fun of them. Self-referential to the point of being ridiculous, this album is for anyone that has a sense of humor and understands the illustration of the Absurd Man in Camusâ€™ The Stranger.
Never Trust a Happy Song â€“ Grouplove â€“ September 13, 2011 â€“ Atlantic
Someone pointed out to me that one of Grouploveâ€™s songs is an Apple commercial now. For the first time in my stupidly elitist life, that type of news didnâ€™t make me instantly hate the band! In fact, I still love them! A LOT! I want the whole world to hear this album! I’m not proud of this, but I usually have a knee-jerk reaction to stuff like that. â€œOh, theyâ€™re signed to a major label now? Time to stop listening. Whoâ€™s the next obscure band I can dig up and hitch my indie wagon to?â€ Not this time. Grouplove is so phenomenally good, fun, catchy, harmonious, interesting and awesome that Iâ€™d lobby Congress to have Grouplove piped into every home in the United States.
The first time I heard their music, it was their song â€œDonâ€™t Say Oh Wellâ€ from their self-titled EP released last year. The song came to this line â€œI told my band mates/they are my soul matesâ€ and you can hear the rest of the band in the background say â€œAw, thank you!â€ and I knew I would love this band forever. I watched a lot of their live shows on YouTube and itâ€™s apparent that they have the best camaraderie. You can tell they really love each other and get along well.
Colours is THE CATCHIEST SONG OF THE YEAR (Metronomyâ€™s â€œThe Lookâ€ is a close second). I repeated the stanza â€œand I see black black green and brown brown brown brown and blue yellow violets redâ€ over and over again until I knew it backwards, forwards and upside down. I mutter it under my breath all the time. This song has a happy home inside my head for always.
Despite the album title’s warning, I trust how happy this makes me. When I hear Grouplove, a joyful feeling breaks over me like a wave, bathing me in a buoyant, exuberant feeling. If you want to feel exhilaration, turn this up, roll the windows down, and bask in the loveliest tunes of 2011.
Hurry Up, Weâ€™re Dreaming â€“ M83 â€“ October 18, 2011 – Mute
Bon Iver- Bon Iver – June 21, 2011 â€“ Jagjaguwar
Kaputt â€“ Destroyer â€“ January 25, 2011 â€“ Merge Records
Yuck â€“ Yuck – February 15, 2011 â€“ Fat Possum
I am Very Far – Okkervil River – May 10, 2011 â€“ Jagjaguwar
Tamer Animals – Other Lives – May 11, 2011 – TBD Records
Mirror Traffic – Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – August 23, 2011 â€“ Matador Records
Simple Math – Manchester Orchestra – May 10, 2011 â€“ Columbia Records
Relax â€“ Das Racist – September 13, 2011 â€“ Red General Catalog
Celebration Florida â€“ The Felice Brothers â€“ May 10, 2011 â€“ Fat Possum
We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves â€“ John Maus – June 28, 2011 â€“ Ribbon
Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 – Beastie Boys – May 3, 2011 â€“ Capitol Records
Let England Shake â€“ PJ Harvey – February 15, 2011 – Vagrant Records
So Beautiful or So What â€“ Paul Simon – April 12, 2011 â€“ Hear Music
Smother â€“ Wild Beasts â€“ May 10, 2011 â€“ Domino
Strange Mercy – St. Vincent – September 13, 2011 â€“ 4AD Records
Drive Soundtrack â€“ Cliff Martinez , film score composer
nostalgia, Ultra – Frank Ocean â€“ February 18, 2011 – Self-released
Parallax – Atlas Sound â€“ November 7, 2011 – 4AD
Glowing Mouth â€“ Milagres â€“ September 13, 2011 – Kill Rock Stars
The Year of Hibernation – Youth Lagoon â€“ September 27, 2011 – Fat Possum
Goblin – Tyler the Creator – May 10, 2011 – XL Recordings
On the Water – Future Islands – October 11, 2011 – Thrill Jockey
Dye It Blonde – Smith Westerns – January, 18 2011 – Fat Possum
The Roots – Radical Face â€“ October 4, 2011 â€“ Bear Machine
Civilian – Wye Oak – March 8, 2011 â€“ Merge Records
Belong – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart â€“ March 29, 2011 – Slumberland/Collective Sounds
Cults â€“ Cults – June 7, 2011 â€“ Columbia
Slave Ambient – War on Drugs â€“ August 16, 2011 â€“ Secretly Canadian
Carrion Crawler/Dream – Thee Oh Sees – November 8, 2011 – In the Red Records
Gloss Drop â€“ Battles – June 7, 2011 â€“ Warp Records
Oneirology â€“ Cunninlynguists – March 22, 2011 â€“ RBC Records
Inni – Sigur Ros – November 15, 2011 â€“ XL Recordings
Bands that Need to be on Your Radar
Tall Cedars of Lebanon – The Lovely Sparrows â€“ November 8th, 2011
Skeptic Goodbye â€“ You Wonâ€™t – April 1, 2011 â€“ self-released
Here’s a playlist I made featuring songs from the Top 10 bands in descending order and then a few songs from the Honorable Mentions that I like. I hope you find something you like here!