Grace Gordon’s Best Albums of 2011; Or, 3,000+ Words You Probably Won’t Read About Music

[Disclaimer: This is probably going to be far more honest and neurotic than I’d like it to be, so skip to the lists if you don’t want to read me wax poetic about music.]

There’s a thought that my mind keeps turning over that goes something like, “Why should anyone care about what’s on your best albums of 2011 list, Grace?” That’s a pretty good question, if you ask me. I recently challenged some of Oklahoma City’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 O’Brien, and Ryan Lacroix with Ryan Drake moderating.

My mom once told me that I’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 Mozart’s German dance for orchestra in C major became “ChompChomp. ChompChomp. Chompchompchompchompchompchompchomp.” (I’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-52’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, Beck’s Midnite Vulture, The Star Room Boys, Jucifer and other excellent bands What I’m trying to say is that I’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 – it’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 REM’s Life’s Rich Pageant. I used to drive around at night with my friends and blast Le Tigre’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 Weezer’s Island in the Sun. When I was 18, an atheist friend got really mad at me for playing Hallelujah off of Ryan Adam’s album Demolition while she was in the car, mistakenly thinking I was trying to piss her off with a religious song (it’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 don’t subscribe to the pretentious Pitchfork school of “trying too hard” music journalism. I like what I like, and I basically hope you’ll find something good in all of this too.

That’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, I’m removing ego from the equation. If you want to read a list by someone who sincerely loves music, then read on. If you don’t give a shit about my opinion, I’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)

10.
Collapse into Now – REM – March 8, 2011 – Warner Brothers


[In an effort to be upfront, I’ll tell you that I bumped Destroyer’s Kaputt (originally #4 on my list) in order to wedge REM in the #10 slot. If you’ve never listened to Destroyer, you’ve probably seen their latest album on enough Best Of 2011 lists to develop a desire to check it out. You don’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.]

I’m a pretty inconsistent person because I’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 Stipe’s houses. She’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, “No, Grace. In Athens, we protect him from people like you.” My REM bootleg collection requires its own library. I fancy myself as the biggest REM fan on the planet, but that’s all just an arbitrary notion in my head. That being said, I didn’t enjoy their last two albums very much at all and I’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. I’m so glad they returned to their well-established roots. If I were just developing a love for REM, I’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. I’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
Irresistible.
This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive.

9.

Smoke Ring for My Halo – Kurt Vile –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 “Square Shells” 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, it’s as if Vile is talking to himself. As a listener, you’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.

8.
Nothing is Wrong – Dawes- June 7, 2011 – 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 “Super Fan Group” 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.

7.
Hello Sadness – Los Campesinos! – November 14, 2011 – 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 that’s fun, smart, and ridiculously infectious, try out Los Campesinos! Bonus: they come up with just about the best song titles I’ve ever seen.

6.
The Year of Magical Drinking – Apex Manor – January 25, 2011 – 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 “Under the Gun” 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 didn’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 you’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

5.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost – Girls – September 7, 2011 – 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, it’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 “indie” monstrosities. For something that’s pure, light and a little irreverent, I highly recommend this album.

4.
Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes – May 3, 2011 – 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 don’t care. If I could eat every song on this album, I’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.

3.
Ashes & Fire – Ryan Adams – October 11, 2011 – PAX-AM/Capitol Records


In my humble opinion there are three perfect albums: Patti Smith’s Horses, REM’s Automatic for the People and Ryan Adams’ Demolition. What’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 it’s perfect. I’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 it’s the best thing he’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 he’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, I’m right where he’s at, and this album resonates with me to my core.

2.
Camp – Childish Gambino – November 15, 2011 – Glassnote


I’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 West’s annoying kid brother) is either bizarrely sincere or it’s pulling the wool over our eyes. I choose to believe the latter. I think he’s making a big statement about the nature of rap music. As Ryan Drake, the moderator for our debate points out, he doesn’t need the money. He’s already an accomplished actor and comedian.

The thing is, Glover loves music – he makes all the beats himself. The attention-seeking lyrics are hilarious, and I think it’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 “seriously” 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 Camus’ The Stranger.

1.
Never Trust a Happy Song – Grouplove – September 13, 2011 – Atlantic


Someone pointed out to me that one of Grouplove’s songs is an Apple commercial now. For the first time in my stupidly elitist life, that type of news didn’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. “Oh, they’re signed to a major label now? Time to stop listening. Who’s the next obscure band I can dig up and hitch my indie wagon to?” Not this time. Grouplove is so phenomenally good, fun, catchy, harmonious, interesting and awesome that I’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 “Don’t Say Oh Well” from their self-titled EP released last year. The song came to this line “I told my band mates/they are my soul mates” and you can hear the rest of the band in the background say “Aw, thank you!” and I knew I would love this band forever. I watched a lot of their live shows on YouTube and it’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 (Metronomy’s “The Look” is a close second). I repeated the stanza “and I see black black green and brown brown brown brown and blue yellow violets red” 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.

Honorable Mentions

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – M83 – October 18, 2011 – Mute

Bon Iver- Bon Iver – June 21, 2011 – Jagjaguwar

Kaputt – Destroyer – January 25, 2011 – Merge Records

Yuck – Yuck – February 15, 2011 – Fat Possum

I am Very Far – Okkervil River – May 10, 2011 – Jagjaguwar

Tamer Animals – Other Lives – May 11, 2011 – TBD Records

Mirror Traffic – Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – August 23, 2011 – Matador Records

Simple Math – Manchester Orchestra – May 10, 2011 – Columbia Records

Relax – Das Racist – September 13, 2011 – Red General Catalog

Celebration Florida – The Felice Brothers – May 10, 2011 – Fat Possum

We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves – John Maus – June 28, 2011 – Ribbon

Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 – Beastie Boys – May 3, 2011 – Capitol Records

Let England Shake – PJ Harvey – February 15, 2011 – Vagrant Records

So Beautiful or So What – Paul Simon – April 12, 2011 – Hear Music

Smother – Wild Beasts – May 10, 2011 – Domino

Strange Mercy – St. Vincent – September 13, 2011 – 4AD Records

Drive Soundtrack – Cliff Martinez , film score composer

nostalgia, Ultra – Frank Ocean – February 18, 2011 – Self-released

Parallax – Atlas Sound – November 7, 2011 – 4AD

Glowing Mouth – Milagres – September 13, 2011 – Kill Rock Stars

The Year of Hibernation – Youth Lagoon – 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 – October 4, 2011 – Bear Machine

Civilian – Wye Oak – March 8, 2011 – Merge Records

Belong – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – March 29, 2011 – Slumberland/Collective Sounds

Cults – Cults – June 7, 2011 – Columbia

Slave Ambient – War on Drugs – August 16, 2011 – Secretly Canadian

Carrion Crawler/Dream – Thee Oh Sees – November 8, 2011 – In the Red Records

Gloss Drop – Battles – June 7, 2011 – Warp Records

Oneirology – Cunninlynguists – March 22, 2011 – RBC Records

Inni – Sigur Ros – November 15, 2011 – XL Recordings

Bands that Need to be on Your Radar

Tall Cedars of Lebanon – The Lovely Sparrows – November 8th, 2011

Skeptic Goodbye – You Won’t – April 1, 2011 – 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!

Grace Gordon’s Best Songs of 2011 by Grace Gordon on Grooveshark

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