SPECIAL: Feed the Dog’s Top Albums of 2011

NOTE: Okay, I know how embarrassingly late this is. I’m a phony blogger.

It’s been sort of upsetting to me to see this year’s Best-of lists start to roll out, knowing how different my own list was going to be. This is obviously going to fall on dead ears. and most likely would even if anyone read this blog, but some of this year’s most celebrated releases are total snoozefests. Look, I like Justin Vernon, I think he’s a really cool guy, I love Gayngs and I love his involvement on Kanye’s last few records. But 2011’s Bon Iver is a boring record, and despite multiple publications heralding it as this year’s best, you won’t see it on this list. I don’t really know how other people gauge what the “best” releases of the year are supposed to be. Bon Iver’s record is beautiful and polished, an immaculately produced album – yes. But the most powerful reaction it stirs in me is something along the lines of, “Hey now, this is quite pleasant.” Oneohtrix Point Never’s record is interesting, sure… PJ Harvey’s record is quite inspired and elaborately conceived… but it’s like all of the music publications are just giving out A’s for effort. Are the stereogum and Pitchfork offices really bumping these records all year? Is “Sleep Dealer” getting stuck in all their heads, while I can’t get “Till The World Ends” out of mine?

I guess they probably are… or I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, at least. But it seems like if a music site was going to rank this year’s releases based on sophistication and complexity of artistic vision alone, it would probably look pretty similar to the year end lists knocking around the net right now. Sure, part of me feels bad ranking the Britney Spears record above, say, Atlas Sound’s, when I know Britney’s own involvement in Femme Fatale was minimal at best, and Bradford Cox had to get his heart broken to write, perform, and produce all of those songs – but that’s really a moot point. When I rank albums, I’m trying to determine what’s more sonically compelling – what gets at me more, what sticks with me. And secondly, I’m looking for consistency and cohesion – no throwaways, no filler. Effort and artistic purpose inevitably shape my opinion, but they aren’t the determining factors.

I don’t really feel the need to justify my choices (though I’m doing just that) — but it’s frustrating that all of these great not-so-experimental records are being universally ignored or underrated, while the most boring are revered. So without further bullshitting, these are, actually, the best records of 2011.

NOTE: I say “albums” because I think it will be better Googled – but there are EPs and mixtapes on this list. Deal with it.

1. Beyonce – 4

This record is a masterpiece. Every song is an instant classic. 4 harkens back to a time when pop albums could be emotionally mature, slow and thoughtful. Beyonce breaks rules here. On emotional peaks in her ballads, she lets her voice break. On “Countdown”, there are ten different parts and none of them are clearly “chorus” or “verse”. She writes one song insisting that women are the dominant gender in society, and in another espouses the joy of cooking and cleaning for your man. 4 isn’t really one of those “sign of the times” type situations – this record doesn’t represent a positive change in pop music necessarily. Beyonce is just one-in-a-million, the type of icon that doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules or let herself be defined by her generation. She defines her own generation. All that said, it is certainly an inspiring thing that as the pop industry moves further and further away from the days when icons’ careers were nurtured and shaped, when time was taken with these records, when things just moved slower…. that an album like 4 can come out, a single conversation and perspective in a single piece of music, representing the speed and chaos of its generation through its content, but created with an old-fashioned work ethic and attention to detail.

2. Siriusmo – Mosaik

Nobody can do it like Siriusmo. Similar to Beyonce, he is an artist without peers. Mosaik is a true mosaic, a collage presentation of the German artist’s various styles and techniques, and it’s all over the place. But no matter how many directions Siriusmo wanders, he always finds himself somewhere completely original. This is an album worthy of the ten year wait before Siriusmo found the courage to put himself out there. For the unfamiliar, Mosaik is the perfect introduction to the brilliant work of a modern musical genius who has gone overlooked for far too long. You can see my full review of this album here.

3. Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde

Dye it Blonde is such a surprising record. This is also an album that I went into further detail about here, but stated simply, here is a band that rose to indie prominence in 2010 with a self-titled debut recorded cheaply, producing a crude, lo-fi character of sound that happened to be enormously popular at the time. Like so many other bands, they wanted to move past that sonic aesthetic to avoid being pigeon-holed, but unlike most, their initial foray into lo-fi was a sound built out of financial limitations and necessity rather than an artistic choice. So while certain lo-fi acts’ sophomore attempts end up losing what’s made them special, the Smith Westerns were able to create the record they were always trying to make with a larger production budget. This record glitters and shines, and is the sound of a band discovering themselves and the amazing things they’re capable of.

4. Toro Y Moi – Freaking Out EP

Toro Y Moi’s latest is a real stunner. Although his talent is unquestionable, I’ve always had a hard time really getting behind Toro Y Moi because the project is so varied in style and form. His full-length of this year, Underneath the Pine, which falls in at #29 on this list, is another example of an artist taking a bedroom sound and expanding it, as well as — and here’s the difficult part — finding just the right place between lo-fi nostalgia and the cleanest, crispest production that is available to an artist like Chaz Bundick. It’s a release that’s full of beauty and creative curiosity, but it lacks a sense of togetherness, something binding each track to one another. Freaking Out has the benefit of limited length as an EP, but here Bundick is able to form something cohesive in what is essentially a dance record. Sure, there’s a lot going on here – a 70s-era Michael Jackson influence in song structure, made up of 80s era electro beats and synths, encapsulated by a fuzzy layer of chillwave. But the end result is a perfect piece of indie pop, and the most promising release we’ve seen out of one of today’s most promising rising stars.

5. Britney Spears – Femme Fatale

If Britney Spears was ten years younger, I wouldn’t be the only person going nuts over this record. Femme Fatale is a phenomenal pop album, one that realizes the trajectory of this disorganized handling of the appropriation of electro house for American pop consumption that has been going on since 2007 or so. The person who really deserves the credit here is Dr. Luke, the exceptional producer who seems to be handling all of this year’s most successful pop-electro appropriations (e.g. Rihanna’s “You Da One”) and has previously collaborated with Britney on 2009’s Circus. On Femme Fatale, Dr. Luke serves as one of the executive producers of the album, and his guidance and control on the release doesn’t go unnoticed. If you want proof of the intelligence of this sort of strategy, go look at the producer credits for this album and for, say, one of Rihanna’s last two releases. The strategy that the Rihanna team usually goes for is a clusterfuck of top producers and songwriters, assembled quickly in mass assemblies to pen a hundred different songs, eventually wittled down into seventeen or so songs to rearrange across a handful of “deluxe” releases — the assembly of which is most likely determined by the TRCKORDER3000 or some other such industry android. By letting an established producer with an established relationship with the artist take creative control over Femme Fatale, the result is an organic collection of songs representing the best of what 2011’s version of pop music has to offer. Not an art record, not Kanye’s Dark Twisted Fantasy or the record that takes this list’s #1 spot – just mindless, danceable pop music done right, when far too many people are doing it wrong.

6. The Weeknd – House of Balloons (mixtape)

This mixtape is nearly perfect – if it weren’t for a couple weak places, House of Balloons could’ve taken the #1 spot. Between “What You Need”, “Coming Down”, “Loft Music”, and “The Party & The After Party”, The Weeknd has written some of my favorite songs of the year. Spacey, drugged out, dubbed out, Beach House-sampling, heartbreaking R&B, sung sweetly by Ethopian-Canadian Abel Tesfaye, his smooth, haunting voice at times in layers, soft whispers under desperate cries. An amazing new direction in R&B music, and an unexpected new intersection of the pop and indie universes. Tesfaye had the Drake nod from the beginning, but he didn’t spread his popularity through radio plays – he did it through internet hype. He’s released three free mixtapes this year, and the only album work to speak of is contributing to five tracks on Drake’s highly anticipated critically praised sophomore record, Take Care (#20 on this list). Don’t expect The Weeknd to disappear anytime soon – the only question is, where will he go from here?

7. Panda Bear – Tomboy

Some fans called this release “underwhelming”, but for me, Panda Bear can do no wrong. Everything he creates is a thing of beauty, and Tomboy is no different. Sure, it took me a few listens to come to appreciate it as a whole, but Tomboy is an album as imaginative as anything Panda Bear has created in the past. His melodies are gorgeous, he creates foreign environments with his synths and sonic textures. I would say the disappointment in this record stems from the fact that at the release of his last two albums, Noah Lennox was in particularly emotional states – losing his father, and then becoming one. Tomboy finds Panda Bear in a much less tense, more carefree point in his life – he has relaxed into his family life in Lisbon, Animal Collective’s latest has solidified his bonafide indie superstar status, he’s swimming in that Peta money. So Tomboy, while still a contemplative release, is somewhat less serious than Lennox’s previous two, perhaps harnessing less powerful inspiration. That said, Panda Bear is one of the most supremely abled songwriters of our generation, he writes beautiful music, and he continues to do so on 2011’s Tomboy.

8. Mr. Dream – Trash Hit

Leave it to a handful of Pitchfork writers to stumble upon the perfect formula for a grunge-induced punk three piece. Nirvana + Pixies + swagger = success! You might actually expect a band formed by Pitchfork contributors to sound like a Magnetic Fields derivitive or something similar, but no. The first time I heard this record, I thought to myself, goddamn, this is exactly how I want my music to sound all of the time. Despite wearing their influences on their sleeves as they do, Mr. Dream keeps the mood and tempo varied enough and the energy at a constant high across a collection of cleverly crafted tracks on Trash Hit, defining their own original character in the process. This record kicks from start to finish, an exciting debut from one of my new favorite Brooklyn bands. As a side note, they’re also a fucking blast to see live.

9. Atlas Sound – Parallax

At times this record can feel bare, in the context of Bradford Cox’s last two lush, ornate records as Atlas Sound. In places like “Te Amo” and “Amplifiers” this lush sound still exists, but for much of Parallax, the mood is melancholia, quiet loneliness. As Cox explained plainly in a recent Pitchfork interview, Parallax was written and assembled shortly after his heart was broken – assumedly by the same love whose passion drove him to create his last two albums – the beautiful and critically acclaimed Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (2008) and Logos (2009). Parallax stands just as tall next to those works, however; like Noah Lennox, Bradford Cox is one of those rare talents of our generation, seemingly incapable of error. Parallax is a haunting masterpiece, the perfect accompaniment to a dark drive home, or a night with your thoughts.

10. James Blake – James Blake

I was quick to write off James Blake the first time I heard him – oh, just another one of these out-there Pitchfork electronica acts. But then a friend made me listen to “I Mind”, and I stopped dead in my tracks. Maybe not the most accessible release of the year, but James Blake’s self-titled debut is a jaw-dropper, a stunning collection of voice-and-piano compositions ranging from the heavily affected to the barest of bones. Blake’s vocal experimentation, both in the way he sings and his method of chopping and filtering his vocal takes, is the most compelling element at work here, a completely original style being crafted – somewhere in between Aphex Twin and D’Angelo. On EPs he released later in the year, Blake got to flex a little bit more of his producer’s muscle (like on my 14th favorite song of the year, “Love What Happened Here”), but in his introductory LP, we meet the young artist in the intimate space between his MacBook and his piano, in songs so emotionally vulnerable, they can bring tears to your eyes even when you can no longer understand the words being sung, or recall their context.

11. Cults – Cults

Cults do indie pop at its best. A little cute and a little dark, reverb-y guitars, twinkly xylophones, spacey textures. They’re hip as hell, with endorsements from Vice, Vans,  ATP, and Yo Gabba Gabba! One kind of cute girl and one kind of ugly boy from Manhattan. Easy to package, sure, but who’d have expected they’d have the songs to back up the immense hype they managed to build before this debut finally landed? There’s not a dud in the bunch on Cults’ self-titled, and every song fits neatly together. The record sparkles with a kind of sonic shimmer (OK, it’s mostly the xylophones) that evokes space travel or twinkling stars from moment to moment, but always captures a common dreamlike wonder, that kind of warm and fuzzy feeling indie pop is supposed to communicate – but it’s hard to think of anyone who’s done it better than Cults are doing it here, in 2011.

12. Braids – Native Speaker

I saw these guys live a few months ago, and it was the best show I’d seen in years. Such extraordinary talent in each and every member of this band, you feel dwarfed beneath the power of superhumans in their musical presence. Everything captured here they’re able to reproduce on stage — the gradual deliberate buildups that introduce many of the songs on Native Speaker, the adorable quirkiness of Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s particular vocal style, the dynamic psychedelic shifts in energy and temperature that pervade throughout. A lot of things are going to remind you of Animal Collective on this record, but it’s important you’re able to move past that. What’s supposed to be exciting about a band as enormously influential as Animal Collective in the first place is the possibility of it spawning something like this — Braids are certainly indebted to the Bear/Tare model of modern psychedelica, but are able to run with it into new, uncharted territory. What stands out the most is the exuberance of this record, an excitement and expression of youthful bliss that couldn’t be recreated by any other group of brilliant musicians.

13. Twin Sister – In Heaven

I’m so blown away by these guys – another example of a 2010 buzz band finding themselves in 2011. “Bad Street” got me first — a catchy, quirky song with a bouncy disco beat, so far away from what I remembered them to be on 2010’s Color Your Life EP — I was compelled to hear more. I had no idea what I was in for – 80s pop, space rock, lounge pop, spaghetti Western, Spanish guitar – the way they step into and experiment with different styles, they sound like they could be the coolest fucking lounge band in the hottest club in Shanghai. For no good reason, maybe because they both play around with different music styles and have charismatic front-people, Twin Sister remind me of the B-52s… I guess, if the B-52s happened twenty years later, played ballads, and were fronted by a soft-voiced young angel. In any case, if you’re looking for something different from an indie release in 2011, there’s nothing that sounds like In Heaven. Dazzling, refreshing proper debut for this Long Island five-piece.

14. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L

I was so proud of my Merril Garbus this year… but it was with mixed feelings. In 2009, I fell in love with BiRd-BrAiNs, tUnE-yArDs’s debut LP, an incredibly intimate, beautiful, energetic, rambunctious, manic mixtape/loveletter/masterpiece. It was one of those what-am-I-crazy-that-I’m-the-only-one-listening-to-this records (of course Pitchfork clued me in so it’s not like I was discovering her), but that intimate sound of the album made it feel truly personal, something all mine. BiRd-BrAiNs was recorded on a digital voice recorder and mixed using freeware, but by W H O K I L L, Garbus had managed to draw a great deal of attention and critical praise for her impressive live shows featuring lots of live drum and voice looping, and thus had a label and a budget for record #2. This album doesn’t sound enormous, but it does sound bigger, a perfectly suitable space for tUnE-yArDs to flex her chops and throw in fun things like a horn section and general caucophony. And even though this sense of lost intimacy is lingering when I think about BiRd-BrAiNs, I can’t deny W H O K I L L is Garbus’s true coming out record. She shines and soars on this record, an energetic, uplifting testament to the state of art and music in the 21st century, where pure talent can go viral and get recognized.

15. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

It took me a long time to give St. Vincent a chance. I’m not sure why, I must have heard a song I didn’t like a few years ago. But even with all the praise this record was getting, I thought it “wasn’t my thing” and passed it by. Now that I’m finally converted, I can barely contain my enthusiasm for this record. I get it now, by God, St. Vincent is a marvel, a beautiful voice, a brilliant songwriter, a badass guitar player. Her songs are careful compositions, for sure, but there’s nothing delicate about Strange Mercy. It’s St. Vincent’s fierceness that is so striking here, especially when in the form of short, aggressive distorted guitar licks that pattern the album. And when she sings, “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up… oh, I don’t know what…” on the title track, her anger is palpable, rage you feel envelop you as soon as you hear it, immediately becoming personal. Strange Mercy is a stunning record, one that along with several others on this list, is stretching and distorting the face of pop music today.

16. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Fantastic, bombastic, spunky debut from this New Zealand/Portland trio. Opened for Smith Westerns earlier this year and seriously rocked the house. Guitar chops like woah. This album makes good use of the lo-fi aesthetic, a warm, fuzzy rock record with heavy doses of 60s nostalgia.

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17. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Gorgeous follow up to this Seattle band’s critically-heralded still-unbeatable self-titled debut. Though lacking some of the excitement and a certain je ne sais quoi from their first LP, Helplessness Blues contains some of the most mature, thoughtful songs of the Foxes’ career, and some of the most beautiful. A record everyone should own.

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18. Ganglians – Still Living 

Wonderfully surprising record from this Sacramento garage-psych-folk-rock band. Hit-laden and all over the place, from “Jungle” which alternates between Fleet Foxes-esque “woahs” and chugging surf-y guitar lines, to the delightfully bizarre, unclassifiable “Things to Know” (if I had to pin down a genre, I might say “Ariel Pink”). Ganglians are like a more successful, less abrasive Crocodiles – taking a more thoughtful take on psychedelic garage rock.

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19. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Best effort from Girls to date. The problem with this record is that almost every song is a sleeper, so it takes a little while to let it get under your skin. But these are beautifully written songs and elegant productions. Guitar always sounds straight out of the 1960s. Super nostalgic album, but it’s so refreshing to see a band slow down like this and expect the patience of a 60s audience. Only three songs on this album are under 3 minutes, 58 seconds. But Father, Son, Holy Ghost is worth every single minute.

20. Drake – Take Care

Drake says one of the reasons he named his sophomore LP “Take Care” is because he felt like he rushed his first album without taking care, and he wanted to do it differently this time around. And does it show. Take Care is a redemption record for Drake, an artist who blew up with so much potential, and then really disappointed with 2010’s Thank Me Later. Here Drake lives up to his potential, enlisting outsider producers like The Weeknd and Jamie xx to help him re-brand himself as an innovative force in R&B music. And there are some head-turning beats on this record, spacey and cold in the 808s and Heartbreak tradition, but combined with real drum beats and Drake’s careless flow, these songs take on a sound of their own.

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and the full list…

1. Beyonce – 4
2. Siriusmo – Mosaik
3. Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde
4. Toro Y Moi – Freaking Out EP

5. Britney Spears – Femme Fatale
6. The Weeknd – House of Balloons (mixtape)

7. Panda Bear – Tomboy
8. Mr. Dream – Trash Hit
9. Atlas Sound – Parallax
10. James Blake – James Blake
11. Cults – Cults
12. Braids – Native Speaker
13. Twin Sister – In Heaven
14. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
15. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
16. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
17. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
18. Ganglians – Still Living 

19. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
20. Drake – Take Care
21. Girls Names – Dead To Me
22. Tennis – Cape Dory
23. The Babies – The Babies
24. Dum Dum Girls – He Gets Me High EP/Only in Dreams
25. Luke Temple – Don’t Act Like You Don’t Care
26. Vivian Girls – Share The Joy
27. Tyler, the Creator – Goblin
28. Sic Alps – Napa Asylum
29. Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine
30. Gauntlet Hair – Gauntlet Hair
31. Metronomy – The English Riviera
32. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
33. Ducktails – Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics
34. Bass Drum of Death – GB City
35. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation
36. Real Estate – Days
37. Kissy Sell Out – Wild Romance
38. Mr. Oizo – Stade 2
39. Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em – Skate Boy (mixtape)

40. Boy Better Know – Tropical 2 (mixtape)
41. Beach Fossils – What a Pleasure EP
42. T-Pain – rEVOLVEr
43. Nurses – Dracula
44. The Beets – Let The Poison Out
45. Mikal Cronin – Mikal Cronin
46. Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa – Mac and Devin Go To High School
47. Katy B – On a Mission
48. Modeselektor – Monkeytown
49. Wu Lyf – Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
50. Austra – Feel It Break

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