I was in the car, listening to a version of this very list (I think) a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned aloud that “2011 was an especially good year for music.” The response was “it’s been a long time since I heard you say that.” I suppose that’s true. I think of every year as a good year for music, but sometimes, you know, it seems like some years take it better than others. 2011 was a good year for music, or at least, my tastes matched the things that came out that were good. Anyway, what follows is the fifty best songs that came out last year. There are no arguments to be had, this list is objectively correct, and contains no errors, as is the case with every single thing I’ve ever written.
Boris “Jackson Head” – One of a handful of bands to put out a bunch of albums this year (Lil’ B is laughing at their constipation, I realize.), this one is from Heavy Rocks, the throwback-y LP that came out second (or, well, that came out in the first set of two that came out in America). It is, indeed, Heavy. It does, indeed, Rock. They spent some time doing some weird creative digressions into pop music and fusing a bunch of elements of their sound (see: the other version of “Jackson Head” they released this year), but they also did this, and this is what counts.
Danny Brown & Black Milk “LOL” – XXX was a wonderful album, and Danny Brown had a hell of a year, appearing on an enormous percentage of hip-hop records I loved this year, and generally stealing the show on them, but the production was kind-of uneven. Black Milk, who never has any trouble not being an uneven producer (fuck you, I’ll use as many negatives as I want) turned out to be the solution, and this record was much less talked-about, but still equally great.
Bill Callahan “America” – Supported by an absolutely killer ending line (that makes the whole record make sense), this is basically Bill Callahan doing what Bill Callahan does. It’s hard to quantify what that is, but since his name comes first alphabetically, it’s going to be where it gets mentioned that 2011 was a year where a lot of people put out records that were very good, but not appreciably different from any of the other albums they’d put out. The difference, sonically, between Apocalypse and Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle or Woke on a Whaleheart is present, I guess, mostly in instrumentation, but Apocalypse is a better record by a largish margin, and “America” is a pretty stunning starting point.
Glen Campbell “Ghost on the Canvas” – Glen Campbell is seven thousand years old, has Alzheimer’s, and decided to hole up in a recording studio to make what would stand as his last recorded statement. That’s a sad enough story (he also announced his battle publicly so that the people that went to see him on tour would not be worried if they saw him exhibiting Alzheimer’s symptoms on stage. That’s a consummate showman), and to help him figure out the way to express his feelings at and about being lost he went to the man who could’ve written the book on that sort of thing, if he were the type to write a book, Mr. Paul Westerberg (who, since this is his first appearance on this blog, wrote the song “Valentine,” which contains the line “plenty of times you wake up, in February makeup.” Hi.), who wrote is best song in years (since probably “Got You Down” in 2002). The contrast between a man singing about losing his mind and not having lost a single bit of his beautiful voice, the thing that made him famous, is heart-wrenching.
Death Grips “Takyon (Death Yon)” – Opening up the hip-hop doors by taking percussive violence to its logical end, Ex-Military managed to be harsh and intense, while still avoiding the “harsh and intense” clichés that hip-hop calls normal. Also, elsewhere on the album they figure out a way to take advantage of both “Rise Above” and “Interstellar Overdrive,” which is as shrewd a move in attention-getting as it is inspired as a piece of art.
Decemberists “This is Why We Fight” – Because I’m a collegial white dude, and I have a thing for anthems, and you are all welcome to go hug a cactus.
Doomtree “Little Mercy” – Doomtree had a big year, first being responsible for 13 Chambers, the brilliant Fugazi/Wu-Tang mashup record, and then, well, pretty much mashing-up Fugazi (political consciousness, sonic adventurousness, devastating basslines, a couple of really top-notch vocalists) and Wu-Tang (a revolving door of MCs, understated, artful production, being cohesive in spite of such disparate focuses) on this, their third and finest album. But “Little Mercy,” the best track on a stellar album, is a winner hands-down. A captivating, tense number that never lets up, I’m pretty sure I jumped around the room like a moron the first time I heard it.
Drive-by Truckers “The Thanksgiving Filter” – I’ve said that I find the Drive-by Truckers’ albums to be more interesting (if not always as satisfying) since Jason Isbell left the band, and I maintain that’s true (although now that Shonna is out, I wonder how much of that she’ll take with her). “The Thanksgiving Filter,” paradoxically, is the kind of reliable Patterson Hood story-song that tends to work more-or-less every time. I suppose as long as there’s a couple of these per album, I’ll continue to buy their albums.
Earth “Descent to the Zenith” – Earth remain the finest purveyors of drone in the world, and Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 was probably as accessible as they got. “Descent to the Zenith” is a powerful piece.
Eternals “War’s Blazing Disciples” – I still like anthems. And people shouting. Can’t get enough of people shouting over beats. Oh, and the Eternals have floated around at the periphery of things that I like for awhile now, and it’s nice to welcome them into the fold of things I officially care about.
Evangelista “In Animal Tongue” – Carla Bozulich used to have a way with weird, upside-down song structures that led Geraldine Fibbers to have songs that sounded for all the world like smash hits from another planet. Over the course of the ten years or so since GF parted ways, she’s spent time devolving her own melodic ability until what ends up in place is the signifiers of the structure that was there to begin with. Also, I’d probably listen to her sing the phone book.
Explosions in the Sky “Trembling Hands” – When this song happened, and dimoko and I were discussing our first impressions, there were a number of Friday Night Lights jokes. That’s probably going to happen to Explosions every time. The important thing, though, is that it sounded like a new direction for the band – it’s short, it goes somewhere quickly, it features Chris Hrasky’s admirable drumming, there’s kind of a vocal on it. And, as a result, Take Care Take Care Take Care Take Care Take Care Take Care Take Care Take Care Take Care Take Care etc. became the first disappointment of 2011. I can’t endorse the record (it’s fine, but if you have an Explosions record, you already have it), but “Trembling Hands” remains a pretty exciting addition to the band’s work.
The Feelies “Later On” – The Feelies, having basically invented a brand-new way to be a rock band with their very first record, then sort-of abandoned that sound for a new one, then abandoned their formerly-new sound for a new one, then broke up. They came back with a sort of evolution of their last record, and that’s probably what anyone should have expected. It was fine, in the same way that the back half of their catalogue was fine, but “Later On” was a point at which they were actually doing something particularly interesting, and proved that, even after a million years of not doing anything under this name, they still had something to say. I’d buy the single or whatever.
The Felice Brothers “River Jordan” – The Felice Brothers are a band that makes B+ albums with A+ tracks on them. 2009’s “Run Chicken Run” was head-and-shoulders above the rest of the songs on the pretty-good Yonder is the Clock, and their breakthrough single “Frankie’s Gun!” was the clear highlight of The Felice Brothers. The difference is that those songs also got a lot of attention and, inexplicably, “River Jordan” did not. The album’s closer, it’s probably Ian Felice’s finest vocal (which, y’know, isn’t something he’s usually known for, but still), and it also features a weirdly-building momentum that belies the fact that it doesn’t, y’know, have a structure. That’s a hell of a feat, and I hope there’s more like it.
Fucked Up “Queen of Hearts” – And sometimes what you want is a big, dumb, rock song. Hardcore isn’t supposed to have anything left to say, and a lot of ink (well. e-ink. Wait. That’s trademarked. Pixels, then.) has gone into talking about how Fucked Up managed, without changing what they were doing, to make the finest hardcore record in a couple of decades at least, and I’ve got nothing to add to that. I will only say: this song is basically a series of “the good part”s glued together, and the result is like a monte cristo: yeah, it’s a sandwich, it’s deep-fried and then it’s dipped in jelly, and that’s exactly why it works, because it’s everything that could possibly be good, taken at once. Song of the year.
Grails “Deep Snow” – Grails, like Fucked Up and Bill Callahan already, are yet another band that put out the best work of their career in 2011. That’s about all they have in common with Fucked Up or Bill Callahan, I suppose. Grails at their best are one of the finest story-telling bands in the world, and “Deep Snow” is a vivid, imagistic walk through an extraordinary landscape.
Grouper “Moon is Sharp” – Grouper’s records (and there were two of them this year) continue to get better, and “Moon is Sharp” is an easy, soothing tune from the slightly-less weird album. Incidentally, it may be too late, but if I do end up posting links to where you can find these mixes, don’t listen to them in alphabetical order or the sequence this is somewhere in the middle of is going to be the dumb part.
Tim Hecker “Studio Suicide, 1980” – Jesus Christ this record was amazing. The first great record of 2011 (and one of Hecker’s two great records of 2011), any of the songs on it could’ve made the list. “Studio Suicide, 1980” stands apart as its own piece a little better than the other songs than the rest of them do, so it appears on this list.
Hella “Yubacore” – It’s good to have you back, Hella. Please don’t ever hire more band members ever again. Also, I don’t know if, technically, what Hella and the Russian Circles do is considered the same thing, but good god damn it was a good year for whatever it is they have in common. Anyway. I don’t know what a “Yubacore” is, but I sure enjoy listening to it.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit “Codeine” – Y’know, Jason Isbell’s records have also gotten more interesting since he left the Drive-by Truckers. I’m back and forth on Here We Rest as an album (most of my issues are with the arrangement and production. He should use less of both.), but “Codeine” is a brilliant way to present a situation lyrically, and a funny story to boot. Capturing the exact essence of watching someone tailspin away from a relationship in a real, humanizing way, Jason Isbell has probably never written a song this good. And it’s sentences like that that make me hope no DBT fans actually read this blog.
Jay-Z & Kanye West “Made in America” – Oh, god. You all know about the record and the people. This is the slower Frank Ocean one.
Jayhawks “High Water Blues” – An interesting thing about the Jayhawks reuniting with Mark Olsen (or, well, recording an album some three years after they reunited with Mark Olsen. There’s no way to get these things done quicker, guys?) is that, for all that they weren’t as good as Tomorrow the Green Grass, the Jayhawks post-Olsen material was much more consistent. With the return of another songwriter comes the return of unevenness. And yeah, we’ll never get another “Blue,” and that’s ok (I mean, really, there’s a handful of people who have ever written a song that good in history), but “High Water Blues” is exactly the sort of thing that we loved the Jayhawks for anyway. And I’ll take a lumpy record if it means the high point is this nice.
Jesu “Brave New World” – I will never, ever, for the life of me, understand what is with people. When Jesu’s Conqueror came out in 2007, it was talked up as a phenomenon, and a man who’d had a career for over half his life looked to have arrived (well, again. I mean, people do still talk about Napalm Death) as a force, and it was great, because Conqueror was a mind-blowingly good record. Ascension, from 2011, was very nearly as good (actually, it was better in places), and got almost no attention at all. Anyway, you should all pay attention to it. Jesu are an exciting band doing exciting things, and “Brave New World” is a great song.
Killer Mike featuring T.I. “Ready Set Go” – I hope that this record, and this track particularly, is good enough to dislodge Killer Mike as the guy from “The Whole World.” Yet another of the many, many things Outkast has to answer for for no reason other than their own greatness. Anyway. I also like T.I. This song is good. How many more of these do we have left?
Kontakte “The Ocean Between You and Me” – A story-song band in the Grails mold, Kontakte made a fine, fine record. “The Ocean Between You and Me” is evocative and expressive, it makes the images, it tells the story, and it does so in a languid, leisurely manner. It’s like listening to Peter Falk talk. Feel free to use that quote, guys. Peter Falk. Talking. Yep.
Low “Witches” – Man, I don’t know what acting like Al Green would even entail. Preaching? Being so. In-a love-a with yo-ou? Wearing suits? Anyway, I’m glad that the people out there are trying to do it, and that it upsets Alan Sparhawk so much, because this song was the result. Low are a remarkably consistent band in their ability to utterly floor me with their records, and this blurb is going to devolve into an enthusiastic handjob soon so let’s move on.\
David Lowery “Marigolds” – Of all the people that could’ve put out a great album in 2011, “the guy from Cracker” was probably not a suspect. But, you know, he’s always done his best work far, far away from the radar. He’s lost none of his way with a melody, or his sense of humor, and this song is a beautiful song about something I’m sure (I don’t listen to the lyrics). I’ll be it’s something nice. Anyway, 2011 was also, apparently, a good year to be an old dude. I hope this sort of thing continues for him.
Mark McGuire “Get Lost” – When A Young Person’s Guide to Marc McGuire came out earlier in 2011, dimoko asked me “why have I not been listening to Mark McGuire this whole time?” And the answer is: because he hadn’t made this record yet. Continuing the trend of making great records without significantly changing what they were doing, Mark McGuire made a record that manages to combine “ambientness” (yes, I know that the word “ambience” exists, but it doesn’t mean what I want it to, so I made up a different word) with “movement” in such a way that you actively want to go drive along a freeway at night a little too fast and watch all of the lights zoom past. It was, however, only the second-best album called Get Lost in 2011, and that’s a real shame.
Efrim Manuel Menuck “Our Lady of Parc Extension and Her Munificent Sorrows” – I’m fine with being the only person who was actually excited about this record, and this song. In fact, I probably still am. But you’re all wrong, because it’s amazing.
Mogwai “Rano Pano” – I wasn’t won over by Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. I can appreciate what they were doing, and the state of their evolution, and they seem to have won over a lot of longtime fans with the record, but I thought it sounded like something that hadn’t quite happened yet. Not a bad record, just a record that could’ve been different (and therefore slightly better). Except for “Rano Pano,”which is the kind of roaring attack that Mogwai used to be the undisputed kings of, and that finds a new way to work within their existing strengths. Also, that riff is a monster, and that’s a quality that I didn’t hear a lot of this year.
My Disco “Lil’ Joy” – We may never know why they spelled out the word “little” in the title of their album and then abbreviated it in the title of their song. They worked a lot in stabbing, pounding repetition, and “Lil’ Joy” is sort of the best example of this (with “Sun Bear” being the solid runner-up), mostly because of its amazing bass pulse, and being moved forward by its drumming.
Noveller “Alone Star” – A gal and her geetar, and the most appropriately named record (Glacial Glow) of the entire year. Noveller’s minimalism, and her compositional abilities, have grown enormously over the time she’s been making records, and “Alone Star” (and the rest of Glacial Glow) is sort of the pinnacle of that growth. A slow, expansive, beautiful record.
Frank Ocean “Novacane” – It remains to be seen how much of Odd Future I’m Not Typing the Rest of This Nonsense’s thing remains a part of the landscape, but in 2011 it was a lot of the landscape. And while a lot of it was just skillful brinksmanship (or at least a willinginess to be dumb and loud in public), these things never happen without some reason – after all, horrorcore, shock rappers and the like have existed for a long time, and they don’t always get famous. And we can’t lay all of the credit on Earl Sweatshirt. Frank Ocean, then, was a sign of them branching out. An undeniable talent who lent his voice to other people’s songs even, Frank made a pretty good record on his own, with “Novacane.” I’m pretty sure that, lyrically, this song is terrible, but the lyrics are also perfect, and the production matches the voice and the sentiment, and there’s very little else you can ask an R&B single to do. Well, that’s not true. Great R&B singles are my favorite kind of singles. So, this isn’t really one of those. It’s a pretty good one. And, y’know, it works.
Oneohtrix Point Never “Child Soldier” – As much an improvement on Returnal as Returnal was on Rifts, Replica is a moving, beautiful album that gets away from OPN’s then-regular sound, to update it by focusing it a little differently, letting off the pressure a little bit, and moving the music more propulsively. “Child Soldier” is another imagistic landscape of a song, and one that achieves its point over admirably little time.
Parts & Labor “No Notalgia” – If only every band was nice enough to go ahead and release their final statement in song form. P&L will be missed.
Psychic Paramount “N5” – Psychic Paramount and I have something in common, and it’s that we both really like This Heat. Noise Rock works best not when the bands are doing something freakish, or “free,” but when the players figure out a way to tap into exactly what it is they’re trying to express sonically. I mean, in a larger sense this is how music works. But noise rock is in a position of being, potentially, one of the freeist of free genres. The problem is, when the bands actually do play free, they generally suck, because they become more interested in weirdness or sonic novelty for its own sake, and less interest with making music that makes you want to drive a car into a tree. “N5” is a danger to trees everywhere.
Random Axe “Everybody Nobody Somebody” – Black Milk’s other great record of 2011 is Random Axe’s self-titled, a record he made with Guilty Simpson and Sean Price. Although there are some impressive guest stars (including the aforementioned Danny Brown), the record really is at its best when the three are recording on their own (and with all three of them – the solo Guilty Simpson tracks aren’t really up to the strength of the record either).
Real Estate “Wonder Years” – Man, I already used my “because I’m white” joke, didn’t I? Well, Real Estate were another in the long list of bands who made great records without changing fundamentally what they were doing, and Days is a back-to-front joy to listen to, especially on a day that’s a little too sunny, and a little too cold.
Russian Circles “Mladek” – Combining the strengths of the near-metal instrumental band and the story-song, both of which had a high water mark in 2011, “Mladek” is a violent, triumphant, anthemic piece that storms through the door and punches everyone in the room, then takes a breather and does it again. Dimoko and I wrote the story that this song is telling once. We should make it a post.
Raphael Saadiq “Radio” – You know, I do like happy music. I just don’t like much of it. Raphael Saadiq though, man. His records are among the few in the world that actually make we want to dance. Or at least want to want to dance. As it were. We’re having a mild winter here in the state that needs a train, so you can put on “Radio” and dance around and act like it’s still August and that dancing is the only sensible thing to do.
Shabazz Palaces “Swerve…The Reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)” – Another album about which pretty much everything that could be said has already been covered, Black Up was a hugely revelatory release. I hope that there follows in it’s wake a great deal of inspired souls, because I want this to be a thing that continues. Any of the songs on the record would’ve counted (it’s amazingly consistent), but “Swerve…” gets the nod both for its title (which is pretty awesome in that it makes no sense and contains two typographical errors) and the fact that it was the single, which means it was somebody in the process’ favorite. I’m nothing if not agreeable.
Skeletons “Barack Obama Blues” – Another band that tends to hover on the edge of being talked about all the time, it was hard, as a Skeletons fan, to even know that this record had happened (I bet if Ohio had a fucking train, we would’ve known because it would be easier for them to get to us), and it’s a shame, because it’s a wonderful record, and “Barack Obama Blues” is the kind of herky-jerky disjointed multi-part spazzfest that the Skeletons do well, mashing up every subgenre they could possibly like into one delicious dagwood sandwich of jittery indie rock.
Snowman “Hyena” – An exercise in simplicity and Mark E. Smith’s three r’s: repetition repetition repetition. I don’t know anything in particular about Snowman, or about “Hyena,” except that I really like it, and I’m not doing any research, so I apologize. I hope you all can forgive me.
Tape “Mirrors” – From the excellent Benefit for the Recovery in Japan from early in 2011. Tape runs hit-and-miss with me, sometimes making music that was probably a lot more fun to make than it is to listen to, and sometimes exactly hitting the mark and speaking directly to my subconscious. This one, obviously, is the latter, and manages to skip even bringing up images and pictures to just directly coloring the parts of my brain that hear it, like a musical crayon.
Tune-Yards “Gangsta” – 1) I’M NOT CAPITALIZING IT THAT WAY. 2) I have nothing to add to the consensus on Tune-Yards, particularly.
Tyler, the Creator “Yonkers” – I debated, because the real Tyler, the Creator moment of the year was his performance of “Sandwitches” on Jimmy Fallon. This song (from the almost comically overlong and uneven Goblin) wins because it’s every bit as good, and its video was great in a year when great videos weren’t really things that had happened. Tyler’s twitter was often better than his music, and it remains to be seen, as I said above, what kinds of things he’ll go on to do, but as a document of a thing that happened in 2011, “Yonkers” is remarkably effective, and succeeds because of it. It’s instantaneous, short-term music from an impulsive, of-the-moment creator.
Tom Waits “Get Lost” – Man, it sure is nice to hear a Tom Waits record that’s about songs and not just clattering weirdness. This one even approaches being kind of a rock song, which is neat, and is something he hasn’t done for a long time. This was the best record called Get Lost of 2011.
The Weeknd “Initiation” – The Weeknd appeared out of nowhere, blah blah blah anonymity blah blah blah XO blah blah blah friends with Drake blah blah blah sad drugs sad dark drugs sad sex sad. All of those things are completely beside what made The Weeknd so exciting in 2011 to me. He’s far from the first to turn depravity and abuse (of people and of drugs) into the subjects for his songs, but where previously it had been done in overgarish colors, in the Van Gogh expressionist sense, that it’s singing and making it a scary and negative thing, The Weeknd was much more like Lucien Freud, showing an admiration and respect for his own work by savoring every single detail of it. Beach House samples got him a lot of press, as did anonymity, but the best songs from House of Balloons (“Coming Down” and “Wicked Games”) were actually oppressive, lightless horrorshows that showed the way to a man with an enormous talent. Thursday, with the exception of album high-point “The Birds Part 1” increased the pressure, and the painful, gasping airlessness to the point of compression, creating a black hole of downbeat R&B. And Thursday wasn’t as attention grabbing, and people started to know about who he was, and that he was just a kid from Toronto, and it started spelling the end of The Weeknd’s “fad.” “Initiation,” then, is not the song on this list because it’s necessarily better than all of The Weeknd’s other songs, it’s the song on this list because I think it shows, undeniably, what The Weeknd are capable of. An off-kilter, pitch-shifted constantly-modulating nightmare story of a drugged-out kidnapping, “Initiation” turned out to be the back part of a trio of songs from Echoes of Silence, probably the strongest of the three mixtapes, and no less nightmarish in context. Anchored by his incredible voice, “Initiation” is as much a defining statement of a year of tremendous output by an exciting newcomer as it is the centerpiece of a fantastic album.
Wild Flag “Glass Tambourine” – You aren’t listening to these in order, right? After The Weeknd’s painful, misogynist innovation, we have Wild Flag, proving that innovation and excitement don’t always have to come from novelty. Everyone knew who they were, and likely what they were going to do, before they even did it, and even in that environment, they put together a great, inspiring record given nothing more than the elements they were always using.
Yuck “Coconut Bible” – I want to dislike the crop of bands that happened in the early part of the year that were trying to bring back the early-nineties indie sound, primarily because I don’t even like a lot of the bands they’re aping. I haven’t heard all of Yuck’s album, but “Coconut Bible” is almost impossible for me not to like despite itself. Fair play to you people.