These are my favorite albums of 2011. This year, I'm trying something different by bringing Spotify into the mix. I've created a playlist with a song from most of the albums here. Check back next week for my list of the best singles of the year.
1. Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin'
On his 2008 album, The Way I See It, Saadiq copped a retro sound that recalled some of the softer, romantic touches of Motown. As enjoyable as that album was, it often felt like a tribute instead of a creative exercise. For the follow-up, the sound is still of the past and just as accurate, but more soulful, freewheeling and raucous. By convincingly conjuring up the spirit of Stax and the eclectic side of Sly and The Family Stone, Stone Rollin' would have been pleasing to the ears of most by default as well. Instead, Saadiq completely reinvigorated the whole process of being retro by using the era not to justify the means, but as a catalyst for exploring just how vibrant his songwriting could be. The authenticity is part of the charm, but the joy lies mostly in listening to one of R&B's most intelligent and classiest artists at the top of his game.
2. Katy B - On A Mission
On A Mission boasts some of the best production you're likely to hear all year. From the dubstep of "Katy On A Mission" to the 90s house of "Movement," there is no shortage of fresh ways to make you dance. What separates Katy B from the rest of her pop contemporaries is how smart and observant she comes off as. Life in the club through her lens is not just filled with partying and having a good time, but pointing out the nuances of courtship and her own anxieties. It's a mature pop album disguised as a dance floor filler, but with all the subtlety that's lacking from the Rihannas and Britneys of the world.
3. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Back in 2009, St. Vincent's Actor was my favorite album of the year, and once again she is in the upper half of the list, automatically earning her a spot as one of my favorite current artists. Very little of the preciousness from that album is on Strange Mercy, as the music here is more chaotic and groove-based. Despite the newfound love for electronic sounds, the arrangements were intricate as usual and served more as support for the songs instead of being at the forefront. This was the first St. Vincent album where it felt like it was as equally concerned with window dressing as the content. Part of the delight in her albums are the array of instruments on display, but with Strange Mercy and its darker turns, the songwriting was just as consistent as the music.
4. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact
As much as Gang Gang Dance seem concerned with challenging your ears, they put just as much focus on making you move. After all, "Dance" is a part of the band name, but it's not in the traditional sense. Global rhythms build the foundation of their sound and coupled with hazy, fluorescent soundscapes, Eye Contact provided one of the more hallucinatory musical experiences of the year. It's been part of their approach for years and it continued to be enjoyable in 2011.
5. Summer Camp - Welcome To Condale
Whether you like it or not, a listen from beginning to end of Welcome to Condale will transport you back to the 80s. With each listen of this album, the visions of neon Ray-Bans and Lacoste shirts with popped collars became more distinct in my head, which I always feel is very special if music can do that to you. Of course, the audio clips of John Hughes' movies interspersed throughout help, but it's Summer Camp's ironclad grasp of the era that sees their goal through. Concept aside, just about every chorus here is bursting with sunshine and the sugar rush of a 2-liter Tab, which is mainly why it has earned a spot here. The accomplishment of being able to place you in the mindset of another decade is impressive, but catchy songs like "Better Off With You," "Down" and "Brian Krakow" are even more so.
6. Van Hunt - What Were You Hoping For?
With three official albums and the unreleased gem, Popular, Van Hunt has already built a discography that could compete with a lot of the other critically acclaimed rock acts who have released just as much output. Each successive album gets weirder and the guitars louder, making Hunt the heir apparent to Prince when it comes to rock and soul, but also one of the most underrated acts since sex seems to now belong to the club instead of the garage. He's played around with rock before on his previous two albums, but everything came out in full bloom on heavy tunes such as the thrash-worthy "Watching You Go Crazy Is Driving Me Insane" and the raging "A Time Machine Is My New Girlfriend," which would have probably never fit on any plan that EMI had for him. It isn't all just a full-out assault, as the album closer "It's A Mysterious Hustle" proves that few in the business can crank out a ballad like Van Hunt, further cementing his diversity.
7. Anna Calvi - Anna Calvi
Sonically, Calvi's self-titled debut is one of the most haunting of the year, filled with Spaghetti western-influenced guitar licks that sound as if they were created in a cemetery. There is indeed pain spread all over the strings, yet everything remains endlessly repeat worthy. Anna Calvi is rousing enough at times that it doesn't frighten your soul at every step, but touches it with enough grace and sensitivity that make it easy to empathize with an inanimate object such as a guitar.
8. tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L
By mixing the experimentation of her first album with lively, percussion-heavy rhythms, Merrill Garbus created an original piece of work that was as trippy as it was fun. Compared to Bird Brains, W H O K I L L does come off as more conventional, but the focus on a pop-oriented song structure only magnified Garbus' other talents, mainly her distinct wailing rasp, which is the album's secret weapon. The highlight here, "Powa," featured the fewest loops and Easter eggs, and it's also the most powerful track due to the captivating performance on vocals.
9. Wynter Gordon - With The Music I Die
To clear things up, this ranking is based on the full-length Australian version, not the EP that is only available in the States, which is really a shame. "Buy My Love" and "Til Death" are two of the strongest pop singles of the year, but American audiences were also deprived of cuts like the slinky "Drunk On Your Love," which displayed Gordon's knack for vibrant choruses. With The Music I Die is an unrelenting chain of booming, glossy dance beats that would sound right at home on top 40 radio and left little room for filler with a brisk running time of 33 minutes. Gordon has been able to hone her craft for years by writing tunes for Flo Rida and Jennifer Lopez, so it's no surprise that her debut effort would be solid. What is surprising is how it has raised the game for North American pop music, which has seen the best releases for the genre come out of Europe for the past decade. Game on.
10. Thundercat - The Golden Age of Apocalypse
Thundercat's debut fits in nicely with the burgeoning underground R&B movement that includes J*Davey and Sonnymoon, even if half of it is instrumental. With a creamy, free-flowing bass style, Stephen Bruner of Suicidal Tendencies has developed a jazzy experience that is reminiscent of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters album and comes with all the trademarks needed for a space-bop texture. A lot of the new R&B movement uses an intergalactic approach as well, but it goes much deeper on The Golden Age of Apocalypse. Although the album is mostly improvisational, when concrete melodies do arrive, it's some of the sleekest and smoothest music of 2011.
And the rest...
11. Cut Copy - Zonoscope
12. Dum Dum Girls - Only In Dreams
13. Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer
14. Fiend - Tennis Shoes and Tuxedos
15. Marit Larsen - Spark
16. DJ Quik - The Book of David
17. Little Jackie - Made4TV
18. Marsha Ambrosius - Late Nights and Early Mornings
19. Zee Avi - Ghostbird
20. Class Actress - Rapproacher
21. Big K.R.I.T.-Return of 4eva
22. Wild Flag - Wild Flag
23. Radiohead - The King of Limbs
24. Nicole Atkins - Mondo Amore
25. Tally Hall - Good and Evil
26. Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire - Lost In Translation
27. Washed Out - Within and Without
28. Pistol Annies - Hell On Heels
29. The Roots - undun
30. Lloyd - King of Hearts
31. Veronica Maggio - Satan I Gatan
32. Delicate Steve - Wondervisions
33. Young The Giant - Young The Giant
34. Ivy - All Hours
35. Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committe Part Two
36. Harrys Gym - What Was Ours Can't Be Yours
37. Frank Ocean - nostalgia, ultra
38. Le Butcherettes - Sin Sin Sin
39. White Shoes & The Couples Company - Album Vakansi
40. Giraffage - Comfort
41. Drake - Take Care
42. Saigon - The Greatest Story Never Told
43. Childish Gambino - Camp
44. Butch Walker & The Black Widows - The Spade
45. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. - It's A Corporate World
46. jj - Kills
47. Cocaine 80s - The Pursuit EP
48. Säkert! - Pa Engleska
49. Cults - Cults
50. Little Dragon-Ritual Union
Honorable mention (in alphabetical order)
Adele - 21
Brown Recluse - Evening Tapestry
Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow
Caroline - Verdugo Hills
A Classic Education - Call It Blazing
Cloud Control - Bliss Release
The Coathangers - Larceny & Old Lace
Cocaine 80s - Ghost Lady
Curren$y & Alchemist - Covert Coup
Dengue Fever - Cannibal Courtship
Elisapie - There Will Be Stars
Rebecca Ferguson - Heaven
Fucked Up - David Comes To Life
Future Islands - On The Water
GIVERS - In Light
The Go! Team - Rolling Blackouts
The Handcuffs - Waiting For The Robot
Hot Heavy & Bad - Undercover
Idle Warship - Habits of the Heart
Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch The Throne
The Jezabels - Prisoner
Keep Shelly In Athens - Our Own Dream
The Kickdrums - Meet Your Ghost
Ladytron - Gravity The Seducer
Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes
Lil B - I'm Gay
Mwahaha - Mwahaha
Nurses - Dracula
Puffy - Thank You
Rihanna - Talk That Talk
S.C.U.M. - Again Into Eyes
Jill Scott - The Light Of The Sun
Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde
Sons & Daughters - Mirror Mirror
Those Dancing Days - Daydreams and Nightmares
Treefight for Sunlight - A Collection of
The Weeknd - House of Balloons
Yelle - Safari Disco Club