These excellent records fell just short of our Top 20 of 2011 list.
I suspect I’m not the only one who slowly scrolled through this very site’s Top 20 Albums of 2011 feature a few times in a vain attempt to locate Burst Apart. It had to be there somewhere, right? It wasn’t, though, and thus the Antlers’ stellar 2011 album has been relegated to honorable mention status. Don’t let that standing fool you: every bit the equal of Hospice, the album was also every bit its opposite, at least musically; songs like “Rolled Together,” “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” and “Hounds” moved deliberately and were characterized by a sense of muted restraint largely absent from their predecessors.
Burst Apart resided firmly in life’s shadowy corners and rarely emerged from there. Many of the concerns that dominated Hospice – heartbreache, loss, death – surfaced again on its follow-up, especially on “I Don’t Want Love,” “No Widows” and closing ballad “Putting the Dog to Sleep,” but in a more controlled manner that actually heightened their impacts. Peter Silberman could have found himself pigeonholed as a certain brand of emotional songwriter after Hospice, but Burst Apart ensured that wouldn’t happen. It doesn’t always take cancer wards and the hum of hospital machinery to make your point. – Eric Dennis
In the midst of recording their sophomore LP Gloss Drop, Battles lost their top gunner, Tyondai Braxton, the man behind the digital munchkin chanting of 2007’s breakthrough Mirrored. Braxton opted for a solo career, prompting the experimental math rockers to turn to a stable of guest vocalists that includes the likes of Matias Aguayo and prog rock purveyor Gary Numan. The result is an album that maintains the bizarro essence that emerged on Mirrored while advancing inland on that beachhead. Gloss Drop offers a more approachable incarnation of their unique sound (especially on tracks such as the downright infectious “Sweetie and Shag” featuring Kazu Makino) while still existing within an algorithmic universe of the band’s own design. Remaining members John Stanier, Ian Williams and Dave Konopka inject Gloss Drop with meticulously structured instrumentation, building crystal cathedrals they systematically demolish with vocals (when appropriate) like bullies kicking sandcastles. If not for the vocal markers, it’s easy to lose oneself in this excellently crafted dissonant soundscape. You wouldn’t even know Battles is down a man. – Josh Goller
Zach Condon has been an Eastern European orchestra star, a French troubadour and a Mexican mariachi under the moniker Beirut, but on The Rip Tide, he boldly dropped the international pretense and made an album for his homeland. He sings fondly of his hometown of Santa Fe and croons a lullaby for a girl in East Harlem. The album is joyful and nostalgic, melancholy and sentimental, as though Condon has been adrift in the titular rip tide and finally returned home. He sings of travelers at the seaside in as heartbreaking a croon as he’s ever vocalized. Certainly the album is not his grandest. It is a little too polished and there are some who will mistake its understatement for dullness. But Condon’s swarthy melodies and exuberant brass arrangements are as welcoming as ever, even if its “only pretty great” status keeps it just out of reach of the top albums of the year. – Katie Bolton
The music biz tends to slow down dramatically after the labels try to stuff record store shelves as full as they can get in the weeks leading up to the dreaded Black Friday launch of the Christmas shopping season. Getting used to that calendar means that sometimes albums from the end of the year can get overlooked in the mad rush to proclaim the year’s best. With a release date into December, it was easy to miss the latest album from the Black Keys, but that would be a mistake. El Camino is as fierce and potent enough to stand up to the band’s best work.
Working with Danger Mouse for the third straight album, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney don’t strive for some wide-ranging reinvention. They simply burn through a characteristic stream of sharp, filthy blues rock built around expert hooks and the sort of passion that can’t be faked. They may be scratching the same itch they’ve been working since their 2002 debut The Big Come Up, but why stop now if it still feels so good. – Dan Seeger
If you’ve spent much time reading the blogs and webzines this past year, you know that Justin Vernon’s second LP under the name Bon Iver is either the boldest artistic statement made by anyone ever or a cold amalgamation of nonsensical lyrics and cheesy, derivative sounds. It topped many notable end-of-year lists, including the one from bastions-of-everything-hip-at-the-moment Pitchfork, but was derided by influential writers as well, with former Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis being one of the loudest dissenting voice.
Listening to Bon Iver with fresh ears at the dawn of the new year, it’s no surprise to me that it’s one of the most divisive records of 2011. The very qualities that its critics hate are those loved by its admirers. The abstract lyrics make it difficult for some to make an emotional connection with the album, whereas others love the poetic challenge of deciphering Vernon’s intended meaning(s). Sure, Vernon appropriates sounds and stylistic features from genres of music not considered especially cool these days (“Beth/Rest” being the most egregious example), but some like the artist’s willingness to boldly proclaim his love for the dregs of popular culture. Love it or hate it, Bon Iver has arguably started more conversations in 2011 than any other record, and it’s likely to continue doing so for some time to come. – Jacob Adams
Perhaps the Honorable Mention category should be divided among new artists who show great promise and much-beloved, established bands whose latest album was consistent but not career-defining. The Decemberists’ ode to Americana, The King is Dead, is by all accounts a very good album, rich with bright melodies, sharp wit and frontman Colin Meloy’s fantastical storytelling. As a backing vocalist, Gillian Welch lends a husky timbre and rootsy authenticity to Meloy’s balladeer voice. Unfortunately, the kings of Portland’s previous album was a larger-than-life rock opera that seemed to fully realize Meloy’s vision as a writer of English-style chanteys, the quintessential tough act to follow. Rather than fall into habit, the band took a new course in 2011. Much like Picaresque boldly drove them into their well-known Brit-folk sound, by killing the king and returning to American music, the Decemberists have opened a new chapter in their own career. The King is Dead was a very good album. I expect their next few will be even better. – Katie Bolton
Look, stop laughing- Drake releasing one of the best albums of 2011 is no joke! While Thank Me Later was rushed and a bit scattered, its success allowed the Canadian rapper/punching bag to fine tune. Take Care is both a symbol of maturity and one of the fullest, most realized sophomore records I’ve ever heard. Long accused of being an “emo” rapper, Drake embraces his turbulence which results in wonderful creative strategy- it’s no mistake that Rihanna sings the wounded hook on the title track.
There’s not a wasted moment, and that’s a lot to say on an 80-minute record. Producer Noah “40” Shebib takes control more than the previous effort, producing more than half the tracks. His lush, bass-piano married beats have reached a beautiful introspective that reflects Drake’s internal monologue. “Over My Dead Body” kicks the album off in the right direction- he’s confident and equally conscious, but you believe him when he lets the fire out a little and yells, “Shout outs to the bitches there when it’s bedtime/ And fuck you to the niggas that think it’s their time.” It’s a methodical, enveloping composition that showcases Drake’s concentrated efforts and one of the most excitingly interdependent relationships in music, between 40 and Drizzy- they’re becoming the Eric B. and Rakim of sadness. Take Care may not be the kind of album you bump from a whip, but it’s not meant to be- it’s what you put on when you came back alone. It’s an album that understands. – Rafael Gaitan
Every new year in music comes with its set of new genres, subgenres and meaningless monikers. Slapping one of those tags on Nicolas Jaar’s debut full length would be a fruitless endeavor, which is exactly what makes Space Is Only Noise one of the most exciting albums of 2011. On “Too Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust,” he mixes Morricone-tinged, spaghetti Western guitars and strings with wide-open spaces reminiscent of post-rock, all grounded by a dubstep-esque penchant for reverb. “I Got A,” with its Ray Charles sample, glides gracefully between trip-hop and ‘70s gospel, with a deep low end and cracking processed snares. Appropriately, given the album’s title, Jaar morphs sonic spaces into timely starts-and-stops, evocative bouts of noise, infectious loops and cold arrangements, all while retaining a contradictory sense of intimacy. By doing so, he breaks the minimalist mold that looms throughout. Instead, he creates rich, dense, evocative soundscapes that refuse to be pigeonholed. This isn’t an album of experiments, but rather a confident exploration of the spaces where genres cross with one another and the possibilities that suggests. – Kyle Fowle
The pairing of Kanye West and Jay-Z, while not the most original idea in the world, brings out the best of both of them. West, riding high on his best, most self-aggrandizing album, helps put some fire underneath a settled Jay-Z, who deepens that more mature reflection for both himself and ‘Ye. Tracks like the trade-off frenzy “Otis” and the coldly danceable “Niggas in Paris” display the pair in top form, perfectly produced nuggets with defiantly spit lyrics that practically dare the audience to challenge them. On a song like “New Day,” however, the flip side of this celebration of world-conquering fame comes out. As the two ruminate on the challenges of raising children as megastars, Kanye delivers perhaps the most quietly stunning line of the year when he softly proclaims of his speculative son, “I might even make him be Republican/ So everybody know he love white people.” Tyler the Creator, take note: sometimes the most confrontational, shocking statements are the most subdued and honest. – Jake Cole
In 2011, Swedish singer/songwriter Lykke Li reemerged from silence three years after her lauded debut album, Youth Novels to a lot of expectations. A brilliant crafter of songs with an idiosyncratic method of mixing genres as disparate as electronica, pop, folk and hip-hop, Li managed to catch listeners off guard once again with Wounded Rhymes. A darker, more ominous record than her debut, Wounded Rhymes is a further expansion and condensation of genres, mixing ‘60s-era Spector soundscapes, unsteady percussion and an alternately tender and vicious view on love and life and loss. From the evocation of Bo Diddley’s famous rhythm to the doo wop background vocals, it’s an album that revels in the sounds of the past even as Li’s own strange, unique voice keeps it anchored in the here and now. It’s an odd, surprising, personal album, which coming from Lykke Li, should surprise no one. – Nathan Kamal