This year, along with all the other writers at indie music blog kevchino.com, I was charged with compiling a list of my 15 favorite albums of 2011. Ordinarily I like making lists, a.k.a. arbitrarily ranking things. But it seemed unjust to pit my favorite artists against each other, especially since I love them all for different reasons. So, inspired by this New York Times list of unforgettable moments in theater, I decided to present each of my ten favorite albums from 2011 with its own unique award.
“Best Of” lists can have a wonderfully democratizing effect on the very things they aim to rank; total unknowns might rub shoulders with the likes of Beyoncé and Wilco, while folk and indie music experience an unexpected surge in popularity. I was pleased and amused at the peculiarities of my own list, which I think gives a pretty good picture of the sounds that filled my ears, my head, and my heart in 2011.
BEST MICHAEL JACKSON IMPRESSION
Beyoncé 4 (Columbia) “Love On Top”
This song is best known as the backdrop to Beyoncé’s dramatic baby-bump reveal at the 2011 VMAs, when she uttered those immortal words, “I want you to feel the love that is growing inside of me.” Leave it to Beyoncé to say something totally creepy and be completely sincere at the same time. But VMA antics aside, “Love On Top” is arguably the best track on what is arguably her best album to date. Each song is intricately and masterfully produced, all while placing the pop singer’s voice front and center. “Love On Top” is a perky R&B number in which Beyoncé, belting her way through a vocally virtuosic chorus and four key changes, brilliantly channels MJ in his prime.
BEST DEBUT ALBUM/BEST UNREQUITED LOVE SONG
You Won’t Skeptic Goodbye (Self-released) “Who Knew”
On “Who Knew,” lead singer and songwriter Josh Arnoudse perfects the art of setting melancholy lyrics to cheerful melodies. He and multi-instrumentalist Raky Sastri released their debut, Skeptic Goodbye, under the moniker You Won’t, combining pop-minded songwriting with do-it-yourself production; they’re one of the best indie acts to come out of Boston in recent years.
BEST LIVE ALBUM/CONCERT FILM
Lake Street Dive Live at the Lizard Lounge (Self-released)
I was actually at the show where they filmed this, and I have to say, the recorded version is almost better—all those pesky drunks (myself included) are a lot quieter on the video, for one thing. I’ve already waxed poetic a number of times about Lake Street Dive; back in September, I wrote: “This is a band with the heart of a poet, a soul full of soul, and a very big vocabulary… They can write a hook worthy of Michael Jackson’s hiccupping falsetto, the Beatles’ Liverpudlian-tinged harmonies, and Stevie Wonder’s silky wail.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
BEST FOLK MUSIC REFERENCE IN A POP/ROCK SONG
The Decemberists The King Is Dead (Capitol) “Rox in the Box”
For those of you who aren’t extreme folk nerds, it will come as a (not-so-interesting) surprise to learn that the fiddle melody in “Rox in the Box” was pilfered from the vast archives of traditional British folk music. In many ways, though, The King Is Dead owes more to American music than any of the Decemberists’ previous records. It’s more notable, perhaps, for its restraint; lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy refrains from the epic sweep that characterized The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, delivering instead ten simple, elegant songs.
tUnE-yArDs w h o k i l l (4AD)
I don’t think there is a single “best albums of 2011” list that doesn’t include w h o k i l l. It has all my favorite things: sweet basslines, badass polyrhythms, ukulele, a saxophone section, and non-pretentious socio-political awareness. Merrill Garbus, the mind behind tUnE-yArDs, is this year’s indie darling, and has managed the improbable feat of getting piped through the speakers at Urban Outfitters without losing her indie cred.
PRETTIEST ACOUSTIC ALBUM
Joy Kills Sorrow This Unknown Science (Signature Sounds)
Joy Kills Sorrow takes all the best parts of bluegrass—expert musicianship, powerful vocals, and a dark, pulsing energy—and plays some of the sweetest pop tunes you’ve ever heard. Acoustic music has taken a fascinating turn in recent years, with innovators like Béla Fleck and the Punch Brothers using bluegrass as a jumping-off point to explore genres as diverse as classical and jazz. Joy Kills Sorrow is by far my favorite band to emerge from the melting pot of acoustic Americana, writing modern, accessible music while remaining a string band at heart.
The Dodos No Color (Frenchkiss)
The Dodos give tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus a run for her money on No Color, which has too many time changes to count. This relentlessly percussive album starts out with a bang and never lets up.
BEST POP ANTHEM
Kelly Clarkson Stronger (RCA, 19) “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)”
It’s a bit of a mischaracterization to call “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)” the best pop anthem on Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger, since the album is chock full of quintessential pop anthems, each more anthemic and quintessential than the last. I have to give Clarkson the award for cathartic scorned-woman songs, and I have to hand it to her producers—Stronger is a pretty near-perfect pop album. Every song is catchy without seeming cliché, and Clarkson’s voice, flawless as always, has gained a maturity that imbues even her most frivolous numbers with gravitas.
SASSIEST COUNTRY SONG
The Sweetback Sisters Looking for a Fight (Signature Sounds) “Looking for a Fight”
The Sweetback Sisters recorded their second album, Looking for a Fight, straight to tape on a vintage RCA ribbon microphone, which imbues the record with a singularly old-school sound and makes it even harder to tell which songs are covers and which are originals. The Sisters might be the countriest band to ever come out of Brooklyn, and judging from the title track, you wouldn’t want to mess with them, either.
MOST LIKE THEMSELVES
Wilco The Whole Love (dBpm)
Die-hard Wilco fans will find little to complain about in The Whole Love, which sounds like a mellow Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s always nice when some things stay the same.
HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!!