Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best of 2011: Albums

I've been making best-of-the-year lists since 2003. This week on my blog I'll unveil my favorite albums, songs and movies from this year. First, the albums:

1. The Weeknd - House of Balloons

This album is so dark and creeping, but Abel Tesfaye's sweet croon is like a north star guiding you through that darkness. I love the way the first song, "High for This," builds so that by the time it's over, you're already deep into Tesfaye's world without really knowing how you got there. The songs are catchy, innovative and perfectly paced. And though I don't inhabit most of the worlds he describes, listening to "House of Balloons" pretty much always has an emotional effect on me.

2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Robin Peckhold is a little younger than I am, but I feel like the lyrics on this album perfectly sum up what it feels like to be 28 right now. The album is beautiful -- at times sweeping, at times quietly pensive -- and searching. It sounded right soundtracking my sunny days just as well as it did the foggy ones.

3. James Blake - James Blake

The silence on this album -- and there is a lot of it -- somehow feels both full and empty to me. This is the album I wanted to hear when I was sad, as if I could pour myself into Blake's many pauses. I admire what he's able to do with dubstep, but the songs I like best here are the ones that sound like snippets of gospel songs. The first 30 seconds of "Why Don't You Call?" sounds like a perfect little demo to me. I always want to hear them again.

4. Youth Lagoon - The Year Of Hibernation
I get that the sound of this album might not be for everyone. He recorded it by playing the original bedroom recordings in a garage and recording them again. That means the album can sometimes have a tinny, far-away sound to it, but underneath that is some very honest and beautiful songwriting. I love the lyrics of "17" and the way "Montana" builds so steadily until it erupts. I love the way it feels to listen to "Afternoon" while driving around during the fall. Nearly all of the songs evoke something purely cinematic, and I pretty much never grew tired of hearing them.

5. The Vaccines - What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?

I don't necessarily think the Vaccines are doing anything innovative here, but I just love listening to this record. I came back to it all year long, always finding a new favorite song. I listened to it at the gym, driving through the suburbs, cooking dinner in my city apartment. It's somehow dark and infectious at the same time.

6. Drake - Take Care
It took me a while to get into this album. I preferred his early, yearning mixtape. But "Take Care" has so many good songs and shows Drake really expanding his style (On "Thank Me Later," he often recycled through the same repetitive rhythms). And he is still rapping about subjects that no one else talks about. He's innovative, and I hope he pushes himself to keep experimenting.

7. Tennis - Cape Dory

This is so fun to listen to. A lot of the songs sound the same -- lyrically and sonically -- but I like those themes and sounds so much it doesn't bother me (plus it's such a short little album). The lyrics have a few little gems ("shifty wind that gusts and dies"), her voice is great and I usually feel pretty happy listening.

8. tune yards - w h o k i l l
I don't think this album is as innovative as it's praised for being. Merril Garbus admits that she modeled it after the music of the Ba'Aka pygmies in Central African Republic. Having been there and listened to their vocal polyphonies, I can say tune-yards' songs really do sound a lot like them. But she pushes them further, adding more drama and more layers, and I think her lyrics are at times really great (See: My Country). But the real secret weapon here is that voice. I thought she was a man for her whole first record, but it's mostly impossible to tell where that sound is coming from. She has such an incredible and powerful range. Really fun to listen to.

9. Beyonce - 4
For my money, she is the most interesting, consistent and talented pop star recording. She tries all kinds of sounds on this album, at times stuffing songs with a dozen samples and genres. Whatever she throws at the wall seems to stick; 4 churned out hit after hit this year. And she somehow does that without sounding like she is trying very hard. She is so good it feels effortless.

10. AgesandAges - Alright You Restless
Like the Tennis album, this one is comprised of songs that sometimes sound just like the one before it. But it doesn't sound like any other album I heard this year, so I'll forgive it its repetitions. I love all the voices, the church-like joy of the songs. There's not a dud on here.

Honorable Mentions: The Roots - Undun; Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra; Cults - Cults; Dirty Mittens - Heart of Town

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