After a year with tons of major releases, capped by a Kanye West album whose release and subsequent reception will likely go unmatched for years to come, 2011 turned out to be quite a mellow year for music. Nothing kick-started the year like Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009), nothing concluded the year like West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), and nothing in between seemed to garner as much immediate praise in between as Fleet Foxes’ Fleet Foxes (2008).
Perhaps this may also be because a lot of major names such as TV on the Radio, Justice and The Strokes didn’t come through after great anticipation and expectation. Even Radiohead, a band many thought was incapable of fault, wasn’t able to rise to the occasion as per usual. Of course, The King of Limbs was still a solid record with extra-cool packaging and ever-progressive marketing tactics, but this was the first time in more than 15 years that the dominant rock band of this era didn’t absolutely astound the greater majority of fans and critics. And then there’s Odd Future. Boy, did that hype trail off after the release of Goblin.
This isn’t at all to say that this year was a bust altogether. In fact, the lack of success from big names allowed a lot of new/up-and-comers to rise to the occasion. tUnE-yArDs, Girls and Real Estate all put out really strong works while veterans M83 and Destroyer put out arguably their best records yet. Let’s not forget that folk darlings of the late 2000s Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes came through with their sophomore outings, both of which advanced their sounds considerably and boasted a consistent set of tunes.
James Blake picked up a lot of attention with his three EPs last year and delivered in a big way with his debut LP early in this one, asserting himself as a key figure in today’s music. All eyes will be on him for cues on where electronic music is headed. This year, we saw a new figure arise in a similar fashion: The Weeknd’s three mixtapes throughout the year garnered even greater attention from major outlets (most likely for its accessibility).
In that vein, this year may also be remembered as the year of the mixtape. With the rise of Bandcamp and other such sources for free streamable and downloadable content, many artists took to giving out their material for little to nothing in hopes of garnering some new fans or critical attention. In the cases of ASAP Rocky, Danny Brown, Frank Ocean and Big K.R.I.T. (among several others) these mixtapes played like albums, too. This trend wasn’t just for hip-hop: indie pop group Cults found success with a free download of their 7-inch before releasing their debut full-length this year. Finally, it seems like the industry is adjusting to the times.
So, it is time for Pop ‘stache to present our 50 favorite albums of the year. Our writers share their thoughts and, in some cases, personal anecdotes in attempts to explain how these releases have affected us during the course of the year. It’s got most of what you’re expecting by now, but we hope that you take the time to check out some of the albums you haven’t had the chance to hear yet. Thanks for reading us throughout our inaugural year, and keep your eyes peeled for what we expect to be an exciting 2012!
50. The Dodos – No Color
The Dodos produces a sound so comfortable that you think you’ve heard it before, and No Color was no exception. What makes the sound “comfortable” and not “boring” or “irrelevant” is its simple, syrupy vocals drizzled over unsimple, rigid percussion. It’s easy to lose track of the dozens of folk-rockers whose music transports us to a wooded area populated with cute deer, cuddly squirrels and friendly owls, but The Dodos say forget the woodland creatures, climb the trees, and smell the fresh air. In No Color, you’re meant to immerse yourself in its environment, and not take a two-minute vacation. –Ciara Shook
49. Doomtree – No Kings
Twin Cities’ premier hip-hop collective Doomtree returns with its second album—not counting the many mixtapes and compilations. Each member of Doomtree has grown exponentially in respective solo outings, but they’ve also never felt more united. “Bolt Cutter” sees the crew each add their own flair to the song—P.O.S.’s booming hook, Dessa’s soulful verses, Sims’ and Mike Mictlan’s lightning-fast delivery, and production courtesy of Cecil Otter and Lazerbeak. The group is pushing itself in new directions and not just going back to the well. Even in the few spots where the group falters, it still proves that it is one of the most powerful and diverse groups in the game. –David Anthony
48. YAWN – Open Season
After a highly personal and anticipated wait, Chicago’s worst-kept secret finally gifted the music world with its first full-length album, Open Season. Their DIY efforts don’t pass unnoticed as these blooming high-school buddies continue to make heavy strides toward national recognition. Open Season not only embodies an indie-pop output, but also functions on a pleasantly psychedelic level, not to mention the associated visuals the band combines with its music that are known to melt brains. Combining warped vocals, experimental progressions and trippy context, YAWN is certainly a diamond in Chicago’s rough music scene. –Jenn Beening
47. Skeletons – People
Skeletons are one of those bands that you listen to and wonder how they’ve flown under the radar for so long. People is the group’s sixth release, and it’s perfectly tailored to today’s progressive pop scene. Take a little bit of Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors and Maps and Atlases, throw in an extra dose of rock aggression from time to time, and you start to get an idea for what’s going on here. In the absence of all of the aforementioned bands in 2011, Skeletons should have really made some headway with listeners around the country, and it frustrates me that they didn’t. Even if they’re not quite on that level of quality just yet, I anticipate an album to be reckoned with next time around. –Chris Favata
46. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
Where Slave Ambient functions as the perfect soundtrack to a psychedelic, Americana road trip, its restless emotion and placid optimism fill the gas tank for such a cross-country hike. Spending a majority of time en route to Second City locales, I’ve experienced firsthand the impact this album has on any journey, regardless of landscape aesthetics or physical distance. After a brief hiatus and the dismissal of Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs still engage an undeniable sense of positivity and peacefulness through massive instrumentation, all while maintaining rootsy vibes to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. Slave Ambient is all about forward motion, rocking steady from start to finish and keeping your eyes on the open road ahead. –Jenn Beening
45. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
Kendrick Lamar more than lived up to the hype in 2011 after tearing up SXSW and being anointed by the Doctor, who put down his Beats for a second to name Lamar his favorite new rapper. At times more poet than hip-hop artist, Lamar is never afraid to open up the book that is his life on Section.80. From the day it dropped, I’ve been drawn to “Kush and Corinthians” because it feels like it’s a Polaroid taken from one of many nights I’ve spent dealing with my own battles with spirituality and the pull of the world we live in. “To the meaning of life, what’s my purpose? Maybe this earth is, ain’t a good place to be. How far is heaven? Let’s see … I’m a Christian, I’m a sinner … ,” he spits as he ashes his blunt, and as I nod my head in agreement. –Matt Wink
44. The Antlers – Burst Apart
Change doesn’t always go over so well in the music industry, especially when it happens as abruptly as The Antlers’ departure from the dark, heartbreaking nature of their 2009 release, Hospice. After listening to Burst Apart a couple times, though, it will in many ways seem like a natural next step for the group. One major and probably most important difference of this album is the combined vision and writing of frontman Peter Silberman and his newly acquired members, Michael Lerner (percussion) and Darby Cicci (keyboards). Together, the three of them strip away the noisiness of Hospice and leave behind what can only be described as a romantic blend of funk, jazz and rock. –Tom Crawford
43. Robag Wruhme – Thora Vukk
I might be the protoypical fan, but Wruhme was a new discovery for me. When Thora Vukk came out, I was making the two-hour commute from my house to Naperville—standing on train platforms in the cold dawn, no one speaking to each other. It wasn’t an accompaniment to the beginning of my day—it was my day. I didn’t notice the album because it was so perfectly infused. “Wupp Dekk,” with its concealed, stirring strings, got me out of bed, gliding along the pavement to the bounce of the title track, and by the time I was on the train, I was lost in a pleasant “Tulpa Ovi” haze, calm and collected. It’s an album that serves as well atmospherically as it does to dissect every little element. There’s such a captivating sense of place to it. In that way, it was reminiscent of the mornings I had in (Wruhme’s own) Berlin two years ago; the inhumanly large boulevards, grey skies, empty complexes and graffiti—chasing Ampelmännchen across The Spree. –Taylor Cowan
42. Russian Circles – Empros
Post-metal trio Russian Circles turns their sound from ambient and peaceful-ish (on their last album, Geneva) to fury and intensity with Empros. The Chicago band draws from some of their past works’ best characteristics in producing an album with such finesse—i.e., plenty of electric guitar, distortion, melodic patterns and industrial sounds. The songs bleed into each other, shifting the energy from track to track like a ghost transcending through walls. Although Empros isn’t necessarily intended for the masses or casual music audience, it will give even the most unassuming listener a new appreciation for musical layering, textures and altering tempos. –Alex Peak
41. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
One could set their watch by the consistency of Colin Meloy’s voice, although the same can’t be said for the sound of The Decemberists through the years. The sometimes-poppy, sometimes-somber, sometimes-political band took a rustic approach to The King Is Dead, as it was recorded at Pendarvis Farm in Oregon. The songs are cleverly written and inspiring, as usual for the group, roping in themes of life, death and faith. Overall, the composition of the album is refreshing, especially the songs that are centered around the harmonica, violin and accordion. In a year when electronic dance and new wave music championed, The King Is Dead offers a pleasant contrast right where you need it. –Alex Peak