1. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Quite simply one of the most gorgeous albums to be released in years. The production is out-of-this-world, blending the experimental and the aesthetically pleasing at will, while never for a moment sounding forced. There's a sense of grandeur and epic sweep to this record that bands like Coldplay and The Fray seem to always be emptily chasing, but no one has gotten there the way Justin Vernon has this year. And anyone who can incorporate their love for Phil Collins and Bonnie Raitt without a wink or snide distancing is a hero in my book. This would be my #1 in any year, not just this one.
2. Meg and Dia - Cocoon Pretty miraculous what they managed to do in a living room. Somehow, without label financing or a high-powered producer, they matched the incredible heights of their last full-length, Here, Here and Here. The songwriting and the instrumentation are varied, confident and warmly inviting and Dia turns in some of her best lyrical work to date. "Summer Clothes" is going to be my summer jam for years and years.
3. Adele - 21
Just an astounding example of pop songcraft. Maybe the most exquisitely simple album of the year, sometimes not even needing more than a piano. She brings Springsteen-esque drama to every moment of the record, using just her powerhouse voice. Even the 18 billionth cover of The Cure's "Love Song" is new, fresh, and emotionally compelling in her capable hands. Anyone who calls her a Winehouse clone now gets bitchslapped.
4. Jack's Mannequin - People and Things Full confession: he's one of my favorite artists. If Andrew McMahon put out an album on autopilot, it'd be here. But this was a wonderful surprise. He doesn't sound like he's trying to make a grand statement anymore. He's just settled into warm, organic pop-rock, and it sounds wonderful on him
5. Mansions - Dig Up the Dead
One of the most inspiring great records of the year. He turns the limited production into a compelling, often-beautiful aesthetic, never lacking intensity and muscle, even with the most basic arrangements. Making so much out of so little is an uncommon gift.
6. Arrange - Plantation One of the most simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking albums ever made by a man with a laptop. An impressionistic, compassionate portrait of trauma set to sweeping soundscapes that are never ostentatious and showy. Time spent with the lyrics only makes it better.
7. Chad Perrone - Black Friday
Full confession, part deux: Chad is my favorite working artist. Period. So there's a bit of bias here. But to hear him in the most intimate setting (voice and guitar, live takes, warts-and-all) is captivating. Some of these songs are re-recordings, but they sound drastically different in this setting, plus there is a fair amount of new material, so I counted it as an official release. To be honest, it could have been his entire last record acoustic, and I'd have to put something that moved me this much in my top 10.
8. The Roots - Undun The Beatles of hip-hop. Hyperbolic, maybe, but that's the kind of run these guys have been on. Just when you think you've heard all their tricks, they pull out that ending suite and reinvent what you ever thought you'd hear on a mainstream hip-hop record. Throw in Black Thought's all-time-great lyrical skills, and this is a can't miss.
9. Frank Ocean - Nostalgia/Ultra What a voice. This man could sing me anything. Thankfully, he wrote a set of songs to match that magical instrument, including some really inventive re-writes of Coldplay and MGMT that better the songs they sample. The little touches are what lend this album its magic, though. An alarm clock signaling the end of a dream, the clicking of a boombox's "stop" button cutting short carnal reverie, a girl asking "what is a Radiohead?" Ocean's vision is bigger than singles, and thank god for that.
10. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
Perhaps the greatest sound on God's green Earth is that of male and female voices in harmony. That goes a long way toward describing the appeal of Barton Hollow. To hear them sing together, you'd think they were siamese twins, they're so instinctually locked together, one ebbing while the other flows, the other floating like a butterfly while the first stings like a bee. And they make no concessions to commercial country, firmly rooted in folk traditions and simple arrangements. Gorgeous.
11. The Horrible Crowes - Elsie I'm a pretty big Brian Fallon fan. What's so wonderful about this outing is the restraint he shows. Gaslight swings for the fences, but Elsie revels in aiming small. Fallon paints with a more autumnal set of colors and simpler instrumentation, while still keeping a recognizable songwriting style. To call this "the album of the decade" is to miss the point. This is a side-project, through and through, and so much better for it.
12. Red City Radio - The Dangers of Standing Still
For sheer exhilaration , nothing touches this record in 2011. The songs are driving, bracing and tough. The harmonies sugar-sweet and watertight. They don't change the formula much, but what a formula!
13. Mree - Grow I refuse to believe this girl is 17. There may be some endearingly rough edges to the production, but her songwriting and artistic voice are fully-formed and exceptionally polished. And that voice! Truly deserving of the descriptor: angelic. If you can hear her sing without goosbumps or tears, you're dead inside.
14. Laura Stevenson and the Cans - Sit Resist
Stevenson realized the considerable promise of A Record, and then some. Her vocals, songwriting, arranging and production all take huge leaps forward and there are moments where she achieves a really towering gravity in her music. One of the best aspects of the record: the inclusion of unique sonic details in each song, be it accordion hooks in "The Healthy One" or that Spector drum crash in "Master of Art."
15. Pianos Become the Teeth - The Lack Long After
Devastating. As a portrait of loss, it's hard to imagine a better record. And the music is the perfect intersection of cathartic beauty and ferocious heaviness. The lyrics are also some of the best I've ever read, with "I'll Be Damned" in particular standing out as lyrically excellent.
16. Candy Hearts - Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy Their debut was a sugar fix for girrrl-pop addicts. This album needs no such qualifiers. The only album on the list I'd class as pop-punk, it's got all the hungry energy you want from a young band, with a little more polish and attention to hooks. And all the songs still possess the band's secret weapon, the inimitable Mariel Loveland and her charmingly modest vocals and distinct lyrical flavor. "I Want Out" is one of the best songs of the year.
17. Lights - Siberia Let it not be said that this woman is afraid to take a chance. Other than being nominally electronic pop, this couldn't be more different than her near-perfect debut, The Listening. She shows serious smarts, too, incorporating dubstep touches and other bits of what's currently en vogue, but uses them as elements in her own distinct pop songcraft, fully incorporated into her ever-expanding sound. Her lyrics have gotten a little more involved from the deliberate simplicity of the debut as well, letting some very expressive metaphors work their way into the songs.
18. Daryl Hall - Laughing Down Crying A strikingly relevant statement from a former hitmaker now toiling in relative obscurity, Laughing is a convincing statement for Hall as one of the great pop songwriters. What he's lost in range, he's gained in feel and conviction, and thus the record has a gravity his Hall and Oates work sometimes lacked. Daryl isn't back per se, he never went anywhere, but damn if he doesn't sound like he's re-entered his prime.
19. Thrice - Major/Minor
Like Beggars before it, Major/Minor is a wonderful condensation of everything Thrice does well, sometimes all within one song. Their organic, flowing arrangements and thunderous ferocity are nothing new. The revelation here is how big and polished the hooks are, sometimes even recalling arena-fillers such as U2 in their grandeur. As final statements go, this is a pretty spectacular one.
20. Dia Frampton - Red Though her unique writing style gets overpowered by co-writers and star-collabs, Dia's distinctive energy and wonderful voice are as intact as ever, and this time applied to a shimmering, polished set of pop songs. "Daniel", "Isabella" and "Good Boy" are among the best tracks she's ever been a part of.
21. I Can Make A Mess Like Nobody's Business - Gold Rush Quite possibly the best album Ace Enders has ever made. Warm, bright, organic and melodic, this record is joy incarnate.
22. Nikki Kummerow - Firecracker Another truly impressive freshman nobody is talking about. Aaron Marsh's production is warm, inviting and glossy. Perhaps because of this gloss, it takes a few spins to sink in. But after the melodies start to open up for you, the record feels like an old friend.
23. Ha Ha Tonka - Death of a Decade Talk about an unheralded band. These road warriors harness their full-bodied sound into perhaps the greatest standing argument for hope in the realm of southern rock. Excellent from top to bottom, with little touches (a mandolin here, a group vocal there) that keep every song interesting.
24. Childish Gambino - Camp Donald Glover's arrival. He wears every hat he can think to try on, mostly with great success. And his lyrics are a wonderfully beguiling convergence of punchlines, braggadocio, personal introspection and social comment. The spoken-word finale is a particularly unique highlight.
25. Drake - Take Care A masterpiece of mood and production savvy. Drake flexes his superstar muscles and tries as many new things as he can, while never approaching Kanye-levels of excess. Even on a song which lifts lines from Don "American Pie" McLean and features Stevie Wonder on harmonica, Take Care never feels showy. Plus "Marvin's Room" is the definitive drunk dialing song.
26. Mark Rose - Wonderful Trouble Who would have thought the singer for Spitalfield had this record in him?
27. Mike Doughty - Yes and Also Yes He has a knack for making simple songs memorable, using his unique voice, repetition, and well chosen phrasings to leave each song with a lasting impression.
28. The Damnwells - No One Listens to the Band Anymore A really nice maturation for them, broadening their sound palette and upping the energy behind their extremely sturdy songwriting. "She Goes Around" is as concise as pop-rock perfection gets.
29. Mates of State - Mountaintops They make a lot of dance-pop noise for a two-piece. Ass-shaking at its finest and most thoughtful/poignant. "Mistakes" is the song of the year, hands-down.
(t)30. Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire A minor entry in his catalog, but any opportunity to hear Adams stripped down and acoustic is a welcome one, and this warm, lovely set is no exception.
(t)30. Beyonce - 4 Her most consistent record yet. "1 + 1" is the best song Prince never wrote.
Honorable mentions: Terius Nash, Nikki Jean, Big K.R.I.T., The Weeknd, City and Colour, The Hotel Year, Iron and Wine, Booker T. Jones, Matt Nathanson, Doomtree, St. Vincent, Coldplay
1. Childish Gambino - EP A quantum leap forward. "Freaks and Geeks" is hands-down the hip-hop track of the year and the rest of the EP is similarly brilliant.
2. Meg and Dia - Be Careful, I Love You, Stay in Touch EP
Are we sure these are b-sides? For any record less perfect than Coccon, half of these are no-doubt album tracks.
3. Delilah - Go EP The best record I've heard all year that I haven't heard ONE person on ap mention. Spooky and with a powerhouse voice and danceable grooves. Short, sweet, and to the point, but her potential seems huge.
4. Brighten - I'll Always Be Around EP More organic stylings sound quite good on them. And they always had a knack for melody. If they keep putting out EPs this good every year, I will not mind that Brighten isn't their day job.
5. Phantogram - Nightlife EP Their last full-length was a big favorite of mine and this is a really interesting move forward. While they may have embraced the zeitgeist a bit more than I'm comfortable with, they also made their hooks a bit more indelible. I'll take the trade-off.
Honorable mention: Jarrod Gorbel, Dikembe, Dum Dum Girls, Typhoon
Hi friends. So one of my bands, A Fond Farewell just launched our tumblr. It's going to be a place to get new music, video updates, covers and plenty of other stuff from us, so check it out! http://afondfarewellmusic.tumblr.com