We already gave you one master list of this year’s best albums, according to a collection of other lists and a little mathematical magic. Now we bring you Pigeons & Planes’ picks. Arguments, disagreements, and glaring omissions can be voiced in the comments section.
2011 was a good year for music. The transition from buzz to fame seems to be getting shorter each year, and in twenty-eleven we had no shortage of emerging artists and new music to choose from. While plenty of the picks from this year’s list were highly-anticipated ones from established artists, a surprising amount of our year-end picks were from artists that were barely part of the discussion in 2010. It’s an exciting time to be a listener.
Here are our picks for the best albums of 2011.
25. Destroyer -Kaputt
Dan Bejar, as both the creative force behind Destroyer and a singer in the New Pornographers, has long been an unhailed hero in indie rock writing. Kaputt, however, may be his best work to date. His inspiration? New age and soft rock from the 80’s. What most people found cheesy, he turned into affecting. Using pop (albeit very strange pop) as his medium of choice meant that, for the first time in his career, Bejar’s writing was left intact from his normal obtuse editing. The results were stunning.
24. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
For one of the most colorful albums of the year, Merrill Garbus and company let loose on lively, explosive pop songs that burst at the seams. It’s quirky, fun, and some of the most creative, unrestrained music of the year.
23. James Blake – James Blake
Love him, hate him, or don’t get what all the fuss is about, James Blake has undeniably been a big musical factor in 2011. Subject of much debate, and apparently the man who the word “post-” was made for, he has fluidly made the change from bass music producer to singer/songwriter, and crafted one of the most individual sounding albums of the past year. Unafraid of stripping songs back to their bare bones, and a master of leaving empty spaces in his work, the haunting formula of Mr. Blake’s self-titled album has been imitated, but never equaled. Very little else out there sounds like a James Blake song, and whether you think that is a positive or negative, that originality has helped him onto our list.
22. Foster The People – Torches
It’s an album that isn’t going to show up on many end-of-the-year lists, but we just couldn’t help it. Besides, we know everyone enjoys this shit, even if they feel a little guilty about it. If there’s a flaw, it’s that Torches was too catchy.
21. Rustie – Glass Swords
For most artists, putting together a good album is about finding a balance between the sound they’ve cultivated and new experimentations; between an album that sounds sonically diverse, but carries the same calling card. Rustie threw those traditional difficulties out the window and just created. The result was an insanely diverse electronic sound influenced by music from the past 3 decades, that’s so fun and wide ranging it’s hard to imagine someone could listen to the entire record and not find something they loved.
20. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
EMA hasn’t received much widespread attention, but the fans that did listen to her album were granted with an extraordinarily vivid look at someone during their darkest and most vulnerable time. Her writing stood out as the most impressive aspect of any song; resulting in the distillation of complex emotions and events into sharp, concise, biting turns of phrase that would actually all look good as tattoos.
19. A$AP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP
Harlem’s self-declared “pretty motherfucker” shook things up with some what-the-fuckery. A white girl with a gold grill, another twist on the beaten-to-death “swag,” a hi-jacking of Houston’s style, random Bone Thugs flows sprinkled in. If you read a description without ever hearing the music, it would be impossible to see the value. But one listen, and it’s clear that his unlikely combination of styles created something that captured an all new “cool” perfectly.
18. Gil Scott Heron & Jamie xx – We’re New Here
This record had all the makings of a total disaster. One of the newest electronic producers on the block with just one album to his name, remixing one of the greatest poets of this century. The fact that Jamie xx didn’t crash and burn immediately warrants heaps of praise. Considering that the album made it on this list based on its own merits as a collection of very, very good songs that blend seamlessly musically and thematically is, to be frank, mindblowing. But here it is.
17. SBTRKT – SBTRKT
There are a lot of keywords you can throw out to describe SBTRKT’s work up until 2011, and all of them work to encapsulate his debut full-length. However, the most important adjective is also the only new one: crossover. SBTRKT took London bass music to the masses, turning the genre into something darkly catchy and bold.
16. The Roots – Undun
“Concept album” is an unappealing label, most of the time. The thing about Undun is that–while it does take shape around a story–it’s just as enjoyable on a track-by-track listen. The weight of it all might not be as apparent, but The Roots are sounding as live as ever.
15. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
There wasn’t a hip-hop album as expansive, experimental and esoteric as this one. That being said, there arguably wasn’t a hip-hop album in 2011 that was as hip-hop as this one. Daring, creative and detailed, this was the record with a thousand layers. You could spend hours dissecting the lyrics or finding new elements to the constantly fluid instrumentals, not to mention the hours just spent soaking it all in.
14. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
This is classic rock music, drawing influences from many of the greats, but still standing proudly on its own two feet as music made now, music that is fresh and vibrant. Girls of course reference the past (and who doesn’t?) but have a sound that is very much their own, as they moved away from the lo-fi values of their debut album without losing an all-important intimacy. Christopher Owens supplies direct lyrics that are instantly relatable, and delivered with a voice that has been through a lot, but is still optimistic, and his band gives him a powerful and focused backdrop. This is the sound of a band that has grown up, and rightly taken their position at the forefront of contemporary guitar music.
13. Beirut – The Rip Tide
Beirut has always been known for its Eastern European instrumental incorporations and the swirling voice of Zach Condon. Sometimes too good to be true, sometimes difficult to get into, the band has always carried a watermark of one doing something interesting in indie music. That changed with this album. Everything got tighter, more accessible, poppier. In a lot of ways, it became better.
12. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
There wasn’t a more perfectly titled album in 2011. M83’s synth-heavy, soaring music transported you off the ground and into the clouds. It’s packed with some straightforward pop (including one of the most infectious songs of the year, “Midnight City”), but it’s the big picture that Anthony Gonzalez paints so perfectly that makes this album a stand-out. He goes all in for this one, and instead of making a collection of songs, he’s made a singular piece of work. Just try to put this in your headphones and not float away.
11. Childish Gambino – Camp
From the jump, Donald Glover comes out and puts himself on the line–like, way out on the line–taking away any fuel from people who are looking for reasons to hate. Pure rap fans caught mixed feelings, but there was something that resonated very deeply with a lot of people, and it was just as much about Donald as it was about the production or cohesiveness of the project. Childish Gambino offers a candid, extreme honesty that isn’t easy to find in hip-hop these days, during a time when being “cool” is just as important as expressing your reality.
10. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
These folk-rockers set the bar exceptionally high with their 2008 self-titled debut album, and whilst 2011’s sophomore effort may have taken them another two years to make, when it finally came along, it took one look at the bar, and leapt casually over it, all the while stroking its well-appointed beard. Full of acoustic guitars and affecting vocal harmonies, but not afraid to incorporate influences beyond traditional folk, Helplessness Blues is a bright, modern take on a classic sound, an album that can certainly be enjoyed for its musical textures, but just as much for the personal and immediate nature of Robin Pecknold’s wonderfully poetic lyrics.
09. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
Fans of Kendrick Lamar would argue that this album belongs at number one. The Compton MC put together an album that put forward a new voice in hip-hop so forcefully, it was hard to walk away from Section.80 without feeling like you knew the guy. He’s got a thrillingly genuine love for rapping – and without it there’s no way he would keep coming up with these dexterous flows. More importantly, he seems to really want to be a good guy, which is what makes him such a refreshingly compelling new voice in the industry.
08. Youth Lagoon – The Year Of Hibernation
Trevor Powers’ injects a new life into bedroom pop. The title suggests an intimate, lonely album, and that’s part of the picture here, but it’s the strength of the melodies and the kick of the beats that sets this one apart. There’s not a weak song on this project, and while it’s impossible to not feel flushed with nostalgia during a track like “Seventeen,” it’s also impossible not to start nodding your head when the beat drops.
07. Danny Brown – XXX
Out of all the newcomers in the rap game this year, Danny Brown is the wildest. The weirdo from Detroit is loud in every way, from the yelling delivery to his interesting choice in clothes and hair style. The Fool’s Gold rapper is like a switchblade in a drawer full of butter knives. XXX demonstrates all of that. He brings common rap tropes to life by telling rags-to-riches stories that flip the script and ruminating out loud about what the fuck it means for your life if you’re still trying to “make it” as a rapper at 30 years old.
06. Drake – Take Care
This is the album Drake needed to make. His transition from So Far Gone to Take Care was a catch 22. Sure, he blew up into super-stardom, but he also lost that artistic touch that got him so much love in the first place. On Take Care, he did things his way. It still fits nicely into the mainstream rap world (despite being heavily emo), but he and 40 crafted something that so clearly has their fingerprints all over it.
05. Cults – Cults
The online hype, the first two excellent, eminently hum-able pop-songs built from a lo-fi sensibility – all the ingredients were there for another buzz band who would burn brightly and be revealed to lack depth by the time of their album. Cults, however, did not follow this formula. They revealed themselves as masters of the indie-pop song with depth, as made example by the tune that’s stuck in your head for days, which you suddenly then realize is actually about being kidnapped. This band saw the hype, reveled in it, and lived up to it with an album of 11 little pieces of pop-perfection.
04. Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra
Who else had a 2011 on par with Frank Ocean? Practically no one. Out from the shadows and into the spotlight, Ocean evolved from the relatively unknown Lonny Breaux Collection to dropping the opening hook on one of the biggest hip-hop collaboration albums of all time. Best part is, the kid’s just getting started. If Nostalgia, Ultra was supposed to be a mixtape, he sure fooled us. The 14-track release feels more like a polished debut album than a product of the OFWGKTA freak show machine.
03. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
So many people were just waiting to be disappointed with this one. After such a stunning debut that stands alone in any context you put it in, a proper follow-up seemed out of the question. Somehow, despite his emergence from isolation into the spotlight, Justin Vernon made a beautiful sophomore album that expanded on his sound and raised the bar for what we can expect from him as an artist.
02. The Weeknd – House Of Balloons
For a lot of people, The Weeknd (along with Frank Ocean) is saving R&B. He’s taking a genre that to a lot of people has become stagnant and regressive, and twisted into something artistic and unique. But really, it is almost redundant to try and categorize this album with R&B of the past – The Weeknd came out of nowhere with his own unique aesthetic of mystery and hedonism, and showed us that in 2011 having it all can make for some heartbreaking music.
01. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne
We just couldn’t get around it. As a blog that deals with all kinds of music and takes pride into venturing into the obscure, this was still our favorite album of the year. It’s the one we came back to again and again–the one that, instead of getting played out and old, got better with each listen. Especially if you had the opportunity to experience the WTT Tour in person. We know that this is going to piss off a lot of readers who see this as another unfocused, mainstream rap album that talks about wealth and success, but trust us, it’s much more than that. It was bigger, more important, and better than any other album this year.