Wednesday, December 14, 2011

TK's Top 31 Albums of 2011

This was originally posted by John T.K. Scherch on his Facebook; he has good taste in music, but please don't spam him with friend requests if you don't know him. :)
It's time. The time when I count down all of my albums of the year. It's been quite a ridiculously great year for music; there have been obvious standouts that you will see further down this long rant of a top 31 list, but the rest of the list was much, much harder.

Sigur Rós - Inní
My favorite release of the year was not of new music, but I clearly can't go without mentioning it: Sigur Rós - Inní. Sigur Rós is my favorite band, so obviously I'm biased, but this is a live album that you must both hear and see. The performances are true enough to the original recordings, but distinct enough that they provide a new emotion to the songs, especially since this is a document of the band's final show before going on a three-year hiatus. (They have a new album coming out in 2012, which is already my favorite of that year. Sorry, everyone else.)

31. Battles - Gloss Drop
Onto the new music! For a very interesting take on a genre that I hear way too much about, Battles takes my #31 spot with their new LP, Gloss Drop. Especially on tracks like "Ice Cream" and "Futura," this record stands out when other math-rock albums that I hear all about sound comparatively generic and occasionally whiny. This one takes the genre in a weirder direction, and what makes me even happier with it is that it for the most part lacks vocals, which can sometimes undermine the virtuosic instrumental performances.

30. Smith Westerns - Dye it Blonde
The next album on my list would probably be well classified as a "summer album," even though it came out very early in the year. Pitchfork said that once summer rolled around, another LP, Cut Copy's Zonoscope, would seem like an even better listen, but that didn't seem to happen for me. The one that did sound better as it got warmer, and my #30 album of the year, is Smith Westerns' Dye It Blonde. This one's guitars fit the description of "shimmering," and the chorus of backing vocals on one of my favorite cuts "All Die Young" almost prompts a kick line.
29. Tyler, the Creator - Goblin

#29, by most standards, is probably not the best hip-hop album of the year, but I like my music served weird. Saying that, there could be two LPs that could fit as my favorite hip-hop record of the year (with much respect to Shabazz Palaces' Black Up), but Tyler, the Creator's Goblin combined good flow, scathing lyrics, and delightfully ironically amateurish beats to make this list. Plenty of people knock his lyrics for using lots of bad words, even the dreaded "cunt" and "faggot," but we have to remember that this is a character he's creating. The fractured beats and angrily spewed lyrics paint a picture of the troubled kid that Tyler is trying to portray, which he does admirably. It's not a gimmick; if he isn't actually trying, shouldn't we be even more impressed and wonder what the kid can do when he is?

28. Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra.
Odd Future certainly had a hell of a year, and in my mind, nobody in the group had a better one than Frank Ocean, who comes in at #28 with his new mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. I've said it numerous times; I am not an R&B fan, but people like Frank Ocean are slowly starting to change my mind. Granted, he does so in a much more lo-fi fashion and not talking about how he misses his sexy love or whatever WVAQ-style R&B singers talk about, but haters be damned, this is still real R&B music that deserves some attention from the people who attach themselves to the aforementioned crap. Now that he's collaborated with the likes of Kanye West and Jay-Z, we might be seeing more of him on a bigger stage. Wish he'd show up at OFWGKTA shows though...

27. The Strokes - Angles
Notably absent from my list is Radiohead's The King of Limbs. Flying Lotus jokes aside, and even not just by Radiohead's standards, it was a disappointment. My #27 album, The Strokes' Angles, is only by the Strokes' standards disappointing, but that still makes it pretty damn good. When the first single, "Under Cover of Darkness," came out, I got REALLY excited to hear a jangly, lo-fi record in the vein of Is This It and Room On Fire, which that track echoed a lot of. That was the disappointment. It was certainly a great welcome back into the scene for the band, though, and had them slightly tweaking old Strokes sounds and even adding some new things (see: "Machu Picchu"). It wasn't classic, but it wasn't slick like their previous effort, so that made it a lot more enjoyable for me.

26. The Weeknd - House of Balloons
I mentioned how I like my otherwise mainstream-accepted music weird. This was the first R&B album (unless you count James Blake) this year to really get me excited again about the concept of R&B. This type, as displayed on #26, The Weeknd's House of Balloons, is more atmospheric, more ambient, and therefore in my mind far more seductive. It's as if Boards of Canada hired D'Angelo to do guest vocals and then left his voice really fuzzed-out in the mix, like the entire thing were heard through a dreamy haze of hallucinogenic drugs; almost like chillwave went R&B.

25. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - S/T
Speaking of fuzzed out, my #25 album of the year 2011 entirely bases itself around that idea. Unknown Mortal Orchestra's self-titled debut takes the concept of catchy pop rock tunes and running them all through a fuzz pedal and makes the idea sound new, instead of recycled and overplayed. I would see this band name accompanying various indie bands around their touring schedules and was initially skeptical, generally because of the band name, but that prejudice went away quickly; this is '90s-worshiping and pleasingly psychedelic, with songs you can sing along to (at least the la la las on "Ffunny Ffriends").

24. Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine
On the subject of lo-fi, the chillwave movement is clearly not dead. Instead of just bedroomy electro dance music, artists have been infusing a few more twists into their music; an example being my #24 album of this year, Toro Y Moi's Underneath the Pine. "Soulwave" is what I would call this. I was really impressed that Chaz Bundick was the first to branch out from the typical bedroom electropop format to create a surprisingly funky take on the Hipster Runoff genre. Start with the tracks "New Beat" and "Still Sound," but the rest is certainly worth a listen as well.

23. The Black Keys - El Camino
You know this next band. The seemingly only survivors of the blues-rock insurgence of the early 2000s, The Black Keys have made their most exciting record yet, with the new album El Camino, coming in at #23 on my list. I was sold on this as soon as I saw the video for "Lonely Boy," which is also one of my favorite tracks of the year. It's a simple song, as most of the songs on here are, which really shows Danger Mouse's production talents much more than Attack & Release did, where they made a pretty good artistic-sounding album at the expense of sounding reserved. This new record is a huge blues party driving around in that minivan with the dude from the "Lonely Boy" video.

22. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Next we have an interesting one. St. Vincent has always gotten all of these rave reviews, but I guess I hadn't paid too much attention until this one came out. Cue the wave of understanding; here's my #22 album of the year, Strange Mercy. Annie Clark is one hell of a talented musician; that shows on all of the tracks. Two of the tracks especially stood out to me, and yes, they were the singles, but I digress: "Cruel" balances its creepy carnivalesque organs with one of the year's best one-word choruses, while "Surgeon" gives us kind of an ambient, slow beat that starts off with an homage to Nancy Sinatra's James Bond tune "You Only Live Twice."

21. WU LYF - Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
I remember when requests for this were all over Anthony Fantano's (the needle drop) YouTube videos and thinking... is this some huge buzz band that a bunch of bros are getting into that I'm just going to hate? The goddamn band name is WU LYF. Is it a Wu-Tang tribute gone horribly wrong? It turned out I was the one horribly wrong; my #21 album of this year is their debut Go Tell Fire to the Mountain. Ironically, my favorite track off this is called "We Bros," an increasingly raucously bouncy track that adds some steel drum sounds to their fuzzy shout-rock. Assumption bites me in the ass again.

20. Atlas Sound - Parallax
Bradford Cox has been one of my favorite musicians as of late; Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest was one of my favorite albums that came out in 2010. Following his habit of alternating projects by year, it's Atlas Sound's turn, and Cox's new solo album Parallax comes in at #20 on my countdown. This album, more than any other Atlas Sound recording, sounds the most like Deerhunter, specifically reminiscent of 2008's Microcastle. We also see some hints of the less fuzzy Halcyon Digest tracks, with "Te Amo" and "Terra Incognita" especially seeming to emulate that sound. Therefore, no points for originality to Bradford, but when it sounds like Deerhunter, who's complaining?

19. Washed Out - Within and Without
As I mentioned before, I'm a huge Sigur Rós fan, but looking at the image to the right, you'd have to wonder why I would bring that up now. Washed Out's new album,Within and Without, comes in at #19 for me because not only is it probably the best iteration of chillwave (or bedroomy electro for those who frown upon continued use of the term) I've heard yet, but the lyrics are so unintelligible that Ernest Greene seems to be singing them in Hopelandic. On my favorite track, "Amor Fati," it seems like the lyrics were borrowed from Sigur Rós's 2002 album ( ), where they mostly went, "You xao. You lo fi lo."

18. Wilco - The Whole Love

Speaking of albums released in 2002, Wilco released one of the best LPs of the 2000s with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. My #18 album of 2011, The Whole Love, is their best effort since that LP. I immediately knew I was going to enjoy this when I heard the first track, "Art of Almost," a 7-minute mind trip to rival Yankee Hotel's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." Through the album we see music akin to their mid-2000s work, but with a certain raw feeling relatively unseen on their more produced earlier works. Coming in to close out is a beautiful, sprawling 12-minute track, "One Sunday Morning," which is probably the best time to listen to it.

17. Yuck - S/T
Even more '90s-worshiping and going so far as to call them a total Dinosaur Jr. ripoff (certainly not a bad thing), Yuck's self-titled debut comes in on my list at #17. Most tracks here are single-worthy; the purists might cry generic, and it's true that everything here is borrowed from someone else, but that's mostly what makes it enjoyable. "Georgia" is the most upbeat and jangly, "The Wall" is the sing-along, "Get Away" evokes the most said '90s inspiration, and "Operation" brings us the riffs that draw the Dinosaur Jr. comparisons. Wonder what'll happen if these guys try something more original when their borrowed stuff sounds this good?

16. Panda Bear - Tomboy
In a year when The Beach Boys release their long-awaited Smile sessions, it seems only appropriate that Brian Wilson soundalike Panda Bear release a new album as well, and it's good enough to reach my #16 slot on this list. Tomboy takes Noah Lennox's music in the more electronic direction Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion took in 2009; instead of using tons of samples as on his previous solo effort Person Pitch, he uses watery synths and heavily reverberated harmonic vocals to make this new record sound like it was recorded underwater. This makes me quite excited for a new Animal Collective record due out next year.

15. Blanck Mass - S/T
Bringing up another watery electronic album, Blanck Mass's self-titled debut takes us in a far noisier direction. Blanck Mass is Benjamin John Power of British noise duo Fuck Buttons, so if you know that group, you'll definitely have a good idea of what this sounds like. Blanck Mass takes Fuck Buttons' Tarot Sport's heavy emphasis on electronic noise and, instead of taking it in a more upbeat and danceable direction as Tarot Sport did, gives it the post-rock treatment, creating long, beautiful noisy crescendos that explode out of your speakers. This also is a good gateway project for those who haven't heard of Fuck Buttons before, as this is on the more accessible side.

14. Iceage - New Brigade
This next record is a perfect example of a punk band that appeals to purists and new listeners at the same time and without giving a shit. Danish punk band Iceage comes in at #14 with their new record New Brigade. This is a loud, raucous album that can incite throngs of joyously violent people to lovingly beat the shit out of each other (see track "Broken Bone"). Some bands, looking to achieve accessibility, might soften up a bit, while others will lose half their audience by being even louder (which I normally appreciate). Iceage seems to have found just enough accessibility while still sounding like a raw hardcore band from when the genre was just getting started.

13. J Mascis - Several Shades of Why
J Mascis is known for such hard music as well; as the frontman of Dinosaur Jr., he has established himself as one of the top players in indie guitar rock. The idea of him recording an acoustic LP could seem to some as interesting, going soft, or hell-no-plug-your-guitar-back-in. Thankfully, my #13 album of 2011, Several Shades of Why, goes beyond "interesting" into being one of the best acoustic records I've heard in a while. Mascis's soft, gritty voice is a perfect complement to the noodling that goes on behind him; the instrumentation could even be fitting for some sensitive bro writing a song, but the raw production and J's raspy whisper make this sound much more meaningful than any frat-songwriter-type could ever hope to sound.

12. James Blake - S/T

Even softer, but certainly effective at a louder volume, is James Blake's self-titled debut full-length, coming in at #12. In a year where I learned to like R&B by listening to The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, this LP - which came out before either of those - became so much more awesome to me midway through the year. Initially, I respected this for being English dubstep (as opposed to the womp womp American dubstep equating to shitting through speakers), but hearing its R&B influences, this sounded much more interesting than most other electronic records I'd heard this year. Also... play it when you're with someone special. That is all.

11. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo

We're on a soft streak here. Kurt Vile just sings into the microphone nonchalantly as he plays on my #11 album of 2011, Smoke Ring For My Halo. I'm tired, and I'm actually listening to it right now; it's perfect relaxing music. It makes no attempt to be complicated; the music is played into an echo chamber that redirects the reverberation to around your brain. Kurt Vile's nonchalant singing could even draw a few Bob Dylan comparisons. This music is simple, but when everyone else tries to make things complex, simplicity is welcome.

10. JEFF the Brotherhood - We Are the Champions

Finally the volume goes back up. With a cheesy horn sound to sound the beginning, JEFF the Brotherhood makes its first statement on my #10 album of the year, We Are the Champions. The track "Hey Friend" was the one we were all shouting for at the show, and for good reason; it's one of the best tracks of the year, pairing a long psychedelic intro with tongue-in-cheek lyrics about said friend's family. As we progress through, we hear party music, sing-along whoa-oh-oh-ohs, and even black metal. This is definitely one of the most exciting albums of 2011, and it shows that the band more than deserves their new major label... let's just hope that becomes more of a help than a hindrance.

9. Real Estate - Days
I remember earlier this year when Ducktails put out their new album and there was a huge buzz about the song "Killin' the Vibe," which is one of the best tracks of this year. The track was a towering standout on the album. What we were waiting for, though, was Matthew Mondanile's main project Real Estate to release a new record, and as my #9 record of the year, Days does not disappoint. I'd heard the track "It's Real" over and over again on XMU, but once the album dropped, the single was merely an afterthought, as the woozy surf-rock of tracks like "Green Aisles" and "Out of Tune" have more of the desired aurally psychedelic effect.

8. Dum Dum Girls - Only In Dreams

It seemed that in 2008, the trend of girl garage rock groups started, and in 2010, it seemed to break apart into side projects and obscurity (even by indie standards). Enter Richard Gottehrer as producer on Dum Dum Girls' newest LP, and my #8 record of the year, Only in Dreams. This album raises the bar way higher than any girl garage group has ever reached. When their He Gets Me High EP was released earlier this year, I got really excited to hear a new Dum Dum Girls full-length, and that excitement was increased tenfold when I first heard the song "Coming Down," one of the best tracks of the year. The whole album shimmers like their amplifiers emitted a glow that lit up the whole room.

7. Dumbo Gets Mad - Elephants At the Door
I have Anthony Fantano (The Needle Drop) to thank for this next one. This is a '60s-influenced psychedelic record by an Italian guy who records under the moniker Dumbo Gets Mad. His album, Elephants at the Door, came out very early this year and stood the test of time to make it all the way to #7 on my list. The textures on this record reminded me a lot of what would happen if the Flaming Lips took their new sounds and produced them the way they produced their earlier, more gritty records. Standout "Plumy Tale" even shows some surf-rock influence. The best part, though? It's free! Go download it!

6. Destroyer - Kaputt

As an indie rock fan, I obviously get tired easily of people saying the '80s were the worst decade in pop music. I guess that's why Dan Bejar made the latest Destroyer album sound deliberately like the music lampooned by hipsters around the world - except it sounded amazing. My #6 album of the year, Kaputt, is more or less ironic yacht rock, except it has all of the complexities and haze of psychedelic pop. The backing vocals give it a very soulful feel while the twinkling synths, especially on the title track (one of my favorite tracks of the year), give the impression of soaring through the sky. Play this one for your parents; they'll have no idea it came out this year.

5. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
This is one I was really, really excited about. Anthony Gonzalez told the world that the next M83 album would be "very, very, very epic." Knowing the epicness of their previous releases, I could not wait for this to come out. Now that it's out, I'm actually kind of disappointed, but that doesn't stop Hurry Up, We're Dreaming from claiming the #5 spot on my list of albums for 2011. Intro tracks used to be things you would skip, but recently we've seen them create beautiful entrances to albums such as the xx's debut album and M83's previous effort, Saturdays=Youth. This intro track is no exception; it is a slow-burning, anthemic build-up to first single "Midnight City," whose saxophone solo may be the best instrumental solo heard all year. I'm not going to spoil the rest of the album, though; I could go for pages on how awesome this is.

4. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

I remember when Fleet Foxes first emerged; as a relative newcomer to the world of independent music, I at once overlooked this and shunned it because it seemed like it was what everyone was listening to. Little did I know that it was popular for a very good reason, and now this sophomore effort deserves just as much buzz. Helplessness Blues, my #4 album of the year, shows Robin Pecknold and co. taking their music in more of a raw direction; they didn't need as much reverb this time to make their harmonies sound beautiful, and they also showed slight imperfections that gave the record an overall more honest and DIY feel (not that Fleet Foxes need to improve their indie cred). There are builders like the title track, and there are also tracks like "The Shrine / An Argument," whose movements beg the label "folk symphony."

3. Bon Iver - S/T
I had originally ranked this below the previous album on a list halfway through the year, but as the year went on, I realized: Fleet Foxes have individual tracks as folk symphonies. My #3 album of the year, the self-titled sophomore album by Bon Iver, is a folk symphony in itself. Instead of separate tracks, Bon Iver functions as a single piece of music; each track flows seamlessly into the next. The ends of some tracks double as motifs for the subsequent ones. The best duality used here in my opinion is opening one-two "Perth" and "Minnesota, WI." "Perth" opens beautifully with harmonized vocals and a simple guitar line, until it all comes crashing together as the first chorus comes in. People will rip on "Beth/Rest," the closer, for being yacht-rockish, but as that makes it similar to Destroyer's Kaputt, it's one of my favorites.

2. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost

The first single from Girls' new record, "Vomit," had to grow on me. Instead of his obnoxious whine used on their first Album, he seemed to be barely audibly whispering into the mic. What helped that grow on me was how the song itself built into a huge, overflowing coda complete with backing soulful solo. That is just one of the highlights on my #2 album of the year, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, an album full of great things, and as Girls do best, a variety of genre influences. Opener "Honey Bunny" is a surf-rock track. "Die" has metal influence. "Magic" has a catchy shuffle that will have you dancing and singing along. "Alex" is just awesome. I could say more about the tracks, but I think the most noticeable thing is what I mentioned earlier: Christopher Owens has taken to whispering into the microphone rather than whining, which makes the music much more in tune and also much more intimate.

And my favorite album of 2011 is...

1. Fucked Up - David Comes to Life
That's right, if you know me at all, if you've read my prior lists, if you know how excited I was to see their shows this summer and if you know what awesome music this is, you'll know that Fucked Up's David Comes To Life is my runaway favorite album of the year. As soon as I heard the first single, "The Other Shoe," I knew that these guys were getting into some awesome shit. I pre-ordered the album on vinyl, got lots of bonuses along with it, and saw the band live twice this year, and I'm happy to say that all of that money was wonderfully spent. This is a punk rock opera of epic proportions; it tells the story of David Eliade, a light bulb factory worker who meets a girl named Veronica Boisson while she's handing out flyers to promote her local communist group. They fall in love, but David's usual paranoia about relationships is gruesomely confirmed when Veronica is killed in a bomb explosion. The rest of the story involves David working with his ex to find the source of his problems and meeting the man truly responsible for Veronica's death, before finally coming to realize that with love in his heart, he can live through any hardship that befalls him. This is probably the best rock opera I have ever heard (and I own Tommy and Zen Arcade on vinyl as well), and it is a must-listen for anyone who likes punk, rock, pop... well, music in general.

Most overrated album: PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Most underrated album: Dumbo Gets Mad - Elephants at the Door

Best tracks:
Beirut - "Santa Fe"
Dum Dum Girls - "Coming Down"
Black Keys - "Lonely Boy"
Fucked Up - "A Little Death"
M83 - "Midnight City"
Girls - "Alex"
Tyler, the Creator - "Yonkers"
Bon Iver - "Perth"
Fleet Foxes - "Helplessness Blues"
Destroyer - "Kaputt"
Battles - "Ice Cream"
Smith Westerns - "Weekend"
The Strokes - "Under Cover of Darkness"
Toro Y Moi - "Still Sound"
Washed Out - "Amor Fati"
JEFF the Brotherhood - "Hey Friend"
James Blake - "I Never Learnt to Share"
(I'm gonna stop here, this will take all night...)

(Honorable mentions will take all night too, this was a great year for music...)

And for those who have an interest in metal music...

I. Yob - Atma
II. Vektor - Outer Isolation
III. Cormorant - Dwellings
IV. Disma - Towards the Megalith
V. Wolves in the Throne Room - Celestial Lineage
VI. The Atlas Moth - An Ache for the Distance
VII. Omitir - Cotard
VIII. Mastodon - The Hunter
IX. Riot - Immortal Soul
X. Lantlos - Agape

What were your favorite albums of 2011?

John T.K. Scherch is a vocal performance student at West Virginia University and the metal director of its college radio station, WWVU-FM (U92). His writings are mainly confined to his Facebook page, unless someone who is friends with him likes what he writes and decides to post it on his or her blog. John is a lifelong musician and lover of music of all types (except for his certain disdain for Top 40 radio pop). In his spare time, he enjoys singing, piano, drumming, listening to obscure music, and drinking a good craft beer.
Follow him@djtelekinesis |


  1. Foster the People AND Evanescence got snubbed? Humphf!

    Seriously, Bass Drum Of Death, The Pleasure Leftists, Deathclutch, and a bunch of others didn't make it. Please, soak all of those things up.

  2. I dunno, judging by this guy's list I think he wouldn't have been into that kinda stuff... prehaps Bass Drum of Death.