The 75 Best Albums of 2011

65. Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do [Republic]

Mayer Hawthorne’s latest ended up being one of the biggest surprises of 2011, but not because it was simply a good album. Instead, the Michigan crooner caught us all off guard by releasing something as superb as How Do You Do so soon into his career. With each listen comes a new favorite track. “Hooked” draws from golden-era Motown with its pumping beat and stomping horns. “Can’t Stop” features an unexpectedly smooth cameo from Snoop Dogg. And “Finally Falling” is the best song Hall & Oates never wrote with its simple drum pattern and ’80s pop feel. How Do You Do is a major step forward for a young R&B artist who showed glimpses of promise with a debut (2009’s A Strange Arrangement) that was spotty at best. Now, with such an outstanding sophomore effort behind him, it’s hard to think Mayer Hawthorne could possibly top himself the next time around. — Colin McGuire

64. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong [ATO]

Listening to Dawes’ music for the first time gives you the feeling that you should have known them for years… and it’s tempting to even lie about it. It’s a familiar feeling and even a comfortable one, right from the get-go. It’s not a fleeting feeling though, even with catchy lyrics and a melody that’s almost too easy to sing along to. Two years after their debut release, North Hills, Dawes came back with an album showing musical growth, life change, and better recording equipment, but managed to escape the oh-so-easy trap of changing their sound altogether to get more airplay. Nothing Is Wrong is not only the natural progression of a young band, it’s the mark of music that may have actual staying power in a universe flooded with flavors of the week. — Jonathan Kosakow

63. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar [Atlantic/Canvasback]

The Joy Formidable’s debut full-length comes as the answer to musicians who use the fuzz and delay of ’90s shoegaze strictly for camouflaging technical limitations and weak writing. Guitarist and vocalist Ritzy Bryan knows her way around a pedalboard, but the atmosphere and bombast that she and her bandmates wield on The Big Roar are never mere affectation. The Welsh power trio packs hooks into sugary concoctions like “Cradle” and injects epic heaviness into melodic stomper “A Heavy Abacus”. “Whirring” splits the difference, with the economical precision of the song proper giving way to the coda of the year, a stunning set of crescendos built on a wall of guitars and double-kick pounding. With four songs re-recorded from the band’s 2009 mini-album, A Balloon Called Moaning, The Big Roar might look like a louder, longer redundancy on paper. But louder is where the Joy Formidable works its most potent magic, and, in the case of this album, longer is just long enough. — David Bloom

62. Austra – Feel It Break [Domino]

It’s easy to lump in the compositions by Toronto singer-songwriter Katie Stelmanis with the recent work by the likes of Fever Ray and Zola Jesus, and it’s perfectly justifiable, too, as Austra’s full-length debut does mine similar territory: dark atmosphere, icy, minimal synths, chilling vocals. However, what distances Feel It Break from the rest of Austra’s peers is its sneaky pop sensibility (“Lose It”, “Shoot the Water”) and the way the classically-trained Stelmanis so seductively alternates between emotional distance and warm humanity. One minute she’s a chilling presence on breakthrough single “Beat and the Pulse”, and the next she’s evoking Kate Bush beautifully on piano-driven “The Beast”. In less skilled hands such a contradiction would have felt awkward, but Stelmanis walks that line with impressive ease on this gorgeous, haunting record. — Adrien Begrand

61. Mastodon – The Hunter [Warner Bros./Reprise]

Absolutely nobody, including Mastodon themselves, knew how this Atlanta-based metal quartet would follow 2009’s Crack the Skye. Their brooding, insanely ambitious fourth album, which, with its over-the-top lyrical narrative (time-traveling paraplegic, suicide, Rasputin) and pulverizing prog-rock layers, felt like an exercise in absorbing excess that couldn’t possibly be repeated. So instead of venturing out further into space, Mastodon wisely reigned things back on The Hunter, even if they’ve never sounded more schizophrenic, trimming away Skye‘s conceptual and musical fat while branching out subtly into wonderful new textures. “Curl of the Burl” is nearly jaw-dropping in its simplicity, as it’s little more than Brann Dailor’s crushing, Bonham-esque drum groove and sludge-y detuned riffs from the twin-headed beast of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher. Meanwhile, on the hilarious and life-affirming epic “Creature Lives” — featuring synths, choral-styled chanting, and a clean, hummable vocal from Dailor — they throw out a bold “Fuck You” to their more close-minded fans. Throughout, they challenge conventions of what “metal” even means—with a collective wink and goofy-ass grins plastered on their faces. — Ryan Reed

60. Feist – Metals [Interscope]

This is usually where the breakout would happen. A mere few years removed from A Reminder, an album that was sincere enough to not feel like a sellout when Apple started using it to hock iPods but poppy enough to have your kid and your grandma singing along at the same time, Metals comes off as such a thrill by being utterly opposed to pandering. It’s not trying for fame or greatness, it’s merely achieving the latter, and almost by accident. Metals feels spontaneous, as if Ms. Feist is merely singing the first words that come to her head, but the subtly beautiful (and sometimes, surprisingly complex) instrumental arrangements behind her belie such spontaneity. All of this, while she offs such perfect lines as “Good men and good women bring out the worst in each other” and “Where we look for where we went / It’s only echoes in the melody.” It will never be seen as Feist’s catchiest, poppiest, or perhaps even her best album, but Metals feels like the moment we realize what a treasure of a songwriter she happens to be. — Mike Schiller

59. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key [Saddle Creek]

Preceeded by the suggestion that this would likely be Bright Eyes’ last album, The People’s Key certainly carried weighty expectation upon its shoulders when it appeared in February. And as a summation of Conor Obert’s 16-year stint under the moniker, it handled that expectation well. The People’s Key is an accomplished, well-sequenced collection of songs that played to Obert’s strengths and, lyrically, acknowledged the passing of youth with a sometimes wistful, sometimes slightly jaded tone. “Beginner’s Mind’s” message from today’s Oberst to his younger self, advising him to “swear you’ll do the opposite of all those tangled hypocrites” hints that Oberst is older, wiser and with less fire in his belly than when we first met him. The quick-fire one-two of lead single “Shell Games” and the hook-laden, rocking “Jejune Stars” earlier on in the album, however, suggest otherwise. “And One For You, One For Me” is the album’s and Bright Eyes’ career’s fitting conclusion: a subdued curtain-call that almost demands you don’t expect a return. — David Smith

58. Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will [Sub Pop

If we judged albums based on titles alone, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will would win the prize of 2011 with nary a hint of contest. It’s in equal measures darkly hilarious, insightful, and, in a peculiar way, career-defining for this influential Scottish band. After dropping a groundbreaking record in 1997’s Young Team, critical mass has generally been of the opinion that the band hasn’t been able to live up to the high standard they set for themselves. This record ought to dispel any such notion. Everything that makes Mogwai great are present here: the rock (“San Pedro”), the imposing, powerful crescendoes (“You’re Lionel Ritchie”), and the incredibly beautiful (“Death Rays”, one of the band’s finest tracks to date). If the album title is true, and I’d like to think it is, we all will die someday. Hopefully though, the hardcore music of Mogwai never will. — Brice Ezell

57. Battles – Gloss Drop [Warp]

After a bracing debut that had the indie-rock world buzzing in 2007, Battles’ Gloss Drop arrived with all the sorts of questions that accompany a highly-anticipated follow-up album. In addition, they also had to deal with the elephant in the room. To wit, how would the remaining trio fare after the departure of key member Tyondai Braxton? As it turns out, the band is doing quite well, thanks. Instead of remaking Mirrored, Battles chose to push forward and expand their sound. The band employs radically different guest vocalists on singles like the playful “Ice Cream” (Matias Aguayo), the poppy “Sweetie and Shag” (Kazu Makino), and the apocalyptic hard rock of “My Machines” (Gary Numan). Meanwhile, more groove-based tracks like “Inchworm” and “Wall Street” provide the thumping beats and gradually building song structures for which the band is best-known. Musicians often get stuck in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation where they’re either accused of repeating themselves or messing too much with their established sound. Battles deserve credit for toeing that line with aplomb on Gloss Drop. — Chris Conaton

56. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne [Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam]

In the months following Watch the Throne‘s release enough listeners became perturbed over Kanye and Jay-Z’s effusively glamorous themes that some might think its inclusion on any year-end list is unrealistic. But as I wrote in my review this summer, it’s unfair to ignore their equally passionate rhymes about the crime rate in Chicago, their future offspring, and the sadly precious few other black folk, entertainers or otherwise, with whom they could share in their jovial material delights. It also ignores another tour de force in hip-hop production from Kanye West and his army of co-producers, who make the combination of dubstep and hip-hop work beyond most reasonable expectations with the Beanie Sigel-dissecting “Why I Love You”, the Auto-Tune of the ineffable Nina Simone on “New Day”, and one the year’s most ubiquitous club jams with “Niggas in Paris”. All in a vacation to Paris’ work, I suppose, for two of hip-hop’s utmost royalty. — David Amidon