The 75 Best Albums of 2011

45. Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming [Daptone]

When soulman Charles Bradley sings “It’s a cold, cold world” over his debut LP’s sizzling array of Hammond B-3s and syncopated guitars, he’s speaking from experience. In Florida and Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy, and then in Maine and more, Bradley grew familiar with a brand of heartache that would send most people into a dark corner for eternity. Instead, supported by the Daptone Records personnel that “discovered” him, the former James Brown impersonator worked his hardships into an unforgettable record. It’s as if No Time for Dreaming has been unearthed from another era — one trimmed in the sound of mid-’60s Memphis, where minor key organ chords and trumpet blasts line grim, difficult stories of lost love and missed opportunities. In impossibly modern treasures like “How Long” and “Golden Rule”, it becomes clear that these tales should be told, and this is exactly how Charles Bradley was meant to tell them. — Dominic Umile

44. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer [Merge]

Last Summer is the confident solo debut of Eleanor Friedberger, a welcome outlet for her quirky outlook on life, fast wit, and vocal stylings on display as one half of the brother and sister duo, the Fiery Furnaces. Last Summer shows Eleanor coming into her own as a songwriter, a side typically not on display. The video for “My Mistakes” is an endearing look back in time, contrasting a less secure, younger Eleanor, shown diligently preparing for a date, with an older wiser version of herself, going through many of the same rituals, but preparing for a much different outing entirely, an enjoyable afternoon playing guitar on the stoop. It possesses a certain world weary perspective, with a touch of nostalgic whimsy.

What’s surprising is the ease with which Eleanor departs from the sharp contrasts of the Fiery Furnaces, which typically careen between folk, electronica, and blues rock, and experimental music, and are prone to gimmicks such as her grandmother’s narration on “Rehearing My Choir” or live sets consisting of one extended medley of song snippets. As a soloist, Eleanor sings with conviction, delivering lovely ’70s-inspired pop, (largely) irony free. “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight” is delivered in a direct style, reminiscent of Ted Leo. Who would have thought that a song titled “Scenes from Bensonhurt” would be one of the most beautiful tracks of the year? “Heaven” is a sunny beatlesque number, while “Owl’s Head Park” deploys a sumptuous mix of strings and saxophone to create a lush, contemplative mood reminiscent of the Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend”. Tracks such as Inn of the “Seventh Ray” and the funk-infused “Roosevelt Island” show her vocal dexterity for stuffing complex passages and the occasional non sequitur into the narrative, providing the songs with a nervous, propulsive energy that reflects the state of the mind of the character. — Dennis Shin

43. Ambrose Akinmusire – When the Heart Emerges Glistening [Blue Note]

Even for serious jazz fans, it can be tiresome to hear yet another recording featuring the standard jazz group: trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums. But this sturdy format can still produce revelation when the playing and writing sparkles. This major label debut is something special. The youngish leader approaches the trumpet with true originality, combining speed and fluency with a fresh approach to tone and note choice. The unaccompanied introduction to “The Walls of Lechuguilla” is flabbergasting — like nothing you have heard before. Akinmusere seems dead-serious about rewriting the rules of jazz trumpet the way Wynton Marsalis was doing so 30 years ago. Akinmusere combines Marsalis fleetness with Lester Bowie’s sonic experimentation and Dizzy Gillespie intervallic leaps. When jazz is healthy, there’s usually a brilliant trumpet player blazing a trail. Jazz feels utterly hale and hearty in the wake of this recording. — Will Layman

42. The Horrors – Skying [XL]

It seems that more people enjoy talking about who influenced the Horrors rather than listening to them. Sure, if you pull away the curtain slightly you can hear Pulp, My Bloody Valentine and Suede. And yes, they were on the covers of British music rags before releasing an LP. In a weird way, despite having everything handed to them, they have always had to work harder to prove they we worth our attention. The good news is that these British boys came out of the gates swinging for what is their third and finest album to date. “Still Life” has the pre-requisite swaggered bassline begging for it to be a radio single, but it’s when they start coloring outside the lines things get truly interesting. “Monica Gems” has a machine gun like rhythm section that becomes wrapped around warbled backing harmonies and dissonant sound. Final song “Oceans Burning” acts as an effective last word, channeling Spirtiualized and Slowdive pacing for the shoegazer closer. Without dispute, this album is solid all the way through and gives me hope that one day we may be chastising the latest, new shiny object as a complete rip-off of the the Horrors circa 2011. — Eddie Ciminelli

41. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light [RCA]

The alt-rock explosion of the early ’90s remains highly influential on modern rock, but few bands are delivering new music with the sonic power and thematic depth to rival the original era. Thank goodness Dave Grohl and company are still going strong. Wasting Light is jam-packed with big guitar hooks, furious rhythms and heartfelt vocals that add up to one of the best rock albums of recent years. It’s hard to think of a comparable guitar-driven album in 2011 that you could rock in your car stereo all summer long without getting tired of. The band played Wasting Light in its entirety at SXSW in March and it was immediately apparent that the consistently strong material rivaled their best work. “White Limo” shows the band still has their grungy punk ethos, while “These Days” is one of their best melodic gems. The closing duo of “I Should Have Known” and “Walk” are Grohl’s moving eulogy for Kurt Cobain’s untimely suicide. The Foos went back to basics by employing Nevermind producer Butch Vig and recording the album in Grohl’s garage to create the type of old school alternative album that proves rock is far from dead. — Greg Schwartz

40. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient [Secretly Canadian]

The internet may have shrunk the world and made all its riches instantly available, but the road trip is still the preferred manner for 20-somethings to better understand the world and, in a sense, better understand themselves. In painting a winding sonic landscape and telling tales wrought with emotional involvement, but often only at an arms length, the War on Drugs has created the perfect road trip record. The steady backbeat of Slave Ambient serves to raise hope about the road ahead, though its wandering verses beg listeners not to focus intently on the stereo, but to take a look at the world around them. It’s easy to appreciate Adam Granduciel’s ability to let his nu-Americana tunes patiently find wings when looking out the window and appreciating the world as it moves by langorously. By record’s end, the feeling of achievement reigns surpreme. We look into the rearview mirror and feel triumphant about the time and space we’ve conquered. — Joshua Kloke

39. Okkervil River – I Am Very Far [Jagjaguwar]

Okkervil River’s Will Sheff has said that the title of this album isn’t really indicative of the songs on it. With themes of myth and memory, dreams and disillusionment, and pasts and people left behind, however, the music tells another tale. Lyrics laden with streams of alliterative images are laid over equally evocative arrangements, layer upon layer until the songs themselves resemble memories — if one might imagine memories are made in much the same way. Some are fashioned from shimmering mystical lands lost in childhood, others form as frames of a faded film flickering on the back wall of your mind’s eye as you drift from dream to dream. Elusive instrumental elements tickle the primitive parts of the brain, threatening to wake dormant primordial monsters, while words are sung of heroes who rise and friends who fell in both legend and real life. Whether recollections culled from the cultural collective or retrospection possessing a more personal perspective, every experience, fact and fiction, half-remembered or long forgotten, is eventually made myth by memory. I Am Very Far alludes to all that separates us from what we once were, while simultaneously illuminating the things to which we are still connected, the myths which we hold close, the legends we’ve lived. We need only be willing to recall. The distance is not so great after all. — Christel Loar

38. DJ Quik – The Book of David [Mad Science]

I keep thinking about this album in the context of Thank Me Later. As emcees, it’s hard to see where Drake and DJ Quik intersect. At 23 years old, Drake quickly rose to a level of mainstream success that’s eluded Quik his entire 20-year career. Recently Drake has been getting lots of praise for blending standard hip-hop braggadocio with confessional insights of self-doubt. Criminally overlooked yet again, The Book of David covers similar ground. Except instead of searching for pain in the isolation of stardom, Quik mines a much more personal subject: his own dysfunctional family. Take “Ghetto Rendezvous” for example. As blisteringly emotional and honest a song as any hip-hop has ever produced. The song is pure vitriol aimed at Quik’s sister. “I hate you more than Michael hated Joe,” Quik spits on the rap equivalent of an episode of Judge Judy, a three-and-a-half-minute list of grievances and biting insults. Even on otherwise triumphant songs, moments of self-deprecation manage to creep in, making them all the more insidious. The Book of David proves DJ Quik’s worth as a hip-hop auteur. The beats are uniformly excellent examples of the slick, polished L.A. sound Quik helped pioneer. If only more people would pay attention. — Justin Linds

37. Cults – Cults [In the Name Of/Columbia]

In a year where genre revivals from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’90s became increasingly common, few came closer to recreating a sound than New York’s Cults. Cults had the perfect combination to mix modern indie pop with the girl groups of the 1960s. While not as intricate as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound technique, there’s a certain bright indie charm to the work of multi-instrumentalist Brian Oblivion. But the hook is the sublime vocal performances. It certainly helps that one can’t help but fall for the charms of lead singer Madeline Follin who delivers sweetly impassioned yet vulnerable vocals. The music is just as charming and heartbreaking as it was fifty years ago, but at the same time, it’s the indie movement subverting and building in more emotional depth. After all, can you imagine the Ronettes singing with the bitterness of “But I can never be myself / so fuck you?” — Nianyi Hong

36. Panda Bear – Tomboy [Paw Tracks]

A few years ago I saw Animal Collective perform at Bonnaroo. The sun pounded on the substantial crowd who had turned up to stare groggily at the stage as four guys messed about with loop peddles. The sound coming off of the medium-sized stage was garbled… obviously not the best venue for this artist. Animal Collective, and by extension Panda Bear’s music depends on you being able to pick out the little details. The music should gently wash over you, not beat you about the head like a riot cop. Accessibility is not Panda Bear’s strong suit. People like to talk about how “pop-oriented” the last two albums have been. I want to bring attention back to the endlessly satisfying weirdness. The songs on Tomboy are like pop songs, but stretched out and filtered through an oscillating fan. You listen to pop music to get an easy bump. It’s an easily consumable, bite-sized snack. The songs on Tomboy are not so easily digested… in other words, not at all like pop songs. I’ve learned from my mistake. The optimal listening experience for Tomboy involves dimmed lights, a bean-bag chair, bulky ear-encompassing headphones, maybe a nice glass of scotch. — Justin Linds