Top 20 Albums, 2011

[Sorry if you were hoping for more writing. I guess I just have less to say this year. And less time to waste figuring out how to say it. Oh well.]
[Album links go to Spotify. Don't tell me you don't have Spotify.]

20. Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr - It's a Corporate World

19. The Streets - Computers and Blues

18. Foster the People - Torches

17. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo

16. The Horrors - Skying

15. The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From The Vaccines

14. Explosions in the Sky - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

13. David Bazan - Strange Negotiations

12. Washed Out - Within and Without

11. M83 - Hurry Up We're Dreaming

10. Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation

9. Bright Eyes - The People's Key

8. Cults - Cults

7. Starfucker - Reptilians

6. Beirut - The Rip Tide

5. Real Estate - Days

"Days" is a pleasant album in exactly the same way that sunny weather makes for a pleasant day. There's nothing deceptive in its simplicity; its songs are just good songs, repeating the success of Real Estate's last bedroom-rock record almost to the letter, and more confident for it. And why not? Why should a good song have to be something more than a good song? Why should 'wasted time' be considered waste at all? The band sticks up for itself: "All those wasted miles, all those aimless drives through green aisles--our careless lifestyle: it was not so unwise."

4. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

There's something to be said for any creative work so unassailable that the only honest criticism anyone can level at it is "I don't like this," or (more honestly) "I don't get this." I didn't like or get "Let England Shake" at first--it's a complicated, enigmatically structured record front-loaded with its most dissonant & least accessible tracks--but I came around, as I imagine anyone did who gave it multiple chances and knows how to be affected by music. That's what it comes down to: this is an album with the power to affect us so many ways, to evoke feelings way beyond "This is pretty" or "Let's dance. Consider the heavy-handed, out-of-place bugle reveille on "The Glorious Land," a headache inducing reminder that war makes us tone-deaf, blind to our own humanity. PJ Harvey is a lilting gadfly. We'd do well to listen.

And what lyrics--poetic, prophetic, muckraking. Harvey holds forth with questions like "How is our glorious country sown?" and "What is the glorious truth of our land?" "Let England Shake" may be archaic and arcane, but its message, addressed not just to the corporate, industrial & military establishments that inescapably constitute modern life, but also to the cruel nature in all of us, is pretty damn timely, asking maybe the most important question of all: Who do we want to be?

3. The Antlers - Burst Apart

Something had to occupy the dark atmospheric rock hole-in-my-heart The National left empty this year. "Burst Apart" does nicely. It's perhaps not as coherent a concept album as 2009's "Hospice" was, but it's certainly an intentionally arranged breakup album, maybe the year's best. Recommended for summer nights when your teeth are falling out.

2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Robin Pecknold penned the best lyrics on any album this year (except maybe PJ Harvey). That's still better than David Bazan, Ben Gibbard, Collin Melloy, Sam Beam, Bill Callahan or Conor Oberst. No album has nailed the crisis confronting middle-class Americans so squarely since "Good News for People Who Love Bad News." The title song hit me at a time when The Economy was no longer a benign monster-under-the-bed, but a looming, confounding presence, keeping me from landing a job, pushing me to lean on my parents and generally blocking me from becoming an adult. The happy ending to that story is that I moved to a more expensive city and work 30 hours/week at two minimum-wage jobs. "What good is it," he asks, "to sing helplessness blues?" It's done me plenty.

1. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver

It's just obvious to me that this is the best album anyone released this year. You can tell me I bought into the hype; I'll tell you you're just reacting against it. We can call each other crazy all day.

Pitchfork has a really well-put-together defense of liking it. I wrote a whole bunch of sentences to do the same, but decided to erase them. I'm wary of saying anything too definitive about any work of art I love as much as this album. I feel like I've been invited to dream Justin Vernon's dreams with him; if I talk too much I'll wake up.

What dreams they are though--better and more human than any David Lynch movie. An only-just comprehensible story of an existential crisis brought on by drunkenly smashing jack-o-lanterns. Cavernous soundscapes to make Brian Eno and Jon Brion green with jealous rage. Lyrics like "this is not a place / not yet awake, I’m raised of make" [sic]. Deep mysteries.

This record still isn't quite as special as "For Emma…" is to me, but consider that the particular success of that record was absolutely unrepeatable. Now consider the etymology of such words as excellent and outstanding. If "For Emma…" was Justin Vernon's Mona Lisa, "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" is his Sistine Chapel--much larger and more ambitious, and unspeakably different; yet somehow perfect in just the same way.

- I know, "Beth/Rest." Think of it as exit music, a path back into the world. It kind of makes sense that way.

- I saw the band play these songs in real life, so there's your grain of salt.