Top 10 Albums of 2011 (Part I)

Every year I compile an Albums of the Year list, and I will count down the top 10 here, 5 this week and 5 after break. It was not an easy task this year, because of the excellent quality and general parity of so many albums, but here are the ones that stood out the most.


10. The Decemberists – The King is Dead

            An about-face from their intricate concept album The Hazards of Love, this album is a simple no-nonsense rock album with a southern flair, flavored with harmonica, steel guitar and the rootsy backing vocals of Gillian Welch.  It’s a bold move for a band whose reputation had been built on human dictionary Colin Meloy’s intellectualism and a unique blend of indie, folk and sea shanties.  Yet this album pulls off the shift well, and is an appropriate break from the musical and thematic weight of Hazards, letting the band step back and have some fun.  Ultimately, despite its comparative simplicity, it’s a well-crafted, balanced album from beginning to end that serves to highlight the flexibility and uniqueness of The Decemberists.


9. Mother Mother – Eureka

            On this album the band takes a huge step forward from their first two pleasant, fun, but flawed first two albums.  Their trademark quirkiness too often overshadowed their talent and prevented them from fully being taken seriously, yet they were too musically talented and interesting to dismiss, and their songs were full of lyrical tidbits that hinted of the latent potential finally realized on Eureka.  The quirkiness is now controlled and balanced with excellent writing, making them both fun and enduring.  Their sound is unique, a carefree energetic indie blend of male/female harmonies with unexpected musical turns, infectious beats (especially “Aspiring Fires”) and tongue-in-cheek lyrics.


8. The Wailin’ Jennys – Bright Morning Stars

            An underrated but exemplary member of the new wave of bluegrass artists (here, in the harmonic, rather than the banjo-and-fiddle sense), The Wailin’ Jennys have achieved in their third album their most complete work to date.  The trio’s intricately woven female harmonies are still at the core of their music, beautifully ornamenting their gentle folk pieces such as “Swing Low Sail High,” and adding soul to bluesy numbers like “Storm Comin’.” There’s no fireworks here, but it is without question one of the most beautiful albums of the year.


7. MuteMath – Odd Soul

            First it was the progressive rock of their self-titled debut; then came the more radio-friendly pop rock of Armistice; now MuteMath shifts gears once again with the rock ‘n roll of Odd Soul.  This album perfectly exhibits the musical abilities of every member of the band, especially Todd Gummerman’s guitar and Darren King’s drumming, which is perhaps the highlight of the record.  Odd Soul is much more than just technical precision however; it’s a tantalizing buffet of songs, each unique, that manage to be both complex and catchy at the same time.


6. James Blake – James Blake

            Reviewed in more detail earlier this semester, this album is what happens when you take expert mixing and production abilities and add tremendous songwriting, a trait which electronic music sometimes lacks.  With Blake, nothing is overdone, nothing superfluous – every blip, every harmonic layer, every loop is carefully and tightly controlled.  Creative rhythms are carefully balanced by equally well-crafted melodies, and his cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” may surpass the original.


{I’ll be counting down the full list of the top 20 albums on my radio show on WRCU this Wednesday and next at 5pm.  Look for the top 5 to be reviewed here after winter break!} – Don’t think we can keep this – advertising?