The Best Records of 2011

The Best Records of 2011

A look back at who made the cut this year in music

By Christopher Schutte

For a year that included the near-biblical plague of blackbirds dropping from the sky, Arab dictators falling like dominoes, catastrophic economic collapses and Bengal tigers roaming the streets of Zanesville, music didn’t fare too badly by comparison. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like 2011 was some kind of banner year. By the time I reached about number five on this list I could have just as easily included some relatively disappointing records (Radiohead, The Strokes), fringy releases that barely registered (Beirut, Forest Fire) or straight-up mainstream stuff that wasn’t half-bad (Adele). With that said, I think you’ll find something to like about all eleven of the releases ranked below…

1  Wilco, The Whole Love [dBpm]
The aptly titled The Whole Love delivers on nearly every level and also functions as a kind of new millennium Wilco “best of” package. The record neatly ties together Jeff Tweedy’s atmospheric alt-country, his propulsive pop leanings and his noise-shrouded experiments in sound while never sounding like anything but pure Wilco. This is easily the band’s least self-conscious record and – while certainly not tossed-off – reflects a band with nothing left to prove. While Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will always be (for me, at least) the seminal Wilco document, The Whole Love succeeds wildly on its own terms. I’m not a Wilco fanatic by any stretch and I actually thought their last two records were major disappointments. That’s probably why it surprises me to tell you that the last “great American band” is back, and it’s like they never left. Key Track: “I Might”

2  Destroyer,  Kaputt, [Merge]
Kaputt has head Destroyer, Dan Behar, embracing his 1970s AM-Gold side. His usual hyper-literate, jittery vibe has been replaced by languid saxophone fills, syrupy synth washes and a heavy-eyed vocal style – all to good effect. Pillaging from turn-of-the-80s yacht-rock and soft-pop, Bejar mines a vein somewhere between Roxy Music and Steely Dan. In less capable hands this could be dangerous, schmaltzy territory. Thanks to his razor-sharp lyrics and earworm hooks, Bejar pulls it off without coming across as a nostalgia act. Think of this as Steely Dan for the indie set. Key Track: “A Savage Night At The Opera”

3  James Blake, James Blake [A&M]
Blake is decidedly experimental – skittering beats, effects-laden vocals and cavernous sub-bass define his palette. But unlike his dubstep contemporaries (Burial, Four Tet, etc.), Blake’s genius is grounded in actual songwriting and musicianship. These tracks resonate as songs, not just aural soundscapes. James Blake is a beautiful, restrained and groundbreaking debut that has yet to leave me cold as some others may complain. Perhaps the best part is that Blake is just scratching the surface of what he may eventually become. Key Track: “Limit To Your Love”

4  Cults, Cults [Merge]
When you put aside all the hipster music baggage, I probably enjoy this record more than anything I’ve heard this year. I think I was actually quoted somewhere as saying I “love” this record (which is something I may have last uttered in 1992). Cults is an extraordinary record that reveals a band adept at crafting sugary, girl group pop with a dark underbelly that belies its infectiousness. The fantastic opening salvo of, “Abducted,” “Go Outside” and “You Know What I Mean” makes you long for the bygone days of 45 RPM, 7” singles. Key Track: “Rave On”

5  Atlas Sound, Parallax [4AD]
Bradford Cox’s two recording projects – Deerhunter and Atlas Sound – seem to have taken divergent paths to the same place. At this point his recordings for both bands share a foundation of garage revival song structure flooded with echoes, reverb and ambient noise. Like Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest (my #1 record of 2010), Parallax comfortably inhabits that chosen territory. The major difference between the two lies in Cox’s confident, confessional 1960s-styled crooning on Parallax, which sits just above the mix – a departure that some Atlas Sound followers may not immediately embrace. Key Track: “The Shakes”

6  Panda Bear, Tomboy [Paw Tracks]
While less genre defining than his 2007 breakthrough, Person Pitch (which has become the stuff of myth and spawned an endless stream of imitators), Noah Lennox’s Tomboy is a simply beautiful record. It succeeds at being both otherworldly, yet immediately familiar at the same time. Lennox embraces his influences (primarily Spaceman 3) on Tomboy and emerges with a propulsive, eerily devotional album. The dizzying effect of the multi-tracked vocals is beautifully offset by the simplicity of the music creating an experience that you’re happy to find yourself lost within. Key Track: “You Can Count On Me”

7  St. Vincent, Strange Mercy [4AD]
So it appears that Annie Clark (aka – St. Vincent) has officially positioned herself as the new Indie “it” girl. Cute, quirky, melodramatic and can do stuff with a guitar that would make a Guitar Center geek um … well, you know. But I digress. What’s really impressive about Clark is the ability she has honed to build gorgeous orchestral songs with stabbing guitar interludes and electronic hooks to define a sound that is uniquely hers. However, it may be her voice – a stunning instrument that serves as a beautiful foil to the lush, overstuffed arrangements – that truly sets St. Vincent apart. Key Track: “Cruel”

8  Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe 1967 – The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1 [Sony Legacy]
Live in Europe 1967 captures Davis’ second (and longest-lived) quintet at their creative pinnacle, playing five concerts in different European cities. Musically, the quintet – Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams – are firing on all cylinders throughout. These performances are intense, as the quintet plays a fiery meld of post-hard bop infused with modal music and tinges of free jazz. If Live in Europe 1967 feels momentous, that’s because it is. It documents what one writer called the “central thrill of jazz – spontaneous interplay among dangerously skilled players.” That pretty much sums it up. Key Track: “No Blues”

9 (tie)  Neon Indian, Era Extraña [Mom & Pop]
It’s convenient when critiquing Neon Indian’s new album, Era Extraña, to play “name the influences.” A little Depeche Mode here, some Joy Division there – a dash of OMD, maybe a sprinkle of Low-era Bowie. And while these comparisons are not altogether off-track, they tend to diminish Alan Palomo’s accomplishments. Era Extraña builds on the charm of its predecessor, Psychic Chasms, by expanding the palette and depth of Palomo’s swirling, electronic pop songs. Isolated, weightless, brooding, lovesick and blissful all at once – sometimes within the same song. Key Track: “Hex Girlfriend”

9 (tie)  Washed Out, Within & Without [Sub Pop]
Unlike some of his electronica contemporaries, Ernest Greene favors traditional song structure over texture building, and pop constructs over skittering beats. His new version of chillwave would be better defined as “trip-hop with soul,” or maybe something that defies genre altogether. Within and Without is an unapologetically pretty, unabashedly ambitious record. The production is lush, the beats are bold and the blown-out 80s synth-pop vibe is palpable. It’s sonically rich, but that’s only part of it. It’s a record that creates a very specific kind of mood that I can’t quite define. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia (as some theorize), or the future, but I like it.  Key Track: “Amor Fati”

10  The Black Keys, El Camino [Nonesuch]
Let’s get a few pieces of housekeeping out of the way:
El Camino is not a return to the “real” Black Keys of yore.
Danger Mouse is still at the knobs messing around with the boys’ blues.
The Keys are actually “popular” now … as in “pop.”
So … if your idea of the perfect Black Keys album is Chulahoma mixed with Rubber Factory, I gotta tell you that you’re shit out of luck. El Camino is a rare record in that it virtually defies deep introspection. It’s actually fun to listen to – one of the precious few “rock ‘n’ roll” records that registered in 2011. It’s messy, hooky and full of corny ZZ Top-isms. No, it isn’t perfect. But what is these days? Key Track: “Lonely Boy”

Reach DCP freelance writer Christopher Schutte at ChrisSchutte@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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About Christopher Schutte

View all posts by Christopher Schutte
Chris is a freelance drinker who spends most of his free time doing really cool things. Things you wouldn’t believe even if he told you. He enjoys consuming things, making things and writing about things while wearing fashionable clothing and listening to recorded music. He also has a pug named Miles. Reach Chris at chrisschutte@daytoncitypaper.com.

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  1. The OG Weekender: 12.30.2011 | The Ohlmann Group - December 30, 2011

    [...] not!  Your friend Christopher Schutte at the Dayton City Paper has compiled a terrific list of The Best Records of 2011.  If you are looking to load up the ipod for 2012, the article is a great place to begin.  Happy [...]

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