Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top 20 Favorite Albums of 2011

The past year has been a good year for music. Not a great year overall. Just good. But there are some great albums in the mix. These have been my favorites. Are they the best of 2011? They are, for me. Hopefully you'll recognize some and find a new favorite in the bunch.

10. Radiohead - The King Of Limbs. One of my all-time favorite bands surprised us this year with a jazzy electronic montage that included a wonderful music video of Thom Yorke flailing himself around. Not as good as most of their previous albums...but then again, this is Radiohead. A B+ effort from Radiohead trumps about 90% of anything you'll hear on the radio. Key tracks: "Lotus Flower," "Codex."

9. The Antlers - Burst Apart. The Antlers' first album, Hospice, was a beautifully bleak concept album about a death in a hospital. Burst Apart is a bit more upbeat and complex, with a calming electronic pulse and cathartic tracks that with both enrich and delight. Key tracks: "French Exit," "Corsicana."

8. Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation. Hypnotic and dreamy, The Year of Hibernation is the perfect background music for any relaxing occasion. Seriously. You can drive, read, converse, sip coffee, you name it. And those vocals! Spacey, ethereal, ambient, and arresting. I loved every minute. Key tracks: "17," "Cannons," "Afternoon."

7. Josh Garrels - Love & War & The Sea In Between. Portland musician Josh Garrels has a unique acoustic sound that really resonates with me. Crafting theologically rich lyrics with a folky backdrop, this album surprised me with its worshipful depth. Christianity Today just named this the best album of 2011. And the best part? You can download it for free. Yes, free. So you should probably do that. Like, right now. Key tracks: "White Owl," "The Resistance," "Ulysses."

6. William Fitzsimmons - Gold in The Shadow. Fitzsimmons' last album, The Sparrow and The Crow, was a meditation on the pain of fractured romance. Gold in The Shadow feels like the renewed hope found on the far side of that pain. The lyrics are far more buoyant and hopeful, and the music accentuates this newfound optimism. This isn't to say that Gold in The Shadow is cheery; Fitzsimmons is one to write beautiful laments, not shallow pop songs. His acoustic musings were great background noise for my entire year. Key tracks: "Fade and Then Return," "Bird of Winter Prey," "The Tide Pulls From the Moon."

5. Wye Oak - Civilian. I have no idea why I purchased this album. Maybe it was on a whim. I had never heard of Wye Oak before, never read a single review. This fateful purchase led to one of my favorites of this year, with spiritually enlightening lyrics and driving guitars. Civilian is immediately accessible, yet requires multiple listens to fully mine its depths. I'm still mining them, and I'm liking what I find each time. Key tracks: "Holy Holy," "Civilian."

4. Katie Herzig - The Waking Sleep. When I asked my wife which album she would have me include, she mentioned "that one girl singer we're always listening to in the car." This is that girl singer. And she's wonderful. A bit poppy at times, but this could never be classified as a pop album. Folksy, with alluring lyrics that tell stories, inviting us into new Edenic worlds. Key tracks: "Lost and Found," "The Waking Sleep," "Free My Mind."

3. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. The 1980s are back, and they're better than they were the first time. M83's ambitious double album is absolutely beautiful, filled with electronic backbeats, funky bass riffs, guitar crescendos, and saxophone solos. And I can't forget the triplet drum fills (my personal favorites). The only album this year to make me both dance and cry (though not at the same time). Key tracks: "Midnight City," "Intro," "Wait," "New Map."

2. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow. A folky duo with one of the best band names ever, Barton Hollow seemed to come out of nowhere in early 2011 and quickly became the most-played album in my iTunes. Bluesy, with a country twang and beautifully romantic lyrics, The Civil Wars have some of the best harmonies I've ever heard. This was the album I kept recommending to people throughout the year. "Have you heard The Civil Wars yet?" If the answer is no, you should change that immediately. Key tracks: "Barton Hollow," "Poison & Wine," "I've Got This Friend."

1. Bon Iver - Bon Iver. I purchased Bon Iver in the Newark airport during a family vacation this past summer. Our flight had been severely delayed, and we were all exhausted from the wait. When we finally boarded, my wife and son slept curled up in the airplane seat next to me as I stared out the window, watching the horizon disappear into the dark, city lights and stars seeming to blend into a sea of night. I quietly wept as I listened. Maybe it was the exhaustion. Maybe it was the sense of my wife and son breathing next to me. I choose to believe it was the music. Bon Iver is an album I'll revisit in the years to come, if only to remember all the ups and downs of the past year. Key tracks: "Holocene," "Perth," "Beth/Rest."

The rest of the 20, in no particular order:

Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost; TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light; The Black Keys - El Camino; Explosions in the Sky - Take Care, Take Care Take Care; Givers - In Light; Real Estate - Days; Feist - Metals; Cults - Cults; Adele - 21; Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

What were your favorite albums this past year? Share your favorites in the comments!


  1. Our top ten is going to be mostly different (posting tomorrow), but I liked many of the same albums you did. The Antlers, Girls, and Real Estate are bands that I only recently started listening to. Where do you get your recommendations from? I mostly read review from, but lately haven't really enjoyed them as much as I used to.

  2. Cam, I read,, and get recommendations from numerous friends. Sometimes I just listen to random stuff online and see if I like it.

  3. I go to Pitchfork sometimes, but I guess I should visit more since I seem to share their sensibilities.