Music Bummys 2012: Best Albums of 2011

[So now that we’re 9 months into the year 2012, now is a good time to look back at the best of 2011.  Why look back at 2011 when there’s only 3 months left in 2012, you ask?  Well, let me tell you, faithful reader (of which I’m positive there is only one- maybe two).  For one, we’re far enough removed from 2011 to get past all the hype over everything that came out last year; we can look back with clear eyes.  Also, we’re coming up on awards season for movies and music, so it’ll be nice to get this out of the way before all that nonsense begins.  And, most importantly, I’m not a paid critic, so there were gobs and gobs of movies and music I hadn’t consumed when Grammy and Oscar time came around at the beginning of 2012- at that point, I didn’t think I could give a qualified answer for what the best movies and music were last year.

But now I’ve listened to the majority of the albums (both big and small) that got notice last year and I’ve seen the majority of the notable movies (both indie and mainstream) from 2011, and I can now (somewhat) conclusively say that I’ve got a good handle on what I consider the best of both music and movies from last year.

The real question is, why am I going to all this trouble?  Any post on this blog I consider practice for when I truly write creatively, such as when I begin to write short stories or a book at some point in the future (a pipe dream, sure, but the blog does get my creative juices flowing, so it may be more realistic than you might think).  And, perhaps more importantly, I love movies and music, so I consider them worth writing about.  I believe one way God wants us to reflect His image in this world is to create, and I believe God uses movies and music to teach us and to stir our spirits and, yes, to entertain us.  Writing helps me process that better.]*

A week ago I listed out the best acting performances of 2011, then two days later I gave you the top songs of 2011.  This week I’ll give you the top albums and the top movies.

I made an egregious error last week: I left “1+1” by Beyoncé off my best songs list, or at least on my 2nd 10.  My bad, Bey.

Top Albums of 2011

10. Matt Papa, This Changes Everything: Matt Papa doesn’t rely on anything flashy to make his songs work.  All he offers is strong songwriting and unparalleled passion.  Thankfully he also brings courage to the table, elevating simple songs like “This Changes Everything” and “Stay Away from Jesus” into emotional declarations of faith.  The album is essentially a worship album that’s tired of all the other worship albums phoning it in.  Papa writes inspired arrangements that proclaim doctrine and exclaim God’s attributes, most notably in the “The Lord Is a Warrior (feat. Shai Linne)” and “The Glory of God”, which features a sample of a John Piper sermon.

9. Beyoncé, 4: I’ve listened to Beyoncé’s other albums, I’m not ashamed to admit, and they were fine, I guess, but they were really a smattering of great singles with mostly filler.  4 is her first album that is fully great, and it’s no coincidence that it’s her most creative.  It seems as if Mrs. Shawn Carter made the songs she wanted on this album and not the songs she thought her fans wanted.  Her big voice is still intact on this album, but it takes more risks, from the frenetic “Countdown” to the funky yet power-ballad “1+1”.  Her themes are more assured here, too- it’s refreshing to hear these songs and think that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are as in love as we ourselves want to be someday, if we aren’t already.  The love she declares in these songs comes off as truly classic, and while her husband released a fine duo record with Kanye in Watch the Throne, in 2011, Beyoncé came out (love) on top.

8. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’: Raphael Saadiq is a faster-paced, male Adele, bringing a classic soul/Motown sound to today’s audiences.  Unfortunately, Saadiq didn’t get the publicity that Adele did, though that admittedly makes me love him more.  Stone Rollin’ starts off strong with the great, rocking “Heart Attack”, with its timeless chorus and “Satisfaction”-recalling verses.  The album never looks back after that as Saadiq storms through songs with subject matter running the gamut from rising above sin (“Go to Hell”) to succumbing to it (the bluesy title song).  Saadiq ends with “The Answer”, a song with a social conscience Marvin Gaye would have been proud of, calling on the older generation to give their wisdom to the young ‘uns.  The young ‘uns would do well to look to Saadiq for how to rock- we could use some more musicians with his ability to bring the past into modern times.

7. Drake, Take Care: Some of my favorite albums are works that show the depths of their authors’ sin- not because I’m secretly pointing and laughing, or seeing myself as superior, but because I see myself in there somewhere, and I’m reminded of the depths I could sink to without grace.  Take Care is such an album.  The way Drake writes his songs, it seems as if he’s stuck in a pattern of behavior that he both detests and can’t live without.  “Marvin’s Room” is about his drunk dial of an old girlfriend, and the things he says to her are angry and heartbreaking.  “Headlines” has the title of a song about Drake’s fame, but it’s really about how he can’t even talk himself up anymore- he no longer believes his own hype.  In a lot of Drake’s songs, the real message is in the atmosphere; “Headlines” has such a sad-sounding chorus that you know he doesn’t believe what he’s saying.  The throughline of the album is that sadness, coming to a climax on “Take Care”, a duet with Rihanna about two depressed people who can’t let go of each other.  If I’ve made this sound terribly depressing, that’s because it is- but that doesn’t stop Drake from making it gorgeous.

6. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues: There are breakup albums, and then there are albums that happen to be made in the middle of a breakup.  Helplessness Blues is the latter, and the circumstances allowed Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold to write his most personal songs yet.  Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut was gorgeous and stately folk music with lyrics about wolves and cornucopias and strawberries in snow- so it wasn’t the most literal of albums.  Pecknold hasn’t totally left the abstract behind, but he gives us some real insight into himself on Helplessness.  In “Sim Sala Bim” he sings of the Earth shaking and breaking dreams, but he also asks “What makes you love me despite the reservations?”.  And on the title track, Pecknold expresses frustration with the idea that we’re all supposedly unique and that our futures are determined by the establishment.  All this personal stuff is framed by beautiful melodies and harmonies, culminating in the fantastic “Grown Ocean”, which rises in driving guitar and drums to hope for future fulfillment.  Maybe I’m just drawn to this album because it’s tailor-made for the scared but hopeful young adult about to face the world.  Or maybe Pecknold and Co. have tapped into fears and hopes that are more universal.

5. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient: I’m a huge fan of folk and folk rock; I like a little twang in my singers’ voices, a little finger-pickin’ in the guitars.  There’s not too much variation there though, so when I came across The War on Drugs, they immediately stood out to me as a band pushing the limits of their genre.  Combining shoegaze, psychedelia, and Tom-Petty-folk rock, Slave Ambient (which, come to think of it, would have been the perfect name for the Drake album on this list too) jangles its way into a distinct sound.  The sound itself carries the feel of yearning mixed with disappointment, and indeed, many of their songs cover that ground.  But the rebel-yell “ooh-ooh” on “Come to the City” and the chugging guitar on “Black Water Falls” suggest hope, and it’s this mix of real feelings that raises The War on Drugs above novelty and into indie-folk greatness.

4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver: Justin Vernon may be kind of a jerk, but he’s made soft rock cool again, so he’s obviously a genius.  For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008 was basically a folk album; with their self-titled followup, Bon Iver got about as far away from folk as they could without settling into a distinct genre.  Like The War on Drugs, Justin Vernon played with what music allowed him to do, and he won.  From “Perth”’s opening snare drums to “Beth/Rest”’s sax solo, Bon Iver bends the music to their will, fashioning gorgeous melodies out of nowhere.  Indeed, there’s not much of a structure to their songs, but that means the more you come back to it, the more hooks you’re going to find.  If you pick just one song (I suggest “Holocene” or “Beth/Rest”) to listen to, you’ll find a million things to love, a million different ways Bon Iver got creative without straying from the theme of the song.  Some have called them boring, but that’s because they’re not really listening.

3. Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender: When you think of jazz singers, chances are you hear in your mind someone who sounds a lot like Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist: a little smoky, slightly seductive.  You’ve never heard a voice like hers set to songs like these though.  In a band with her longtime husband Linford Detweiler, Karin sings songs that are alternately jazz-tinged and folksy while he accompanies her on a piano that sounds vaguely like a carnival at times.  Some of their songs are about themselves and their stormy relationship, like “Infamous Love Song” and you get the feeling she’s including the two of them in “Only God Can Save Us Now”, but most of the album is about everyday people.  The album’s message is best summed up in “All My Favorite People”- “all my favorite people are broken / Believe me, my heart should know.”  Over the Rhine is a representative of the people, shining light on their foibles as well as their beauty.

2. Adele, 21: I tend to want to backlash against what everyone else likes, at least when it comes to music.  And I can’t pretend to be a hipster about this and claim to have liked Adele before everyone else did.  The only reason I listened to her was because I was reading so much hype about her.  But Adele managed to do what no one else nowadays can do: she dominated music for over an entire year.  21 outsold EVERYONE last year.  It has sold 23 million albums as of September.  That’s insane.  Obviously, that has nothing to do with album quality and everything to do with zeitgeist.  But it got my attention, and ever since listening to it early last year.  I’m convinced that 21 will be remembered not only as a classic, but as a supremely enjoyable and moving album.  There are plenty of hit albums that don’t register on an emotional level, but Adele’s voice is soulful and true, and every song connects.  21 is strong from front to back, it was the year’s biggest and (nearly) its best album, and you know what?  She was only 21 when she recorded it.  I have got to get started on that novel.

1. Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth: Christian music is notorious for not putting out notably creative music.  That being said, I’d argue that Christian pop/rock music is at an all-time high and only getting better.  This isn’t to discredit the great Christian music that came out in the ‘90s, but there just wasn’t very much of it.  The artists are beginning to see the eternal value in creating, one crucial way that God intends for us to bear His image.  Gungor has taken this literally; they’ve created a work of art about our creation.  Ghosts upon the Earth begins at the beginning, singer Lisa Gungor crying, “Let there be light” in a beautiful crescendo.  The album flows from creation to “The Fall” of man through man’s rejection of God after God’s covenant (the emotional “Ezekiel”) to the resurrection (the jubilant “This Is Not the End”) and finally the day when we all praise God’s name in His perfect will (“You Are the Beauty” and “Every Breath”).  I don’t know if Ghosts was meant to be a concept album, but if there’s ever been an album that adequately expresses the mystery and joy of the Gospel (and “adequately” is all any human could ever do), Ghosts upon the Earth is it.

Another Ten (in alphabetic order)
Burlap to Cashmere: Burlap to Cashmere
Gary Clark Jr.: The Bright Lights EP
Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne
Josh Garrels: Love & War & the Sea in Between
M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Miranda Lambert: Four the Record
Needtobreathe: The Reckoning
Switchfoot: Vice Verses
Tedashii: Blacklight
tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l

Top Albums of 2012 (So Far, and in alphabetic order)

Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball: A timely, rousing album that dominates the line between staying true to the Boss’s style and experimenting with other genres.  This is an album that feels born in the USA of today.

David Crowder Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]): I don’t know that I’ll ever get tired of exploring this album.  Extraordinarily dense and long, but moving and exciting from end to end.  Crowder and Co. crafted a fitting end to their production career.

Japandroids, Celebration Rock: The title says it all.  There aren’t enough bands who make this kind of heart-on-sleeve music that don’t sound like some version of Creed.  Japandroids have restored my faith in rock music.

Trip Lee, The Good Life: Maybe the most triumphant album of the year so far.  No other Christian rap album has sounded this unique and classic at the same time.  I love the direction the 116 Clique is going, but so far, Lee has set himself apart from this rap pack.

The Vespers, The Fourth Wall: It’s a mystery to me why my ear has latched onto this album.  It’s a folk album, and it’s got the banjo, and it’s go the harmonies, so nothing new right?  But the girls’ voices are uncommonly beautiful, and it seems to me that with each song they go out of their way not to conform to the folk norm without getting too out there.  They’re doing their thing, and I love it.

Most Anticipated Albums of 2012 (The Rest of the Year, in alphabetic order)

Bat for Lashes, A Haunted Man: The last Bat for Lashes album was a gothic fantasy that quietly stole my heart.  I mean, she wrote a song about the Karate Kid, and it’s actually beautiful- that’s incredible.  I’m excited to see if Natasha Khan can bewitch me again this year.

Green Day, Uno!, Dos!: I feel like I’m in the minority among my friends when it comes to Green Day, but I love them.  I think American Idiot is an amazing album, and I’ll fight you if you tell me I’m wrong.  That said, I’m looking forward to hearing Green Day get back to their roots and not try to chase some concept down a rabbit hole (see: 21st Century Breakdown).

Gungor, A Creation Liturgy: Obviously I love Gungor’s music (see above), but this isn’t a new album; instead, it’s a live album recorded during their Ghosts upon the Earth Tour from this past spring.  I had the pleasure of seeing them live at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa twice in the past year.  They’re such a talented group, seeing them live isn’t at all like hearing their record.  Hopefully, this live recording will provide a different facet of their already-great songs.

Lupe Fiasco, Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1: The Cool left me cold and I absolutely hated Lasers, but Food & Liquor is one of my favorite rap albums ever.  I’m really banking on the fact that F&L is back in the title- maybe that means Lupe’s back to his old ways, and if that’s the case, Food & Liquor 2 should be an insightful, empathetic look at real people and their problems, and not an overblown, overproduced diatribe.

Titus Andronicus, Local Business: Titus Andronicus isn’t necessarily easy to like, but their last album, The Monitor, was my favorite album of 2010.  They had a knack for expressing real emotion through big metaphors, kind of like Green Day, back in the day, come to think of it, though The Monitor was never as heavy-handed as even the best of Green Day’s songs.  My hope is that Local Business can convey as much pathos as The Monitor, but I’ll settle for half; that will still make it one of the best albums of the year.

*Reprinted from last Monday’s post.

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7 thoughts on “Music Bummys 2012: Best Albums of 2011

  1. Interesting list… looking back 2011 was kinda a weak year for music in my opinion. Helplessness Blues was probably my favorite album of the year, and I liked Bon Iver’s album, but it’s a little overrated I think. Here’s a few other albums that I liked from 2011 in no particular order-
    -Demolished Thoughts by Thurston Moore
    -Burst Apart by The Antlers
    -Smoke Ring for My Halo by Kurt Vile (really surprised this wasn’t on your list; it seems right up your alley)
    -Parallax by Atlas Sound (I know you hate him, but he’s still good)
    -Undun by the Roots
    -Era Extraña by Neon Indian

    ps- of course you like Bruce Springteen’s new album…

  2. haha ya i like bruce’s album, because it’s great. and i don’t hate bradford cox, i just think he’s overrated. and i did like kurt vile’s cd! i just liked war on drugs better, and it’s kind of the same style.

  3. and looking back on 2010, it was by far a better year for music. there are sooo many great albums from 2010. 2011 just didn’t compare.

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