List(en): The Best Albums of 2011

- December 30, 2011

"...most impressive is the unstoppable rise of mid-market independent and small label artists who continue to drive music trends and push the boundaries of music as an art form..."

Compiling lists of the year's top music is a personal labor of love, as well as a regular assignment of mine for nearly a decade, starting as a feature writer at the Albuquerque Journal, then as a contributor to Local IQ magazine. This year, I'm honored to contribute a debut list to

2011 was a strong year for music, both mainstream and independent. We witnessed bands like Arcade Fire and Black Keys, who up to this year sustained relatively cult-like followings, skyrocketing into the mainstream. We watched as artists like Adele, Lady Gaga, Drake and Taylor Swift prove that, despite the proliferation of digital media and fracturing of the music industry, the star-making machinery of the mega-record label industry is still well intact and continues to shape many of our tastes in music. I was also impressed by the high quality of music produced by New Mexican artists (more on this at another time). But most impressive is the unstoppable rise of mid-market independent and small label artists who continue to drive music trends and push the boundaries of music as an art form than can be both entertaining and innovative.

Who cares about these stupid best-of lists, you might ask. Lists are probably as old as mankind. Lists are great because they distill mass amounts of information into comprehensible arrangements. On the other hand, some argue that list-making has gotten out of hand; that our insatiable appetite for anything in Top Ten form is an ugly symptom of a society that often veers toward instant gratification over the in-depth experience. Think of it as a movement from the newspaper article to the Tweet, the book to the YouTube video, the New Yorker to (a great website for lists, by the way). I'll leave this discussion to graduate students in some faraway classroom. But before I share my music picks of 2012, please allow me to share why music lists matter in the best way a Gen-Y kid knows how: a list. Cough.

The Top Five Reasons Why Lists Matter

5: Lists help music lamos discover obscure music, and remind music snobs that pop music matters

Lists offer up a perfect way to discover new artists, especially in a time when finding new music amidst the flotsam and jetsam of cyberspace can be a daunting chore. To the contrary, while my music collection is often chalk-full of indie releases and obscurities, I overlook the more mainstream successes of the year, many of which are fantastic albums, e.g., Alison Krauss and Union Station “Paper Airplane,” Jay Z and Kanye West “Watch the Throne,” and yes indeed, Lady Gaga “Born This Way.”

4: Lists help us pretend we know more about music than we actually do

Lists are a way to quickly catch up with fast-changing music trends. An alternative to whiling away the year obsessing over the new Sub Pop album or esoteric Pitchfork reviews, lists enable us to quickly absorb a quick countdown, then, come January, impress our friends with our smug musical bon mots: “Yeah, Washed Out is cool if you're into that whole Georgia chillwave thing. Me, I'm really feeling post-dubstep, like, have you heard of Jamie xx? Oh, you haven't!?”

3: Lists affirm our ego

Let's all admit it. Many of us really just read lists to see what albums we already own or which selections we agree with. Only a hardcore music devotee takes a fresh list and methodically works his or her way through alien artist names like Toro y Moi, Shabazz Palaces, Bibio and Eleanor Friedberger. I often argue with older generations about current music. Their dogma being that music reached its peak in (insert decade here) and that music isn't as good/poetic/meaningful/well-produced/melodic/sophisticated/rockin'/innovative/etc. as it used to be. If this purview on modern music is filtered through a somewhat jaundiced eye, my outlook is decidedly rose colored. Music is going through a global Big Bang: the electro-cumbia of Pernett, the Iranian heavy metal of Khatmayan, the Saharan blues of Tinariwen, there's literally something out there for everybody. Sometimes we just need a good list to guide our search.

2: Lists filter out the crap

Lists make sense out of the incomprehensible. Let's face it. Most music is pretty bad. According to some figures, more than 100,000 albums are released each year. Of these, just more than 100 sell more than 250,000 copies. In order to cull the year's best music, critics often develop elaborate rating systems. They endure scorching heat, seemingly endless lines and over-priced beer at music festivals throughout the country. They listen to hours-upon-hours of mediocrity and gather responses from listener polls. Finally, at the end of the year, they put together a modest little list that, at best, will earn only a cursory glance from most readers and, at worst, a thread of disapproving comments, ranging from the bubblegum-minded (“OMG. This list sux!!!!! I don't know any of these bands. Really, no Adele!!!?”) to the uber-indie-softee-guy (“No Bon Iver? #EpicFail”).

And the number one reason why lists matter...

1: Lists are brief!

Well, in theory.

That said, here are my 20 favorite albums of the year. Happy listening!

20: The Antlers “Burst Apart”

19: Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx “We're New Here”

18: Wild Beasts “Smother”

17: Raphael Saadiq “Stone Rollin'”

16: Alison Krauss & Union Station “Paper Airplane”

15: PJ Harvey “Let England Shake”

14: Gillian Welch “The Harrow & The Harvest”

13: Toro y Moi “Underneath the Pine”

12: The Cool Kids “When Fish Ride Bicycles”

11: tUnE-yArDs “whokill”

(This video is pretty sweet)

10: DJ Quick “The Book of David”

9: Class Actress “Rapprocher”

8: Young Galaxy “Shapeshifting”

7: Radiohead “The King of Limbs”

6: Bibio “Mind Bokeh”

5: The Roots “Undun”

4: The Weeknd “House of Balloons”

3: Eleanor Friedberger “Last Summer”

2: St. Vincent “Strange Mercy”

1: Metronomy “The English Riviera”


The Best of the Rest:

The Stepkids, “The Stepkids”

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, "Rome"

Tinariwen, “Tassili”

Opeth, “Heritage”

Deerhoof, “Deerhoof Vs. Evil”

Gruff Rhys, “Hotel Shampoo”

Kendrick Lamar, “Section.80”

The Lonely Island, “Turtleneck & Chain”

Modeselektor, “Monkeytown”

Tommy Guerrero, “Lifeboats and Follies”

Tom Waits, “Bad As Me”

Tied, Tickled Trio, Billy Hart, “La Place Demon”

Shabazz Palaces, “Black Up”

Paul Simon, “So Beautiful Or So What”

Mutemath, “Odd Soul”

Iron & Wine, “Kiss Each Other Clean”

Hauschka, “Salon Des Amateurs”

Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”

Emika, “Emika”

Cornershop, “Cornershop & The Double-O Groove Of”