2011 was the year I fell back in love with music. It helped that I had ended a soul-crushingly bad relationship at the end of 2010 and felt reawakened in every sense of the word. It also helped that I started dating boys who were total music freaks. Wherever the credit is due, the fact remains that I have consumed an immense amount of music this year. After a lot of thought and a lot of agonizing, these are the 10 albums that stood out to me this year.
1. EMA — Past Life Martyred Saints
Erika M. Anderson is the woman behind EMA. Before becoming EMA, she was in the band Gowns, and this, her debut album as a solo artist, is something of a departure for her. It’s also really, really great. Past Life Martyred Saints is an album that relies on solo guitar, piano, voice and tape collage, and the result is beautiful, haunting, and intimate. It takes a couple of listens, but this is without a doubt one of my favorite albums of the year.
Favorite Track: “California” (see video)
2. Yuck — Yuck
Yuck is a band that is often talked about in relation to 90s-revival music. The band clearly loves the 90s–no one is denying that–and while their sound is definitely more than a little Pavement-meets-Dinosaur Jr.-meets-Teenage Fanclub-meets-Elliott Smith, they also manage to craft emotional songs that resonate with many listeners. Their debut album is a coming-of-age record, and songs like “Get Away” (which is probably my favorite) and “Georgia” help make this album distinguish itself from the other 90s-throwbacks available.
Favorite Track: “Get Away”
3. Lykke Li — Wounded Rhymes
Li’s sophomore effort (a follow-up to 2008′s Youth Novels) is more cohesive than her first, but it still has the rough-around-the-edges feel that makes her so appealing. The songs on Wounded Rhymes play with opposites and dichotomies, alternating between brash anthems and slower, more contemplative ballads. It is a novel that grows each time it is listened to. Li’s powerful vocals and intriguing lyrics only make the listening experience that much more powerful.
Favorite Track: “I Follow Rivers”
An internet sensation who blew up after some of his mixtape leaked and Drake signed him, The Weeknd’s House of Balloons is one of the two albums that Toronto-based Abel Tesfaye (the singer behind The Weeknd) released this year. Both are very good; House of Balloons is better. The druggy atmosphere of The Weeknd’s sound and lyrics means that it won’t work for everyone, but it’s hard to deny how creepily fantastic the songs on this mixtape are. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the songs focus on drugs and sex in an overt way, and that more often than not, the album’s content is a little terrifying. That being said, it’s also really, really great.
Favorite Track: “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls”
5. Smith Westerns — Dye it Blonde
The Chicago-based band was known for lo-fi music before the release of their second album, Dye it Blonde. Before this album, the band’s sound was much noisier–the kind of garage-rock one would expect from a bunch of high school kids (which is what the band was doing when they released their first album). The second album, created after being signed to Fat Possum, had the production budget teens usually only dream about. The result is a much slicker, much more accessible sophomore album that retains the brilliant hooks the band promised their first go-around.
Favorite Track: “Weekend”
Cults first attracted attention when their single “Go Outside” appeared (magically) on the internet. It was instantly catchy–how could it not be–but many wondered how far a band could go with such a hook and a sing-a-long feel to their music. The reality: much farther than people thought. The debut album from the New-York based duo provided not only the creepy song “Go Outside,” which features audio tape from infamous cult leaders, but also provides other startlingly resonant lo-fi pop music that keeps readers listening again and again. While the 1960s girl-pop influence is pretty evident, the choices in editing are not as obvious and are quite the audio treat.
Favorite Track: Go Outside
Although I’ve never been a fan of electronic music before, I’ve found a few albums this year that have worked especially well for me. Gang Gang Dance’s Eye Contact is one of them. Much more accessible than their earlier work, Eye Contact’s often joyful music provides the perfect accompaniment to those runs that I don’t quite want to finish. Despite this, though, listeners should be warned: Gang Gang Dance is a weird band, and their music often pairs club beats with lyrics about communicating with the dead. This is trippy stuff, but it’s also really entertaining.
Favorite Track: “MindKilla”
Wavves is one of those bands that’s fairly polarizing: if you don’t like stoner noise-pop, you’re probably going to hate them. If you do, you’re going to love them. I’m not going to lie: I love Wavves. The discovery of Nathan Williams and his weird, crazy music was the best thing to come out of one of my worst breakups ever this past spring. King of the Beach just might be one of my favorite albums of all time, so I was pretty excited for this year’s Life Sux EP to come out. While it doesn’t quite live up to my admittedly high expectations, Williams delivers more of what fans want: drug references, noisy guitar, and a completely ridiculous attitude.
Favorite Track: Nodding Off (feat. Best Coast)
9. Drake – Take Care
I loved Drake’s new album so much that I wrote a review of it a few weeks ago. I’m not sure there’s much more to say about it: the album continues to grow on me and surprise me in new ways. It’s emotional, introspective, and a little ridiculous. I love it. There isn’t a single song on the album that feels like filler. Each one stands on its own.
Favorite Track: “Marvin’s Room”
10. tUnE-yArDs — Who Kill
Probably my favorite artist of 2011, tUnE-yArD’s Merrill Garbus is totally weird. She’s not afraid of her weirdness, though, and her primal music reflects that. Combining all sorts of music, including rock, funk, R&B, and funk into a sort of hybrid that is uniquely her own, tUnE-yArDs delivers another killer album full of infectious, thought-provoking songs that require repeat listens. Have you seen the video for Bizness? Why aren’t you watching it right now?
Favorite Track: “Bizness”
What are your favorite albums of the year?