Chances are you’ve already seen tons of Best of 2011 lists already, but as a music blogger, I of course have to throw in my two cents. As usual, it’s been a phenomenal year for music lovers like myself, and I’ve spent all of 2011 digging into new releases like it’s going outta style. While I certainly didn’t hear it all, I heard enough to have a pretty good idea of what stands out ahead of the pack. So this is just a rundown of the 10 frontrunners (plus 10 more that vied hardily for those positions) that I believe should absolutely not go overlooked.
1. Noah Gundersen – Family
Okay, so technically this is an EP. But it’s seven songs long, which to me qualifies as full enough to make my list. I mean, as you can see, I’m ranking it No. 1, and if I had to acknowledge it as an EP, then I wouldn’t be able to include it on this list at all. And that, my friends, would be a monumental shame because Noah Gundersen’s music sounds like it was made by angels. So, I said screw it, this is my list and I’m leaving it on. The Seattle musician has a little masterpiece on his hands with Family — at times cleanly rootsy and others softly dulcet. He’s a young man, but his songwriting chops (not to mention his lyrics) are some of the most seasoned and professional I’ve ever witnessed.
2. Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
I don’t know what I can say about this album that I didn’t already say in my review earlier this year. Basically, if you’ve heard Timber Timbre before (especially the trio’s 2009 self-titled album), then you can rest assured that Creep On Creepin’ On is more of what you already know and love. As you can tell, Timber Timbre continues to grow and change yet still hold onto its brooding exterior through all its subtle evolutions from one album to the next.
3. The Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing
I’d heard of the Rural Alberta Advantage before, but it was this year that I fell in love with them. A lot of people have seemed unimpressed with Departing, the folk-rock band’s sophomore album. But it’s brought me nothing but joy, despite the tragic tales set forth by the pained vocals of Nils Edenloff. The fact is, these singable melodies about the darker sides of life and love have been occupying my ears nearly all year, and I’ve found I still can’t get enough.
4. Jessica Lea Mayfield – Tell Me
It’s the music that draws me into Jessica Lea Mayfield’s gloomy universe on Tell Me. Her minor melodies are validated by drab vocals and woebegone lyrics about being lonely and loveless, yet they are often every bit as sunny as they are dreary. Though I’m not one to get caught up in the words of a song, I can’t help but see myself in her lyrics. Tell Me meanders between musical devices but manages to keep the theme tied up in tight little bow. Despite jumps from handclaps to electric guitar solos to some strangely synthy asides, nothing ever feels out of place.
5. The Coasts – The Coasts
It would be easy to say that this album made my Top 10 because there’s a tiger on the cover. But it’s simply not true. Yes, I do love tigers, but something I love more is lo-fi pop-rock that occasionally deviates into the retro sounds of doo-wop and blues. With The Coasts, you know you’re hearing something that’s all brand new, but at the same time, there’s a familiarity to it that is what makes it so easy to love. Just like soulmates, you can feel that you and this album have been connected for much longer than you could ever even know.
6. Phutureprimitive – Kinetik
Oh man, if this album isn’t one to stir the senses. This was the year that I came back around to appreciating electronic music in a big way, and Phutureprimitive had more than a small part in culling that. I managed to embrace dubstep for its sick bass drops, and found a friend in glitch hop that has fulfilled my life in a way I hadn’t realized was lacking. Kinetik is a spacious trip through sound that you’ll want to embark on again and again, great for chilling out and achieving deeper states of mind.
7. Childish Gambino – Camp
Gambino is making his way onto a lot of “best of” lists this year, and for good reason. The hilarious and charming Donald Glover’s musical moniker blew up in 2011, first with the arrival of his EP (aptly titled EP) in the spring and the full-length Camp this fall. He’s certainly got a way with a beat, and is a lyrical wizard. As much as his tunes come with their own unique appeal, they also pay homage to the earlier days of hip-hop, “Fire Fly” perfectly encapsulating the R&B-based raps of the mid-’90s and “Backpackers” coupling tight rhymes with a hard rock essence all Cypress Hill-style. Gambino’s got a gift, and the music community owes him endless gratitude for sharing it with us all.
8. SHIM – Medicine Show
It’s no secret that I am a major sucker for a solid, stompy rock ‘n’ roll tune. And boy heckballs does SHIM ever deliver. The Seattle quartet does not have nearly as much exposure as it deserves, and I plan to do whatever part I can in making sure people hear the cathartic shot to the ears that these guys produce. Of course, they owe much of their amazingness to the classic rockers that came before, but this band is the real deal, and when you hear the album, you won’t even need anybody to tell you so. You’ll just know.
9. Britney Spears – Femme Fatale
I think we can appropriately call Britney’s new album the dark horse of this year’s candidates. The fact of the matter is that Britney’s never been a pop artist I’ve cared much for. Femme Fatale is the first Britney album I’ve ever owned, and it’s safe to say I’ve been extremely pleased with the purchase. Nearly every song comes with infectious beats and intoxicating melodies, courtesy of the likes of writers/producers Dr. Luke and Max Martin. With dance rhythms and vocal stylings similar to those that have made heavy hitters of Rihanna, Katy Perry and Ke$ha (who even had a hand in writing single “Till the World Ends”), the music on Femme Fatale comes built to suit Britney and her image, and she pulls it off like only a true star would.
10. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
Listening to California band Dawes is like wrapping yourself up in a warm blanket with a mug of your favorite tea. It’s comforting, familiar folk-rock that fills you with cozy feelings. The group’s sophomore album has been a 2011 staple for me, with its extremely catchy melodies packaged keenly as Instant Home. On particularly toned-down, soulful offerings such as “Moon in the Water,” Dawes resembles old-time greats like Don McLean and Van Morrison. Taylor Goldsmith’s lyrics speak to the wayward masses with phrases — such as, “The only time I’m lonely is when others are around/ I just never end up knowing what to say,” on “If I Wanted Someone” — and paint powerful, lovely narratives in true classic folk-rock fashion.
12. Chris Bathgate – Salt Year
Bathgate’s most definitely got a gift, taking a very minimalistic approach to songwriting that results in music to send the mind into somersaults.
13. Chrome Sparks – My <3
Chillwave is a genre that’s gradually won my love, and nobody does it better than this Ann Arbor electro-craftsman, conventionally known as Jeremy Malvin.
15. The Builders and the Butchers – Dead Reckoning
Foreboding, dark and ominous, this Portland, Ore., band’s latest haunts and delights. The album’s oddly upbeat nature is a brilliant contrast to the death wails that carry it.
16. Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
If this album measured up to the rest of Okkervil River’s catalog, it would have undoubtedly been in the Top 10, but it’s still good enough to make the Top 20, because even when its not at its best, Okkervil River is still better than most.
17. O’Death – Outside
For the types of people who take comfort in a tortured soul, the gothic folk-rock of Brooklyn’s O’Death is the perfect musical hearthstone.
18. Campfire OK – Strange Like We Are
You’d be forgiven for not knowing who Campfire OK is. The Seattle band made its debut this year with Strange Like We Are, a banjo-tastic visit into new-form Americana with a gospel edge. Get a handle on ’em in time for their next album, which they’ve already begun work on.
19. Art Brut – Brilliant! Tragic!
If you can get past the first few snoozers on Art Brut’s new album, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by some of the indie rock band’s best work yet. Brilliant! Tragic! is mostly the former, and it’s remarkably engaging.
20. Bronson – Paper Tusk
I think what first drew me to Bronson, a new musical project by Bellingham, Wash., artist Patrick Everman, is the atmosphere it shares with Cedar Shakes, the early work of Timber Timbre. Paper Tusk‘s sparseness and quirk definitely holds promise, and makes me excited to hear more of what Bronson can do.