2011 was a weird year for me. It was odd in general but it was especially strange when it came to music. If you’d have asked me eleven months ago what I thought my favorite records of the year would be, I would answer you with the utmost confidence, rattling off a list of records in what I assumed would be the order I would eventually rate them. Out of those ten albums, however, only four made my final list. This year was full of surprises, both good (Hey, O’Death! Pleased to make your acquaintance!) and not so good (I really did expect that Okkervil River disc to be the best thing I’d ever heard…) and above all else, it was certainly not what I thought it’d be.
1. Chris Bathgate – Salt Year
The moment I heard Salt Year, the latest album by Michigan native Chris Bathgate, I knew it was my favorite album of the year. Granted, that isn’t a huge compliment because I said the same thing about three other records (all of which appear on this list!) but when it came down to the wire, Bathgate’s won the battle royale for the affections of Amber Valentine. Why? Because Salt Year is a masterpiece, from the opening distorted notes of “Eliza (Hue)” to the fiddle that marks the close of “Everything (Overture)”. Salt Year is harsh. It’s brutal and cathartic and it perfectly encapsulates the misery of lost love years later, but don’t think that the album’s a downer. Everything on Salt Year is deliberately crafted, from the gentle horns on the heartbreakingly perfect title track to the washboard backbone of “No Silver.” The best part? I’m not the only one who has deemed Salt Year a masterpiece! Everyone from NPR to Paste has been raving about Bathgate which means that one of the best kept secrets in folk music won’t stay that way for long.
2. Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
The moment I found out that Timber Timbre, my favorite exports from the north, were releasing their fourth album this year, I was obsessed. From the instantly quotable refrain of first single “Black Water” (All I need is some sunshine too, you guys!) to the tongue-in-cheek humor of title track “Creep On Creepin’ On,” Timber Timbre’s latest is everything you’d expect from the creepy Canadians, and so much more. Without turning a cold shoulder on their minimalist macabre past, Creep On Creepin’ On plays out deftly and seductively. Think Leonard Cohen sings Sam Cooke songs on Halloween … Only better.
3. The Black Keys – El Camino
Is there anything Dan Auerbach can’t do? I’m pretty sure that frontman for The Black Keys has been releasing impeccably crafted music since literally the day he was born and the Keys’ latest, El Camino, doesn’t disappoint. What it comes down to is the fact that this album is sexy as hell and there isn’t a bad track on it. I said the same thing about Brothers, the last “Best Of” list-topping disc released by The Black Keys, and when El Camino came out, I felt it was nearly impossible to live up to the high expectations the band had set for themselves. One listen to El Camino proved me wrong. The Black Keys are at the top of their game and it’s just as awesome as you’d expect.
4. Typhoon – A New Kind Of House
For me, Typhoon was a 2011 game changer. I only just discovered the band a month ago but since then, the Portland band (which has enough members to rival Polyphonic Spree) has gone from being a band I’d never even heard of to my latest obsession. Even so, I had reservations about including A New Kind Of House on my list of favorite records because A New Kind Of House consists of merely five songs and clocks in at under twenty minutes. The fact that Typhoon manages to impress so masterfully in such little time is remarkable. Typhoon combines the familiarity of bands like Arcade Fire and Okkervil River while infusing their sound with a macabre originality that’s all the band’s own. For those in doubt that Typhoon deserve accolades based on an EP, check out “The Honest Truth” which is my pick for song of the year.
5. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Many years ago in a far-off land called Seattle lived a superhero named David Bazan. Many regarded him as a savior for indie rock. Similarly to how things played out with God and his son Jesus, Bazan imbued a young man named Robin Pecknold with powers not unlike Bazan’s own. What powers, you wonder? The powers to save the world with perfect music, of course! And so it was that Pecknold tossed on a red beanie, got together a band of like minded Seattle musicians, and formed Fleet Foxes. Is Helplessness Blues the best record of the year? In a lot of people’s opinions, yes. In mine, not quite. But that doesn’t mean it’s not damn great.
6. Middle Brother – Middle Brother
If you’re not hip to Middle Brother, you’ll probably recognize some of the names involved in the project. Middle Brother is an indie rock supergroup from the guys behind Dawes, Deer Tick, and Delta Spirit. With their forces combined, you’d expect a certain degree of greatness but even I, in all my Dawes-Deer-Tick-and-Delta-Spirit loving glory, didn’t expect just how great Middle Brother would be. The album features some of the best work yet from Matt Vasquez, Taylor Goldsmith, and John McCaulley. Middle Brother is filled to the brim with gritty rock and roll anthems (“Someday”), old school country ditties (“Portland”), and heartstring tugging confessionals (“Million Dollar Bill”) with nary a dull moment. Plus, the record features some of the best songwriting of Vasquez’s career. If you’ve heard any Delta Spirit records, you’ll know what a compliment that is.
7. Amy Winehouse – Lioness: Hidden Treasures
When it was announced that, less than six months after her death, a new Amy Winehouse record would be released, it seemed like a quick cash grab to me. After buying Lioness, however, I realized I was wrong. With the help of longtime Winehouse collaborators Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, Lioness is less a pieced together amalgam of b-sides and throwaway tracks than it is a reminder of what a true talent Winehouse really was. Sure, she was a drug-addled trainwreck, but she was also an amazing singer and songwriter. I figured that after she died, more people would remember Amy for her lifestyle than her music. Lioness proved me wrong.
8. O’Death – Outside
One of my favorite things to do is hang out on Turntable with my friends. See, my friends have amazing taste and Turntable allows us to DJ in turns which results in some great music discovery. I came across O’Death when a pal spun “Bugs,” the opening track on their latest album. The surprisingly raucous folk tune had me from its first lines. By the time “Bugs” escalated to a cacophony of strings and banjo, I was in love. Never did I think that the rest of Outside would live up to my lofty expectations but the album does just that and the results are majestic.
9. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
I’ve loved Dawes since I was first introduced to the California quartet via Daytrotter‘s second Barnstormer tour, and the sophomore release from the band builds upon the solid repertoire that the band began with 2009’s incredible North Hills. Dawes isn’t doing anything groundbreaking. They’re not particularly original. Basically, the band is made up of four kids that love classic rock. And that’s what’s so incredible about Dawes. They don’t need to make anything revolutionary because what they do make is perfect just as it is. After I first heard “When My Time Comes,” the anthemic tune off Dawes’ debut, I began to believe that in fifty years time, people will still be listening to Dawes, just the way that we all still listen to Johnny Cash and Jackson Browne and Tom Petty. Nothing Is Wrong only cemented this theory in my mind.
10. Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
I was positive that Okkervil River‘s latest album, I Am Very Far, was not only going to be my record of the year but also the record of my life. Obviously, it wasn’t and I was so disappointed by that fact that it’s easy for me to forget how good of a record I Am Very Far actually is. Gone are the ramshackle passions of Black Sheep Boy, exchanged instead for a world-weary detachment and a glossy sound. While the production on I Am Very Far isn’t my favorite, the songs are remarkable. Will Sheff, always an incredibly clever songwriter, is at his best on songs like the cacophonous “Wake And Be Fine” and the epic-in-a-Greek-myth-sort-of-way “We Need A Myth.” In fact, I don’t think I’m at all out of line saying “We Need A Myth” is the most remarkable song Okkervil River’s ever produced. Too bad about “The Rise” and “Your Past Life As A Blast” though. Those song kinda suck.
Honorable mention: Wildlife, who probably would have the coveted “Amber’s Record of the Year” award if their debut, Strike Hard, Young Diamond, hadn’t been released in November 2010. Don’t hold that against them, though. This band is everything I want in a Canadian rock quartet — and so much more!