My 40 favorite albums of 2011

December 7, 2011

Criticism, as I define it for my students at Columbia College Chicago and anyone else who ever asks, is an attempt to intellectually encapsulate your emotional reaction to a work of art (and that’s “intellectual” as in “writing is an intellectual endeavor,” not “intellectual” as in “quote Foucault so people think you’re smart and pay attention even if they don’t really know who he is or what the hell he has to do with Lady Gaga”).

As such, the critic’s ultimate annual task of defining the “best” new works on his or her beat is by definition the ultimate individualistic endeavor. I always have followed the lead of my personal rock-crit hero Lester Bangs is striving to be especially honest in compiling my year-end best-of with the sole criteria of listing these albums in order of how much I am absurdly eager to play them again (and again, and again), if not how quick I’d be to grab them on the way out the door, once the loved ones were in hand, if the apartment ever was to catch on fire. (Some hyperbole there, of course, but only some.)

Here, then, is my list of my 40 Favorite Albums of 2011. (The links, where applicable, are to my feature reviews on this blog or discussions with my colleague Greg Kot on Sound Opinions, which will air its year-end-best show this weekend).

Click here to listen to tracks from these albums on Spotify.

1. Le Butcherettes, Sin Sin Sin (Rodriguez Lopez Productions)

Smart, fierce, ferociously funny, and tremendously sexy, Mexico’s Teri Gender Bender, a.k.a. Teri Suarez, celebrates love, lust, and social justice while raging against gender inequality and every other tool that the powers that be would use to keep us down, in the process providing absolutely the most necessary, vital, and timely sounds of 2011.

2. Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Sub Pop)

The more I listen, the more convinced I become that this is one of the most instantly engaging celebrations of the power of making a joyful noise in the history of rock.

3. Das Racist, Relax (Greedhead LLC)

Wildly inventive, playfully psychedelic hip-hop that places these three Brooklynites as the proud inheritors of a tradition epitomized by De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique.

4. The Feelies, Here Before (Bar None)

For my money, the most welcome return of any of the many reunited alt-rock progenitors of the ’80s and early ’90s, and an album that ranks second in their influential canon only perhaps to the immortal Crazy Rhythms.

5. Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi, Rome (Capitol)

Because Italy is my favorite place in the universe; because I want to live in the movie behind this “imaginary soundtrack,” and because there has never been and could never be a better album to spin while making pasta. And that’s just for starters.

6. F*cked Up, David Comes to Life (Matador)

An 18-song, 78-minute, four-act double concept album from Toronto’s art-punk provocateurs, setting a punk-rock milestone for both ambition and tunefulness unrivalled since the heyday of Hüsker Dü.

7. Bewitched Hands, Birds and Drums (Look Mum No Hands)

You can keep all of that melodic, vaguely psychedelic ork-pop from Canada; the first full album from this sizable combo from Reims, France tops it all.

8. tUnE-yArDs, WHOKILL (4AD)

Merrill Garbus is an undeniable, cultural-spanning force of nature. But we wouldn’t care nearly as much if she also wasn’t a stellar songwriter with the power to melt our hearts.

9. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol)

I wasn’t the first to say this, but the sixth studio album from the previous orchestral-pop champs (U.S. division), a more stripped-down but effervescent folk-rock effort, is the album we’ve been longing for R.E.M. to make for the last 15 years. Thankfully someone can still do it!

10. The Go! Team, Rolling Blackouts (Memphis Industries)

Hipsters have abandoned this genre-blurring English dance-pop band, after first falling in love with its debut album in 2004, but in these parts, album number three was the party disc of the summer.

11. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up (Sub Pop)

Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of Digable Planets and Cherrywine returns with a dark, menacing, claustrophobic masterpiece that deserves all of the unjustified praise heaped on the vile Odd Future (and where are they now?).

12. Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm)

Go ahead, dismiss this as a predictable choice, but the amazing, dramatically contrasting high points of this disc—the opening “Art of Almost” and the closing “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”—are strong contenders for two of the best songs these Chicago veterans ever have written and recorded.

13. Ponytail, Do Whatever You Want All the Time (We Are Free)

Another killer release from another band hipsters inexplicably forgot about after initial accolades as “the next big thing.” Endlessly tuneful, intertwining, and vaguely Afrobeat-meets-shoegazer guitar lines meet rolling, off-kilter drum patterns (think Captain Beefheart crossed with Battles), and Molly Siegel’s darn near indescribable “speaking in tongues” vocals.

14. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’ (Columbia)

Retro? Nonsense! Timeless soul and eternal grooves that are about then, now, and forever.

15. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Gorgeous harmonies, intriguing lyrics, unforgettable melodies, “baroque harmonic pop jams,” and lots of beards. What more could anyone want?

16. The Cool Kids, When Fish Ride Bicycles (Green Label Sound)

Laidback, free-flowing, and, at times, breezy jams that many call old-school, though I prefer the Chicago duo’s term for what they do on their long-awaited full-length debut: “beach rap.”

17. Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (Capitol)

The Beasties break no new ground with their playful torrents of words and off-kilter avalanche of cultural references, but rarely have they have so much fun that it’s impossible not to wanna join the party.

18. TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light (Interscope)

The most unexpected but essential boudoir soundtrack of recent memory.

19. Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow (Anti-)

Really, has there ever been any musician who created sounds this beautiful and sensual while simultaneously being so absolutely strange and borderline perverse?

20. Mastodon, The Hunter (Reprise)

As propulsive, irresistible, and undeniable as a rocket launch, but with just as much finesse and thought behind it.

21. Van Hunt, What Were You Hoping For? (Godless Hotspot)

22. Sons & Daughters, Mirror Mirror (Domino)

23. Lucinda Williams, Blessed (Lost Highway)

24. Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots (ATO)

25. Gorillaz, The Fall (Virgin)

26. Lydia Loveless, Indestructible Machine (Bloodshot)

27. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Mirror Traffic (Matador)

28. Lupe Fiasco, Lasers (Atlantic)

29. Radiohead, The King of Limbs (self-released)

30. Damon & Naomi, False Beats and True Hearts (20-20-20)

31. Steven Wilson, Grace for Drowning (Kscope)

32. Trombone Shorty, For True (Verve Forecast)

33. Wye Oak, Civilian (Merge)

34. Mannequin Men, Mannequin Men (Addenda)

35. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic)

36. Beats Antique, Elektrafone (Antique)

37. Smoking Popes, This Is Only A Test (Asian Man Records)

38. North Mississippi Allstars, Keys to the Kingdom (Songs of the South)

39. Marketa Irglova, Anar (Anti-)

40. Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum)