There were a lot of musical disappointments in 2011. Dr. Dre’s Detox album still wasn’t released. New albums by major artists like Wilco, the Strokes, Radiohead, and Lady Gaga didn’t meet expectations. But there were a lot of good things in 2011 too; some acts found their artistic footing and some returned to form. A few amazing musical groups burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere. Some great unheard music was finally released after years of fans patiently waiting. So here are the ten best albums of 2011 in alphabetical order.
Adele – 21
This is one of the biggest steps between a debut and second album in recent memory. On 21 Adele downplays Motown influences and concentrates instead on “British soul” and piano ballads. The sparser instrumentation is a terrific showcase for her big vocals. She’s much more confident in both her literal and artistic voice. While this is yet another break-up album, the lyrics are more than trite. Her couplets are almost reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. Adele has found herself, and her confidences shines through.
Architecture in Helsinki – Moment Bends
A few years ago Architecture in Helsinki abandoned their whispery indie rock for New Wave Pop with 21st century electronic flourishes. That sounds like an ironic joke by a hipster band, but it’s not. This album is completely unabashed in its love for that sound, and Architecture in Helsinki happen to be darn good at it, too. When a band is having this much fun making music, it’s hard for it not have fun listening to it.
The Beach Boys – The Smile Sessions
This lost classic was finally released and it actually met expectations. When Brian Wilson released Brian Wilson’s Smile in 2004, it seemed like this concept album was an overly ambitious and perhaps unfocused project. The 2004 version felt soulless as well. But hearing the original Beach Boys recordings of SMiLE it becomes the album that Brian Wilson was trying to make, the “teenage symphony to God”. It captures the spirit of a teenager lost between childhood and adulthood through its song cycles, abstract lyrics, over-instrumentation, and gorgeous melodies. It probably would have changed Rock music forever if it had come out in the 60s or 70s.
The Decemberists – The King is Dead
The Decemberists move away from their unique indie/baroque/sea shanty sound to more of an alt-country sound. Surprisingly the plainer sound suits them well. Colin Meloy’s lyrics are sharper than they have been in years and his melodies are no longer dragged down by avant-garde song structure. The Decemberists’ best album in a few years may be their most accessible ever.
Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full of Holes
Fountains of Wayne have been crafting hummable power-pop based on life’s mundane details for about 15 years now. Their ability to tell a story in song using simple minutiae rivals Paul McCartney. This album is a little more mature than its predecessors. There is more depth and meaning behind those details. It also happens to be their most consistent album in over a decade.
Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Girls continue their bedroom symphonies with this album. They sound like two kids who listened to a bunch of singer/songwriter, surf-rock, and emo while complaining about girls in high school. It should be terrible, but their songcraft is so strong and their emotions are so relatable. We can all remember when boy/girl things seemed like the most important thing in the world.
The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart
It’s hard to describe this band’s sound and do it justice. Is it indie rock, folk, alt-country, or classic rock? I don’t know what genre bucket I would put it in, but I know it’s amazing. Different organic instruments layer in and out of songs at the exact right time, along with sound effects. Every song on the album feels like a well-worn classic. It as if from the first moment you hear this music, you’ve known it your whole life, right down to the rhythms, melodies, and lyrics. It’s my favorite record of the year.