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BC Music Picks the Best Albums of 2011

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You might have had to search a little harder to find it, but for those with the resourcefulness to exercise their due diligence, there was plenty of great music out there to be had this year. As it turns out, those pesky 2011 rumors that music is dead were greatly exaggerated after all.

But locating it was key. With good record stores — the kind staffed with reliably knowledgeable music nerds — increasingly scarce these days, and the once healthy art of music journalism mostly on life support, finding that great new musical discovery in 2011 often meant clicking your way like a needle through the vast haystack of the internet.

Still, there was life out there beyond the Biebers, the Perrys and the Gagas, as the list you are about to read proves in spades. To compile BC Music’s annual (well, mostly anyway) rundown of the year’s best albums, we tasked ten of our music editors and writers with the simple assignment of naming their pick for album of the year, and explaining that choice in as few words as possible. While our music scribe’s words were not always few, each of their picks are, without exception, all worthy contenders for the 2011 championship belt.

To that end, the following list is in no particular order, and there are no rankings. Rather, it is based on the individual perspectives of the contributors who participated. Which makes for a very eclectic and diverse sampling of some of the best that music had to offer in 2011.

Not that we ever expected anything less, of course…

Donald Gibson picks Adele’s – 21

“Rolling in the Deep” changed the game. The first time you heard it you just knew that this song – that voice – was going to be a big deal. Adele is sirenic and sexy, her will-not-be-denied resolve striking a visceral blow to every self-absorbed, woe-is-me lament clogging up millions of iPods around the world.

As an album, 21 achieves much the same impact. Many of its songs have become so familiar now that they risk sounding cliché – a mere 12 months after entering the pop landscape. Yet it continues to sell like nothing else in contemporary pop, further illustrating the extent to which this music resonates with people. Popularity doesn’t equate to quality, of course; longevity will speak more to that. But it’d be churlish not to recognize that with this album Adele has tapped into the universality of heartbreak in ways that are at once intensely personal and timelessly profound.

El Bicho picks Tom Waits’ – Bad As Me

I thought this was going to be a tougher decision, but as I reviewed the albums of 2011 that stood out for me, none were as captivating as Waits’ latest. The opening track “Chicago” comes barreling out of the speakers like a runaway circus train in the night. Clint Maedge’s sax takes the place of the train whistle, signaling its approach, while Waits’ banjo serves as the tracks flying by underneath. And when he, as the conductor, yells “All Aboard” at its close, I am hard pressed to imagine anyone turning down the invitation to go along and discover if “things will be better in Chicago” or wherever the album leads.

The songs, which Waits wrote and composed with wife Kathleen Brennan, tell stories of different moods and attitudes. He plays a number of instruments and sings in different affectations depending on the narrator. Though the arrangements are diverse, a theme of dissatisfaction runs through many of the songs as narrators look to get away from their problems instead of sticking around and working on them. Waits is joined by a talented group of musicians, including guitarists Marc Ribot and Keith Richards (the latter also singing on the ballad “Last Leaf”); bassists Flea and Les Claypool; harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite; and multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo. Some play on a single track while others make multiple appearances. All help contribute to Tom Waits creating my favorite album of 2011.

Glen Boyd picks Wilco’s – The Whole Love

Wilco’s most diverse collection of tunes since 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is also their best since that masterpiece. On The Whole Love, Jeff Tweedy and company combine avant-experimentalist tracks like the wild, seven minute sonic freak out “Art Of Almost,” with the sublime poignancy of “One Sunday Morning (A Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” a twelve minute lyrical tour de’ force that has also been opening many of the shows on Wilco’s current tour.

Besides his edgy work on “Art Of Almost,” you’ll also find the stamp of guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline is all over this album. On “Black Moon,” Cline makes bagpipe noises with his axe not heard since the likes of Big Country in the eighties, while his sonic shredding on “I Might” provides a perfect counterpart to the Doors-like keyboards of Mikael Jorgensen. The Whole Love puts all of these pieces together, to finally realize the full potential of Wilco, as something far greater than just the collective sum of Tweedy’s backup crew. On The Whole Love, you in fact get the whole package.

Greg Barbrick picks Manorexia’s – Dinoflagellate Blooms

“It’s cinematic and quite dark, monstrous at times. It leans perhaps more than ever to the contemporary classical side of my work,” said JG Thirlwell to Blogcritics last year, previewing his upcoming Manorexia album Dinoflagellate Blooms. I was intrigued, to say the least, and when the album appeared in July of this year, was also suitably impressed.

Thirlwell’s music ranges far and wide, comparisons can be made to Frank Zappa, Bernard Herrmann, and Sibelius for starters. But the cinematic description may be the most accurate. This is music that evokes a visceral connection with the listener, although it never sounds like “soundtrack” music. “A Plastic Island In The Pacific” is a telling title, for there is a lurking danger underneath it all.

Kit O’ Toole picks Lindsey Buckingham’s – Seeds We Sow

Sure, Lindsey Buckingham may be best known for his tenure with Fleetwood Mac. But his 2011 release Seeds We Sow reminds listeners of his unique gifts for songwriting and guitar picking. Whether pondering love and the universe in “Stars Are Crazy,” or redemption in “End of Time” and “Gone Too Far,” Buckingham impresses with his philosophical musings and sophisticated guitar work. However, he still has the penchant for writing accessible pop and rock. Only he could make anger catchy on “One Take” or the “Second Hand News” sequel “Rock Away Blind” (“I could go crazy without even trying/ Fleeing the scene of the crime,” he snarls).

Instead of the slick, almost robotic arrangements of his 80s singles, Seeds We Sow showcases Buckingham at his most intimate and stripped down, revealing his raw talent. “Sliding down the karma slide/ Seems like it never ends,” he sings in “End of Time.” “When we get to the other side/ Maybe then we’ll make amends.” Is he discussing his own mortality, or our uncertain times? No matter the interpretation, Seeds We Sow perfectly showcases a superior guitarist, lyricist, and rock ‘n’ roll survivor. The album demonstrates that sometimes a guitar, voice, and simple arrangements can say more than a full-blown production ever could.

Kirsten Coachman picks Patrick Stump’s – Soul Punk

A well-crafted, synthed out hybrid of pop, R&B, and hip-hop music written, performed, and produced single-handedly by Patrick Stump is why his debut solo album, Soul Punk, is my pick for Best Album of 2011. Taking cues from his influences, David Bowie, Prince, and Michael Jackson, Stump brings 80’s dance-pop to a contemporary setting with songs like, “Everybody Wants Somebody,” “Dance Miserable,” and “Run Dry (X Heart X Fingers).”

Each track on Soul Punk delivers a unique lyrical perspective, as well as a diverse musical arrangement, where the combination of the two makes for some of the best pop music I have had the pleasure of listening to in quite a while. I appreciate the overall creativity and musicianship that went into the production of this album, and the talented artist for choosing to embrace the sound he musically identifies with and making it his own.

Charlie Doherty picks Yuck’s – Yuck

While there is no shortage of bands aping the ’80s synth rock/new wave style these days, it’s a welcome development to see a young rock band like England’s Yuck come out swinging in the year 2011 with its debut and self-titled record that wears its late ’80s and ’90s alt rock influences on its sleeves. The Sonic Youth-edged “Operation,” the sugary sweet “Shook Down,” and the loud, emotion-filled Dinosaur Jr.-ish guitar licks of “Get Away” (one of the year’s best singles), highlight this 12-track bunch.

A deluxe version adds six bonus tracks (with the chilled out, light guitar rock of “Soothe Me” being among the highlights), which only add to the excellence of this impressive release. Carefree Pavement-like yelps and melodic tendencies also speak to the diversity of this, one of the best albums of 2011, especially for a debut.

Rhetta Akamatsu picks Butch Walker and the Black Widows’ – The Spade

Butch Walker and the Black Widows’ The Spade was the most entertaining recording I reviewed this year. It is witty, diverse and makes you feel good, which is what Walker does best. As I said in my original review, he makes the music he wants to make, without regards to trends. He can go back to his Southern roots for a song like “Dublin Crow” or rock out on a song like “Bullet Belt.”

This CD is upbeat, optimistic, nostalgic, full of great stories and loaded with hooks. I picked it as number one for my top ten because it is so much fun, no matter how many times you listen to it.

The Other Chad picks Katie Costello’s – Lamplight

No album this year stayed with me the way that Katie Costello’s Lamplight did, and no song impacted me quite like its climatic epic, “The Weirds.” Imagine the musical equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie and you’ll have an idea what Costello’s sophomore effort is like.

Simultaneously traditional and quirky, Costello’s unpredictable tunes surprise the ear in a way that keeps them fresh after many listens. Her introspective lyrics are thoughtful in a way that defies the fact that she only recently reached legal drinking age. Tony Berg’s production is deceptively simple; though seemingly straightforward, close listening reveals a carefully constructed sonic fabric of subtle ornamentation. From the sweetly funny classic pop of “Cassette Tape” to the emotional discombobulation of “The Weirds,” Lamplight burns exceptionally bright as a 2011 standout.

Tyrone S. Reid picks Florence & The Machine’s – Ceremonials

With the release of their debut album, 2009’s Lungs, one of the bestselling releases of that year, Florence and The Machine first got notice. Now the extravagantly gifted songstress (flame-haired 25-year-old wonder Florence Welch) and the musicians who provide music for her voice are experiencing unprecedented raves with their latest, Ceremonials.

This great followup is an out-of-this-world concoction laden with soaring hymns of heartache, remorse and unbridled hope. Throughout, Welch’s unforgettable voice remains a bewitching instrument. Above all, the album stands as one of 2011’s most impressive releases.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanks to everyone who participated in compiling this~!

    -Glen

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    There has indeed been absolutely loads of great new music around this year although strangely enough I haven’t yet heard any of the albums featured in this interesting round-up article.

    Fortunately I have Spotify so checking them all out will be easy!

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    You haven’t heard Adele? What, do you live in a freaking igloo or something?

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    I didn’t say I hadn’t heard Adele. I’ve heard a couple of tracks but not the album, although I’m told I’m buying it as one of my wife’s Christmas presents…

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Okay, just checking to make sure you were actually still alive.

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    Well, I’m not commenting from the grave!

    I’ve seen Adele being interviewed a couple of times and the most striking thing is the contrast between the lyrics, which are well done, and the way she talks, which seems implausibly thick.

  • zingzing

    albums of the year for me were definitely the james blake s/t and destroyer’s kaputt. i saw blake live a couple of months ago and that made me love the album even more… thought i was going to lose my shit at that show, not in a good way… the bass was so deep and loud that i thought my bowels might lose control.

    destroyer has been one of my favorite bands for many years, and kaputt is one of his masterpieces, so i’m putty in his hands on that one.

    two albums that made me poop myself! not bad for one year. peaking lights, prurient, panda bear (so many “p” bands…), girls, african hitech, ema and bill callahan all put out other albums that i loved.

    biggest disappointment was the new fall album. other than a stolen line (“jerking off the dog to feed the cat”), there was absolutely nothing memorable about that album. such a shame, given that their last album was one of the best of their career.

    best reissue has to go to disco inferno’s 5 eps, although i’m sure there’s a smile fan out there who would disagree.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    And that SMiLE fan would be me, Zing.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    i love smile as well, glen. but there’s been a glut of smile-related stuff over the past half-decade plus, from brian’s live version to the 2004 version, plus the fact that i’ve had this stuff on boot for so long. i like that it finally came out (but did we need another disc of “good vibrations” sessions?), but it’s finally been too much for me. obviously, this should be the last word on the matter, and i’m glad it’s definitive, but goddamn, did they run that train into the ground.

    disco inferno’s 5 eps is stuff that’s 15-20 years old at this point, but finding good copies of that stuff was a good way to bankrupt yourself. and it’s some of the most innovative music of the past couple of decades, and still sounds like the future. amazing stuff, and a totally overlooked band. a revelation… which the smile reissue certainly was not.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I agree that SMiLE has been somewhat done to death, but I thought they really did a nice job with the box, and yes this should be the last word on it. The “new version” also sounds so much warmer than Brian’s 2004 version…which if I had one complaint about, it would be that it sounds a little sterile (as in a bit too much studio gloss).

    I do agree they kind of went overboard on the outtakes discs (and especially with “Good Vibrations”). But there are still those Brianiacs who will eat that stuff up, regardless. But that’s why I stuck with the two-disc version.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    the two-disc version is pretty great. there’s really only been a few things on the expanded version i’ve found to be necessary. (and didn’t a “good vibrations” sessions disc come out with the pet sounds box back when?)

    there’s a boot i have that already did the original studio sessions in the 2004 order… purple chick? i can’t quite recall. there were a few spots on the two-disc set where there was something new, but it’s basically a retread of stuff the boots have been doing for years.

    i suppose that if i hadn’t been into smile for almost 20 years at this point, it might contain something new for me, and i guess that’s the point of the two-disc set. i’d love to have it on vinyl.

    that and i do like having the most pristine versions of the studio tapes… i’m glad it was released.

    but go listen to disco inferno’s 5 eps. i’m sure you can find it. in that free way.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    That’s the beauty of “revision.” You just keep on tinkering until you usually find some way to really f**k something up. Fortunately, that didn’t happen with SMiLE (“Good Vibrations” outtakes notwithstanding).

    I’ll probably take a pass on the Disco Inferno stuff. Wasn’t really a fan then, and I doubt the reissues will do much to change my mind. One man’s Picasso is another man’s … well you know all that…

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    you knew disco inferno?

    one of the few… actually i have to ask if you’re thinking of the same band… i have doubt, but i guess i could be wrong. i don’t think i’ve ever met anyone who knew of them when they were around. (not that i did either.)

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    You’re probably right. I might be confusing them with the Traamps.

  • zingzing

    figured as much. they’re not a disco band. just a band with an unfortunate name.

    here‘s one of the reissued tracks. one of their better, more accessible songs from the eps. it’s their most guitar-oriented stuff, which was a bit of a rarity for them later on. they’re straight up guitar-bass-drums, but you’d never know it from most of their stuff because they incorporated so much technology and samples (played through normal instruments).

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanx! I’ll check it out and get back to you.

  • Greg Barbrick

    Well zing, you have me intrigued about this Disco Inferno band – if not Glen. There actually was a fair amount of cool stuff released in 2011, although my taste is generally outside of the iTunes top 10 list.

    But I would like to add a few honorable mentions:

    Hedvig Mollestad Trio – Shoot!
    Reinhold Friedl – Inside Piano
    Kieth Jarrett – Rio
    Villalobos/Loderbauer – Re: ECM
    Kaboom Karavan – Barra Barra
    The Black Watch – Led Zeppelin Five

    And the reissues were something else again.

    Besides Smile, fans of classic Stax had a field day – especially with Booker T.s – McLemore Ave. Their take on Abbey Road is a must.

    Add Plastikman’s Arkives, the Throbbing Gristle catalog, the CTI material, Trans Am’s Futureworld, the Queen catalog…

    If one looked carefully, there was actually quite a lot of good music released this past year, both new and reissued.

    In 2012 I have but one wish. For the love of Gaga, and all that is holy, can we put a merciful end to her 15 minutes?

  • http://cinemasentries El Bicho

    My #2 of the year is…(double-checking Inbox to see if Sony sent any money for me to mention Karmin)…The Cars – Move Like This. Much better than expected. It was like they just picked up a couple of years later

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I haven’t heard the Cars record, but I did see them on Colbert earlier this year and was surprised at how good their new song sounded.

    I’ll be doing my own Rockologist Top Ten for 2011 list soon. Not sure what the order will be yet, but it will probably include stuff like Waits, Kate Bush, Steven Wilson…maybe Radiohead, although KoL didn’t stick with me as much as In Rainbows did.

    I’d also be tempted to put the Beach Boys SMiLE box on there, even though its technicaly a reissue.

    But we’ll see, I guess…

    -Glen

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Good choices here, but I’d also put in a bid for Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So What, an album of great richness and reflection. Also Miranda Lambert’s Four the Record and Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light.

    Reissue of the year: Beach Boy’s SMiLE, in whatever incarnation.

  • http://trinimansblog.blogspot.com/ Triniman

    There’s something about Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” that is so familiar. I can’t remember the song, but the chorus is very similar to that of another song. I seem to think it was used in a commercial and was from the disco era.

    Anyone else notice the same thing?

  • http://blogcritics.org/music/article/my-favorite-songs-of-2011/#comments Scott Deitche

    Great list. I will definitley check out Yuck, and a few others.

    I did my favorite songs, but if I had to pick some fave albums:

    Arch/Matheos – Sympathetic Resonance
    Washed Out- Within and Without
    Ben Folds- Best Imitation of Myself Retrospective

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    I would James Blake to this list.

  • Paul Roy

    You guys like hard rock and metal about as much as Rolling Stone.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Paul…personaly, I like Hard rock as much as anybody. I just didn’t hear a lot of it I liked this year. And I’ve never been a big fan of growly, cookie monster vocals.

    I dunno, does prog count? Steven Wilson made my top ten this year…

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    prog never counts.

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    Don’t be shy, Paul. What album was overlooked?

  • Paul Roy

    Prog always counts. Most of the good new hard rock and metal coming out these days would fall under the prog genre, in my opinion. A couple of my favorites last year were Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events, and Black Country Communion – 2