{My} Top Albums of 2011

The unity of the collection of songs within an album and the themes explored is more important than my love for one track (or several), and this affects my ranking. I think this is why Fleet Foxes ends up higher on my list, and why Mat Kearney, The Civil Wars, and Laura Marling got bumped from the list even though I might have given them more listening time over the year. I liked many songs, but I didn't think their "collections" of songs felt as cohesive. Being able to listen all the way through an album and get a feeling for both the ideas and the music the artist is exploring will put it up higher on my list.

* attended a concert

1. Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender*
               Source: Direct (I pre-bought this album before they made it via the band's website)

Over the Rhine is whiskey music. You need to pay attention to them, and if you mix them up with a lot of other stuff, then you will never really get the value. They are breaking rules quietly and beautifully. Many people who prebought the album got it in November 2010, but the official release date is 2011, so I'm going with that. I can't say too much about the album, but if you choose not to bother with it, at least get the song 'All My Favorite People Are Broken', a song years in the writing and one that every person should listen to.

2. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What
                Source: NPR’s First Listen

Comparisons with Graceland are unnecessary and unhelpful, but...it does sound a bit closer to Graceland than anything else, and that makes me smile. 

3. Gungor, Ghosts Upon the Earth
         Source: Just about everyone I know posted about this one on the day of its release.

"Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."--C.S. Lewis. This album is the musical expression of that, a clear and gorgeous expression of a clear and gorgeous idea: the desire for God's love to be made known on earth. No kitsch and no obscuring. It doesn't scrimp on beauty, but it is never heavy-handed in a world where we are used to Christian musical expressions either oversimplifying or overglorifying everything at all times forever and ever and always, amen.

4. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues*
                Source: NPR’s First Listen 

     Never mind how put off I was at first by the dissonant horn cacaphony at the end of the 8-freakin' minute track "The Shrine/An Argument". They had me at the line: "If to borrow is to take and not return/I have borrowed all my lonesome life/ and I can't, no I can't get through/the borrower's debt is the only regret of my youth"(Bedouin Dress). I still don't understand most of it , and somehow I don't mind at all. It asks questions beautifully. 

5. The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart*
                Source: Local fans, AmazonMP3

 A pack of Seattle kids begin playing local venues, and have a lot of fun. Release an album, have more fun. Tour, more fun. I got to see them play from the edge of the stage at Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom. If you have a chance, seem them live. Simple but thoughtful, and pre-eminently singable modern folk music.

6. Joe Henry, Reverie
               Source: NPR's First Listen

Joe Henry is the Seattle producer/collaborator of Over the Rhine's recent albums. I loved his previous album Death to the Storm, and this one is definitely no step back. Jazzy, smoky, classy tracks filled with fantastic instrumentation.

7. Sleeping at Last, Yearbook
          Source: Artist's website

The Chicago band released three songs each month in 2011, and then packed the 36 tracks onto a beautiful album. Though it's not an official release, it's one of my favorite things about 2011.

8. The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar
     Source: Relevant, Amazon MP3, The Peak radio play.

Over the top atmospheric sound and energy made their album a spring and summer hit, but it's become one of my favorites in rotation. 

9. Dan Mangan, Oh Fortune
     Source: Friend's recommendation, The Peak radio play.

I was introduced to Canadian Dan Mangan's song "Road Regrets" (2010, Nice, Nice, Very Nice) late this summer when the local Vancouver radio station was promoting Oh Fortune. It was just one of those road songs that makes it onto any road trip playlist...forever. Looking for more songs like that one, I bought the album based on the single of the same name and found an album full of heart and questions...an album full of road songs.

10. Aaron Strumpel, Birds
     Source: Artist

Aaron Strumpel started out with Enter the Worship Circle. His latest work, in collaboration with Todd and Angie Fadel of Portland band 'Agents of the Future', is eclectic, to say the least. Had I not heard them live first, I might have been put off by it. But as it is I love the uniqueness of the (admittedly bizarre and dissonant at times) juxtaposition of soundscape and Old Testament lyricism. This is "joyful noise". 

Honorable Mention:

Death Cab for Cutie, Codes and Keys
     Source: NPR's first listen, Artist website

Nothing overly new here. A few lovely tracks, a few brilliant moments, a few rainy weeks distilled into music. Welcome to Bellingham...er, Seattle. Sorry, Ben.

Hannah and Maggie, Fine Being Here
               Source: I think this one was a facebook friend recommendation via Amazon MP3

I love and relate to lyrics throughout this album, and the simple singer/songwriter vibe doesn't try to be more than it is--sweet, thoughtful, and simply told stories.

Josh Garrels, Love & War & The Sea In Between
                Source: Relevant Podcast

There is just so much to recommend idea-wise, but the album overreaches...in too many directions. A little restraint (a la Gungor) might have put this album among the best of the year. 

The Decemberists, The King is Dead*
                Source: NPR’s First Listen

If I'd created this list in the first half of the year, this album was on the top half. I listened to it a lot, but it tarnished a bit with time. I find myself skipping a few tracks, although 'January Hymn' and 'June Hymn' are still transcendent.

The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow
                Source: Relevant Podcast and Magazine

Everyone who talks about this band talks first about the "matching" voices of Joy Williams and John Paul White, and it's all true. I love this album on the right kind of day. 

Mat Kearney, Young Love
     Source: Artist

Mostly Because of two tracks, "She's Got the Honey" and "Hey, Mama", in spite of my love for Mat's previous work, (I used to go to tiny concerts in San Francisco before he released any albums) I just couldn't put it up there with my best of the year. Bless the oft-mentioned purple boots. My favorite songs ("Learning to Love Again", "Ships In The Night", "Down") on this album sounded like overflow from his 2008 album 'City of Black and White' or even 2005's 'Nothing Left to Lose'; catchy, romantic, and pop-ethereal. (If I could count "Nothing Left to Lose" again, I'd put it on my best-of list any day. I'm glad Nashville's been good for Mat, but I think he could use a little more Portland rain to add some edge!)

Givers, In Light
William Fitzsimmons, Gold in the Shadow
Laura Marling, A Creature I Don’t Know
Brianna Gaither, Love is Patient
Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs
The Cave Singers, No Witch


I forgot one of my favorite albums of the year! I completely forgot that Nick Flora's Hello Stranger was a 2011 release.  A very fun collection of songs full of wry humor and authentic heart, produced by Andy Osenga. Here's a live version of my favorite song from the album:


jana.kaye said…
a few people asked me about Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto and Adele's 21. I must say I listened only to the radio singles for both, so although if I had been able to afford their albums, they might have made it.

They chose not make their music available on Spotify, and so I did not get to listen to them in their entirety. I think they might have been made available on Amazon MP3 at different times, but I missed the sales.

For the record, every album in my top ten list, and most of my honorable mentions, were purchased legally through Amazon.com or some other media provider. Though I use Spotify to listen and sometimes screen out what I don't want to purchase, I love to support the artists who produce work that I love.