For the best albums in 2011, SF Critic will highlight each of our staff’s picks, rather than an accumulative 25, 50, 1,000 best album list.
Patrick Kelly has been photographing and writing since almost the beginning of SF Critic. If you ever meet Patrick, which if you’re ever at a show in San Francisco you likely will, he always has this big grin across his face. One of the wonderful things about Patrick, besides his photography, is that he’s hungry to discover new music. Earlier this year, I was on my way to Active Child and called Patrick to see if he was going. He had just heard of the band that day, and even though he hadn’t listen to the album more than once, he was trying hard to find tickets to the sold out show. But that’s Patrick, always willing, always wanting to hear that next big thing–truth is, most of the time he does. Here are Patrick’s discoveries this year.
Bon Iver: Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Easily in the running for one of my favorite albums from the last 10 years. The songs string together seamlessly, yet each one could stand on its own against any other single released by any other artist this year. A recommendation: Listen to “Holocene” while driving along one of your favorite roads with someone you love. If that’s not a soundtrack, I don’t know what is.
Highlights: “Holocene”, “Hinnom, TX”, “Calgary”, “Towers”, “Beth/Rest”[audio:http://www.sfcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/Bon-Iver-Holocene-Official-Music-Video.mp3|titles=Bon Iver – Holocene]
Real Estate: Days
I honestly have no idea what to classify this album as. Sure, it can be labeled as indie rock, the strumming guitars and rolling drums make sure of that. But it transcends proper adjectives you want to pin on great albums. Chill? Yea, but… timeless? True, but… there’s something to its simplicity that will make it impossible to recreate, yet I can’t properly define why it’s better than nearly everything released this year. If there ever was an album to forever frustrate critics who come at indie rock with the tired “they all sound the same” tag this would be it. It’s probably the fact that each song is expertly crafted with practicality and nothing overtly flashy. They’re like modern master cobblers or unbelievably practical architects. Maybe not the catchiest moniker but something catchy wouldn’t fit a band so understated.
Highlights: “Out Of Tune”, “The Wonder Years”, “Municipality”, “It’s Real”, “Green Aisles”, “All The Same”[audio:http://www.sfcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/Real-Estate-Out-Of-Tune.mp3|titles=Real Estate – Out Of Tune]
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
Like an epic, Helplessness Blues tells a story by telling more than one tale. Their harmonies are unmatched. Their acoustics are extremely well crafted. But the wisdom and humility Helplessness Blues exudes transcends both. I’m not sure how Fleet Foxes managed to produce an album this complete without shoving it in everyone else’s faces (especially to all of those who were eagerly awaiting to scream, “You’ll never out out another album as good as your debut”). The album is humble and each individual song more so. Proof that beauty exists completely without vanity.
Highlights: “Helplessness Blues”, “Battery Kinzie”, “Grown Ocean”, “Montezuma”, “The Shrine / An Argument”[audio:http://www.sfcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/Fleet-Foxes-Helplessness-Blues.mp3|titles=Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues]
St. Vincent: Strange Mercy
If I had my pick of leading women, St. Vincent would win in a landslide. I know that may not seem fair to categorize her solely with other females but it’s impossible not to realize her power as a woman when you listen to an album like Strange Mercy. The fact that she is a leading woman is what makes the album truly stand alone. It’s what gives the album its strength and its raw, diary-like feel. Sure, she can play with the best rock frontmen in the world (and pretty much any other guitarist for that matter) but if you put her into their category it would diminish what she brings to an album and a stage.
Highlights: “Cruel”, “Dilettante”, “Northern Lights”, “Surgeon”, “Year Of The Tiger”[audio:http://www.sfcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/St-Vincent-39Cruel-39.mp3|titles=St Vincent – Cruel]
Radiohead: King of Limbs
Rarely do I think it moot to describe one’s affection for an album or a band. No matter how popular the musicians/album may be, they always deserve more praise (That’s how popularity works?!?!). That said, all I can really say about Radiohead is that I can’t expand on anything that’s already been said about King of Limbs; a line from “Codex” describes the album itself the best: “Sleight of hand/Jump off the end/Into a clear lake/No one around.”
Highlights: “Codex”, “Lotus Flower”, “Give Up The Ghost”, “Little By Little”[audio:http://www.sfcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/Codex-Radiohead.mp3|titles=Radiohead – Codex]
The Antlers: Burst Apart
The phrases uttered about the Fleet Foxes’ much-anticipated album was undoubtedly repeated for The Antlers’ release in 2011. Such is the plight of those who release unbelievably well-crafted albums early on in a career. “No way they’ll be able to outdo Hospice. Not worth even trying.” I’m not paraphrasing; I actually said that. And I’m one of their biggest fans, one of the many who want The Antlers to release albums steadily for the next 20 years, even if it’s at half the level Hospice’s quality. Anyway, despite the epicness and the true original genius of Hospice, Burst Apart is better. The album is more complete than their last with a much wider range. It’s a truly great collection of sad yet happy songs that get you dancing. I know that might sound like a complete contradiction but that’s exactly how Peter Silberman described the album himself (at their show at Great American Music Hall). You’re continuously torn between reflecting on the themes of the lyrics or bobbing your head, two great options that you never get sick of picking between.
Highlights: “No Widows”, “I Don’t Want Love”, “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out”, “Putting The Dog To Sleep”[audio:http://www.sfcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Antlers-No-Widows-Studio-Version-HD.mp3|titles=The Antlers – No Widows]
Cut Copy: Zonoscope
I wish you were at Coachella. Or at Treasure Island. Cut Copy has hits to make the festival go boom but, up to date, they hadn’t released an album nearly as complete (and good) as Zonoscope. Played front to back, the album is near perfect for road trips, dancing in your room (who’s with me?!?!) or party soundtracks. Each song stands alone too, just ask “Need You Now”, “Where I’m Going” or “Blink And You’ll Miss A Revolution”.
Highlights: “Need You Now”, “Take Me Over”, “Where I’m Going”, “Blink And You’ll Miss A Revolution”[audio:http://www.sfcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/Cut-Copy-Need-You-Now.mp3|titles=Cut Copy – Need You Now]
Other Lives: Tamer Animals
They snuck in to the Top 10 but it’s not solely due to the passion of new discovery. It’s often said about good albums, and it’s no different for one from a newcomer: the album is solid from front to back. Usually that might be a nightmare for a label trying to pick a song to highlight a band’s potential but TBD Records need not worry. This band will be huge (and quickly), no matter their promotional strategy. Their music speaks for them well and speaks very very loudly. If that’s not enough, they toured with Bon Iver this past year and they’re due to tour with Radiohead in 2012. Get ready (that goes for the band and fans alike).
Highlights: “Tamer Animals”, “As I Lay My Head Down”, “Dark Horse”, “Dust Bowl III”[audio:http://www.sfcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/Other-Lives-Tamer-Animals-Official-Video.mp3|titles=Other Lives – Tamer Animals]
The Dodos: No Color
What can I say? They strum my lil’ heart string. They’re getting better, more refined. And the drums, oh, the drums. Adding Neko Case as backing vocals only makes it worse. I’m left to sit and marvel at how they can access what I appreciate about indie rock so effortlessly and powerfully. If you’ve heard of them, expect more of the same, only better. If not, expect well-crafted songs made without fuss: Amazingly catchy acoustic guitar strums and a thumping drum beat, produced by two supremely talented musicians.
Highlights: “Hunting Season”, “Good”, Black Night”, “Don’t Try And Hide It”[audio:http://www.sfcritic.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Dodos-Hunting-Season.mp3|titles=The Dodos – Hunting Season]
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.: It’s A Corporate World
It seemed easy to dismiss Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. when they came on to the scene this year. They had the catchy songs, the funny moniker, and the choreographed outfits at their shows (retro racing gear…to fit the band’s name). When I saw them open at Bottom of the Hill most of the crowd seemed unimpressed even while they secretly bobbed their heads. I was the opposite: I overtly bobbed my head while being secretly very impressed. I couldn’t figure out whether I liked them or LIKED them, but as I listened to their debut LP more and more I realized slowly that it was one of my favorites the year. If you commit the same listens you might find the same. It might sound a stretch, but their catchy gems and the ease with which they come across reminds me an awful lot like Vampire Weekend. You’ll find yourself humming for days.
Highlights: “An Ugly Person On A Movie Screen”, “Skeletons”, “Nothing But Our Love”, “We Almost Lost Detroit”
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – Essentially a tie for 10th favorite album.
Battles – Gloss Drop
Tapes N’ Tapes – Outside
Active Child – You Are All I See
Explosions In The Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
Top 25 Songs Of 2011
1. Bon Iver – “Holocene”
2. Real Estate – “Out of Tune”
3. M83 – “Midnight City”
4. Beirut – “East Harlem”
5. Radiohead – “Codex”
6. Girls – “Vomit”
7. The Antlers – “No Widows”
8. St. Vincent – “Cruel”
9. The War on Drugs – “Baby Missiles”
10. Other Lives – “Tamer Animals”
11. Dodos – “Hunting Season”
12. Neon Indian – “Polish Girl”
13. Cut Copy – “Need You Now”
14. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
15. Real Estate – “Wonder Years”
16. Tapes N’ Tapes – “On And On”
17. The Mountain Goats – “Damn These Vampires”
18. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – “Senator”
19. Toro Y Moi – “New Beat”
20. Dum Dum Girls – “Coming Down”
21. Bon Iver – “Hinnom, TX”
22. The Antlers – “Putting The Dog To Sleep”
23. Battles – “Wall Street”
24. Mogwai – “George Square Thatcher Dance Party”
25. Explosions In The Sky – “Let Me Back In”
Favorite Shows of 2011
1. Beach House – The Fillmore
2. Fleet Foxes/The Walkmen – The Greek
3. Cut Copy- Coachella
4. Bon Iver – The Greek
5. Arcade Fire – Coachella
6. The Weakerthans – 4 and More – The Independent
7. Broken Social Scene – The Fillmore
8. The National – Coachella
9. Battles – Bottom of the Hill
10. Here We Go Magic – Rickshaw Stop
11. Explosions In The Sky – The Fox
12. M83 – Mezzanine
13. The Antlers – Great American Music Hall
14. Tapes N’ Tapes – The Independent
15. Mayer Hawthorne – Bimbo’s 365 Club