All week-long we’ve been counting down our staff’s picks for the best albums of 2011. Today, on the last workday of the year, we reveal the top of our list.
When Hidden Track was started in 2006 there were plenty of sites dedicated to indie rock and a slew of sites devoted to improvisational and classic rock bands, but few blogs (and bands for that matter) bridged the gap between the forms. That’s where we came in and five years later the results of our list shows that’s still where our staff’s interests lie, especially the album that fittingly took the top spot as our choice for the best album of 2011. Of particular note, the gap between #1 and #2 was one point. If any of our staffers would’ve put #2 one spot higher on their list we would’ve had a tie.
Thanks for following along all week. We now present our Top 5 Albums of 2011…
Key Tracks: Come To The City, Original Slave, Baby Missiles
Sounds Like: Stripped down Americana songs driven through the Brian Eno car wash
The Skinny: Prior to this record, The War on Drugs were a band lauded with Americana characterizations and Dylan comparisons to deserving acclaim, but Slave Ambient is a bold step forward: it’s a reinvention, an album that embraces technology and a clinic in production. Slave Ambient earns its visionary stripes by taking relatively basic song structures and veiling them in rich sonic textures with meticulous attention to detail. The careful articulation of the arrangements even manages to mask the fact that brainchild Adam Granduciel has a terrific voice, making vocals a loveable wing man to the main character – the thick tones and pulsing samples.
– Ryan Dembinsky
Key Tracks: So American, Got it All, Sleep Forever
Sounds like: Pink Floyd battling Motown with light sabers in the Alaskan frontier
“You can’t win them all” is a common cliche we’ve all heard, but Portugal. The Man is trying to prove ’em wrong impossibly delivering In the Mountain In the Cloud, their 6th groundbreaking album in as many years. After signing to Atlantic, we might have expected another cliche, the “major label debut,” but the band hasn’t lost an iota of the oozing creativity and make-room-on-the-bandwagon energy that has characterized the first five releases and built the band a rabid fan base. In the Mountain in the Cloud is epic in its vision and exacting in its realization. The dense songwriting defies logic, hitting you in the head with a mallet made of feathers; this is music to wrap your brain around, move your body to and sing along word-for-word with. Don’t fret, no throwaway tracks here, there’s more than enough here to keep you busy until the inevitable release #7. It’ll be here before you know it, the only question is whether it will top this one (…and if so, heaven help us.)
– Aaron Stein
Key Tracks: Holocene, Minnesota, WI, Beth/Rest
Sounds Like: A majestic as fuck blend of synthesizers, falsetto and rock
The Skinny: With Bon Iver Bon Iver lead singer, songwriter and band centerpiece Justin Vernon proved on his sophomore record he didn’t need a devastating break-up with a girlfriend to be inspired to make beautiful art. Within his strategic instrumentation and abstract lyrics delivered in vulnerable falsetto, he again crafted a gripping collection of songs more sonically aligned with 1980’s Bruce Hornsby than with a heartbroken guy living alone in the woods. A cache of talented musicians expanded the band’s sound while maintaining a right there in the living room with you feel. Every aspect, every note and tone is perfectly placed with hardly a hint of overproduction. This record is steeped with powerful compositions that show Vernon and band in full color, out of the woods, beaming with humble confidence.
– Andy Kahn
Key Tracks: Art of Almost, Born Alone, One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane’s Smiley Boyfriend)
Sounds Like: How Wilco got its groove back.
The Skinny: Bookended by two of Wilco’s most adventuresome exercises in songwriting in almost a decade, The Whole Love has Wilco showing more edge than their previous two albums. Sure, Sky Blue Sky had the blistering outro to Impossible Germany, and serial head-bobbers salivated at the outro to Wilco (The Album)’s Bull Black Nova, but the band hasn’t written a song like Art of Almost since, well – ever.
The song Born Alone is an interesting study considering Tweedy produced, played the majority of the albums and co-wrote a couple tunes including the title track of Mavis Staples’ 2010 record You Are Not Alone. While the Staples record insists that the listener “I Wanna Get It Through To You, You Are Not Alone,” Born Alone leads with swallowing opiates and the notion that the narrator was born to die alone. It’s not as dark as you might think, Tweedy explained to CNN that, “I find that song really joyous, but I do see how on paper it’s really dire. My mom told me something that I struggled with my whole life: ‘You’re born alone and you die alone. So you should get used to being alone.’ And that’s just terrible advice. That song felt to me like the first time in my life when I said, that’s bulls—. I don’t need to be fearful of being alone, or being with people. So the song gets to the end, and that rock catharsis—it’s the best strategy I’ve come up with for consolation.” The album, like a lot of Wilco’s material, focuses on the challenges of everyday life – I think they should have stuck with the original working title, “Get Well Soon Everybody.”
Key Tracks: It’s Him, At the Farm, Drugs
Sounds Like: The indie band you play for your friends to get them to like jambands
The Skinny: White Denim ditched the lo-fi drone of their previous efforts and focused on elaborate and succinct production centering on the dueling guitars of Austin Jenkins and James Petralli which make up the core of their complex and expansive fourth album. The record shows off the band’s agile musicianship with the quartet bouncing effortlessly from tightly composed prog segments to spacious psychedelic excursions. A retro late 1960’s/early 1970’s vibe, meshed with contemporary indiepop sensibilities, created songs with strong structured parts while leaving plenty of room for extended instrumental jaunts. Throughout the ten track set, the band’s flirtation with intricately layered composition recalls both Yes and Animal Collective as well as early Phish. Despite the open-ended feel of many of the tracks, none of the songs crack the five minute mark which keeps the album from ever drifting into mindless noodling. It’s concise, guitar-driven rock at its best, blending sharp lyrics and infectious rhythms to build a kick-ass and endlessly interesting album.
– Andy Kahn
To Recap, Here’s Our Top 25 Albums of 2011 w/ Points and Votes Each Received
1. White Denim – D (228 Points, 12 Votes)
2. Wilco – The Whole Love (227 Points, 12 Votes)
3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (173 Points, 8 Votes)
4. Portugal. The Man – In The Mountain In The Cloud (155 Points, 8 Votes)
5. The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient (153 Points, 8 Votes)
6. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (146 Points, 8 Votes)
7. The Black Keys – El Camino (136 Points, 8 Votes)
8. My Morning Jacket – Circuital (131 Points, 11 Votes)
9. The Head & The Heart – The Head & The Heart (108 Points, 8 Votes)
10. TV On The Radio – Nine Types of Light (105 Points, 6 Votes)
11. Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire (104 Points, 8 Votes)
12. Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What (103 Points, 7 Votes)
13. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (83 Points, 6 Votes)
14. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead (83 Points, 5 Votes)
15. M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming (78 Points, 4 Votes)
16. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong (76 Points, 6 Votes)
17. Tom Waits – Bad As Me (75 Points, 5 Votes)
18. tune-yards – w h o k i l l (74 Points, 5 Votes)
19. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s A Corporate World (72 Points, 4 Votes)
20. Danger Mouse – Rome (66 Points, 5 Votes)
21. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest (64 Points, 4 Votes)
22. Yellowbirds – The Color (64 Points, 3 Votes)
23. Primus – Green Naugahyde (62 Points, 4 Votes)
24. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs (60 Points, 4 Votes)
25. Middle Brother – Middle Brother (55 Points, 4 Votes)