Top 10 Albums of 2011


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Chalk Artist: Andy Hanson
Photographer: Sarah Otto

West Side Stories guest writer Anthony Clayton used his knowledge of 2011 music to determine which albums are the year’s best. Here is the full list of his preferences.

1. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes: 2011 was generally a bad year for music; not many albums that came out seemed satisfying. Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues came along mid-way through the year, and it was much needed. With its lush musical arrangements and Robin Pecknold’s haunting vocals, this was a refreshing break away from the typical “hit-single pop” albums that listeners were forced to bear. “Montezuma,” the starter track, is a song that features Pecknold singing a very emotional lead accompanied only by his guitar and the band members Beach Boy-like harmonies for a majority of the song, something that most listeners will not notice right away. The album send-off, “Grown Ocean,” is the greatest song I’ve ever sat through, that featured lyrics entirely about a dream the writer had, not to mention the instrumentation is beautifully arranged and completely surrounding from the start. Sadly, this is probably the first time you are hearing about this album, but I strongly advise that you pick up a copy; it’s definitely worth the while.

Key Tracks: “Montezuma,” “Helplessness Blues,” “Lorelai,” “Grown Ocean”

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

2. Watch the Throne by Jay-Z and Kanye West: If it weren’t for these two, Hip-hop would be a dead genre. Watch the Throne is Jay-Z and Kanye saving a failing genre filled completely with lyrics about drugs, money and all other luxuries of life. That isn’t to say this album doesn’t have that, but Jay-Z and Kanye are the only two capable of making it work. “The Joy [Featuring Curtis Mayfield,]” with a predominant sample of Mayfield’s “The Makings of You,” is the definite stand-out track, and Kanye West’s lyrical highlight. Never has he been more emotional or strong in his word play (“Still hear the ghost of the kids I never had”). Jay-Z, as usual, holds a more laid back approach, with a smoothly infectious delivery. This is THE quintessential 2011 rap album and should not be overlooked at all.

Key Tracks: “Lift Off,” “Otis [Feat. Otis Redding],” “Primetime,” “The Joy [Feat. Curtis Mayfield],” “Ni**as In Paris”

Jay Z and Kanye West – Lift Off (explicit)

3. Smile! by The Beach Boys: The album that took 44 years to finally complete was released just in time to make this list. Coming in with a staggering twenty tracks, the amount of effort put into this is evident. Brian Wilson’s attempt at a teenage operatic pop movement, and sequel to Pet Sounds, seems successful now, but that wasn’t the case 44 years ago. Coming off the release of arguably the greatest album of all time, Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson saw no acceptable response. I am very proud to say the Wilson was incorrect in his thinking. “Good Vibrations” and “Surf’s Up” are the standouts. “Good Vibrations” is the essential Beach Boys track, featuring a theremin section. “Surf’s Up” is highly infectious, and obviously a creation of Brian Wilson. It features Wilson on piano, accompanied only by bass, tambourine, xylophone, and the ever so famous, harmony section. This album will go down as one of the Beach Boys’ best records, pretty good for an album that almost never was.

Key Tracks: “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf’s Up,” “Good Vibrations”

The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations

4. El Camino by The Black Keys: Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are the last of a dying breed: successful modern blues rock revivalists. No one does modern blues like them except for The White Stripes, who recently disbanded. El Camino sounds like a 70’s throwback album, powered by Auerbach’s traditional, “highway drifter” blues guitar style, and Carney’s surf-rock drum standard. “Lonely Boy” will go down as the album’s best track, and possibly even the best of the band’s catalog. It is an intentionally campy take on 70’s popular rock music; guitar heavy, and even features an organ. The instrumentation is admirably simple, and Auerbach’s gruff, and occasionally tortured vocals are something to watch out for.

Key Tracks: “Lonely Boy,” “Dead and Gone,” “Gold On the Ceiling,” “Run Right Back”

The Black Keys – Run Right Back

5. Take Care by Drake: The future of hip-hop lies in the hands of Aubrey “Drake” Graham. The Young Money Franchise’s last hope is the most talented rapper on the market today, and his first two releases are leading me into believing he has a remarkable career ahead. Take Care is Drake’s reflection on his career and what’s ahead. “Lord Knows” is a definite candidate for song of the year and features an almost scene-stealing cameo by Rick Ross. “The Ride” is a smooth stroll down memory lane and is one of Drake’s best tracks. The album is also masterfully produced, yet not as easy of a listen compared to last year’s, Thank Me Later.

Key Tracks: “Lord Knows,” “Headlines,” “The Ride,” “Marvin’s Room”

Drake – Lord Knows (explicit)

6. Undun by The Roots: Undun is an album that will attract many listeners, due to the fact it was released amidst controversy. Drummer ?uestlove’s decision to play a suggestively titled song for guest Michelle Bachmann’s entrance music on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon caused a media firestorm. That isn’t the only reason people will buy the album, because it’s generally an amazing album. However, the Roots are not a conventional rap group. The group chooses to use a live band and the group’s only rapper, Black Thought, is a fan favorite. His delivery is impeccable and one that is yet to be matched. “The OtherSide” is a showcase of Black Thought’s abilities as a lyricist and ?uestlove’s ability to organize and arrange his band in a form and fashion that is their own. The Roots have been around for twenty years now, and it is easy to tell that they have mastered their craft.

Key Tracks: “The OtherSide,” “Make My,” “Tip the Scale”

The Roots – The Otherside

7. Bon Iver by Bon Iver: Justin Vernon just might be Wisconsin’s most successful musician. Coming off of an album and tour with Kanye West, Vernon had a pretty good year. Bon Iver, his group’s second album after 2008’s Indie landmark, For Emma, Forever Ago, is a surprisingly amazing follow-up album. Vernon’s hauntingly unforgettable falsetto and traditional folk instrumentations dominate the album like it’s precursor. “Holocene,” the song that earned Vernon numerous Grammy Nominations this year, is the album’s best track. It is a very easy listen and showcases his falsetto, which is already unique. This album as a whole, however, is by no means an easy listen, although you will most likely become a fan of Bon Iver after a single listen.

Key Tracks: “Holocene,” “Calgary,” “Perth”

Bon Iver – Holocene

8. Circuital by My Morning Jacket: After 2003’s “It Still Moves,” Jim James and company became a threat to all up and coming rock bands. But, Circuital is no “It Still Moves”. This album works off of 2005’s Z, a major staple in the band’s catalog. This album sets off with “Victory Dance” a very confrontational opener that sets a dim mood with its arrangement. This switches on the titular track “Circuital,” the album’s second track, that lightens the mood in its nearly seven and a half minute run time. “Holdin’ On to Black Metal,” a highly unorthodox and unexpected tribute to death metal, is quite possibly the album’s best track, not even mentioning that the album was recorded in a church gymnasium. The children’s choir on “Black Metal” also serves as a main cog in its machinery, along with the horn section. The overall highlight of the album is the “country gentleman” voice that James evokes, and the instrumentation that the band contributes.

Key Tracks: “Victory Dance,” “Circuital,” “Holdin’ On To Black Metal”

My Morning Jacket – Circuital

9. Mirror Traffic by Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Stephen Malkmus will forever be bowed to for being the “King Of All That Is Indie and Slacker Rock”. His band, Pavement, was less heard compared to Nirvana in the 90’s, but had albums that were far better. But those days are over and Malkmus has started in with his new band (formed in 2000) and is still making great music. The Jicks’ recent release, Mirror Traffic, is not as great as 2005’s Face the Truth, but is packed with great songs. “No One Is (As I Are Be)” is the definitive track on this album, which has a 60’s Holland-Dozier-Holland vibe to it, with Malkmus’s usual, not-the-norm lyrics. It is a good thing to see that Stephen Malkmus continues to spread his legacy into today’s pop-oriented music world.

Key Tracks: “Tigers,” “No One Is (As I Are Be)” “Stick Figures In Love”

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Tigers

10. House Of Balloons by The Weekend: 2011’s smoothest R&B extended play manages to sound like a full-on album. House Of Balloons is strange because in 50 minutes, it transforms our idea of what modern hip-hop should sound like. “The Morning” is the EP’s greatest achievement, and is so mellow that you seem to lose track of what Abel Tesfaye is singing about-a girl selling herself in order to gain enough money to move to California. Between its swirling instrumentals and classically smooth vocals, House of Balloons serves as an example of what an indie rap album should sound like. With Drake already noticing this group’s talent (they have a cameo on Take Care), many groups will emerge imitating them, but House of Balloons is a benchmark that will be hard to surpass.

Key Tracks: “The Morning,” “Wicked Games”

The Weekend – The Morning