The usual caveat before we get into the list: I make my list with a mix of objectivity and subjectivity; I’ve left albums I loved off other lists because they weren’t actually very good, and occasionally an incredibly impressive album I’m not wild about will sneak in. In short, this is a list, basically, of 25 really good albums I loved this year.
And two notes, the first being this: in pure subjectivity, Slingshot Cash’s From Aftermath To Exile would have been in my top five albums of the year; it’s the album I listened to most, and it’s the album I loved best. But I can’t in good faith and journalism include it, because I have no distance about it — so all I can do is tell you it’s amazing and tell you to go buy it.
The second being that while Bloodshot Records tends to dominate the tops of my lists every year — in 2008, Firewater’s brilliant Golden Hour, and in 2009, Ha Ha Tonka’s staggering Novel Sounds Of The Nouveau South topped my lists — this is the first year that they’ve taken the top two spots. Congrats, y’all. With a new JTE and a new Firewater next year, I’m pretty sure you’ve already sewn up 2012, as well.
Without further ado: my 25 favorite albums of 2011 that were also really, really good:
1. Ha Ha Tonka — Death of a Decade: there is not a song on this album that doesn’t make my heart ache with its power and heartbreak and hope.
2. Lydia Loveless — Indestructible Machine: what a record — not a bad track on it — made by a 21 year old with a voice like a siren and a songwriting talent like I’ve never heard. If “Steve Earle” isn’t the best track of the year, it’s certainly the funniest and most clever.
3. Mason Jennings — Minnesota: back to his roots and back to the sound of the self-titled and back to Minnesota and back to the sound of my soul.
4. The Booze — At Maximum Volume: the Cowboy and I fought all summer about whether this sounded like Sticky Fingers Stones or Aftermath Stones, but we both agreed it was amazing.
5. Dave Hause — Resolutions: as I have been exhorting all year, everything needs more Dave Hause; this album is full of songs that, done with Hause’s punk band the Loved Ones, would be hollering anthems. Instead they’re stripped down and sad and lovely acoustic folk songs, and his talent for writing a song that can turn either way is immense.
6. Mister Heavenly — Out of Love: in a year that was full of smart kids making fusion albums, this is the album that took the most sounds and seamlessly wove them together in a a surf-punk-synth-reggae-indie-death-metal-pop masterpiece.
7. the Black Keys — El Camino: the best ’70s garage funk album released this year; these guys are so fucking brilliant.
8. the Decemberists — The King Is Dead: given how much I loathed their last two albums — and I mean I really, really, really hated the Crane Wife and didn’t find the Hazards of Love particularly listenable after about two months — the amount I love this album is enormous. The Decemberists made me a bluegrass album, and it’s amazing.
9. the Smith Westerns — Dye It Blonde: I hope they’ve gotten better in concert, because this shakin’ piece of ’60s glam rock made by 20 year olds is still consistently phenomenal, 12 months later.
10. Empty Orchestra — One More Time, All Together: part punk, part country, all heartbreak and the best songwriting of the year, this is the first entry in “who the fuck is this band?” on my year-end list (I always have two or three). They’re from Flint, Michigan, they just recorded a new 7″, and this is the album that makes the empty spot under my ribs hurt the hardest when I listen to it; it is unbelievably and undeniably beyond devastating.
11. Mount Moriah — Mount Moriah: a gorgeous, layered album about the South and heartbreak and leaving where you’re from, from the collaboration of Jenks Miller and Heather McEntire, under a name that Jenks has been using for years (I saw some early versions back in ’05 and ’06, and I love this one best); “Reckoning” is maybe my favorite song of the year. One of the most amazing bands in North Carolina.
12. Beirut — The Rip Tide: dear Zach Condon, I love you, please be my skinny hipster boyfriend and write me songs like this album all the time, thanks.
13. the Deep Dark Woods — The Place I Left Behind: homesick and heartbreaking, hopeful and joyful; they are the only band who come anywhere close to filling the-Band-shaped hole in my chest.
14. the Low Anthem — Smart Flesh: this didn’t move me as deeply as Oh My God Charlie Darwin, but I can’t deny that it’s gorgeous and genre-defying and brilliant.
15. AA Bondy — Believers: the closest thing that Bondy has made to a Verbena album in his solo career, this is the tenderness and literary cleverness of Bondy’s solo work with the guitars and drums of Verbena, and it’s staggeringly sadly beautiful.
16. Chris Bathgate — Salt Year: a tribute to the incredible music that’s coming out of Michigan this year. Well, not like a tribute in the sense of covers or anything, but Michigan artist making a subtle and layered indie rock album that doesn’t sound like anything else made this year, good guitar work and Bathgate’s shivery voice. This album is also endorsed by Frontier Ruckus, what else do you guys want?
17. The Turbo A.C.s — Kill Everyone: amazing surf punk concept album; mostly I listen to this when I’m grouchy and need to rage, but you know what? It’s just as fierce and compelling when I’m happy. Also: I have a surf punk album on my best of list, thank Pam for broadening my horizons. And I genuinely genuinely believe this is one of the best albums of 2011 that nobody heard.
18. The Breedings — Laughing At Luck: when I wrote about this in August, I said it sounded like Titus Andronicus writing the best Fleetwood Mac songs, and I stand by it — brother and sister Willie and Erin Breeding are making the most interesting Americana in Nashville right now, and Willie is my favorite musician Twitterer these days. They are also Kentucky basketball fans, but we forgive everyone their minor faults.
19. Delicate Cutters — Some Creatures: ooooh, another good comparison review from July: Lay It Down-era Cowboy Junkies crossed with Zach Condon’s Eastern European sensibilities on the second Beirut album crossed with Sleater-Kinney. Yes? Yes. This was the album that convinced me to trust Skybucket Records, who used to release the Dexateens, 100% without even thinking. Full of power and shake, nothing traditional or conventional about it.
20. Frank Turner — England Keep My Bones: this is no Love Ire & Song, but as with, say, The ’59 Sound, nothing ever will be; instead this is full of odd melancholy and counterpoint hope, and the most gorgeous song Frank’s ever written, “I Am Disappeared”.
21. Des Ark — Don’t Rock The Boat Sink The Fucker: my favorite break-up album of 2011; play this very loudly, especially this quiet bits.
22. Ezra Furman & the Harpoons — Mysterious Power: note-perfect indie power pop.
23. Wild Flag — Wild Flag: if you don’t love this album, I don’t know if we can be friends anymore. Thrashing, melodic, powerful rock and roll. One of the best shows I saw this year.
24. The Baseball Project — Vol. 2 High And Inside: kitsch? Yes. But seriously clever kitsch written by four people who know and love baseball the way I do, and seriously clever kitsch written by serious baseball fans who also happen to be intensely good musicians. Nothing as great as “Harvey Haddix” on the first record, but “Panda & the Freak”, about baseball nicknames, is pretty amazing.
25. The Horrible Crowes — Elsie: oh, whatever, like you guys didn’t know that Brian Fallon could record the phone book and I’d love it. More blues than his Gaslight stuff, but with the same heartbreakingly intimate lyrics and thickly layered guitars.
Number 26, which should really be higher but I didn’t pick it up and get serious about it until the end of November, is Bryan John Appleby’s Fire On The Vine; the depth of this album just stunned me when I was listening to it last week. I was sitting in my lawyer’s parking lot and heard “… And The Revelation” and burst into tears, that’s how good this album was.
Obviously I can’t listen to everything; obviously my taste is not yours. But this is my list, and that’s that.
Stay tuned: next week is my favorite tracks of 2011, and the week after that, my favorite shows. Then it’s almost 2012 and I can’t cope with that yet.