Its that time of the year again, when the huge music media firms put out their massive lists of their favorite albums and everybody gets mad about them. Outrage aside, these lists create discussion and help readers discover releases they might have missed out on, while forcing the creators to think critically and be decisive for once. Our lists here on Turntablr are completely subjective and non-quantitative, ignoring any genre restrictions, sales figures, or elaborate voting system. Simply put, these are the albums I like the most and am most likely to keep listening to in the future. Also some of them are EPs instead of LPs, I think its nitpick-y to separate them though.
1. Middle Brother / Middle Brother: Portland
This act won me over at the Newport Folk Festival with their potent blend of vintage country grit, lyrical vulnerability, simple songs and confident vocal harmonies. A supergroup of sorts, this trio of frontmen all bring in unmistakable elements of their own bands (Dawes, Delta Spirit and Deer Tick) and assemble them into a record that truly is greater than the sum of its parts, showing a rare chemistry between these young, like-minded rockers. From the oldies-pop of “Someday” and the barnstorming “Middle Brother” to the charming acoustic ballad “Wilderness” and heartbreaking “Million Dollar Bill,” this album really has something for everyone while maintaining an impressive coherence. Some of the mid-tempo rock burners like “Mom and Dad” and “Blue Eyes” really show all these musicians at their best. Its one of the most memorable, versatile and well-crafted collections of songs I’ve heard in a long time. Giving it the top spot on my list barely demonstrates my respect and gratitude for the album.
2. Nostalgia/ultra / Frank Ocean: Songs For Women
Love or hate them, the controversial hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All made a huge splash in the musical landscape this year, drawing protesters and huge crowds alike to their festival shows and effectively hijacking the indie media with their brazen, unapologetic attitude. Controversy aside, the crew produced some fantastic releases during their time in the spotlight, my personal favorite being this debut release from smooth-crooning vocalist Frank Ocean. On Nostalgia/ultra, which has since been re-released on Def Jam without some of the more sample-heavy tracks, Ocean plays with radio conventions to craft intelligent, well-written and musically-interesting pop songs that match crazy-catchy hooks with emotionally-substantial lyrics. In many ways this album is exactly what commercial pop has needed of late: a dose of musical creativity and a rejection of lyrical superficiality from an artist working outside of the overly-mediated major label system. Ocean has played a few new songs live recently, I’d love to see his first official LP (this is an EP) get some attention from mainstream audiences
3. Turtleneck and Chain / The Lonely Island: Attracted to Us (feat. Beck)
You may not see this album so high on many other lists, but I refuse to deny how much I enjoy listening to this album for the sake of critical credibility. There are so many tracks that I just don’t seem to get tired of, no matter how much I listen to them or quote them with my friends. It may be a whole different type of artistic expression than the rest of the list, but I can honestly say that I liked this album more than every album below it and just less than the two above it on this list. Go listen to “Rocky,” “Mama,” or the collaborations with Beck, Snoop and Santigold if you object, they’re pure gold.
4. New Kind of House / Typhoon: Kitchen Tile
I discovered Typhoon in the wake of this past spring’s SXSW, and they have quickly become one of my favorite bands ever. In fact, if i were making a list of my favorite bands this year, they would probably end up on top. With 13 members, including 3-piece horn and string sections and a formidable pair of drummers, they have no problem building epic, almost Arcade Fire-esque rock arrangements. More impressively though, they balance their ability to make lots of noise with a surprising sense of restraint, weaving sparse, delicate moments of quiet into almost all of their songs. Vocalist and Songwriter Kyle Morton is one of the most talented and creative frontmen I’ve seen in a long time, writing ambitious sprawling songs bringing them to life with his veritable indie-rock orchestra. They also pack a serious punch live in concert.
5. Watch the Throne / Jay-Z and Kanye West: Made in America
This mysterious, much-anticipated collaboration between the two biggest names in hip-hop today turned out as epic as we all hoped. The tone shifts from sinister to overblown to oddly humble in parts, capturing the range that both artists have in their catalogs. The whole album is essentially a snapshot of what hop-hop looks like in 2011, and in the future it’ll be an interesting part of the time capsules that are all of our iTunes libraries.
6. Inclusions / Ben Sollee
Singer/Songwriter/Cellist Ben Sollee is one of the most unconventional talents out there right now, bringing in folk, pop, soul and R&B influences into his cello-centric compositions. He has an interesting singing voice, ear for melody and a mind for enigmatic but engaging lyrics that really comes out in this release. I first heard him perform “Electrified” on his tour with Daniel Martin Moore and couldn’t wait for an official release, but much to my surprise that gem is outshadowed by a few even better tracks on Inclusions. This is a great introduction to an amazing artist.
7. undun / The Roots
It just came out, but this album really hits hard and shows The Roots at their best. The minimalist, drum-centric production and masterful rhyming from Black Thought and the guests on this album paint a stark, dramatic picture of urban crime. Turning against the “gangsta” conventions of glamorizing drug trafficking and violence, the narrative aspects of this concept album are both effective and affective, playing out like a well-conceived movie plot. More than anything though, it just sounds fantastic, especially the suite of instrumental pieces at the end.
8. Goblin / Tyler, The Creator
Call it shock value, call it horror-core (at your own risk), or call it a fad, but I actually think this album contains some of the most innovative hip-hop production and more raw, honest emotion than any other LP I listened to this year. Tyler Okonma is one of the most interesting characters to break into the public consciousness in a long time, flaunting his demons, obsessing over and condemning his own celebrity and showing both vulnerability and initiative. Maybe it won’t change hip-hop forever and maybe he’s just a crazy fucked-up kid, but I really enjoyed watching the Odd Future phenomenon unfold and I think Goblin is worth repeat listens.
9. All Eternals Deck /The Mountain Goats
I’ve always loved John Darnielle’s songwriting, and this album contains some of his most ambitious and strongest songs to date. The production sounds polished and clear, veering away from the grit of the MG’s “boombox” recordings without losing emotion. The gambles pay off on this album, with the barbershop quartet on “High Hawk Season” making it an unexpected highlight, and Jon Wurster’s subtle drumming brings out interesting textures in many of the tracks.
10. Circuital / My Morning Jacket
By now you’ve heard everyone rave about MMJ as a live act and you should believe the hype, but this album shows their dexterity in the studio as well. The droning, spacey production underscores Jim James’ vocal style perfectly, and their ability to seamlessly shift from epic to intimate between tracks shows their versatility. A very solid album from a great band.