20 or 40 Things That Rocked 2011

Another year is in the books, filled with the highs and lows, ups and downs and occasional moments of true greatness that we’ve all come to expect when we open up that brand new calendar in early January.  I have more to be thankful for in the closing moments of 2011 than I can ever remember, a testament to the growth that comes with sending 32 of those aforementioned calendars into the trash bin.  With all of the small miracles and occasional disasters that surround us each day, things like music can seem trivial.  But it’s the crunch of a guitar or the explosion of a subwoofer that scores these moments, that keeps us grounded and gives us something to sing with our friends at 2:00 AM.  It brings us together, sparks debate and entertains us in quiet times when no one is looking.

That’s why this year I’m returning to my list of the “Best Albums of the Year,” but with a twist.  These aren’t necessarily the best albums of the year, as there is no deep music theory going on or intricate analysis of the poignant lyrics.  No, these are just “Cory’s Favorite Albums of 2011,” as they stand right now, having brought me immense joy and hours of pleasure this year.  Hopefully you’ll find something on here that interests you, or a description that grabs your attention.  We’re at our best when we’re expanding our horizons, even if that does mean expanding them into the realm of party rocking.  And, just because I love each and every one of you, I’m throwing in a Spotify playlist with the best of the best albums and one with my favorite tracks of the year (whether they make the list or not!) at no additional cost, just to make rockin’ the beats a little easier. Here we go…

20. J. Cole – Cole World:  The Sideline Story
While it didn’t live up to the hype created by the releases of the Any Given Sunday mixtapes, The Sideline Story didn’t fail to deliver strong beats and addictive hooks.  Cole may not have released a classic album, but he managed to hold his own in a year dominated by outstanding hip-hop releases.

19. Middle Brother – S/T

You can’t call something a “super-group” when none of the members are remarkably famous in their own right, not to mention the fact that the term conjures up thoughts of bloated, unnecessary records from people we never really wanted.  With this release, Middle Brother (composed of songwriters from Delta Spirit, Dawes and Deer Tick) cast off any traditional “super-group” pretensions, crafting a raw record that sounds more at home in someone’s living room than any amphitheater.

18. Cults – S/T

Harmony-laden, lo-fi pop music is all the rage these days.  As a trend, it has worn out its welcome in my living room.  Honestly, I can’t stand it.  Every day I’m told to listen to another band that sounds like the last ten bands I just listened to, and every day I’m disappointed… with the exception of Cults.  This is the album that five dozen bands tried to make this year, and fell miserably short of on 95% of occasions.

17. Butch Walker – Spade

In my little social circle, certain genres of music are defined by the people we know who love them.  There isn’t necessarily a type of music, but a sound that immediately associates itself with a person.  One of the most popular is, and has been, “Aaron Saylor Rock”.  “ASR” is difficult to define, largely jumping back and forth between stadium-rock guitar licks and infectious choruses, to straightforward pop rock (also with infectious choruses).  Simply put, you know it when you hear it.  This album may have defined it.

16. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80

Nothing inspires more excitement in my old-school hip hop soul than the phrase “… young Comptonite MC and protege of Dr. Dre”.  Based on that line, I dug up a copy of Lamar’s debut record, and sat back as something unexpected and amazing happened.  Not just your typical west coast fare, Section.80 took the addictive beats of the west and merged them with the lyrical prowess of the east.  The album stands as an announcement that Compton is back, and this time it brought a thesaurus.

15. The Head & The Heart – S/T

With so much of the “indie-folk” scene being populated by self-righteous hipsters, claiming to have reinvented the wheel, it’s nice to stumble upon an album that just stands on its own, making music for the sake of music.  TH&TH managed to pour more maturity, quality and (above all!) listenable music into a 40 minute debut album than anyone has in ages… and anyone ever really does in that decrepit genre.

14. My Morning Jacket – Circuital

I’ve long bounced around on my opinion of MMJ, from absolutely uninterested to “Oh my GOD that’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard”.  It’s safe to assume that my fandom has found a nice, moderate, middle-ground in Circuital.  From start to finish, this is my favorite My Morning Jacket record.  It managed to include everything I loved about the band while lessening the impact of the things I’m not particularly crazy about.

13. Smith Westerns – Dye it Blonde

It says something about the debut from Smith Westerns that, at the end of 2011, a record released in January can still be in rotation around my apartment.  The sleepy, druggy, yet occasionally epic 70’s vibe can be overused, and seems to be the fall-back trend for the skinny pants brigade.  While Smith Westerns have clearly embraced the pants, the restraint exhibited on this record serves as a great example of how something can be done right, and makes the perfect soundtrack to a quiet night with giant headphones.

12. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

When you hear that Butterfly from Digable Planets has formed some sort of hip hop collective, signed to Sub Pop Records and created some kind of jazz-trip-hop project, you tend to take notice.  Black Up is one of the most dense, complicated, overly trippy albums I’ve heard in years (if not ever), sounding like something that fell out of the pocket of a spaceman while fleeing capture in the New Mexico desert.  I don’t know what to call this, or what it even really is, but it’s fascinating and way over my head.  I can appreciate that.

11. Childish Gambino – Camp

The album has its share of haters, no doubt.  Camp has been called everything from a copycat record to a soulless cash grab, seemingly by people who never really bothered to listen to it or were unable to get past the celebrity behind the mic.  Yes, Donald Glover is mildly famous as both a television actor and stand-up comic, but make no mistake, Camp is not the next in a long line of Eddie Murphy/Bruce Willis/Patrick Swayze-esque cash grabs by famous people.  It’s interesting, clever, well made and incredibly addictive.  And the fact that Pitchfork absolutely loathed it makes enjoying the album even sweeter.

10. The Black Keys – El Camino

When the Black Keys hit the scene, the comparisons to The White Stripes were fairly obvious.  Two-piece band, a drummer and a guitar, blues rock… it made it easy for any hack with a MacBook to take a shot at their perceived lack of originality.  Over the years, as Jack White morphed into a rock and roll Demi-God, the Keys continued making raw, blues rock records that threatened to break the neck of anyone brave enough to listen.  On El Camino, they’ve kept the pedal down, refusing to grow too important for their own britches.

9. Kanye West & Jay-Z – Watch the Throne

Come on, you knew it was going to be good.  Even if it wasn’t capable of living up to Blueprint III or Dark Fantasy, you KNEW it was going to be good.  I resisted initially, trying to convince myself that my expectations of this record were completely reasonable, and that I’d been disappointed.  A few listens later, then a few more, then a few more, I started to realize that I must like something that I’ve listened to for the better part of a month.

8. Foster the People – Torches

Second only to my number 4 album of the year, this record was impossible to avoid in 2011.  It was in every commercial, on every radio station, playing from every car stereo… it was (to say the least) rather popular.  But unlike other huge releases of 2011 (*cough*Adele*cough*), Foster the People never managed to sound stale or overplayed.  The highly danceable anthems to things that probably shouldn’t inspire dancing were just as fresh at the end of the year as they were when they held us captive throughout the summer.  Love it.7. Wilco – The Whole Love

The Whole Love could make this list on the strength of the opening track alone, make no mistake about that.  But after you settle in from the epic, sweeping sprawl of “Art of Almost,” Wilco treats the listener to track after track of sounds that feel familiar, sounds that feel foreign and an overall achievement for the band.  They continue to grow with each record, finding new and interesting ways to inspire the thought “I really don’t give Wilco enough credit.”  I probably still don’t, but I’m getting there.

6. Dawes – Nothing is Wrong

One thing’s for sure, Nothing is Wrong with this album (Zing!).  Honestly, I can’t really explain why I love this record, but I do.  It draws influence from musical styles that range from “I’m alright with that” to “I really can’t stand that stuff,” while somehow managing to merge them into a cool, enjoyable throwback to the 70’s-era California sound.  Consistently, Nothing is Wrong keeps popping up in my rotation and, perhaps most impressively, seems to be a quick favorite of everyone I’ve forced to listen to a few tracks.  It’s just a great record.  No frills, no explanation needed.

5. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

This may be the worst reviewed Radiohead album to hit the internet since… well… ever.  But even if the reviews are true, and even if King of Limbs is the worst Radiohead album since Pablo Honey, it still manages to be better than pretty much everything else.  With In Rainbows, Radiohead seemed to be moving back toward a more accessible sound, and KoL seems to follow that formula.  Don’t expect to hear “Creep” any time soon, but the band seems to have found that happy medium of pop sensibilities and sonic adventure that made OK Computer so groundbreaking in 1998.

4.  LMFAO – Sorry For Party Rocking

Let’s be perfectly clear:  I’m not kidding.  I can’t remember the last time that a collection of pop singles permeated our national consciousness quite like these.  Sure, the Black Eyed Peas have had years like this, and there’s always a Britney Spears or a Kelly Clarkson running around out there to saturate the pop airwaves, but this thing was different.  But what separates LMFAO from what we’ve come to expect from gigantic summertime pop hits is the attitude.  These guys made no bones about what they were doing, they were making goofy, arrogant and obnoxious pop music… and they did it incredibly well.  It’s stupid, it’s mindless, it’s occasionally incoherent, and in a day when hipsters have forced every imaginable sound into a strict genre, when music demands to be taken so seriously, this record flew so aggressively in the face of the prevailing wisdom that it almost felt like punk rock.

3. The Decemberists – The King is Dead

On the heels of the brilliant concept record, The Hazards of Love, the sky seemed to be the limit for Colin Meloy.  I wondered if he, and the band, had reached their creative peak.  It seemed almost impossible that there could be much left in the tank after such an undertaking.  Wrong.  The King is Dead was exactly what The Decemberists needed, a palette cleanser, a rootsy shot in the arm of jangly guitars and Peter Buck that sounded more like “Good R.E.M.” than R.E.M. had in years.

2. Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra

Out of nowhere, with little warning, the Odd Future collective exploded into the hip hop consciousness with skateboards, destructive behavior and rhymes that made Scarface blush.  It was raw hip hop, defying trends and bucking the establishment, and at the center of that tornado was Frank Ocean – a smooth, relaxed voice that seemed both in and out of place.  That voice spawned one of the year’s surprise singles in “Novocaine,” and bent in and around verses to create one of the best and most memorable releases of 2011.  Nostalgia, Ultra is addictive and occasionally insightful, failing to really result to the tricks that made Odd Future both intriguing and often predictable.  Hip hop is growing, changing and becoming something entirely different in the post-808 world, and this album will be remembered as one of the major pieces of the movement.

1. F*cked Up – David Comes to Life

This was the easiest choice I’ve made all year.  There is no doubt whatsoever that David Comes to Life was the best album of 2011, and has made its case to be the album of the decade.  Absolutely everything about this record works, from the cookie-monster growl of the vocals, to the epic, GIANT nature of the tracks, song after sonic assault of a song the album beats you over the head with what it is and what it wants to be.  For a band that built its reputation around screeching guitars and a live show that explodes the punk rock aesthetic, David Comes to Life is a phenomenal departure – unlike anything released in 2011.  How good is it?  I’m listening to it right now, and probably will for the rest of the night.

If you’re interested in checking out some of my favorite tracks from these records, having a look-see at what all the fuss is about, click here to get a copy of the official Spotify playlist from the albums above, or HERE for my favorite tracks of 2011 (whether they made the list or not!).

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