Picks of 2011: How did I end up with 16 best albums?

A pretty great band.

Sixteen is an ungainly number. It’s not divisible by five. It’s an awkward age. Nobody does Top 16 lists. But I will.

You know why? This year I said to myself “I’m going to start with every decent album I can think of, make a list and then pare it down as much as possible.” With each cut, the list will become stronger. I decided not to include mixtapes, because let’s face it, that’d take days. (And anyway, the only hip-hop mixtapes anyone REALLY needed this year were Lil B’s “Based God Velli” and Thee Tom Hardy/9th Wonder’s “Curse of thee Green Faceded”)

So I cut, then I cut some more, then I cut again. And when I hit 16, I found it very hard to cut any more. I went back and listened to tracks from each of the 16 albums, thinking the weak links would reveal themselves.

They didn’t.

This is a strong 16. This is a Sweet 16. The Sweetest 16. It’s 16 and Pregnant, without the horrible exploitation. Following are the best 16 albums of the year, followed by a short explanation of why I couldn’t cut it.

16. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – This Corporate World

I couldn’t cut Detroit’s newest tweelectro pop darlings once I went back and listened to the album because … well, to be honest I’d forgotten how good their debut album was. In my mind they were the first on the chopping block. Then I went and listened to some songs, especially the sublime, sunny “Nothing But Our Love” and there was NO way I could cut them.

15. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

Kurt’s singing is a bit of an acquired taste, but he definitely worms his way into my brain with his sleepy-grunge version of ‘60s guitar pop. I couldn’t cut his latest album, especially when it has songs like “Jesus Fever” on it.

14. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2

This was a surprise, believe me. Some of the musical heroes from my youth are still kicking around releasing new music, but most of it, sadly, is garbage. Maybe it always was garbage, but when I was young, it hit me in a good place, you know? Bush is a crud band now, but you can’t tell me “Cold Contagious” wasn’t perfect for a 14-year-old boy into rock music. Back then.

Anyway, Foo Fighters released a new album in 2011 and it pretty well sucked. The remnants of Oasis (minus Noel) released some bad new music and it turns out Noel was the talented Gallagher (his solo album isn’t half bad!). Weezer’s new stuff is so bad it makes me retroactively hate their old stuff. But the Beastie Boys released a new album in 2011 and it was actually factually fantastically good! Not just by old-person rap standards either! It was the best Beastie release since “Hello Nasty,” which I still love, I don’t care what anyone says. And obviously this video kicks all kinds of ass.

13. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Are you kidding? How could I cut an album by an ethereal Scandinavian enchantress spinning a wide variety of weird, electric, throbbing pop-rock? There’s not many other ways to describe her, so here’s one of her more down-tempo tracks, “Love Out of Lust.”

12. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

It’s unpretentious rock with a definite vintage aesthetic. It’s well done. It didn’t blow me away or anything but dammit, it’s too solid to leave off the list. Not saying Girls are like The Beatles or anything, but if you like that general sound, you’ll probably like Girls, especially this song.

11. Washed Out – Within and Without

I can’t leave off any band that reminds me this much of Air. This track is how the album starts.

Cool, right?

10. M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming

Speaking of Air, M83 is another electropop entity putting out stuff that would have blown the minds of most Depeche Mode fans in the 1980s. I can’t cut an album by a group that would time-travel to the ’80s this well. The critically acclaimed and much-purchased “Hurry Up We’re Dreaming” is chockablock with dancy, yet emotional songs like the lead single, “Midnight City.”

9. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

When I was little, songs used to give me a lot of feelings. Some songs made me feel love for people I’d never met (Whitney Houston, anyone?), some made me feel like a hero in a battle I’d never fought in. Most of the time I’d have significant imagination sessions visualizing fantasy fights/loves for me to be involved in. Nowadays that doesn’t happen as much.

But The Decemberists’ “This Is Why We Fight” puts me right back into those imaginary battles, defeating imaginary evils. It gives me goose bumps. The rest of the album is pretty great too, but man, listen to this!

8. Childish Gambino – Camp

I’m a bit of a latecomer to the Donald Glover funny guy/Childish Gambino good rapper dichotomy that frankly made me expect the worst, but Glover’s talent is for real in both realms. Like the Beastie Boys’ album isn’t just good for an aging trio of Jewish dudes, “Camp” isn’t just good for an actor-turned-rapper. It’s really. Good. I can’t cut any album that features such emotive and varied rapping. Even though the beats are a bit “indie” for my tastes, they manage to be epic and raw like the howling undercurrent of “Bonfire.”

7. R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

I couldn’t cut what turned out to be R.E.M.’s final album together, especially since it’s so good! It’s a very R.E.M. album, and any band that’s been around for 30 years and had this much success deserves to instantly elicit a mental/aural picture at any mention of their name, even as an adjective. Here’s a video of Michael Stipe looking really old and giving a great performance of my favorite track on the album, “Oh My Heart.”

6. My Morning Jacket – Circuital

My Morning Jacket’s got a pretty good career arc going on, particularly after the band’s lead singer, Jim James, took a spot in the folksy supergroup Monsters of Folk alongside M. Ward and Conor Oberst. He came back to his regular band and injected a bit of M. Ward warmth and fuzz into the MMJ freak-folk formula. I can’t cut any album that feels like freakin’ top-of-their-game Beach Boys made a baby with Badly Drawn Boy. Check out this great performance of the weird and funky “Holdin’ on to Black Metal.”

5. 9th Wonder – The Wonder Years

I remember when rap superproducer 9th Wonder started out as part of the excellent rap group Little Brother. He was like a natural evolution of DJ Premier and Pete Rock, combining chimes, bells and soul samples with well-placed scratches. I was a fan way back then and I’ve remained a fan as he’s collaborated with damn near as many musicians as DJ Premier has. I haven’t loved everything he’s done, but this long-awaited album seems to be a pretty damn fine distillation of the turntable master’s … mastery. It seems weird to me, because I still think of him as the young up-and-comer, but he’s made it now. He’s full grown. Here’s him trying on a Los Angeles low-rider beat for Warren G, Murs and Kendrick Lamar.

4. Wild Flag – Wild Flag

I can’t cut this album because I was DEPRESSED when Sleater-Kinney disbanded at the height of their powers. “The Woods” was like some missing Led Zeppelin album had just wandered out of an alternate dimension where all the band members are female. It’s so intense and amazing. So when I heard some of the band was getting back together and creating a sort of chick-rawk supergroup, I couldn’t wait to hear the results. Well, here they are!

3. Danny Brown and Black Milk – Black & Brown

If this had come out last year, it’d probably have been my album of the year. It just happened to have run into two unbeatable rock juggernauts (more on that in a second), but it’s clearly the best hip-hop album of the year and clearly the best work two outstanding artists have done in their careers. Before the year started, I’d have guessed Black Milk’s collaboration with fellow Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson and roughneck awesome rapper Sean Price, “Random Axe,” would have been in this slot, but the lazy wordplay and uninspired beat selection on that album let me down. “Black & Brown” seemed to come out of nowhere and featured VERY inspired Black Milk beats and VERY inspired Danny Brown craziness on the mic. The result is an offensive, joyful, heavy assault on the listener, but an enjoyable one if you’ve got an ear for high-level hip-hop. “LOL” is two masters at work.

2. Fucked Up – David Comes To Life

No way I could cut the album I sort of assumed would be my album of the year the first time I heard it. The only thing that keeps it from the top spot is the fact that I don’t listen to the album that much. It’s a little heavy for constant listening. It’s epic, it’s a rock opera, it’s a weird fusion of hardcore and indie rock from a Toronto collective that has no business putting out music of this quality, BUT DOES IT REGULARLY ANYWAY. These guys are so good they changed my opinion of all “growly-voiced scream” music almost instantly. Just try it.

1. Yuck – Yuck

Are they the next Nirvana? Are they the next Dinosaur Jr.? Are they the next My Bloody Valentine? I don’t really know if they’ll reach the heights of any of those bands, but based on the quality of this eponymous LP, Yuck may well make it. Hell, they just won the ATR album of the year, who knows where they’ll go next? I couldn’t possibly cut an album this good, this consistent, this tuneful, this … remarkable. They call to mind so many good bands, and yet manage to carve out their own sound inside that cradle of great rock. This album could have been a contender for ATR album of the year back when I was listening to Bush as a 14-year-old and every year since. It lacks pretentiousness. It lacks a certain polish. It sounds like timeless rock and roll to me.

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