My Favorite Albums of 2011.

Heard any exciting new music this year? I mean, genuinely exciting, can’t-wait-to-tell-everyone-about-it music?

My friend Jane and I were talking the other day about how this year* seemed to be a particularly bland one for music. Is it the recession? The splintering of musical audiences? Or was everyone waiting for the holiday season to release their good music, the way movie studios release their Oscar hopefuls close to the winter holidays?

In a separate conversation, my friend Jens and I also wondered if it was because there was too much access to too much music in general. Back in the day, I’d play Remain in Light and The Joshua Tree and Wish You Were Here and Synchronicity and The Head on the Door and Hatful of Hollow over and over because those were all I could afford on a high schooler’s allowance, and those became, by default, the albums I was most excited about. Now, every musical obscurity could practically be had for free on the internet, each new release streamed on demand.

Or maybe I’m just getting old.

But really, what is going on? For the last few years now, Pitchfork seems to be hyping one unGoogleable band from Brooklyn after another, their music interchangeable and forgettable. I look at the lineup of the shows at the Independent and I don’t recognize half of the bands anymore.

The other month I preordered a bunch of fall albums from bands/singers I love — Wilco, Tom Waits, Bjork** — and realized I couldn’t even remember a single track from their previous albums. And that goes for my highly anticipated releases this year that I should have loved: The King of Limbs? Gloss Drop? Stone Rollin’? Let England Shake? Cannibal Courtship? Watch the Throne? They’re all from folks I love, in varying degrees (Radiohead, Battles, Raphael Saadiq, PJ Harvey, Dengue Fever, and Jay-Z / Kanye West, respectively), and the albums aren’t dull or bad by any means, but they suffer from the affliction of being merely… okay. (Back in the day I thought Polly Jean Harvey and Bjork were these two twin goddesses of music, but only recently I realized that their really good albums — and I mean really good — were released in 1995 and 1997 respectively.)

Nonetheless, there were numerous bright spots in 2011, and I’m happy to share what tickled my ears this year. Here they are in no particular order, with a Spotify playlist to accompany your reading.


Ghost / Gillian Welch.

Ghost was awesome — who would have thought that their loose-limbed psych folk would create such a tight, rocking monster on stage? (The new album, in any case, is harder than usual, more Amon Duul II than Amon Duul I.) They started off with a whirl of guitar chaos and theremin feedback, and went on from there: the band stopping and starting on a dime, Masaki Batoh signalling the beats with each crank of his guitar — not quite approaching the levitational intensity of Second Time Around, but producing a movement somewhat alien to a Ghost concert: headbanging. With flute. “Sun is tangging indeed,” to quote an old review.

(The same, alas, could not be said for White Magic or Six Organs Of Admittance. I otherwise liked the former’s Through the Sun Door album — thoughts of a cross between Cat Power and early Helium came to mind — but live, the songs weren’t nearly as compelling. Dust and Chimes spent a good amount of time in my stereo this year, but Ben Chasny’s solo, all-acoustic set — maybe he was joined by other musicians at some point, but I didn’t stay long enough — was tedious and unbearable.)

[The next day, back at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.]

I can’t say enough about Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — their interplay on stage is amazing, and combined with a stellar repertoire of songs spread over only four albums (Welch already hit the ground running with her debut album Revival), this was for me the main draw of the bluegrass fest. A massive crowd (almost as large as the one that saw Ralph Stanley yesterday) greeted the duo, who started with “I Want To Sing That Rock & Roll.” This was also Izzy’s very first concert ever, and she was quite pleased, dancing to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and the standing-ovation crowd sing-along “I’ll Fly Away.” What an awesome fifty minutes — I’m really tempted to see them again this weekend…