Looking back, 2011 is a bit of a mystery to me.
I listened to music non-stop, and I remember enjoying a lot of it. I joined Spotify to have most any song I could imagine stream through my phone at any time and place.
But when putting this list together, I was struck by how few new albums captivated me from beginning to end and kept me coming back again and again.
Had I forgotten something? Was most of my year spent listening to older music? (I do admit to listening to the reissues of Suede’s discography quite a bit.)
While it seemed more difficult than usual to compile a list of great albums, I did have to do my share of inner wrestling to narrow it to 10.
Here they are (and, of course, the order could change on any given day):
10. Zola Jesus — Conatus
Few artists today excite me as much as Nika Danilova, aka Zola Jesus. The rural Wisconsin native has a voice that could topple trees and pairs it with dark synth soundscapes on “Conatus.” The album represents another progression in her sound as she becomes more sure of her voice and her musical capabilities. I love listening to this strange record and imagining what she will deliver to the world in the future.
9. Class Actress — Rapprocher
I was blown away by Class Actress’ 2010 EP “Journal of Ardency.” It was a bit of early Depeche Mode mixed with New Order and a touch of Madonna. Catchy, sexy and candy to my ears. It made “Rapprocher” one of my most-anticipated albums of 2011. And while it isn’t as consistently perfect as “Journal of Ardency,” it does deliver on the promise of that first musical document.
8. Yuck — Self-Titled
Yes, Yuck unabashedly plays homage to its heroes of 80s and 90s college rock. You can pick out the Teenage Fanclub, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Big Star and other influences without much effort. The thing is, their songs are so good and catchy that it’s hard to care. They earn it. Yuck’s sound for me is the musical equivalent of smelling cookies and being taken back to my mother’s kitchen. I have no defense, and that’s OK. I love it here.
7. The Raveonettes — Raven In The Grave
I read a lot of album lists at the end of the year, and I don’t recall seeing The Raveonettes’ “Raven In The Grave” on any of them. I’ve long admired individual songs from this Danish band, but this is the first time one of their albums has struck a perfect mood for me throughout its running time. “Raven In The Grave” still has the driving guitars that remind me of The Jesus and Mary Chain, but it takes a darker turn than usual for the Raveonettes, with Sharin Foo’s sweet voice occasionally rising above the haze. I particularly enjoy listening to this album while walking on a cool night.
6. Blouse — Blouse
Blouse hails from Oregon, but their music transports me to European dance clubs. I hear Broadcast, gothic new wave and maybe even some Beach House if you took that band off opiates in their music. It is the future as imagined by the past. That is perhaps a fitting description since on “Time Travel” vocalist Charlie Hilton sings “I was in the future yesterday.” I’m just glad to be along for the journey.
5. Puerto Rico Flowers — 7
The heavy drums and retro synths coupled with John Sharkey III’s deep, dramatic vocals was a bit too much for me to handle upon first listen. I thought it all was overblown, a failed attempt at the sound of “Pornography”-era The Cure. But subsequent listens pummeled away my initial skepticism and had me going back to this dark well over and over. Yes, it harkens back to The Cure, Joy Division and similar acts, but that’s a place I’m happy to submerge myself.
4. M83 — Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
“Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” is a huge, ambitious double album. M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez warned us it would be “epic,” and he was not kidding. Inspired by films like “Days of Heaven” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” Gonzalez said he envisioned it as a soundtrack. I cannot listen to this album without it conjuring up images and stories. One of my favorite moments happens on the very first track, “Intro,” where Gonzalez trades vocals with Zola Jesus’ Nika Danilova. It is a beautiful beginning that gives birth to many more on this synth-driven journey into childhood and memory.
3. Austra — Feel It Break
When I first heard Austra, I was reminded of early Depeche Mode if they had done a collaboration with Dead Can Dance. It’s dark, danceable and gothic, so I was an immediate fan. That was only reinforced this year when I saw Austra live. The show reminded me of the films of Kenneth Anger, because it was like a magical incantation. The music is a bit otherworldly and lead singer Katie Stelmanis waves her arms all over the place while singing live, as if she’s summoning every note from another dimension.
2. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
I’ve long been a fan of The Decemberists more pop leanings. The ultra-conceptual prog-rock of the “The Hazards of Love” and “Always the Bridesmaid” always lost me. “The King is Dead,” then, was a welcome surprise. The songs are to the point and catchy. And, yes, like many critics pointed out, it was the best R.E.M. album in a long time.
1. Metronomy — The English Riviera
Unfortunately for you, Metronomy didn’t make much of an impression in the United States this year with their release “The English Riviera.” That meant you were probably stuck listening to Katy Perry and Justin Bieber instead. But Metronomy’s album is an embarrassment of riches. In my estimation, more than half of its 11 songs could be singles. Many were, including “The Bay,” “The Look,” “She Wants” and “Everything Goes My Way.” Metronomy uses a lot of classic synths to make catchy hooks, but thanks to bassist Gbenga Adelekan their songs also have a real funkiness, too. I probably listened to this album more than any other this year.