The Best of 2011
Here we go: a total roundup of what we here at Mistaken For Strangers found to be the best music-related items of 2011. From best albums to singles to shows to videos, it’s our shot at a comprehensive review of the year.
Best Albums of the Year:
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
Beirut - The Rip Tide
The Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital
The Decemberists - The King is Dead
Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
The Antlers – Burst Apart
Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Exitmusic – From Silence
My Morning Jacket – Circuital
Wilco – The Whole Love
The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart
Best Albums of the Year:
10. Washed Out – Within and Without
9. Tennis – Cape Dory
8. Grouplove – Grouplove EP
7. Atlas Sound – Parallax
6. A$AP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP
5. Sea Pinks – Dead Seas
4. Alexander – Alexander
3. Cults – Cults
2. Real Estate – Days
1. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain
Best Songs of the Year:
10. Painted Palms – “Falling Asleep”
9. Destroyer – “Kaputt”
8. Yuck – “Get Away”
7. Cloud Nothings – “Can’t Stay Awake”
6. Black Lips – “Mr. Driver”
5. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”
4. Family of the Year – “Chugjug”
3. Waters – “For The One”
2. Absofacto – “80844264@81 (Love Song)”
1. Alexander – “Truth”
Best Albums of the Year:
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Gone are the 12 minute long distortion filled instrumentals, and in their place are shorter, tighter tracks still well within the realm of shoegaze but with a more pop flare. This much ambition and execution is exactly what you would expect to find on a double album from an artist in his prime. It is catchy. It is dreamy. It is the soundtrack to an epic John Hughes movie that was never made.
The Weeknd – House of Balloons
The EP cover is an eerie black and white photo of a painfully thin nude woman obscured by light and dark balloons. It fits the album perfectly. Hauntingly powerful and unlike anything else in R&B at the moment, the EP made waves through not only the blogosphere but traditional media too (GQ called The Weeknd the next Prince).
Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Fuller and bigger than 2009’s For Emma, Forever Ago, but I guess that is to be expected when the first album was created alone in the middle of the Wisconsin woods. The album may have warmer and more developed instrumental arrangements, but Justin Vernon’s reverberated voice still reminds me of a cold, gray winter day.
Com Truise – Galactic Melt
Self-defined as mid-fi synth-wave, slower-motion funk, this album earns a nod for its originality. Galactic Melt sounds like it was inspired by an 80′s arcade that hosted break dance competitions in the parking lot.
Active Child – You Are All I See
Pat Grossi’s Active Child is yet another innovative act to emerge this year. Full of airy electronic landscapes and falsetto vocals, this could have been another above average dream pop album, but what sets it apart is one angelic instrument: the harp. The classical instrument provides an organic touch that gives an otherwise grand album a much more intimate feel.
Best Songs of the Year:
Teen Daze – “Let’s Fall Asleep Together”
Technically, this came out at the end of 2010 – but I do not care. Teen Daze, a DJ/producer known for midtempo electronic music, produces a dreamy surf rock song perfect for a lazy summer day.
The Weeknd – “The Morning”
Bluesy guitars drive this echoing tale of debauchery and hustling from the R&B-noir singer. This is the standout track of a standout EP. When The Weeknd becomes a household name in 2012, it will be based on songs like this.
Jai Paul – “BTSTU”
This was the most original song of 2011. Falsetto vocals, distorted synths, horns, and occasionally bleeps and bloops usually found in dupstep all laid over a constantly evolving hip-hop beat. This hodge-podge of awesome caught the eye of Drake who sampled it on “Dreams Money Can Buy” in May.
Benjamin Francis Leftwich – “Atlas Hands”
I instantly fell in love with this song. A super simple acoustic track with vocals reminiscent of the late Elliot Smith. The chorus is so sublime you would swear this song was discovered rather than written.
The Naked And Famous – “Young Blood”
This song was everywhere. I won’t attempt to describe its sound; the final product is far greater than its individual parts. How amazing is this song? Even with all the overplaying that happened this summer and fall, I still refuse to turn it off when it comes on.
Best Live Shows of the Year:
Ghostland Observatory – September 10, 2011 at Virgin Mobile Freefest
While everyone clamored to see the all-world-DJ deadmau5 close out what was an amazing day of music, I snuck over to the Dance Forest to watch one of my favorite live acts: Ghostland Observatory. Ghostland has developed a cult following because the fusion level energy of their live shows, and the unique outdoor venue only heightened that atmosphere. Smoke billowed from machines and lasers shot out into the night only occasionally interrupted by the overhanging branches above. Lead singer Aaron Behrens moved across the stage channeling a strange combination of Iggy Pop and Freddy Mercury while Thomas Turner pumped out the strange synths in his shiny sequined cape. It was stunning, it was raucous, but mostly it was the most fun I had at a show in a long long time.
The National – September 6, 2011 at Merriweather Post Pavilion
A National show is impossible to explain to a person who has only listened to their albums. Yes, the band is still technically proficient, and yes, the songs are still rich and full, but lead singer Matt Berninger transforms from a quiet crooner to a full on rock star. Merriweather was basically vacant; it was midweek and had rained for three solid days, but the nearly empty house didn’t stop the band from bringing their “A” game. Perfectly balancing songs from older albums with 2010’s incredible High Violet, The National were captivating from the opening note to the unplugged and crowd-sourced version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” that capped off the night.
Best Albums of the Year:
10. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne
The two biggest rap names in the world collaborating on an album? It was either doomed to be amazing or doomed to fail horribly. And despite what the critics said, go listen to the full album (minus that stupid song with Beyonce) at top volume with the bass turned up and tell me you don’t feel it. It’s over the top and boombastic and absolutely awesome. (And no, “N*ggas In Paris” will probably never get old. Just face it now.)
9. US Royalty – Mirrors
The DC area band’s EP, Midsommar, came out a long two years ago – back then I would’ve said they sounded a lot like Spoon met The Strokes. But with their full length, US Royalty has come into their own, producing a sprawling traveling rock record inspired by classic bands like Fleetwood Mac. It’s the soundtrack to a beautiful journey and draws you in from beginning to end.
8. The Antlers – Burst Apart
Hospice was easily my favorite album of 2009 – and while their follow-up doesn’t quite reach that emotionally-wrenching bleakness (in a good way, I swear), The Antlers’ latest is breathtaking in its own way. With Burst Apart, Peter Silberman once again proves his talent in writing songs that emotionally affect listeners in a multitude of ways, leaving them both enlightened and drained upon completion.
7. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
A dreamy, psychadelic shoegaze ambient pop record that Jadd described as “the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie that was never made”? That description alone should earn it a place on this list. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s majestic and brings to mind shades of Brian Eno’s best work.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s A Corporate World
Why can’t all music be as happy as the kind that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. make? Indie pop with hints of soul, folk, and garage rock that just makes you want to smile all the way through, the Detroit band continues the streak of great music that they started on last year’s EP Horse Power with their debut full-length. Listen to “Simple Girl” and I promise that you won’t stop whistling the tune for days.
5. Of Monsters & Men – My Head Is An Animal
Ever since KEXP showed off this band last year, I’ve been waiting for a full-length from these Icelandic folk rockers. They certainly didn’t disappoint. Channeling everyone from Arcade Fire to Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters & Men grow beyond their “indie folk” label to make soaring music that you can’t stop listening to. Currently only released in Iceland, look for an American release in early 2012.
4. Lupe Fiasco – Lasers
While it may be his most critically-panned album, Lasers was one of my favorite albums of the year and my personal favorite of Lupe’s three full-lengths. Sure, it’s more polished and “radio-friendly” – but that doesn’t lessen his whiplash flow, lyrical intensity, or political motivations. From beginning to end, it’s a solid listen with few, if any, weak spots. If this is the kind of album Lupe turns out as an “obligation” to his record label, then I certainly don’t mind.
3. Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
They may be my favorite band, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a free pass to the top ten list – good thing their latest album had no need for such a thing. Trading in the low-key sounds of The Stand-Ins for more grandiose, energetic, and frenzied styles, Okkervil River once again proves their talents to be top notch and Will Sheff to be one of the best songwriters performing right now.
2. Cut Copy – Zonoscope
If there’s any better indication that 80′s-inspired synths are back than Cut Copy’s stellar latest album, I don’t know what it could be (besides the Drive soundtrack, but that’s a whole other point). Expansive pop interwoven with lush dance rhythms, Zonoscope is simply an all around awesome album.
1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
No album seemed to have as much build-up to its release as Bon Iver’s self-titled second full length – the first, For Emma, Forever Ago was a critical smash; Justin Vernon’s side project with seemingly every midwestern musician ever as Gayngs made several “best of” lists last year; and let’s not forget his contributions to Kanye West’s oeuvre on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And even with all of the hype, no album seemed to carry the emotional resonance and haunting melodies as Bon Iver. It deserves all of the praise being heaped upon it – let’s hope this time we won’t have to wait three years for another full album. And even if we do, Bon Iver should be more than enough to hold us over until then.
Albums That Almost Made It:
Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
A solid return to form for Conor Oberst and gang (after the disappointing Cassadega). More upbeat and “rock” than their earlier work, which is nice to hear from the longtime band, although I do wish they were able to channel their great and energetic live show more on the record.
Boy & Bear – Moonfire
Much like Mumford & Sons, another foreign band (this time from Sydney) channeling classic Americana folk. And, much like Mumford & Sons, a great and rollicking album from beginning to end.
Idle Warship – Habits of the Heart
A mix of hip-hop, soul, pop, R&B, and rock, Talib Kweli and Res’s group is a wonderfully unexpected release (and a must listen for fans of either artist).
David Bazan – Strange Negotiations
I’m a longtime fan of Pedro The Lion, so David Bazan’s latest solo work as a questioning agnostic is definitely a different (and welcomed) sort of lyrical intensity from the singer-songwriter.
Childish Gambino – Camp
Following on the footsteps of some good mixtapes, a genuinely great EP, and a growing fanbase, Camp was just about everything we expected from Donald Glover’s first official release. Witty lyrics that speak not only to our funny bones but also emotional core wrapped in well-crafted beats and flow.
Best EP of the Year:
Tim Kasher – Bigamy: More Songs From the Monogamy Sessions
I can confidently say that Tim Kasher is incomparable when it comes to writing emotionally brutal, honest, and compelling lyrics about self doubt, relationships, restlessness, and heartbreak – just listen to his work with Cursive, The Good Life, or his last solo album, The Game of Monogamy. Made up of songs recorded during his “Monogamy sessions” and directly (and indirectly) linked to the songs on that album, Bigamy is seven solid songs full of the same lyrical clarity and intensity that has always defined Kasher’s work. It’s another great album from him that will have you looking in the mirror at yourself and your own emotions the entire time.
Best Videos of the Year:
Is Tropical – The Greeks
I don’t even think I particularly like this song that much, honestly. But the video? Pure genius. Taking the childhood dreams of playing war in the neighborhood with Nerf guns to its most ridiculous and colorful exaggeration, director Megaforce fills the tranquil suburbs with cartoon explosions, gunfire, and over-the-top bloody deaths.
The New Pornographers – Moves
Sure, it’s already a great song. But add in a mock backstory of how the band formed and grew and replace all the characters with people like Ted Leo, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Donald Glover, Wyatt Cynac, Jon Oliver, John Hodgman, Max Silvestri, Gabe Delahaye, and a slew of others? Yeah, that’s pure video gold. (Plus, a child version of A.C. Newman will never go unappreciated.)
Best Live Show of the Year:
LCD Soundsystem “Last Show Ever” – April 2, 2011 at Madison Square Garden
Was there any question that anyone who attended this wouldn’t list it as the best show of the year? The seminal band’s last show ever effectively sold out in under a minute and it was well worth the effort to get a ticket and make the trip up to New York – James Murphy and company know what they’re doing and they do it well. They played just about every song they’ve made. They had guest stars from Reggie Watts to Arcade Fire. They blew all of our minds. We’ll miss you, LCD Soundsystem, and we’re sorry to see you go.
(And of course, I’m the most loquacious one. Typical.)
So there we go – pretty much everything we thought that 2011 had to offer listeners and music fans. In retrospect, it was a terrific year with a lot of great performances, songs, and albums that will resonate in years to come. What did you think? Did we miss something that you thought was essential on your iPod in the past year? Leave us a comment and let us know!