Music Monday Special Edition: Top 10 Albums of 2011

Alright, here it is. After a few solid days of listening to all kinds of albums and trying to narrow down which deserves to go where… I have it. These are, in my opinion, the 10 best albums. Here they are!

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One song from each of these has been loaded onto the What I’m Listening To page at the top of the website. Be sure to check those out as well.

10. Ashes & Fire – Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams came back this year doing what he does best — writing great melodies and some pretty haunting lyrics. For anyone who enjoyed his “Heartbreaker” or “Gold” discs, be sure to check this out.

Song to Check Out: “Lucky Now”

9. James Blake – James Blake

I was a little bit late on the James Blake train. But once I started his self-titled disc, it became hard to press stop. It’s a great mix of soul, dubstep, some great bass, and at times a church-ish sounding synthesized organ. Great, great album. Highly recommended. If you enjoyed The Streets, but wanted a little more production behind it, this would be a good album for you.

Song to Check Out: “I Never Learnt to Share”

8. Kiss Each Other Clean – Iron & Wine

I’m always a sucker for Iron & Wine. This year they kicked it up a notch with a more electric sound. Some great melodies and wonderfully smooth vocals translate to another good progression forward for Iron & Wine. If you like Sam Beam’s earlier stuff and have a bit of an open mind, I would highly recommend it.

Song to Check Out: “Tree By the River”

7. Nothing is Wrong – Dawes

I was out at Old Chicago in Uptown with my friend Petter earlier this summer and he told me to check out Dawes, particularly their new album. From then on, it has been a staple in my CD rotation in my car. There’s a Tom Petty/Jackson Browne-ness to some of the songs on this disc. It’s a great recall to the 70’s singer-songwriter pop/folk/rock era.

Song to Check Out: “A Little Bit of Everything”

6. Circuital – My Morning Jacket

In the past, I have been so slow to catch up to the My Morning Jacket train. But on this album, there’s a little bit of everything. Jim James mixes it up from a psychedelic ode to death metal to a couple sweet love songs and always heavy on the jams. Great disc to put in on a country road in the summer — or in a dirt road in Arizona in the winter, as the case may be.

Song to Check Out: “Circuital”

5. The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart

I forget who it was that told me about The Head and the Heart. But whoever it was, I’m grateful. I’ll always think of the summer of 2011 when I listen to this disc because I wore this CD out. A great blend of harmonies and bluegrassy folk. I’d highly recommend getting this disc if you enjoy good music — particularly in the Avett Brothers/The National/Blind Pilot arena.

Song to Check Out: “Lost In My Mind”

4. Barton Hollow – The Civil Wars

This whole disc also got a lot of play between my CD player and the many copies I’ve burned for my wife, which have been played and played (and played and played). It’s a wonderful album through and through. The way that John Paul White and Joy Williams play off of each other adds so much depth to their songs. Wonderful album and a great live act too. We saw them at the Varsity Theatre in Minneapolis last April. Find them if you can.

Song to Check Out: “Poison & Wine”

3. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – M83

I just recently got in to M83. On Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, we’re taken as listeners to a kind of supersonic place. It’s MGMT-meets-Muse-meets-Cut Copy. It’s an epic trip into what sound and melody can do. If James Blake’s album was the minimalist album of the year, this is the maximalist. There’s things going on everywhere in every song. But it works. And it’s what makes it great.

Song to Check Out: “Midnight City”

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

Admittedly, this was the album I was waiting most of the year for. On the heels of Kanye West’s best album yet, he was going to follow it up by partnering with Jay-Z for an entire album. I wasn’t quite sure what to think on the first few listens. Certain songs stuck out — “No Church in the Wild”,”Ni**as in Paris”, “Otis”, “Who Gon’ Stop Me”, “Made In America”, and “H.A.M.” to name a few. But the disc as a whole didn’t strike me. Then I kept listening. And listened some more. And after a few listens I wasn’t even noticing when the songs changed. And you know that’s a good album when you don’t even think about skipping the next track.

Song to Check Out: “Otis”

1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

This might not come to anyone’s surprise if you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time. I talk about this album — particularly the song “Holocene” — often. It’s the soundtrack for any writing I do. It’s the music I keep in the background any time I can. It’s just an incredible album. I would highly, highly, highly recommend it. There was one night where I listened to “Perth”, “Holocene”, and “Calgary” on repeat for hours until I’m sure Megan was about to scream. But it’s just that good. I could’ve kept listening for hours after that. Check it out. You won’t regret it.

Song to Check Out: “Holocene”

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
King of Limbs – Radiohead
Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes
House of Balloons – The Weeknd
Zonoscope – Cut Copy
Middle Brother – Middle Brother
Black Up – Shabazz Palaces
Ceremonials – Florence & The Machine
Take Care – Drake
21 – Adele

So those are my favorite albums of 2011. What are yours? What album could you not stop listening to this year? I’d love to hear them.

Again, be sure to swing by the What I’m Listening To tab on the top of the page to listen to all of the songs that I recommended off each of these albums. And enjoy!



  1. Nice picks — Bon Iver is also my #1 fave of the year, by far. Simply incredible (and I wasn’t even much of a fan of his initial releases).

    Otherwise, of the top of my head:
    -Noah and the Whale — Last Night on Earth
    -William Fitzsimmons — Gold in the Shadow
    -Ben Rector — Something Like This
    -Friendly Fires — Pala

    • The Bon Iver disc is incredible. I think the song quality is similar between the albums, but this one works so much better as an album than “For Emma, Long Ago”.

      Noah & the Whale is a really solid disc. I didn’t get the new William Fitzsimmons. He’s really good and I like him a lot, but a lot of his stuff sounds the same. Ben Rector and Friendly Fires I haven’t heard, but should check out.

  2. Ahhh! We are music twins!

    I would agree with about 80% of your favorites.

    And I just happen to be listening to James Blake at my office desk while I type this RIGHT NOW! I love it! It’s so weird and awesome.

    My other favs: Bon Iver (I NEVER TIRE OF THIS ALBUM), James Vincent McMorrow, Iron and Wine, Feist, Jessie J (in the pop category).

    • James Blake was a pretty recent find for me. It’s so different. It’s a little like Imogen Heap but with a better beat and a guy singing. It’s been some great background music for writing.

  3. thejstroke says:

    I really enjoyed: Ceremonials, Bon Iver, 21, and Barton Hallow… and of course Mylo Xyloto (though I think that I enjoy songs from the album, and tend to skip at least 1/4 of the tracks, rather than the album as a whole)
    I also liked: Metals- Feist, Torches- Foster the People (because it was something new), Science & Faith- The Script (I can’t pinpoint it, but I seem to really like their sound and their lyrics), Young Love- Mat Kearney (I thought this album was better than his last)
    Artists I like but albums I hated: Ukele Songs- Eddie Vedder, Minnesota- Mason Jennings ( I was dissapointed in both)

  4. I actually spent a lot of my time listening to nu-disco records and dance singles, and catching up on a lot of scenes I missed over the past few years, so I didn’t listen to a whole lot of 2011 indie rock outside the same 25 or so records everyone else listened to, too. That said, here are some LPs I enjoyed this year that you might not have already heard.

    The Jezabels – Prisoner – Like Kate Bush fronting a rock band. I thought it was less one-dimensional than that Florence & the Machine record. (“Prisoner”, “Horsehead”)

    Bodies of Water – Twist Again – Between their last record and this one, the band stripped down from a 7 piece to its husband and wife core, who also got pregnant. Recorded in their home, this record is clearly influenced by all of those things, and is both quieter and more subtle than their first two albums (which I think you have?) I think it’s great. (“Mary, Don’t You Weep”, “Open Rhythms”)

    The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar – Does what it says on the tin. Unabashed, melodic, roaring shoegazer rock. Probably my favorite debut of the year. I found about about this band a couple of days before their show and decided to skip it. Horrible decision. (“Whirring”, “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade”)

    Akron/Family – S/T II: the Cosmic Birth And Journey of Shinju TNT – Folky experimental rock. This is has my vote for most-overlooked album of 2011 for me. Quirky without feeling forced or precious, wide-open harmonies, sturdy songcraft. If you liked Helplessness Blues, but wanted something a little more adventurous, this one might be for you. (“Island”, “Another Sky”)

    Not rock, but I thought I’d throw ’em in there anyway:

    Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie XX – We’re New Here – Risky, bold, brilliant recontextualization of Gil Scott-Heron’s amazing comeback album, “I’m New Here”. Heavy UK garage/dubstep influences. It’s really amazing to me how great this record is, given the audacity of its premise. (“NY Is Killing Me”, “Me and the Devil”)

    Rustie – Glass Swords – Maximalist, day-glo post-dubstep. “Before The Dawn Heals Us”-era m83 covering “Super Bass”, and probably exactly as awesome as that sounds. (“Ultra Thizz”, “Cry Flames”)

    Mighty Mouse – Disco Circus 2 – Mighty Mouse provides a wide, ambitious ranging compilation of nu-disco/nu-balearic offshoots and influences, from Ghanaian afrobeat to Italo revivalism. (Gorillaz – Superfast Jellyfish (Mighty Mouse remix), Little Jinder – Youth Blood)

  5. Wow, that was entirely too long. I listened to more music this year than I did in the past 2 combined, but didn’t write about it for the first time in about 10 years, so I guess it had to come out somewhere!

Please keep your comments positive. I reserve the right to delete rude or insulting comments. If your comment is critical, please make sure it is also constructive. Thank you.

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