Will Butler’s Top Ten Albums of the Year

From James Blake to Ty Segall to The Weeknd, our critics recommend the best music of 2011.

James Blake

James Blake

Best album of the year and it was easy to forget about, because despite its February release date, the entire record had leaked before Christmas. It was on repeat through springtime, though — the combination of Blake’s vocal stamina, expert, tasteful electronic production abilities, and vast, learned perspective on a multi-genre approach makes for an incredibly well-conceived collection of songs — and sounds. James Blake the album can and should be separated from James Blake the person, too. In his very early twenties, he’s not music’s Messiah and certainly not infallible as an artist (as evidenced by this year’s follow-up EP) but his creativity is potent and his influence will be more than substantial. (Universal Republic)

St. Vincent

Strange Mercy

One of the confessional refrains in Strange Mercy goes: I make a living telling people what they wanna hear. Coming from songwriter Annie Clark, this is a bit perplexing, seeing as her St. Vincent project has done anything but pander to complacent tastes. Strange Mercy, her third LP, is her best yet. Clark’s aesthetic has become increasingly contrapuntal, with more dark and aggressive elements than ever, giving way to even more moments of deep, complex beauty. Her voice is pristine; her electric guitar tone heavier and more satisfying than anyone else; she throws herself completely and utterly into her songs. The album is thrilling. (4AD)

Frank Ocean

Nostalgia, Ultra

If you’re wary of the syrupy vibes that coat a lot of modern R&B and hip-hop hooks, then it’ll take a while to warm up to Frank Ocean. But enough time spent with this album (or free mixtape, essentially) uncovers a level of sincerity that is hard not to snuggle up with. You have to understand: In addition to being part of hip-hop teen-heathens Odd Future, Ocean writes pop songs — for Beyoncé. And at its heart, that’s what this album is: pop music for hip-hop-heads. His voice is smooth, and the concepts behind his songs are thoughtful. Nostalgia, Ultra actually wrestles with some pretty sad interpersonal issues, like absent fathers, infidelity, the faltering institution of marriage, and feelings of insignificance. But it’s restorative, too, like a big, cozy Band-Aid. (self-released)

The Weeknd

House of Balloons

Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye takes what Frank Ocean does to the next level. Somewhere in between hip-hop and pop, Tesfaye is, unlike Ocean, also a masterful producer. Most of the tracks on the (also free) House Of Balloons release sound like they were born from the darkest corners of the dance floor or between the plush upholstery of the VIP lounge. The album’s sinful indulgence makes it both a heady, drug-laced journey for personal use, but also a great mood-setter for multiples. The Weeknd does the same job that Michael Jackson did twenty years ago, providing edgy and dark pop for the ages. House of Balloons‘ tropes are familiar but inexhaustible: mostly sex and reckless abandon, set in a noxious urban fantasy. (self-released)

Ty Segall

Goodbye Bread

This is the album you want to listen to on a rooftop, in hot weather, with your shirt off. Either that, or maybe while thrashing around at one of the Mission district’s diviest dive bars, spilling your beer as Segall wheels around on stage, his mop of beach-blonde hair flipping to and fro. Goodbye Bread is part of a greater oeuvre of Bay Area garage rock, but Segall’s version is the most well-rounded. Each tune is catchy and loud, and Segall’s voice is liberating in its flippancy; almost a British sounding sneer, infused with all the sun-soaked attitude of a San Francisco-via-Orange County 24 year-old. (Drag City)

The Sandwitches

Mrs. Jones’ Cookies

In the same local garage scene, The Sandwitches reside on the other end of the spectrum from acts like Ty Segall. Informed by many of the same influences and peers, the band is much more country-twinged, and takes its guitar sounds into crafty and dissonant spaces that end up being more haunting than hunky. With two talented singers, Heidi Alexander and Grace Cooper, at the helm, The Sandwitches’ brand of all-girl sad song is also extremely touching in its honest, vulnerable delivery, and Mrs. Jones’ Cookies is without a doubt their most impressive and intriguing release to date. (Empty Cellar)

Shannon and the Clams

Sleep Talk

A third garage outfit to make the best-of list, Oakland’s Shannon & The Clams push a brand of rock ‘n’ roll that’s still different from the previous two. More in line with Fifties and Sixties girl groups and surf-rock, the Clams sound as though someone stuck The Shangri-Las in a blender with The Ramones. Bassist and singer Shannon Shaw is an endearing and powerful frontwoman, while guitarist Cody Blanchard contributes a significant amount in terms of vocals and songwriting. Blanchard’s blazing Buddy Holly-esque licks and drummer Ian Anderson’s falsetto backup vox conspire to make this group one of the Bay Area’s most unique bands, and the most fun to see perform live. (1-2-3-4 Go!)

Cities Aviv

Digital Lows

It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s compelling about Cities Aviv as a rapper. He’s not particularly lovable, and yet there’s something gripping about his songs. A little reminiscent of old Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, but angrier, one of the best things the Memphis spitter has going for him is his ability to choose beats. Each track on Digital Lows has something interesting going on in terms of production, from the warped disco of “Die Young,” to the Alessi Brothers sample on “Meet Me On Montrose,” to the Modest Mouse rework of “Float On.” This dude’s probably got a good run ahead of him. (Fat Sandwich)

Tyler, the Creator


Goblin almost deserves a mention in any best-of list on the merit of “Yonkers” alone. The first single and accompanying video were so impactful that they could have completely carried the rest of the inflammatory young rapper’s debut solo album, even if it was garbage. It wasn’t though. The rude irreverence (read: extremely explicit and violent lyrics) that turns off many potential fans of Tyler or Odd Future serves a dual purpose —the group’s image of complete impetuousness allows these young artists a little extra freedom from scrutiny,giving them room to make some of the most inventive new hip-hop out there. (XL)

Cass McCombs

Humor Risk

A couple years ago my best-of list probably would have been full of music like this. But right now Cass McCombs is one of the few people working in the folk/rock in-between who’s making stuff that’s really engrossing (next to, say, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, and a few others). As a general rule, if you’re delivering simple song structures and relatively traditional instrumentation, you’d better have dynamite lyrical content, and in all these areas McCombs excels. Much like his predecessor Elliott Smith, McCombs is shrewd and depressingly clever, but this mysterious songwriter’s message is also stupefyingly subtle. Most astoundingly: Humor Risk is McComb’s second full album to come out this year, rivaling the almost-as-good Wit’s End. (Domino)


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