Rather than create a year-end critical best-of, I’ve listed here the 20 albums released in 2011 that I listened to the most. Of course, there’s significant overlap (Beyoncé, SBTRKT, Jay-Z & Kanye West, Lykke Li, etc.) with the countless lists that have been published in magazines and blogs over the last few weeks, but there are gems here that were overlooked by many, like incredible records by Raphael Saadiq and Chancha Vía Circuito, as well as return-to-form releases from Beastie Boys and My Morning Jacket and simply great, fun records from long-time favorites Quantic and Mr. Chop.
1. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’ [Columbia]
The neo-soul singer/songwriter/producer/former Tony! Toni! Toné! member brought his gritty Motown & Stax, funky Sly Stone, and even mildly psychedelic influences to the front and released one of the most criminally under-appreciated albums in a year where like-minded neo-soul music was embraced on the charts.
Key track: “Radio”
2. Escort – Escort [Escort]
NYC “disco orchestra” powerhouse Escort’s self-released full-length debut moves slightly away from disco and stylistically towards 80s electro-pop. The album is packed with muscular, hooky-as-hell post-disco and boogie tracks that bring to mind Prince, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, Rick James protegés Vanity 6 and the Mary Jane Girls, as well as the party-ready funk of Tom Tom Club.
Key track: “Cocaine Blues”
3. CANT – Dreams Come True [Warp Records / Terrible Records]
Grizzly Bear bassist/vocalist Chris Taylor flies solo and releases an album of cooly detached yet intimate (and often haunting) experimental pop. Like Grizzly Bear’s brilliant and much-lauded Veckatimest, CANT’s Dreams Come True is finely detailed pop, rewarding repeat listens.
Key track: “BANG”
4. The Weeknd – House of Balloons [self-released]
LA by way of Toronto producer Abel Tesfaye (working with two associate producers) came on strong in early 2011 with the debut ‘mixtape,’ House of Balloons [followed by Thursday less than 6 months later, and a third, Echoes Of Silence, just a couple of weeks ago]. Their druggy, late-night, trip-hopped R&B-meets-indietronica stylings have been the subject of massive hype verging on mainstream acceptance (“High for This” made it to a promo for HBO’s Entourage) and being favorited by just about everyone with ears and an internet connection (a live appearance in Toronto inspired stadium-worthy singalongs from the audience), The Weeknd maintained an air of inscrutable mystery throughout the year.
Key track: “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls”
5. SBTRKT – SBTRKT [Young Turks]
Tribal-masked UK producer/DJ Aaron Jerome (aka SBTRKT) uses dubstep (and its ludicrously-named umbrella classification ‘bass music’) as a foundation (but definitely not a blueprint) for one of the most eminently listenable dance music albums of 2011. His production work serves his songs well, never overpowering them. His tunes, sung by numerous guest vocalists (including Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano and Sampha, whose James Blake vocal affectations sound better with each listen), have a pure pop heart inside their of-the-moment electronic sounds.
Key track: “Something Goes Right”
6. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne [Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella/Roc Nation]
Gleefully chopping up expensive Otis Redding samples and even more expensive Maybach luxury sedans, two of the biggest names in hip-hop teamed up on Watch the Throne, hands down my favorite record of 2011. [If this list of twenty were whittled down to a list of one, this'd be the sole survivor.] A heady and endlessly quotable mix of righteous pro-black lyrics and over-the-top self-aggrandizing and material boasting, Jay & Ye never seem to stop having a great time throughout the entire album.
Key track: “Niggas in Paris”
7. Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two [Capitol]
Originally recorded in 2009 but shelved when Adam Yauch was diagnosed with cancer, the Hot Sauce Committee project was revisited and reworked into Hot Sauce Committee Part Two once Yauch recovered. The album is a welcome return to the party-rocking retro-futurism of Hello Nasty, once again inviting us into the rarified Beastie universe, where loose, live instrumental jamming meshes with thick, jazz-funk sampling hip-hop productions and classic “break-a-dawn” lyrics. Beasties forever.
Key track: “Make Some Noise”
8. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy [4AD]
Annie Clark’s third full-length as St. Vincent finds her jettisoning some of the more baroque and cloying elements of her signature sound and coming up with a collection of great character-driven pop songs that find beauty in the tension between ugly & pretty, invitation & threat, triumph & surrender. The best track on Strange Mercy is the disco-by-way-of-Talking-Heads thump of “Cruel,” punctuated by a spiky and angular—but never harsh-sounding—guitar line supporting a spiraling melody that sounds like it was cribbed from a classic Disney movie.
Key track: “Cruel”
9. Chancha Vía Circuito – Río Arriba [ZZK Records]
Moving away from the hip-hop fueled digital cumbia he created for the clubs, Pedro Canale aka Chancha Vía Circuito explores ‘música folklórica,’ the folk music traditions of indigenous peoples from his native Argentina—as well as Chile, Bolivia, and Peru—to create sounds that are deeper, more intimate and hypnotic, but retain the head-nodding appeal of earlier productions.
Key track: “Río Arriba”
10. Cut Copy – Zonoscope [Modular]
Packed with great songs, clever musical quotes, charm, and in frontman Dan Whitford’s voice a decided Andy McCluskey influence (who himself enjoyed a return to the spotlight with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark), Cut Copy transformed themselves from guitar-based dance-rock band into something more expansive, while displaying a firm grasp on the punch and appeal of dance music.
Key track: “Take Me Over”
11. Beyoncé – 4 [Columbia]
Once again working with a team of A-list producers—including Kanye West and The-Dream on the best tracks—Beyoncé sings an album full of songs about the joys of her committed relationship with one Jay-Z. From the bare and spare R&B of “1+1″ to the delirious dance single “Countdown,” Ms. B wears domestic bliss very well indeed.
Key track: “Countdown”
12. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX – We’re New Here [XL Recordings]
A fantastic and inspired collaboration between legendary proto-rapper/jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron and producer Jamie XX of minimalist indie rockers The XX, We’re New Here remixes Scott-Heron’s 2010 mini-album I’m New Here, expanding and re-interpreting its original tracklist and Scott-Heron’s original vocals, incorporating the diverse electronic stylings of house, dubstep, and electro.
Key track: “I’ll Take Care of You”
13. Tycho – Dive [Ghostly International]
Tycho is the pseudonym of graphic designer/photographer/blogger-turned-electronic musician Scott Hansen. Absorbing lessons taught by Boards of Canada, the experimental-leanings of later-period Slowdive, and the entire current Chillwave movement, Hansen has crafted a polished album of beat-driven, sun-drenched ambience, perfectly matching the carefully-considered retro-futurism of his highly stylized design work. Proving this vision is entirely his own, Hansen also designed the album artwork. [The double vinyl gatefold package is especially beautiful; Ghostly International clearly let Hansen maintain complete artistic control from cover to inner sleeves to vinyl labels.]
Key track: “Dive”
14. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes [Atlantic/LL]
A far cry from the adolescent angst of her Twilight soundtrack appearance, Lykke Li has created something more adult and nuanced on her second album, Wounded Rhymes. She is totally on-point with her songwriting, filling the album with intriguing contrasts (compare the gentle doo-wop stylings of “Unrequited Love” to the upfront sexuality of “Get Some,” with its eyebrow-raising couplet: “I’m your prostitute/you gon’ get some”).
Key track: “Get Some”
15. Panda Bear – Tomboy [Paw Tracks]
Taking the oft-cited Brian Wilson quote “[Smile] is a teenage symphony to God” as a decided inspiration point, Panda Bear (Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox)—with the wise guidance of Pete Kember aka Sonic Boom—has crafted an album that is both familiar-sounding and weirdly new, with angelic choirboy voices over electronic drones that recall 60s psychedelia, 70s krautrock, and 80s dream-pop.
Key track: “Last Night at the Jetty”
16. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi – Rome [Parlophone / Lex Records]
The crate-digging DJ/producer/brilliant aesthetician Danger Mouse linked up with Italian soundtrack composer Daniele Luppi to create the wonderfully evocative 60s soundtrack-without-a-film Rome. The addition of the [slightly uneasy] pairing of superstar guest vocalists Norah Jones and Jack White, however, takes the album beyond mere slavish film score homage into original and haunting cinematic pop.
Key track: “Two Against One”
17. My Morning Jacket – Circuital [ATO Records]
Since 2003′s It Still Moves, a new My Morning Jacket album has been something to celebrate (at least on my turntable). After the Pro Tools experimentation of Evil Urges, Circuital is a return, of sorts, to what Jim James & co. do best, crafting expansive, reverb-drenched psychedelic soul-rock.
Key track: “Holding On To Black Metal”
18. Mr. Chop – Switched On [Five Day Weekend]
Coz Littler is the multi-talented instrumentalist behind both Mr. Chop and the all-analog Ape Recording Studios, “a repository for vintage synthesizers, guitars, drums and gear sourced from the world over.” His latest effort, Switched On—another collaboration with drummer Malcolm Catto—is ten tracks of cosmic, squelchy, crunchy analog funk, loaded with covers of classic funk and rock tunes from the late 60s and early 70s.
Key track: “Root Down (And Get It)”
19. Quantic Y Su Conjunto Los Miticos Del Ritmo – Hip Hop En Cumbia EP [Tru Thoughts]
After learning accordion for three years or so in Colombia and Panama, including being taught by accordion master Anibal Velasquez in the Colombian coastal city of Barranquilla, Quantic applies his newly-acquired musical skill to instrumental versions of hip-hop classics in the classic cumbia style, plus a Quantic original track. The results are an instant party.
No surprise the 2000 copies of the vinyl-only release sold out instantly.
Key track: “Cumbia de Dilla”
20. Thundercat – The Golden Age of Apocalypse [Brainfeeder]
A sprawling, dense debut from talented veteran bassist Stephen Bruner that recalls the crossover fusion music of mid-70s Herbie Hancock or The Crusaders and the wigged-out electronic dub of mid-90s Mouse on Mars. Virtuoso instrumental noodling on one track and simple pop on the next. A standout release on the already amazing (Gaslamp Killer, Flying Lotus, Martyn, Tokimonsta, Samiyam) LA-based Brainfeeder label.
Key track: “Walkin’”