Welcome to Part 2 of YHT’s Top 10 Albums of 2011, also known (as of this very moment) as the High Five! Before continuing, I highly recommend high-fiving the first person you can find, or if no one’s around, simply accept the internet high five above. Yay! OK, let’s finish 2011 off in style…
5. James Blake — James Blake
Dubstep not your cup of tea? Mine neither! But so much of what James Blake does well has nothing to do with wobbly bass or sub-bass or wobbly sub-bass. Take his minimalism, for example. A track like “Lindesfarne” builds so much tension via empty sonic space that by the time the track is in full-swing, it feels like your heart is going to explode, even though his version of “full-swing” is still relatively sparse. He’s also capable of making songs feel emotional, regardless of what’s going on lyrically. In some ways, James Blake is like the musical equivalent of the plastic bag from American Beauty — an object of creation that seems simple on the surface, but as you continue to fill it with your own emotions its meaning becomes almost overwhelming. Then, like I said, your heart explodes. Boom. Just like that. Listen to “Lindesfarne” below, read more here and here, and buy here.
James Blake — “Lindesfarne“
4. Fleet Foxes — Helplessness Blues
I don’t know if I would have made it through this past year without Helplessness Blues. 2011 was a time of exciting change for me (this blog being one big development), and the Fleet Foxes’ latest effort resonated deeply, touching heavily on themes of transformation and self-determination. I fell in love with the album’s exhilarating title track, which manipulates momentum so brilliantly, but our affair was sidetracked abruptly when I heard “Someone You’d Admire,” a hymn-like song with lyrics that offer both an admission of personal defeat and a reaffirmation of the ongoing inner-struggles that push us to get out of bed in the morning and keep fighting. Wow. This blurb certainly got serious. Here’s a video of a monkey riding a dog! Better? Great! See what I mean about “Someone You’d Admire” below, read more here, and buy here.
Fleet Foxes — “Someone You’d Admire“
3. Bon Iver — Bon IverBON IVER AT #3? I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS! GOOD DAY SIR!
Wait for it…
Alright, now that that guy is gone we can have a rational conversation about Bon Iver, one of the most ambitious albums I’ve heard in a long time. In my mind, making this album was an act of extreme musical courage. It would have been easy for Justin Vernon to dust off the For Emma, Forever Ago recipe and make another batch of the same bittersweet-yet-delicious confections, but he went so much further with his second full-length, thickening the batter with diverse instrumentation and bold stylistic leaps. Out of the oven came songs that feel radically different, even though they bear the same yearning falsetto that so many people have grown to love since 2008. So why do I have it ranked at number #3? Um… I dunno it just kinda felt like the right place. Listen to “Holocene” below, read more here, here and here, and buy here.
Bon Iver — “Holocene“
2. Alabama Shakes — Alabama Shakes EP
Why is this one’s album art smaller? Is it because it’s just an EP, and it’s size is being represented in correlation with its running length? Actually no. For some mysterious reason I couldn’t resize the image. Oops. Besides, if I had to represent how impactful this album has been, I would need a shit-ton more pixels. Probably more pixels than any other album on this list. The Alabama Shakes have landed on so many year-end “Best New Artist” lists with just these four soulful rock songs and some YouTube videos, making this album the pound-for-pound, hardest-hitting release of the year. I’m still recovering from being slugged by their early-December show at the Jefferson in Charlottesville, VA, and I’m beside myself with anticipation for the next time they’re anywhere near Richmond. Listen below to “You Ain’t Alone,” which is just a scary-good song in my opinion, read more here and here, and buy here.
Alabama Shakes — “You Ain’t Alone“
1. Gillian Welch — The Harrow & The Harvest
The top spot goes to the album I played more times from start to finish than any other this year. When The Harrow & the Harvest came out, a big deal was made about how long it had been in the making — 8 years had passed since Welch’s last release — but this is no Chinese Democracy. Many of these tracks were captured on the first take, giving the album a natural, lighting-in-a-bottle feel that stands in stark contrast to their remarkable quality. I read that she and David Rawlings started a few recording projects in the years between this album and her last, but they abandoned each one because they weren’t convinced that the material up to snuff. These songs sure as hell are, and though nothing’s perfect, “Hard Times” is as close to a perfect song as I heard in 2011, offering a pure, heart-wrenching, two-by-two pairing of verse and chorus, guitar and banjo, her voice and his. Take a listen below, read more here, and buy here.
Gillian Welch — “Hard Times“
Before you go, I just wanted to say thank you so much for reading You Hear That in 2011. It means so much to me that you’re reading this here blog, and I’m beyond excited for what’s in store in the future. I hope you have a wonderful New Year’s Eve, and that your 2012 is 1000% better than the Mayans said it would be. Now let’s all go get hammered, call cabs and get home safe and sound!