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The Top 50 Albums of 2011

By ; December 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM 

Listen to One Thirty BPM’s top albums of 2011 in this Spotify playlist.


Kurt Vile

Smoke Ring For My Halo


Perhaps most impressive about Smoke Ring For My Halo is that it endures. For all Vile’s depictions as the ‘Philly Slacker,’ this is not lazy throwaway bedroom rock. Vile exercises true mastery in crafting a release that is astoundingly coherent and filled with subtleties that make subsequent listens an enjoyable necessity. The year has been a good one for Vile, additionally releasing the So Outta Reach EP and appearing on former band The War on Drugs’ well received Slave Ambient. However, Smoke Ring For My Halo is the crowning achievement not only of this year, but of Vile’s career; providing a tantalising insight of what is (hopefully) to come.

Smoke Ring For My Halo will likely go down as the album that broke Kurt Vile to wider audiences. A man whose music had rather narrow appreciation by ‘those in the know’ seems to now be getting attention from everywhere – a very much deserved thing.

Liam Demamiel


Arctic Monkeys

Suck It And See


Highlighting a band attempting to grow out of what can be a musically confining shell, Suck It and See was never going to be as much of a critical success as previous albums. Presenting both a change of pace and a (sort of) change of style, it almost seems as if Arctic Monkeys are at a crossroads with no clear path.

There are enough QOTSA-inspired Humbug hangovers to delight, but it’s the different and newer sounding stuff that intrigues. There’s an even bigger focus on melody, and when the music is less chaotic Turner’s lyrics come to the fore more than ever before, and that’s always a treat. In fact, throughout Suck It and See it’s as if Arctic Monkeys are becoming the spiritual successors to The Smiths, in how eloquent the lyrics are and how simple yet evocative the music is. And then they rock out with “Brick By Brick.”

Although it might not be their most popular album so far, it’s highly possible that in twenty years time Suck It and See is seen as one of Arctic Monkeys’ most important record, so sit down now and enjoy it while it’s underplayed and undervalued. Just don’t sit down with it for too long, because they might’ve moved their musical chair again by then.

Daniel Griffiths


The War On Drugs

Slave Ambient

[Secretly Canadian]

Sometimes it takes a light bulb moment to realize how much you love something, be it music, a film, or even a person. For me, it wasn’t until an ordinary commute one morning, when I thought to myself, “well, shit, this album hasn’t left my car stereo for three weeks,” that I realized I was, in fact, head over heels for Slave Ambient. Looking back on my year, this amazing War on Drugs album is one of my most listened-to records; an album that defies a singular mood or atmosphere. I want to listen to thumping bass when I’m going for a jog or ambient synthesizers when I’m trying to sneak in a nap, but Slave Ambient has proved capable of adapting to so many different scenarios, all while remaining largely unassuming. The subtly of the song structures never ceases to amaze; each tune feels built around a simple acoustic arrangement, which is then garnished and stretched into something truly special. “I Was There,” “Baby Missiles,” and “Blackwater” are all exemplary of this, though naming individual songs is a bit of a disservice to the cohesion and near-flawlessness of the album as a whole.

Andrew Bailey




[One Little Indian]

The innovative presentation of Björk’s seventh studio album, Biophilia — featuring a series of iPad apps based on the scientific concepts of each of its 10 tracks — would be nothing more than a gimmick if the songs weren’t there. Biophilia is a departure in sound and structure from 2007’s Volta, Björk’s most pop-friendly album to date. These songs are some of her most esoteric to date, but they’re also some of her most gorgeous.

Sean Highkin



The King of Limbs


After much thought and consternation about what a “newspaper” album could be, The King of Limbs felt like a bit of a letdown. None of the conspiracies came to fruition, and we were left with what is by far the shortest LP in Radiohead’s canon. This had the unfortunate effect of distracting from the music on The King Of Limbs, which represents yet another sonic turn for the band. More so than anything Radiohead has previously released, the heart of the music is in the texture of the rhythms and aural backdrops. On “Feral,” everything from Phil Selway’s drums to Thom Yorke’s moan are used as layers of the soundscape. This sets the trend for the entire album, where outside of “Codex” all the tracks involve some level of layering. While layering is not new to Radiohead, the manner in which it’s implemented The King of Limbs sets it apart from the rest of the band’s catalog. Perhaps it’s simply a pleasurable listen rather than an epochal one, but The King of Limbs deserves recognition nonetheless.

Jason Hirschhorn



Past Life Martyred Saints

[Souterrain Transmissions]

While for many people EMA (Erika M. Anderson) seemed to come out of nowhere, those paying a little closer attention could have seen her steady rise from her previous band Gowns to her 2010 advance single of Part Life Martyred Saints explosive opener “Grey Ship,” to the eventual (and inevitable?) critical acclaim to her debut. But, Past Life Martyred Saints is more than just a critical darling. “Milkman” crunches with 90s gusto, providing nostalgia seekers with an updated version of the sound that they love. “Marked” balances on the fine line of creepiness and beauty, only to tip to the latter in the tune’s closing minute. And, of course, there is “California,” where Anderson makes like Kim Gordon at a coffee shop’s open mic, but with a message and loveliness that is all her own. The result was a debut that was instantly impacting, where you could easily root for a songwriter that reflected a piece of all of us, using language and style that is not too far from our own daily experience. Her sadness, her anger, her fears — they all seem as real as any of ours, using the songs to both subtly and, at times, bluntly relate a human condition that is unmistakably unique while undoubtedly universal. Emotionally engaging while never pulling any punches, Past Life Martyred Saints might be the most captivating breakthrough that we have heard in a long time, and it has only whet our appetite for more.

Philip Cosores


Big K.R.I.T.

Return Of 4Eva


This has been quite a year for Southern rap. Man, it feels good to say that. So often unfairly lambasted due to its, err, lesser proponents, 2011 found NC native J. Cole spitting like a NY conscious MC – and topping the charts. However, the real excitement comes from two guys, earlier in their genesis, and certainly more attached to their roots. On one hand, there’s the reborn Tity Boi, rechristened 2Chainz, in the best move of his career. He’s sure to be dismissed by many, very much attached to the trap. On the opposite side, and by far the most promising is K.R.I.T.. He’d gained plenty of attention for last year’s Wuz Here, but it was this record that truly roped in the buzz makers. Effortlessly drifting between crowd pleasers and cerebral tracks, the young Mississipian has the true potential to blow up. His debut was moved from Q4 this year, but as Yelawolf recently displayed, rushing a rising voice to the charts isn’t always the best decision. K.R.I.T.’s more recently slipped that another full tape of material is coming pre-album. Get ready.

Chase McMullen


Kate Bush

50 Words For Snow

[Fish People]

If you wrote off 50 Words for Snow because you assumed it might be a novelty holiday album, or if you thought Kate Bush was just a reclusive middle-aged woman way past her prime — stop right there. While the novelty assumption is somewhat understandable, considering the album cover and title, rest assured 50 Words is a bona-fide Kate Bush album. The theme isn’t so much ‘holiday’ or ‘winter’ but rather an ode to icy keys mixed with warm textures — think Kate Bush’s answer to Björk’s Vespertine (and it’s just as sensual, too). At 53, Bush is no less creative than she was at 23 — her vision is still unbelievably focused, her ear even more in-tune for what works and what doesn’t. Nowadays, she leans toward song structures that are meditative and lengthy — the shortest song on 50 Words clocks in at 6:49, but the world she crafted for this album is so alluring and dreamlike that song length will be the least of your worries. There’s no doubt that 2011 was the year for left-of-center women in music, and it’s only appropriate that Bush, the bold vanguard who laid the blueprint for these artists, released 50 Words during the same year, bringing her influence full circle.

Arika Dean





Let’s get this out in the open: W H O K I L L is leaps and bounds better than the lo-fi BiRd-BrAiNs, Merrill Garbus’ experimental debut; it isn’t solely the production quality, the talent on display has improved in every area. Garbus’ elastic vocals bungee jump all over the vocal spectrum, occasionally toeing the line towards androgyny. Of course, take a gander at any of the lyrics, and you’ll find a strong-willed woman at the center (one of the most satisfying lines affirms she’s a “don’t take shit from you kinda woman”). Fully capable of flipping this role, she effortlessly shifts to the tender lullaby of “Wooly Wolly Gong,” which clocks-in as the album’s longest song. And she has a knack for this balancing act; on tour, she alternates between fashioning drum and vocal loops to her ukulele, while Nate Brenner splits between bass and drums. Saxophone – specifically a duet of alto and tenor sax – nudges its way into the mix to round out the exuberant sound, notably on “RiotRiot” and the game-changing single “Bizness.” Throughout the endlessly enjoyable album, her glam marching band exhibits a keen globe-trotting prowess, but Garbus’ ability to forge impeachable pop songs is astounding.

Michael Tkach


Smith Westerns

Dye It Blonde

[Fat Possum]

If we’re talking breakout acts of the year, Smith Westerns absolutely have to be in that talk. Sure, the clamoring about the Chicago garage pop band began in 2010, as the band’s first single for their sophomore album Dye It Blonde circulated the web at record speed. The new album was a dramatic and welcome leap from their debut in 2009, transforming the group from a fuzzy, home recorded buzz band into a massive sounding pop outfit that would yield endless amounts of praise since the record hit shelves. Dye it Blonde is marvelous at being adventurous while remaining accessible and lovable, and though there are plenty of examples, “End of the Night” exemplifies what makes the album so special. The Marc Bolan-esque guitar screech, the boyish vocals of lead singer Cullen Omori, the pounding of the faint piano keys during chorus. It’s a modern day rock and roll anthem, and it’s just a small sample of what this incredibly young and talented group are capable of. Dye it Blonde isn’t perfect, but it’s pure, unabashed rock revival fun.

Erik Burg


[Honorable Mentions]

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