I love making lists. Sometimes I’ll sit in class and instead of taking notes, I write down “Top Ten Tina Fey Facial Expressions” or “Top Ten Children’s Movies That Are Really for Adults” (1. The Brave Little Toaster). The only lists I’m not good are making are to-do lists, because they make me feel like I’m drowning.
When I decided to make the “Top Ten Albums of 2011,” I thought it would be easy, because there were so many amazing releases this year. But that became the problem. Because there was so much great music this year, composing this list was incredibly difficult. I would listen to an album and think, “Brilliant! Number 7!” But then I would find an album I had forgotten about and say, “Oh, yeah. This one was phenomenal as well.”
The selection was one thing, but narrowing down the list to ten was excruciating. I want everyone to know that when I decided Lady Gaga’s Born This Way and Adele’s 21 were not on my top ten, I laid in bed for an hour and put “Someone Like You” on repeat, because I felt like I had committed a horrible crime. Everyone knows that Born This Way and 21 were two of the best albums of the year. But everyone knew that they were going to be great albums. If you listened to Adele’s 19 back in 2008, you knew that she was going to be something big. And she is. Adele success in 2011 amazes and bewilders me, and she deserves the stardom. As for Gaga, I wasn’t surprised when I listened to Born This Way for the first time and got an erection. The album is everything it lived up to be: ambitious, sexy, dark, addicting, inspiring.
But it wasn’t just Adele and Gaga that put out fantastic albums. Britney’s Femme Fatale is perhaps one of her best albums to date. Jay-Z and Kanye teamed up and released something spectacular. Radiohead’s King of Limbs showcases the band’s willingness to explore new sounds.
Yet, to say that it was the big acts who defined 2011’s music is the actual crime. In fact, it was the smaller names that put out the year’s best music. This is why I chose not to include the obvious on my list. Yes, there were several mainstream albums that I loved this year. But I loved the lesser-known albums more. There is something about listening to these albums that I find fulfilling. When I listen, I think, “This is what it’s supposed to be. This is how I’m supposed to feel.” It’s why I love music.
10. Florence + the Machine, Ceremonials
This was the album I was most looking forward to this year, because I love Florence + the Machine. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Lungs, but I have all of the lyrics memorized. In August, the band released their first single off of Ceremonials, “What the Water Gave Me.” The song is defines Ceremonials as a whole: dark, ambitious, and very different from the band’s previous material. While “Shake It Out” is more pop-y and upbeat, the meaning of the song is quite somber. “Regrets collect like dark friends / Here to relive their darkest moments,” Welch sings, “I can see no way.” Ceremonials is about the desperation of overcoming darkness and coming to peace with yourself. It’s certainly a very ambitious album, but there is a grandness to it that Welch pulls off with grace and charm.
Favorite Tracks: “What the Water Gave Me,” “Shake It Out,” “Heartlines”
9. The Antlers, Burst Apart
The Antlers’ Hospice is easily one of the most depressing albums I’ve ever listened to, and so is Burst Apart, the band’s fourth studio album. While some of the songs have a more uplifting beat, they’re still quite sad. Lead singer Pete Silberman writes about the fear and anxiety of being alone, and the distress of being too damaged to love. While Hospice relies on the subtlety of sound to make deep cuts, Burst Apart relies on its lyrics to provide the devastation that is all too familiar with the Antlers.
Favorite Tracks: “Parenthesis,” “No Windows,” “Corsicana”
8. Real Estate, Days
Honestly, I know nothing about Real Estate. I listened to Days only recently, but I fell in love with it after the first listen. While the overall sound of the album has simplicity, it is by no means a simple album. The songs are complex, layered with multiple guitars and other instruments. Days is just one of those feel good albums that are so hard to come across. When I listen to it, I just picture myself driving and not caring about a single thing.
Favorite Tracks: “Easy,” “It’s Real,” “Wonder Years”
7. Cults, Cults
After “Go Outside” became an Internet sensation last year, it was only a matter of time before Cults released their debut album. I think that a lot of people were not expecting it to be as good as it is. Lead singer Madeline Follin’s voice is very reminiscent of 60s girl pop, but the backing sounds—the synths and guitars—give the album a very contemporary feel. On the surface, most of their songs seem to be light heartened and awfully dreamy, but they hit you with their dark vocals and heavy guitar rifts (“Abducted,” “You Know What I Mean”). That’s all part of their ploy, though. They deceive you with their sweet sounds, but then they go in for the kill. “I tried to heal myself / And turn around to someone else,” Follin sings, “But I can never be myself, so fuck you.”
Favorite Tracks: “Abducted,” “Go Outside,” “Bad Things,” “Never Heal Myself”
6. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
After Fleet Foxes blew up due to the success of their first album, I feel like there were a lot of expectations for their second, Helplessness Blues. I admit that the first time I listened to it, I was disappointed because it didn’t seem like it was as good as their first. But I was wrong. Helplessness Blues is a much darker and heavier album, which kinds of goes against what Fleet Foxes is known for: a happy and golden sound. Yet, Helplessness Blues gives the band more depth and complexity. They raise big questions—questions dealing with life and death, love and desperation—in the album and while they do not necessarily answer them, the songs are a kind of answer on their own.
Favorite Tracks: “Montezuma,” “Helplessness Blues,” “Someone You’d Admire”
5. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes
Wounded Rhymes, in my opinion, is 2011’s sexiest album. On “Get Some,” Li sings, “I’m your prostitute, you gon’ get some.” She sings about great sex on “Rich Kid Blues.” But Wounded Rhymes is not a purely sexual album. There is a devastating depth to it that will break your heart. On “Unrequited Love,” she sings about the suffering that comes from love gone to waste. Li sings, “The higher that I climb, the deeper I fall down / I’m running out of time, so let’s dance while we’re waiting.” Such heartbreak and tragedy is all over Wounded Rhymes. It takes a powerful song for me to cry, but “I Know Places” is powerful enough for me to weep.
Favorite Tracks: “I Follow Rivers,” “Sadness is a Blessing,” “I Know Places”
4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
There is something about Justin Vernon’s voice that makes you sad. It’s worn and almost aged, full of pain and torment. It’s certainly evident on For Emma, but more so on Bon Iver. His second album is much more ambitious. It’s not an album that relies solely on Vernon’s voice, but on background instruments. The guitars on “Towers” gives the song a 90s feel; “Beth/Rest” has a jazzy 80s sound; “Hinnom, TX” almost sounds electronic, which you not expect from Bon Iver. You want to feel weary when one of your favorite artist experiments with sound, but Bon Iver totally pulls it off.
Favorite Tracks: “Perth,” “Holocene,” “Wash.”
3. Laura Marling, A Creature I Don’t Know
I’m sure as you are reading this, you’re probably thinking, “Who the hell is Laura Marling and why she even on this list?” Your fault, friend. At 21, Laura Marling is perhaps one of our generation’s greatest songwriters. Her third album, A Creature I Don’t Know, is her best album to-date, mostly because of the maturity seen in every song. “The Beast” is quite different from her previous material, as there is a heavy jazz feel to it. “Don’t Ask Me Why” is full of different string progressions, making Marling’s voice fuller. I find it’s very hard to like all of the songs on an album, but I love every song on A Creature I Don’t Know. Each song flows into each other with ease that only Marling can pull off. The album as whole, then, is something quite magical.
Favorite Tracks: “Salinas,” “Night After Night,” “My Friends”
2. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
One of the reasons why I love Strange Mercy so much is because it’s completely different from anything Annie Clark has done before. It’s much darker and twisted than Marry Me and Actor. The screeching guitars on “Surgeon” are so powerful that they will make you weep; the rifts on “Cheerleader” are almost cathartic; her vocals on “Neutered Fruit” and “Champagne Year” are so dreamy that you melt. Strange Mercy, without any argument, is St. Vincent’s best album.
Favorite Tracks: “Cruel,” “Surgeon,” “Cheerleader,” “Year of the Tiger”
1. Feist, Metals
I know I will get a lot of crap for declaring Metals as 2011’s best album, but it really is. The biggest argument against Metals is that, well, it’s boring. So many of my friends tell me that the songs all sound the same. False. While on the surface, Metals seems to lack distinction, there is an intricate amount of detail to each song. If you really listen to each song with the amount of attention that each deserves, you will understand Feist’s genius. Metals does not have pop numbers like The Reminder’s “I Feel It All” or “1234,” but it doesn’t need to have pop songs. Feist has gone into a new frontier of indie music, full of chaos and confusion. There is a beautiful ambiguity to her lyrics, but if you listen carefully, you understand how tormented Feist is. Metals is about failing relationships, anger, and the emotional release that is only found in nature. What Feist has created is not just a perfect breakup album, she has created a stunning piece of art.
Favorite Tracks: “The Bad In Each Other,” “Undiscovered First,” “Cicadas and Gulls”
Honorable Mentions: James Blake, James Blake; Gem Club, Breakers; Bill Callahan, Apocalypse
Addison Bell is a senior at DePaul University where he is studying English Literature. He is the President of Oxfam DePaul and volunteers with Oxfam America, an organization dedicated to ending world hunger, poverty, and social injustice. Follow Him on Twitter @boy_1904 and on Tumblr: colourmegreenwich.tumblr.com.