Here we are wrapping up yet another year of music. It’s always interesting to see how one’s tastes can shift and what albums stick out the most from year to year. This year, I think albums that really stuck out were those that were “musically curious“. I was inspired by artists who weren’t afraid to deviate from their ‘bread-and-butter’ sound, changing things up, exploring, and breaking the limits of their supposed sound. Here are the albums that I could not get enough of in 2011! (*Want to listen while you read? All album links are to their Spotify pages, OR you can hear them all in my Best of 2011 Playlist on Spotify!)
Best Albums of 2011
10. Adele – 21 (XL)
It was shocking enough when Adele‘s debut album 19 came out in 2008. I could not believe her voice, her power, nor her age. Adele made a strong comeback this year in 21, the first single “Rolling In The Deep” blew listeners away and cemented the young singer’s spot as not just an artist to watch, but an artist who is here to stay and has so much more to give us. 21 presented a more mature sound and subject matter, and featured a more R & B influenced style than the pop tunes of 19.
Favorite Tracks: “Someone Like You”, “Rolling In The Deep”
9. The Donkeys – Born With Stripes (Dead Oceans)
This album snuck up on me when I least expected it. The Donkeys came to Bloomington for a show at The Bishop back in May and it was my duty to host an in-studio with them on WFHB Community Radio. I sat down with the album to prepare, and was pleasantly surprised with how wide a range of styles and genres this band incorporates into their sound. From the poppy tunes with the California feel of their hometown (San Diego) like “We Don’t Know Who We Are” and “Oxblood”, to Indian-influenced, sitar layered ragas “East Coast Raga” and “West Coast Raga”, to the rocking title track “Born With Stripes”, this album definitely qualifies as “musically curious”. There was no style too daring for The Donkeys to try out, and they executed them all very successfully.
Favorite Track: “Oxblood”, “We Don’t Know Who We Are”, “Bloodhound”
8. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin‘ (Sony)
I have to admit that I had forgotten about Raphael Saadiq. I remembered Tony! Toni! Toné! I remembered his name, but I forgot about the talented multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and producer that he is. Then Stone Rollin‘ hit. I played a track on one of my radio shows when I first noticed the album, and I was just blown away. Stone Rollin’ has that classic R&B/pre-rock n’ roll touch. The music is like a modern mix of the styles of Howlin’ Wolf and James Brown. It’s the vocal styles of Stevie Wonder and Chuck Berry. It’s a throwback dance party, that really showcases Saadiq’s creative force as a skilled songwriter, musician, and performer.
Favorite Tracks: “Heart Attack”, “Day Dreams”, “Just Don’t”
7. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (RCA)
I am a Foo fan for life. And as I admitted in my review, this is NOT the band’s greatest album, but it’s still a good one and I have enjoyed listening to it time and time again since its release. Most bands are way washed out by the time they reach their 17th year together, but Wasting Light demonstrates a band that is anything but. Dave Grohl and Co. still continue to bring hard-hitting alternative rock with catchy choruses and big sound. Recorded in Grohl’s garage on analog tape, this album features no ballads or slow jams, all hard-hitting Foo. The downside: this album is not quite as musically curious as I’d hoped for from the band. The lyrics are not as ambitious as this band has been known to produce, and some of the themes and sounds seem recycled from their previous work. That said, it’s still an album that kept me moving in 2011.
Favorite Tracks: “Rope”, “Arlandria”, “Matter of Time”
HipsterSpinster Spotlight: Album Review: Foo Fighters – “Wasting Light”
6. Little Scream – The Golden Record (Secretly Canadian)
This album just fell into my ears in the deep Indiana winter of ’11. It was cold and icy, and I saw a music video of a woman singing in a cold, frosted car. It was sweet, mysterious, romantic, and intriguing. Then I read the band name, Little Scream, it was perfect and I was hooked. I was captivated by Laurel Sprengelmeyer’s soft voice, almost a whisper but not quite. The beautiful poetry of the lyrics carried her songs to other-worldly dimensions. How is The Golden Record musically curious? It’s all about dichotomies, its soft and loud, acoustic and electrified, effortless yet deeply concentrated. The exploratory album winds through twists and turns of sounds and styles and is never boring or repetitive. Also, there are some really great string and piano arrangements that show up in the least likely places.
Favorite Tracks: “The Heron and The Fox”, “Cannons”, “Boatman”
HipsterSpinster Spotlight: Artist of the Week: Little Scream
5. Sleeping Bag – Sleeping Bag (Joyful Noise Recordings)
To see Dave Segedy go from ‘that guys in the back of Arrah and the Ferns playing drums and recorders” to fronting (from the back) his own band with two of Bloomington’s most talented young musicians is only touching the tip of how great I feel when I listen to this album. Having been there through the transitional period of Segedy’s Whoa Bro Awesome project (predecessor to Sleeping Bag), I couldn’t have been more surprised, impressed, and proud to hear the resulting band and album that is currently Sleeping Bag. Not only are the songs outstanding, the musicianship on and off stage is always a treat. Sleeping Bag is a backwards band with someone who is usually in the background as the frontman, and two frontmen acting as support. The genius pairing of Segedy, David Woodruff, and Lewis Rogers is what makes this band great and musically curious. Each artist comes from different influences, and when they put it all together, they make a powerful, rocking trio.
Favorite Tracks: “Rental”, “Beside”, “Desker”, “Acer”
HipsterSpinster Spotlight: 5 Reasons You Should Buy Sleeping Bag’s “Sleeping Bag”
4. Good Luck – Without Hesitation (No Idea Records)
There isn’t much I can say about this album that hasn’t already been put into writing here. Good Luck‘s Without Hesitation is an album that has been long-awaited and is a great milestone in the history of the Bloomington band. As a longtime fan, I wasn’t sure what to expect when it took four years for the band to record a follow-up to 2007’s Into Lake Griffy. This album showcases a more grown-up Good Luck, tackling more in-depth thoughts and curiosities with style, dignity, and excellent musicianship.
Favorite Track: “A Song to Comfort the Sick”, “Contact”,”It Gets Harder”, “Significant Day”, “Novel Figure”
HipsterSpinster Spotlight: Album Review: Good Luck – “Without Hesitation”
3. Dreamers of the Ghetto – Enemy/Lover (Temporary Residence Limited)
“Lover and brother. I saw this in a dream once.”
That is a caption I once saw Luke Jones write about a photo of two of his Dreamers of the Ghetto band mates, his wife Lauren Jones and brother Jonathan Jones. That quote has always resonated with me, every time I think about the band, every time I listen to Enemy/Lover and anytime I see the band performing. It’s a connection that is much more than simply people making music together. Dreamers of the Ghetto is a dream of four friends, a family, it’s a life and a goal that they are seeking together. I think that is what makes their music and their spirit so tangible, so relative, and so unique.
One of the hardest working bands to step on Bloomington’s soil, Dreamers of the Ghetto took the scene and the nation by storm in 2011. Turning heads of trusted names in the industry like My Old Kentucky Blog, IFC, and NPR (among others), the band’s debut Enemy/Lover quickly became one of the most anticipated albums of the Fall. And this album definitely delivered. With the rough and passionate vocals of Luke Jones and the band’s ability to be rock, electronic, and pop effortlessly and simultaneously, Enemy/Lover was the perfect introduction of this creative and stylish band.
Favorite Tracks: “Always”, “Regulator”, “Night Hawks”, “Dark Falcons”
HipsterSpinster Spotlight: Dreamers of the Ghetto Signs with Temporary Residence Ltd
2. The Dodos – No Color (Frenchkiss)
No Color was one of the first new albums I heard of 2011 that made me excited to put together a year-end list. I have been a fan of The Dodos since seeing the band live in 2008, and after being slightly less impressed with Time to Die, I was unsure of what to expect from No Color. Expect the best. From the blasting drums that start the album’s opening track “Black Night”, to the complex rhythms and dynamics of closer “Don’t Stop”, No Color is clearly the band’s best album so far. The rhythmically intense duo of Meric Long and Logan Kroeber is at its best, showing that guitar and drums are all that’s needed for a full and effective sound and don’t have to come in second place to a melody. Backing vocals from Neko Case only add to an already impressive and solid album, and with most songs ranging from 3-5 minutes (two pass the 6-minute mark), listeners can tell the band scrapped any limits of length to make sure they fit in what counts, substance and fully developed song creativity.
Favorite Tracks: “Companions”, “Sleep”, “Black Night”, “Don’t Stop”
1. Milagres – Glowing Mouth (Kill Rock Stars)
When I talk about “musical curiosity” the top band for that this year was Milagres with its album Glowing Mouth. When I sat down with friend and longtime Milagres fan Tim Felton for this review, I was introduced to a band that is near impossible to pigeon-hole. Featuring vocal harmonies you’d expect from Fleet Foxes, a blend of indie-pop reminiscent of Grizzly Bear, and a leading falsetto similar to that of Justin Vernon, the sounds of Glowing Mouth are the perfect recipe for a captivating underdog album to pull a sneak attack and steal top spots on Best-of lists. Milagres blended it’s electro-based style with an alt-rock sound, orchestral arrangements, and beautiful vocals to create an album that crosses boundaries in every way.
Favorite Tracks: “Lost In The Dark”, “Halfway”, “Gone”, “Fright of Thee”, “Glowing Mouth”
HipsterSpinster Spotlight: Guest Review: Tim Felton on Milagres “Glowing Mouth”
Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Abigail Washburn – City of Refuge, Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming, Andy D – Songs in the Key of Magic, Memory Map – Holiday Band, The Black Keys – El Camino