At this year’s Record Store Day – the April one, not the November shindig – I felt something that hadn’t occurred to me in probably 10 years. I felt excited to hold a record. Standing in line, clutching the inside of my far-too-thin hoodie (thanks, Chicago wind), I paced back and forth in my mind, thinking, God, I hope I get this album. The item in question? Big Star’s unreleased Third.
Of course, I didn’t get it. Nobody did. The store didn’t even receive a copy. So, instead, I spent a couple bucks on some singles, bit my lip, and went home somewhat satiated. But, for the 45 minutes prior to that moment, it was something slightly alien, but moreover familiar. There used to be a time when you couldn’t get an album.
Not everyone can remember that feeling, but they should. Prior to the digital revolution, music was somewhat of a privilege. As a child, you might spend weeks saving up money for something that takes less than two clicks to grab now. Don’t get me wrong — it’s liberating. But value gets partly tossed aside now. It really shouldn’t.
The album is by far the most integral facet of the music industry. People throw out EPs, toss in singles, but albums really mean something. If it’s even halfway decent, it’s essentially then a collection of perfected thoughts, emotions, and creations that are meant to be consumed, examined, and experienced. This year, we had far too many experiences – seemingly overloaded by an open-door policy of music thanks to Spotify.
That didn’t stop us, however, from finding 50 albums we thoroughly enjoyed.
50. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
In 2011, a record like this with precise craft, honest and bare songwriting, and gorgeous, subtle polish seldom gets made. Ashes & Fire is a mainstay because of its demeanor: authentic, exposed, and sublime. It’s a departure from the soaring years with the Cardinals and the rowdy solo work of yesteryear. Instead, Ryan Adams is mellow and content; his voice gleams from artfully sparse production (see: “Dirty Rain”). A tightly focused survey of the remaining ashes of his past, the album subtly questions what to do with all that history in light of a different self and becomes a modern classic in the process. -Liz Lane
49. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
The Joy Formidable may very well be the most appropriately named band to make their full-length debut this year. On The Big Roar, the Welsh trio’s brand of hook-laden guitar pop is a delight to behold as Ritzy Bryan’s urgent delivery transforms song after song into something anthemic. Their swirling layers of guitars and rapid-fire percussion pack enough of a forceful punch to live up to the other half of the band’s name. Full of catchy choruses and relentlessly energetic guitar crunches, The Big Roar is a stadium-sized album amidst a sea of clubs. -Frank Mojica
48. Astronautalis – This Is Our Science
On This Is Our Science, Astronautalis, aka Charles Andrew Bothwell, sounds as convincing singing about a turbulent relationship on “Secrets on Our Lips” as he does spitting verses on cryogenic experimenter Robert Nelson on “Midday Moon”. But it’s not just for intellectuals: Bothwell duets with Tegan Quinn on “Contrails” and features rapper P.O.S. on the album’s title track, gaining both indie and hip-hop street cred. This diversity catapulted Astronautalis’ fourth album into the iTunes top 10 downloads when it was released. In addition, producer John Congleton’s signature desperate, moody arrangements add emotional depth to This Is Our Science’s largely intellectual material. -Harley Brown
47. Ty Segall – Goodbye Bread
At just 24 years old, Goodbye Bread is Ty Segall’s fifth full-length, and again he plays every instrument. The stats are impressive, but this spotless collection of West coast garage tunes handily earns this spot. Less howl-y and punky than previous releases, Segall varies his influences from John Lennon (“I Can’t Feel It”) to smokey blues rock (“The Floor”), all loaded with warm, fuzzy reverb. Songs like “Comfortable Home (A True Story)” show the young artist’s growth into a more personal songwriter, his half-languid falsetto more revealing than ever. It’s mellower, sure, but it’s also some of his most carefully considered output yet, leading to some of his best. And there’s still plenty of stomp and roll. -Benjamin Kaye
46. Summer Camp – Welcome to Condale
The cover of Summer Camp’s Welcome to Condale features a woman in a bathing suit doing a keg stand. So appropriate for an album that tempts the imagination, concocting this place called “Condale” where the kids are hot, the music spacey and romantic. The album is jaded Americana (even though the band is from England), conjuring images of the boardwalk, $2 beer specials, and sand in your hair. Their foreign nature only makes their fascination with American culture that much more apparent. This is an album for losing your virginity in the backseat (“Last American Virgin”), getting sunburned by the lake (“Summer Camp”), and smoking your first joint (“I Want You”). It doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that it relishes in the cliché while embracing a nostalgic beauty that makes the frivolity of youth so universal. -Summer Dunsmore
45. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Watch the Throne, likely the most widely anticipated album of the current decade thus far, sounds exactly like what it is: Two of hip-hop’s most powerful overlords reveling in knowing that they’re just that. In barely 45 minutes, Yeezy and Hov plow through the likes of bionic pop-rap (“Lift Off“), borderline-dubstep (“Who Gon‘ Stop Me“), exotic grandeur (“Murder to Excellence“), and bare-bones soul (“Otis”), all of which is – this cannot be overstated – immaculately produced. Plus, with these two guys constantly playing verbal ping-pong, the whole album is indubitably and nearly incessantly fun. And that’s really all it ever needed to be. -Mike Madden
44. Yuck – Yuck
Admittedly, every sound on Yuck’s self-titled debut is one we’ve all heard before. Rather than embracing one particular influence, Yuck seamlessly pays tribute to nearly all of indie rock’s greatest legends from song to song (e.g. Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr.). Sure, there is a revitalization of the fuzzed-out sounds of the late 80’s and 90’s here, but Yuck also taps into the spirit and emotional highs and lows that made those bands so intriguing in the first place. Sometimes, it’s not what you do but how you do it that matters. -Frank Mojica
43. Mikal Cronin – Mikal Cronin
A few months back, our own Jeremy D. Larson wrote that the tone of Mikal Cronin’s self-titled debut falls “somewhere between Velvet Underground’s Loaded and The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells.” For one, he’s right. Yet moreover, the album exudes this sentimental presence that recalls ’60s mainstays like The Byrds or Jefferson Airplane. It’s a hazy experience that’s quite addicting, like a 151-glazed night in your college heartbreaker’s dorm room. (What? Stay with me, folks.) Check into Cronin’s living room stunner “Hold On Me”, a track that frolics with mousy percussion and cyclical acoustics. It’s a moody think piece. Not moody in the sense that you’re out to scratch the world’s eyes out, but sort of like that welcoming isolation you pine for from time to time. Fact: Sometimes being alone feels better. With a voice and ear like Cronin’s, it’ll always sound better. -Michael Roffman
42. Kendrick Lamar – Section .80
Twenty-four-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar is a native of Compton, CA, but you’re not likely to figure that out while listening to Section.80. Its beats bear almost nil resemblance to the storied G-funk of the city’s past. Rather, the album is built around electro-tinged, blurry near-boom-bap that gives Lamar more than enough room to do whatever he chooses on the mic, something he takes full advantage of. Plus, his finest verses (found on “A.D.H.D.” and “Fuck Your Ethnicity”) occasionally evoke 2Pac at his least thuggish. No small feat there. -Mike Madden
41. Washed Out – Within & Without
Two years ago, Ernest Greene was just beginning to take Washed Out beyond a childhood bedroom side project. After a year of Sub Pop signage and this full-length debut, Within and Without, Greene is headed beyond being another chillwave act with synths. This album is devastatingly gorgeous, submerging listeners in Washed Out’s world of dense, warm vocals (“Eyes Be Closed”), gloomy love songs with strings (“Far Away”), and jaunty pop (“Before”). Within and Without is a kaleidoscope of discovery, uncovering directions Greene’s counterparts have yet to explore. -Lauren Rearick
40. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
All Eternals Deck is a marvel, overflowing by turns with apathy, cheerful quirk, barely contained rage, and quiet wistfulness. And that’s just the first four tracks. John Darnielle’s vocal range is on full display here, laid over desperately driving guitars on 13 tracks as varied as they are meaningful. There are so many juicy pockets of lyrical cleverness here (see: “Estate Sale Sign”, “Prowl Great Cain”, and “For Charles Bronson”) that the album requires repeat listens to soak them all in. Fortunately, we’ve had most of 2011 to do just that. -Megan Ritt
39. Danny Brown – XXX
The greatest treasure of Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s breakthrough mixtape, XXX (an acronym that alludes to sex, drugs, and Brown’s age), is that it delivers as many ridiculous and hilariously clever lines as any other release this year. A brief sampling: “Sorta like Squidward and his clarinet/I’m in ya bitch mouth,” “You softer than Flanders’ son/Don’t make me put hands on son,“ “I‘m higher than Swizz Beatz’s hairline.” Oh, and the oft-dissonant, largely trimmed-down production has its moments, too (“Blunt After Blunt”, “EWNESW”, “DNA”). -Mike Madden
38. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
Daniel Lopatin has been making progressively bigger waves with each release since 2008’s Russian Minds, but Replica is easily his best, most accessible full-length to date. Rather than the swirling analog haze that colored his previous work, the album sees Lopatin mine the discarded junk culture of yesteryear for a singular, strangely dystopian vision of the future more akin to that of a science fiction author than a musician. From the piano-laden “Power of Persuasion” to the meditative ambiance of “Submersible”, Replica is remarkable music unlike anything else on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter. -MÃ¶hammad Choudhery
37. Real Estate – Days
Ben Folds chronicled the suburbs with white boy angst. Arcade Fire did it with melancholia. Real Estate takes a more laid-back approach, shrouding their simple, yet relatable, lyrics about suburban New Jersey (the songs have straightforward titles like “It’s Real” and “Wonder Years”) in a fog of hazy guitar solos and precise rhythm that could take place anywhere in the nation, as long as it’s not a city. Like a high school summer, it feels relaxed and alluringly repetitious. And isn’t that the point? -Dan Caffrey
36. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
For anyone who thought Bon Iver was the definitive impressionistic album of the year, Bill Callahan’s latest proves to be its strictly Americana counterpart. Hell, just look at the cover art. With Apocalypse, Callahan turns the Americana landscape into an ocean of sounds. Over a fiddle, an organ, a pedal steel, and reverb swells, Callahan becomes America’s most forward thinking country/folk singer still making music rooted in those old-time standards. “DC-4-5-0,” Callahan laments in the last moments of Apocalypse. It’s an interesting sentiment, a powerful statement made without any real words. It’s the record’s Drag City serial number. As Callahan closes the door on yet another chapter in his demented world of horses, gunslingers, and cattle prodding, he is well aware that he’s doing so. It’s the question of where he’ll head next that makes the current state of his affairs all the more fascinating. In the meantime, we’re glad he’s leaving off here. -Drew Litowitz
35. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Anonymity and avoiding press in the hyper-mediated blogosphere turns out to be a pretty effective tactic for getting some attention – especially for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, whose music turned out to be as difficult to place on the genre spectrum as it is to put a face on their online presence. With the release of their self-titled debut, the heavy hooks of Bandcamp viral “Ffunny Ffriends” find a home in a tightly performed but cheaply produced space odyssey – an intricate mix of psychedelics, speedy guitar riffs, and otherworldly vocals. Frontman Ruban Nielson’s knack for melody (who can resist “How Can U Luv Me?”) and treating the voice as an instrument proves to be the icing on the cake, validating the weird internet hype and translating the buzz into legitimacy. -Caitlin Meyer
34. Adele – 21
A lot of people may roll their eyes at the inclusion of Adele’s 21 to year-end lists, but you can’t deny the staying power and grip the album has had on popular music. Love her or hate her, you couldn’t walk past a stereo or TV that wasn’t playing Adele this year. Being a pop music juggernaut doesn’t mean the album shouldn’t be respected, however. From the infectious “Rolling in the Deep” to the heart-wrenching “Someone Like You” to the vengeful “Set Fire to the Rain”, the album is solid front-to-back. Adele’s voice is a one-of-a-kind, jazzy, smoky, emotional powerhouse, and the fact that she is still topping charts months after the album was released shows she has a complete right to be on everyone’s year-end list. -Nick Freed