A couple of years ago, Bon Iver's album For Emma, Forever Ago was widely hailed as a neo-folk masterpiece. It was nice, but this self-titled album from 2011 is better. Building off of the stripped-down sound of For Emma, Bon Iver includes layers of horns and keyboards over an ambient sound that's highlighted by Justin Vernon's illustrious vocals. The whole thing has definite retro vibe to it, which is a commonality among many of my favorites this year. The last song, called Beth/Rest, is a shameless, unironic take on 80's pop, complete with Casio keyboards and sax solos. I would have hated this had I heard it in the 80's. Now I love it.
Apparently, on the "Delux" version of the album, each song comes with video accompaniment, and each is a visual treat complementing the music beautifully. You should be able to see them all on YouTube if you want. But here's "Beth/Rest."
I discovered Cold Cave this year with their first album from 2009, Love Comes Close. Just a few weeks later, they released Cherish the Light Years, and like with Bon Iver, there's no sophomore slump here. A couple of tracks are pretty aggressive, employing near-industrial beats. The first song, "The Great Pan is Dead," drives out of the gates and doesn't let up. Other tracks are produced with a slick synth sound that wouldn't be out of place at the dance club I pranced around at in 1988.
Here's how pretentious I am: I first heard this band on NPR's "All Things Considered" one afternoon on my way home from work. Once home, I immediately logged on to Pandora and heard a few complete songs, then went and bought the album on Amazon.
Cults epitomizes this recent sub-trend in indie music where 60's girl-group melodies are nearly washed out with shoegaze fuzz. It's as if the offspring of the Shangri-Las and My Bloody Valentine came of age in the two-thousand-and-teens to sing syrupy-sweet ditties about Jim Jones (see "Go Outside").
I could take or leave (mostly leave) Gnarls Barkley, but Broken Bells sold me on Danger Mouse's brilliance. When my wife bought me this collaboration with Italian composer Daniele Luppi, I proudly professed it to be the best birthday CD ever.
Kind of a tribute to the music of spaghetti westerns and the Italian composer Ennio Morricone, it creates an atmosphere that's wholly modern and could easily be part of a Tarantino film. Nora Jones and Jack White (as in The White Stripes) contribute vocals to a few tunes. Nora Jones's vocals would probably complement any music, and Jack White has a vocal sound that completely works here. I'm consistently taken with this album and now look forward to Danger Mouse's next cool project.
I've said before that I don't go around buying sucky music, so choosing the best ain't easy. Here's some others from this part of the alphabet. Consider them the runners-up:
Active Child, You are All That I See
Cool, atmospheric electronics, accompanied by a falsetto from singer Pat Grossi that hearkens back to the great a-Ha (as in "Take On Me").
Arctic Monkeys, Suck It and See
The Arctic Monkeys's first couple of albums were decent offerings of hip, angular guitar, but were not any better than the dozens of other post-punk, neo-new wave bands of the two-thousand-and-naughties. However, this album comes after the cool experimentation that was frontman Alex Turner's side project The Last Shadow Puppets, and Suck it and See retains some of that Burt Bacharach-on-steroids sound.
Cut Copy, Zonoscope
A couple of years ago, I couldn't stop playing Cut Copy's album In Ghost Colours. Zonoscope is essentially the same clever, hooky electropop. It might not be as immediately great as the previous album, but it's still good, peppy fun.
Tune in next Monday for part two of my list. Please feel free to join in the fun. Since I have little clue and don't know how to set up a proper blogfest, if you'll be making your own post of your favorite music from 2011, drop your blog name and address in the comments below and I'll add them in next week so others can stop by your site.