2011 was a great year for music. We all know that. According to my last.fm charts, seven of the eight artists I listen to the most all released albums this year. In fact, of my ten most-listened to artists, the only one who didn’t release an album this year either released two last year (Sufjan Stevens), will release one next year (The Shins), or disbanded in 1970 (Simon & Garfunkel—and hey, Paul Simon actually released a pretty good album this year).
All that to say: coming up with this year’s Top 11 list has been tough. As a concession to the great bands that would’ve cracked the Top 10 in any normal year, here are a few honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut.
The King Is Dead by The Decemberists
The Decemberists have been a favorite of mine since Jimmy introduced me to good music in eighth grade. One thing that has always impressed me about them is their ability to top themselves: Picaresque (2005) is better than Her Majesty (2003) and Castaways & Cutouts (2002), but The Crane Wife (2006) is better than Picaresque, and The Hazards of Love (2009) is even better than The Crane Wife. Well, only a few artists can manage to just keep getting better and better until they die (I think Johnny Cash peaked about two or three years after he died)—and The Decemberists finally let me down in 2011 with The King Is Dead.
Don’t get me wrong! This is a great album, and it’s not even the same ol’ Decemberists shtick—it’s a little more rockin’, a little less folky. But I think it lacks the storytelling charm that made their other albums so good and unique (especially Hazards), so I really haven’t listened to it much since June. After several months of listening, it just never grabbed me.
“January Hymn” and “June Hymn” are both beautiful. Between them and “July, July!”, The Decemberists are guaranteed a special place in my heart at least three months of every year.
The Head and The Heart by The Head and The Heart
Honestly, probably the only reason this album isn’t ranked higher is because I don’t own it, so it’s gotten fewer chances to win my heart. I’ve listened to it on Spotify and I love the way it combines folkiness with jammy, bouncy piano. The lyrics are memorable, and there’s not just one great single and some filler tracks—the whole album is a pleasure to listen to. The Head and The Heart are a band I’ll keep my eye on (and my ear on) henceforth.
Golden Opportunities 2 (EP) by Okkervil River
Okkervil River has twice released compilations of cover songs under the header “Golden Opportunities.” The latest incarnation does not disappoint, and it’s free, so why don’t you just head on over and download it now, mmkay? I’ve caught myself singing, “It is so nice to get stoned” more than once this month, and the gospel stories of “Dry Bones” are compelling and encouraging.
Watch the Throne by Jay-Z and Kanye West
Listen, my affection for Kanye West is no secret, and Tim, Aubry, and I hosted a top-notch birthday party for Jay-Z this December 4th. I am basically obligated to like this album—and I do. The production is as good as ever, thanks to Kanye (see “Lift Off,” “Otis”), and Jay and Ye aren’t lying down on the lyrics—they’ve put together a solid rap album that I enjoy listening to. But this album doesn’t make me think as much My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy did, or like anything that Lupe Fiasco’s ever put out. It had some tracks that were fairly weak, I thought, despite the quality of the singles. Basically, I think Kanye and Jay-Z were just having fun, which means that Watch the Throne is good, but nothing special in this year’s crowded musical field.