1. There is no "best." What I like is what I like, music is subjective, ride along if you dare.
2. Some bands, I find consistently, are markedly better in live performance than on record. That would make a different list.
3. All my selections had to be new new music -- no re-releases.
4. There were lots of single songs I liked as well, but I stuck to full albums or EPs here.
5. I used a foolproof measure to figure my favorites, which was the number of plays all the 2011 albums received on my iTunes. These are the ones that I kept coming back to again and again.
6. So this post doesn't ruin your scrolling finger, I limited my selections to 13.
This year, my favorites in 2011 fell mostly into two categories: classic low-fi garage rock and shoewave/chillgaze/whateveryouwannacallthat, with some rogue outliers. I believe this sums up my personality pretty well: a damn punk who enjoys dancing, sleeping, and thinking about weird stuff. Let us begin with our orphan category:
Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm Records)
A greatly-anticipated record from those lovable Chicago moptops and their first on their own label. Call it eclectic, call it schizophrenic, or just call it Wilco doing their thang. Tweedy and Co. range all over the place, from crunchy noise blasts to lazy cabin country to songs that would make for good orange juice commercials with bizarre lyrics.
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, Scandalous (Lost Highway)
Old-time roadhouse soul/blues review infused with humor and high energy = sure-fire fun. If you can't get your groove on to this, you are dead and should have someone read your will already.
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, "Mustang Ranch"
PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (Vagrant )
One of 2011's earliest releases, and it still remains for me over these 12 months just a stunning work in its depth and humanity. Harvey has again made a meticulously-crafted piece of art that requires thoughtful attention, and its focus on war and loss makes it not a casual listening experience. Her use of the autoharp brilliantly weaves a dreamy, folky softness into a lyrical landscape littered with ruined lives, keeping you off-balance and completely mesmerized.
PJ Harvey, "The Words That Maketh Murder"
White Fence, "Is Growing Faith" (Woodsist)
Another early fave of 2011, and my Toppermost of the Poppermost (along with Black Lips). Why? Because Tim Presley makes the kind of record that is this crazy mix of everything I ever heard and loved, pushed through a '65 Dodge Dart AM radio speaker. This includes the sound of weird '60s commercials, skipping records, nursery rhymes, go-go discotheques, and Saturday afternoon monster movies, even though none of those are actually on the record. Dig?
White Fence, "Sticky Fruitman Has Faith" (video by yours truly)
Thee Oh Sees, Castlemania (In The Red)
It doesn't come any crazier or low-fi-e-er than Thee Oh Sees, which of course I find completely endearing. Past the manic garage smash, there's disturbingly glorious sense of old and distorted innocence. Think Bozo the Clown drunk and singing to toddlers for quarters in Haight-Ashbury.
Thee Oh Sees, "Stinking Cloud"
Black Lips, Arabia Mountain (Vice)
What a blast! Mark Ronson's production perfects the Black Lips' sound, making it warmer and cleaner while losing nothing of the punch and grime. All the songs are tight, danceable, singable, and drunkable. Solid Solid Solid Fun Fun Fun I Say Say Say. I play this ALL THE TIME.
Black Lips, "Modern Art" (I also made this video, prior to their official one. Sue me, I like it better.)
Jacuzzi Boys, "Glazin'" (Hardly Art)
You can totally feel the sand and sun, bikinis and sweat, hopeful crushes and young lust here from SoFla's Jacuzzi Boys, even though the songs were recorded in Michigan, which is not known for any of those things other than maybe lust. Maybe. If I could remove Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and Ke$ha from all teenage girls' musical libraries and replace it with this, I would, and we'd all be better for it. Gabriel Alcala's sweet punky puppy whine will follow you home, and you will totally end up feeding it and buying it biscuits and forgiving it peeing on your Drake CD.
Jacuzzi Boys, "Vizcaya" (can you tell I made this video, too?)
Ty Segall, Goodbye Bread (Drag City)
Young Master Segall once again comes up with more grinding guitar and sexy sinewy melodies to rock out your garage. This time, the pace is slightly slowed, infused with a hazy California psychedelia from the very short period when hippies were flower-power cool and not dirty-footed matted-hair sleazeballs selling you oregano in a baggie. Ty's appreciation of rock history is evident, but never overly reverential. He's funky fresh.
Ty Segall, "You Make The Sun Fry"
Broncho, Can't Get Past The Lips (Cop Friendly Records)
A last-minute but VERY enthusiastic addition to an awesome garage year for me. These guys (including Ryan Lindsay from my beloved Starlight Mints) deserve far wider exposure for this hothothot record which just BURNS through on energy, smart, funny lyrics, great low-fi production, and its way of causing an irresistible urge to sing along and pogo until your eyes bleed. That's a good thing, by the way.
Broncho, "Try Me Out Sometime"
Washed Out, Within & Without (Sub Pop)
Evocative and lush, for me this album is the sound of looking back and hearing echoes of days long past, imperfectly recalled through filters of time, distance, change, and unfinished business. Its careful construction and measured beats hide a quiet voice underneath, machine over man, reason over emotion, endlessly swirling and contradictory.
Washed Out, "Amor Fati"
Atlas Sound, Parallax (4AD)
Again, I shake my head with a bit of awe about this guy. Bradford Cox is so prolific and so very talented. He deals with more difficulties than you or I will likely ever have to, and yet time and time again, he makes the most beautiful songs, sweetly complex, soaring like a bird on an endless current of air in the sky. He's peerless, really.
Atlas Sound, "Terra Incognita"
Quilt, Quilt (Mexican Summer)
Ooh, I just lovvvvve this debut album by Quilt with its gorgeous harmonies and laid-back late '60s San Francisco vibe. Tremendously listenable, with enough quirk to spark the brain and enough smooth to soothe. It's a gem, and I think a lot of different kinds of music fans would dig it.
Quilt, "Cowboys In The Void"
Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador)
First off, I don't know how you could not love a guy whose real last name is indeed Vile. Secondly, Kurt writes songs that are both atmospheric and grounded, so pretty and singable yet totally rocking live. He has a lovely feel for melody, and adds a bit of '70s classic pop in the mix without being too self-consciously retro. He also has amazingly lush hair.
Kurt Vile, "In My Time"
So that's it! I hope you found something to add to your collection, but more importantly, took a moment to remember that music is powerful stuff. Use it for good, kiddies. Happy 2012, and thank you to all the wonderful musicians featured here. Y'all's awesome.