Top 10 CDs of 2011 | Mike Rengel

cd rem-collapseArt doesn’t take kindly to being sliced, diced, ranked, and filed; there’s no differential equation to analytically determine songs’ groovitational pull.

Annual disclaimer: This isn’t a definitive list of the “best albums of 2011.” Art doesn’t take kindly to being sliced, diced, ranked, and filed; there’s no differential equation to analytically determine songs’ groovitational pull. But these are the records that meant the world to me in 2011. They were my most listened to, the ones I came back to time and time again, the ones that got me through the toughest days and set my heart pounding. So, with no further ado, here they be, along with a number of albums that I loved but that fell just short of the nice and round, yet arbitrarily sized, Top 10. There were even more LPs that I really liked this year (2011 was a brimming with great music), but listing them all would wear thin your already wavering patience. But I digress.

1. R.E.M. | Collapse into Now (Warner Bros.)

It wasn’t known at the time, but in retrospect, all the clues were there that this was R.E.M.’s farewell album. From the sayonara-waving Stipe on the cover, to the lyrics of “All the Best,” to the way “Blue” ends with a circular coda/reprise of opening track “Discoverer”—it’s all there. Even armed with the knowledge, this is anything but a rehashing victory lap or timid, weepy goodbye. It’s arguably R.E.M.’s best album in 15 years, the sound of a veteran band in a full-on re-embrace of its passion for making music and exploring new avenues. They could have kept going, but they chose to go out in a fireball of “we ruuuuuuuule!” And they do. Collapse is alternately rocking, tender, chiming, mysterious, and prickly. In short, it’s everything that made R.E.M. one of America’s very best rock bands for nearly 30 years.

2. Paul Simon | So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music)

Simon’s always been a songwriter’s songwriter, but rarely has one of his records done such a marvelous job of illustrating it. So Beautiful is the product of age: it oozes wisdom, but avoids being boring or ponderous, it bops and grooves at will, and is stuffed with the tiny turns of phrase and melodic shifts that make Simon’s songs such astonishing microcosms of emotion, intellect, and heart, all the while retaining his trademark humor, effortless melody, and the rhythms that have ceased being ‘experiments’ and now are 25-plus-year parts of his musical DNA. So Beautiful is the work of a man whose age has him looking back and taking stock of what lies past this mortal coil, but who also has zero intention of stopping anytime soon.

3. Adele | 21 (XL/Columbia)

This record’s growing ubiquity—coffee shops, commercial radio, department stores, TV shows, you name it—can scarcely lessen its impact. Adele’s powerful, expressive voice is a weapon, but as if living under the threat of mutual assured destruction, she has the wisdom to rein it in. Sure, she has the raw firepower, and can belt ’em out with the best of them, but her tasteful restraint merely amplifies the power of these sometimes alternately swaggering and vulnerable songs of not-so-secret heartbreak, making the moments where she unleashes her full power even more gobsmacking. Melodic, assured, arresting neo-soul from a singer years more mature than the album’s titular age. Throw it on and go for a drive around your city on a cold, rain-slicked night.

4. Destroyer | Kaputt (Merge)

Dan Bejar’s long-running Destroyer project takes its latest left turn. Your mileage may vary, and might be directly proportional to your tolerance for/appreciation of jazzy soft rock, lush, Steely Dan-esque production values and smooth horns (saxes, glorious saxes!). But if you can tolerate it—or, like me, unironically dig the sound—it’s a warped bit of heaven. Kaputt is superficially accessible—clear and often quite melodic, bringing to mind Avalon-era Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry—but simultaneously weirds things up with joyously cryptic, self-referential lyrics and sprawling, unconventional song structures. It sounds an awful lot like its evocative, hazy, whitewashed cover and liner art. But this isn’t a throwaway or a joke record; it has a rich multitude of folds to rival a human brain, all wrapped in an outer layer as retro-stylin’ as a white polyester sport coat.

5. The War on Drugs | Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)

The sound of an endless road trip with a guy who’s got an iPod full of Tom Petty (yet who vehemently claims he “doesn’t really like Tom Petty, man”) and a jar full of tranquilizers. Slave Ambient is hypnotic, endlessly ramblin’, and constantly side-shifting. Everyone has one of those friends who can’t stay in one place, who’s driven by an innate force to keep moving, who always subconsciously implodes attempts to put down roots. This is a musical version of that person: a non-hippie daydream of a record that’s built on a solid foundation of slowly building drones, but that never sits still.

6. Bon Iver | Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)

The next evolution of Justin Vernon’s fractured indie-folk, positioned firmly between roaring and rustic, raw and polished to a studio sheen. It’s the sound of holing up in a winter cabin with a Korg Kaoss pad and a box containing Peter Gabriel’s captured soul. While more about texture and the sounds of words than the searingly autobio songs Vernon made his earlier name with, Bon Iver resounds with no less emotion, only this time by instead mirroring what the listener brings to it.

7. Lykke Li | Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic/LL)

There is such beauty in sorrow, and hope in the world despite the gray times. Lykke Li knows this, too. Please to be seeing my full-length review from back in April:

8. Cut Copy | Zonoscope (Modular)

Dance music for the body and the brain. Another one I did a full-length review of earlier in the year.

9. The Antlers | Burst Apart (Frenchkiss)

Happy fun times about death, cold-as-stone one-night stands, yearning, searching, smoldering desire, frustrated dreams, and more! Burst Apart moves with fragility, emotion, and the slightly intimidating elegance of someone tiptoeing their way down a darkened hallway. The album has a thick, crawling atmosphere that hangs on you like a perfectly still, ultra-humid night. Try to argue with words like “Prove to me I’m not gonna die alone/ Unstitch that shit I’ve sewn/ To close up the hole that tore through my skin/ My trust in you is a dog with a broken leg/ Tendons too torn to beg for you to let me back in.”

10. Drake | Take Care (Young Money/Cash Money)

I’m fascinated with things that manage to be both massively popular and wildly inventive, even more so when they succeed despite their inherent weirdness. While it contains plenty of elements of both, Take Care isn’t so much a hip-hop album, or even an R&B one. If anything, it’s some kind of futuristic anti-pop pop record, given heft and resonance by Noah “40” Shebib’s sparse, challenging arrangements. Being a walking contradiction is part of what makes Drake such an engaging figure, and what gives his music the depth and longevity found in so little on the Top 40 charts. That it’s there in the first place is a bit of a triumph for the over-analyzers of the world. Take Care sends Drake’s narcissistic streak to new places, a schizo reveling in and reviling of the fame he’s always wanted but has endlessly dissected the effects of, even before he had it. The honesty of the LP is stunning—it’s often TMI, but that’s part of the appeal. Few artists would feel comfortable making or compelled to record a slow jam that’s essentially a self-recriminating drunk-dial boast/booty call. Even the radio songs are muscular and thoughtful; they fit into the album’s spiritual framework, providing pop thrills without ever turning into purely mindless bangers. This is sonically impressive album infused with the alien, off-world R&B of the Weeknd, of the ghosts of heartbroken soul singers (that “Marvins Room” was allegedly recorded in Gaye’s titular studio and is oh, so fitting), of enjoying the fruits of your labor, and celebrating/lamenting the fact that you just can’t stop thinking about thinking.


20 honorable mentions (that I played loads; all deserve ultra-wordy write-ups of their own):

Zola Jesus | Conatus (Sacred Bones)

M83 | Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute)

Wilco | The Whole Love (dBpm)

Feist | Metals (Interscope/Cherrytree)

Dum Dum Girls | Only in Dreams (Sub Pop) (and the remarkable He Gets Me High EP)

The Vaccines | What Did You Expect from the Vaccines (Columbia)

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart | Belong (Slumberland)

Elbow | Build a Rocket Boys! (Fiction/Polydor)

The Weekend | House of Balloons / Thursday (XO)

Smith Westerns | Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum)

Foster the People | Torches (Columbia/Startime)

Yuck | Yuck (Fat Possum)

Battles | Gloss Drop (Warp)

I Break Horses | Hearts (Cooperative Music)

Acrylics | Lives and Treasure (Friendly Fire/Hot Sand)

Ume | Phantoms (Modern Outsider)

Jens Lekman | An Argument with Myself EP (Secretly Canadian)

Fleet Foxes | Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop/Bella Union)

Dawes | Nothing Is Wrong (ATO)

Real Estate | Days (Domino)


Four really great local St. Louis albums from 2011

Old Lights | Like Strangers (self-released)

Sleepy Kitty | Infinity City (Euclid)

The Blind Eyes | (self-released)

Troubador Dali | Let’s Make It Right (Euclid)

A pair of not-bad-at-all albums that I forgot even came out this year until well after making this huge list:

Radiohead | The King of Limbs (self-released/TBD)

Jay-Z & Kanye West | Watch the Throne (Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella/Roc Nation)


Congratulations, you made it this far. Here’s a valuable bonus prize! Check out my 60-song-strong (and growing) “Top Tracks of 2011” Spotify playlist:

It contains tunes from the above records, as well as a bunch more from discs that I wasn’t able to mention due to space constraints.

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