9 Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest: Sharing a curious symmetry with Waits, Gil also scratched her seven-year itch (heh) in 2011 by releasing her first effort since Soul Journey. She cited a creative block as the reason for the layoff. Good on Gillian for maintaining her own high standards, as the near-decade it took to arrive at Harrow was evidently well spent. It showcases some of Gil and Dave's most immaculate songwriting to date, including the long-anticipated studio debut of "The Way It Will Be." There really isn't a whiff on the disc. It doesn't top Revelator in my book (nothing ever will, pretty much) but it's another win for Gil and Dave.
8 Bon Iver - Bon Iver: Recently anointed Album of the Year by Pitchfork, Justin Vernon's sophomore disc was essentially For Emma on steroids. Bigger, denser, more fractured and complex from a songcraft perspective, but still brimming with wintery introspection, even though it came out in June. Keeping this one brief, but for further reading on this album, look pretty much anywhere on the internet.
7 Man Man - Life Fantastic: Honus Honus and his crew sound like a band made up of cartoon bad guys. I consider this an asset, although plenty would deem it acerbic. I'm a student of Tom Waits, so my tolerance is high. Of course, Tom Waits at his weirdest makes Man Man sound like Wham!, but these Philly bros can hold their own in the oddball department. Production credit goes to Bright Eyes multitalent Mike Mogis. Dude masterfully layers complementary melodies and balances an instrument-heavy tracking approach that somehow never clutters. These qualities shine through when the album's at its best--take the Far East-tinged "Haute Tropique" or the fiery "Dark Arts." Lyric of the year: "These days I feel like a pariah/an albatross with my feathers on fire."
6 Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean: Remember when Iron and Wine was just Sam Beam whispering a Flaming Lips cover into a condenser mic? Remember that shit? Since then, the bearded-South-Carolinian-
indie-dude-who-isn't-Ben- Bridwell's sound has evolved an unrivaled vibrance. I'm a firm supporter of his aesthetic trajectory, so KEOC is butter to me. He even gets away with a blatant I-V-vi-IV progression on "Walking Far From Home." While Sam won't take home his second HSW album of the year--no doubt sending a shockwave through the I&W camp--he's holding steady near the top. Not bad for "bitch folk."
5 Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo: Smoke Ring pretty much lived in my car all summer, soundtracking my drives through the oppressive Carolina heat as I shlepped from band practice to softball games to who knows what else. There's a prescient lyric in album closer "Ghost Town": "When I'm driving I feel like I'm dreaming/jamming tunes and drifting." IT'S LIKE HE'S SINGING ABOUT ME, GUYS! The grumbly mope-ster drags his words through ambient folk landscapes, yet lyrics never come off as overly pitiful. Vile achieves a lonesome grandiose through downer anthems like "Baby's Arms" and "Runner Ups", wherein he makes no bones about his selective aloofness. "I get sick of just about everyone/and I hide in my baby's arms," he laments in the former, conjuring a sentiment to which most anyone can relate. Also his name sounds like he could have been the WWF Intercontinental Champion in 1997. "KURT VILE TAKES ON DIESEL IN THE SUMMERSLAM MAIN EVENT."
4 Wilco - The Whole Love: So happy am I to slot Wilco's eighth LP as high as it is on this list. My reaction to the past two Wilco albums have generally followed a trajectory of "excited," "defensive," "accepting," before arriving at the sad realization that it just isn't up to snuff. "This album's great! Fuck off with your Art Brut bullshit! Fine, it's not one of their best, but... Damnit, you're right, this isn't their best effort." When The Whole Love came out, I was enamored with the sheer Wilcocity of it all. Noise sections! Strange chords! No lyrics about lawnmowing! Perhaps Tweedy and co. have found it again? Of course, a slight lull in the midsection bred some doubt (I still think "Open Mind" is a weak effort, and "Capitol City" would have benefited from Tweedy singing in a lower register and spending a minute longer in lyric R&D.) The album finds the band refocusing, reminding the greater music community that there's a reason Wilco is considered one of the most influential bands of the past two decades. I like that they're (perhaps subconsciously) drawing on eras past. For instance, the quirky Americana Newman-clone "Capitol City" is a Being There relic. "Dawned On Me" and "Born Alone" align with Summerteeth's indie-pop charm. A Ghost Is Born might have welcomed the inclusion of "One Sunday Morning" and "Rising Red Lung." But despite the broad range of styles, it's all so very cohesive. I'm proud to place this one in the higher tier of the band's catalog, and I'm equally as excited that their best days as a creative entity are not entirely behind them.
3 Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues: Took me a minute to warm to Helplessness Blues. There aren't so many outright hooks as you'd find on their self-titled debut, which, incidentally, was the 2008 HSW record of the year. Helplessness shows itself over the course of several listens, through folk movements and unorthodox (but coherent) song structures. And, yes, they're still singing the shit out of those 36 part harmonies or whatever. The only chink in HB's armor comes at the tail end of "The Shrine/An Argument", when a freeform jazz section overstays its welcomes. Beyond that, it's a proverbial gallery of bright, sprawling songscapes that yields one of the most satisfying listening experiences of 2011. They also absolutely crushed it live.
2 Felice Brothers - Celebration, Florida: I'd long assumed there was a ceiling over the Felice Brothers -- a tin sheet or a vaulted barn roof would, if we're extending the metaphor to their ramshackle shtick. But when I saw the band perform live in late 2010, something strange happened. Interspersed among their folky ballads and shambling roots rockers were new songs laced with punched-up electronic influences. It wasn't bad or anything, but it was an intriguing curve ball. This tease was seen through when Celebration, Florida dropped back in May. On paper, it had disaster written all over it. But lo, the Felices goddamn did it. Instead of blippy samples haphazardly slapped on folk songs, we instead heard measured and thoughtful integration of these elements that logically complemented the music. Perhaps the best example of this is lead single "Ponzi", easily one of the most compelling dancerock tracks about to white collar crime I heard all year! The menacing "Fire At the Pageant" continues the band's streak of Grade A album openers. But the best moment arrives at the other end of Celebration, Florida, when Ian Felice fucking unleashes on "River Jordan." The song's A-section is a charged ballad, good enough on its own. But, like the titular river bursting into rapids (ed: metaphor may not be geographically accurate), the tempo picks up and Ian Felice belts out the most inspired vocal stretches I heard this year. It caps off an adventure of an album that's hard not to celebrate...ion, Florida! Goddamnit I'm clever.
1 Megafaun - Megafaun: You know when an album seems tailor-made for you? As if the band had an inspirational plaque mounted on the studio wall that read, "Would (insert your name) like your next musical decision?" It took precisely one full listen to determine that, for me, Megafaun is one of those albums. It's a wire-to-wire win for the North Carolina trio on an LP that covers a ton of territory, from mind-melting jammy jams to instrumental movements to ballads both meek and booming to blue-eyed soul, all threaded together by the band's mellow-creme vocals and textured swaths of synthetic ambience. The wandering "Get Right" is the album's eight and a half minute crown jewel. It's a driving rocker that gives way to a swirling extended outro, the kind of stretch that's made for reflective late-night highway drives. Megafaun is highly collaborative, as you'll note from the digital information: for each track save for one, the artist is listed as "Megafaun with:" followed by whomever else had a hand in that particular song. Indeed, the aforementioned range of the album reflects this cavalcade of players. Megafaun was clearly interested in getting a little help from their friends, and the results validate that approach. Special props to "Isadora", the lush instrumental that experiments with the melody of "Auld Lang Syne", ducking between keys and playing off major/minor variations. Unfortunately, perfection eludes the album, tarnished only by a gawd-awful (though thankfully brief) vocal turn on "Everything" by someone named Frazey Ford, who I'm sure isn't a classically bad singer, but in context, her throaty wails are slightly more aggravating than a fuckton of nails screaming infinitely down a chalkboard. But hey, 99% is still an A+, so I'll divinely forgive. Megafaun may not get as much ink as their former D'Armond Edison bandmate Justin Vernon (known to the indie kids as the Bon Iver dude and to 2012 Grammy audiences as "Who the fuck is Bawn Eye-ver?"), they should hold them heads high, because there's at least one dude who thinks they made the better album.