Nerve’s 15 Best Albums of 2011

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Nerve’s 15 Best Albums of 2011

Dubstep, hip-hop, and whatever it is you call tUne-yArDs.

by Nerve

2011 was a great year for music. Adele provided a much-needed breath of non-Auto-Tuned air for the pop charts, dubstep had us all briefly obsessing over “the drop,” and Watch the Throne gave the 1% a catchy new shopping list. Our Best Albums of 2011 spans a whole bunch of genres, from the aforementioned dubstep to whatever it is you can call tUne-yArDs, and you can check out a massive Spotify playlist featuring songs from the picks (and the honorable mentions) here. Then, be sure to tell us what we missed in the comments bonus points are awarded if you leave a writeup and track pick instead of  “ZOLA JESUS GRAW.”

15. TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light 

For the recording of Nine Types of Light, the band's fourth studio album, art rockers TV on the Radio left their hometown of Brooklyn for brighter, western-er pasture. The result: an ecstatic record that wraps a romantic yearning into TVOTR's familiar buzz. The album is surprisingly lush and sensuous, combining the band's famed psychedelics with warm bass lines and Tunde Adebimpe's Bee Gee-esque vocals. But that’s not to say that TV on the Radio has made any drastic stylistic changes: Nine Types of Light blends the band's diverse influences funk, blues, gospel, rock, post-punk into cohesion. — Colette McIntyre

Listen: “Caffeinated Consciousness”


14. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up

Seattle’s Ishmael Butler, once Butterfly of Digable Planets, re-emerged as Shabazz Palaces to drop a couple of EPs before this sprawling, epic LP came out. Butler ducks the conventions of hip-hop as surely as he rhymes, eschewing the typical verse-chorus-verse structure of the genre for murky, sprawling textures to drop his richly imaginative flow onto. Black Up is deep, dark, and best listened to on a pair of big-ass headphones in a darkened room. — Alex Heigl

Listen: “An echo from the hosts that process infinitum”


13. Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Emerging from his cabin to a world more overtly influenced by Prince and TV on the Radio, Justin Vernon’s follow up to For Emma, Forever Ago is a open, ambitious album, from the Peter Gabriel-aping-grandeur of “Beth/Rest” to the overstuffed box of influences that is “Minnesota, WI.” Vernon’s haunting falsetto is at the fore throughout, and to good effect: agile and affecting, it’s the best girl’s voice coming from a bearded white man since Richard Manuel of The Band. — Dustin Bird

Listen: “Perth”


12. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming 

Hurry Up, We're Dreaming approximates the same dreamy mysticism I felt watching The NeverEnding Story for the first time apparently by design. Anthony Gonzalez's music has its complexities, but the overall effect is more comforting than challenging. It taps into your inner child; evoking memories and long-forgotten dream sequences with poetic whispers and guitar riffs carefully blended into an electronic symphony.  — Amanda DelTuvia

Listen: “Midnight City”


11. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo 

If Tom Petty and Bob Seger created some kind of hirsute, scrawny lovechild, it would be Philadelphia native Kurt Vile. Smoke Ring for My Halo treads a delicate line between being modestly optimistic and vaguely miserable, oscillating between problem and solution. In the beautiful, finger-picked opener "Baby's Arms," Vile croons about finding comfort in someone, while lamenting about being unable to give them his all. "Peeping Tomboy" offers the  statement "I don't want to change, but I don't want to stay the same," and that's the conflicted beauty of Halo: Vile wears his heart on his sleeve, but that sleeve is still wrinkled, filthy, and artfully tattered. — Marina Cukeric

Listen: “Baby's Arms”


10. The Weeknd, House of Balloons

"Trust me girl… You'll wanna be high for this," a velvet croon advises in the opening track, but there's no need: House of Balloons is a high in itself, a woozy, sultry influence that a listener can't help but fall under. A raw and dark ache pervades the album, making the familiar nocturnal tales of sex, drugs, and debauchery sound more disturbing than fun. The Weeknd picks up beats from the likes of Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees, pushing R&B's sonic profile outside of the traditional realms. The vibes are slow-burning: House of Balloons paces itself until just the right moment and then it explodes into a codeine-soaked rapture. — C.M.

Listen: “House of Balloons”


9. Wild Flag, Wild Flag

Insert standard boilerplate comment about riot grrrls, the place of women in rock music, and something about Portlandia here — Ed. Whoops. Anyway, ignore all the hype and listen to Wild Flag to hear a band taking the best of rock music from the past thirty years, throwing it into a blender, and coming up with something fresh without feeling forced, gender and band-lineage pedigree aside. My personal favorite moments are Carrie Brownstein’s Ric Ocasek impression on “Boom,” and the rollicking keyboard-driven “Future Crimes.” — A.H.

Listen: “Future Crimes”


8. James Blake, James Blake 

Like a breakup text or a Hemingway short story, the impact of James Blake's self-titled debut album lies in what isn’t said. A minimalist yet richly textured meditation on how it feels to truly be alone (and cute, and British), James Blake wrings as much meaning from its silences as it does from the singer's ethereal vocals. "My brother and my sister don't speak to me/But I don't blame them, no, I don't blame them," Blake intones over and over again on the haunting "I Never Learnt to Share," his voice quaking over a dizzying crescendo of loops and high-pitched synth tones, followed by a spine-tingling organ. The stark poignancy of the lyric, coupled with the exquisite sadness of Blake's voice, is enough to make you want to give him a big hug or slap him for being so talented and successful at the tender age of twenty-three. — EJ Dickson

Listen: “I Never Learnt to Share”


7. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra

Frank Ocean's debut album Nostalgia, Ultra is a resounding "fuck you" to Island Def Jam (and the music industry in general) for putting him on the cooler for the past year. Sweet but not saccharine, emotional but not melodramatic, unflinchingly genuine, and released for free on his Tumblr, this album feels like a direct line to a real person  a quality not often found in R&B or modern music in general. The literal take on “mixtape”   sounds of rewinding old cassette tapes are included via several interludes  accentuates this effect deftly. “Novacane” is a surreal love song with infectious pop appeal, and “Songs for Women” demonstrates a refreshing forthrightness about the reasons one might become an R&B singer. — Garrett Carey

Listen: "Novacane"


6. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy 

Maybe it's the fact that this album has been on loop for months in the Nerve office, or maybe this is exactly the step we all expected Annie Clark to take after her smash-hit sophomore album Actor. While still keeping to her pocket-sized allegories about her life, she finally gets to open up her musical palette by going more analog, reflected in new hits like "Surgeon" and "Chloe in the Afternoon." All the same, the album cements our trust in Clark's reliability from now on. She's still the lovable, witty beauty with a tiny red electric guitar, and thank God for that. — Jett Wells

Listen: “Chloe in the Afternoon”


5. Fleet Foxes,  Helplessness Blues 

I don't think I've listened to any other album in the mornings this year as much as Helplessness Blues. "The Cascades" is the most soothing song to rub the sleep out of my eyes and browse the morning headlines to. Helplessness Blues has a tormented backstory: in 2009, the band spent $60,000 recording songs they ended up scrapping. Frontman Robin Pecknold's girlfriend of five years broke up with him because of the stress the album put on their relationship. He then jumped into a number of side projects to give him a break from the the album. He was sure that it would come out by 2010; it was released in February of 2011. There’s something trite here about pressure and coal and diamonds, but I’ll spare you  just listen to the album.  — Maura Hehir 

Listen: “Helplessness Blues”


4. Tom Waits, Bad As Me

Waits delivered a career summary with Bad As Me: it’s everything you’ve loved about his past work, delivered in a voice that’s never felt stronger, with concise songwriting and production. Familiar collaborators Marc Ribot and Keith Richards return, giving Bad As Me a family reunion-type feel. The songs are still by turns tender and odd, but Waits’ old-man indignance on “Hell Broke Luce” shows that he’s not yet done chronicling the downtrodden he’s just summoned a righteous anger to match his always-affecting sentimentality. — A.H.

Listen: “Hell Broke Luce”


3. tUne-yArDs, w h o k i l l 

w h o k i l l marks Merrill Garbus’ transition from a one-woman DIY project to a fully-fledged band, and the group's first studio release is riotous, colorful, and bold. Every song is a journey through Garbus’ expansive musical vocabulary  the album gleefully blends disparate fragments like the drum patterns of dub and the chanted vocals of Afrobeat. On "Killa," Garbus bleats, "I'm a new kind of woman." If that's true, I hope there’s a whole army of new women following in tUnE-yArDs' footsteps, because the world needs more music like this. — C.M.

Listen: “Killa”


2. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

PJ Harvey’s superbly crafted Let England Shake, the concept album that won her the coveted Mercury Prize in 2011, deals largely with World War I. But Harvey’s visceral lyrics keep the album from veering into lecturing shrillness, and the soft, autoharp-infused accompaniments bump up nicely against the rawness of the subject matter. The battlefield imagery is disturbing at times: soldiers fall "like lumps of meat," and trees are hung with severed limbs in "The Words That Maketh Murder."  Her conflicted feelings towards England inform every song: “You leave a taste,” she informs her homeland in “England”  “a bitter one.” For an unusually gripping and even-handed concept album dealing with a lofty and often broadly-painted subject, Let England Shake is nothing short of a triumph. — M. C.

Listen: “Let England Shake”


1. Adele, 21 

When “Rolling in the Deep” hit every radio station in existence simultaneously over the summer, it was labeled a “crossover hit,” a definition that seems redundant — nothing translates across musical spectrums like a broken heart. Getting dumped is the fucking worst.  And God strike down whoever says “everything’s gonna be all right.” When you’re in the throes of heartache, advice falls on deaf ears. And throughout 21, Adele isn’t offering any. Instead she’s a vessel, giving you the chance to belt out what you’ve been feeling all this time but couldn’t put words to. She holds your hand, and strokes your neck, and waits. She knows you may not come out of this unscathed — none of us do — but that, eventually, you will come out of it. — Rick Paulas

Listen: “Someone Like You”


Runners-Up:  Florence + The Machine, Ceremonials; The Black Lips,  Arabia Mountain; Fucked Up, David Comes to Life; The Roots, Undun; Wilco, The Whole Love; The Black Keys, El Camino; Battles, Gloss Drop; Gilian Welch, The Harrow & the Harvest; Liturgy, Aesthetica