Under the Radar’s Top 80 Albums of 2011

Dec 21, 2011
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It may have been a difficult year for many people for a multitude of reasons (not least of all, the weak economy), but 2011 was certainly a great year for music. Here at Under the Radar we'd argue that it was an even better year for music than 2010 was, which is why this year we've come up with a Top 80 best albums of 2011, versus last year's Top 50.

Each of Under the Radar's writers submitted a list of their Top 30 favorite albums of the year. Those lists were all combined and tallied up to form Under the Radar's master Top 80 albums of 2011 below.

This list will also appear in Under the Radar's forthcoming Best of 2011 Issue and 36 of the artists on this list are interviewed in that issue. Stay tuned for more info on the issue. 

1

St. Vincent

Strange Mercy

4AD

With Strange Mercy, Annie Clark forgoes studio extravagances for a dressed-down approach, striking the raw nerve that makes her live performances so explosively unpredictable. Her guitar sound is suddenly as confrontational as her voice is intimate; Clark’s no longer an artist finding her identity, but one that’s reached full bloom. By Austin Trunick

2

M83

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Mute

Anthony Gonzalez synthesizes his multi-faceted career on this neon-lit double-album. Every nostalgic and wide-eyed reverie is brimming with purpose and sentiment. The efficacy of such an audacious electro-pop release is known. The ripples of this musical Never Never Land will be felt long after 2011 is over. By Kyle Lemmon

3

Bon Iver

Bon Iver

Jagjaguwar

Justin Vernon took several chances with Bon Iver, but the biggest one was that he managed to make sounds 25 years out of style sound cool. Complementing the isolated Americana landscape of For Emma, Forever Ago with a warm and orchestral bloom is a colossal achievement. By Kyle Lemmon

4

Fleet Foxes

Helplessness Blues

Sub Pop

Whereas their 2008-released self-titled debut was warm and woodsy, Fleet Foxes’ sophomore effort topped its predecessor by both expanding the musical palate and turning inward lyrically, as on title track “Helplessness Blues” and opener “Montezuma.” Helplessness Blues’ 12 tracks shift and grow, as songs switch form midway through, yet it all feels of-a-piece, a fully-formed, cohesive effort that the band (and its imitators) may never top. By Aaron Passman

5

The Horrors

Skying

XL

After the Sonics-worship of their debut and post-punk experiments of its follow-up, England’s The Horrors look back to the melodic rush of such ’80s bands as Simple Minds for Skying. Whether they settle into this sound remains to be seen, but for now they seem to have found a stylistic coat that fits just right. By Hays Davis

6

EMA

Past Life Martyred Saints

Souterrain Transmissions

With her wounded rhymes, scabrous guitar, and aching vulnerability, Erika M. Anderson positioned herself as the 50-Ft Queenie that inspires devotion not through intimidation but with an emotional candidness that feels surprisingly universal. Most importantly, Anderson’s recollections and admissions are never tinged with bitterness. Throughout Past Life Martyred Saints, she sounds utterly liberated. By Ben Schumer

7

PJ Harvey

Let England Shake

Vagrant

On the rousing “The Words That Maketh Murder,” PJ Harvey acerbically rails, “I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations.” It’s a sinister clarion call, simultaneously an indictment of wartime apathy and a resigned admittance of impotence. It’s also the key moment on Let England Shake, a brilliant album that shakes listeners out of slovenly ennui and galvanizes enragement. By John Everhart

8

Yuck

Yuck

Fat Possum

The members of Yuck may individually hail from England, Japan, and New Jersey, but the London-based band sounds like they’ve been holing up in an American garage for years. And while there may be healthy strands of Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement in their DNA, these players thrive by adding plenty of sun to their squall. By Hays Davis

9

Washed Out

Within and Without

Sub Pop

More like blissed out. Within and Without captures the feeling of complete and pure contentment, and Ernest Greene holds onto this perfect state for more than 40 minutes. Airy synthesizers wash over bloated beats, while his echoed vocals stretch over layers of gooey reverb. It’s a flawless dream come to life. By Danielle Sills

10

Anna Calvi

Anna Calvi

Domino

British virtuoso Anna Calvi represents a dual threat. Possessing a moody, dramatic guitar style that paints in broad, sweeping strokes and a voice that can drop from high-flying howl to sensual snarl in an instant, this singer/songwriter’s debut stands as one of indie rock’s most cinematic albums in years. By Austin Trunick

11

The War on Drugs

Slave Ambient

Secretly Canadian

Always sunny in Philadelphia? Not in The War on Drugs’ manic-depressive corner of town. “I was there/Waiting for the sun,” Adam Granduciel laments during the Dylan-esque twang of “Brothers.” He finds it eventually, but not until after lightning jolts of Byrdsian jangle and storm clouds of Krautrock percussion have tantalizingly passed through. By John Everhart

12

I Break Horses

Hearts

I Kill Love/Cooperative Music

This Swedish duo managed to avoid any of the musical archetypes we usually associate with Sweden. Instead, they fashioned their own strain of nu-gaze by pairing Cocteau Twins’ swooning romanticism with Fuck Buttons’ fizzling throb. Hearts is consumed with both biology and romance and its nine gorgeous tracks buzz with the hum of life. By Ben Schumer

13

Florence and the Machine

Ceremonials

Universal Republic

With a production that’s nearly as big as Florence Welch’s voice, Ceremonials is a sophomore effort with a gloriously massive sense of scale. The sweeping orchestrations, reverberating percussion, and layered vocals rarely stop to take a breath, building to an exhilarating crescendo that only ends when the record stops spinning. By Austin Trunick

14

SBTRKT

SBTRKT

Young Turks

The London-based artist’s debut record—displaying an offbeat aural ecology that mixes dark, digital bleeps and pulses with warm, soul-tinted dance music—is every bit as enigmatic as the mask he wears onstage. It’s strangely fitting that electronic music’s most anonymous producer could wind up becoming one of its biggest stars. By Austin Trunick

15

Death Cab for Cutie

Codes and Keys

Atlantic

Indie rock’s boys next door, Death Cab for Cutie, returned with their seventh full-length. Now a major-label success story, the Pacific Northwest quartet applied a slippery sense of optimism to musings on love, life, and death, creating a multi-faceted album that speaks to both the good times and the bad. By Laura Studarus

16

Elbow

build a rocket, boys!

Cooperative Music/Downtown/Fiction

On its fifth album, Elbow explores how age shapes our hopes and dreams, successes and failures. Build a rocket, boys! soars when frontman Guy Garvey gives voice to those universal human emotions on “Neat Little Rows,” “Lippy Kids,” and, especially, “The Birds,” an epic that swirls around a pulsar-like keyboard figure before going supernova for the outro. By Stephen Humphries

17

Youth Lagoon

The Year of Hibernation

Fat Possum

The Year of Hibernation is a fitting title for Youth Lagoon’s debut LP, as it sounds as if it was recorded while ensconced in a warm cocoon, insulated from life’s harsh brutality. These glorious bedroom reveries are equally agoraphobic and wide-eyed, like a Roy Orbison lament of what love feels like, albeit one lost in a headlong rush into daydreams. By John Everhart

18

Cat’s Eyes

Cat’s Eyes

Kooyp/Cooperative Music

Heartbroken hopeless romantics, or forward thinking, girl-group obsessed goths? Faris Badwan (The Horrors) and opera singer/multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira are both. Aggressive enough to match Badwan’s main project, but ethereal enough to make their live debut at the Vatican (true story!), Cat’s Eyes have proven they can swing with just about any crowd. By Laura Studarus

19

Toro Y Moi

Underneath the Pine

Carpark

Toro Y Moi’s exotic Underneath the Pine is a top notch example of what a sophisticated and broadminded reordering of pop’s past can sound like, which in this case sounds like Innervisions for former chillwavers. Retromania, sure, but nostalgia is rarely approached with this much charm, charisma, and above all else, class. By Kenny S. McGuane

20

Beirut

The Rip Tide

Pompeii

For years, Beirut’s fans have been able to live their vagabond impulses vicariously through singer/guiding light Zach Condon as he assimilated various worldwide influences and made them personal. With The Rip Tide, Condon and company succeeded with the inverse: finding their real voice in a group of songs where world-music influences serve as fringe rather than the frame. By Hays Davis

21

John Maus

We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

Ribbon

They call him the believer. Or at least that’s what he calls himself. The outsider-pop/Ph.D candidate John Maus entered 2011 as a semi-anonymous songwriter with a crush on deviance and a history with Ariel Pink—at the end We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves finds itself remarkably remarked upon, arguably exceeding the consolidated attention of his previous two decades of work. The record’s name comes from an Alain Badiou rumination on modern art, and if you’re really savvy you might try and listen like it’s a philosophical response. But the true beauty of Censors is the mere aesthetic bliss. In interviews Maus has postured himself as an enthusiastic, bright-eyed pundit, but he’s never wanted people to write about his music as anything more than pop. Good pop, strange pop, archaic, genre-referencing pop, but still, pop. The album captures the way we’ll all want to remember Maus. By Luke Winkie

22

tUnE-yArDs

w h o k i l l

4AD

The sophomore album from tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l is a joyous celebration of the human voice’s creative possibilities. Merrill Garbus’ lead and looped vocals are everywhere at once, and the art-funk settings give her plenty of space to fly around without breaking anything. Driving is not recommended while under the influence of the gleefully unhinged “Gangsta.” By Hays Davis

23

Wild Flag

Wild Flag

Merge

Carrie Brownstein (co-lead vocals, guitar) and Janet Weiss (drums) inject songs such as “Future Crimes” and “Racehorse” with the energy and punk spirit that fueled their former band, Sleater-Kinney, while ex-Helium frontwoman Mary Timony (co-lead vocals, guitar) adds a prog-y, psychedelic dimension on “Glass Tambourine.” Allying with those tendencies are the band members' collective vocals on the sing-along choruses of “Romance” and “Electric Band,” tracks that celebrate the communal vitality of music. The wild card in Wild Flag is former Minders drummer Rebecca Cole, here playing keyboards that often function as a bass would and lending a subtle thread of cohesion to the disparate approaches of Brownstein and Timony. Arriving six years after the last Sleater-Kinney record and four years after Timony’s last solo LP, Wild Flag comes across as not so much a reboot but rather the sound of four musicians who haven’t lost a step. By Chris Tinkham

24

Destroyer

Kaputt

Merge

Lurking in the shadows of 10+ years of ’80s revivalism and mimicry is a slow and steady indie uprising of ’70s soft rock impersonation. Destroyer’s Kaputt is not only one of 2011’s most exceptionally bizarre and beautiful albums, but it’s probably the first legit indie nod to Al Stewart. We’re not talking about Yacht Rock here; both Stewart and Destroyer (Dan Bejar) are way too fucking weird and brainy to be branded as such. Still, Kaputt’s slick production, silky smooth saxophones (à la Gaucho-era Steely Dan), and rich sonic textures make for an incredibly warm listening experience, especially when combined with what sounds like a love letter, and maybe even a final farewell, to years and years of partying and hipsterdom. By Kenny S. McGuane

25

Slow Club

Paradise

Moshi Moshi

Salty or sweet? How ‘bout both? British duo Slow Club seemingly does it all—combining Motown riffs with folk refrains and pop aspirations on their superb sophomore album, Paradise. A sweetheart in spiked heels; vocalist/percussionist Rebecca Taylor delivers sarcastic kiss-offs (i.e. “You’ve got the brains/I’ve got the body”) in a big-voiced, self-assured swagger. She’s matched, note for note, by guitarist/vocalist Charles Watson, whose vocal counterpoints and scrappy strumming assure his musical dance partner never goes unattended. By Laura Studarus

26

Kurt Vile

Smoke Ring for My Halo

Matador

Philly songwriter and erstwhile The War on Drugs member Kurt Vile finally strikes mellow gold on his fourth full-length album, the superb Smoke Ring for My Halo. Elegiac guitar figures waft like ghosts in the ether on this collection of 11 hushed reveries, eschewing the Sturm und Drang of such past Vile triumphs as “Freak Train” and “Freeway.” In their stead we get the lovely, resplendent, Go-Betweens-esque sparkle of “Jesus Fever,” and Vile’s boldly tender ode to fatherhood “Baby’s Arms,” which soothes and coos with all the vulnerability of a children’s lullaby. By John Everhart

27

Wild Beasts

Smother

Domino

Smother is 2011’s follow-up to Wild Beasts’ nearly flawless sophomore album, Two Dancers, and it gets better with every listen. Better and more mysterious. It’s a divisive album, too, which no doubt garnered some new fans and alienated some old. This album is the sound of one of England’s best and brightest bands finding—and settling into—their often puzzling and peculiar footing. Smother is both dazzling and devastating in its portrayal of sex and masculinity, two topics of which Wild Beasts have been blowing off the conventional lid since their debut. By Kenny S. McGuane

28

Cut Copy

Zonoscope

Modular

Cut Copy’s third record Zonoscope had a three-year gestation period. (It was an improvement: 2008’s In Ghost Colours needed four years of grooming.) On the surface it seems strange: such immediate, effortless pop music should come easily, right? But Zonoscope’s success is in the labor—the titanic crash of “Need You Now,” the mysterious, subtle propulsion behind “Pharaohs & Pyramids,” the dynamic cycles in the 15-minute “Sun God.” Yeah, it’s just immediate pop music, but the members of Cut Copy are proven perfectionists. We’re already salivating for more. By Luke Winkie

29

Real Estate

Days

Domino

“I don’t know who’s behind/The wheel,” sighs Martin Courtney. Generally a statement like that would be a cause for concern, but on Days the uncertainty is reassuring. New Jersey’s Real Estate had already established itself as a premier name in the expanding universe of lazy psych pop, and in 2011 got tighter, cleaner, and more distinguished. “It’s Real,” quoted above, remains the year’s most immediate guitar pop jangle—and then there are the hypnotic overlaps of “Green Aisles” and the endlessly cyclical epic “All the Same.” Real Estate can’t escape the breeziness of summer, but when the inspiration leads to results such as these the rest of the beach poppers look out of style. By Luke Winkie

30

TV on the Radio

Nine Types of Light

Interscope

After the funky exercises of TV on the Radio’s third album, 2008’s Dear Science, Nine Types of Light is comparatively meditative at times, and the tragic passing of bassist Gerard Smith adds elegiac weight to much of the album. The striking beauty of “Keep Your Heart” and “Killer Crane” finds gorgeous new facets in an ever-evolving framework. By Hays Davis

31

Hooray for Earth

True Loves

Dovecote

32

Atlas Sound

Parallax

4AD

33

Gang Gang Dance

Eye Contact

4AD

34

James Blake

James Blake

Atlas/A&M

35

Telekinesis

12 Desperate Straight Lines

Merge

36

Metronomy

The English Riviera

Because/Big Beat/Atlantic

37

Summer Camp

Welcome to Condale

Apricot/Moshi Moshi

38

Friendly Fires

Pala

XL

39

Fucked Up

David Comes to Life

Matador

40

Dum Dum Girls

Only in Dreams

Sub Pop

41

Wilco

The Whole Love

dBpm

42

Smith Westerns

Dye It Blonde

Fat Possum

43

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Belong

Slumberland/Collective Sounds

44

S.C.U.M

Again Into Eyes

Mute

45

Radiohead

The King of Limbs

TBD

46

The Stepkids

The Stepkids

Stones Throw

47

WU LYF

Go Tell the Fire to the Mountain

LYF

48

British Sea Power

Valhalla Dancehall

Rough Trade

49

R.E.M.

Collapse Into Now

Warner Bros.

50

Neon Indian

Era Extraña

Static Tongues

51

Girls

Father, Son, Holy Ghost

True Panther Sounds

52

Iron & Wine

Kiss Each Other Clean

Warner Bros.

53

Tom Waits

Bad as Me

ANTI-

54

Iceage

New Brigade

What’s Your Rupture?

55

Okkervil River

I Am Very Far

Jagjaguwar

56

Gruff Rhys

Hotel Shampoo

Wichita

57

Laura Marling

A Creature I Don’t Know

Ribbon

58

Memory Tapes

Player Piano

Carpark

59

The Weeknd

House of Balloons

Self-Released

60

Panda Bear

Tomboy

Paw Tracks

61

The Rosebuds

Loud Planes Fly Low

Merge

62

The Decemberists

The King Is Dead

Capitol

63

Battles

Gloss Drop

Warp

64

The Dodos

No Color

Frenchkiss

65

Big Black Delta

BBDLP1

Coming Home

66

Low

C’mon

Sub Pop

67

Julianna Barwick

The Magic Place

Asthmatic Kitty

68

Eleanor Friedberger

Last Summer

Merge

69

Lanterns on the Lake

Gracious Tide, Take Me Home

Sleepyhead/Cooperative Music

70

Lykke Li

Wounded Rhymes

LL

71

Still Corners

Creatures of an Hour

Sub Pop

72

The Antlers

Burst Apart

Frenchkiss

73

Future Islands

On the Water

Thrill Jockey

74

The Dears

Degeneration Street

Dangerbird

75

Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Wolfroy Goes to Town

Drag City

76

Bill Callahan

Apocalypse

Drag City

77

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Mirror Traffic

Matador

78

Acid House Kings

Music Sounds Better with You

Labrador

79

Cloud Control

Bliss Release

Turnout

80

Apparat

The Devil’s Walk

Mute

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Biophilia
December 16th 2011
10:33pm

what about me??

Lauren
December 17th 2011
3:22am

Very glad to see ‘Skying’ made the top 5! Great album

aCes
December 17th 2011
4:06am

HELLO!!!

Where’s Pete & The Pirates AND King Creosote/Jon Hopkins…..?!!

You’re not finished with your homework!!!

David
December 17th 2011
6:53am

Annie Clark and Anna Calvi both rock, glad to see them in the top 10 but how did White Denim’s D not even make your top 80!?!

hydrawithears
December 18th 2011
2:42pm

Interesting list. Another victory for St. Vincent! Happy to see Anna Calvi, John Maus, Low, PJ, Julianna Barwick, Wild Beasts, Panda Bear, James Blake, Gang Gang Dance, Atlas Sound, Lykke Li, EMA, Cat’s Eyes, Toro Y Moi and The Weeknd. It’s truly been a great year 4 music! Take care

Andrew
December 18th 2011
6:31pm

I think this is the most excellent idea I have seen put into action in a long long time! My band mates ad I are always wondering were the amazing musicians that we know are out there are! From Opposite The Satellite in RVA, Thank You :)

David
December 18th 2011
10:18pm

Really?  Repeater’s We Walk From Safety didn’t even get mentioned!?  I CALL BULLSHIT

Tyler
December 19th 2011
1:17pm

Great list. I also really loved The Hill and Wood this year - hope to see them on here next year.

Leon Monterey
December 19th 2011
7:49pm

Great list, slept on these guys though http://www.blackgirlsband.com

hayd
December 19th 2011
8:23pm

Anti-Hip Hop much?

KM
December 21st 2011
6:14pm

@Hayd: Do you read UTR? It’s not a “hip hop” magazine, but that doesn’t make it, as you say, “anti-hip hop”.

Walter Mace
December 22nd 2011
4:08am

Planningtorock’s “W” deserves mention!

hydrawithears
December 22nd 2011
6:57pm

Check out mys list:
http://hydrawithears.wordpress.com/tag/2011-summary/

Espi
December 24th 2011
8:01pm

You forgot to add Built Like Alaska’s ‘In Troubled Times…’ :)

Sälja guld
December 27th 2011
9:33am

The Devils Walk should be #1 not last!

@kopisenjahari
December 30th 2011
1:31am

totally agree with the top 5.. Even I thought that Helplessness Blues would make it to #1 since one of the top media mentioned it in the highlight as The Most Beautiful album of 2011.
somehow I figured-out by looking at the list that best albums came with great cover artworks! :D

statinternet
January 1st 2012
11:40am

Thanks for the sharing, they are so special, I like them all.

Guldpris Gram
January 11th 2012
6:29pm

Allt som glimmar är inte guld!

The Open Source Transmission
February 7th 2012
12:12pm

Some interesting choices there. Here’s our selection of the best music of 2011 (it’s a mix, so you can listen to it, as well as reading a list): http://www.mixcloud.com/theost/best-of-2011/

Tugra
February 10th 2012
8:57pm

My favourite is Panda Bear (Tomboy)

tree n
July 18th 2012
4:14pm

Just looked some of these up and they sound really good.

Fotovoltaické Panely
July 25th 2012
8:01pm

The very interesting list of albums

Frank Steiner
August 12th 2012
3:51pm

Jagjaguwar definitely deserves a better ranking.

stephhance001
September 16th 2012
9:19am

Various older rock bands made a comeback. Bands originating from the early to mid-1960s such as The Beach Boys and The Kinks had hits with Kokomo, Come Dancing and Do It Again. Bands with popularity in the mid-1970s such as the Steve Miller Band and Steely Dan also had hits with Abracadabra and Hey Nineteen. -Missed Fortune

streaming football
September 17th 2012
8:29pm

Great list indeed!! I appreciate the organizer of this great list pretty much. Such a tremendous job he/she done with this post. Thanks

Yaron Peled
October 12th 2012
3:29pm

Very good list I’m happy to see the first place
St. Vincent
Strange Mercy

stalin
October 20th 2012
9:04am

This are very ow some album

find i
December 13th 2012
6:16pm

I like a few of these.

The Violinist
February 14th 2013
1:37pm

My favorite is definitely Yuck although there are some other great selections here.

Robert Bruce Anderson
April 9th 2013
1:22am

I was hoping to find the KONGOS here, and suggest that if you have not discovered them yet you do a little research into their sound. I saw a video of theirs recently and fell in love! I am an addict now. they have a sort or southern USA hillbilly sounding rock thing going. really good.

john
October 22nd 2013
9:48pm

Nice Article

Accident Attorney
January 8th 2014
1:22pm

Just about every single one of these albums has shown up on my spotify account. And each one are in my liked playlist. I particularly loved apparat. I sounds like it would be good in a movie of some sort. It also suprised me that M83 came out in 2011. I did not notice I have been listening to them for that long.

Darwin Tank
March 13th 2014
12:19pm

I really enjoyed this list. I am looking forward to seeing what is new for 2014.

Deep House
March 19th 2014
2:04am

surprised that Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes is in top! My favorite thing!

sam green
November 18th 2014
1:55pm

i love 80s music, more then any other music. they just have a certaine charm to them.