We music writers at CityBeat have diverse, sometimes wildly divergent tastes. So, it's hard for us to say what album deserves to be called the best in 2011. Sure, we could've tabulated all our top picks and eventually settled on a No. 1 pick, like everybody else does. But we decided to give you five No. 1s instead, each of them a best in our eyes:
House of Balloons, The Weeknd (XO): Even if you didn't take advantage of the fact that you can download the year's best album for free, you've still likely heard The Weeknd's sublime blend of narcissistic and self-deprecating R&B somewhere. Abel Tesfaye, the singer behind this Toronto-based DIY project, blew up in 2011, with tracks appearing in shows like Entourage and artists like Beyoncé and Drake clamoring to work with him. House of Balloons has everything from pleading, drug-induced ballads (“Wicked Games”) to the best stripper anthem since Def Leppard demanded that you pour some sugar on them (“The morning”). Only 21 years old, Tesfaye has crafted a rapturous and hysterical statement about being at the end of your rope before your life—much less your career—has even really begun. Judging by his follow-ups, Thursday and Echoes of Silence (both released this year), it seems like he may have some juice left, but it's tempting to say that he may have blown his entire wad on Balloons. That's fine, because it changed the game forever.
Strange Mercy, St. Vincent (4AD): On Strange Mercy closer “Year of the Tiger,” St. Vincent mastermind Annie Clark quietly boasts, “I've always had / a knack with the danger.” Anyone who's seen Clark exorcise venomous beasts from her guitar can testify to the validity of that statement. Strange Mercy is as beautifully performed and composed as anything Clark's done, but it's her most dangerous effort yet. The 11 songs are driven by a visceral approach, as you can hear in the strained and exhausting climax of “Cruel,” the fiery and hypnotic instrumentation of “Surgeon” and the title track's juxtaposition of tenderness and bile. Clark still speaks through her characters, but her intense performances make it harder to separate herself from her narratives—so while Strange Mercy isn't her most biographical album, it's definitely her most honest.
The Book of David, DJ Quik (Mad Science): While the rest of the hip-hop world has awaited the coming of Dr. Dre's mythical Detox album, that other West Coast rap pioneer, David “DJ Quik” Blake, has been in his studio making what he calls “genius music” (and rightly so) with a slight grin. In The Book of David, his eighth album, Quik marries the classic G-Funk of earlier in his career with grown-folks R&B to create a mélange of beautiful melodies and infectious grooves perfectly suited for a sunny drive along the shoreline in a shiny, top-down rider. He brings many of his friends along for the ride, from stars like Ice Cube and UGK's Bun B to unknowns like BlaKKazz K.K. But Quik stars in his own comedy, sipping expensive champagne, hooking up with old flames, striking down detractors and exposing tabloid-fodder family drama, all with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
The Flaming Lips / Lightning Bolt, The Flaming Lips and Lightning Bolt (Lovely Sorts of Death / warner Bros.): It pains me to pay my highest annual honors to anything besides Radiohead's The King of Limbs or Panda Bear's Tomboy this year, but The Flaming Lips have again wooed and surprised me. On this four-track EP, they team up with beloved noise freaks Lightning Bolt to stray well beyond the area often covered by contemporary psychedelic music. Still, the two bands stay focused on the psychrock fan's two main areas of expertise—drugs and outer space. The screeching, churning highlight “I Wanna Get High But I Don't Want Brain Damage” is sludgy and simple, like the psych of yore. By melding The Flaming Lips' sugar-pop melodies with Lightning Bolt's barely listenable (in a good way) noise, the two have produced a complex, textured wall of sound that torments you incessantly (in a good way) by refusing to vacate your brain.
James Blake, James Blake (A&M / ATLAS): Dubstep moved in wildly divergent directions in 2011. While L.A.based dubstep poster-boy Skrillex made the bass-heavy genre more frat-house friendly, London wunderkind James Blake helped define an exploratory “post-dubstep” sound with this achingly beautiful debut full-length. Like a cyborg balladeer, Blake places his heart-melting croon at the fore, picking only the most emotionally poignant moments to drop a line of quavering subsonic bass. While toying with his voice using various effects, he lays sublime synth parts, delicate beats and even plays some piano, offering a necessary respite from American dubstep's nu-metal tendencies. But this is more than just a boundary-pushing dubstep release. It's a landmark for electronic music as a whole, undeniably digital yet deeply soulful.
See our music blog, “Check 1, Check 2,” for more year-end lists.