In the last few weeks, I've heard several people who normally are pretty bang-on about these things say that 2011 was something of a dismal year for music, but I can't see how that's even possible, unless the requirement for a good year in music is for Arcade Fire to release an album, or for Nickelback to not release one...
Either way, it was awesome, and my top 10 are so close together in general that even as I'm posting these I'm still shuffling them around as we speak.
But as we get closer I'm just running out of albums. I've got five left, so I guess I'm on to the top five with not a ton of wiggle room.
#5 - The Decemberists - The King is Dead
See... this is what I'm talking about. Until I started writing the second portion of this post, The King Is Dead was number three on my list. Now it's number five, because as stupendous as it is, it just can't go ahead of #4, and I couldn't bear to put it ahead of what is now number three... or maybe number two... but I digress. Back to The Decemberists.
This was a *really* early addition to 2011's catalogue, released just about an entire year ago now, and it's so good, so satisfying and so easy to listen to that it feels like it's been around a lot longer than that.
As a big, big fan of words, I can't help but admire Colin Meloy's wordsmithery when it comes to some of the phrases involved in this album's songs. He's able to be folksy without being dumbed down, but is at the same time able to keep the words elevated without resorting to pomposity.
Unlike me, apparently.
Anyway, since The Decemberists were really not on my radar at all before the release of this album, I haven't got a lot of history with them, or much insight into where/how The King Is Dead fits in with the rest of their discography, but I can say that they've won themselves a new fan. Hard.
#4 - Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What
Every now and then I stand in awe of people who can just blatantly fly in the face of the idea that everyone has a somehow limited amount of excellence in them. Then 2011 rolls around and Paul Simon of all people releases a brand new album.
People who have been writing worldwide hits and inspirational examples of musical brilliance for very nearly a half-century really ought to have run out of awesome by now, but apparently it's just most of them that do that. This guy, on the other hand, apparently has loads of awesome left over for the world to enjoy.
This album, in addition to being an example of Simon's enduring mastery of songwriting, is a more spiritual exploration than is usual for him. While there are hints and allusions to his previous work (the "bomb in the marketplace" reference in Love is Eternal Sacred Light tying back to Graceland's Boy in the Bubble nicely) the overall tone is much more pensive, personal and introspective.
It's not a complete departure, though, and still has musical echoes of the African percussive/rhythmic elements that made Graceland such a groundbreaking venture. That's where Dazzling Blue comes in, the track that I thought would be the best choice for a standout example song, although you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't give serious attention to the entire album, particularly The Afterlife and Waiting for Christmas Day.