Album of the Year: Handicapping the Race for the Best Record of 2011
It's almost November -- the month when music scribes pull their ears out of whatever Sonic Youth/Public Enemy/Kate Bush playlist they normally exist to and begin cramming for that all-important professional exercise: The annual Best Of list. Picking the 10 or so best new albums of the year and placing them in some order is fun, difficult, and absurd -- and just the kind of bloodless masochism that music writers and music fans love. In anticipation of this project, we thought it'd be fun to assemble a list of albums that seem likely to show up on a lot of critics' lists this year. Sure, it's a bit early -- least year's nearly unanimously declared best album, Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, wasn't released until Nov. 22. But hell, it'll be fun and get us all thinking, so let's do it. Note: This is by no means a definitive list of the best albums this year. It's just a list of candidates that occurred to us in an approximately 10-minute brainstorm while eating a ham sandwich. Do us all a favor, smartypants and pedants, and leave your ideas about the best albums of 2011 in the comments section.
Album: 21, by Adele
In brief: Young British diva occupys the eardrums of approximately every human in the English-speaking world with a huge, indelible, heart-wrenching break-up document.
Argument for: Whatever critics say -- and many of them love Adele -- 21 is empirically the year's biggest album in at least a couple ways: It's the best-selling album of 2011 in the U.S. and the U.K., and the best-selling digital album ever. So there.
Argument against: Adele is a great singer and a penetrating songwriter, but maybe there are albums more of their age, more timely, than a piano-driven soul record about love.
Album: 4, by Beyonce
In brief: Exalted goddess of Pop&B ditches the easy route, makes a personal album heavy on ballads and light on bangers, and showcases her deepest feelings and impeccable pipes in the process.
Argument for: Beyonce being Beyonce is lovable, affecting, and relatable. But this album also reminds us that she is a goddess.
Argument against: Not everyone needs or likes goddesses.
Album: Kaputt, by Destroyer
In brief: Weirdo savant and occasional New Pornographer Dan Bejar produces a ridiculously literate, immensely seductive smooth-rock album.
Argument for: It's simultaneously smarter, more sax-y, and more soothing than anything else that came out this year.
Argument against: It's still a smooth-rock album.
Album: w h o k i l l, by tUnE-yArDs
In brief: Oakland bohemian Merril Garbus builds strangely funky Afroloops out of clicks, claps, and a snare drum, then sings about love and the world's problems in about nine different voices over them.
Argument for: It's arty, catchy, trenchant, unique, soulful, and deeply strange all at the same time.
Argument against: That also makes it kind of bewildering.
Album: Let England Shake, by PJ Harvey
In brief: Gloomy chanteuse PJ Harvey goes deep into the history and character of her homeland, lives to tell about it in 12 dense, unsettling songs.
Argument for: Musically and thematically, PJ Harvey is overachieving here -- it's hard not to be really impressed by it.
Argument against: The result may be better suited for study than enjoyment.
Album: Bon Iver, by Bon Iver
In brief: Sad bearded guy finds electricity and a full band, makes a slow, quiet, occasionally moving follow-up to his beloved debut.
Argument for: 2k11's best soundtrack to a good cry.
Argument against: Its charms and comforts don't work on everyone, and without them, this record is dull.
Album: Father, Son, Holy Ghost, by Girls
In brief: San Francisco freaks continue exploring the wounded soul of singer-songwriter Christopher Owens over an exquisitely rendered highlight reel of 20th Century rock.
Argument for: Insanely good production, songwriting bursting with surprise, and you always know he means it.
Argument against: Melodramatic persona at the front, backward-looking music at the back.
Album: James Blake, by James Blake
In brief: Paste-colored limey shut-in grafts moany R&B onto thunderous dubstep, leaves a lot of empty space in between.
Argument for: It's new and of the moment, and the bass sounds impressive through a good sound system.
Agument against: It's all about the subtlety and contrast, which is a fancy way of saying that it's kinda boring.
Album: Watch the Throne, by Jay-Z and Kanye West
In brief: Name-brand rappers make a big, shiny record about being name-brand rappers.
Argument for: It's Jay and Yeezy together, and they sampled Otis Redding.
Argument against: We're supposed to done caring about the 1 percent, aren't we? And the rapping isn't that good anyway.