Everyone’s a music critic nowadays, and this fact is never more apparent then at the end of the year. Every single person who listened to ten albums this year throws together a “Top 10” list, puts it on their social networking service of choice, and pats themselves on the back for really “adding to the conversation” or something. Best case scenario, you maybe learn about a new album you missed and that’s it.
So what makes this Top 10 list any different? Well, for one, we’ve asked for the input from dozens of different Iowa City community members — from the Wandering Bears to Wet Hair, from the producers of the Mission Creek Festival to some of the directors currently running SCOPE. We also got some help from our dedicated DJs, our excellent music staffers, and our hard-working directors. All that, plus our data on which albums were being played on our airwaves the most, and we think that this Top 10 Albums list is fairly representative of the listening habits of Iowa City.
We hope you enjoy it.
Peaking Lights, a lo-fi psych-pop duo from Madison, WI, have a propensity for abstract weirdness, but you can barely tell by listening to their latest album, 936. With repetitive sun-soaked hooks, careful keyboard washes, and chanted female vocals all building towards musical epiphanies, 936 was one of the most compelling, yet accessible, psychedelic albums of the year. If you missed their free KRUI-sponsored show at The Mill this October with Wet Hair, lower your head in shame. Or give 936 a listen, whichever.
Days, the latest offering from New Jersey lo-fi pop band Real Estate, is perhaps the easiest album of the year. Every song is practically dripping with nostalgic romanticism, from the lyrics detailing running through fields and carving names into trees, to the unforgettable reverbed-classic-rock guitar riffs, and though many of the songs are about adolescence in the suburbs, the album is the polar opposite of last year’s Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs — laid-back, simplified, and completely devoid of artifice.
8 ) Fucked Up – David Comes to Life
Everything you’ve heard about this album is correct. It’s wild. It’s powerful. It’s a rock-opera. And though the narrative is 16 songs long, and it’s dense with Situationist philosophy, and Fucked Up sounds like they’re purposefully attacking their audience on some songs — it’s perhaps one of the few albums this year that truly demands, and deserves, your time and attention.
This February, Delicate Steve came into the KRUI studios and, for one reason or another, decided to play their new album Wondervisions in its entirety. Nobody complained (except, perhaps, the DJ who’s show got interrupted for it – sorry!), because there are few bands touring today with the energy, the charisma, and the sheer talent of Delicate Steve. Wondervisions showcases meandering but focused psych-pop, energetic but restrained electro-rock, and tribal spirituals for the god-less.
6) The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
Slave Ambient is, above all else, a fantastic travelling album. The mercurial guitars, the warm, hazy organs, the steady locomotive drums, and the classic Americana drawl of Adam Granduciel all come together to form an indie rock revisioning of Blonde on Blonde, all new towns and road-weariness and youthful confusion.
5) EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
Tyler, the Creator garnered a lot of attention for his dark, twisted lyrics this year. But EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints just might have Goblin beat for darkest album of 2011. Whether it was the cutting imagery on “Marked,” the kisses from butterfly knives, or the call to “please, look away” on “California” — there was something deeply scary in these songs. And deeply compelling.
4) Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Full disclosure: I personally didn’t “get” this album. But friends of mine who did like it have said that its “beautiful” and “inventive.” And even if I didn’t have a spiritual experience by listening to “Beth/Rest,” it’s good to hear that Justin Vernon made his way out of the woods.
3) The Poison Control Center – Stranger Ballet
Stranger Ballet was wild, fascinating, and, most of all, endlessly fun. In other words, it was the closest thing to having these Iowa indie gods playing just for you. I could go on and on about my love for this album, and hey, would you look at that, I already did once before.
2) St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Strange Mercy wasn’t exactly a huge departure for St. Vincent, stylistically. The ingredients of the previous Actor and Marry Me are still all there, but it’s the sheer confidence of Annie Clark that really set this album apart. It also doesn’t hurt that this is possibly the best “guitar” album of 2011.
Perhaps it was the incredible show at The Mill during the 2011 Mission Creek Festival, perhaps it’s because everyone has a crush on Jenn Wasner, perhaps it’s because Civilian is an excellent album, perhaps it’s all three — but this selection appeared on virtually every Top 10 list sent to us. Showcasing consistently poetic songwriting, excellent musicianship, and experimentation with structure and dynamics, Civilian was simply unstoppable this year, frequently topping the charts at KRUI.