Following up their splendid 2008 debut Fleet Foxes, the band grew both musically and lyrically. A bit deeper and more introspective, but retaining their signature folk rock sound that blends some of the best vocal harmonies last heard emanating from 1960s AM radios with warm, acoustic-based instrumentation. Their sophomore release, Helplessness Blues goes down as my favorite record of 2011.
And now the rest, in alphabetical order. As in years past, I am not limiting my choices to an arbitrary number (top 10, top 20, etc.), but rather the records that I enjoyed best and see myself returning to in the future. YouTube links are included for songs that particularly stood out.
Atlas Sound - Parallax
The side project of Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, whose Halcyon Digest was my favorite record of 2010.
The Black Keys - El Camino
The supremely-talented Danger Mouse returns to provide the punch to the garagey guitar-and-drums duo.
Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Justin Vernon follows up his stunning recorded-in-a-cabin debut (my 2008 favorite) with a more fleshed-out (and somewhat overproduced) record.
The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
I shouldn't rehash the tired "this is the best R.E.M. record of 2011" quote, but it's true - musically at least. However, Colin Meloy's intricate and über-literate lyrics are generally far better than anything that Michael Stipe came up with.
Drive-By Truckers - Go-Go Boots
Another solid release to add to their southern rock canon. And with triple the songwriters of most bands. All good.
(here's an acoustic version - I'm a sucker for the Mike Cooley songs)
The Feelies - Here Before
Amazing that a band could get back together after a twenty year hiatus and put out a record that's as good as their best work (which was first recorded over thirty years ago)
Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
One of the best-recorded rock records of recent memory.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Here We Rest
While I still prefer his debut, this one has grown on me after repeated listens (just as the debut did).
Perennial favorites Low can seemingly do no wrong in my book. Another strong slab of brooding Midwestern indie rock.
Witches (in-studio at KEXP)
Nightingale (in-studio at KEXP)
J Mascis - Several Shades of Why
The Dinosaur Jr. front man turns down the amps and delivers a warm, inviting and mostly-acoustic set.
Cass McCombs - Wit's End
Quiet and introspective indie singer/songwriter.
Radiohead - The King Of Limbs
Supremely intricate and sometimes delicate headphone music from the band that can do no wrong.
tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L
Essentially a lo-fi one-woman band who layers interesting instruments and textures atop African-inspired rhythms.
Standout track (one of many): Bizness
Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo
Yet another lo-fi indie singer/songwriter - this stunner feels of dreamy late nights.
The War On Drugs - Slave Ambient
Pitchfork summed it up best: "...it's as if the Spiritualized and Springsteen albums filed alphabetically next to one another in your record collection had melted together on a hot August afternoon." Slave Ambient is also supreme driving music.
Wilco - The Whole Love
Finally, their first solid release since 2004's A Ghost Is Born. And I was thisclose to giving up on the band, which at one time was one of my favorites. If you only listen to two of the tracks from this record, make sure it's the lead-off The Art Of Almost and the closer One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)
Wild Flag - Wild Flag
A superb and exuberant debut from indie rock royalty.
William Elliot Whitmore - Field Songs
Rustic and rough-hewn bleak Americana country folk.
Picking up the torch from some of the supreme-90s indie bands (Dinosaur Jr, Superchunk, shoegazers).
Best Return - the unexpected single of Common Burn b/w Lay Myself Down from Mazzy Star
(yet another crummy fan-made video that accompanies a great song):
Looking forward to a full album in the near future.
The Jayhawks - Hollywood Town Hall & Tomorrow The Green Grass
Ride - Nowhere
R.E.M. - Life's Rich Pageant
Sebadoh - Bakesale
Disappointing Records with some outstanding tracks:
My Morning Jacket - "Circuital" from Circuital
Ryan Adams - "Ashes & Fire" from Ashes & Fire
Especially this acoustic version:
And finally, a couple of late additions. Either late-in-the-year releases or those that were just purchased and that I haven't had much of a chance to fully absorb yet.
The Bats - Free All The Monsters
Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
Guided By Voices - Lets Go Eat The Factory
Cass McCombs - Humor Risk
The Middle East - I Want That You Are Always Happy
Whew - now go *buy* music!