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Ben E. Kessler

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My 10 Favorite Albums of the Year

Posted: 12/22/11 10:36 AM ET

While emotions may change and opinions shift, the relationship I have with the musicians in 2011 is drawing to a close. Of those who make up my list of ten, nine of them performed in D.C. this year.

10. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo (Rock and Roll Hotel, 8/10)

Having played the backstage at the Black Cat the previous fall, Kurt Vile "upgraded" to the Rock and Roll Hotel in August. Smoke Ring For My Halo allowed him to trade one packed and sweaty room for another. Vile comes across as a mellow malcontent on this record, with just a enough dissatisfaction to keep people interested, but with the self-confidence to stay away from self-pity. See him with Thurston Moore at the Black Cat on February 6.

9. Pistol Annies - Hell on Heels

This is the one artist on this list that didn't come around these parts in 2011. Miranda Lambert (one-third of the Annies) did play Merriweather Post Pavillion in July, but at the time I didn't have the courage to attend on my own. Hell on Heels may seem like the outlier on this list, but don't let the "pop country" make you skip over this one. There's just as much cohesive honesty and earnestness on this album as much as any other that of 2011. Luckily, I've worked up the nerve to buy a ticket for Miranda's show at the 1st Mariner Arena on January 26.

8. Adele - 21 (9:30 Club, 5/12)

21 is the record of the year. If I was the time-capsule-making type, this would be the musical component. The strength of the parts is likely greater than the whole, but the deserved grandiosity of the individual performances inside the 9:30 club that night was something rare. There are only so many artists whose voices can cause me to take a step backwards as if to catch my balance, leaving me with only an expletive or two to describe the sounds I just heard.

7. Zola Jesus - Conatus (Red Palace, 4/26; Black Cat, 10/21)

There has come to be a slight bit of predictability with Zola Jesus on record, but Nika Roza Danilova's ability to remain unique in a crowded pool of others making darker electronic pop music keeps everything she puts out worth listening to. That experience is magnified in the live setting. The mysterious and magnetic qualities that boom from the physically small Danilova has the potential to be uplifting or heartbreaking, but from my experience, always awe-inspiring. Zola Jesus will be at the U Street Music Hall on February 16.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. - It's a Corporate World (Red Palace, 5/13; Red Palace 9/22)

In May, by the time the show started, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. had sold out the Red Palace. In September, tickets sold out well in advance. Having released It's a Corporate World in June, it's no wonder that they've improved from the sparse, but respectable, crowd that welcomed them at the same venue in December of last year. The album is infectious, but as all live performances should, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. plays, there's a new level of charismatic energy in each song.

5. Bon Iver - Bon Iver (9:30 Club, 8/1 and 8/2)

There were artists who released albums in 2011 whose output suffered only because they were not as strong as their previous works. I'm unwilling to say this album has surpassed the last, but the sold-out raptured crowd at the 9:30 club rewarded them as such. Justin Vernon and crew may have to take their delicately stirring anthems to larger rooms soon. It might not be a long way from the Black Cat a few years ago, but it sure felt like it.

4. Coma Cinema - Blue Suicide (Black Cat, 9/11)

Over the past couple of years I have willfully subjected myself to the wonderfully soul-crushing sounds of Coma Cinema. The songs of Blue Suicide are too matter-of-fact to wallow and too jarring in their honesty to be lumped in with any other "sad" music of the day. I was out of town for this show. I am only able to assume it was as brilliant as every song comes across on record.

3. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (9:30 Club, 11/1)

Like Bon Iver, Annie Clark was not hindered by past achievements. And similarly, I am not sure if this is her best album, but certainly one of my favorites of the year. No matter the depths of herself that she explores, Clark is more and more in control as the years go by. Nowhere is this more apparent than when St. Vincent takes the stage. Annie Clark is as much a virtuosic bandleader as she is singer-songwriter.

2. Fucked Up - David Comes To Life (Rock and Roll Hotel, 6/27; Black Cat, 9/25)

The hardcore concept album, clocking in at nearly 78 minutes, will either sound like the best idea or the worst depending on your musical leanings. On paper, the concept may be unwieldy, but Fucked Up proves that it works not by trudging through with typical punk outbursts, but by developing complicated and layered soundscapes not typically seen in the genre or on any stage.

1. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints (Red Palace 7/17; 9:30 Club 10/24)

Past Life Martyred Saints triumphs because Erika Anderson doesn't ignore the moments which she has failed to succeed. The album is equal parts high and low. No matter, it's Anderson's determination that guides this raw nerve of an album. She stands with formidable pride at the lip of every stage, just as the sounds she creates bombard her listeners with splendid fury.

 

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