**Notes: The following list is presented in alphabetical order. A longer, ordered Best Of list will be presented at the end of the year**
Bon Iver---Bon Iver
Quite possibly my most anticipated disc coming into 2011, Bon Iver is anything but a disappointment. Transitioning from the One-Man-Show of debut disc For Emma, Forever Ago, frontman Justin Vernon managed to add an entire backing band and drastically bolster the band's sense of dynamic songwriting, all without sacrificing that painfully intimate feel that made us take notice in the first place. Just listen to the expansive, epic Calgary and Perth, Two numbers that beautifully, seamlessly transition from One section to another. But don't forget about either Holocene or Towers, smaller scale projects that boast of deep personal feeling and a sense of musical unpredictability. One of the year's most emotionally affecting albums, as well as One of its most beautiful, Bon Iver is a shimmering offering from a band who's only just getting started.
Just a buzz-band coming into the year, the self-titled debut album from New York's Cults confirms them as an act to watch. There are plenty of talking points here: Madeline Follin's teen-pop wail, the 1950's era sound, Brian Oblivion's perfectly simplistic musical arrangements, and so on. What really matters about Cults, however, is that they are the makers of some of the most undeniably catchy stuff of the year. Lead single Go Outside, a sing-songy summer morsel, is just the beginning, as nearly every tune on the thing perfectly hits its ear-worm target. The Summer's most youthful, exuberant record despite sounding as though it was recorded years and years ago, Cults is a trip back in time that you'll want to take.
Death Cab For Cutie---Codes and Keys
Unlike Bon Iver, this is an album that I would have never predicted would be on this list. After years of serving as a figure-head for indie-pop, dating/marrying movie stars, and musically mending broken emo hearts everywhere, Death Cab proved that they're still capable of the unexpected. Codes and Keys is jam packed with earnest and creative song-writing, made better with the use of not-as-obvious lyrics, an ocean of extra instrumentalists, and a wise willingness to digitally effect Ben Gibbard's occasionally too-cute voice. The results sound like the ever-growing, piano-led Some Boys, the stupidly catchy single You Are a Tourist, or the electro-surge of album climax St. Peter's Cathedral. Years and years into it, Gibbard and the boys prove that they can do a whole lot more than just repeat themselves, and the replay value of Codes and Keys stands as ample proof.
The Dodos---No Color
After the lengthy, varied, and raw brilliance of their 2008 break-out record Visitor, The Dodos underwhelmed a lot of people with their glossy follow-up Time to Die. I've never been as down on it as a lot of people, but from the first moment of No Color, its clear that the band feels more in their element. The relentless percussion pound of lead-single/opening track Black Night says it all; The Dodos are back to playing loose, energy lofting off of their instruments as vocalist Meric Long's signature word-play and slippery melodies splash fun all over it. The disc has its bouncers (Sleep, Hunting Season), and its beauties (Companions, When Will You Go), but it's closer Don't Stop that strikes me as the band's best tune since Visitor, playful and urgent, exciting, and gorgeous in all the ways we've come to expect from the band. Sometimes, its better to be a little messy.
Fleet Foxes---Helplessness Blues
Like Bon Iver, Helplessness Blues is a sophomore effort that somehow managed to stand up to truly mammoth expectations, building on what has already worked while staking out new musical ground. The record may be at a loss when it comes to having One undeniable champion of a song, but at 12 tracks and just under 50 minutes of rock-solid musicianship long, it's hard to really miss it. The tracks range from world-conquering (Grown Ocean, Sim Sala Bim), to bright and fun (Battery Kinzie, Lorelai) to small and intimate (Someone You'd Admire, Blue Spotted Tail), and that goes without mentioning the album-defining title-track. The harmonies that made the band famous are still intact, frontman Robin Pecknold somehow managing to improve on his already outstanding song-writing. The perfect album for a mid-July walk, Helplessness Blues is a must-have for just about everyone that magically sounds better when played outdoors. Such is the power of the Fleet Foxes.