Cajun Tomato's Favorite Albums Of 2011 (Mid-Year Edition)

Portland topped the 80-degree mark today for the second time this year. That’s not a misprint. While other areas of the country experience consistent 100-degree temps and drought, we in the Pacific Northwest continue to experience conditions reminiscent of late February or early March.

In honor of Portland’s second 80-degree day, which hopefully signals the arrival of summer, I compiled a list of my favorite albums midway through 2011. My Top 10 features a mix of highly anticipated releases and under the radar triumphs.

This is a favorites list. These are the albums I enjoyed the most. This is not meant to be a best of list. I encourage you to share your favorite albums in the comments section. I also encourage you to check out my favorite albums from 2011′s first quarter and my favorite songs of the first half of 2011.

Without further delay, here are my favorite albums of 2011 (so far):

10. James Blake by James Blake. I am not a fan of the dubstep genre, but this young Brit’s soulful take on the bass-heavy genre won me over earlier this year. He won me over after I initially ignored his music due to the insane amount of hype it received, I should add. Dubstep purists decry Blake for allegedly making the notoriously underground bass’n’drums artform safe for Starbucks. I say, “So what?” He makes compelling music. Who cares if corporate coffee chains play it in their stores?

9. Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will by Mogwai. Glasgow post-rock icons Mogwai have always been about Earth-shaking decibel fury. Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will carries that torch, but also features enough electronic flourishes to keep the formula from becoming stale. Sure, there is nothing that rivals the force of “Mogwai Fear Satan” or the majesty of “New Paths to Helicon Pt. 1″ but the album’s overall quality is consistent with previous Mogwai works, which is to say it is very high.

8. Safari Disco Club by Yelle. Yelle frontwoman Julie Budet is proof charisma knows no language boundaries. Safari Disco Club is sung entirely in French. I do not speak French fluently. Yet, I’ve found this album to be one of the most pleasureable and fun albums I’ve listened to this year. Budet is a big reason why. She oozes awesomeness whether she’s on stage or in the studio. You put a disco beat behind her and you have a winner. Safari Disco Club almost makes me want to study the French language this summer … almost.

7. The King of Limbs by Radiohead. We can all agree Radiohead’s latest is no Kid A, right? Ok, I just wanted to build a brief consensus. The King of Limbs has been nothing if not divisive since its release in February. I lean strongly toward the camp that found the Brit rock gods’ latest to be excellent, if not a bit short at eight songs. Sure, they didn’t reinvent the wheel here. Is that really necessary each time out? I’d answer no.

6. Nine Types of Light by TV On The Radio. Brooklyn’s TV On The Radio never get old for me. They are the most interesting band making music, in my opinion. At first glance, Nine Types of Light might suggest the band is slowing down as it enters its second decade. Repeat listens blow this assertion away. The love songs that populate Nine Types of Light’s center are some of the band’s finest work. Co-lead vocalist Tunde Adibempe’s beautifully evocative lyrics on “Killer Crane” and “Will Do” stand among the highlights of his extraordinary work on albums like Return to Cookie Mountain and Dear Science.

5. In Light by GIVERS. If you’ve visited this site before, you might have noticed I have a “band crush” on GIVERS. I love the positive energy they radiate. I love they are from my home state of Louisiana. I love the interlocking vocals of Taylor Guarisco and Tif Lamson. Debut album, In Light, captures the euphoria that is GIVERS in a brilliant manner. It’s perfect summer music — warm, friendly, and full of possibilities.

4. Dye It Blonde by Smith Westerns. Chicago garage rock trio Smith Westerns took a major leap forward with Dye It Blonde. So much so that if I were naming a band Most Improved I would hand it to them. Their sound still emanates from the garage but it now has a polish and a timelessness to it that is immediately noticeable. The song “All Die Young,” which I perhaps wrongly omitted from my Favorite Songs list, is a staggering example of Smith Westerns’ maturity and ability to produce transcendent moments.

3. Nostalgia, Ultra by Frank Ocean. I am so over the Odd Future rap collective. I don’t need shock value. I need substance. It’s no coincidence Frank Ocean is the only Odd Future member I routinely listen to these days. His soulful sensibilities are polar opposites with the violent rap histrionics of other Odd Future members. Nostalgia, Ultra actually has something to say. Ocean is a capable narrator, weaving lustful tales (see: “Nature Feels”) with others referencing marriage equality (see: “We All Try”) and the perils of growing up fatherless (see: “There Will Be Tears”). He even took a Coldplay tune (“Strawberry Swing”) and made it sound cool. That takes serious talent!

2. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes. Robin Pecknold’s quarter-life crisis makes for an intriguing and heartening listen. Hell, if someone this gifted can struggle with their life’s direction, then I guess there is hope for me. As Pecknold shows, finding answers and direction requires asking yourself tough questions. Helplessness Blues is a great success because it looks inward and finds beauty in uncertainty without losing any of the charm of its predecessor, Fleet Foxes’ classic self-titled debut. Pecknold is braver and bolder with his lyrics and his voice is as golden as ever. And there are plenty of “wow” moments, such as when Pecknold sings about waking up to “terrible sunlight” on “The Shrine/An Argument.” “Grown Ocean” is about as near to a perfect album closer as you will hear.

1. Bon Iver by Bon Iver. I’ve been listening to Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore album for weeks now. Maybe listening is too faint a word. I’ve been obsessing over the album for weeks now. It has the feel of a musical work from another planet. From the abstract portraits Justin Vernon paints with his words to the engrossing collage of sound he creates with his upper register voice, electronic guitars, keyboards, and horns, this latest installment of Bon Iver all feels so foreign yet so familiar. It’s hard to believe Vernon is the same dude who retreated to the woods to record For Emma, Forever Ago. The two records are worlds apart. Both great, heartfelt documents. But this latest one dwarfs its predecessor both in ideas and scope like a planet dwarfs its moons. Just amazing!

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