It's exactly halfway through 2011 -- time to take a look at the best albums of the first six months of the year.
Or, more precisely, my favorite records. I've always been dubious about top however-many-album lists because no human could possibly listen to everything released, even back when "only" a couple of thousand albums got national distribution. With the Internet and oh-so-easy (if usually so bad) home recording, that number now is in the tens of thousands, making the listen-to-everything challenge impossible.
A couple of quick points before the list. I'm a rock 'n' roller, so you're going to see records here, like the New York Dolls' "Dancing Backward in High Heels" that you won't see at, say, Pitchfork. I've never had much use for singer/songwriter/folkie types, so no Bon Iver or Iron & Wine on this list.
1. Black Lips, "Arabia Mountain." The Atlanta flower-punks prove they've got songs to go along with their brilliant live chaos on this album made with super-producer Mark Ronson, who cleans things up, gives them a little gloss, but still lets the boys rock funny and true to form. This one's the garage rock record of the year, period.
2. tUnE-YarDs, "whokill." Merrill Garbus, who basically is tUnE-YarDs, tabbed the album as "experimental" when I talked to her -- and it lives up to that designation with its fits and starts and crashes and howls. But pop melodies and strains of reggae, dub and especially African music pervade much of the captivating record.
3. Gillian Welch, "The Harrow & The Hammer." On her hands-down best record, Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, have put together a set of folk-rooted Americana that sounds older than the hills, but, if you listen to the lyrics, is fully contemporary. This entracing, haunting album gets richer and richer on repeat listens.
4. Middle Brother, "Middle Brother." Middle Brother is John McCauley of Deer Tick, Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes who got together to create an indie alt-country, rock ‘n' roll supergroup that lives up to its name. Here's hoping this trio isn't a one-off project.
5. New York Dolls, "Dancing Backward in High Heels." The New York Dolls pay homage to the girl groups they've always loved with this record of swinging rock 'n' soul that turns down the slashing guitars, cranks up the organ, horns and backing singers. Singer David Johansen is in great form, whether he's paying homage to NYC, dispensing advice or romping through a Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles cover.
6. Those Darlins, "Screws Get Loose." The hillbilly three-girl, one-guy band goes from hopped-up honky-tonk to catchy power pop without losing their attitude. The girls just want to have fun, like the boys. There's still some twang, but this one's a rock 'n' roll record from one of the most entertaining bands on the planet.
7. Radiohead, "King of Limbs." Call this one Radiohead's dance album. But it's creepy, weird, dark and never likely to turn up in the clubs. The beats that propel the album bubble out from under stacks of synth-rooted electronic sounds, while Thom Yorke's distant vocals float above the music. Another great record from the most consistent group of the last decade.
8. Yuck, "Yuck." London's Yuck channels Pavement, Dinosaur Ju and Sonic Youth on this album that recalls the glory days of the 1990s with fuzzy guitar, semidetached vocals and pop melodies weaving in and out of the buzz.
9. Cults, "Cults." Combining early '60s girl-group vocals with contemporary synth-based sounds, the deliberately mysterious duo of Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion, aka Cults, generate gorgeous, cinematic pop.
10. Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues." Think Crosby, Stills & Nash in a madrigal with cascading harmonies, beautifully played acoustic guitars, a wider-than-expected range of instruments and songs that are more personal than the fables of the band's first album and you've got the best indie-folk record of 2011.
Ten more that came close: Smith Westerns, "Dye It Blonde"; Kurt Vile, "Smoke Ring for My Halo"; The Decemberists, "The King Is Dead"; Drive-by Truckers, "Go-Go Boots"; TV on the Radio, "Nine Kinds of Light"; Steve Earle, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive"; The Vaccines, "What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?"; Thurston Moore, "Demolished Thoughts"; Dave Alvin, "Eleven Eleven"; and The Raveonettes, "Raven in the Grave."