The 75 Best Albums of 2011

[26 December 2011]

By PopMatters Staff


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My Brightest Diamond

All Things Will Unwind

(Asthmatic Kitty; US: 18 Oct 2011; UK: 10 Oct 2011)

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My Brightest Diamond
All Things Will Unwind

Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) has a gorgeous voice that sparkles when she sings. On her latest album, she’s ably assisted by the Music Ensemble who provide instrumental and vocal backgrounds to her gem-like musical compositions that are rooted in avant garde traditions. MBD swirls. She whoops. She lilts. She soars. She emotes with affect one minute and plays it straight the next without losing the creative thread. Music Ensemble frames MBD’s work in a way that provides a context to her sonic adventures. Together, they construct aural landscapes of the imagination that intellectually and aesthetically challenge and tease the listener. The musical material is consistently complex and playful. The songs swing from one idea to the next in unexpected ways. All Things Will Unwind is a deeply layered record with lots to listen to and appreciate in every sense. It’s also just a lot of fun as MBD clearly enjoys playing different characters and seeing where the songs take her. Because MBD doesn’t seem to acknowledge limits, there’s a sweet cartoonishness to the whole thing. Anything is possible in MBD’s world. This record is proof. Steve Horowitz

 


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Amon Tobin

ISAM

(Ninja Tune; US: 24 May 2011; UK: 23 May 2011)

74

Amon Tobin
ISAM

Few others, if any, in the popular vein of electronic music have attempted the level of processing Amon Tobin did with ISAM. Though Tobin’s early works were created exclusively through vinyl samples, he expanded the method of production used for his last album, 2007’s Foley Room, which was made largely using field recordings and specially recorded instrumentation. For ISAM, Tobin started with field recordings, and synthesized them into playable instruments. Yet the grains of the original sounds can still be heard, some more recognizably and others in the fringes of intense headphone listening. ISAM is intelligent enough to appeal to the most academic acousmatic experimentalist, yet raunchy enough to tickle the fancy of dubstep heads. Though, admittedly, everything on the album is a little too technical for your average club, the visuals for ISAM‘s live show brought the creation to life, making his 2011 tour one of the most buzzed A/V events of the year. ISAM an audiophile’s dream, but if you’re having trouble getting into this album, hit YouTube and it will all become clear. Alan Ranta

 


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Zola Jesus

Conatus

(Sacred Bones; US: 4 Oct 2011; UK: 26 Sep 2011)

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Zola Jesus
Conatus

One of us! One of us! Yes, Zola Jesus’ music may eminate from a macabre landscape of shadows and fog (pestilence, parasites, pariahs), but it pines longingly for a brighter, happier home (hope, spirituality, nightclubs). It’s no wonder she’s fast becoming a beacon for the troubled, lost and mildly insane. Gather ye, let our Lady Jesus lead you out of the storm! Let these songs from the siren—operatic, cathartic, inspirational hymns smeared bloody ‘n’ muddy—lift your spirits and warm your cockles. Put your hands on the screen good people, repent and give your hearts to Jesus. (And if anyone in skinny jeans and ironic knitwear tells you Jesus has “gone soft” kick ‘em forcibly in the nuts and run away!). Conatus is the sound of a mighty oak in full bloom. Now follow the light and I’ll see you on the other side… Matt James

 


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The Vaccines

What Did You Expect From…

(Columbia; US: 11 Mar 2011; UK: 11 Mar 2011)

72

The Vaccines
What Did You Expect From…

Yeah, they are obviously influenced by some other, historic, well-known bands. They are over-celebrated by the British press. Both of these factors make the London band and their debut album easy bait for haters. But this is one album that puts its money where its hyperbole is. Quite simply, not since Oasis’ Definitely Maybe has an indie rock album come storming out of the gate so confidently, and so front-loaded with thrilling, memorable tunes. If they are picking off some of the best-known and best-loved alternative sounds of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, the Vaccines are doing it with taste and variety. From pop-punk headrush to heavy mope to melodic rock and lots between, What Did You Expect From the Vaccines was more flexible than many gave it credit for, and it was all stamped by Justin Young’s authoritative vocals and more-clever-than-not lyrics. In 2011, music didn’t get any more exhilarating than this. John Bergstrom

 


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Gang Gang Dance

Eye Contact

(4AD; US: 10 May 2011; UK: 9 May 2011)

71

Gang Gang Dance
Eye Contact

As Gang Gang Dance have crawled out from beneath the dense thickets of aboriginal muck that once aligned them with NYC’s mid-aughts noise resurgence, they’ve expertly traced a parallel evolutionary course across outlying electronic sub-genres—see the dancehall stopovers and deserted industrial grind of 2008s Saint Dymphna—via an omnivorous, liberal appetite for consumption. Eye Contact, the band’s expansive and shamelessly sleek fifth full-length, pulls from even more unexpected sources (Queer Disco, New-Jack Swing) while once again sounding wholly of a piece with group’s ever-mutating, pack-like mentality. Singer Lizzi Bougatsos likewise continues her evolution from elusive environ maiden to possessed pop princess, coiling around the contours of Brian DeGraw’s increasingly elastic compositions with the authority of a blindly confident semi-starlet. What results is long-form forays into coke-addled space-disco (see amazing eleven minute opener “Glass Jar”), Eastern-accented poly-rhythms (“Chinese High”), and reverent resuscitations of the more gaudy extremes of the 1980s (“Romance Layers”, which Bougatsos wisely cedes to Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor), all realized via expert structural continuity, intense and inspired individual aesthetic components, and straight-faced integrity. With Eye Contact, Gang Gang Dance are daring you to blink first. Jordan Cronk

 


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The Field

Looping State of Mind

(Kompakt; US: 11 Oct 2011; UK: 10 Oct 2011)

70

The Field
Looping State of Mind

To some ears, the Field probably sounds like a skipping record. Looping State of Mind follows Axel Willner’s critically adored, sample-based From Here We Go Sublime and sophomore LP Yesterday and Today and carries the authorial signature that he’s come to be known for—something akin to beauty in simplicity. But here the hypnotic rhythmic and melodic repetition shakes the cocoon a bit more than in the past. Little surprises abound, from attention-grabbing stereo pans to naked refrains and affecting use of vocals and live instruments. These days, loop-based production is accessible to everyone, and a lot of groups come up with nothing new in failed attempts to innovate beyond their guitars, drums, and bass. However, Willner’s approach suggests that in the land of loops, the band with one man is king. Looping State of Mind conveys Willner’s clarity of vision, delivering on the stunning potential of his previous albums and endearing itself to the listener to an even greater degree. When the last song ends, the compulsion to press repeat comes not so much from a desire to hear the album again, than from the rudderless feeling that sets in when its pulsing force is absent. Thomas Britt

 


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Lucinda Williams

Blessed

(Lost Highway; US: 1 Mar 2011; UK: 28 Feb 2011)

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Lucinda Williams
Blessed

Blessed opens with the catchy good-riddance number “Buttercup”, but Lucinda Williams spends most of the rest of the album embracing her surroundings rather than pushing them away. “Born to Be Loved” makes a warm declaration that hides a sense of defiance; it’s necessitated by a demanding world and resists it. In a similar vein, the steady groove of “Blessed” finds its support in unlikely places and amasses a community full of a surprising sort of abundance. Williams speaks personally but not indulgently, and “Soldier’s Song”, a rare political number, develops character while make a sharp statement. In these songs, as well as romantic reflections like “Kiss Like Your Kiss”, Williams reaches out while displaying both compassion and strength. Her band has the chops and flexibility to match, whether in the tenderness of “Kiss” or the aggression of “Seeing Black”, and Don Was’s production suits the music perfectly. She’s three decades in to her career, but Williams might have released her best album yet. Justin Cober-Lake

 


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Slow Club

Paradise

(Moshi Moshi; US: 13 Sep 2011; UK: 12 Sep 2011)

68

Slow Club
Paradise

The first Slow Club record, Yeah So, was a poppy blast; it sounded a bit like the cuter, quieter White Stripes songs run through an amplifier. Just two years later, Paradise finds them expanding and deepening their sound without losing that initial freshness. Songs like “Where I’m Waking” are as energetic as ever, with a bigger-sounding, echoier musical clamor to accompany their flirting, longing and heartbreak. But even greater progress is visible in songs like “You, Earth or Ash”, “Hackney Marsh”, and “Gold Mountain”, which deftly blend slower pace with bursts of muted guitar, a quick slow-dance sax solo, or, most often, soaring sing-along vocals, deployed with artful restraint. Rebecca Taylor has developed a gorgeously expressive voice without drowning out principle bandmate Charles Watson, who tears through penultimate track “The Dog”. The girl-boy tension of Slow Club isn’t overtly sexual or dangerous; it’s more akin to dual-perspective indie rock bands like Rilo Kiley. That is to say their songcraft is straightforward and easy to adore in addition to layered and smart; as such, Paradise gets more blissful with each listen. Jesse Hassenger

 


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The Airborne Toxic Event

All at Once

(Island; US: 26 Apr 2011; UK: 25 Apr 2011)

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The Airborne Toxic Event
All at Once

There’s no sophomore slump from these L.A. indie rockers. The LP bumps the sonic grandeur up a notch, while still focusing on the soulfully melodic songwriting of singer/guitarist Mikel Jollet and the artful violin and keyboards of Anna Bulbrook. The first album was mostly based around breakup songs with a universal vibe that touched the hearts of many fans, but Jollet expands expands his scope here to cover more of a generational angst. The results play like a soundtrack for this foul economic and war-torn era. Like the first LP, the whole album has a flow that plays through nicely with no need to skip filler tracks because there aren’t any. The anthemic title track suggests hope that great change is coming to relieve the desire to self-medicate expressed in the sensational hooks of “Numb”. The hard rocking “Welcome to Your Wedding Day” takes Uncle Sam to task for the senseless wars, while “Half of Something Else”, “Changing” and “All I Ever Wanted” offer vibrational healing for the loneliness that is far too pervading in this crazy world. Greg Schwartz

 


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Atlas Sound

Parallax

(4AD; US: 8 Nov 2011; UK: 7 Nov 2011)

66

Atlas Sound
Parallax

What’s Bradford Cox trying to prove? It seems like not a year goes by without at least one critically lauded full-length release from either of the songwriter’s projects of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound. What’s amazing about Cox is that rather than eroding his capacity to produce the kinds of arresting, subtly crafted songs that we have come to expect from him, his obsessive and perpetual commitment to create has lead only to increasingly rich and fully realized work. Ostensibly an outlet for his solo musings, Atlas Sound has drifted closer with every release to the sonic territory of his band based project Deerhunter, or perhaps it’s the other way around. Through both projects, Cox has produced a body of work that is distinctively his own and Parallax continues the trend of providing one of the greatest releases of the year.

While it lacks the immediate gratification of Logos‘s highlight collaborations with Noah Lennox and Laetita Sadier, Parallax is an album that feels more seamless and coherent than anything Cox has produced under the monicker of Atlas Sound. Whereas “Walkabout” and “Quick Canal” played directly to the strengths of their guest performers, the most powerful and lasting moments on Parallax are those that see Cox turning fully inward, capturing the listener in the melancholy vastness of his own psychic landscape. In the mournful longings of “Te Amo”, and the wistful visions of “Terra Incognita”, there’s a terrible beauty in Cox’s careful melding of sounds and words that somehow reaches through the penetrating sense of loneliness to build powerful human connections. At the album’s close, it feels as though you have only been offered a glimpse into a strange and fascinating world and you are left somehow wanting more. Fortunately, knowing Cox, it is not likely that you will have to wait long to visit this world again. Robert Alford

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Mayer Hawthorne

How Do You Do

(Republic; US: 11 Oct 2011; UK: 10 Oct 2011)

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Mayer Hawthorne
How Do You Do

Mayer Hawthorne’s latest ended up being one of the biggest surprises of 2011, but not because it was simply a good album. Instead, the Michigan crooner caught us all off guard by releasing something as superb as How Do You Do so soon into his career. With each listen comes a new favorite track. “Hooked” draws from golden-era Motown with its pumping beat and stomping horns. “Can’t Stop” features an unexpectedly smooth cameo from Snoop Dogg. And “Finally Falling” is the best song Hall & Oates never wrote with its simple drum pattern and ‘80s pop feel. How Do You Do is a major step forward for a young R&B artist who showed glimpses of promise with a debut (2009’s A Strange Arrangement) that was spotty at best. Now, with such an outstanding sophomore effort behind him, it’s hard to think Mayer Hawthorne could possibly top himself the next time around. Colin McGuire

 


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Dawes

Nothing Is Wrong

(ATO; US: 7 Jun 2011)

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Dawes
Nothing Is Wrong

Listening to Dawes’ music for the first time gives you the feeling that you should have known them for years… and it’s tempting to even lie about it. It’s a familiar feeling and even a comfortable one, right from the get-go. It’s not a fleeting feeling though, even with catchy lyrics and a melody that’s almost too easy to sing along to. Two years after their debut release, North Hills, Dawes came back with an album showing musical growth, life change, and better recording equipment, but managed to escape the oh-so-easy trap of changing their sound altogether to get more airplay. Nothing Is Wrong is not only the natural progression of a young band, it’s the mark of music that may have actual staying power in a universe flooded with flavors of the week. Jonathan Kosakow

 


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The Joy Formidable

The Big Roar

(Atlantic/Canvasback; US: 15 Mar 2011; UK: 24 Jan 2011)

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The Joy Formidable
The Big Roar

The Joy Formidable’s debut full-length comes as the answer to musicians who use the fuzz and delay of ‘90s shoegaze strictly for camouflaging technical limitations and weak writing. Guitarist and vocalist Ritzy Bryan knows her way around a pedalboard, but the atmosphere and bombast that she and her bandmates wield on The Big Roar are never mere affectation. The Welsh power trio packs hooks into sugary concoctions like “Cradle” and injects epic heaviness into melodic stomper “A Heavy Abacus”. “Whirring” splits the difference, with the economical precision of the song proper giving way to the coda of the year, a stunning set of crescendos built on a wall of guitars and double-kick pounding. With four songs re-recorded from the band’s 2009 mini-album, A Balloon Called Moaning, The Big Roar might look like a louder, longer redundancy on paper. But louder is where the Joy Formidable works its most potent magic, and, in the case of this album, longer is just long enough. David Bloom

 


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Austra

Feel It Break

(Domino; US: 17 May 2011; UK: 16 May 2011)

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Austra
Feel It Break

It’s easy to lump in the compositions by Toronto singer-songwriter Katie Stelmanis with the recent work by the likes of Fever Ray and Zola Jesus, and it’s perfectly justifiable, too, as Austra’s full-length debut does mine similar territory: dark atmosphere, icy, minimal synths, chilling vocals. However, what distances Feel It Break from the rest of Austra’s peers is its sneaky pop sensibility (“Lose It”, “Shoot the Water”) and the way the classically-trained Stelmanis so seductively alternates between emotional distance and warm humanity. One minute she’s a chilling presence on breakthrough single “Beat and the Pulse”, and the next she’s evoking Kate Bush beautifully on piano-driven “The Beast”. In less skilled hands such a contradiction would have felt awkward, but Stelmanis walks that line with impressive ease on this gorgeous, haunting record. Adrien Begrand

 


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Mastodon

The Hunter

(Warner Bros./Reprise; US: 27 Sep 2011; UK: 26 Sep 2011)

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Mastodon
The Hunter

Absolutely nobody, including Mastodon themselves, knew how this Atlanta-based metal quartet would follow 2009’s Crack the Skye. Their brooding, insanely ambitious fourth album, which, with its over-the-top lyrical narrative (time-traveling paraplegic, suicide, Rasputin) and pulverizing prog-rock layers, felt like an exercise in absorbing excess that couldn’t possibly be repeated. So instead of venturing out further into space, Mastodon wisely reigned things back on The Hunter, even if they’ve never sounded more schizophrenic, trimming away Skye‘s conceptual and musical fat while branching out subtly into wonderful new textures. “Curl of the Burl” is nearly jaw-dropping in its simplicity, as it’s little more than Brann Dailor’s crushing, Bonham-esque drum groove and sludge-y detuned riffs from the twin-headed beast of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher. Meanwhile, on the hilarious and life-affirming epic “Creature Lives”—featuring synths, choral-styled chanting, and a clean, hummable vocal from Dailor—they throw out a bold “Fuck You” to their more close-minded fans. Throughout, they challenge conventions of what “metal” even means—with a collective wink and goofy-ass grins plastered on their faces. Ryan Reed

 


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Feist

Metals

(Interscope; US: 4 Oct 2011; UK: 3 Oct 2011)

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Feist
Metals

This is usually where the breakout would happen. A mere few years removed from A Reminder, an album that was sincere enough to not feel like a sellout when Apple started using it to hock iPods but poppy enough to have your kid and your grandma singing along at the same time, Metals comes off as such a thrill by being utterly opposed to pandering. It’s not trying for fame or greatness, it’s merely achieving the latter, and almost by accident. Metals feels spontaneous, as if Ms. Feist is merely singing the first words that come to her head, but the subtly beautiful (and sometimes, surprisingly complex) instrumental arrangements behind her belie such spontaneity. All of this, while she offs such perfect lines as “Good men and good women bring out the worst in each other” and “Where we look for where we went / It’s only echoes in the melody.” It will never be seen as Feist’s catchiest, poppiest, or perhaps even her best album, but Metals feels like the moment we realize what a treasure of a songwriter she happens to be. Mike Schiller

 


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Bright Eyes

The People’s Key

(Saddle Creek; US: 15 Feb 2011; UK: 14 Feb 2011)

59

Bright Eyes
The People’s Key

Preceeded by the suggestion that this would likely be Bright Eyes’ last album, The People’s Key certainly carried weighty expectation upon its shoulders when it appeared in February. And as a summation of Conor Obert’s 16-year stint under the moniker, it handled that expectation well. The People’s Key is an accomplished, well-sequenced collection of songs that played to Obert’s strengths and, lyrically, acknowledged the passing of youth with a sometimes wistful, sometimes slightly jaded tone. “Beginner’s Mind’s” message from today’s Oberst to his younger self, advising him to “swear you’ll do the opposite of all those tangled hypocrites” hints that Oberst is older, wiser and with less fire in his belly than when we first met him. The quick-fire one-two of lead single “Shell Games” and the hook-laden, rocking “Jejune Stars” earlier on in the album, however, suggest otherwise. “And One For You, One For Me” is the album’s and Bright Eyes’ career’s fitting conclusion: a subdued curtain-call that almost demands you don’t expect a return. David Smith

 


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Mogwai

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

(Rock Action; US: 15 Feb 2011; UK: 14 Feb 2011)

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Mogwai
Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

If we judged albums based on titles alone, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will would win the prize of 2011 with nary a hint of contest. It’s in equal measures darkly hilarious, insightful, and, in a peculiar way, career-defining for this influential Scottish band. After dropping a groundbreaking record in 1997’s Young Team, critical mass has generally been of the opinion that the band hasn’t been able to live up to the high standard they set for themselves. This record ought to dispel any such notion. Everything that makes Mogwai great are present here: the rock (“San Pedro”), the imposing, powerful crescendoes (“You’re Lionel Ritchie”), and the incredibly beautiful (“Death Rays”, one of the band’s finest tracks to date). If the album title is true, and I’d like to think it is, we all will die someday. Hopefully though, the hardcore music of Mogwai never will. Brice Ezell

 


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Battles

Gloss Drop

(Warp; US: 7 Jun 2011; UK: 6 Jun 2011)

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Battles
Gloss Drop

After a bracing debut that had the indie-rock world buzzing in 2007, Battles’ Gloss Drop arrived with all the sorts of questions that accompany a highly-anticipated follow-up album. In addition, they also had to deal with the elephant in the room. To wit, how would the remaining trio fare after the departure of key member Tyondai Braxton? As it turns out, the band is doing quite well, thanks. Instead of remaking Mirrored, Battles chose to push forward and expand their sound. The band employs radically different guest vocalists on singles like the playful “Ice Cream” (Matias Aguayo), the poppy “Sweetie and Shag” (Kazu Makino), and the apocalyptic hard rock of “My Machines” (Gary Numan). Meanwhile, more groove-based tracks like “Inchworm” and “Wall Street” provide the thumping beats and gradually building song structures for which the band is best-known. Musicians often get stuck in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation where they’re either accused of repeating themselves or messing too much with their established sound. Battles deserve credit for toeing that line with aplomb on Gloss Drop. Chris Conaton

 


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Jay-Z & Kanye West

Watch the Throne

(Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam; US: 8 Aug 2011; UK: 8 Aug 2011)

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Jay-Z & Kanye West
Watch the Throne

In the months following Watch the Throne‘s release enough listeners became perturbed over Kanye and Jay-Z’s effusively glamorous themes that some might think its inclusion on any year-end list is unrealistic. But as I wrote in my review this summer, it’s unfair to ignore their equally passionate rhymes about the crime rate in Chicago, their future offspring, and the sadly precious few other black folk, entertainers or otherwise, with whom they could share in their jovial material delights. It also ignores another tour de force in hip-hop production from Kanye West and his army of co-producers, who make the combination of dubstep and hip-hop work beyond most reasonable expectations with the Beanie Sigel-dissecting “Why I Love You”, the Autotune of the ineffable Nina Simone on “New Day”, and one the year’s most ubiquitous club jams with “Niggas in Paris”. All in a vacation to Paris’ work, I suppose, for two of hip-hop’s utmost royalty. David Amidon

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They Might Be Giants

Join Us

(Idlewind/Rounder; US: 19 Jul 2011; UK: 1 Aug 2011)

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They Might Be Giants
Join Us

They Might Be Giants has been making music for close to three decades, but the band never abandoned a spirit of experimentation. Though John Flansburgh and John Linnell’s songs always bear their personality, the band never settled on one signature sound or settled in to writing one type of song over and over. This diversity is present throughout Join Us, an album that offers “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”, a sparkling, the La’s-style pop song; “Judy Is Your Viet Nam”, a straight-ahead rock anthem; “Dog Walker”, which features heavy use of crazy digital vocal effects; and “Old Pine Box”, which comes across almost like a folk song. The arrangements on Join Us are sparer and with less elaborate instrumentation. The stripped-down aesthetic recalls They Might Be Giants’ earliest albums, when the band was an experimental two-some, but the immense strength of the craft evident on Join Us proves that the Johns have learned a thing or two about songwriting over the past 30 years. Marisa LaScala

 


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My Morning Jacket

Circuital

(ATO; US: 31 May 2011; UK: 6 Jun 2011)

54

My Morning Jacket
Circuital

What do you do when a sound you have all but trademarked is picked up and popularized by a bunch of bands that didn’t even exist when you started? That is the conundrum My Morning Jacket has faced over the past half-decade or so. On the Kentucky band’s last album, Evil Urges (2008), the answer was to start taking left turns into funk, soul, Mellow Gold, and general silliness. That album was good, but it wasn’t very spooky. That eeriness, more than anything, was what some fans missed. And it was back on Circuital. My Morning Jacket continued to move beyond the gothic Southern rock of yore, mixing up acoustic folk, Rubber Soul-era Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the anthems and reverb that made Jim James’ voice famous. Crucially, that old haunted feeling moved through all of it, evidence of a band that had consolidated its core strengths with its restless spirit. John Bergstrom

 


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Colin Stetson

New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

(Constellation; US: 21 Feb 2011)

53

Colin Stetson
New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

An extraordinary crossover record, blending avant-garde improvisations with a measure of structured songcraft to delirious effect, Montreal-based Colin Stetson’s Polaris Prize-shortlisted effort is simply breathtaking. And breath is, indeed, what it’s all about. A solo baritone saxophonist, Stetson (who has made a side career backing artists like Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, TV on the Radio, Feist, Tom Waits, and LCD Soundsystem) blows through his horn a whirlwind of sound, energy, and vibration. This record, perhaps most bewilderingly of all, is a collection of single-take solo performances—what appears to be percussion, basslines, vocalizations, and melody are all performed simultaneously by Stetson.

The result of both technical bravado and improvisational fearlessness, his approach leads us down alleys and up scales, into soundscapes we may never before have imagined. It’s a frightening experience, in many ways. The tension throughout is heightened by the circuitous blaring of the horn and the clicking percussion (the amplified sound of the keys on the sax), the hypnotic enveloping sway of repeated rhythmic phrases, the inescapable darkness underlying everything that we hear. Add to this Laurie Anderson’s foreboding narration, seemingly depicting a post-apocalyptic nightmare of desperation and fear (“There are those who lived in the crawlspace / There were people lighting candles…”), and you’ve got something powerful, unyielding, and true. Stuart Henderson

 


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Black Lips

Arabia Mountain

(Vice; US: 7 Jun 2011; UK: 6 Jun 2004)

52

Black Lips
Arabia Mountain

For a band who made their mark through skuzzy production and onstage debauchery, calling Black Lips’ Arabia Mountain one of the year’s best albums could be a bit of a shocker. DIY punkers probably weren’t too pumped about the presence of superstar producer Mark Ronson, either. The good news is all that didn’t interfere with the band’s knack for slinging prickly pop-punk hooks in under three minutes. “Modern Art”, “Family Tree”, and “Go Out And Get It” are absolute killer, and tracks like “Spidey’s Curse” and “Noc-A-Homa” prove Jared Swilley and company still aren’t taking themselves too seriously. Holding an audience’s attention over 16 tracks is no small order (regardless of how short the songs may be), but Arabia Mountain is a natural attention-grabber. If you’re an alt-rock fan who thought the Strokes got a little soft, well, here’s your album. Chris Payne

 


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Smith Westerns

Dye It Blonde

(Fat Possum; US: 18 Jan 2011; UK: 18 Jan 2011)

51

Smith Westerns
Dye It Blonde

Super young Chicago threesome Smith Westerns channel the spirit of Marc Bolan into their sophomore effort Dye It Blonde, a bright and beautiful collage of syrupy-sweet guitar riffs, dazzling disco balls and irresistible hooks. Fluttering between dancefloor fillers, acoustic ballads and choir-backed gospels, the album is comparable to T-Rex’s own second record Electric Warrior, where Bolan investigated various genres, transforming the record into a vivid glamorama by sprinkling glitter all around him. Similarly, Dye It Blonde maintains a certain flamboyance as the band pack the ten tracks (all of which are pretty much odes to teenage girls) with sugar rush after sugar rush. Each song is driven by a smooth cocktail of warm guitar licks, rinky-dink piano and Cullen Omori’s wispy vocals, while producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beach House) adds tons of echo to the band’s sound, giving a wide-open, cathedral feel to each track, underlined by the band’s affinity for beefing up their rhythm section with a hunky organ. Dean Van Nguyen

 


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Wye Oak

Civilian

(Merge; US: 8 Mar 2011)

50

Wye Oak
Civilian

Moreso than just about any other album released in 2011, Wye Oak’s third full-length is a marvel of studio precision. Working alongside maestro John Congleton (arguably indie-rock’s most versatile and powerful recording engineer), Baltimore duo Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack plunge headfirst into a world of luxurious color and texture—just like the faceless diver that graces their jacket cover. Though the album’s themes are often weighty and dark (Wasner’s words wrestle with Hugely Important Topics like Death and Humanity and God), the music is isn’t confrontational. Instead, it’s lush, transportive, and hugely melodic. In the age of “lo-fi” and “no-fi” “glo-fi”, Wye Oak are unabashedly hi-fi, using the recording studio itself an instrument, amplifying every inch with luxurious delay and reverb. Check opener “Two Small Deaths”, where Wasner’s smoke-drenched voice hovers hazily over a wilting guitar drone and Stack’s sparkly cymbals. Nine tracks later, you emerge, disoriented from an overload of beauty. Ryan Reed

 


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40 Watt Sun

The Inside Room

(Metal Blade; US: 19 Jul 2011)

49

40 Watt Sun
The Inside Room

The Inside Room, the debut album from British three-piece 40 Watt Sun, is a bona fide underground metal masterpiece. Recorded in three brisk days it is an aesthetically rewarding melancholia-laden tour de force. Deeply satisfying in emotional terms, it harnesses all of the finest attributes of dirge-like sepulchral doom, yet steadfastly ignores all the genre rules. Magnificently downtempo, and profoundly contemplative, The Inside Room spills over with gigantic, claustrophobic riffs, set around a distorting foundation that’s mixed with sagacious and heart-wrenching introspective themes. Frontman Patrick Walker’s vocals are steeped in a rough-hewn, world-weary soulfulness that ooze hopelessness and hopefulness in equal measure. For all its lugubrious sonic charms, and its pathos-heavy emotionality, the album never once drifts into the realm of passé sentimentalism or utilizes a single hackneyed metal cliché. It’s an extraordinary debut—an unquestionably transcendent work of art that deserves a lot more exposure. Craig Hayes

 


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Tim Hecker

Ravedeath, 1972

(Kranky; US: 15 Feb 2011; UK: 28 Feb 2011)

48

Tim Hecker
Ravedeath, 1972

All of this release, from its iconic cover art to the titles of its various pieces and the actual sounds, comes from a more opaquely human place than most ambient records. This is ambient music by nature more than choice, as it constantly fights its entrapments to become something more physically imposing on its listeners. Ravedeath oftentimes feels intimately connected to the human condition of desiring individuality within a controlled whole, of demanding creativity from itself where static constancy is the social expectation. In this dialogue it not only feels more confrontational than most of its peers, but also more political. This isn’t music to study to, or music to watch the rain to… it’s music to look inside oneself to, to criticize oneself to. It’s a tragedy of sound, and greatly arresting to listen to. Our own Mike Newmark put it best in his review: “To have tension with no release feels dissonant, even to the body. But if that tension is too obvious, it loses its oomph. And that’s why Ravedeath, 1972 has the capacity to be very powerful: It’s often so subtle it’s almost frightening, and its intentions are something of a mystery.” David Amidon

  tim hecker ‘hatred of music I’ by kranky

 


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Drive-By Truckers

Go-Go Boots

(ATO; US: 15 Feb 2011; UK: 14 Feb 2011)

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Drive-By Truckers
Go-Go Boots

The Drive-By Truckers let their foot off the accelerator, bypassing their patented hard charging, three-guitar attack in favor of a more soulful sound, demonstrating the band’s continuing musical development, evidenced by their recent Grammy nominated work with blues and soul legends Booker T. Jones and Bettye LaVette. While featuring Patterson Hood’s patented noirish character studies, in the best Southern Gothic tradition, whether cheating preachers (“Go-Go Boots”, “The Fireplace Poker”), a Vietnam vet’s daily battles with temptation (the otherwise upbeat, Rosanna shuffle of “Ray’s Automatic Weapon”) or the slow-burning rage of a life turned upside down (“Used to Be a Cop”), the album showcases the band’s ensemble songwriting. Mike Cooley’s two traditional country numbers on departure (man resolutely abandoning a doomed relationship in “The Weakest Man”, young girl leaving her rural home in “Pulaski”) and Patterson’s spirited jabs at the music industry (“Assholes”) and dysfunctional families (“The Thanksgiving Filter”) accompany upbeat songs. Amidst the chaos, there is much sweetness. Patterson’s heartwarming tribute to his grandmother “I Do Believe”, bassist Shonna Tucker’s sweet yarn “Dancin’ Ricky” and two covers in homage to fellow Muscle Shoals musician Eddie Hinton. What makes Go Go Boots so compelling is the relevancy of their work amidst the ongoing economic crisis, threatening to tear apart the social fabric by unraveling the central tenets of faith, family and belief in the American dream. Matter of fact tales of a range of taboos such as murder, incest, and suicide, songs viewed as quaint pieces about oddball characters from the South, suddenly take on a new poignancy as the crisis achieves global proportions. Dennis Shin

 


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Hammers of Misfortune

17th Street

(Metal Blade; US: 25 Oct 2011; UK: 24 Oct 2011)

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Hammers of Misfortune
17th Street

As the maelstrom of global unrest continued unabated in 201, with the specter of financial ruin routinely falling upon those least to blame, the last place you might have expected to find solace—and community—was in the arms of a cult metal band from San Francisco. However, the Hammers of Misfortune’s 17th Street tapped into universal themes of unease, loss and isolation with astute and intimately resonating results. Combing the pomp of Queen, the grit of Iron Maiden, the progressive delights of Deep Purple and the psych of Syd Barrett, the Hammer’s crafted an inimitable album that built upon the band’s unwavering pursuit of expansive, dramatic creativity. A panacea for anyone feeling insignificant or powerless the band’s poetic artistry was never more keenly felt than on “The Day the City Died”, a track capturing the mood of many nations perfectly. A remarkable album—a safe haven in very turbulent times. Craig Hayes

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Charles Bradley

No Time For Dreaming

(Daptone; US: 25 Jan 2011; UK: 14 Feb 2011)

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Charles Bradley
No Time For Dreaming

When 62-year-old soulman Charles Bradley sings “It’s a cold, cold world” over his debut LP’s sizzling array of Hammond B-3s and syncopated guitars, he’s speaking from experience. In Florida and Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy, and then in Maine and more, Bradley grew familiar with a brand of heartache that would send most people into a dark corner for eternity. Instead, supported by the Daptone Records personnel that “discovered” him, the former James Brown impersonator worked his hardships into an unforgettable record. It’s as if No Time for Dreaming has been unearthed from another era—one trimmed in the sound of mid-‘60s Memphis, where minor key organ chords and trumpet blasts line grim, difficult stories of lost love and missed opportunities. In impossibly modern treasures like “How Long” and “Golden Rule”, it becomes clear that these tales should be told, and this is exactly how Charles Bradley was meant to tell them. Dominic Umile

 


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Eleanor Friedberger

Last Summer

(Merge; US: 12 Jul 2011; UK: 12 Jul 2011)

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Eleanor Friedberger
Last Summer

Last Summer is the confident solo debut of Eleanor Friedberger, a welcome outlet for her quirky outlook on life, fast wit, and vocal stylings on display as one half of the brother and sister duo, the Fiery Furnaces. Last Summer shows Eleanor coming into her own as a songwriter, a side typically not on display. The video for “My Mistakes” is an endearing look back in time, contrasting a less secure, younger Eleanor, shown diligently preparing for a date, with an older wiser version of herself, going through many of the same rituals, but preparing for a much different outing entirely, an enjoyable afternoon playing guitar on the stoop. It possesses a certain world weary perspective, with a touch of nostalgic whimsy.

What’s surprising is the ease with which Eleanor departs from the sharp contrasts of the Fiery Furnaces, which typically careen between folk, electronica, and blues rock, and experimental music, and are prone to gimmicks such as her grandmother’s narration on “Rehearing My Choir” or live sets consisting of one extended medley of song snippets. As a soloist, Eleanor sings with conviction, delivering lovely ‘70s-inspired pop, (largely) irony free. “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight” is delivered in a direct style, reminiscent of Ted Leo. Who would have thought that a song titled “Scenes from Bensonhurt” would be one of the most beautiful tracks of the year? “Heaven” is a sunny beatlesque number, while “Owl’s Head Park” deploys a sumptuous mix of strings and saxophone to create a lush, contemplative mood reminiscent of the Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend”. Tracks such as Inn of the “Seventh Ray” and the funk-infused “Roosevelt Island” show her vocal dexterity for stuffing complex passages and the occasional non sequitur into the narrative, providing the songs with a nervous, propulsive energy that reflects the state of the mind of the character. Dennis Shin

 


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Ambrose Akinmusire

When the Heart Emerges Glistening

(Blue Note; US: 5 Apr 2011; UK: 2 May 2011)

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Ambrose Akinmusire
When the Heart Emerges Glistening

Even for serious jazz fans, it can be tiresome to hear yet another recording featuring the standard jazz group: trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums. But this sturdy format can still produce revelation when the playing and writing sparkles. This major label debut is something special. The youngish leader approaches the trumpet with true originality, combining speed and fluency with a fresh approach to tone and note choice. The unaccompanied introduction to “The Walls of Lechuguilla” is flabbergasting—like nothing you have heard before. Akinmusere seems dead-serious about rewriting the rules of jazz trumpet the way Wynton Marsalis was doing so 30 years ago. Akinmusere combines Marsalis fleetness with Lester Bowie’s sonic experimentation and Dizzy Gillespie intervallic leaps. When jazz is healthy, there’s usually a brilliant trumpet player blazing a trail. Jazz feels utterly hale and hearty in the wake of this recording. Will Layman

 


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The Horrors

Skying

(XL; US: 9 Aug 2011; UK: 11 Jul 2011)

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The Horrors
Skying

It seems that more people enjoy talking about who influenced the Horrors rather than listening to them. Sure, if you pull away the curtain slightly you can hear Pulp, My Bloody Valentine and Suede. And yes, they were on the covers of British music rags before releasing an LP. In a weird way, despite having everything handed to them, they have always had to work harder to prove they we worth our attention. The good news is that these British boys came out of the gates swinging for what is their third and finest album to date. “Still Life” has the pre-requisite swaggered bassline begging for it to be a radio single, but it’s when they start coloring outside the lines things get truly interesting. “Monica Gems” has a machine gun like rhythm section that becomes wrapped around warbled backing harmonies and dissonant sound. Final song “Oceans Burning” acts as an effective last word, channeling Spirtiualized and Slowdive pacing for the shoegazer closer. Without dispute, this album is solid all the way through and gives me hope that one day we may be chastising the latest, new shiny object as a complete rip-off of the the Horrors circa 2011. Eddie Ciminelli

 


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Foo Fighters

Wasting Light

(RCA; US: 12 Apr 2011; UK: 11 Apr 2011)

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Foo Fighters
Wasting Light

The alt-rock explosion of the early ‘90s remains highly influential on modern rock, but few bands are delivering new music with the sonic power and thematic depth to rival the original era. Thank goodness Dave Grohl and company are still going strong. Wasting Light is jam-packed with big guitar hooks, furious rhythms and heartfelt vocals that add up to one of the best rock albums of recent years. It’s hard to think of a comparable guitar-driven album in 2011 that you could rock in your car stereo all summer long without getting tired of. The band played Wasting Light in its entirety at SXSW in March and it was immediately apparent that the consistently strong material rivaled their best work. “White Limo” shows the band still has their grungy punk ethos, while “These Days” is one of their best melodic gems. The closing duo of “I Should Have Known” and “Walk” are Grohl’s moving eulogy for Kurt Cobain’s untimely suicide. The Foos went back to basics by employing Nevermind producer Butch Vig and recording the album in Grohl’s garage to create the type of old school alternative album that proves rock is far from dead. Greg SAchwartz

 


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The War on Drugs

Slave Ambient

(Secretly Canadian; US: 16 Aug 2011; UK: 22 Aug 2011)

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The War on Drugs
Slave Ambient

The internet may have shrunk the world and made all its riches instantly available, but the road trip is still the preferred manner for 20-somethings to better understand the world and, in a sense, better understand themselves. In painting a winding sonic landscape and telling tales wrought with emotional involvement, but often only at an arms length, the War on Drugs has created the perfect road trip record. The steady backbeat of Slave Ambient serves to raise hope about the road ahead, though its wandering verses beg listeners not to focus intently on the stereo, but to take a look at the world around them. It’s easy to appreciate Adam Granduciel’s ability to let his nu-Americana tunes patiently find wings when looking out the window and appreciating the world as it moves by langorously. By record’s end, the feeling of achievement reigns surpreme. We look into the rearview mirror and feel triumphant about the time and space we’ve conquered. Joshua Kloke

 


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Okkervil River

I Am Very Far

(Jagjaguwar; US: 10 May 2011; UK: 9 May 2011)

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Okkervil River
I Am Very Far

Okkervil River’s Will Sheff has said that the title of this album isn’t really indicative of the songs on it. With themes of myth and memory, dreams and disillusionment, and pasts and people left behind, however, the music tells another tale. Lyrics laden with streams of alliterative images are laid over equally evocative arrangements, layer upon layer until the songs themselves resemble memories—if one might imagine memories are made in much the same way. Some are fashioned from shimmering mystical lands lost in childhood, others form as frames of a faded film flickering on the back wall of your mind’s eye as you drift from dream to dream. Elusive instrumental elements tickle the primitive parts of the brain, threatening to wake dormant primordial monsters, while words are sung of heroes who rise and friends who fell in both legend and real life. Whether recollections culled from the cultural collective or retrospection possessing a more personal perspective, every experience, fact and fiction, half-remembered or long forgotten, is eventually made myth by memory. I Am Very Far alludes to all that separates us from what we once were, while simultaneously illuminating the things to which we are still connected, the myths which we hold close, the legends we’ve lived. We need only be willing to recall. The distance is not so great after all. Christel Loar

 


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DJ Quik

The Book of David

(Mad Science; US: 19 Apr 2011)

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DJ Quik
The Book of David

I keep thinking about this album in the context of Thank Me Later. As emcees, it’s hard to see where Drake and DJ Quik intersect. At 23 years old, Drake quickly rose to a level of mainstream success that’s eluded Quik his entire 20-year career. Recently Drake has been getting lots of praise for blending standard hip-hop braggadocio with confessional insights of self-doubt. Criminally overlooked yet again, The Book of David covers similar ground. Except instead of searching for pain in the isolation of stardom, Quik mines a much more personal subject: his own dysfunctional family. Take “Ghetto Rendezvous” for example. As blisteringly emotional and honest a song as any hip-hop has ever produced. The song is pure vitriol aimed at Quik’s sister. “I hate you more than Michael hated Joe,” Quik spits on the rap equivalent of an episode of Judge Judy, a three-and-a-half-minute list of grievances and biting insults. Even on otherwise triumphant songs, moments of self-deprecation manage to creep in, making them all the more insidious. The Book of David proves DJ Quik’s worth as a hip-hop auteur. The beats are uniformly excellent examples of the slick, polished L.A. sound Quik helped pioneer. If only more people would pay attention. Justin Linds

  The Book of David by DJQuik

 


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Cults

Cults

(In the Name Of/Columbia; US: 7 Jun 2011; UK: 30 May 2011)

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Cults
Cults

In a year where genre revivals from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘90s became increasingly common, few came closer to recreating a sound than New York’s Cults. Cults had the perfect combination to mix modern indie pop with the girl groups of the 1960s. While not as intricate as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound technique, there’s a certain bright indie charm to the work of multi-instrumentalist Brian Oblivion. But the hook is the sublime vocal performances. It certainly helps that one can’t help but fall for the charms of lead singer Madeline Follin who delivers sweetly impassioned yet vulnerable vocals. The music is just as charming and heartbreaking as it was fifty years ago, but at the same time, it’s the indie movement subverting and building in more emotional depth. After all, can you imagine the Ronettes singing with the bitterness of “But I can never be myself / so fuck you?” Nianyi Hong

 


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Panda Bear

Tomboy

(Paw Tracks; US: 12 Apr 2011; UK: 11 Apr 2011)

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Panda Bear
Tomboy

A few years ago I saw Animal Collective perform at Bonnaroo. The sun pounded on the substantial crowd who had turned up to stare groggily at the stage as four guys messed about with loop peddles. The sound coming off of the medium-sized stage was garbled… obviously not the best venue for this artist. Animal Collective, and by extension Panda Bear’s music depends on you being able to pick out the little details. The music should gently wash over you, not beat you about the head like a riot cop. Accessibility is not Panda Bear’s strong suit. People like to talk about how “pop-oriented” the last two albums have been. I want to bring attention back to the endlessly satisfying weirdness. The songs on Tomboy are like pop songs, but stretched out and filtered through an oscillating fan. You listen to pop music to get an easy bump. It’s an easily consumable, bite-sized snack. The songs on Tomboy are not so easily digested… in other words, not at all like pop songs. I’ve learned from my mistake. The optimal listening experience for Tomboy involves dimmed lights, a bean-bag chair, bulky ear-encompassing headphones, maybe a nice glass of scotch. Justin Linds

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EMA

Past Life Martyred Saints

(Souterrain Transmissions; US: 10 May 2011; UK: 9 May 2011)

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EMA
Past Life Martyred Saints

“I wish that every time he touched me left a mark,” Erika M. Anderson sings on one of many brutally harrowing moments on the ex-Gowns singer’s solo debut Past Life Martyred Saints. Accordingly, this is an album fixated on laying bare the scars of experience, physical or otherwise. “Butterfly Knife” remembers a high school acquaintance’s ritual of self-inflicted wounds. “California” finds the author cursing the failure of her runaway destination to deliver on implicit promises of free love and character building all while recalling the Old Testament fury that bruised her small town upbringing. Less explicitly, yet somehow more frightening for it, “Milkman” and “Breakfast” evoke the inexplicable horrors of childhood, once through seething tantrum and again through a sinister nursery rhyme mutter. Anderson’s performances ensure that you feel her pain. When she’s quiet, its unbearably intimate and tactile, with each sweep over an acoustic guitar string registering as sharp and threatening as a knife blade held to your throat. When she’s loud, its blurry and discordant, the sound of barely-clung-to sanity. Yet her fierce conviction in her art makes for a singularly exhilarating and even faith restoring listen, if not exactly a feel-good one. Jer Fairall

 


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Big K.R.I.T.

ReturnofEva

(mixtape; US: 2011)

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Big K.R.I.T.
ReturnofEva

After years of dropping low-budget mixtapes, Mississippi rapper-producer Big K.R.I.T. finally broke through with 2010’s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, a fully realized homage to Southern rap overlords like UGK and 8Ball & MJG. Then this year he offered up Return of 4Eva, which somehow improved on everything that made its predecessor so special. Songs like “Country Shit (Remix)“ and “Sookie Now” are authentic trunk-thumpers, while “Free My Soul” and “The Vent” are mostly free of bells and whistles, leaving room for heartstrings-tugging introspection. Established veterans like Bun B, Ludacris, and Chamillionaire show up with some of their best bars in recent memory, but the main man sounds completely in control no matter what‘s going on around him. Make no mistake, K.R.I.T. is well on his way to becoming the strongest voice of the Third Coast—if he’s not there already. Mike Madden

 


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Paul Simon

So Beautiful or So What

(Hear Music; US: 11 Apr 2011; UK: 11 Apr 2011)

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Paul Simon
So Beautiful or So What

This is the first time since Graceland that Paul Simon has sounded so much like… Paul Simon. The musical genius turned 70 in 2011 and he decided to celebrate with this collection of 10 songs that reminds us all that not only has he not lost a step, but he’s even gained a bit of perspective after all these years. “Getting Ready For Christmas Day” and “Rewrite” are two quintessential Paul Simon songs, filled with vivid storytelling and world beat undertones. “So Beautiful Or So What” is bluesy in a way that only the songwriter himself can pull off with its Tom Petty-like electric guitar and a vocal track that bleeds attitude. And “The Afterlife” features all the tricks Simon has become synonymous with over the years: A sway-inducing groove, a percussive singing style and enough big words to make Webster blush. So Beautiful Or So What might end up being the last great album Paul Simon produces, and if that’s the case, so be it. At 70 years old, the icon is still effortlessly making music far more interesting than 95 percent of those who try a lot harder than he ever has or ever will. Colin McGuire

 


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Washed Out

Within and Without

(Sub Pop; US: 12 Jul 2011; UK: 11 Jul 2011)

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Washed Out
Within and Without

One of the most amusing criticisms about Washed Out’s latest album is that it’s too easy on the ears. Few artists should be so lucky if that’s the biggest fault of their debut full-length album. The first few moments of the opening track “Eyes Be Closed” are a minor miracle just because of how effortlessly all of the elements come together. Horns, keyboards, and percussion seem to roll in and out like a tide against Ernest Greene’s lush vocals. It, like much of the tracks on Within and Without, sounds like an artist who’s three or four albums into a stellar career. A few months ago, I saw a couple making out during a concert. Their embrace instantly reminded me of the cover of Within and Without. The cover of two people locked in a moment of intimacy is a near-perfect summary of the music itself. It’s an album perfectly suited for a lazy Saturday under the covers that also doubles as a headphone trip. Sean McCarthy

 


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The Mountain Goats

All Eternals Deck

(Merge; US: ; UK: )

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The Mountain Goats
All Eternals Deck

Much was made over the moment when John Darnielle started singing openly about his own life. More needs to be made about how his songwriting has quietly grown over the years, into an emotional and intellectual powerhouse, as the music too has strengthened. Finding inner strength is a key theme to his music these days; or more so, surviving the horrific parts of your past. Here those themes occupy 13 songs, including a hymn to actor Charles Bronson and a disarmingly direct message about the shackles of the past, titled “Never Quite Free”. Torture, predators and the occult recur as themes. That and some moments of theatrical darkness jibe with the fact that the album was partly produced by Erik Rutan of Hate Eternal and Morbid Angel, and with the fact of Darnielle’s love of heavy metal, making it in some ways the equivalent of his 2008 book on Black Sabbath, a fictionalized channeling of the pain and questioning within metal, made by someone who doesn’t himself play that style of music. All Eternals Deck, the 13th Mountain Goats album, is a brilliant artistic statement that seems to crystallize much of what’s been driving the group since its start. Dave Heaton

 


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Shabazz Palaces

Black Up

(Sub Pop; US: 28 Jun 2011)

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Shabazz Palaces
Black Up

“Clear some space out / So we can space out.” That’s Palaceer Lazaro (aka Ishmael Butler, formerly of Digable Planets fame) on Black Up, the full-length debut of his project Shabazz Palaces, and those words couldn’t sum up the overall feel of the album more precisely. As great as Lazaro is on the mic—and he is great, even though his appeal seems to come from his endless quirks rather than his sheer technical skill or lyricism—the sonic architecture of Black Up is what really lends it its appeal. Skeletal, glitchy, bass-heavy, and sometimes bewildering, the beats here create such an enveloping atmosphere that it’s hard to walk away from the album once opener “Free Press and Curl” kicks in. Through and through, this is audacious, futuristic stuff, and right now it’s in a realm all by itself. Imitators, come forth. Mike Madden

 


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Ryan Adams

Ashes & Fire

(PaxAm/Capitol; US: 11 Oct 2011; UK: 11 Oct 2011)

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Ryan Adams
Ashes & Fire

Oh how they mocked. They pelted us with eggs and plectrums and told us to give up hope and move on. “It’s over!” they sniggered. “You’re messiah is dead!” they guffawed. But for those disciples who had long held tight the glowing, healing hands of 29 or Strangers Almanac we couldn’t forget. We stubbornly waited. And waited. Then some time passed. It rained a bit. We waited longer. But then the stormclouds parted and a massive hand appeared clutching the tablets of Ashes & Fire. Hallelujah! Twelve cut from the heart—all melodic ‘n’ magnificent, tender ‘n’ true—with no metal jamz about cyborg lizards or bloated ‘bluesy-beardy’ borefests. Just 12 timeless, life-affirming, perfectly-formed lil’ miracles. Ain’t no sin to be alive! Tomorrow we may fight in the streets again, but tonight we mostly snuggle down with some cocoa and a blanket. Praise the lord and Fire, walk with me! Matt James

 


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TV on the Radio

Nine Types of Light

(Interscope; US: 12 Apr 2011; UK: 11 Apr 2011)

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TV on the Radio
Nine Types of Light

Nine Types of Light ought to finally place TV on the Radio in the upper echelon of truly important bands. Like OK Computer or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot before it, TV on the Radio’s fourth album manages to sum up the surreal travails of its time, without falling into any topical lyrical traps that will render the record obsolete in two or three years. The threats of paranoia, destitution, and natural disaster lurk in songs like “Repetition”, “No Future Shock”, and “Caffeinated Consciousness”, but the dense and deeply funky arrangements suggest that these problems just might be endurable. So, yeah, it’d be good under any circumstances. As it is, though, it adds to the incredible body of work that TV on the Radio has built up over the last decade. In fact, it may well be their most concise and tuneful record to date. If that’s not enough for greatness, I don’t know what is. David Gassmann

 


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Wilco

The Whole Love

(dBpm/Anti-; US: 27 Sep 2011; UK: 26 Sep 2011)

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Wilco
The Whole Love

Jeff Tweedy and Co. came back strong in 2011. Still playing club shows and support slots at the beginning of the 2000s, the band used the intervening ten years to morph into one of rock’s most celebrated and reliable acts, capable of releasing solid albums, selling out tours, and headlining festivals. Wilco was perhaps a little too comfortable for some folks, though, as many longed to see a little more of a darker edge to their albums, one that would reflect the thunderous strum visible throughout their epic live shows. With The Whole Love, Wilco satisfies this hopeful faction of their audience, and keeps everyone else happy as well. Anchored by two of the most intensely crafted Wilco songs ever, the pulsating seven-minute “Art of Almost” and 12-minute rumination, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”, the album showcases Wilco in all of the facets we’ve come to love, offering a solid balance between sonic and lyrical experimentation, gorgeous pop-laced harmonium, and straight ahead rock and roll. In summation: the perfect recipe for an amazing Wilco album. Jeff Strowe

 


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Peter Bjorn and John

Gimme Some

(Cooking Vinyl; US: 29 Mar 2011; UK: 28 Mar 2011)

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Peter Bjorn and John
Gimme Some

Swedish indie rock band Peter Bjorn & John released their sixth studio album in March after releasing the single, “Second Chance”, in January. This catchy tune with its staccato intro was quickly grabbed for commercials and the theme song for a network sitcom. The rest of the songs by the power pop trio confidently crank through many styles utilizing Peter Morén’s guitar shredding skills, Björn Yttling’s thumping bass lines, and Drummer John Eriksson’s potent beats along with a love of cowbell. From the guitar sounding the alarm in the lead off track, “Tomorrow Has to Wait” to the melodic “May Seem Macabre” and percussive jam of “Dig a Little Deeper”, every track is a keeper. There’s also a dreamy yet brooding “I Know You Don’t Love Me” and full-throttle punk in “Black Book”. As a collection, Gimme Some offered one of the most rewarding listening sessions of the year. These road warriors also provided many opportunities for fans to experience their high-energy live shows. Jane Jansen Seymour

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Florence and the Machine

Ceremonials

(Universal; US: 1 Nov 2011; UK: 31 Oct 2011)

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Florence and the Machine
Ceremonials

As the release of the anticipated follow-up to the surprise megahit Lungs approached, wide-scale success seemed like a magical illusion that was not likely to be repeated. Could Florence Welch and her band of musical collaborators bottle lightning once again, reaching a mass audience while preserving the passionate idiosyncrasies of her performances and the rhythmic enormity of her arrangements? If there was ever significant doubt about it, however, Ceremonials provides that doubt little in the way of oxygen. This is an expansive album, haunted by tragedy but boldly offering a comforting embrace in reply. Rich instrumentation unfolds on highlights like “Shake It Out” and “No Light, No Light”, even as the lyrics turn common expressive turns into hymnal mass mantras. In the skillful hands (and vocal chords) of Welch, these truisms are not empty platitudes but shared appeals to collective truth. If her lyrics can sometimes lean on clichés, then her music represents the triumphant redemption of the cliché, the cliché carried on the level of myth. Ceremonials is not exactly spiritual (and definitely not religious), but it does cling to a higher reality. It could be called mystical, but it can definitely be called tremendous. Ross Langager

 


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Destroyer

Kaputt

(Merge; US: 25 Jan 2011)

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Destroyer
Kaputt

On Dan Bejar’s shimmering ninth album as Destroyer, the cryptic Canadian artist ditches the acoustic guitars, indulges an overwhelming fetish for the textures of ‘80s smooth jazz and soft rock, and dares you to like it. The kicker is that it’s so hard not to. These songs are fabulous, a near flawless batch of richly labored melodies and sly lyrical triumphs dipped in almost unbearably sultry pool of jazzy synth textures, blaring Sanborn-style sax riffs, and silky female vocalists. Through it all, Bejar adopts the persona of world-weary aging partier, no longer “chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night”, instead drinking wine from a porcelain cup and watching it all drown (“downtown!”). My favorite is “Song For America”, a raving jazz-pop anthem that engages Bejar’s endless USA fixation before hitting AM gold in a female vocalist refrain about “animals crawl[ing] towards death embrace”. Yours may well be “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, a glistening eight-a-half-minute collaboration with the eponymous modern artist whose influence projects a startling racial consciousness onto Bejar’s stories and riddles. Together, these songs comprise Destroyer’s strangest album—and arguably its best. Zach Schonfeld

 


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Lykke Li

Wounded Rhymes

(Atlantic; US: 1 Mar 2011; UK: 28 Feb 2011)

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Lykke Li
Wounded Rhymes

Lykke Li’s debut LP Youth Novels saw her become one of the foremost contenders for the title of thinking man’s pop star, but her vulnerable and girlish persona meant she lacked a little punch and power. To bastardise an old saying, if Li wanted to hold your hand, then it was the likes of Robyn who might burn down your town. However, with second effort Wounded Rhymes, the Swedish Wunderkind comes out swinging on tracks like “Get Some” and acquires a convincingly darker sound while still maintaining her sentimental human touch. The result is a more rounded album which reflects Li’s huge musical and emotional growth while betraying real and relatable humanity where hollow pop artifice might otherwise have held sway. The stellar tunes are impressive enough in themselves, but it’s the emergence of Li’s fully-fledged pop personality for which Wounded Rhymes will be remembered. Andy Johnson

 


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Wild Flag

Wild Flag

(Merge; US: 13 Sep 2011; UK: 10 Oct 2011)

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Wild Flag
Wild Flag

Audiences expecting to find another Sleater-Kinney album with Wild Flag’s debut were bound to be disappointed. Despite containing two of the three members of Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag is clearly more pop-oriented than anything Sleater-Kinney ever did; not to mention the lack of Corin Tucker’s distinctive wail. Yet, this description shouldn’t dissuade fans to check out the release. Hooks are thrown to the forefront. The first track, “Romance” crashes with energy and a sugar rush commences from 40 minutes. Carrie Brownstein’s guitar still rips through the music, Janet Weiss continues to show that she’s one of the best drummers in the business, and Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole add extra pop sense that Sleater-Kinney lacked. Wild Flag rocks with a capital “R”. Of greater note, the album’s also up to par with anything Sleater-Kinney ever did and that’s one of the highest compliments one can give. Nianyi Hong

 


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The Antlers

Burst Apart

(Frenchkiss; US: 10 May 2011; UK: 10 May 2011)

21

The Antlers
Burst Apart

Brooklyn’s the Antlers already have one critical acclaimed album under their belt: 2009’s allegedly autobiographical Hospice. With Burst Apart, the band has arguably gotten even better and has bolstered their claim to fame beyond being a one-trick pony. Bracing opener “I Don’t Want Love” strangely resembles 10cc’s best song “I’m Not in Love” and is, debatably, the most memorable track to be found on an album stuffed to the gills with memorable tracks. Don’t overlook the chilling “Parentheses”, the lilting “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” and lush ballad “Hounds”. Burst Apart is a simply stunning and aching beautiful bit of pure pop bliss, one that competently builds on their previous success. Like the overarching album metaphor of teeth being pulled out (see also “French Exit”), either on their own accord or by force, this is an album that you’ll have to brush your teeth after listening to, lest it leaves behind any sugary bacteria that might cause you to lose a few. Zachary Houle

 


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Elbow

Build a Rocket Boys!

(Fiction/Polydor; US: 12 Apr 2011; UK: 7 Mar 2011)

20

Elbow
Build a Rocket Boys!

Britain’s Elbow have always been a curious creature, writing and recording music at once introspective and epic, and somehow managing to pull it off both on album and stage. On their fifth album, Build a Rocket Boys!, the band frequently hits upon themes of youth, both in personal and emotional recollections of frontman Guy Garvey and in the current crop of British teenagers who seem to get something of a bad rap (“Lippy Kids”). The album opens with “The Birds”, which midway through hits like a glorious cresting wave, the sudden realization that there’s nothing one should be doing if not experiencing this music. The album’s first single, “Neat Little Rows”, mixes massiveness with melancholy (“Lay my bones in neat little rows” croons Garvey), and the sparse piano-and-electronics driven “Open Arms” thankfully shares only its name with the Journey karaoke classic. Build a Rocket Boys! sees Elbow firing on all cylinders, fully aware of their own power, unafraid of turning introspection into anthems. Crispin Kott

 


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Tom Waits

Bad As Me

(Anti-/Epitaph; US: 25 Oct 2011; UK: 24 Oct 2011)

19

Tom Waits
Bad As Me

We know what Tom Waits is about at this point, right? Something about a gravelly voice and the circus? How in the hell does he keep surprising us? Well, the answer to that is somewhere in Bad As Me, his excellent and vital new album. Waits takes all his usual eccentricities and boils them down to a more potent dose here. The songs run from hot-blooded mania (“Chicago”, “Hell Broke Luce”, the title track) to sweetly cracked (“Face to the Highway”, “Back in the Crowd”). It’s a record that both nods to his classic mid-‘80s shift from crooner to oddball and gives us something new, a more accessible version of his sound that still refuses to compromise. We have to steep ourselves in the debauchery and heartache of these songs, and when we do, we’ll find ourselves—along with all the down-and-outs around Waits—slurring the words to “Auld Lang Syne” on album closer “New Year’s Eve”. Bad As Me is the most potent spell set Waits has given us in some time. It’s got its share of lunacy, but what makes it so powerful isn’t the wild shine in his eyes—it’s the complete control that shine is hiding. Matthew Fiander

 


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Preservation Hall Jazz Band & The Del McCoury Band

American Legacies

(McCoury Music; US: 12 Apr 2011; UK: 12 Apr 2011)

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Preservation Hall Jazz Band & The Del McCoury Band
American Legacies

Seemingly musically far apart on the face of it, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury band actually have a lot more in common than you’d think once you dig deeper into their music. Both are at the top of their game in two classic American genres, traditional New Orleans jazz and bluegrass, while treating those older musical forms with both reverance and rousing energy. They both enliven and expand on roots music, taking it from the museum, playing it hot, infusing it with new ideas and spreading the gospel through some of the world’s finest performance stages to engaged age-diverse audiences. So, it really does make sense to have these two sublime bands teaming up for the perfectly titled American Legacies, wherein the Southern-born forms of hot jazz and bluegrass meet in perfect harmony. Plus, they manage to serve up the finest version of the classic gospel tune “I’ll Flay Away” ever heard here God’s green earth. Sarah Zupko

 


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Raphael Saadiq

Stone Rollin’

(Columbia; US: 11 May 2011; UK: 4 Apr 2011)

17

Raphael Saadiq
Stone Rollin’

Song-for-song, Stone Rollin’ isn’t Raphael Saadiq’s hookiest, but as a piece, it’s his most distinctive, and deeply-felt, statement. Of its performing roster, Robert Randolph on the pedal steel is the only notable name—a shift from 2008’s star-studded The Way I See It. Stone Rollin’ is instead a platform for Saadiq himself, whose palette is Memphis and Motown – his vocal cadence on “Stone Rollin’” recalls Stevie Wonder’s “Living For the City” - but whose seductive bass grooves are all his own. His good taste was never in question, yet the way he economizes the same horns, strings, Mellotron and sundry other accoutrements his production forebears deployed with saccharine bombast, reflects just how much this stuff meant to those who, like Saadiq, grew up on it. His name remains synonymous with the most lovingly crafted throwback R&B money can buy, but from the sweaty rock-and-roll of “Heart Attack”, to the disarmingly personal “The Answer”, with Saadiq’s voice more full-throated than ever before throughout, there’s no doubt that Stone Rollin’ comes straight from the heart. Benjamin Aspray

 


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Girls

Father, Son, Holy Ghost

(True Panther Sounds; US: 13 Sep 2011; UK: 12 Sep 2011)

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Girls
Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Girls singer/songwriter Christopher Owens famously found salvation in a crate of dusty vinyl from rock ‘n’ roll’s early years. His troubled past continues to get smaller in the rearview yet, on Girls’ heartbreakingly gorgeous sophomore album Father, Son, Holy Ghost, he’s still a lovesick mess. Instead of moping despondently in the shadows, Owens and his partner Chet “JR” White have transformed Girls into a shamelessly massive studio band, complete organists, shredding guitarists, and backup singers. On Father, the fearless ensemble move from playful ‘60s surf pop (“Honey Bunny”) to ‘70s yacht rock (“Saying I Love You”) to epic psych prog (“Vomit”) with astounding grace and fluidity. Owens is wounded but unbowed, and it’s his whispery, emotion-streaked voice and plainspoken poetry that infuses this infectious, transfixing, and occasionally exhausting music with undeniable soul. “Love, love, love, love / It’s just a song,” goes one of the album’s most memorable mantras. And as long as there’s a song, there’s hope. Daniel Tebo

15 - 6


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Yuck

Yuck

(Fat Possum; US: 15 Feb 2011; UK: 21 Feb 2011)

15

Yuck
Yuck

Yuck didn’t do anything revolutionary, innovative, or new with their debut album. Instead, they just did one thing (‘90s alternative rock-revival) and did it better than anyone else. Although Dinosaur, Jr. and Pavement influences weave in and out of the band’s debut with an almost reckless abandon, the truth of the matter is that even with these rock giants looming over them, the group is not a bunch of mere imitators: they are synthesizers of the highest order. Although singles like the J. Mascis-indebted “Get Away” and the storming “The Wall” get all the attention, it’s the album’s quieter moments—the gorgeous “Rose Gives a Lily”, the laid-back “Sunday”, the winsome “Shook Down”—that wind up staying with you the most. For more cynical rock enthusiasts, this disc is nothing more than a game of spot-the-influence, but for curious ears and minds, this is a blast of nostalgia so vivid and clear with intent that it sounds fresher than just about any other rock album released this year. Evan Sawdey

 


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James Blake

James Blake

(Atlas/ A&M; US: 15 Feb 2011; UK: 7 Feb 2011)

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James Blake
James Blake

At 23 years old, London producer and songwriter James Blake has already seen more than his fair share of media hype and ensuing backlash. When the dust settles, his eponymous debut full length should be judged as the work of a gifted young songwriter who draws from a variety of styles and influences to create music that is entirely his own. Blake’s early EPs were heralded as promising and groundbreaking works within the British electronic music scene, and his decision to incorporate soul-inflected vocal stylings and traditional pop song structures throughout James Blake is sure to alienate some fans of his earlier work. Blake utilizes many of the same production techniques as his more mainstream contemporaries on this album: processed vocals, bass heavy electronic beats and and the kind of ethereal and somber arrangements that are showing up in a range of chilled out acts these days from the xx to the Weeknd. But Blake’s unique talent is found in the subtle touches: the sputtering triplet counter-rhythm of album opener “Unluck”, the folding, almost obsessive repetition of phrases in “I never learned to share”, and “The Wilhelm Scream”, and the shuddering, enveloping bass tones that flow like waterfalls in slow motion throughout his cover of Feist’s “Limit to your Love.” Not since Radiohead’s Kid A has there been an album that so powerfully synthesizes elements of electronic music with pop song craft to produce a truly emergent and distinctive world of sound. Blake sets the bar very high here for himself and an entire upcoming generation of independently minded songwriters. Robert Alford

 


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The Decemberists

The King Is Dead

(Capitol; US: 18 Jan 2011; UK: 18 Jan 2011)

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The Decemberists
The King Is Dead

The King Is Dead was 2011’s first great album, and by serving up enduring hymns for both winter and spring, the Decemberists’ sixth album kept bearing fruit all year. After the relative bloat of 2009’s The Hazards of Love, the ‘Rists turned to stateside roots-music influences with help from folk mama Gillian Welch, who helps smooth out singer Colin Meloy’s earnest bleat, and the guitar jangle of Peter Buck. By soft-pedaling the narratives of forest queens and ornithological wives, Meloy & Co. simplified lyrics and song structures but remained fastidious in musical arrangements, resulting in a gorgeous cross-section of life’s rich pageant, rustic musical idioms, and catchy jubilation. The King Is Dead is a near-perfect set of irresistible Americana and the Decemberists’ most consistently listenable album to date. At ten songs over 40 minutes, there isn’t a wasted second anywhere on the record. Steve Leftridge

 


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Adele

21

(Columbia; US: 22 Feb 2011; UK: 24 Jan 2011)

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Adele
21

Add 21 to the list of great breakup records like Blood on the Tracks and Shoot out the Lights. But as gripping as the material is, it’s Adele’s extraordinary voice that carries the day. Smoky, world weary and possessing an uncommon ability to express longing, regret and damnation that belies her young age. A hit song like “Rolling in the Deep” drops every 10 years or so and when it comes on the radio following a torrent of bland and banal hits, time just stops. You stop. You pull to the side of the road so you can really listen. We need Adele like the NBA needed Magic Johnson. Someone who elevates the medium itself. And then there’s the delightful fact that this is not your mother’s pop diva. Here’s a woman who not only lacks the long legs and lithe frame, but she is brazenly comfortable with it. “I don’t make music for eyes. I make music for ears,” she says. It’s hugely significant that Adele’s appeal stretches from middle-aged folks to teenage girls struggling with body issues. If there’s Adele stock, I’m buying in bulk. Bill See

 


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Kurt Vile

Smoke Ring for My Halo

(Matador; US: 8 Mar 2011)

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Kurt Vile
Smoke Ring for My Halo

On his fourth album, Kurt Vile has stumbled onto a kind of blissed-out perfection. “Stumbled” seems the right word, as a central part of his persona is that of a sleepwalking young rebel. Yet for all the cynical nonchalance about the world that’s expressed in his lyrics, musically he seems right on top of what he’s doing, which is an eccentric version of guitar-led folk-blues troubadour music that carries in it both a stoned romanticism and a steady streak of punk nihilism. As he’s moved from lo-fi DIY recording to something more polished, and to a larger record label, his music has gotten much lovelier sounding, playing up the melodic and dreamy sides. More so than ever, it’s pretty music, while also still humorously bitter and biting. The mix of anger and who-cares, romance and despair, jokes and ideas, rock nonconformity and pop transience, historicism and live-in-the-moment seems somehow just right for 2011. Dave Heaton

 


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Radiohead

The King of Limbs

(TBD; US: 29 Mar 2011; UK: 28 Mar 2011; Digital Release Date: 18 Feb 2011)

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Radiohead
The King of Limbs

Some Radiohead fans have expressed disappointment over The King of Limbs, the group’s shortest, most concise album to date. It doesn’t feature the same cerebral guitar muscle that OK Computer had nor does it rewrite the rulebook the way Kid A did. Instead, The King of Limbs is the sound of Radiohead being completely at ease with themselves, having to answer to no one’s expectations but their own. Perhaps that’s why The King of Limbs sounds as fluid as it does: never once does it sound like the band have overlabored themselves. Not during the daring dubstep-influenced opener “Bloom”, not during the funky shadow dance “Lotus Flower”, nor during the closest thing the band will ever get to having a Rocky Raccoon moment with campfire singalong “Give Up the Ghost”. It’s an album of small charms and large rewards. Radiohead doesn’t have to be constantly innovative to make great albums, and here lies the proof. Evan Sawdey

 


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Gillian Welch

The Harrow & The Harvest

(Acony; US: 28 Jun 2011; UK: 27 Jun 2011)

9

Gillian Welch
The Harrow & The Harvest

When the waiting time for Gillian Welch’s fifth album reached the six-year mark, Alan McGee of Creation Records blogged that “the long gestation period signals nothing less than a perfect album”. The Harrow & the Harvest would not appear for another two years, but when it did, everything had fallen into its rightful place. Welch and her partner David Rawlings have honed their strengths yet again to craft discomforting Americana that swears no allegiance to the past, present or future. These songs offer up small town life that never quite escapes its dark grey overcast, complete with dying mules, vanishing cornbread, thorns in the ground, drug needles and a hell of a lot of whiskey. Rawlings’ unobtrusive production job and flawlessly centered vocal harmonies, to say nothing of his lead guitar skills, only make a great product even better. Hopefully we won’t have to wait until 2019 for the next one. John Garratt

 


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PJ Harvey

Let England Shake

(Island; US: 15 Feb 2011; UK: 14 Feb 2011)

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PJ Harvey
Let England Shake

So much (wholly earned) praise has been steeped upon Harvey’s tenth release that there is little left to say. While Let England Shake‘s songs of war raise many important notions, the album’s artistic statement (or Harvey’s gall of releasing a very uncommercial album in a market oversaturated with commercialism, and succeeding) is just as intriguing. When Harvey took home her second Mercury Music Prize (becoming the first artist to ever do so), it was a moment of triumph within an ailing industry. In a time when so much glory is reserved for hottest flavors, Harvey’s victory came as a welcome reminder that art can still prevail over commerce. What’s more, PJ Harvey, with her relentless reinventions, has somehow become the antidote to Lady Gaga: Harvey is an artist first and foremost, so there is no shortage of substance with which to back her odd glamour up. Maria Schurr

 


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St. Vincent

Strange Mercy

(4AD; US: 13 Sep 2011; UK: 12 Sep 2011)

7

St. Vincent
Strange Mercy

In June, blog posts announcing Strange Mercy‘s release date commonly featured the video of her performing Big Black’s “Kerosene”. There had always been glimpses of something a bit more manic and menacing behind St. Vincent’s ethereal appearance, but in this clip she was like a woman possessed, evoking fear that she’d rip herself in two with a particularly violent jerk forward. Strange Mercy, which came out a few months afterward, was similarly a violent jerk forward. The album, her first written on guitar instead of composed strictly on a computer, is her most uncomfortable and sinister, while also being her most tuneful and approachable. The album floats effortlessly between styles—a metal falsetto swiftly morphs into a disco one—but the impression is always distinctly St. Vincent. Now three for three with album releases, Strange Mercy represents the moment Annie “St. Vincent” Clark accepted her position as the full-blown star she is. Jesse Fox

 


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The Weeknd

House of Balloons

(Self-released; US: 21 Mar 2011; UK: 21 Mar 2011)

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The Weeknd
House of Balloons

When the Weeknd’s House of Balloons mysteriously dropped earlier this year with just a handful of seedy black and white images and a curiously misspelled artist name to put to the music, enthralled listeners were quick to seek out the source. The ambiguity surrounding the release was punctuated by the music, an isolated, distressing brand of R&B that sounded like an emotionally shattered The-Dream plugged full of cocaine and dipped in ice water. “You don’t know what’s in store / But you know what you’re here for,” howled the acidic vocalist on opener “High For This”, but did we know what we were getting ourselves into? Toronto singer Abel Tesfaye emerged as the man behind the music, but House of Balloons works best as a journey through the most debauched weekend of our faceless host’s life. It’s a nine-track tale of lurid sex, heartbreak and drug indulgence, set in a hauntingly beautiful world built on synthetic drum machines and striking samples. Dean Van Nguyen

5 - 1


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M83

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

(Mute; US: 18 Oct 2011; UK: 17 Oct 2011)

5

M83
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

It’s a chilly day in hell when you can be confronted by a… JEEVES! FETCH MY RIFLE!... double album and swear, scout’s honour m’lud, you were never, ever bored. Nurse, bring forth le formidable Dreaming! It’s like the Mothership from Close Encounters in there. Yes, somewhat fittingly given their moniker, Monsieur Gonzalez shoots for the stars with rocket number six. Sure there are some questionable ‘grande fromage’ moments (a sprinkle of Seinfeld slap bass, ramblings about licking toads and the phantasmagoric reflection of Rick Wakeman’s cape) but you’ll be too hypnotised by the sheer bloody magnitude of it all. Earthlings, this be The Big Music! From electropop juggernauts (“Midnight City”, “Steve McQueen”) and Lewis Carroll trippiness (“Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”) to heartbursting, cinematic symphonies (“Wait”, “Splendor”), it’s positively colossal. Hurry Up is, despite its girth, an absolute blast and nonchalantly flips an ET-length middle finger to “Le Mal Curse du Double Disque”. Matt James

 


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tUnE-yArDs

w h o k i l l

(4AD; US: 19 Apr 2011; UK: 18 Apr 2011)

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tUnE-yArDs
w h o k i l l

Few greater compliments can be given to any artwork than to say it’ll be looked on decades from now as a document of life in our time. w h o k i l l is one of those records, and its creator seems to be actively striving for that kind of posterity. From the moment Merrill Garbus picks up a mic over adamant stomping, you know she’s got something to say. Using her voice to hold abrasion and dip effortlessly into crystal-clear romanticism, she’s playful, funny, somber when needed, even frightening (“Gangsta”‘s imitation of sirens). But the “how-does-she-even-do-it?” maneuvering of that voice—not to mention the production, a blueprint of how to make so-called “low fidelity” strong in the 2010s—is only part of it: Garbus snaps-out angry, topical questions and answers them with life-affirming optimism. (“What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta? / Anger in his heart, but he’ll never be a gangsta.”) She’s asking to people who aren’t even answering. (“With my eyes open, how can I be happy?”) But she’s asking on behalf of everyone living with the same unanswereds, and she’s asking to the people on whom our eyes are fixed: the ones who try to bleed us all. And all the men who learn to hate them. Nathan Wisnicki

 


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Fucked Up

David Comes to Life

(Matador; US: 7 Jun 2011; UK: 6 Jun 2011)

3

Fucked Up
David Comes to Life

In terms of sheer, in-your-face hubris, Fucked Up’s punk opera opus David Comes to Life has no peers this year. For starters, there’s the album’s high-concept conceit, which requires advanced study in hermeneutics to suss out: What starts out as a boy-meets-girl love story set in a dystopian alternate reality turns into a conspiracy theory whodunit told from multiple perspectives by unreliable narrators. The thing is, the storyline isn’t even what’s most audacious about David, as Fucked Up takes its experimental hardcore in a trajectory that goes above and beyond anything the Toronto collective has done before. Though it’s impossible for Damian Abraham’s growling vocals to be any more intense, the skyscraping riffs reach higher and the sledgehammering rhythms dredge deeper on David. Yet in the midst of its relentless aesthetic, Fucked Up manages to hone its craft with a subtle, underlying strain of melody that draws you in and keeps you riveted. Getting credit for being ambitious is one thing, but it’s ultimately the execution you’re judged on, which is what makes David Comes to Life the remarkable achievement that it is. Arnold Pan

 


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Bon Iver

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

(Jagjaguwar; US: 21 Jun 2011; UK: 20 Jun 2011)

2

Bon Iver
Bon Iver, Bon Iver

The story of Justin Vernon’s debut record as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007), became the stuff of legend—almost to the point of overwhelming the music on that album. You know it by now: sad guy moves out to cabin in woods, records songs on acoustic guitar, gets the last laugh. Vernon took his time recording For Emma‘s follow-up, and fans couldn’t be blamed for wondering how he could possibly recreate the strange, isolated conditions that led to that album’s composition. Fortunately, Vernon figured out just how to do it: don’t. Bon Iver, Bon Iver is, in many ways, the polar opposite of For Emma. Where that record found expression in stripped-down, haunting arrangements, Bon Iver traffics in lush, abundant orchestration, a smorgasbord of instruments not vying for attention so much as adding individual brushstrokes to a breathtakingly vivid canvas. Calling it “expansive” feels cheap; this is a record with no horizons in sight. Corey Beasley

 


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Fleet Foxes

Helplessness Blues

(Sub Pop; US: 3 May 2011; UK: 10 May 2011)

1

Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues

While helplessness has been a pretty popular running theme throughout independent music of the last few years, it may have reached its apex when Fleet Foxes released their gorgeous, beguiling second album, a paean to not really knowing what comes next. On the title song, frontman Robin Pecknold asks, “What’s my name, what’s my station? / Oh, just tell me what I should do,” before extolling the virtues of being “a functioning cog in some great machinery”. In an era of doubt and uncertainty, how much more familiar can those sentiments be? Helplessness Blues builds off of everything that made the band’s self-titled debut great: big-hearted Beach-Boys-in-Appalachia harmonies, finger-picking, and pastoral imagery are all present and accounted for. But what makes Helplessness Blues even better is the group’s considerable skill at weaving almost mythical narratives and settings, like the Samson-and-Delilah redux of “Sim Sala Bim” or the backwoods black magic of “The Shrine/An Argument”. It’s a step forward for Fleet Foxes on all fronts, and it’s the finest album of 2011. Billy Hepfinger

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/152303-the-75-best-albums-of-2011/