The 75 Best Albums of 2011

75. My Brightest Diamond – All Things Will Unwind [Asthmatic Kitty]

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 effect 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

LISTEN: Bandcamp

74. Amon Tobin – ISAM [Ninja Tune]

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

73. Zola Jesus – Conatus [Sacred Bones]

One of us! One of us! Yes, Zola Jesus’ music may emanate 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

72. The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From… [Columbia]

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

71. Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact [4AD]

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 11-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

70. The Field – Looping State of Mind [Kompakt]

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

69. Lucinda Williams – Blessed [Lost Highway]

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

68. Slow Club – Paradise [Moshi Moshi]

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

67. The Airborne Toxic Event – All at Once [Island]

There’s no sophomore slump from these Los Angeles 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

66. Atlas Sound – Parallax [4AD]

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