The 75 Best Albums of 2011

The year's best albums feature sophomore sets from two of indie's finest artists, a hardcore punk opera masterpiece, career highlights from four amazing women in the top 10 alone, new forward-thinking R&B and hip-hop, an electronic Big Album that shoots for the moon, and so much more.

Artist: My Brightest Diamond

Album: All Things Will Unwind

Label: Asthmatic Kitty

US Release Date: 2011-10-18

UK Release Date: 2011-10-10


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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

Artist: Amon Tobin

Album: ISAM

Label: Ninja Tune

US Release Date: 2011-05-24

UK Release Date: 2011-05-23


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Amon Tobin

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

Artist: Zola Jesus

Album: Conatus

Label: Sacred Bones

US Release date: 2011-10-04

UK Release date: 2011-09-26


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Zola Jesus

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

Artist: The Vaccines

Album: What Did You Expect From...

Label: Columbia

US Release Date: 2011-03-11

UK Release Date: 2011-03-11


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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

Artist: Gang Gang Dance

Album: Eye Contact

Label: 4AD

US Release date: 2011-05-10

UK Release date: 2011-05-09


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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

Artist: The Field

Album: Looping State of Mind

Label: Kompakt

US Release Date: 2011-10-11

Uk Release Date: 2011-10-10


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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

Artist: Lucinda Williams

Album: Blessed

Label: Lost Highway

US Release Date: 2011-03-01

UK Release Date: 2011-02-28


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Lucinda Williams

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

Artist: Slow Club

Album: Paradise

Label: Moshi Moshi

US Release Date: 2011-09-13

UK Release Date: 2011-09-12


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Slow Club

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

Artist: The Airborne Toxic Event

Album: All at Once

Label: Island

US Release Date: 2011-04-26

UK Release Date: 2011-04-25


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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

Artist: Atlas Sound

Album: Parallax

Label: 4AD

US Release Date: 2011-11-08

UK Release Date: 2011-11-07


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Atlas Sound

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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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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