The 75 Best Albums of 2011

55. They Might Be Giants – Join Us [Idlewind/Rounder]

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

54. My Morning Jacket – Circuital [ATO]

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

53. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges [Constellation]

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

52. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain [Vice]

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

51. Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde [Fat Possum]

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

50. Wye Oak – Civilian [Merge]

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

49. 40 Watt Sun – The Inside Room [Metal Blade]

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

48. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972 [Kranky]

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 M.L. 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

47. Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots [ATO]

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

46. Hammers of Misfortune – 17th Street [Metal Blade]

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