The 75 Best Albums of 2011

35. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints [Souterrain Transmissions]

“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

34. Big K.R.I.T. – ReturnofEva [mixtape]

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

33. Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What [Hear Music]

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

32. Washed Out – Within and Without [Sub Pop]

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

31. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck [Merge]

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

30. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up [Sub Pop]

“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

29. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire [PaxAm/Capitol]

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

28. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light [Interscope]

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

27. Wilco – The Whole Love [dBpm/Anti-]

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

26. Peter Bjorn and John – Gimme Some [StarTime International

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