The 75 Best Albums of 2011

25. Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials [Universal]

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

24. Destroyer – Kaputt [Merge]

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 an 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 a 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

23. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes [Atlantic]

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

22. Wild Flag – Wild Flag [Merge]

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

21. The Antlers – Burst Apart [Frenchkiss]

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

20. Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys! [Fiction/Polydor]

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

19. Tom Waits – Bad As Me [Anti-/Epitaph]

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

18. Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band – American Legacies [McCoury Music]

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

17. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’ [Columbia]

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

16. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost [True Panther Sounds]

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