The 75 Best Albums of 2011

5. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming [Mute]

It’s a chilly day in hell when you can be confronted by a… JEEVES! FETCH MY RIFLE!… double album and swear, scout’s honour m’lud, you were never, ever bored. Nurse, bring forth le formidable Dreaming! It’s like the Mothership from Close Encounters in there. Yes, somewhat fittingly given their moniker, Monsieur Gonzalez shoots for the stars with rocket number six. Sure there are some questionable ‘grande fromage’ moments (a sprinkle of Seinfeld slap bass, ramblings about licking toads and the phantasmagoric reflection of Rick Wakeman’s cape) but you’ll be too hypnotised by the sheer bloody magnitude of it all. Earthlings, this be The Big Music! From electropop juggernauts (“Midnight City”, “Steve McQueen”) and Lewis Carroll trippiness (“Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”) to heartbursting, cinematic symphonies (“Wait”, “Splendor”), it’s positively colossal. Hurry Up is, despite its girth, an absolute blast and nonchalantly flips an ET-length middle finger to “Le Mal Curse du Double Disque”. — Matt James

4. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l [4AD]

Few greater compliments can be given to any artwork than to say it’ll be looked on decades from now as a document of life in our time. w h o k i l l is one of those records, and its creator seems to be actively striving for that kind of posterity. From the moment Merrill Garbus picks up a mic over adamant stomping, you know she’s got something to say. Using her voice to hold abrasion and dip effortlessly into crystal-clear romanticism, she’s playful, funny, somber when needed, even frightening (“Gangsta”‘s imitation of sirens). But the “how-does-she-even-do-it?” maneuvering of that voice — not to mention the production, a blueprint of how to make so-called “low fidelity” strong in the 2010s — is only part of it: Garbus snaps-out angry, topical questions and answers them with life-affirming optimism. (“What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta? / Anger in his heart, but he’ll never be a gangsta.”) She’s asking to people who aren’t even answering. (“With my eyes open, how can I be happy?”) But she’s asking on behalf of everyone living with the same unanswereds, and she’s asking to the people on whom our eyes are fixed: the ones who try to bleed us all. And all the men who learn to hate them. — Nathan Wisnicki

3. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life [Matador]

In terms of sheer, in-your-face hubris, Fucked Up’s punk opera opus David Comes to Life has no peers this year. For starters, there’s the album’s high-concept conceit, which requires advanced study in hermeneutics to suss out: What starts out as a boy-meets-girl love story set in a dystopian alternate reality turns into a conspiracy theory whodunit told from multiple perspectives by unreliable narrators. The thing is, the storyline isn’t even what’s most audacious about David, as Fucked Up takes its experimental hardcore in a trajectory that goes above and beyond anything the Toronto collective has done before. Though it’s impossible for Damian Abraham’s growling vocals to be any more intense, the skyscraping riffs reach higher and the sledgehammering rhythms dredge deeper on David. Yet in the midst of its relentless aesthetic, Fucked Up manages to hone its craft with a subtle, underlying strain of melody that draws you in and keeps you riveted. Getting credit for being ambitious is one thing, but it’s ultimately the execution you’re judged on, which is what makes David Comes to Life the remarkable achievement that it is. — Arnold Pan

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver [Jagjaguwar]

The story of Justin Vernon’s debut record as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007), became the stuff of legend — almost to the point of overwhelming the music on that album. You know it by now: sad guy moves out to cabin in woods, records songs on acoustic guitar, gets the last laugh. Vernon took his time recording For Emma‘s follow-up, and fans couldn’t be blamed for wondering how he could possibly recreate the strange, isolated conditions that led to that album’s composition. Fortunately, Vernon figured out just how to do it: don’t. Bon Iver, Bon Iver is, in many ways, the polar opposite of For Emma. Where that record found expression in stripped-down, haunting arrangements, Bon Iver traffics in lush, abundant orchestration, a smorgasbord of instruments not vying for attention so much as adding individual brushstrokes to a breathtakingly vivid canvas. Calling it “expansive” feels cheap; this is a record with no horizons in sight. — Corey Beasley

1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues [Sub Pop]

While helplessness has been a pretty popular running theme throughout independent music of the last few years, it may have reached its apex when Fleet Foxes released their gorgeous, beguiling second album, a paean to not really knowing what comes next. On the title song, frontman Robin Pecknold asks, “What’s my name, what’s my station? / Oh, just tell me what I should do,” before extolling the virtues of being “a functioning cog in some great machinery”. In an era of doubt and uncertainty, how much more familiar can those sentiments be? Helplessness Blues builds off of everything that made the band’s self-titled debut great: big-hearted Beach-Boys-in-Appalachia harmonies, finger-picking, and pastoral imagery are all present and accounted for. But what makes Helplessness Blues even better is the group’s considerable skill at weaving almost mythical narratives and settings, like the Samson-and-Delilah redux of “Sim Sala Bim” or the backwoods black magic of “The Shrine/An Argument”. It’s a step forward for Fleet Foxes on all fronts, and it’s the finest album of 2011. — Billy Hepfinger