TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2011

HONORABLE MENTION:

Explosions In The Sky/ Take Care, Take Care, Take Care: Entirely instrumental and filled with atmospheric, silvery guitars, post-rockers Explosions In The Sky crafted an intricate collection of songs that require a bit of patience from the listener, but reward with cascading crescendos. A lot of the music takes awhile to evolve over these six long tracks- “Human Qualities” comes to a compete halt midway through, and standout “Postcard From 1952” doesn’t really get going until about the two minute mark. Still, there is a triumphant quality to the latter track, and to songs like opener “Last Known Surroundings”, which shows off airy guitar and a pretty piano melody that draws us in right off the bat. Closer “Let Me Back In” sounds a bit sorrowful and combines so many well arranged musical elements to create one of the prettiest moments here as it soars through the coda.

Oneohtrix Point Never/ Replica: Producer Daniel Lopatin creates experimental sounds here that ultimately straddle the line between delicate beauty and moderately frightening music. On first listen, the pure synth buzz of opener “Andro” sounds almost other-worldly and difficult to grasp, but digging further, there’s a gorgeous tone to the steadily evolving, eventually buzzing piano chords of the title track, the monolithic “Submersible”, the tribal clubs beats that begin and evolve on “Up” and the extraordinary eeriness of “Power of Persuasion.” This music is far from accessible, but it reminds me a bit of the ambient sounds of The Books in terms of its solidarity and exclusivity from the rest of the musical spectrum. They are another band I always respected but never completely understood, and while the music itself is not similar to their style, it lurks beneath the surface level in the same manner, only to stick with you later almost subconsciously.

SBTRKT/ SBTRKT: This unique project out of the UK uses guest vocalists over a variety of beats, ranging from 80s R&B music complemented by Sampha and his vocal stylings that are reminiscent of Antony Hegarty to bass-heavy electronica. Bass is a dominant yet contrasting theme here, with the deep throttle on the ghostly “Right Thing To Do” and the groovy bounce on “Pharoes” both showing off catchy synthesized underbellies that wouldn’t have been out of place in the early 80s pop scene but sound completely different nonetheless. Highlight “Wildfire” shows off an addictive, almost robotic loop, while cowbells open “Never Never” and combine with a syncopated drum beat and poppy R & B melody. There’s virtually no flow between these tracks, but they stand quite well in and of themselves, and in the end the electronic sound is geared surprisingly towards jazzy, bluesy pop.

Shabazz Palaces/ Black Up: Remember the Digable Planets? “The Rebirth of Slick” and its jazzy, spaced-out groove was one of the best and most musical rap songs of the 1990s, and now lead man Ishmael Butler is back darker and more politically driven with his new project Shabazz Palaces. Black Up won’t inspire much recognition from clubgoers that want dance beats, but for fans of abstract, blunted out hip hop, it doesn’t get much better than this. It is dark, complex and beat-driven with understated instrumentation throughout; there’s a subtle but deep bass line on “Recollections of the Wraith”, horns and a piano loop on the sweeping “Are You…Can You…Were You?” and a saxaphone weaving through “Endeavors for Never.” The swanky highlight “Swerve…The Reeping of All That is Worthwhile” is a bit brighter, with Butler delivering words of wisdom like “If you talk about it/ It’s a show/ But if you move about it/ It’s a go.”

Bjork/ Biophilia: It is true that Bjork may have overextended herself a bit here, forsaking the quality of some of these songs for the larger concept of attaching an IPad app to each track. Still, there are moments where we are reminded of her incredible willingness to innovate, and where her vocals steal the show. The futuristic “Crystalline” and devastating “Mutual Core” alone are worth the price of admission, and the slow burning, glittery tracks like “Virus” and opener “Moon” make up for the dreary, halting drone of the album’s middle tracks. Biophilia lacks the explosiveness of her mid 90s classics like Post and Homogenic, a sound that many of her fans are still wishing she would return to. However, the patient resolve showed on the slowly building “Thunderbolt” and “Cosmology” make up for some repetitive arrangements and are a step in the right direction after the challenging lack of instrumentation on the experimental Medulla or the worthless Volta.

Emika/ Emika: This Bristol transplant is highly educated musically and draws from the beats of Aalyiah and hometown greats Portishead to establish a dark, tortured trip hop sound that is all her own. There’s impressive depth and confidence demonstrated here between highlights like “Drop the Other”, which uses a syncopated beat that sounds like an evil version of “Are You That Somebody”, while “The Long Goodbye” channels Beth Gibbons remarkably. The piano loops on “Common Exchange” and “Double Edge” are bonafide haunted house music, and in all seriousness there isn’t hardly a track here that isn’t overwhelmingly eerie, dark and quite suited for the background of a horror-movie dungeon scene. Stucturally, the songs themselves seem fairly similar, although Emika’s ability to intertwine subtle elements that create such anxious, unsettling undertones, such as the simple synth squeal on “Pretend,” lead to high anticipation for what she could create in the future.

The Decemberists/ The King Is Dead: Following the 2009 release of full blown concept album and heavy rock opera The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists get back to basics on The King Is Dead, a much poppier, cheerier record that leans more upon the band’s folk and country roots. There’s a simplicity to the overall sound here that prevents this record from reaching the levels of complexity of some of their prior work. However, the tradeoff is that the vast majority of these songs are immediately memorable and easy to sing along to after one or two listens. Major keys dominate a rare falsetto from lead singer Colin Meloy on highlight “Calamity Song”, while the band reaches its rustic pinnacle on “All Arise”, which opens with a country violin and adds bluesy piano through its upbeat duration. There’s a bit more of a mainstream feeling on the bittersweet tracks like “This Is How We Fight”, which gain extra production luster and lushness, but aren’t as affecting as previous material like “Eli The Barrowboy.”

#25 James Blake/ James Blake

The highly anticipated debut full length from British electronic producer James Blake was supposed to follow the dubstep path based on his prior EP releases. Instead, his self-titled album is remarkably stripped down and restrained, as many of these tracks are geared more towards song-oriented ballads. Blake shows off a hushed, tormented voice that seems to imitate Antony Hegarty, especially on melodic, despairing tracks like “Why Don’t You Call Me” and its second half, the darker, eerier “I Mind.” The album opens with an understated organ synth buzz on “Unluck” before leading into the more nuanced “The Wilhelm Scream”, as Blake propels a tiny loop along with a simple melody as he laments “All that I know is I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin…might as well fall.” Better yet is “To Care Like You”, which probably comes closest to what his prior work had promised, with its whispery vocals and dark, looping synth effects. I don’t care much for the placement of the piano-driven cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” as a centerpiece here; it seems out of place and doesn’t hold a candle to the original anyway, and would have made more sense as a bonus track. Still, closer “Measurements” possesses some Gospel influences and wraps things up in a manner that points to Blake’s abilities to create beautiful soulful sounding music without over-wrapping the package.

#24 Beirut/ The Rip Tide

On this intentionally understated and restrained effort that is also his shortest full length effort to date, Zach Condon created his most carefree, easy-listening collection of songs. There’s plenty of horns used here, as is typical for his style, but Condon balances the effects of his instrumentation and diversifies their sounds among these nine tracks.  The sunny and upbeat highlight “Santa Fe” sticks out a bit here with its catchy organ synth jabs that are backed by a sweeping big band trombone bridge, while the equally stellar “East Harlem” brings those horn arrangements closer to the surface above some piano and accordion elements to create a more melancholy vibe.  Violin combines with a waltzing time signature as the horns practically dance themselves on “Payne’s Bay,” but it is actually the combination of a soft piano and strings that provide the album’s most affecting emotional moment on the somber title track. Condon’s penchant for soft, bittersweet melodies is on full display on tracks like “Goshen” and “The Peacock”, while his commanding baritone vocals show maturation and genuine emotion through a slight tremble on the ukulele-driven closing track “Port of Call.”

#23 Cults/ Cults

I can’t remember the last time that an album’s cover expressed its sound, tone and motivation any better than this one does, and having said that, who wouldn’t want to be a part of it? This collection of short, upbeat and ultimately addictive pop rock songs is fun and consistently melodic, and is over in a brief thirty minutes and change. The duo Cults rose to fame in the later part of 2010 when the carefree summer anthem “Go Outside” hit the internet, and that song certainly sounded even better this year when the warmer weather arrived. Lead singer Madeline Follin has one of those endearingly cute female alto voices, but she also shows her considerable vocal chops on tracks like “Walk at Night” and “Oh My God.” The songs that hit hardest are actually the ones that use vocal interplay between Follin and band mate Brian Oblivion, such as the bouncy, head bopping opener “Abducted” and the impossibly catchy penultimate track “Bumpin’.” Cults aren’t trying to break any new ground here and the music itself isn’t incredibly complex. Nevertheless, it serves its purpose admirably, and it sure is a fun listen, and the perfect soundtrack for a sunny afternoon get together.

#22 PJ Harvey/ Let England Shake

Powerful, somber and filled with wartime allegory, Polly Jean Harvey focused in conceptually upon World War I on Let England Shake. There’s moments of pure brilliance here, notably on “The Words That Maketh Murder”, where the intelligent balance of sarcastic lyrics that ponder with cynicism the post-war negotiations and  horrific wartime imagery are trumped only by the arrangement, complete with a gorgeous melody backed by a subtle horn. Through the song’s coda, Harvey jokes hopelessly, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” Or on “Written on the Forehead”, where the tone turns softer and gentler, and Harvey allows her voice to float gracefully above its persistent beat and atmospheric sound. The verses on “All & Everyone” sound forced and redundant, but all is forgiven when a gorgeous dirge horn comes through on the chorus, and the unsettling title track serves as an ideal tone-setting opener.  At times, the serious tone of the album and the repetitive references to her love of England (and disdain for America?) wear on its listenability a bit, but one cannot deny its artistic aptitude.

#21 St. Vincent/ Strange Mercy

I for one enjoyed Annie Clark’s excessive string arrangements and the eccentricities they brought to her last album Actor. This time around the songs are more refined and equally adventurous, but more dependent on Clark’s considerable abilities as a guitarist. There’s careful attention to tone here, as evidenced by Clark’s distant, echoed vocal presence on the title track, as she threatens with eerie bravado “If I ever meet that/ Dirty policeman/ Who roughed you up…” She even throws in a dose of catchy pop with “Cruel” which works quite well after the heavy guitar blasts that dominate intense opener “Chloe in the Afternoon.” Clark’s greatest strength has always been her ability to balance with contrast those moments of explosive synth and her delicate vocal delivery style, and “Dilettante” is no exception, creating a slow groove that benefits from propulsive thrusts of distorted horns at all the right moments. The steady, anxious keyboard loop that weaves through “Surgeon” may be the best single thing here, and the song gains layers of complexity as it develops, including a sweeping atmospheric string interlude, increasingly desperate vocals, and a powerful keyboard solo as it concludes. Consistent and solid throughout, Strange Mercy concludes on a softer note with its prettiest track, the melancholy “Year of the Tiger.”

#20 TV on the Radio/ Nine Types of Light

Recent albums like Return to Cookie Mountain, Dear Science and even the more middling debut Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes established TV on the Radio as one of the most exciting bands on the indie scene over the course of the last decade. Yet even on the latter, there was a brooding, unsettling tension that seems swapped out this time around for a more carefree, poppy optimism that works in principle but seems a decidedly large shift for a band that has previously taken larger musical risks. As with any record from these guys, highlights abound. The sweeping, intensely melodic “Keep Your Heart” is vintage TVOTR in the same vein as effortless major-key tracks like “Let the Devil In” or “Crying”, while the  shimmering “Will Do” shuffles along with bittersweet beauty. Closing track “Caffeinated Consciousness” is worthy of standout status here, and  actually ramps the energy up a notch, a certain shift from the more subtle conclusions of prior albums. Still, Nine Types of Light also suffers relative to its predecessors on several instances. Tracks like “You” and “New Cannonball Run” are catchy enough but seem to dawdle on with their repetitive nature without establishing any of the build and release dynamic that made most of the band’s previous work so successful. Meanwhile, dance track “No Future Shock” comes off as a watered down attempt to recreate “Dancing Choose”, and the admittedly pretty “Killer Crane” brings the album to a virtual halt, evolving at a snail’s pace and never really ending up anywhere with its overly dramatic undertones. Opener “Second Song” is lively enough, but sounds almost goofy with its falsetto chorus and is a somewhat shocking opener when compared to the innovation and confidence the band has shown on tracks like “I Was A Lover”, “Halfway Home” and even “The Wrong Way.” Perhaps this is the all-is-well, love story side of TVOTR, and while the album works well enough in that regard and shouldn’t fail to gain new listeners with its less challenging textures, we’ve come to expect just a bit more from them. Fortunately, even an average record from these guys merits recognition.

#19 The Field/ Looping State of Mind

Axel Willner is well-versed in the art of taking a simple loop, repeating it, and adding layers of sound to it to create tension before ultimately releasing its energy, and therefore his third full length record is aptly named. While it falls short of the types of crescendos and immediacy that made his debut From Here We Go Sublime a mandatory item, and while it may require a bit more patience, there is still an impressive amount of exciting new direction to uncover beneath these textures. On first listen, Looping sounds a lot more techno-driven and the added elements sound more subtle, which in turn makes the music sound a bit more repetitive. But dig deeper and you’ll find nuanced moments on the dark, foreboding opener “Is This Power” as it evolves, such as an understated, poking synth jab that settles behind its main loop, or the feeling of tension that builds just before as the beat drops completely out of it for a stanza only to come back in again forcefully, and with new complexities to boot. “It’s Up There” sounds more familiar, and it is easy to envision clubgoers grinding it out to that one’s hard oonce-oonce beats despite its ominous undertones, while the upbeat, optimistic title track moves along steadily, adding synthesized horns and strings ever so slowly and carefully before fading out silently. But it’s the inclusion of a song like “Then It’s White”, with its soft piano notes and airy syncopated percussion, that creates a dream-like vibe and brings that extra level of depth and complexity to this album.

#18 Destroyer/ Kaputt

I can remember listening to Kaputt way back in February while looking at the Pacific Ocean from my balcony in Puerto Vallarta, and how perfectly the music went with that backdrop. I can also remember seeing Dan Bejar perform songs from this album in July at the Pitchfork Music Festival dressed head to toe in white linen. That seemed even more appropriate- this collection of songs absolutely screams white linen. Bejar has never been my favorite member of the New Pornographers; his eccentric nature and arrogance tends to lead to a lack of focus on his generally experimental solo efforts as Destroyer despite his considerable acumen as a musician. But with Kaputt, he created a solid, evenly balanced record full of relaxing, dreamlike songs that carry a new sound that is smooth and consistent throughout, a sound that some might argue has its roots in early 80s pop and jazz. There’s a lot of saxophone and various horn instrumentation weaving through these tracks. Opener “Chinatown” sounds especially fantastic with the windows down driving along the ocean as it creates a chill seaside vibe, and there’s such an effortless bounce to the title track as Bejar sings “Sounds, smash hits, melody maker NME/ All sounds like a dream to me.” “Song For America” is equally jazzy and impressive although it sounds quite similar to the title track, while the steady groove of “Savage Night at the Opera” fits the sound and style of this album like a glove.  Even if the relaxing vibes begin to blend and become numbing by the end, missteps on the over-sentimentalized “Blue Eyes” and a forced line about “red rover” on the middling “Downtown” can be forgiven, as this is easily Destroyer’s best record to date.

#17 Smith Westerns/ Dye It Blonde

These young Chicagoans excel on their major label debut, creating a unique sound of rich and psychedelic rock music that is deeply layered and persistently melodic. The band’s lo-fi roots are still evident through the echoed vocals and heavy reverb on quick-lick opener “Weekend”, but the extra production value has added considerably to a lush, fuller sound. There are massive, spacious guitar hooks here that seem right out of 1970s rock on tracks like “Still New” and album standout “All Die Young”, which makes a sudden shift halfway through into a triumphant piano-driven coda as leadman Cullen Omori sings “All die young/ Love is lovely when you are young” above some lovely harmonies. It’s really the addictive and melodic hooks used throughout that make Dye It Blonde such a necessary listen, and there may no better instance than on “Imagine, Pt. 3,” where there’s more piano and an extra layer of texture as well. “End of the Night” and “Dance Away” sound downright celebratory, while the simple riff repeated on “Only One” is incredibly catchy initially before it soars through the lifted chorus. Sure, at times all of these elements start to blend together a bit, but this album is just too much fun to overlook, and it works cohesively as Smith Westerns create comfortably within their unique style.

#16 Real Estate/ Days

The follow-up to 2009’s self-titled debut is without a doubt the year’s best driving album. Days draws from the jangly western guitar twang from that effort and adds atmosphere and impeccable melodies, ultimately creating a record that sounds smooth, effortless and calming. The songs here show considerable quality across the board and blend together nicely, making Days the perfect candidate for a long drive on the open road. Opener “Easy” works as a metaphor for the album as a whole, moving gently across a soundscape of steady guitar lines and whispy, carefree vocals. This isn’t to say that the music itself is simple or mundane, but rather that Real Estate isn’t showing off here, as every move, note and lyric seems to appreciate and strive for the concept of simplicity. Highlights like “Green Aisles” sound a bit more ethereal and relaxing with lines like “Our careless lifestyle/ It was not so unwise, no” delivered nonchalantly, while the rollicking and incredibly catchy “It’s Real” showcases some impressive harmony draped by a killer hook. Perhaps the best guitar line of all comes on the bittersweet but understated “Out of Tune”, while closer “All The Same” uses a quicker time signature and a rolling, sparkling guitar thump that ends the album on a bright note and lingers for several minutes as the melody slows itself down to a halt. Overall, Days is a very pleasing record, thanks largely to its combination of precision and restraint.

#15 Cut Copy/ Zonoscope

There seems to be a bit more 80s pop and new wave influence on the follow up to the massive In Ghost Colours, and while Zonoscope doesn’t contain nearly as many anthemic tracks as that one did, it does show impressive flow and consistency. Opener “Need You Now” feels like vintage Cut Copy but is much more subdued and less immediate, building slowly from a tense bass beat grind backed by chiming synth and saving all its energy for a release through the finish. Better yet are the sweeping “Take Me Over”, which rolls, weaves and bounces behind its bright synth hook, as well as the combination of harmony and hard beats on catchy centerpiece “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution.” There’s a mildly unsettling paranoia to the pounding highlight “Alisa” as Cut Copy take their sound in a different direction but never lose their groove, while they broaden their horizons with stripped down synth shots and cowbells on “Pharoes and Pyramids.”  The closest we get to a full-blown house anthem might be with the textbook build and release structure of “Corner of the Sky”, but on the whole, Zonoscope falls a bit short of its predecessor due to a small dose of overindulgence. Closer “Sun God” might have been brilliant if condensed, but grows overwrought and tiresome over its fifteen minute length, while tracks like “This Is All We’ve Got” and the glistening “Hanging onto Every Heartbeat” grow a bit repetitive and excessively sentimental. Still, there’s more attention to the flow of the music this time around as Cut Copy builds upon their style with precision.

#14 Washed Out/ Within and Without

One man solo project Ernest Greene aka Washed Out makes chilled out music that attempts to relax, and this particularly lush and hypnotic debut effort combines atmosphere with softly synthesized beats and the occasional dose of darkness (read: this is love-makin’ music.) This release is a bit more diverse than his well received EP would indicate, as early on, opener “Eyes Be Closed” could practically have been included on Moby’s Play if it weren’t so full and rounded out on its corners, while early highlight “Echoes” is mildly unsettling with its dark but dance-floor ready electronica and understated snare cracks. Highlights abound in the album’s latter half, shifting stylistically between the dark, rolling synths of “Soft” and the foreboding cello line of the slowly building “Far Away” to the brighter, bass-heavy underwater psychedelia of layered standout “You And I” and the hard hitting electronic drum line and glittery synth on “Before.” The electronic elements get a break for a moment on the gorgeous piano-driven closer “A Dedication” before understated drums and horns kick in halfway through to send the album off with commendable restraint. Approachable and warm, Within and Without isn’t breaking down any musical barriers within its chill-wave genre, but it sure is a fine candidate to begin any summer morning.

#13 Panda Bear/ Tomboy

Noah Lennox aka Panda Bear is a master of creating melodic music around repetitive loops that build and evolve, and this style continues to shine on Tomboy, a darker but more song-oriented and accessible effort than his groundbreaking Person Pitch. His penchant for melodic structure is immediately evident on a capella opener “You Can Count on Me”, which is simple but hypnotic. Dark, fuzzy electronic organ reverb on “Tomboy” leads into the sensational highlight “Slow Motion”, which creates an atypically pounding and forceful beat for this artist by utilizing another eerie organ riff backed by synthesized percussion claps and echoed vocals. There’s still a bit of summery beach pop intermittently here; “Surfer’s Hymn” is carefree and lifted, capturing some of the psychedelic underwater feel that permeated songs like “Take Pills” on Person Pitch. Also, “Last Night at the Jetty” feels warm and spacious, using a delicate electronic time signature behind Lennox’s atmospheric vocals. Unfortunately, there are tracks in the middle here that miss completely, like the aptly named “Drone”, which builds to nowhere and brings the album to a virtual halt, and the experimental “Scheherazade”, which sounds like something you might hear at one of Lennox’s challenging live shows. In between, the initially melancholy “Alsatian Darn” works better, building from its uncertain verses into one of the album’s prettiest, most triumphant codas, complete with hand claps and lifted vocals. Penultimate track “Afterburner” creates an uneasy atmosphere as it builds into a tense release, while the ambient closer “Benfica” showcases Lennox’s vocal range and ends the album on a relaxing dream pop note. While not on the same level of complexity as his groundbreaking previous album, it’s nice to see Lennox step back into more conventional song structures here, while still demonstrating a hunger to experiment with his sound.

#12 Youth Lagoon/ The Year of Hibernation

Making music in your basement seems to be all the rage these days, and on Trevor Powers’ strong debut effort, he packs inwardly drawn emotion into eight short lo-fi tracks that fly by far too quickly. Musically, he combines a bizarre but intriguing medley of his strained male vocals reminiscent of Mercury Rev with ambient guitars that evoke The XX and a beach pop quality that draws from Air France, The Tough Alliance and JJ (the shimmering “Daydreaming”), besting all of the above. In terms of song structure, it does become a bit formulaic over its short length, as every song requires patience early, builds gradually, and more often than not rewards with a well-orchestrated payoff. This structure is evident early on as “Posters” starts the album off with whispered vocals that evolve into an impressively melodic, almost catchy instrumental coda. One of the album’s greatest strengths is its ability to convey a mood of melancholy while still sounding carefree and immediately memorable; the arrangements themselves are incredibly simple on tracks like “Cannons” and “Afternoon”, but Powers layers them so effectively that their ringing notes remain firmly etched in our brain long after they conclude. The devastating centerpieces “17” and “July” are the real highlights here, as the former evolves with perfection under the poignant and subtle delivery of the lyrics “When I was seventeen/ My mother said to me/ Don’t stop imagining/ The day that you do is the day that you die” into a cascading combination of drum claps, xylophone and an effortless guitar line seemingly out of nowhere. The latter isn’t nearly as straightforward and evolves more slowly, but eventually culminates into the most emotionally charged moment here through its conclusion, as Powers’ distorted vocals convey hopelessness and resignation over a beautiful electronic keyboard riff. The use of those clappy drums and the repetitive song structure after those two emotionally draining tracks begins to get tiresome as the album concludes with “Montana” and “The Hunt”, but by then it doesn’t matter.  There isn’t really a single weak track here, and it is curious indeed that the incredibly strong bonus tracks (especially “Bobby”) weren’t included to stretch this album out a bit to a proper full length.

#11 Radiohead/ The King of Limbs

Are we really living in a world where Radiohead could create an album that ranks outside of the top ten of the year? You have to hand it to my favorite group of guys from Oxford. After unleashing the incredible In Rainbows (easily one of the very best albums of the last dozen or so years) on us without warning, they couldn’t have been less concerned about the critical reception of the equally spontaneous release of their next record, The King of Limbs. At only 8 tracks, it straddles the line between EP and full length, and its content in comparison to the band’s catalog does not even merit discussion- songs like the repetitive “Morning Mr. Magpie” are admittedly slight relatively speaking. Perhaps that is the message Radiohead is trying to send, and they ultimately succeed by doing less here, whereas another band on their level (if there was one) might have attempted in vein to match or even top a previous effort by heading a new direction or trying to recapture past glory. What we have here instead is Radiohead, the greatest band in the history of music, content to have fun sounding like themselves. Songs like falsetto-driven highlight “Lotus Flower” are vintage examples of the band’s style, while the soft, pure “Codex” doesn’t stray far from past songs like “Sail to the Moon”, but seems more effortless and pretty. There’s an understated horn that comes in towards the end of that song that is surely one of the band’s most gorgeous moments to date. The underrated “Little By Little” draws from the hard hitting bass lines of “I Might Be Wrong” and “In Limbo”, while “Give Up The Ghost” acutely demonstrates the band’s continuing dominance in terms of balladry.  Still, this is Radiohead, and so we should expect some experimentation and innovation. We get it right off the bat with “Bloom”, which combines a scattered drum loop into gorgeous horns to start the album. Even closer “Separator” dials the complexity back to the Pablo Honey days but works well nonetheless, leaving us with the parting line “If you think this is over yet you’re wrong”, hopefully a promise of things to come. None of this is to say that these guys don’t have another all-timer in them at some point in the future. But in the meantime, it’s great to see them continue to enjoy being themselves and make music without worrying themsevles sick about it. And let’s face it, above average music from Radiohead beats great music from almost anyone else.

#10 Atlas Sound/ Parallax

Atlas Sound is the solo moniker of Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, and on this, his third release, he focuses more readily on straightforward musical arrangements than on the electronic experimentation that dominated his first two albums. The result is easily Cox’s best and most focused solo effort to date, and to this reviewer, even on par with his last two Deerhunter releases. There’s a noticeable step forward in terms of production, as Cox brings his typically distorted vocals closer to the surface, creating more lush textures than we heard on Logos or Let The Blind Lead Those Who Cannot See. In fact, his vocals are so intimately captured here that frequently the breaths he takes before singing a note are easily audible. Parallax suffers from strange pacing at times; the transition between the laid back groove of the title track into the slowly building, somewhat dreary “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs” and then into the poppy standout “Mona Lisa” is far from perfect, but pound for pound, the flow still feels more complete and less jumpy than anything he’s recorded before. On “Te Amo”, easily his strongest solo effort to date, Cox builds upon a swirling loop and pushes his vocals to the forefront to create a calming ambiance. Cox has always been more a fan of music than anything else despite his considerable compositional talents, and post-punk influences drawn from bands like Interpol are easily identifiable on the echoey, broken guitar lines of highlights like “Angel Is Broken” and opener “The Shakes.” More impressive still is the haunting, immaculate “Terra Incognita”, perhaps the best example of the effortless vocal execution and nonchalant arrangements that permeate the entire album. This isn’t overly complicated music by any means, but that is part of the beauty of it.

#9 The Weeknd/ House of Balloons

It has been a long, long time since an R & B album found its way onto my radar, much less onto my iPod listening rotation for any considerable amount of time. That all changed this year when independent Toronto project The Weeknd hit the internet as a free download. So much for singing about proposing to your lady on bended knee; these R & B tracks are eerie, unsettling, deeply conflicted songs. They are also complete and utter jams. The foreboding opener “High For This” alludes to a sexual act so deviant that lead singer Abel Tesfaye advises his partner not to attempt it sober, while the dance-floor ready title track seems nervous and tense before it makes a sudden shift into “Glass Table Girls”, a pure hip hop track and a daring transition that works with perfection. The entire album is dripping with sex and seduction, from the darkly lit synth and ghostly chimes on slow burning standout “What You Need” to the more playful guitar riff on prostitution tale “The Morning.” For Beach House fans, there’s impressive use of a sped up “Master of None” sample on “The Party and The After Party”, while “Loft Music” pulls from the epic “Gila”, but both songs maintain an air of originality. There’s also careful attention being paid here to the vocals themselves, as tracks like “Wicked Games” and devastating closer “The Knowing” really hit every note with exquisite detail and precision, not to mention impressive range. There’s such deep sadness, plenty of substance dependency references and an air of fear running through these songs, as we hear Tesfaye sing lines like “Bring your love baby I can bring my shame/ Bring the drugs baby I can bring my pain”, “So tell me you love me/ Even though you don’t love me” and, more directly, “I always want you when I’m coming down.” This is heavy stuff.

#8 WU LYF/ Go Tell Fire To The Mountain

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation! Possibly the most decided example of true indie rock to succeed in 2011, this debut combines a vast array of influences and still comes off sounding wholly original. There’s those raspy, tortured vocals reminiscent of Modest Mouse’s Issac Brock, the echoed, silvery guitar lines of that draw from Explosions In the Sky, the anthemic, building, call-to-arms choruses of Wolf Parade (the sprawling, constantly evolving and epic “We Bros”), the church-organ undertones that made Arcade Fire a household name (“LYF”) and the stage-stealing bass line arrangements that evoke early Interpol (the howling “Cave Song”). It’s the little things here that add up and become more than the sum of their parts; consider the perfectly executed transition as the massive, crashing coda of “Such A Sad Puppy Dog” evolves gently into the shimmering “Summas Bliss”, fading slowly without drawing any attention to the fact that a new song has even begun. Or the way that penultimate track “14 Crowns For Me And Your Friends” finishes with a desperate whimper of a guitar chord before giving way to the cascading closer “Heavy Pop,” which builds with harmonica and organ into crashing cymbals and piercing vocal shrieks. Go Tell Fire On The Mountain is a deceptively pretty record thanks to its guitar work despite its gruff vocal delivery, as the two blend together to create a sound all their own; these guys can actually make a song about “Spitting Blood” sound melodic. All of the album’s best attributes might well be summarized with “Concrete Gold”, a hidden highlight towards the end that swerves and builds between its larger-than-life melody, lifted electric guitar backdrop and rollicking percussion.

#7 Girls/ Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Girls’ debut record Album showed a lot of promise in 2009, and after releasing a solid EP last year in the interim, their sophomore effort Father, Son, Holy Ghost is one of the most pure sounding rock records released in years. The impeccable production escalates the album to a level that carries a sense of familiarity through eleven consistently strong new tracks, and sound-wise, these songs seem like they could fit into any of a number of musical eras. Lead singer Christopher Owens sounds more refined vocally this time around, and the music itself succeeds in its simplicity, such as the classic rock influences on the perfectly understated guitar solo that rings out halfway through “My Ma” or the poppy beach twang riffs of opener “Honey Bunny.” There’s  a room-filling ambiance to the easy-going, steady acoustic ballads “Saying I Love You” and “Love Is Like A River”, and “Magic” rolls along happily with sun-drenched optimism.  But there’s also a demonstration of depth and diversity here that wasn’t present on the first effort. Songs like “Vomit” and “Forgiveness” build slowly into epic status, alternating between soft stanzas and bursting, intensely emotional codas that are impressively orchestrated. Every note here has its purpose, but a main strength of this album is how personal and affecting it is lyrically, and these two tracks in particular serve as illustration, as Owens delivers such lines as “Cause there’s something that I get from myself/ And there’s something that you give to me/ Well I got one without the other/ It’s not enough to be.” Structurally, Father, Son, Holy Ghost sounds exciting despite its seemingly simple arrangements. “Die” raves it up early before breaking down into an atmospheric crescendo reminiscent of Pink Floyd, and even the aforementioned “Honey Bunny” takes a break from its speedy riffs for a well-integrated, softly delivered bridge. All told, there are too many special moments here to list, all possessing an exquisite, timeless quality that combines nostalgia and innovation in one impressive package.

#6 Antlers/ Burst Apart

The Antlers’ sophomore effort finds them operating as a complete band rather than as Pete Silberman’s bedroom project, and while this album is not as intimate or focused as 2009’s devastating Hospice, musically it feels much more full as a result. The songs towards the back of the album like “Rolled Together”, “Hounds” and “Corsicana” demonstrate a similar delicacy, and while certainly no less depressing, are arguably even more gorgeous as Silberman’s distant falsetto vocals roll over nocturnal, wintery shoegaze synth. Opener “I Don’t Want Love” practically serves as a continuation of the carnage left from the Hospice storyline, and begins the album on a melodic note. Burst Apart offers a bit more lift with rockier tracks, combining another harrowing falsetto with pulsating electronic drum notes, industrial guitar grind and eerie piano chimes on “Parentheses” before rocking out with whole-hearted desperation on “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out.” In between is album highlight “No Widows”, which despairs with its shuffling synthesized percussion under Silberman’s patient, perfectly delivered vocals into a heartwrenching chorus. Closer “Putting The Dog To Sleep” doesn’t misfire completely, but seems a bit out of place here, coming off as an overwrought rework of Hospice tracks “Bear” and “Epilogue”, which were both more subtle and effective. Still, while a noticeable departure from the flow of the previous tracks, it serves to point out how much has changed between this album and the last, and is a forgivable misstep in any case.

#5 M83/ Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

French artist Anthony Gonzalez has used the moniker M83 to compose four previous albums that have showed his evolution from an electronic experimentalist into a full blown rock star. On his most ambitious effort to date Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, he combines the best of both worlds into a double album that probably could have stood to be a few songs shorter, but still shows a depth of compositional acumen that he has yet to achieve up to this point. The album starts in unflappable manner, with Zola Jesus adding vocals for the dark “Intro.” First single and huge highlight “Midnight City” follows and combines an addictive, poppy synth melody and an insistent percussion arrangement as the track builds and evolves, eventually culminating in a saxophone-laden outro. After that, the propulsive “Reunion” and the devastating “Wait” keep the album moving along in a high quality manner. Perhaps intentionally, many of the tracks in the album’s midsection seem almost unfinished; “This Bright Flash”, “Soon My Friend” and “My Tears Are Becoming  A Sea” begin to build but stop without warning and never achieve the types of crescendos that have made his prior work so successful- a strange tactic indeed for an album that otherwise shows such broad ambition. However, Gonzalez has always used short interlude tracks on his albums, and after repeated listens, the necessity of these tracks becomes more apparent. Where the songs don’t seem so fragmented, they shine, and a more focused, condensed effort might well have resulted in a masterpiece. Some of the 80s influences from the last album Saturdays = Youth are still here in a somewhat excessive manner on “Claudia Lewis” and “OK Pal”, but there is a commendable amount of diversity here on fluttering, optimistic jangles that build into something much greater, like the sweet fairy tale “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” and “Year One, One UFO.” As always, Gonzalez is not easy on the emotions, showing soft, simple beauty on the piano driven “Splendor” and using more explosive choral disortion on highlight “Echoes of Mine.” “New Map” starts with a rush of typical M83 synth and combines lifted, atmospheric vocal elements with a coda that breaks into an extended jam session almost reminiscent of Broken Social Scene style indie rock. The greatest highlight of all may be “Steve McQueen”, a massive textural demonstration of tension and release that is held together by its dominating percussion arrangement. By and large, this is a tremendous accomplishment for Gonzalez, who set out to make a diverse record that would showcase the evolution of his sound, and his record does exactly that.

#4 Fucked Up/ David Comes To Life

The Chemistry of Common Life took punk rock outfit Fucked Up’s game to the next level, and on their follow up effort David Comes to Life, they spread their wings and make an attempt to create that most difficult of all art forms, the concept album. The result is, as expected, a virtual onslaught of energy and power, even if the concept itself isn’t communicated with a very high level of effectiveness. Instead, we’re left with a barrage of ambitious new material that often reaches musically to redefine punk rock itself. Early in the album, we hear the familiar snarls of lead singer Pink Eyes alternate uncharacteristically playful vocals with Cults’ Madeline Follin as the story begins with “Queen of Hearts.” The anthemic “The Other Shoe” provides an early highlight, hitting like a shot to the heart right off the bat with its cascading layers of sound and, oh yes, that VOICE. But things really begin to take flight as the second half of the album begins. This stretch of songs is incredibly relentless and consistent, beginning with an addictive guitar riff on “Truth I Know” and ending with the standout penultimate track “One More Night”, perhaps the best example here of the band’s ability to combine crushing emotional intensity with raw power. In between we get everything from the apocalyptic grinder “I Was There” to the more carefree but energetic punk rock sounds of “Inside A Frame” and “The Recursive Girl,” both of which are accessible enough to find some airtime at a summer cookout without raising too many eyebrows. The distant, squealing electric guitar lines that defined some of Chemistry‘s best tracks are here again on stunners like “Life In Paper” and “Ship of Fools.” Even the most egregious missteps here can be dismissed as integral to the core of the story arc. “Serve Me Right” seems forced lyrically and repetitive musically, while closer “Lights Go Up ” serves to conclude the tale but sounds like an amped up version of The Hold Steady trying to remake “Home on the Range” in the process. Fucked Up should never, ever sound like this, but therein lies the paradox of David Comes to Life: You don’t have to understand the story to appreciate the music, but you may need to appreciate the story to understand the music.

#3 Fleet Foxes/ Helplessness Blues 

There may not have been a more highly anticipated sophomore release in 2011 than Helplessness Blues. Fleet Foxes’ lead singer Robin Pecknold has been well-documented as a recluse with social anxiety issues, and the pressure to duplicate his surprisingly well-received debut full length must have been heavy. While this somewhat darker, more inward-directed and patient follow-up doesn’t contain as many immediate staple sing-along singles in the same vein as “White Winter Hymnal” or “Your Protector”, it is arguably more congruent and complex as a whole, and shows an upward progression of musical acumen. Gentle opener “Montezuma” doesn’t try to do too much, but instead glides along and showcases spot-on harmonies, which after all is perhaps the band’s best single attribute. Equally carefree is the decidedly western track “Boudin Dress”, which plays wonderfully for a sunny car ride on the open road. “Sim Sala Bim” starts calmly and precisely, but slowly evolves into an intense folk guitar strum break down through its coda before coming to a sudden end. It is these types of musical tone shifts inside of the songs that show growth within the band. They stretch out considerably on tracks like “Plains/ Bitter Dancer” and “The Shrine/ An Argument”, which are far too complex and winding in terms of arrangement to have ever been found on the last album. Highlights abound in the album’s second half, beginning with the acoustic title track, which builds and soars into an astonishing centerpiece that ranks among the very best Fleet Foxes songs to date. Later on, we get another standout in “Lorelai”, a steadily rolling and melodic song of lost love that expresses bittersweet lines like “You, you were like glue/ Holding each of us together/ I slept through July/ While you made lines in the heather” before lamenting “I was old news to you then.” And speaking of arrangement, who could have written a better track than “Grown Ocean” for placement as the closer here? It’s delivered so nonchalantly and creates such a hypnotic, dreamy effect that it’s hard to notice how effectively it builds and ultimately collapses back onto itself, sending the album off on a reassuring note. Then again, they opened with their Pitchfork set over the summer with the same song and it worked equally well. Perhaps Fleet Foxes can do no wrong.

#2 Bon Iver/ Bon Iver

Justin Vernon’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago gained attention and notoriety thanks mostly to its back story- a distraught young man holing up in a secluded Wisconsin cabin in the dead of winter to write music and refocus. It was here that he adopted the stage name “Bon Iver”, which in French literally means “good winter.” While the songs on that album were inwardly focused, spacious and commendable, I didn’t exactly fall into the same trap as many who obsessed over these raw folk tunes simply because of the fairly tale creation mechanism that surrounded them. Admittedly, I would never have expected him to be capable of producing anything nearly as accomplished or ultimately brilliant as this, his self-titled sophomore album. Where to begin? For starters, I can’t ever remember an album of this magnitude that builds as patiently or shows as much restraint. There are moments, such as on standout “Holocene”, where we expect some sort of massive culmination of a chorus line, but instead we receive the same precise, gorgeous acoustic guitar loop as Vernon repeats “And at once I knew/ I was not magnificent/ And I can see for miles, miles, miles.”  Songs like “Wash” feature a similarly repetitive loop structure, but build effortlessly with such subtle beauty. Even with such impressive restraint in those situations, where a lesser artists would have had a hard time avoiding the temptation to overdo it, the music here feels much more full and lush from a production aspect thanks to addition of a full band and careful attention to every detail of every single note and beat. In fact, this is one of the very best sounding records that has probably ever been recorded, and is a considerable ascension from the stripped down, raw sound of For Emma. Vocally, Vernon shines particularly with his ability to shift between a hopeless sounding tenor and a rich falsetto, demonstrated best on tracks like “Minnesota, WI.”  “Towers” is my favorite song of the entire year, and while arguably the folksiest tune here it also might be the most complex, with layers of strings and horns behind its seemingly simple acoustic guitar strum patterns, shifting from an amazing bridge back into the main verse with perfect timing as Vernon dominates the vocals. Structurally, “Calgary” might be the best single thing here, as it builds with bittersweet, understated prowess that swells into the album’s most soaring coda before collapsing back onto itself just as quickly. Lyrically, Vernon is unshakable, communicating depth and maturity of feeling through simple but powerful lines like “I was unafraid/ I was a boy/ I was a tender age” to begin “Michicant.” And don’t forget to stick around for the closing track “Beth/Rest”, which experiments with an 80s piano riff and makes it work perfectly here when it has absolutely no reason or excuse to. Every track deserves mention and appreciation, but doing so misses the point, as the precise mood and tone that Vernon creates flows with a symphonic effect, making the whole so very much greater than the sum of its parts. This is the type of album where you might have a different favorite track every time you listen to it- and every time, you’d be right.

#1 Gang Gang Dance/ Eye Contact

In all honesty, the award for the top album of 2011 was really a toss up between these top two, but in the end, Gang Gang Dance’s Eye Contact stuck with me the longest and hit me the hardest for a combination of reasons. This album is a giant, unexpected leap forward from 2009’s occasionally brilliant but fairly sparse Saint Dymphma, as the band crafts seven exquisite songs that are held together here by three perfectly placed interlude tracks. The result is a patient, building effort that demonstrates impeccable pacing and ends up sounding like one long song rather than a collection of them. Consider the transition from the gorgeously melodic “Sacer”, arguably the album’s prettiest track, as it fades into an interlude and then into the much more unsettling closer “Thru and Thru” without giving any indication of a song change. The closer is perhaps the best example of the band’s diversity and penchant for tribal, global beats, as an urgent percussion arrangement opens and leads into an eastern influenced Indian keyboard loop, eventually fading into a haunting echo as it concludes. Opener “Glass Jar” is slow to evolve from its white-washed synth and caressing cymbal splashes, but when it does, it makes a metamorphosis into a full blown dance anthem, and the moment about half way through the eleven minute track when the beats kick in and the synthesizers focus into the melody is easily one of the most emotionally affecting moments of any album this year, especially as charismatic leadwoman Lizzi Bougatsos sings “I cared for you like a mother.” I’ve heard arguments that Eye Contact is too eccentric or that the music meanders into unnecessarily drawn out directions, but the build and release dynamic of the opening track is one of the many examples as to why I couldn’t disagree more with that assessment; every note is in its right place, and every note serves an important purpose for the ultimate payoff as the song sprawls and takes unique and surprising turns over its ambitious duration.  Bougatsos is at her best vocally on the darker “Adult Goth”, as she escalates an entire octave and holds a single note through the chorus above chiming electronica. Tracks like the funky, jazzy “Romance Layers” and airy “Chinese High” carry a bit more of a relaxed, loungey vibe, and what else can be said about the contagious, intense highlight “Mind Killa” and its laser beam guitar shots to the heart? Pound for pound, the execution and flow of Eye Contact as well as its peerless, exotic, genre-defying sound is what makes it the most special, exciting and highest quality record of 2011.

 

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