It’s that time of the year again when we put aside our usual differences and start fighting over the year’s best music. While last year we summed it up with a year end edition of Mixtape Madness, this year we’ve gone all out, taking a writers’ poll on our favorite albums, songs, EPs and music videos of 2011.
30. Hooray For Earth – “True Loves”
New York-by-way-of-Boston’s Hooray for Earth released their second full-length “Trues Loves” this year, a follow-up to last year’s debut “MOMO.” The group’s special brand of electronic pop is at once both ecstatic and filled with pathos, both nostalgic and glitteringly new. “True Loves” didn’t disappoint, with exalted production by founder Noel Heroux and hooks that are as obliquely sad as they are instantly catchy. – Alex Moore
29. Austra – “Feel It Break”
2011 was a breakthrough year for Austra, who made an attention grab with their excellent full-length debut “Feel it Break” to follow up last year’s “Sparkle” EP. The album began collecting accolades as soon as it was released earlier in the year. Fronted by the distinctive, vaguely baroque vocal style of Katie Stelmanis, the mostly electronic soundscape unfurls often unassumingly but unwinds into massive choruses. – Alex Moore
28. Timbre Timbre – “Creep On Creepin On”
It’s safe to say that nothing else released this year sounds anything like “Creep On Creepin’ On.” The second full-length for Timber Timbre after 2009′s self-titled debut, “Creep On” creeps and skulks through 10 songs of sparse strings, thumping bass and chiming staccato piano. Taylor Kirk’s usually-doubled voice is unforgettable. Vaguely creepy, deeply intriguing, this one isn’t to be missed. – Alex Moore
27. “The Kills – “Blood Pressures”
The Kills emerged as something of a fringe duo in 2003 with their debut “Keep on Your Mean Side.” Alluring as it was, the record was sparse, raw, and something no one ever expected would cross into mainstream acceptance without a fight. Eight years later, Allison Mosshart and Jamie Hince have managed to create an album that retains the edge we always loved about them, but with songs so palatable as to be irresistible. I don’t think “Satellite” or album opener “Future Starts Slow” made our top 20 songs list, although that was probably a mistake. – Alex Moore
26. Apparat – “The Devil’s Walk”
The easiest way to explain Apparat is to say it’s something like Sigur Ros sung by a dude whose balls have dropped. And that’s no dis to Jonsi—his gorgeous falsetto is one of the treasures of contemporary music. But Germany’s Sascha Ring, who released a full-length “The Devil’s Walk” as Apparat in September, has also made something that deserves our attention. It blends electronic music with the kind of heart-melting melodies and textures you’ll be wanting to listen to when reflecting on the year gone by and the one to come. – Alex Moore
25. Zomby – “Dedication”
Zomby gained a fair degree of hype from the rather ubiquitous and prolific Panda Bear of Animal Collective (who appears on Track 8 “Things Fall Apart”). “Dedication” is an album of 26 tracks, some mere snippets or ideas, others more complete. The production is very much in the tradition of UK garage house, and there is a certain thinness to the sound, which might indicate weakness in the hands of a lesser talent. Songs like “Mozaik,” “Adagio for Lucifer,” “Digital Rain” and “Resolve,” however, display a geometric complexity and electronic music understanding usually characteristic of Plaid. – DJ Pangburn
24. Tycho – “Dive”
After releasing several singles and streaming a number of tracks on his website over the last four years, San Francisco-based Tycho recently released his debut LP “Dive.” It came at a rather curious time in 2011, when much of the charm of the so-called “chillwave” phenomenon had waned. However, Tycho had been around much longer than any of these flash-in-the-pans, drawing inspiration from the likes of Ulrich Schnauss, Boards of Canada and, perhaps subconsciously, Casino vs. Japan and Marumari. “Dive” is proof that Tycho is a sound designer of the first order, instead of a bedroom producer vaguely skilled with Ableton Live and various VSTs. Highlights: “A Walk,” “Dive” and “Elegy.” – DJ Pangburn
23. Connan Mockasin – “Forever Dolphin Love”
Mockasin looks rather like a younger version of Klaus Kinski, as if he were the schizophrenic actor reborn, and deals in modern psychedelic pop. His music lies on a continuum that links Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd with Black Moth Super Rainbow, taking Barrett’s childlike wonder shot through with acid haze, and giving it a modern flavor. Thus the album’s atmosphere is dripped in pyscho-imaginative dreamland, which is embodied in the fantastic title-track. Mockasin gets extra points for naming a track after the region between genatalia and anus—“It’s Choad My Dear.” – DJ Pangburn
22. Iceage – “New Brigade”
Iceage materialized in 2011 amidst the ongoing accretion of bands exploring neo-psychedlia and bohemian folk. And so, in a sense, their LP “New Brigade” offered a condensed replay of what happened when punk trampled on the fading haze of the ’60s, which had transmogrified by the late ’70s into progressive rock (which has its pleasures, no doubt) and saccharine folk. The title track is proof that there is still a place in music for bands that marry the intensity of UK’s early punk with the evolving sonic and lyrical textures of post-punk bands like Joy Division. – DJ Pangburn
21. Solar Bears – “She Was Coloured In”
Solar Bears are a Dublin-based electronic group who deal in warped electronic that runs a gamut of styles and inspirations, touching on everything from old science fiction soundtracks, Alejandro Jodorowsky films, Ennio Morricone, Boards of Canada and Primal Scream. Their 2011 LP “She Was Coloured In” is one of the best of 2011. We await their follow-up, which they are currently recording. – DJ Pangburn
20. Yuck – “Yuck”
American 90′s alt rock lives on oddly enough from a pack of Brits in 2011. Yuck channel Dinosaur Jr and Sebadoh on opener “Get Away” and keep the warm indie rock vibes alive throughout their hook filled debut.
19. Gang Gang Dance – “Eye Contact”
After rising from the depths of “Glass Jar”‘s ambiance, “Eye Contact” takes off on an experimental synth pop workout through the mambo of “Chinese High” to the crystallized strut of “Romance Layers.” Gang Gang Dance have been trying different ideas for years but may have found their true calling with “Eye Contact”‘s electroclash.
18. The Weeknd – “House of Balloons”
The first in three mixtapes by the Canadian R&B prodigy Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd, “House of Balloons” perfectly encapsulates the dark end of the crazy night out. Its Siouxsie and the Banshees sampling title track plays like a party played in slow motion with the color taken out, excess magnified until it goes back stage to the cocaine rush of “Glass Table Girls,” the pair forming the focal point of the album’s excess ride. While its roots are in R&B, there’s enough unusual twists and indie rock samples to pull in those who usually turn a deaf ear to the genre, not to mention that the storytelling is voyeuristically intriguing to pretty much any listener. For a 20 year old kid, Tesfaye has an alarming grasp on the horrors of 3 a.m.
17. The War on Drugs – “Slave Ambient”
Kurt Vile leaving The War on Drugs might have been the best thing for them. “Slave Ambient” showcases a mature sound that subtly takes from the Travelling Wilburys songbook and Bruce Springsteen. While countless acts have been borrowing from the Boss since The Hold Steady burst on the scene, The War on Drugs reappropriate elements of his past among others in a new and creative way on this record.
16. James Blake – “James Blake”
The prolific James Blake took the opportunity of his first full length LP to stretch out his voice over his heavily computerized sonics. Sounding like “Amnesiac” being fronted by Sade, it’s a captivating listen that may be able to make your mother start listening to dub step.
15. Panda Bear – “Tomboy”
Panda Bear delivers again with an album filled with hymn-like vocals over a thick layer of transcendent keyboard manipulations and tribal percussion. Noah Lennox’s vocals echo off the landscape as if being called off a cliffside into an ocean, with only the bleak “Scheherezade” breaking from its summertime vibe. On “Tomboy,” Panda Bear yet again proves to be the best animal in the collective.
14. Cults – “Cults”
When we talked with Cults earlier this year, they explained the lightning fast progress they made from the NYU dorms to trendy playlists everywhere, as basically the product of others having faith in what little work they had done. “Don’t worry, you’ll get money later” was apparently the words of Shane Stoneback when he recorded their debut record pro bono. Riding on the word of mouth sensation of “Go Outside,” the rest of the record delivers on the blissful promise of that song, taking the band’s pool of oldies influences and stirring them into a sweet indie pop record that goes down like an ice cream soda.
13. St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy”
Annie Clark’s debut as St. Vincent, “Marry Me,” showed great potential which “Actor” cashed the check for big time in 2009. Now with “Strange Mercy,” she’s more in charge than ever, with her sweet vocals and dreamy production doing battle with her guitar which at times sounds as if it has a mind of its own, fuzzing out of control and cutting through the otherwise lush soundscape.
While Clark’s voice remains sweet and non challenging, her words are more dangerous here then ever before, having some good times with bad guys and making a living telling people what they want to hear. “Strange Mercy” never reaches the violence of St. Vincent’s Big Black tribute at the “Our Band Could Be Your Life Concert,” but it’s a thrilling listen just the same.
12. Beastie Boys – “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two”
The Beastie Boys seemed to lose the plot in the last decade. The six years that had passed since the jam packed extravaganza that was “Hello Nasty” finally yielded “To the Five Boroughs,” a listenable, but far from great record that featured roughly the only lyrical missteps of the group’s career (“George W got nothing on me/We got to take the power from he”). After that was “The Mix Up” in 2007, a fully instrumental jam record. How did a band known for being so multi-faceted suddenly become so one dimensional?
Luckily, salivary gland cancer be damned, the Beasties finally returned this year with “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” (its sequel title a play on the idea of the indefinite postponement of its first installment). While not as diverse as their potpourri 90′s records, “Hot Sauce” delivered the hard hitting beats and slick rhymes that have made the group a favorite for the past 25 years.
11. Rustie – “Glass Swords”
House music is alive and well on “Glass Swords,” Glagow artist Rustie‘s debut record on Warp Records. Using modern electronic techniques from the dubstep world while keeping the set filled with classic hooks, this album delivers on both fronts of past and present. The best example of the marriage of the two worlds would be on “Surph,” where the beat rides on a hesitant wobble while the track is sprinkled with synth orchestra hits and the hallmark House siren vocal lingering about. Standing as one of the best instrumental techno albums of this year, “Glass Swords” keeps it fun and fresh throughout.
10. The Roots – “undun”
“Undun” is The Roots’ first concept album to date, but only “concept” by definition. Each of the 12 albums released before the band’s latest project tended to follow a certain theme or style indicatory of the band’s current musical style, however, “undun” is the first to follow a direct narrative. The album depicts the life of a fictional character named Redford Stephens in reverse chronological order, beginning with his early death in a life of crime and drugs.
The opening few tracks create a sense of somber, regretful awakening, setting the tone for a timeline of pain and defeat preceded by Redford’s blind hope and ambition to rise up in the crime world. As the album progresses, the band begins to open up and gain pace with Black Thought’s lyrics and flow, which are as intricate, poignant and perfectly-timed as any Roots fan should expect of the MC. “Undun” has so much expression and meaning to unfold that every time you get a chance to listen to the album in its entirety, it will be twice as good as before. -Austin Johansen
9. Wugazi – “13 Chambers”
If you’re looking for an album that will please both rockers and rappers at a raging house party, Wugazi is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. The heavy snares and relative lack of driving electric guitar, save for tracks like “Shame on Blue” and “P.L.O. Squared”, make the album very accessible to alternative hip-hop and alternative rock fans alike.
The two groups’ energies are synonymous. The album’s most popular track, “Sleep Rules Everything Around Me”, will erase any doubts concerning Wu-Tang’s ability to transcend genres, and almost sounds like a bonus track from the recording of “36 Chambers.” The aggression and grittiness of Wu-Tang’s lyrics blend seamlessly with the steady and powerful snare in Brendan Canty’s drums, embodied beautifully in the guttural vocals of U-God on “Another Chessboxin’ Argument”, fit for both merciless back streets and the mosh pit. – Austin Johansen
8. PJ Harvey – “Let England Shake”
Longtime Bad Seed Mick Harvey finally left Nick Cave‘s posse last year, ending a 30+ year collaboration. It could be that Harvey’s role was becoming heavily abbreviated with Cave focusing more on his Grinderman bandmates’ input, but Mick’s diminished role in that band was reversed with the collaboration of another Harvey (no relation), Polly Jean. While Mick has been working with PJ Harvey since the mid 90′s, his presence on “Let England Shake” (alongside John Parish) gives the set of war torn songs a more audible sound than ever, even taking a lead vocal on “The Colour of the Earth.”
Polly Jean acts as the wise old woman telling dastardly stories of the past on “Let England Shake” that’s set to a stripped down organic setup of acoustic guitar, autoharp, saxophone, and sparse percussion, plus an occasional sample of a field holler or two. Each song is gentle while simultaneously cutting, with a lyrical delivery that paints a vivid picture of England’s bloodstained past.
7. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
Fleet Foxes returned this year with a record that continued the CSNY worship of their self titled with great results. The band’s woodsy sound produced an arguably better record with “Helplessness Blues,” with a timeless sheen untouched by modern influences. “Lorelai” which plays like an update of Bob Dylan’s “4th Time Around” (which in turn was a jest at The Beatles’ obvious borrowing from him), beautifully exemplifies the whole record’s bittersweet reflectiveness. This discomfort in growing up is perfectly addressed in the album’s opening line on “Montezuma,” where Robin Pecknold sings “So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?”
6. Real Estate – “Days”
On “Days,” Real Estate defeat the sophomore slump with an even more focused record than their self-titled. Playing like a high school soundtrack, the band’s brand of jangle pop hearkens back to R.E.M.‘s “Murmur,” with Martin Coutney’s vocals taking on the same low-in-the-mix ambiguity that Michael Stipe used to exude, while the band tightly interweaves arpeggios and great rhythm. “Days” is a great suburban record and is a nice alternative to the Arcade Fire’s sometimes grandiose dedication.
5. tUnE-yArDs – “w h o k i l l”
Merrill Garbus had already intrigued inquisitive music listeners in 2009 with “BiRd-BrAiNs,” a record she recorded completely on a cassette player, but with “w h o k i l l,” we hear tUnE-yArDs (worst stylization ever behind M.I.A.’s last album title) in stereo, and she is armed to the teeth with great grooves and even greater ideas behind them.
Sounding unlike anything else this year, “w h o k i l l” exhumes the ghost of Fela Kuti and mixes it with an incredibly powerful vocal range. Garbus can yell out like she’s summoning a tribe to battle, but then whisper sweet, lilting melodies the next minute – case in point would be the switch from the chant heavy “Gangsta” to that jaw dropping high note at the end of “Powa.” While “Es-so” sounds like something from the Cibo Matto camp, “w h o k i l l” is wholly original record from an incredibly talented new artist.
4. Radiohead – “The King of Limbs”
When Radiohead unexpectedly dropped “The King of Limbs” on the world in February, many listened with a sigh of disappointment. While all previous Radiohead albums could feasibly be any given person’s favorite record by the band, “The King of the Limbs” is the only album they’ve released that requires a prerequisite of the band’s back catalog to understand it.
Still, “The King of Limbs” had a few tricks up its sleeve. Upon first listen it merely sounds like “Radiohead doing Radiohead things,” which of course, it is, but it’s a grower in the truest sense of the word. Repeated listens reveal the record’s humanity and creativity. “Separator” is a soothing groover that enchants the listener as multiple Thom Yorke’s introduce themselves in its background while the polyrhythmic “Little By Little” is a fascinating use of disagreeing time signatures intertwining perfectly. Overall, “The King of Limbs” may not be their best record, but it’s a worthy contemporary of its slightly taller predecessors.
3. Jay-Z/Kanye West – “Watch the Throne”
While Jay-Z essentially catapulted Kanye West into critics’ loving arms ten years ago on “The Blueprint,” Kanye returns the favor on “Watch the Throne.” While “The Blueprint 3″ was certainly a commercial success, and contained the exhilarating “Empire State of Mind,” the album was one in a string of records since Jay-Z’s comeback that showcased a once lyrical giant losing his edge. Meanwhile, a year later Kanye West delivered the record of a lifetime with “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” an album that crowned, yet again, a hip-hop genius.
On “Watch the Throne,” the two join forces for a record that comes down a little closer to Earth than “MBDTF” but still keeps the braggadocio in outer space, while not veering to the laziness of “BP3.” “Ball so hard, motherfuckers wanna fine me” became the mantra of the summer, making “Niggas in Paris” an unlikely top ten hit. “Otis” put its titular soul singer back on mainstream radio, and “That’s My Bitch” blurs race lines with Justin Vernon delivering a bridge that makes him sound like some odd amalgam of Michael McDonald and Charlie Wilson. While “Watch the Throne” may not change lives the way “MBDTF” did for some, it’s a far more digestible record that’s much better fare for parties.
2. Bon Iver – “Bon Iver”
It’s hard to talk about “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” without mentioning “For Emma, Forever Ago,” but it’s the folklore of that album that made Bon Iver’s followup all the more compelling. No matter what, this record would be a compelling listen regardless of any previous work, but in expanding way beyond the instrumentation of “For Emma,” Justin Vernon takes his new found confidence earned from being adopted into the hip-hop world via Kanye West, and delivers a record that thrives on it while sounding light years away from anything on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which is a fascinating transition.
Stepping out of that cabin and into the inviting wilderness of the record’s front cover, Vernon introduces a world where irony doesn’t exist, replacing it with warmth and sincerity.
1. M83 – “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”
When Anthony Gonzalez set out to record his followup to the much loved “Saturdays = Youth,” his intentions were to make a very dark M83 record. It’s unclear as to what changed his mind, whether it was a new found happiness in his life or getting master bassist Justin Meldal Johnson to produce the record, but “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” is far from dark other than its bedtime album art.
While the “Intro” which features Zola Jesus bellowing a vocal line that sounds as if she’s singing into a hollowed out glacier on a wet and windy night, the material from there forward is a joyous trip through your past, glorifying and aggrandizing your sunniest moments, whether it was your first kiss after school or the best bar-night out of your life. Tapping into the long past zeitgeist of the mid 80′s, many of the proper songs (there are a lot of dreamy interludes as well) hit on different touchstones of the era, with “Claudia Lewis” copping New Order’s funkier side, and “Reunion,” “Midnight City,” and “OK Pal” tapping into The Psychedelic Furs and Simple Minds at their most anthemic. Lush and endlessly grand scale, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” is the quintessential M83 record, and absolute essential listening for 2011.