The Best Albums Of 2011

Posted 01/29/2012 by cal

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I confess: in agonizing over end-of-year pieces, the idea of greatness does enter into the equation, as opposed to just what I liked or listened to most this year. Yes, it’s all subjective anyway, but it gets tiresome listening to music critics year after year mock their contemporaries for trying to make a statement beyond “I enjoyed this”, as if he or she is the first unpretentious writer to take that tack. The designation of Album Of The Year ought to carry weight, whether you’re The Academy or some guy on Facebook; it shouldn’t just be the most-tallied record on your last.fm chart. And maybe I only say that because I know I’m going to be listening to several of these albums a lot in the coming months and years yet, and I know my appreciation for them will change so much that using “like” as the basis for a list makes it pointlessly transitory, possibly even inherently invalid, whereas considering greatness, trying (if in vain) to hypothesize an album’s impact, or even what I think its impact should be, makes the exercise more meaningful.

Then again, judging by the declining market value of music reviews that exceed 140 characters, perhaps this is an exercise in vanity only. Either way, regardless of greatness, my whole point is to get anybody who reads this to check out one or more of these albums that he or she hasn’t heard before, or look at them in a new light and revisit them. So here’s what I really liked an awful lot in 2011.

RUNNERS-UP

Elbow: Build A Rocket Boys!
This album feels more epic and somewhat less personal than its predecessor, 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid (my personal fave), a little colder but also catchier. It’s got some of the hugest hooks you’ll ever hear, like the massive piano/guitar/finger-snap core of “High Ideals” (also possibly the most elementary piano part in the history of pop music) and the dizzying vocal choruses of “With Love” (augmented by The Hallé Youth Choir). But its power derives chiefly from the exquisitely dynamic arrangements of songs like “The Birds” and “Neat Little Rows”, where instantly satisfying riffs and melodies are just a bare skeleton. The band proceeds to build intensity through distinct layers and movements until you suddenly feel like you’re floating but have no idea how exactly you got to that point. Then there are the merely gorgeous numbers like “Lippy Kids”, basically subtle pop ambience upon which Guy Garvey can weave his poetry in that distinct voice, a Sting/Peter Gabriel/Dave Matthews hybrid. Elbow has been riding an unprecedented wave of critical acclaim in the U.K., and all of the group’s music sounds unmistakably British, yet not very much like Radiohead these days, so I guess it’s no wonder they’re not really catching on in the U.S. But dude, seriously, check this out brah.

Hank 3: Ghost To A Ghost/Guttertown
On one hand, if Hank had just condensed this sprawling triple-vinyl set into its best dozen or so songs, he might have had a serious contender for album of the year on his hands. With the possible exception of 2006’s Straight To Hell, this is his best album yet, but he gets so hung up on certain motifs at times and dalliances into meandering weirdness that you get nauseous from overexposure. Then again, the sense of discovery you will feel if you rush blindly into this record all at once, particularly the alternately haunting/hilarious Guttertown portion, is truly unmatched in music; even though at times you will have to exercise great self-control to not hit fast-forward during some of the repetitive quasi-zydeco tunes, the thrill of wondering what he’s going to do next after each song comes to a close should be enough to captivate you for nearly two and a half hours. Ghost is the more aggressive half, with the crowning achievement being “Cunt Of A Bitch”, one of several tunes I would have to call gangsta country. But as usual, the straight-up country tunes provide many of the highlights, particularly “The Devil’s Movin’ In” and the wonderful “I Promised”, in which he truly channels Hank Sr. And then there’s the uncategorizable “Ghost To A Ghost”, featuring Les Claypool and Tom Waits (each of whom put out an excellent album as well in 2011, by the way), easily one of the coolest songs of the year. In short, about a quarter of the material is pointless or aggravating, a quarter of it is decent, and half of it is absolutely amazing.

Junius: Reports From The Threshold Of Death
As with all Junius’s music--and unlike most metal--you can’t possibly get the full impact of Reports From The Threshold Of Death until you’ve heard it enough to be able to sing along to the choruses. Until then, it’s a punishing mass of guitar effects, plodding riffs and a singer who sounds like he might be the antiBono--as in, bombastic bellower, but depressed. If that all sounds pretty sweet as is, well, it is. James Martinez’s melodies are simplistic, even predictable, but therein lies their strength; they are clear and bold and they suck you up into the songs. The lyrics will speak to you in radically different tones depending on your spiritual persuasion; they could be comforting, they could be absurd, or frightening, or an attempt to recruit you for a cult. It might help to recognize that the album’s inspiration stems from Martinez’s near-death experience. If that ruins it for you, this album probably isn’t for you.

If you can access Martinez’s words in a sense that speaks to you, though, there could be very little to stop you from falling under their spell. The record only sounds depressing at first because this sort of doomy shoegaze-metal usually is; in this respect, Junius is the antiKatatonia, a band that has clearly influenced Junius sonically but perhaps not philosophically. If you can get into the spirit of these songs, they are as uplifting as they are cathartic as you belt them out (probably without much effort). It really brings home the idea of oneness that Martinez is trying to get across: he has done his job in coaxing you to raise your voice along with his, and if you could be in a whole room full of people crying out these choruses at once, you might have yourself a religious experience. But admittedly, it is a step down in terms of anthemability from Junius’s last album, 2009’s epic The Martyrdom of a Catastrophist, and although Reports’s warmer, denser mix makes sense given the theme of the album, it loses something without the stark separation of instruments that helps to make the band’s past work so effective. Martinez’s voice gets lost in swarms of guitar effects at times (“All Shall Float”, especially), and some guitar parts that should ring out more clearly get swallowed up in sonic layers (“A Universe Without Stars”, for instance). It’s all in service to a unifying vision that’s immensely potent, though, so these second guesses might well have damaged the overall album; who knows? As is, it’s one of the most emotionally transcendent albums of the year.

The Roots: Undun
Every time I listen to this album, I feel like it’s over with way too soon, which can be a good thing. When I look back on the top ten in a few months, I won’t be surprised if Undun ends up cracking it; maybe I haven’t had enough time with it yet. Right now, it feels like a part one of something bigger, a super tight and intense blast of a first act. Or perhaps it’s the final act, and the next Roots album will continue to go backwards in time until we actually get to a beginning, and that will feel like a conclusion. Fine, I’m overanalyzing it; I suppose the point is that I haven’t wrapped my head around the story completely, how “Finality” can possibly be the beginning of a story, how these insidious hooks can combine with a depressing ghetto archetype to arrive at any kind of resolution. Individually, most of the songs are as good as any The Roots have ever made. As an album, it might be their most powerful so far. As a piece of art to add to my soul-collection, it hasn’t sunk in yet; pretty sure I’m still waiting for the indisputable classic these cats are surely capable of, though.

THE TOP TEN

10. Today Is The Day: Pain Is A Warning

This might be the year that internet chatter got to a point where I could barely bring myself to pay attention any more, so I find myself wondering: were people crying “sellout” when this new Today Is The Day album came out? It is clearly the most overtly commercial thing Steve Austin has ever created, which isn’t saying much; most of the mp3-consuming public would consider albums like 1999’s In The Eyes Of God or 2002’s Sadness Will Prevail to be unlistenable, while Pain Is A Warning is still mostly too harsh and depressing for the typical Nickelback--or Black Keys, for that matter--fan to digest. Then again, if In Utero came out today, would the public be able to stomach more than half of its songs?

But I digress--or do I? A Kurt Cobain influence is almost undeniable, and I have no clue if Austin would be honored or horrified by that suggestion. The title track is AC/DC meets Melvins, not exactly Nirvana but it leaves a very similar scar. “Remember To Forget” and “This Is You” evoke a feeling like “Something In The Way”, not as pathetic but equally maudlin, but they also feel like long-overdue follow-ups to the old TITD classic “Temple Of The Morning Star”. The point is that several of these songs achieve the difficult mixture of unpleasant emotion and catchy memorability basically because the hook is the whole song. But for every potentially mass-marketable moment, there’s a shrieking, excruciating track like “Expectations Exceed Reality” or “Death Curse”, which could strip the corpsepaint off any black metal face. Austin still follows his own muse, perhaps blindly, always arriving at his own unmistakable sound. He’s not trying to attract the masses with this album, but maybe it suggests that he’s able to relate to humans just a bit more nowadays than he used to be.

9. Cymbals Eat Guitars: Lenses Alien
I guess this is my official good old rock and roll entry in the top ten--not a token pick, not out of obligation to my native genre, but here at number nine, possibly the best regular rock record of the year. Just pointing that out because it’s weird. Does it seem like rock and rap were better in the 90s because that’s all there was? Looking at the rest of the list, most of these combinations of styles hadn’t been dreamt up yet when gangsta rap and alternative rock were king. But Cymbals Eat Guitars have found very fertile ground in the kind of spastic, uneasy yet richly satisfying rock that Radiohead used to make. Joseph D'Agostino’s vocals are so much more confident this time around than on the band’s underwhelming 2009 debut, Why There Are Mountains; he’s got an undeniable bit of young Thom Yorke in him, back when Thom was more snarl and less whine. There are strong Pavement and Sonic Youth accents as well, and at certain points, songs like “Rifle Eyesight” and “Plainclothes” sound just like Sunny Day Real Estate. CEG pulls this all off independently, though; these antecedents are all compliments.

The other Radiohead-esque aspect is the unusual leap from barely-remarkable debut to ten-times-better sophomore effort. D’Agostino’s lyrical growth immediately leaps to the fore. Words sprawl out like prose and stream-of-consciousness inner monologue; only the mosaic melodies and pointed enunciation lend them a semblance of poetry, and their poignant capture of the youthful struggle between bitterness and yearning is almost uncanny, but this band is just barely far-enough removed from teenage angst to be able to examine it with a clear head. These guys have written a collection of stirring, sophisticated guitar songs that still allow their underlying uncertainty and fury to blaze through. There are stretches of spacey ambience, blasts of caustic noise, lurching mathy breakdowns, all stitched together with safety pins into an auspicious statement of an album.

One of the most endearing things about Lenses Alien is the way it’s arranged. The grandiose pacing of the first track, as well as the cataclysmic barrage of reverb and feedback, makes it feel like an ending, while the final song, “Gary Condit”, comes at you with a bristling roar, the kind of attention-grabber that often begins records. It’s almost as if the narrative, if there is one, is happening in reverse. There’s no sense of resolution at all; the album ends in a blind panic, and it always makes me want to listen to the first song again, to see if there was an answer there that I missed. And then I’m just sucked back in again.

8. J.Viewz: Rivers And Homes
I like albums that are hard to pin down. You get a certain impression from the title track of Rivers And Homes, a joyful, rousing little ditty whose wordless chorus gets you like Rusted Root during its brief moment of goodness. You think this is going to be a dance-y, perhaps tribal hippie album. Then the next track, “Salty Air”, blasts you with waves of retro-synth and a quasi-R&B beat, moody and woozy and sweet. So, this is going to be an electronic album? Well, yeah, kinda, but the next tune, “Wht U Hv For The Sun”, is more driven by a slick acoustic guitar hook and some subtle piano flourishes and Kelli Scarr’s yearning vocals. These various instruments and motifs reappear throughout the album, combine with each other, and produce a cohesive record that is essentially all wistful pop, but otherwise it’s hard to categorize. Even the most danceable tunes (and there are many) have questionable motives. Even the most lighthearted moments are somewhat quizzically posed. Even the saddest expressions are impossible not to enjoy. It could be 2011’s equivalent of Matthew Dear’s Black City, a decidedly urban, semi-lucid, bittersweet party record, but this one does a better job of evoking actual darkness. My feelings when I listen to it are summed up pretty perfectly towards the beginning of “This City Means No Love”: “You make me feel home/You make me feel right/You make me feel, I guess”. In a way, it’s also this year’s Before Today; a fresh, endlessly intriguing album dripping with nostalgia that I still get excited for every time I get the urge to listen to it again.

7. White Denim: D
Embraced by hippies and hipsters in equal measure, White Denim is indeed the perfect bridge between psychedelic and indie rock. If that description just totally turned you off (*raises hand*), examine your preconceptions and/or forget I said that; let’s start over. White Denim is Yes meets Meat Puppets, or as a friend of a friend put it (paraphrasing here), My Morning Jacket meets The Mothers. There are traces of folk, country, funk, even jamband (which is now definitely an actual genre, by the way), but at heart it’s punk meets roots in a proggy stew. It’s alternately heartfelt and frivolous, and frequently ingenious. For starters, “At The Farm” is the most harrowing, gloriously ecstatic rock instrumental since “First Tube”; stop reading for four minutes and just listen to it.

See? But there are lots of good lyrics on this album as well (“Our definitions will outlast what they define” (“River To Consider”) is a fun one to ponder), and while a comparison between James Petralli and Jim James is justified, it’s certainly not a distraction. These vocals are an instrument in a very well-balanced ensemble, featuring pleasant harmonies only when they’re absolutely necessary and words that intertwine with the ever-shifting guitar/drum/keyboard/flute/etc. tapestry without ever dominating it. Individual instruments rarely come to the fore, actually; instead it’s the notes as individuals and the songs as wholes. But as mathematically satisfying as D is, it surely takes you for an emotional ride, and the psychological impressions resonate much more deeply than the intellectual ones.

6. Blut Aus Nord: 777 - Sect(s)
As with most European black metal, I prefer not to bark up the what-the-fuck-are-they-talking-about tree with Blut Aus Nord. Mastermind Vindsval refuses to give out any of his lyrics anyway, so your best bet is to surrender to the unknowable and react to an album like 777 - Sect(s) with your gut. Oops, sorry if that means you feel like vomiting; that’s only natural, but compared to the band’s more avant-garde offerings (particularly 2006’s MoRT), this album is punishingly melodic and viciously accessible, even if it does put you through the wringer as it lurches between styles and rhythms. There was a lot of great metal this year; this was the album I came back to the most, and know I’ll keep coming back to, because it satisfies every one of my various metal urges, and it sounds absolutely nothing like any other band. (Read my original review here.)

5. Loyal Divide: Bodice Ripper
Man goes to see local bands at Cactus Club. Opening band from Chicago blows man away. Man gets promo copy of band’s debut album to review. Man is at first crushingly disappointed that album does not capture essence of incredible live show, fails to review album. Man decides to revisit album months later; wonders if he was mistakenly listening to different album when he formed previous opinion. Album is actually perfect synthesis of every extant variety of pop music, elegantly and dynamically merged into one fascinating, fresh style. Man finally reviews album, continues to listen obsessively for rest of year, eagerly awaits band’s next Milwaukee show. (Read my original review here)

4. Across Tundras: Sage
I briefly tried to foist the term “stonerrockabilly” on the world to tag Across Tundras, but deep down I hated it. Too long, unwieldy in both visual and aural terms, not even conceptually fitting, really. So, fine. My new idea, “Tannerrock”, might be even less popular, but it’s probably a little more accurate and less stupid-looking. Maybe I suck at coining terms, but a new one needs to be invented for Tanner Olson’s style. Basically, I just love this guy’s philosophy on music: combine elements of metal and country, write huge, epic guitar riffs, crank the reverb and evoke the restless, pioneering spirit that created the U.S.A. with every fiber of his being. And he’s been doing that prolifically for years, but never before as perfectly as he has on Sage. (Read my original review here.)

3. Drake: Take Care
As I get older and am forced to fight more tenaciously against the forces that bend me towards getting stuck in my ways, the impulse to be annoyed by and scoff at what KIDS THESE DAYS are listening to, to write all of modern music off as derivative and yearn for the days when the radio played GOOD MUSIC, I take some comfort in the realization that I hated almost all of my favorite bands the first time I heard them. What I take away from this is almost never giving up on a record or artist after one listen, even if it completely turns me off. Good thing, in the case of Take Care; hate is not too strong a word for the way I felt the first time I listened to it. Right from the very first track, wherein Drake is mimicking the shit out of Kanye West, who is stylistically distinct despite being one of the worst rappers ever, I began to write this album off. Then, there are the repeated impersonations of R. Kelly (“Shot For Me”, “Take Care”, “Marvins Room”, etc.), a trend that seems to have fallen out of style but that doesn’t make it okay, does it? Bragging about your millions of dollars and sexual conquests: now there’s something that never goes out of style, eh? But in a fairly unusual twist, Drake is trying to make me feel sorry for him? Not even despite these things but because of them? This is all so inherently odious, it took a hefty amount of willpower just to get through this long-ass album one time. And then I considered the notion of listening to it again, and felt a little queasy.

How stupid, right? Because I listen to an awful lot of music dealing with gross violence, extreme misogyny, spiritual depravity, depression and hatred, not because I get a kick out of those things but because it’s good music, and the experience of emotions in this way that I will never experience in any other way balances out what could otherwise be an annoyingly optimistic and naïve personality. At least, that’s what I tell myself. So I dove back into Take Care, and it felt like maybe the first listen had revealed some kind of void in my experience, so that the second listen could come along and fill that void. I don’t recall having this feeling before. What had seemed like cheesy, simplistic 90s synth beats totally inappropriate for R&B the first time now sounded perfect, strange yet familiar, as if I'd been transported to a dim warehouse afterparty rank with the smell of stale pot smoke and Busch Light and sweat and the uncertainty of what had just been going on and what the consequences were going to be. Which is clearly not what Drake was going for at all; how’d he do that? Drake’s pathos was no longer just his own; it was a gaudy reflection of the insecurities and regrets of America, a stylistic and emotional mishmash of what’s going on in music today, an archetype for the resentment/admiration conundrum that regular folks feel for celebrities, and maybe vice-versa. I can’t relate to the problems of this Hollywood luminary, but I can relate to problems, and the more I listen to this album, the more perfectly it seems to evoke the bittersweet balance between gratitude and longing, faith and fear, that we all wobble through day by day. It’s also a rare example of a satisfying balance between R&B and rap, and despite the sometimes derivative stylings of Drake’s vocals, he really is a talented son of a bitch. After a while, I realized that he’s not trying to make us feel sorry for him; he’s just trying to evoke and elicit those conflicted feelings within us. At least, I hope that was the intent, because it is the result.

And in the end, Drake only deserves maybe half the credit. Despite the requisite laundry list of producers, the grand, unifying presence of 40 is the unmistakable force that elevates this from an interesting, moving collection of songs to a heart-wrenching, transcendent work of art. Drake may have written the lyrics, and he may be the featured vocalist, but it’s 40 who makes Take Care one of the boldest and most unique hip-hop albums of the past decade or more.

2. Atlas Sound: Parallax
There’s a tendency to relegate Atlas Sound albums to vanity or side project status, possessed of lesser value than Bradford Cox’s more famous project, Deerhunter. That band released an amazing album, Halcyon Digest, last year, while Atlas Sound released four volumes of demos for free on Cox’s website. But Cox is both of these things, and it is his songwriting that continues to evolve and get stronger through both of these outlets. Parallax is, at face value, not exactly a radio-friendly record. There are no obvious singles or gigantic blow-your-mind show-stoppers like “Helicopter”. But hot damn are there some amazing songs here. To make a preposterous analogy, but one that gains clarity every time I listen to this album, Deerhunter is this generation's Beatles, and Atlas Sound is its John Lennon. There’s none of the overt bitterness or aggression that marked some of Lennon’s best work, but there’s the excruciating pain, and the peculiar way it melds oxymoronically with an undeniable vision of peace. And sonically, while Cox’s voice rarely takes center stage the way Lennon’s always did, the naked pop hooks and lush, sensual production are frequently reminiscent of the John half of Double Fantasy, a master under the sway of his most fruitful muse. In particular, “Te Amo” and “Mona Lisa” and “Angel Is Broken” are exactly the kind of immaculate pop songs that Lennon wrote, seemingly channeled rather than written, tunes and words that effortlessly move you to the core. It’s an album that transports you like it was created as a way to move through a trying time, like all of Cox’s (and most of Lennon’s) work. It might very well help you through a trying time, if you let it. The only thing Lennon had that Cox doesn’t have, so far, is the gift of concocting supreme vocal melodies; after all, he never had the luxury of two other genius songwriters to compete with in the same band. Otherwise, his ability to create the perfect song for his time and place is right up there in the pantheon.

The cathartic effect of the final four songs is utterly unique and virtually unmatched; it’s like triumphantly awakening out of a haze and then realizing that the haze is real life, then beginning the long road towards waking up from the next level of the dream. This is no side project. This is another brilliant album from quite possibly the most important and creative musical mind in America.

1. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
I was in the car with my wife a while ago, and she put on The National’s High Violet, and I said, “See, there’s nothing from 2011 anywhere near as good as this, or the Ariel Pink, or any of the best stuff from last year.” And she said, “Except for PJ Harvey.” It had been a while since I’d heard it, and that comment sparked a major craving for the album. The next time I put it on, I realized that she was right, and that Let England Shake is the only album from this year I can envision ever being deemed a classic. You know, classic albums? Like the kind that came out several times a year back in the 60s? Where every song is superb, where new ground is being broken, where a bold statement is being made in conjunction with beautiful music? You’re saying to yourself ‘That only happens in hindsight’, but that’s the whole issue I’m arguing against by making this stupid list. All I’m looking for is a piece of art whose brilliance is unassailable--you can’t tell me people weren’t calling Beatles and Dylan and Stones albums classics soon after they were unleashed. It's just that most writers are too timidly protective of their credibility to declare anything a classic nowadays. That’s what this is. The juxtaposition of conflicting rhythms and styles, archaic samples grappling with modern songs, anger and defiance that finds triumph purely in its rightness, words that bite, that even if you can’t relate to them, their truth throttles you at a subconscious level. Songs that can get inextricably entwined in the folds of your brain on the strength of their melodies alone. Infectious, beautiful, but frequently dissonant and jarring. Breathtaking, almost down to each moment of each song. Timeless. I have no problem saying that already.

Polly Jean once again sings in voices she has never before accessed, but you catch the occasional glimpse of the girl from Dry. She has never sounded so much like Björk, or so little like Patti Smith. After many, many trips through this album I still have trouble thinking of it in terms of the PJ Harvey canon; the only thing it seems to have in common with the rest of her work is brilliance. I have such long-standing emotional associations with albums like Rid Of Me and To Bring You My Love and Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, but I’m still pretty sure that this is Harvey’s best album yet, that about half of the songs on it are better than anything she’s done before. They still give me chills every single time I play them. I can’t stop listening, because I’ve still found something new to marvel at with each spin.

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the dearth of important albums, or possibly the death of the concept entirely. Forgive the get-off-my-lawn speech, but: It’s anticipation that’s missing, and without anticipation, the potential for payoff is inherently less. There’s no need to wait until the release date, drive to the record store, pay fifteen bucks, come home and unwrap the present, put it on the turntable or even in the tray, and listen uninterrupted and undistracted to the whole damn thing. It still happens, surely more than the media would have you believe, but if it were still the norm I could envision Let England Shake being the spark of a cultural revolution, maybe just in the UK, maybe just one among a cluster of important albums by like-minded artists, instead of just good music in a cultural vacuum. It’s sad that this work of art isn’t part of a revolution. But at least in part, PJ herself is to blame. In a world where it’s increasingly common to get what you think is a sense of an album and move on to the next buzz [here I go again], musicians have to tour to maximize their impact. All the top ten lists in the world aren’t going to spark a movement. Whatever her reasons, she missed a huge opportunity to spread her message to the U.S., in a year that was rampant with unrest and activism but desperately devoid of leaders. Kind of undermines the concept of the album if you don’t care enough about it to spread the message to your biggest potential audience. Imagine how many more people might’ve rallied to it. Oh well, I guess I should just be happy she’s still releasing incredible music. And I am.

HONORABLE MENTION: POP

Destroyer: Kaputt

Every time a new Destroyer album comes out, it gets rave reviews, and I think maybe this time I’ll get it. But after 2008’s Trouble In Dreams, I gave up, resigned to the fact that, other than Mass Romantic, Dan Bejar can’t make music that affects me. Then I get a text message from a good friend this year telling me he thinks Kaputt is “the one” that’s going to change my mind. Well, my mind hasn’t changed about all the other albums, but I am an unabashed lover of a certain type of blue-cheesy 70s/80s pop, and I’ll be damned if Bejar hasn’t managed to make a whole album of The Captain Of Her Heart” and Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime” via Al Stewart mini-epics. It’s almost pure nostalgia, aside from the lyrics, which are biting but sad even when they’re complete bullshit. The whole album is like a dare, a preemptive reaction to music critics and the music industry life, so meta it’s utterly down to Earth. It’s gorgeous, preposterous, even hilarious at times, but in a way that makes you feel self-conscious. At face value, it’s retro in a way that normally turns me off completely, world-weary to the point of actual exhaustion, but it’s so brilliant through and through I found it irresistible, even invigorating, almost instantly.

Panda Bear: Tomboy
I love how aside from the unmistakable voice, Panda Bear albums can’t really be mistaken for Animal Collective albums. Panda is all about the drone, the repetition, themes more than songs, melodies more than albums. On one hand, this speaks to the necessity--not quite dominance--of Avey Tare’s influence on the band. But then again, his solo albums don’t sound much like Animal Collective, either; they’re good examples of how important Panda’s pop sensibilities are to AC. Then again, within the band, Avey writes all kinds of sick hooks, and Panda confines himself into more conventional, kinetic arrangements in service of a more satisfying whole, so…damn, these guys are good. (Read my original review here.)

St. Vincent: Strange Mercy
Here’s kind of an embarrassing story: I was listening to NPR one day, and they were interviewing this pretentious, flaky-sounding woman whose answer to every question about her new album that was coming out seemed disingenuous, mock-humble, and I thought to myself, ‘Who is this? I’ll have to be sure and not buy her album.’ Then they played a snippet of “Surgeon” and I thought ‘Oooooo…that sounds like St. Vincent.’ Yeah. So Annie Clark's probably really smart and genuine and I was just grumpy about being on my way to work or something, because how could someone who writes songs like these be dumb, or phony? “Surgeon” is definitely one of the top two or three best major-league pop singles of the year, and there are at least a half-dozen more songs on here just as good. There are things I don’t like; “Chloe In The Afternoon” and “Dilettante” strike me as unintentionally cloying, even though instrumentally they’re both brilliant. “Year Of The Tiger” is somewhat of a weak ending to the album, too, especially considering its subject matter. Let’s see, otherwise, I can’t think of a single flaw.

HONORABLE MENTION: ROCK

Grails: Deep Politics

Using the term “rock” in a pretty loose sense here; I’d actually prefer to file this under “album I’d most like Phish to cover on Halloween this year”. For one thing, it’s all instrumental, so none of that singing-in-tune stuff that Phish has so much trouble with. For another thing, while there are definitely strong, intricate structural elements to these songs, there is sooooooo much room for wide-open improv within the parameters of the compositions that Phish would have little choice but to take these bitches for a wild ride, something Trey seems to shun lately, especially in his choice of Halloween costumes. Plus, while Grails have roots in metal, there's nothing here so heavy that it would startle hippies into a bad trip. [Disclaimer: I make no such guarantees.] Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, Grails! Basically, this album is like a modern update of Syd-era Floyd, filtered through the exotic tendencies of Tortoise, with a heavy emphasis on the Ennio Morricone influence they share. Each track is just waiting for someone to actually make a great modern original sci-fi movie (I'm sure it will happen some day) and use it for the soundtrack, but that's not to say this is mere background music. These songs are epics in themselves whose stories your mind makes up along the way.

Young Widows: In And Out Of Youth And Lightness
Grudgingly, I have to admit that this album lost some luster as the year went on, particularly after seeing the band live twice and hearing the songs in their natural habitat; the record doesn’t pack quite as much punch any more. But the other problem is I’ve been listening to it more via mp3 lately instead of on vinyl, and even if this doesn’t always make much difference, it definitely does with this album, particularly considering the richness of Evan Patterson’s guitar sound. Stupid digital age. Anyway, this is still a great album and a great band I won’t shut up about. (Read my original review here.)

HONORABLE MENTION: METAL

Esoteric: Paragon Of Dissonance

Traditional funeral doom can be virtually impenetrable, which is why we should feel happy (um…) that the dividing lines between metal genres continue to blur as time goes on, and great bands sometimes feel the need to evolve in many directions at once. Hence, the gorgeous melodic ambience that introduces “Disconsolate”, the psychedelic, Cure-esque swaying guitars of “Cipher”, the downright breakneck pace of the whole album (*sarcasm*). The whole thing would be a terrific entry point for those who’ve never gotten into extreme metal but might like to try; it’s relatively palatable despite the guttural vocals, and eclectic enough that it’s likely to contain a passage or two that anyone remotely interested could latch onto. It’s still striking in its desolation, and draws most of its power from those essential plodding islands of rhythm and riff, but it’s grand in a more far-reaching sense than anything I’ve heard in this realm (which, granted, isn’t saying an awful lot). There are just songs on here that I can’t imagine anybody who likes metal listening to and not liking.

Russian Circles: Empros
It seems so rare that a band has a triumphant return to form without just copying old styles, but Russian Circles pulled it off this year. After an eye-popping debut, 2006’s Enter, it looked like the band was headed down a very typical Mogwai-worshipping path with its next couple of albums, but Empros eschews that direction in favor of a much heavier, more progressive sound. The atmospheric slow-burn intensity is still very much a part of the band’s aesthetic, but rather than relying on it for effect, they’ve rediscovered the art of songwriting. The result is their heaviest work yet, but also their most thoroughly listenable songs, allowing them to finally break free from the Pelican-dominated instrumental post-metal stagnation pool and into a defining style all their own.

Shining: VII: Född förlorare
This album has to be mentioned if for no other reason than the lead guitar of Peter Huss, who has developed into an incredible soloist since he joined the band in 2005. The album itself is far less blatantly disturbing and cruel than the earlier material (if you ever want to make yourself despair for the human race, listening to 2007’s V: Halmstad should do the trick) that made Shining famous for encouraging fans to mutilate and kill themselves; if this can still be considered black metal, then I give up on the whole genre game. It’s more of a brutal prog album with occasional black metal flourishes, and some of the guitar solos, especially in "Människa o'avskyvärda människa (Man, O' Despicable Man)" and "Tillsammans är vi allt (Together We Are Everything)", sound like the glorious love-children of Randy Rhoads and Buckethead. The distinctive vocals (and coughing/choking sounds) of Niklas Kvaforth are as gut-churning as ever, though; I’m not suggesting it’s not a creepy and evil album, but not being able to understand Swedish anyway, I’m just going to concentrate on the power and beauty of the guitar work, possibly the best I heard all year (on record, anyway).

HONORABLE MENTION: HIP-HOP

CunninLinguists: Oneirology

This is that clever, smooth, slick album that you can’t quite party to but doesn’t quite bite hard enough to leave a deep impression. It’s like Jurassic 5 but without the superstar charisma. Still, it’s worth checking out just for a few really excellent songs. “Murder” and “Stars Shine Brightest (In The Darkest Of Night)” will get stuck in your head (and you won‘t mind at all), and tracks like “Hard As They Come” and “Get Ignorant” take a unique and thoughtful position on otherwise tired concepts of hip-hop identity and the ongoing struggle towards racial equality. If anything, the problem with this album is that the darkness and mystery suggested by the album title and cover art never materialize. It’s artistically and intellectually satisfying--even exciting at times--but it only tugs gently at your heart, and I want mine to be ripped out.

Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
The effect of this album on me was very similar to what I just wrote about the CunninLinguists album, except to an exaggerated degree; on a technical/intellectual level, Black Up blows Oneirology away, but on an emotional level it does almost nothing for me. I’m not saying the feeling isn’t there; just that I cannot access it. It’s just out of reach. The production is so cold and mysterious that the crux of of what Shabazz Palaces are trying to get at eludes me. And this should all be taken as a huge compliment. I am definitely impressed, and occasionally even moved. “Recollections Of The Wrath” is an irresistible track, so sparse you can barely dance to it but the slow, hypnotic beat and infectious vocal hook will make you move one way or another. And the retro-industrial static beat (including a gun-cocking effect that might be straight out of DOOM) of “Yeah You” ends up sounding more playful than menacing, but it fits the mocking tone of the lyrics, another great song. But I can’t help it: sometimes Ishmael Butler’s vocal inflections during his trademark repetitive one-line choruses start to grate on my nerves, like I GET IT DUDE, can we move on? That’s just me; this is a great album, but one I probably won’t listen to any more.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS

Fucked Up: David Comes To Life

The very beginning of the record is so weighty and exciting and perfect, and then the track ends abruptly and a new song begins, and it’s pretty much downhill from there. The glaring problem with this album is that the riffs don’t live up to the ambitious nature of the material. Incongruous leads chime over glossy punk chording and it's all so boring compared to the band’s fantastic 2008 album The Chemistry Of Common Life on guitar merits alone. There are also the grating interminable choruses like “It’s all been worth it” (“Under My Nose”). This is one of the band’s defining techniques, but usually Damian Abraham finds a way to make it not feel like repetition for lack of a better idea. I think Fucked Up was aiming for some sort of hardcore equivalent of, say, Tommy meets Born To Run, and maybe it’s there lyrically, or even conceptually. It’s pretty much unique in the history of music, I’ll give it that, but the songs themselves aren’t anywhere near as good as what this band has done prior. The majority of these riffs seriously sound like Hold Steady rejects, except for “Under My Nose”, which sounds like Green Day, a band that (by the way) pulled off the quasi-punk opera with far greater success simply by writing some really good songs. Yes, I totally respect Fucked Up for making this ballsy attempt. Yes, clearly, my expectations were unreasonably high, because I love this band and I am a sucker for rock operas and concept albums in general. I tried really hard to like it, and then I quit trying and just kept listening, and only “Let Her Rest”, “Remember My Name” and “Serve Me Right” do anything for me. The worst part was finding myself, so many times, involuntarily thinking ‘Come on, really?’ So, anybody wanna buy my double-vinyl copy? It was kind of expensive, but I’ll sell it for cheap.

Bon Iver: Bon Iver
How about this: Bon Iver and the Fucked Up record for ten bucks? Maybe you can stomach Justin Vernon’s falsetto whine; I can’t. I swear there are lots of really good songs on this album. I knew there would be, and somehow I convinced myself that he couldn’t possibly keep going with that nauseating affectation, because on the one song from his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, that I love, “Skinny Love”, he sings in a normal, perfectly tolerable voice, and it has character. ANYBODY can sing falsetto like that. I mean, damn near any guy. Go ahead, try it: "Don’t you cherish me to sleep, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawww”. Okay, if you’re a naturally gifted singer, you might have trouble getting to that level of annoyability, and you'll need some cheap software to layer on the harmonies, but otherwise I bet you can sound just like him. The most pathetic-sounding parts are when he stretches for the lowest reaches of his falsetto, and his mumbled harmony parts butt up against each other like sweat socks in a washing machine, where any decent singer would just sing with his natural fucking voice, but the gimmick must be kept intact. This is why junior high choir teachers everywhere are cringing at this guy’s popularity. I’m not saying choir teachers should be the arbiters of taste. Oh my God, no. Nor that the fact that anybody can do this makes it bad. I just. cannot. stand it. And also, most of his lyrics are the stupidest, ugliest, most pointless exercises in nonsense I’ve ever heard. But mostly it’s that voice.

Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch The Throne
Because there haven't been enough Kanye references already in this piece...Some people whose musical opinions I respect really enjoyed this album; that’s the only reason it’s a disappointment, the only reason I kept forcing myself to listen to it. Maybe it’s my problem that I can’t gloss over intellectual or philosophical aspects of it that make it distasteful to me. So I’m missing out on the disembodied fun of it--that’s okay, I have lots of other fun that I don’t have to look past any aspects of. Two of the least-agile rappers in all of superstardom trying to cram each other’s attitudes into one generic sandwich with haphazard clumps of rhymes they scribbled down whilst perched on the shitter (oops, I mean “throne”)? That doesn’t even sound like fun. It’s two of the world’s most dominant talents rubbing the faces of the less successful in the fact that people will eat up everything they put out simply because it sounds like them. Yes, yes, there are maddeningly catchy beats and pockets of clever lyrics, but if you’re going to spew out this same old us-vs.-the-man/we-are-wealthy bullshit over and over, you’ve got to bring your A-game to make it worthwhile. There’s barely a trace of Jay’s or Kanye’s A-game on this album. I was listening to it on cheap headphones one day while weed-whacking and I thought, ‘In 2011, who could possibly relate to this garbage? Nobody I know, I’m pretty sure. And by the way, how do they get away with this nauseating misappropriation of “Try A Little Tenderness”? Shouldn’t they be offended by that?’ They almost deserve adulation for being so utterly oblivious to the current social climate. Thanks, Kanye; I was just starting to like you for a minute there.

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