eMusic’s Best Albums of 2011
It was a year full of surprising breakouts and breathtaking discoveries, with reliable favorites from familiar faces and strong entries from new voices. These are our Top 100 Records of 2011.
#100 The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
#99 Britney Spears, Femme Fatale
In a year when divas like Gaga, Katy and Rihanna continued to dominate the musical landscape, the O.G. pop star certainly had her work cut out for her. And given Britney's recent personal struggles, it's a minor miracle she even managed to drag her ass to a studio. But not only is Femme Fatale a welcome comeback, it's the best full-length album in this singles-oriented artist's 12-year music career. Buzzing, of-the-moment pleasures... from Dr. Luke and Max Martin abound: the panty-peeler "How I Roll" might be the most avant-garde thing to blast from a strip club, while "Hold It Against Me" features a shockingly great detour into dubstep. Sure, Adele may have had a voice big enough to flatten a small town, but Brit's apocalyptic anthem "Till the World Ends" (co-written by Ke$ha) was a nuclear bomb of a pop gem. If it's all going to hell, might as well dance.more »
#98 Tunnel Six, Lake Superior
When the members of an ensemble sacrifice all selfish thought and throw their entire weight behind the compositions of others, it's a transcendent moment, almost spiritual. There is a sense of a something greater than the sum of the individual parts when an ensemble serves the purposes of the soloist, while that soloist, simultaneously, plays his heart out in honor of the ensemble. Tunnel Six, six young jazzers who originate from across... the U.S. and Canada and only came to meet at a music workshop in Banff, have created an album of these moments. Melodies that dare to be epic, jazz compositions that stretch out to the fringes of the genre, and a cohesion and selflessness that would indicate a collaborative period measured in years, not months, and Lake Superior is only the sextet's debut album.more »
#97 The Vaccines, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?
What did we expect? Not this. Not a compulsively re-playable rock album with a lovesick streak — the kind of record the Libertines might've delivered if they'd pulled themselves together, or that the Strokes might've made if they'd fired Julian Casablancas and hired Paul Banks. With booming vocals and riffs aplenty, The Vaccines make a rock 'n' roll clatter so conventional that it shouldn't seem as fresh as it does. But the... songs hold up, especially the swelling epic "Family Friend," the understated "Wetsuit" and the rocket-fueled "Wolf Pack," to say nothing of "Norgaard," the jittery 98-second single about a girl who "don't wanna go steady," which sounds like something Joey Ramone might've written after his long spell with Phil Spector.more »
#96 NewVillager, NewVillager
#95 Holy Ghost!, Holy Ghost!
You shall know Holy Ghost! by the company they keep. New Yorkers Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser have been part of the DFA camp for the past decade, first as members of youthful hip-hop crew Automato and then as in-house musicians. Since the duo's debut single, 2007's "Hold On," they have remixed LCD Soundsystem, Cut Copy, MGMT and Phoenix, all of whom leave their mark on this electro-pop debut. Their most blatantly... pop moves sound a little too slick and unconvincing (there's not a "Kids" or a "Lisztomania" here), but they've got the production smarts to keep things interesting. Even the over-perky "Jam for Jerry" turns itself around with a glittering disco coda, while the deadpan slow motion grooves of "Do It Again" and "Some Children" (featuring yacht-rock smoothie Michael McDonald) are good news to anyone mourning LCD Soundsystem's retirement. Running through it all is a theme of hedonism in straitened circumstances. "I'll take some money from the joint account/ I know I know I know we're running out," sings Frankel on "Hold My Breath", sounding uncannily like Phoenix's Thomas Mars fronting late-'80s Depeche Mode. "I love the city but I hate my job," he declares on the seductive after-hours techno of Hold On. "And the city loves me back." At their best Holy Ghost! capture precisely that feeling.more »
#94 Panda Bear, Tomboy
When Animal Collective started playing their formative shows in New York around 2000, Panda Bear was the band's drummer and not merely a drummer, but a savage drummer, one known for his ability to make a mad racket with lots of metronomic tapping and slapdash syncopation. Little in his work in the past few years has offered evidence of this past, but knowledge of Panda Bear's roots as a percussionist sheds... a bit of light on both his increasingly commanding songs for Animal Collective and, especially, his solo work. With 2007's Person Pitch, his own reputation threatened to overshadow that of his band, so rich were that album's patterns of repeating samples, bleary vocal moans and melodies both melancholy and bright. There is a crosscutting, almost quilt-like, aspect to his songs that make them unusually approachable for music so abstract. Tomboy both tightens and expands that percussionist's sense of pattern-recognition, to equally mesmerizing and even-more accessible effect. The results, as ever, evoke psychedelic notions of church, the Beach Boys and someone humming in the shower oblivious to the idea that there's someone just outside the curtain, listening. "You Can Count on Me" starts the album off with what sounds like a chorus of singing Panda Bears, soaked in reverb and little else. But the title track, which follows, shifts into something more like a conventional rock song, with surfy guitar and a sturdy sense of momentum, as well as some ominous keyboard courtesy of Sonic Boom aka Peter Kember from Spectrum and Spacemen 3. Boom's contributions, mostly subtle but always slightly dark, go a long way toward adding pathos any time Panda Bear starts sounding a little too wide-eyed and guileless to believe. Other times, as on the transfixing and outsized epic "Alsatian Darn" and the stirringly spare "Scheherzade," you surrender willingly to the moans and prayers pouring from Panda Bear's lips.more »
#93 CANT, Dreams Come True
The first thing you should know about Dreams Come True is that its title isn't meant to convey some Disney-deliverable promise of hope and happy endings. It's more like a threat, delivered in a menacing, Tom Waits-as-Voldemort wheeze, atop a grinding storm of electronics. In other words: Careful what you wish for. Love's double-edged sword more specifically, the edge that cuts your heart out is the main concern of the debut album... by CANT, the solo project of Grizzly Bear bassist/producer Chris Taylor. Perhaps the second important piece of information about Dreams Come True is that it scarcely resembles the gauzy folkways of Grizzly Bear, even though Taylor is generally regarded as the experimental architect behind the Brooklyn band's sound its Brian Eno or Chris Walla, if you will. Instead, what Taylor and partner George Lewis Jr. (a.k.a. Dominican-born synthpop artist Twin Shadow) serve up is a mostly melodic and chilled-out electronic weeper whose emotion is crucial rather than cloying. Each 808 heartbreak ("Each time you said you loved me/ Each time you said you cared," sings Taylor on "The Edge") is keenly felt, whether in the form of a Kid A-and-after Radiohead piano plea ("Bericht"), a shapeshifting Animal Collective climax ("She Found A Way Out") or the title track's harsh, Varcharz-era Mouse On Mars deconstruction. Sometimes it's difficult to find the heart of a mainly electronic, sometimes experimental album. That isn't the case here, as Taylor seems to take cues from the late composer Arthur Russell, whose underwater intimacy was ingrained in his work. In fact, maybe it's the title of the Russell compilation album Taylor digitally restored in 2008 that best describes what the debut by CANT wants you to feel: Love Is Overtaking Me.more »
#92 WU LYF, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
After a year of manic online grandstanding, the enigmatic cult of World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation turned out to be just a bunch of bros from Manchester, England. As luck would have it, the bizarre, self-spun hype preceded an excellent record: a mercurial art-rock hodgepodge of garbled group chants and inversely beautiful shadowy guitars, ramshackle and alluring in equal measure. Placid folk, world beat and angular Krautrock united in their swift-moving landscapes,... all capped with the hectic messianic howls of frontman Ellery Roberts - and as he shrieked "I love you forever!" on the first track ("LYF"), it was hard not to feel stirred by his promise.more »
#91 Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls
From the first moments of "Found Love in a Graveyard" — the creeping ivy riff, the vacant harmonies, and Roxanne Clifford's positively Bronte-esque refrain of "Clinging to a dream so true/ Falling for a ghost like you" — Veronica Falls' eponymous album feels like an eerie midnight stroll through an abandoned manor house. Though it's undoubtedly haunted by the specters of U.K. pop past (their sound blends C86 jangle, Morrissey-approved gloom and... '60s pop romanticism), the memorable melodies and sturdy song craft displayed on standouts like "Bad Feeling," "Beachy Head" and "Come On Over" made it impossible not to fall for this U.K. four-piece's promising debut.more »
#90 Kekko Fornarelli, Room of Mirrors
The late Esbjorn Svensson transformed the piano trio with his use of electronic effects and a penchant for dynamic melodies that strayed far out to the fringes of jazz. Unsurprisingly, he inspired a new wave of pianists. With Room of Mirrors, Kekko Fornarelli has positioned himself as the torch bearer of the New Piano Trio. Kekko's talent as pianist and composer is evidenced in his fearless use of dramatic tension and the... wisdom to never let it devolve into silliness. On double bass, Luca Bulgarelli sticks to the shadows, revealing his presence with an uplifting lyricism. Gianlivio Liberti's percussion is an elegant touch that softens the edges. The electronics ebb and flow, never gimmicky, never intrusive. A smart recording with an emotional presence. Evocative and addictive.more »
#89 Sleeper Agent, Celebrasion
Sleeper Agent are six Kentucky kids whose debut album reverberates with garage-rock riffs, bubblegum cuteness, trad-punk propulsion and alt-rock sludge. Celabrasion may not have an original thought in its shaggy little head. And yet it sounds great — because Sleeper Agent combine those throwback elements in smart ways, and because there are enough lusty hooks here for two LPs. Fittingly enough for a group that embodies youthful abandon, Sleeper Agent have a... barely legal frontwoman: Alex Kandel, an 18-year-old whose parents had to be talked into letting her tour when she first joined the band. On Celabrasion, she's spunky but rarely bratty; usually she just sounds like she's letting the hormones take over. Together with singer-guitarist Tony Smith, she keeps it mega-tuneful on songs that keep exploding: "Get it Daddy" rockets into an orgasmic chorus; "Force a Smile" surges forward until ending on a refrain of "all I wanna do, is play with you"; "Shuga Cane" sounds like Sonic Youth with a dose of, well, sugar. And that's just the first three songs. Elsewhere Kandel and Smith trade verses on two strong ballads: "That's My Baby" and "All Wave and No Goodbye," which suggests Jack and Meg serenading each other over low-intensity electrofuzz. With most songs zipping by in under three minutes, Celebrasion is over too soon. But like teenage romance, it sure feels good while it lasts.more »
#88 Jessica Lea Mayfield, Tell Me
Many a memorable album has been sparked by heartbreak, and Jessica Lea Mayfield dives right in to the depths of despair. "The only time I miss you is every single day," she laments in the aptly named "Our Hearts Are Wrong," even if she if she knows it was the right call: "I ain't gonna change for nobody at all," she declares on the cathartic "Run Myself Into the Ground." Musically, Mayfield... plays it cool throughout; producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys augments her haunting, comely voice with washes of moody guitar and, on occasion, offbeat keyboard riffs or intriguing rhythms. The antidote is "Blue Skies Again," the album's poppiest track, buoyed by a reassurance that "all hearts will mend."more »
#87 Cults, Cults
Cults aren't the first group to rise from anonymity to buzz-band status, and they certainly won't be the last. More remarkable than how Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion crashed the major-label party, however, is the distinctive neo-retro pop style they've brought along with them. Borne partly out of a youth spent listening to an especially eclectic oldies station and a nine-hour drive bonding as a couple over an iPod stacked with ... href="http://www.emusic.com/artist/Lesley-Gore-MP3-Download/10568089.html">Lesley Gore, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake, Cults' aesthetic is one of the most refreshing developments in pop music since the aggro-bubblegum of Brooklyn's own Sleigh Bells a year ago. Put simply: Nothing else sounds quite like this.more »
Self-produced with only minor polish from engineer Shane Stoneback — who worked with Sleigh Bells, and with Vampire Weekend, too — these 11 songs make good on the substantial promise of last year's sole single, "Go Outside." Follin's lilting, girlish voice soars over blithely chiming glockenspiel, trebly guitar, shimmery synth, funk bass and computer-sculpted beats, a slight patina of lo-fi haze still intact throughout. Equally integral are the sampled quotes, which include disturbingly resonant words from cult leaders and psycho killers.
Stylized samples aside, though, Cults can always fall back on songs that effortlessly capture a rich palette of coming-of-age feelings. The previously released material still sparkles: "Go Outside" embodies millennial ambivalence about offline existence; "Oh My God" longs for a life less humdrum and "Most Wanted" explores why we crave what hurts us. The new songs match the quality of their predecessors, from Stockholm syndrome romance "Abducted" to "Walk at Night," which is "Killing Moon"-bleak, on through to "Bumper," a lovers' duet that's something like the "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" by way of "Irreplaceable" by way of "Young Folks."
"So fuck you," Follin enthuses cheerfully, rejecting self-improvement advice amid a squall of shoegaze guitar noise on "Never Heal Myself." Running away from other people's expectations leads Cults someplace wonderfully their own.
#86 Subrosa, No Help for the Mighty Ones
This doomy, female-led Salt Lake City art-metal outfit made one of the most unique and powerful albums of 2011. Featuring violin as the lead instrument, with guitar secondary and a thundering, Sabbath-unto-Swans (male) rhythm section, it had the feeling of occult incantation mixed with carefully crafted pagan folk music (especially on their cover of the traditional English folk song "House Carpenter," delivered a cappella). As thunderingly loud as it is sensitive and... emotionally resonant, this is a masterful, assured record that will creep under your skin and bubble up out of your brain when you're least expecting it. Essential.more »
#85 Curren$y, Weekend at Burnie’s
How dependable can a rapper be if he spends most of his time poolside or airborne, entertaining affairs with married women and smoking copious amounts of weed? Six albums and a string of mixtapes since leaving Young Money, with two or three more albums slated for release at the end of 2011, Curren$y might actually be one of the hardest working artists around, relied upon again and again for churning out consistent... albums full of substance and style. Recently, he's moved from independent distribution to Dame Dash's DD172 Roc-a-fella imprint to a deal with Warner Bros., changing little about himself in the process, continuing to dispatch one laid-back boast after another.more »
Weekend at Burnie's feels like a summer interlude. The production is mostly helmed by the duo of Monsta Beatz, who Curren$y's worked with on both Pilot Talk albums. Here, the two New Orleans beatmakers have carte blanche to weave slow-burning tracks reminiscent of classic G-funk. Mobb Deep's Havoc contributes to the stellar "She Don't Want a Man," but the album is mostly a two-man project. Curren$y plies his craft on slow burners like the heady and dense "Televised," where the rapper employs his southern drawl to itemize his recent successes. He also shows off his storytelling ability, creatively reenacting entanglements with sex and drugs on "Still" while ceding some of the spotlight to featured rappers Trademark and Young Roddy, who build off the charisma and relaxed attitude of their mentor.
Although Curren$y occasionally lapses into one-dimensional, weed-obsessed raps, he's at least partly aware. "Don't mistake my highness for blindness," he reminds us on "Money Machine" while careening through a verse about discipline and motivation in the rap game. If his unrelenting output and diligence have proven anything, it's that both of these are as important to Curren$y as an ounce of sticky.
#84 Conquering Animal Sound, Kammerspiel
Conquering Animal Sound is made up of just two people, Anneke and James who, according to their Tumblr, "make music in their flat every day." And that's exactly what Kammerspiel sounds like: small, delicate, hand-crafted songs that move like the tiny ballerinas atop miniature music boxes. The music is spare — tiny, tinkling bells, quiet xylophones, a few whispery clicks and snaps — and Anneke's childlike voice seems simultaneously full of... wonder and caution. "Flinch" is built from plinking plastic pianos and odd snatches of percussion, "Tracer" is shivery and quiet, a low bass hum and sporadic synths that blink like distant airplanes. This is warm, deliberate music, as gentle as a lullaby, as soft as falling snow.more »
#83 Future Islands, On the Water
Future Islands make break-up records, but not the kind you associate with curling up in bed and crying in your beer. The times you just want nothing else than to howl at the moon? On the Water has got your back there. On their second LP, the Baltimore-based Wham City vets up the drama, softening — but not shedding — their rep as synth-toting live berserkers. Sam Herring's vocals are still an... acquired taste, inflating and braying like a bagpipe, but dispersed through On The Water are quietly resonant anthems like "Where I Found You," "Before The Bridge" and "Balance"; songs that maintain a sonic shimmer and emotional sensitivity, and subtly align Future Islands with a lineage of luxurious, grown and sexy sophisti-pop ranging from Roxy Music's Avalon to Destroyer's Kaputt.more »
#82 Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow
It's saying something that, in a career that has found room for ruminations on lovestruck ghosts, the secret lives of computers and the inner monologue of a coma patient, 50 Words for Snow is Kate Bush's most overtly artful record. It's also her most difficult. For all their lyrical feints toward mysticism, Bush's early works were still outfitted in the lavish dressings of a pop song, Bush's mystic, craggy voice nestled deep... in a pillow of synths and burbling fretless bass.more »
On Snow, Bush razes those structures. Gone entirely (or perhaps on loan to Bat for Lashes and the Knife) are the ghostly Fairlights and supernatural synths, replaced by bare, solemn piano, slow-bubbling fretless bass and brush percussion that rustles like dead leaves. It takes a moment to acclimate to: the elegiac nine-minute opener "Snowflake" — which features an appearance by Bush's teenage son Albert MacIntosh — uses the image of falling snow as a metaphor for loss and separation. ("I am dust, I am ice, I am sky," MacIntosh sings, to which Bush replies, "Keep falling, I'll find you.") The song's progression is ruthlessly methodical: gentle piano figures flutter slowly downward, the two human voices calling out from the center as if lost in a forest. Throughout, Bush seems to be approaching a kinder version of the kind of post-structuralist pop Scott Walker was uncovering on Tilt, the kind of music where each section of a song has a specific melody, but none of them ever codify around a common refrain. Snow functions more like a lieder than a pop record, its slow, roaming art songs all meditations on a single theme — in this case, loss and temporality, for which snow turns out to be the perfect metaphor. When Sir Elton John shows up on "Snowed in on Wheeler Street," it's to play the part of the one who got away, he and Bush exchanging the fraught plea, "I don't want to lose you" over swirling flurries of piano. The song is another example of Bush's lyrical savvy and sly knack for symbolism: Their haphazard encounters span decades, and are set against Rome burning, World War II and, finally, September 11.
The album's fulcrum is, unsurprisingly, the title track, in which Bush counts slowly up to 50 as actor Stephen Fry runs through a list of names for snow, everything from the evocative ("whiteout") to the poetic ("swans-a-melting") to the ridiculous ("sleetspoot'n"). From a more ham-handed songwriter, the song would feel like an overt treatise on relativism, but from Bush, it feels slipperier, more magical — less philosophy than shapeshifting. Thirty-three years into her career that has been by no means ordinary, 50 Words for Snow does the unthinkable — it pushes Kate Bush into new territory. In doing so, she's internalized one of its primary themes: Nothing is forever.
#81 Trap Them, Darker Handcraft
It takes half of one second for Trap Them's Darker Handcraft to place its boot heel on your neck. After a tiny peep of feedback, like a creaked-open door, the Seattle hardcore band barrels through like foaming Rottweilers. The band has been paring down the edges from its assault on each successive release, like an Olympic swimmer looking to reduce resistance: On Darker Handcraft, they have become a marvel of streamlined ferocity.... Their sound is all sinew. The riffs are blindingly fast, but there is no "math" here: Math would slow things down. Hardcore is music of momentum; at its best, it creates a sensation of hurtling invincibility. This album is the most potent, pure distillation of that feeling I've heard in a long time.more »
#80 Crystal Stilts, In Love With Oblivion
Part of me wants to call this Crystal Stilts' pop move and the rest is giggling its ass off at the very idea. The Brooklyn quintet's second full album doesn't cover much territory that their previous work hadn't. But from the time JB Townsend's Duane Eddy-like guitar lick of "Sycamore Tree" bounds into earshot, In Love with Oblivion is palpably catchier, more upbeat and lighter of tone than anything Crystal Stilts have... recorded before. Brad Hargett's vocals are still lachrymose — that's his thing — but he sounds like he's enjoying his role rather than simply mumbling his way through a part, as he sometimes could before. Even a long drone like "Alien Rivers" hums and surges; it's a genuine surprise to discover that the track lasts nearly seven-and-a-half minutes.more »
Oblivion isn't a lo-fi album, exactly — it's more like an expert simulacrum of lo-fi. Old fans needn't worry: Mysterioso crud is still the crux of the Crystal Stilts sound. But the production, by Townsend (and engineer Gary Olson), keeps the droning quality of old while expanding sonically in a few directions. There's a comfortable spaciousness that belies the group's earlier, more cramped sonics: The way Kyle Forester's organ threads through Andy Adler's antic bass and Townsend's anxiously chiming riffs on "Half a Moon" evokes a carnival at twilight, while "Through the Floor" is straight-up Phil Spector Wall of Sound homage that works even better for coming out of the speakers as if from a different room. (That's true on headphones, too.) Based on Townsend's work here, he'll probably be able to hire himself as a producer for other bands of this ilk for a good while. But the way his confident riffs lead his ever-tightening bandmates, it seems safe to imagine that he isn't going anywhere for a while yet.
#79 Okkervil River, I Am Very Far
When Will Sheff produced former 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson's 2010 album True Love Cast Out All Evil, turning his group Okkervil River into the psych-rock pioneer's backing band, he inadvertently revolutionized his own music. Forced to think about how to best frame someone else's voice and songs, he resolved to "push my brain into places it didn't want to go." There's a long history of unsympathetic studio... warlords who do this to their charges, but Sheff took this task on voluntarily, further testing his limits by producing Okkervil River's sixth — and by far most extreme album — himself.more »
Essentially acting as a 21st-century incarnation of rock's most notorious tyrant Phil Spector, Sheff takes a swing at that girl-group guru's Wall of Sound on dense, melodramatic anthems like "Rider," conjuring an indie-rock approximation of fellow Spector freak Bruce Springsteen during his particularly over-the-top Born to Run phase. Sheff's lyrics are similarly excessive, and often drunk on their own alliteration: "And I fly out on my silver, scissoring wings with the other sardines over cities of things mommies need." The sound, as well as the meaning, of his words is now more crucial than ever, and the new curlicues in his songwriting suit his florid arrangements like bright flowers in a garish vase.
But Sheff doesn't merely go for gusto: "Rider" is preceded by "Piratess," which slinks along on a bass-heavy groove — another diversion from the group's time-tested folk-rock core. Sheff's voice has never before seemed so distraught; it appears in close-up on some tracks, far on the horizon on others. Favoring atmosphere over hooks, I Am doesn't immediately ingratiate; many tracks, like the stately, Roxy Music-esque ballad "Lay of the Last Survivor," reveal their strengths with repeated plays. And although there are many, many guitars, they're mostly supporting players, with equal prominence given to woodwinds, strings, treated pianos, rattling percussion and many other instruments of mystery. On I Am Very Far, Sheff finds feeling in filigree.
#77 Chelsea Wolfe, Apokalypsis
This year, Los Angeles received a welcome antithesis to the glossed starlets parading its streets: doom-folk maven Chelsea Wolfe, a sepulchral singer-songwriter who brilliantly united her avant-garde performance roots with the arch, punishing rhythms of metal. Her second album, á¼ˆÏ€Î¿ÎºÎ¬Î»ï¿½...ÏˆÎ¹Ï‚ ("apokalypsis"), explored end-days scenarios with nuanced melodies reminiscent of PJ Harvey; the goth stomper "Demons" ripped along with untoward destruction, while the standout ballad "Tracks (Tall Bodies)" dared to show her vulnerable... side with sighs of, "We could be two straight lines/ In a crooked world." The artfully macabre surf-guitar of lead single "Mer" was a perfect summation of the dark undercurrents of her sunny homeland, as only she could capture them.more »
#76 Skeletonwitch, Forever Abomination
These Ohio headbangers synthesize a variety of sub-styles into a blend that's uniquely their own: They play thrash with black-metal-ish vocals (Chance Garnette frequently recalls Arch Enemy's Angela Gossow — and that's a good thing), basically, but with extra bits of melody wedged in here and there. And while they've never changed their style radically over the course of three albums, they have refined it, and on the 11-track, 32-minute Forever Abomination,... it's honed to a razor's edge. Not a moment is wasted; even the '80s-Metallica-style clean guitar intro is just short enough to set the mood, without incurring listener impatience.more »
#75 Portugal. The Man., In the Mountain in the Cloud
"You're so American," sneers Portugal. The Man guitarist and songwriter John Baldwin Gourley, a dude who looks a Fleet Foxes roadie but sings in a tenor/falsetto that's steeped in the glitter of a thousand glam rock gods, as a bed of Ziggy-induced acoustic power chords, hand claps and strings rise around him like a forest of man-sized posies.more »
As suggested by its name and punctuation, Portugal. The Man specializes in... shamelessly anthemic folderol, and on its sixth disc (and major label debut), the foursome embraces its inner Marc Bolan to the exclusion of nearly anything else. The neo-prog, math rock, and jam-band electronica trimmings of its early catalog have fallen away to focus on that early '70s moment when psych put on its platform boots and reached for the stars. "Got It All (This Can't Be Living Now)" is T. Rex as bolstered by Sgt. Pepper strings and Spiders From Mars guitars. "I want a world like my teacher told me it would be/I want a love like my parents told me it would be," Gourley squeaks as if riding a unicorn into a cloud of helium, and there are 10 more bejeweled-hands-in-the-air moments just like that.
Sometimes this single-mindedness can get a little overwhelming: When "You Carried Us" fades out and "Everything You See" kicks in, the latter feels like a second blast of the former song. Produced by Santigold/M.I.A. collaborator John Hill, and mixed by mainstream enabler Andy Wallace, In the Mountain rounds out this previously under-the-radar ensemble's steady progression from eclecticism to refinement. This is P.TM's time to hone its strengths and shine, and that it does here with double rainbow results. There'll be other opportunities to expand.
#74 The Black Keys, El Camino
The Black Keys, Akron's unsuspecting blues-rock saviors, faced ridiculous pressure in following up their expansive 2010 breakout effort, Brothers. Big things happened in the subsequent year: The duo (vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney) graced the cover of Spin, tucked away three GRAMMYs, played SNL and raked in huge piles of advertising cash — big-deal developments for a band that recorded their debut album in a basement nearly a decade earlier.... Brothers found the band at a creative and commercial high-point, simultaneously embracing soulful pop melodies and the spirited muscle of their live shows, even as they gently experimented with psychedelic overdubs — emphatically darting away from the sleepy, awkward soundscapes of the Danger Mouse-produced identity crisis Attack & Release.more »
On El Camino, the Black Keys are done trying to impress anybody, sounding wonderfully unhinged throughout the album's compact 38 minutes. The name of the game is hard-hitting focus; spontaneity; keeping it simple, stupid; never over-thinking or over-cooking any swampy chorus or tossed-off lyric ("Hey, my my, she's a money-maker/ Hey, my my, she's gonna take ya," goes one gem). After only producing one Brothers track (the emphatic "Tighten Up"), Danger Mouse returns to man the boards — and though his approach on Attack & Release was heavy-handed, never quite gelling with the duo's style, he takes a wiser backseat approach on El Camino. His presence still lingers (check that whirring Hammond organ and retro-glock twinkle on the hooky "Dead and Gone"), but this time around, he's adapted to the Keys' raw rock approach, instead of forcing a synthesis with his bread-n-butter symphonic electro-pop.
The looseness is intoxicating. "Money Maker"'s beastly bass lags behind a millisecond or two, pushing and pulling in gnarly blues warfare with Auerbach's guitars. Carney, charmingly, still swings with the finesse of a caveman on Ritalin — despite his finest efforts at a multi-tiered groove on standout "Stop Stop," dude nearly trips over his own drum sticks. Those sassy female vocalizers on "Gold on the Ceiling" would fit nicely onstage in a broke-down backwoods bar. The acoustic-ballad-turned-electric-stomper "Little Black Submarines" unintentionally evokes Tenacious D channeling Led Zeppelin, and the result is a goofier (yet no less rocking) "Stairway to Heaven" demoed in a truck-stop bathroom stall. Meanwhile, "Sister" is the Black Keys at their glammiest and hammiest, Auerbach's fuzz-bathed, bee-stung guitars layered impeccably over a wicked Carney stomp.
Perhaps the Black Keys are America's finest rock band only because the competition is so depressingly slim. Regardless, with two straight knock-outs on their resume, these guys have clearly earned the title.
#73 Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What
Since his 1986 blockbuster Graceland, Paul Simon has been writing songs the same way an MC pens rhymes — to beats or to nearly finished tracks. So Beautiful or So What flips that script. Its foundation is the veteran singer-songwriter's finely tuned melodies, his intricate guitar licks and his knack for seamlessly merging personal and sociological commentary.more »
More than anything, So Beautiful feels and sounds like a Paul Simon album. This nearly-native... New Yorker has always been the most cosmopolitan and often the most experimental of his generation's marquee singer-songwriters: As far back as Simon & Garfunkel's 1970 swan song Bridge Over Troubled Water, he was constructing rhythms from tape loops ("Cecilia") and singing over indigenous recordings ("El Condor Pasa [If I Could]"). Looking to the past and the future, the East and the West, So Beautiful's 10 tracks present themselves as a grand statement on life in the 21st century, even as it contemplates the afterlife. Despite its organic origins, at times, it resembles the highly-percussive Graceland; it's got rippling guitars courtesy of Cameroonian musician Vincent Nguini, and kora, the West African harp. There are bluegrass flavors from renown dobro/pedal steel player Mark Stewart, Indian tabla and bansuri, gospel samples, sweet string arrangements and a few intricate harmonies that recall his days with Art Garfunkel. And although it reunites Simon with mega-producer Phil Ramone, who produced Simon's smashes in the '70s, his 11th solo album at times also suggests indie rock — particularly the music of Grizzly Bear, whose drummer Chris Bear provides the electronic introduction to "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light."
Despite its exotic trimmings, So Beautiful is an album rooted in everyday experience — the overworked and underpaid fellow worried about holiday bills in album opener "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," the guy sweating it out at the car wash in "Rewrite," while revising the script of his own unwieldy life in the hopes that Hollywood will one day come calling. And though there's the possibility that this could be Simon's final statement (it's written from the perspective of a man who'll turn 70 this October), there's a light, playful touch throughout. By returning to his roots — folk song structures, written on guitar — Simon seems liberated once again.
#72 Tim Berne, Insomnia
Saxophonist Tim Berne writes some of the slinkiest lines around, lyrical and dissonant. They slowly unfurl before, between, over and under the lively solo and collective improvisations in his long suites, on the belatedly released stunner Insomnia. It's a great example of his art, not least for the lush textures of the octet, with Berne on alto or baritone, Baikida Carroll on trumpet and Chris Speed on clarinet, a string trio (including... the invincible Mike Formanek on bass), and drummer Jim Black at his most shady and subtle. The master stroke of orchestration was adding Marc Ducret's acoustic 12-string guitar, given the varied ways he backs the rest, with feathery or splash chords, flinty percussives and charging runs.more »
#71 Shabazz Palaces, Black Up
Ishmael Butler doesn't like to repeat himself, and he'll take as much time as needed between projects in order to make sure that he doesn't. As Butterfly, he led the New York trio Digable Planets through a pair of very different, equally rewarding mid '90s albums (1993's Reachin' and '94's Blowout Comb), then kept his head down for a decade. That group split in 1996, and Butler eventually made his... way back to Seattle, where he grew up, and formed a solid funk-rock band called Cherrywine, whose sole, self-titled album came out in 2003. By decade's end, Butler had a new group: Shabazz Palaces, which gigged around Seattle. Butler insisted that local press not reveal his true identity, but it leaked quickly regardless.more »
It's not as if Butler had anything to be ashamed of. Black Up, Shabazz Palaces' debut, is defiantly strange: murky, stoned, meditative, uncompromised, from the gamelan and eerie chant that drive "An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum" to the dank, minimalist percussion and disembodied soul wail that marks "Recollections of the wraith." (All the titles are like that.) Yet for all its private-files feel, the music is instantly accessible: Butler's far too hook-canny to settle for pure alienation, and nearly two decades on from Reachin', his rhymes skip nimbly and easefully: "I find the diamonds underneath the subtlest inflections," as he boasts on "Are You...Can You...Were You? (Felt)." Like its obvious sonic predecessors, Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On and Tricky's Maxinquaye, Black Up feels like a personal statement as much as a sludgy funk fantasia. "Clear some space out so we can space out," goes the chorus of "Recollections of the wraith." Well put.
#70 Washed Out, Within and Without
Ernest Greene, the creative force behind electronic pop act Washed Out, might be one of music's unlikeliest stars. He was raised on a peach farm in rural Georgia and moved home after college when he discovered his career prospects were bleak. But after uploading a couple of his whimsical, homespun tracks on MySpace in 2009 — which were recorded late into the night while his parents were sleeping — he was championed... by taste-making bloggers and signed to the cutting-edge indie label Mexican Summer. A whole genre of low-fidelity dance pop dubbed "glo-fi" (featuring acts like Neon Indian, Nite Jewel and Greene's buddy Toro Y Moi) came in its wake, yet he never capitalized on his popularity by touring or promoting himself relentlessly. He married his longtime sweetheart instead.more »
Greene's profile is sure to rise with first full-length Within and Without, and not only because it's being released on iconic indie Sub Pop. Where his earliest tunes relied on bedroom production, Greene has gone big this time, teaming with Ben Allen, who's produced records by similar studio obsessives Animal Collective and Deerhunter. The results are downright spectacular: widescreen, glistening jewels of sound that blend lightly propulsive funk with production that's as mysterious and dense as a black hole. It's a neat trick — Greene's one of the few indie artists who could get a late-night warehouse party thumping or make a classical music snob analyze his gift for sophisticated melodies.
Greene isn't one for lyrics — the few that peek through the layered production sound cribbed from some cornball self-help book — and the latter third of Within and Without drifts along like the most restful Xanax-induced sleep ever. But the album is frontloaded with "Amor Fati" and "Eyes Be Closed," two of the finest tunes Greene's ever written. The latter's slow-building, soaring interlude alone might sap you of serotonin for weeks.
#69 Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes
You can't go home again, but it doesn't really matter, does it? You never really leave. Lykke Li decided to make her sophomore album, Wounded Rhymes, in Los Angeles; about as far away meteorologically and geographically as she could get from her native Sweden. And yet, like a window that you can't quite shut or, more accurately, a place you can't quite forget, the feel of a cold dark winter permeates this... wonderful, strange and sensual album.more »
Recorded in the trendy Echo Park neighborhood of L.A. and produced by Peter, Bjorn & John's Björn Yttling, Wounded Rhymes finds Lykke Li playing the role of conduit. She takes in a dizzying array of sounds and influences and spits them back out in a decidedly unique fashion. It's a primal album, with many songs built from the beat up. It should come as no surprise that Lykke Li was fond of covering Lil Wayne's slithering "A Milli" in concert; this is a woman who clearly draws power from rhythm. Nowhere is this more evident than on the hypnotizing fist single, "Get Some," where Lykke turns the simple count of "Iko Iko" into an swirling, dark, electro storm with Pentacostal sermon-like power.
Whether she's laying her voice over the Depeche Mode style goth pop of "I Follow Rivers" or the almost countrified, glacial "Unrequited Love," the lonely winter is never far from Lykke's mind. When she sings, "all this love is unrequited, twice the pain and suffering," on the latter track, you can practically see her brushing the hair from her face as she stares out onto a snowy landscape from her window. You can change the view, but you can't change you.
#68 Aram Shelton’s Arrive, There Was…
A cool extension of the legacy of Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch. The beautiful sound is made up by the contrasts of Shelton's biting alto, Jason Adasiewicz's lapidary vibes, Jason Roebke's powerful bass and Tim Daisy's sharp, roiling drums. The tracks are structured in idiosyncratic and sophisticated ways, with a muscular musical logic that gives the players space to stretch themselves without dissipating. Smart, with a gripping amount of fire burning just... under the surface.more »
#67 Widowspeak, Widowspeak
#66 The Men, Leave Home
In the spirit of disorder, Brooklyn's The Men (not the Le Tigre offshoot band MEN) titled their third album Leave Home, just like the Ramones record. It's somewhat appropriate: their amped-up-n-loud music borrows heavily from punk and metal — not to mention drone and free jazz — without sounding pretentious or retro. Think that's a simple task? Try it. It's easy to take apart a refrigerator, but hell to put it back... together again. The same goes for even the simplest of musical forms.more »
#65 Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde
The biggest knock against Smith Westerns isn't so much a knock as a bitter pill: They're young. The Chicago trio's second album, the ambitious Dye It Blonde, was recorded when their members were 19 years old or younger, though you'd be hard-pressed to tell. There are youthful sentiments — love and pain and distance and near-misses — but there's a clarity of sound, a kind of veteran intelligence, that surprises.more »
The band's self-titled... debut, released on Chicago indie HoZac, had the same ambition but little of the rigor or know-how. Dye It Blonde, unlike its predecessor, was recorded in a proper studio in New York with respected engineer/producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beach House) and he has gifted the band with sonic structure and hope. Where once there were good ideas unformed, now there are skyscraping bridges and relentless choruses and spiraling chord changes.
The band, for their part, have grown, turning their Nuggets and T. Rex-inspired experiments in full-blown sing-alongs. Lead singer Cullen Omori is a dewy-eyed heartthrob type, singing in a dreamy tone about how dull weekends are without you ("Weekend"). Omori is no great lyricist, but he's an honest one, completely tapped into the warring optimism and dullness of young adulthood. Meanwhile guitarist Max Kakacek drives these songs with slashing chords. "End of the Night" comes on like a snow plow, barreling over everything in its path, and picking it clean, before unfolding into a piano-led breakdown. These are bold, impressive steps for such, yes, young, crew. But don't call them precocious. Just comfortable.
#64 Dave Douglas & So Percussion, GPS, Vol. 3: Bad Mango
In 2011, trumpeter Dave Douglas released three short albums (by modern standards) under his "Green Leaf Portable" rubric. This "portable" designation — as well as the "just another in a series" style of numbering each effort — connotes a casual vibe; loosed from the pressure to make a big statement with some hour-long plus album, Douglas can just try ideas out, play with new people, blow for around 40 minutes and let... it be a thing. And yet Bad Mango, the third disc in this series, doesn't feel like a casual, workaday product. After recruiting the classical-scene hotshots in So Percussion, Douglas wrote some new pieces, reworked some old ones, and came up with a new subgenre: percussion quartet plus trumpet. Opener "One More News" comes in plenty hot, as one might expect, though the group also proves it has the strength to conceive of subtler songforms. (Over the course of 35 minutes, what at first might feel like a limited sonic palette never gets old.) The quartet grooves with a complexity honed during their time woodshedding Steve Reich's Drumming, while Douglas's brash-but-bluesy playing grounds the project in jazz tradition. That the players' collective insights are presented with such a lack of pretension only makes the album feel like more of a find.more »
#63 Florence + the Machine, Ceremonials
Although she co-writes most of her material, Florence Welch sings like an actor. Her dramatic inflections matter more than her image-packed and overtly-poetic lyrics. Those qualities, which evoke yesteryear's art-pop idols like Kate Bush and Annie Lennox, are — paradoxically — what makes her accessible to adults and Glee kids alike. Like those forbearers, Welch occupies that magic zone between oddity and accessibility; she's the witchy-yet-sexy ginger.more »
Unlike its predecessor, which... was overseen by several producers and featured a multitude of co-writers, Ceremonials is produced solely by Paul Epworth, Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" collaborator who co-wrote three and produced four of Lungs' tracks, and shares writing credits on most of the material here. As a result, Welch's sophomore album is far more unified: Epworth pumps nearly every track up to stadium size with cavernous bass, reverberating drums, pounding piano and plenty of studio manipulation. For what's essentially a piano-based pop record, Ceremonials is hella loud. Guitars may be implied more than felt, but its claustrophobic atmospherics rarely allow any air or any rest.
Although religion is mostly referenced indirectly, Ceremonials — as its title suggests — has the vibe of an all-day revival meeting, even as the echoing gothic production nods toward nocturnal heathens like Siouxsie and the Banshees. And that's not the only genre referenced here: Get past the harp and other filigrees packed into "What the Water Gave Me" and you'll find power chords that scream classic rock. Had this album's first single been recorded for, say, Tommy or Quadrophenia, you'd be flicking your Bic to it every time the Who decides to "reunite." "Lover to Lover" suggests the barrelhouse R&B keyboards and gospel growls of early Elton John, while "Spectrum" quotes Destiny's Child over a galloping rhythm from Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill." These are the album's most substantial songs; relying on mood and not always melody; the others are more of a consolidation and a continuation of Lungs than a departure. Rock's latest leading lady has stuck to her proven script.
#62 3 Cohens, Family
Since the previous 3 Cohens release in 2007, Anat (reeds) and Avishai (trumpet) Cohen have burnished their reputations with notable discs and concerts. The good news for Family is the breadth of talent and responsibility spread throughout the sextet. Yuval Cohen contributes two songs (the tail-chasing whirl-and-swing of "Rhapsody in Blake" and an incisive arrangement of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?") and holds his own on soprano... alongside his more renowned sister and brother in the front line. The top-drawer rhythm section of pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Matt Penman and especially drummer Gregory Hutchinson are incorporated like kin rather than hired guns. Even special guest vocalist Jon Hendricks, whose advanced age can occasionally sabotage his range and timing, shines in safe but deft arrangements during "On The Sunny Side of the Street" and "Roll 'Em Pete."more »
The other sterling virtue of Family is the sextet's ambition and mastery of a wide range of material. Avishai's "Shufla De Shufla" puts a slightly modern twist on vintage swing. Yuval's ensuing blues gives the rhythm section well over two minutes to establish a dignified stroll. Then the band heads into the one-two punch of Avishai's "With the Soul of the Greatest of Them All (Dedicated To Charles Mingus)," which indeed honors the rambunctious, cerebral Mingus with pulsing counterpoint and piquant harmonies; followed by a delightful cover of Ellington's "The Mooch" — and, a few tracks later, a buoyant take on Anat's splendid arrangement of another vintage bow to New Orleans, "Tiger Rag."
#61 Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto
Like any prosperous band with a global audience entering its second decade, Coldplay seems to want to venture away from its enchanted cottage, albeit not too far. Their fifth studio album, Mylo Xyloto (made-up words despite online MacGuffins as to meaning) makes good use of the tension between wanderlust and safety. "Hurts Like Heaven" drops the "soft" from Coldplay's soft-rock wheelhouse, and kicks hard, a rush of blood through the keyboards with... some of the roaming impulse of Arcade Fire's anthems. "Charlie Brown" with lines such as "took a car downtown where the lost boys meet," leaves little doubt that Chris Martin means it when he says he had been looking to Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town for inspiration. Martin also told NME that "our lyrics are a bit shit," which is self-deprecating only by a hair: There are comparisons of rivers to raindrops, and the image of teardrop-to-waterfall appears in not one, but two songs.more »
Brian Eno is back; the co-producer of Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends, (the best-selling album of 2008), is credited with "Enoxification and additional composition." Tracks such as "Major Minus" and "Don't Let It Break Your Heart" emphasize some of the past descriptions of Coldplay as U2-lite, though these tracks are less lite, more bite. "Paradise" — or, as Martin sings it, "para, para, para-dise" — is the kind of sincere Esperanto pop that will deservedly join "Clocks" and "Viva La Vida" on a future greatest hits collection.
"Enoxification" could also be shorthand for the handful of electronic interludes that suggest Mylo Xyloto could also serve double duty as a soundtrack album. That's not the only thing: the, uh, soaring finale, "Up With the Birds," feels designed to be played over the closing credits of a sentimental blockbuster animated comedy. Toy Story 4 producers, take note.
#60 Hollie Cook, Hollie Cook
When confronted by the debut album by a Sex Pistols' daughter, who was also a member of the final incarnation of the Slits, it's easy to get militant about the unfair advantages bestowed on pop offspring. But one listen to Hollie Cook's first album should dispel such thoughts. It's an unabashedly gorgeous record, built for summertime, born under the twin signs of Carroll Thompson and Janet Kaye, and dedicated to the idea... that if there's a better record out there than Junior Murvin's "Police And Thieves" then it's Althea and Donna's "Uptown Top Ranking."more »
Cook calls the record "tropical pop" but really, its jump-off point is the most quality-challenged of reggae subgenres: lovers' rock, regenerated here by youth, wit and the imaginative production of Mike "Prince Fatty" Pelanconi. Cook's voice — breathy, conversational, unaffected — sits inside Prince Fatty's epic sound constructions as if she's the Queen of Planet Dub.
Alongside the daytime pop are equally deft excursions into darkness. "Sugar Water (Look At My Face)" rides a thunderous dubbed-up intro worthy of King Tubby into a tune that begs for big speakers. Fatty doesn't just restrict himself to slavish recreations of the late '70s dub-pop palette, however; "Shadow Kissing" transposes Joe Meek's lowest-of-lo-fi, handbuilt ideals on to a splendid and disorienting piece of motorik reggae. Cook and her producer share the most important musician's trait: a severe allergy to boredom.
Hollie Cook gets bonus points for clocking in at a concise 33 minutes — Prince Fatty clearly applied ruthless liposuction to a record that should please admirers of Lily Allen and Burning Spear alike. Hollie's father Paul Cook must be proud. Her late mentor Ari Up of The Slits, who passed away in October 2010, surely would be.
#59 Dirty Beaches, Badlands
As suggested by the smoke-engulfed, gel-slicked Johnny Cash character on its record sleeve, Dirty Beaches — or, at least, main member Alex Zhang Hungtai — are cooler than you could ever hope to be. He's a real desperado type, playing solo shows with a guitar in one hand and a comb in the other — returning it periodically to his back pocket, presumably right next to his switchblade.more »
And then there's the music... itself. Contrary to what some critics may tell you, Hungtai's songs aren't lo-fi so much as they're beamed from another time and place, the kind of music that suddenly turns up on a phantom oldies station through your grandfather's old transistor radio — the one that hasn't worked in years. Not since Vietnam, anyway.
There's a reason Hungtai has repeatedly said that he's writing "soundtracks for films that don't exist." Like the directors he undoubtedly adores (let's say, David Lynch and Wong Kar-Wai), the singer/songwriter isn't out to entertain us. He's here to cast spells, whether that involves rail-jumping riffs and a rockabilly wail ("Speedway King") or a piano melody that's straight out of a dirty saloon, circa 1869. There's no choice but to succumb.
#58 Onehotrix Point Never, Replica
Oneohtrix Point Never has assumed an important place in the sound and theory obsessed underground with music that consumes as it compels and a unique ability to articulate his vision as something more than just a simple accumulation of "vibes." So it goes with Replica, a mindful album that zones out and tunes in at the same time. Though he made his name with drifting, drafting synthesizer meditations reminiscent of '70s kosmiche... acts like Tangerine Dream, Oneohtrix Point Never shifts into more cut-up forms on Replica. Part of the style started to coalesce on his 2010 breakthrough Returnal, but the material here pushes harder and farther into a realm where abstraction and clarity mesh. "Andro" starts off more or less recognizably, with seething synth tones and a portentous sense of atmosphere, but a signal gets sent when the track swerves, all of the sudden, into an unexpected fit of rhythm near the end. "Power of Persuasion" takes the next step by introducing as an aural plaything the sound of a traditional piano, which proves surprisingly prevalent on the album throughout. The rest of the template sets when sampled bits of voice — or, more accurately, weird incidental sounds made by a mouth on its way to speaking — wander in during "Sleep Dealer." It's a strange mix of subject matter, to be sure. But it gathers into shapes that manage to approximate actual songs, with memorable parts and melodies that linger, while doubling down as experimental ambient soundscapes.more »
#57 Radiohead, The King of Limbs
In a SPIN cover story during the press run-up to Hail To The Thief, Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien mused to Chuck Klosterman about longevity in rock. "I'm interested in bands as beasts," he said. "I'm interested in U2 and the Rolling Stones and Neil Young & Crazy Horse....[Being in a band] is a complicated thing to do over the expanse of time, which is why I respect it so... much." For Radiohead, the most revered apocalyptic doomsayers in rock, this is a disarmingly prosaic concern. For hardcore devotees, it could be deflating to hear the band's members discussing their inner dynamic like marriage counselors.more »
And yet: Asserting the right to exist, and pondering the absurd level of difficulty inherent in maintaining such a basic right, has always been one of Radiohead's great themes. From the moment the first of their Great Trembling Visions of the Future dawned — that would be 1997's OK Computer — Radiohead have always spoken in two voices: the screaming panic of data overload and the whimpered plea, behind it, to just be left alone. Hey, man; slow down. They are reasonable men; get off their case.
On The King of Limbs, their eighth studio album, Radiohead sound like a band that has figured out, once and for all, how to exist. In that regard, it is both an achievement and a subtle forking in the road — from here on out, Radiohead don't seem likely to struggle very much; they know who they are, and they have gotten fearsomely good at making their music. The corollary to this is the slight pang from realizing that, well, they might never truly surprise you again.
If you can listen past this pinprick of disappointment, King of Limbs offers a wide set of generously enfolding arms for you. At a serenely inscrutable 37 minutes, it is their shortest record yet, but it beams with relaxed, lived-in confidence. The music never attempts something it doesn't achieve with aplomb, offering glimpses of every facet of Radiohead's ever-fluid sound along the way. "Bloom" layers a small tumble of piano against a rippling, blinding sea of clicks and pops — once the bass line starts crawling up the center of the song, you realize with some astonishment that they have built a sensual, undulating groove from a blizzard digital snow.
They do it again on the twitching arrhythmia of "Good Morning, Mr. Magpie," which sputters like a set of cut wires on a basement floor until Yorke's voice glides in, clear and calm. Throughout The King of Limbs, you sense that Radiohead been living with the noise of their own chattering machinery for so long now that they can't imagine life without it; on "Lotus Flower," Yorke plays patty-cake with it, punctuating the piston-like hammering of the downbeat with handclaps. The second half of the record dissolves into a shimmering blue sea of sound, with Yorke's croon sailing over top like a boat pushed with one foot. "In your arms/ I think I should give up the ghost," he sings on the beatific "Give Up The Ghost" — a peaceful hymn of surrender, perhaps, to the machines he's spent years cowering beneath.
#56 Army Navy, The Last Place
In 2008, the L.A. band Army Navy put out a minor classic in the determinedly minor subgenre of power pop. Insofar as it's even acknowledged to exist outside of the world of record store clerks, power pop is mostly music of misplaced nostalgia and helpless obsession, and it succeeds in no small part by how it manages to remind you of every other pop song you've ever loved. Army Navy's self-titled... debut — sunny and sad, sweet and bracingly sour, fresh-faced and weary — was a master class in this balancing act, splitting the difference between '70s acts like Big Star and '90s revivalists like the Posies with effortless aplomb.more »
Sometimes artists seek to recreate in art what they cannot achieve in life, however, and it often seems that the winsome souls who make this music are always pitching, in their personal lives, towards some new heartbreak. So it's not shocking to learn that the inspiration behind Army Navy's emotionally devastated latest record, The Last Place, is a woman. In the wake of the first Army Navy record, frontman Justin Kennedy fell in love with someone famous — who also happened to be married. The whole affair lasted six months, but it left him with enough bewildered anger and humiliation to pen a whole record. The result is a poisoned Valentine dripping with equal parts beauty and scorn; imagine a Vulcan mind-meld between Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque and Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear and you're there.
The shimmering guitars, bright vocal harmonies, and seamless verse-chorus-verse transitions of Army Navy's debut remain undimmed. If anything, they shine brighter; crack open a power-pop geek's heart, it seems, and gorgeous music leaks out. The first words Kennedy sings on The Last Place's title track are "The last place I wanna be is in my head." It's a bummer sentiment, but Kennedy arcs the melody upward like he's straining to place the gold star atop a Christmas tree. "Ode To Janice Melt" (the name is a reference that Kennedy assured us in our interview, "if she saw the title alone, she would know the song is speaking to her") bops along lightly to a plinked piano and xylophone while Kennedy sings plaintively, "Maybe it's your celebrity/That makes you wanna slum it with me."
The woman in question is never named — partly due, one suspects, to justified fears of libel lawsuits, but it also heightens the album's exquisitely private sting. At any rate, the tortured specifics of Kennedy's romantic dilemma dissolve when exposed to such relentless pop sunshine. When he wails "There's a cost to letting our hearts lust" on "I Think It's Gonna Happen Now," he might get personal catharsis; we just get an effortlessly memorable, relentlessly pleasing soundtrack to our summer.
#55 Charles Bradley, No Time For Dreaming
Before CDs, before the Internet, soul music freaks had to rely on serendipity find the best dusty tracks: O.V. Wright's "Nickel and a Nail," Bunny Sigler's "Regina," Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart." I heard all of these for the first time on a little radio station, between the hatch marks on my dorm room FM radio, fine-tuning the dial enough to hear the announcer, writing down the info, and... then heading off to my local dusty used record store, hoping to get lucky. Listening to Charles Bradley's No Time for Dreaming, reminds me of those musical dorm-room epiphanies. His voice is gritty as a gravel road, reminiscent of deep-soul men from Otis Clay to Joe Simon.more »
But Bradley is no forgotten soul great, though tracks such as "How Long" and "Golden Rule" could be lost Stax B-sides. Dreaming is a debut album purposefully recorded to sound as weathered as the singer's voice. Of course it's a Daptone record, those same soul-purists-with-hearts-of-gold who brought us the beloved Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. As with all of the artists in the Daptone catalogue, Bradley is backed by horn and rhythm sections that sound, literally, vintage. In this case, it's a new combo: the Menahan Street Band, led by guitarist/producer Thomas Brenneck, beautifully backing Bradley's stories of hard luck and regret. "Heartaches and Pain" is Dreaming's standout track. The true story of Bradley's brother's murder, it's disturbing in a way few of those "classic" soul records could ever dare to be.
#54 Ben Allison, Action-Refraction
#53 Generationals, Actor Caster
As spry as prime-era Squeeze and as rigid and angular as the best Spoon songs, New Orleans duo Generationals somehow make their starched-collar guitar-pop sound crisper and more precise without turning it into a math equation. The guitars are just blips on the radar, so what drives these songs is their steady melodic bounce: "Goose & Gander," the prettiest song about domestic strife you're likely to hear ("We can't stand each other,... but we can't be apart"), glides along on the kind of spritely keyboard hook that would do Hall & Oates proud and "Greenleaf" spirals like a set of sparklers in the July night. And undergirding it all is that steady, stentorian guitar chug — the guy in the corner at the party with the three-piece suit and stone-face who is, nonetheless, wearing a lampshade.more »
#52 Megafaun, Megafaun
#51 Peaking Lights, 936
#50 The Joy Formidable, Big Roar
If Courtney Love went to etiquette class and got guitar lessons from My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields, her resulting band would sound a lot like Joy Formidable. Fronted by pixie-cute, bottle-blonde, 26-year-old Ritzy Bryan, the Welsh trio brings back the dense, fuzz-bombed wall of noise of early '90s alterna acts like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, and their long-in-the-works full-length debut album offers a far more thrilling revivalist ride than contemporary... noise freaks like Yuck and Male Bonding.more »
When Bryan sings, "Simple words are growing vague," on opening stunner "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie," it's meant as a war cry. The Joy Formidable's sound is all about guitars: Bryan delivers maximal power-chords, saturated in fuzz, occasionally drowned out by feedback from amps that are dangerously cranked into the red. Her rhythm section rocks plenty, too: bassist (and Bryan's boyfriend) Rhydian Dafydd packs plenty of low-end, gut-rattling punch, while drummer Matthew Thomas unleashes furious punk grooves with the precision of Dave Grohl.
Despite the volume, Joy Formidable are hook-centric pop formalists at heart. "Cradle" features irresistible ooh-oohs amid its turbulent power chords, while "Don't Want to See You Like This" could be mistaken for a tossed-off tune from Avril Lavigne's favorite songwriting pros the Matrix. But it's the band's joyful noise that demands repeated attention — especially on "Whirring," which builds into a monster, seven-minute epic. Wear earplugs.
#49 Other Lives, Tamer Animals
From the very second Tamer Animals fades into focus, it's as if Other Lives are out to deliver one of the year's most richly detailed records; a flawless, filler-free set of spellbound songs that'll make anyone with a pulse feel sudden pangs of loss and regret. If you understand the appeal of artists like Fleet Foxes but leave their LPs feeling a bit empty, this record will fill that void with what... essentially amounts to a well-edited vocal version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Meaning: music that moves you, even if you can't quite put your finger on why.more »
#48 Sepalcure, Sepalcure
Sepalcure prove that reinvention counts as much as much as innovation in dance music. Since the release of their first few EPs, the bass producers have earned enough praise to position themselves as chief purveyors of dance music in 2011— based as much on their ability to look to the past as their ability to look forward. Their self-titled debut only adds to their credence, navigating pre-and-post-dubstep alleyways without sounding dated or... trendy. In the woozy "Me," the two breeze through jungle, 2-step, and early IDM, all while retaining dubstep's steely percussion. There's the slightest hint of emotional disconnect in the sunken vocals, but Sepalcure keep their songs warm with lush synths, locating a place somewhere between intimacy and detachment. It's unlike any other dance record we've heard this year.more »
#47 The Antlers, Burst Apart
If the Antlers' debut offering, 2009's magnificently-realized Hospice, rehabilitated the notion of the overwrought concept album, its successor, Burst Apart, is a far more informal affair. Where Hospice forensically documented the demise of a terminally ill cancer patient from the perspective of her besotted partner, Antlers frontman Peter Silberman reports that the Brooklyn three-piece deliberately went into Burst Apart "without a map...we let the songs grow organically." Despite this newfound laissez-faire attitude,... the record's mood stays pretty much the same to great effect. The Antlers' forte remains deeply brooding, viscerally emotive epic songs that unfold over vistas of humming synths, gorgeously calibrated guitars, and Silberman's pensive, abstracted-yet-intense lyrical musings. Put simply, the Antlers always sound profound, even when they aren't saying much.more »
The mood is established on plangent opener "I Don't Want Love," where Silberman's keening falsetto pinpoints the self-doubt and pain of a commitment-phobe, and he continues to unravel through spectral, existential musical essays such as "Parentheses" and narcoleptic single "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out." There are echoes of Radiohead on "Rolled Together" and "No Widows," as drummer Michael Lerner sketches a sparse, skeletal tattoo. "Putting the Dog to Sleep" closes the proceedings on an appropriately anguished note, with Silberman howling "Prove to me/ That I'm not gonna die alone." It's lush, lavish and heavy with intimations of mortality — as is the vast majority of this splendid album.
#46 Mike Watt, hyphenated-man
The word critics most often use to describe Mike Watt's music is "elliptical", which should give you some idea just how difficult describing his music is. Ever since his time as bassist for punk/funk legends Minutemen, Watt has specialized in music of evasion. Most punk rock barrels forward; his music is a constant sideways skitter. His songs never take the straight route, but they still manage to get where they're going... faster than anyone else, depositing a few unlodgeable sounds in your ear and disappearing all in the elapsed time it takes for you to mutter, "Huh?"more »
No one can maintain that kind of high-step forever. Mike Watt is 53 now, and hyphenated-man, his new solo record, is a meditation on that truth, a punk-rock lifer's shit-eating-grin look at mortality. A lot of aging men in rock make this record eventually, the one that takes baleful stock of their accumulated scars, settles debts, issues pronouncements. The "Regrets? I've had a few" record. Often, they sag under the leaden weight of their subject matter.
But not Mike Watt's version — his is, well, more elliptical. There are myriad ways to moan "I'm gettin' old" in rock 'n' roll, but nobody else has done so by writing 30 songs dedicated to individual figures in Hieronymous Bosch's gruesome Renaissance triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. The titles describe the figures: "belly-stabbed-man," "pinned-to-the-table-man," "head-and-feet-only-man." The lyrics, however, are startlingly direct and personal: On "antlered-man," he sings wryly, "When I was younger, tried to act like something stronger/ But the ego, it just won't let go," encouraging himself to "get naked, let weakness show." As is usually the case with Watt's work, what looks wildly counterintuitive on paper turns out to be, for him, somehow the shortest distance from A to B.
Apart from the words, his voice betrays the years: It has acquired a beer gut and a permanent sunburn, full of the crags and pits that come from decades of "jamming econo." But the antic rhythms haven't flagged a step. Many critics have faltered in conveying this experience, but here goes: It's like riding shotgun in a dune buggy down the sheer side of a rocky cliff, gripping the handles while Watt shouts factoids about the native flora and fauna into your ear. It's thrilling, queasy, and disorienting; it's packed with information and over too soon; and the minute you make it down alive, you want to start over.
#45 Low, C’mon
After Drums & Guns and The Great Destroyer, you might assume the title of Low's ninth album indicates the band is lowering its sights, setting aside universals for a simple, colloquial invitation. But Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have merely turned their attentions inward, searching, sometimes painfully, for a way to co-exist with both the world and each other. The four-year break that preceded C'mon is the longest in the band's nearly... two decades, following a rough patch during which they lost both founding bassist Zak Sally and his replacement (Steve Garrington handles four-string duties here). On C'mon, Sparhawk and Parker seem, first and foremost, to be singing to each other, reassuring, confessing and sometimes confronting. There hasn't been so honest a report from inside a long-term relationship since Yo La Tengo's ...and then nothing turned itself inside-out.more »
Recorded in the same Duluth, Minnesota, church as 2002's Trust, C'mon manages to feel both intimate and epic, pushing through private emotions towards larger truths. Enhanced by banjo, strings and lap steel (the latter courtesy of Wilco's Nels Cline), the songs expand the band's sound without violating the fragile simplicity at its core. The chiming glockenspiel on "Try to Sleep" lends it the air of a lullaby, although it also reminds us there are some rests you don't wake up from. Until then, Sparhawk advises, "Don't look at the camera."
On "Witches," Sparhawk makes clear his disdain for those who put image before honesty: "All you guys out there trying to act like Al Green: You're all weak," he sings, the only time he veers close to the anger of the previous two albums. Being a tough guy is easy; it's laying yourself bare that hurts. On "Nothing But Heart," Sparhawk straps himself to the title phrase for more than six minutes, incanting it over and over again as the band swells behind him. (Even the church's organ gets into the act). Parker chimes in with a countermelody, trying to guide Sparhawk through the storm. There's a sense of a journey completed, a dark night of the soul weathered and a glint of sun breaking through the clouds. If Low has lowered its sights, it's only to look in the mirror.
#44 The Weather Station, All Of It Was Mine
As The Weather Station, Tamara Lindeman writes introspective folksongs guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings. The album's cover — Lindeman standing in front of trees reflected in a window — looks like it could've been made decades ago, and it's fitting for her music. With no mention of time periods or events, her songs are strictly built on emotions and interactions, complemented by self-aware observations and warm imagery.more »
Opening track "Everything... I Saw" has references to homemade bread and freshly dug-up carrots, muddy streetlights and see-through cotton skirts; in "Traveller," about feeling like a stranger in a familiar place, there's chipped paint on a brick and snow to brush off a jacket. "Came So Easy" mentions quiet evenings in the kitchen and ants pillaging in a single-file line, as Lindeman sings gently about being startled and caught off-guard by a new love, shifting from wincing at "sugar-sweetness" to being tongue-tied and restless.
All Of It Was Mine channels both folk music's early trailblazers and Lindeman's own contemporaries. The smoky soprano in "Know It To See It" is an obvious nod to Joni Mitchell, while the reedier alto in parts of "Traveller" sound more like Laura Marling. The music is mostly acoustic fingerpicked guitars and subdued banjo, with occasional tambourine and a couple bluesy bouts of reverb. It's simple and honest with no frills — sure to hold up through another few decades.
#43 Cass McCombs, WIT’S END
Make no mistake, WIT'S END is a profoundly depressing record, and if you tend to naturally feel a little down in the dumps, I can't truly recommend it in good conscience. But if you're gonna mope, you might as well do it all the way, and WIT'S END derives its unique magnetism from Cass McCombs's utter commitment to funereal tempo and haunted lyricism. "County Line" is for everyone, though: It's... his greatest song to date and an instant heartbreak standard, serving as a relatively accessible entryway to a batch of dirges that accumulate absorptive, uncanny power like a version of Astral Weeks filtered through the Joy Division's gothic bleakness. To call WIT'S END a grower sells it short: It aims for nothing less than total consumption.more »
#42 Hilary Hahn, Charles Ives: Four Sonatas
If anyone can sell these eccentric, 100-percent American sonatas for violin and piano to the public, it's Hilary Hahn, probably the greatest active violinist and certainly the best of the American contenders for that title. Hahn's absolute technical assurance never comes at the expense of expressiveness; her vibrato and phrasing ooze Romantic emotiveness even amid the thorniest passages.more »
And there are certainly plenty of thorny bits. This is all mature Ives.... The first three Sonatas were finalized in 1914 (Ives turned 40 that year), the Fourth, "Children's Day at the Camp Meeting," in 1916; all reworked earlier material. Aside from the more ingratiating Third (which still has its share of harmonic daring), they sound like they could have been written last week; even as Ives quotes folk tunes, he throws in off-kilter harmonies that expertly undercut potential sentimentality.
Hahn's refulgent tone allows the quotes their full melodic folksiness while still keeping the overall feeling tartly challenging. The pianist, Valentina Lisitsa, has a nicely rich tone and never sounds clangorous even when giving bold expression to the blustery passages. Gregory Fulkerson's renditions on Bridge have long been the gold standard in this repertoire, but Hahn is his equal.
#41 Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest
It's been eight years since Gillian Welch's Soul Journey, which amounts to half of her recording career. But The Harrow & the Harvest, recorded with her longtime creative partner David Rawlings, doesn't sound labored over, and there's no sign of the writer's block that plagued Welch in the interim. It's as if Welch instead spent the time digging deeper into herself and into the past, emerging with 10 songs that sound as... if they were discovered in some archival treasure trove, or simply hewn out of rock.more »
Playing guitar, banjo and harmonica — Welch is also credited with "hands & feet" — the duo go it alone, with Rawlings's production lending the songs a hushed, almost eerie, intimacy. Apart from minor flourishes, like the double-tracked vocals on "The Way It Will Be," this is Welch and Rawlings as they've always appeared on stage, their sound full and unvarnished.
The most substantial departure from past records is the vein of free associative surrealism that's crept into Welch's lyrics. "The Way That It Goes" starts off in the familiar territory of rural Goth, but after a few verses, she stars mixing in oblique references to "Ode to Billie Joe" and storied Los Angeles eatery Musso and Frank's. What the one has to do with the other, or with "everybody buying little baby clothes" is something listeners will be left pondering over the many repeats the song easily accommodates.
The Harrow & the Harvest is not an album easily assimilated; the songs sound instantly familiar yet naggingly elusive, like a horizon forever receding in the distance. But the more you walk through the terrain Welch and Rawlings so vividly create, the more you feel at home, even if you're not quite sure where.
#40 Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch the Throne
After the listening session for Watch The Throne, Jay-Z stood up and revealed to the assembled crowd that he and Kanye had recorded, and scrapped, an earlier version of their much-hyped, long-rumored collaborative rap album. "We had made this very big, impressive album, but I'm not sure if it was all that enjoyable," he said. So they returned to the studio, he continued, to render it more human. As a result of... their diligent efforts, Watch the Throne boasts the following down-to-earth touches: a gold-plated album cover designed by French fashion plate Riccardo Tisci; snatches of recorded NASA launch-code transmissions; a sample of Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness," which probably could have bought a private jet or five; lyrics about physically balancing on stacks of money; and, oh, they kept the folksy title Watch the Throne.more »
Despite their best efforts, in other words, Watch the Throne remains what it was destined to be from the start: a massive, unapproachably haughty thing, the most ostentatiously over-the-top pop album in a year that included Lady Gaga's Born This Way. As he did on 2010's conspicuous-consumption-nightmare masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye piles on jaw-dropping, gorgeous sounds here like so many flung bearskin rugs: Bon Iver, La Roux, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, the "Apache" drum break, a crushing dubstep sample; all his current favorite accouterments are here. There's also an Eastern European gypsy folk song reappearing in between songs, because, hey, why the hell not? The resulting room feels almost suffocated by the purchased luxury.
Conveniently, "suffocated by purchased luxury" is the overweening lyrical preoccupation of WTT. Material boasts are so high-concept that they take on a melancholy air; Jay-Z's Audemars Piguet watch isn't just decked out in diamonds, it's "losing time/ hidden behind all these big rocks." Kanye doesn't just collect luxury cars; he owns "Maybachs on 'bachs on 'bachs on 'bachs" (the "on backs" homonym can't be coincidental). In "Welcome to the Jungle," Jay-Z actually stares in a mirror and sighs, "I'm fuckin' depressed."
That slackness of soul is the most maddening and intriguing aspect of Watch The Throne. Ever since The Black Album's grand retirement party and his unofficial ascension into the highest ranks of American celebrity, Jay-Z has seemed, on record at least, like a man increasingly uncomfortable in his own expensive suit. In public appearances, he has perfected the art of regal maturity, but in the booth, he has often sounded queasy and lost, snarling with a savagery that feels unearned and lashing out semi-impotently at air. On Watch the Throne, he actually sounds lonely and lost, making it one of his most oddly compelling performances, if a bit heartbreaking. Kanye, by contrast, shows up on the album chopping up coke on naked black models and traffic-directing his own threesome.
Both of them, in other words, are lost in the depths of their own void, which makes this a particularly dark and somber "collaboration." Ye and Jay trade bars, even finish each other's lines, but the impression is of two brooding monarchs sleepwalking side-by-side through their own private nightmares, hardly aware of each other. "Sorry junior, I already ruined ya," Jay-Z rhymes to his unborn son on "New Day." Next to him, Ye moans that he hopes his child will be "somebody that people like." They are like Maybachs passing in the night.
#39 Iceage, New Brigade
If the Ramones had grown up under the influence of hardcore — and also if they'd all had impenetrable Danish accents — the result would have sounded a lot like Iceage. In a year that saw plenty of acclaimed artists mining the sounds of soft rock, New Brigade was a refreshing anomaly: an abrasive, out-of-nowhere debut from four Danish teens that convincingly resurrected the spirit of '77. "Remember" sounds like a Wire... song riddled with bullet holes, the lightning riffs on "Collapse"' teem with manic energy, and "Broken Bone" shrugs off all the carnage with classic punk apathy ("It was just a broken bone"). Twenty-five minutes of raw, pummeling power, New Brigade was perhaps 2011's most succinct, and convincing, argument that punk's not dead.more »
#38 Toby Twining, Eurydice
Toby Twining is a hauntingly pure-voiced singer from Texas who layers his birds-egg fragile, Antony-high voice into mini-choirs and makes records that sound like modern madrigals. There is a chanting-beneath-the-waves feel to his latest record, Eurydice, that will easily hook the ear of those interested in Julianna Barwick or Tune-Yards. Twining artfully twists and manipulates his vocals so that they sound like a lot of things - pipe organs, French horns, wah-wah-ing... guitars. It's often hard to discern his voice from the few spare instruments that creep into the mix. The result is disarmingly beautiful and subtly, pleasantly mind-bending.more »
#37 Katy B, On a Mission
The U.K. funky dance scene is a world that trades in extremes, with each temporary claimant of youngest/newest/loudest enjoying a few months of popularity on the basement club floors before being ousted by the next ingénue. Katy B, at just 22 years old, has held on remarkably well in that fickle microcosm; her first single, "Katy on a Mission," reached No. 1 on the U.K. Indie Chart in 2010, and she supported... fellow South London upstart Tinie Tempah on his nationwide tour this spring. That's straight veteran standing.more »
As her assertive debut album makes clear, her continued success hinges as much on her unassuming charm as it does on her more tangible abilities. In fact, her buoyant hooks center the unyielding dance-pop pulse, with her full-bodied purr rising into slinky R&B melisma ("Perfect") and belted throatily in surefooted independence ("Easy Please Me"). The holding periods between her previously released singles lag a bit — "Disappear" meanders over a solid grime-influenced beat, but can't sustain the momentum between British chart-toppers "Witches Brew" and "Broken Record."
The record's most telling track is the closer: "Hard to Get," a perfectly glossed, six-minute pop entreaty to a hesitant lover. It breaks midway into Katy B's cheery, spoken-word interlude of gratitude to her family, her friends, her record label, her production team, the DJs and "pirate radio stations" who played her earliest tracks, and so on and on without pause; it's an unexpected and remarkably guileless moment, capped with a bout of girlish giggles. That appreciative cheer balances her hour-plus of assertive anthems into something fully relatable, and something moving.
#36 Adele, 21
When she released her debut album 19 in 2009, Adele established herself as one of pop's best new voices, delivering torchy, soul-steeped tunes that appealed to both suburban moms turned off by Amy Winehouse's outsized, afoul-of-the-law persona and heartbroken teenage girls who repurposed her uplifting lyrics for Facebook status updates.more »
Adele's global success should've resulted in a second album about coping with the pratfalls of success. Instead, the girl sounds like she's... been through hell and more heartbreak - and lived to tell about it. But what a boon for her music: 21 is one of the most tuneful pop records of the year, and while the 22-year-old has said in interviews that she found inspiration in contemporary Nashville pop, 21 borrows liberally from every great American music tradition, from Motown and Tin Pan Alley to '70s AM Gold and R&B.
21's best tracks find Adele coping with broken relationships and the damaged psyches of dudes who've done her wrong. Lead single "Rolling in the Deep" plays like the catchiest girl-group tune the Supremes never recorded, with Adele vowing revenge - "There's a fire starting in my heart/ Reaching a fever pitch, and it's bringing me out the dark" - over thunderous handclaps, thudding pianos and gospel backing vocals. "I'll Be Waiting" is even hotter: Adele makes her finest Dusty in Memphis soul moves over sexed-up horn stabs and a choogling piano-drum-bass groove.
Adele hired a host of producers to helpthe album, among them Rick Rubin, OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder and Paul Epworth, and 21 occasionally suffers from too many cooks in the studio. (The Tedder-produced, string-soaked ballad "Turning Tables" sounds like a second-rate version of her breakout single "Chasing Pavements," while "Don't You Remember" hews too closely to the Whitney Houston playbook: mournful verse, big chorus, bigger bridge...aaaaand key change!) But Adele's booming, gale-force pipes and her convincing tales of heartbreak make 21 such a pleasurable listen. Is it mean to hope she never finds a guy who treats her right?
#35 The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Belong
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's 2009 debut album was so well-versed in the arcane classics of twee, shoegaze and C86 guitar jangle that it seemed less like a rock album than a studied, masterful thesis statement. Having earned its cultivated, bookish-pop pedigree with clever songs such as "Young Adult Friction," the Brooklyn band has decided to shake the library shelves with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. This feat occurs... 12 seconds into the opening title track of Belong, when an affable intro melody gets obliterated by a blaze of guitars straight off Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream. Butch Vig isn't responsible for the hulk-sized sound of Belong; the Pains recruited the production and mixing team of Alan Moulder and Flood who, coincidentally, also worked with Smashing Pumpkins as well as a sizable chunk of late-'80s U.K. shoegazers (Ride, My Bloody Valentine, et al).more »
As such, Belong asserts that the Pains are no longer content to jangle politely in the indie-pop underground; it explores a wider sonic palette without losing the band's familiar fuzzed-out hooks or Peggy Wang's astral synths. In fact, frontman Kip Berman's breathy vocals might be even wispier — at times to the point of inaudibility. What verbiage does come through suggests the Pains aren't quite as pure as they used to be — or at least not as tentative: "You try so hard to keep it together/ And you look so hot in fishnets and leather," leers Berman on "The Body." Meanwhile, "Girl of 1,000 Dreams" charges along with the Jesus and Mary Chain's sense of remote lust and primal reverb. The irony in all this newfound confidence — a sure-handedness that's easy to come by when your highly-anticipated sophomore album never stumbles over the course of 10 tracks — rests in the relative bravado of "Belong." Even if we hear it as the Pains' noisemaking arrival, Berman is quick to undercut that notion when he reaches the chorus: "I know it is wrong, but we just don't belong." The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are outsiders to the core who won't be hushed again.
#34 G-Side, The One…Cohesive
Shock-rappers Odd Future may have been the hip-hop rookies of the year, but this fiercely independent Southern duo were the year's secret MVPs. The One...Cohesive is classic Southern hip-hop in many respects, from ST 2 Lettaz and Yung Clova's vivid tales of having "a jones in my bones for the streets" and constantly dodging prison to Block Beataz' rich, lava-lamp-slow production. But, as they profess on the symphonic epic "Inner Circle," G-Side... are more than just OutKast copycats: "Y U Mad" might be the only hip-hop jam to feature a full minute of solo classical piano.more »
#33 Laura Marling, A Creature I Don’t Know
Four years ago, Laura Marling sang on the brutally twee debut album by London folk-pop outfit Noah and the Whale, but she left before they got popular. Smart move. On her own, the English singer-songwriter won a Brit Award and scored two nods for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, all before age 21. Her third album is more guarded than its predecessors, but also more mature, and all the better for it.... The ingenuous directness of songs like early track "New Romantic" is missed, but Marling makes up for it with brambly wisdom. Backed by a broader instrumental palette, Marling inhabits her folk-rock influences (Blue-era Joni Mitchell, early Leonard Cohen, acoustic Led Zeppelin) so fully she could be their contemporary. On "My Friends," which distinctly resembles JosÃ© GonzÃ¡lez's sinuous 2006 cover of the Knife's "Heartbeats," she actually sort of is. Always an old soul, Marling now belongs to the ages.more »
#32 TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light
Following 2008's Dear Science, TV on the Radio took a year off. When they reconvened for this album, Brooklyn's local heroes had apparently decided to go about things differently. They purr more than they pounce these days: Their fearsome rhythm section has been dialed way back, serving more as a textural detail than a pulse. The band's latent romantic tendencies have come into tighter focus, too. "If the world all falls... apart/ I'm gonna keep your heart," goes one chorus, and although they're still convinced that the world is pretty likely to fall apart (the most cacophonous, old-school TVOTR song here, "No Future Shock," is a call to "shake it like it's the end of time"), this is as close as they've ever come to writing an album of love songs.more »
Not that they've gotten mushy — for every near-beatless, near-orchestral tone-poem like "Killer Crane," there's a dissonant stomper like "Caffeinated Consciousness." Sometimes, both approaches exist within the same song: This band's name implies multimedia, so it's no surprise that their favorite trick is to pile radically disparate sounds and ideas on top of one another. ("Repetition" owes a smidgen to the Fall song of the same name, but its dramatic peak is paraphrased from Dream Warriors' "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style.")
Multi-instrumentalist David Sitek's densely-layered production turns riffs into gliding and hovering clouds of sound, basslines into buzzing video-game monsters, percussion into the sound of tiny alien weapons hailing down from the sky. At the center of the vortex, as always, are TVOTR's two extraordinary vocalists, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone: Do any other contemporary rock singers shift as regularly and impressively between baritone and falsetto ranges? Occasionally, the group's delirious invention and heart-on-sleeve virtuosity circle around the back way to something like radio pop, particularly on "Will Do," a bilingual seduction that's one of the most tuneful, winning and subtly disorienting songs they've ever recorded.
#31 Gretchen Parlato, The Lost and Found
In some circles, the invocation of "jazz vocals" runs only slightly behind "lite funk" as an excuse to utter "no thanks." If that's an accurate summary of your attitude, you'll want to work against muscle-memory here. Gretchen Parlato sings with a delicate touch — she doesn't favor much vibrato or tricky, endless strings of scatted syllables — though the wealth of detail in her timing and dynamic range makes for an interesting... contrast alongside that breathy tone. (If at first her approach seems a little too breezy-easy, just give it a sec.)more »
One telling moment comes just past the three-minute mark of Wayne Shorter's "Juju" — here outfitted with words by Parlato. As the subtle, introductory statement of the theme pivots toward an expressive middle section, she unleashes a steady beam of E-flat to match Dayna Stevens's flights of tenor sax. Then she holds it, while Stevens swings around the note. It's an exposed, confident sound — one that puts to rest any debate over Parlato's maybe being a lightweight. By the time her "Juju" closes, with a reprise of its whispered origins, the take has the effect of a well told yarn: there is a sense of some satisfactory distance having been traveled. (Parlato's own tunes provide similar opportunities for flexibility. Check Kendrick Scott's restless drum outro on "How We Love.")
Contemporary piano whiz Robert Glasper co-produced this record, and you can hear traces of his hip-hop-fusion "Experiment" group in the sonics here. His work lets in just the right amount of edge (or worldbeat, as on "Alo Alo") — which is to say, not much at all. Though when that edge comes, it's a welcome virtue all the same, reminiscent of the peppery finish to a smooth drink.
#30 Killer Mike, Pl3dge
#29 The Roots, Undun
When Philly rap legends The Roots signed on as house band for Jimmy Fallon's late night show, certain fans shuffled the "sell-out" card, worried the crew's gritty street edge would soften in the face of corporate fluff. Instead, they delivered 2010's outstanding How I Got Over, silencing doubters with a tight, striking set of melancholy gems. Three years into their talk show tenure, The Roots sound even sharper with their 13th album,... Undun. The band's dexterous live punch has never sounded mightier on album, and there's nary a second of filler here. Expanding upon How I Got Over's spaced-out sonics, Undun is dominated by vintage keys (soothing Wurlitzer, purring Hammond) which pulsate ominously over ?uestlove's hard-hitting beats. No Roots album is complete without eclectic guest stars: Sufjan Stevens pops up to re-hash his Michigan instrumental "Redford" and piano virtuoso D.D. Jackson lends a free-jazz freak-out to Undun's closing suite. Highlights overflow (Check the throbbing, organ-drenched soul of "The OtherSide" or the bass-driven atmospherics on "Lighthouse"), even if the album's vague concept — which traverses (in reverse) an inner city thug's rise-and-fall — doesn't hold water. As always, the guest rappers are overshadowed by Black Thought's poignant, mesmerizing flow: On "Make My," the band's most quietly beautiful single to date, he's a defeated street-poet staring Death straight in his beady eyes: "To whoever it concern, my letter of resignation / Fading back to black, my dark coronation."more »
#28 Kendrick Lamar, Section.80
Most of the time, a hip-hop record quick to indict the influence of pop culture and the moral fiber of our youth is simply a front for its creator's encroaching obsolescence. Not so with young Compton native Kendrick Lamar's galvanizing Section.80, which plays out more like a manifesto than a sermon, stoked by the credibility and understanding of someone trying to guide and understand their peers rather than bring down judgment. You... like knucklehead gangsta shit with third eye-blinding abstraction? Empathy for women's struggles followed by a track called "The Spiteful Chant" which says "suck my dick" about 375 times? Lamar's got your back: Section.80 is a complicated record because life is complicated, but then again, you could just knock "Rigor Mortis" and just enjoy a phenomenal talent simply rapping his ass off.more »
#27 Wilco, The Whole Love
What to make of Wilco with an established lineup? The Whole Love marks three straight albums on which original members Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt and 10-year veteran drummer Glenn Kotche have teamed with multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, guitarist Nels Cline and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen — an unprecedented run of stability for the band. Personnel evolution has been intertwined with Wilco's ever-shifting sonic identity since its 1995 debut; now the challenge is to... change from within. And there are new horizons here: The seven-minute leadoff track "Art of Almost" is a cacophonous diversion from the more conventional approach of the band's last two albums, affirming Wilco's continuing desire to challenge their listeners and themselves. Cline seems increasingly comfortable cutting loose within Tweedy's song structures, blazing caustic vapor trails in "Dawned on Me" and "Born Alone," while Sansone arranges swells of strings to deepen darkness of "Black Moon." Everything is a prelude to the 12-minute closer "One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," an epic, elegiac tale about a father and son set to a recurring melodic phrase that ebbs and flows via graceful acoustic instrumentation as the story gradually unwinds. It may be the apex of Wilco's career, a shining moment when the band's artistic ambition becomes one with its instinctive musicality.more »
#26 The Field, Looping State of Mind
Loops are like riffs — some have it, some don't. The artists that create the best loops — Armand Van Helden in his late-'90s prime is the best example — find and/or chop up something kinetic. The Field's Axel Willner is different because he's going for something more meditative, even as his hard four-to-the-floor beat moves bodies. His music undulates and comes at the listener in waves, a distension that creates a... sense of longing. They're bite-sized and broad-canvas at the same time: you want to know how the loop ends, damn it. Especially if you're already hooked on Willner's way with squeezing a well-known piece of music, be it the Flamingos' (and doo-wop's) masterpiece, "I Only Have Eyes for You" or Lionel Richie's "Hello" (from "From Here We Go Sublime" and "A Paw in My Face," respectively, both from 2007's From Here We Go Sublime), until it seems alien and all the more beguiling.more »
Title to the semi-contrary, Looping State of Mind is more composed than either Sublime or its undersung follow-up, Yesterday and Today. Here, Willner's sound is both harder and sleeker. But even if gauziness is part of what you go to its predecessors for, Looping's sharper focus actually makes it more immersive, not less: These are structures to get lost inside. It's easily the Field's funkiest album, while still remaining lush and widescreen. "Is This Power" kicks if off like a homespun variation on epic trance — a Field touchstone since his first single, "Love vs. Distance," in 2005 — before cutting down to strutting post-punk bass, then returning to normal, only funkier. The same basic formula (including bass break) applies to soothing monsters like "Arpeggiated Love" and "It's Up There," where dozens of details emerge at the music's edges, but the big picture is most important of all.
#25 Krallice, Diotima
Black metal bands typically temper their fury with concision — their ice-pick guitar riffs and relentless blast beats burn out after four or five minutes. But Krallice recognize no such limitations, frequently stretching their compositions to prog-rock lengths. The group's longest piece to date, "Monolith of Possession," from 2009's Dimensional Bleedthrough, runs a staggering 18:44, and "Litany of Regrets," from Diotima, isn't much shorter at 13:39. Guitarists Mick Barr (Orthrelm, ... href="http://www.emusic.com/artist/Octis-MP3-Download/11730296.html">Octis) and Colin Marston (Behold...The Arctopus, Gorguts, Dysrhythmia) are the band's co-leaders, their staccato riffs and piercing harmonies combining black metal fury with the slowly building power of minimalism or trance music. But the contributions of bassist Kevin McMaster and drummer Lev Weinstein (Bloody Panda) demand recognition; they give the music an undeniable heft and a supple, even fluid momentum. On "Telluric Rings," the album's high point, Weinstein sets up a powerful groove that bolsters Barr and Marston's aggressive interplay. When it finally gives way to blast beats, the savagery feels earned, and the guitar solo (at about the six-minute mark) is positively transcendent. Over the course of three albums, Krallice have gradually turned black metal into high art, without losing any of the genre's intensity. Diotima is a masterpiece.more »
#24 Vijay Iyer w Prasanna & Nitin Mitta, Tirtha
Pianist Vijay Iyer had a breakout year in 2009, with his trio album Historicity. That was due in part to its refreshingly eclectic selection — the album included Iyer's takes on works by M.I.A. and Julius Hemphill — as well as because he and his band can just flat-out play. To his credit, Iyer has since been cautious not to merely repeat that winning formula. After releasing a solo album in 2010,... Iyer treated us to this eponymous effort from an altogether different trio, Tirtha, which draws as much inspiration from Indian classical music as anything else. On tablas, Nittin Mitta shows off an impressive range, from subtle accompaniments to get-out-my-way solo passages (as on the close of the longest cut, "Tribal Wisdom"). Guitarist (and sometime vocalist) Prasanna has the single-note sitar-like vibe down, though also provides a bit of ethereal chordal work during the opening of the title track. And then there's Iyer's own playing, which pushes the whole enterprise beyond genre exercise or simple fusion, and on toward something beyond category. When was the last time a pianist had two different trios this different — and this good?more »
#22 Real Estate, Days
Real Estate sound unambitious to the point where it's actually kinda risky: How would their cruise-controlled tempos, lovely guitar lattices and plainspoken, nostalgic lyrics stand out in the past three decades of indie rock, let alone in the hyperactivity of 2011? But Days is the rare record that imbues its instantly engaging songcraft with an actual point of view, perhaps the first in the past century of pop culture to recognize... New Jersey as the Garden State — the expanses between suburb and metropolis that so many of us just end up in during our youth. On their self-titled LP, Martin Courtenay called this self-awareness "fake blues," but acknowledged a universality that's described on "Wonder Years" as a state of "not OK, but I guess I'm doing fine." And Days remains timeless and universal, a soundtrack of acceptance and being at peace with ones' surroundings.more »
#21 Yellow Ostrich, The Mistress
#20 We Are Augustines, Rise Ye Sunken Ships
In the summer of 2009, Billy McCarthy lost his brother James to suicide and his band, Pela, to the turmoil that resulted. Armed with a stash of songs meant to be that band's sophomore effort, McCarthy and Pela guitarist Eric Sanderson retrenched, drawing on their anguish instead of running from it and using it to fuel the ragged, bleary-eyed chronicle of suffering and, ultimately, triumph that is Rise Ye Sunken Ships. "Keep... your head up, kid, I know you can swim/ but you gotta move your legs," McCarthy pleads in "Augustine," and the lyric could serve as the album's summary statement. Fusing the blue-collar bar rock of Gaslight Anthem with the bleeding-heart desperation of Frightened Rabbit, We Are Augustines write songs that hurtle forward, guitars tumbling over snares and shoved aside by organs, all glued together with lyrics that match defeat and victory at a perfect one-to-one ratio: "We'll raise our glass/ to borrowed cash"; "And all the words/ can all get spoken/ I know you tried/ you're forgiven." What emerges is a clear-eyed depiction of loss that neither romanticizes it nor wallows in it, but recognizes the only solution is to keep moving. The title, after all, begins with the word "Rise."more »
#19 Zola Jesus, Conatus
Nika Roza Danilova's voice seems biologically-engineered to convey longing. There are different strains of longing, of course: there's romantic longing, hopeful longing, confident longing and even longing that's laced with the faint tang of panic. It's that last one Danilova's is best at: in live performances, she has a tendency to stomp forcefully from one end of the stage to the other, over and over -- a pint-sized Lady Macbeth frantically trying... to self-exorcise. Even when it's unclear what she's singing, the way she sings it is enough to generate shivers.more »
Appropriately, Danilova's voice -- which occasionally seems to imagine Siouxsie Sioux in a High School production of Evita -- has always been the centerpiece of the songs she records as Zola Jesus. In the past, it was beamed through layers of static, like a lighthouse struggling to puncture dense fog. While it often made for arresting listening -- on "Dog" from The Spoils, it sounded as if she were singing while being smothered -- her past full-lengths often felt like they were more about texture than composition. But on Conatus, as suggested by the two spectacular EPs Danilova released last year, the songs at last have fully crystallized around her. They're built mostly by stretching blue bands of synth across drum tracks that clatter like dancing skeletons. On "Hikikomori," keyboards flicker on and off like strobe lights, and Danilova sings as if balled up in the fetal position in the corner, her voice (which may or may not be saying "I've got sister in my hands") as pain-wracked as ever. In "Seekir," it soars confidently over the kind of minor-key electropop backdrop that got trotted out in the '80s any time a director needed a soundtrack for a vampire disco.
Which brings up another point: people like to use the g-word when talking about Danilova's music, but there's a level of both manufactured drama and manic overstatement to goth that's wholly absent from Conatus. Danilova's songs instead sound like they're coming from somewhere darker and less precise -- a deep plunge into an icy stream of consciousness. It's impossible to draw a bead on their literal meaning, but there's a kind of sensory meaning that feels both more profound and more affecting. Take "Skin," a quietly devastating ballad that arrives late in the record. The song throbs with a kind of shapeless sadness, its piano accompaniment gradually dissolving from lurching block chords to dizzying, disorienting arpeggios. The lyrics can be parsed only in brief flashes -- "In the sickness, you find me," and "In this hole I've fallen down" -- but their combined impact is wrenching. Like much of Conatus, the song drifts by like a dream; fragmented but vivid, non-linear but deeply unsettling, its effects lingering long after the light begins filtering in.
#18 Tom Waits, Bad As Me
Arriving seven years after Real Gone, Bad As Me busts out of the gate with the churning horns of "Chicago." But with the lagging tabla beat of the next track, "Raised Right Men," Waits steps on the brakes, and he more or less keeps his foot down for the rest of the album. The word "relaxed" is nowhere in Waits's lexicon, but there's an unhurried ease to songs like "Talking at the... Same Time" and "Back in the Crowd." Waits sings away from the beat, as if even his rhythm section can't set his pace. "Last Leaf" confronts mortality with fleeting defiance, and "New Year's Eve" is a mandolin-tinged waltz, not a time signature that gets much play in his repertoire.more »
That's not to say Waits has mellowed, exactly. "Hell Broke Luce" extends his interest in the lives of soldiers, with baritone sax so low it sounds like the rumble of mortars and a little simulated machine-gun fire for extra PTSD. "Satisfied" ponders death as a release from the body — "Lay my vertebrae out like dice/ Let my skull be a home for the mice" — but not before its needs are fully met. He even invokes the patron saints of rock 'n' roll dissatisfaction: "Mr. Jagger, Mr. Richards/ I will scratch where I been itchin'." It is perhaps not coincidental that Richards also plays on the song.
Waits scratches plenty of itches on Bad As Me, no two songs are alike, although most draw on templates he's laid down over his long and varied career. The album never quite settles on a mood for long enough to cast the kind of sustained spell as Bone Machine or Small Change do, but with so much time between recordings, it's not surprising Waits feels the itch to dance with as many partners as he can.
#17 Liturgy, Aesthetica
No, that's not a typo in the title; Brooklyn's black-metal upstarts have grafted the Greek "ethica" onto the word "aesthetic." That unexpected, moralist signaling might be as subtle as a blast beat, but that's the objective here: Since they popped up in 2009, Liturgy have seemed most comfortable with their feet planted both within and without the genre tent — using various sonic attributes to suggest a "transcendentalist" way outside black metal's... strict confines.more »
Frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix has published a short tract outlining his vision of "apocalyptic humanism," but you don't have to read the text to understand what he means. "Generation" makes the point as succinctly as anything else on Aesthethica, with its complex meter changes that, every so often, resolve into a syncopated glory worthy of a Boredoms sun-worship jam — one that counteracts the lunar fascinations of orthodox black metal with harmony patterns that suggest some kind of heaven-aiming finish line. (See also: the gradually additive vocal parts of "Glass Earth," which recall Steve Reich.)
Does that mean it's just crossover bait? Not quite. Aesthethica isn't a pander mission so much as an invitation to listeners more frequently found inhabiting other musical backwaters. Liturgy's simultaneous embrace and disrespect for black-metal conventions is reminiscent of the same revolution undertaken by American classical composers in reaction to the dogma of mid-century European complexity. When post-minimalists wanted to put pop harmonies back into their varied rhythmic structures, the result was dubbed Totalism — a phrase associated with the composer/critic Kyle Gann, whose son Bernard plays guitar in Liturgy. So now we have Totalist metal: a realm where catharsis, groove and hyper-intellectual structure cohere into something that can appeal beyond the kingdom of the underground. How unexpected. How inspiring. How metal.
#16 Drake, Take Care
Drake shot to the upper echelon of hip-hop fame by bypassing nearly every single rule of traditional cred-getting, and none of the ensuing jokes about his role as Wheelchair Jimmy on DeGrassi: The Next Generation or his own penchant for soft-batch hashtag-rap have knocked him back down. If anything, sophomore album Take Care actively doubles down on the things that make him so contentious among traditionalists — the emotional exposure, the singsong... delivery (now manifested more often as straight-up R&B singing), the lyrical focus on relationships — but infuses them with a subtle dose of self-aware ambivalence.more »
He still acknowledges success — the first line on the album is "I think I killed everybody in the game last year, man" — while "Underground Kings" and "Crew Love" are human-scale acknowledgments that he can afford nice cars and expensive vacations. Yet he still carries himself as though his main concern is connecting with other people without letting status obscure his intent. Most of the people in question are women; they get romantically flattered ("Make Me Proud"), ruefully drunk-dialed ("Marvin's Room"), anxiously reconciled with ("Take Care") and coldly, then regretfully, dumped (the Stevie Wonder feature, "Doing it Wrong").
In the process, Drake foregoes hashtag gimmickry and stretched-to-fatigue punchlines in favor of straightforward confessions, letting the guests — including top-form Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Andre 3000 and mentor Lil Wayne — fill in the pull-quotes. The production does the rest — a gauzy atmosphere of post-Dirty South beats, built around muted, glowing ambient tracks from Noah "40" Shebib, T-Minus and one-shots from Boi-1da, Just Blaze, Jamie xx and Lex Luger — and the sound complements the nuances of Drake's voice in a way that subsumes it almost completely. The end result is an album that feels like the most integral fusion of hip-hop structure and R&B soul-baring since 808s and Heartbreak.
#15 Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Singing in that unequivocal lonesome tenor of his on the title track to Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold tells of his childhood. "Raised up believing I was somehow unique like a snowflake," he sings; but he soon follows with the converse wish, to be "a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me."more »
Pecknold's desire to transcend himself has a touch of zeitgeist to it. Similar notions echoed through President... Obama's recent speech on community and the social compact, and pulsed beneath the surface of Jonathan Franzen's lauded Freedom. Of what use is personal freedom if there's no greater society beyond the self? Freedom involves others.
So later in that same song, when Pecknold exclaims, "I'm tongue-tied and I can't keep it to myself," his fans — and perhaps his bandmates and his label — are no doubt grateful. From the opening reverberations of "Montezuma" to the furious strumming of "Sim Sala Bim" through the geese-honk rupturing of epic centerpiece "The Shrine / An Argument," Helplessness Blues stuns with its refined yet unfettered beauty. It oozes out of every nook and corner, it rises in every chord change, it radiates in every convergence of the Fleet Foxes' honeyed voices, and it washes over listeners in waves.
A few moments, like the gorgeous, wordless voices that open "The Plains / Bitter Dancer" or the lilting waltz of "Lorelai," will no doubt make an older generation recall the halcyon harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby Stills & Nash, but the band stakes ground firmly in the present. Pastoral as the music sounds, turmoil and doubt courses just under the surface. Rather than the earthy impressionism of its predecessor, Pecknold's words on Helplessness Blues document a creative struggle. He ponders his role as an artist, pines for a "selfless and true love," and seeks throughout to escape the state of "just looking out for me." Meditating on loss and temporality, that even these successes too will pass, Pecknold finds comfort in small moments instead. On the hushed ballad "Blue Spotted Tail," he asks that eternal question: "Why is life made only for to end?" He then hears a voice on the radio and "couldn't help but smile," for a brief moment outside of himself.
#14 Dum Dum Girls, Only in Dreams
Previous to this, Dum Dum Girls' second full-length after myriad singles, EPs and comps, it was a little too easy to group the California foursome in with the unwashed masses of the fuzzy-guitared, gloomy, lo-fi set. This year's He Gets Me High EP hinted at a cleaned-up sound, but Only in Dreams runs with it, making good on a decidedly satisfying promise.more »
Vocalist/guitarist Dee Dee Penny's pipes are so stunningly dominant... — think halcyon-era Chrissie Hynde — that it makes sense that they're not obfuscated by noise, but instead brought to the front leading all three other Dum Dums on harmonies to boot. Meanwhile, thanks to the production work of a notorious Jesus (and Mary Chain)-worshipper, Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes (along with Richard Gottehrer), the band sounds positively huge. It's a good look on them, that, when paired with their usual catchiness, feels like a child suddenly discovering a misplaced Christmas gift.
Also surprisingly counterintuitive is how upbeat these songs — which were inspired by Dee Dee's mother's passing, her time away from husband Brandon Welchez of Crocodiles, etc. — sound in comparison to the band's oft-ominous catalogue. "You can tell me time will heal/ but you don't know the way I feel," Dee Dee sings on "Caught in One," later adding, "I just wanna have fun." It's nice to know that, but nicer still to hear it.
#13 John Maus, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
If Ariel Pink was the godfather of chillwave, his CalArts pal John Maus must be its eccentric uncle. Only instead of, say, scratch-building model trains, this scholarly small-town Minnesotan updates gothic '80s synth-pop for an alternate universe where Ultravox outsold Michael Jackson. With booming vocals, exaggeratedly artificial shimmer, and medieval melodic touches, Maus's first widely distributed album packs enough deranged karaoke fodder to render its world hyper-real. His cold-blooded delivery ("Quantum Leap,"... "Cop Killer") makes it hard to tell whether this should be terrifying or hilarious. On gorgeously uplifting finale "Believer," it's simply inspiring.more »
#11 Youth Lagoon, The Year of Hibernation
The debut EP by early-20-something Trevor Powers was a blithely complicated affair; it stretched whistled chirps ("Afternoon") and distorted staccato synth ("Daydream") from lo-fi pleasantries into dense, full-bodied opuses. His patience proved truly remarkable as he honed in on tinny individual instruments, letting them crescendo graciously through slight, natural momentum. His immediately memorable, electro-tinged guitar leads suggest the pop ear of Modest Mouse or Xiu Xiu, and the featherweight vocals evoked skylines... and road trips like a burgeoning Simon & Garfunkel, but Year of Hibernation felt far too personal to have been written by committee; it was a sharp, stunning glimpse into one young artist's soul.more »
#10 Craig Taborn, Avenging Angel
Calling it: Craig Taborn is the most mysterious figure in contemporary jazz. This is true even if you ignore his stylistic diversity, the ability he has to play with any bandleader and find a style that fits their project while remaining true to his own sound. (That could mean funking it up on Fender Rhodes for the Chris Potter Underground, or else deftly accompanying the chamber-like pieces on Okkyung Lee's latest album... for John Zorn's Tzadik label.)more »
The underlying, and more frustrating puzzle, is why Taborn hasn't played or recorded as a leader more often, especially since his solo piano sets have gradually acquired legendary status among jazz insiders. While Taborn has been in leader-less groups here and there, we haven't heard his self-determined voice in some time — not since 2004's Junk Magic. And while that album's subtle IDM inflections qualify it as a minor masterpiece, it also declined to show much in the way of Taborn's own considerable improv chops. For that reason, Avenging Angel — 70-plus minutes of Taborn by himself at a grand piano, with no electronics in sight — now stands as the most important entry in Taborn's strangely self-effacing but brilliant catalog.
Though he doesn't get too far "out there," per the ECM label's well-established aesthetic, Taborn does manage push a few boundaries. Witness how the purposeful modulations that move against a single note in opener "The Broad Day King" give way to an almost Debussy-like fluidity in "Glossolalia." Rarely does such a hard left turn seem so gentle. And when Taborn — a prodigious keyboard abuser — finally does start in with the contrapuntal pounding (during the title track, among others), Avenging Angel emerges as a candidate for album of the year.
#9 Cut Copy, Zonoscope
The Melbourne band Cut Copy have built a career on updating the electropop of the 1980s. Suave, dour and evincing the appropriate amount of heartsickness, their first two albums were full of steadily percolating songs that bathed downcast melodies in pulsing LEDs. They were also saturated with an artful melancholia: Cut Copy write the kind of songs that take place at two in the morning, and usually at a high school drama... club after-party. Imagine if the first few Depeche Mode records were gracefully understated instead of flamboyant and chic and you're getting close.more »
On Zonoscope, Cut Copy don't alter their approach so much as temper it: The rhythms are a little less insistent, the focus more on sharpening the details rather than deepening the groove. What emerges is an album of moments rather than anthems: The krautrocky drone of "Alisa" gets sporadically attacked by hornet's nest guitars; "Take Me All Over" sports a guitar line that's little more than a nervous twitch and a bass line that's eerily similar to Men At Work's "Down Under," but its backdrop is a cornucopia of weird rattles, miniature congos and synths that sparkle in the distance like the aurora borealis. "Pharoahs & Pyramids" is a comprised of a constellation of pinprick electronics, tiny flecks of sound they scatter across the song's black backdrop like glitter.
The album works just as well for those without the patience for deep focus. Frontman Dan Whitford arranges his small universes of sound around the same dour, deliberate baritone vocal melodies that characterized the group's first two outings. As a frontman, he pulls off the contradictory combination of vulnerable and assured: his voice prances proudly up the center of the songs, a bold, grand, sweeping gesture on an album characterized by nuance. The worlds he creates may be tiny and flickering, but make no mistake: He rules them.
#8 EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints
Like many of us, Erika M. Anderson escaped her early 20s alive, but just barely. The harrowing and spectacular Past Life Martyred Saints, which she recorded under the name EMA, is her recollection of the years spent in that post-collegiate daze of faux-grandiosity and encroaching panic that amounts to a Petri dish for terrible life decisions. Anderson takes rueful, angry stock of several such decisions over the course of the album's nine... songs. As such, it falls into a rich rock 'n' roll tradition: the Bohemian Squalor Survival Report.more »
Like the Liz Phair of Exile In Guyville or the Elliott Smith of Either/Or, Anderson comes to us sounding as if she had dragged herself, gasping and on bloodied elbows, away from the big city — in her case, L.A. — that nearly blotted out her soul. She sings with Phair's flat tone and scorched-earth honesty, and Smith's quietly trembling rage, over messy blobs of electric guitar and wispy implications of drums. She hints at body mortification on "Marked" ("My arms, they are see-through plastic/ They are secret bloodless skinless mass"), and then snarls it outright on "Butterfly Knife": "You were a goth in high school/ You've gone and fucked your arms up/ You always talked about it/ They thought you'd never do it." Anderson has a bone-chilling gift for crystallizing her song's messages into one indelible phrase and burying them at the base of your brain. On "Butterfly Knife," she coos, "20 kisses with a butterfly knife." On "Marked," she moans, frighteningly, "I wish that every time he touched me left a mark."
Past Life Martyred Saints isn't just a gothic house of horrors, however. Anderson can be incisively funny: The immortal opening couplet "Fuck California/ You made me boring" belongs in the great rock pantheon of SoCal kiss-offs. There are moments of furtive sweetness, too: "If this time through/ We don't get it right/ I'll come back to you/ In another life" goes the nursery-rhyme chorus of "Anteroom." The record is bathed in warm echo, making it perversely comforting to bask, or wallow in. It uncannily resembles the headspace Anderson depicts — a life period both devoid of and fraught with meaning, somehow simultaneously aimless and volatile. And one that continues to inspire enduring works of art.
#7 Bon Iver, Bon Iver
In the three years since Justin Vernon became known beyond the local scenes of Raleigh, North Carolina, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, three words — cabin, beard, Kanye — have seemingly become requirements in discussing his work. And while it's tempting to review his no-longer-solo second record without mentioning where he recorded his first (2008's For Emma, Forever Ago), his facial scruff, and the pop star who pushed him to new prominence, it's... possible, too, that these aspects of Vernon's biography speak to deeper, more essential elements of his music.more »
His work with West, for one, speaks to his ravenous collaborative tendencies. Bon Iver is a gloriously intricate full-band effort, but one that incorporates lessons from every artist Vernon spent studio time with since releasing For Emma. (And there are many, from the Rosebuds to Land of Talk to the guileless AM-radio supercollective Gayngs.) These magpie sensibilities reveal the wolfish auteur beneath the six-string and flannel, one with equal affection for John Prine and Bruce Hornsby. Throughout Bon Iver, Vernon unblinkingly replaces the moodily strummed six-strings of his debut with MIDI sequencers and full-on sax solos and unleashes fluttering orchestral touches and pedal steel behind the skittering twerks of his Auto-Tuned falsetto.
The self-imposed exile that gave birth to For Emma and the communal, deliberately-recruited sessions of his second suggest a kind of modular, adaptable musicality that thrives according to the demands and needs of Vernon's own emotional and creative needs. Dodging the easy narrative of his classic debut, Bon Iver doesn't so much cement the promise of Vernon's debut as broaden its terms.
#6 Beyonce, 4
#5 Yuck, Yuck
The early word on Yuck makes it seem as if the London-based band of 20-somethings only has Dirty thoughts on its Green Mind. While those albums (by Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., respectively — just in case you missed a couple of Lollapaloozas in the early '90s) are alt-rock classics, riff-by-numbers revivalism is always kind of disgusting. Given the grotesque illustrations that adorn Yuck's album and, ahem, seven-inch, along with... the band's first-name-only policy (singer/guitarist Daniel, drummer Jonny, guitarist Max and bassist Mariko), things aren't looking too progressive on the outside of the group's self-titled debut. Yet even as a greased-up, J Mascis-style guitar line snakes its way into opener "Get Away," you can't resist its appeal. Quite a bit more melodic than its noise-driven influences, Yuck tends to bruise its songs with bursts of dissonance and feedback (as on the "Teenage Riot"-ing "Operation"), perhaps to hide the alluring pop band lurking beneath. Daniel and Max, it turns out, are former members of teen-Britpop band Cajun Dance Party; the association seems to be one they'd rather live down. Or, as Daniel sings on "Suck": "I've had enough of being young and free." It's the tug-of-war between brute guitar force and vulnerable-sounding vocals that makes Yuck so compelling. With Daniel's sister Ilana on harmony vocals, Yuck's ability to veer from the pouty acoustic strums of "Suicide Policeman" into the punkish "Holing Out" more closely recalls the agile talents of Yo La Tengo or the under-recognized Comas. Yuck will be scrutinized for all its supposed influences, but the unexamined album is seldom worth listening to. In an indie-rock landscape prepossessed by whimsical instrumentation and high-minded concepts, Yuck isn't so much a remembrance of the '90s as a reinvigoration of the idea that cool-sounding guitars can provide all the thrills you need.more »
#4 James Blake, James Blake
Young, talented and unabashedly experimental, James Blake is in an enviable position these days. In a little more than a year, while still attending University, Blake's become the go-to guy for consistently mind-expanding dubstep production — especially the absence of new material from Burial and Hyperdub's output reduced to a slow churn. In 2010, Blake's two EPs, CMYK and Klavierwerke, were brash attempts at exploring the relatively young sub-genre:... manipulating an Aaliyah sample on "CMYK" — awash in synths and effects — and opting for the intimate and minimal on "I Only Know (What I Know Now)" — which predicted the sound of this, his first full-length.more »
James Blake is full of ballads, Blake's laments delivered via his slow croon and carefully-mapped piano stabs. His move from the heavy use of samples and the wonky percussion of previous work to the studied singer-songwriter structure of opening track, "Unluck" — where the beat barely leaks out from beneath the slow chords and Blake's frail, pitched up vocals — feel like growing pains. If you're a nostalgic, you may hear the welcome textures of '90s trip-hop; there are nods to the dark intensity of Burial's Untrue in the melody and melancholy of "The Wilhelm Scream." Like Burial, Blake is rethinking the role of a producer, straddling the line between stereotypical expectations of electronic music — whether danceable or not — and the ability to use dubstep as a medium for songwriting, moving from the piano ballad "Why Don't You Call Me" to the rhythmic cut-up-and-sampled style of "To Care (Like You)." When "Measurements," the closing track, abruptly ends, there's a feeling of both optimism and sadness. Blake's ear for understatement, both in sound and in repetitive, self-conscious lyrics, engages an audience the way a great soul album might.
#3 The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
"I'm just drifting," Adam Granduciel sings through the reverb on "Come to the City," which arrives halfway through the War on Drugs' first new album in almost four years. He's only telling half the truth. The Philadelphia-based creators of ambient roots-rock took a long time following up their 2008 debut LP Wagonwheel Blues, but it wasn't because they were listless; it was because co-founder Kurt Vile struck out on his own, recruiting... Granduciel for his backing band, the Violators. While the 12 songs on Slave Ambient indeed have droning, meandering qualities, the hypnotic effects merely soften the album's working-class muscle and sharp hooks.more »
Much like Deerhunter's 2007 Cryptograms, Slave Ambient oscillates between sun-burnt psych-pop bliss-outs and disorienting instrumental interludes. Unlike most bands in the avant-garde mold, however, the War on Drugs have in Granduciel a vocalist whose throaty burr rambles casually in the all-American tradition of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Songs like "Baby Missiles," re-recorded here after an appearance on last year's Future Weather EP, boast the bombastic organs, stirring drums and passionate shouts of potential live show-stoppers, but they're cut nicely with the mellow reverb and uncanny production textures. Vile may be gone, but his former band is hardly directionless. As Granduciel observes on jangling road anthem "Brothers", "I'm rising in to the top of the line."
#2 M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
The sixth record by electro-pop act M83 is kinetic, jarring and ethereal — a double album set in the dreams of a brother and sister, exuberant because it's not limited to confines of consciousness, but felled slightly by its own scope. M83 leader Anthony Gonzalez seems to have cherry-picked from his own id, carefully compiling the best elements of his past albums: the knotty experimentalism of their 2000 self-titled debut (in which... the song titles, memorably, revealed a short story), the beautifully downtrodden fuzz of sophomore album Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts and the buoyant new wave of 2008's Saturdays=Youth.more »
Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is gorgeous because of its careful balance; each vocal keen and keyboard percolation fits into the larger thrum of grandiose synth swells and lightly-plucked guitar — they're interlocked, intuitive moments that move the melodies forward unpredictably. Zola Jesus sets the tone in "Intro," fervently howling over a beautiful, wildly-shifting orchestral-pop landscape; she ushers in the entire album and also, more specifically, the brother's narrative. His fantasies are set inside whimsical, loosely cohesive tracks: a child's earnest narrative about a magical frog unspools over a binary, Brian Eno-like backdrop. "This Bright Flash" sets frantic rock drumrolls amid sweeping keys and ghostly harmonies, and the languid outro "Soon, My Friend" is layered with beatific, inch-thick harmonies and is shot through with a simmering tension that suggests daylight is a burden.
The limitations of Gonzalez's fantastic conceit crop up in the second half — the sister's story begins ponderously with the dark, expansive "My Tears Are Becoming a Sea." Like the first disc, the sister's half is packed with arrestingly lovely moments; a few too many, with little variation between structures and vocal/electro stylizations to convincingly suggest a new character. The new wave pulse and soaring falsetto of "OK Pal" could just as easily have come from the brother's mind. One of the sister's most understated and affecting moments, the staccato twilight expanse of "Fountains," feels like the tonal sequel to the brother's "Where the Boats Go." Family bonds are powerful, no doubt, but the crossovers suggest that these gorgeous songs work best independently, adding up to a lovely journey, even if it doesn't quite live up its intimidating premise.
#1 PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
The ghosts of Polly Harvey's half-remembered childhood come seeping through the floorboards on Let England Shake — snatches of songs that would have played over battered transistors as she was hitting adolescence in the rural British town of Dorset, ghostly images of old friends and fallen leaders, anecdotes of centuries-old skirmishes fought and lost on its plains and in its hills. They show up the way memories do: at random and haphazardly,... sometimes welcome and warming, sometimes rude and insistent. They bleed into her songs with no regard to their rhythm or construction; a fragment of "Reville" blasts rudely across "The Glorious Land," "The Words that Maketh Murder" surrenders in its final moments to a snatch of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," and the xylophone that opens "Let England Shake" is a loose interpolation of the Four Lads' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," (clearer in an early performance) — a sly nod to the fluidity of national identity.more »
That's not accidental: England is Harvey's love letter to and, occasionally, bitter reproach of, her homeland. Recorded in a church near Harvey's birthplace and bolstered by expert underplaying of longtime collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey, the album is both familial and strange, a valentine cooed from a crooked mouth, the kind of sonnet that makes room for lines like, "let's head out to the fountain of death."
Harvey's no stranger to internal conflict: On her best records, 1993's Rid of Me and 1995's To Bring You My Love, she used a manic yowl and slash-and-burn guitar tactics to explore the crippling — and frequently crazy-making — dualities of love. They were twin engines of desire and despair. Rid of Me was the hot, fast fire, but Love found Harvey covered in soot and kicking around in the ash. It was a scorched, primal blues record, one that opened with notions of love's sacrifice and ended with Harvey alone, crying to a deaf god over a lover who had abandoned her. They work both in tandem with and opposition to one another. On Rid of Me, Harvey is tough and confrontational — she's "coming up man-size" and comparing herself to cosmonaut Yuri G; on Love, she's dead and drowned before the album even starts.
England traffics in those same polarities, but transfers the object of affection from a person to a place. Harvey's relationship with her homeland is complex: In "The Last Living Rose," she's affectionate, spitting "Goddamn Europeans — take me back to beautiful England" over a bare guitar strum; but just one song later she's acrid and bitter, sneering, "What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is deformed children" as a mirage-like ocean of guitar and bass ripples and surges behind her (and if you think we're off the hook across the pond, think again: She sings "Oh, America" just as often as she sings "Oh, England"). If its lyrics are any indication, much of the album's titular shaking is from cannon fire. The ghosts of dead soldiers run wild across the songs; they fall "like lumps of meat" in "The Words That Maketh Murder," their limbs landing in tree branches, bloody and grotesque; they turn the beach in "All and Everyone" into "a bank of red earth/ dripping down death." But for all her disappointment, Harvey never sinks to polemic. Her anger springs from the same place as her affection: "Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England," she sighs at one point, "is all to which I cling."
For at least half of the album, Harvey's voice is high-pitched and mangled, a witchlike shriek that imbues the songs with the menace of black magick (She sings the line "England's dancing days are done" like she's reading it off an Ouija Board). The sonics throughout are warped and blurry. Nothing is crisp and there are no hard edges. Instead, the music drifts by as hazy and surreal as a dream, stocked with familiar faces and people and events all melting together. Her appropriation of old songs whole-cloth is a masterful touch. They seem to drift up from the deepest recesses of her subconscious. She cackles out "On Battleship Hill" like a vampire castrata, the jagged edges of her voice puncturing the netting of autoharp. "Hanging in the Wire" swings to the other extreme, the two Harveys (Polly and Mick) murmuring lyrics over icicles of piano.
The album reaches its apotheosis in the magnificent fever dream "Written on the Forehead." From a construction standpoint, it's a masterpiece. Harvey steals the chorus of Niney the Observer's "Blood and Fire" and glues it to the middle of a song that buckles like a vinyl record in the summer sun. And after an album's worth of opposition, Harvey at last commingles the twin fires of passion and destruction, issuing to both the same joyous, repeated command: "Let it burn, let it burn, let it burn, burn, burn."