I made some complaints about the state of music in 2011 (what self-avowed critic hasn't), but looking back, it really wasn't that bad. Still, it lacked many familiar names and The Onion AV Club declared it The Year of No Important Albums. Near the end of the year I found myself scavenging the critics lists and downloading everything I hadn't heard that received some fanfare but when finally piecing this together, it came down to my own personal favorites, anyway. Trust your gut.
I took the liberty of numbering the selections, but they've changed daily leading up to "print." So, really, in no particular order:
11 ALBUMS OF 2011
1. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Helplessness Blues is the long-awaited follow-up to 2008's critics list-dominating Fleet Foxes. All the familiar elements are here: the elegiac Beach Boys harmonies ("Montezuma") and the pensive neo-folk guitar ballads ("The Shrine/An Argument"), but this time it's all about the title track. "Helplessness Blues" begins as expected -- folk strumming and crunchy philosophical ponderings ("What's my name, what's my station?"). Then, it suddenly elevates into a lush vibrato electric guitar and cascading harmonies until front-man Robin Pecknold finds solace at last in tending an orchard where he'd "work 'til I'm sore." It's all quite inspiring, actually. I think I'll go plant a garden.
2. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
Strange Mercy continues Actor's formula of unapologetic personal lyrics thrust against Annie Clark's penchant for catchy, fuzzed-out Guitar Anti-hero pop songs. Clark plays the naïve ingénue card a little heavy this time around, from the source material of opener "Chloe in the Afternoon" to the admission "I've spent the summer on my back" ("Surgeon.") Clark's string of heroes covers (Tom Waits, Big Black) paved the way for an irresistible third outing.
3. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up
Palaceer Lazaro (née Ishmael "Butterly" Butler of Digable Planets) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire lay down some spaced-out jazzy electro hip-hop ish, channeling Butler's own 90's rap past with cut-and-paste vocal harmonies, exotic instrumentation, and Def Jux beats. But despite its own noir, Black Up is easy, uplifting ("Recollections of the Wraith") and inspiring ("Swerve... The reeping of all that is worthwhile...")
4. Radiohead, King of Limbs
At both its best and worst, King of Limbs, serves as a placeholder album showcasing sounds both familiar and new to Radiohead. Opener "Bloom" is an experiment in busy percussion, barely able to hold itself together under Thom Yorke's soaring vocals. "Codex" is one of the most beautiful songs Radiohead has written and "Give Up the Ghost" is startlingly simple with seldom heard acoustic guitar and bird calls. If it all comes off as a bit scatterbrained, it is; but who ever praised The White Album for its cohesiveness?
5. Oneohtrix Point Never, Replica
Replica ebbs and flows in breathy sub-bass organs and cascading indeterminable found sounds that Daniel Lopatin utilizes to create a Morricone sci-fi soundtrack ("Replica"), conjure beat wiz Madlib with cartoony piano key jumps and vintage vinyl samples ("Sleep Dealer"), and the stuffed-to-the-gills interrupted vocals, video game sound effects, lazer guns, and cassette tape deck squelches of "Child Soldier."
6. Battles, Gloss Drop
When sort-of frontman Tyondai Braxton left during the recording of their second studio album, it seemed destined Battles would encounter the dreaded sophomore slump. Instead, they scrapped their material and headed back into the studio, emerging with Gloss Drop. Part instrumental bombast of Battles old ("Africastle"), part Braxton-inspired whimsy ("Ice Cream", "Futura"), and something altogether new ("Sundome"), Gloss Drop displays the post-prog dynamism of a band continuing to be an unlikely critical and fan favorite.
7. TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light
For a band who sought out to emulate the feelings of a post-9/11 America, Nine Types of Light (their fourth studio album) sounds like TVOTR has finally found a happy place. Or at least a comfortable one. Light employs a number of new and organic instruments (banjo, slide guitar, accordion) but mostly expands upon Dear Science's proto-Talking Heads punk-funk ("No Future Shock", "New Cannonball Blues") and *gasp* love ballads ("You", "Will Do.") My repetition is this.
8. James Blake, James Blake
In "The Wilhelm Dream", English dubstep prodigy Jame Blake sings "I don't know about my dreams" over stuttering reverbed keys and stark Burial atmospherics while the music drops slightly with each "falling" of "I'm falling, falling, falling" until Blake proclaims, "I might as well fall in". It's the perfect declaration for an album that sounds like the ghost of an extended Stevie Wonder B-side. "Limit to Your Love" takes the Feist original and drops it old school R&B under pitch-shifted vocals while Blake salvages his dubstep roots with a low end bass spatter throughout.
9. Clams Casino, Instumentals / Rainforest [EP]
Like Oneohtrix, Clams Casino's Mike Volpe creates noir soundscapes, collected here on the Instrumentals mixtape without the vocalists of the final tracks (A$AP Rocky, Lil' B, Soulja Boy) getting in the way of the production. "Motivation" evokes Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, circulating in an undercurrent of ebbing electronics and breathy hums. Rainforest is a concept album of sorts in song titles ("Waterfalls", "Gorilla") and subtle use of tribal percussion with the flora and fauna sounds of the, well, you know.
10. Jesu, Ascension
Ascension continues to exist in Justin Broadrick (Godflesh, Napalm Death)'s Elseworlds reality where pop songs are extended to nine minutes and molded from droning Sunn O))) guitars, distant processed vocals, and gorgeous electronics. The acoustic guitar of opener "Fools" is an immediate reminder of how it all somehow makes perfect sense.
11. Boris, New Album
New Album's vague title is the least confusing aspect of the *ahem* new album from Japan's Boris. Only the band's third release last year, New Album borrows the best tracks from Heavy Rocks and indie pop experiment Attention Please and forms like Voltron with four new tunes, enhancing Boris's anything-but-usual mix of stoner metal guitars, Engrish vocals, and tendency toward acid guitar freakouts with the anime J-pop production ("Flare", "Party Boy") of Shinobu Narita. "Black Original" sounds like a cover of something from It's Blitz! (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) while closer "Looprider" sums up not only New Album's eclecticism but the last 20 years of these music industry anomalies.
Adele, 21 (for real!) | Akron/Family, S/T II: the Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT | Beyonce, 4 | Chad VanGaalen, Diaper Island | Cults, Cults | Fucked Up, David Comes to Life | Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost | Hand Drawn Dracula, Vicious Circles, Vol. 1 | Low, C'mon | Mastodon, The Hunter | Panda Bear, Tomboy | Russian Circles, Empros | Thundercat, the Golden Age of Apocalypse | Various Artists, [unclassified] (Adult Swim) | Wu Lyf, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain