1) An unabashedly melodramatic double-album may be an anachronism in the Itunes era, but M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a powerful argument for the concept of the album as an art form. M83 have been building up a potent Prince-meets-Phil Spector wall of sound for years, but this is by far their most varied, focused, epic, and beautiful collection of songs to date. It’s true that some of the album’s weirder diversions – the cinematic instrumentals that provide brief transitions between the bigger tracks, the song where a kid narrates a psychedelic dream about frogs – might not have made the cut on a single-disc album, but it’s also true that those moments would’ve been missed on a more straightforward album. That M83 put as much care into a track labeled “Intro” as they do their ridiculously catchy single “Midnight City” is a big part of their success, and what makes this the best album of the year.
2) It is ironic that Thurston Moore’s solo album Demolished Thoughts was overshadowed by his high-profile divorce from Sonic Youth bandmate Kim Gordon (and the subsequent dissolution of that band), since its nine tracks are clearly haunted by the singer-songwriter’s awareness of what he was about to lose. The spare acoustic guitar-plus strings arrangements are aided beautifully by Beck’s sensitive production, making this the best “breakup album” since Sea Change and Moore’s best set of songs since Daydream Nation. While it is sad to see Sonic Youth go, Demolished Thoughts suggests that Thurston Moore might get better artistic results on his own.
3) Perhaps Gang Gang Dance's pan-cultural fusion of various world and electronic musics will never catch on with the masses, but Eye Contact finds a very impressive middle ground between accessible pop and the band’s trademark weirdness. Eye Contact is to Gang Gang Dance as Bitte Orca was to the Dirty Projectors.
4) Oneothrix Point Never took most of the samples for his album Replica from a bootleg compilation of 1980s commercials, but the moody, impressionistic results are so distinctive that they’re hard to compare to the work of any other artist, or even classify in a specific genre of electronic music. Too unsettling to be ambient, yet not obviously rhythmic enough to be techno, and too unpredictable to get a firm grip on even after multiple listens, Replica is simply great.
5) While relatively young acts like Bjork, Mastodon, Radiohead, and TV on the Radio were content to rest on their laurels and deliver the most basic versions of their aesthetics on their respective 2011 releases, 62 year-old Tom Waits infused Bad as Me with a passion and vitality that makes most metal bounds sound weak and cowardly by comparison. Waits didn’t do much to distinguish the material on his latest album from his usual swampy carnival barker R&B, but how many artists would be able to make a seventeenth album as consistently ferocious and catchy as Bad as Me?
6) There may not be another young act with as distinctive or as fully formed an aesthetic as Tune-Yards, whose extremely specific sound (cartoonishly soulful vocals over layers of looped ukulele, saxophones, and drums) found its first full expression on their second album, whokill. The band manages to get an amazing variety of material from its seemingly limited sonic palette, and their songs are always as catchy as they are strange.
7) A lot of musicians split their time between their main band and their solo work, but Bradford Cox is one of the few who gets equally great results from both his work with Deerhunter and his solo material as Atlas Sound. Parallax, Cox’s third album as a solo act, could be criticized for sounding so similar to Deerhunter’s 2010 release Halycon Digest (whereas previous Atlas Sound albums featured more varied genre exploration), but it’s hard to complain when the final product is this hypnotic and creepy.
8) Watch the Throne, the heavily hyped album-length collaboration of Jay-Z and Kanye West, is a little disappointing lyrically, hewing more toward Jay’s trademark celebration of conspicuous consumption than Kanye’s brutal honesty. Fortunately, the production follows in the ambitious yet pop-smart footsteps of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with freakishly outlandish details making even the most radio-friendly tracks sound like borderline avant-garde curiosities. A famous Otis Redding sample is chopped up into a series of unintelligibly funky grunts, Nina Simon’s voice is run through Auto-Tune, a Blades of Glory sample is used to surprisingly self-deprecating ends, and Midwest folk artist Bon Iver contributes a manly R&B breakdown on something called “That’s My Bitch.” The relentless materialism of the lyrics may grate, but all will be forgiven if the music stays this defiantly, confidently weird.
9) St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, is well-established as a daring and ambitious singer-songwriter, but Strange Mercy provides the first real indication that she is also one of the best and most daring electric guitarists in pop music today.
10) British electronic artist Andy Stott’s two 2011 EPs, Passed Me By and We Stay Together, pull maximum sonic detail out of minimal, slow-paced soundscapes. The relentlessly dark (and sometimes frightening) tone of these 13 songs might have become monotonous if they were released on a single LP, but the individual tracks are each impressive enough to suggest that if Stott can figure out a way to vary his material a bit more, he might find himself at the top of this list in a year or two.
RUNNER UPS (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)
James Blake made a surprising (and convincing) evolution from master of minimal electronic beats to modern R&B singer-songwriter with his self-titled full-length LP. While I miss the more rhythmically complicated material from Blake’s earlier EPs (particularly high-water mark CMYK), this is more a matter of personal preference than actual quality, and Blake may have the best “ghostly vocals over dark backgrounds” act this side of Thom Yorke.
Though he hasn’t caught the attention of the mainstream press, Julian Lynch’s brand of studio-crafted folk continues to be more interesting and haunting than that of Bon Iver. Lynch’s third album, Terra, isn’t any sort of great leap past last year’s Mare, and I’m not even sure what a “major work” in such a modest aesthetic would sound like, but the singer-songwriter’s unpredictable yet organic slides into jazz, electronic, and world music continue to impress. He makes some of the best mood music since Brian Eno’s ‘70s heyday, even if few of us are paying attention.
Remix albums are rarely as strong as their sources, but Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx’s reinvention of Scott-Heron’s final album of original material, 2010’s I’m New Here, may actually constitute an improvement. What We’re New Here lacks in the original album’s focus, it more than makes up for in the scope and variety of Jamie xx’s soulful production work. The album often feels like a conversation between soul/poetry veteran Scott-Heron and electronica whiz kid Jamie xx, and it works as both a career retrospective (with elements of some of Scott-Heron’s ‘70s work hauntingly mixed in, and occasional samples of contemporaries like Gloria Gaynor) and a eulogy for Scott-Heron, who died shortly after this album’s release.
Tomboy isn’t as monumental as Panda Bear’s 2007 release Person Pitch, or as moving as his earlier Young Prayer album, but its best tracks (mostly contained in the album’s first half) are as otherworldly, hypnotic, and beautiful as his best solo work (or the best work of his band Animal Collective).
Gonjasufi’s The Ninth Inning EP (offered freely on his website) is too short and slight to be considered one of the year’s top albums, but the combination of soulfully demonic vocals and gruff hip hop beats is too unusual to be ignored. (Incidentally, his outstanding LP A Sufi and a Killer might have topped my 2010 list if I’d been aware of it at that time).
Prog supergroup Battles blew adventurous music fans’ minds with their debut LP, Mirrored, back in 2007. Since then, they’ve lost founding member Tyondai Braxton, whose bizarre pitch-shifted vocals were perhaps the most distinctive element of the band’s sound. None of the guest vocalists on this year’s Gloss Drop feel like a convincing replacement for Braxton, and the album’s slight emphasis on Caribbean rhythms seems like a step sideways rather than a leap forward, but the band’s hyper-virtuosity and knack for mesmerizingly complex melodies remains impressive.
The Black Keys and Wilco didn’t offer any surprises on their respective 2011 releases, El Camino and The Whole Love, but Camino is a strong arena-ready follow-up to last year’s Brothers, and The Whole Love is Wilco’s first fully engaging set of new material since 2004’s A Ghost is Born.
Beirut are coming dangerously close to sounding like a typical indie rock band as their sound gets further refined. But while The Rip Tide doesn’t have quite as many interesting world music flourishes as its predecessors, it is a reminder that Zach Condon possesses both one of the best ears for melody and one of the best voices in contemporary pop.
It was another good year for electronica, with AraabMuzik (Electronic Dream), Modeselektor (Monkey Town), Sebastian (Total), and Sepalcure (self-titled) each releasing compulsively listenable discs that were nonetheless not quite distinctive enough to make the top 10.