*If you happen to be viewing this on a mobile device and you find the videos are loading slowly, tap the youtube logo on the bottom right of the video. I’ve weighted down this post with lots of treats!
50. Jamie Woon Mirrorwriting (post dubstep, r&b)
49. Wolfram Wolfram (elctro pop)
48. Seun Kuti And The Egypt 80 From Africa With Fury: Rise (afro-pop)
47. COOLRUNNINGS Dracula Is Only The Beginning (indie pop, electronic, lo-fi)
46. Joanna Syze Rodina (drum & bass, gothic, dubstep)
45. Beirut The Rip Tide (indie pop, balkan)
44. French Films Imaginary Future (indie pop)
43. Das Racist Relax (hip hop, rap)
42. Active Child You Are All I See (ambient, electronic, dream pop)
41. Rustie Glass Swords (electro, idm, glitch)
40. Two Beasts Smother (dramatic indie rock)
39. Miracle Fortress Was I the Wave? (synth pop)
38. Big Spider’s Back Memory Man (synth pop, dream pop)
37. Canon Blue Rumspringa (orch pop)
36. tUnE yArDs WHOKILL (indie pop, afro pop, experimental)
35. Lake Giving & Receiving
Straddling a line between the 80s Soul Pop of Orange Juice, horn driven R&B and folk rock, Lake accomplish something phenomenal; a sound drawing from clear influences while still sounding wholly original. This is an LP full of good, straightforward pop songs that feels anything but straight.
34. Wilco The Whole Love
There are two reasons why this album is one of my favorites of 2011: 1). the opening track, “Art of Almost” and 2). the closing 12 min. plus opus “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend). Both of these tracks recall the best of Wilco’s more experimental albums Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. The mere fact that these are bookend songs to an album released on the band’s own label, however, should suggest there’s a bit of substance and love in the middle as well. And there is. This is a snapshot of a band, a real band, in a comfortable place.
33. Frank Ocean nostalgia/ultra
You know it’s hard not to have affection for an artist with the audacity to sample The Eagles’ unironic magnum 70s epic “Hotel California” (oh, and I do have a soft spot for it), stretch it out a minute longer, keep the lead, and then reshape it into an equally epic story of marriage and divorce. So there’s that, but there’s also the great DIY R&B songwriting instincts, a George Clinton like nastiness where needed and just enough abstraction around the edges to keep it fresh.
32. Little Dragon Ritual Union
I’ll say it outright, I wasn’t feeling this on my 1st or 2nd listen. Truth be told, I was kind of hoping for more of the bouncy synthpop found on 2009’s Machine Dreams. And not that I wanted part 2, but the strength of that album suggested there was mileage still left in that particular tank. But these Swedes had other ideas, like, say, 80s era Prince. From that angle, Ritual Union is minimal, synth punctuated R&B that you can funk to. What’s not to like?
31. Raphael Saadiq Stone Rollin’
Former lead singer of the Oakland R&B group Tony Toni Tone and the short-lived Lucy Pearl, Raphael Saadiq arguably has one of the most exciting, quintessentially classic soul voices in music. Given this, it’s easy to understand why he might be drawn to the 60s Motown sound of his last 2 albums. Well, that and his obvious love and connection with the music. But where 2008’s The Way I See It felt like a spot on nostalgic exercise in capturing an exciting bygone production and songwriting style, and left you wanting the real thing, Stone Rollin’ is the perfect, hybridized modernist take on the sound; highlighting Saadiq’s exceptional voice and the genre’s infectious backbeat.
30. Braids Native Speaker
Patient, cinematic and endlessly interesting; imagine the whimsy of Clare Grogan’s voice and delivery fused with Afro Pop guitars and rhythms, and you might feel the soil between your toes from where Native Speaker is blossoming. With half the album’s songs clocking in at over 6 min., the album accomplishes something special; despite the meandering and building nature of the songcraft, one never loses interest. In part, this is due to Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s airy vocal delivery – twee one moment, full and emotional the next. A beautiful, beautiful LP from this Montréal band.
29. CunninLynguists Oneirology
Somewhat of a concept album dealing with the intangibles of the unconscious, desires, dreams and fears, Oneirology is this southern hip hop group’s best LP to date. Anchored by a cinematic, and at times overreaching, production style by Kno, the album feels like a successful shot at something epic. And that’s what makes it all such a worthwhile experience; its ambition. Of course, the flows work, the rhymes are clever, and the guests are great, but that can be said of a lot of rap albums in 2011, this just happens to be, well, in my top 30.
28. Panda Bear Tomboy
Falling somewhere between the aural sonics of Panda’s day job with Animal Collective and their masterwork Merriweather Post Pavilion and his 2007 solo release Person Pitch, Tomboy is an album best listened to multiple times in single complete sittings. This isn’t to say there aren’t songs, in the classical sense, which function as singles, it’s just the overriding vibe of the whole experience is so rich. Things move along at a measured pace, punctuated by pulses of bliss and lyrical keys which unlock beautiful places.
27. St. Vincent Strange Mercy
As we roll into the 2nd decade of the 21st century, who would’ve thought Kate Bush, over 30 years ago, would give birth to so many amazing female artists inhabiting some of the more interesting/experimental corners of indie pop music? Even I, with a soft spot for Kate, wouldn’t have predicted it. But here we are, appropriately about to start 2012, and the new children of Kate seem like the correct ones for the soundtrack duties. This is an endlessly unpredictable, spaced out pop album anchored by odd lyricism, instrumentation and an angelic voice. It took me a couple of listens before it really sank in, but now that it has… wow.
26. Holy ghost! Holy Ghost!
Look, there’s nothing too deep I need to say here about this album; it’s bouncy, it’s funky, it’s melodic, it’s got hooks to spare and it’s not conflicted about offering more. But hey, like, sometimes all you want to do is dance. Not the best electro pop album of 2011 (that would be Cut/Copy’s Zonoscope), but it’s a worthy runner-up.
25. Mathemagic II
Measured, shimmering, reverb drenched, with a heavy dose of pre-sunrise beach vibe thrown in for imagery’s sake, this is the quintessential summer soundtrack for 2011. Male/female vocals harmonize, wrap around your heart, ebb and flow like a coastal eddy marine layer you hypnotically welcome and then burns clear beneath a sunny pop song structure, its gold. A warm, narcotic paced wonderment.
24. Gang Gang Dance Eye Contact
Think Dead Can Dance meets Lene Lovich meets disco and you might have a sliver of the picture of what this neo-goth electronic group’s spaced out dance gems are all about. Never taking itself too seriously or sacrificing weirdness for melody, this is an album that begs to be taken as a whole while clearly understanding the value of a good hook.
23. Dum Dum Girls Only in Dreams
The sound here isn’t original by any means, in fact you could argue the whole lo-fi 60s girl group sound might have seen its best indie rock days already, but nevertheless whatever ubiquitous subgenre Only in Dreams is hanging its hat on, there’s no getting around that these are just damn catchy rock songs – start to finish. Still, there’s a production trick at play here as well; a quixotic balance between a lo-fi aesthetic and a high-gloss rock sound that lets the music shine. If you liked the Go Go’s first two albums or appreciate Chrissie Hynde’s rock ‘n roll snarl, you’ll love this.
22. Blue Sky Black Death Noir
Seattle producers Kingston and Young God yet again deliver another hazy, melodious, ambient hip-hop album. Less on vocals than 2010’s Third Party or 2008’s Late Night Cinema, but maintaining the same epic sonic sweeps of emotion, Noir has more in common with orchestral music than it does with its foundational boom-bap rhythms. In many ways it feels like a soundtrack to a silent movie; one fused with glowing, shimmering colors as opposed to stark black and whites.
21. Cocos Lovers Elephant Lands
Hailing from Kent, this multi piece group draws influences from Northern Africa, the Middle East, Ireland, the Balkans and English folk music. It’s an infectious, joyous, dizzying mix, to be sure, that never feels gimmicky. Strangely, all these cooks in the broth are exactly what feels right about being the accompaniment to the beautiful male-female vocal harmonies — rather than being a distraction, they circle, play and elevate the songs. A nice discovery.
20. Wes Swing Through a Fogged Glass
Through a Fogged Glass is exactly why I love and consume so much music; the discovery of a new gem. Part orchestral pop (bells, violins, cellos, standup bass, keys, etc.), part country, and a whole mess of acoustic folk (with male and female harmonies) to wrap around your heart, this is a beautiful album. I continually come back to it, falling more in love each time.
19. Washed Out Within and Without
Arguably one of the 1st artists to break the chillwave scene into the mainstream with 2009’s super smooth Life of Leisure EP, this Sub Pop debut picks up where that release left off. Lazy beats, silky synths, barely audible, reverb soaked vocals and melodies that push the syrup boundary right up to the point of gagging you with sweetness, this is a beautiful, pleasant, inoffensive collection of 9 songs that only those without a soul (or those too cool to admit they have one) could shrug their shoulders at. It’s just too damn consistent not to like.
18. YAWN Open Season
If there was ever a distinct sound or record that would provide a trajectory for dozens of indie bands in these first 11 years of the 21st century, that sound would have to come from Animal Collective. And while YAWN’s influence is clearly worn on its sleeve, I wouldn’t call that a bad thing. Hell, the best artists steal, and besides, there’s still the issue of actually writing good songs. You can almost argue that if you’re going to riff on a masterpiece such as Merriweather Post Pavilion, you better bring the goods. Thankfully Open Season does. Layered, tribal, beat driven, joyous, and synthpoppy around its edges – this is the record you put on when you want to prolong a foolish grin.
17. The Decemberists The King is Dead
Not the best Decemberists’ LP (see The Crane Wife), not even the third best (Picaresque and Castaways and Cutouts) , but that hardly matters when a record is this consistent, melodic and focused. Of course all the beloved Colin Meloy elements are here, they’re just hung from a more countrified, jangle pop line is all. And sure there are explicit nods to REM and Fleetwood Mac, but if you’re going to steal (all right, honor), why not do it from the best? Truthfully, I can’t get enough of this record.
16. Loney Dear Hall Music
My favorite Swedish sad romantic bedroom pop musician, Emil Svanängen, has done it again; dropping yet another album of lovely melancholic songs that somehow manage to sound both hopeful and hopeless in the same package. A bit denser and more orchestrated than previous LPs, and finding yet another way to breathe life into Loney Dear’s trademark crescendos, the album oddly feels more minimalistic and intimate. How Emil pulls this off, while diving into such emotional lyrical content and sumptuous sonics, is a wonder to be sure, but by the end of the record you realize this music couldn’t work any other way and that this balancing act is exactly what this music is all about.
15. Timber Timbre Creep On Creepin’ On
As it was with the last album, the deliciously eerie self-titled Timber Timbre, at the dark, southern gothic heart of Creep On Creepin’ On is the same pulsing tinny piano, reverb and Taylor Kirk’s beautiful 50s style baritone voice. My, this is creepy fun. Think Screaming Jay Hawkins meets Tom Waits meets Nick Cave meets New Orleans funeral jazz and it’s something like that. But, you know, different. Macbre.
14. SBTRKT SBTRKT
It’s been a good year for bass music. 2011 has seen the further splintering via assimilation (sounds contradictory, doesn’t it?) of electronic music into nebulous post post post genres. Try to pin something to a particular branch on the techno tree and you’ll find something to contradict its placement. SBTRKT is a perfect example of all of this: post-dubstep, juke, disco, soul, glitch, what have you. But rather than coming off sounding schizophrenic, the synthesis of styles makes for a listen that, while fusion, sounds comfortable and familiar.
13. Kendrick Lamar Section 80
Start any rap album – or any album for that matter – with a song titled “F**k your Ethnicity” and you know you’re probably in for something a little different. No matter how incendiary or ambiguous it may seem, it pricks up one’s ears. And it’s that kind of confidence/punk ethos that sets Section 80 apart from other rap albums this year. You don’t know what you’re in for until you take the ride. But in this case, the ride is well worth it; it’s dark, it’s explicit, it’s political, it’s spiritual, it’s conscious and its powerful. A talented young voice commenting on the complicated world around him.
12. The Middle East I Want That You Are Always Happy
There’s this thing in standup comedy where a comedian will push a joke up to the point of breaking and risk losing the audience – a line, if you will, if crossed, where the joke ceases to be funny. Most comedians adhere to this line, while a special, audacious few have the confidence/faith to go beyond it, into that territory of uncomfortable awkwardness for the audience. But here’s the thing; they don’t care, they keep going and at some miraculous, unknowing point in the joke it becomes funny again – way more so, in fact. This Australian indie folk group’s confident songcraft is a lot like that; extended, slow burning tunes that push toward unexpected results. This auspicious debut follows an EP with my favorite song from 2009, the hauntingly beautiful “Blood”.
11. Clams Casino Instrumentals
It’s not a new thing for hip-hop producers (or producers in general) to release stripped down, instrumental versions of their work sans the MCs, but this mixtape feels like something different. 1st, it works completely on its own as an album, not feeling hobbled together or incomplete. 2nd, the sonic palette draws from sources not typically used by your average crate diggers and beat makers; these songs are big, expansive, hazy, melodious shoegaze hybrids. To this end, it’s hard to imagine anything but these versions. Beautiful. Dreamy.
10. The Weeknd House of Balloons; Thursday; Echos of Silence
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, are ever present and not easily separated from contemporary, popular music’s rebellious side. In fact, rock ‘n roll – in no small way – gets its mojo from the first two in that clichéd expression. But R&B, on the other hand, while often dripping with sexual energy, rarely gets down in the dirt with the drug part. At least, not to the extent this trilogy does. Feeling a lot like the auditory flipside to the movie Kids, this is a slow burning, grimy, frightening exploration into the darker side of excess. Released as free mix tapes, this trilogy has generated a lot of hype, and while it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, the hype is justified.
9. Bon Iver Bon Iver
Of all the albums I’ve anticipated coming out this year, this was at the top of my list. Not quite as emotionally focused or instrumentally sparse as 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, at the heart of this sophomore eponymous release is still the haunting falsetto of Justin Vernon. And that’s what keeps it all together, even on the syrupy head scratcher, the Steve Winwood/Bruce Hornsby influenced closer “Beth/Rest”. And even though the palette here is larger, the production cleaner and the lyrical content more abstract, it’s that beautiful, unique voice that transcends it all.
8. James Blake James Blake
If there were another album in 2011 that so beautifully articulated that the machine has a soul, I’m not sure what it would be. And that’s a pretty heady trick to begin with — anthropomorphizing the machine in a way that makes you want to cuddle up and spoon with it for hours. But that’s why this album is so mesmerizing, and why I keep coming back to it, in spite of the post-dubstep, locked in rythmns, vague message and heavily processed vocals – all of which I’m quite down with – this is a soul record first and foremost.
7. Cut/Copy Zonoscope
The third LP from this Australian group, Zonoscope owes as much to Australian new wave icons Icehouse as it does modern dance music. Fusing elements of electro, psychedelic rock and new wave, Cut/Copy have created an album that feels like a night out at the club. Sequenced to perfection and capped off with the epic trance infused 15 min. plus “Sun God”, the DJ DNA that runs strong in this group, is ever more apparent and greatly appreciated. The best dance oriented album of the year.
6. The Drums Portamento
I don’t think this record is going to show up on a lot of year-end lists for 2011, which is a shame because I think it’s more due to the fact that there wasn’t really a style leap from their debut to this LP. Nevertheless, it’s as infectious is ever. Seriously though, was there much of a leap from the Beatles’s Rubber Soul to Revolver? I’d argue no, which doesn’t take away from either album. I’m not suggesting The Drums have made a record which compares to either of those iconic releases, but I am saying the comparison is fair in terms of progression. Straight up, these kids write catchy, beachy synthpop — end of story. Their melodies are as good as anybody has written this year. That’s a gift. Besides, what’s not to like about a band with nods to Morrissey’s endearing whining (“Money”) and Real Life’s melodramatic synthpop classic “Send me an Angel” (“If He Likes It Let Him Do It”).
5. Mirrors Lights and Offerings
We’re living in a time where calling a lot of today’s music derivative – while often true – is a bit pointless. Because in and of itself, what difference does it make? But here’s the thing, while it may be pointless to label it as such, more often than not it leaves one craving for the real thing. This is not the case with Lights And Offerings. In fact, Mirrors have created an authentic dark synthpop wonder that stands with the best of the earliest recordings by Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Human League or OMD. With hooks that run for miles and not a weak spot to be found, this is the album I’d hoped OMD’s comeback LP last year had sounded like.
4. The Roots Undun
This is the best Roots album yet. Okay, every successive Roots album is the best, but that’s probably because you can’t pin down this hip-hop band’s sound at any one time. Hip-hop, sure. Rap, sure. But the rest? Mercurial stuff. As for Undun, everything here is impressively austere and serves the album’s goals in telling the death to birth story of a street hustler; from the guest MCs to the Sufjan Stephens motif to the closing orchestral arrangements to the album’s surprising brevity.
3. M83 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Continuing to evolve the pallet of the last 3 albums, especially Saturdays = Youth’s epic dark wave vibe, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a bombastic, stadium ready synth rock album at its core. The songwriting instincts aren’t far from those found in the best of U2 (expansive soundscape). The ambitions are big, the album is big, hell, even the minute plus interlude songs are big. And while all this grandiosity might seem pompous, there’s something admirable about such audacious bombast. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the songwriting is spot on; melodic, visceral and soul expanding.
2. Shabazz Palaces Black Up
2011 has been by far the most interesting year in hip-hop/rap in a long time, and no record, in my mind, took the genre to a more creative and expanded space than Shabazz Palaces. Trying to describe what’s exactly going on here on this record is kind of ridiculous; it’s boom-bap, it’s free jazz, it’s conscious, it’s glitchy, it’s deep, it’s way out, man. The 1st time I listened to this record I was blown away. Not really surprised by what I was hearing exactly, the pedigree here speaks for itself, but hoping that a new trajectory had been ignited under hip-hop’s stagnant ass. Make no mistake, this is an important record now, but let’s see where hip-hop has bubbled out in, say, 5 years – I think we’ll see just what Black Up is really about. Massive.
1. Destroyer Kaputt
Not missing a step between 2009’s epic nu-disco masterpiece Bay of Pigs EP (a portend of brilliant things to follow) and this equally masterful LP, Destroyer have crafted two of the most compelling pieces of songcraft I’ve heard in a long time. Smart, Emotional, groove laden and laced with saxophones (not an easy thing to pull off since the 80s – the saxophones, that is), Kaputt is an unqualified pop accomplishment of quixotic depths. Hyperbole aside – and history will bear this out, mark my words – this is one of independent music’s finest moments.
Happy New Year!