Top 50 Albums of 2011

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Top 50 albums of 2011

20. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xxWe’re New Here (XL)
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Whatever this was, it wasn’t a remix album. Gil Scott-Heron’s subsequent death only deepened the impact of Jamie xx’s experiment, which was to blend the raging soul and activism of Scott-Heron’s work with the edgy conscience of post-dubstep dissonance. From the warped meme of “New York Is Killing Me” to “I’ll Take Care Of U,” which parlayed one of the most fascinating guitar solos in recent memory into the pulse of another album of the year (Drake’s Take Care), the post-hoc collaboration was a relevant, rapturous journey to the future. – Anthony Strain

19. Tim HeckerRavedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
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No one, so far as I know, likes a brooder, no matter what age he is or what circumstance brought him to become one. Still, there is an attraction one feels towards the brooder that is as salacious and as wrong as a casual sexual attraction in any theocratic state. Perhaps it’s the sweat-filmed brow, the ghoulish gaze, the brazen indifference to the people and things in his surroundings that gives one the desire to be inside the brooder, to go through his mind and inventory his neuroses and agitations. Of course it’s something that seldom, if ever, occurs and leads to many suicides (much to the amusement of the brooder I’m sure), so Tim Hecker has taken it upon himself to save a few lives with Ravedeath, 1972. Using dense, sprawling and/or intricate soundscapes, Mr. Hecker gives the listener the best impression of what it’s like to lay down in darkness, to lose all sense of time and continuity; to be oppressed by the scratching, grinding and humming in the air and around the corner; but also to find serenity that sometimes reveals itself profoundly from these inward mediations as to why failure is king and why you are his court jester. It’s not the complete experience of course but it is enough for the listener to step back and admit that some things can be touched only briefly before flinching away. Some things aren’t meant to be understood. – Chris Morgan

18. Real EstateDays (Domino)
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Few bands relish subtle pleasures quite like Real Estate does. The beauty of Days is in letting those pleasures unfurl slowly over time. Guitar hooks buried in a haze of reverb reveal hidden details; melodies that seem to float by as casually as a breeze suddenly catch hold and become unshakable. The album is so unassuming that it’s easy to be caught completely off guard when you’re suddenly enraptured in its meticulously crafted splendor. Taking both the jangly and more pastoral sounds of the Go-Betweens and R.E.M., Real Estate gave them a soft-focused makeover. If the band’s debut was ideal for a day at the beach, Days‘ kaleidoscopic tones gel perfectly with the cool autumn twilight it was released just in time for. That said, I won’t have a problem with letting it soundtrack plenty of other seasons to come. – Chris Karman

17. Wye OakCivilian (Merge)
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It’s rarely a surprise to hear a duo that can exorcise a quintet’s worth of sound from their instruments anymore, but it certainly is something to behold when a duo can do that while imbuing those sounds with human soul and pathos instead of obfuscating them with excessive effects. Baltimore’s Wye Oak don’t shy from effects pedals, by any means, but guitarist and singer Jenn Wasner also doesn’t allow her distortion pedal to do all the talking, which is a good thing, because Wasner has a lot to say. On mournful Western noir stomp “Civilian,” she laments the distance between friends and that she can “barely keep up with them,” and flips to magnetic elation on the hard rocking “Holy Holy,” declaring “all human joy is precious.” That Wye Oak can at times sound like a two-person Crazy Horse is impressive enough, but that they can make something so deep, affecting and note-perfect seems miraculous. – Jeff Terich

16. tUnE-yArDsw h o k i l l (4AD)
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Merrill Garbus reminds me of the wacky aunt who is so genuine in her oddness that the rest of the family isn’t embarrassed by her, but embraces her all the more because of those idiosyncrasies. With an alto voice so low I’ll admit I initially thought she was a guy, and a penchant for artsy-hippie rhythms, her second album w h o k i l l feels like the work of someone who enjoys a good caftan. But there’s also an R&B sensibility to songs like “Gangsta,” “Doorstep” and album standout “Bizness” that only come from a younger generation raised on equal parts rock, hip hop and whatever Garbus’ piano teaching mom might have taught her. The most abundant feeling you get out of listening to w h o k i l l though, is fun. This is the sound of someone making great music and really enjoying herself. And that feeling is infectious. – Elizabeth Malloy

15. John MausWe Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (Ribbon Music)
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In a year lousy with underground keyboard and synth acts questioning the dance floor to both minimal and maximal effect, John Maus was one of the few who took the form far enough to get answers. Maus is something of an interrogator anyway, making waves last summer by disparaging record stores and later clarifying himself, but not really. On the album he expresses himself in no less pejorative terms; “Cop Killer” was either the funniest or creepiest song of the season depending on how upset you are that they’re remaking American Psycho but not in the eighties. But Pitiless Censors relies so hard on effortless melody and stacked melancholy it ends up being all machine, no rage. Of all his wave-obsessed contemporaries Maus is one of the best with structures; tracks like “Quantum Leap” and “We Can Break Through” are impeccably-designed moments of truth. – Anthony Strain

14. James BlakeJames Blake (A&M)
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Compared to the many organic-sounding releases in 2011, James Blake’s self titled album sounds like the soundtrack to a Ray Bradbury novel. The first words that come to mind are “just plain strange” or “uncomfortably other-worldly,” but even so, there is an underlying notion that Blake is teetering on genius. Maybe it’s the lyrical simplicity, how “I Never Learnt To Share” repeats the same odd phrase over and over again (“My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them“). Or maybe it’s the unrecognizable beat quivering throughout “Unluck.” Maybe Blake’s tonal voice is the clincher. Ultimately, a sentence as to why this album is so good is difficult to find, because it’s a struggle to find words that even come close to the grotesque yet lovely aspect of Blake’s style. – Dan Chapman

13. Panda BearTomboy (Paw Tracks)
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The eventual release of Tomboy was a gradual process. Noah Lennox spent a good portion of 2010 playing cuts from the album live and further refining their sounds. He even released a couple songs as singles in 2010, and, as difficult as it was, I managed to avoid listening to them before they were part of the entire album. In the end, as I discovered, that patience paid off, as Tomboy plays as one of the most cohesive front-to-back albums of 2011. The immediate response to the album was that it was a darker counterpoint to 2007’s Person Pitch. Well, there may not be any tracks with the sing-along glee of “Take Pills” but I don’t think that necessarily pits the album as “dark.” Tracks like “Afterburner” and “Surfer’s Hymn” are just as expansive, layered and immersive as anything found on Person Pitch, which, judging by the near perfect form of that disc, is one of the best compliments anyone could give. – Donny Giovannini

12. DestroyerKaputt (Merge)
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After the journeys into ambient territory that made up his last two EPs as Destroyer, it seemed certain that Dan Bejar’s next full-length would stretch out and make itself at home in new and spacious territory. And it does, though Kaputt, with its atmospheres of easy listening psychedelia, is nothing if not full of surprises, twists of texture and word, blurry horn phrases melting into moods of luxury, melancholy and fleeting ecstasies. Bejar’s singing is as low-key as we have heard it, trading in the calm bemusements of a distant observer rather than the hysterical exclamations of the man in the middle of the fire. Like us, he seems caught up in the slow currents of the record, afloat without destination but moving wide-eyed from situation to situation, besotted with the vertigo of his views. – Tyler Parks

11. Bon IverBon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
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The difference between Bon Iver’s hushed debut, For Emma, Forever Ago and the eclectic, self-titled sophomore release is the difference between night and day. The former, immersed in thick isolation, makes short use of instruments, while the latter dazzles in colorful arrangements of saxophones, clarinets and electric guitars. Indeed, the attitude of Bon Iver has shifted greatly in the past three years. The less-is-more staple that sent the four-piece trotting through the streets of Paris with melodica in hand seems to be a thing of the past, while their new live set is backboned by two drum sets and a handful of guitarists. Despite the changes however, Bon Iver shows that the group isn’t stuck in the comfortable sounds of the past, and although the change might be bracing at first, one can’t deny the ardor pouring out of the main guitar riff in “Perth,” the thick nostalgia in “Holocene” or the gaudy but honest synthesizers in “Beth/Rest.” – Dan Chapman

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