If the year’s most innovative backward-looking album was 2562’s Fever, every track of which was fashioned from ’70s and ’80s disco fragments, Daniel Lopatin is still the latent underground’s greatest practitioner of futurist nostalgia. As part of Ford & Lopatin, he made the best Hall & Oates/Womack & Womack collaborative record of 2011 (Channel Pressure) and contributed to the FACT mix series a trippy highlight reel of disco and boogie. It’s impossible to say which of the two pieces had the best impish grin. But Lopatin’s OPN brand is where he really shows off his affinity for materials, making some of the quietest noise music and the busiest ambient music around. Built from the ground up, the tracks on Replica get all their low angles from the sleazy monotony of ’80s consumer culture and their moody heights from a Kubrickian sense of dread, filling themselves with muffled clangs of repression and steely loops of fury. You can hear the songs rattling around in there; it’s like Lopatin trapped them in a series of really complex cages with access to air but no light. On “Nassau” and “Child Soldier” particularly, he excels at a very brain-like structure, bundles of images being sorted by the nanosecond. Which is another way of saying Replica sounds and feels like being imprisoned, which has no business being so addictive. – Anthony Strain
If The Antlers’ breakthrough album Hospice was the haunting portrayal of a relationship slipping into the grave, its follow up Burst Apart has the feel of a woozy fighter pulling himself off the canvas. Both albums begin with a few seconds of dissonant white noise, but the 30 second hush that opens Hospice gives way to ominous, distorted piano keys; after 10 seconds of tremors, Burst Apart gives us the fully realized — if still achingly sad — “I Don’t Want Love.” Peter Silberman’s vocals, so thin and drowning on Hospice, are louder in the mix on Burst Apart, allowing us to hear his ruminations on growing old and staying lonely. Burst Apart also makes more use of rhythm, even providing some honest to god toe tappers, like “French Exit” and “Every Night my Teeth are Falling Out.” The more muscular production of Burst Apart makes the album less intimate than some of The Antlers’ previous work, but it also offers more layers to discover. The characters in the songs may still be clinging to life support, but the music is a survivor. – Elizabeth Malloy
Over three studio albums, Cut Copy has been making the synth pop aesthetic of the ’80s sound timeless. While clearly influenced by the likes of New Order and Human League, the group also manages to sound very much in the moment. On Zonoscope, they also take a moment to breathe and stretch. Letting the songs unfold at a slightly more leisurely pace than on previous releases, the album provides the dance floor booty shakers you’ve come to expect, but now with an eye towards the epic. Songs like the exhilarating opening “Need You Now” make drum machines and synthesizers sound more emotive than just about anyone. The 15-minute long closer “Sun God” isn’t mere noodling; it’s a carefully plotted journey and quest. In between, the album offers songs for the glow stick wavers and headphones-in-a-turntable style listeners alike, hiding Easter eggs in the mix for those willing to look, and thumping beats for those who don’t. Along the way, Cut Copy takes another giant step forward in bringing synth pop the respect it deserves. – Elizabeth Malloy
Seattle-based neo-folk legends-to-be Fleet Foxes did quite well with their charmingly rustic eponymous debut LP, but this year, they somehow bested their own effort. Though they still behold the same basic sound as before, the album is clearly written by a band that has had a little more time to think out their approach. With equal parts Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Beach Boys, Fleet Foxes still manage to create a unique tone without abandoning the aspects that make American folk music such a cultural staple. While they had already made an impressive first outing, Helplessness Blues may very well cement Fleet Foxes’ place in history. – A.T. Bossenger
Having crawled back to the muck from the porcelain adult contemporary heights of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea for a few albums now, PJ Harvey has dug into something very special this time, something very Orwellian. Though Harvey was more influenced by Harold Pinter, Ken Loach and T.S. Eliot in composing these songs, she nonetheless captures the barebones language and street-level patriotism of Orwell’s nonfiction. Like Orwell, she faces heinous act after henious act by the fallen empire that is her homeland. The sparseness of the songs gives more power to the brutal polemical mordancy of her lyrics, depicting war, poverty and all other manner of social injustice. She neither flinches from the guts, nor comes out in hatred for the Union Jack; indeed, she comes out loving it more, warts and all. But it’s her stark opening lyric, “Goddamn Europeans/ Take me back to beautiful England” on “The Last Living Rose” that proves the most unexpectedly prescient (seeing as how this is a WWI concept album) and therefore the most powerful, however, given the island’s newest conflict with the continent over the Eurozone crisis. – Chris Morgan
When Radiohead gave one week’s notice of the release of The King of Limbs, expectations shot through the roof. And rightfully so, seeing as Radiohead hadn’t made a bad album since, well, Pablo Honey. Next came the video for the lead single, “Lotus Flower,” which found most opinions focused on Thom’s “dancing” rather than the quality of the song. And then, much to the chagrin of almost all fans, the new album was released with only eight tracks, cueing a tsunami of rumors that this was only part one of a larger complete project. Yet despite the many remixes spawned in its aftermath, the 37-minute mini-disc, the band’s shortest, was the finished product.
However, the actual content on the disc is superb. Tracks like “Feral” display a rogue, electronic side of the band that greatly rewards repeat listens. And never before has Radiohead shown so much emphasis on bass; from the aforementioned “Feral” to “Lotus Flower” and “Separator,” these basslines jam hard, more than you ever remembered on a Radiohead album. In the end, the initial expectations only distracted from what The King Of Limbs really is –a confident, bold and immersive effort from one of the greatest bands of all time. – Donny Giovannini
The cover of Parallax plays with the iconography of rock `n’ roll history, its image of Bradford Cox, cool before a vintage microphone, linking the record to pasts that do not usually come up in conversations about his work with Deerhunter or as Atlas Sound. The songs themselves, for all of the craft with which they have been carved in striking sonic shapes, are run through with a simplicity and whimsy that binds them together and makes the album feel much more of a piece than his previous albums as Atlas Sound. But what makes this record special, besides Cox’s obvious gifts for melody, mood, and evocative lyrics, is something difficult to grasp, that benign magic that makes songs wear well into the future, that locks them up in a small circle of mystery that far from breaking down keeps them alive and in motion, skirting the edges of our knowledge and setting our emotions in pursuit. – Tyler Parks
The most accurate description of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming you’re likely to read came from Anthony Gonzalez himself: it’s “very, very, very epic.” Although he’s never been one to shy away from massive soundscapes, M83’s latest opus is easily one of the most deliberately epics albums I have ever listened to. And yet Gonzalez does a remarkable job of not letting his ambitions get in the way of good taste. In a year that gave us Radiohead’s shortest album, James Blake’s sparse debut full-length and the return of Bon Iver’s introspection, Hurry Up was just what 2011 was missing. A bold, dramatic, over-sized and, ultimately, deeply satisfying double album pushing the limits of just how colossal things can get before they become ridiculous.
Hurry Up also succeeds is in its wide range. While glowing blockbuster anthems like “Midnight City” and “Claudia Lewis” truly shine, Gonzalez allows the quieter moments carry just as much weight. Indeed, tracks like the gorgeous “Soon, My Friend” and “Splendor” are arguably just as affecting in their hushed beauty as the larger-than-life moments that get most of the attention. All told, no other album in 2011 felt quite as boundless as Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. – Chris Karman
Rap albums are so rarely concise and sharp that our ears aren’t trained to pay constant attention. Amidst a hip-hop culture of YouTube singles and prolific mix tapes, Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler (with his sidekick Tendai Maraire) resurfaces. Last appearing prominently at a time when Digable Planets stood out among socially conscious rappers for sounding effortlessly forward-thinking beyond all peers, Shabazz Palaces carries on tradition. Seemingly a gift from the future comes Black Up, an album that, at first, slithers by until the most conventionally written, infectious track – “Swerve… The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding),” which appears last – perks your ears and makes you wish you had been paying more attention.
When attentive, you realize that not since Mos Def’s The Ecstatic has a rap album sounded so refreshingly unique; new melodies and beats organically transform as quickly as you can pick them up while Butterfly duly adapts to his environment. But beyond most forward-thinking rap albums that have come before, Black Up pulls off a singular perspective. Butler doesn’t speak poignantly and the enigmatic production manages to stick to a cohesive, skeletal structure; there are no expectations or preconceived notions of what hip-hop or rap is about with this album. In the end, this approach lends the music a character so much deeper than any of the caricatures saturating the rap game today, it feels foreign, as though it actually is from another time, a time when challenging listeners with creativity outweighed mainstream aesthetics. – Justin Stephani
A wizard of clever theatrics and dazzling productions, Annie Clark crafted a colorfully twisted fantasy world on her first two albums, Marry Me and Actor, which found her numerous characters succumbing to the fate of suburban malaise, unbreakable sexual tension or just plain poor decisions. On Strange Mercy, however, Clark removed that brightly colored veil and took the method approach, cutting more deeply into the intense impulses that drive her narratives, whether fictional (likely), autobiographical (less likely) or some combination of the two. The gradual escalation in the playfully chaotic “Cruel” finds Clark’s voice reaching a nervous breaking point, her revenge fantasy on the title track frayed to the point of desperation, and the ambiguous, yet none-too-subtle beckon, “best finest surgeon/ come cut me open” might have even made you blush the first time hearing it – it’s okay we’re all adults here.
It’s that little extra piece of her own flesh and blood Clark puts into these songs that makes Strange Mercy her best album, and what she doesn’t give up so easily in her vocal performances goes straight into her amazing guitar playing. The beastly repetitive chugs in “Cheerleader,” the Prince-style freakout in “Surgeon,” the effortlessly infectious hook in “Neutered Fruit” – there’s scarcely a lick on this album that isn’t delivered with a severe impact and a lethal efficiency. In fact, the one track in which guitars play the most subtle role, “Champagne Year,” just happens to be the very ballad in which Clark opts for an exhausted candor, singing, “It’s not a killing, but it’s enough to keep the cobwebs clear.” A performer with the kind of talent, range and magnetism such as Clark’s calls for celebration. Drink up. – Jeff Terich