Originally published by Life’s Sweet Breath
Lists are a huge part of our lives. This might not necessarily be true for all of our readers, but whenever the opportunity strikes to construct a list–of any kind, really–and I leap into action with a superhero gusto. Naturally, I look forward to December 31st every year thanks to a prime opportunity to craft a list of the best music of the year prior.
For our top fifty albums list, each writer on the staff submits their own top fifty, based on whatever criteria they choose, whether it be simply what their favorite or most-played records were, what they felt was most important in the musical landscape, or practically any other reason they can come up with. Each record on their list is given a point total based on its placement, and all the lists are tallied to form a consensus opinion. We feel it is the only way to have a truly democratic take on the year’s music and the cards lay where they fall.
There are a few interesting things about this year’s countdown. Only one record, our number two record of the year, was unanimously chosen as a top fifty record by the nine voters, with the number one record receiving eight of ten top fifty votes, but outscoring the record below it by twenty-eight points due to simply higher rankings. Ten of the top fifty were chosen as among the year’s fifty best records, with the lowest ranking on our staff list at number twenty-four.
Anyway, enough with the statistical nerding out, and on to the top fifty. Enjoy a sample track from each record and at the end of the page you can find our Spotify playlist for the (mostly) entire top fifty.
Toro Y Moi
Underneath The Pine
Listen: “New Beat”
South Carolina producer Chazwick Bundick returns with his second record in as many years, expanding upon the hazy hip-hop-infused sound of 2010’s Causers Of This. Where Causers Of This was slightly opaque and shrouded in mystery, Bundick opens himself up to the listener on Underneath The Pine with full-bodied, wide-open compositions.
Bundick’s vocals shine in many facets, whether it is the disco-ball bursts of melody on “New Beat” or the flower child croonings of “Before I’m Done,” showing how much he has grown as a musician since Causers Of This was released a mere year prior. The way that Toro Y Moi has grown as an artist is plain to see; Bundick combines the smoky, in-the-now production qualities with an analog sound that has Underneath The Pine constantly straddling the line between past and present.
Listen: “Ritual Union”
Ritual Union is Little Dragon’s coming-out party. Having toiled in relative obscurity for a few years, albeit releasing quality work all along the way, the world was finally ready to fully embrace the Swedish group’s slinky space-funk led by Yukumi Nagano’s silken vocals. Coming on the heels of high profile guest spots on Gorillaz and SBTRKT tracks, Nagano and company bring some of those artist’s fully fleshed-out bombast to Ritual Union, realizing that potential that fans of the band had known was present from the very start.
The record benefits from those experiences that were picked up working with other artists; there is a cohesive feel to the entire record, while never sounding stale. From the opening title track all the way to the sprawling “Seconds,” Ritual Union is the work of a band at the cusp of their capabilities, combining infectious melodies with seeemingly otherworldly production qualities.
[Reprise / Roadrunner / Warner Brothers]
Listen: “Curl Of The Burl”
The words “subtle” and “Mastodon” don’t seem to go together. The Atlanta-based metal outfit has been releasing punishing record after punishing record, seemingly as if they harder, faster, more technical they play the closer they are to literally turning into mastodons where they can destroy towns like they have destroyed shoddy club walls with their massive blasts of roiling riffs for over a decade. However, if there was ever a record when Mastodon’s brutal sonic attack was shaded with a hint of subtlety, The Hunter is it.
Though Mastodon have never shied away from the more classic metal thematic elements to their lyrics (fantasy looms over just about every track they’ve ever recorded), it seems they are making up for the more melodic approach with even more fantastic scenarios lyrically on The Hunter. “Creature Lives” is Mastodon at its most self-aware ridiculous, while “The Sparrow” hones in some of that classic metal allegory and combines it with slow, plodding riffage for the album’s finale.
The Devil’s Walk
Listen: “Candil De La Calle”
Germany’s Sascha Ring brings forth his most ambitious and beautiful work yet, building upon the emotive and slow-burning nature of 2007’s Walls, while simultaneously paving new ground in his music. The Devil’s Walk sees Ring’s voice grow more confident, fluttering along with the layered electronics, as if he is simply part of his fingertips’ programming.
The entire record plays like gently falling snow; each subtle flake that falls through the mix eventually forms an sheet of sound that is completely physical in the way it interacts with the listener. It is a slow-motion dance record for the couple at the bottom of a mountain with nowhere to run from the avalanche about to overtake them. Tracks like “Ash Black Veil” and “Candil De La Calle” deliver not only in gorgeous and controlled production, but also in profound emotion.
Leave Home is perhaps the most surprising record of the year. Brooklynite post-punk band The Men showed glimpses of what was to come on their debut Immaculada, but really nothing could have prepared listeners for the forty-minute onslaught that lays behind the blurred black-and-white cover art of Leave Home. It is one of those records where you feel mentally and physically drained simply from sitting in a chair and listening to it, one of those records you always wanted to revisit but had to be careful with.
The very first shred of guitar feedback on “If You Leave…” wraps itself around you and pins you down for the duration of the record’s brutal entirety. Speaking of “brutal,” I’d be willing to wager that word is the most oft-used in regards to Leave Home. It would never be misplaced, either. It’s simple, aggressive, passionate, brutal. Wear a helmet.
The Psychic Paramount
Ben Armstrong, Drew St. Ivany, and Jeff Conaway make a lot of noise. With II, the New York trio’s first record in six years, St. Ivany sounds like sixteen guitarists at once while Armstrong and Conaway manuever impossible rhythms that seem they could be tied to no real semblance of a song yet somehow tied everything down in perfect time, and the entire record flies by in a glorious blur of noise and dramatics.
This isn’t to say II is noise simply for noise’s sake; in the vein of the pioneers of the genre before them such as Boredoms or Lightning Bolt, it’s noise for our sake. Each note, though it may sound haphazardly placed, is meticulously choreographed in the overall structure of any given piece. The explosive nature of the record is meant to be transportative and actually somewhat therapeutic to the listener looking to get lost in bursts of sound. At the album’s core is “DDB,” II’s unquestionable standout which sees the band playing simultaneously at their loosest and most focused.
Oneohtrix Point Never
[Mexican Summer / Software]
Daniel Lopatin’s latest record is the sound of a producer hitting his stride. He had been steadily freaking listeners out for the better part of the late-aughts, seemingly building mounds of tension with his monumental sound on records like Zones Without People and Returnal, and everything has burst through, passing through the air like clouds of vapor on Replica. Embracing melodic patience and orchestral subtlety, Lopatin has penned his most grand statement to date.
Replica is crafted out of looped samples and vocals, each artfully placed wrinkle in the production leading to the next portion of the unknown that Lopatin seems so fond of exploring with his Oneohtrix Point Never project. The stunning thing about Replica, however, is actually its accessibility. Listeners not so fond of repetitious soundscapes will find something oddly relaxing about allowing themselves to become lost in his delicate infinitesimal looping; becoming separated from the consciousness and allowing Replica to speak as their own conscious is like becoming a sample themselves.
[Young Money / Cash Money]
Drake is quite the polarizing figure. He has all the makings to breed hate within hip-hop afficianados: sudden rise to stardom, “soft” lyrical concepts, lots of money, etc. However, as is usually the case, and as Drake points out himself, saying, “jealousy is just love and hate at the same time,” much of the hate stems from the fact that Wheelchair Jimmy actually does deserve what he has. Polarizing or not, Drake is an artist, and Take Care is his greatest artistic statement to date.
Well-placed guest spots and seething production by Noah “40” Shebib give the album a more theatrical feel. From The Weeknd crooning on tracks like “Crew Love” and “The Ride” to Rick Ross embellishing a Just Blaze-produced “Lord Knows,” Take Care does well teetering the line between personal introspection and celebratory flashiness. The moments in which Drake plays both roles at once show the realistic effects of fame on a kid who once dreamed of making a record like Take Care.
Over the course of her twenty-plus year career as a recording musician, Polly Jean Harvey has worn many masks, borne the many phases of her life through her music. From the angst-ridden beginnings of Dry and Rid Of Me all the way to her latest forays into minimalist expressions of piano-driven musical haunts, we’ve practically lived alongside Harvey as she has grown into the woman she is today, playing the complexly-arranged Let England Shake. The addition to autoharp to her playing repertoire opened her music up to entirely new avenues she had not yet explored, with Harvey stating that she “began by writing quite a lot on the autoharp, and then slowly as time went by, my writing started moving into experimenting with different guitars, and using different sound applications, ones that I had never really experimented with.”
That experimentation is practically tangible on Let England Shake. Harvey seems completely rejuvinated to let her music guide her where it wants to go as opposed to forcing it in a certain direction, and that freedom gives the record space for the listener to become lost in. Harvey took on a narratorial role for the lyrics, leaving her personal life out for the record, seemingly due discomfort in letting her life wander on such foreign terrain.
Donald Glover really shouldn’t have to beg for our respect, but that’s what it’s come down to. On his first full-length record, Camp, Glover, performing under the name Childish Gambino tackles huge issues that have plagued him from childhood all the way to present day. Songs like “Outside” show Glover struggling to find a place in the world, never being fully accepted by either whites or blacks. There is something powerful about Glover’s unwavering ability to remain himself through those chapters of his life, to just keep his head down and work hard without worrying about that acceptance.
One of the most striking things about Camp is Glover’s rhyming ability. The EPs and mix-tapes to this point were only glimpses into what he is capable of behind a microphone. He delivers his lines alternating between a fiery passion, playful humor and self-deprecating awareness that is wholly endearing. The choice to close the record with a spoken-word story, at the end of “That Power,” which demonstrates his keen sense of details in painting the image of a fresh-faced Glover having his heart broken under the glow of bus lamps serves to show not only where he came from, but also why part of him never left.
Listen: “Mona Lisa”
The highly prolific Bradford Cox, frontman of Deerhunter and performing as a solo artist under the name Atlas Sound, never stops recording music. Under the Atlas Sound name alone, I count 207 tracks since 2007 and there’s simply no way to have truly everything he has recorded. Cox himself probably doesn’t even have them all by this point. What is perhaps more shocking than the sheer volume of Cox’s output is the consistent high quality that his releases carry.
Having said that, Parallax is among the best of his consistently stellar catalog thus far. Over the years he has continually harnessed his songcrafting abilities and with Parallax he turns in a cohesive, yet wholly Bradford work. By this, I mean the record has some of his most focused songwriting while at the same time some of his more fearless experimentation. In this regard, Parallax sounds like his tendencies are being pulled in two different directions, stretching out across the expanse of the record while sounding unified despite the wildly divergent ideals; the straight-forward pop bliss of “Mona Lisa” sits comfortably alongside the wild sonics of “Quark.”
Wolves In The Throne Room
Listen: “Woodland Cathedral”
I will preface this by admitting that I have never (personally) heard a dragon scream. I, like most of the rest of us, am forced to only imagine what lies within the terrifying beast’s throat, what menacing growl might emit from the fiery blaze of its mouth. Having said that, Wolves In The Throne Room’s Nathan Weaver shrieking atop “Prayer Of Transformation,” the behemoth closer of Celestial Lineage, is exactly what a screaming dragon sounds like. No questions about it.
Aside from sheer power, Celestial Lineage boasts perhaps the richest dynamics of any metal record out this year. Not only are Wolves In The Throne Room shying away from black metal traditions–acoustic guitars flit in and out of the vast record, along with choral interludes throughout–but they are bringing black metal to those who may have shied away from those black metal traditions as listeners, introducing new fans to the genre and giving them a somewhat accessible entry point. This is a band who obviously understands that the deafening dragon’s roar needs a peaceful hillside town to scorch.
Jay-Z & Kanye West
Watch The Throne
Listen: “N*ggas In Paris”
One of the most talked-about records of the year is, in fact, one of those rare exceptions in music when something lives up to the mountains of hype heaped upon it. Two of the biggest hip-hop stars of all time join forces in a purely celebratory, constantly thunderous meeting of the minds, a reminder to those trying to break into the game of who it really is that owns it. Watch The Throne is an exercise in excess; whether it’s the guest appearances, the massive beats, or the rhymes, everything is done in excess. Somehow, instead of feeling offputting, Jay-Z and Kanye West bring the listener in on their party, making them a part of the excess.
Given the duo’s affinity for playing the song upwards of ten times in one concert, the only true way to listen to Watch The Throne at this point is with no less than seven “Nigg*s In Paris” repeats right in the middle. By the fifth or so time, the novelty of playing the track over and over again fades and it actually starts to just feel right. The track, and the album as a whole, is Yeezy and Hova at their loosest, and their hungriest in years. It’s somewhat of an anomaly on a record like Watch The Throne, seemingly meant purely as posturing, that the emcees come off as their fiercest in some time.
A$AP Rocky isn’t breaking any new ground. In fact, he may be traipsing on old, well-established ground. Despite this, LiveLoveA$AP feels completely fresh. It could be the beats; sudden household name Clams Casino contributes five of the more blunted productions on the entire tape, or it could be the swagger; Rocky embraces individualism with obvious disregard for what anyone else thinks, whether musically or in his lifestyle, or it could just be the mere fact that LiveLoveA$AP is cool. Rocky presents himself as someone the average listener could see themselves kicking it with, no matter how far out of the realm of possibility that actually may be.
It’s easy to see the importance of such a quality in a hip-hop record; as time goes by, hip-hop stars seem farther out of touch with reality, completely removed from what could be conceived as life with the average listener. Rocky, at this point, is just a kid clearly having fun making music with his friends on LiveLoveA$AP. This freedom is nearly tangible on tracks like “Peso” and “Trilla,” where Rocky seamlessly weaves through flows with a gold-capped grin on his face.
The Year Of Hibernation
When I went to see Youth Lagoon in concert, watching the unassuming Trevor Powers take his seat at his keyboard, I thought, “There is no way this guy can sing like on record.” I was dead wrong. In fact, the troubled falsetto trembling out of The Year Of Hibernation didn’t come close to preparing me for the sheer power behind his vocal performance, and that’s saying something because Powers shines on every track of his debut record.
The Year Of Hibernation explores dark lyrical themes, disguised in lo-fi bedroom production and Powers’ seemingly detatched vocals. The record achieves much of its profound beauty from the moments when those three elements work in conjunction on tracks like “Posters” and “Seventeen,” where Powers’ vocals soar from a dark and cloudy place. It’s almost like Powers doesn’t want the listener to know just how good he is. Fortunately, we have ears and he’s not fooling anyone.
Gang Gang Dance
This is Gang Gang Dance at their most accessible. Gang Gang Dance at their most accessible is still mind-bendingly frightening to many, many people. Mind-bendingly frightening is pretty much exactly what we love. Songs oscillate from future R&B romps to straight-up percussive freakouts, all tied together with singer Lizzi Bougastos’ signature chameleon-like vocals; she plays the role of shrieking gypsy rolling on the floor in ecstasy just as well as she does the straight-forward funk songstress.
The Brooklyn-based band led by Bougastos and keyboardist Brian Degraw, fortunately, tend to stay on the weirder side of things. It is, after all, the bizarre that makes the straight-forward work so well in the context of Eye Contact. The band continually proves they are at their best eight minutes into free-form world-fused jams, such as the album’s opener, “Glass Jar.”
With Kaputt, Canadian songwriter Dan Bejar embraces sounds from early eighties AM frequencies, miraculously makes them listenable, and even more miraculously makes them great. The album is the perfect accompaniment to autumnal Sunday mornings, never too intrusive while still demanding your attention. That is perhaps Destroyer’s greatest asset throughout the years; they continually force ideals into the foreground that have long since been considered background fodder.
“Chinatown” is the perfect example of Bejar and company taking something familiar and warping it to their desire, the slinky fretless bass weaving in and out of the jazzy mix while Bejar positively croons on top. It’s somewhat ironic for an artist like Destroyer, nearly twenty years in the music business, to find new ground in the past, but for Kaputt, the concept works perfectly.
Listen: “You Make The Sun Fry”
For those who have been following the enigmatic garage rocker Ty Segall’s career so far, Goodbye Bread might have come as a shock. Feedback-strewn guitars have been replaced with shimmering acoustic ones, strumming melodically, furious vocal yelps with actual singing. The move toward the more introverted, mellow affair of Goodbye Bread might not have made a lot of sense. When you really look at it, though, it was a completely natural progression for Segall.
After all, at the heart of all that guitar fuzz and yelping throughout the years, there was a geniuinely great songwriter lurking. Goodbye Bread is Segall just showing the world that might not have seen that in him that he can write memorable songs as well as memorable freakouts. The title track, “Goodbye Bread,” bounces by like a car on a familiar road; nothing feels out of place and the listener knows the road leads home.
My Morning Jacket
Listen: “Holdin’ On To Black Metal”
My Morning Jacket could never make another record again and perennially be called the greatest live band on the planet. Their live energy is completely electric; the way singer Jim James commands a crowd is the closest thing we’ll probably ever get to a glorified rock star in the digital age. Those who have experienced a My Morning Jacket concert know what it is like to be physically moved by music. Sure, they could rest on their laurels. But that’s not the kind of band My Morning Jacket is. We love them for it.
With every record, the Louisville quintet has pushed themselves into new sonic territory; from the humble southern rock beginnings of The Tennessee Fire all the way to the space-funk stylings of Evil Urges My Morning Jacket has sounded like a practically different band with every release, the only tangible connection between them James’ wobbling falsetto. Circuital is a melting pot of all of the faces the band has worn throughout the years, from the delicate country swing of “Slow Slow Tune” to the stadium stomp of “Holdin’ On To Black Metal.” The record feels unified in its diversity, however, bringing, as always with My Morning Jacket, something new to the table: a sort of refined maturity.
New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges
Listen: “The Stars In His Head (Dark Lights Remix)”
Colin Stetson, the longtime touring saxophonist of Arcade Fire and more recently, Bon Iver, turns in one of the most challenging, yet rewarding listening experiences of the year with New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges. Recorded entirely in one take, the record shows the heartbreaking beauty that simplicity can bring, the staggering power of a man and his instrument.
It is important to note just how much that one man is doing with his one instrument, however. He plays the role not only of lead saxophonist but also of percussionist (through the pounding of his fingers on the keys of his sax) and the lead vocalist (through his breathing as he plays). The record is nothing short of a marvel in technique and recording itself, but the fact that all of these things come together to create something so intensely moving is perhaps its greatest achievement.
Listen: “The OtherSide”
The Roots have been a band for twenty-five years, steadily releasing records for nearly twenty of those years. While many artists have risen to fame and fallen into obscurity during the Philadelphia hip-hop outfit’s lifespan, The Roots have remained a mainstay, a symbol of consistency and the organic power of hip-hop music. Through all of the lineup changes over the years, two figures have remained at the epicenter of the group’s soul-infused sound: drummer/producer/inarguable bandleader Questlove, and emcee Black Thought. Due to The Roots longevity and consummate professionalism and elasticity, the group recently became the house band for Jimmy Fallon, Black Thought and Questlove have become representative of the purity of hip-hop music.
With Undun, The Roots crew have penned perhaps their most ambitious work to date. It’s natural for a band who has been together as long as The Roots have to explore new avenues with their music, and Undun pays off that exploration in droves. A largely conceptual record, Undun follows the life of the fictional Redford Stevens, a poverty-stricken youth who was destined to fall far before his time. It’s somewhat fitting that The Roots are the ones telling this tale, having seen and outlasted all those before them who suffered Stevens’ very fate. The music is a continued growth of the more rock-influenced How I Got Over, with the record concluding in a wildly experimental suite of free-jazz pieces.
David Comes To Life
Listen: “Queen Of Hearts”
The Toronto hardcore outfit Fucked Up have always been something of an anomaly. Their sound is incredibly aggressive, yet deeply laced hooks pervade the mix, seemingly appearing as if from thin air. With their third album, David Comes To Life, we see the band being pulled strongly in either direction; the overall sound is difficult and punishing, but the hooks are more plentiful than ever before.
The record follows the main character David, a factory worker in the 1970s who dabbles in anarchism and existentialism, with Fucked Up playing the role of God, toying with him and having him question his own life and whether he has any meaning other than playing the role of scapegoat to a manaical narrator. I can sympathize with him, especially since he is playing the scapegoat to a manaical narrator–or narrators, rather. Frontman Damian Abraham leads the charge against David on the propulsive “Queen Of Hearts,” each intricately arranged blast of hardcore serving to the whole of the nearly eighty-minute record.
Listen: “Need You Now”
Australian synth poppers Cut Copy have steadily grown into an unstoppable force. Bright Like Neon Love introduced the world to the band’s consistently infectious hooks, while In Ghost Colours was practically a perfectly crafted pop record. With Zonoscope, Cut Copy seems to have outgrown even those pop limitations. The record coils around the dance-floor, embracing four-on-the-floor house and dark soundscapes, all delivered in such a way where the entire record plays like a night out in the club, a cohesive arc from early album bliss to strobe-light laden confusion.
By stacking the front of the record with undeniably catchy songs like “Need You Now” and “Take Me Over,” and deconstructing their sound to the distant pulses of “Corner Of The Sky” and “Sun God,” Cut Copy have taken themselves to a new height in not only accessibility, but creativity as well. In structuring their album this way, and taking their music to these new limits, Zonoscope works well in any situation, from a late-night blur to car-seat dance party.
Thee Oh Sees
Carrion Crawler / The Dream
[In The Red]
Listen: “Contraption / Soul Desert”
Thee Oh Sees have been making waves–large, destructive waves, have you–on the San Francisco garage rock scene at a ridiculous pace for the better part of a decade. Ranging from the unbridled and difficult to grasp to the highly infectious. One thing that is consistent across their vast catalog is the identity of principle songwriter John Dwyer defining the sound of the band; each record, no matter how different sounds exactly like Thee Oh Sees. With Carrion Crawler / The Dream, Thee Oh Sees are at their wildest, yet somehow their most focused as well.
Dwyer shrieks his way over the twisted surf rock stylings of “Contraption” before the tightly wound piece unravels into a disheveled Can cover, embodying the entire record with the band’s affinity for not giving the listener anything too straight-forward. However, Carrion Crawler / The Dream delivers some of Thee Oh Sees most memorable melodies to date, an obvious step in a more mature direction for the band.
Wander / Wonder
Witch house. I still have no idea what it means (I’ve asked many people to indulge me this information to no avail), yet somehow the term seems to roll off the tongue in conjunction with enigmatic producer Balam Acab’s debut full-length Wander / Wonder. Disembodied vocals float around the mix, mixing with pooling water sounds like they are ghosts’ voices bouncing off cave walls, deep thundering bass rattles every nook and cranny of the room the music occupies, and there is something completely haunting and beautiful about the whole thing. Yes. Witch house, indeed.
The hip-hop influences are evident right from the start; tracks like “Apart” and “Oh, Wait” plod along familiarily enough, but they are coated in a crystalline sheen that gives the entire project an otherworldly element to it. Though the ideals that Balam Acab presents on Wander / Wonder are completely new and fresh in some sense, the quiet beauty with which they are conveyed is something that music lovers can appreciate and relate to.
New York City-based experimental rock band Battles stunned the music world with their constantly shifting, obtuse debut record, Mirrored in 2007. They proceeded to stun crowds the world over with incredible live musicianship and tightly constructed renderings of those tracks. Then Battles themselves were stunned when principle singer/guitarist/keyboardist Tyondai Braxton announced he would be leaving the band last year.
The remaining members of Battles did the only thing they really knew how to do, and endured. Coming off the heels of losing a founding member, they regrouped and deliver an equally stunning sophomore record, Gloss Drop. Filling in the spots where the band misses Braxton the most are guest vocalists sprinkled all throughout the technical showcase; Matias Aguayo guests on “Ice Cream,” Gary Numan on “My Machines,” Kazu Makino on “Sweetie & Shag,” and Yamantaka Eye on “Sundome.” Despite the varied vocal performances on these tracks, Gloss Drop feels like a unified continuation that began with Mirrored.
w h o k i l l
tUnE-yArDs, the brainchild of New England native Merrill Garbus, is a prime example of the adage, “less is more.” Creating her dynamic sound simply with live drum loops, ukelele and her powerful voice, all buoyed with Nate Brenner’s electrifying basslines, Garbus was able to pen one of the most exciting records of the year in w h o k i l l.
Ranging from psychedelic rock and R&B to folk and afrobeat, w h o k i l l, and tUnE-yArDs in general, is hard to pin down. The inability to pigeonhole the record into a specific genre is perhaps Garbus’ greatest strength at play on w h o k i l l, and it doesn’t hurt that she wears each style so comfortably and confidently. One of the most striking things about tUnE-yArDs is Garbus’ unique voice; she weaves in and out of her intricate arrangements, allowing herself to become an instrument, lost in the mix of her loops.
Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth And Voyage Of Shinju TNT
Listen: “Silly Bears”
For Akron/Family’s sixth full-length record, the Brooklyn-based psychedelic rock trio decided to shroud the release in mythology. They were missing deadlines with label Dead Oceans, apparently holed up in a cabin on the side of an active volcano in Japan, and recording in an abandoned Detroit train station to deliver what turns out to be one of their most ambitious works to date. The band themselves leaked warped remixes of the record, toying with fans with walls of fractured noise before releasing the finished product, which coincidentally or not, featured quite a few walls of unfractured noise.
Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth And Voyage Of Shinju TNT is not only Akron/Family at their noisiest experimentalism, but it also captures the band at their most poignantly beautiful. Rollicking guitar feedback and tribal drum patterns of “Another Sky” segue perfectly into lilting harmonic folk expressions of “Cast A Net” and album closer “Creator,” showing that the limitations of the band’s prowess are pretty much endless. Akron/Family II captures the band at a creative peak, whether it’s with the music they make or the mythology they build around it.
House Of Balloons / Thursday / Echoes Of Silence
Listen: “High For This”
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who had a bigger year than Abel Tesfaye. The brooding R&B overnight sensation out of Toronto crafted three hauntingly moving mixtapes, had high-profile guest spots all over Drake’s standout selling machine, and earned himself high billing at festivals as soon as he got his live act assembled. It might seem like a journalistic cop-out to combine his three mixtapes as one entry, but we believe they speak as a whole, and if you don’t, well, deal with it.
House Of Balloons came as a shock to the music world, a free mixtape from an unknown that turned the R&B world upside down. Driven by dark, throbbing production, and even darker, more throbbing lyricism based on drugs, sex, and all-around debauchery, The Weeknd came as a breath of fresh air in the rapidly staling genre. Both subsequent mixtapes, Thursday and Echoes Of Silence served to solidify his artistry and consistency, leaving many to wonder where he could possibly go from here. As a whole, the mixtape trilogy is one of the grandest artistic statements of the year, each soundtracking its respective season with Tesfaye’s brand of drug-addled R&B wooz.
Zola Jesus is about as unlikely of a pop star as you can come by. Draped in white chaffron, unassuming and completely enraptured in her music, Nika Roza Danilova is the anti-archetype for today’s female pop star. However, when she opens her mouth on the first track of her latest record, Conatus the powerful and goosebump-inspiring voice that bursts through the speakers is that of a bona fide pop star. Her voice could carry the entire record; it could be a capella, for all I care, and it would still be one of the most important pop records of the year.
The arrangements Danilova drapes over her silken voice, like the very chaffron she drapes over herself, only serve to bolster the grandeur of her voice, however, somehow illuminating her voice with dark electronic passages. Given this juxtaposition, the churning boiler room programming carrying her powerful vocal performances throughout make Conatus one of those independently released records with mainstream reach; there is something there for the pop purists right along with listeners who like their music a bit more off-kilter.
Listen: “Second Friend”
Megafaun has steadily been trying to shake a stigma attached to them since former bandmember Justin Vernon released For Emma Forever Ago in 2007. Brothers Ben and Phil Cook were in a band called DeYarmond Edison with Vernon before splitting and becoming Megafaun and Bon Iver, respectively. From that landmark album’s release they have been known as “Justin Vernon’s old band,” but with their self-titled breakthrough album they have finally–emphatically–shed that label. The gorgeous, sprawling record stands alone, allowing those who previously thought of the band in that way see them in an entirely new light.
The wild experimentation of their previous records that kept them in relative obscurity is still present on Megafaun, but this is the Cook brothers at their most honed-in, melodically. “Second Friend” sounds like a misplaced Beatles recording, unearthed some forty years later, tight, lush harmonies wrap around the bouncing track, while “Isadora” seems bound by no traditional restrictions. It seems for the first time that Megafaun is truly comfortable with where they are as a band, and as a result the music itself sounds cozy and at-home.
Beginning the eighth album with a track as slow-burning, experimental and left-field as Wilco have done with The Whole Love’s “The Art Of Almost” is something that looks terrible on paper–why not play it safe there–but when it comes to Jeff Tweedy and company, it makes perfect sense. First, The Whole Love marks their first album on their own label, dBpm, leaving all of the creative decisions up to the band themselves and giving them total freedom when it came to the direction of their record; second, Wilco is a band that is so engrained in the American DNA of music that really they can do whatever they please and they know it; finally, because Wilco has never been one to play it safe.
The Whole Love never reaches the experimental liberation of 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and understandably so. People grow, and Tweedy has completely settled down into as domestic of a lifestyle as a traveling musican can muster, leaving The Whole Love to turn to pensivity in places Yankee Hotel Foxtrot reached further into the abyss. Tweedy’s songwriting skills are as sharp as ever, bitingly examining the music industry in “Standing O” or the melodramatic “Born Alone.” Just as it’s fitting for The Whole Love to open on a note of freedom, so to is it fitting for the record to end with “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).” The twelve-minute folk exploration tackles the issue likely most dear to Tweedy’s heart these days: fatherhood and avoiding the mistakes of the narrator’s misguided dad.
The War On Drugs
Listen: “Baby Missiles”
I’ve seen The War On Drugs’ sound described as a warm blanket, completely enveloping and comfy, the Philadelphia group that Kurt Vile used to call home create rich soundscapes that listeners want to sleep inside of. Live inside of, even. It’s not far off, really. With Slave Ambient, Adam Granduciel and company have produced easily their finest output to date, a shoegaze-infused look through Americana’s glass pane that is so rich it is practically tangible. Hence the blanket analogy.
Over three years in the making, Slave Ambient is the last War On Drugs record to feature Vile (on “Best Night” and “It’s Your Destiny”), marking a clear definition in the band’s identity without him. The tracks defy traditional song forms, typically built around an idea and constantly elaborated and embellished until the listener is practically swimming in them. Despite The War On Drugs’ refusal to adapt more typical methods of delivering a chorus, the timbre with which Granduciel produces his melodies makes tracks like “Baby Missiles” and “Brothers” some of the most powerfully memorable of the year.
TV On The Radio
Nine Types Of Light
Listen: “Second Song”
In the aftermath of bassist Gerard Smith’s sudden and tragic death to lung cancer, TV On The Radio’s Nine Types Of Light takes on a completely different face. It only had (fittingly, given the record’s title) nine days to bask in the traditional “this is a great album” light before quickly turning into a symbol of the glaring hole in the band where Smith used to confidently provide its earth-shaking basslines. It’s difficult now to think of the record as anything but that symbol, but as it stands it is one of the Brooklyn band’s finest works to date.
From their frenetic beginnings to the more refined sound that they boast today, TV On The Radio is one of those bands where it is an absolute pleasure to witness them grow, the many changes in the band’s ever-shifting sound. From the art-soul indie rock explosions of OK Calculator to the more dance-floor leaning numbers of Dear Science, the band has never stayed in one place too long, sonically. With Nine Types Of Light, the band’s first time trying to venture out georgraphically, as well–the album was recorded in producer/guitarist David Sitek’s home studio in Los Angeles, singers Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone display their traditional back-and-forth vocal attack with a patience and attention to space never before heard on a TV On The Radio record. The results are some of the band’s most focused, hook-driven songs to date, but the artistry that fans love them for doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Listen: “Free Press And Curl”
It wouldn’t be completely out of the ordinary if your initial reaction to Shabazz Palace’s debut full-length, Black Up, was complete shock. A “what exactly am I hearing?” type of reaction. It’s likely what I first thought when “Free Press And Curl” poured out of my speakers. The deeper I got into the record, the more enraptured I became, mesmerized by the Seattle duo’s completely fresh take on hip-hop. The record is a celebration in individualism, something that emcee Ishmael Butler, formerly of Digable Planets, has carried the torch for his entire career as a musician. Buoyed by producer and multi-instrumentalist Tendai ‘Baba’ Maraire’s worldly influences, Butler intricately weaves his lyrics in a way that Black Up feels part hip-hop record, part witchdoctor healing ritual.
Maraire’s production guides the record all over the sonic world, a completely organic exploration unheard of in today’s hip-hop. Pretty much everything about Shabazz Palaces is unheard of in today’s hip-hop, in fact. Butler weaves in and out of spiritual stream-of-concsiousness verses and chant-like expressions atop the throbbing instrumentals. If you’re like me, you might have started the journey into Black Up in a state of confusion, but their vision is crystal clear by record’s end, leaving you to want to dive right back into their rippling pool of anti-hip-hop.
Looping State Of Mind
Listen: “Is This Power”
Everything about the music of Axel Willner, recording under the moniker The Field, is consistent. From the very first note of his 2007 debut, From Here We Go Sublime to the last of this year’s Looping State Of Mind, The Field has been a symbol of consistency. Not only for the sheer quality of the music, but for the pace with which it has been released, and for the music itself: patient, expertly paced and always delivering at just the right moments.
Looping State Of Mind is perhaps Willner’s most organic piece of music as The Field, elaborating on the more dynamic sound of Yesterday And Today and incorporating live instrumentation to give life and a feeling of unexpected turns to the pulsating techno music. It is in this regard that Looping State Of Mind is one of the most compelling electronic records of the year; it goes so far beyond electronic music without ever compromising its roots in the genre.
Listen: “You Can Count On Me”
As a founding member of Animal Collective, a band who practically invented the “freak-folk” genre and one in which I have heard a friend refer to in a mid-show bliss as “the Pink Floyd of electronic music,” Noah Lennox is no stranger to breaking new ground. With his fourth full-length solo record, Lennox, performing under the ever-cuddly name Panda Bear, proves that fact once again. His music, whether with Animal Collective or solo, has gone from free-range freakouts to something a bit more honed-in and structurally accessible, and Tomboy is a natural extension in that progression.
His last record, Person Pitch, was regarded as an instant classic of the digital generation, combining Lennox’s affinity for loose explorations of harmony and looping with a more traditional sense of pop melody. Tomboy is the purest extension of the latter without fully compromising the former. Inarguably Panda Bear’s most accessible record to date, with memorable hooks abound in songs like “You Can Count On Me” and “Last Night At The Jetty,” Tomboy doesn’t skimp on the frightening interludes and psychedelic wizardry we have come to know and love Lennox by.
Bad As Me
Listen: “Bad As Me”
Not many artists can boast the claim that they are still making relevant music forty years after their debuts. Certainly not many artists can boast the claim that they are still excelling at making relevant, and down right good music forty years after their debuts. Luckily for us, Tom Waits isn’t like many artists. In fact, he’s not really like any artist.
Bad As Me, Waits’ seventeeth studio album, has all the makings of a standout record in his collection; at any given moment it could be touching, beautiful, ugly, frightening, heartbreaking, maddening, gritty or polished. The ability to shift moods at the drop of a hat has always been one of Waits’ more stunning qualities; each album throughout the course of his career paints a different picture of the man, and while Bad As Me is the work of a sixty-two year old man, he sounds anything but content here. He is showing no signs of quitting, no signs of having said all he needs to say.
Annie Clark has already established herself as a bona fide guitar goddess. She has shredded her way through two stellar records, putting her name firmly in any modern guitarist discussion (do those still happen?). With Strange Mercy, Clark is ready to establish herself as something else. This isn’t to say the miraculous guitar theatrics aren’t there; they are, and in great abundance. However, Clark is ready to show the world she is a bona fide artist.
Strange Mercy is unquestionably St. Vincent’s strongest artistic statement to date; the glimmers of greatness seen on Actor and Marry Me are fully realized in the fearless and propulsive embodiment of her new record. Her songs are coated in an orchestral-level grandeur–flittering electronics and choral accompaniments are sprinkled all over tracks like “Surgeon” and “Strange Mercy,” but the arrangements never distract from her brilliant songwriting throughout. In addition to Clark’s growth as a songwriter, we can’t forget that she can absolutely wail on the guitar, and that’s something that the world just needs more of.
Helplessness Blues didn’t come easy for Robin Pecknold and Fleet Foxes. The album was originally slated for release in 2009, with the band recording a full record’s worth of tracks and eventually scrapping the entire session. Pecknold was visibly shaken in interviews regarding the record, seemingly unable to get past his perfectionist vision for what he wanted Helplessness Blues to be. The strain reportedly split up he and his longtime girlfriend, as she felt it had all become too much. Finally, this year, Helplessness Blues saw release, and it was all worth it. For us, anyway.
The perfectionist attitude that Pecknold approaches their music with is practically tangible on this record; not a single instrument is misplaced in the mix, the songs playing out in a subtle and beautiful ways. The nature-oriented lyricism of Fleet Foxes has turned introspective, the outward journeys turning inward toward the songwriter’s own soul. The thing about Helplessness Blues that is so striking, however, is the band’s keen sense of harmony and placement is still ever-present, coloring the haunting arrangements in a way that give the listener hope for Pecknold. It’s hard not to be singing the line, “If I had an orchard, I’d work ’till I’m raw,” far after the last notes of “Helplessness Blues” ring out, and judging by the pained labor put into the record, the line couldn’t be anything but true.
The Black Keys
Listen: “Lonely Boy”
A lot can be said about how The Black Keys’ meteorically rose from rubber factory bluesmen wallowing in their mire to household names, perennial festival headliners, radio-friendly rock stars. Their breakthrough record, Brothers, took them from being considered the White Stripes’ younger brothers to far surpassing their Detroit counterpart’s reach ever would, perhaps coming at the right time for the listening world’s rejection of pop radio, looking for something of more organic substance. One thing that can never be said about their rise to prominence, however, is that it was undeserved.
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, guitarist/singer and drummer, respectively, have gradually bolstered their meaty sound with memorable songcraft, steadily growing into an actual radio force to be reckoned with, and El Camino is, fittingly, the band’s acceptance of their new role of music for the masses. The record weaves in and out of styles, from ’60s surf stylings of “Lonely Boy” to their more traditional blues stomp on “Dead And Gone,” the duo provides something for everyone while keeping their identity intact, and more importantly to many, never sacrificing some of their raw bite that longtime fans love them for. The relationship the band has formed with producer Danger Mouse over their last three records has allowed them the comfort of balancing their unbridled sound with a more accessible sheen, making El Camino a perfect storm of sorts, a culmination of everything that makes this band such an integral part of today’s American music landscape.
Official music video for The Black Keys’ “Gold On The Ceiling”
Listen: “No Drums”
I’m not sure if you’ve ever been able to feel gravity literally pulling at you, the immensity of the universe coming down upon you like a million Acme anvils to remind you just how small a part of this wondrous experience you really are, but if you haven’t had that experience then why in the world have you not listened to Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 yet? It’s really inexcusable. A crowning achievement in the world of ambient and noise music, the record feels like a massive storm engulfing you and ripping you apart and putting you back together again a thousand times over in the course of an hour.
Tim Hecker’s music stands at the top of a hill, looking to one side, you’ll see a dismal distopia and to the other, a paradise, giving Ravedeath, 1972 the indelible quality of being interpreted as either frighteningly beautiful or beautifully frightening. It cannot be stressed enough how important this dynamic between the uplifting and distressing is for Ravedeath, 1972. Songs like the three-part suite of “In The Fog” effortlessly weave between the two emotions, willing the listener to feel a multitude of feelings. The ability to extract pure emotion out of the listener using instrumental soundscapes is quite the feat, and makes Hecker one of the most important figures in ambient music–music as a whole, really–today.
Unofficial music video for Tim Hecker’s three-part “In The Fog”
Smoke Ring For My Halo
Listen: “Baby’s Arms”
There is just something about Smoke Ring For My Halo that feels utterly timeless. From the very first syrupy note of “Baby’s Arms” until well after the last guitar strums of “Ghost Town” ring, the record is completely captivating. Kurt Vile creates music that shows the beauty in simplicity; the fact that a record like Smoke Ring For My Halo can exist–and thrive–in the digital era shows that even in the heart of a maximalist society, something as simple and pure as a man and a guitar, little else, can still move listeners.
I believe what makes Kurt Vile such an interesting figure in music today is his unique textural approach to playing music. His voice is so thick it’s practically tactile, giving “Baby’s Arms” a painted picture of two lovers entwined as if their connection is driving the song along, and his lightly plucked guitar lines practically pull the listener into the room with him as he records. It is perhaps this quality, the ability to bring the music as close to the hearts of the listener as possible, that makes Smoke Ring For My Halo a record that, despite the actual “sound of the time,” is wholly now. It seems it will forever be now.
Official music video for Kurt Vile’s “Jesus Fever”
Listen: “It’s Real”
New Jersey trio Real Estate have never experienced dissonance. It seems everything they play is filtered through a sunny day on the beaches of the distant Jersey Shore–the smell of rum ham permeating every recording–and leaves the listener with no choice but to smile. I’m sure this is an exagerration; every band stumbles through the early phases of songs, but if there was ever a record that just naturally rolled out of the amplifiers, it’s Days.
That sense of laid-back easiness is evident right from the first track, fittingly titled, “Easy.” Though an autumnal album, released at a time when the band’s surrounding Pine Barrens began to go through the rounds of red-hued colors before dropping to the ground, Days reflects the carefree days of summer; none of the trappings of autumn in New Jersey are present on the record. The first time I heard Real Estate’s self-titled debut, I think I listened to it sixteen and a third times in a row. Their unassuming, easily accessible sound just begged for replay, and Days is just a continuation of that, only more refined. “It’s Real” and “Out Of Tune” ring as purely infectious and warming after sixteen and a third listens as they do after one.
Official music video for Real Estate’s “Easy”
Watching San Francisco outfit Girls’ growth as a band has felt a lot like what I imagine being a proud parent feels like. We have watched them rapidly shift from the snot-nosed punks loosely working their way through Album to the fully-functioning adults we see on Father, Son, Holy Ghost. It’s remarkable, really. The transformation seemingly occured overnight, given the short timeframe between records, with their Broken Dreams Club bridging the gap–their post-college years, if you will.
Singer/songwriter Christopher Owens sounds more confident than ever and Chet “JR” White leads the band through songs of various styles, from the surf-rock throwback of “Honey Bunny” to “Vomit,” sounding like a lost b-side to Dark Side Of The Moon, all with a tightness never heard before on a Girls record. The quick, punchy bursts of songs heard on Album give way to fleshed-out jams and an attention to space that makes Father Son, Holy Ghost feel much more cohesive than its predecessor.
Official music video for Girls’ “My Ma”
The King Of Limbs
Listen: “Lotus Flower”
Given that Radiohead’s modus operandi as of late has been to keep fans on their toes–2007’s In Rainbows was released out of thin air at the groundbreaking “pay what you want” rate and The King Of Limbs was mysteriously announced to be a “newspaper album” (an exquisite piece of canon for collectors including clear vinyl and abstract art)–the music within their mysterious releases never ceases to catch fans off-guard. Continually throughout the band’s storied career, each album has come as a surprise. It seems implausible that by this point people are stunned by what they do, but here we are.
The King Of Limbs, Radiohead’s eighth studio album, once again sees the band redefine themselves. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood has further settled into his role of embellishing the lush soundscapes, and the record is much more groove-based than anything the band has done in the past. It’s almost as if The King Of Limbs sees Radiohead performing at their most selfless and unified, each note laid down delicately on tape serving to color the tracks, rather than anyone having a defined role. Tracks like “Lotus Flower” and “Codex” see the band settle into deep grooves while singer Thom Yorke touches them with his otherworldly vocals to make something that sounds nothing like Radiohead sound exactly like Radiohead.
From The Basement music video for Radiohead’s “Bloom”
Listen: “Hold On”
Having established himself with a series of successful singles and EPs in the DJ circuit, delivering stunning and highly praised DJ sets himself, and building an air of intrigue around his anonymity and tribal masks, SBTRKT comes forth with his first full-length, self-titled album, and completely redefines the concept of what “dance” music really is. Bolstered by collaborator Sampha’s unique voice and his own organic approach to production, SBTRKT warps pop and dance ideals to create something completely refreshing in either realm.
SBTRKT runs the gauntlet of musical styles, ranging from dubstep madness (“Wildfire” and “Never Never”) to twisted house interpretations (“Go Bang”). The album offers so much replay value due not only to the intricacies of the arrangements that require multiple listens to fully grasp and appreciate, but also the undeniable infectiousness present throughout. Sampha delivers a consistently moving vocal performance while Yukumi Nagano of Little Dragon and Jessie Ware provide backup to give yet another dynamic to the record. One of the great attributes of SBTRKT is the effortlessness that seems to pervade the record; it seems Aaron Jerome didn’t set out to turn the dance world upside down, but here we are, looking to the mask for what’s next.
Official music video for SBTRKT’s “Wildfire”
For Emma, Forever Ago, the debut album from Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver, is a record whose lore has seemingly outreached the music within it. Recorded in a Wisconsin cabin by Vernon alone, the record is a post-modern folk exploration of heartbreak and solitude that sometimes we really forget just how good it is when we get lost in the tale behind it. For Bon Iver’s second record, Vernon wanted to distance himself from that folklore, to establish himself as a bandleader and put some of that misplaced intrigue into what he is obviously most proud of: his songwriting.
Bon Iver immediately establishes itself as something completely different than its pastoral predecessor. While For Emma, Forever Ago was bare, representing the snow-ravished trees bending to the sky outside of Vernon’s cabin, Bon Iver is immense and lush. Boasting an eight-piece outfit decorating every corner of the somehow sparse tracks, Vernon has penned perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful record of the year. Each song is named after a place, meant to capture the essence of its namesake; Vernon describes “Perth” as a Civil War heavy metal song, while “Holocene” represents the warming world, growing from a barren expanse to a joyous green. Few records tried to tackle so much, whether thematically or musically, and Bon Iver succeeds on every level.
Official music video for Bon Iver’s “Calgary”
We live in a post-everything world. James Blake is a post-everything kind of producer, which is what makes his arrival in the past couple of years so perfect to soundtrack our lives, give meaning to our daily commutes and teeth brushings and just about all of the meaningless moments that fill the majority of our days. There is a sense of seriousness on James Blake, as if the 23-year old Blake knows his role in culture, knows that it’s time for musicians like him, that real is really all people are asking for, a little guiding light through music.
Blake obviously doesn’t take his role lightly. His self-titled debut is the work of a complete perfectionist, the type where I’m really surprised the record saw release at all, lest there be one massive sub-bass throb hit too hard or not hard enough. His delicate falsetto seems like it could be blown away with a light breeze, fluttering atop his dark and introspective piano work and combustible electronics like it’s a feather passing over an industrial wasteland. The classical-leaning “Measurements” plays foil to the rumbling post-garage sounds of “Limit To Your Love,” while Blake loops his voice endlessly to create an internal struggle atop “I Never Learnt To Share,” showing that no matter what hat he is wearing at the time, he wears it well.
Official music video for James Blake’s “Limit To Your Love”
When considering an entire year’s worth of music, many factors come into play as to what can be defined as the best. Technical proficiency, cultural impact, you name it. Sometimes it just comes down to what album, when looking back on the year decades down the line, would define the times, serve as a snapshot of what we lived like, loved and allowed to define us. This is a time in our history where we seek many things to give us hope and allow us a little time to smile, and there is hardly a record out there this year that does that like M83’s Hurry Up, You’re Dreaming.
It’s not just that “Midnight City” was practically inescapable–not that we really wanted it to be–or that dance music is so prevalent in today’s society, it’s just that the double album that Anthony Gonzalez has crafted sounds like we feel on a day to day basis. Overwhelmed, emotional, and immense, the ups and downs present on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming are beautifully constructed around the human experience and the need for something to hold on to.
“Steve McQueen” delivers the type of volcanic bombast that brings to mind the immensity of our surroundings, while many of the tracks, like the aforementioned “Midnight City” and “Claudia Lewis” don’t ask us to question our place on earth, and asserts it as forming memories and enjoying our lives with people we love. It’s an accomplishment in and of itself in today’s society to achieve something like what Gonzalez has; he understands that we are part of something bigger but realizes and embraces that sometimes it’s okay to just dance and not worry so much about that.
Official music video for M83’s “Wait”
Below you can check out our Spotify playlist for the top fifty albums of 2011.