Jesus Christ, it's almost March. I hope nobody had developed hope that I'd forgotten about this just-a-little-overly-long countdown, as I hate to disappoint. But in any case, after a long, chaotic month, I'm pleased to continue with this Best-of-2011 list according to some random guy you've never met. As we all know, however, the only thing better than reading pointless pop culture countdowns is not having to read the even more pointless paragraph that precedes it. So... let's continue, shall we?
75. Amon Tobin - ISAM
When a guy can not only make an album out of random samples he put together himself (and we're not talking vocal hooks from old, obscure R&B songs, I mean shit as random as electrical feedback and painstakingly recorded movement of insects), but make it absolutely phenomenal as well, you know there is some ridiculous talent on your hands. Or in your headphones, rather. With ISAM, Amon Tobin has toned it down just a bit, keeping the adventurous, wild beats but with a bit less of the eccentricity. Which is not to say that the random nature has been completely thrown out the window of course (this is still about as leftfield as it gets), simply that it's just a bit more accessible. And leave it to someone this clever to pull the juggling act off without a hitch.
Recommended Tracks: Kitty Cat, Dropped from the Sky
74. Skindred - Union Black
It only took seven years and more than a few iffy efforts, but Skindred have finally mastered their reggae-metal blend, and sounds as good as anybody could have hoped. The Welsh quartet haven't lost any of their aggression or heaviness to achieve this, either; just some serious tightening in the songwriting department, and having a few more tricks up their collective sleeve this time around, particularly their dabbling with electronics. The fist-pumping choruses of stompers like Cut Dem and Bad Man Ah Bad Man are tremendously rousing, not just in how animated the music is, but how much soul is behind it.
Recommended Tracks: Warning, Living a Lie
73. Ulver - Wars of the Roses
Probably the most diverse band in existence with such consistent success, and albums embracing genres as disparate as trip-hop and black metal, Ulver has proven themselves to be impossibly good at just about everything they try their hand at, and this time around Garm and co. have got their fingers in a few different pies. From the unexpected poppiness of opener February MMX to the haunting ambience of closer Stone Angels, Wars of the Roses is a thoughtfully crafted piece of work, not only with shades of nearly everything they've done up to this point, but making a cohesive unit of it all to boot. Even without the beautiful songs, that alone is a massive triumph.
Recommended Tracks: Providence, Island
72. Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation
Something about The Year of Hibernation feels as if it should be permeating sadness. And indeed, melancholy is abound in the dreamy waves, but there's just something so life-affirming about Trevor Powers' debut under the Youth Lagoon moniker; just how gentle and fragile this album is. Lines like "When I was seventeen, My mother said to me, 'don't stop imagining, the day that you do is the day that you die'" can be found up and down the eight stellar tracks, and one can't help but smile at the charming innocence behind it all. Powers has an endearingly childlike wonder in how he expresses himself, both lyrically and musically, and that is what makes this such an audible treat.
Recommended Tracks: Cannons, Montana
71. Loss - Despond
As heavy with its guitars as it is with its melancholy, funeral doom act Loss' long awaited follow-up to 2004's Life Without Hope... Death Without Reason has proven more than worthy of its predecessor (as well as the teasing splits released over the past seven years). Taking a bit more of a melodic path without sacrificing any of the unyielding bleakness, Despond is a cohesive and pitch-black slab of sorrow, yet with songwriting and production so sharp that aurally speaking, it's tremendously enjoyable. Like taking a trip through the nether regions of the soul with excellent in-flight service.
Recommended Tracks: Cut Up Depressed and Alone, The Irreparable Act
70. Deaf Center - Owl Splinters
Cleverly blending neo-classical with ambient, Owl Splinters places gorgeous piano pieces alongside captivating soundscapes to create a downright haunting package. Then there are moments where the two elements are combined, namely on the wonderful The Day I Would Never Have, with its astonishingly powerful build-up and fiercely morose atmosphere. This isn't rainy day music so much as it is end-of-the-world music; at times it practically paralyzes the listener in its tenebrous beauty. Sounds a bit dramatic, I know, but... fuck, just listen to the thing.
Recommended Tracks: Time Spent, Close Forever Watching
69. The Kills - Blood Pressures
2008's Midnight Boom was a certainly an enjoyable affair in its own right, but Blood Pressures finds the duo back at what they do best; good old fashioned gritty, bluesy rock. This is the dirtiest and most aggressive Jamie Hince's guitars have sounded in a while, and it's a large part of why The Kills came out head and shoulders above The Black Keys this year. Not to mention that Alison Mosshart's vocals are as venomous and sexy as ever; maybe it was their time apart, maybe it was Mosshart's time with The Dead Weather, but whatever the reason, the duo is back at the top of their game.
Recommended Tracks: Satellite, Pots and Pans
68. Arms and Sleepers - The Organ Hearts
Like so much of the trip-hop of old, Arms and Sleepers' latest has a sweetly dark way about it. The charm doesn't lie so much in traditional hooks or melodies nearly as much as in how alluring it all sounds. At times it can be a bit despondent and at others a bit swelling, but there's never too much of one thing going on at any given time to disrupt the cool, wispy air about it. Everything is smooth and controlled, with just enough liveliness to keep things from getting dull.
Recommended Tracks: A Smile in Sofia, Airport Blues
67. Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
A sardonic baritone can make just about anything (in this case, "Oh America!" comes to mind) sound brilliant, but Bill Callahan's witty lyrics and laid back delivery already do that to the man's music all on their own. Not to mention the masterful subtleties sprinkled throughout Apocalypse's delightfully americana-drenched brand of folk, from seemingly random tempo changes to startling musical progressions, all of which can be found on early album highlight Baby's Breath alone. Callahan's soothing voice is enough, but the broad instrumentation and gentle sound brings it all together quite nicely. A lovely listen.
Recommended Tracks: Baby's Breath, Riding for the Feeling
66. Jehst - The Dragon of an Ordinary Family
As he asserts on the closing Two Point Four, "Yeah the kid spits flames, you'll have to call the fire brigade to fix this place." With his latest, Jehst places himself comfortably alongside Orphans of Cush and Klashnekoff as the premier voices in modern UK hip-hop. Clever line after clever line fly from this guy's mouth, the least of which off the top of my head is how he uses A Tribe Called Quest's infamous call-response "Can I Kick It?" only to respond "no, you can't" on The Illest just to illustrate how lyrically untouchable he is. And really, any listener would be hardpressed to disagree.
Recommended Tracks: Zombies, England
65. Wormrot - Dirge
One of the joys of listening to grindcore is that if you've got eighteen spare minutes, you can listen to a fantastic album in its entirety. Which is exactly what Singapore based trio Wormrot give us with their second full-length; eighteen blistering, screaming minutes. More importantly, however, is the (relative) versatility shown. Yeah, it's harsh and in your face and all that, but the mere fact that these guys don't have to limit themselves to simply thrashing away as fast as they possibly can for the entire duration of the album says more than anything else - after all, when you can tell the songs apart on an album like this, that alone is a huge step forward! As the shortest song here not to be a Napalm Death reference proclaims, "Fucking fierce, so what?"
Recommended Tracks: Overpowered Violence, Principle of Puppet Warfare
64. Austin Peralta - Endless Planets
Despite the lack of electronic influence, Endless Planets fits right in on the label that Flying Lotus calls home; the meticulous layering, the prodigious songwriting, and that knack for capturing a mood and not letting go until the album's dying strains. As stunningly clean and beautiful this smooth, jazzy affair is, it's all the more impressive when you consider the fact that the man behind the piano leading this lovely music was a tender twenty years of age at the time of recording. When I was twenty, I remember (vaguely) writing term papers, waiting tables, and finagling alcohol by whatever means were available to me; not exactly much of a comparison there.
Recommended Tracks: Capricornus, Ode to Love
63. 2562 - Fever
From the get-go, Dave Huismans shows off a remarkable skill with manipulating samples on the third release under his 2562 moniker. Playing almost like a dubstep equivalent of a Pollack painting, Fever takes a good few listens to digest; there's a constant sense of familiarity, yet without being able to easily place the origin. The styles implemented range from disco to eighties pop to nineties rave along with numerous others, and Huismans makes them all work together far better than anyone would ever expect. As scattershot as the overall album feels, everything begins to make sense in its own way, and all while keeping the listeners nodding their heads.
Recommended Tracks: Aquatic Family Affair, Brasil Deadwalker
62. Septic Flesh - The Great Mass
The Philharmonic Orchestra, the Choir of Prague, and gothic death metal, a combination which normally spells out an overly bloated, symphonic mess. And to write off Septic Flesh's latest as such would be completely understandable, but a gross oversight as well. Not only does the band avoid the cheesiness that bands like Cradle of Filth (I'm a fan, but let's be honest here) are infamous for, but there is such attention to detail in balancing the metal, neo-classical, and melodicism, and fantastic interplay among all these elements. Too often do extreme metal bands' efforts collapse with overwrought ambition, but here it's quite possibly been done as well as it's ever going to be.
Recommended Tracks: Five-Pointed Star, Apocalypse
61. Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise
Another absurdly talented young man, Nicolas Jaar's debut album takes funky basslines, garage rhythms, chopped up samples, and a harrowing ambient feel to create an atmosphere entirely his own. The middle portion of the record alone, from the gloomy, Ray Charles sampling I Got a Woman to the strangely danceable-yet-unsettling Space Is Only Noise If You Can See, exhibits just about everything Jaar has to throw at the listener, all bundled up in a tasteful little package. It serves as a great sample of its parent album, as it's probably the best ambient music of the year to not even really be ambient at all.
Recommended Tracks: Colomb, Keep Me There
60. Ash Borer - Ash Borer
The mere fact that forty minutes of black metal crammed into three densely packed tracks doesn't get old after the first five minutes is proof enough that Ash Borer's self titled debut LP is something special. But beyond that, there's so much going on here; for one, the raw, ear-scraping production lines up perfectly with the intense emotion driving the music, as opposed to the poor production so many black metal acts fall victim to, presumably under the impression that that's simply what it's supposed to sound like. The music is crushing, the vocals are piercing, and everything is just so fucking loud. As nature intended.
Recommended Tracks: In the Midst of Life We Are in Death, My Curse Was Raised in the Darkness Against a Doomsday Silence
59. Steffi - Yours & Mine
Quite possibly the best love letter to early house music since Zomby's near-classic Where Were U in '92?, Steffi's first full-length release has a delightful no-frills approach. Both pretty and fun, while being deliberately dated to the point of sounding modern, Yours & Mine is too inoffensive to dislike, yet carries none of the boredom that an adjective like "inoffensive" often carries. This is just an extremely adept DJ doing her thing, spinning modestly crafted house music that wriggles its way into your ear and gets you dancing before you even have a chance to think about how inherently lovely it is.
Recommended Tracks: Yours, Mine (yes, I realize this looks like a lame joke)
58. fLako - The Mesektet
Trippy, and almost sad. Almost, because you can just imagine the half-baked freestyle sessions that this album has likely played host to since its release. A charmingly mixed bag of instrumental hip-hop, The Mesektet is something that any J Dilla fan would do well to give a listen; a hodgepodge of thirty mini-tracks, all with their own allure yet unquestionably all parts of the same entity. With all the different styles and moods that fLako visits here, nothing ever feels out of focus or forced, but rather a smooth, fun trip through the imagination of its creator.
Recommended Tracks: Wedjit, Shake It Harder
57. A Winged Victory for the Sullen - A Winged Victory for the Sullen
In a word, breathtaking. Ordinarily, music that sounds as tragic as this is only able to convey so much beauty, but A Winged Victory for the Sullen's self-titled debut exceeds overwhelmingly on both counts. The music is so delicate, so fragile, and almost seems to tell a tale so heartbreaking that it could only be told through something this arrestingly gorgeous. It's no surprise that half of the duo which crafted this ambient work of art hails from Stars of the Lid; in fact, what would be a surprise would be if it had been produced by two no-names just putting out their first piece of music. There is so much emotion, so much power behind Sullen that, well to be perfectly frank, I wouldn't judge you if it made you weep a little bit.
Recommended Tracks: We Played Some Open Chords and Rejoiced for the Earth Had Circled the Sun Yet Another Year, Requiem for the Static King, Part One
56. Dela - Translation Lost
Mainstream hip-hop isn't quite as bad as many purists would have you believe, however it's undeniable that there are a few too many so-called MCs getting by with simply mumbling like an idiot over bad techno, calling it rapping, and collecting a paycheck. A source of frustration, to be sure, but when a guy who grew up listening to all the right hip-hop comes along and does it right, it's all the more rewarding. On Transition Lost, Dela employs the best things about the nineties east coast sound: impeccably placed samples, a smooth, jazzy sound, and gentle melodies with an upbeat presentation. The tracks that don't already feature somebody on the mic are begging to be rapped over, underlining one of the most important qualities one can have in the game, whether a rapper or producer - just being hungry.
Recommended Tracks: Lucy's&LooseLeaves, Jay Electropietricus
55. Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
Where A Winged Victory for the Sullen seems to mourn the loss of beauty, Ravedeath, 1972 seems to revel in its destruction. So much of this album is warbled, distorted, and with more than a hint of menace, yet with the strains of a sense of longing dying underneath it all. And with as densely packed as this ambient tour de force is, the imagery conjured up by these sounds is hardly set in stone; several people I've discussed this album with have walked away with something entirely different. This is largely what makes Ravedeath so remarkable, that there is so much being said here, yet not enough to cleanly define it. Not exactly, anyway. And really, that's one of the best things a piece of music can offer.
Recommended Tracks: Analog Paralysis 1978, In the Air: II
54. Roman Flügel - Fatty Folders
Rarely is such adventurous house music this lovely. Everything about Roman Flügel's first full-length is an absolute pleasure to listen to, from the laid back moments awash with gentle synths to the more complex tracks ridden with almost haphazardly paired melodies. Then there are the most aggressive moments, particularly The Improviser, a bass-heavy number with a definite animosity bubbling just beneath the surface, yet subdued enough to keep it fitting in smoothly with the rest of the album. Everything ties together quite nicely on Fatty Folders, and its greatest strength is that gentle sound woven into the music's inherent ability to make you want to dance.
Recommended Tracks: How to Spread Lies, Krautus
53. Demdike Stare - Tryptych
A compilation of three vinyl-only releases from the previous year (though it does contain a fair amount of bonus tracks), including Tryptych is probably cheating just a tad, but the dark ambient here in this sprawling set is just too good to be excluded. This isn't haunting so much as it is downright frightening; there are horror films with scores that have nothing on the Forest of Evil disc alone, much less Tryptych in its entirety. And while there's over two and a half hours of meandering, uneasy ambience, there's always something new being thrown in to keep it from growing stagnant... though to be honest, the music has such a presence to it that it probably wouldn't have been necessary anyway. Fun trick to play on your roommate #427: just as they're drifting off, put this on, then in the morning listen to them go on about the weird dreams they had.
Recommended Tracks: Forest of Evil (Dusk), A Tale of Sand
52. Maybeshewill - I Was Here for a Moment, Then I Was Gone
Maybeshewill has always been a band who does post-rock that gets right to the point, without sacrificing any of their intensity in the process. Their ability to condense ten to fifteen minute songs to a length of about five has always been a calling card, and with as rapidly as this band has progressed, it's great to see that they haven't lost this. While I Was Here for a Moment isn't perhaps the largest leap forward, it finds them honing their skills just a bit more, with the only real loss being the movie samples which popped up rather frequently in the past. Those were always a nice touch, but when compared to a superior flow and song layers that compliment one another better, it's hardly much of a loss.
Recommended Tracks: Farewell Sarajevo, To the Skies from a Hillside
51. Radiohead - The King of Limbs
The King of Limbs has drawn quite a bit of flak from fans old and new, what with its brevity and somewhat minimalist sound. And following the somewhat sprawling In Rainbows, it's not a complete surprise. But if this band has taught us anything, isn't it to not expect the same thing twice? No first listen to a Radiohead album has ever bored me; I remember loving trying to wrap my head around the uncompromising bizarreness of Everything in Its Right Place and Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box, getting a little startled when the distortion kicked in halfway through 2+2=5, and finding my head bobbing along to the infectious rhythm of 15 Step. So when the shuffling piano and drums against that pitch-black backdrop of Bloom filled my headphones, there was only one thing I expected: another great album, and that's exactly what we got. At the end of the day, Limbs is a flat out fantastic record. Yes, even by Radiohead standards.
Recommended Tracks: Little by Little, Lotus Flower