Sheesh. When I started writing this thing, I had no idea it would take my sorry ass through the Summer of the following year to finish it! But no matter; it made no sense to come this far and not finish, so here we are at long last – the best metal, indie, hip-hop, rock, pop, and electronica albums I heard in 2011. And while I’m fully aware that anybody who read the first installment or two has long forgotten about this, I’m overcome with a ridiculous sense of satisfaction over having finally finished this damn thing. Anyway, let’s get on with it! Wooo!
25. Vektor – Outer Isolation
There were more than a few metalheads fawning over Machine Head’s Unto the Locust when it dropped, and understandably so. For my money though, when it came to metal of any variety in 2011, Vektor’s sophomore release utterly blew everything else out of the water. Outer Isolation is a blistering, thrashing affair, with tight composition recalling the thrash of old while throwing in enough of their own flair to keep things from sounding dated. There’s break-neck speed, there’s exceptionally smooth transitions and breakdowns, and the riffs are as crushing as they are catchy. Plus there’s vocalist Dave Disanto, who is quickly establishing himself as quite the unique frontman, sounding like something between Dave Mustaine and Ihsahn… just great stuff. This one did a wonderful job of resurrecting my inner sixteen year old.
Recommended Tracks: Dying World, Venus Project
24. FaltyDL – You Stand Uncertain
Sometimes disparate styles are mixed together with such fluidity that for a moment, you’re tricked into thinking that you’re hearing something entirely new. Drew Lustman (god, what a cool name), the man behind the FaltyDL moniker, may have a solid dubstep feel in his latest release, but there’s so much else going on; Open Space serves as a 90s time capsule, with its old school house synths and jazzy flavors, while Tell Them Stories is a glitch-ridden two step hurricane that hits much, much harder. There’s such a remarkable flow to the album though, and everything feels so unified; it’s not so much a collection of different styles as it is Lustman showing off all the sides to the sound he wants to create. It’s also one of those rare albums that can get your head bobbing or help you chill out; a truly multifaceted beast.
Recommended Tracks: Gospel of Opal, Lucky Luciano
23. BNJMN – Black Square
After the startling amount of house I’ve put on this list. BNJMN’s outstanding Black Square (his second release of the year, and his first, Plastic World, was no slacker either) is at the top of the heap. Every track is so clean, and almost organic sounding, ethereal yet with a steady beat. It’s disarmingly pretty, and furthermore it’s far more danceable than anything befitting that description usually is. And for as minimal as it sounds, there is a hell of a lot going on; melody is piled upon melody, the bells and whistles are oh-so-painstakingly applied, and again, it just results in such a gorgeous product. Get your hands on this one.
Recommended Tracks: Wisdom of Uncertainty, Black Square
22. Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials
Ah.. what a wonderful thing when the hype for something is not only warranted, but doesn’t even touch how great that something really is. How I would love for Ms. Welch to take all the songstresses who have emerged around the same time as she did, and sit them all down and tell them how to write a damn pop song. Lead single Shake It Out arguably demonstrates even better than the massive Dog Days Are Over what a staggering songwriting presence this woman has, from her knack for absolutely owning a melody to the fire behind those spellbinding vocals. There is such passion, such catharsis here, all wrapped up in a neat little package to prevent it all from being too exhausting. Not to discredit Adele in the least, but this is the album I had hoped 21 would be.
Recommended Tracks: No Light No Light, Spectrum
21. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
John Darnielle has a consistency that is absolutely baffling. He is not without his missteps (though even those were still pretty good), but he’s one of those artists who releases great material so prolifically that I’m almost waiting for him to put out something subpar. So here we have All Eternals Deck, and we’ve got pretty much what was expected; another spectacular set of articulately passionate (hyper-literate, if you will) indie folk tracks. Darnielle just does what he does, and he never phones it in; there’s always such intensity to his delivery, all the more impressive by how eloquent and poetic his lyrics are. Something as somber as Never Quite Free feels just as fiery as the punk-ish attack of Estate Sale Sign, and this man means every word that comes out of his mouth. Like the aforementioned (and admittedly quite different) Tech N9ne, Darnielle is a man who loves what he does, and is ALWAYS on top of his game.
Recommended Tracks: Damn These Vampires, Age of Kings
20. tUnE-yARDs – w h o k i l l
What a kooky, cut-and-paste pastiche of an album we have here. Merrill Garbus, the mad genius behind tUnE-yARDs (don’t you DARE leave out any of those capital letters), lets her exceedingly charming personality take the forefront with her music; quirky simply because it is, not quirky for quirkiness’ sake, something that indie music is sadly saturated with these days. There is no pretension here, just an extremely creative and talented musician deconstructing pop music and rearranging it to their liking. From the croons to the pseudo-raps, the funky bass to the saxophones, the chopped up vocals to the treated guitars, it’s quite clear that everything here is pure Garbus (she even snuck in a Simpsons quote on Es-So) and nothing else, yet so damn accessible. An absolute joy to listen to, every time.
Recommended Tracks: Gangsta, Powa
19. The Dear Hunter – The Color Spectrum Complete Collection
Out of all hundred albums on this list, The Dear Hunter’s ridiculously sprawling Color Spectrum has easily been the most difficult to write about, mostly because it isn’t actually an album, but a collection of nine four-song EPs, each one named after a color, and each quartet of songs comprising a sonic embodiment of their parent EPs color. Meaning that on this collection (there’s also an album-length version with eleven selected tracks, but fuck that shit… the complete set is where it’s at), you’re going to get sounds ranging from post-hardcore to blues to country, and every style is handled so shockingly well that at times you can’t believe you’re listening to the same band. As daunting a project as this must have been, the Crescenzo brothers (yes, it’s just TWO GUYS behind this!) have so much to say, and so many ways to say it all, that they seemingly never run out of ideas. This is definitely best digested in multiple sittings, but it’s a humbling listen to say the least.
Recommended Tracks: This Body, Things That Hide Away
18. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
I remember hearing Written on the Forehead back in November of ’10 (jesus, it has been a while, hasn’t it?) and just knowing that this album was going to be great. And lo and behold, here we are, and great it is indeed. Widely described as her political/protest album, Let England Shake is an unapologetic dissection of war, and using the fragile, beautiful music as a vessel for a downright vicious attack on not just war, but the inflated pride and nationalism that often leads to it. She never gets preachy though, which is one of the strengths of this album; Miss Harvey is taking the everyman role, looking over and giving a nudge that is not so much concerned as it is frustrated. As is one of the very few predictable things with her, this album is yet another left turn for her musically, with everything sounding tremendously subdued, with all the emotion buried just a tad, letting the vocals take charge. And take charge, they do.
Recommended Tracks: The Last Living Rose, Hanging in the Wire
17. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Just about every indie-loving guy is absolutely smitten with this lovely young lady, and and it’s not exactly a mystery as to why. One of those musicians talented enough to channel their quirks into creativity, Miss Annie Clark’s third outing is her most imaginative yet, lending even more of her delightfully weird sensibilities to her catchy brand of indie pop. Yet given the (mostly) delicate nature of the music, there’s such confidence here; everything is so deliberately messy, from the off melodies to the oddly treated guitars, and it all sounds perfectly in place. She’s undeniably become one of those songwriters who can produce a piece of music that could have come from no one but her (the increasingly infamous ”If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up, no I don’t know what” comes to mind), and she’s at the height of her powers here.
Recommended Tracks: Cheerleader, Strange Mercy
16. The Weeknd – House of Balloons
As difficult as it was to pick just one of the three outstanding mixtapes this young man released last year, I have to go with House of Balloons for one simple reason: it was the perfect debut for Abel Tesfaye. House has such a sense of “Here I am” about it; the album immediately pulls you into Tesfaye’s world (or someone else’s, as recent controversy revealed) of the partying lifestyle’s dark underbelly. It somehow cherishes the drugs, casual sex, and misadventures, while simultaneously embracing the facts that the drugs will leave you feeling like shit in the morning, the hot girl who’s fucking you doesn’t care about you, and the wild ventures ultimately mean nothing – just listen to that throbbing, musical dry-hump of the title track pulsing beneath the melancholic melodies and listless lyrics. Sure, The-Dream has already taken this approach, but Tesfaye has arguably mastered it here.
Recommended Tracks: The Morning, Coming Down
15. James Blake – James Blake
Very few people with an ear to the ground are unfamiliar with this album; an early favorite for the year (like Beach House’s Teen Dream and Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion before it) that stuck around just as long as all the hyperbolic praise suggested it would, James Blake’s self-titled full length debut is packed to the brim with ideas that elude the listener for the first few listens. There are so many tremendously subtle touches going on underneath the poppy-soulful-R&B-over-a-dubstep-beat template he’s created here (and probably won’t even stick with for long, taking into consideration how different his previous efforts sounded), and so many different faces; Why Don’t You Call Me alone takes a trip from an organic, longing soul tune to a glitch-heavy, completely electronic track, while never really even going anywhere in the process. Ain’t that some shit?
Recommended Tracks: The Wilhelm Scream, I Mind
14. The Roots – undun
Black Thought has long been my favorite MC; he may not be the most intense, or even the most technical. But this man is such an intelligent, passionate poet; he tells stories and he makes statements that really hit you… then when you re-examine his lyrics, they hit even harder. So here we are with undun, the Roots’ eleventh studio album, a concept album about a troubled young man’s life in reverse, beginning with his murder and ending with the beginning of his adult life. A concept that could be hackneyed as shit, no doubt, but Questlove and Black Thought are just too smart and too genuine to mishandle such a potentially touching story. The music is so poignant and catches each phase in its essence; from Kool On‘s fun yet ominous vibe to Stomp‘s overwhelming sense of determination, the brilliant lyrics are backed up wonderfully. And they are; from the wordplay of “Like when Autumn leaves fall from the trees… like when Autumn leaves” to boldly straight-forward statements like “Life was only a moment in time and it passed by,” there’s just so much to say about this one. Nothing short of stunning.
Recommended Tracks: Sleep, The Other Side
13. Sleepmakeswaves – …and so we destroyed everything
After Mogwai’s shockingly ‘meh’ Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, I was in quite some need for a new post-rock album to knock my socks off, and sleepmakeswaves’ debut full-length did a spectacular job. Admittedly, this is pretty standard stuff, but they’re just so god damned good at it. The teasing lead-ins, the left field melodies, the raging climaxes.. not to mention that there’s this strange sense of modesty to the music, something that’s been missing from Mogwai’s repertoire since, dare I say, Young Team. Everything here is so powerful, yet so unassuming, and that gives it all the more character. Emotional, technically proficient, and hungry as hell; this is hands down my pick for best post-rock album of 2011.
Recommended Tracks: to you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest, now we rise and we are everywhere
12. The Jezebels – Prisoner
Prisoner sets right out its gate with the intense title track, and from the get-go, it’s a puzzler to pinpoint what this band makes you think of. The National’s tasteful sense of americana comes to mind, as does Arcade Fire’s knack for giving their songs a real sweeping feel. Then you hear vocalist Hayley Mary (who is spectacular, by the way) and think of Kate Bush or PJ Harvey. After a while, it becomes evident that there are so many influences at play here that we’ve got a band on our hands with their own signature sound, and when that happens on a debut LP, it’s always exciting. There is such unbridled passion here, and it goes hand in hand with the ridiculous creativity and eclecticism (americana-styled guitar on Trycolour blending into 80s-reminiscent guitar to sync up with the following Rosebud? Nice!). Their sprawling ambition does get the best of them on rare occasion, but really… with songwriting this clever, rousing, and honest, the few flaws present almost sweep themselves under the rug. This is one of those bands where you can’t wait to hear what they do next.
Recommended Tracks: Endless Summer, City Girl
11. Bullion – You Drive Me to Plastic
This one is cheating a bit, as it’s more of an EP than an LP, but it’s just too friggin’ good to overlook. Instrumental hip-hop at its finest, from the insanely clever intro to the infinitely charming outro (not to mention the seven outstanding tracks in between), this one just has ‘fun’ written all over it. In a mere twenty minutes, Nathan Jenkins crams everything from retro-funk to modern bass into his instrumental hip-hop mold; it’s no surprise that he got his name from a mash-up of the Beach Boys and J Dilla (Songs in the Key of Dee, if you’re unfamiliar), as Jenkins has Dilla’s knack for putting multitudes of good ideas together without ever letting one go on for too long. My recommendation? Just put this on repeat, let the background soak it up, and enjoy.
Recommended Tracks: Magic Was Ruler, Too Right
10. Andrew Jackson Jihad – Knife Man
I’m not sure if you’d call this punkish folk or folkish punk, but either way it’s a fantastic blend. Very catchy, aggressive stuff that isn’t afraid to bust out the acoustics, or get introspective and quirky. The writing is full of oddball idiosyncrasies, though they all feel so real; Sean Bonnette can go from half-jokingly rattling on about how great it is to be a straight white male in America, to a full-depth analysis of why people are so miserable, to pining for an ex, to musing about how maybe he does drink a bit too much these days, and more. Much more, and all with a tremendously unique brand of commentary. The thing that really sells it though is just how honest it is; not once on this album (or anywhere in the band’s catalogue, really) does it feel like the band is presenting a false image for sake of looking unique, or worse, flat out lying to you. And in this modern indie landscape, that shit alone is pure gold.
Recommended Tracks: Distance, Zombie by the Cranberries by Andrew Jackson Jihad
9. Chad VanGaalen – Diaper Island
Much like the previous album on this list, Chad Vangaalen’s latest masks a great deal of its bleakness with a lot of oddball personality (Shave My Pussy, for example, is far more heartbreaking a song than the title would ever lead you to believe), though it’s far more bare and straightforward. Songs like Heavy Stones and Sara are so crushing in their sorrow and loneliness, yet there’s an odd, nearly tuneless catchiness to them (kind of reminiscent of early Flaming Lips and Pavement, now that I think of it) that you get reeled in. Then there are tracks like Freedom for a Policeman or Can You Believe It!?, which definitely serve as a bit of relief, keeping things from being too heavy, yet they are clearly cut from the same cloth. A very tightly-knit, lo-fi masterpiece. …okay, well maybe not a MASTERPIECE, but it’s pretty damn close.
Recommended Tracks: Do Not Fear, Burning Photographs
8. Submotion Orchestra – Finest Hour
This album’s title alone could suffice for a description, but I don’t want to be any worse of a pseudo-journalist than I already am. So the basic idea here is a seven-piece group experimenting with dubstep, trip-hop, and jazz with live instruments. Great idea, right? However it was only intended as a one-off, just releasing one EP. People began to talk though (as they often do), and before long the tremendous reception was so great that it became clear this group needed to stick together. And here, we have this; their first full-length, a piece of music as beautiful as it is intriguing. All three prime elements at work here are given equal moments to shine, from the shuffling drums, the haunting bass and smoking atmosphere, and the passionate brass instruments in the hands of ridiculously talented individuals. And floating over everything is Ruby Wood’s honey-like voice, as if a finishing touch to all the brilliant musical chops present. It all blends and blurs the lines so well, it’s no surprise Submotion Orchestra made a name for themselves so quickly.
Recommended Tracks: All Yours, Secrets
7. Cunninlynguists – Oneirology
When you can take the ‘Hip-Hop Album of the Year’ title from The Roots, you know you’re doing something right. Hot off the heels of his wonderful solo album, Kno turns in perhaps his best production job yet in the Cunninlynguists’ latest, Oneirology. A loose concept album based on dreams (I’m not embarrassed to admit that yes, that title got me reaching for the dictionary), the production is simultaneously hazy and slick, and it feels big enough to devour the listener. And lesser MCs too, might I add; but Kno, Deacon, and Natty are so on point with their lyricism that the production takes the background. Accordingly with the surreal theme, the lyrics are all over the place – stories about loss, dark fantasies, regrets, even the occasional soapbox mounting. As ridiculously engaging as the beats are, they’re awash with clever rhyme after clever rhyme, and everything ties together so neatly under the extremely interesting theme the group chose to work with. Their name was a bit off-putting when I heard of them back when, but this one woke me up. Great, great group, and this one could well be their best yet.
Recommended Tracks: Get Ignorant, Enemies with Benefits (feat. Tonedeff)
6. Zomby – Dedication
A stark left turn from the rave breakbeats and trance meeting dubstep on 2008′s glorious Where Were U in ’92?, Dedication is almost a polar opposite. Rather than looking back to fun, bright influences, here it’s looking back on loss; there’s an undeniable melancholy present here. Where ’92 felt more extroverted, this is definitely more introverted, and it feels rather personal. While this is clearly new territory for the anonymous dubstep producer, the hallmarks of his style are ever-present: the agonizing attention to detail, the sleek production, the tendency to ditch ideas before they have the chance to grow stale (very few songs surpass three minutes), and the seemingly random endings to each track. It’s certainly not as fun as his previous full-length, but Dedication is no less captivating than its predecessor, just a different face to an ever-evolving producer.
Recommended Tracks: Alothea, Mozaik
5. Dom & Roland – The Big Bang
This one is just fucking fire. While Noisia’s Split the Atom was amazing in its own right, The Big Bang is every bit as good, but without the need to push any boundaries. This is, for all intents and purposes, classic drum & bass, and while Noisia’s scattershot brand of the style is missed in 2011 (save the wonderfully hard-hitting Friendly Intentions single), Dominic Angas is batting cleanup with this monster of an album. Everything is so loud and booming, the beats are absolutely furious, and great samples are woven into the music every so often for good measure. There’s an incredibly atmospheric feel to Bang as well, which is rather uncharacteristic of something so aggressive. The Big Bang isn’t just a party, it’s an explosive work of drum & bass art.
Recommended Tracks: Cigars N Money, Capsicum
4. Klātu - Mutual
Remember a while back on this list, where I referenced an album coming up that was the next best thing to Burial? Well here we are, with Klātu’s astounding debut album. The towering darkness found here is astounding, feeling absolutely huge and yet impossibly intricate. Rémy Sealey plays around with numerous types of percussion, stellar vocal samples, massive loops, and who knows what else. This is one of those albums you just get hopelessly lost in while loving every second; it’s utterly hypnotizing. It’s also startling in how much it tugs at one’s emotions; listening to Future Mistakes while in a vulnerable state is almost up there for me with watching Dumbo visit his imprisoned mother on the “If this doesn’t hit you, at least a little bit, there’s something wrong with you” list. This is an album that bathes in darkness, yet sounds not a single bit less beautiful for it.
Recommended Tracks: Dirt Vs Wind, Zealous
3. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
This is one of those albums where I’ll admit, personal bias may have led me to rank it this high (as few people seem to love it as much as I do), but oh well. Erika M. Anderson’s first solo effort after the dissolution of her previous band, Gowns, is cathartic as hell to say the least. Past Life Martyred Saints embraces its imperfection and runs with it, free of both self-checking and pretension. Whether it’s openly accepting empty sex to fill the void in Milkman, the fierce devotion found in Coda and Marked (the former introducing the latter, with a mantra surprisingly easy to listen to on repeat), or Butterfly Knife‘s self-directed anger, there is absolutely no question that this is unedited and straight from the heart. And the music does the talking just as much as the lyrics do, as it is by turns raging and melancholic (sometimes even both at once) with so much conviction that it’s hard not to at least admire. Many musicians attempt to truly pour their souls into their music, and while many have done it better than Miss Anderson, few have done it with this much savage honesty.
Recommended Tracks: California, Anteroom
2. Swarms – Old Raves End
Far and away the most beautiful album of the year. Where Klātu represented the dark side of dubstep and future garage, Swarms represents the light; bright, gorgeous, and immediately seducing. From the chest-swellingly fragile moments in Flikr of Ur Eyes or Roulette to the aching melancholy of tracks like Polar or Sky Below Sea, from top to bottom Old Raves End is a piece of music so delicate and angelic that it only makes sense to be intangible; it feels as though if it were a physical object, it’d shatter once touched by a mere finger. I’m hardpressed to describe Raves without hyperbole, it really is that overwhelming. As I mentioned in my review of this a while back, Raves is so ethereal that it borders on sensory overload at times. It would’ve topped this list too, if not for the next album which was released less than two weeks later…
Recommended Tracks: Chapel, Hostile
1. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
And here we are at long last, concluding with the consistently brilliant TV on the Radio’s most recent album (and final with the sorely missed Gerard Smith). While predecessors Dear Science and Return to Cookie Mountain were very smart records, Nine Types of Light is one that opts rather to speak to the heart. Emotion rules throughout, and it’s so genuine and so overpowering that lines like “You’re the only one I ever loved” or “A heart doesn’t play by rules and love has its own demands,” which would sound clichéd in lesser hands, come across as nothing less than honestly lovelorn, at-a-loss statements. Then there are highlights like New Cannonball Blues, which express blatant frustration, or the beautiful Killer Crane, which simply takes joy in enjoying the moment, or the immensely sweet-natured Keep Your Heart. Nine Types of Light is a clear emotional outlet, and what better way to end it than with its blow-out of a closer, Caffeinated Consciousness? The band has most definitely shifted songwriting gears here, yet without sacrificing a thing that made them great in the first place and still growing and evolving as a group. Without question, the best I heard in 2011. Aaaaaaaand we’re out.
Recommended Tracks: You, Caffeinated Consciousness