It is a bit odd to condense a year’s worth of listening into such a short, impossibly definitive list, yet each of us is attracted to the act of putting a stamp on a handful of albums that may (or may not) represent the best of the year in question. It is all about a sense of style, a method of sculpting self-identity by which others will judge us and against which we will judge others. So, having acknowledged both the absurdity and necessity of making such lists, let us now gaze upon the Elite 8 records of 2011.
After a decade of rewarding creativity (Vespertine) and occasional meandering (Volta), Bjork returns with an album of dizzying layered vocals, dope beats, and synthesizer flourish. It makes some of her younger contemporaries, like Julianna Barwick and Zola Jesus, seem one-dimensional in comparison. But 2011 was that kind of year in which old heroes—PJ Harvey, Kate Bush—returned to form, not with retro-gazing music but with fresh statements. In particular, Bjork, while making a grand effort here to further incorporate her ideas with the modern world (the album was released with integrated iPhone and iPad applications), does not get lost in the plot. Biophilia’s songs are some of her most consistent and compelling to appear in several years.
7. St. Vincent
The success of Strange Mercy lies in St. Vincent’s ability to disguise “advanced” and “difficult” music as infectious and approachable pop. Teasing growling tones out of her guitars, displaying a fondness for buzzing synth-bass lines, and merging live percussion with pulsing electronics, St. Vincent has created a sonically impressive suite that approaches both ecstatic heights (“Surgeon”) and haunting lows (“Champagne Year”). Quite simply this album is as fun as it is smart.
6. The field
looping state of mind
On Looping State of Mind, Swedish musician Axel Wilner (aka The Field) stays true to his minimal techno roots but that descriptor—minimal—is a bit deceiving: This music is full of hypnotic pulses, dreamy loops and consistent, if subtle, bass lines tying everything together. A disciple of patience, Wilner reveals his songs with careful timing and aplomb. As the layers build, the listener is subdued by the intensity of Wilner’s compositions. And if an album ever deserved several spins this is one of them. There is always a missed layer, a hidden treasure, some distorted guitar or vocal sample tucked beneath a staccato of percolating synths. A versatile listen, this album possesses both the glacial beauty of ambient music and the euphoric builds of excellent dance music.
Past Life Martyred Saints
Leaving behind the noise-folk of her previous band Gowns, Erika M. Anderson has reemerged as EMA. On her new record she has a grand time mashing up avant-garde tendencies with a sharp ear for hooks. As a result, this will be the record that propels her from basement corner to rock club stage. Many bands choose to establish a sound and ride it out for ten or twelve songs but Anderson’s approach is different: Each song on Past Life Martyred Saints explores a new musical idea. Whether it’s the post-rock sprawl of “The Grey Ship,” the goth/hip-hop feel of “California,” or the lullaby glaze of “Marked,” Anderson finds a way—via screeching synths, ultra-effected drums and distorted guitars—to help each of these tracks achieve a unique charm. The underlying thread is her wonderfully imperfect voice. The result is that we feel close to her, assaulted by her and left thoroughly in awe of her talents.
4. (tied) Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
The War On Drugs (BELOW) – Slave Ambient
The music on these remarkable records embraces two enduring slacker poses: Let’s get high and I’m already high. And it’s true: Not enough can be said about the dreamy altered states achieved by Vile’s elliptical guitar picking and attention to textural detail, and The War on Drugs’ effortless slithering between shoegaze instrumentals and E-Street guitar anthems. And though the music envelops and transports the listener to another place, Vile and The War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel have some valid points to make. If anything, lyrically speaking, these records are about the fight against inertia. In Vile’s case, his anti-heroes want to be loved as much as they want to remain alone. Sarcastic and simmering Vile rattles off, “This goes out to all those who want the rat to survive,” on the scorching “Puppet to the Man.” Similarly, after finding his way through the mid-album standout “Come to the City,” one of Granduciel’s characters comes to a startling non-realization, “Lead me back to the one I love/All roads lead to me… I’ll be drifting.” From the outside this might seem a little like overbearing self-pity but these sister records are poignant reflections of the ennui engulfing our dusty American lives. Luckily, like their forbearers Dylan and Springsteen, Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs continue to make a case for rock and roll as the answer.
2. Shabazz Palaces
When Shabazz Palaces MC Ishmael Butler rallies, “Don’t compare my beats to his,” you know he’s telling the truth. Channeling the dark energy of 3 a.m. bad-ecstasy come-downs and the short-lived thrills of a “just one more pill” mentality, the production on Black Up is entirely psychedelic, unnerving and disorienting. The lyrics are street-wise and vicious but there is as much tension in the delivery as there is in the content. Spitting concise observations like, “Nothing’s gonna stop it/If it’s gonna make a profit,” this isn’t exactly gun-toting, coke-dealing rap; rather it’s the work of the gritty intelligentsia rallying with the collective frustration of the American condition living in its post-911, post-Change reality. Hip-hop atmosphere hasn’t been this heavy since early Mobb Deep or Cuban Linx I, but this isn’t the old shit: It is rap music’s return to form and the newness all wrapped into one devastating record.
The path to beauty is not a pleasant one. At least that’s the tenet offered on Ravedeath, 1972, an album that walks backwards through a haze of wildly manipulated samples and fiercely aggressive electronics to hint at its exquisite origins. To wit, Tim Hecker began this album by recording a day’s worth of organ music in a church in Iceland. Returning home, he meddled with his recordings applying his ambient treatment to the already ethereal sounds he had captured. Tugging his source material in several directions—cloudy static, harsh noise, throbbing, delayed overtones—and adding more layers after the fact, Hecker has amassed a suite of music which is not only this year’s best album but also a masterwork of ambient-electronic music. Despite the seemingly avant-garde approach to constructing this album, it doesn’t take a PhD to appreciate Ravedeath, 1972: At its core this is some beautiful shit and anyone can get behind that.