Daniel’s Picks: Top 10 Albums of 2011
1. Destroyer – Kaputt. The best record of the year–an ‘80s-style lounge-pop record, smack in the middle of 2011? Why not something more revolutionary? Well, why does a great album have to be revolutionary? Kaputt is one of the rare albums on which everything comes together, an album that not only navigates around its potential flaws but uses attributes that might have worked against the artist on a lesser album to its advantage. Dismiss Dan Bejar’s rambling lyrics as little more than a drunken maniac’s nonsense (which is probably true), but his evocative words are the envy of many lyricists. And if the immaculately constructed backgrounds of hypnotic jazz-pop are “elevator music,” I’d like to see how many people would miss their stop if the album were played in an actual elevator. Beautiful, challenging, fascinating, willingly experimental, infinitely listenable, touchingly human–Kaputt has all the trappings of a great, timeless record.
2. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy. Don’t let those doe-eyes and pretty orchestral arrangements fool you–Annie Clark intends her music to be listened to LOUD. Every sound, every instrument, every word, every thought, every emotion is pushed up against the listener’s ear until it’s uncomfortable but strangely transfixing. It’s hardly unsubtle, and it’s not quite “aggressive,” but Clark knows what she wants you to hear. From the salvia-cackling synthesizers on “Neutered Fruit” to her avalanche of a guitar solo on “Cruel,” the wash of orchestral sound on “Champagne Year” to the all-out headbanger “Cheerleader,” Strange Mercy is a record that demands your full attention and will have it by any means possible.
3. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues. Fleet Foxes’ long-delayed follow-up to their universally lauded full-length is a record that embodies timelessness. The songs could have been written anytime in the last 45 years and written about any time in the last 4500 years, save for the occasional “man on the screen” reference. The tracks that are five or even eight minutes long sound just as concise and are just as jam-packed with great musical ideas (if not more) than the numerous two-or-three-minute songs with which they share albumspace. Their harmonies never sounded this full and soulful on their debut or earlier EPs, nor did their instrumentals–in other words, this is the best they’ve ever sounded.
4. Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal. Daniel Lopatin is creating more than just a soundworld on Replica–he is creating an actual world. The chopped-up samples from old commercials that constitute much of the synth genius’s latest work combine to create a portal to another universe, one that may be cold and dystopian but has a certain beauty that is not found here. It’s a fascinating and unusual world, and how long you want to stay there is up to you. But once you’ve stepped into it, it will stay with you forever.
5. Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place. Julianna Barwick is a former Southern church singer with the capability to fill the hearts of saints and sinners alike with the power of God far more effectively than any Bible-thumper. Barwick sounds like nothing of this earth, but otherworldly is a less apt adjective as ghostly–this is what I imagine one would hear before being spirited away to the afterlife. This publication is not liable for any transformations into intangible aether you may experience while listening.
6. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up. 2011 has been a phenomenally good year for hip-hop, but one record that stands above the rest is one that does not belong to any school of hip-hop I know of, not even the new underground that has produced so many great mixtapes this year. Former Digable Planets member Butterfly, who leads this project as Palaceer Lazaro, is not a brilliant rapper, but by channeling his knack for Afro-futuristic mysticism with help from female vocal duo THEESatisfaction and an unknown cast of supporters–and by setting it over some of the eeriest beats I’ve ever heard–he has created a “rap” album like no other.
7. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow. It’s been over thirty years since a teenage Kate Bush became the first woman in history to self-write a platinum debut album, and she still sounds like absolutely nothing else. As a result of her position as a successful and influential artist in both the pop and avant-garde canons, Bush has never needed to worry about certain audience expectations, and on her tenth album, 50 Words For Snow, Bush shows she is still capable of making unique and beautiful music. This is a concept album about snow and winter, themes which she evokes beautifully with powdery piano and her own wind-through-a-cave vocals. In a blizzard, it’s never easy to see what’s coming.
8. Bon Iver – Bon Iver. It’s almost ridiculous to think Justin Vernon could pull this off, but he does, and splendidly. Bon Iver feels like the culmination of nearly every trend that has popped up in underground rock over the past few years–jazzy sax arrangements, Eighties synths, reverence for the glory days of Laurel Canyon, and a massive debt to Sufjan Stevens. It’s hardly an introspective or personal record like his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago–Vernon’s lyrics are often inscrutable, and the focus is clearly meant to be the elegant soundscapes in the background. Bon Iver may not be the most emotionally gripping record of the year, but in terms of sonic beauty and majesty, it certainly ranks close to the top.
9. Thundercat – The Golden Age Of Apocalypse. Stephen Bruner is an extremely skilled bassist best known for his membership with Suicidal Tendencies as well as his work with Flying Lotus and Erykah Badu. One might expect this record to be filled with mindless noodling, but Bruner uses his seemingly limitless prowess on the bass to carve out trippy, electro-informed jazz-funk tunes that take cues from the various artists Bruner has worked with. Aspects of Suicidal Tendencies’ funk-metal show up here, and the left-field Afrofuturism of FlyLo and Badu permeates this album. Yet The Golden Age Of Apocalypse has a sound of its own, one that borrows from other artists but mixes its influence into a unique melange that sounds like little else.
10. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse. “America,” the centerpiece of Apocalypse, finds Bill Callahan name-dropping great artists who served in the U.S. military–Captain Kris Kristofferson, Sergeant Mickey Newbury, Leatherneck Jones, and Sergeant Cash–before stating bluntly, “I never served my country.” Callahan, the artist formerly known as Smog, is no Cash as far as I know, but if he kept making albums like Apocalypse, he could be next in the tradition of great Americana singer/songwriters. Callahan’s third album under his own name is a dark, frequently bizarre roots-rock record that offers some of the best lyrics and instrumental performances you’ll find all year, hearkening back to the days when artists recruited top-notch session musicians to realize their sound. It’s also one of the rare records that sounds neither trendy nor old-fashioned but carries a sense of modern sociopolitical urgency that is distinctly 2011. I will most likely be listening to this album for years to come.