20. La Fine Equipe: La Boulangerie 2
If at year’s beginning you were to guess one French beatmaker that would appear on the year end “best of” countdown, most votes would have been with Onra. But his fairly disappointing Chinoiseries Pt.2 left a void that was easily filled by DJ collective, La Fine Equipe. Comprised of producers Blanka, Oogo, Mr.Gib, Mattic and Chomsky, they created a records that combines the sampling of The Avalanches‘ Since I Left You with the cutting ability of The X-Ecutioners. The ambitious collection of La Boulangerie 2 is the best turntablism documents of the year.
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19. R.E.M.: Collapse Into Now
As a huge R.E.M. fan, it has always been an exercise in restraint to not put their latest album somewhere on my end of the year countdown. When you factor in that Collapse Into Now is R.E.M.’s final album, I could not help myself. It helps that the record is the band’s best album since the departure of Bill Berry. “Oh My Heart” is the type of soulful ballad that allows Michael Stipe to shine while “Discoverer” recalls the great rock opening tracks of the group, specifically “Finest Worksong.” Overall, if you are going to go out, going out at the top of your game is the way to do it. Just ask Tony LaRussa.
MP3: R.E.M. “Oh My Heart”
18. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde
When Smith Westerns released Dye It Blonde back in January it gained many critical accolades including being named Best New Music by Pitchfork Media. Fast-forward 11 month later and the album has been virtually forgotten. Banished from a surprising amount of critics’ lists, the record still sounds as fresh to me today as it did upon first listen. The record is filled with 90s britpop anthems complete with searing guitars, lush production, and airy vocals. How can that go stale in 11 months?
17. Childish Gambino: Campfire
Love him or hate him, Donald Glover made quite an impact in 2011. His debut album, Campfire mixed the glossy production style of Kanye West‘s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with the rapping style of Kanye West’s College Dropout. The result is an album that some called “exaggerated, cartoonish…and overblown pop-rap.” Of course, your perspective determines if that is a good or bad thing. For me, the wittiness of Glover’s wordplay outweighed any untruths in his lyrical content. If we are going to punish him for not being real, why not punish Rick Ross? The truth is, very little rap is “real” nowadays so as long as it is done with some charm, go with it.
MP3: Childish Gambino “Heartbeat”
16. Justice: Audio, Video, Disco
It would have been easy for Justice to follow up † with an equally funky big beat record. Instead Justice threw their successful formula to the wind and made one of the most ambitious prog-rock records of the year. Audio, Video, Disco takes a run at 70s arena rock with a definitive 90s dance-tinge. With big guitar riffs and Italian disco beats, the record may have lost them a couple of fans but it was well worth it to see the duo truly stretch themselves creatively.
15. Kendrick Lamar: Section.80
If you were to peg a modern artist that is a “Black Hippy,” you might think of Wiz Khalifa or Kid Cudi. While both fulfill the stoner persona, neither have a strong enough social commentary side to embody the “hippy” lifestyle. Kendrick Lamar, on the otherhand, has the social side down pat and under plays the stoner aspects. While self-medication seems like his escape from the issues of society and politics which is more honorable than the rappers who seem to drink and smoke because it is part of their culture. Add on to that the fact that Lamar is one of the most verbally skilled rappers in the game, it makes Section.80 one of the best hip hop records of the year.
MP3: Kendrick Lamar “A.D.H.D.”
14. Acid House Kings: Music Sounds Better With You
Twee pop is not generally the most critically acclaimed genre. The music tends to be sunny and happy and the lyrics generally focus on love. Those characteristics appeal more to consumers than to critics but Acid House Kings’ Music Sounds Better With You seemed to appeal to both. For the band’s first album in six years, they make the poppiest indie record of the year with lyrics that, although not amazing, do not embarrass either. With every song sounding like a single, I was surprised not to see the record on more critics’ end of the year lists. While it might slip through the cracks for many, it was one of the records I listened to the most throughout the year.
MP3: Acid House Kings “Would You Say Stop?”
13. tUnE-YarDs: w h o k i l l
I will admit that it took me more than a few listens to understand what was so great about tUnE-yArDs‘ sophomore album, w h o k i l l. At first I found Merrill Garbus’ vocals a little off putting. Her voice has some masculine qualities with a power not heard in many female vocalists. Clearly she was not going for a cutesy, girly persona. Her persona is big and bold and that is a little intimidating. Once I got over Garbus’ voice, I was able to hear her lyrics. The lyrics on the album confront the ugliness in the modern world. Like the allegory of the cave, Garbus takes it upon herself to try to show the listeners that they are merely looking at shadows. The Platonic lyrics combined with ambitious musical techniques creates and album that takes some work to get into but ends up quite rewarding.
MP3: tUnE-YarDs “Bizness”
12. Real Estate: Days
New Jersey is known for their musicians who are uniquely outfitted with the ability to summarize the American experience, from Springsteen to Bon Jovi to Titus Andronicus. Real Estate is not that kind of band. Instead Real Estate’s sophomore album, Days is a lazy suburban record filled with lush production and strong surf-inspired guitar riffs. The record may not be the most ambitious record of the year but it is the best of its genre. Hazy, sun soaked pop has not sounded this good since The Beach Boys.
MP3: Real Estate “It’s Real”
11. Das Racist: Relax
On their first official record, Das Racist had a lot to live up to. Not everyone thought that Relax lived up to the hype. Certainly the record was not obviously witty as their previous releases. The wittiness was replaced by a caustic sarcasm dealing with race and hip hop culture with a sharpness of tongue most could not pull off. Because the critique was veiled in sarcasm it seemed less finger wagging and more playfully jabbing something they love, trying to make it better. When they rap “it’s a brand new dance/give us all your money,” they are not being accused of calling out the genre like Nas when he did “Hip Hop is Dead.” Instead their playful history allows them to dish it without having to take it. It must be nice to be Das Racist.
MP3: Das Racist “Michael Jackson”
10. Florence + The Machine: Ceremonials
There is an old adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Florence + The Machine seem to have this as their motto on their sophomore album, Ceremonials. They take the best moments of Lungs and turn it into a complete album full of tribal-drums, church organs, and Florence’s incredible voice. The voice never lets up throughout the album and neither does the poppiness. From the single-worthy opening track, “Only If for a Night” through “Shake It Up” and “What the Water Gave Me” the album is relentlessly Florence.
MP3: Florence + The Machine “Shake It Out”
09. Cut Copy: Zonoscope
Cut Copy‘s Zonoscope feels like a journey through an Australian summer. The album begins with “Need You Now” which starts off with a bouncing synth bass line before adding an almost primal beat featuring some traditional Australian percussion. The track adds Dan Whitford’s wispy pop vocals and an arena-sized chorus to complete the combo. But on Zonoscope no song truly ever ends, it just morphs into the next song. The album bounces between moods seamlessly; from the 80s-drench grooves of “Pharaohs & Pyramids” to the modern dancefloor banger “Blink And You’ll Miss A Revolution”, the group transitions while never dropping the beat.
MP3: Cut Copy “Need You Now”
08. Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2
To the Beastie Boys, it seems age is never an obstacle. While it has been nearly seven years since their last hip hop record, Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2 shows no rust. Instead the Beasties sound more in form with 1998’s Hello Nasty. The album finds the Beasties taking up instruments as well as sampling and rapping fresher than ever. Their lyrics are irreverent but never amateurish and their energy is impeccable. While it is not exactly a comeback, it just makes listeners wish they would release albums more frequently.
MP3: Beastie Boys featuring Santigold “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”
07. Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes
Lykke Li’s sophomore album, Wounded Rhymes, found the Swedish chanteuse sounding more confident than ever while not losing the song writing ability that made her debut captivating. Wounded Rhymes was the year’s best feminist record with Lykke Li in control of her sexuality without seeming dirty and being able to address love without sounding like the victim. Even when she sings lines like “sadness is my boyfriend/my love is unrequited,” she still sounds powerful as ever.
MP3: Lykke Li “Youth Knows No Pain”
06. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong
2011 was an unabashed celebration of the 90s with the twentieth anniversary of the decade’s great albums like Nevermind and Gish, so some band’s cashed in on the 90s nostalgia. No one quite embodied the 90s sound like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s sophomore album, Belong. The album took the shoegaze sound of My Bloody Valentine and added the pop sensibility of 90s Green Day to create something energetic and poppy but not devoid of emotion. Instead Belong sounded like the saddest happy album or happiest sad album of the year. Take your pick. Either way it was good.
05. Drake: Take Care
Last year, I agonized over whether or not Drake’s Thank Me Later on my top 20 list, eventually settling to put it at number 20. There was no agonizing over whether to include Take Care. The album showed a more fully-formed rapper who is comfortable to speak of the emotional highs and lows and has a better grasp over what is “his sound.” No blatant radio-friendly singles included, the album features no filler and few weak tracks; instead it explores a heady space most rap music fears to explore.
MP3: Drake “Marvins Room”
04. Wild Flag: Wild Flag
Bringing together some of the best female rock talent of the last two decades, Wild Flag’s debut album was not as angry or in-your-face feminist as expected. Instead the group worked to create poppy post-punk anthems that, although have some strong 90s qualities, do not sound dated or too retro. The result was the most solid guitar-driven album of the year.
MP3: Wild Flag “Romance”
03. Destoyer: Kaputt
Destroyer is a lightning rod in a lot of circles. Although he is generally critically acclaimed, his style can be off-putting to a lot of listeners. His singing voice has all the emotive qualities of a Broadway singer without the easy listenability. But for those who enjoy Destroyer, Kaputt seemed to be his best album to date. The ambitious mix of Italian disco and Roxy Music-style new romanticism created something avant-garde yet poppy. Bejar’s stream-of-consciousness story-telling is in full effect spinning yarns of cocaine-filled backrooms to lovers quarrelling in the street. A journey that could only be hatched from Bejar’s mind.
MP3: Destroyer “Kaputt”
02.Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne
In a year of Occupy Wall Street protesters, two of the richest rappers in the game released a celebration of excess. What makes Watch the Throne remarkable is that Kanye and Jay-Z do not just celebrate excess but they embody it from the album packaging (gold-plated quadrafolded cd jacket) to the production (The Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, Lex Luger, among others), everything about it was big. Follow that up with the year’s biggest tour, with most tour dates not featuring any seats under $100 and you have something down right gaudy. In an economic recession the likes of which not seen since the Great Depression, the album gave many people an escape from harsh reality to a land where Rolexes and Margiela are plentiful. It was a wonderful world done with the type of clout that only Jay-Z and Kanye can deliver.
MP3: Jay-Z & Kanye West “Niggas in Paris”
01. M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
In a year filled with as much scary shit as 2011, music’s main objection should be to provide an escape to the listener. Did any album do that better than M83’s ambition double album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming? Frenchman, Anthony Gonzalez created a full-realized fantasy world filled with lush production, long-nosed golems, and, yes, magic frogs. No wonder it made the top 10 countdown of several of the US’ most established music publications and became M83’s highest charting album to date.
MP3: M83 “Midnight City”