Let This Be The Apogee of African Guitar Appropriation and Auto-tune!

Records came to me this year in waves. At times I felt like I was swimming in sound, all murky and disorienting, and I would grab for whatever was safest. Some of my life preservers this year included albums by Scott Walker, Townes Van Zandt and The Rolling Stones. At other times I felt buoyed by records from new artists and career-best LPs from favorite bands. It feels like a struggle to catch even part of what floats by in the the ever-growing soundstream, let alone absorb it, but here are the records that managed to grab me and not let go.

Records So Good I Never Put Them Away

Future Islands In Evening Air

Dark, electro-pop mutant coursing with the kinetic energy of Joy Division and the spartan intimacy of Young Marble Giants, with singer Samuel T. Herring growling and crooning like a manic Richard Burton reciting urgent Shakespearean odes. One of several great releases this year on the continually interesting Thrill Jockey label.

Deerhunter : Halcyon Digest

Rising from the gauzy haze that’s characterized Deerhunter up to now, Halcyon Digest burns slowly, then radiant with bright melodies and a big clanging pop sound – even the register seems to have grown by octaves – to support Bradford Cox’s most pop-oriented batch of songs yet.

Lower Dens : Twin-Hand Movement

Nothing on this list hit me as immediately as the debut from Lower Dens. Don’t let the meaningless Freak Folk tag fool you – on some songs they bring a krautrocking surf psychedelia to the androgynous cool of Velvet Underground. I’m dying to hear what they do next and if it fails to live up to my dreams, I’ll dust my guitar off and try to pick up where this album leaves off.

The Walkmen : Lisbon

A record to score the sound of the sunlight streaming into your apartment on a sunday afternoon. Hamilton Leithauser sings his balls off (for you, baby) while delicate horn and string arrangements add new color to that signature warbly guitar tremolo. Lisbon may not be a revelatory, masterstroke album, but neither perhaps is The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman, yet on those lazy sunday afternoons nothing sounds better.

Maximum Balloon : s/t

I didn’t hear a lot of people talking about this record, but David Sitek’s production is an art unto itself. Taking inspiration from Cyndi LauperTalking Heads and Prince he brings a palpably electric vitality to their ideas and utilizes a stellar cast of vocalists to guest on each track, lending the whole record the feeling of an electro-R&B version of Stephen Merritt’s The 6ths.

Near Impenetrable Moody Pop Opuses

Sufjan Stevens : The Age of Adz

Deliberately shedding the angel wings of his past, The Age of Adz and the All Delighted People EP represent an exorcism more than a sonic development. Cloaked in dark, messy electronic textures and over-modulated instrumentation, Sufjan’s tender, sotto voce is all but buried. The track “I Want To Be Well” ably illustrates the scope of his ambition, pairing driving beats with choral singing and fluttering woodwinds and ending with Sufjan’s desperate, pleading vocal “I’m not fucking around”. I applaud his intention, but it’s not exactly pleasant listening.

Joanna Newsom : Have One On Me

Joanna Newsom has blossomed here with the kind of artistic self-assuredness that graced Joni Mitchell in the 70’s. Have One On Me similarly recalls Mitchell’s iconic mixing of jazz and folk idioms while giving in to the contemporary tendency for theatrical excess (see above, Arcade Fire below, The Flaming Lips’ last LP, etc). It will probably take another year for this record to really sink into my mind, but that’s an endeavor I can look forward to.

Special Mention Records From Great Bands

I might be guilty of giving short shrift to these bands as they consistently make great music and their records released this year are all very good, but none of them managed to stick with me like the albums above.

Arcade Fire
 : The Suburbs

This record plods a little under its thematic weight and layers upon layers of instrumentation, even veering upon a U2-Springsteen brand of self-importance, but it continually holds my interest to the end.

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings : I Learned The Hard Way

Spoon : Transference

New Pornographers : Together

More Good Stuff

Timber Timbre : s/t

Floating down the Mississippi river to the funereal dirge and marching grooves of Screamin Jay Hawkins and a ghostly hovering organ a la ? and the Mysterians, this is spooky appalachian gothic soul.

Surfer Blood : Astro Coast

Much better live than the sound on their debut, which at times wavers on the line of arena rock Pixies-pilfering. I’m definitely interested to see what these guys do next.

Sam Prekop Old Punch Card

Caribou Swim

Lambchop Live at XX Merge

Tracey Thorn Love and Its Opposite

Wild Nothing Gemini

Wye Oak My Neighbor/My Creator

Sharon Van Etten Epic

Once Great Bands Who Gave Us Pablum

Magnetic Fields : Realism

There is no one better than Stephen Merritt at writing immediate, hummable hooks. He probably defecates melody the way others craft and strain to write memorable lines, but several of the songs on this album are just too goddam precious. Stephen, you left Merge Records to write “We Are Having A Hootenanny”?! You must be out of your mind, son.

Blonde Redhead : Penny Sparkle

I guess misery is not a butterfly, but a sparkly penny. Do you want to know what would happen if Enya and the Cocteau Twins got together to revisit the B-sides of Human League? Me neither! I don’t know that I could even get through this once.

The Great Bright Hope of 2011

Wild Flag

Supergroup of ladies from some of my favorite groups: Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders. Think Wire and The Small Faces kicking out the jams in a Pacific Northwest garage. It was a thrill to see these four women working out songs together onstage and having fun doing it.

Great Stuff From The Past I Was Hooked On This Year

Rodrigo y Gabriela
Jackie DeShannon
Van Dyke Parks
Tim Buckley
John Prine
Miles Davis : In A Silent Way
Wye Oak
Iggy Pop : The Idiot
Curtis Mayfield
Jack Nitzsche



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