Our Favorite 50 Albums of 2011 list reflects a multiplicity of trends. Yes, it continues our own trend toward the esoteric (Hype Williams), the difficult (Tiziana Bertoncini & Thomas Lehn), and the overlooked (KWJAZ), but it also trends toward an embrace of transition in a time of sensory abundance, a time when nostalgia and memory have become aestheticized, a time when the very process of music-making has become increasingly audible and our valuation of it increasingly suspect. Trends are often equated with homogenization, superficiality, conformity, and reification, written off by those uncomfortable with change, people too afraid to commit in fear of sinking with a trend once it reaches its inevitable conclusion. But in 2011, all trends demanded critical ears, not only because they hinged on the same impulse that increased awareness and impact for marginalized voices — which, outside the music world, manifested in political occupations and revolutions before we even realized it — but also because trends are as ephemeral as our values of them, coming and going, twisting away from logic and producing ruptures and permutations that disrupt preconceived notions and turn over values we’ve internalized as given.
Pessimists might dismiss this embrace as a capitulation to the rhythm of capitalism, symptomatic of a consumer culture whose signifiers are pretty much dead weight in the context of a sanctified modernism. But optimists see this sensory explosion as simply more potential breaking points, increased opportunities to partake in both demystification (Tom Waits) and deconstruction (Bill Orcutt), democratization (Oneohtrix Point Never) and myth-making (Liturgy); more chances to extract new value from traditions (Rafael Toral) and elevate kitsch from the dumpsters (James Ferraro); to prove wrong those who prematurely announced their death two years ago (Lil B, Shabazz Palaces, Death Grips, etc.); to uncover new constructions of the mind (The Caretaker), body (Colin Stetson, DJ Diamond), and spirit (A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Grouper); to find new mediums (The Flaming Lips), temporal experiences (The Flaming Lips), and distribution methods (The Flaming Lips).
Of course, trends also remind us of instability and uncertainty. There’s a reason giants like Radiohead and Björk didn’t make our list this year while Thee Oh Sees made it twice (coincidentally placing next to each other), and that reason might be unsettling for some of us. But if longevity’s what you’re looking for, feel free to save those plastic jewel cases. Trends, like I said, come and go, but we’d rather be coming and going than staying put. —Mr P
50. Tom Waits
Bad As Me
Critics are used to pronouncing each new Tom Waits’ album as good as the last. But how did he get so dependable? It’s easy to think of his gnarled, curious art as being more like a geological accident than his own creation. 2011’s Bad As Me too had the feel of something occurring naturally, with Waits alternating between reflective piano moments (“Last Leaf “) and spluttering anti-capitalist ire (“Hell Broke Luce”). Then there was the death-boogie of “Satisfaction,” which proved once again that Tom gave less of a damn than anyone, even co-conspirators Jagger and Richards (on guitar duty). But whenever Bad As Me lumbered into protest mode, it shook with the irritability of a convict who was interrupted while eating his last meal. Its distinctive irregular gait — every second song a ballad or a stomp — was like a series of encounters with everything that Waits had done before, yet each time he was fielding his own habits with a more efficient recognition of their contours. “New Year’s Eve” took a well-earned rest in the form of the traditional sway of Auld Lang Syne, but for the real explanation of how he got to this point, you only needed to ask the penultimate “Hell Broke Luce”: ”Left. Right. Left. Right.” That’s how.
Take Liturgy’s haters seriously. They’re right. And it’s not only because the band enacts the sacrilege of engaging only about half of black metal’s essential characteristics and filling the remaining space with shards of what at one time would be termed the avant-garde; it’s because of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s capital-T Theory behind the whole thing. The theory is correct, and that’s the problem. One listen to Aesthethica proved the “burst beat” he writes is a real thing, and it proved the haters right, too: Both theory and praxis, it turns out, stand in opposition to the immanent nihilism at the core of black metal, its essential appeal. But Aesthethica approached some form of perfection anyway, finding a place for an affirmative viewpoint that few of those invested in black metal (myself included) thought they wanted and making it a force to answer to. It’s rare to find art so utterly enmeshed in its theory, each drawing the other into nearly physical presence. And this utter physicality was always at the heart of black metal, even if it was rarely for the sake of affirmation. Aesthethica staked out uncomfortable new territory by virtue of being just a little more comfortable, but the results turned out to be just as visceral as anything black metal’s ever vomited up.
48. Matana Roberts
COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres
Avant-garde jazz has a tendency to lack emotion. The music frequently proves to be little more than a blow-hard contest, or, if academic composition strategies dominate, it assumes a sterile, inhuman quality. Recorded live with a 15-piece ensemble, saxophonist Matana Roberts’ COIN COIN was a completely different beast, alive with feeling and uncompromisingly human. Inspired by family stories and the larger narrative of African-American history — “Coin Coin” is the nickname given to Matana by her maternal grandfather — this first entry in a 12-chapter story began with Coin Coin’s birth in 1742 and, in my interpretation, articulated the horrors of slavery. “My master was ruler of the land,” Roberts said above hushed horn phrases and drum splatters. “I was only 16” went the girl’s story about the year her master raped her. “There will never be any pictures of me.” Then, everything shattered — the reed and spectral vocal melodies arose, eventually raging into violent acoustic squawks, digital zings, and agonizing vocal screams. Roberts’ patchwork composition style merged jazz, blues, spirituals, lullabies, and work songs, producing a swirling world of sonic references that warmly embraced the bruised and battered characters. During a terrifying slave auction scene in “libation for Mr. Brown: Bid em in,” the singing took on a defiant mood that turned into a celebratory free-gospel romp. Horrible and beautiful at once, this album was a testament to human resiliency and the limitless powers of creative music.
47. Kurt Vile
Smoke Ring For My Halo
I often liken Kurt Vile to the late Elliott Smith rather than other artists like Bruce Springsteen, whom he’s been compared to. Like Smith, Vile is apparent in his influences as a musician providing a mixture of straightforward and vague songwriting craft that is a palpable soundtrack for Generation Y. With Smoke Ring For My Halo, his second full-length on Matador, Vile did what he has on previous records, but with more focus and intent that highlight him as a singer-songwriter with both potential commercial and underground appeal. To me, the album was a summation of Vile’s apathy to a heightened success, despite semi-controversy over opener “Baby’s Arms” appearing in a Bank of America commercial. But Vile is about creating memorable tunes. His formula worked even with the polished insincerities of the studio, as the bridge between passive-aggressive rock on “Puppet To The Man” (“I bet by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man/ Well, I’ll tell you right now/ You best believe that I am”) to Vile’s naturally slowed-down, repetitive guitar on the title track made the album an interesting listen, mirroring the subtlety present in our daily lives.
46. A Winged Victory for the Sullen
A Winged Victory for the Sullen
If there was one album this year that deserved to be experienced quietly and personally, it had to be A Winged Victory for the Sullen. The music was delicate and instantly transfixing: slowly sounded strings surged and moaned (“Requiem for Static King, 2”), amplified harmonic chords reverberated to near-distortion (“All Farewells are Sudden”), and, perhaps most strikingly, the subtle circumstantial sounds of squeaky piano keys rubbing against each other slowly became punctuated by deliberately plucked strings (“Minuet for a Cheap Piano Number Two”). On this record, collaborators Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran were masters of composing with musical elements that were not fully heard, just as they were masters of expressing an emotional journey that was never fully revealed. It was clear from the two musicians’ own comments about their work that some or all of A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s devastating melancholia was inspired by the passing of their friend Mark Linkous. However, they never succumbed to bottomless loss or sorrow; their music contained an irrepressible hope and effervescence that made this album, if it was in fact intended as a requiem for Linkous, an incredibly touching and loving one. With their respect and their intense care, Wiltzie and O’Halloran created one of the most fully realized works of the year.
45. Tiziana Bertoncini and Thomas Lehn
Like much of this year’s electroacoustic releases, Tiziana Bertoncini and Thomas Lehn’s Horsky Park made good use of its conceptual framework, even revealing its narrative in the liners. The duo pitted Bertoncini’s contemporary violin, dripping with Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, and Luciano Berio allusions, against Lehn’s analog synthesizer, a familiar, estimable voice in modern improvised music. This narrative was so explicit on the track “galaverna” as to route Bertoncini’s output through Lehn’s, literally melding the two worlds into a single, gorgeous voice. The nearly 43-minute duration of Horsky Park was without a lull; the duo were constantly engaged in a tug-of-war, never for control, but between two intense sounds somehow fitting together. The record was perpetually engaging, and, despite its difficult components and method of execution, seemed logically constructed, as if everything were in its right place. As a result, Horsky Park had a purely aesthetic appeal. This high level of aural beauty seldom companions the intellectual reward that Horsky Park offered. Because of this, among a particularly strong year for electroacoustic music, Thomas Lehn and Tiziana Bertoncini’s Horsky Park stood out as one of the year’s finest.
44. The Psychic Paramount
II was confrontational without being brutish, psychedelic without being stoned, and atmospheric without lacking poise. Put bluntly: the return of New York’s The Psychic Paramount was a very welcome surprise. In a world where recording garage pop songs with intentional trashcan production equates to “noise rock,” hearing The Psychic Paramount breathlessly pound through “DDB” and “N5” with such an erudite understanding of feedback and tension/release dynamics was not just refreshing, it was downright necessary. On II, the instrumental trio’s nigh-relentless energy was engulfing. Much like how Shellac credited themselves on At Action Park, II deservedly seemed more an album of “time,” “mass,” and “velocity.” Further still, II felt cogent and purposeful — that this trio managed to craft such a striking album out of the guitar/bass/drums approach speaks volumes to their chemistry as musicians; likewise, their ability to sustain such focused aggression (with a dynamic ebb and flow that recalls This Heat) for 40 minutes is staggering. II may have taken some time to get here, but it certainly didn’t disappoint. Rock albums — especially instrumental ones — rarely hit with such focus and aplomb.
43. St. Vincent
Annie Clark’s voice rang through Strange Mercy with a retro sort of grace, perhaps reminiscent of old Hollywood, yet her songs trembled, even rumbled, confronting such picture-perfect love stories and pretty faces. They seethed with frustration, resignation, and heartbreak: an emotional commotion that certainly disturbed any easy notions of happiness and charm. However, such conflicting sentiments never tumbled into mere chaos, for Clark arranged them into layers, balancing proclamations and confessions, allowing twists of pop resolution, then collapsing into funky breakdowns and spastic jams. The punch and protest of “Cheerleader” contrasted the dreamy acquiescence of “Surgeon,” which contrasted the catchy agitation of “Hysterical Strength,” which in turn contrasted the elegant determination of “Year of the Tiger.” Such clashes and reversals hinted at the nature of a thoroughly contemporary feminine character, one who grapples with her own enigmatic essence, pulsing with darkness and ambivalence yet all the while commanding undivided attention. She drifted along filled with questions and judgements, even grievances, so often on the verge of breaking down, yet always remaining absolutely honest — even if honesty meant revealing off-kilter and possibly unsettling discontent.
2011 was the year everyone released a dubstep track. Having released on Hyperdub and Ramp Recordings in the past, UK producer Zomby is often lumped into that club scene on paper, but his work is a completely different kettle of fish. Indeed, many of his singles and much of his sophomore album Dedication sounded like dubstep, but they had all the signature warpy bass removed. Presenting his tracks stripped down to the bare essentials, his skills as a producer and arranger were left on naked display. Zomby didn’t allow himself to hide mediocre compositions behind muddy lower frequencies and sidechain compression. His knack for melody and sound design was unobscured. As a listener acclimated to his subtle execution, they could clearly hear his choices and see the nuts and bolts of his compositions. It was a very bold, minimalist approach to dubstep, if indeed his work can still be classified as such, doing his grime and old-school influences proud. Certainly, having been released by the legendary 4AD, nestled comfortably alongside the experimental pop and indie leanings of the label’s catalogue, Dedication found a home among more thoughtful connoisseurs of electronic music in 2011.
41. Fabio Orsi
Stand Before Me, Oh My Soul
Of course, it wasn’t all about Rich Baker’s drum loops (they didn’t even populate every song!), but in a way, it was all about Rich Baker’s drum loops; in seasoned Italian musician Fabio Orsi’s hands, they were a sibilant, shapeshifting, suppurating thing, continuous even as they threatened to dislodge all spatial continuity. The surrounding instruments — already defamiliarized familiarities that materialized like overly-sympathetic resonances — reacted in strange ways to this exotic figure in the landscape of ambient. They wept. They partied. They spoke in tongues. It wasn’t all about the drum loops, but these were the coyest beckoners of divergent traditions, these made the album worthy of its histrionic name, these, crucially, were just under-the-skin enough to sell Orsi’s abstraction as a personal statement. His calling card became variety coupled with sheer persistence: one moment, we were dust mites clinging for dear life to his guitar string; the next, scoured by the harshest of fine-grain white noise; now, slowly somersaulting through the void. Each lasted too long to panic or even remain rooted in time. Perhaps memory coded it all as either more caustic or more homogeneous than the defibrillating experience itself, but the gut maintains that that was the point: Nobody blurred the line between punishment and hypnosis in 2011 like Fabio Orsi.