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    SPIN's 20 Best Country & Americana Albums of 2011

    Nashville insiders vs. Nashville "outsiders." Curtain calls for all-time legends vs. exhilarating breakthroughs from possible new ones. Alt-country louts seeking contentment vs. rehabilitated alt-country louts finding contentment. Vivid homages to everyone from Hank Williams to Loretta Lynn to Alabama to Steve Earle to Tom Petty. A bizarre year for whatever you think country is, or isn't. And a great one too. Here are some of the album-length highlights. SPIN's Best of 2011:• One Fucked Up Year: SPIN's Best of 2011 Issue• SPIN's 50 Best Albums of 2011• SPIN's 20 Best Songs of 2011• SPIN's 40 Best Rap Albums of 2011• SPIN's 20 Best Metal Albums of 2011• SPIN's 10 Best Reissues of 2011• SPIN's 25 Best Live Photos of 2011• Endless Bummer: 30 Ways 2011 Was a Drag 20.

  • Florence and the Machine, 'Ceremonials' (Universal Republic)

    Florence and the Machine, 'Ceremonials' (Universal Republic)

    Florence and the machine's best song to date is "Kiss With a Fist." We are not arguing here. A blunt, cheerful ode to the romantic joys of mutually indulged domestic violence, the track is the glorious thorn on Florence Welch's ascendant English rose -- quick (two minutes!) and dirty (distorted guitars!) and irresponsible. It's a fang-bearing flash of Joan Jett snarl amid the gothic-soccer-mom AOR grandeur of her celebrated 2009 debut, Lungs. Thunderous Hogwarts-R&B anthem "Dog Days Are Over" made her nominally famous, but here the violent exception rules: She's a red-haired soul belter with a fierier, gnarlier, more volatile take on Adele's retromania, a Kate Bush disciple who never forgets that the real Kate Bush could kill you with her bare hands. Welch may never do anything as dangerous and uncouth as "Kiss" ever again.

  • DJ Shadow, 'The Less You Know, the Better' (Verve)

    DJ Shadow, 'The Less You Know, the Better' (Verve)

    He does whatever he wants, this guy. Though nowhere near as antagonistic as 2006's hyphy-saturated The Outsider, DJ Shadow's fourth album still defies expectations, dabbling freely in heavy-metal riffage ("Border Crossing," "I Gotta Rokk"), sun-kissed acoustic reverie ("I Been Trying"), and Killers-style Brit-rock (the Tom Vek–assisted "Warning Call"). Highlights: Afrikan Boy cameos on a manic, infectious "I'm Excited," while the lovely "Redeemer" comes closest to acknowledging the ambient-turntablist grandeur that made Shadow famous. But the churning poetic dirge "Give Me Back the Nights" screams "go away," almost literally. The Less You Know, the Better ?is equal parts frustrating and admirable; as the title suggests, don't bother looking for Shadow oversharing on Twitter.

  • R.E.M. in 1984 (Photo: Paul Natkin/WireImage)

    SPIN's 10 All-Time Favorite R.E.M. Moments

    R.E.M. announced Wednesday that after 31 years, 15 full-length albums (including this year's Collapse Into Now), and myriad all-time "alternative rock" classics, they were breaking up for good, or at least until their surprise reunion at Coachella in, oh, let's say 2016. People were sad. (Or derisive toward the people who were sad, but let's forget about those guys for a second.) The band's best years were behind them, it's true, but the pride of Athens, Georgia, has still left an indelible footprint on Modern Music As We Know It. Here are some of their career highlights, from the hits to the spoofs, the lucrative contracts to the embarrassing arrests. (Note: Michael Stipe's very recent dalliance with full-frontal nudity does not appear anywhere here.) 1. "RADIO FREE EUROPE" ON LETTERMAN If you're unclear on what the fuss is all about — if you only know R.E.M.

  • A.A. Bondy, 'Believers' (Fat Possum)

    A.A. Bondy, 'Believers' (Fat Possum)

    A.A. Bondy is a repentant '90s rocker whose third album of deceptively austere alt folk is ludicrously gorgeous, vaporous, and reverb-caressed, like the hushed, almost unbearable intimacy of pre-fame Cat Power. Light, expert touches conspire to liberate Believers from the NPR ghetto: the dirt-road motorik pulse of "The Heart Is Willing," the soft concussions of distortion on "The Twist," a delirious vein of vintage slowcore (Idaho fans, rejoice). Bondy's voice is strong and true and inconsequential -- Lord knows if anything he says actually means anything ("I can not be here today," etc.) -- but it all sounds enormously profound. We need to find a way to smoke this.

  • Das Racist, 'Relax' (Greedhead Music)

    Das Racist, 'Relax' (Greedhead Music)

    We join Das Racist in the Hey, These Guys Are Actually Really Good phase of their inexplicable career. The ?viral goof "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" begat two shockingly great 2010 mixtapes full of sly, hilarious rap chicanery -- part Cheech and Chong, part Smif-n-Wessun, part Sartre and de Beauvoir. With Relax, they find out?if you'll pay for it. A motley crew of producers (Diplo, El-P, Rostam from Vampire Weekend, Drake affiliate Francis Farewell Starlite, one of the dudes from Yeasayer) serves up shinier, harder, louder, thornier beats, and our heroes occasionally respond in kind: "Yeah, I'm fuckin' great at rapping!" snarls Himanshu Suri to conclude a remarkably gnarly verse on the Mortal Kombat–goes-Bollywood banger "Michael Jackson." It's still unclear how seriously you're supposed to take these people, very much by design.

  • The 
Nightwatchman, 'World Wide Rebel Songs' (New West)

Nightwatchman, 'World Wide Rebel Songs' (New West)

    God (or Noam Chomsky) bless Tom Morello for his latest lefty-folk morass under the tag Nightwatchman -- ?a Dylan/Guthrie/Seeger/Bragg love letter that fearlessly tangoes betwixt the admirable and the absurd. Only the electric "It Begins Tonight," righteous of riff and bonkers of solo, plays to his strengths; the rest is like watching Michael Jordan bat .235 in Birmingham. Alternately crooning and snarling, Morello commits to the aggro gospel of "Speak and Make Lightning" and the triumphant Iraq-soldier revenge fantasy "Stray Bullets." While his power-to-the-people earnestness can be pretty goofy, his 88-lines-about-44-fascist-pigs furor has its charms.

  • Jay-Z and Kanye West, 'Watch the Throne' (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/Roc Nation)

    Jay-Z and Kanye West, 'Watch the Throne' (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/Roc Nation)

    They are both obscenely wealthy; you, in all likelihood, are not. Let us neither over- nor underemphasize this aspect of Watch the Throne, the long-threatened, full-length Jay-Z/Kanye West summit, garish and glorious, exquisite and exasperating. Quick litmus test: Does the phrase "I'm planking on a million," which spills joyously from the lips of one Shawn Carter, fill you with revulsion? (And is it Aw Geez Dad Please Shut Up revulsion or Fuck You Scrooge McDuck revulsion?) To what degree can you stomach incessant chatter about cars, (terrible) sports franchises, priceless works of art apparently mounted over toilets, gold bottles, sheepskin coats, Paris boutiques. Could the timing be any worse? Does the timing matter?

  • Various Artists, 'Music From Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' (Interscope)

    Various Artists, 'Music From Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' (Interscope)

    No stuntmen were harmed in the recording of this, the cast soundtrack to beleaguered megamusical and late-night talk-show punching bag Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, featuring arena-rock tunes supplied by U2's Bono and the Edge. The collision of Broadway cheesiness and Bono cheesiness is indeed fearsome to behold. "On this sunny day / Let your 'magination run away!" announces the Nobel Prize winner, while the Edge chips in a bunch of C+ bombast-o-matic riffs and tries his hand at crawling, electro-goth menace, just in case someone turns The Crow into a musical, too. But the swaggering Irishmen make only a couple of guest appearances; mostly this is a standard Broadway-cast-album affair.

  • Ida Maria, 'Katla' (Mercury)

    Ida Maria, 'Katla' (Mercury)

    Ida Maria is, improbably, the Pink of Norway: brash, bawdy, booming of voice, uncouth of sentiment, a nightmare of an ?ex-girlfriend, an absolute blast of a pop star. Katla is way more crass, salacious, and deranged than her 2008 debut, Fortress Around My Heart -- pretty impressive, considering that one had a song called "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked." Too subtle. Rock-candy producer extraordinaire Butch Walker struggles to keep up here: "Bad Karma" is a strutting cock-rock kiss-off of terrifying specificity ("You gypped me out of my money / You messed up my love life and my career"); "10,000 Lovers" is an even struttier fount of fifth-grade horndog wordplay ("The northern winds are blowing / While someone's blowing you"); "Let's Leave" is a breakneck party-crashing jam for Ke$ha fans who don't brush their teeth at all.

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