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SPIN’s 50 Best Albums of 2011

Everywhere you looked this year there was an absurd or chaotic or turbulent situation that made absolutely no sense whatsoever — people all over the world seemed so fed up that they were willing to make shit up on their own, on the spot, damn the consequences. And here at home, who knew what to make of the pop-culture universe — how were musical provocateurs like Kanye West or Lady Gaga supposed to shock anybody when a craven disgraced troll like Newt Gingrich was getting away with posing like a distinguished statesman? Music has been scrambling to keep up with the delirious whir and whoosh of society and technology for several years, and in 2011, there were finally a substantial number of artists, mostly stalking the margins, who fired off album-length field reports on the fucked-upness afoot. From the Weeknd and Frank Ocean in R&B to Danny Brown and G-Side in hip-hop to Liturgy and Yob in metal to Eric Church and Hayes Carll in country to Girls and Kurt Vile in indie rock to PJ Harvey and Wild Flag and EMA in bare-bones rock, there were plenty of skewed truths to be found. And nowhere moreso than in our Album of the Year, a towering epic that made very little literal sense yet spoke meaningful volumes. Similarly, after reading this list you may feel like Alice in Wonderland after she read the poem “Jabberwocky”: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.” Onward to 2012, the Mayan cataclysm awaits! CHARLES AARON

One Fucked Up Year: SPIN’s Best of 2011 Issue

SPIN’s 20 Best Songs of 2011

Video Premiere: Fucked Up’s ‘Turn the Season’

SPIN’s 40 Best Rap Albums of 2011

50 Britney Spears Femme Fatale
Britney Spears will never be a balladeer like Beyoncé or an auteur like Lady Gaga, so she’s digging her heels into the territory that’s always served her best: feel-good, hands-up synth-pop crafted by an elite production squad–Swedish smash machine Max Martin (who started her career in 1999), Bloodshy & Avant (who are responsible for her best song, “Toxic”), and Dr. Luke (who gave competitors like Katy Perry and Ke$ha irresistible hits). As a result, Spears’ seventh album rarely stumbles. Bonus points for including the year’s best apocalyptic barn burner (“Till the World Ends”) and knowingly drawing out the word “haaazzayy” on “Hold It Against Me.” CARYN GANZ
49 Yob Atma
On their sixth album, these Oregon doom-rock journeymen hit upon a golden mean of richly textured sludge and sprawl. “Prepare the Ground” and the title track move in thrillingly unpredictable lurches, with Mike Scheidt’s pinched goblin growl piercing the cymbal-crash undulations; but it’s on the 16-minute “Before We Dreamed of Two” that Atma blooms. Swooping arcs of lead guitar and throbbing bass and drums expand and contract before giving way to eerily peaceful, echo-y ambient flickers–then comes the big bang. Creation has never sounded so forbidding. DAVID MARCHESE
48 Various Artists Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
While the blank-faced anomie and startling, stylized violence of Nicolas Winding Refn’s film left audiences musing in vast deserts of suggestion, the soundtrack–composed by Cliff Martinez (former drummer for ’80s-era Captain Beefheart and Red Hot Chili Peppers), along with songs selected by Refn–keeps your skin tingling even after an hour-plus. “Nightcall” by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx and “A Real Hero” by College feat. Electric Youth are all heartbreak pop dazzle, post-post-human dirges as cooing synth lullabies. Martinez’s delicate instrumental pieces (with titles like “They Broke His Pelvis” and “Skull Crushing”) sustain an unnerving ambience, swelling with pixilated drama, but always drifting back to the modulated throb and hum of a lone car ghostriding the abyss. C.A.
47 Gillian Welch The Harrow and the Harvest
“The Way It Will Be,” slow and eerie and mesmerizing in the extreme, is your master class in why people worship Gillian Welch and white-hot guitarist cohort David Rawlings even after an eight-year wait: Their voices viciously intertwine as though they’re buried in the same grave, singing Appalachian folk hymns of murder-ballad gravity, whether anybody gets killed or not. Harrow is harder than black metal, but is filled with subtle wit and unsubtle defiance: “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind,” goes the most emphatic chorus, and they don’t, even when they do. ROB HARVILLA
46 Foo Fighters Wasting Light
Dave Grohl’s genius lies in knowing just how long to glance in the rearview mirror. The same year Nirvana marked the 25th anniversary of Nevermind, he made a record in his garage with produer Butch Vig featuring Krist Noveselic and Bob Mould, and even welcomed back Pat Smear. But Wasting Light isn’t a cruise down memory lane–it’s the ferociously catchy sound of a band inventing a new gear. Commercial rock may be a dying art, but Grohl is its grinning Picasso. C.G.

45 Azari & III Azari & III
Toronto retrofutrists Azari & III practice a creative revisionism where Prince, Arthur Russell, and Phuture rub elbows around the 808 and 303. They helped tip the current deep-house revival back towards R&B with 2009 singles “Reckless (With Your Love)” and “Hungry For The Power,” and on their debut they expand that homage to the more soulful side of ’90s house. It’s the vocals that really set them apart, though, implanting a warm heart in skeletal acid tracks and leading tweaked-out club jams back towards the light. PHILIP SHERBURNE
44 The Roots Undun
In the dank, demoralized Dubya twilight, the Roots released two coiled, hissing rap manifestos (Game Theory, Rising Down) that stung with lethal specificity.� Now comes a second Obama-era, soul-mining, existential collage that wrestles with hope and its still-winning B-side–death. Affixing a grimly rhymed hustler’s narrative (that doesn’t quite resonate) to a restless series of astounding, heart-in-mouth musical vignettes (that do), Undun taps a universal ache–a hard-headed yet meditative yearning (“Don’t worry ’bout what you ain’t got / Just try to leave with a little bit of dignity,” Bilal croons with a frantic flourish on “The OtherSide”). Transcending genres and presidential regimes, drummer/co-producer ?uestlove and crew try to concoct a timeless, redemptive chorus out of the most unforgiving voices in our heads. And they mostly succeed. C.A.
43 Kendrick Lamar Section.80
Pinpointing a generation’s woes (drug abuse, racism, poverty) while avoiding preachiness, 24-year old Comptonite and Dr. Dre protégé Kendrick Lamar may be the most gifted rapper Los Angeles has produced since the 1992 Riots. Oscillating from sour-lipped growler to slick-talking seducer, Lamar “penetrates the hearts of good kids and criminals.” Case in point is “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” a six-minute fire-and-brimstone rant over free jazz, where Lamar boasts about baffling people with his ability to discuss “money, hoes, clothes, God, and history, all in the same sentence.” JEFF WEISS
42 Eric Church Chief
The bombastic, controversial single “Homeboy” explicitly sassed delinquent hip-hop fans, and Chief supplies a vibrant sonic alternative: expert Nashville glitz, delightfully overemphatic outlaw aspirations, snarling power chords heralding the imminent arrival of “Country Music Jesus,” awesome bumper-sticker possibilities (“She got a rock / And I’m gettin’ stoned”), tender odes to both “Jack Daniels” and “Springsteen,” and the utterly fantastic “Drink in My Hand,” the most inspiring and undeniable quitting-time anthem in decades. As gentle ballad “Like Jesus Does” insists, he’s hard to love and absolutely worth the effort. R.H
41 Frank Ocean Nostalgia, Ultra
He starts by repurposing a Coldplay song as an apocalyptic elegy, climaxes by similarly scrambling the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” argues with his girl re: the relative merits of Radiohead vs. Jodeci, delivers gorgeously sung and delicately worded opinions on abortion and gay marriage (rare on an Odd Future-affiliated record), extensively samples Eyes Wide Shut, and sneaks the line “I feel like a ghost / No Swayze / Ever since I lost my baby” right by you. The comfortably numb “Novacane” sounded incongruous on mainstream rap radio at first. But not now.� R.H.

40 Jay-Z and Kanye West Watch the Throne
“Niggas hate ballers these days,” says Jay-Z, ruefully. Watch the Throne is an apologia for the 1 percent, but he and Kanye rebuff #occupiers with Otis Redding in full-blown melisma, then segue into dubstep and ’70s art rock, as Beyoncé promises to take us to the moon. Meanwhile, flashbacks to the pre-Grammy deprivations that the duo endured lie just beneath the grandeur. “If you escaped what I escaped / You’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too,” muses Jay.MOSI REEVES
39 Beyonce 4
Most pop singers spent 2011 chasing down dubstep producers. But the one star capable of out-dancing them all shifted into a totally different lane, releasing an album of ’70s-inspired soul and funk tunes alongside suave baby-making ballads. Beyoncé’s fourth album isn’t a “Party,” though she snagged Andr� 3000 to contribute a guest rap and production from Kanye West, The-Dream, Frank Ocean, Diplo, Babyface, et al. It’s sophisticated proof that Sasha doesn’t need to be fierce to run the world.C.G.
38 Zola Jesus Conatus
Former Siouxie Sioux understudy Nika Roza Danilova bleached herself into an exterminating angel for Conatus–Latin for “striving.” Like goth icons Swans, who went from industrial cellar-dwellers to acoustic light-worshippers, she floods her third album with strings, piano, muted drums, and vivid electronics. The newfound clarity works wonders, highlighting her severe but supple voice against a moody backdrop rendered in bold, emotive strokes. For all the strangeness Danilova evokes, this is an acutely intuitive record that resonates deep in your bones.P.S.
37 The Field Looping State of Mind
For his 2007 debut, Axel Willner mastered the melancholy, half-heard-sample game just as Panda Bear rewrote the nostalgia playbook. So, fittingly, the glistening colors of this ambient-disco epic reflect the “then” of now: Drive’s pastel synths, the Rapture’s euphoric post-punk tumble, and chillwave’s skipping moan. Those namesake loops waltz across multiple dance floors as wet throbs bleed into wistful drones and industrial repetition decays into shimmering ooze.CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN
36 The Black Keys El Camino
Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach are not old black men. We got that, but all those studious soul ballads and monochord stomps on the duo’s early efforts made you wonder if they did. Well, glory be: It took six albums, but the twosome finally ditched Junior Kimbrough for Bad Company. Glam-blooze guitar, poppy melodies, and hockey-rink keyboards fit the Keys like vintage denim. “Authenticity,” it turns out, was just a bump on the road to El Camino.D.M.

35 Washed Out Within and Without
Ernest Greene’s first full album as chillwave auteur Washed Out is a spectacular 40-minute wooze cruise–its ear-tickling beats, cresting harmonies, and cascades of synths unrelentingly lap at listeners’ pleasure centers (with the focus on live instru-mentation over samples). Animal Collective producer Ben Allen helped escort Greene out of the comfort of his bedroom and into the plush beauty of opener “Eyes Be Closed.” Luckily for us, Greene issued himself an additional caveat: “Ears be opened.”C.G.
34 St. Vincent Strange Mercy
As sure as a rose has its thorns, Annie Clark pairs the purity of her soprano with the poison of her own exquisitely shredding guitar. Her third solo album is terrifyingly beautiful, with well-manicured art-pop labyrinths betraying serpents beneath the soil. Favoring masks and well-turned lyrical abstractions over bared skin, Clark revels in the paradox of revealing herself through concealment: “I always had a knack with the danger,” she concludes, the album’s sole self-evident truth.BARRY WALTERS
33 Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
When most of us first heard frontfox Robin Pecknold’s gilded voice three years ago, the young folkie focused intently on the world around him, specifically the idyllic rivers and hills of his native Pacific Northwest. Something changed. Helplessness Blues marks the moment the singer began grappling with the first person, and a new, though no less vast and majestic, landscape emerges. The result is a sinewy, often stormy album of ’70s-centric folk rock that sparkles even when cast in shadows.DAVID BEVAN
32 Hayes Carll KMAG YOYO (& other American stories)
Perhaps the best part of Hayes Carll’s third album is its cover: The singer mugs in an ill-fitting American-flag sweater, cowboy boots kicked off his feet. If this were a comic, he’d get curb-stomped by Toby Keith in the next panel. Elsewhere, the subterranean homesick title track is the best movie ever made about the War on Terror, while the Cary Ann Hearst duet “Another Like You” gives you hope that all blue-state/red-state acrimony might resolve itself in a boozy hotel-room romp.STEVE KANDELL
31 Yuck Yuck
Beyond all the ’90s throwback folderol, Yuck were 2011’s favorite waste of time–or mixtape crush–due to their radiantly drowsy melodies, riffs that scrungily sparkled and/or fizzled, and lyrics that huddled on the hyphen between passive and aggressive. As a frontman, Daniel Blumberg was a cuddly inaction figure, cooing epically powerless power-pop. The deluxe edition added six ace songs that were as undeniable as, say, Buffalo Tom on Episode 12 of My So-Called Life.C.A.

30 tUnE-yArDs whokill
If Merrill Garbus’ low-tech 2009 debut evoked a mad scientist’s feverish basement concoctions, the tUnE-yArDs leader’s follow-up contemplates mass impact. The recipe remains: Mix her rubbery voice, which can instantly shift from shrieking to guttural, with dense, unpredictable material spanning funky reggae and flaming art-pop. But the higher-fi result is bigger and wilder, hitting like a tidal wave. Amid the uproar, Garbus tackles issues of class, race, and sexuality with hardheaded intelligence.JON YOUNG
29 Lady Gaga Born This Way
The year’s biggest pop album made no effort to obscure its Reagan-era inspirations: Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, that scene in Footloose where Kevin Bacon plays chicken with a tractor. But what’s even more retro is Lady Gaga’s earnestness as she pursues her social-equality agenda. Beneath the hair and makeup and arena-razing disco-metal grooves, Born This Way delivers a message that old glamazon Pete Seeger could dig: She thinks pop can still move policy, and she might be right.MIKAEL WOOD
28 Tim Hecker Ravedeath, 1972
The best drone alchemists of 2011 picked an emotion and rode it forever, from Blanck Mass’ melted-crayon fervor to Deaf Center’s Lynchian skin-crawl to Stephan Mathieu’s floaty space walks. But Montreal fuzzmaster Tim Hecker sought more primeval drama: rippling one-note dive-bombs, delicate piano motifs clawing through prismatic feed-back, and witched-out bass rumbles dropping like 808s. But throughout the bleary blare and blown-out miasma, his human core was always present.C.W.
27 Big K.R.I.T. Return of 4Eva
Much like his Meridian, Mississippi hometown, beat-making auteur Big K.R.I.T. nestled at the midpoint between UGK’s Port Arthur, Texas, and T.I.’s Atlanta. But the second of his three mixtapes since he inked a Def Jam deal reveals some commercial potential behind this scuffler’s country-rap cassette nostalgia, candy-coated soul samples, and luxurious twang. Whether politically charged, emotionally drained, or just speaking on speakers, every track rides slow and gleams like an international player’s anthem.C.W.
26 Liturgy Aesthethica
The Lars von Trier of American black metal, wonderfully named Liturgist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix has infuriated purists with his heterodox views on the genre’s ecstatic poten-tial. (Google his infamous manifesto “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism.”) On his band’s second full-length, though, these Brooklynites make such a beautifully brutal racket that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could resist the urge to simply bliss out. They turn a cradle of filth into a clean, well-lighted place.M.W.

25 Cass McCombs Wit’s End/Humor Risk
Wherein Cass McCombs argues for the continuing relevance of old-fashioned singer-songwriters. On the contemplative Wit’s End and the louder Humor Risk, his rueful voice conveys tantalizing vignettes brimming with mordant humor. He doesn’t pretend to match Dylan’s flashy brilliance but betrays a similar curiosity about the eternal strange-ness of friends, lovers, and enemies. The standouts–End’s surreal “A Knock Upon the Door” and Risk’s haunting drug saga “Mystery Mail”–both feel too short.J.Y.
24 Deer Tick Divine Providence
Deer Tick leader John McCauley wasn’t even born when the Replacements’ Let It Be was released, but he’s obviously a quick study, with the majority of his homework focused on raucous shout-alongs about fuckups getting fucked up, built around choruses even the most alcohol-poisoned could belch along to (“Let’s All Go to the Bar,” “Something to Brag About”). But the homage would only go so far if McCauley’s put-upon rasp and beautiful-loser lyrics weren’t up to St. Paul’s standards.S.K.
23 Iceage New Brigade
Despite the many clangorous, angular reference points fighting for air on these Danish teens’ debut, its lifeblood is that nebulous X-factor no music nerd can chart: wild, implacable energy. The young band’s rumble is pure and dark and infectious enough to prompt a pit in your office kitchen, let alone some basement full of frustrated, flailing kids. Sore-throated steamrollers like “Collapse” and “You’re Blessed” force you to consider getting the hell out of their way. What a shame it’d be if you did.D.B.
22 Drake Take Care
He’s young, he’s gorgeous, he’s famous, he’s cocky, he’s miserable. Behold Humblebrag: The Album, a morosely beautiful, devastatingly earnest soft-rap epic bemoaning empty hedonism, with deep-space R&B beats backing cameos both hilarious (Rick Ross hits the sauna) and bracingly dour (Rihanna channels Jamie xx channeling Gil Scott-Heron). Then there’s “Marvin’s Room,” a stunner of a botched booty-call ballad that somehow turns “I’ve had sex four times this week” into a lament. Pity him now.R.H.
21 Youth Lagoon The Year of Hibernation
“So I’ll daydream about you / And I’ll think happy thoughts before somebody sees me,” young Trevor Powers murmurs sleepily on “Daydream,” and it sounds like the sort of drowsy babble you’d hear through a bedroom door. Listening to this lovely little indie-pop album feels somewhat voyeuristic, like witnessing someone else’s very private reverie; it’s thick with lo-fi atmosphere, conjuring up a warm-weather haze. The harder you try to focus, the harder it is to hold on to. Just give in.DAVID MENCONI

20 Shabazz Palaces Black Up
Nearly 20 years after dissolving ’90s jazzbos Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler re-emerges as the leader of this Seattle collective. Wrapping a black-power fist in a velvet glove, he critiques the white power structure and its supplicants (“Forgot they lynched us,” Butler growls on “Yeah You”) while leading a powwow set to bass drops, Afrobeat percussion, and MPC flurries. They may invoke the fiery nationalism of the Last Poets, but they’re savvy enough to welcome anyone who wants to join the dance.M.R.
19 M83 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
While many musicians speak of lousy family lives and dedicate their careers to compensating for those formative experiences, M83 main man Anthony Gonzalez recently confessed that he actually had a perfect childhood. And he strives to remember as much of it as possible through his music. Just as 2008’s Saturdays = Youth revisited the teenage galaxies of John Hughes movies (and their new-wave soundtracks) via ’80s synths and willfully plastic aesthetics, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming reaches back to Gonzalez’s own Antibes boyhood spent swooning over the sprawling, modular Moogs of ’70s krautrock and the massed-guitar orchestrations of ’90s alt-rock, particularly Smashing Pumpkins. There’s a loose concept here about a brother and sister communicating through shared dreams and genetics, but as with the similarly retro, synth-driven Drive soundtrack, the results bring to mind a European art film, one taking place in an idealized past where innocence is only an illusion away.B.W.
Dubstep–the awesomely loud American variation, at least–finally became a phenomenon in 2011. But that fist-pumping takeover also helped popularize “post-dubstep,” a headier alternative led this year by the masked man known only as SBTRKT. Here’s the thing, though: On the U.K. producer’s canny debut, his fusion of underground bass and instinctual dance pop (“Wildfire,” remixed by Drake) hit just as hard as any wobbling bass drop.BRANDON SODERBERG
17 Dum Dum Girls Only in Dreams
Growing up is harder to do than ever, but Dum Dum Girls make it sound incredibly easy with this alluring second album. Building on their 2010 debut’s of-the-moment, noise-encrusted guitar pop, Only in Dreams features a brighter, cleaner sound, while bandleader Kristin Gundred (a.k.a. Dee Dee) evokes Chrissie Hynde at her sultry best, spearheading a less stylized, more accessible approach that heightens the emotional punch of catchy gems like “Bedroom Eyes” and “Just a Creep.”J.Y.
16 Das Racist Relax
For their first commercial LP, this meta-rap trio go from P’Zone-fueled novelty geniuses to formidable MCs traversing the heart of snarkness via pixelated ringtone noise, Auto-Tuned chortling, and party-rock anthems. It’s wildly 2011, a wry Twitter feed of rap-nerd jokes and contemporary hipster runoff; more importantly, it’s the highest-profile release from an emerging fraternity (including Despot and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire) who represent the most energizing force in New York indie-rap since Def Jux’s heyday.C.W.

15 The Men Leave Home
Scrunching together halcyon indie-rock’s most trusted tropes, this Brooklyn foursome chars and gnarls them to perfection. Leave Home was recorded largely while guitarist-vocalist Nick Chiericozzi had the flu, so you can hear his voice crack and cave, especial-ly during the curdled wails of six-minute endurance trial “L.A.D.O.C.H.” and the corrosive, cold-cocking runs of “Bataille.” It all makes for an ultra-idiosyncratic set of sludge-enriched guitar so violent and indigestive that it somehow borders on the sublime.D.B.
14 Bon Iver Bon Iver
The sophomore album from Kanye’s favorite dude-bro begins with a hushed, rarefied intimacy most accurately compared to late-era Talk Talk, though it’s interrupted by alt-country twang at all the right moments, and climaxes with “Beth/Rest,” an oddly moving, go-for-broke, Bruce Hornsby�esque ballad that dares you to take it seriously. Forget about the mythical cabin in the woods: Instead, imagine a nice, cozy room full of ambitious friends boldly molding an inscrutable art-folk masterpiece.B.S.
13 The Weeknd House of Balloons/Thursday
Not since the late ’80s and early ’90s (when Teddy Riley reanimated R&B and Ice Cube sniped, “You can New Jack Swing on my nuts!”) or the late ’90s (when Missy and Timbaland hit ‘em wit da hee) has hip-hop felt so creatively outstripped by its more seductively inclined elder sibling. In 2011, the edgy, provocative action came from crooners, not spitters. Drake, Frank Ocean, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, and even indie sylphs like How to Dress Well, Balam Acab, Holy Other, and Purity Ring sent slow jams staggering down dark alleys, or crashing through glass coffee tables, or drifting into the unnerving ether.

But the freshest, most vexing new Prince of R&B was the Weeknd, a.k.a. inscrutable falsetto freakazoid and Toronto-based Drake confrere Abel Tesfaye, abetted by producers Illangelo and Doc McKinney. The Weeknd’s two free mixtapes–House of Balloons and Thursday–dazzled with sophisticated songcraft; but even more astoundingly, Tesfaye embodied an utterly lost, toxic spirit. His songs descended into a lush, melodic fog, where a war of the sexes raged in a series of wooze-inducing scenarios, as if Requiem for a Dream had been played out entirely in a South Beach strip club’s VIP-bathroom stall.

Like with Drake, some bemoaned the weary (unearned? entitled?) resignation in Tesfaye’s songs, how his characters’ blatant narcissism betrayed any basic social contract. But soul and R&B’s bedrock essence remains its commitment to expressing the struggle between spirituality and carnality, and in 2011, that struggle involved Internet-mediated self-absorption, perverse fantasy, and anxious isolation, fueled by a veritable flotilla of drugs.

Objectively, we may not want to hear a song that sounds like it’s luxuriating in our slo-mo crucifixion for every single sin that we’ve ever committed, as did Thursday’s “Life of the Party,” which idly pimp-slaps Nick Cave with a red right hand. But then again, you don’t really know what you want, now, do you?C.A.

12 Telekinesis 12 Desperate Straight Lines
Michael Benjamin Lerner and his girlfriend broke up–a bummer for them, a boon for us. The earnest Seattle native funneled his busted heart directly into a dozen perfectly grabby indie-pop songs, the kind Rivers Cuomo used to write in the garage, blending crunchy riffs and wistful melodies with the beautiful, cockeyed optimism ?of youth: “I could sit and wonder about where I went wrong / Or I can go out Friday and try to have fun.”C.G.
11 Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks Mirror Traffic
After spending a year or so playing Pavement songs all over the world, it’s not surprising that Stephen Malkmus’ fifth solo album would be redolent of his once-again former band’s barbed energy. He scales back the sprawling Allmans jams in favor of (relatively) direct tunes, with none of the effect, or affect, lost. And “Senator,” with its blowjob-desiring protagonist, landed at the height of the Anthony Weiner scandal, lending a whiff of zeitgeist that made it feel like the Clinton ’90s all over again.S.K.
10 Lykke Li Wounded Rhymes
If she came off cute but complicated on her 2008 debut, Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li is an abyss of angst now: Sadness isn’t just her muse, it’s her boyfriend. On tribal stompers (“Youth Knows No Pain”), groovy psychedelic tunes (“Rich Kid Blues”), and Wall of Sound symphonies zooted on Ambien (“Sadness Is a Blessing”), she plays soothsayer, temptress, and Ronette. Li’s rhymes may be bluesy, damaged goods, but that’s just the way this goth at the crossroads likes them.C.G.

9 Wild Flag Wild Flag
If it had only sounded like a faint echo of Sleater-Kinney infused with a whiff of Helium, the debut album teaming Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss (singer-guitarist and drummer of the former) with Mary Timony (singer-guitarist of the latter) and Rebecca Cole certainly would have found favor with Indie-Punk Aesthetes of a Certain Age. But the resulting ten songs–especially centerpiece freak-out “Racehorse”–are so giddy and breathless that easy nostalgia is their least intriguing quality.S.K.
8 G-Side The One…Cohesive
Frequently described as a Horatio Alger fantasy, hip-hop is really about self-actualization. So these ‘Bama strivers believed and dreamed of rap stardom while struggling to pay the phone bill. And on The One…Cohesive, they slow-cook country rap over Block Beattaz’s expansive production and scrape the sky. Still, it’s the memories of working dead-end jobs on “Came Up,” dismissing hometown haters on “Y U Mad,” and toiling on tracks in basement studios that form the album’s Dirty South soul.M.R.
7 The Rapture In the Grace of Your Love
For these New York dance-punk icons’ career reboot on original label DFA, frontman Luke Jenner stakes out an openly spiritual path. Illuminated by the friction between life’s increasing realness (marriage, fatherhood, family loss) and his renewed musical passions (house, gospel), In the Grace of Your Love churns bitterly while striving for humility. The album’s plaints–“Let me hear that song”; “Respect what I say”; “Aren’t we all children?”–take their power from the raw, yearning need in Jenner’s voice.C.A.
6 Danny Brown XXX
Some Internet-fueled hip-hop hustlers may have struggled to stick out in an abundant 2011 market, but Detroit’s Danny Brown has more singular tics than a professional wrestler. There’s his adenoidal honk of a voice, his Flock of Seagulls waterfall haircut, a deep insight into his hometown’s grittier alcoves, and a knack for verbal gymnastics amid feedback- and noise-flecked beats (one song samples This Heat). Luckily, he also raps like a motherfucker (occasionally about fucking your mother).C.W.

5 Girls Father, Son, Holy Ghost
In his endlessly endearing zonked-na�f voice, Christopher Owens coos candidly that girls don’t like his bony body and declares that he cares more about his crush’s band than the war. He’s like a lovable-scamp version of Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon. The music doesn’t futz around, either: Crisp boppers and winsome ballads glow with genius melodies. Even when things stretch out (see the wailing background vocals on “Vomit”), they move true–the only way Girls know how.D. M.
4 Kurt Vile Smoke Ring for My Halo
“I don’t wanna give up,” slurs jangly mystic Kurt Vile on the sparkling “Peeping Tomboy,” “but I kinda wanna lie down.” As a slogan, that ain’t exactly “Live Free or Die,” but damned if this dude hasn’t nailed our day-to-day existence. He also transcends it, conjuring gorgeous layers of cascading guitar, bindle-stiff folk-blues progressions, reverb haze, and hypnotic heartland-rock melodies. Vile is the regular guy as shaman, and on Smoke Ring he cast the year’s earthiest, most enthralling spell.D.M.
3 EMA Past Life Martyred Saints
As one half of romantically charged, now-defunct punk outfit Gowns, Erika M. Anderson put herself through a serious ringer. On the singer-songwriter’s solo debut, she rips open her stitches and lets us crawl inside. Seismic drones drift into hushed strums and Isaac Brock-ish guitar webs, powering EMA’s incantations turned anthems. It doesn’t feel hyperbolic to suggest that someone somewhere needed to hear this music just as badly as Anderson needed to make it.D.B.
2 PJ Harvey Let England Shake
That’s “Blighty” as in “blight.” On this unflinching elegy, England’s fruit are deformed children, its rivers are fetid, its ground the color of blood. The word death comes up quite frequently. This is not feel-good stuff; it’s bigger than that. PJ Harvey’s voice is so heroically strong, the rustic arrangements so bracingly irreducible that Let England Shake’s brutal vision becomes beautiful and redemptive. “Let it burn,” she commands on the shimmering “Written on the Forehead.” Then things will grow.D.M.

1 Fucked Up David Comes to Life
One could argue (and we did, in our story on the band in the January-February issue!) that Fucked Up’s rock opera David Comes to Life was uniquely resonant upon its June release because of the emotional synchronicity between an album that spilled forth with such an appropriately chaotic narrative and a year in which tumultuous disarray became the norm. But good lord, David Comes to Life could’ve been sung in backwards Tagalog and it still would’ve made perfect sense in 2011. That’s the power of a gang of punks playing with Olympian levels of passion and purpose.

Listen to David’s psychedelic fuzz-wave of guitars crest and break on “One More Night.” Feel Jonah Falco’s rocket-powered Ramones beat blast all 18 tracks forward. Absorb the bittersweet vocal guest spots from Kurt Vile, Cults’ Madeline Follin, and Jennifer Castle. Hear the sympathy, anger, love, and regret in frontman Damian Abraham’s intensely human roar. Yes, there’s a story — about the redemption of a beaten-down English factory worker–embedded in the ambitious, rambunctious Toronto sextet’s boundary-pushing songs, but it needs no explanation. Fucked Up have synthesized 40 years of rock into what’s ostensibly a hardcore record, and in doing so created its own logic. So bang your head. Beat your chest. Follow your heart. There’s the story — for this year or any other. D.M.

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