Every year, the residents of Baker House, a dormitory near the Charles River on the MIT campus (officially Building W7), push a non-functioning, beyond-repair piano off the roof of the building. It falls six stories and lands near the tennis courts. The first Baker House Piano Drop, done in 1972, is captured in the photo on the cover of Tim Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972. There's actually a unit of volume, the Bruno, named after the racket made by the impact.Hecker chose the image because it reminded him of "digital garbage," and he set out to make an album that decayed right in front of the listener but never disappeared entirely. The basis for the album is a day's worth of organ recordings made in a Reykjavik cathedral; Hecker uses processors, synths, effects, and production techniques to encrust the pure tones of the organ in a prismatic swirl of crackling noise. These pieces have real body and movement, the organ piercing the noise like points of sun through a dense canopy. Hecker never gives us a literal recording of the piano drop, but you get the sense that this is what it would sound like, slowed down and stretched over fifty minutes, each splinter breaking free and wire snapping, leaving behind only the purest echo. --Joe Tangari
29. DJ Quik
The Book of David
"I don't give a fuck about you, you, her, him, that bitch, that nigga, y'all them," hisses DJ Quik on the very first line of his eighth album. To be fair, not many rappers will cop to "giving a fuck," but Quik is able to stay truer to his word than most. As the lone luminary of classic Compton who isn't off producing TBS sitcoms or spinning Dr. Pepper cans on his finger, Quik has both an audience and total autonomy.
That freedom is a rare, valuable commodity these days, and where last year he used it to release an album with fellow MC Kurupt that was as rewarding as it was experimental, in 2011 Quik rediscovered the comfort zone from where he produced a number of classic party albums, and from a listener's perspective that's a very good place for him to be. And though the backbone of The Book of David is those patented funky party records, it's when Quik lashes out at his doubters, his family, and Pharrell (!) on tracks like "Fire and Brimstone" and "Ghetto Rendezvous" that the album most comes alive. Rap will always be a young man's game, but this year the hardest and most fun rap album of the year came from a guy who is turning 42 in January. --Jordan Sargent
28. Cut Copy
Relative to Cut Copy's In Ghost Colours, the reaction to Zonoscope was muted. As good as the transcendent build-and-release of "Need You Now" was, when compared with the former LP's lead singles, it felt like a sidestep instead of a leap forward. But even if it didn't carry the shock of its predecessor, Zonoscope won out on the strength of Cut Copy's craftsmanship, showing just how skilled they are at adapting their influences and making them their own. So we got well-rendered moments: the Tango in the Night-era Fleetwood Mac sheen of "Take Me Over" and the sunshine pop harmonies of "Where I'm Going" interlaced with songs full of sharp hooks, patient builds, and choruses that grew more ingratiating with every spin. And when Cut Copy experimented with songwriting structure, as on "Pharaohs & Pyramids", which mixed Chicago house with the group's new wave feel for melody, they were even better. Above all, Cut Copy showed that they know how to weave new songs from familiar touch-points and that they have the songwriting chops to make the patchwork feel of a piece. --David Drake
Cut Copy: "Need You Now":
If you're one of the most successful and talented people in the world and are married to another one of the most successful and talented people in the world, there's danger in releasing an album about how awesome your relationship is. But 4 works thematically because Beyoncé isn't bragging; she's singing about how she feels happy, at ease, and loved. Since that's all anybody really wants, who could be mad at it? Beyond that, the record is a showcase of what Mrs. Carter-Knowles does so well, which is collecting great beats, singing her lungs out over top of them, and offering something for everybody along the way. You've got the so-thumping-it's-almost-silly club banger ("Countdown"), the even-your-mom-loves-it tearjerker ("1+1"), the empowerment jam ("Best Thing I Never Had"), and a few more heaters. Personal contentment, it seems, has done wonders for her artistic restlessness. --Joe Colly
26. The Field
Looping State of Mind
To say the Field has only one trick is to miss the point. Yes, Axel Willner plies a very specific, idiosyncratic sound, spinning discreet micro-samples into fluffy ambient techno clouds. But not only is it an aesthetic worthy of repetition, it's also proven surprisingly pliable and expressive three albums on. Looping State of Mind can't recreate the surprise of From Here We Go Sublime, but it manages the considerable feat of synthesizing that album's cohesion of mood with the more opened-up sound and fleshed-out live instrumentation of Yesterday & Today, from the deep bassline that drops into the mid-tempo drift of "Is This Power" to the Matthew Dear-like vocal mumbles of "Burned Out". And while much of the album is content with gorgeous reiteration (centerpiece "Arpeggiated Love" is like the ur-Field song), it also sees Willner stretching his sound to some new limits: "Then It's White", with its patient, melancholy piano line, is possibly the softest thing the Field's ever done, which is saying a lot. Big change-ups are flashy, but in his career as in his tracks, the Field finds great potential in repetition, subtly varied. --Eric Grandy
25. Gang Gang Dance
On 2008's Saint Dymphna, Gang Gang Dance made their most succinct set of statements to date. Their desire to sift a broad range of pan-global signifiers through concise pop frameworks continued on this year's Eye Contact, but it also found them building bridges to their past. The sprawling opener "Glass Jar" felt like a half step back to the spliced-up experimentation of 2005's Hillulah, where the rich seam of inspiration they were dipping into needed a greater expanse of time to properly come to fruition. But those echoes didn't prevent this relentlessly forward thinking group from evolving, particularly in the treatment of Lizzi Bougatsos' vocals, which were given more clarity than ever before. On tracks like the infectious "MindKilla", that brighter approach opened up the possibility of Gang Gang Dance functioning as an off-kilter pop act, ready to court a wider audience than the one they've patiently built over the past decade. It's something they haven't achieved yet, but judging from the manic joy of their live shows this year, in which Bougatsos fully embraced her frontwoman role, it stands to reason that the next album could push them further in that direction. --Nick Neyland
24. Julianna Barwick
The Magic Place
In the last decade, what's long been categorized as indie rock has metastasized toward the mainstream, a process that's been abetted by placement in soundtracks for bands from Bon Iver and Broken Social Scene to Iron & Wine and Imogen Heap. There are a dozen reasons for the incorporation of such artists into major motion pictures, not least of which is their collective feel for texture: As concerned with the song's surroundings as they are with the songs themselves, these bands engender atmosphere.
Julianna Barwick's The Magic Place seems like a natural fit for scores and such; the nine largely a cappella and generally wordless tracks of her second LP create five-minute windows into seemingly infinite worlds of sound, where one little melody bobs to strange rhythms. Indeed, music this pretty often runs the risk of being confined to scores, functioning more to affirm an on-screen moment's importance or majesty than to create it. But Barwick's correlated senses of timing, restraint, melody, and momentum shape their own drama. This is rare music for making even pedestrian gestures seem significant, for making the humdrum resonate newly with wonder. --Grayson Currin
23. Bill Callahan
"I watch 'David Letterman'… in Australia!" Bill Callahan has often written and sung about the distances between us, people and places and times in our life. He has not done so in a funnier or a truer way than on "America!", a song written from the throes of an international tour, where a late-night talk show is the only thing that can make you feel closer to home. But "America!" shapeshifts, from a lonely hotel room night cry into a spiraling self-examination of patriotism and military service. Callahan names names: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Mickey Newbury, among others, by their rank and title, before muttering "I never served my country." The song, until then a gentle acoustic stroll, spiders out into distorted, unconstructed riffs. It's a damned strange and wonderful song, one that is both searching and goofy, violent and interior, incisive and oblique. So, you know, a Bill Callahan song.
After 14 albums, Apocalypse marks a great moment of clarity for Callahan-- he's never sung better or with more strength, his wobbly voice now a tough, controlled baritone. Apocalypse-- a title that seems as much about the incineration of the world around us as it does a cruel joke about overusing that word to describe things that aren't so bad-- has just seven songs. But there is gravitas, a heaviness in each of them, even when things get dependably strange-- flutes! whistling! whimsical punctuation!-- as on the hepcat gambol "Free's". That song is followed by the heaviest of all, "One Fine Morning", a hall of fame Callahan number (few else could get away with the grandiosity of imagery) that's nearly nine minutes long. It finds him singing, optimistically, "We're gonna ride out in a country kind of silence." --Sean Fennessey
Bill Callahan: "Riding For the Feeling":
22. The Caretaker
An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
[History Always Favours the Winners]
Can the simple addition of vinyl crackle turn a jaunty tune into a melancholy listen? How long can you repeat a snatch of melody before the happiness drains away and it turns faintly unnerving? Is it possible to create a sense of something's-not-right-here eeriness through the kind of music that once got your great-grandparents slow dancing? Leyland Kirby's Caretaker project sets out to answer these questions.
Inspired by both the mental disintegration of Alzheimer's disease and the ballroom sequences in Kubrick's version of The Shining, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World evokes haunted heads more than haunted houses. Kirby uses the simplest materials-- short samples taken from literally warped LPs of romantic standards and static-ridden 78s of 1920s dance band music-- to create music that carries an almost unbearable sense of loss. And the surface fuzz becomes an inadvertent instrument in its own right. Foregrounding it, Kirby adds texture and variety to those brief instrumental phrases, and as with artists like Philip Jeck, he realizes that vinyl noise now carries its own unique emotional charge. Combined with Kirby's evocative song titles, Empty Bliss conjure an elderly listener replaying the same old favorite, over and over, as they struggle to get back to the joy they felt hearing it for the first time. --Jess Harvell
21. Jay-Z / Kanye West
Watch the Throne
[Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella/Roc Nation]
At a time when economic disparity seems to bisect every cultural and political paradigm, the least sensitive thing you could possibly do-- aside from declare pizza a vegetable-- would be to release a record that often reads like a Kardashian sister's letter to Santa tucked into a gold-embossed Riccardo Tisci envelope. But remember, we're dealing with two professionals here, both smart enough to know that rap as reality is as important as rap as escapism. Watch the Throne may have felt wretchedly excessive at times, but as anyone who can attest to getting down to "Niggas in Paris" seven or eight or nine (or ten!) times in a row can tell you, it's sure fun to play dress-up to. Maybe there was something in the more relatable elements presented here-- ruminations on the price of fame, fatherhood, and race-- that lead us to take momentary respite from this embarrassment of riches and try to grasp the bigger picture. Maybe not: For these guys, overblown excess is a rewarding means unto itself. --Zach Kelly