10. The Weeknd: House of Balloons [self-released]
When the Weeknd magically appeared from the internet ether, there was something truly total about it all: they had the visual aesthetic down, immaculate production, and in Abel Tesfaye, one of the year's most distinctive new talents. House of Balloons takes the NyQuil tint of recent efforts by artists like Drake and The-Dream to a place of uncomfortably photorealistic, gritty darkness: that it's sung with a cherubic voice so clear and sweet only makes it more unsettling. Moving beyond the usual tropes of drugs and excess, House of Balloons presents a world of overdose, withdrawal, chemically-paralyzed sex and vaguely violent seduction, with Tesfaye rendering hip-hop's celebratory narcissism into something downright detestable.
And yet this mysterious entity manages to pull it all off with music that embodies the self-indulgent nature of its own Dionysian decadence, sprawl and all. Seven-minute epics like "The Party & the After Party" and "Loft Music" perfectly reflect the rapidly unraveling personality on display, while "What You Need" infuses up-to-date production values into the best Sade ballad in years, oozing silk even as it bleeds itself out. Yet no matter how conceited the Weeknd becomes, through the faux-psychedelic swirl of follow-up Thursday and pretentious conceptual videos, they've never been anything less than captivating. Inventive, frightening, and dangerously accessible, House of Balloons is an album whose licentious charms are impossible to resist, its uncensored visions of nocturnal saturnalia soothing and disturbing in equal measure. --Andrew Ryce
09. Real Estate: Days [Domino]
Real Estate's sophomore set is another slab of sleepy suburban sprawl, wasted miles, and those long teenage hours spent hammering out what's real and shrugging off what isn't. Frontman Martin Courtney casts a wistful (but not too wistful) gaze back to his more guileless years, nodding to something like a lost innocence, letting a few phrases say so much. There's a grace and understatement to everything Courtney and company muster that seems to slow everything down just a bit, like they're out a little past curfew and don't want to arouse any suspicion. With slowhand Matt Mondanile's guitar cruising along at about 25 MPH, Days plays like a townie's guided tour through the very same localities they charted on their debut, offering back-of-my-hand stops at all the highlights.
It's not a record that smacks of ambition, exactly, but it gathers its strength in seeming incredibly comfortable with where it's from and what it's doing there, even if it's not too far from where they've been all along. Somewhere in the languid byways of "Municipality", I can hear these Jersey guys tottering around Ridgewood or doing donuts in Montclair, gulping down Frostys as friends talk shit in the backseat. A careless lifestyle? Perhaps. But, the way Real Estate tell it, not so unwise. --Paul Thompson
08. Drake: Take Care [Cash Money/Young Money/Universal Republic]
"Weezy and Stunna my only role models/ Hef and Jordan my only role models." On "Lord Knows", Drake toasts to four absurdly rich and successful assholes who are by all accounts manipulative, emotionally unavailable, and altogether miserable human beings. So while they might be Drake's peer group, they are not the men he aspires to be on Take Care. Boasting more complex songwriting, vastly improved mic skills, and an astounding curatorial ear, Drake opened himself up to pretty much everything the human condition has to offer.
With partners Noah "40" Shebib and the Weeknd in tow, Take Care integrates dubstep, house, blaring Young Money boasts, New York City thunder, quiet storm, and cloud rap to form the dark center of 2011's pop universe. And yeah, "I blew six million on myself and it felt amazing" isn't something any of us will relate to any time soon, but the elemental sensations underpinning the mood swings connecting the title track's wounded heart, the stunning emotional bottom of "Marvins Room", and the earned triumph of "Underground Kings"-- intoxication, depression, friendship, hatred, jealousy, empathy, lust, loneliness, ego, doubt-- make Drake's experience no more contradictory and complex than our own. In fact, the only emotion that might be missing from Take Care is contentment-- closer "The Ride" might sound like a victory lap for his sophomore album, but then Drake promises "my junior and senior will only get meaner-- take care." So what do you give the man who has it all? The gift of thinking he doesn't. --Ian Cohen
Photo by Anna M. Campbell
07. tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l [4AD]
Though Merrill Garbus' percussive w h o k i l l pulls from a variety of genres and cultures, when listening to it I kept coming back to Walt Whitman. The two fearlessly gleeful weirdos share a penchant for celebrating real live flesh, and they also have a thing for rewriting national anthems in their own, scribbled hands. w h o k i l l's opening salvo is a killer: "My country, 'tis of thee/ Sweet land of liberty/ How come I cannot see my future within your arms?"
If ever there were a year that needed songs asking questions like that one, it was 2011. True to its times, w h o k i l l is a hand-rendered map of a shrunken country: fractured in the face of economic inequality, dwindling natural resources, and seemingly insurmountable political and social divides. "With my eyes open, how can I be happy?" Garbus shouts midway through "My Country", but the bravery and the genius of w h o k i l l is in how it never once closes its eyes, undaunted by ugliness, internal struggles (Garbus sometimes uses vocal loops in such a way that it sounds like she's having a heated argument with herself), or even the most complex revelations. In "Riotriot", the sheer full-throated power of her voice turns a squirmy confession into something strangely liberating: "There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand/ And like I've never felt before!"w h o k i l l's 10 songs-of-self are testaments to the power of an idiosyncratic voice, and they're also reminders of the deceptively simple human demands that unite us. In mid-October, a few miles from her country's capitol building and a few more from the city's branch of the Occupation, I saw Garbus open a sold-out show with the call-and-response chant she's opening all her sets with these days. "DO YOU WANT TO LIVE?" she asked the audience. The unanimous roar that followed was as inevitable as it was affirming: YEAH! --Lindsay Zoladz
06. Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica [Mexican Summer/Software]
In the two years since Daniel Lopatin collected the best of his limited-run output as the 2xCD Rifts, his Oneohtrix Point Never project has become one of the new synth-music underground's most reliable purveyors of trippy, arpeggio-heavy psychedelia. Last year's Returnal marked an intensification of his method and an amplification of his range-- from pure noise to breathtaking lyricism-- but it didn't significantly break with his established mode. Replica does. For one thing, it's the first time that sampling has become central to OPN's music. While Lopatin hasn't retired his trusty Roland Juno 60, it plays a supporting role, adding color and texture to loops sourced from bootleg DVDs of old television ads.
Knowing the backstory supports the techno-nostalgia at play in all Lopatin's music, but it's not necessary to appreciate the sonics themselves, which are severed from any obvious referent-- there's nothing kitschy or crassly retro here. Instead, the new sounds and textures have the effect of breaking open what, until now, had felt like a hermetically sealed world. The smeared mush of frequencies that characterized previous records falls away, revealing lilting cartoon xylophones, quizzical hiccups, and delicate percussive loops that crunch like boots in snow. "Up" employs tribal drum machines of a type unimaginable on an OPN record until now-- and in 7/4 time, at that-- while "Child Soldier" features reconfigured R&B voices over lasers and dentist drills. Lopatin even indulges in stately piano melodies, proving that last year's unlikely collaboration with Antony wasn't as out of character as it seemed at the time.
It's an immaculately paced album, veering from placid ambient interludes to quietly chaotic constellations of found sound; Replica's subjects are media, memory, and the space-time continuum, but the mind/heart dichotomy is the axis around which it revolves. --Philip Sherburne
Photo by Sandy Kim
05. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost [True Panther]
As its title indicated, Girls' 2009 debut, Album, was a triumph of simplicity, from its familiar 50s-rock references to all the songs about Lauras and Lauren Maries to the way "Hellhole Ratrace" copped the "Hey Jude" trick of repeating the same refrain over and over again to create an instant sing-along anthem. But anyone who's read a single article about Girls knows that leader Christopher Owens' life hasn't been all pizzas and bottles of wine, and this darker subtext came to the fore on the band's second full-length.This is a heavy record-- and not just because Girls try to flex some surprising Black Sabbath muscle on "Die". For an album that begins with Owens' self-deprecatingly acknowledging his "bony body" and "dirty hair," Father, Son, Holy Ghost is brimming with confidence and fearlessness, as Girls tackle tough subject matters-- fading romance, spiritual emptiness, reconciling with family-- with the weightiness they deserve, by eschewing Album's ramshackle scrappiness for the classic-rock-radio sophistication of Billy Preston-era Beatles and early-70s Pink Floyd. (Should you not have a copy of The Dark Side of the Moon handy, the gospelized climax of "Vomit" would no doubt match up really well with the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz.) And where Album frontloaded its most immediately engaging songs, everything on Father, Son, Holy Ghost feels like a steady build-up to the late-act stunner "Forgiveness", eight minutes of understated devastation that feels like we're eavesdropping in on the most difficult conversation of Owens' life. Girls were too quick to name their debut record-- even more so than its predecessor, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a capital-A Album. --Stuart Berman
04. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake [Vagrant/Island Def Jam]
PJ Harvey: "The Words That Maketh Murder":
"How is our glorious country sown?" That question, or some strain of it, faulty premise and all, was at the root of pretty much every important thing that happened in 2011. Whether Occupy Wall Street, the London Riots, or the Arab Spring, this year's dominant political ideology was the kind of upheaval that can only be sparked when pat answers to elemental questions-- What do we believe in? What do we deserve?-- no longer satisfy.
And although Let England Shake-- a rickety den of ghost-war stories, tremulous pastoralism and good old fashioned muckraking-- was one of PJ Harvey's most critically adored records, it also spawned its fair share of haters. Amongst detractors, the infamous bugle call that rips clumsily through "The Glorious Land" became a talisman of Let England Shake's supposed heavy-handedness. But when I hear that Reveille, I don't hear finger-wagging; I hear Harvey antagonizing us with war's blinking single-mindedness. I hear Harvey saying that war is (tone)deaf, dumb, and mute, and that the only way to stop something with no sense is with an equal and opposing act of visceral destruction. "How is our glorious country sown-- not with wheat and corn." The notion that humanity is not at the heart of progress is hardly a new one, but it rang rawer than usual this year, and no other record even came close to capturing that. --Mark Pytlik
Photo by Anouk
03. M83: Hurry Up, We're Dreaming [Mute]
M83 [ft. Zola Jesus]: "Intro":
Anthony Gonzalez set expectations stratospherically high in interviews leading up to Hurry Up We're Dreaming, name-checking such totems of feverish excess and emotional overload as Smashing Pumpkins' Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Beatles' White Album, and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. But what he eventually unveiled-- 22 tracks of horizon-spanning, unabashedly epic synth rock, a double album without a wasted moment (yes, even including that five-year-old's monologue about magic frogs)-- still managed to confound those expectations. It's hard to think of anyone in indie rock in 2011 who aimed higher, and hit that aim more squarely, than Gonzalez.
His working formula for this audacious feat seemed to be Steal All the Good Parts: If a sound has ever made you break out into a foolish, cheesed-out grin you couldn't suppress, it's probably here. String orchestras, glacial expanses of synthesizers, children's choirs, ringing rounds of mandolin, screaming woolly saxophone-- Hurry Up We're Dreaming doesn't just draw liberally from the spirit of the massive rock albums Gonzalez name-checked, it practically swallows them whole, regurgitating and redistributing them into something listeners from every corner of the music universe can hear a piece of their lives in. --Jayson Greene
02. Destroyer: Kaputt [Merge]
The cover of Destroyer's Kaputt finds Dan Bejar in front of the picturesque lookout point in Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Park. Walk a few steps away from that spot in the park, and you'll find another view with a charmingly meta bronze sculpture called "The Photo Session" in the middle of it. The 1984 piece is made up of four life-size people, one photographer and his three American-tourist subjects, and the idea is for actual sightseers to mingle with their metal counterparts, creating a peculiar mix of old and new, breathing and bronze. It turns the typical cheese-ball vacation photo into something weirder and self-reflexive.
That same uncanny effect goes gauzy all through Kaputt, which has Bejar soaking up some of his favorite high-fidelity records-- Roxy Music's Avalon, Steely Dan's Aja-- and filtering their reverbed, horn-spouting sounds through his own unique, free-associative consciousness. The languid music constantly flirts with bad taste stalwarts like lite jazz and soft rock and, in doing so, jumbles our own preconceptions. The result is disorienting-- and wholly pleasurable.
And it turns out these open-ended instrumentals are the perfect foil for Bejar, who abandons his characteristically stuffed and manic lyrical style for something more relaxed. Indeed, he recalled recording some of the album's vocals "while lying down on the couch." After 15 years, this is where Bejar stops worrying about being the cleverest indie rock writer around, which is OK because he's been doing this so long that the smarts simply flow out of his brain anyhow.
Kaputt is an album of mantras about uncomfortable truths made comforting by Bejar's impossibly casual delivery: He's been there, he's seen death and drugs and evaporated dreams, and he wouldn't trade in one spec. On what may be the record's most beatific-sounding hook, on "Song for America", he duets with guest singer Sibel Thrasher: "Winter, spring, summer, and fall/ Animals crawl toward death's embrace." It's a sing-along, Bejar-style. His understated humor is intact, but Kaputt is no joke. It would be far too easy for Bejar to simply poke fun at so many swishy synths, lounge-lizard inflections, and cruise-ship bass lines, but he does something much tougher here. He redeems them. --Ryan Dombal
Photo by D.L. Anderson
01. Bon Iver: Bon Iver [Jagjaguwar]
Bon Iver might be the record that frees Bon Iver from the myth of Bon Iver: from the endlessly repeated creation saga (cabin, heartbreak, Wisconsin), from the detailed evocations of his beard, from the loaded allusions to his partnership with Kanye West. Bon Iver opens with six long seconds of silence, a clearing. Keep this in mind.
Unlike 2008's For Emma, Forever Ago, which operated mostly within established folk idioms, Bon Iver is unfamiliar, expansive, and searching. Here, spread over shimmery soft rock, Justin Vernon's falsetto is imbued with a childlike longing-- not for a person or a place, but for meaning. He pushes that voice to exigent altitudes, manipulating it in a way that feels both generous and self-effacing; it melts onto the surface of these songs, becoming another strata, a texture, an easy analogue to all the keyboards and sax blows and effects-laden guitar. Talking about the album's copious layers-- and there are dozens, stacked like bricks-- without employing dopey language (even Vernon has referred to these songs as "soundscapes") or barely graspable metaphors has proved a bit of a critical challenge. Ultimately, it feels sufficient just to say that Bon Iver is masterfully assembled-- an ambitious, occasionally devastating exercise in arranged sound.There's also the album's hazy narrative arc. Songs are titled after real places ("Lisbon, OH", "Calgary") and fake places ("Hinnom, TX", "Minnesota, WI"), but there's no significant difference between the actual and the imagined. So much of Bon Iver concerns memory-- how the passage of time affects our bodies and the way we love, how we reckon with old mistakes, how we abandon prior versions of ourselves-- and to that end, Vernon is a deceptively sharp linguist, mixing nonsensical phrases ("Armor let it through, borne the arboretic truth") with deliberately specific references ("3rd and Lake, it burnt away/ The hallway was where we learned to celebrate"). It's dream-logic, the way memory works. And while listeners might be tasked with supplying the connective tissue, Vernon and his backers provide ample support, a rubric for introspection. Eventually, these songs start to play like emotional Mad-Libs, and a declaration like "I was not magnificent," with its excruciating combination of hubris and humility, becomes an undeniable prompt, a blank to fill in. A cue for whatever kind of self-examination 2011 might have wrought. --Amanda Petrusich