20. Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise [Circus Company]
Nicolas Jaar borrows his sense of structure from techno-- rhythmic, repetitive, linear-- but Space Is Only Noise isn't dance music. What it is, I'm not sure, but Space's musical amphibiousness-- the exploratory, inconclusive way it straddles so many different sounds-- is also what made me keep revisiting it: While this album is not unfriendly or difficult to listen to, it never really gets up to shake your hand, either.Jaar's source material is either acoustic or has a frizzed, old-shoe texture: movie dialogue, water, Ray Charles, children. The tracks are hitched to melodies and generally last between three and five minutes, but they don't feel like songs. On the few occasions when Jaar opens his mouth, he chants cosmic nonsense in a low, strange voice. In nearly every case, he errs on the side of telling you too little instead of too much. Part of the experience, then, is making constellations out of what's left in the mix. Several minutes into "Keep Me There", for example, we hear the sound of a couple giggling quietly, followed by the eruption of horns. Think about it. Get R-rated. There's something alluring-- sexy, even-- about patience. --Mike Powell
19. Danny Brown: XXX [Fool's Gold]
Fueled by Danny Brown's complex, oddball personality, XXX is a careening ride with its own kind of nervy logic. "I Will" is a lewd, kinda sensitive ode to performing oral sex that recalls Lil Wayne's transgressive mixtape days; "Scrap or Die" is a totally un-snarky corrective to Young Jeezy's "Trap or Die", cleverly unveiling a side of poverty connected to the small-stakes sale of scrap metal to junkyards. "Bruiser Brigade" is pretty much a hardcore song complete with crew vocals, and whoa--"Adderall Admiral" samples This Heat's "Horizontal Hold" and Hawkwind?!
And then, on the absolutely devastating second half of the record, the other shoe drops and all the drinking and drugging finally catches up with Danny. So he projects his neuroses onto pill-popping college girls, traces the roots of his vices to a fucked-up family, and speaks on the damn near post-apocalyptic climate of his Detroit hometown until all the pain comes rushing right back on album closer "30", a victory rap lap with a drunken horn beat, tugged along by a swaggering celebration of success and a nagging death wish. Danny Brown is loads of fun to listen to because he raps like a maniac, hilariously and tragically, about any and everything, but XXX stays on your iPod thanks to its precarious balance between being wildly unhinged and conceptually sound. --Brandon Soderberg
18. Atlas Sound: Parallax [4AD]
Bradford Cox is hardly the first artist to maintain a primary band and solo career concurrently. But where most performers in that position maintain an oppositional relationship between the two gigs (take, for example, Thurston Moore's work within and without Sonic Youth), in Cox's case, each new release represents the next stage in an ongoing dialogue between his projects. And with his latest one-two tandem of Deerhunter's 2010 release Halcyon Digest and this year's Atlas Sound LP, Parallax, he's hit a new high watermark of mutually inspired activity.
Where it was once a receptacle for Cox's most outré ideas, Atlas Sound has now become a reservoir for some of his most accessible songs, as Halcyon Digest's flirtations with AM-radio gold sounds ("Don't Cry", "Revival", "Memory Boy") are furthered refined into Parallax's pristine "Mona Lisa" and "Angel Is Broken", while the baroque flourishes of Halcyon's epic closer "He Would Have Laughed" are compacted into the wondrous "Te Amo". But if Parallax suggests Cox is becoming ever more comfortable with the idea of being a pop singer-- or at least playing the role of one on the Mick Rock-shot cover-- he still applies enough textural disorientation to lend these instantly familiar "Modern Aquatic Nightsongs" an alien, isolated quality. Parallax is a desert-island disc in every sense of the term: even the most radiant moments emit the desolate ambience of a life spent alone among the wind and the waves. --Stuart Berman
Photo by Loren Wohl
17. Clams Casino: Instrumentals [self-released]
There's a startling moment on Clams Casino's debut mixtape when a phlegm-soaked scream rises above the gorgeous murk before quickly being subsumed once again. It sounds like the last gasp of all the East Coast rap this New Jersey producer grew up on-- Dipset, Wu Tang, Mobb Deep-- making its presence known, handing the beat down. When I interviewed Clams (real name Mike Volpe) in March, his claim to fame was working with internet concern Lil B; by year's end, he had production credits on a No. 1 album as well as the debut from the hottest-tipped new hip-hop star around, A$AP Rocky. Not bad for a guy who was soliciting random rappers on MySpace not so long ago.
And even though he's deservedly gaining notice and collaborators for his slow-moving tracks-- which combine Houston's screwed pace and New York's punchy bap and some supremely chillaxed ambient muzak you might hear during a massage-- this tape shows that the Clams Casino sound is best heard on its own. It's heavy, like each track is carrying a medicine ball on its back. It's soothing-- bird chirps and wave crashes can be heard across the tape. And it's completely faded, with each track instantly puffing up its own druggy cloud. Volpe doesn't only represent a new era sonically, but creatively as well.
Instead of digging in dusty basements for apt obscurity like instrumental rap forebears DJ Shadow or RJD2, this beatmaker finds his sources randomly online: "To find things to sample, I used to just type a random word-- like 'blue' or 'cold'-- into LimeWire or BearShare and download the first 10 results," he told me. "I had no idea who the artists were or anything." This modern technique sounds like one of Brian Eno's oblique strategies, a way to spur inspiration while making music. But it's also the only way Volpe knows. He's not seeking out muses in scratchy vinyl. He's seeking out feelings, words, whims, and then letting the sounds come to him. --Ryan Dombal
16. Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo [Matador]
For such a skilled and prolific artist, Kurt Vile sings an awful lot about being lazy. Virtually every track on his masterful fourth album speaks to a desire for rest, sloth, or some form of quiet solace. "I don't want to work but I don't want to sit around all day frowning," he sings. This apparent longing for inactivity, combined with the album's enveloping, melancholic sound, serves to reinforce the impression that these songs are things that somehow just happen, as though Vile himself would be powerless to stop them, even if he wanted to.
But by all evidence Vile's slacker fantasy is, for now, purely aspirational. On Smoke Ring For My Halo and its attendant follow-up EP, So Outta Reach, each track is filled with finely-wrought lyrical and instrumental detail, displaying a level of craftsmanship that belies Vile's nonchalant delivery. Particularly entrancing are acoustic tracks like "Runner Ups" and "Peeping Tomboy", where Vile's delicate fingerpicked guitars can summon the spirit of his late, lamented compatriot Jack Rose. On "Jesus Fever" and "Society Is My Friend", he displays an admirable knack for offhanded melodic hooks that can embed themselves seamlessly into memory, ready to slink into the hum of daily life at a moment's notice. And though Vile's slippery drawl sounds ideally suited to deliver such self-deprecating nuggets as "My whole life's been one long running gag," this hangdog appearance can be deceptive. It's hard work making music this easy. --Matthew Murphy
15. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues [Sub Pop]
In early 2009, Robin Pecknold rented a house about 50 miles north of Seattle to start work on Fleet Foxes' sophomore album. The folk-rockers' self-titled 2008 debut had already sold more than a half-million copies worldwide and topped various year-end lists (including Pitchfork's). Majestically updating age-old American folk music with well-chosen patches from Brian Wilson's ornate orchestral pop and the windswept contemporary indie rock of My Morning Jacket or Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes was a tough act to follow.
It took two years of obsessive tinkering, and at least temporarily cost Pecknold his girlfriend, but Helplessness Blues succeeds on an Ansel Adams scale. Musically, Fleet Foxes stay true to sun-dappled acoustic guitars and dewy choirboy harmonies, adding 1960s British psych-folk nuances and even a flurry of free-jazz skronk; fans of Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or Van Morrison's Astral Weeks should be on familiar ground. Where the debut's lyrics were timeless and impressionistic, however, Helplessness Blues' concerns are specific and of-the-moment. Out of a generation and an upbringing that insists on the unique specialness of every single person, Pecknold asks whether freedom might not, after all, be about more than rugged individualism.Borrowing and stealing from a rich musical tradition, Helplessness Blues reminds us what's ours. In the process, it joins the pantheon of source material for some other young searcher to take and make new. As his earnest and idealistic narrator envisions at the end of the title track, Pecknold has become "like the man on the screen." --Marc Hogan
14. Shabazz Palaces: Black Up [Sub Pop]
Every generation gets the MF Doom it deserves. And the mercurial Metal Faced Villain, whose up-from-the-tombs resurrection re-wrote the template for enigmatic abstraction in hip-hop, has lain dormant long enough to create a vacuum for the role of veteran rap Lazarus.
Enter Shabazz Palaces, a Seattle duo whose creation myth invokes a totally different testament. They are led by the 40-ish Ishmael Butler, who was once known as Butterfly in Digable Planets, architects of eccentric smoke-wreathed cellar jazz. Currently, he's creating a cosmology rife with Nation of Islam imagery, old-time anarchistic Pacific Northwest politics, and an aesthetic as dense, dark, and drugged as tar opium.
Black Up expands upon Shabazz's interstellar EPs from 2009. Some song titles read like Dave Eggers conceiving imaginary chapters of Where the Wild Things Are: "The Kings New Clothes Were Made By His Own Hands", "An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum", "A treatise dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)". "Youlogy" ignores the last half-decade of backpack backlash by taking direct aim at the corporate machines and rappers in $700 Alexander McQueen jeans. Self-produced, the beats are wobbling and wind-lashed-- doom sounds over sulfurous rants worthy of W.E.B. Dubois. Shabazz Palaces snarl with the obverse image; the older gods reminding us that not only the young can lead rebellions. --Jeff Weiss
13. EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints [Souterrian Transmissions]
Erika M. Anderson comes across as an artist out there on her own, difficult to lump into a scene, movement, or sound. Yes, she covered Nirvana, and her songs have the druggy, blues-tinged spiritual heaviness of grunge; yes, she sang about how bodies can hold harrowing memories, which rightly reminded some people of Courtney Love; and OK, the tone of her voice, direct and tough and confident but also tinged with sweetness and vulnerability, reminded some of Liz Phair. But Past Life resonated so deeply with what can fairly be described as a growing cult because there seemed to be so little standing between us and the music. The line of transmission seemed a little shorter, the narrative surrounding its creation a little less essential. EMA's debut didn't stand for anything, it just was.
Past Life may have been cathartic to make, but it felt less like a personal statement and more like an acknowledgment of shared understanding. Anderson's songs have blood and viscera and ache but they never feel like exhibitionism because we've felt these things, too. In "Red Star", the narrator evokes the cosmos as a relationship disintegrates, and the song builds and builds until the "like a red star" refrain becomes "like a blue scar." And then the album comes to an abrupt end. Blue scars are the ones that hurt, and the movement from infinite scale down into this small, private pain-- the absurdity of that juxtaposition-- is partly what gives Past Life its power. Ultimately, it's an album about exploration, and as a blur of faces and scenery moves by, the woman at the center struggles to figure out her place. And as we listen to her struggle, she helps us figure out ours. --Mark Richardson
Photo by Dan Wilton
12. James Blake: James Blake [A&M/Atlas]
James Blake: "Limit to Your Love":
What if someone had told you, in 2010, that James Blake would make one of the most commanding songwriter albums of 2011? At the time, Blake was known to us only as a mercurial young Londoner with a knack for fitting incompatible parts into elegant contraptions. Whether crafting liquid-crystal dubstep, phantasmal R&B, or introverted Teutonic techno, he could make broken-down mechanisms whir like Swiss clockwork. Still, we had no cause to suspect that Blake would be the one to pull ahead and give the emergent movement of moon-eyed electronic music a superlative statement.
In hindsight, though, you can see exactly how he got to his fierce debut LP: cautiously, by degrees of addition and subtraction, and in plain view. Once the authorial voice and piano crept in on his Klavierwerke EP, it was simply a matter of shifting the proportions, throwing big shadows across the wall. On this album, Blake did the one thing we didn't expect, giving it an aura of fearless exposure: He carefully extracted most of the dubstep and R&B, leaving behind cavities of space that he filled with his voice. But the unexpected breadth and eerie absences of Blake’s breakthrough were part of its magic, but only part. After the element of shock wore off, an uncanny aesthetic remained to be reckoned with. All year, the album lurked on the edge of my mind. It ceased to be an idea and became a place, where a single voice, falling, without direction or scale, became indistinguishable from the one in my own head. --Brian Howe
Photo by Tina Tyrell
11. St. Vincent: Strange Mercy [4AD]
On her first two albums as St. Vincent, Annie Clark's signature instrument was her strong, clear, and expressive voice. Never indulging technical or emotional fireworks, she sang more from the brain than the gut, which made her pristinely orchestrated art-pop even more cerebral. But Strange Mercy finds St. Vincent paring down to a straightforward rock lineup in the studio, ditching the involved arrangements, and spotlighting the chaos of Clark's guitar: the choppy riffs of "Cruel", the sneaky punctuation of "Neutered Fruit", the solos that don't sound quite like solos, the themes that mushroom into uncomfortable shapes. "Chasing an abstraction," she called it earlier this year.Her guitar doesn't upstage her voice so much as it becomes a slightly antagonistic duet partner, often taunting or contradicting her lyrics. Strange Mercy is always on its toes, always toying with some new idea, always building toward the oddly satisfying payoff. The song might be a narrative or an uncomfortable explication of the life of an indie rock artist, and the ambiguity, not to mention the ambivalence, stings. By totally embracing that off-kilter danger, Clark opened up a raw and brave new vocabulary. --Stephen Deusner