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Best Albums of 2011

When the end of the year rolls around AV’s music department make like accountants do at tax time. Things get intense! After going through the numbers, here’s what we’ve come up with:

Africa Hitech

93 Million Miles (Warp)

Aggressive, thought-provoking bass music inspired by a myriad of cultures and sounds from reggae to polyrhythmic African drumming music and techno, 93 Million Miles is in a class of its own. English duo Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek make music in Australia, a land new to the type of music they were interested in—a type of music that was developed in the UK, and featuring heavy African drum and reggae samples. (cp)


Michigan Left (Universal Music Canada)

The sophomore outing by Hamilton, Ontario’s Arkells offers a concise set of 10 crisp tracks of head-bobbing, alt.pop-kissed blue-eyed soul with anthemic aspirations that refuse to be contained. Arkells prove that hooky guitars and pop-savvy songs about the whole boy-girl polemic will never go out of style so long as it is done right. Among the highpoints: the throbbing rocker “Whistleblower,” the crush-on-you ditty “On Paper,” and the catchy-as-the-flu jam “Kiss Cam.” With just enough studio sheen and plenty of energy, Michigan Left is a bright ride with absolutely no bummers. Okay, there’s one bummer: It’s still without an official US release. (dk)

Beastie Boys

Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (Capitol)

Brimming with fucked-up beats, looping, loafing organs, psychedelic cool, the hairpin-turn MC-ing we’ve come to expect, and a generally funky atmosphere: Call it a b-boy bouillabaisse 2011-style. You just can’t count these Boys out. Yeah, they are tough to call “boys” these days but age hasn’t prevented Ad Rock, MCA and Mike Diamond from putting together a gripping, sharp, smart rhyme-fest buoyed by funky breaks and kind of stylistically across the boards feel that made Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head legendary. (dk)

Charles Bradley

No Time for Dreaming (Daptone)

The debut album of the year comes not from a crew of teenage hipsters or some earnest, young prodigy. Instead it’s from a soul singer has lived enough of the blues and poured them into an album essentially 63 years in the making. Charles Bradley’s rough-hewn tenor has a sonic patina that only time can deliver. And Bradley sure can sing! The record sounds like a relic pulled from a 1968 time capsule buried beneath a studio in Detroit or Memphis. (dk)

The Field

Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)

Swedish minimalist techno artist Alex Willner is equal parts scientist and musician. Carefully measured decibels and seconds are his paintbrush and canvas. His micro-loops are the paint with which he colors mostly monochromatic abstractions on his latest. Still, Looping States of Mind is surprisingly human. Although his music perfectly fits (or itself defines) ambient techno—tightly repetitive with indistinguishable, layered sound sources—it simultaneously appeals to our hyperized culture of instant gratification through the use of endlessly repeating mini loop-bursts, and to that yearning for something complete and satisfying, which this album most certainly is. (cp)

The Junior Boys

It’s All True (Domino)

Junior Boys singer Jeremy Greenspan claims he’s never seen a truly happy ending. “It gets so close, but it always just falls apart,” he sings on the track “A Truly Happy Ending.” On It’s All True, the Hamilton, Ontario electronic duo draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources to decode failed and failing relationships. It’s a record that is dark, pathetic in parts, hopelessly romantic, and above all beautiful. (cp)


Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute)

Spot the influences while listening to Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming: some New Order, a bit of Peter Gabriel, a lot of My Bloody Valentine, a taste of Mellon Collie-era Pumpkins, and on and on. It is M83’s mix massiveness that ultimately creates a universally appealing album. There is a lot to absorb on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and that is what makes it so exciting. (cp)

Laura Marling

A Creature I Don’t Know (Virgin)

Marling’s vocal acrobatics match power and suppleness with majestic phrasing and a nuanced vulnerability. Quite simply, her voice is in a class of its own, but if one were making a comparison she bears elements of Joni Mitchell and Linda Thompson. Take notice of the magnificent “Salinas,” the rollicking jubilance of soul-folk powerhouse “Sophia,” and the refreshed traditional ballad essence of “All My Rage.” On her third album, the English songstress Marling shows a skill for her craft that belies her 21 years. (dk)

My Morning Jacket

Circuital (ATO)

Jim James and My Morning Jacket have been outdoing themselves album after album. This latest finds the band deeply mining their own reverb-drenched Americana and echoing trad soul, dispatched with a cold, vaguely electronic feeling and struck by pulses and rhythms. Add in the band’s known penchant for jamming. The result is a wholly unique and absorbing record bound to please fans who have been along for the ride all along and win some new ones, as well. (dk)

Panda Bear

Tomboy (Paw Tracks)

Mystery is an important aspect in music that tends to be lost in this era of Twitter updates and internet album leaks. Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox), the leader of electro-freak folk group Animal Collective, has managed to maintain his mystery for over a decade now, continuing with his latest album, Tomboy. Lennox has brought together a melting pot of sounds and genres—from hip-hop and sharp electronic synthesizer to 1960s psychedelic pop with Beach Boys harmonies—painting them all with the same color palette of hazy reverb, clacking, sun-soaked echoes, and driving, repeating rhythms. (cp)


The King of Limbs (self-released)

It’s been four years since Radiohead released the industry-rattling In Rainbows, an album that changed the way people thought about paying for music. The King of Limbs is a concise and cohesive collection of eight songs that are among their strongest and most universally appealing. While perhaps not as groundbreaking as OK Computer, nor as mind-bending as Kid A, nor as earth-rattling as In Rainbows, it is instead a fluttering of butterfly wings, resonating with every passing second. The opening track, “Bloom,” grows and grows from a beautifully looped, shimmering piano line to a mechanically intricate krautrock rhythm, and finally soars off into the atmosphere with washes of Thom Yorke’s layered, enveloping vocals. Sorry, old Radiohead fans: still not a guitar album, but great nonetheless. (cp)

Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers

Teenage snd Torture (Knitting Factory Records)

Ms. Ray says she leads her Brooklyn-based quartet like a democratic dictator. Whatever this means, she and Her Happy Hookers get the vision across with Teenage and Torture. With fiery, over-the-top bravado against a backdrop deeply punk blooze, Ray delves into feminism, sexuality, and the cultural dialectic between the two. Her voice can shift from snotty snarl to angelic soar with mesmerizing effect. Imagine Debbie Harry backed by the Bad Seeds and playing a harmonium. (dk)

Ty Segall

Goodbye Bread (Drag City)

Ty Segall is one of those guys who is never going to play by the rules. After releasing a clutch of singles, EPs, and a compilation in less than a year since his stellar full-length Melted, he arguably tops it all with his new record. With Goodbye Bread the 23-year-old Segall, who has rightfully been celebrated in the garage rock scene, grows as a songwriter without ever giving in stylistically or trading in his preferred sonic distinctions. This record is ragged, raw, in the red, and beautifully abrasive at every turn, but the songs beneath it all are relentlessly tuneful and almost manicured. The title track glistens like a long-lost Big Star demo recorded in a basement. (dk)

Tom Waits

Bad As Me (Anti)

The American master of broken spokes, drunken lullabies, and twisted dreams releases a classic loaded to the gills with questionable characters, heartaches, lefts turns, and surprise detours. The honking brass and woodwinds of “Chicago” captures a chugging search for a new start in a world of inconsistency. “Hell Broke Luce” is as potent a protest song as 2011 produced. Spanish guitar gently prowls through the heart of “Back in Tthe Crowd” while Waits asks to be let go: “Take my picture from the frame/And put me back in the crowd.” The autumnal “Last Leaf” celebrates standing the test of time and outlasting the rest, fittingly featuring Keith Richards on guitar and backing vocal. (dk)

Gillian Welch

The Harrow & The Harvest (Acony)

Gillian Welch and partner David Rawlings waited nearly eight years between new albums. The blame, according to Welch, was a brand of writer’s block where one is unsatisfied with any results yielded. Therein perhaps lies the harrow. The album itself is the harvest. Welch has pared it back to the absolute basics: her and Rawlings’ voices along with guitar and a few stringed instruments, though even those are used sparingly. Every track is littered with first-person tales of long-gone castaways, troubled minds, and burdened ghosts. (dk)

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