Best of 2011: 10-1

10. My Morning Jacket – Circuital

The Teflon Band — no label can stick to them. They outgrew the “alt-country” category after their first two records. As their songs grew longer and their live shows began attracting more and more dreadlocked, dirty-footed potheads, they wiggled free of the “jam band” stigma by embracing elements of techno and acknowledging Prince as a major influence. (Although I’m sure they had no problem cashing those Bonnaroo checks.) As My Morning Jacket’s sixth album unfolds, the listener can hear echoes of 20/20-era Beach Boys, fragments of Led Zeppelin, and even the bucolic pop of John Denver woven into their musical fabric. As strong as the songs are, they all bow before MMJ’s moment of total triumph: the staggering “Holding On To Black Metal,” which rides a groove of Judgment Day horns and a female chorus to total bliss. – MI

9. Crystal Stilts – In Love with Oblivion

In the two interim years since their debut LP, Crystal Stilts released two outstanding singles, 2009’s “Love Is a Wave,” and 2010’s “Shake the Shackles,” the latter of which appears on this sophomore effort. The ringing guitars, chugging rhythms, and swirls of soupy psychedelia are intact, but on this record the slumbering baritone of Brad Hargett’s vocals wakes up and charges each song with a haunting command that was only hinted at on prior recordings. It’s challenging at first, but there’s something morbidly rewarding about skirting the edges of oblivion with those jangly strings and that echo-y voice. At times reminiscent of early 90’s Lemonheads, especially on tracks like “Silver Sun” and “Flying into the Sun,” Hargett replaces tranquilized detachment with a spooky embrace. Oblivion is a spectral dance party, and the costumes stay on until the last drumbeat. – MDG

8. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

M83 has been hanging around the scene for about ten years now, and he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves. The single from this album, “Midnight City,” was his first song to make it into the singles charts (#20 peak in USA). This album is diverse and eclectic, yet cohesive in its sound. Anthony Gonzalez, the French founder of the band has created this epic, double-album that covers a lot of ground in its 22 songs. Most of the songs are hit-or-miss, but the best ones really stand out. My favorite songs are “Midnight City” (obviously) and the weirdest one on the album, “Raconte-Moi Une Hitoire.” This song features an uplifting electronic beat with a monologue from what sounds like a kindergartener, about what it feels like to turn into a frog. It’s very funny to be a frog! – DH

7. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong

Ever wish The Smashing Pumpkins released Siamese Dream Part 2? You’re in luck: The Pains of Being Pure At Heart are here to grant that wish. Belong takes the heavy guitars, soft and longing male vocals, and beautiful hooks, from the 1990’s and brings them into the 21st century. But fear not, there is no sappy nostalgia on this album. The Pains pay tribute to an era with respect and reverence that makes this album feel like time capsule and not a parody. On the surface it seem like every song moans with melancholy, but listen closer; that moan is a ache of passion. The passion of living in a world full of wonderful music like this. – EH

6. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes’s brilliant debut album was nothing short of a masterpiece.  I sang along to that record repeatedly until my jaw became sore.  The songs were so engaging and appealed to a surprisingly wide audience, even landing on the Vatican’s Playlist.  Well, It’s been three long years since, and I was a little nervous that they would not meet the lofty expectations.  According to interviews, the band was equally nervous and second-guessed themselves throughout the recording of Helplessnees Blues, recording and tossing several versions of the album until they were finally happy.  It was worth the wait. The sound of Blues isn’t all that different from what we’ve known and loved; classic harmonies and peerless melodies soar throughout, as well as the allusions to the sixties folkies. The difference here is Robin is more out front and his tone and themes have turned inward.  In the spirit of early Dylan, he’s penned an anthem for his generation with the title track.  The other difference is the arrangements are a little more complex and reward repeated listens.  The Fleet Foxes have shown that they have shit to say and they are here for the long haul. WH

5. The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love

When LCD Soundsystem called it quits at the end of 2010, I remember wondering which DFA band would rise to the occasion and fill the void. YACHT’s follow-up to 2008’s outstanding See Mystery Lights was uneven, and the long-awaited first full-length from Holy Ghost! was at times overwrought. We need a conscience, a dance-floor cricket that helps us grow up and pass out, wishing upon a disco ball for another day another night of childhood rediscovered. “Aren’t we all children,” Luke Jenner chants over squeezebox synths. I wasn’t expecting this from The Rapture, the manic slash band that seemed to be slipping from the frenetic dance/punk of Echoes into shmaltzy electro/disco on Pieces of People We Love, like an east coast Hot Hot Heat. Something happened to alter the band’s sonic landscape. It might have been the tragedy of Jenner losing his mother to suicide, or the joys of becoming a father. Maybe it was the departure of bassist Mattie Safer or a return to the DFA fold (Pieces was a major label joint). Whatever happened, there is a welcome realization that this is a band getting better in every way. The aggression has been reined in, and the sound has become more expansive; woven with precise guitars, horns, and vocals, rather than a disparate assemblage of warring rhythm and percussion. With a nod to disco forefathers The Bee Gees, “How Deep Is Your Love?” is one of the best songs of the year. – MDG

4. Cults – s/t

On a summer night last year, I met a secret agent outside Luigi’s Fungarden. She might have been a stockbroker, come to think of it. Apparently we had mutual friends, and I really needed to talk to her because she was into music too. The requisite what-am-I-listening-to-now question brought up the Cults’s debut LP. She was into them in 2010. Great, so I assumed she could appreciate how rewarding it is to hear a band deliver on the promise of two great singles like “Go Outside” and “Oh My God.” Here’s an entire record of shimmery 60’s pop, dancing out from behind the sticky Spector fuzz that has been blanketing bands like Best Coast and Vivian Girls in recent years. Every track is a standout and Madeline Follin’s electric alto soars above every one of my singalong efforts. And at just over thirty minutes, it just might be the perfect album. Right? My new acquaintance severed ties after Cults signed a major label deal: “The secret’s out. They won’t be worth listening to any more.” Secrets are for spies and stockbrokers, lady. Music is for sharing. And then I punched her in the face. – MDG

3. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

“Love is just a song,” sings Girls frontman Christopher Owens. But it’s also “magic.” Conflict between reality and romance fuels Girls’ beautiful second album. Ultimately it seems reality wins out, but we’re given hope that you can still be a romantic without being blind to the darker side of human nature. The centerpiece of the record is a slow-burner with the unfortunate but absolutely accurate title “Vomit.” So much comes pouring out, but it’s all better when it’s over. Fuzzed-out guitar lurches and sways against pure gospel organ and backing vocals as Owens describes a night of agony going from haunt to haunt looking for the lover he suspects is being unfaithful at that very moment. “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” goes the Biblical proverb that inspired the song’s title, and repetitive damaging behavior patterns dominate Girls’ 2009 debut. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is not necessarily about breaking free of those patterns with a fake epiphany or happy ending, but accepting them in yourself (because, let’s face it, you’re not really going to change) and forgiving them in others (they aren’t changing either). – MI

2. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

Any band whose mindset is so firmly in the sepia-toned 19th century is all right by me. Sea shanties, banshee laments, and folk ballads that seem to come from the deepest, most isolated hollows are the starting point for the The Decemberists’ sometimes obtuse, sometimes spooky and gripping song-cycles. They had always been a band whose concepts often streaked ahead of their ability to pull them off coherently, but The King Is Dead reveals them reaching new heights of songcraft and making a statement through the strength of the music itself rather than the clever ideas behind it. Forgoing the ethereal, twee artiness and long-form narratives that made some of their earlier work rough going, The King is full of punchy arrangements that, while still firmly in the country-folk mold, are more dance-hall than rural meadow. Drums and acoustic guitars clatter, accordians and harmonicas wheeze, the pedal steel wails, and the lyrics are less byzantine (and sound less like an academic thesis) than we’re used to from this band. Maybe old-school Decemberists fans won’t love this new direction, but The King Is Dead was the very first record I acquired in 2011, I listened to it compulsively all year, and never stopped being moved by it. – MI

1. Cut Copy – Zonoscope

Finally Cut Copy gets some love. How can anyone expect anything less than greatness from a group that tours with Daft Punk? They’ve released three albums so far, and each one has gotten progressively better. When they released their debut LP, Bright Like Neon Love, they were put on my watch list. Next they changed the game when they dropped In Ghost Colours, which offered some of the best pop/dance music of 2008. Their song “Hearts on Fire” is still one of the greatest songs ever made. We had most of 2011 to get to know and love Zonoscope, though it took all of one listen to grow on me. The lyrics radiate truth and harmony with the universe and the melodies throughout are memorable and fun to follow along. They offer up a whole spectrum of electronic sounds, with synth pads, lead basses and everything along with the traditional band instruments. Every song on this album is top notch, and the cover art is cool too. – DH

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One thought on “Best of 2011: 10-1”

  1. I’m little upset about the Blitzen Trapper’s “American Goldwing”, Cymbals Eat Guitars’ “Lenses Alien”, and Real Estate’s “Days” not showing up on the Top 40 bros. Three of the best records to come out last year, if you ask me.

    Other then that, nice work. =)

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