Best of 2011: 20-11

20. The Drums – Portamento

The Drums may be one of the best bands at playing to their strengths: these guys aren’t the most talented musicians, but they play to their lyrics beautifully. Jonathan Pierce and Justin Graham played synthesizers together long before forming The Drums, so it’s interesting that they chose a more simplified, punk method of playing when they decided to pick up guitars . That’s not to say that they don’t sound wonderful – because they do, but if you’re looking for challenging music, Portamento is not the place. Instead, the Drums conjure up nostalgia for that 1980’s nostalgia for the late 1950’s– Ray Bans, letterman jackets, and summertime go-go dancing on the beach. Its tempo is punk, but its purpose is pop. This new batch of songs still has a lo-fi quality, but the sophomore release is much more produced, relying on synthesizers to give a Cure-like quality to their summer surf rock. However, Portamento‘s finest feature is its angst-ridden love lyrics, usually sung in an affected whine by Pierce. As with most pop-rock albums worth listening to, Portamento is preoccupied with the urgency to find love, the need to cling tightly to it, or the tragic reluctance to watch it vanish. Stand out tracks like “The Book of Revelations,” and “Money” typify the band’s coupling of dreamy, nostalgia-pop to the wrecking lyrics sung in Pierce’s breathy vocals. Fortunately, The Drums don’t chain themselves to the idea of tragic love. “How it Ended,” the albums closer, greets the ending of a relationship with all the optimism of a hopeless romantic, and that’s all I could want from a band that has so deftly reinvigorated a piece of musical Americana. – RF

19. Justice – Audio, Video, Disco

People said that “Justice’s next album will make or break their career.” It’s true. They coasted on Cross for four long years, and with such a positive response to the album they were able to tour almost continuously. They were in a unique position to make a smash-hit follow up album, since they had ample opportunities to test out new tracks on the dance floor. Obviously the technique paid off, since Audio, Video, Disco does not disappoint. However AVD is different from Cross in its instrumentation and the subtleties of its style. While Cross had more stripped down dance beats, ripe for DJ mixing, AVD’s tracks stand better on their own, with more personality than Cross’s songs. It has a distinct quality of rock and roll sent from the future, with its fast guitar-driven hooks and synthy melodies. There are several standout tracks on this album, but if I had to pick I would encourage you to listen to “Canon,” “On’n’On,” and the title track, “Audio, Video, Disco.” – DH

18. TV On The Radio – Nine Type of Light

The last album to be recorded with the band’s bassist, Gerard Smith (he unfortunately passed away from lung cancer last Spring), TV on the Radio’s fifth studio album is surprisingly their most upbeat work to date. Up until 2008’s Dear Science, a grungy, funky ferocity characterized many of the band’s singles, their syncopated beats and guitar rhythms creating a razor-edged garage rock. In the wake of President Obama’s campaign of hope, TV on the Radio have relinquished some of their more abrasive elements, particularly lavish distortion and abrasive horns, in favor of floating ambience and more synthesized melodies. 9 Types of Light eases up on the political cynicism present on its predecessors, except for “No Future Stock” and “New Cannonball Blues,” choosing to explore other social realities, which can be either melancholy or enthused. These guys can be considered cerebral rock music, but this latest record is less jam-band, less jazzy, and more formatted. “True, we’ve demolished a thing or two, but it seemed like the thing to do, and you’re the only one I ever loved,” Tunde Adebimpe sings on the beautiful, “You,” a track that perfectly demonstrates the album’s accessibility. TV on the Radio is one of the truly eclectic bands making music today with an immensely diverse catalog of sounds, and 9 Types of Light proves the band is still eager to experiment, while preserving the soulful flavors that drives their music. – RF

17. Bibio – Mind Bokeh

“Bokeh” is a name given to the out-of-focus light that is rendered on to a photographic image. There is beautiful bokeh, which adds a pleasing quality as it surrounds the in-focus image with fuzzy, bubbly light, and there is bad bokeh, which is smeared and blurry, distracting the eye. Mind Bokeh is the sixth studio release from British music producer Stephen Wilkinson, a.k.a. Bibio, and it is a collection of songs about the out-of-focus spots in our lives. Songs like “Excuses,” and “Pretentious,” name the behaviors and personality traits that muddle people’s perceptions. But the song titles don’t give everything away. Bibio’s musical style could be compared to the way a camera  “writes” different types of light. Mind Bokeh integrates glitch beats, funky bass lines, guitar driven melodies, and found recordings into its sound, running the spectrum of pop music grammar, but never overflowing with busy noise. It moves at a perfect pace, clustering accessible dance music around symphonic movements of dissonance and ambiance. The confectionery songs, like “Light Sleep” and “K is for Kelson,” may linger in your head when the album is over, but the somber tracks, which some of you may read as boring, will be the ones that actually speak to your heart. That music is uniquely Bibio, and no other producer/artist really plays with sounds quite like him. Bibio’s song-writing techniques, including adding lyrical poetry and manual guitar playing, challenge the way we typify (electronic) music. In the pop-driven single,“Take Off Your Shirt,” Wilkinson warns, “Sadness in rags won’t feel the pain of sadness in silks and golden chains, take off your shirt, and give it to the one with fur coats and shiny shoes,” using a hook to deepen the album’s theme of appearances, while basically encouraging you to get naked! So playful. Bibio has carefully crafted his songs around the idea of bokeh, and it is that attention to detail that makes him stand out amongst the horde of electronic producers. RF

16. Washed Out – Within and Without

I would define Washed Out as the chillwave band. Their sound is unique, full and dirty. Everything is soaked in reverb and some distortion, and the vocals are just there for texture. The sound is distinctly fuzzy and, appropriately, “washed out.” Within and Without is a sort of declarative statement of an album, launching this sound into the mainstream. The story of solo producer Ernest Greene gives hope to bedroom producers everywhere, solidifying the notion that a single guy with a laptop can get picked up by the blogosphere, perform at a few New York house parties and then find himself playing at the Pitchfork Music Festival and getting signed to Sub-Pop. – DH

15. Peter Bjorn & John – Gimme Some

What was once simply a rude way of asking for something has become a call for affirmation, usually reciprocated with a high-five or emphatic chest bump. It is in the spirit of the latter that Peter Bjorn & John return to the world of pop music. “Return?” you might be asking yourself, “but didn’t they just come out with a record?” Let me explain.  Following 2006’s thoughtful masterpiece, Writer’s Block, PB&J created two not-so impressive follow ups. The first was the pensive instrumental album, Seaside Rock. A musical travelogue of sorts, this album’s tracks are named after places and times that the guys must have been so fond of that they wanted to immortalize them through song. Though I respect the band’s decision to follow their breakout record with something more classical in nature, it was slightly unsatisfying as a new fan to see them act like “serious musicians.” Pssh. So when they announced their next album, Living Thing, the very next year, hopes got high. Sadly, and despite positive endorsements from Kanye West’s blog, Living Thing was riddled with forgettable tracks. Had the pressure to trap lightning in a bottle broken these guys? Were they trying to be different out of fear that they could never make another album as infused with catchy hooks and enthusiastic rock music? I’m happy to say neither is true. Gimme Some is the perfect successor to Writer’s Block, emulating its predecessor’s style without repeating it. From beginning to end, Writer’s Block was open to possibility. The opening and closing songs, “Objects of my Affection” and “Poor Cow” respectively, seem so much more optimistic. Even when Peter sings,”I wanna spend in a never-ending story, [that] always ends”, he at least suggests some joyful sorrow. It’s the exact opposite for Gimme Some. The opening track, “Tomorrow Has to Wait,” is much more resigned to disappointment: “It’s too late, but tomorrow has to wait, it’s the time of your life, but tomorrow has to wait, tonight’s the night, and tomorrow is a million miles away…” Yet, when surrounded by the trio’s music, even depressing sentiments take on a little gusto, and with such strong chorus, you can’t help but sing aloud. Check out the single “Second Chance,” the beer commercial song of 2011, where the pessimistic mantra, “You can’t count on a second chance,” is chanted over a sweet beat for your feet. This album’s closer, “I Know that You Don’t Love Me,” gives its contents away with the title, but nevertheless maintains a tempo that makes you want to move more than sulk. So accept both, take the pain and pleasure. And gimme some! – RF

14. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Swedish songstress Lykke Li is a Norse goddess, melting snow-capped bombast with fiery eyes and smoldering voice. Still as impetuous as the æsir, Li continues to pursue the passions and dancefloor sensuality of Youth Novels. But on Wounded Rhymes, her second album, the sound is orchestrated and arranged with the assured confidence of the vanir. No longer just a sugary-sweet pop singer, Li has evolved into a passionate and accomplished rock star. The entire album swells with confident energy: mortal longings, desires, and anguish, sharpened by divine defiance. Even the tracks laced with the most heartache resonate like prayers to the infinite. “My wounded rhymes make silent cries tonight,” Li sings. “Sadness is a blessing… Oh sadness, I’m your girl.” – MDG

13. Little Dragon – Ritual Union

Most of the world met Little Dragon last year when the band was twice featured on the Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach (including album standout “Empire Ants”). But for those of us still keeping ‘09’s Machine Dreams in heavy rotation, this third LP from the Swedish electrogroove band was one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year. In many ways this album is another Machine: dreamy ambiance punctuated by simmering synths and navigated by the vocal torch of Yukimi Nagano (she’s half-Japanese, half-Swedish, loves comics, and thinks baseball is a fitting allegory for life; I invented her). Unlike Machine, however, the dreams here are human, and the electronic atmosphere gives way to live heartbeats and red-blood emotion. The imagery is Bradburying reclamation by the natural world: ocean surf, blustery wind, and sweeping fire. The themes are personal, but universal: fears, hopes, and joys, circuit-bent by temptation, confusion, and the fleeting impermanence of the human condition. “All I want, a second or two,” Nagano purrs on “Seconds.” “And all we got are seconds to lose.” These are beautiful, pulsing seconds, and whether happy or sad, alone or in union, we cherish every one. – MDG

12. Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine

Toro y Moi is remarkable because he’s made two albums and six EPs, none of which sound quite the same, and all of which are really cool. If I had known back in 2010 that this skinny one man band guy was going to produce all this awesome stuff, I would have paid more attention when I saw him opening for Islands at Bottom of the Hill. This funky album has little instrumental diversity (guitar, synth, voice and drums), but he does an incredible job of making it all come together in all different ways on each song, using mixing techniques and a variety of effects. His vocal hooks are the most important part of this album, and a staple throughout his other releases. While the lyrics have a tone of regret and apology, the vocal melodies are powerful and inspiring. Every track is great in its own way, so go ahead and listen to the whole album. – DH

11. Destroyer – Kaputt

Dan Bejar is a genius.  Over the years he’s continually delighted us with his mad-scientist creations filtered through his usual Hunky Dory-era David Bowie as well as his scene-stealing New Pornographers contributions.  With Kaputt, he’s taken an unexpected left turn and filtered his musings through some sweet Yacht-Rock or smooth white R&B jams of the 80’s that still retain the lyrical density that has become his trademark.  Complete with backup crooners, lazy saxophone, and electronic sheen reminiscent of Steely Dan and Roxy music, Bejar is committed to every detail.  Isey says, “It sounds like effed-up Supertramp.”  Whatever.  It sounds like both the perfect summer afternoon and the best night of your life at the same time.  Like I said, Dan Bajer is a genius. – WH

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