Access and availability being what they are today, it’s become increasingly difficult to define any given year in music by applying overarching trends or identifying specific movements or scenes. It’s almost as if each micro-genre now has its own yearly story to tell, most not beholden to anything else going on in music, period—let alone in conjunction with blanket classifications such as independent, mainstream, or otherwise. It’s not enough anymore to say that R&B or underground hip-hop had a great year (although both did); rather, it’s more important to note that literally dozens of sub-genres produce consistently interesting and worthwhile material, so much so that any single writer’s opinion is inevitably marked by blind spots. In my estimation, then, what ultimately united 2011—reflected in the following list of my ten favorite albums of the year—was a general air of earnestness that permeated even the most outwardly niche offering or potentially hazardous pastiche. All the best records I heard this year felt not only natural but honest in their artistic expression, whether that was via free-improvisation, carefully chiseled drone, or re-appropriated genre signifiers. It was a beautifully strange year for music, and there’s more—much more—to it than the small sampling listed below.
10. Blackout Beach / Fuck Death
It’s not all that surprising that after the unhinged exhortations and swarming six-string lacerations of Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph—one of 2010’s best indie rock records—Frog Eyes leader Carey Mercer would want to retreat inward. Few, however, could have predicted the pitch-black aesthetic burial of Mercer’s third and best solo album. A sprawl of sputtering synths and disquieting drones, Fuck Death, named after a Leon Golub painting, alternates emotional lashings with ambitious invocations of wartime atrocity and political strife. The record is Mercer’s attempt, in his words, “to make something about Beauty and War,” two of the most broad, subjective topics imaginable. That this harrowing narrative is weaved into one of the year’s most opaque, impressionistic sonic tapestries suggests Mercer may not have just made something about beauty and war, but perhaps tapped into an essential expression of both.
09. St. Vincent / Strange Mercy
I admire both of Annie Clark’s previous albums, but each felt conflicted over the persona Clark wanted to establish: There was the fire-breathing guitar hero and experimentalist rearing her head in a live setting, and the chamber pop chanteuse that up until now seemed to flourish in the studio. Clark’s third record synthesizes these extremes into a whole far greater than the sum of its parts, representing a huge artistic step forward for this ever-maturing songwriter. Previously reigned in and curiously polite on record, Clark’s guitar explodes across Strange Mercy’s ten tracks, each subtly frayed edge revealing new depths of complexity within these tightly structured, visceral arrangements. In the last year, Clark has been doing everything from discussing the influence of Nick Cave to covering Big Black in concert, and with Strange Mercy, her art-rock lineage has finally emerged from its nascent form, searing and inspired.
08. Gang Gang Dance / Eye Contact
Every time I presume to have the answer to Gang Gang Dance, they up and change the question. Noise, industrial, aboriginal electro, dancehall—they’ve adopted and dropped each subgenre in quick succession yet remained loyal to their restless artistic id, establishing themselves as a genre unto themselves. With that said, they’ve reached a new plateau here, a bold expansion of their aesthetic model, rounding off the more jagged corners of their sound and bolstering their melodic sensibilities to the point where things occasionally resemble that of a pop band—that is, a pop band who drops an 11-minute disco-prog track as an album-opening salvo. From track two on, Gang Gang Dance embark on a panoramic trip through their past and on into the future, cutting confidently against the grain while refining their strengths. It may be their fifth album, but Eye Contact is the work of a slippery musical entity still hungry for greatness.
07. Tim Hecker / Ravedeath, 1972
In October 2011, Tim Hecker released Dropped Pianos, a modest EP of minimalist piano sketches. These stark ivory meditations would eventually be expounded upon via pipe organ, as Hecker laid the melodic foundation for the full-length record in an Icelandic cathedral before relocating to his studio to digitally devour those compositions. What emerged is arguably his most intriguing work to date, a brooding, disquieting lament for the transient nature of sound and the cyclical reanimations of recorded music. Another in Hecker’s long line of thematically unified albums, Ravedeath paints a grave portrait of an art form in decay (“Hatred of Music,” “Analog Paralysis,” “Studio Suicide”), blankets of noise and drone systematically snuffing out heaving organ notes as nostalgia tears gravely through the mix—our only hope, Hecker seems to be whispering, amidst a landscape with little else left to offer.
06. Robag Wruhme / Thora Vukk
With bass music staking out a pronounced foothold in mainstream pop this year, it’s been interesting to watch minimalist techno wend its way back into the fold (the genre seemed to reach its most visible point a few years back). Of course, this music isn’t necessarily for the masses, so in a sense it’s back where it belongs. Even within the scene, however, Wruhme’s Thora Vukk seems under-heard. What Wruhme has done here, though, is set a new benchmark for minimalism, sculpting from his roomy productions a welcoming, placid atmosphere wherein skipping rhythms can float airily alongside celestial piano and shuttering samples. It’s evocative without leaning on nostalgia, heartbreaking without turning melodramatic; but best of all it’s the most memorable record of its kind since Pantha du Prince’s shadow-casting This Bliss. Give it time—we’ll be hearing variations on Thora Vukk for years to come.
05. Oneohtrix Point Never / Replica
It’s been a while since I’ve heard an aesthetic concept record so seamlessly constructed that its technique becomes secondary to the visceral response it provokes, but Daniel Lopatin’s latest stands as an example of just that. Sourced from vintage instructional videos and ‘80s television commercials, it reads on paper as a potentially kitschy exercise in recycled pop culture ephemera. But in the hands of Lopatin, these fragments find new life, re-appropriated and reconfigured as a dialogue between artist and raw material. Lopatin’s enveloping drones now build not only skyward but sideways, across fresh and unexplored terrain, mutating outward through stray bouts of percussion, chamber piano, and left-field vocal edits. Lopatin sculpts melody from the everyday, severs connotation from experience, and conflates nostalgia with evolution. Without a modicum of disclosure, he offers an oasis at once familiar and foreign, a New Jerusalem bred on technology yet imbued with generations of humanity.
04. Colin Stetson / New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
Depending on your religious beliefs, this is either the soundtrack to the apocalypse or the aural accompaniment to the rapture—either way, shit just got real. What doesn’t seem real, or the least bit human, is the extraordinary technique Stetson displays in his solo saxophone work, which approximates the sound of a stampeding cavalry in the throes of bullet-induced hysteria. The scorching, blast-furnace improvisations which comprise Stetson’s second album are at once invective and gauntlet, ornery exhortations pitting humanity against itself in a battle of righteous indignation. Circular breathing, close-mic’d keys, whatever—this thing will fucking crush you before you realize dude played on an Arcade Fire record. And while there are voices within the maelstrom—Laurie Andersen heralding end times like an apparition, Shara Worden conjuring the very soul of our discontent—the prophecy seems clear: no one gets out alive.
03. Shabazz Palaces / Black Up
With both underground (808s & Dark Grapes II) and mainstream (Watch the Throne) hip-hop enjoying a mostly solid year, it was the duo of ex-Digable Planets’ Ishmael Butler and second generation multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire who redrew the blueprint for avant-rap. Shabazz Palaces wrangle industrial IDM, downtempo electronica, and angular bass music as foundation for Butler’s severe, interlocking exegeses on the state of hip-hop. This criticism, bred from years of operating just beyond widespread recognition, conjoined with an uncompromising, gravitational instinct for infectious beats, spawned a simultaneously long-winded (check those song titles) and blunt (each beat feels carved from marble) reprimand to artists operating at both extremes. Never once playing the martyr, Shabazz consolidate their strengths into the year’s best production, emerging with a tough, lucid document of perseverance.
02. James Blake / James Blake
In two short years, Blake has changed direction so many times that the adjectives I once used to describe him—abstract, elusive, austere—are almost the exact inverse of how I’d characterize his debut LP. Still nominally tied to the post-dubstep diaspora, James Blake is, in actuality, a fairly straightforward singer-songwriter effort from a preternaturally talented beat scientist. In that sense, the self-titled designation is less an encapsulation of aesthetic proclivities than a platform for personal disclosure. There’s more of James Blake in these eleven tracks than in any of the obtuse soundscapes he previously constructed; family life (“I Never Learnt to Share”), interpersonal relationships (“Why Don’t You Call Me”), and reconciliations with death (“Measurements”) are all presented in equally stark, hollowed productions. With his debut, Blake has beautifully, if briefly, blurred the line between intimate and universal.
01. Jenny Hval / Viscera
On paper, Viscera reads like an internalized narrative about external phenomenon, a song cycle riddled with images of vaginal dentata, sexual secretion, and, yes, decaying viscera. It’s appropriate, then, that so much of its power resides just below the surface, in the details. And what details: Hval’s expert fusion of avant-folk, industrial grind, and free-improv noise manifests itself like a thousand mental synapses reacting off the body’s intrinsic tensions in a single outward heave of physicality. Even amidst canyons of negative space—kneaded, textured, and burnished by Supersilent producer Deathprod—the music maintains a palpable carnality, like those moments just before an animalistic encounter when things have the potential to go either exceedingly right or horribly wrong. And yet, as we reach climax right with Hval—most viscerally on “Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist”—the horribly wrong instead feels exceedingly pure, an addictive sensation as galvanizing as it is inspired. [InRO]