Top 10 albums of 2011

Asher Levy

Roar Musicologist

So much great music was released this year that narrowing it down to 10 key releases was very difficult; among the regrettable omissions were Watch The Throne, the Fleet Foxes, Washed Out, Drake, PJ Harvey and Adele. I also decided against including the Beach Boys’ SMiLE, as it was recorded in 1966 and released this year and thus technically not of 2011. I’m sure you’ll disagree with many of my choices, but my hope is to open up your ears to new and different sounds. Happy listening!

1. Kate Bush- 50 Words For Snow

A meditative, chilling and atmospheric offering from the enigmatic art-rock pioneer, 50 Words For Snow shows Kate Bush at her most inspired and innovative. Drawing on the theme of winter, the album’s seven songs span over an hour of music, forming an unhurriedly flowing cantata that develops over the course of the lengthy compositions. Sparsely jazzy, the album is driven by Bush’s lush, open piano chords and Steve Gadd’s unhurried, textured drumming, providing a bed for Bush’s sometimes playful, sometimes fierce and always brilliant vocals. Poetic and strikingly original, 50 Words For Snow deals with highly ambitious lyrical topics, all drawn together by the winter theme, and made poignant and believable by the subtle arrangements and Bush’s sincere, passionate vocals: The hunt for the yeti in the Himalayas (“Wild Man”), a romantic tryst with a snowman (“Misty”), the fifty words for snow in the Inuit language (“50 Words For Snow”), a winter spirit calling out to her dog (“Lake Tahoe”). An uncontested masterpiece that sounds like nothing else.


2. Bon Iver- Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Bon Iver’s debut record, 2008‘s For Emma, For Ever Ago, was a wintery, painfully honest affair, recorded by frontman Justin Vernon in an isolated cabin in the woods of Wisconsin. Rooted in the raw emotional honesty that made For Emma so compelling yet far more layered, mature and expansive, Bon Iver, Bon Iver finds Vernon embracing the warmer, wider world beyond the Wisconsin wilderness with magnificent results. No longer limited by a sparse folk aesthetic, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a textured and ambitious musical travelogue (each song is named after a location, some actual, some fictional) with a lush and original sound. Weaving aspects of  such disperate genres as folk, jazz, electronica, pop and even ’80’s adult contemporary together to create a unique, compelling and original sound,  Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a world unto itself. Pedal steel guitar, horns and washes of keyboard twist around Vernon’s keening, emotive vocals, weaving a sophisticated, artistic, and emotionally potent tapestry of sound. Yet despite the warm, lush production, this is ultimately a fragile soul-bearing record of remarkable vulnerability and depth, a triumphant marriage of accessibility, experimentation and introspection.


3. The Roots- undun

A concise and unified concept album, undun tells the story of the demise of Redford Stevens, an intelligently self-aware young criminal caught up and ultimately defeated by the daily hustle for survival on the streets of Philidelphia. Beginning with Stevens’ death (“There I go, from a man to a memory / Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me…”) and backtracking to the circumstances that led to his downfall, lead MC Black Thought and his crew of guests (including Dice Raw and Phonte) combine gritty inner-city realism with philosophical and existential musings to reflect on the tragedy of a life unnecessarily squandered. Each MC gives voice to a different aspect of Steven’s complex personality, avoiding specific details in favor of reflective ruminations. This allows the listener to derive his or her own conclusion from the agile rhymes. Driven by  Questlove’s relentless drumming and a sophisticated set of soul influenced chord progressions, the album is a musical triumph, moving seamlessly from the Stevie Wonder influenced coda of “Make My” to the menacingly funky “Kool On” to the anthemic hooks of “Lighthouse” and “The OtherSide.” The album ends with a four-part suite built around a Sufjan Stevens piano composition turned on its head, taking detours through orchestrated chamber music and avant-garde cacophony, ending this music eulogy with funereal grace. undun stands as The Root’s magnum opus, a masterpiece of  ambitious scale matched by precise, passionate execution.


4. James Blake- James Blake

Following a series of acclaimed EP’s, James Blake has produced a sparsely haunting album of highly original music which beautifully straddles the intersection between singer-songwriter and dubstep. An innovative producer, Blake splices, samples, repurposes and chops his soulful, evocative croon and his spare piano, which complement the plaintive, R&B tinged ballads which dominate this affecting release. On the stunning suite “Why Don’t You Call Me / I Mind,” Blake reshapes a churchy hymn into something decidedly funkier. “I don’t know about my dreamin’ anymore / All that I know is I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin’, fallin’,” sings Blake on the “The Wilhelm Scream” as the vocals surrender to an atmospheric eruption of synths. “Limit To Your Love,” a Feist cover, utilizes empty space and rumbling bass to heighten the impact of Blake’s passionately yearning vocals. The songs are studies in mantra-like repetition that reveal the beauty of subtle variation, and the emotional power of Blake’s raw, powerful instrument of a voice. James Blake is a bravely assured, wholly captivating and innovative album that suggests a maturity beyond the artist’s 21 years.


5. St. Vincent- Strange Mercy

Cerebral, inventive, cohesive and strangely appealing, Strange Mercy is a masterpiece of contrast: Big hooks atop icy, stabs of guitar noise, referential and artsy lyrics sung in a mellifluous coo. A theme of anxiousness pervades the record, as drums stutter, strings languidly float, guitars squeal and the palpable pressure of this fresh, original music builds. Annie Clark’s sometimes-impassioned-sometimes-restrained vocals provocatively beckon, as she calls on the finest surgeons to cut her open and casually informs the listener that she’s seen America with no clothes on. Throughout the record, Clark manages to balance the accessible with the innovative, and she succeeds with superb results. Songs like “Cruel” and “Cheerleader” are driven by catchy, if off kilter, choruses that recall prime Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads, yet the spastic-space-alien synth solo at the end of “Surgeon” reminds us that Annie Clark doesn’t want us to get too comfortable.


6. Radiohead- The King of Limbs

The King of Limbs is a schizophrenic album that takes the listener on a journey from anxiety to tranquility: While the first four songs form a suite of some of the most frantic, visceral, percussive and disquieting music in Radiohead’s catalogue, the second side is dreamy, pastoral and sensual. “Bloom,” “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Little By Little” twitch along to a sexy tattoo of choppy loops, clanging drums, and rubbery bass, over which hovers Thom Yorke’s ethereal croon. More a physical experience than a song, “Feral,” a percussion driven tribal banger with disembodied vocals, segues into the slinking, sly “Lotus Flower,” which unassumingly opens the serene second side, and also holds the album’s greatest treasures. The highlight of the album is “Codex,” a breathtakingly gorgeous invitation to surrender couched in pillowy piano and horns. The chirping of birds and acoustic guitars of the ethereal “Give Up The Ghost” give way to the chiming guitars of “Separator,” which closes the album on a dazed, sudden note, leaving the listening hanging for more. Deliberately difficult, The King of Limbs is the sort of album that grows on you, slipping its way into your subconscious with its enticingly haunting genius.


7. Panda Bear- Tomboy
Less euphoric, yet more accessible than his 2007 solo landmark Person Pitch, Tomboy finds the Animal Collective member refining his distinctively shimmering sound over a set of nostalgically psychedelic soundscapes that find the golden mean between innovative sound experiments and pop songcraft. The guitars bubble, the polyrhythms dance and the sequencers and synthesizers flicker and pulsate, and the multi-tracked vocals are drenched in cavernous reverb, yet Noah Lennox’s gorgeous choirboy harmonies and gift for melodic, memorable songs that evoke the harmonic sunshine of the Beach Boys gives the record an immediate and inviting quality, akin to secular hymns, giving even the darkest material a sense of hope. This is hypnotic, detailed and challenging music; lose yourself in its waves of sound.


8. The Weeknd- House of Balloons  

Tragically hip, Drake endorsed, and achingly soulful, the debut release from Canadian R&B enigma The Weeknd reeks of alcohol, lost love, hard drugs and dangerous late night debauchery going horribly wrong. Over the course of nine masterfully written hymns to the night, House of Balloons takes the listener on a thrilling ride through hedonistic night with a fast-living playboy. The lyrics spare nothing; the descriptions of depraved nocturnal behavior that ultimately leads to hollowness are highly explicit, and thus shocking and affecting in their casual deliver. The mood of desperation, heartache and empty misery is enforced by the sparse wooziness of Doc McKinney and Illangelo production, which undercuts the record with a consistency of sound and mood that considerably heightens its emotional impact. Yet Abel Tesfaye’s vocals are undeniably the star of this unique record. A dexterous and sensitive singer, Tesfaye sings in a pained and emotional tenor that recalls Prince at his most erotic and androgynous. “Bring your love baby I can bring my shame / Bring the drugs baby I can bring my pain,” Tesfaye sings on album highlight “Wicked Games,” allowing us to vicariously experience this thrilling but dangerous lifestyle. Exhilarating and essential.


9. TV on the Radio- Nine Types of Light

“Every lover on a mission, shift your known position into the light,” sings Tunde Adebimpe in a seductive croon over horn stabs and a percolating bed of guitars and percussion, setting the mood for this record of slow burning apocalyptic love songs. At heart, Nine Types of Light is a romantic album, allowing the experimental Brooklyn indie rockers to show off the sensitive, emotional side of their uniquely frenetic funky art-rock sound. “Will Do” and “You” are slow jams refracted through the band’s signature brew of buzzing bass, chewy synths and frenzied falsetto vocals. The jittering Prince-gone-punk of “No Future Shock,” the manic propulsion of “Repetition” and the insistent groove of “New Cannonball Blues” sound like the soundtrack to the dance party at the end of the world, while “Killer Crane” ethereally floats along to the measured, ringing piano chords and a twanging banjo. Hard hitting, dynamic and heartfelt,  Nine Types of Light is the assured and majestic sound of a band finding love and beauty amidst the mayhem of the world.


10. Paul Simon- So Beautiful Or So What

On “The Afterlife” an African-influenced highlight of So Beautiful Or So What, Paul Simon’s best album since 1986’s worldbeat classic Graceland, the legendary singer-songwriter describes the afterlife as similar to a DMV: “You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.” Throughout the album, Simon applies his characteristically dry and witty touch to musings on deep questions of mortality and spirituality (“Buddha and Moses and all of the noses from narrow to flat”), lending a light and life-affirming vibe to an album about life, love, death and God. Musically, the album is surprising and adventurous, an exotic, simmering, piquant stew of musical influences from around the world: The rhythms and harmonies of India and Africa coalesce with hints of folk, pop, gospel and the soulful blues of the Louisiana bayou over the familiar sound of Simon’s conversational vocals and fingerpicked guitar. A late career masterpiece from one of America’s great musical heroes.