Critic: Josh Potter
1. St. Vincent
It’s hard to decide what I like best about Annie Clark: her girl-next-door persona, her voice that can go from bashful to Björk-y in a single song, her band who seemingly are assembled from stray members of LCD Soundsystem, P-Funk and the Mothers of Invention, or her absolutely unhinged guitar playing. Oh yeah, all of it.
With only four vocal tracks, Gloss Drop isn’t merely a charity pick for a good instrumental record. It made math rock human.
Omega La La
My year-end picks have as much to do with time spent on the turntable as they do with some writerly notion of aesthetic superiority. This avant-Afrobeat party band remains on heavy rotation, and they keep revealing new dimensions of themselves.
w h o k i l l
Merrill Garbus is the queen of the loop pedal, but this record blasted past her prior DIY tribalism on the merits of killer production and one of the most dangerous voices in pop music.
5. Gang Gang Dance
The unsung hero of this infectiously danceable electronic record is the band’s Japanese spiritual leader/hype man/vibe coach, soundlessly waving his trash-bag flag in the room with the crew.
6. White Denim
Don’t buy Will Hermes’ blathering description of these guys as a “jam band”; White Denim are making the best power-trio guitar rock since Band of Gypsys.
7. Panda Bear
His last record (Person Pitch) was one of the last decade’s most creative—and the blueprint for a deluge of chillwave imitators. Tomboy finds influence in Spaceman 3 psychedelia and the European electronic underground, reaffirming that the Animal Collective member is one of this generation’s greats.
8. Atlas Sound
Panda Bear’s melancholic mirror image, Bradford Cox, has again crafted a solo record of angelic beauty. Not sure why he even bothers with his main gig Deerhunter anymore.
9. Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
This is why music blogs are important: UMO’s debut exploded out of Portlandia, thanks to frantic linkage. And every track on the record is as strong as viral single “Ffunny Ffrends.”
Golden Age of Apocalypse
OK, maybe I’m just a sucker for badass bass playing, kitschy jazz-fusion and 80s cartoons . . .
Critic: David King
1. The Horrors
One of the best bands in the world write a stunningly beautiful, psychedelic, art-damaged, fuzzy-eyed goth dream.
David Bowie and New Order spent a weekend together in the ’80s, by an LA motel pool, snorting coke and recording one of the best albums of the decade—the decade being this one?
Carbon Based Anatomy
It’s an EP? Yeah, so what? The former progressive death-metal outfit write a heavenly space opera about aliens, elves and love. T.Rex 2012.
4. St. Vincent
This schizophrenic pop album reminds us all of how a drum machine can make everything better—under proper supervision.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
France’s M83 earn the radio hit they should have years ago, before MGMT dropped Gary Numan synth over a big beat. They are way glummer.
6. Smith Westerns
Dye it Blonde
Marc Bolan time machine trio bring you the teenage dream.
7. Devin Townsend Project
Metal’s mad genius visits the land where everyone is pale, blonde and into black metal, for some gothic choir and prodigious drummers, but makes his most honest and soul-baring album ever.
8. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Big, dumb shoe-gazing indie with a heart, delivered by people who believe in rock & roll.
9. PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
This album is bleak as the country it comes from. A screeching, scratching, gut-wrenching album obsessed with war. It hurts like nothing else. Where is America’s version of this?
10. Animals as Leaders
This three-member prog-metal instrumental group make soundscapes that can captivate and confound any musician.
Critic: Kirsten Ferguson
1. The Feelies
On their first album in 20 years, the reformed Feelies ask the lyrical question, “Is it too late, to do it again?” From the blissful pastoral pop of the title track to the edgy swirl and discord of the punker, “Time Is Right,” the answer to that question is a definite no.
2. Wild Flag
Everything about me wanted to like the debut from indie supergroup Wild Flag, featuring Mary Timony of the underrated ’90s band Helium and members of pioneering all-female rock group Sleater-Kinney. Fortunately, Wild Flag did not disappoint.
3. PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
Critical accolades have been rolling in like mad for PJ Harvey’s warfare-themed concept album. Have to say she deserves it; it’s a very inventive album that pulls off the rare feat of being affecting and thought-provoking while still highly listenable and enjoyable.
4. The War on Drugs
I’m a sucker for this kind of hypnotic, melodic and sprawling guitar rock. But there’s something special about this album; it evokes a powerful feeling of nostalgia that holds it together as a cohesive piece. Makes for great road-trip music.
Red Barked Tree
Legendary post-punkers Wire, 34 years into their career, released a start-to-finish great album with songs just as bristling, vital and evocative as some of their best work from decades previous.
6. Atlas Sound
This may be the most accesible effort yet from indie figure Bradford Cox, who also fronts the more guitar-oriented Deerhunter. But accesible in this case mostly means easily grabbed melodies, because this album is also one of the most beautifully weird things he’s done.
Like the rest of America, I enjoyed this album and its mega-hits a lot this year. Adele rocks.
8. Eleanor Friedberger
This debut from Fiery Furnaces’ singer Eleanor Friedberger is at least as enjoyable as the best music from her main outfit (although I might argue it’s even more so). Straightforward pop abounds here, altough it’s not without its quirky flourishes.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Raised-in-a-cult frontman Christopher Owens of San Francisco’s Girls always seemed to have a better backstory than maybe anything, but here his duo deliver, from the unrelentingly upbeat and compact “Honey Bunny” to the expansive and love-tortured “Vomit.”
[Tie] 10. NRBQ
Keep This Love Goin’
Terry Adams ushered in a new era of NRBQ with a reconstituted lineup and this breezy joy of an album; the contributions by new member and Saratoga native Pete Donnelly of the Figgs are especially killer.
10. Smith Westerns
Dye It Blonde
“Weekend” is the poppy opening track on this British-shoe-gazer-rock-influenced album by youthful Chicago indie rockers; the whole album sounds like a blissful Saturday.
Critic: Taylor Morris
RUIN 1 & 2
This duo’s noteworthy, yearlong run of mixes, remixes and cumulative creative output culminated with RUIN, a great, incessantly replayable two-part EP that was put out via gorgeous, limited-edition vinyl from Acéphale Records.
2. Lil B
Bitch Mob Respect Da Bitch Vol. I /Gold House
Based God’s year, monumental as a whole, was spearheaded by these two “Bitch Mob” releases that found the oft-unchained rapper at his most unchained. If “creative output” were allowed on this list, I’d put it. I can’t, so just pretend I did.
3. Danny Brown
In a year when way too many scattershot rap albums floated rudderless, Brown’s XXX stood as the greatest example of how incredible and worthwhile full-length album-rap can still be—regardless of price point or release format.
4. Waka Flocka Flame
Duflocka Rant Vol. 1 (10 Toes Down) / Lebron Flocka James 3
If Danny Brown made a play for the relevancy of the album, Flocka made the case (or cases, really) for the mixtape. In a year that saw an abundance of Brick Squad-affiliated releases (many from Flocka himself), these two basketball-referencing tapes found the Riverdale, Ga. rapper at that absolute top of his game.
5. Real Estate
A well-edited, perfectly-paced album that sounded just too damn easy while simultaneously making the other entries into the psych- and surf-pop-influenced canon pale in comparison.
For a band who could have easily fucked up all the buzz and goodwill that came from their original 7-inch, Cults managed to extend the sweet, girl-group-inspired, buzz-and-goodwill-bringing pop into a concise 33-minute self-titled debut.
The platinum-certified 4 found Knowles splitting production and songwriting duties with a string of collaborators like The-Dream, Tricky, Babyface, and Kanye West, all in an effort to create her best release to date.
Weekend at Burnie’s
“Weed rap’s” hardest working (and best) artist teamed up with producer Monsta Beatz to release another mellow, consistent, and unfortunately overlooked rap album that found the affable Spitta tossing off pitch-perfect, weed-centric one-liners with ease.
Critic: David Greenberger
1. Tom Waits
Bad as Me
Ignore critical assessments that has him “returning to form” or some such. This is a guy who knows the finite shape of his yard but keeps digging new holes and finding stuff.
2. Ry Cooder
Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
Another new peak, giving cliché-free muscle to a set of original protest songs.
The Whole Love
It’s encouraging that a band who can move easily between gentle songcraft and artful sonics can attain and nurture such a large audience.
4. P.J. O’Connell
Join the Crowd
So rich and beautiful, so full of unblinking observations of fractious circumstances, that you’ll need to lie down after listening.
Keep This Love Goin’
Arguments about who’s in the band and who gets to use the name fall away in the face of such honest and robust music.
6. Dave Alvin
The rough-and-tumble diamond cutter is back.
7. They Might Be Giants
Do what the title says. Smart guys on a circuitous frolic.
Still wrestling with spiritual conundrums and existential quandaries, they do so with the gentle alluring bearing of lullabies.
9. Blitzen Trapper
They draw me in with the familiar and hold me there with some curious measure of loopy mysteriousness and surprise.
10. Chris Ligon and the Problems
This Is Your Night
The fake party chatter between songs wears thin, but “The Great State of Texas” is a chillingly potent song everyone should hear.
Critic: Raurri Jennings
1. Shabazz Palaces
Whether rattling out of trunks or buzzing in headphones, Black Up is 14 tracks of elaborate space-age beats and betting-parlor wisdom from real hip-hop veterans. Palaceer, aka Ishmael Butler, delivers blistering indictments of sucka MC’s and emits flyness in every stage of his game.
Omega La La
Rubblebucket dropped the “Orchestra” in their name and managed to mold their funky Afrobeat sound into mutated pop spasms. Songs like “Came Out of a Lady” and “Breatherz (Young as Clouds)” deliver deep hooks amid intricate arrangements.
3. Little Dragon
This Swedish electro-R&B group are finally getting the attention due to them with their third LP. Vocalist Yukimi Nagano has jumped on more tracks this year than Lil Wayne, but hasn’t neglected the main squeeze, releasing another minimal-electro-R&B nugget.
4. Panda Bear
Noah Lennox’s follow-up to the seminal Person Pitch was one of the most hyped albums of the year, but worthy of all the praise. Scaffolded with heavy King Tubby-esque beats and adorned with echo-laden guitars and vocal harmonies, Tomboy alternately shakes and centers the soul.
5. Colin Stetson
New History Warfare V. 2: Judges
Recorded in elaborately miked single takes, New History Warfare emotes a dark future with virtuosity and fire. Employing circular breathing and vocalization through a bass saxophone, Stetson set the bar for the avant-garde this year. First there is a bar, then there is no bar.
6. Sandro Perri
With extended synthesizer codas and interlocking samba guitars, Impossible Spaces succeeds in sounding both whimsical and perspicacious. Perri’s maximalist approach welcomes flutes, saxophones and strings into his arrangements as Noah herded every creature on his ark. It’s impossible not to get caught up in Perri’s syncopated sprawl.
The Golden Age of Apocalypse
2011 was full of well-produced throwbacks, but none of them succeeded in being as funky as Thundercat’s debut produced by Flying Lotus. Golden Age takes atoms of retro R&B and bombards them with electro drum kicks and ’70s jazz-fusion. The result: unimpeachable as the headdress that sits atop his head.
8. St. Vincent
Annie Clark’s St. Vincent project is one of music’s most intriguing chimeras. Her previous releases showcased her baroque arrangements and unique voice but, with Strange Mercy, Clark explores a darker interior landscape where her guitar emulates dentist drills and chainsaws and she warps her breathy voice around lines like “Best find a surgeon/Come cut me open.”
9. White Denim
Live at Third Man Studios
Although they put out a stellar studio record, titled simply D, this vinyl-only live album, released through Jack White’s Third Man Records, is a one of the few candles burning brilliantly at the altar of electric guitar. If you haven’t seen White Denim live, make it your New Year’s resolution.
James Blake may be remembered as one of the moments where dubstep wobbled into the mainstream, but Blake’s experiments with bass and space are a far cry from a tent set at Camp Bisco. Turn the lights out in your room and turn up “Wilhelm Scream,” or his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” and watch black holes open in your ceiling.