The best music of 2011 

Our top 20 releases of the year in no particular order

click to enlarge JENN SWEENEY
  • Jenn Sweeney

Yuck Yuck

This London breakout channels the ’90s indie-rock era ruled by Teenage Fanclub and Dinosaur Jr., a time when loud was done with warmth, soul and bliss. But their cranked slacker fuzz is more than just comfy nostalgia. What makes them singular is their unmistakably penetrating melodies and pure evergreen spirit. Songwriting this perfect only comes along once in a long while. And Orlando was blessed with two separate appearances this year. – BLH

St. Vincent Strange Mercy

Strange Mercy is showing up on year-end lists everywhere, and for good reason. It’s Annie Clark’s weirdest and most beautiful album yet – a sonically dense chunk of off-kilter melodies, freak-funk production techniques and noisy grandiosity. The fact that Strange Mercy isn’t showing up on the guitar mags’ year-end lists is a real shame; Annie Clark’s incredible and inventive guitar style is part of what makes this album the year’s best. – JF

Wu Lyf Go Tell Fire to the Mountain

Recorded in St. Peter’s church and sounding every bit as cathedral-high as that suggests, World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation have aggressively resisted press hype, but to no avail. No wonder: This collection of incomprehensible (yet resoundingly universal) anthems simply cannot be ignored. In equal measure hooligan pub music and reverb-drenched stadium ecstasy, Go Tell Fire should be classified as a mood-altering drug. – JS

Young Circles Jungle Habits

This stunning Miami debut came from seemingly nowhere with droning, futuristic psych-rock rimmed with gripping, unexpected details. Like Clinic and occasionally Suuns, only with more scruffy humanity and emotional buoyancy, this is the kind of rock that jerks your neck with its fascinating turns much more often than you’re used to. – BLH

The Pauses A Cautionary Tale

2011 was the official launch of ’90s nostalgia, and other than the Girls album, no record came closer to capturing the sonic spirit of the decade than the Pauses’ J. Robbins-produced A Cautionary Tale. However, while Girls (and Yuck) go for a sort of explicit genre homage, the Pauses prefer to channel the era’s indie-rock ethos while employing production techniques and a songwriting touch that’s very much forward-looking. Even better? It was birthed right here in Orlando. – JF

Tom Waits Bad as Me

For his first album of new material in seven years, Tom Waits, a figure long since enshrined as a genuine musical demigod, engages in the kind of balls-out peacocking that a non-hip-hop artist can get away with: “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards / I will scratch where I’ve been itchin’,” he wails on “Satisfied,” only one of a plethora of animated numbers here. The fact that Keith Richards himself backs Waits on guitar for that track and three others is badass enough to forever mispronounce the album title. – JS

Smith Westerns Dye It Blonde

This is the most luxurious yet sharp vision of glam rock imagined in an eternity. Their garage-punk roots keep the melodies tight, but this color burst into T. Rex teenage dream territory is done with such splendor and style that it makes for a knockout slice of fantasy. – BLH

Teddybears Devil’s Music

A ridiculously unsubtle, big and brash slab of booming party-rock. Despite the presence of Wayne Coyne and Cee-Lo Green, Devil’s Music is best when it’s at its worst: cuts like the Robyn-starring electro-pop of “Cardiac Arrest” and the utterly ridiculous (and utterly infectious) “Get Mama a House,” with BoB. FLMFAO. – JF

Those Darlins Screws Get Loose

Re-emerging as a garage-punk band built on oldies and original rock & roll, this album is a rebirth that marks a band truly finding its voice and footing. It’s simple, but it’s pitch-perfect in tune and attitude. See for yourself when they return Jan. 23 to open for Old 97’s (Plaza Live). – BLH

M83 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

For me, the new M83 album (and, honestly, its predecessor) didn’t click until seeing the band’s show at the Beacham. But there, Anthony Gonzalez’s transformation from cinematic electronicist to peerless purveyor of epic, optimistic pop music was proven to be complete, casting Hurry Up in a whole new light. – JF

Kaleigh Baker The Weight of It All

By now it’s well-established that local producer Justin Beckler is a creative magician. This album showed that when he’s gifted something with genuine magic inside like formerly local soul singer-songwriter Kaleigh Baker, Beckler handles the power with respect and innovation. The artist-producer pairing yielded the equivalent of an engraved invitation to history with this blistering EP, which tidily puts on display Baker’s powerhouse vocals and her rousing authenticity. – JS

Flashlights I’m Not Alone

Refer to my review of this scrappy little rocket that just shot up from the Space Coast in last week’s music section for a more articulated case of why this made my list. And then thank Norse Korea’s Bradley Ryan for basically breaking them here. Their red-lining lo-fi euphoria is the deal. – BLH

Boris Attention Please

Yeah, Boris released three albums in 2011. And yeah, Attention Please is the most accessible of all of them, which, in the minds of many Boris fans, likely makes it the lesser disc. Still, the shoegazey stickiness the band amplifies here is mightily effective. – JF

Mr. Gnome Madness in Miniature

This thundering magnum opus by the mesmerizing Cleveland duo is a work of sensual mystery. It’s a stormy menagerie that’s beautiful, restless and seismic. Their highly signature sound may be wrapped in velvet, but their rock crunch hits like a mallet. And thankfully, through the belief and persistence of Parafora Presents’ Chris Anderson, they’re finally making real headway here. – BLH

Anna Calvi Anna Calvi

All you people stacking your year-end lists with PJ Harvey’s album really missed out on the true heir to Polly Jean’s throne. Anna Calvi’s throaty, expressive voice is all drama, all the time, with a noir-rock soundtrack to back it up. Powerful stuff. –JF

NewVillager New Villager

Despite its market ubiquity, R&B is largely worthless nowadays, a free-flowing but grossly devalued currency. But new Brooklyn art band NewVillager is the most intriguing and convincing act to emerge with a truly forward-looking psych-pop take on the once-proud form. And this debut is a fresh and, well, fresh take on soul. – BLH

Moon Duo Mazes

The grungy, lysergic offshoot of the already plenty-psychedelic Wooden Shjips made an album that gave Shjips’ own 2011 entry a brain-melting run for its money. – JF

Britney Spears Femme Fatale

It’s news to nobody that the popular-music industrial complex has whittled down the necessity for pop stars – and the personalities, tabloid red-meat relationship dramas and rehab stints that inevitably come with them – to a nubbin, the better to bottom-line their output as mere product. But modern pop listeners accept that as the consequence of danceable junk food and should be able to alter their standards accordingly. Femme Fatale, the seventh album by factory product-in-absentia Britney Spears, was the apotheosis of female bot-pop, a massively enjoyable, end-to-end candy store of treats that mostly shoves aside its blond figurehead to make way for super-producers like Dr. Luke, Max Martin and especially Swedish duo Bloodshy and Avant. The result was bubblegum-flavored gold. – JS

Gypsyblood Cold in the Guestway

This debut from Chicago is one compelling and tasty cocktail. Their merge of shoegaze and off-kilter indie rock is like the very handsome offspring of the Jesus & Mary Chain and Archers of Loaf or perhaps Pavement. It’s got both deliciously woozy melodies and wonderfully chewy, fuzzy texture. – BLH

The Weeknd House of Balloons

Overhyped or underappreciated? Soulful or cynical? Woozy or lazy? Yes. –JF

Principally poetic

Could Eminem rap his way into a laureateship?

by Justin Strout

This year, for the first time in my life, I felt as though I couldn’t afford to listen to hip-hop anymore. Of course, monetary braggadocio has always been inextricably tied to the genre, but there’s a landmass of difference between Bronx rappers comparing gold chains in the ’80s or Cash Money in the ’90s and real-life President Obama BFF Jay-Z’s chillingly credible threat off this year’s Watch the Throne that, if he were to, say, murder you, between his private jets, five passports and connections, “asylum can be purchased.” In 2011, luxury rap was in, and if you didn’t know who Martin Margiela or Michael Kors were, you didn’t belong at the party.

Despite his numerous personal shortcomings – all of which he’s laid bare from his career’s inception – it should be noted that Eminem, last year’s best-selling artist in the world, has never seemed preoccupied by finances. In fact, his debut album, The Slim Shady LP, drew from a fire that came out of the rapper’s dire financial straits – more than a decade later, he still spits about WIC and food stamps as if the fear and instability has never left his deepest thoughts. He may no longer be among the 99 percent of us, but he might be our angriest, loudest and most poetic representative.

During a year that saw Marshall Mathers collect a Best Rap Album Grammy, become the most followed person on Facebook and the only rapper to have two RIAA diamond-certified albums, he also resurrected the career of a former nemesis and starred in a Super Bowl ad for Chrysler that was so powerful, one Michigan paper wondered if it could “help revive [the] state’s image.” One has to wonder what’s next for the “modern-day Shakespeare.” How about making him the U.S. Poet Laureate?

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Last year, acclaimed poet M.L. Liebler included Eminem’s lyrics in his literature anthology Working Words, and Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has said, “[Eminem] has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around his generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.” Likewise, The Last King of Scotland author Giles Foden, in writing of his admiration for Eminem’s song “Stan,” employed phrases like “bardic” and called the rapper “a multiple, elusive experience” whose “genius is, principally, poetic.” The anonymous Internet populace, as usual, puts it more succinctly: In the comments section of Charlie Rose’s interview with 2008 U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, user name Poetry Lover says, “Eminem is better.”

So what are his chances? Not great. First, if it hasn’t happened for Bob Dylan, it will not likely happen for any musician. Second, the position is decided by the Librarian of Congress, 82-year-old James Billington, and the decision is finalized only after consultation with past poets laureate as well as the current one. Today, the U.S. Poet Laureate is Philip Levine, whose work, ironically enough, has primarily focused on life in working-class Detroit, Eminem’s hometown. On the other hand, in an NPR interview this year, 83-year-old Levine admitted he’s never heard Eminem’s music before, but said his twin brother is a fan. (He did offer this promising note: “Why argue about it? You know? Is Bob Dylan a poet? Yeah, of course he is. My brother’s smart. [Eminem] probably is.”

Finally, to use one of Em’s lines, here comes the cold water: Almost every U.S. Poet Laureate also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, sometimes decades before their laureateship. It’s not traditionally a post that reflects modern society, but one that rewards a body of work that Mathers, by way of chronology, hasn’t even approached yet. He may be his generation’s laureate, but a place on the president’s iPod will likely have to do for now.

Boomer-ang

The ’90s came back, while many new acts looked deeper into the past

by Bao Le-Huu

Last year, it was the new-gazers. This year, the fresh dope was delivered in the form of nostalgia for oldies flavors like doo-wop and the girl-group sound, which, historically speaking, is a little curious.

For a long time, fashion recycled itself in reliable, 20-year revival cycles. Think Happy Days, That ’70s Show and the fact that hipsters have been running around dressed like it’s 1984 for the last decade and are now starting to bridge over into ’90s revivalism. But this year’s new kick is reaching back over half a century to the sounds of the ’50s and ’60s, basically the fountainhead of what we recognize as pop music today.

This touchstone has been bubbling up in the underground for a while, but it hit total critical mass in indiedom this year, spreading into denominations as prismatic as garage, punk (Hunx and His Punx, Those Darlins), pop (Tennis, Cults, La Sera, Dum Dum Girls), rock (Hanni el Khatib, Mister Heavenly, Guards) and even experimental lo-fi (Dirty Beaches).

However regrettable stylistic regression like this may be to academics, it’s hard to deny how sweetly this stuff scratches that itch. Perhaps it’s the pop timelessness of this kind of melody craft or maybe just the special kind of quench for someone living in a radio market like ours that’s been mysteriously barren of oldies for years, but it’s been a breath of refreshing air from a long-lost love for me. Judging from the magnitude of the movement, though, clearly I’m not the only one.

Into that good Night

A Danish DJ soundtracks a year of magical thinking

by Jason Ferguson

Personally speaking, 2011 was a year filled with long and intense bouts of quiet reflection. Although the year had plenty of good news, it definitely had more than its share of bad news. Beloved friends, family members and even pets left this world during 2011, and, with a momentous milestone birthday myself this year, mortality was weighing heavily on my mind.

Of course, every good sojourn into self-reflection requires a soundtrack, and for at least half of 2011, Danish DJ Trentemøller’s contribution to the LateNightTales compilation series was the perfect musical accompaniment. Although Trentemøller is known for his experimental solo albums and expansive club sets, his LNT album takes a tack that’s darker, more organic and more psychedelically melancholy. Without being self-indulgent or sappy, Trentemøller’s track selection perfectly captured that emotionally cloudy, darkest-before-the-dawn resonance that’s likely familiar to folks grappling with the confusion and grief of loss.

Coupling tracks by artists new (M. Ward, Papercuts, Darkness Falls), old (This Mortal Coil, Mazzy Star) and really old (the Velvet Underground, the Shangri-La’s), Trentemøller cuts a wide and genre-agnostic swath across five decades of bummer-rock. The album’s most engaging moments come courtesy of Chimes & Bells and Darkness Falls, two Danish groups that Trentemøller produced. Chimes & Bells’ “The Mole” is eight and a half minutes of a pulsing electronic heart, draped in mumbled, reverb-drenched vocals and surging sheets of noisy guitars, while Darkness Falls’ “Noise on the Line” is a combination of simple acoustic guitar and a high, lonesome chorus that’s as gentle as it is cathartic.

Which, in 2011, was just what I needed.

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