The best music of 2011: The Ballots  

The best music of 2011: The Ballots  

Our main list of the year’s best albums doesn’t just appear out of thin air. It’s tallied from ballots by a group of writers, each of whom is given 100 points to distribute over their favorites. The maximum number of points a writer can award an album is 15; the minimum is one. Below are the individual ballots, plus some personal commentary on discs that didn’t make the big list, as well as other thoughts on the year’s best music. 

THE BALLOTS

Marah Eakin Marcus Gilmer Marc Hawthorne
Jason Heller Steven Hyden Genevieve Koski
Chris Mincher Josh Modell Noel Murray
Tuyet Nguyen Sean O'Neal Keith Phipps
Nathan Rabin Kyle Ryan Evan Rytlewski
Christian Williams

MARAH EAKIN

1. Destroyer, Kaputt (15)
2. Fucked Up, David Comes To Life (10)
3. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (10)
4. Wye Oak, Civilian (8)
5. Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots (7)
6. Low, C’mon (5)
7. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (5)
8. Adele, 21 (5)
9. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring For My Halo (5)
10. Telekinesis, 12 Desperate Straight Lines (5)
11. Tune-Yards, Whokill (5)
12. Iron And Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean (5)
13. Yuck, Yuck (5)
14. Wilco, The Whole Love (5)
15. Megafaun, Megafaun (5)

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MARCUS GILMER

1. Beirut, The Rip Tide (12)
2. Patrick Wolf, Lupercalia (10)
3. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia/Ultra (10)
4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (8)
5. Lydia Loveless, Indestructible Machine (7)
6. War On Drugs, Slave Ambient (7)
7. Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (7)
8. Tune-Yards, Whokill (6)
9. G-Side, The One… Cohesive (6)
10. Laura Stevenson & The Cans, Sit Resist (6)
11. Noah & The Whale, Last Night On Earth (5)
12. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (5)
13. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Belong (4)
14. Tom Waits, Bad As Me (4)
15. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (3)

My next 5 best albums, in no particular order
Wye Oak, Civilian
Wilco, The Whole Love
R.E.M., Collapse Into Now
Dad Rocks!, Modern Mount
Saigon, The Greatest Story Never Told

Best album not yet released in America
Of Monsters And Men, a sprawling indie-folk troupe from Iceland, is a big hit in its homeland, but it’s just now starting to get some notice in other parts of the world. Reminiscent of The Arcade Fire and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Of Monsters And Men takes an “anything goes” approach, layering its rustic folk with horns, strings, accordion, and dueling male-female vocals. With instantly hummable hooks, like the soaring, shout-along chorus on the single “Little Talks”—which has picked up some airplay at American indie stations—and gorgeous, melodic arrangements, Monsters is worth keeping an eye on in 2012. The band recently inked a deal to release its album My Head Is An Animal in the States early next year, and it’s already slotted at SXSW, hopefully with a more extended North American tour to follow.

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MARC HAWTHORNE

1. St. Lucia, St. Lucia (10)
2. Low, C’mon (10)
3. Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto (10)
4. Starfucker, Reptilians (10)
5. Janice Whaley, The Smiths Project (10)
6. Mike Adams At His Honest Weight, Oscillate Wisely (10)
7. Britney Spears, Femme Fatale (10)
8. Mariachi El Bronx, Mariachi El Bronx (II) (10)
9. Yuck, Yuck (10)
10. The Vaccines, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? (10)

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JASON HELLER

1. Cult Of Youth, Cult Of Youth (15)
2. Wolves In The Throne Room, Celestial Lineage (15)
3. Fucked Up, David Comes To Life (10)
4. Prurient, Bermuda Drain (10)
5. The Men, Leave Home (10)
6. Jesu, Ascension (10)
7. Van Hunt, What Were You Hoping For? (5)
8. Disma, Toward The Megalith (5)
9. Mamiffer, Mare Decendrii (5)
10. Russian Circles, Empros (5)
11. Tasseomancy, Ulalume (2)
12. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (2)
13. Iceage, New Brigade (2)
14. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’ (2)
15. Touché Amoré, Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me (2)

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STEVEN HYDEN

1. Real Estate, Days (15)
2. Fucked Up, David Comes To Life (15)
3.
Atlas Sound, Parallax (11)
4. Wye Oak, Civilian (10)

5.
Mastodon, The Hunter (10)
6. Bill Callahan, Apocalypse (10)
7. The War On Drugs, Slave Ambient (6)
8. Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne (3)
9. The Strokes, Angles (3)
10. Washed Out, Within And Without (3)
11.
The Poison Control Center, Stranger Ballet (3)
12. Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong (3)
13. P.G. Six, Starry Mind (3)
14. Paul Simon, So Beautiful Or So What (3)
15. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring For My Halo (2)

The next 35
1. Big Troubles, Romantic Comedy
2. Fresh & Onlys, Secret Walls
3. A.A. Bondy, Believers
4. Carter Tanton, Freeclouds 
5. Bon Iver, Bon Iver 
6. Alela Diane And Wild Divine, Alela Diane And Wild Divine
7. Justice, Audio, Video, Disco
8. Destroyer, Kaputt
9. Das Racist, Relax
10. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead
11. Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde
12. The Horrors, Skying
13. Bright Eyes, The People’s Key
14. Cloud Nothings, Cloud Nothings
15. Cut Copy, Zonoscope
16. Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto
17. Middle Brother, Middle Brother
18. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia/Ultra
19.Cass McCombs, Humor Risk
20. The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar
21. Wooden Shijps, West
22. The Reigning Sound, Abdication
23. Wilco, The Whole Love
24. Felice Brothers, Celebration, Florida
25. Tom Waits, Bad As Me
26. Telekinesis, 12 Desperate Straight Lines
27. Megafaun, Megafaun
28. Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire
29. Ty Segall, Goodbye Bread
30. Fegus & Geronimo, Unlearn
31. Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, Giving
32. My Morning Jacket, Circuital
33. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
34. Dirty Beaches, Badlands
35. Radical Dads, Mega Rama

Top 25 great songs from albums not on my list
1. M83, “Reunion”
2. Cass McCombs, “County Line”
3. The Lonely Island, “Jack Sparrow”
4. Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks, “Stick Figures In Love”
5. Austra, “Darken Her Horse”
6. Mean Creek, “Sunlight”
7. Ducktails, “Hamilton Road”
8. James Blake, “The Wilhelm Scream”
9. Robert Pollard, “In A Circle”
10. The Low Anthem, “Hey, All You Hippies”
11. Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Our Hearts Are Wrong”
12. Radiohead, “Separator”
13. Sam Roberts Band, “Without A Map”
14. Marissa Nadler, “Baby, I Will Leave You In The Morning”
15. The Feelies, “Nobody Knows”
16. Deer Tick, “Walkin’ Out The Door”
17. Beach Fossils, “What A Pleasure”
18. Hayes Carll, “Hard Out Here”
19. Foo Fighters, “Rope”
20. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, “Heavens Gonna Happen Now”
21. Panda Bear, “Tomboy”
22. Drive-By Truckers, “Used To Be A Cop”
23. R.E.M., “Discoverer”
24. Times New Viking, “Ways To Go”
25. Fountains Of Wayne, “Richie And Ruben”

Best song I heard on the radio over and over this year
No discussion about music in 2011 is complete with touching on the year’s biggest phenomenon, Adele’s 21. The song that powered the album up the charts and helped to keep it there was the lead single “Rolling In The Deep,” the best monster hit song we’ve had since I don’t know when. While 21 relies a little too much on Whitney-style power ballads to rank as a great album in my book, there’s no denying the brilliance of the fire-spitting “Rolling In The Deep”—which is good, since we’ll be hearing this song on the radio for years to come. 

Worst song I heard on the radio over and over this year
The absolute pits of pop music right now—which is saying a lot—are the maudlin, melodramatic ballads that Eminem (in collaboration with Skyler Grey) has used to maintain his chart supremacy over the last few years. After “Love The Way You Lie” in 2010 (which was the worst song of that year), Eminem double-dipped in 2011, appearing on Dr. Dre’s “I Need A Doctor” and the terrible song “Lighters” with his Bad Meets Evil cohort Royce Da 5’9’’. Eminem used to be a hilarious wordsmith whose music was intended to destroy the kind of turgid, faux-inspiring claptrap that appears on “Lighters.” What happened?

Best live band
One night this summer, I sat in the back of a downtown Milwaukee bar with maybe 20 other people and saw Iowa indie-rock band The Poison Control Center try to make every corny rock ’n’ roll myth I’ve ever heard come to life. The guitar player played power chords while doing the splits. The other guitar player soloed while standing on his head. They sang love songs and tried to lead sing-alongs of songs nobody knew. They demanded that the audience sweat as hard as they were sweating; failing that, they rubbed their own sweat against us. And you know what? It worked. I felt 10 years younger and a whole lot less cynical when I walked out that night. Special bonus: The band’s record, Stranger Ballet, is fantastic. 

Best music documentary
Better Than Something: Jay Reatard, a gut-punch of a documentary about the life and early death of the eponymous venerable punk-rock tunesmith, is still playing film festivals, and might not reach the audience it deserves until it arrives on DVD. If you get the chance, see it: Better Than Something is essential viewing for Reatard fans, as well as the scores of people he alienated during his too-short career. A lifelong underdog who clawed his way out of poverty by learning to play and record music by literally banging on discarded pickle tubs, Reatard pushed his way through numerous barriers to become a success, only to lose it all at a young age. 

The album everybody else loved and I didn’t get
Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost

The Sleigh Bells award for the year’s poppy critical favorite that nobody will care about next year
Cults, Cults

The “I didn’t have enough time to fully absorb this album before I voted” award
Drake, Take Care

The “Shut your mouth around the press because it just might bury your record” award
I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness singing the praises of The Strokes’ great Angles, a record that otherwise got slammed for supposedly lacking cohesion and sounding apathetic. Funny how the band made these very same criticisms of Angles before most people got a chance to hear it; a comprehensive Pitchfork report suggested that Julian Casablancas was disengaged while the rest of the band worked on the record without him. The bad press effectively stacked the deck against what’s actually the most enjoyable Strokes album in 10 years. 

Rock-crit cliché of the year
Whether you agree with the “nostalgia is everywhere” argument or find it deeply flawed (I’m somewhere in the middle), Simon Reynolds’ Retromania was inescapable this year if you spent any time reading reviews or big music thinkpieces. After the book was released in July, critics started quoting it, and nostalgia and its pitfalls quickly became the year’s dominant conversation topic. I’m already nostalgic for the arguments Retromania started this year. 

Worst album of the year that gave me the most pleasure
I’m not defending Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu; most of the horrible things written about it are true. But I can’t think of another album—not even the records I loved most this year—that I enjoyed thinking about more, or hashing out with other music fans. It is a bad record, and painful to listen to—but it was a pleasure to talk about. 

Worst album of the year
Forget the controversial lyrics. The hateful bile spewed by Tyler, The Creator on Goblin has been heard many times before from young, immature guys looking to crack up other young, immature guys. What makes Goblin a terrible record is that it’s an utter bore, an endless, witless, hookless, thoroughly joyless 80-minute endurance test administered by a self-absorbed kid with nothing valuable (or funny, or even genuinely shocking or subversive) to share. At least when Geto Boys did it 20 years ago, they set their juvenile rape-and-murder fantasies to catchy, infectious music. On Goblin, Tyler, The Creator makes offending people seem tedious. 

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GENEVIEVE KOSKI

1. Katy B, Katy B (15)
2. Britney Spears, Femme Fatale (10)
3. Florence + The Machine, Ceremonials (10)
4. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (10)
5. Adele, 21 (5)
6. Cults, Cults (5)
7. Cut Copy, Zonoscope (5)
8. Das Racist, Relax (5)
9. Doomtree, No Kings (5)
10. Lady Gaga, Born This Way (5)
11. Le Butcherettes, Sin Sin Sin (5)
12. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes (5)
13. Pistol Annies, Hell On Heels (5)
14. Telekinesis, 12 Desperate Straight Lines (5)
15. The Weeknd, Thursday (5)

Runners-up
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Dessa, Castor, The Twin
Drake, Take Care
Dum Dum Girls, Only In Dreams
Miranda Lambert, Four The Record
Razika, Program 91
Tune-Yards, Whokill
Wild Flag, Wild Flag
Wye Oak, Civilian
Zola Jesus, Conatus

Album that would have been on my best-of if the rest of the songs on it were half as good as “Dedication To My Ex”
Lloyd’s King Of Hearts

Best album-length mash-up of millennial teenybopper-pop and club bangers
DJ Bedbugs, Teen Pop Lock And Drop Vol. 1

Biggest letdown
The good-but-not-Van Lear Rose-good Jack White-produced Wanda Jackson album The Party Ain’t Over.

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CHRIS MINCHER

1. Paul Simon, So Beautiful Or So What (14)
2. David Kilgour And The Heavy Eights, Left By Soft (14)
With its ragged strummers and freeform breakdowns, Left By Soft quietly affirms that while instrumental fads come and go, accomplished guitarwork is a timeless art. In perfect rapport with The Heavy Eights, Kilgour kicked out a casual, relaxed gem built on a satisfyingly simple formula: Use strong melodies as launching pads for expansive guitar expeditions. Kilgour’s sprawling, skillful solos wind through twists and turns and peaks and valleys like a brisk breeze through sunny mountaintops; he never strays far from his hooks, or wanders into the realm of jam-band wankery. The musical genius of Left By Soft doesn’t require much: just a pick, six strings, and endlessly more talent than some college kid with a copy of GarageBand.
3. Wilco, The Whole Love (13)
4. Saigon, The Greatest Story Never Told (12)
5. Woods, Sun And Shade (11)
Across four albums, Woods has shown masterful songwriting; on Sun And Shade, the Brooklyn band also shows a mastery of moods. The record builds the band’s strengths—an easygoing attitude, charming lo-fi imperfections, spot-on resurrections of ’60s and ’70s psych-folk—into expansive and nuanced soundscapes. Adding depth to the good-time jangle are otherworldly instrumentals, mesmerizing Middle Eastern tones, and a wistful spirituality that permeates from start to finish. That doesn’t mean Woods has traded in its loose pop tunes for meandering noise; Sun And Shade is the catchiest album the band has put out yet, packed with memorable melodies and simple, accessible hooks. Both carefree and contemplative, the record seems to capture the period between childhood and blossoming maturity: It innocently frolics in the sun, then pauses to marvel at the sunset.
6. Butch Walker, The Spade (9)
Throughout his solo career, Butch Walker has doggedly chased the fame he’s earned for others as a producer, but every stylistic makeover has missed the mark. On The Spade, the fortysomething Walker ends the disingenuous rebranding and starts having some fun. Driven by a high-spirited demeanor and high-energy execution, the album is an unanticipated, easygoing blast—brimming with the kind of good times that arise from a few friends, a place with cheap domestics, and nothing better to do. Walker seems to acknowledge that his act will pack more bars than arenas, and The Spade perfectly captures the sweaty, rowdy dive throwdown for which American country-rock was invented. Self-assured and self-aware, Walker seems to have thrown together his loose, hook-stuffed sing-alongs in a garage and crowd-tested them on a Friday night. The Spade is roots music at its finest: uncomplicated, unpretentious, and unconcerned with how many people are listening.
7. Florence + The Machine, Ceremonials (8)
8. Tom Russell, Mesabi (7)
The best American folk music is equal parts songcraft and wisdom; with each passing record, Tom Russell has increasingly valuable contributions of both. But the insights on Mesabi (titled after the Minnesota region where Bob Dylan is from) aren’t always easy to take. Nearing age 60, Russell sees cryptic societal warnings in the failures of his heroes and hometown. Mesabi’s first half recounts flawed artists, self-destructive film stars, and forgotten musicians, drawing grim conclusions about our shared humanity; the album’s second half surveys the desert lands around him and finds them marred by drug wars, gun-running, and the exploitation of migrants. These are cautionary, harsh stories, weaved into a dusty fabric of Tex-Mex brass, electric blues, jazzy arrangements, and Spanish styles. With top-notch songwriting and arresting atmospheres, Mesabi coolly amplifies Dylan’s original dark vision: If selfishness and shallowness continue to flourish, we can all kiss the American dream goodbye.
8. Future Islands, On The Water (7)
A lot of bands warble about breakups over synthesizers these days, but Future Islands’ On The Water is an unusually mature, thoughtful piece of melodrama. After two bombastic records, the band has dialed down the volume and exercised some needed self-discipline. The result is a genuinely moving collection of images, metaphors, and atmospheres that cohere into a grand soundscape of sadness and regret. There is careful purpose to On The Water; its experiments are delicately executed, adding detail while nearly avoiding detection. Synthesizers are still the name of the game, but retooled as versatile mood-setters—warm as a sunbeam in one moment, chilling as an autumn wind the next. Operatic swells (especially those generated by Samuel Herring’s exaggerated vocals) are measured and restrained, organic instead of gimmicky. On The Water is a step forward in a saturated genre, a bridge between hook-laden thrills and powerful emotions.
9. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (5)
Few things in music are more obnoxious than stars whining about fame. Robin Pecknold and Fleet Foxes clearly find success troubling, and Helplessness Blues is primarily inspired by that weariness and confusion. Instead of indulging in self-pity, however, the record appeals to a universal escapism, a need for sanctuary from the drudgery of modern life. Creating a vivid pastoral utopia rife with simple pleasures, the band continuously moves between that daydream and reality, abruptly shifting tone whenever its serene vision takes hold. It’s a complex endeavor, and Helplessness Blues teeters on a tightrope between eroded ideals and an all-consuming yearning. Expressing that tension is an unsettling whirlwind of instruments, harmonies, and arrangements, an often-beautiful tumult through which the group searches for happiness and identity. Helplessness Blues isn’t about Pecknold’s lonesomeness, or the lonesomeness of celebrity in general, but about whether anyone can ever truly find peace in today’s world.

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JOSH MODELL

1. Wye Oak, Civilian (15)
2. Drake, Take Care (13)
3. Crooked Fingers, Breaks In The Armor (12)
4. Low, C’mon (12)
5. We Were Promised Jetpacks, In The Pit Of The Stomach (10)
6. Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean (7)
7. Wilco, The Whole Love (7)
8. Elbow, Build A Rocket Boys! (7)
9. Washed Out, Within And Without (5)
10. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (5)
11. Telekinesis, 12 Desperate Straight Lines (5)
12. Cymbals Eat Guitars, Lenses Alien (2)

Great songs from albums that didn’t make my list
The Antlers, “I Don’t Want Love”
Charles Bradley, “Heartaches And Pain”
Chrissy Murderbot, “Bussin Down”
Cloud Nothings, “Forget You All The Time”
Coldplay, “Hurts Like Heaven”
Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, “Vorms”
David Bazan, “Strange Negotiations”
Death Cab For Cutie, “You Are A Tourist”
Maritime, “Annihilation Eyes”
Nicki Minaj, “Moment For Life”
R.E.M., “Walk It Back”
The War On Drugs, “Baby Missiles”
White Denim, “Street Joy”

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NOEL MURRAY

1. Tom Waits, Bad As Me (15)
Top tracks: “Raised Right Men,” “Hell Broke Luce”
2. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (10)
Top tracks: “Calamity Song,” “Don’t Carry It All”
3. Paul Simon, So Beautiful Or So What (10)
Top tracks: “Love And Blessing,” “So Beautiful Or So What”
4. Wye Oak, Civilian (10)
Moving from strength to strength, this Baltimore duo follows 2009’s impeccable The Knot with an album every bit as resonant, with songs of wonder and heartbreak given depth and texture by Jenn Wasner’s deep, breathy voice and reverberating guitar. Top tracks: “We Were Wealth,” “Hot As Day”
5. Adele, 21 (8 points)
Like Dusty Springfield, Adele is another Brit with a jones for American R&B, and a classicist where pop music is concerned. The songs on 21 sound mainstream, but hold to simple instrumentation and structures that allow Adele’s raspy, expressive voice to develop the story in the verses before she delivers the hook. The album sports spirited songs of heartache, primarily directed toward an ex-lover whom Adele alternately scorns, begs, and makes desperate promises to. Top tracks: “Rumour Has It,” “One And Only”
6. The Ladybug Transistor, Clutching Stems (7)
Brooklyn indie-pop band The Ladybug Transistor suffuses its first album since drummer San Fadyl died unexpectedly in 2007 with deep feelings of loss, naturally. But the band is as poppy as ever, playing songs that putter along with twangy guitar, strict tempos, and little blooms of lush orchestration every 30 seconds or so. On the whole, Clutching Stems feels pinned between open yearning and more formalist retro-pop, as though the band were trying to wrest control of a bad situation by caging it within a sturdy musical arrangement. Top tracks: “Breaking Up On The Beat,” “Life Less True”
7. Sloan, The Double Cross (6)
Titled in honor of Sloan’s 20th (or XXth) anniversary, The Double Cross clocks in at a tight 34 minutes and stays in shiny, giddy mode almost all the way through, continuing Sloan’s usual method of borrowing liberally from ’60s garage-rock, ’70s arena-rock, and ’80s new-wave. There’s no real attempt to tamper with the formula, or to use it in purpose of some grander theme; The Double Cross is just an unapologetic celebration of Sloandom, and a safe place for those who believe good dual-guitar breaks are the reason why we’re here on Earth. Top tracks: “Your Daddy Will Do,” “Unkind”
8. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’ (6)
Neo-soul stalwart Raphael Saadiq has been working his way back to retro-soul for a few years now, but with Stone Rollin’, he thrusts himself fully into the world of The Dap-Kings and Black Joe Lewis, joining them in the search for modern ways to revive the spirits of Sly Stone, Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye. The result is a potent, distilled package of R&B grooves and moves, as spirited as it is reverent. Top tracks: “Movin’ Down The Line,” “Heart Attack”
9. Southeast Engine, Canary (5)
Part wilderness excursion, part history lesson, and part revival meeting, Southeast Engine’s sixth album is intent on transporting listeners, be it to another place or another plane. Building from a base of loping country-rock, Southeast Engine frequently breaks into a full gallop, playing with wild abandon and outright joy even when singing songs about the Great Depression. The record is a more-relevant-than-ever journey through hard times, all in search of what frontman Adam Remnant calls “the place I once called home.” Top tracks: “Red Lake Shore,” “1933 (Great Depression)”
10. Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean (5)
A fine companion piece to Paul Simon’s latest, Kiss Each Other Clean exposes the ’70s-style folk-rock troubadour that’s always lurked inside Iron & Wine main man Sam Beam. The album’s offbeat percussion, spirited guitar solos, bleating saxophone, funky electric piano, and even fleeting appearances of flute and harp sound like 10 Paul Simon solo LPs fused into one misshapen but curiously beautiful lump. And like So Beautiful Or So What, Kiss Each Other Clean is about the big subjects: what we believe, why we believe it, and what becomes of us once we realize we might be wrong. Top tracks: “Half Moon,” “Tree By The River”
11. Tune-Yards, Whokill (5)
Merrill Garbus pushes boldly beyond the DIY minimalism of her Tune-Yards debut on Whokill, adding density and melody, and recalling the bustle of the early-’80s New York new-wave scene, when bands like ESG and Talking Heads were embracing any sound drifting in from the street. Top tracks: “Bizness,” “Killa”
12. Crooked Fingers, Breaks In The Armor (4)
The songs on Breaks In The Armor have a demo-ish quality, almost like they’re waiting for one or two more layers to be finished, but these are also some of the most melodious songs Eric Bachmann has recorded as Crooked Fingers—verging on the poppy at times, angling toward the aspirational at others, and always mixing Bachmann’s typically gruff, saloon-ready rock with a few dollops of artful beauty. Top tracks: “The Counterfeiter,” “Heavy Hours”
13. Fucked Up, David Comes To Life (4)
One of the most ambitious and affecting post-hardcore concept albums since Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Fucked Up’s 78-minute epic tells a powerful story of love, loss, guilt, and rebirth, put across by Damian Abraham’s relentless shout and by guitars that range from punky grind to classic rock transcendence. Top tracks: “The Other Shoe,” “Under My Nose”
14. We Were Promised Jetpacks, In The Pit Of The Stomach (3)
Already at the head of a bright young class of Scottish acts, We Were Promised Jetpacks’ second album, In The Pit Of The Stomach, stays the course, propelled by cymbal-heavy clatter and rapid strumming. The songs are a little tighter, too, and now seem engineered to pin concertgoers to the back of the club, even as the band offers stirring reminders of the power of the individual: to screw up, to fight on, to howl into the night. Top tracks: “Circles And Squares,” “Through The Dirt And Gravel”
15. Something Fierce, Don’t Be So Cruel (2)
Nothing too fancy here: just punky power-pop, full of staccato riffs and boyish yelps. Pure pleasure. Top tracks: “Empty Screens,” “What We Need Now”

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TUYET NGUYEN

1. Das Racist, Relax (10)
2. Fucked Up, David Comes To Life (10)
3. Justice, Audio, Video, Disco (10)
4. Washed Out, Within And Without (10)
5. Iceage, New Brigade (10)
6. TV On The Radio, Nine Types Of Light (10)
7. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia/Ultra (10)
8. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes (10)
9. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (10)
10. The Weeknd, House Of Balloons (10)

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SEAN O’NEAL

1. James Blake, James Blake (10)
2. TV On The Radio, Nine Types Of Light (10)
3. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (10)
4. The Horrors, Skying (10)
5. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (10)
6. Drake, Take Care (5)
7. The Weeknd, House Of Balloons (5)
8. Active Child, You Are All I See (5)
9. M83, Hurry Up We’re Dreaming (5)
10. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up (5)
11. Radiohead, The King Of Limbs (5)
12. Atlas Sound, Parallax (5)
13. The Antlers, Burst Apart (5)
14. Wye Oak, Civilian (5)
15. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia/Ultra (5)

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KEITH PHIPPS

1. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (10)
2. Wild Flag, Wild Flag (10)
3. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring For My Halo (10)
4. Tom Waits, Bad As Me (10)
5. Real Estate, Days (10)
6. TV On The Radio, Nine Types Of Light (10)
7. Wilco, The Whole Love (10)
8. Low, C’mon (10)
9. Destroyer, Kaputt (10)
10. The Raveonettes, Raven In The Grave (10)

Almost
Wye Oak, Civillian
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
Danger Mouse and Danielle Lupi, Rome
Jay-Z and & Kanye West, Watch The Throne
Paul Simon, So Beautiful Or So What
Mates Of State, Mountain Tops
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Belong

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NATHAN RABIN

1. The Lonely Island, Turtleneck & Chain (10)
2. Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (10)
3. Phonte, Charity Begins At Home (10)
4. “Weird Al” Yankovic, Alpocalypse (10)
5. Saigon, The Greatest Story Never Told (10)
6. Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch The Throne (10)
7. Random Axe, Random Axe (10)
8. Bad Meets Evil, Hell: The Sequel (10)
9. Big Pooh, Dirty Pretty Things (10)
10. Mayer Hawthorne, How Do You Do (10)

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KYLE RYAN

1. Wild Flag, Wild Flag (15)
2. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (14)
3. Wye Oak, Civilian (14)
4. Foo Fighters, Wasting Light (13)
I think I underrated two albums I reviewed this year: Wild Flag (B+) and Wasting Light (B). The former should have been an A, and the latter should have been at least a B+. As much as Wasting Light didn’t overwhelm me, I wound up listening to it a lot when I wanted a good, meat-and-potatoes rock album, which I often do. The disc stayed in my car for months, and I now disagree with my assessment in the review that memorable hooks don’t arrive until “Back & Forth.” Wasting Light is a thoroughly enjoyable album from start to finish, though chances are it won’t end up on many year-end lists.
5. Dum Dum Girls, Only In Dreams (13)
You could argue that the Dum Dum Girls are more surface than depth. After all, singer-guitarist/primary songwriter Dee Dee Dum Dum (née Kristin Gundred) ensures her bandmates/hired guns maintain a certain look—think David Lynch femmes fatales—and lyrically, Gundred has frequently favored girl-group tropes in lieu of something more personal. That isn’t a criticism; the style works well for Dum Dum Girls. But the sudden death of Gundred’s mother last year hangs over Only In Dreams, giving it the stark emotional core its predecessor lacked. “Hold Your Hand” is tuneful, but it’s a gut-wrenching song about the powerlessness that accompanies watching a loved one die. It’s tremendously sad, but it makes for an excellent album.
6. Cloud Nothings, Cloud Nothings (12)
7. Telekinesis, 12 Desperate Straight Lines (7)
8. Doomtree, No Kings (5)
What’s keeping Doomtree from an Odd Future-style breakout? Its modest Minneapolis hometown? Its complete inability to court controversy? Because No Kings is a fantastic album by a hip-hop collective that deserves more attention. The group’s punk-rock, DIY approach to recording and touring keeps it humble and on the road, so here’s hoping the world starts to notice.
9. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Belong (5)
The band with the best terrible-name-to-good-music ratio lived up to that title again on this year’s Belong, an excellent album of guitar-heavy rock that plays like a less angsty Silversun Pickups (or even Smashing Pumpkins). Essential.
10. Le Butcherettes, Sin Sin Sin (2)
It’s hard for any non-headlining artist to really stand out at a giant festival like Lollapalooza, but Le Butcherettes did just that, in spite of the notable handicap of an afternoon slot on a small stage. The band’s ferocious garage rock plays like Bikini Kill meeting Yeah Yeah Yeahs, with guitarist Teri Gender Bender skulking around the stage like she’s on PCP. One of the group’s band photos shows her licking the snout of a severed pig’s head. That’s about right.

Honorable mentions
As usual, I don’t feel at peace with my year-end list, because everything is in a constant state of re-evaluation. This list could look a lot different in a couple of months, but for now, I also enjoyed these albums:
Mates Of State, Mountaintops
TV On The Radio, Nine Types Of Light
Russian Circles, Empros
Cymbals Eat Guitars, Lenses Alien
Samiam, Trips
Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part II

Disappointments
Drake, Take Care
Skinny Puppy, handover
Blink-182, Neighborhoods
Death Cab For Cutie, Codes And Keys
Patrick Stump, Truant Wave
Lupe Fiasco, Lasers

Album where I couldn’t tell if it was really annoying or really good
Tune-Yards, Whokill

Hyped album I bought, then quickly forgot
Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne; Radiohead, The King Of Limbs (tie)

Album I was surprised to like so much
Love, Black Beauty

Album that had too much of a good thing
Fucked Up, David Comes To Life

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EVAN RYTLEWSKI

1. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (10)
2. Wye Oak, Civilian (10)
3. EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints (10)
I can’t hear EMA’s debut without thinking about another album released around the same time: Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin. The two albums don’t sound anything alike, but as songwriters, Tyler and EMA’s Erika M. Anderson establish a similar power dynamic with their listeners, drawing them in by confiding their most intimate thoughts, then pushing them away by playing off those same thoughts as a dark joke. Both write about depression with shocking bluntness—Tyler charts his suicidal thoughts, while Anderson sings in repeated images of cutting—yet both guard their emotions behind scornful humor and invectives. Ultimately, Tyler proved too good at estranging himself. His difficult album did little to win over new converts, and as his offstage antics grew increasingly insufferable over the year, even many of his early champions ended 2011 wishing he would just disappear from their Twitter feeds. EMA’s act was never so abrasive, and while Goblin never completely let its listeners in, Past Life Martyred Saints only grew warmer and more revealing with each listen. In spite of its cold front, it’s an album that wants to share its secrets.
4. Drake, Take Care (10)
Several weeks after its release, I’m still reconciling how one of the most annoying, overexposed voices in pop made the year’s most expressive rap record, the kind of sonically distinguished, big-statement album that was once Kanye West’s exclusive domain. Take Care doesn’t fundamentally change my relationship with Drake—I’m still going to hear the guy on the radio more than I’d like, and I will still find him irrationally grating at times—but he’s made an album I love, and I won’t forget that.
5. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (10)
6. The Weeknd, House Of Balloons (10)
7. Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch the Throne (10)
8. Shoppers, Silver Year (5)
“I love you and you don’t mind having me around,” Shoppers singer Meredith Graves huffs early on the New York noise-punk trio’s first full-length, setting up the relationship imbalance that will play out chaotically over these eight untitled tracks. It’s a short, intense breakup album about the terrible things we’re capable of when our feelings are hurt.
9. Lloyd, King Of Hearts (5)
10. Cymbals Eat Guitars, Lenses Alien (5)
The sophomore effort from ’90s indie-rock revivalist Cymbals Eat Guitars is a hilariously demented song-cycle about the many ways you could be murdered, most of which read like disproved Snopes entries: basement thrill-killers, highway snipers, gang members who trail you home if you flash your headlights at them, and “people who put dirty hypodermic needles between the seat cushions in the movie theater.” It’s ridiculous, pulpy fun.
11. Zola Jesus, Conatus (5)
12. Joy Formidable, The Big Roar (5)
13. Des Ark, Don’t Rock The Boat, Sink The Fucker (5)
Depending on her mood and on her band’s lineup (two very uncertain variables), Des Ark’s Aimee Argote plays either seething punk or whisper-quiet folk. That dichotomy has served her so well that it comes as a shock when she attempts to bridge the styles with warm, indie-pop arrangements on Des Ark’s four-years-in-the-making second full-length. The result is her most accessible work yet, but its brighter sounds haven’t changed her squalid songwriting. She’s still singing bruising songs about brokenhearted junkies and fuck-ups; they’re just a lot prettier now.

These brought me a lot of joy, too
G-Side, Island
Big K.R.I.T., The Return Of 4eva
Ice Age, New Brigade
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
Rapid Ric, Whut It Dew: The Album
Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks, Mirror Traffic
Fucked Up, David Comes To Life
Freddie Gibbs, A Cold Day In Hell

A short suggested mix-tape of songs of artists unrepresented above
Ace Hood, “Hustle Hard (Remix)”
Bei Maejor, “Till We Get It Right”
Grimes, “Vanessa”
Telekinesis, “50 Ways”
Mount Moriah, “Social Wedding Rings”
Carter Tanton, “Horrorscope”

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CHRISTIAN WILLIAMS

1. Fucked Up, David Comes To Life (10)
2. Dirty Beaches, Badlands (10)
3. The Field, Looping State Of Mind (10)
4. Clams Casino, Clams Casino (10)
5. Cloud Nothings, Cloud Nothings (10)
6. Real Estate, Days (10)
7. Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks, Mirror Traffic (10)
8. The Weeknd, House Of Balloons (10)
9. Yuck, Yuck (10)
10. Iceage, New Brigade (5)
11. Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne (5)

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