This one goes to ’12

The RN&R arts editor recommends his favorite new albums of 2011 to bring into the new year

Honorable mentions:
11. Panda Bear: Tomboy
12. 400 Blows: Sickness & Health
13. Bill Callahan: Apocalypse
14. Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
15. The Black Keys: El Camino

Somehow, it ended up being a good year for music. It sometimes felt like a weak year, but looking back, there’s a cornucopia of great new music. Of course, a lot of the best new records just came out in the last three or four months. But it was tough to narrow it down to 15.

What follows is a list of my favorite new records of 2011. If your favorite record isn’t on my list, don’t get mad, there’s a chance I haven’t heard it. But, you know, send me an email. I’m always looking to hear new music. Here are some recommendations from my stereo to yours.

The Top 10:

10. Destroyer: Kaputt

The smooth jazz album of the year. Not that I listen to smooth jazz … or adult contemporary sex jams or cheesy ’70s soft rock or any of the perennially uncool genres that Destroyer songwriter Dan Bejar drew inspiration from for this record. But he took the slick sounds of those genres, recalibrated them, and wrote a great, challenging batch of songs. It’s confusing as all hell, but enjoyable in a “I’m not sure if I even like this, but I can’t stop listening to it” way. It sounds like what would have happened if David Bowie had made a coked-up record with Steely Dan in 1978.

9. Radiohead: King of Limbs

How great is Radiohead? The band releases its weakest record since its debut, and it’s still my ninth favorite album of the year. It’s not going to change the world—as Radiohead has routinely been known to do in the past—but it’s still a solid effort. It’s also weirdly back-loaded—all the best songs are on the B-side.

8. Kanye West & Jay-Z: Watch the Throne

So, yeah, I can understand the desire to hate on these guys. The duo has started calling themselves The Throne, as if their royally overblown egos weren’t already apparent. Half the raps on the record are about luxuries most of us will never know—expensive watches, fleets of Mercedes Benzes, private jets, partying with models in Paris, or being married to Beyonce. The record is spotty—if you include the bonus tracks, nearly a third of the album is garbage. But there are enough moments of pure brilliance, lyrically and musically, that I keep coming back again and again. And flagrant capitalist fantasies have always been part of the appeal of hip-hop.

7. Snowman: Absence

This Australian quartet’s last record, 2008’s The Horse, the Rat and the Swan, was a direct, confrontational rock record. This new album—which will apparently be the band’s last as they broke up not long after the release—is ghostly and ethereal. It’s a surprising listen. The melodies rise and descend. The rhythms shift, but are tightly controlled. The emotions are tense, but never confrontational. It’s at times dark, at times light, always beautiful.

6. Wye Oak: Civilian

This Baltimore duo’s record is a great slab of old-fashioned indie rock. Jenn Wasner’s voice is deep and expressive, her songwriting versatile, and her guitar playing is dynamic—building from gentle strums to squalls and wails of fuzzy excitement. The other half of the band, Andy Stack, simultaneously plays drums, with his feet and one hand, and keyboards, with his other hand. The sound could be summed up as Beach House meets Yo La Tengo, and the overall effect is thrilling.

5. Battles: Gloss Drop

If music was a sport, then Battles would be the team to beat. Rarely is music that is this complex, physical and experimental also this much fun. The music moves forward with unstoppable momentum and complex musicality, but with enough hooks and bounce to remain accessible. Tyondai Braxton, the band’s vocalist, left the group in 2010, so this record is mostly instrumental, with occasional guest spots from folks like Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino and Gary Numan—you know, he of “Cars” fame. The video for “My Machines,” the song featuring Numan, is one of the best I’ve seen this year. The video depicts a man continuously falling down an up escalator—at such a rate it seems he’ll never reach the bottom.

4. Iceage: New Brigade

The early critical buzz around this band of Danish teen punks quickly turned to backlash as it turned out, once they toured America, they really were just a bunch of teen punks. So, the live shows were sloppy, and the interviews were dumb, and the band members seemed young, confused and possibly fascist. But whatever, this record is one of the most thrilling collections of punk anthems I’ve heard in years.

3. Tom Waits: Bad as Me

Yep, Tom Waits still rules. He’s put out nearly as many good records as McDonald’s has put out McNuggets. And it’s unlikely he’ll ever suck, because the dude knows his way around a song better than just about anybody. Listen to a ballad like “Talking at the Same Time” or “Face to the Highway,” or a rocker like the title cut or “Hell Broke Luce.” If your jaw doesn’t drop to the floor after hearing those songs, then maybe this whole listening to music thing just isn’t for you.

2. Wilco: The Whole Love

I actually bought this record at the Starbucks by my house, a fact about which I deserved to be teased. I sort of expected it to suck. 2007’s Sky Blue Sky is good, but a little too polite for my tastes. And 2009’s Wilco (The Album) is mediocrity defined. So I expected a continued decline. Plus I bought the record at Starbucks which is almost as embarrassing for Wilco as it is for me.

But then I put the record on, and it opens with “Art of Almost,” a ripping song that actually warrants the phrase “mind-blowing.” And the rest of the record is great, too. Nice to hear these guys kicking ass again.

1. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

A bunch of icons of ’90s alternative rock put out new records in 2011. Beck produced new records by Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, both of which were a little disappointing. Members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium and the Minders formed Wild Flag, whose excellent debut fell just shy of making my list. Archers of Loaf reunited. The ’90s lineup of Guided by Voices reunited and has an album due out early next year.

It would be easy to bunch PJ Harvey in with this group. But listening back to her catalogue, which now spans two decades, it’s clear she actually belongs in a different class altogether, alongside Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the aforementioned Tom Waits. In other words, she’s one of the best songwriters of all time.

She’s released masterpieces before—like 1993’s ragged Rid of Me, 1995’s atmospheric To Bring You My Love, and 2000’s elegant Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea—but Let England Shake might be her best album ever.

It’s practically a concept album, without being at all pretentious, all about her home country. Many of the songs sound rooted in English folk—which I like because I like when music sounds regional—and she often mentions England, sometimes lovingly, sometimes critically, as when she sings, “What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is orphaned children.”