Best of 2011: Music

Bon Iver

Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)

Bon Iver's self-titled sophomore effort may be the year's most boring best-of choice, if only because it's on every single list. But there's a good reason: Using some of the finest psych-soul players on the planet (including woodwind chameleon Colin Stetson and pedal-steel veteran Greg Leisz), angel-voiced mastermind Justin Vernon has amassed some of the most sonically wondrous tracks of the young decade. "And, at once, I knew/I was not magnificent," Vernon sings through his trademark falsetto rays on the fingerpicked weeper "Holocene." He's being modest. (Ryan Reed)

Justin Vivian Bond

Dendrophile (Whimsy Music)

Bond made his/her mark as Kiki, the singing/vamping half of the genius indie-cabaret duo Kiki & Herb. On Dendrophile, Bond's first solo album, the transsexual performance artist delivered a bracing, funny, and angry collection of songs about love, sex, politics, and life in the margins. The range of musical settings, from banjo folk to hipster jazz to slinky funk, was no surprise. The strength of Bond's tuneful, literate songwriting was. And if that's not enough, there's a Carpenters/Joan Baez medley that will break yer damn heart. (Jesse Fox Mayshark)


Cults (In the Name Of/Columbia)

Trends in indie rock vary wildly in shelf-life and respectability, so it's a rare blessing that '60s girl-group pop continues to build its worthy influence. Expanding on last year's similarly self-titled EP, Brooklyn's Cults are doing this sort of thing best; Brian Oblivion's arrangements sneakily modernize the Wall of Sound, and Madeline Follin's cool exuberance might be enough to sell it even if the duo weren't writing (and, okay, occasionally lifting) such indelible tunes. (Follin also stole the show on F--ked Up's "Queen Of Hearts," which keeps Cults' "Oh My God" and "Bumper" company among the best songs of 2011.) (Nick Huinker)

Cymbals Eat Guitars

Lenses Alien (Barsuk)

The sophomore headf--k from Brooklyn indie-rock clan Cymbals Eat Guitars is the sound of a band drowning, gloriously, in its own stoned indulgence. This is the year's headiest sonic pilgrimage, full of start-stop guitar squalls, challenging shifts in texture and tempo, and psychedelic poetry as sharp as a barber's blade. If you're not blown against the wall two seconds into the epic eight-minute opener, "Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)," your best option is to turn around and head for the exit. Lenses Alien isn't catchy; it's often ugly, violent, and on the verge of exhaustion. But if you emerge unscathed, its sonic voodoo sticks unflinchingly to your soul. (R.R.)

Peter Gabriel

New Blood (Real World/Virgin)

Art-rock legend Peter Gabriel tends to work at his own snail-like pace. It's been nearly a decade since Up, his last album of original material, and nearly two decades since 1992's Us. As a certified Gabriel nut, this is awfully frustrating, but to Gabriel's credit, he has managed to stay creatively productive for a guy who almost never releases new songs. On 2009's Scratch My Back, which saw the maestro reinterpreting some of his favorite tracks with a full-scale orchestra, many fans were left bored and slightly puzzled (especially by his godawful, monotone rendition of Radiohead's "Street Spirit"). But with New Blood, Gabriel has bounced back emphatically. Reworking 13 disparate tracks from his own discography, again with arranger John Metcalfe, Gabriel breathes thrilling new life into both hits ("In Your Eyes") and obscure gems ("San Jacinto," "Downside Up") alike, polishing hidden emotional nuances behind each lyric and note. (R.R.)

Gang Gang Dance

Eye Contact (4AD)

"I can hear everything," a man's voice says in the opening seconds of Eye Contact. "It's everything time." The rest of the album does its best to deliver on that promise, as the Brooklyn quintet caroms around between dance music, dub, rock, funk, and Asian and Middle Eastern flourishes. The overall vibe is buoyant and even ecstatic, an altogether more joyful iteration of the avant-garde than GGD's last masterwork, Saint Dymphna. (J.F.M.)

The Gates of Slumber

The Wretch (Rise Above/Metal Blade)

Karl Simon and company ditched the sword-and-sorcery epics for songs about real life on their outstanding fifth album, and racked up the best metal disc of the year in the process. The crawling, downtuned, slow-and-low doom here matches The Wretch's subject matter—depression, alcoholism, and death—but there is a glimmer of hope, or at least a flash of brilliance, in the grandeur of Simon's old-school, Iommi-inspired solos. (Matthew Everett)

PJ Harvey

Let England Shake (Island)

PJ Harvey's ongoing reinvention of herself led to this striking collage, which stirs together folk music and music hall traditions into a brooding but beautiful meditation on war and British identity. Forget about protest songs—Let England Shake is art of the highest order, cosmopolitan, political but not topical, inspired by the past but without a shred of sentimentality or nostalgia. (M.E.)

Jay-Z and Kanye West

Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam)

In the year of Occupy Wall Street, it feels kind of weird loving this album so much, a blatant celebration of excess from dudes firmly in the 1 percent: a multi-millionaire former CEO who made money off Occupy T-shirts, and an arrogant but insecure guy who pathologically boasts about his appreciation for expensive designer goods. But it's hard not to admire an album that could have easily been phoned in and still sold millions when there's very little filler and a few already classics on it. Jay-Z and Def Jam have deep enough pockets to sample God, but at least Kanye has the irreverent good humor to chop and screw Otis Redding, and the balls and imagination to reconfigure Incredible Bongo Band and James Brown breaks that have been sampled to death. It's more hip-pop than hip-hop, but so what? Go ahead and hate these players as well as their game. Like the vampire squid, who gon' stop 'em, huh? (Eric Dawson)


Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (Mute)

It was only a matter of time before M83 made an essential record; what's surprising is how evenly the two-disc Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is able to knit together the best of what they've done to this point, leaving the impression that the band was building to this all along. The '80s fetishism of 2008's Saturdays = Youth blossoms into unrelenting neon as Anthony Gonzalez turns the synths and pathos up to 10, maintaining a 70-plus-minute shimmer of wordless vocal hooks, climactic drum fills, and passionate sax. It's like the soundtrack to a movie that doesn't exist but we could swear we've seen a million times. (N.H.)

Metal Mountains

Golden Trees (Amish Records)

This NYC trio produced an album of shimmering, droning folk-rock that makes most music described as either "shimmering" or "droning" seem pallid and humdrum by comparison. Helen Rush, P.G. Six, and Samara Lubelski previously played together in the cult psych-folk collective Tower Recordings, and their collaboration is so intuitive that it is hard to tell where anybody's contribution begins or ends. (J.F.M.)


Redemption at the Puritan's Hand (Metal Blade)

The music of Irish veterans Primordial has evolved from relatively straightforward black metal into a rousing, triumphant war cry fit for stadiums. What sets them apart, besides powerhouse vocalist A.A. Nemtheanga's incantatory talk-sing style, is that their battle metal is rooted in real life instead of a fantasy world of Vikings and dragons. Redemption is a minor masterpiece of tension and release, built on the slow-burn dynamics of Neurosis and Isis, but its overall mood, despite the heavy riffs and punching rhythms, is one of hope and heart. (M.E.)

Matana Roberts

COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres (Constellation Records)

Recorded live in the studio in one pass, Chicago composer/saxophonist Matana Roberts leads a group of 15 musicians through a one-hour suite that offers a crash-course in jazz history as well as a meditation on the history and continuing after-effects of slavery in America. Dixieland, big band, gospel, blues, modal, Third Steam, and free and avant jazz are all referenced, as slave narratives, auctions, field hollers, and wordless vocalese are summoned by powerhouse vocalist Gitanjali Jain. An aurally and emotionally exhausting listen, it was easily the most passionate and affecting music I heard all year. (E.D.)

Sic Alps

Napa Asylum (Drag City)

A lot of good music comes out of San Francisco, but Sic Alps have that rare quality of being of their time and place but apart. They're like stoners in the shop class of the S.F. school of garage rock, making freaky-ass art and flunking out while everyone else is sticking closely to the assignment and making A's (though not for originality). Napa Asylum is a collection of ragged pop songs infatuated with late-'60s psychedelia, and even though this record is their clearest sounding yet, Sic Alps are still resolutely lo-fi, at times coming off like Syd Barrett backed by Royal Trux in their skuzziest days. (E.D.)

St. Vincent

Strange Mercy (4AD)

2011 was less a year for great records than great-sounding ones, but St. Vincent managed both. 2009's Actor made it clear that a sinister yearn for skronk lay just below singer/shit-hot guitarist Annie Clark's demure persona, and she leaps forward with Strange Mercy, upping the jaw-dropping sonic detours (from trebly flutter to raygun wail over the course of "Surgeon" alone) while paying close attention to how all the pieces fall together into increasingly lovely and damaged tunes. The sleeper guitar record of the year. (N.H.)

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats

Blood Lust (Killer Candy/Svart)

This candlelit British black mass of throwback heavy rock, inspired equally by Black Sabbath and Hammer horror movies, rises above its grim tone as one of the most fun 45 minutes of music this year. Blood Lust is a rollicking ride through classic underground rock conventions—murky riffs, even murkier solos, and Uncle Acid's Ozzy-style bleat. For most of the year it was almost impossible to acquire legally—the collector-bait CD and vinyl versions both were released in ultra-limited-edition runs—but Finnish label Svart Records reissued the CD in November. (M.E.)