Top 10 National Albums of 2011

As I shuffled and reshuffled this list over the course of 2011 and obsessed about it to an alarming degree while cobbling this article together, one thing became undeniably clear: this was a huge year for electronica. Fully half of the artists on this list sit squarely within some subgenre of electronic music, including four of the top five (and that without even paying lip service to solid new efforts from Daedalus, Prefuse 73, and The Field, as well as up-and-comers like Com Truise, Fatima Al Qadiri, Nicolas Jaar, and Athens’ own FLT RSK). It was a year of serious innovation on several fronts, but the way of the future clearly lies within the infinitesimal spaces between wires and circuit boards where gifted individuals are testing the ever-thinning membrane between melody and pure sound, elevating the conversation as to what dance music can and should be.

Make no mistake, DJs are the new virtuosos. The best ones are bringing a level of craft and creative bravado to the genre that’s never been seen before, and for this generation, are every bit as vital as the great jazz soloists of the ’60s and ’70s. Indeed, the individual was center stage this year, with only two true bands making the cut for this now-annual roundup (and even those clock in at number 10, and as part of the Honorable Mention slate). As music grows less constrained by convention and tradition, it simultaneously grows more specialized, and that lends itself best to lone artists with singular visions. For many people, 2011 may mark the year they fell in love with Fucked Up, or Girls, or Real Estate, but for me, all those critically adored groups were severely outclassed. 2011 was all about going solo.

Honorable Mention No.3: Battles – Gloss Drop

What is it exactly? Oblique protojazz? Avant garde math rock? Classical deconstructionism? Anti-post-metal? Monolithic sound sculpture? It’s probably not an important question, but it’s definitely a intriguing one. Not content with the universally praised, hyper-structured maelstrom that was their debut Mirrored, Gloss Drop finds Battles grappling with ideas on another musical plane, or more likely, within a matrix of constantly shifting and intersecting musical planes. Every off-time rhythm rushes around blind corners in search of new creative space. Every instrument finishes another’s phrases with telepathic precision. Every vocal sounds as though its being yelped in an invented language that only the players share. Every piece seems to turn against itself, attacking relentlessly while building to a complex, but never cacophonous din; a musical Gordian knot made entirely of Mobius strips. At times there’s something vaguely tropical about these unwieldy musical inventions, with occasional snatches of marimba and steel drum peppered throughout, and at others they suggest something of the Japanese tea room or geisha house, as though the band burst through one of those rice-paper partitions en masse and took a quiet mountain village by storm, but these are largely projections–my own mind seeking familiarity amidst a deeply unfamiliar landscape. These guys are doing something intensely, almost violently unique, and that means they may eschew stylistic labels for a long time.

Honorable Mention No. 2: Bjork – Biophilia

If Biophilia had lived up to the hype, it would’ve been my runaway number one pick with a bullet. After a massive ad campaign that saw the release date pushed back multiple times, and a corresponding iPhone App designed for each individual track, the Scandinavian sky was absolutely the limit. In the end, what we were left with was a very good–at times great–Bjork album that failed to impress on the level of her extraordinary experimental landmark Medulla, but far outpaced her most recent pop effort Volta. Ever since her affecting lead performance in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, Bjork’s music has been developing a signature cinematic sweep, and the diffuse components of an orchestra dot this diverse record from the intricate string arrangements on “Moon,” to the chamber brass ensemble behind “Cosmogony,” to the delicate, childlike bells on “Virus” and “Crystalline” (this song also marks, in its final act, Bjork’s first forays into dubstep–a move that is somehow both unexpected and wholly unsurprising). While this album was marketed with an extremely clear and streamlined vision, Bjork’s impossibly charming, scatterbrained, magical Snow Fairy persona just doesn’t work that way. She appears instead to have had a hell of a good time throwing a lot of stuff at the iPad and seeing what stuck, and for an album whose title literally means “Love of Life,” that sounds like the perfect way to go about things.

Honorable Mention No.1: Bibio – Mind Bokeh

What a transformation! For anyone familiar with stellar folktronica artist Bibio before this year (and there weren’t many of us), his jump-roping, roller-skating, pogo-sticking new record came completely out of left field–as complete a sonic shift from one album to the next as you’re ever likely to hear. Gone were the bucolic found sounds and pastoral field recordings–the gentle acoustic guitar nuzzling up against fuzzy electronic synapses–and in their place was some kind of stratified, candy-coated disco-funk. Utilizing flute trills, wind chimes, keytars, and plenty of wakah-wakah-wahing electric guitar, Bibio now traffics in the kind of idealized, kaleidoscopic 70’s nostalgia most often associated with The Go! Team, and having upped his production game substantially, he turns out stutter-stepping funktronica gems like “Anything New,” and sunny tropicalia swayers like “K is for Kelson.” In some ways I’m torn about the new Bibio; his output up to this point comprises one of the finest bodies of folktronica work this side of The Books, and I can’t help but wonder if Mind Bokeh is a momentary lark, or a permanent, tectonic shift. The speed and severity of the change make it hard to speculate, but it’s clear that this is an artist capable of anything. Anything, perhaps, except predictability.

10. Foster the People – Torches

As a semiprofessional music writer, I absorb anywhere between 10 and 20 new albums a week, and at least put a cursory ear to that many more, so when I find something I like, I have a tendency to hold on tight, which can lead to a common critic’s paradox. When a band is small, they feel like they’re yours, and you can take great joy in that sense of exclusivity, cluing in a few friends who you think would really “appreciate” it, and railing at God (and anyone else who will listen) that this musical marvel isn’t even appreciated in their own time. And then, suddenly, almost as if by magic, they are. In fact, not only are they appreciated in their own time, but they’re fucking everywhere. The masses speak, loudly and as one, and overnight your best kept secret is playing Saturday Night Live and soundtracking football spots. It’s annoying. It makes you angry, and you start to rail at God (and anyone else who will listen) about all the idiots who are claiming to love this band that you also love, nestling them snugly in their iTunes playlists between The Band Perry and Katy Perry. It can make you question the artists. It can make you question your own tastes. It can make you question why you like the things that you like in general. With Foster the People, I saw it all coming ahead of time. Before SNL, before the NFL, before I heard “Pumped Up Kicks” in a fucking Golden Pantry the other day, there was just me, and this newish California trio whose chunky piano chords and shimmery, tweetybird production sounded like they were lifted straight out of the era of C&C Music Factory, EMF, and Marky Mark, but whose criminally catchy guitar hooks and upper register, indie-chic vocals were intently of the moment. From the first notes of opener “Helena Beat” I was dancing in spite of myself, and by the final strains of “Houdini” I was thinking “if anyone ever finds out about these guys, they’re gonna become the next Killers or MGMT. Dear God I hope that doesn’t happen.” And so it was. Unlike with those two bands, however, Foster the People’s big, inescapable hit is only, like, the sixth-best song on their album, and thus I have made my peace with their success. It is well-deserved, and I can’t have it both ways.

9. Action Bronson – Dr. Lecter/Well-Done

In what was supposed to be a standout year for hip-hop, the megahyped releases ranged from “exactly as good as expected, no more, no less” (Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne) to disappointing (Tyler the Creator’s Goblin) to overrated bordering on terrible (Sorry, Drake fans. I just don’t hear what you’re hearing.). Thankfully, the hip-hop fringes were obliged to pick up the slack, and while Curren$y dropped not one, but two mixtapes of the dopest stoner rap to come along since the heyday of Cypress Hill and The Chronic, and Shabazz Palaces took a challenging, inspired shot at reconfiguring hip-hop for the digital age, it was a scrappy, motormouthed, too-clever-by-half MC out of Queens that I came back to again and again this year, both for his quick-witted rhyming and his archivist’s ear for classic, old school production. Big horns, wailing electric guitars, soulful female backing vocals, and a voice big enough to capture the daily urban chaos of the city it so clearly adores are the defining characteristics of Dr. Lecter, Bronson’s big-eyed, flat-footed love letter to NYC. Confident, mouthy bangers like “Moonstruck” and “Bag of Money” all but cement Bronson’s future in the hallowed pantheon of Empire State MC’s, alongside greats like Jay-Z, Nas, and his personal heroes the Wu-Tang Clan. His second release of 2011, a collaboration with DJ Statik Selektah, finds him branching out into more organic, indie-rap territory, and if the understated, relentless “Not Enough Words” is any indication, it was a match well-made. Listening to Bronson’s cavalier, up-from-the-streets boasting, one can’t help but recall the old adage: “if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” In this critic’s humble opinion, the throne is his for the taking.

8. The Weeknd – House of Balloons

“The Party and the After Party,” the lengthy centerpiece track of The Weeknd’s (AKA Abel Tesfaye) debut mixtape, seems like the best place to start when describing him, as that vaguely ironic title perfectly encapsulates the bipolar moodiness of his shadowy, sultry R&B. House of Balloons, you see, is easily the sexiest album of the year, but behind the sensualized hedonism – “after the party,” as it were – there is a darkness to The Weeknd’s soul, and a kind of weighty, considerate sorrow over the long-term consequences of a sex-and-drug-fueled lifestyle. It’s the kind of album you can imagine doing lines of coke off of, only to catch a glimpse of your reflection in the disc and start to wonder where things all went wrong. Tesfaye’s voice reaches great heights, but seems to always be on a downward trajectory, falling away time and again, like a white satin camisole sliding over his lover’s bare shoulders and crumpling onto the hardwood floor. Heavy dubstep production buffed to a high-gloss sheen only ups the nocturnal, almost vampiric feel to these tracks, effecting that enveloping fog of bass that is everpresent in club life today, and using it to project Tesfaye’s own dampened, damaged senses. That’s not to say that there aren’t light moments. On its face this entire album is intimate and inviting – suggestive of soft caresses, hard, wet kisses, and eagerly grinding hips – and the Beach House sample at the center of “Loft Music” is one of my favorites of the year. But ultimately, House of Balloons is about loneliness and regret. And so, like the missing “e” in his stage name, Tesfaye will keep looking for something to fill the void – a man who dutifully keeps the party going, even while wondering if the after party might finally be the death of him.

7. James Blake – James Blake/Enough Thunder

James Blake is a relentless, aggressive, almost pathological tinkerer. He feels little need to do the same thing twice, and though his own voice provides a unified connection between his EP’s, singles, and his self-titled 2011 LP, even that has been digitized, looped, and reconstituted so many times that it can be tough to tell where his samples end and he begins. Each track on James Blake begins as an empty vessel; a clay wine jug or dusty mason jar that Blake patiently, methodically fills to the brim with his mournful machinations. From austere, skeletal frameworks, he constructs densely layered, interlocking sonic contraptions that he personally remands to the dubstep label (a brand of which he is very protective, hilariously slamming so-called “fratstep” artists like Skrillex earlier this year), but that in actuality defy the conventions of that categorization on an increasingly regular basis. On “I Never Learned to Share” he attacks the melody line from all sides, his own multiplied voice sprouting up again and again like so many hydra heads conversing with one another in four part harmony. “Limit to Your Love” finds him in full-throated R&B mode, at first accompanied only by a simple, bluesy piano riff, but slowly working in a signature dub wobble to recreate the lump-in-the-throat emotion of the human voice. These little blips and tics and digital hiccups are a Blake trademark, but in his hands they transcend the gimmickry of glitch music and become their own kind of fricative punctuation – electronic voice cracks that let Blake’s pain and uncertainty bleed through even when he’s not singing. And if his devastating cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” on his follow-up EP Enough Thunder is any indication, Blake has only just begun to tap his vast reservoirs of multi-talent. He may in fact be the closest thing we have today to a true, living musical genius.

6. Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place

Invoking the kind of reverence one feels in an old church or cathedral, the ethereal pleasure of sunbeams peaking through lush forest canopy, and the meltaway beauty of a hundred tributary voices channeled into a choral waterfall, The Magic Place is never specifically defined, but one gets the impression that it is simply “anywhere Julianna Barwick is making music.” Each track on this master class in vocal composition is a minor miracle of sound engineering; a pitch-perfect Seraphim choir of voices, never accompanied by more than gentle percussion or a few contemplative bars of piano, wordlessly illuminating the delicate wonders of nature and the mysteries of the sublime like so many dust particles wafting through a shaft of stained-glass light. Much as Terence Malick did this year with images in his monumental film The Tree of Life, 2011 found Julianna Barwick exploring ideas of the cosmic and unknowable aspects of our universe via sounds, and also like that film, The Magic Place offers no concrete answers; only exquisite means by which we may explore the questions.

5. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica

One of the year’s slipperiest, most engrossing entries from the realm of endless possibility that is experimental electronica, Oneohtrix Point Never’s (AKA Daniel Lopatin) Replica is, for the majority of its 41 minutes, not unlike a descent into an enchanted labyrinth, where the walls are constantly shifting and rearranging, and a creeping sense of dread lurks around every corner. Where there should be a beat, one find’s a repeated sample of a man clearing his throat or a woman sighing in perpetuity. Where one would expect to hear a melody, there is instead a kind of arrhythmic series of synth tides, pulling certain sounds in close, and washing others out to sea. Almost all of the albums on this list deserve the kind of direct attention one can only really achieve with headphones, but this is the only one where I would insist that they are absolutely essential. Every moment of every track is like its own miniature fugue, the intricacy of which under the microscope is matched only by the evolutionary, freeform abandon of the larger arrangements one sees upon stepping away. As close as I’ve yet heard an electronic artist get to matching the nerve-wracking unpredictability of free jazz, Lopatin may be closer in spirit to Ornette Coleman than he is to the thundering bass herd that is 90% of current electronic artists. Playing both the Minotaur and Ariadne, he pulls his listeners down every corridor, unspooling his various loops and triggers like a golden thread with one hand while slowly collapsing the walls in behind them with the other. Not until the darkness has all but closed in does he relent, releasing the Avalon splendor of the closing track “Explain,” an amorphous collage of found sounds and photons that is the equivalent of being pulled by your wrist from the rubble of these musical catacombs, and back into the glorious light.

4.Young Montana – Limerence

Writing this article just as election season kicks into high gear, it’s become apparent to me that Young Montana earned this lofty position, both on my year-end list and in my heart, by being a little bit centrist (an unsettling realization for a diehard liberal). By that I mean his sheer willingness to try seemingly anything splits the difference between the brilliant-but-gloomy No. 7 James Blake, and the brilliant-but-manic No. 11 Bibio, and results in a tightly-controlled-but-also-bouncing-off-the-walls freneticism that is more straight-up fun than either of those (excellent) albums, feels every bit as forward-thinking and vital, and is also 100 percent danceable. If you had to put a label on him, you could say he resides somewhere between left field hip-hop and post-dubstep, but really, he takes the kitchen sink approach that so many of the best producers do today, which can be summed up as “if you like it, find a way to use it.” The opener “Infinite” invites the listener in with a soothing voice sample set against organic, nature-evoking electronics, but promptly blasts off into the stratosphere and leaves the Earth in its jet-fueled wake. Before long he breaks the sound barrier, stringing countless elements together at such a rapid pace that they’re almost interrupting and climbing over one another, reeling about, splitting apart, and recombining like the constituents of a crowded rave. The ominous, downbeat “Bad.Day” and the sunshiney, ultra-funky “Sacre Cool” both incorporate vocal fragments in inventive ways, and the fractalized, xylophonic reappropriation of the theme from Swan Lake in album closer “Connct” is one of the most memorable moments in music this year. And being memorable is really what keyed Young Montana’s victory over so many better-established foes. I can crow about the transcendent genius of James Blake and Oneohtrix Point Never until I’m blue in the face, but I’d still never put them on at a party (or on a party ticket). In many cases, centrism can be boring – just a person taking a stand for not taking stands – but for Young Montana it’s the best of both worlds, not the worst, and the only stand he wants you to take is the one that leads you from your chair to the dancefloor.

3. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Double albums are a tricky business. For every White Album or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, there are ten Stadium Arcadiums – that is to say, massive messes. So often the result of creative excess, most double albums end up feeling obese and taxing – not without good material, but spreading it unnecessarily thin – leaving the listener wondering about the tighter, better-constructed record that might have been, for want of an editor. It breeds skepticism for double LP’s, but Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is not that album. A decadent treasure trove of glitzy, ephemeral electropop, founder/frontman Anthony Gonzalez has not misused his double-wide canvas for the aimless splattering of studio scraps and b-sides, but instead filled every corner with the bright neon light of futurist city skylines and the sleepy-eyed innocence of afternoon daydreams; with sunsets and supernovas; with wishes and memories. Like a Renaissance master, he used every square inch of his diptych backdrop to create a magnificent and complex cloud system of enormous synths, with unforgettable samples, and his own towering vocal presence jumping from one song to the next like heat lightning. The symphonic ecstasy of “Midnight City,” with its hyper-danceable keyboard hook and bust-out sax inferno, is one of the biggest, baddest tracks of the year, and it knows it. I would describe it as something akin to having sex in the Batmobile . . . on ecstasy . . . in Vegas . . . on New Year’s Eve . . . in 2999. Conversely, a few tracks later on “Raconte-Moi une Histoire,” Gonzalez takes his bells and whistles down to a cicada whisper, letting them loop-de-loop around an irresistibly adorable sample of a small child giving an oddly poetic lecture on the effects of licking psychedelic toads (“and your Mommy, suddenly becomes, your Daddy! And everything looks like a giant cupcake”), which fades effortlessly into a spirit chorus of spritely electronics and recalibrated vocals. I could write as many words about every track on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, there is truly not a wasted moment. It’s epic and cheesy in all the best ways – the musical equivalent of a slow-motion pan around a passionate first kiss against a night sky lit by fireworks – and with that eyebrow raising double-disc format, it’s just daring you not to like it. If you can resist, you’re a stronger person than I.

2. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

I’m convinced that Merrill Garbus is magic. Like some kind of wackadoo Disney Princess for the Internet generation, I imagine bluebirds help her get dressed in the morning while a family of friendly mice runs her tape loops for her. This is what I believe. If, however, Ms. Garbus is not magic, then she is working on, as they say, a whole ‘nother level. With regard to pure aural ingenuity, she already occupies the same rarefied, bizarro air as wholly unpredictable, quantifiably unique acts like the Dirty Projectors and the Fiery Furnaces. And this is only her second album. Though many people didn’t take to Garbus’s 2009 debut BiRd-BrAiNs, I knew from the start that her tUnE-yArDs project was something special, and while this follow-up necessarily sees her moving away from the unassailably homegrown, “4-track in a cabin” aesthetic of that special little album, it is a testament to her creative vision that the trappings of a professional studio have been used only to expand the possibilities of that cabin, rather than blow it up and erect a highrise. Slathered in reedy winds and blatting horns, these songs feel more uneasy than those on Garbus’s debut, and lyrically reflect the doubt and uncertainty that arise in the face of an increasingly violent world. Her vocal approach ranges from rapidfire spitting that flirts with the esoteric fringes of hip-hop to elastic, off-kilter warbling that ping-pongs from one end of her octave range to the other. Her jittery guitar and ukelele, further discombobulated by her whack-a-mole loops and samples, effect a fractured sound for our fractured times. Drawing on reggae, folk, tropicalia, hip-hop, rock, field recording, and probably a whole host of other genres I can’t even begin to guess at, Garbus is a font of ideas that refuse to be pinned down. They fly around her head, like so many butterflies and songbirds, and the world is better for the magic they inspire in her.

1. Ott – Mir

For the second time in as many years, my favorite album was never even on Pitchfork’s radar, which makes me feel as though I must be doing something right. DJ/Producer Ott isn’t a household name just yet, but in certain circles he is exalted as a near-peerless wizard of circuits and synapses, and no other record this year could match his absolute head trip of a third album’s perfect elixir of danceability, relistenability, and good old fashioned musical ability. Refusing to acknowledge the line between popular dance music and experimental electronica, Ott here approaches production as storytelling, creating a 7-song suite with all the sweep, scope, and narrative flair of great classical composing that simultaneously feels, by turns, like a futuristic video game and an acid trip.

The first movement, “One Day I Wish to Have This Kind of Time,” draws the listener in with imaginative, sun-dappled nature sounds and a soothing vocal sample offering reassurances as you ascend to a hallucinogenic state. This leads into “Adrift in Hilbert Space,” a trancey spacewalk that unexpectedly springs a trapdoor halfway through and drops the listener into a disorienting, ultra-stylized dubstep maze. The next two arrangements, “Owl Stretching Time,” and “Squirrel and Biscuits” are complex, industrial corridors, infinitesimally designed and constructed of countless exquisite, interlocking parts. Conjuring up images of the bowels of the Death Star or the Technodrome in the former, the album reaches its crux in the latter as Ott creates his own digital dark night of the soul, pushing the listener to the brink of madness and defeat vicariously, only to whisk him to safety in the nick of time. As enemy walls collapse around him, Ott incorporates samples of failing computer systems and celebratory Middle Eastern chanting to herald a victorious return from the subterranean dubstep nightmare of his own psyche. The fifth movement, “A Nice Little Place,” uses new agey sound washes and babbling, tubular synths to suggest a reflective journey back to more peaceful terrain; a return to normalcy both physically and neurologically. The penultimate “Mouse Eating Cheese” is an energetic rush – a celebration of obstacles overcome and hard-earned hope for a better tomorrow, that blurs into the rosy horizon and the rhythmic, lapping waves of the deeply personal, seismically spiritual finale “The Aubergine of the Sun,” a track that seems to both acknowledge the importance of the day’s accomplishments, but has its eyes planted firmly on the next endeavor. That the album fades out with the same kind of organic, forest samples that it opened with gives it a painstaking, elliptical quality, though at the end of this – the most complete, fully realized album statement of 2011 – they sound more drowsy and crepuscular, as though they are welcoming the night rather than greeting the morning. A new day will, however, soon be dawning – a golden age of electronic music that will reach artistic heights not yet even dreamed of – and years from now, Mir should be revered among the very first that sounded the trumpet and ushered in that age. It is a benchmark, and a masterpiece.