So, predictably a month behind schedule, I’m still cranking out my Best of 2011 Music List. So while you wait, I’ll repost my Best of 2010 list (from my previous blogging life) verbatim to keep you occupied. You’re welcome.

Here are the eleven albums this year I thought were really special.
11. Daft Punk, Tron: Legacy OST
Maybe it should’ve been called Discovery. Their first new music in over five years, the twin Parisian kings of the discotecque have returned, brand new toy in hand – a full symphony orchestra. The choice of Daft Punk to update and blend the futurism of 80s synth with the modern film score was an inspired one, and they conquer it with a gleeful vigor equal parts subversive and indulgent. Surprisingly restrained with its bleeps and bloops, Daft Punk subtly morph their string section into their loops and their horns into keyboards, turn timpanis into drum machines and layer it all with heroic melodic dread. Even when knowingly winking at the underlying silliness of their charge (one track is titelled “Adagio for TRON”) the result is haunting and otherworldly, a dark delve for the duo known for their ecstatic pop. Daft Punk is back, baby – now give us something we can dance to.

10 – Vampire Weekend, Contra
The album on this list I put up the most resistance too, Vampire Weekend wore down my immune system with the overpowering infectiousness of its hooks. Soon enough you’ll find there’s nothing too quotidian in your life not to set to “Horchata.” Despite setting themselves up for failure by openly mirroring one of the all-time great rock records, Contra is a supriringly modest take on the Reagan era, redirecting the Afro-pop popped collar self-knowing cynicism their eponymous debut aimed at the world of prep schools and Cape Cod towards the sights and sounds of the days of New Wave and banana coups. Explicit in its target (“He was a diplomat’s son/It was ‘81”), Contra succeeds less on having traded their guitars for keyboards than on the fact that talent wins out. Ten tight, sardonic, uber-catchy songs, ranging from the narcotized bliss of “I Think Ur a Contra” to the yayed-up mania of “Couisns,” Contra is the second best “Young Brooklyn Band Takes On 80s Pop”-album of the year. Apparently that’s good company to keep.

9 – Menomena, Mines

A unique album by a unique band that manages to pull off a unique feat – all the chefs in the kitchen only make the meal stranger and less predictable. The latest album by this Portland band never feels not of a whole, though, with bizarre arrangements and irregular time signatures warping some classic rock harmonies and melodies into something wholly unrecognizable. Spellbinding and hypnotic, no other album on this list has quite the range of style and tone of this one, which veers from almost narcotically slow and ethereal to violently fast and loud. Topped off by the best pure rock’n’roll song of the year (hint: it’s a ski resort in New Mexico), this album lodges in your brain and won’t let go.

8 – Tame Impala, Innerspeaker
Freak out! Easily the best piece of psychedelic rock in years, this band from Perth, (awfully) named Tame Impala, has broke off a warped, delightfully hallucinogenic piece of brainspace to transmit directly into the subconscious. Anchored by truly excellent drumming (a real rarity), an awesome fuzz guitar sound, and Kevin Parker’s vocals, an uncanny ringer for John Lennon that only augments the weird eerie fun of it all. Propelled by strong riffs, irrepressible energy, and music about madness, tunes like “Desire Be Desire Go” and “Lucidity” will find themselves haunting playlists for years to come.

7 – Das Racist, Shut Up, Dude/Sit Down, Man
ALL TAN EVERYTHING! Armed with nothing but blazing wit and an appetite for sacred cow, former Wesleyan hallmates Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez make rap for people who’ve been dying for more references to Devendra Banhart and Apple computers. Over the course of two twinned mix-tapes defined by effortless flow and irresistible beats, Das Racist summon Beetlejuice, prove the burger-ness of humans using the transitive property (explicitly cited), and provide a hilariously timeless list of reasons they love white people (plus they go get some fast food, too). Simultaneously eviscerating and indulging in all the self-serious pillars of rap, Das Racist are for those who love rap enough to laugh at it. Comparing themselves to Dwight Schrute, Christmas, Four Loko, and the S&P 500, Das Racist are nothing if not their own, unique, hysterical thing – and another tape or two like this, they may also be the future of hip-hop.

6 – Fools Gold, self-titled

A portal to another world. Fool’s Gold will keep you on your toes in ways literal and figurative. An Afro-beat pop sensation sung in a portmenau of Hebrew and English, you’ll find yourself deliriously singing along to lyrics in an ancient language you don’t understand like you’ve known it all your life. The music spirals and swirls, spirals and swirls, romantic and mysterious, irrepressible and irresistible.  The first live act I’ve ever seen hand their instruments to the audience, then play themselves out the door, Fool’s Gold is, ironically, the real deal – a delight for the senses, close your eyes and you can almost smell the fresh water and za’atar.

5 – Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Up From Below
Who could have guessed that the anthem to American Summer 2010 would have been these guys? Of all the bands harkening back to the 60s of beach pop and proto-psychedlia, Edward Sharpe and the Magentic Zeros led the rare few who rose above hipster imitation to write music that felt inspired and not Xeroxed. With a sound that feels like a primal urge, rising from a deep, dark place, these songs feel urgent, like they needed to be sung before something terrible happened. Driven by the demons and angels of recovery, songs like “Come In Please” and “Desert Song” feel like battles won at terrible cost, while poppy hits like “40 Day Dream” and the title track feel haunted. All tied together with the love song of the year, in retrospect it’s really no surprise that young Americans, listless and abandoned, swarmed like flies to hear this merry band play.

4 – Ra Ra Riot, The Orchard

Like the soundtrack to a lost John Hughes film that only ever existed deep, deep in your buried nostalgia, Ra Ra Riot’s sophomore effort is a useful companion to their fellow Brooklynites clocking in above at slot 10. Vampire Weekend has lots of style, sure, but no heart, and up against The Orchard it shows – this is an album with heart to spare, effervescent melodies soaring over drop-dead gorgeous string harmonies, all tugging at heartstrings you forgot you had. Filled with exuberance yet beginning and ending very, very quietly, Ra Ra Riot have mastered their style effortlessly, tellingly handing off the vocals on the album’s emotional apex, “You and I Know,” to cellist Alexandra Lawn (indeed, it is hard to imagine this album written by an all-male band). Ra Ra Riot seems to have eaten their fair share of criticism over this record, but time will bear it out well – this is strong, potent stuff, so far from the careful and twee ironic distance of so many of their counterparts it seems nobody knew quite how to react. Let this album sink in and you will be rewarded.

3 – Local Natives, Gorilla Manor

The drums pound, the voices rise in unison, the guitars ring like a primal call through the unconquered wilds. It’s deeply spiritual music, these Local Natives are making, and deeply sensors. It’s music about seeing things (“with my own eyes”), hearing things (“your phone goes off”) about reaching for things. It’s music about loss, of a parent, of a sibling, of strangers half a world away. It’s music that really builds to something, quiet foreboding footsteps escalating to wild, ecstatic catharsis. And that’s just the first four songs! This tribe from Los Angeles has released a stunning album, one that features gorgeous vocal harmonies, incredible percussion, and taut songwriting. Perhaps the real band of 2010 is Talking Heads, one that every album on this list owes a clear and large debt, but none acknowledged quite as explicitly here with a fantastic cover of “Warning Sign.” Hard to find music that makes you dance and cry at once – harder still to imagine that it’s their very first album. Another record or two like this and we’ll be hearing the words “best” and “greatest” follow these guys relentlessly. The best debut in years.

2 – The National, High Violet
The soundtrack to your recession. Having sat long enough on their vast stores of potential energy, The National finally set themselves ablaze in what feels less like a conscious act of music-making than the hand of destiny at work. Perhaps the most foreboding expressing of working-class rock since Darkness on the Edge of Town and the saddest since Nebraska, The National have released an album drenched in loss, grief, and, well, “Sorrow,” an album with crawling guitars and deliberately-withheld catharsis that doesn’t tug at heartstrings so much as it mercilessly flays them with something rusty and serrated. Ethereal wailing pushed forward by beats from a death march, layered with barely-sung melodies on harmonies all too beautiful to be this miserable. A pitch-perfect primal scream from America 2010, bleeding out on the sidewalk in the rain, this will be the album history locates as the finest expression of our new Depression zeitgeist. It’s a masterpiece, one for the ages, and it would be the best album of 2010, except for…

1 – LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
Joy. In a year that only saw the world worsen, more desperately than ever we need somewhere to turn to for relief, for redemption, to remember that in this life there can exuberance, pure, direct elation. And there they were, James Murphy and his merry gang, releasing nine awesome songs too long to be so tight, too elegant to be so raw, too deeply felt to be so poppy, too funny to be so serious, damn great to believe. Nobody else out there has quite figured out how to turn keyboards into guitars and guitars into keyboards,  how to make those bleeps and bloops dance so pretty, how to make electronic dance music with with a classic rock arrangement and how to make perfect electric pop out what could so easily be a mish-mash. Somehow they are snarky without being mean, relentlessly positive without being shallow or sappy, and quicken the heartbeat without a singe false move. In a year where everything held out as promise and hope seemed to continue their fastening collapse (can it be any coincidence that this album concludes with another song entitled “Home?”), the band that over a mere two albums seemed to reside precisely within the beating heart of youth managed, impossibly, to exceed themselves again, making an infectious album, compulsively listenable and impossible to ignore. When all is said and done and the books are being written, put your money on LCD Soundsystem as not just a great band  but the musical act that represented the best of its generation. And if this is the note they choose to go out on, at least they went out on top. A true once-in-a-generation classic.

I also really liked these albums:
  • The Morning Benders, Big Echo
  • Broken Bells, self-titled
  • Delorean, Subiza
  • Fang Island, Fang Island
  • Best Coast, Crazy For You
  • Dr. Dog, Shame, Shame
  • Robyn, Body Talk

Notable FAIL:
  • M.I.A., Metal Machine Music
  • MGMT, A Totally Groovy Far-Out Happening, Dude
  • Arcade Fire, The Ennui
  • Sufjan Stevens, I Am So Very Precious
Best songs not on any of those albums:
  • Fol Chen, “In Ruins”
  • Lissie, “In Sleep”
  • Yacht, “Psychic City”
  • Matisyahu, “Miracle” (especially the acoustic version)
  • Cee-Lo, “Fuck You”
  • The Love Language, “Heart To Tell”
Loudest Album Ever Award: Sleigh Bells, Treats. Seriously, to get an idea of how this is supposed to be heard, find the loudest noise-producing device you can, then turn it up to maximum volume. Then put your face directly up against it while playing this album, preferably during a pitched arial battle in a thunderstorm – good tracks for this method would be “Crown on the Ground” or “Infinity Guitars.” I have trouble assigning subjective modifiers to this album – good or bad seem aside the point. It’s pretty much the compulsively-listenable unlistenable album that everyone thinks about but nobody ever actually made, until Sleigh Bells made it.
Things I want to see 2011 (likelihood variable):

  • Triumphant Amy Winehouse comeback
  • Triumphant return of The Strokes
  • Coldplay remembers how to make good music
  • DJ Shadow’s return to form
  • The Be Good Tanyas reunion
  • New album by Florence & The Machine
  • Long overdue release of second album by Delton 3030

A special note to the editors and staff of Pitchfork: one day, many years from now, I will come across your children and execute the following experiment. Without any context or explanation, I will play This Is Happening, and then I will play My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Then I will show them this. And they will turn to you and say “you did WHAT?” And they will lose all respect for you forever more. And yes, “you had to be there” is, in fact, the worst excuse ever.