Better late than never? I’m pushing it, I know. But this list was finalized on New Year’s Day; it was only months of indecision and a frustrating dearth of time that lead to this delay not in its formation, but its expression. Yet as we approach May Day I can’t help but feel like this list is as right as it could ever be; I’ll let you decide.

How to decide? That was the question that has been gnawing at my mind’s ankle for months, trying to sort out the music of 2011. 2010 felt easier, simpler, more concrete – when devising my listicle the albums that meant so much to me fell into place like soldiers into formation. In this year of chaos, confusion, disaster, turbulence and maybe even the seeds of revolution, I found that it was instead a confusing, competing stew, resisting the desire to be simply ranked or neatly categorized. So instead of a Top 10, or even a Top 5 or 15, I found myself with only four albums that demanded to be recognized as truly, exceptionally, amazingly great, with many, many others so close, yet, on their longevity, their true worthiness, as Zhou Enlai said of another revolution, too soon to tell. So I am left with ten albums I cannot but include, but cannot bear to rank; I simply present them, followed by the four in ascending order towards the best.

Megafaun, Megafaun

After the drop-dead gorgeous for-the-ages all-timer that Megafaun dropped last year (which I can’t believe didn’t find its way to my ears until after last year’s list), pretty much anything they did this year would be, almost definitionally, a disappointment. So it’s a good thing Megafaun didn’t just try to do Gather, Form, and Fly 2; good for us, and good for them, since this is an album they can actually, you know, play live with four people, something they seemed to have neglected with amazing but unplayable songs like “Impressions of the Past” or “Guns.” Returning with a tauter, crisper sound, what this eponymous release sacrifices in grandeur from its predecessor it makes up with clearer, more targeted engagement with its emotional palette. At this point indisputably the superior successor to DeYarmond Edison, Megafaun (and Megafaun) has soul, humor, and adventure; they’re one of the most promising bands releasing new music today, whether they’re flying or real, real slow.

tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l

The noise! The glorious, beautiful noise! Has anything so vivacious, so bold, so thoroughly and unabashedly itself been heard in years? Merrill Garbus’ wild, frantic, explosive record seems to have received all the accolades it deserves (and maybe more), so I’ll keep it brief; needless to say that the explosive blend of garbage can thumping, infectious melodies and cacophonous, ecstatic collisions that sound like a crazy pre-dawn bender in a Sam Goody are all but impossible to resist.

First Aid Kit, The Big Black & The Blue

Words whispered softly on the winds, floating through twilights. The I-can’t-believe-it product of two Swedish sisters whose combined age feels half as young as their soul (BTW, what are they feeding their children in Sweden? Can I get some?), the soft, sweet lyricism of this remarkable debut would stir the hearts of dead men. Angelic vocal harmonies swirling through mists of memory and regret, tales of soft regrets and hard lives, it’s the prose of life lifted to poetry through grace. Pretty heavy stuff for two girls born in the 90s, the only thing more remarkable than the fact of its existence is the fact that it seems to be for real; expect to see these two on lists to come.

Tennis, Cape Dory

People think too hard about the ocean. It can be everything – the infinite, the unknowable, the vast, great, deep blue. But it can also just be – be the simple space of freedom, the medium of moving between pure, simple joys. That’s what this album is to me – pure, simple joy. At times, in fact, almost too sweet and pure, and only pitch-perfect songwriting and beautiful brevity avoids swerves into being shallow and saccharine. Now, if they could just match that sweet with some soul, baby, maybe throw in some piano, they could make some truly amazing music. They could even drop songs like “Origins,” “Deep in the Woods,” and “My Better Self” – hey, wait a second…

Das Racist, Relax

This album could be here on the strength of “Michael Jackson” alone – fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. If their 2010 tapes were like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, wildly underestimated scathing critiques of consumer culture disguised as stoner humor, then Relax is Das Racist demanding to be taken seriously, or as seriously as they can stand to be taken. If rap could have a Marcel Duchamp, it’s these guys. Only Das Racist could drop a track that makes you want to laugh at the very idea of raising one’s derriere to the heavens even as it makes the urge to do so impossible to resist; only Das Racist would call their brand new dance “Brand New Dance” and demand payment in the chorus. Firing the cannon of ever-escalating production values against the brick wall of absurdist colleges of pop signifiers through a haze of dubious provenance, Das Racist are our fiercest critics and our greatest indulgers, like the politician who condemns you through the baseness and the transparency of his pandering. Am I saying Das Racist is Mitt Romney singing “God Bless America” to the rubes? That depends – is their ambition half as fierce? Only time will tell.

WU LYF, Go Tell Fire To The Mountain

I’m going to go ahead and be brutally honest and confess – I have no idea what the heck any of the words are being sung on this album. That might be what is keeping it on the second tier here, and that failing may be entirely my own. Yet if you’re listening for the words I can’t help but feel you’re doing it wrong. Echoing through the halls of the abandoned church where it was recorded, Go Tell Fire To The Mountain is torn through with the kind of youthful regret that’s not about doing it differently but about it never having been able to be any other way. Like that other generation-defining raucous poem of lost British youth, Skins, WU LYF are at their best when they’re at their worst, screaming into the abyss and playing their instruments with an eye towards breaking them even as their melodies break young hearts. Saddled with the baggage of indie-press hype, WU LYF blasted a record finding its place on this list as much for its promise as its impact. Yet I fear this thing may be unrepeatable; I might be warier if it isn’t.

Cults, Abducted

The best of this year’s retro-wave, Cults succeed primarily by having a lot of fun and not appearing to try too hard. A delightful blend of the classical sauce – finding a callcard sound (in this case, xylophones) with which to deliver earworms with maximum efficiency – Abducted is addictive, irresistible pop, and with the exception of Cape Dory perhaps the best driving album in years. Don’t listen to this record if you plan to stop. Ever.

Cut Copy, Zonoscope

Howard Hawks once said a great movie consisted of three great scenes and no bad ones; if that formula applies equally to music then Cut Copy has an airtight case. Migrating their sound out of the discoteque into the indie rock club, Cut Copy has taken the electric rhythms that made In Ghost Colors an untouchable party album and grafted them to cuts perfect for pop radio, creating something that, dare I say it, could be best labeled nouvelle disco. Structuring their record with a clear eye towards their own strengths, Zonoscope has eight good songs preceded by a triptych of pop classics, each one deserving of a crack at 2011’s Song of the Year (and while “Take Me Over” is my personal favorite, “Need You Know” being the clear winner of the Video of the Year award). Oceania being the other place where they’re apparently putting something in the water, Cut Copy was the head of the class this year, and if you seem them play, they seem to know it full damn well.

DeLeon, Casata*

Everything old was new again in 2011, and probably no album expressed that quite as literally as this one. Wrenching the ancient desert tones of Sephardic folk music into the chaos of the present, listening to DeLeon one can’t quite tell whether you’ve been transported to the past or whether the past has been transported to you. Weaving between English and Ladino (!), the glue that holds the idea together is the strength of the melodies and the conviction of their conveyors. At its core, the venerable provenance of the music seems to melt away in the face of its timeless energy, and the real language is universal – the language of music and dance. Casata will have you on your feet.

Dirty Beaches, Badlands

The album David Lynch should have made. Dark, grungy, like the id crawling beneath the ego of that post-war pre-Beatles era; so many other bands seem to content to merely acknowledge it while this guy seems to want to spew it in your face. Like viewing the distant past through a shattered glass caked with mud and sounding for all the world like it was recorded in a sewer, Badlands is most astounding for being so vital, for laying an unshakable claim on now when so many other young, hip things seem to want to wallow in whenever if it will make them look too uncool not to be cool.

And now those four albums whose claims to posterity are indisputable, whose force is irresistible:

4. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues

Has pop music ever offered such a stirring call to faith? Of all the bands on this list saddled with hopelessly high expectations, these long-haired forest dwellers must have been most thoroughly burdened; famous before even publishing a note of music, Fleet Foxes was blessed, or maybe (likely?) cursed by having their jaw-dropping debut album crowned the Album of the Year by thoseguys. It’s the kind of thing that would make you almost pity a band – surely, they will crack under that kind of pressure? Yet three years later, Fleet Foxes returned with a clarion call of a record, eschewing the spacious woodlands of their ascendance for the mountainous clarity of the summit. Robin Peckinold’s voice is unrestrained, and woven to the vast spiritual expanses painted by the ringing guitars and choral affirmations creates less the sensation of praying to the sun than having the sun praying before you. Humbling and awed, joyous in the face of the unknown, Helplessness Blues is coyly, if not misleadingly, titled – if it is helpless, it is in the face of such great things, and if it is blue, it only as blue as the oceans and sky it bows before. Oh man, oh my, oh me.

3. Florence + the Machine, Ceremonials (Deluxe Version)

Once you’ve taken the world by storm, what next? That must have been the question on the minds of Florence + the Machine, who on the strength of a single debut album went from playing the Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia to bringing down the house at Bonnaroo, a prime slot on the Grammys and opening for U2. What kind of album could follow that up? It would have to be grand, grandiose even, leveraging the sheer force of Florence Welch’s amazing voice to the hilt, singing for the rafters and shooting for the moon. It would have to sing about death and life and life after death, about the fate of the soul and the soul of fate, matching the celestial harps that marked Lungs with tribal drums and orchestral crescendos. It would, in short, have to be big in every way; too big to ignore, too big not to polarize, to alienate, just to claim right of place. Lucky are we, then, that Florence + The Machine released just such an album. And what an album!  At once brand-spanking new and as old as time, it’s a pitch-perfect fusion of the Christian with the Dionysian. Just listen to “Bedtime Hymns” – has anyone ever lusted for Jesus with quite so much sweat and sex and, well, lust? It’s like “Get Some” if it was sung by Mary Magdalene. This album is as bombastic as it is generous, twenty tracks deep, and yet so tight that a classic like “Strangeness and Charm” didn’t even make the cut of the album proper. From the thunder of “Heartlines” to the dark torrents of “What the Water Gave Me” to the sun-streaked “Shake it Out” (in two different cuts), Ceremonials brings to bear the very forces of nature in its favor, the fingers of Earth and the vastness of the heavens reaching to meet. Is it too great a cross for the shoulders of one ghostly young Briton with the voice of a cannon? Perhaps; but the burden must be borne somewhere, and at least let it be borne by somebody with the willingness to go big, big, big or go home. In a year where we tragically lost the last true contender for modern music’s most storied and fiercely-contested crown, there is no better consolation than to discover it has found another head worthy to bear it. No coincidence this album is named Ceremonials – if Lungs was a revelation, this is a coronation. All hail Florence I, your new Queen of Pop.

2. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

So attuned to the zeitgeist it makes me suspicious, the barely-contained revolutionary fervor and social combustion  is distilled into a dozen cuts of menacing, aching, brutal folk rock that slice through skin like butter and cut straight for the core. Taking its visual and emotion cues from the endless horror-without-glory of the First World War, simple lyrics evoke disgust (“the fruit is deformed children”) and vicious spite (“why don’t you take your problems to the Yoooooo-nited Nations!?”) in equal measure. Austere in a year when austerity was synonymous with needlessly-inflicted suffering on the grandest of scales, Let England Shake is graceful in its misery, like the kind assassin who lets you write a final letter to loved ones before strangling you. In a year when decades-long dictators fell, cities were Occupied, citizens were slaughtered by the bucketload, America nearly obliterated the global financial system out of pique, Europe was set ablaze metaphorically and London literally, at least we will be able to point our children to this album and say, “if you want to know how it felt, just listen to this.” Absolutely, positively the Album of the Year, I almost can’t believe it’s not atop my list. But…

1. Radiohead, The King of Limbs

But. The cackling of monsters in the sewers. Crawling in the darkness. Emerging from the rotten slime, chewing on the bones of rats. Staring at you from the darkness, laughing at you with mirthless spite, awaiting your inevitable descent into the thick, black rivers to join them. Ever reinventing themselves, the Abingdon Five have all but abandoned the almost unbearable melodiousness of In Rainbows, a triumph all its own, in favor of an almost purely-percussive record, eight tracks of pops, crackles, and thuds that sound alternately like the melting of vinyl and the snapping of sinews. Easily the most visceral album Radiohead ever released, this is the anti-Kid A; whereas that album changed the world by sounding like it was written of, by, and for computers, The King of Limbs feels like intestinal tracts and the friction of muscles and the pumping of blood; it’s wet, sticky stuff, dark as pitch and impossible to wash off. Marking their fifteenth year as the World’s Best Band, perhaps the longest that title has been held without serious challenge (The Beatles, seven years; Bruce Springsteen, eleven years), the expectations for such a record are hard to match, and some of the critical befuddlement at this record (priced, notably, at a single point to contrast its predecessors’ pay-what-you-like model) reflects that; yet years down the road we’ll look back at 2012 and say, yet again, long live the champion. The King of Limbs is a grimy, throbbing masterpiece.

Other albums I liked:

  • Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde
  • Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact
  • Okkerville River, I Am Very Far
  • The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
  • Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring For My Halo
  • Washed Out, Within and Without
  • Justice, Audio, Video, Disco
  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow
  • Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What
  • Kimbra, Vows

Wish I Could Add to Last Year’s List:

  • Megafaun, Gather, Form, and Fly
  • Buke & Gass, Riposte
  • Best Coast, Crazy For You

Would Maybe Remove:

  • Daft Punk, Tron: Legacy OST

Bands/Arists I Really Wish I Liked and/or Liked a Lot More:

  • TV On The Radio
  • Girls
  • Real Estate
  • James Blake
  • The Weeknd
  • Tyler The Creator
  • The Black Keys

Band I Wished I Could Be Angrier At For Selling Out But Leave No Trace is Still Pretty Good:

  • Fool’s Gold – sing in Hebrew, dammit!

Best Off-Album Tracks:

  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
  • Lykke Li, “Get Some”
  • Lykke Li, “I Follow Rivers
  • Battles, “Ice Cream”
  • Lana Del Ray, “Video Games”
  • Django Django, “Default” [oh hell yes this song is f#$%ing fantastic]
  • Gotye, “Somebody That I Used to Know”

A Word About Bon Iver

You didn’t think I could get away without mentioning this one, right? A riddle wrapped inside an enigma doused in synthesizers, equal parts agonizingly gorgeous and agonizingly misbegotten, Bon Iver took all the promise and potential that the Blood Bank EP offered and squandered, instead, on taking Justin Vernon’s unique gift for heartbreaking melody and spreading it, like a dough whose bonds snap, into a puddle of phantasmagoric mush that at its best nears the soul-shattering valleys of “The Wolves (Act I and II)” or the soggy sumptousness of “For Emma” but at it’s worst sounds like, well, Phil fracking Collins. If Bon Iver ever finds what made For Emma, Forever Ago so impossibly great, anything is possible; if the awful success of this eponymous stew is any sign, though, we may be in for a lifetime of missed opportunities. I’ll leave you with what could have been:

Hoping Will Kick It Up A Notch In 2012:

  • Bruce Springsteen
  • The Strokes
  • M.I.A.
  • Ratatat
  • The Knife
  • Animal Collective
  • Yeasayer
  • The Walkmen
  • Hoping Will Keep Rocking Their Awesome Game in 2012:
  • the xx
  • Dirty Projectors
  • Phoenix
  • Best Coast
  • Local Natives
  • Vampire Weekend

I Already Have Empirical Proof They Continue To Rock Their Awesome Game in 2012:

  • First Aid Kit

It’s Not Too Late To Get Back Together:

  • The Be Good Tanyas
  • Led Zeppelin
  • Fleetwood Mac
  • LCD Soundsystem (yes, we’ll forgive you, we promise)
  • The White Stripes

Can’t Believe It’s Actually Happening:

  • Deltron Event II

Expect to Hear About This Time Next Year:

  • Tennis, Young & Old
  • Django Django, Django Django

And goodbye, Amy. We’ll miss you.

*Disclaimer: This is potentially a conflict-of-interest, so I’m laying it out there – DeLeon is playing my wedding. Frankly, I’d consider that the ultimate endorsement, so feel free to take it as such.

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