1. Destroyer, Kaputt
The smoothest, most immersive listening experience of 2011, by a considerable margin. Singer/songwriter Dan Bejar takes a few compositional cues from AOR and soft rock but this nine-song set is the opposite of anodyne--it constantly teems with fresh ideas, from the silvery disco pulse beneath to the proudly anachronistic flute and sax solos on top. If there's a theme to this list, it's that the best music of 2011 didn't care what year it was.
2. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin'
Saadiq is a veteran showman, producer and arranger, but his bounteous command of classic soul productions usually lags behind his skills as a songwriter. Not so with Stone Rollin', an album of immaculately-orchestrated tributes to different eras of soul, entirely devoid of retro-gazing. In 2011, no album made more mellifluous use of the Mellotron, an instrument not traditionally associated with soul and R&B, modern or otherwise.
3. DJ Quik, The Book of David
He may call himself a "crucial if not lesser-known artist from the West" but the pristine beats of The Book of David demonstrate that Quik, if not before, definitely now deserves a place in the top tier of West Coast hip-hop. Few late-career rap albums are as restlessly committed to an unstoppable groove--in Quik's eyes, funk and hip-hop are always mutually reinforced properties, etymologically unrelated to the overprocessed goo-goo synths of much modern hip-hop.
4. Big K.R.I.T., Return of 4Eva
Though Big K.R.I.T. has garnered a reputation as a Southern rap virtuoso, his 2011 mixtape Return of 4Eva is more than just a collection of a creatively-expressed drawly Southernisms spat over crunkified click tracks. K.R.I.T. is also rapper of great depth and range, and his evocations of life in rural Meridian, Mississippi give this album a country flavor that puts most rap from the city, Southern or otherwise, to shame.
5. Fucked Up, David Comes To Life
Just when you thought Fucked Up's massive three-guitar sound couldn't get bigger, they embark on the most epic undertaking of their career--a three-part, eighteen-song concept album about a dude in a lightbulb factory. The overall "concept" might be a bit lost among the fuzz and stentorian talk-vox, but the twin totems of beauty and aggression endemic in Fucked Up's best work are still there, to a transcendent, almost tiring degree.
6. Blouse, Blouse
Call them a dream-pop trio from Portland, but that really fails to do the sounds of Blouse justice. Coasting on the familiar 80s combination of gothic synths and ethereal lady vocals, Blouse makes novel use of common instrumental techniques. Their self-titled debut album is alarmingly dense, averaging an impressive two or three massive hooks per track. Consistency of this sort is harder than it looks.
7. Boris, New Album
In a characteristic move, the beloved Japanese metal band Boris set out to confuse fans as much as possible by releasing three albums in 2011. Attention Please was the more electronic-oriented release, while Heavy Rocks concentrated more on the band's aggressive punk-metal roots--but it was New Album, occupying a nebulous middle between those two extremes, that I found the most compelling. From careening Timbaland percussion stabs to string-laden metal monsters to the occasional dalliance with J-Pop, the diversity of tunes contained was unmatched in metal, or anywhere else.
8. A$AP Rocky, LiveLoveA$AP
As my colleague has previously noted, 2011 was a big year for insurgent rap from the likes of Odd Future, Lil B, Danny Brown, etc, but I bet that in 2012 I won't be spinning anything from that 2011 repertoire as often as LiveLoveA$AP, Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky's breakthrough mixtape. Augmented by spacey, codeine-inflected beats from the likes of Clams Casino and Spaceghostpurrp, 24-year old A$AP spits like a emcee repping an extra decade's worth of self-assurance. The result is a rare mixtape with almost too many classic tracks to name offhand.
9. Mutemath, Odd Soul
Bands like New Orleans' Mutemath--solid, dependable and exciting purveyors of mainstream blues rock--are an undervalued commodity in America. Mining everything from classic NO jazz to Peter Green-style blues guitar freakouts, Odd Soul is first and foremost an album filled with remarkable performances, from musicians who have clearly spent years learning to play together aggressively and effectively. There's a soulful side to these heavy riffs that give this a more playful and funky edge than recent material from, say, the Black Keys or other blues rock revivalists.
10. Yuck, Yuck
Speaking of bands not made for these times--the London-based Yuck might have garnered more comparisons to Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement than any other artist in 2011, but that doesn't take any value away from the explosive energy of this debut. In my opinion, Yuck isn't a perfect album (it does lose some energy towards the end), but as far as debuts go I cannot imagine a more youthful-sounding rejoinder to the pre-end times rhetoric of so much "2011 in music" think pieces.
Honorable Mention: Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX, We're New Here
A year ago, I gave Gil Scott-Heron's I'm New Here the highest accolades on my list of 2010's best albums. Back then, it was his big comeback album, but now it has become his swan song--Scott-Heron died in May, ostensibly during the planning stages for a followup to I'm New Here. A few months before, however, XL Recordings put out a remixed version of the album, with new productions from Jamie Smith (the bassist/singer from the xx). Though Gil Scott-Heron's vocal contributions are the same as before, We're New Here is at least 60% its own beast, and at the very least, a more rattly, electronic type of experience than the original I'm New Here. It isn't exactly a different album, but I would be remiss if I did not mention it in some fashion--it, as well as its dead creator, one of the greatest poets and musicians of the last 50 years. RIP once more Gil--and Poly, Gary Moore, Teena Marie, etc. etc.