10. The Wooden Birds, “Two Matchsticks” (Barsuk)
Understatement is out of fashion these days; even the once-restrained Bon Iver and Iron & Wine went all maximalist on their latest releases. But ex-American Analog Set frontman Andrew Kenny soft-sells his autumnal melodies with layered but gently strummed acoustic guitars and hushed harmonies from bandmates Leslie Sisson and Matt Pond. If you love beautifully broken-hearted folk-rock sets like Josh Rouse’s “Under Cold Blue Stars” or Merrie Amsterburg’s “Season of Rain,” seek this out.
9. Atlas Sound, “Parallax” (4AD)
The third, best and most diverse set from Bradford Cox’s Atlas Sound solo project finds the Deerhunter singer flirting with everything from glammy guitar-pop (“Mona Lisa,” “My Angel Is Broken”) to oceanic electronica (“Modern Aquatic Nightsongs”) to reverb-laden freak-folk (“Flagstaff”). Atmosphere and obliqueness remain Cox’s calling cards, but as his confidence as a songwriter continues to grow, there’s a newfound directness to his work that’s even more compelling than those murky earlier albums.
8. Thao and Mirah, “Thao and Mirah” (Kill Rock Stars)
On their own, singer-songwriters Mirah Zeitlyn and Thao Nguyen (leader of Thao with the Get Down Stay Down) are pretty great—but as a team, they were unstoppable on this frisky, exuberant set, co-produced by tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus. Together, these three alpha females made surprisingly simpatico collaborators, helping Mirah channel her inner soul diva and letting Thao’s quirky vocal delivery settle into its own lilting, seductive rhythms. A rare instance of three artists with strikingly original styles discovering an even more original common aesthetic.
7. Robbers on High Street, “Hey There Golden Hair” (self-released)
This New York band took four years to bounce back from label limbo (their former home, New Line Records, dumped its entire artist roster shortly after the 2007 release of the Robbers' sophomore album, "Grand Animals"). But it was worth the wait. “Hey There Golden Hair” is a masterpiece of Beatles/Kinks-inspired power-pop, augmented by Sharon Jones’ horn section (the Daptone Horns) and frontman Ben Trokan’s Britt Daniel-like, soulful rasp of a voice.
6. St. Vincent, “Strange Mercy” (4AD)
On her third album, St. Vincent mastermind Annie Clark serves up more hypnagogic chamber music, but with more overt touches of both pop and something approaching jazz-rock fusion (dig that squiggly synth outro on “Surgeon”). The combination makes “Strange Mercy” both her most accessible album and, paradoxically (and fittingly, given its title), her strangest. The arrangements leap and spark like severed power lines, punctuated by bursts of Clark’s startlingly savage guitar work. It’s challenging, beautiful stuff.
5. The Black Keys, “El Camino” (Nonesuch)
The seventh album from Akron, Ohio’s favorite rock duo is all killer, no filler—a swaggering, 11-track victory lap for a band that had a breakout year in 2010, and seems poised for an even bigger 2012. In many ways it’s a similar act of arena-rock alchemy to the White Stripes’ “Elephant,” cranking a stripped-down band’s best elements up to 11 without sacrificing the scrappy, gritty elements that made them so terrific in the first place.
4. Girl in a Coma, “Exits and All the Rest” (Blackheart)
As good as “El Camino” is, it’s still not my favorite pure rock record of 2011. That honor goes to Girl in a Coma, a female trio from San Antonio who made that most basic of formats—guitar, bass, drums and a snarling, sexy lead singer—sound thrillingly new on this astonishing fourth album. The rhythm section of bassist Jenn Alva and drummer Phanie Diaz can crush it—just check the Clash-like punk-funk changes on “Hope”—but the real revelation here is Phanie’s teenaged kid sister, singer-guitarist Nina Diaz, who’s blossoming into some kind of awesome cross between Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde and Brody Dalle. The band name and Smiths-like lead single “Smart” are red herrings—yes, they’re capable of getting all jangly and breezy, but mostly they just flat-out rock. Go see them while they’re still playing clubs.
3. Shlohmo, “Bad Vibes” (Friends of Friends)
2011 was one of best years in recent memory for experimental electronic music. Veteran artists (Amon Tobin, Modeselektor) and exciting newcomers (Emika, Sahy Uhns) alike released outstanding albums—but for my money, a kid from California named Henry Laufer, aka Shlohmo, blew them all away with this haunting debut full-length. Skillfully mixing wobbly West Coast beats with live instruments and touches of the ghostly dubstep and out-of-body R&B of artists like James Blake and Burial, Laufer spun a remarkably fresh take on an increasingly crowded genre, crafting a 14-track set that both flows seamlessly and surprises at every turn.
2. tUnE-yArDs, ‘whokill’ (4AD)
The year’s most mind-blowingly original album was this second LP from Merrill Garbus, who followed up her intriguing but dauntingly lo-fi debut album, “BiRd-BrAiNs,” with a stunning blast of Afrobeat rhythms, dancing saxophones, slippery bass (courtesy of Nate Brenner, a killer secret weapon if ever there was one) and her own endlessly inventive percussion loops, guitar and live-wire vocals. As amazing as Garbus’ springy, spidery music can be—and on effortlessly funky tracks like “Bizness” and “You Yes You,” it can be pretty darn incredible—it’s her voice, an androgynous, ecstatic instrument that defies easy comparisons, that makes “whokill” such a remarkable set.
1. Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What” (Hear Music/Concord)
Simon’s best album since “Graceland” plays out like a summation of his remarkable career. There are quirky character studies set to loping Afro-pop rhythms (“Rewrite”), incantatory folk-rock anthems (“Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”), and one ballad that will take your breath away (the jaw-droppingly fantastic “Love and Hard Times”). The album’s African textures and unexpected samples (like the Southern Baptist preacher sermonizing on “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”) add intrigue, but it’s Simon’s crystalline songwriting that makes it my pick for the year’s best album.
Honorable mentions (alphabetical by artist):
Beastie Boys, “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” (Capitol)
Dawes, “Nothing Is Wrong” (ATO)
Emil and Friends, “Lo and Behold” (Cantora)
Emperor X, “Western Teleport” (Bar/None)
Flash Bang Grenada, “10 Haters” (Hellfyre Club/Grimm Image)
J*Davey, “New Designer Drug” (The Illav8r)
Mogwai, “Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will” (Sub Pop)
Saul Williams, “Volcanic Sunlight” (Sony)
Theophilus London, “Timez Are Weird These Days” (Warner Bros.)
Washed Out, “Within and Without” (Sub Pop)
Best albums of 2011: Hermann's picks
A songwriting legend tops the list from Metromix's national music editor
By Andy HermannMetromix National Music Editor
December 9, 2011
10. The Wooden Birds, “Two Matchsticks” (Barsuk)