ONE: Cults - Cults (Buy It.)
In the obligatory obsessing over doing this list honestly and naturally (this ain't no Pritchard Scale) I was just SURE that "nah, Cults isn't really my absolute favorite album of the year...right?" It was ultimately, however, impossible to think of an album that had both moved me and made me wanna move nearly as much in 2011. Cults is an album by a band at its exuberant and naive arrival. Their innocent and playful seriousness is the kind of thing that record labels fall all over themselves for, but they avoid (for now at least) sounding too slick and/or over-produced and simply sound naturally effervescent as eff. Will they ever make anything this effortlessly infectious again? (see: "Oh My God", "Abducted, "Most Wanted", "Walk at Night", etc.) Who cares... this album is, inescapably, my favorite of the year. See my earlier review for more ruminations.
TWO: Ducktails - III: Arcade Dynamics (Buy It.)
On the universe's back porch, sound and the living strings of material mattering are the same. Ducktails is a consummate commenter on the slow complexity of the thickness of existence. With small yet tremendous songs like "The Razor's Edge", "Killin' the Vibe", "Arcade Shift" and "Don't Make Plans" this album improves upon and perfects the boundary and stress eliminating potential of previous (also wonderful) efforts. These songs are perfect for staring into the white core of a summer day's freedom... but they are just as suited for cuddling up and hiding from the snow, for nights spent dreaming about one's trajectory among the stars or for soundtracking an intimate gathering. The gentle and patient toil of Matt Mondanile's singularly loose guitar work and wandering vocal washes is hypnotic and inspiring of endless spiraling thoughts and talks.
THREE: Toro y Moi - Underneath the Pine (Buy It.)
Even being a bit of a chillwaver by default, I didn't cozy up much to Causers of This (2009). With Underneath the Pine, however, I believe Toro y Moi (Chaz Bundick) found something personal to express within the superfluity of a genre invented by a satirist. To be fair, the genre really has expanded and become more sophisticated and 'legitimate' over the past few years and, with the relative shitiness of Neon Indian's Era Extranea, Toro y Moi has emerged (also to a lesser extent Washed Out, Small Black and Twin Sister) as the (re)calibrator of chillwave's destiny and an important exemplar of its' possible breadth and depth. Underneath the Pine soars on the wings of qualities uncommon to the makeshift genre; like a focus on live instrumentation, an impressive sense of self-assurance and a mood that is as genuinely emotive as it is dance-able. Dig "Elise" and "Light Black" for perfect instances of what I mean. Also exquisitely ill: "Still Sound", "New Beat" and "Good Hold".
FOUR: Atlas Sound - Parallax (Buy It.)
Bradford Cox is one of my absolute favorite music makers in the world right now. Be it Deerhunter or Atlas Sound, he seems to have found a plateau that so many have searched for; perfect dreamy music that mirrors and simultaneously unwinds the infinite blurry seeming. Emotional music with a cerebral core, Parallax is an intricate album of self-discovery in love, of a self-doubting kind of other-seeking, of struggling with oblivion, of indulgently paralyzed nostalgia and of longing for the unknown. There is a delicately expressed sorrow in the contours of these songs, but there is also an identification through alienation motif achieved through longing and cryptic lyrics, ethereal noises, and ghostly shifty melodies. "Te Amo", "Flagstaff" and "Lightworks" are three of the year's most perfect songs. (See my review of Parallax for the San Antonio Current for more.)
FIVE: Jay-Z/Kanye West - Watch the Throne (Buy It.)
First things first... Jay-Z and Kanye West are taking advantage of us because they know we (rap lovers) need them (now more than ever in this Wiz and Drake climate). That said, it's hard to imagine anything much more 'fuck yeah' than the pairing of the two biggest persona's in jetset hip-hop. Jigga and Yeezy? An album together? Holy. Shit. Ye rides the confidence and clout of his magnum opus (my #2 album of 2010) while Jay shows up smarter, more vicious and more 'with-it' than he's been in a while. "Why I Love You", "That's My Bitch", "No Church in the Wild", "Niggas in Paris", "Murder to Excellence", "Otis"... Don't resist this album; it's way more than it even needed to be to be great.
SIX: Monster Rally - Coral (Name your price.)
I wrote about this album in April 2011 and it hasn't left heavy rotation since. The peaceful chaos of these sampled and manipulated sounds and song pieces is remarkably warm and nostalgic. "Champagne/Holiday", "Cuban Velvet" and "Swamp Campfire" are personal favorites; but I have a feeling that Coral is an album on which everyone can find something different to like. There is space within this album for vastly (endlessly?) varying listening experiences to be had. These songs are too patient to rush you to any one particular place. Monster Rally is really not chillwave... Let's call it, more precisely, "Dillawave"... intimate and up-close collage tracks with an open and thumping heart. I've sometimes thought, along these lines, that it might be great to hear some rapper with a laid back style lend these tracks beef... But they are probably better left untouched; the half-finished feeling being part of their endearing and enduring charm.
SEVEN: Quilt - Quilt (Buy It.)
This Boston band snuck up on me late in the year, releasing one of 2011's most refreshingly honest and glowing albums. To be sure, there is nothing earth-shakingly new or bold here- but what Quilt does in their (almost frustratingly) seamless patching together of so many (particularly) American musical styles and moods is both a beautiful testament to the life left in our most time-honored modes and a promise of authentic craftsmanship in music to come. These songs, above all else, are ALIVE... they do things and seem to consider you as you consider them: "Lost and Lewd" bounces as if entranced, "Young Gold" strides in measured movements, "Children of Night" rolls through the grass then stomps off the dirt and "Milo" dances and swirls long long long into the smoky night. Click HERE for more on Quilt.
EIGHT: Secret Cities - Strange Heart (Buy It.)
Like woodland mystics, Secret Cities wave the actual inertia of life before your mind's eye in green tones and make softly intricate suggestions of The Great Mother's voice filling spaces beneath the trees. Instant favorite "Pebbles" is a cricket-chirp infused example of Secret Cities' unique way of blending lush harmonies with seemingly simple (but actually layered, deep and complex) melodies built around a bare bass line. Strange Heart is full of surprises and delightful nuances that open themselves up more and more with each listen ("Ice Cream Scene" is my current obsession). This is an earthy record in word and in ambiance. A joy to listen to time after time, I am grateful to have encountered this album in early December; just in time for it to effect me strongly enough be included on this list. You will love this album if you let the love in it lift you up. See also: "Always Friends", "Strange Heart", "Brief Encounter" and "Portland".
NINE: Tyler, the Creator - Goblin (Buy It.)
I know, I know. But I couldn't metaphorically look you in the metaphorical face and say I didn't make this my only physical album purchase of 2011. I can't act like I didn't bump "Yonkers", "She", "Sandwitches", "Nightmare", "Tron Cat" and "Burger" for a solid three months without a shred of irony or self-reproach. Thus, I'm not apologizing. Fucking great production, charisma, an appetite for oblivion and endless exploding energy are things that captivate and hold my attention and approval. About the controversy- the people most offended should probably feel more aghast at the meta-systems that Tyler and his OFWGKTA associates threaten most than they are at the vulgarities Tyler spews in his immature (but earnest) attempts to tell us he hates his inheritance.
TEN: Family Portrait - Family Portrait (Buy It.)I like country and folk and, in general, pastoral music by which I can contemplate some notion of a robust and bygone (possibly illusory) American innocence. I like to imagine being alone on the plains with just my legs to move me or holed up on a Texas Hill Country ranch with a dog, a notebook and several barrels of whiskey. Of all the great (and somewhat similarly bent) artists on probably my favorite label, none capture the same rambling, 'dusty boots and river water' sound that Family Portrait achieves on this easy-going yet powerful debut. For my money, this album is way more revelatory, sincere and flat out prettier than that (far more discussed) 'big breakthrough' record the homies Real Estate put out in 2011. Check out the swell new video for album track "Never Should Have Been There".