What business does a blog like this have releasing its own end-of-year music list? Well, over any given year I find myself idly speculating about how this new album might compare to this one, and how well that new record will stand up by December. A habitual consumer of other people’s lists, I can’t really help but throw in my two cents. But I also think it useful to come clean about the new music I find inspiration in, insofar as this stuff might turn the gears of the cultural analysis that this blog records.

For that matter, some readers might find it interesting to see what kind of music I don’t spend much time listening to. Hip hop is conspicuously absent from my collection; in fact, I don’t think I’ve bought a new rap record since 1998 (Juvenile’s400 Degreez). Currently my interest in hip hop is mostly sociological: I’ll ask students about the hip hop they like, I’ll observe its ubiquity on the airwaves and street soundscapes, and I’ll try to keep up with the critical writing on hip hop, but I won’t necessarily find time for it in the precious hour that I have on my commute for close music listening.

End-of-year lists usually highlight the new and novel, which in pop music inevitably favors the young. That’s all well and good, and you’ll find several debut records listed below, but the genre unfortunately slights many new releases by well established artists. In 2011 I really enjoyed the albums from Tom Waits, Marianne Faithfull, the Dears, the Fall, Lindsay Buckingham—all artists creating genuinely new music, insofar as they respond attentively and in good faith to the contexts of the present day while advancing a body of work that your Bon Ivers and so on can only hope for.

Because I could never reasonably hope to hear all the worthy music released over a year, and because my interest in the stuff I do get to hear is often shaped by pique and whim, in the final instance my end-of-year lists document my favorite music of the year, not “the best.”

PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
Anticlimactic, I know—the critical consensus about this being record of the year usually brings out the contrarian in me. But Let England Shake is an album for the ages if only because war and the waste of life it demands don’t seem likely to shuffle off the stage of history any time soon, and no other record in recent years has conveyed the tragedy and horror of death on the battlefield like this one. That said, a concept album about war generally isn’t enough to keep me interested (hey, it didn’t work for Slayer’s Seasons of the Abyss). Ultimately, it’s the new sounds Harvey discovers (a hallmark of her storied career) that keep me coming back to Let England Shake: the shimmering reverb on an amplified autoharp, the music samples deployed for melodic and lyrical counterpoint.

Anna Calvi, Anna Calvi
Torchy, dramatic, exciting music executed almost perfectly. Anna Calvi came out of nowhere (or rather, the understandably forgotten Cheap Hotel) to emerge in 2011 as a triple threat: masterful singer, guitar virtuoso, and songwriter. And then there were the unconventional band format (guitar-drums-harmonium), her stepped-out-of-a-Bryan-Ferry-album-cover glamour, great taste in cover songs, that thing she has for wearing male flamenco costume… Forget the comparisons to PJ Harvey; this British musician is on her way to becoming the next Jeff Buckley. Maybe the lyrics needed a little more development on her self-titled album, their diary proclamations of “desire” etc. not yet achieving the technicolor nuance of the music. But once that gets worked out, we’ll all be talking about Anna Calvi in the future.

Nicole Atkins
We often bemoan why more people don’t appreciate our favorite music, but some musicians really deserve a mass audience for their contributions to truly resonate. On Mondo Amore, her second album, Nicole Atkins left behind the strings and studio gloss of her debut (too obvious a musical backdrop for a voice that perennially gets deemed “Orbison-esque”) for the crunch of vintage Zeppelin and the ragged touch of Dylan’s recent touring bands. A free live EP released in October offered an even better showcase for her band the Black Sea, particularly hotshot guitarist Irina Yalkowsky. Atkins may be a proud Brooklynite, but a single about “punching a bitch in the face” (as she explained “My Baby Don’t Lie”) merits the kind of barroom reception that Gretchen “Redneck Woman” Wilson used to get.

Wye Oak, Civilian
As indie rock refines and elaborates its constituent impulses—to commune and to alienate, to feel melancholy and to feel joy, to express wonder and to (self) destroy—into separate sub-genres, it’s a rare thing to find good ol’ depressing music that you can still rapturously rock out to. This year, Wye Oak held the flag for that hallowed indie rock tradition, the way I remember Throwing Muses did in the late 80s and Come did in the 90s. Over three albums they’ve evolved into a weathered, tougher group, as Jenn Wasser’s voice shed its girlish breathiness for a more textured croon that I could listen to singing just about anything (even a song by Danzig). Nothing but big things on the horizon for this duo.

Fucked Up, David Comes to Life
The six-piece Toronto hardcore band with the unprintable name had already earned my album of the year with their last record. Trying not to be too predictable, I was getting nervous as I came this close to awarding them that distinction again with their new one, a concept album about a British lightbulb factory worker in the 1980s who falls in love with an anarchist before she dies in a bomb explosion. After repeated plays, the sprawl of its double-album length made it clear that David Comes to Lifewouldn’t be their greatest album. But it still has some of the most joyous, adrenalized music I heard all year, and its ambition and fearlessness (the ultimate basis for those comparisons to Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, more than their common hardcore origins) was yet another reason to find inspiration in 2011.

Glen Campbell, Ghost on the Canvas
Also fearless: announcing your final album and tour on account of your encroaching Alzheimer’s disease. Glen Campbell has had a good life as a guitarist’s guitarist and country music legend, with his own TV variety show and the legacy of a million 1960s pop hits as part of the studio ensemble known as the Wrecking Crew. He’s also had his downs, most nototoriously as a mean drunk who bottomed out with a 10-day jail sentence. It’s not with self-pity, then, that Ghost on the Canvas ends his storied career of 50+ years on a high note. The comparisons to Johnny Cash’s American recordings are inevitable, but this is a far more polished album of countrypolitan pop. Fading memories of a life well lived life surface throughout the album, via several atmospheric interludes and a few musical reference to his classic Jimmy Webb hits (e.g., the morse code tones at the beginning of the Paul Westerberg-penned title track).


Eleanor Friedberger, Last Summer
Truth be told, I haven’t really kept up with the Fiery Furnaces since they made that rock opera with their grandmother. Their music was becoming increasingly overwrought and clever; not that those qualities weren’t always part of their formula, but originally they were balanced by a tunefulness and concision best captured on their first record (which consisted, tellingly, of their original demos). The debut solo album by singer Eleanor return to those qualities with simple yet well-developed songs and an unexpected emotional depth. Time will prove Last Summer to be a dated record in the best sense, commemorating real places with detailed first-person vignettes of regret, indifference, longing and disappointment. Okay, maybe these places are landmarks of gentrifying NYC and LA, where the goings-on consist largely of riding her bike and meeting friends for drinks. Eleanor’s hipster travelogue is no Springsteen journey through the blue-collar heartland, but Last Summer strived to mark its place and time like almost no other (good) record tried.

The Fleet Foxes record notwithstanding, it’s been interesting to see how indie rock’s coming to terms with folk rock has largely moved beyond the 1960s stylings associated with the so-called freak folk of the last decade. So many excellent records in 2011 were solo albums by young musicians whose songs were clearly written on acoustic guitar, no matter how the recording process later transformed them. To offer an admittedly dicey analogy: if the last decade’s folk revival hearkened to a British pastoral setting, then this cohort brings back Laurel Canyon with their intimate, first-person songs about city apartments and fucked-up relationships.

On her self-titled fifth album, Marissa Nadler crossed Emmylou Harris and Julee Cruise to cast enchanting spells of love and heartbreak. EMA distanced herself from her introspection with amplified noise and art-school technique, resulting in the inspired, sometimes spectacular mess of Past Life Martyred SaintsHumor Risk,Cass McCombs‘s second (!) album in 2011, brought to mind what Freewheeling-era Dylan might sound like on the Kill Rock Stars label. I also enjoyed the wide-eyed slacker sentimentality of Luke Roberts, and the jaded entreaties of the Heavens Jail Band. But for my money, the best record from this new generation of singer-songwriters came from Kurt Vile. His fourth album Smoke Rings For My Haloshowcased his stunning finger-picking technique and a cough-syrup drawl that makes for quintessential winter blues music.

OFF!, First Four EPs
Because First Four EPs was released on vinyl in December of 2010 (the CD came a couple of months later), this so-called compilation has been overlooked by most of many end-of-year lists. Maybe it’s fitting that this release got lost between the years, because OFF! create a timeless sound: early Los Angeles hardcore, all syncopated riffing and nervous breakdown lyrics and 75-second length, of the kind made famous (then quickly left behind) by singer Keith Morris’s first band, Black Flag. OFF! also sees the return of Steven McDonald from Redd Kross, whose bass guitar and ass-length hair were touchpoints of my late 1980s. For every bit of skepticism that the “supergroup” concept might induce, turn this loud record up another notch.

Charles Bradley, No Time for Dreaming
Old-school Southern soul music that asks all the right questions in 2011: why is it so hard to make it in America, how long must I keep going on? Any doubts you might have about the retro context surrounding the Daptone Records mission will be assuaged once you hear 61-year old Charles Bradley sing the shit out of these songs. Plus, his cover of Nirvana’s “Stay Away” is just unexpected and weird enough to make you forget the million times you’ve heard the original.


Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls
Generally I can take or leave indie pop, the charms of which stick with me for as long as it takes to consume its audio confections. But I keep returning to this London quartet, whose minimalism of twang, tom toms and tamborine provides a warm bed for their distinctive group vocals. They’re the best present-day example of what I’ve called the new wave rent party aesthetic, as the audible delight the two girls and two guys in Veronica Falls take in singing together conveys that same shock of discovering a new performative syntax that characterizes the best of this by-gone era.


Negative Plane, Stained Glass Revelation
2011 was the year I restored my love for heavy metal with a fieldtrip to Maryland Death Fest in May. Subsequently I’ve been taking a crash course in the extreme stuff, so I’m not the one to report authoritatively on this year’s most important developments in a musical underground that encompasses the “death,” “doom,” “blackened” and “crusty” variants (a job best left to the bloggers of Left Hand Pathand Invisible Oranges). Suffice it to say, I find myself leaning most toward death metal, but none of the groups I really took a liking to—Teitanblood, Dead Congregation, Cruciamentum, Marduk—put out a full-length album in 2011. (Sure, there were new death metal records this year, but I’m investigating the genre very selectively.)

Remarkably, 2011 looks to be the year black metal broke. Hard to believe that an obscure sub-genre most notoriously stoked by corpse-painted, church-burning Norwegians could ever draw mainstream notice, but that’s testament to the music’s astonishing creative scope. If you kept up with musically omnivorous critics from blue-state institutions like the New Yorker and NPR, then you may have heard about the “transcendental black metal” of Liturgy, whose album Aesthethica unleashed a vicious backlash among the cognoscenti for reasons that are absurd for a 43-year-old to explain. You may also know about Wolves In The Throneroom, whose albumCelestial Lineage refined their often epic, occasionally sleepy brand of deep ecological “cascadian black metal.” For my money, this year’s best offering of Nietschean amorality, musical adventure, deafening volume, and a complete lack of postmodern irony—i.e., what black metal does better than just any other contemporary music—was Stained Glass Revelation, the second album by the Florida-via-Brooklyn group Negative Plane. Hard to say what sets this apart from this year’s other black metal releases (except the welcome use of a guitar reverb that I haven’t heard since the Dead Kennedys’ Plastic Surgery Disasters), but there’s a depth and musicality on this album that merit the possible risk of your eternal soul.


The Horrors, Skying
The Horrors have gotten better at skirting obvious homage to their latest set of influences, but the heart of MTV’s “120 Minutes” circa 1989 beats strong on their third album. Layered guitars, syllables stretched over two or more beats, unsyncopated beats too slow for dancing, British cheekbones, absolutely no bottom on the EQ… Call it a guilty pleasure, but I don’t remember the Catherine Wheel ever sounding this good.


Make Do & Mend (Finders Keepers Records)
2011 witnessed too many natural and manmade tragedies, and maybe too many benefit albums for armchair altruists to support. Sure, I’ll buy the record, you don’t have to ask twice. But is it just me, or does it seem like a lot of musicians donate their weaker tracks for these projects? If they really wanted people to buy the record, shouldn’t they be donating their best unreleased music? After riots in August burned down the London music warehouse containing the inventory of some 100 British independent labels, the British label Finders Keepers came up with a genius response: Make Do and Mend, a series of compilations taking the best of the Finders Keepers/Twisted Nerve/Bird/Battered Ormnaments catalogues, as curated by artists such as Belle & Sebastian, Zola Jesus, David Holmes, and Prefuse 73. Volume 1compiled by Britpop renaissance man Jarvis Cocker sets the tone: vintage pop, cabaret, prog and folk obscurities from around the world, with an occasional fast-forward for overlooked jems like Jane Weaver & Wendy Flower’s “Silver Chord.” Each purchase puts capital in these deserving independent labels’ hands while they go about reprinting their catalogue.

Battles “Ice Cream”
Once again, I could hardly make it through a new Battles record. But the loss of Tyondai Braxton brought a silver lining, as guest vocalists added new colors and moods to the band’s alterna-prog. “Ice Cream” (with vocals Chilean electronic artist Matias Aguayo) came with unexpected tones of levity and giddiness that the video took to the extreme. Have Beavis and Butthead reviewed this clip yet?