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Top 50 Albums of 2011

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40. Zola Jesus 'Conatus'

Zola Jesus 'Conatus'
Sacred Bones
When she first crawled from the subterranean US underground as Wisconsin teenager lost in Gothed-out drone, Nika Roza Danilova magically, dubbed her Zola Jesus jams 'crimson-wave'; her emotional bloodletting and menstrual moans in impassioned, feminist opposition to the affable dude-ism of chillwave. After a run of reverb-riddled records, Danilova came of age —at 21, no less— on the Stridulum EP; standing, now, as towering electro-pop siren. Conatus doesn't try to duck the raised expectations, but meet them head on: the LP sounding stadium huge, with cavernous echo and Danilova's foghorn voice ringing in every rafter. Yet, for all its sonic grandeur, the songs don't pander; all elusive charm, shadowy sentiment, and genuine darkness. Conatus isn't geared to instantaneous-kicks-seekers surfing online streams, but listeners who’ll let the crimson-wave wash over them.
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39. Björk 'Biophilia'

Björk 'Biophilia'
One Little Indian
A sure sign of greatness must be when even your failures are album-of-the-year contenders. Björk's most ambitious undertaking —and, considering her past, that's saying something— wasn't simply an attempt to sonically explore the evolutionary timeline and biological world through sound, but to create an entire world unto itself. The narrative of the album is indivisible from its pioneering iPad apps, which took inspiration from dividing cells, natural structures, and generative music in their playful application. Standing by itself, Biophilia plays as kooky pseudo-soundtrack, Björk at her most experimental as tonal connections are deemed less important than thematic ones; the album disjointed as songs even if united in concept. For someone who once made Vespertine, that equates to a disappointment; but Biophilia is a still an LP of rich musical material.
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38. I Break Horses 'Hearts'

I Break Horses 'Hearts'
Bella Union
Many will call I Break Horses 'a shoegaze Beach House' as an attempt at a reductionist pejorative. But, rather than putting the band back in their place, it only serves to show their worth: I Break Horses managing to live up to both halves of the equation. Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balck take inspiration, not imitation, from shoegaze's fluff-on-the-needle sound; building big songs of swirling sonic grandeur, all squalling guitars and ethereal vocals and wobbly keyboards and muffled drums. And, on slow-burn, organ-driven, quietly-epic jams like "Cancer" and "I Kill Your Love, Baby!" —both of which find Lindén's voice pushed forward more dramatically— they don't sound like tepid Beach House copyists, but a band every bit their equal.
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37. Razika 'Program 91'

Smalltown Supersound

You don't have to be a teenager to be overjoyed at the simple prospect of being in a band, but it helps. Norwegian lasses Razika roll out a debut disc, Program 91, that is bursting with joy; all rocksteady guitars and ska rhythms, lyrical romance and girl-group harmonies. They manage to sound youthful and nostalgic at once; as if, at the tender age of 19, they're already feeling the sad ache of the passage of time. Their 2 Tone twee captures a carefree spirit that listeners can identify with their own youth. Hell, the opening cut's called "Youth," and finds Marie Amdam caroling "you leave me thinking of your wasted dreams" amidst lyrics swimming through a "haze of drunken days," sunlit memories kissed golden by guitars that glint sunny and bright.

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36. Vivian Girls 'Share the Joy'

Vivian Girls 'Share the Joy'
Polyvinyl
No band symbolizes the super-fast cycle of Brooklyn-born blogosphere hype/backlash like Vivian Girls, who, mere months after forming, found themselves salivated over then swiftly abandoned. It was super-fast for kids whose first record was, really, a glorified demo. The very idea of dismissing them after one early LP has now proved ludicrous; the Girls' third album finally finding them coming into their own. From girl-group pastiches to gnarly psychedelic rockers, Share the Joy pushes Vivian Girls far from the two-noisy-minutes model of their infamous 2008 debut. The harmonies are drawling, the guitars ringing, the production vaguely Spector-ish, and the songs dynamic. It's clearly their best disc, whether the world admits it or not.
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35. Sean Nicholas Savage 'Trippple Midnight Karma'

Sean Nicholas Savage 'Trippple Midnight Karma'
Arbutus

Destroyer isn't the only Canadian one-man-band to make a magical soft-rock revivalist record in 2011. Edmonton-born, Montréal-based bro Sean Nicholas Savage strikes a post-Ariel Pink pose on the awesomely-titled Trippple Midnight Karma, making mutant recreations of the AM ballads of the late-'70s/early-'80s. He hits on a sweet sound of, essentially, twee disco-funk; all falsetto vocals, wobbly electronics, and blown-out recording. It looms as a potential breakout record for Savage, who's spent the past five years churning out semi-official CDRs and home-made recordings, but been thus far relegated to minor cult status. Where prior outings have been scrappy collections of collagist songs, Trippple Midnight Karma plays as a defiant album, in fine form from start to finish.

34. Feist 'Metals'

Feist 'Metals'
Cherrytree
After performing to 1.5 billion television-watching humans at the 2008 Grammys, Feist could've made the transitioning to bona fide pop-star, could've loaded a Reminder follow-up with hip-hop guest-spots and crass commercial concessions. Metals takes pretty much the opposite approach, settling into a rough-hewn, down-home, downbeat take on her torch-singer persona. "They'll try to convince you about your mood/and what you want they'll give it to you," Feist sings, like tear-shedding lament, amidst "Anti-Pioneer," a slow-build up a mountain of sadness that doubles as seditious rebellion against the image of the singer as iPod-shilling hit machine. The LP is loaded with doubt, with questions, and, most of all, with heartbreak. Breaking up is hard to do; whether you're breaking from a lover or breaking from expectation. The glory of Metals is that it makes it sound easy.
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33. Timber Timbre 'Creep On Creepin' On'

Timber Timbre 'Creep On Creepin' On'
Arts & Crafts
Befitting an LP titled Creep On Creepin' On, the fourth record for Toronto troupe Timber Timbre is a slow-burner, an album more impressive on subsequent listens than first spin. Which isn't to say its charms are hard to pinpoint: it's sharply-produced, setting Taylor Kirk's eerie, wobbly baritone to a set of ballads aping old jukebox standards. Here, with lounge-bar piano (played by Mathieu Charbonneau of The Luyas) and hot breath saxophone (played by Colin Stetson) on hand, Timber Timbre make vintage-sounding approximations of classic slow-dance sounds. But, like David Lynch's visions of pop-cultural Americana, Creep On Creepin' On's not-quite-right take on familiar musical tropes is a work of subversion, perversion, and, yes, creepiness.
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32. Cass McCombs 'Wit's End'

Cass McCombs 'Wit's End'
Domino
Cass McCombs turned out two LPs in 2011: Wit's End arriving early in the year, Humor Risk late. The former was clearly the better: McCombs' fifth album sauntering with the most elegant of sadness. Where past McCombs records oft featured inscrutable poetry, Wit's End deals clearly in memory, longing, loneliness, and loss; "Memory's Stain" uniting those themes in a critique of those who favor remembrances over new experiences. That lyrical sting is softened by the delivery: all piano piano, exhaling woodwinds, and deflated accordion. Which is nothing compared to "County Line," a tearful, blue-eyed soul ballad delivered so tenderly, so delicately, that you barely even notice it's a tale of a hometown homecoming filled with spiteful sentiment and palpable resentment. The tone holds throughout: the album so tasteful, so respectfully distant, that its edgy intimacy creeps up on you.
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31. Youth Lagoon 'The Year of Hibernation'

Youth Lagoon 'The Year of Hibernation'
Fat Possum
Trevor Powers began 2011 as bedroom artist in Boise, Idaho, but after throwing a couple Youth Lagoon jams on Bandcamp, things changed pretty fast; soon, The Year of Hibernation was doing the file-sharing rounds, and ended up getting Powers inked to Fat Possum. If the bedroom-to-buzz-band narrative is well-worn by now, what's different, this time, is the music. Powers makes minimal, mournful, entirely-nostalgic lamentations in which his squeaky, Coyne-esque voice and piano-preset synths are set amidst cavernous echo, thick room-tone, and clipping fuzz. It's atmospheric music, big on silence and space and full of disdain for dynamic-range-compression. In short: not your standard blog-hype bluster, but something bruised, brittle, and intensely personal.
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