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Top 50 Albums of 2011

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20. Toro y Moi 'Underneath the Pine'

Toro y Moi 'Underneath the Pine'
Carpark
Following up a beloved debut LP is all about striking a difficult balance: a matter of changing but not too much, both remaining faithful to a sound whilst departing from it. Chaz Bundick ably turns such a trick on his second Toro y Moi album, Underneath the Pine. The worked-over feeling of 2010-owning Causers of This is gone, the smoothed-down productions and strung-together transitions abandoned for a set of songs that stand alone as single compositions. Here, Bundick dabbles a bit more: funky, organ-driven jammers; incidental mood-music pieces; and the amazing "Good Hold," where a piano ballad warps and wobbles like a tape left in the sun. But the parts all hang together, and the sum suggests Bundick's merely scratching the surface of his prodigious talent.

19. Class Actress 'Rapprocher'

Class Actress 'Rapprocher'
Carpark
In 2010, Not Not fun founder, LA Vampires leader, and former Pocahaunted sorceress Amanda Brown opined it high time women in indie music "reclaim sexiness, as soulfulness and sensualness." Class Actress is that notion made manifest; Elizabeth Harper —one-time anti-folk singer-songwriter recast as stylized synth-pop siren— donning a dramatic persona dripping with desire, seduction, and projected sexuality. Rapprocher dares take '80s Madonna as its muse; drawing from her punky Paradise Garage beginnings to the house-pop hysteria of "Express Yourself." And Harper strikes her vogued poses with appropriate fierceness: "Hangin' On" chronicling "crazy love" in all its increasingly-rough sex; "Keep You" answering relationship questions with sexual possessiveness; "Love Me Like You Used To" less wishful sentiment than caroled command.
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18. Little Dragon 'Ritual Union'

Little Dragon 'Ritual Union'
Peacefrog
Neither of Little Dragon's first two LPs —2007's Little Dragon, 2009's Machine Dreams— could be confused for works of maximalism, but, even for a band forever built on stripped-down grooves, Ritual Union still plays as work of astonishing reductionism. Here, the Swedish combo set Yukimi Nagano's vocals to the barest of component parts: mere pulses, bleeps, beats, synth stabs, sine-waves. It's a work of microtonal precision pitched somewhere between Neptunes production and glitch nerd-dom, that also doubles as a giddy, joyous pop-record from a band seemingly on the brink of a breakout. Following Nagano's guest spots with Gorillaz, Maximum Balloon, and SBTRKT, Ritual Union gives her an unadorned stage on which her voice shines bright.
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17. Korallreven 'An Album by Korallreven'

Korallreven 'An Album by Korallreven'
Acéphale
Swedish balearic electro is the provence of imaginary summers on fanciful island shores, but Korallreven take that quality to an unexpected South Pacific extreme on their literally-titled debut album. Inspired by founder Marcus Joons' travels in Samoa, Korallreven cross-pollinate beachy Swede-pop with Polynesian folk music and Catholic choir music, building a shrine to blissed-out disco with borrowed religious reverie. Inviting the holy voices of Julianna Barwick and Victoria 'Taken by Trees' Bergsman along to carol choral on the coral, Korallreven wed the transcendence of dancefloor ecstasy with the transcendence of the sweet song of the choir; exploring interesting ideas of cross-cultural influence, obsessive devotionalism, and communal congregation amidst joyous, windswept, sun-dappled, sand-speckled, salt-flecked pop.
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16. The Luyas 'Too Beautiful to Work'

The Luyas 'Too Beautiful to Work'
Dead Oceans
The Luyas lineup is crazily unconventional as is: 12-string electric zither, wurlitzer organ, French horn, and drums. Yet, they barely stick to it; the Montréal quartet an indefinable proposition that flies in the face of rock convention. Applying rote genre terms —like psychedelic or experimental— to the second Luyas LP, Too Beautiful to Work, is a fool's errand. Here, metallic percussion crashes, organ hammers, feedback squalls, French horn exhales, tuned percussion pings, Owen Pallett's fiddle scrapes and sings. And, somehow, amidst all the cacophony and carnage, The Luyas still sound like a pop band. All the while, Jessie Stein chirps away in her tiny voice, which drifts and floats through these sonic storms like a little lost ghost.

15. Braids 'Native Speaker'

Braids 'Native Speaker'
Kanine

Calgary-born, Montréal-based outfit Braids score scores of Animal Collective comparisons, and they wear them well: a quartet of junior-high homies discovering a singular sound —songs long and flowing, unmoored to genre, unbound to structure— over years of communal jamming. But Braids stand apart from most Animal Collective acolytes by dint of Raphaelle Standell-Preston. Braids' front-dame has bona fide star presence: her thrilling, trilling, swooping voice shining bright amidst the babbling, bubbling jams. Standell-Preston's lyrical oeuvre largely revolves around a despised ex-boyfriend. "Have you f**ked/all the stray kids yet?" she sings, mid-"Lemonade," and hearing a voice so sweet spit something so salty is charmingly unexpected.

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14. Grimes/d'Eon 'Dark Bloom'

Grimes/d'Eon 'Dark Bloom'
Hippos in Tanks

Scores of split records come out each year; mostly 7-inch singles, but often 12-inches. But when was the last time one was album-of-the-year worthy? Like, Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear in '93? Though its 'split' status doesn't make it 'pure' album, Dark Bloom's place on a best-records-of-2011 countdown can't be denied. Given the Grimes half holds some of the year's most exhilarating, beguiling, strange, and sweet music. The luminous "Vanessa" is the highlight, a piano-vampin' jam in which Grimes —Montréal wunderkind Claire Boucher— stacks her voice in layers of delirious pirouettes. The d'Eon side is less awe-inspiring but still awesome; early-'90s-R&B-esque crooning under a hail of hair-trigger beats and cell-phone interference. The two halves add up to something immense.

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13. Sleep ∞ Over 'Forever'

Sleep ∞ Over 'Forever'
Hippos in Tanks
Sleep Over's debut LP was preceded by two of the year's best singles: "Casual Diamond" and "Romantic Streams," two incandescent, opaque, sleepy-eyed slow-jams where Stefanie Franciotti's voice drawled through drifting, wafting clouds of audio dry ice. If she'd made an album entirely filled with pop-songs that good, I think my head may've exploded. Instead, those two cuts are like glittering diamonds reflecting light that sparkles through the rest of Forever's thick ambient fog; having the feeling of materializing from the haze, gleaming brightly, then retreating back into the abyss. A set of sweet, swooning pop-songs would've been easier on the ear, but Forever functions perfectly as an album; a longplaying listen that lures you into its own audio world.

12. Atlas Sound 'Parallax'

Atlas Sound 'Parallax'
4AD
Bradford Cox used to wear dresses on stage, erupt in bile-tinged blog rants, and title albums Turn It Up, Faggot. Yet, as Deerhunter progressed towards popularity —dragging dreamy side-project Atlas Sound along— Cox found himself accruing the wisdom of aging. That feeling lingering throughout Deerhunter's nostalgic 2010 opus Halcyon Digest, but it truly resounds, in clarion sound, on Parallax. Here, amidst sweeping semi-ambient soundscapes, Cox plays a crooner; using his voice to confidently convey a romantic mood (one tune titled, unironically, "Te Amo"). But these aren't songs of seduction; instead, the suggestion —in the ethereal unknowns of "Terra Incognita" and "Nightwork"'s ultimate ascension into the light— is of Cox the Elder no longer fighting death, but accepting its inevitability.

11. Sandro Perri 'Impossible Spaces'

Sandro Perri 'Impossible Spaces'
Constellation
Four years after his brilliant, beautiful Tiny Mirrors —one of the past decade's best records— Sandro Perri returns in even finer form. His second solo LP is united by the theme of change; riffing on Bowie's musical chameleon act on opener "Changes," then examining change's superficiality amidst the giddy, busy "How Will I?" ("even if i draw a moustache on it, wouldn't it be the same?"). Then there's change of the shape-shifting sort on "Wolfman," ten minutes of maddening musical lycanthropy, wrapping gnarled guitar-scale runs around artful tangles of horns, synths, and strings. This kind of compositional complexity is casually employed throughout Impossible Spaces, whose title suggests Perri's gift for using the studio to construct the soundworlds of his dreams.
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