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Top 50 Albums of 2011

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10. Active Child 'You Are All I See'

Active Child 'You Are All I See'
Vagrant
Pat Grossi —the Californian carrot-top calling himself Active Child— builds bright, bedazzling, ersatz cathedrals of sound from curious components: pluckings of harp, drum-pads dowsed in gated reverb, stadium-sized synths, and wave after wave of warbling vocals. Grossi grew up a choirboy, and, on You Are All I See, he sounds like he's still trying to be one: singing in a falsetto bordering on castrato, hitting helium high-notes en masse, his voice multi-tracked 'til he's a choir of queer angels swimming near the ceilings of his audio architecture. Active Child's music is both beautiful and perverse: flamboyantly gay yet bordering on canonical; seemingly pop-like yet possessed of unending sonic complexity.

9. James Blake 'James Blake'

James Blake 'James Blake'
Universal

James Blake cut his teeth as a dubstep producer, but on his Mercury-approved debut album he sounds far more like a singer-songwriter with a radically-stripped-down approach. For all his love of strange, slippery sonics and deep bass shudders, Blake has essentially built his album on the back of a soulful croon and rich piano chords. He's been compared to Ray Charles, but that's comically off the mark. Blake's, aesthetically, still an electronic producer; having an almost ascetic devotion to keeping unnecessary clutter out of his compositions. Though built on piano and vocal, the defining element of James Blake may be space; even his most friendly, pop-like tunes gently flecking the edges of great swathes of silence. It's a brilliantly produced, played, and conceived LP; the most dynamic debut disc of the year.

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8. Bon Iver 'Bon Iver'

Bon Iver 'Bon Iver'
Jagjaguwar
Those who equated that Bon Iver back-story —broken-hearted dude spends solitary winter in a wood cabin— with rough-hewn acousticism may be shocked by Justin Vernon's For Emma, Forever Ago follow-up. Anyone who noticed the debut's sophisticated production —or, indeed, took note of Vernon's collaborations with Gayngs and Kanye West— will, however, be all over this worthy successor. Bon Iver is a slick studio concoction of intricate, multi-layered, multi-timbral sound; eerie and atmospheric yet bright and bold. The star of the show is Vernon's voice: a stacked-on, one-man chorus built from blue-eyed soul warbles and mercurial audio effects; which he uses to intone some seriously-weighty lyrical poetry.

7. Destroyer 'Kaputt'

Destroyer 'Kaputt'
Merge
Daniel Bejar —self-professed student of David Bowie that he is— has long loved dressing his highly-cultivated lyrical persona —erudite, self-referential— in different musical outfits. On his ninth Destroyer LP, Kaputt, Bejar is clad in the sonic equivalent of a sweater tied around his shoulders and a pair of tassled boat shoes worn sans socks. Pillaging from turn-of-the-'80s yacht-rock and soft-pop, Bejar relaxes amongst plodding drum pads, luxuriates amidst syrupy synths, and showers under saxophones. The change of wardrobe suits Bejar's singular lyrical approach; here he feels like an aging entertainer, dribbling witticisms and hard-won wisdoms off-the-cuff. After 2008's mediocre Trouble in Dreams, Kaputt is a killer return-to-form.

6. Tune-Yards 'Whokill'

Tune-Yards 'Whokill'
4AD
As one-of-the-best-LPs-of-last-decade as it was, Merrill Garbus's Tune-Yards debut, 2009's Bird-Brains, still had a rickety, home-made, hand-made quality to it. On Whokill, Garbus graduates to the studio, enlists hot players as a backing, and makes an album that sounds brighter, bolder, and, well, blacker. Still a fan of radical compositions, Garbus again authors tunes that stop, start, rescramble, and reinvent; again raids genres (Swahili street-folk, free-jazz, R&B, reggae) with gay abandon; again compresses thousands of ideas into 40 minutes. Buoyed by confidence gained strutting stages, Garbus sounds like a star in wait: all huge, boisterous voice and provocation disguised as pop-song. Crossover seems both imminent and inevitable.

5. PJ Harvey 'Let England Shake'

PJ Harvey 'Let England Shake'
Island

Two decades after her classic '92 debut Dry, PJ Harvey shows no signs of slowing, mellowing, or growing complacent; she is, as ever, a fierce, fearless, committed artist. Her eighth album, Let England Shake, is, musically, one of her oddest: elusive moods of autoharp, analogue organs, and bass harmonica that manage to sound both brittle and brutal at once. Pushing her singing voice into all manner of new shapes, Polly Jean stages a singular lyrical study: the thematically-taught LP exploring folksong and its entwined relationship with English history. Harvey returns, as aural storytelling traditions have always, to wars; from far-gone crusades to the Great War to the Iraq invasion. Her homeland's history, Harvey knows, is one sown in blood.

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4. EMA 'Past Life Martyred Saints'

EMA 'Past Life Martyred Saints'
Souterrain Transmissions
As on Red State, the biblically epic record she made as half of Gowns, Erika M. Anderson again equates the cultural wasteland of smalltown Middle America as literal wasteland on Past Life Martyred Saints. On her first EMA LP, Anderson peers into the abyss ("I hear them calling, the pearly gates"; "I'm just 22 and I don't mind dyin'") and sees her scarred South Dakota childhood. Via hoarse voice, noise guitar, and black humor, she summons small-town, teenage tedium in all it horrors, both bodily (blood, bruises, self-cutting, flesh wounds) and social ("you were a Goth in high-school"; "what's it like to be small-town and gay?"). Here, the saints of this post-apocalyptic landscape are the wasted wastrels Anderson left behind; the persistent ghosts of haunted hometown memories.

3. Gang Gang Dance 'Eye Contact'

Gang Gang Dance 'Eye Contact'
4AD
Six years after the decade-ruling revolution of God's Money, Brooklyn's kings of the mystical, pan-global freak-out are still melting minds. Here, Gang Gang Dance do their thang: tossing hints of Canto-pop, yacht-rock, dubstep, and R&B in their ever-psychedelic, percussion-bashing sound. But, essentially, Eye Contact finds the band proud to sound like themselves: Lizzie Bougatsos's indecipherable wails ladled over crackling electronics, squeaky synths, and neo-tribalist trance-outs. Pristinely produced by Chris Coady, it's the first GGD LP that —as the vicious synth-stabs of the dancefloor-anthem "MindKilla" attest— sounds custom-built for club sound-systems and outdoor-festival stages; presaging, perhaps, potential commercial crossover.

2. Panda Bear 'Tomboy'

Panda Bear 'Tomboy'
Paw Tracks
Noah Lennox's third Panda Bear album, 2007's Person Pitch, has become the stuff of modern-day myth; its unironic, joyous, nostalgic, summery, washed-out-vocal haze now beloved with unreserved fervor by a growing legion of imitators and admirers. Having to live up to that legend, Tomboy will be seen, by some, as a 'letdown.' But that's the wrong reading. Though simpler and, somehow, colder, the latest opus for Animal Collective's most beloved bro boasts jams that measure up to past greatness: "You Can Count on Me" Lennox's devotional valentine to his daughter; "Alsatian Darn" a painfully-honest hand-clapping anthem; "Last Night at the Jetty" a lament in warped, tape-wobbling Brian Wilson-isms. It ain't no Person Pitch, but Tomboy is mighty enough for its own myth.

1. Julianna Barwick 'The Magic Place'

Julianna Barwick 'The Magic Place'
Asthmatic Kitty
Talk about apt titles. Julianna Barwick's third record, The Magic Place, is named after a back-pasture tree on the rural Louisiana farm on which she grew up; the towering birch's branches providing a place of escape for Barwick and siblings. The LP that shares the tree's name is, sweetly enough, blessed with a sense of magic. Barwick is a one-woman choir, looping her wordless wails until they crest in cascading waves of sound. It's drifting ambient music, but its sound-clouds have an electric pulse going through them, and dynamic new pieces like "Prizewinning" explode like thunderstorms. Barwick's voice is as pure as freshly fallen rain; and her songs have so many layers that listening to them feels like walking into whole atmospheres.
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