Best Albums of 2011

The Bureau Staff selects their favorite new albums of the year.

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Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic

This record makes me feel old. I get inexplicably angry that people don’t seem to like it more. “What’s wrong with these kids,” I think. “Don’t they realize that no one else makes music like this?” I can’t understand why Pavement is canonized while Mirror Traffic, which is just as good as Terror Twilight or Wowee Zowee, passes mostly unnoticed through the culture.

Mirror Traffic is Malkmus’s best post-Pavement record. It shows him at his most energetic, on “Senator,” most reflective, on “No One Is (As I Are Be)”, and everywhere in between. His guitar work is sharp and eclectic, ranging from dreamy and melodic on “Asking Price” to fuzzy and punkish on “Tune Grief.” And his lyrics are as strange and funny as ever. “Forever 28″ contains some of his finest lines to date, as he sings, “such a buzzkill/yes I am/I kill momentum/when I can/there’s no parade I/cannot rain on with my poison eyes.” If you claim to like Pavement but can’t get into Mirror Traffic, well, then I have no idea what’s going on in your head.

Alright, glad I got that off my chest. Wait, one more thing: Malkmus is great in concert. Like, really, really good. That’s all. Now get off my lawn and go appreciate this album more. — Editor Nick Martens


Beyoncé – 4

Adele’s “Someone Like You” may be the ballad of the year (and deservedly so). But often over looked has been “1+1,” the first song on Beyoncé’s 4. It shows the same kind of tenderness as Adele’s single, but with a dimension of wisdom that reveals a new maturity in Beyoncé’s songwriting. 4 is a move from arena-pleasing pop to tempo-relaxed R&B that exhibits shades of ‘70s/‘80s soul. There’s no shortage of Beyonce flexing her vocal muscle throughout the album, but the best moments cut back on the instrumentation and production to find the singer at her most vulnerable. 4 is likely Beyoncé’s least accessible album to date, but patient listeners may find that a singer more than 21-years-old has more worthwhile things to express. — Editor Kevin Nguyen


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Destroyer – Kaputt

Dan Bejar’s latest (and perhaps final?) record under the Destroyer moniker continues the band’s trope of cramming self-referential lyrics and liberal use of the syllables “la”, “dee”, and “dum” into miniature opuses of inscrutable free-association. What sets this album apart from the rest of the Destroyer catalogue is the soundscape that serves as the palette for Bejar’s mad loquacity. In a word, Kaputt is jazzy. Well, actually, smooth-jazzy. In a year where M83 and Bon Iver used the saxophone to add un-ironic flourishes to albums otherwise unconnected to such a suave sound, Destroyer embraces the instrument’s inherently swanky mood, and compliments it with subtle dashes of electronic, ambient, and new wave. What results is a mellow 50-minute glide, asking little of the listener to mellow out, slink into the the nearest lounge chair or backseat of a car driving at midnight, and open up to the suggestive embrace of the sax. — Contributing Writer Daniel Adler


Atlas Sound – Parallax

Bradford Cox’s output over the past five years reminds me of the Tim Tebow’s performance since week seven of the 2011 NFL season. Both do improbable things on such a consistent basis that their results no longer seem surprising, even though they should. Although perhaps Cox is more like the Broncos’ defense, since he’s actually talented.

Parallax is Cox’s sixth excellent album since 2007, which is simply ridiculous. And he does it without repeating himself. Parallax retains some of Cox’s signature dreamy haze, but also introduces a bright, acoustic-guitar-driven optimism to the mixture. Such a tonal shift might be a concern with a less skilled artist, but “Mona Lisa,” probably Cox’s sunniest song to date, puts those worries to rest in about twenty seconds.

I could gawk in disbelief at how someone could be so prolific and so good, but at this point I think it’s better not to question it. Bradford Cox releasing a new album full of beautiful music is my favorite annual tradition. — Nick


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Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

I always assumed that the talented half of the brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces was Matt Friedberger, whose experimental and technical musicianship seemed to be the backbone of the band’s jerky prog pop. But it turns out I’ve always liked Eleanor more. Matt is in the midst of releasing eight solo LPs, each featuring a different instrument, that are successively harder to listen to. Meanwhile, Eleanor took the opposite approach with Last Summer, a nostalgic, singer-songwriter-y album composed of simple melodies, guitar and piano, and Eleanor’s colorful vocals. She comes across as flighty but endearing. “My Mistakes” finds Friedberger playfully stuffing as many syllables as she can into each line; In “Scenes from Bensonhurst,” she sings about compulsively checking her email. Last Summer may seem less ambitious than a Fiery Furnaces album, but it retains the same kind of precision and methodical musicianship. It’s just a lot warmer, and a lot more relaxed. — Kevin


Braids – Native Speaker

Watching Braids play “Lemonade” live is one of those concert experiences I’ll never forget. My attention perked up when I heard its fluttering opening notes, and then I just stood there, slack-jawed, enraptured, with shivers exploding through my body as the song poured over me. When it was over, I felt dazed.

Native Speaker opens with that track, followed by six other less ambitious songs, which mostly expand on concepts from “Lemonade.” That might not sound like a strong endorsement, but this is a young band’s first real effort. Besides, the inverted pyramid structure makes the album fantastic to play on repeat. You get to hear the song you’re most excited about first, followed by a calmer reflective period, and then, hey, there’s that amazing song again.

There may have been better crafted albums this year, but few reach a higher high, and none show more promise. — Nick


M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Anthony Gonzalez, the Frenchman behind M83, says that his albums serve as the soundtrack to imaginary movies. There’s a cinematic arc to the band’s impressively consistent double album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which continues M83’s shift from shoegazer electronics to sweeping ‘80s synths. Hurry Up brings to mind romantic neon-lit cityscapes and a fondness for slushy teenage angst.

Only M83 can close out a song with an un-ironic sax solo, as on “Midnight City,” the album’s first single and one of the year’s best songs. Even while doing his best David Gahan impression, Gonzalez is unabashedly sentimental. Maybe that’s why Hurry Up sounds fresh even though it’s deliberately nostalgic. So many albums, movies, and books today are self-consciously winking to themselves; M83 is boldly earnest and emotional. More than any other album this year, Hurry Up makes you remember that time in your life when you weren’t afraid to feel that way. — Kevin


The Field – Looping State of Mind

Alex Willner, who records as The Field, doesn’t do intros. He drops you right in the middle of one of his hypnotic electronic loops and tells you to get used to it. If you like what you hear, then you’re in luck, because you’re going to get a whole lot more of it.

As musician (and Bureau interviewee) Robert Ashely tweeted, “The thing about great repetitive music: If you can hear a loop 400 times in a song without getting bored, you can hear that song 400 times.” Looping State of Mind pulls off this trick perfectly. Willner’s loops somehow balance between propulsive and soothing, making it perfect background music for anything that requires an active mind.

But the album is more than just a soundtrack for work. When you give it your focus, you notice the level of craft present in every second of Willner’s music. Barely perceptible notes emerge from the background, sounds stutter in precise patterns, and emotional arcs reveal themselves. The energy of the album is so pure that it feels effortless, but the reality is just the opposite. — Nick


Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

In 2009, when Seattle-based duo Shabazz Palaces released its first two EPs, an indie hip-hop savvy friend of mine expressed disappointment in the group’s work. His grievance was that their mystical, tribal image belied the content of their lyrics, some of which centered around the standard hip-hop guns/girls/tough guy fare. Fast-forward to 2011 and the release of their full length Black Up and sure, frontman Palaceer Lazaro (neé Ishmael Butler) still talks tough and praises the female form. But I’d argue the rhymes are compelling, as they come cloaked in an unconventional mixture of metaphysical awe, mellow-as-hell carousal, and subtle wavering between existential fear and supreme self-assurance. And the backing sounds? Totally engaging. Songs swerve mid-track between echoey funk, industrial sci-fi electronics, and minimalist yet muscular beats. Black Up is the rare hip-hop album that’s as fitting for head-nodding as it is for spacing out. -Daniel


tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

This album shares structural characteristics with Destroyer’s Kaputt, but the sound of the music couldn’t be any more different. While Kaputt charms with steady, murmuring seduction, w h o k i l l hits with a visceral and eclectic barrage of kitchen-sink sounds and cultural criticism. Like the work of Destroyer, w h o k i l l feels driven by a singular vision – in this case, the gaze of tUnE-yArDs’ (so hard to type!) frontwoman Merrill Garbus, who looks askance at the ways we treat our bodies, lovers, and countries. Looping, sampling, distortion, scat-rapping, cooing, and even some honest to god balladeering jostle amongst the crammed real estate of this album’s brief runtime. There’s even a fair amount of saxophone, but here it’s used in the service of afro-funk breakdowns and kaleidoscopic spasms. These sounds are slapped together without regard for anything as hierarchical as stylistic consistency within an album or even a single song. That would betray the feeling I think Garbus is trying to portray – namely, that we live in a beautiful yet flawed world populated by beautiful yet flawed people, all perched on the verge of a freakout – or perhaps we’re already in its midst. — Daniel


All photos taken Everyday Music in Seattle.