20. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles II

What a pleasant surprise this was. Not to detract from the debut, but who could have expected a follow up this definitively dreamy and introspective after full-scale wanton aggression and 8-bit Atari sampling? Hindsight can point to potential in debut tracks like “Untrust Us” or “Crimewave”, and admittedly, the duo retains much of that distorted rage, most conspicuously on “Doe Deer”. But Crystal Castles experimented with a range of which perhaps they didn’t even know they were capable. Ethan Kath traded in his Chevy gaming system for a Cadillac synth, while Alice Glass stocked up on Cepacol and truly discovered her voice. Together they experimented with a range of sounds from a number of sources not limited to dream pop, new wave, house, and eurodance, silencing anyone who thought this pair was just a gimmick. – RW

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“Celestica”

19. Bonnie “Prince” Billy & the Cairo Gang – The Wonder Show of the World

The Cairo Gang’s choral harmonies, folk minimalism, and Will Oldham’s self-contained lyricism on The Wonder Show of the World might call to mind soul folk stars like Bon Iver.  But the links are superficial.  Besides, the bearded bard has been in operation since 1993, the Cairo Gang since 2005.  Still, the evocation is similar: an analgesic admiration for a deft songwriter’s craft set to an array of folk strains.  Cairo Gang guitarist Emmett Kelly forms impressive fabric to drape around Oldham’s deliberate vocals, sometimes seizing the spotlight, perhaps most notably on the luscious blues solo that concludes “Teach Me to Bear You.” – JP

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“Teach Me to Bear You”

18. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

No 2010 album touches The Monitor’s brash energy, tangible emotion, or forthright honesty. Titus Andronicus’ sophomore release is an in-your-face anthemic catharsis for those experiencing real anxiety. In a series of raging sermons, frontman Patrick Stickles takes his dissatisfaction out on his strained vocal chords.  However, he’s less likely to quench his pipes with a swig of water than with a hearty pull from a fifth of Jack (hell no, he’s not just gonna brush his teeth with it). These qualities rise to the forefront, and an ostentatious Civil War conceptual backdrop is really just the icing on the cake. – RW

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“A More Perfect Union”

17. Nest – Retold

Enjoyment of ambient music depends to a great degree to how little it forces you to pay attention. It’s about mood, repetition, movement, sometimes at glacial pace, and yes, ambiance. Nest, a duo comprising Otto Totland and Huw Roberts, make music that crosses the delicate boundaries between modern classical music and modern electronic ambient genre.

The album begins quietly, with tracks played often on a single instrument but builds up to orchestral swells by the end that would perfectly score a movie awash in deep melancholia. It’s easy to dismiss much of ambient music as variations on a single (or couple of) themes; we have all heard the common complaint that “nothing much happened.” But this is undeniably one of a kind, a beautifully constructed, meticulously executed set of music designed to transport you to a place where details don’t matter anymore. – AS

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“Amroth”

16. Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here

With the possible exception of Scott Walker, no music legend has reinvented himself more successfully than Gil-Scott Heron.  The silk-voiced man who once mordantly declared that “the revolution will not be televised” still enjoys telling of his childhood in Tennessee, and his spoken word is as strong as ever.  But, as the title suggests, Heron purposefully estranges himself with the familiar, exploring new and varied musical regions and a gruffer vocal style.  The asperous “Me and the Devil,” the melancholic “I’ll Take Care of You,” and the spiritual-derived “New York is Killing Me” anchor Heron’s first album in sixteen years.  Meanwhile, his estimable poetry, laid over sparse reverberative beats, unmistakably ties it back to his brilliant 70s work. – JP

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“Me and the Devil”

15. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Social Network

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack to The Social Network depicts the Digital Age not as a luminous information superhighway, but as a dark, subterranean network of conduits transmitting loneliness, atomization, and longing. The great achievement of Ross and Reznor in this electronic-suffused work is its ability to stand alone as a great album, besides its role as an integral part of an excellent film. The first track, titled “Hand Covers Bruise” (the track titles are haunting, poetic snippets that are perhaps as essential to appreciating the album as listening to the music itself), features melancholic piano notes over a quivering electric guitar line. Thus we are introduced to the two main motifs of the album: the piano adding a bit of delicate and forlorn humanity to the (variously dark, upbeat, and cold) electronic instruments and effects. Indeed, the soundtrack’s deft shifting among tones and feelings is exemplified by the placement of “Painted Sun in Abstract” (an airy, if subdued, piece of optimism) immediately before “3:14 Every Night” (creepy and ominous, portending doom and crawling insects; the piano arrives late to sound doubtfully and uncertainly). Unmoored from a movie, this remains a rich and evocative musical work. – JE

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“3:14 Every Night”

14. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma

Anyone who has seen a Flying Lotus (Steve Ellison) video (namely “Dance Floor Dale”) knows that the man has a wonderfully bizarre sense of humor.  Is Cosmogramma a joke for Ellison, then, or a serious work of art?  It’s hard not to assume it is a mixture of the two.  It’s even harder to argue that anyone is making larger leaps in electronic hybridization these days.  Classifying his music as “jazz,” “house,” or “experimental” would be a desperate attempt at capturing the essence of a cerebral enigma, one of the great innovators – a fool’s undertaking.  His fluttering, spasmodic Nintendo beats and rapid, entrancing cadences could drive anyone to tears of joy…or fear. – JP

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“And the Whole World Laughs With You (featuring Thom Yorke)”

13. Delorean – Subiza

It would be unfair to call this album “soothing”. Soothe it does, but “soothing” too inaccurately invokes a downtempo ambience and undercuts the punch packed by its infectious dance hooks. Alternatively, grouping Delorean with its Balearic pop ilk seriously cheapens the Spanish group’s evolved sound. Subiza displays obvious house, club, and trance influence, but its intangibles separate it from the rest of its Basque brethren. Timely repitched samples of a strangely sexy female voice, rising rhythms that reach their expected climaxes, and, above everything, that transcendent synth all fully validate Subiza’s praise. – RW

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“Grow”

12. Shining – Blackjazz

Not the for the faint of ear or heart, the Norwegian band’s fifth LP is as far a departure from their docile acoustic jazz beginnings as is humanly (or androidly) possible.  Clocking in at just under a full hour, Blackjazz is a truly unremitting ambush of deafening drums, rapid, razor-sharp guitars, and untrammeled screams.  Amazingly, though, neither keen meter nor satisfying melody is lost at any point.  Shining teases us with transient moments of soft-pedaled keys and sumptuous saxophone before demolishing the placidity with more jarring effects that could only have come from a close relative of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  For such a hyperbolic album, it is almost impossible to avoid superlatives.  That said, it is the bravest and most over-the-top album of the year, hands down.  We have included the epic tracklist to give further evidence of the album’s merit. (Note both instances of song title duplication, as well as the titles themselves.)

1. The Madness And The Damage Done
2. Fisheye
3. Exit Sun
4. Exit Sun
5. HEALTER SKELTER
6. The Madness And The Damage Done
7. Blackjazz Deathtrance
8. Omen
9. 21st Century Schizoid Man

– JP

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“Blackjazz Deathtrance”

11. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor

My initial reaction to Local Natives was that their bangs and facial hair would make a sweet minimalist t-shirt. Could someone out there make that happen? That same conspicuity captures their music, as well. Local Natives are clearly more than your indie rock cliché, despite the hipster moustaches, flannel, and Southern California chill vibes. The quintet’s debut release, Gorilla Manor is much more sweeping than the complacent junk from the rest of their niche. Their intricacy belies their catchy hooks. The album only feels like an unrestrained party playlist. Gorilla Manor is full of delicate piano lopes, calculated arrangements, and soaring harmonies that reveal a wily group of guys a cut above the competition. – RW

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“Cards and Quarters”

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Comments ( 1 Comment )

DA: Just a little note for anyone using the “Breakfast” link to sample Pilot Talk I, that’s the original mixtape version without co-production by Ski Beatz. The album version takes the sample loop and asks a live band to replay it, as well as extending the trumpet/saxophone and bass playing across the whole verse rather than a simple 4 bar loop. Some people prefer the original version linked here, I personally prefer the remix by a whole lot. Both are great, though, and the lyrics don’t change.

Nodima added these pithy words on Jan 30 11 at 9:50 pm

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