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    the year in music: 2011

    Whoops, hey, it's getting a little bit on the late side to be posting my "best albums of 2011," but what the heck.

    I found it tough to rank these, as each of them covers very different sonic ground, and so I'm opting for a straight alpha-by-artist list. But honestly I thought it a very fine year for music.

    Julianna Barwick, The Magic Place. I tweeted something mid-year about how when I open my secular megachurch I will invite Julianna Barwick to sing there every week. Her looped constructions are impossibly lovely, some of the most consoling and comforting sounds I've yet heard humans make. I loved her 2009 album Florine but had my doubts about whether she'd be able to expand her sound meaningfully on a new, longer album: never have I been so pleased to be proven wrong.

    James Blake, James Blake. One of two albums this year that aggressively disassembled and reassembled the popular song. (Blake's is the one that is wintry, quiet, introspective, narcissistic, and quintessentially British.) Required listening if you want to affirm that there's still life in the Song.

    The Field, Looping State of Mind. Bliss-out repetitive dance music. The weird wordless vocals, new to this album, add an important level of emotional resonance that I'm not sure the Field has ever reached before. And thus Axel Willner gets ever closer to producing music that's as crucial to the heart as, say, this. Not quite there yet, but it's within reach.

    Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972. For around ten years now, abstract electronic musician Tim Hecker has been making music that skirted close to being excellent but never quite broke into that upper tier. But then this album came along, and I'm not alone in calling it Hecker's masterpiece. I'm not sure if it was the unusual circumstances of the recording (the base tracks for the album were captured from a pipe organ in an Icelandic church) or the help from producer Ben Frost (a quality abstract electronic musician in his own right). But it doesn't matter. This is the one.

    Bon Iver, Bon Iver. It took me a while to figure out what this album was doing, and I'm still not sure I endorse all its choices. But the key, for me, was to stop trying to figure out what Bon Iver was saying, or what he was singing about, and appreciate his voice as a textural element, in the same way that, say, one appreciates Liz Fraser's voice on those 1980s Cocteau Twins albums. This makes all the care and detail lavished on the album's other textural elements suddenly leap into focus, and you begin to think that maybe he's developing these little soundworlds as an attempt to establish himself as the true heir to 4AD-style art rock, instead of as a contemporary folk-inflected songwriter like, say, Sam Beam from Iron and Wine.

    Jacaszek, Glimmer. I once wrote that Treny, Jacaszek's 2008 album, sounded like "what house music would sound like if house music emerged from a pre-industrial Eastern European castle instead of from the dance floors of post-industrial Detroit." Needless to say, I was a big fan, and I worried that this follow-up wouldn't scratch the same itch. But it totally does. A fantastically crepuscular record. It uses a harpsichord. Plus it has the best cover art of the year.

    Minamo, Documental. Minamo albums have made my best-of-year roundups as long ago as 2002 and as recently as 2010; once I said that they made music that was in"maximum accordance with a very fine-grained model of my aesthetic tastes." With each new album they continue to modify their sound, and by now they've emerged as some of the most mature and confident practitioners of the gentle (and occasionally incredibly harsh) electroacoustic improvisational music I've loved for a decade now. (Honorable mention: Fourcolor's As Pleat, the 2010 solo release by Minamo's Keiichi Sugimoto, which has many of the same strengths.)

    Oneohtrix Point Never, Replica. Garbled constructions made from nostalgia-inducing shards; a great, stuttering, broken vision of the future. Difficult to take in large doses, but undeniably the work of either a visionary talent or a defective robotic anthropologist.

    tUnE-yArDs, W H O K I L L. One of two albums this year that aggressively disassembled and reassembled the popular song. (Garbus' is the one that is summery, loud, other-directed, political, and quintessentially American.) Required listening if you want to affirm that there's still life in the Song.

    Tuusanuuskat, Nääksää Nää Mun Kyyneleet. I don't know what's in the water over there, but for the last decade or so Finland's experimental music scene, loosely grouped around the influential Fonal label, has been producing some of the most uncharacterizable inventions, a kind of demented blend of noise, tribal rock, children's percussion, sing-along song, and whatever else they can jam into the mix. This album represents a collaboration between two of the key figures from that scene, Fonal label head Sami Sänpäkkilä (who records under the name Es) and Jan Anderzen, one of the art-damaged Kemialliset Ystävät crew. Difficult listening, yet every second is a clear manifestation of genius. Or maybe madness. Criminally overlooked.

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    Monday, January 09, 2012
    8:47 PM


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