The accordion, ukulele and brass contingencies left us standing at the altar this year. Beirut disappointed. tUnE-YarDs served up a couple of nice appetizers. Her Name is Calla partially disbanded. And we’re not even going to talk about Radiohead.
There were some solid releases along our more traveled paths (read: Bon Iver, Laura Marling, and Feist). Korn came very close to releasing a masterpiece, 18 years into their career. Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason scored with a rescore. And The Rest came up one fried hard drive short of a top 10 listing.
But where 2011 really delivered was the solo performer, unbound by collaboration, exploring a singular electroacoustic vision. Seven of our top nine albums were solo efforts. Extend this list to top 20 and that number grows to 13. Five of the nine top albums blended electronic, modern classical, rock and noise, as do half of the top 20. For anyone still looking to chart the decline of modern music, 2011 was … a remarkable year. At least as much as the previous one.
So why only nine? Because this year TMIM staff suffered an 11-way tie for #10, including two back-to-back masterstrokes by Tim Hecker. There was too much excellent material to cast all of those releases but one into that lukewarm brew called “second tier.” So we took the passive-aggressive way out and just avoided confrontation altogether. To wit, ladies and gentlemen: your top nine albums of 2011:
9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo OST, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. A true shock, in terms of span, depth, and texture. The Karen O collaboration on the “Immigrant Song” cover was inspired, and completely bombastic.
8. And the World is Still Yawning, by Vieo Abiungo. The sophomore release is taking on all of the characteristics of an Event. Between its 42 minutes of primary material and well over an hour of remixes and B-sides, And The World Is Still Yawning is complex, exquisitely composed, brazenly unelectronic, and quite easy on the ears. In short, this canvas is both pretty and beautiful, which is becoming rare anymore.
7. The Miners’ Hymns OST, by Johann Johansson. The triumphant brass-and-percussion audio accompaniment to Bill Morrison’s stirring documentary about the rise and fall of coal. It is not just a soundtrack per se; the 52-minute film has no other sound than these 52 minutes of music. The two works create a terrific synergy together, but the soundtrack stands on its own as a major piece of composing. One of the true masterpieces of the year.
6. Volatile Times, by IAMX. The law of gravity just doesn’t apply to this guy. A huge stylistic step past Kingdom of Welcome Addiction (which in turn certainly raised the ante set by The Alternative, and so on), Volatile Times has no right to be this good. Or this diverse: “Bernadette” is a Carpathian bed-and-bedlam set to theremin, string and tuba. “Music People” is a chaotic, victorious e-march. “Dance With Me” is dissonant, eerie, uncharacteristically brick-and-mortar. And “I Salute You Christopher” is just tragic in retrospect.
5. Acoustic Tales, by Field Rotation. This is a tale of scope. And duration. Nearly 70 minutes of music. Collaborations with Antonymes, Estele Lamat and Danny Norbury. The images. The video. The poetry. Eleven movements, and twelve months in heavy rotation. If you’re still unfamiliar with Field Rotation, go see what we’ve been talking about all this year.
4. The Quiet Divide, by Black Swan. Not just a great idea: a perfect one. An established artist offering up a completely separate opus, anonymously, under the alias Black Swan. A quiet divide between the given name and the assumed one, between the anonymity of celebrity and the anonymity of Bandcamp, between a ravishing first release and a bizarre, much more noisy second one. (To say nothing of the quiet divide between the black swan and the white.) The descent from beauty to static, and the rise from static to beauty again, where the opening moments of the first act are reprised in the final moments of the second. A painfully overlooked album; very nearly genius.
3. Ceremonials, by Florence and The Machine. Let’s go ahead and state what we hope to be obvious: Ceremonials teaches us nothing new. No ground is broken. Production is hot, and loud, and busy. Florence won’t be nominated for the Nobel prize for her song lyrics. The song structure is left wholly intact. In short, Ceremonials is little more than a vehicle for her fierce voice and enormous presence. And thank God for that. You’ll shout yourself hoarse and leave yourself deaf, and you’ll love every step of the way.
2. Glimmer, by Jacaszek. Read the full review here. (Don’t let the title fool you.) A bold and bookish piece of modern composing, with a simple premise: parallel lines, unseen, instructing our own world, and instructed by it. A truly astonishing work.
1. 100 Lovers, by DeVotchKa. Yeah. I’m as surprised as you are. It’s a writer’s job to get his readers talking, which I’m sure I just did. DeVotchKa? Over Jacaszek? For album of the year? Surely we jest.
It all started with a show. On the eve of SXSW 2011, DeVotchKa came and hosted one of the greatest TMIM staff meetings ever. For anyone still wondering if the gypsy-inspired baroque set could live up to the recorded medium in concert, this performance eliminated all doubt.
From there we just couldn’t put the album down. “All the Sand in All the Sea” is iridescent and pulsing, almost magical. “The Man From San Sebastian” is chipper, intoxicating. “Bad Luck Heels” is mariachi-meets-Danny Elfman, the happy kind. And “Contrabanda” couldn’t be named anything else. 100 Lovers is tasty and nourishing, and always lands on its feet. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and you won’t break any bones you don’t mean to. Cross your fingers for anything close to this — released by anyone, no matter the language — in 2012. Stet! (Right?)