1. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute)
Remember 80's synth-pop? Remember the things you liked about it? Remember the things you didn't like about it? Well, M83 have managed to create a fully-realized double album of brilliant 80's-esque synth-pop that manages to stick with the things that we loved about 80's synth-pop: ethereal melodies, new-wavey wistfulness, and you can even dance to it. Now, imagine Peter Gabriel fronting that band. Extra points to M83 for such an ambitious record -- I have a soft spot for bands who take the album seriously in this age of a la carte downloads.
2. The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)
There's really no other way to describe The War On Drugs other than to say that they're like if Bob Dylan fronted Yo La Tengo. If you are going to try to sound like Bob Dylan when you sing, you had better be writing some kickass songs. The War On Drugs does that. This is art. It's rare to hear albums these days that deserve to be treated like a novel or a film. This is a record with a consistency, a sense of place, and a sustained emotional depth throughout. One or two more like this, and The War On Drugs will be my favorite band going.
3. Fucked Up – David Comes To Life (Matador)
A+ for ambition. Not only do Fucked up bring the riffs and the energy here. They are bringing a double-album. Not only a double-album, but a double concept album. Not only a double concept album, but a double concept album with an immersive supplemental concept compilation (not included) of 'hits' by fictional rock bands (Fucked Up trying on different styles) the titular character grew up with. Add to that a handful of brilliant, cinematic videos that elevate the material to 'Quadrophenia' /'The Wall' levels of artistry, and you have one of the very best records of the year. Plus they put on one of the best live shows going.
4. Elbow – Build A Rocket, Boys! (Downtown/Cooperative)
Another band that is kinda shunned by the indie rock crowd for being really good musicians and dressing nicely. That's ok, though. I think Elbow strives for something bigger. Like The National, they are a class act doing very deliberate and thoughtful material that is more conducive to a theater (or an arena) than a rock club. If you are a fan of well-crafted, cerebral, artistic rock music with powerful melodies, this is for you. They have a back catalog that is totally up to snuff, as well.
5. Wye Oak – Civilian (Merge)
What can you say about Wye Oak? They're another act that's kind of difficult to describe to the uninitiated, other than to say, 'Oh, you'll really like them, they're great.' They're a duo. They are kind of folky. But they also have this swirly, noisy, dreamy thing going on. And Jenn Wasner has one of the most interesting voices you're likely to hear -- somewhat androgynous, wistful, seductive, and haunting. She can slice right through you and make your heart explode. This is a gorgeous record -- fully realized, ambitious, and wholly unique. Holy unique.
6. White Denim – D (Downtown)
As a musician, I never really was fond of comparisons, but as a fan of music, I can't help myself (have you noticed?). White Denim, if you will, sounds like the love child of The Grateful Dead, Yes, and Radiohead. Certainly not quite the sum of those parts (and yes, I realize that many of you are already turned off), but something very interesting, nonetheless. I am not sure why this record didn't get more attention this year. I believe it may be that many indie-rockers were resistant to the super-polished musicianship, and many heavy rock/alternative fans were turned off by their hippie-ishness. Stop over-analyzing your music and just listen to it. This record, unlike so many released this year, has the ability to surprise at every turn. You recognize shards of music history here and there. Sometimes you're sure they're ripping off something, but you can't quite put your finger on it. Who really cares? It sounds good.
7. Tom Waits – Bad As Me (Anti-)
What is there to say, really? This is quite simply Waits at his best. It's his first studio album in seven years, and his best since 'Mule Variations.' It's got everything: rockers, ballads, a seasonal tune ('New Year's Eve), and one of the best anti-war songs ever ('Hell Broke Luce'). Another solid entry in a solid discography by a dude who has yet to jump the shark.
8. Kurt Vile – Smoke Rings For My Halo (Matador)
Not sure what happened here. Kurt Vile really came into his own. I always love when a label (it's usually Matador or Merge) has the prescience to sign an act just before they start taking giant steps. Kurt Vile was on my radar. I kind of liked his stuff okay, I guess. Then he dropped this record and floored me. Gently, sure. But still.
9. Megafaun – S/T (Hometapes)
Formed from the ashes of DeYarmond Edison (which featured Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver), Megafaun seem to be overshadowed by their former bandmate. However, I have grown to like Megafaun more than I like Bon Iver. Whereas I sometimes find myself wanting to cut myself when I listen to Bon Iver, Megafaun's herky-jerky folk-rock tends to give me warm fuzzies. You know when you wake up and try to make a fist, but you can't? That's kind of how Megafaun sounds.
10. Lucinda Williams – Blessed (Lost Highway)
Hands down the best thing she has done since 'Car Wheels.' This is the most that she has sounded like a member of a band since then, and the songs have an urgency and a visceral feel that has been missing from some of her more recent recordings. If you loved 'Car Wheels,' but you have gotten off the Lucinda Williams train, you should probably get back on with this record.
11. …And You will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Tao Of The Dead (Superball Music)
Unfortunately there aren't enough bands who put out this kind of stuff. I have a thing for smart, complex, artistic, noise-rock bands that are also very much interested in melody and hooks. Extra points if they can pull it off without pretentiousness or cringe-inducing lyrics. The last two Trail of Dead records have secured them as one of the best going (alongside Parts & Labor). Solid.
12. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse (Drag City)
This guy is an overlooked treasure. Sure, he's somewhat of a legend in indie-rock circles, but seriously, he's like our Leonard Cohen or Nick Drake. Slightly more prolific, less consistent in style, but certainly as unique. While both of those guys are not American, Callahan seems to exude Americanness. A little bit Kerouac, a little bit Faulkner, a little bit Kristofferson (Kris gets a shout-out in the track 'America!'. This record, 'Apocalypse,' seemed perfect in 2011 (we nearly had one, literally and figuratively.) There are many great moments on this record -- it feels almost improvised at times. There are some stumbles, to be sure, but that's all made up for by the magical parts.
13. The Belle Brigade – S/T (Reprise)
If you don't like The Belle Brigade, you probably hate music. Yes, they do sound almost too much like Fleetwood Mac. But we don't have a Fleetwood Mac anymore, and I liked Fleetwood Mac. And these songs, Mac-esque production values aside, are well-crafted pop songs. The Belle Brigade are somewhat of a more accessible, more polished New Pornographers. Is that such a bad thing?
14. Wilco – The Whole Love (dBpm/Anti-)
Okay, so this is not 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.' It's probably not as good as 'A Ghost Is Born' or 'Sky Blue Sky' (Hey! I like that record. A lot.). Call me a sucker, but I like Wilco records, and a mediocre Wilco record is usually still pretty great. One of the interesting things about scrobbling your music (for the uninitiated, this is automatically feeding your listens to online services such as Last.fm), is you sometimes notice that you actually listened to a record more in a year than you thought. One of my most important criteria for grading a record is how much I enjoyed listening to it. By the look of my scrobbles, this record is more enjoyable than I think it is.
15. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs (TBD)
Sure, sure, it was a weird record that seemed kind of incomplete (was there a second half somwhere?), but it's Radiohead. Sometimes I think people don't give them enough credit because they expect too much. If a new band had put out The King Of Limbs and Radiohead didn't exist in our universe, this record would have made many more year-end lists.
Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Pt. II (Capitol)
Stephen Malkmus – Mirror Traffic (Matador)
Gillian Welch – Harrow & The Harvest (Acony)
TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light (Interscope)
Luup – Meadow Rituals (Experimedia)
Bon Iver – S/T (Jagjaguwar)
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
The Roots – Undun (Def Jam)
Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels (Sony Nashville)
Parts & Labor – Constant Future (Jagjaguwar)
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (4AD)