20. Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)
I’ve only been turned on to Julianna Barwick recently. Had I been privy to her captivating soundscapes earlier, I do believe The Magic Place would have easily found itself higher, if not in my top ten. That being said, Barwick has an amazing voice, and she uses the hell out of it. Barwick is a master of looping, layering, and overdubbing her vocals; some times it feels like every note of a piece is being made by her. Magic Place is probably the only appropriate way to describe where she transports you with her voice alone–she does a fine job arranging sparse instrumentation for her vocals too.
Wet Hair’s been moving, inch by inch, ever closer to the ever illusive accessability. However, with most cuts eclipsing five minutes and several delving into deep, kraut-covered dub workouts, this Iowa City trio is still plenty challenging. Just check out album opener, “Echo Lady,” or “Liquid Jesus” to get an earful of Wet Hair’s groovy verses and choruses before they break things down like Kraftwerk hyped on Jamaican rum and a duffel bag full of spliffs.
18. Wolves In The Throne Room – Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord)
Since entering the fray in the mid aughts, Wolves in the Throne Room has easily been one of the most consistent black metal acts around. Celestial Lineage is a practice in destroying beautiful things; “Thuja Magus Imperium” opens the album with a rapturous aria from a double-tracked soprano before the Wolves bust down the door and tear the shit to shreds. There’s a battle, throughout Lineage, between bucolic, nearly objective beauty, and the brutal, symphonic bombast of Wolves in the Throne Room’s pure black metal. It’s this push and pull that makes Celestial Lineage a near shoe-in for the band’s finest album to date.
Aside from Busta Rhymes beasting all over Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now,” nothing hip-hop-related in 2011 has sent more shivers through my spine than the first time I saw the video for “Full Moon (Death Cassic).” In a genre that places such a high primary on the polished, final product, to hear something so damn immediate and confrontational is almost frightening.
16. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. II: Judges (Constellation)
Colin Stetson’s second solo LP received a surprising amount press for a largely instrumental collection of minimalist, solo saxophone compositions. However, Stetson’s circular breathing techniques haven’t just made him the most sought after sax man in the last decade, it also means that he can layer his own playing like a magician. The first spin of Stetson’s second album will be spent in awe–dude did most of this without overdubs, then you begin to appreciate the depth of his compositions. Stetson’s not just one of the absolute best horn blowers around, he knows how to construct compelling minimalist works.
Richard Buckner’s Our Blood, the long-awaited follow-up to his 2006 release, is dip back into more experimental waters for the singer/songwriter. From the opening electronic sequences of “Traitor” to the strobbing organ pulses in “Gang,” Buckner fills out his spare arrangements and accents his gruff, but warm vocals with some less organic flourishes and makes this passion project feel more epic where it could have been almost claustrophobic in its intimacy.
14. Tom Waits – Bad As Me (ANTI-)
Tom Waits seems to have an uncanny ability to churn out serviceable material that plays to his strengths even if he can’t replicate the dizzying heights of his best albums. Bad As Me is easily the best thing the eccentric troubadour’s released since Mule Variations (1999). Waits gives us a little showcase of all his finest talents: tear-soaked torche songs (“Back in the Crowd”), rust-bucket blues–with a 20th century twist (“Bad As Me” and “Raised Right Man”) as well as Wait’s carnival barker mode (“Hell Broke Luce”).
13. Edward Gray – Old Bending River (self-released)
Possibly Iowa’s finest song writer is back again, after a five-year break, with another great collection rust-bucket alt-country. Though Gray doesn’t appear to have changed his worldview, Old Bending River is more tightly arranged and cleanly recorded. Just check the easy shuffle of the downtrodden ballad “Away,” bolstered by a slinky, super catchy guitar refrain. Even when things get a bit untethered it seems more immediate. Both “Bone” and especially “Cold Cold Man” wade out into frantic waters, but the saxophone wails and sludgy rhythm guitar work still have a certain sheen.
12. Angel Olsen – Strange Cacti (Bathetic Records)
Angel Olsen’s Strange Cacti is the aural equivalent of frosted glass on a friend’s place: you know the people and the basic stories which are obscured, you may even know what’s happening as you peer in. However, the specifics are just blurry enough to leave you guessing. Olsen’s voice feels far away, her imagery is vague, but effective. Strange Cacti is, on the surface, nothing remarkable, but the trembling vibrato in Olsen’s voice and evocative content of her lyrics communicate a real depth that makes the whole thing hard to forget even if you never knew the specifics.
11. Big K.R.I.T. – ReturnOf4eva (self-released)
Big K.R.I.T. had another big year after debuting strong with his Wuz Here mixtape in 2010: On top of this exceptional follow-up “tape,” K.R.I.T. dropped a four-song EP with soul group Grillade and a third mixtape, Last King 2 (God’s Machine). Without a doubt ReturnOf4Eva is K.R.I.T.’s most assured effort to date. 4Eva is split almost evenly between K.R.I.T.’s beard-stroking contemplation and his desire to see you “shake it.” 4Eva is at its finest when the MC slams the two together, back-to-back, a hard juxtaposition between his two, seemingly at war, personas; the finest one-two-punch is the the hand-waving, crowd-stirring anthem “Sookie Now” leading into a diatribe on the perils of the rap industry on “American Rapstar.”