Let’s just dive right in, shall we? I wrote blurbs for everything. If you jump straight for No. 1 (SPOILER IT’S KAPUTT), I’ll understand, but you might enjoy some reading.
35. Dream Diary – You Are the Beat
The upbeat twee group was one of the only true discoveries I made at SXSW, though like the Pains of Pure at Heart’s static debut, the unchanging sheen of this record makes the weaker songs slip into (albeit catchy) sameness.
REVIEW | ALL POSTS | “El Lissitzky”: MP3
34. Pepper Rabbit – Red Velvet Snowball
The L.A. psych-pop purveyors built on Beauregard‘s first steps with a record of lush but lo-fi production and anxious, intense lyricism.
LIVE VIDEO | ALL POSTS | “The Annexation of Puerto Rico”: MP3
33. Widowspeak – Widowspeak
The only Captured Tracks record I heard all year that wasn’t straight from 1987. Not a bad thing, given the band’s iron grasp on modern tumbleweed gloom.
REVIEW | “Hard Times”: MP3
32. R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
R.E.M.’s final record happens to be a very good one, a pony with, thankfully, more tricks than the quick ‘n’ easy Accelerate. Songs such as “Uberlin” and “Mine Smell Like Honey” stand right in line with their legendary catalog; if you’re going to go out, this is how it’s done.
31. Chelsea Wolfe – Apokalypsis
Bleak, gothic, scorched-earth, fearsome: this isn’t the sort of record that usually makes its way onto Rawkblog, but Chelsea Wolfe’s latest is delivered with such textural complexity and emotional directness that the rest hardly matters.
TRACK REVIEW | “Mer”: MP3
30. Sondre Lerche – s/t
Few singers offer melodies as effortless as our SXSW headliner, Sondre Lerche, a trait that makes his self-titled album easy to let slip by. But doing so would mean missing the subtle production twists that accompany his fine songwriting this time around, including the magnificent guitar/drum collapse that knocks down “Domino.”
VIDEO | ALL POSTS | “Domino”: MP3
29. A Classic Education – Call It Blazing
Call It Blazing picks up right where the Shins left off with “Kissing the Lipless” with a collection of sizzling guitar pop bathing in cool-kid reverb. The 200-horsepower pedal-shove of “Gone to Sea” makes for an absolute scorcher (look for it on last year’s best songs list), but the melancholy shuffle of “Place a Bet on You” and “Terrible Day” are fine looks, too. If James Mercer ever wants me to like him again, he should consider writing more songs as good as “I Lost Time.”
VIDEO | “Gone To Sea”: MP3
28. Little Scream – The Golden Record
The Golden Record glimmers brighter live, out of the reverb and backed by Laurel Sprengelmeyer’s Arcade Fire-sized band (they were practically falling off stage at our SXSW party). But with the lightning bolt of a perfect song (“The Heron and the Fox”) and as the thunderous announcement of a new artist, it’s a set that’d make Thor proud.
PORTRAITS | ALL POSTS | “The Heron and the Fox”: MP3
27. Devon Williams – Euphoria
“A recent discovery, and a record that’s likely to sneak up the list with a few more spins. Slumberland and Captured Tracks hit a real stride this year with their late ’80s/early ’90s synth-pop revivalism: after years of knocking around L.A., Williams has finally hit his, too.” – Me, a week ago, when this album was at No. 33. Don’t Rip Van Winkle this one.
“Your Sympathy”: MP3
26. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
After seeing him four times, it was hard for any album compete with Live Ryan this year. Ashes & Fire is a craftsman’s record, all polish and care, but when his rawer feelings shine through on tracks such as “Chains of Love,” his music feels as urgent and charismatic as ever.
ALL POSTS (LOTS)
25. SBTRKT – SBTRKT
The electro effort was a late-in-the-year but worthy discovery for me, mostly for the guest vocals of U.K. singer Sampha — a musician whose velvet throat makes James Blake look like a lifetime smoker rolling over in his hospital bed to finish hacking up that lung. And James Blake is a really good singer!
24. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer
More than just a Fiery Furnaces pop record, the female Friedberger’s solo debut offered a grieving, gorgeous portrait of a lost season in New York City. You can’t make art like this in Instagram.
LIVE | “Roosevelt Island”: MP3
23. Idaho – You Were a Dick
The slowcore act’s lengthy catalog hadn’t quite clambered over Low or Smog to wave for my attention until this record, a dry, cinematic folk collection that sounds as fine on headphones as it does accompanied by a fair-trade latte and a broken heart. Pick it up when you trade in that Bon Iver vinyl.
“You Were a Dick”: MP3
22. Big Troubles – Romantic Comedy
As noted above, thanks to Slumberland and Captured Tracks, 2011 was an aging C86er’s dream. Romantic Comedy brought the jangle with early ’90s verve and their iconic label’s signature sweetness.
LIVE | “Make It Worse”: MP3
21. Wilco – The Whole Love
If loving dad-rock is wrong, I don’t want to be right. In all seriousness, though, The Whole Love is best enjoyed as music for musicians: as the product of Wilco’s longest single-lineup tenure yet, it sounds like six silver-smooth wheels turning in a Swiss watch. In the band’s recent context, it doesn’t quite hit “Impossible Germany” or “One Wing” levels of spectacle, but there’s no moment of its 56 minutes that will stop you from smiling, either.