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Last year I couldn't come up with 10 favorite albums. Too many of 2010's records seemed flawed, and since the definition of a "best album" for me is something I want to hear repeatedly from start to finish, I capped my year-end list at nine. This year I'm overflowing with good records. Since I picked only nine last year I figure I should have a credit left over for one extra and in 2011, I need it.
I found myself loving quiet albums this year. Gem Club's Breakers, with its dream-affected piano, serene voice and cello. More cello, plus blissful kora, on Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal's Chamber Music. My number one pick was an example of absolute musical calm, with shifting soundscapes and heartbreaking storytelling, an album made by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins. No album this decade — or dare I say, this short century — has been so alluring as Diamond Mine, demanding to be played over and over with something new to tell me each time.
It's not all calm on my top 11. There were some abrasive moments: the blistering guitar bursts on the new Wilco record, The Whole Love, or on "Jejune Stars" or "Haile Selassie," songs from the Bright Eyes album The People's Key (both are lyrically great records, too). WHOKILL by tUnE-YaRdS is like nothing else: sassy, punchy, angular and danceable. And thank goodness for The Antlers. They made another album that just plain sounds so damn good — the instruments shift and trade places in odd shimmery ways, but it's the melody in the singing and the guitar playing that sticks in my head when the music stops, add the fact that they have a rhythm section with snap.
You can tell I like my records swimming in layers of sound. That's why I fell for Apparat, the music of German electronic musician Sascha Ring. There are moments on his album, The Devil's Walk, filled with the sort of forward driving motion that Philip Glass does so well, as well as majestic moments that I love (while we're speaking of majesty, M83's album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, which nearly made my list, deserves mention.)
If you want a great album to listen to in the dark, try Wonder/Wander, the music of Ithaca college student Alec Koone who goes by Balam Acab. His electronic music has heart thanks to an abundant mix of familiar sounds such as water and breath mixed into his mysterious and conjured sounds.
Less familiar sounds came from James Blake, who, like tUnE-YaRdS, made a record unlike any other I'd heard before. So spacious it hurts, so halting it's spooky and so full of heart. Plus, drumming by Ben Assiter that's the best on a record all year — simply from another planet.
That's ten albums. Lisa Hannigan was why I needed a bonus pick. Her album, Passenger, was just too good to leave off. Hannigan's voice is pure, her phrasing unique — bouncy and seductive, often at the same time, with a voice that taunts me closer to the speakers with its graceful quiver. Some friends told me they thought Joe Henry's production didn't always work, that sometimes it competed with her voice. I can hear some of that, but I think that when it's prominent, the production intensifies the yearning in Hannigan's songs, and there's warmth when the production moves to the backdrop.
All in all I'm excited by so many new sounds unveiled on brilliant records in 2011. I can hear the end of rock and roll in 2011. It's been a brilliant nearly 60 years of fun but I'm getting more excited by the promise of people like Amon Tobin or James Blake, whose live shows this year were sonically fresh and challenging. And it's all happening at a time when sound systems in clubs and larger venues are exceptional, when they're not cranked beyond the danger zone (no not that "Danger Zone"). Look for a post about my favorite songs and favorite live music from 2011 soon.