Throughout the holiday season, Pop & Hiss will present various top 10 lists from its contributors. What follows are the favorite albums of the year from staffer Margaret Wappler.
1. Tuneyards “Who Kill” (4AD Records)
Merrill Garbus’ second album as Tuneyards brims with noisy, exploratory life, a junkyard creation welded from funk, reggae and Caribbean soul that's easily one of the most inventive albums of the year. Screwing it all together is her voice, which can veer from a coo to a lusty growl. A restless and ecstatic adventure, “Who Kill” is an exciting flag bearer in a year when many artists melded genres together so seamlessly they birthed a whole new beast.
2. Bill Callahan “Apocalypse” (Drag City)
At a time when few musicians are engaging with what it means to be an American, longtime craftsman Bill Callahan releases an album that explores and embodies the country’s iconoclast pioneer spirit, warts and all. “Apocalypse” is thinking cowboy music, perfect for a year when the far left and right were galvanized in their specific vision of the American dream.
3. Destroyer “Kaputt” (Merge)
Several indie folksters, including Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, have been dipping their paintbrushes in soft rock’s watercolors but nobody does it with the rapscallion panache of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar. Working with pastel but skronky saxophone and soundscapes seemingly ripped from a New Age meditation tape, there are few lyricists working today who can occupy a phrase like this brainy, slyly hilarious Canadian.
4. Feist “Metals” (Cherrytree / Interscope)
This album might be a Degas painting come to life. Fluid, delicate and concerned with the darkest reservoirs of beauty, Leslie Feist’s follow-up to her 2007 breakthrough “The Reminder” wisely puts her mellifluous voice at the center, but the fine-grained arrangements are nothing to wave off. Recorded in Big Sur on the Central California coast, “Metals” is the shadowy part of something gorgeous, the inky shading on the nape of a ballerina’s neck.
5. Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues” (Sub Pop)
When these Washington beardies wax romantic about disappearing off the grid to tend to their fantasy apple orchard, it can be enough to make you fire up all 30 of your media-saturation devices at once in juvenile rebellion. But Fleet Foxes’ pristine folk works as a pine-scented salve for a culture constantly pinging us with bits and bytes of information. If the band ever challenges its idealism with a more rough and messy reality, that’s when things will really get interesting.
6. Shabazz Palaces “Black Up” (Sub Pop)
Helmed by former Digable Planets leader Ishmael Butler, this debut by the Seattle-based experimental hip-hop collective takes many mind-scrambling turns, its textures both fresh and grimy, a wayward venture into the future that somehow manages to sound like a throwback. “Black Up” is one of the more avant-garde outings in a year that’s been defined by several brave hip-hop and R&B retoolings from the likes of Drake and the Weeknd.
7. Laura Marling “A Creature I Don't Know” (Ribbon Music / Domino)
Only in her early twenties, England’s Laura Marling is a wise raconteur who moves between several seemingly contradictory modes –- personal yet private, elliptical yet bracing. On Marling's third solo album, her focus and conviction is more breathtaking than ever, resulting in a mature batch of songs that often reflect on the various roles women find themselves in, either by the dictum of culture, themselves or some inextricable combination.
8. Paul Simon “So Beautiful or So What” (Hear Music)
A big-hearted album from a legendary musician who’s grateful for every second he’s lived, even the botched, demeaning or downright miserable ones. There are moments when it gets a little sappy –- can you hear the word angel without sarcastically wondering if you’re being touched by one? –- but there’s such a wealth of considered beauty, referencing and reflecting on all corners of the globe, that it’s easy to forgive an old fellow one of his endearing vices.
9. Eleanor Friedberger “Last Summer” (Merge)
Breaking away from the Fiery Furnaces, her ambitious project with her brother Matthew, Friedberger reveals on her solo debut that she has a serious soft spot for the kind of relaxed song that could float on the air in a murky Manhattan dive, stirring memories and their inevitable tinges of romance and regret. Off-kilter and wistful, “Last Summer” is a smidge like Carole King if she’d spent her youth messing around with hipster gadflies in Williamsburg circa 2000s.
10. Real Estate “Days” (Domino)
The title of this album is almost obstinately simple, a blow-off even. “Days." Not nights because those are a little more exciting. Nope, just boring old days -- and there those days go, flying off into the sky of your life, with little event or fanfare. But as 2011 winds down, the New Jersey band Real Estate sounds more suitable for the waning hours than ever. The unmistakable sound of pining for lost time is embedded in the whorls of Real Estate’s jangly indie-pop, faded by the suburban sun.
Year-end top 10 list: Todd Martens
Year-end top 10 list: August Brown
Best of 2011 in pop music: Randall Roberts
Photo: Tuneyards by Anna M. Campbell / Beggars Group USA