Culture Shock’s Best Albums of 2011

If you don’t feel like parsing through the next 1300 or so words on my favorite music of 2011, allow me to paraphrase. Three of my favorite artists/groups of all time released excellent albums after multiple years of silence; two recent indie bands kept being awesome; one supergroup of ladies showed us all how it’s done; one hip hop band also showed us all how it’s done; one pop star went beyond the thunderdome; one soul singer was right and true; and one gloriously bizarre woman made a classic. Intrigued? Then please: read on. These are not in a specific order, and yes, this is a top ten. And yes, it took me several nights of hemming and hawing to get this right. Don’t forget: I am a card carrying member of the International Association of Giant Nerds, Local 207. You’re welcome.

tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l (4AD)

Yeah, this was my favorite album of the year, by far. tUnE-yArDs, a.k.a. Merrill Garbus, possesses such a unique, clear vision, gleefully grabbing genres – hip hop, indie rock, reggae, free jazz – with reckless abandon. Her voice leaps octaves, soaring and screaming and purring. It’s like Jeff Buckley, Ornette Coleman, MGMT, Bjork and Erykah Badu had a freaky west coast indie rock child. Her lyrics unflinchingly observe the ugliness and beauty in the everyday, from the kids in your neighborhood to the relationship you just ended. And, you can dance to it. It’s not her debut (see 2009′s “Bird Brain”), though it is for me. It is a stunning statement from an artist I can only hope further pushes boundaries with her future work. I listened to this album at least once a week for almost the entire summer.

Tom Waits – Bad As Me (Anti-)

I think it’s safe to say that Tom Waits has never put out a bad album. Even the early 80s stuff that’s a bit schmaltzy is still good, and he more than made up for that later. “Bad As Me” is, of course, uniquely Waits, drawing on all his prior albums to create the mecha-Waits. Like clattering, difficult, angry Waits? Try “Hell Broke Luce.” Prefer lilting, at times unbearably sad Waits? Play “Last Leaf.” Or how about the funky junkyard swing of “Satisfaction,” as fitting a tribute to the Rolling Stones as has ever been recorded? Or a totally new side to Tom, with the gentle Spanish sway of “Back in the Crowd.” You can’t mess with Tom Waits. A new album is like a gift from the music gods.

Wild Flag – S/T (Merge)

I like it when people I really like work together and do everything right. That’s nice thing #1 to say about the Wild Flag album, the supergroup comprised of Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders. It’s the dream 90s ladycentric indie rock album, but more than that – it rocks SO HARD. The interlocked drum and guitar machine that is Carrie and Janet has not changed in the six years since S-K broke up; in fact, it’s only expanded upon with the addition of Timony and Cole. The dynamic interplay between the four musicians is superb; listen to “Electric Band” or “Romance” to see what I mean. I don’t know how long this project will last, but if it keeps going, the Sleater-Kinney-shaped hole in my heart may just heal.

Bjork – Biophilia (One Little Indian)

Ah, my favorite experimental electronic Icelandic queen. What secrets do the songs on your eighth studio album hide? Some abstract concepts about the human body, it’s relation to the Earth and the cosmos, and undoubtedly, volcanoes and lightning and fairies. That’s par for the course with Bjork, and this time around, it’s actually quite stunningly gorgeous. “Biophilia” has a lot more in common with “Homogenic” and “Vespertine” that it does “Medulla” or “Volta,” where the latter two were more aggressive and earthier, “Biophilia” captures some of the tingling, sparkling beauty of those two mid-period albums. “Crystalline” would not have sounded out of place on “Homogenic,” with its skittering beats and, yes, crystalline, bell-like effects. It’s a much more entrancing album than “Volta,” her last one, which left me cold. In fact, it’s almost entirely the Bjork I love; difficult but somehow accessible, and awfully pretty. And weird, in a good way. Very, very weird.

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (4AD)

I tend to hate those whole “Blank is the Blank of today” comparisons, but honestly, I think Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, is something like our generation’s Brian Eno. She’s a multitalented musician, a gifted composer, an abstract but effective lyricist — but where Eno rarely showed his teeth, St. Vincent proffers a kind of cool violence, like Prince with low blood pressure. “Strange Mercy” is her most wide-ranging, diverse, intimate collection of songs yet, from the sexual politics of “Chloe in the Afternoon,” to the stately, sad “Year of the Tiger.” It’s an album that belongs squarely in 2011, from an artist indicative of our times.

The Roots – Undun (Okayplayer)

Not gonna lie: Just listened to this album for the first time on Tuesday. But I can tell you already that it’s totally brilliant. It’s a concept album about one Redford Stephen, who dies at an early age. It clocks in at under 40 minutes, bookended by orchestral passages inspired by Sufjan Stevens. Like other Roots albums, it seamlessly brings together r&b/soul and hip hop — but the twin attack of music and lyrics is really the star here. From the upbeat but thoughtful “Kool On” to the absolutely searing “Tip the Scale,” it is a fast, powerful, emotional ride. How do the Roots do it? They keep putting out awesome, challenging albums, AND they’re the house band for Jimmy Fallon, AND Questlove is a hilarious Twitterer. They amaze me. If they were around, say, 30, 40 years ago, they’d be absolutely massive. They ARE massive now, I don’t mean to say they’re not. I just feel like they belong in the same pantheon as Sly & the Family Stone and Prince and Hendrix and all that. I really do. I am not wrong about that.

TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light (Interscope)

I did not love TV on the Radio’s last album, “Dear Science,” so the fact that their new one, “Nine Types of Light,” is so good makes me very happy. Because I really love this band. I still think “Return to Cookie Mountain” is one of the best albums of the past ten years. “Nine Types” finds them back in that kind of mode, too: sweeping dynamics from song to song, and within songs as well. Angry in places (the deliciously funky “No Future Shock”), peculiarly poignant in others (“Will Do,” which begs repeated listens), with fascinating layers of sound — from fuzzy guitar to fantastic horn arrangements — built up in each song. It’s sad, because bassist Gerard Smith died only nine days after the album came out. It’s beautiful, because it shows a great band at the top of their game.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

I am so glad that there are still bands out there that feel important. Not in a “Oh, that’s a popular band” kind of way, but “Oh, this is a culturally significant moment” when they release an album. The week in February when Radiohead dropped a bomb that they had a new album and it was coming out in ONE WEEK was so awesome! Exciting! And “The King of Limbs” did not disappoint: challenging, strange, unlike anything else they’d done before. In other words: a Radiohead album. The nervous energy winds it way through the eight tracks, a constant undercurrent of tension that barely finds time to resolve itself. It doesn’t really have any songs to hang your hat on, with the possible exception of “Lotus Flower;” instead, it creates a hypnotic kind of atmosphere, drawing on everything from Fela Kuti to Krautrock. The precision of Phil Selway’s drumming — truly one of the best drummers working today — is countered by the dreaminess of Thom Yorke’s vocals. It’s an album that demands repeated listens, to really let it get under your skin.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way (Interscope)

What? Oh, a pop album amidst all that indie rock? Oh, please. This album is awesome. It’s perfectly produced, it hits every possible dance floor sweet spot, and Lady Gaga herself is the best pop star since Madonna started to get boring in the early 2000s (there’s always been something boring about Britney Spears, amirite?) But Gaga is a force of nature, more like David Bowie in the 70s than any vacant blonde product rolled out on the assembly line. If you do not feel at least a tiny bit more fabulous after listening to any track off this album, then you have no soul.

Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’ (Columbia)

This guy is so good! His songs should so totally be on the radio. He is an old-fashioned soul singer in the line of Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder. Socially aware, literate and unafraid to bare his soul. And the music is just gorgeous, with those string arrangements, that awesome Chuck Berry-style guitar tone, and Saadiq’s lovely, plaintive voice. This is a great album, as was his last one, “The Way I See It,” and if you like r&b and soul, you pretty much have to own this album. He should be way more popular.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

F—ed Up – David Comes To Life

Cut Copy – Zonoscope

Portugal. The Man – In the Mountain, In the Clouds

Tinariwen – Tassili

Thao & Mirah – S/T

The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

The Black Keys – El Camino

The Goat Rodeo Sessions – Yo Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, a UMaine graduate, a proud Bangorian and an arts and lifestyle writer for the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food, from media and the Internet to theater and dance. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra, to name just a few. She's interested in everything -- especially if it happens in Maine. She welcomes any and all feedback or suggestions for stories.