The best national music releases of 2011

There were a ton of albums released this year, and while we spent a great deal of time with the staggering number of outstanding local releases from the past twelve months (see last week's annual Moovers and Shakers list), we also found time to devote to the imports. And while there was some crossover, when it came down to it, we were all listening to vastly different stuff. Here are the national releases that filled our playlists in 2011:

Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note). Not yet thirty years old, Ambrose Akinmusire has been playing professionally for over a decade. On When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his major-label debut, the trumpeter proves he's got chops way beyond his years. Adept at both lyric and melodic phrasing, Akinmusire isn't afraid to push boundaries, either. — Jon Solomon

Beats Antique, Elektrafone (Antique Records). On its sixth release in four years, Beats Antique enlists guests like ill.Gates and Tarran Tailor to help cover a lot of musical ground, from bluesy, acoustic instrumentals to glitched-out electronic beats. Elektrafone is yet more proof of how far this trio is willing to push the envelope of creativity. — Britt Chester


Denver music

Ben L'Oncle Soul, Ben L'Oncle Soul (Wrasse Records). The notion of someone having a voice so striking that he can sing lines from the phone book and still have you spellbound is put to the test here. Unless you happen to be fluent in French, you won't understand most of what's being sung. But Ben L'Oncle sings with such passion and conviction that it really doesn't matter. — Dave Herrera

The Black Keys, El Camino (Fat Possum). El Camino is one of the best and most gratifying straightforward rock records in recent memory. Fueled by the high-octane spirits of the Stones and Zep, the Black Keys pulled the old bucket of bolts back into the garage and gave it a tune-up and a fresh coat of glam-flecked swag. This muscle car's ready to roar. — Herrera

Charles Bradley, No Time for Dreaming (Daptone). This is the best soul record you're going to hear this year that wasn't made in the '50s or '60s. Little surprise that Daptone, home to fellow classic soul revivalist Sharon Jones, is the imprint responsible for bringing this gem to the market. Produced by Dap-Kings guitarist Thomas Brenneck, Dreaming finds Bradley channeling all the greats from Otis Redding to Al Green on one record. — Herrera

Danny Brown, XXX (Fools Gold). Spewing disjointed rhymes like habanero seeds searing his tongue, Danny Brown sends caustic words skittering nervously across dense, synth-drenched beats. The neurosis in his voice on songs like "Adderall Admiral" is as affecting as the urgency on cuts like "XXX," where he talks about getting old and time running out, popping pills as he writes and never leaving the house. Most intriguing mixtape of the year. — Herrera

Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow (Anti-). Always blurring the boundary between art and experiment, Kate Bush returned to the studio twice this year for this album and its immediate predecessor, Director's Cut. With one song devoted entirely to the Yeti, the album is evidence that Bush's mix of bizarre, batshit and lovely pays off tenfold in the melody department. — Kelsey Whipple

Civil Wars, Barton Hollow (Sensibility). One of the most stirringly beautiful albums to come out this year, Barton Hollow was immediately captivating. The deeply expressive voices of John Paul White and Joy Williams blend together seamlessly in a way that adds an unmistakable gravity to every syllable on songs like "Poison and Wine," in which an economy of words is observed and elevated to an art form. — Herrera

Cut Copy, Zonoscope (Modular/Interscope). It took almost three years for the Australian dance crooners in Cut Copy to release a third album, and by the time they did, their last series of jams had yet to leave either airwaves or dance clubs. With Zonoscope, the guys augment their consistently retro use of synthesizer with tribal beats and put a greater focus on diversifying the electro-pop genre. — Whipple

Dark Castle, Surrender to All Life Beyond Form (At a Loss Recordings/Profound Lore). Stevie Floyd and Rob Shaffer have woven together strands of death metal and doom rock with non-Western harmonics and dark psychedelia for a relentlessly cathartic standout album. The songs are heavy, but fluid and dreamy, blasted through with grit and anchored by roots against the hurricane force of the music. — Tom Murphy

Kimya Dawson, Thunder Thighs (Great Crap Factory). Dawson is no stranger to deeply confessional lyrics, but it seems as though for this record she completely stripped off any veneer of humorous distance. "Walk Like Thunder" is the classic, a fully realized, achingly poignant and beautiful bit of unvarnished self-examination. — Murphy

Destroyer, Kaputt (Merge Records). Dan Bejar is obviously a genius, but whether he's an evil one remains to be seen. With Kaputt, the Canadian ringleader toys with both his listener's sensibilities and popular notions of what is good music and bad music to add dense texture to an artful combination of both. The resulting gray area is impressive. — Whipple

Drake, Take Care (Cash Money). Drake's long-awaited sophomore album, Take Care is chock-full of progressive beats, honest lyrics and a solid "I don't give a fuck" attitude from the Toronto MC, all of which combine to give the Young Money star an effective leg up on the competition. — Ru Johnson

Florence + the Machine, Ceremonials (Universal Republic). Inhabiting an artistic space once occupied by the likes of Tori Amos and Fiona Apple, Florence Welch shows considerable range and sings with such genuine conviction that you believe her when she delivers lines like "And I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't/So here's to drinks in the dark at the end of my rope/And I'm ready to suffer and I'm ready to hope." — Herrera

Bill Frisell, Sign of Life (Savoy). This past year was a busy one for Bill Frisell, who released two albums under his own name and collaborated on discs with Vinicius Cantuaria and Buddy Miller. While all of those albums vary musically, Sign of Life finds the guitarist working in a chamber-group setting and is the most stunning of the bunch. — Solomon

Fucked Up, David Comes to Life (Matador). When Damian Abraham pinpointed the Who as an influence in Spin earlier this year, it may have seemed odd at first, but it makes total sense when you hear David Comes to Life — and not just because it's a concept album. Listen closely to Abraham's vociferous vocals and you'll hear shades of Daltrey in the delivery, as well as Townshend's touch in the arrangements. — Herrera

Future Islands, On the Water (Thrill Jockey Records). Going with a more organic sound for this followup to In Evening Air, Future Islands further integrates its soul influences. The raw emotional honesty of Samuel Herring's lyrics imparts a greater array of subtle colorings to his usual exuberant delivery this time around. A measured, smoky introspection informs every song. — Murphy

Noel Gallagher, Noel Gallagher's High-Flying Birds (Sour Mash Records). If we continued to judge Noel Gallagher's success based on his rivalry with brother Liam, he'd clearly be winning. In the same year that brought us the mediocre Beady Eye debut, Noel's strong solo arrangements and intimate vocals suggest he needs the full Oasis approximately as much as Liam needs another drink. — Whipple

Garrincha & the Stolen Elk, Void (Weird Forest Records). Void is an intersection of collage, found sound, noise and ambient music using rock instruments for purposes outside the context of a normal song. Reminiscent of Selected Ambient Works Vol. II-era Aphex Twin at points, these songs seem to have been created organically in a future world envisioned by Stanislaw Lem. — Murphy

Ellie Goulding, Lights (Interscope). Lights offered one of the most exhilarating listening experiences of the year. Built upon on a bed of light synths, jaunty electro beats and the sanguine vocals of Ellie Goulding, the dainty songs on this album glisten like raindrops falling on a heated hood in the midst of a springtime rain under bright-blue skies. — Herrera

Gramatik, Beatz and Pieces Vol. 1 (Pretty Lights Music). Bursting on the scene with a number-one remix on the Beatport charts, Gramatik (aka Denis Jaravesic) dropped Vol. 1 of his Beatz and Pieces mixtape series this year. Sampling Ray Charles on "While I Was Playin Fair" reveals his affinity and respect for jazz in addition to the hip-hop roots that ultimately inspired his production style. — Chester

The High Llamas, Talahomi Way (Drag City). No doubt inspired by Pet Sounds and Smile-era Beach Boys, Sean O'Hagan and the High Llamas have been quietly crafting gorgeous chamber-pop albums for the past two decades. While the Llamas don't really break any new ground on Talahomi Way, it's one of the group's strongest releases in the last decade. — Solomon

Van Hunt, What Were You Hoping For? (Godless-Hotspot). The title of this record seems a bit preemptive and defiantly rhetorical on Van Hunt's part, as if he knew the music he was presenting here had the inherent potential to alienate. Those who bravely come along for the ride, though, are rewarded with a primal brand of R&B that's as lustful as it is cerebral. Paste mentioned Prince and Peter Gabriel. That sounds about right. — Herrera

Iceage, New Brigade (Abeano Music). Not unlike the Cramps repurposing rockabilly and making it their own warped thing, Iceage took strands of post-punk and hardcore to forge a sound so jaggedly energizing it couldn't help but leave an impact on anyone who witnessed it live. This record perfectly captures twelve shards of that burning inspiration. — Murphy

J.Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story (Roc Nation/Columbia). After churning out mixtape after mixtape, J.Cole finally gave the people what they wanted with Sideline Story. Cole's production ear proved sophisticated in his choice of rhymes and features. The playful and flirty "Can't Get Enough," featuring Trey Songz, is for the young and sexy, while Cole gets grown alongside Jay-Z, his mentor, on "Mr. Nice Watch." — Johnson

Wanda Jackson, The Party Ain't Over (Nonesuch). While Jack White's production almost seems a bit over the top at times, he gave the Queen of Rockabilly a more than sturdy springboard to launch from here as he introduced her to a new legion of fans. The 74-year-old Jackson sounds great with her trademark growl, and no, the party ain't over for her by any means; in fact, it feels like it's just beginning. — Solomon

Kanye West and Jay-Z, Watch the Throne (Def Jam). Kanye West and Jay-Z are rich motherfuckers, and no one, it seems, is more surprised by this than the two of them. On Watch the Throne, they tell a souped-up rags-to-riches story, rapping clever metaphors over chopped-up beats and samples. The two rap kingpins show off their versatile chemistry throughout the project, making it one of the most important releases of 2011. — Johnson

Kendrick Lamar, Section #80 (Top Dawg). Kendrick Lamar wowed nearly everyone in the rap world with his disciplined flow and militant lyrics on this summertime release. The J.Cole-produced "HiiiPoWeR" brought Lamar's movement to the forefront, and the album's first track, "Fuck Your Ethnicity," finds the MC coming out the gate swinging. This is not for the faint of heart: Kendrick Lamar speaks on the fucked-up state of society with poetic eloquence. — Johnson

Michael Kiwanuka, Tell Me a Tale EP Isle of Wight Sessions (Interscope). A torturous tease at a mere three songs, Michael Kiwanuka's Tell Me a Tale EP Isle of Wight Sessions is the most propitious release of the year. The young U.K.-based troubadour has been rightly compared to both Van Morrison and Bill Withers, and if the songs here are any indication, he's sure to earn instant favor on this side of the pond with his timeless brand of soul-infused folk. — Herrera

Lil Wayne, Tha Carter IV (Cash Money). Although not the best of Lil Wayne's Carter series, this fourth installment has metaphors that are as wacky as ever, and he diversifies his rap portfolio with the inclusion of an R&B track ("How to Love") and features from Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes, Tech N9ne, Nas and others. — Johnson

Machine Head, Unto the Locust (Roadrunner). Unto the Locust is one of the most consistently enjoyable mainstream-metal releases of the year. From the choral opening of "I Am Hell (Sonata in C#)" to the final refrain of "Who We Are," which fades into a peaceful violin passage played over a martial drumbeat, Locust is a very well-considered album, with plentiful moments of meticulous mayhem, fierce fretwork and awe-inspiring timekeeping. — Herrera

Mastodon, The Hunter (Reprise). Although not quite as enthralling as its trio of predecessors — Leviathan, Blood Mountain and Crack the SkyeThe Hunter is captivating in its own right. One of the Atlanta quartet's most commercial-friendly albums to date, it still packs one hell of a knockout punch with its chugging riffs and powerhouse drumming. — Herrera

Opeth, Heritage (Roadrunner). While it certainly doesn't happen to all purveyors of punishing brutality (see: Slayer/Anthrax, et al.), some heavier bands grow weary (bored?) of the confines of playing music that strictly bludgeons, so they dial back the devastation a few notches. Opeth, led by Mikael Åkerfeldt, did just that on Heritage and displays an impressive degree of depth and musicality in the process. — Herrera

Pharoahe Monch, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) (Duckdown Records). Pharoahe Monch is a rapping beast, and he extended his touch to the masses with the release of W.A.R. (We Are Renegades). Pairing his deep, gravelly tone with lyrics crafted to incite said masses, Monch gets busy on tracks like "Assassin" and the revolutionary rallying cry "Let My People Go." Authentic, creative, demanding, W.A.R. will grab your attention and not let go. — Johnson

Pink Reason, Shit in the Garden (Siltbreeze). Although even more lo-fi and raw than early Sebadoh, these six songs bridge a wide range of sounds and textures. Despite his flouting sonic convention, there is a haunting catchiness and drive to Kevin Failure's brilliant songwriting. A diamond in the rough not wanting to be a diamond. — Murphy

Plaid, Scintilli (Warp Records). For Scintilli, Plaid mixes styles, moods and textures with the keen ear for subtlety you'd expect. But the IDM pioneers have also constructed songs that take their penchant for inventive rhythms and abstract melodies and push it into even more breathtakingly panoramic sonic realms. — Murphy

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Samdhi (ACT). While alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has long dabbled in fusing Eastern Indian music with jazz, he takes more of a jazz-rock approach on Samdhi, as well as incorporating electronics. Throughout the disc, Mahanthappa is in brilliant form, at times furiously burning through cuts ("Killer") while taking a more lyrical approach at others ("Ahhh"). His finest work to date. — Solomon

The Rapture, In the Grace of Your Love (DFA). Few bands can create a party and subsequently destroy it quite as quickly as the Rapture. The dance-punk enthusiasts recorded their third album as a return to DFA, and the label's influence shows itself in blistering stompers, unending rhythm and tortured vocals, all augmented by beats more creative than the last time the band tore up clubs, in 2006. — Whipple

Sonny Rollins, Road Show Vol. 2 (Emarcy). While the 22-minute-long "Sonnymoon for Two," which features a first-ever performance of Rollins and Ornette Coleman together, might be reason enough to get this disc, there are other cuts from Rollins's eightieth birthday concert that prove the tenorman is still in fine form and his tone beautifully robust. — Solomon

The Roots, Undun (Def Jam). A masterpiece of audio cinema, Undun finds the Roots giving their all. The single from this fourth-quarter release, "Make My," featuring Big KRIT, is a grand display of storytelling and instrumentation — a description that would fit the whole album. Dice Raw is as impressive as ever on joints like "Tip the Scale," and Black Thought never loses his luster. — Johnson

Saigon, The Greatest Story Never Told (Suburban Noize). Saigon's much-chronicled woes with the music industry finally came to a close with the long-awaited release of The Greatest Story Never Told. The MC chose his beats well, matched his flow with his experiences, and still managed to churn out a record relevant enough to compete alongside the singsong rap that ruled the charts in 2011. — Johnson

SBTRKT, SBTRKT (XL). Although the dubstep designation is often assigned to SBTRKT, it's a bit misleading, particularly if you're expecting the ostentatious squelches of Skrillex. The bottom end is definitely here, but it's more subdued, and the synth squeals are tasteful and used more as accents and texture to color the songs rather than as the focal point. The lush R&B-inflected vocals are the main draw. — Herrera

Shannon and the Clams, Sleep Talk (1-2-3-4 Go! Records). Many bands go for some retro vibe, but Shannon Shaw and her band sound like they were transported to the present from the Brill Building and a session with Phil Spector — except that the unbridled power of Shaw's voice has an electrifying immediacy that grounds it firmly in the present. — Murphy

The Soft Moon, Total Decay (Captured Tracks). Rarely has a collision of post-punk, shoegaze, krautrock, noise, tribal rhythms, minimalism and experimental electronic soundscaping sounded so visceral and exciting. You can definitely detect the DNA of Chrome, the Cure, Swell Maps and Cabaret Voltaire inside each of these four songs. Menacing but entrancing, driving yet dreamy, Total Decay is never boring. — Murphy

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Tape Club (Polyvinyl). It's not really a stand-alone album as much as it is a compilation of 26 B-sides and demos, but the latest release from Missouri's finest proves the band's pop is equally as powerful with age. Recorded between 2002 and 2009, the tracks are a testament to the band's emotional development and well-adjusted lives spent contentedly in Springfield. — Whipple

Tech N9ne, All 6's and 7's (Strange Music). Tech N9ne could release an album of himself talking about releasing an album and his rabid fan base would skyrocket that album to number one. All 6's and 7's is nothing but rowdy, and it feeds that rabidity. N9ne spits fast as fuck, as usual, and continues to feature a slew of big names in the current rap game. — Chester

Tinariwen, Tassili (Anti-). Taking cues from the trance blues of Ali Farka Toure, this collective of musicians from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali has created an album that's as captivating and hypnotic as its live shows. There are also contributions from TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, Wilco's Nels Cline and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. — Solomon

Tyler, the Creator, Goblin (XL). Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All's frontman Tyler, the Creator outdid himself and scared half of America with the vile production and filthy lyrics of Goblin. The album spawned a classic with "Yonkers," the video that depicts the MC hanging himself. On all hip-hop fronts, the entire project is a stroke of repulsive genius that can't be denied. — Johnson

tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l (4AD). Any frustration resulting from one of the world's most ungodly abuses of capitalization dissipates immediately upon listening to the layered sounds of Merrill Garbus's 2011 release. The lyrics are framed by themes of violence and power inequality, with both fleshed out in rock, folk, R&B, funk and free jazz across an album that even includes the year's most popular toy instrument: the ukulele. — Whipple

Various Artists, Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (Lakeshore Records). From the second the first song, Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx's eerie "Nightcall," hits the screen, Drive's soundtrack is as damaged and overwhelming as its plot. The nineteen songs here lend a retro feel to brutal scenes of corruption and guilt for an overall effect that is simultaneously comforting and unsettling. — Whipple

Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo (Matador). Kurt Vile's fourth album is so endearingly otherworldly, it's as if the singer-songwriter created it in a time warp. The 31-year-old reflects on his life and experiences with a delicacy and an internal sorrow that propel the lyrics painfully through self-aware territory while maintaining the comfort of an old jukebox classic. — Whipple

Tom Waits, Bad As Me (Anti-). Sure, Tom Waits might have salvaged a few things from his older works for songs on Bad As Me, but he's also been forging new ground with some help from Keith Richards, who was on 1985's Rain Dogs, and longtime collaborator Marc Ribot. Waits's first studio album of all-new music in seven years, Bad As Me might be his finest work since 1999's Mule Variations. — Solomon

Washed Out, Within and Without (Sub Pop). Mastermind Ernest Greene's latest effort explores the space between shoegaze and lullaby pop while finding its footing in a lo-fi dreamscape along the way. This album is a soundtrack to lazy nights, wasted nights, regrettable nights, painful nights, heartbroken nights, forgotten nights and the best nights. — Whipple

Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm/Anti-). While The Whole Love's opening cut, "The Art of Almost," is a bit jarring and finds Wilco treading on entirely new terrain, some cuts feel like they could easily fit on earlier albums. Jeff Tweedy and company manage to hold on to the past, clinging to the essence of what makes the band great, and still evolve organically. — Solomon

Wolves in the Throne Room, Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord). On Celestial Lineage, Wolves in the Throne Room conjures a profound and unmistakable sense of dour isolation, like being dropped into a redwood forest in the middle of the night and coming to without the vaguest notion of where you are, with only moonlight and the distant drone of unknown machinery feeding your senses. Terrifyingly brilliant. — Herrera

Lucinda Williams, Blessed (Lost Highway). Although Lucinda Williams is married now and has said that she's in a much happier space, Blessed isn't necessarily a "happy" album, especially since she touches on death, suicide and loss on it. Williams sticks to her unrestrained, no-bullshit way of songwriting, creating some of her most poignant work to date. — Solomon

Zola Jesus, Conatus (Sacred Bones). Conatus is a seamless fusion of electronic composition and experimental rock. There's something so weighty and majestic about this material, and it's balanced by a lightness and sense of spaciousness that suggest a hopeful spirit at the core of the songwriting. Nika Danilova here fully infuses her ghostly pop songs with a classical sensibility. — Murphy


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