It's been another great year for music, and another impossible task choosing a Top 10, but after much thumb wrestling, commandeering of the NYLON stereo, and heated debates, Luke Crisell and Ellen Carpenter have finally decided on their list (and, naturally, checked it twice). Behold, NYLON's favorite albums of 2011.
10. Wilco- The Whole Love
Since 1995 Jeff Tweedy and Co. have been crafting sonic masterpieces that sound at once experimental and nostalgic; they're constantly changing, growing, reexamining themselves, but they always manage to sound familiar—like, well, Wilco. The Whole Love is, without a doubt, their best album since 2001's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It has everything: guitar freakouts, playful pop melodies, percolating percussion, emotionally fraught lyrics, ragged rock riffs, synth bleeps and blips…. On paper it sounds like too much, too complicated. But on record it sounds complete, or rather, whole.
9. Florence + the Machine- Ceremonials
Florence Welch doesn't do subtle—she sings double forte, strikes a drum like she's breaking down a door, dances so wildly that she loses her bearings. But that's what makes her so amazing, so singular, so Florence. With the first bombastic chorus of rousing single “Shake It Out,” she makes it clear that her 2010 debut, Lungs, was just a warm-up. Ceremonials is the main event, filled with the kind of big and brash mystical pop songs that she toyed with before, but this time around she coats them in a velvety swath of passion and confidence that makes them impossible to ignore and impossible not to play on repeat.
8. The Horrors- Skying
With their last record, the My Bloody Valentine-informed about-turn Primary Colours (2009), the Horrors proved once and for all that there was real substance and genuine pathos under all that hair, leather, and kohl. Skying, their first self-produced album, is a more lucid vision than the gorgeously languid blur of Primary Colours, full of ecstatic songs like “You Said” and the fantastic “I Can See Through You,” with it's New Wave synths and Bowie guitars and Echo and the Bunnymen, er, ness. Such radio-friendly goth (a good thing, to clarify) is great of course, but this album is fortunately still eye-deep in psychedelic strangeness—the work of a band exploring their own sound more freely than they ever have before. This is most obvious in the mesmerizing, repetitive “Moving Further Away,” which is an eight-and-a-half minute trip into a place that is warm, fuzzy, and decidedly weird. Closing track “Oceans Burning” also ventures well beyond the seven-minute mark, starting off slowly, sleepily, before blooming into an anthemic, widescreen masterpiece that surges with the pent-up energy of a band with so much more, still, to offer. How exciting.
7. The Vaccines- What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?
Last year, we booked the Vaccines for a story in NYLON after only hearing one 82-second song. When their debut album came out five months later, we gave ourselves a pat on the back. Here was a true rock album, combining the urgency of the Ramones with the Strokes' penchant for melody, plus plenty of Jesus and Mary Chain-style reverb thrown in for good, garage-y measure. All 11 songs are catchy as hell, with choruses that bore their way into your skull after just one listen (“All in White” might be the most addictive, its melody built on rising and falling scales that beg to be sung). What did we expect from the Vaccines? A lot. And they delivered.
6. The Rapture- In the Grace of Your Love
After a major label detour left them bruised and battered, the Rapture mercifully found their way back to DFA (and into the studio of Philippe Zdar) and suddenly everything was all sunshine and cowbells again. This is a dance-rock album, sure, with plenty of disco harmonies, handclaps, and ethereal synths, but it's so much more than that—bigger, smarter, deeper. They conceived it as a film soundtrack, sequencing the tracks to match up to a story that the listener doesn't know. But we don't need to know it; we can feel it.
5. Wu Lyf- Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
Contenders for the “Best Show We Saw All Year” title (along with Friends and James Blake), this bunch of deliberately mysterious, often shirtless, always loud Mancunians astonished us with their live performances in 2011, but they also managed to distill that fanatical energy into this powerful, hypnotic record. With warm guitars reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky, Ellery Roberts' searing vocals—every syllable sung like it's his last—and that omnipresent organ lending everything a singular gravitas, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain is an album that shines out from the shadowy depths of this band's self-promoted esotericism, and is all the brighter for it.
4. Youth Lagoon- The Year of Hibernation
The crowning achievement of this criminally short album (just 8 tracks, only one of which is over five minutes) is, in our opinion, “Montana.” Like most tracks on this record it builds slowly, with delicate piano chords, a simple, instantly memorable melody, the occasional smattering of percussion, and distorted vocals, sounding much like what you might expect from an emo kid (with a disarming knack for rhythm) making pop music in his bedroom. Then, all of a sudden, it explodes. The drumbeat—4/4, insistent, commanding—comes in, thumping through a wall of sound that builds into the kind of crescendo that one imagines Anthony Gonzales of M83 is listening to with some interest. But even in it's loudest and most bombastic moments, The Year of Hibernation glimmers with the same earnest naïveté that informs the rest of this incredibly accomplished debut album, which is all the better for Powers's lack of equipment and experience.
3. James Blake- James Blake
A study in musicianship as much as it is a collection of beautifully written and broken-hearted love songs, James Blake sounds as though it was born in the same fires as the xx and Burial, then sent to Justin Vernon to have his way with. Yet while such comparisons point in the right direction, they only get half the way there. James Blake staked a claim to a plot of land all his own with his debut album, released in February, choosing a small patch not too far from dubstep and close to the other ten thousand singer-songwriters the U.K. produced this year, then building a wall around it that Skrillex and friends couldn't see over, let alone climb. By sampling his own voice and bending it over the top of twitchy electronic rhythms, shuddering bass lines, and piano melodies which seem to come as easily to his classically trained figures as breathing comes to everyone else, Blake creates songs which hide stunning complexity beneath the most simple of facades.
2. Metronomy- The English Riviera
There was a time when you might have mentioned Metronomy in the same breath as, say, Friendly Fires. Maybe Cut Copy too, for that matter. But from the first moments of The English Riviera, with the sounds of seagulls crying in the wind, it was clear that Joe Mount had distanced his band from such electro dancefloor shenanigans. Here instead was a more composed and more polished record, gleaming with late-summer sun, as deliciously woozy as an afternoon of drinking, and full of truly special moments: Mount's duet with Veronica Falls' Roxanne Clifford on the exquisite “Everything Goes My Way” is one, and the more obvious, synth-heavy “The Look”—a staple on our summer playlist this year, and for many more—is another. This is a record so sexy and sultry we wanted to buy it a drink and ask it if comes here often: it's Old Hollywood glamour, yacht parties in Cannes, swimming in the sea at dusk, but there's also something charmingly idiosyncratic about it—echoes, perhaps, of Mount's early bedroom recordings, when this modest masterpiece was just a twinkle in his eye.
1. M83- Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
Epic is a word that people toss around carelessly these days (no, a taco can't be epic, and neither can a talking cat video), but French musician Anthony Gonzalez's double album is truly an epic musical feat. From the buzzy synth stabs of “Intro” to the emotional, building string arrangement of “Outro,” he keeps you in a state of pure, unadulterated bliss. Cellos swirl, saxophones wail, keyboards soar, and guitars twinkle all while Gonzalez yelps over top, his voice emitting joy with each punctuated note. This is that rare album that will bring you to tears—just by how good it makes you feel.