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Our favorite music of 2011

Reader writers and friends tackle 2011 from five different directions


Reader staff writer Peter Margasak's picks

Here are my ten favorite albums of 2011, with number one at the top and number ten at the bottom. Of course, this is just how I feel right now—everything could change tomorrow.


PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (Vagrant) Polly Jean Harvey has always been unpredictable, and she's reinvented herself even more dramatically than usual with this meditation on her homeland's inglorious decline. Made mostly with longtime collaborator John Parish and Mick Harvey of the Bad Seeds, the music is sparse, darkly melodic, and restrained in its dynamics; the tightly coiled songs cast a beautiful spell with their depictions of the brutality of power.


Atomic, Here Comes Everybody (Jazzland) This Scandinavian quintet is arguably the most exciting group in jazz, and on its latest album the rigorous, incisive compositions of reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist and pianist Havard Wiik make galvanizing shifts in tone and attack that require the players to operate at peak engagement—which they do. It's like watching a crew of tightrope walkers on intersecting lines.


Roscoe Mitchell, Before There Was Sound (Nessa) In 1965 reedist Roscoe Mitchell made his first recording—a killer quartet session with bassist Malachi Favors, drummer Alvin Fielder, and trumpeter Fred Berry—and 46 years later, it's finally been released. The album captures a composer and improviser bursting with new ideas but still rooted in postbop—a tradition he would begin exploding the following year, with the classic Sound.


Azita, Disturbing the Air (Drag City) In this devastating song cycle, Azita grieves for a failed love and wrestles with its meaning. Though her complex compositions rely almost exclusively on piano and voice, they grab you by the throat all the same—she brackets patches of beautiful, meticulously sung melody with jarring intervals and changes in mood in tempo. With every album, Azita gets better as a performer—and for this masterpiece, she definitely had to.


Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres (Constellation) In the first installment of the 12-part opus Coin Coin, composer, reedist, and singer Matana Roberts delivers a powerful meditation on slavery and self-determination, inspired by her research into her own ancestors. She calls her approach "panoramic sound quilting," and she worked with 15 experimental and improvising musicians from Montreal to create the album's rich, multitextured fabric.


Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Merge) I'm skeptical of supergroups, but this band blew away my reservations and won me over completely. Guitarists and singers Mary Timony and Carrie Brownstein work seething riffs and twitchy melodies from across rock history into an infectious hybrid, driven furiously by drummer Janet Weiss and splashed with color by keyboardist Rebecca Cole—it swings, stomps, and stutters with hyperactive energy and nonchalant eloquence.


Amir ElSaffar Two Rivers Ensemble, Inana (Pi) On the second album from his Two Rivers Ensemble, Oak Park native Amir ElSaffar (trumpet, santour, vocals) adapts several Iraqi maqams concerning the "insatiable and headstrong goddess of fertility, sexual love, and warfare" after whom the disc is named. The band navigates ElSaffar's still-fresh fusion of jazz and maqam with such masterful technical power and vivid lyrical imagination that you almost immediately forget to be engrossed by the novelty of the sound.


Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes (LL/Atlantic) Swedish singer Lykke Li surrounds her dark but ebullient melodies, washed-out girl-group harmonies, and stinging postbreakup lyrics with a Phil Spector-style wall of sound built from surprisingly few elements—mostly drums and loads of reverb. This is pop music, plain and simple, but its daring, inventive minimalism marks out a new path for the future, whether anybody follows it or not.


Charles Bradley, No Time for Dreaming (Dunham) This 63-year-old former James Brown impersonator makes his debut album count. Featuring the Menahan Street Band and meticulously produced in the Daptone style by that group's guitarist and founder, Thomas Brenneck, No Time for Dreaming is throwback soul that boldly leaps across the decades separating 2011 from the style's late-60s golden age.


Craig Taborn, Avenging Angel (ECM) Very few musicians who are as hard to pin down stylistically as pianist Craig Taborn are also as ensemble oriented as he is—he's spent decades dramatically improving every group he's played in. His first solo album—only his fourth under his own name—is an austere, dazzling recital that combines impressionistic improvisations and propulsive elaborations on prewritten sketches. It's one of the best showcases I've heard for Taborn's unique harmonic genius and rhythmic intensity.

Next: Miles Raymer picks his favorite happenings in music this year

Reader staff writer Miles Raymer's picks

Instead of compiling a list of records, I'm using this space to highlight some of my favorite things to happen in the music world in 2011. If you want to read about my top 50 albums of the year, you can find them at

The Weeknd
  • The Weeknd

R&B gets weird R&B has had a bit of a weird streak at least since Timbaland and Aaliyah's first singles, but though it's spent a quarter century as the dominant genre on the pop charts it's never developed a self-sustaining avant-garde. That might finally have changed this year: mystery-shrouded Toronto act the Weeknd and Odd Future affiliate Frank Ocean both put out druggy sui generis albums that made fans of listeners who don't usually give R&B the time of day. The fact that the Weeknd and Ocean have since appeared on some of the year's hugest records—Take Care and Watch the Throne, respectively—bodes well for pop radio's immediate future.


The big chill Last year lots of indie rockers got obsessed with taffeta-textured retro synthesizers, cavernous reverb, and new age and ambient music. In 2011 those elements collided to form a genre-spanning meme that turned up in everything from hip-hop to metal—and the steady supply of chill-out records that resulted was quite handy in a year defined by the most serious political and social unrest that my generation has seen. Among the chillest was Clams Casino Instrumental Mixtape by young New Jersey rap producer Clams Casino, who first attracted attention for his work with swag rappers Lil B and Soulja Boy and has since earned even more for his atmospheric instrumentals, which I frequently recommend to friends as a Xanax substitute. Headier but not unrelated is Wolves in the Throne Room's Celestial Lineage, which draws equally from black metal and the kind of ambient prog you find in psychedelic 70s sci-fi movies.

Beyonce's "Countdown" video Yes, a whole bunch of the choreography and cinematography for this clip was straight-up stolen from other people's work—and yes, this does seem to have become a habit for Beyonce—but it's hard to get too indignant about something that delivered on pop's promise of transcendent joy better than anything else this year. It's like everybody's soul had a hole in it that was the shape of a slightly preggo Beyonce in an Audrey Hepburn getup grinning and shimmying to epically melodic marching-band music.

Spotify Though the American release of music-streaming service Spotify didn't rock the world the way some people had anticipated, it's still a big deal that consumers now have a legitimate listening platform that's not only simpler and less hassle than piracy but is actually comparable in cost as well (at least for those who opt for a basic free account). Aside from the fact that Spotify pays out minuscule royalties, it's a music-industry dream come true.

The return of Busta Rhymes In the aughts Busta Rhymes seemed to have forgotten what it was that we liked about him, besides of course his prodigious rap skills—the anarchic sense of play he brought to mainstream hip-hop, which he lost when he rebranded himself as a humorless thug. Then this spring he did reprehensible woman beater Chris Brown a probably unwarranted favor, bursting in on "Look at Me Now" like the Kool-Aid man on a case of 5-Hour Energy and setting 2011's bar for rap insanity deliriously high. As if to prove it wasn't a fluke, this fall he cleared that bar on Justin Bieber's rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy," which is otherwise currently the corniest song of all time. Kendrick Lamar Feat. Busta Rhymes - Rigamortus (Remix) by PinBoardBlog

Next: Philip Montoro on the best live metal shows he saw in 2011

Reader music editor Philip Montoro's picks

These are the five best live metal experiences I had in Chicago this year, in no particular order. I couldn't see Absu or Pentagram or 40 Watt Sun or Immolation, so I don't want to hear any bitching that they're missing.

  • Jonathan McPhail

Yob at Subterranean 7/8 Yob's exalted cosmic doom feels like thundering gently into low earth orbit atop five million pounds of thrust. By the end of the show, you can see the northern lights fanned out beneath your feet.


Wormrot at Pancho's 4/9 Pancho didn't know what to make of the rambunctious crowd that came out for this Singapore grindcore band, but I couldn't have been happier to get my first mosh-pit welt since 1996—right between the eyes.

Inquisition at Reggie's Rock Club 12/13 When Dagon's guitar amp conked out midway through the set, I instantly became aware of how thoroughly Inquisition's bizarre black metal had enmeshed me in its occult depths—the sudden silence was like waking up underwater.


Arkona at Reggie's Rock Club 11/27 In her wolf pelt and tunic, front woman Masha Scream played the rapturously enthusiastic crowd like a fiddle—picture hundreds of Russians chanting and fist pumping with tears in their eyes for the homeland. Oh, and doing arms-around-shoulders circle dances in the pit.


The Gates of Slumber at Cobra Lounge 11/13 The Gates of Slumber play dry, swinging, classic doom whose empty spaces howl with despair. Watching them trudge through "The Wretch" from the lip of the stage felt like standing on the edge of a cliff and leaning out into the wind.

Next: Kevin Warwicks favorite instrumental rock albums, songs, and moments of 2011

Reader staff writer Kevin Warwick's picks

It's been a solid year for instrumental rock, especially the kind that lives on the margins of the familiar territory marked out by the likes of Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai. These are my favorite albums, songs, and moments of 2011, in no particular order.


Psychic Paramount, II (No Quarter) Psychic Paramount released the instrumental-rock album of the year—a fog-machine dream loaded with grotty grooves, Krautrock rhythms, and psych-infused guitar trails. The nine-minute "DDB" is wrapped in a tattered sheet of cosmic noise and scuzz that morphs from a jazzy, mathy labyrinth to towering pillars of hell sounds.


Liturgy, "Generation" It's become a cliche to acknowledge the cliche of acknowledging Liturgy's polarizing effect on the black-metal scene, but I could care less about that: Aesthethica (Thrill Jockey) is one of the year's best. The monstrous, galloping epic "Generation" provides a welcome break from the album's onslaught of blastbeats and bloody-murder shrieking with its hammering accents and looping riff. Head banging is mandatory.


Cave on a flatbed truck Cave hired a flatbed truck to drive down Milwaukee on a September afternoon while they played songs from their upcoming album, Neverendless (Drag City), in the back. John Yingling of Gonzo Chicago filmed the whole trip, which ended outside the Double Door when police stepped in just as the band wrapped up the 14-minute Krautrock jam "This Is the Best." Amazing albums deserve publicity stunts like this.


Russian Circles, Empros (Sargent House) The best effort from these local heroes since Enter in 2006, Empros benefits from near perfect construction: charging opener "309" digs in the spurs with circling, delay-soaked guitar riffs and demonic bass crunch, then gives way to "Mladek," which culminates with a chug-chug mess of freakish noise that fizzes out and segues into the haunting acoustic arpeggios of "Schipol."


Pygmy Shrews, "Fuck the Law" The entire second side of the Pygmy Shrews LP You People Can All Go Straight to Hell (Jack Shack) consists of this uproarious 12-plus-minute noise-rock meltdown, built around a single blistering riff and drumming that sounds like a souped-up tank barreling out of your speakers.

Next: Friends of the Reader sound off on this year's other great musical happenings

Another county heard from

For this list, Reader staffers asked friends from the Chicago music community to pick something great that happened this year that everybody else had slept on.

Damon Locks, Eternals front man


Sao Paolo Underground, Tres Cabeças Loucuras (Cuneiform) A rich and wonderfully textured jazz record, not to be overlooked. Understandably, there's an overt Brazilian melodic sensibility at work throughout. The production is layered and ever transforming, and the album has great artwork to boot!

Angela Mullenhour, Sybris front woman


Logan Hardware This Logan Square store feels like a secret club or some rich kid's house in an 80s movie—it's got records, toys, and as of this year a serious arcade! Great new and used vinyl and free unlimited-play BurgerTime? I'm just surprised at how many folks have yet to experience this!

Brett Naucke, owner of Catholic Tapes

Crossbreeding scenes The year saw underground bills getting more eclectic and moving away from homo­genized "scenes." This helps in building a seamless bridge between music communities (like experimental and rock, for example) and encouraging artists and promoters to get creative. Variety is always more interesting than four stylistically similar acts.

Todd Novak, cofounder of HoZac Records


The UV Race, Homo (In the Red) The sophomore LP from Australia's finest mess landed early in the year, yet its magnetic savant throb hasn't left my frontal lobe or my turntable for the better part of 2011. Homo is the most beautifully orchestrated slop you will ever be lucky enough to hear.

Katherine Young, bassoonist and composer

Prom Night Records Having grasped that noncommercial music making is less about a product and more about a process—one that starts with community building, includes band formation, and continues on to the release of recordings—an 11-member Brooklyn collective launched Prom Night Records in summer 2011. So far they've put out eight albums by young artists such as Jacob Wick, VaVatican, and Brad Henkel.

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