The 10 Best Albums of 2011

EMA, 'Past Life Martyred Saints'
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1. EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints
Alternate title: She Found Hate in a Hopeful Place. We all get as miserable as Erika M. Andersen sometimes, but we rarely approach her musical-ideas-per-miserable-minute ratio. Despite her one-woman-band punk-folk approach, she makes every song different: If the attention-grabbing single "California" is too pushy for you, try "Red Star" (the "guitar solo" one), "The Grey Ship" (the "Eno drone" one) or "Breakfast" (the "basically perfect song" one). But for all the hardcore overshares in the music, she has a sly sense of humor about what a mess she is. The stuff that psycho crisis-queen legends are made of.

2. Wild Flag, Wild Flag
Guitars, guitars, guitars. As indie rock continues to lower the charisma ante to depths hitherto unfathomed (if you think I’m going to listen to an album with the word "helplessness" in the title you have drastically overestimated my craving for more helplessness in my life) the swagger of this album is a kick. These four rock lifers are OG’s who know what they’re doing, so there’s no diddling around, no warming up – just pure emotional urgency. And lots of guitars.

3. Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne
It seems strange to recall now, but just a few years ago, Jay-Z was worried he didn’t have anything left to say. Remember when he retired? Remember "Life is but a beach chair"? Jesus. Guess he worked through that shit. A little ego is all he and Yeezy need to fire up their imaginations. (A lot of ego? Even better.) Ten years after The Blueprint, they still can’t leave rap alone, and the game still needs them.

4. Lady Gaga, Born This Way
In the immortal words of Motörhead, everything louder than everything else. Lady Gaga’s mega-bombast stadium-disco Vatican-commando blasting-concept orgasmatron is a triumph of rabble rousing, not to mention a laugh riot. Hell, I even love "Judas." Real Gs move in loudness like Gaga!

5. Iceage, New Brigade
I don’t know much about Danish culture, but judging by the sound of their unruly punk rock youth, it involves some free-thinking, hard-drinking, barbed-wire-chewing aggression. I’m guessing these kids come from a place where they have 50 words for "so I punched him in the face."

6. The Roots, Undun
I’ve liked all the Roots records, a little or a lot, but they keep topping themselves, and this one is so beautiful that sometimes it physically hurts to hear it. The story is in the musical details, like the Delfonic drums of "Tip the Scale." There’s a break halfway through "Make My" when the music cuts out before ?uestlove’s drums ride into a wave of Belle Album keyboards – it feels like the world got a glimpse of bad times ahead, let out a sigh, then kept going.

7. Total Control, Henge Beat
Jagged postpunk grooves by a bunch of Australian black-leather boys, not the kind of band you invite over for dinner. The seven-minute sex stomp is called "Carpet Rash," the drug-nightmare epic is "Meds II" and in the climactic "Love Performance," when they chant, "These are not the last days," they sound disappointed.

8. Britney Spears, Femme Fatale
Ever since Blackout, she keeps remaking it, but why not? So does everybody else in the dance-pop game. And for whatever reason (I understand why you have issues with calling it "talent" but I do not happen to share these issues) she just does it better. In a year when Top 40 radio got clogged up with a revival of snivelcore folk music, it was always a relief to hear the opening electro-blurps of "Till the World Ends" and "I Wanna Go."

9. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Mirror Traffic
Has Malkmus ever written a better song than "Share The Red"? Don’t bet your Pavement bootlegs on it. As usual, he does his emoting with his meta-hippie guitar and breathy vocals, not his lyrics, although in this case the lyrics get pretty close. The joke songs on Mirror Traffic are real cringers, especially the novelty single "Senator." But maybe that’s just because he scared himself with how far he went in the ballads. He’s a boy, you know? We get scared and we hide. That’s what we do. But most of us never create anything in our lives as beautiful as "Share The Red." Or the harmonies in "Fall Away." Or the way he sings along with the French-horn solo in "No One Is (As I Be)." 

10. Yuck, Yuck
London kids with guitars full of love-buzz superfuzz, so open-hearted you keep waiting for the ironic subtext to kick in. Except it doesn’t, because there isn’t one. Cool. Hey Liz Phair: you could probably write an excellent song about trying to pick up one of these guys and frightening him so bad he runs back to the hotel and writes a song about you instead of kissing you. I would buy that song. Both yours and his. Just a suggestion.

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