The Top 20 Albums of 2014

2014 was a year. A year in which there were records. A year in which some of those records were downright pleasant. A year in which 20 of those downright pleasant records made me particularly happy in my ears and brain:

Dead Congregation 20. Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall

When I discovered metal, I was 12, and would share a Walkman with my similarly inclined Catholic school pal. We couldn’t get enough of Cannibal Corpse’s debut album Eaten Back To Life, specifically one moment when the cacophony abruptly ceased, and singer Chris Barnes intoned in his throaty roar, “Fuuuccccckkkk yooouuuuuuu!!!!!” It made us laugh, but it was also a form of nourishment, a blast of roughly hewn vulgarity to remind us that the world was a ridiculous place, and that if we were born with original sin, well then so be it. Promulgation Of The Fall brings me back to that feeling. Because this underground Greek ensemble is uncompromisingly brutal in a subsuming, freeing way. The riffs are simple and undeniable, layered and deepened to appropriately pulverizing levels. Solos are short and never showy. And singer Anastasis Valtsanis belts his demonic screeds in a steady, guttural growl, on songs that embrace chaos with open arms, jettisoning millennia of human guilt in the process. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus,6/9/14)

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19. Kylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once

Kiss Me Once, Kylie Minogue’s 12th album, continues an impressive streak of ruthlessly addictive dance music that dates at least as far back as 2001’s aptly titled career rejuvenator, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” Smartly, Minogue and her deep bench of producers and songwriters stick with the winning formula of caffeinated synth-pop and disco, with a touch of dubstep tossed in for the kids. When it works best, it results in the kinds of choruses that make platitudes sound like rallying cries. The killer, clavinet-laden groove of “Sexy Love” does something to the human brain that makes us forget we’re listening to a song called “Sexy Love,” with a chorus that goes “Gimme that sexy love.” Kind of like how John Lennon’s harmonica tricked us into thinking “Love me do” was a sentence. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 3/16/14)

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18. Coldplay – Ghost Stories

There are times when a truly great movie is precisely what you do not want to see. You want to watch Reversal of Fortune instead, because it’s Sunday and you’re hung over and there’s something gently entrancing about Ron Silver’s hyperactive yin meshing with Jeremy Irons’ laconic sleazeball yang. Coldplay’s sixth LP was this year’s Reversal of Fortune of rock albums, a well-crafted, well-executed drama that wields clichés like hot water bottles – after a long day grappling with intense, ambitious works of art, Chris Martin is here to soothe those aching joints by singing “I love you so / So much that it hurts.” Ghost Stories is possibly the calmest, unfussiest breakup album ever; it’s far more concerned with sounding beautiful than sounding hurt. By weaving elements of James Blake’s bedroom dubstep into the band’s usual earnest-verse/bear-hug-chorus formula, these nine songs possess a touch of winter that does wonders to Martin’s lyric sheet, which would seem pretty hoary on its own. He sounds like a man who is capable of poetry, but has been made indifferent to it by loss. So he makes simple observations about birds and stars and the ocean, leaving the deeper metaphors to those who feel strong enough to plunder them.

Archibald-Slim-Hes-Drunk17. Archibald Slim – He’s Drunk!

On his debut mixtape, Archibald Slim weeds America’s uneven playing fields until all that’s left are the ugly truths in the soil, proving himself as the most accomplished artist of Atlanta’s ever-expanding Awful Records crew. Producer KeithCharles Spacebar gives the tracks a midnight jazz solemnity that would bend the ear of a young Nas, squashing any expectations that the title of this tape is an entrée to wackiness. In this context, “he’s drunk” is a quote, attributed to anyone who responds to the marginalization and oppression of an entire people by blaming the victims. People who would scoff with a hitch in their voices when they hear “Stay Black and Die,” a song delivered by Slim with something more harrowing than mere fury in his voice: “They tell me, ‘No don’t do it, go and get a job’ / They don’t understand that a fella play the game with different odds / So I know task one is stack dough for your bail / Cause you won’t pass go / Just go straight to jail.” (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

cibo_matto_hotel_valentine_1391874927_crop_480x48016. Cibo Matto – Hotel Valentine

“I wonder how many people know their life is like this / Staying at the hotel, renting times, renting a body,” muses Miho Hatori on Cibo Matto’s first effort in 15 years. The sentiment works to chilling effect as the preview to the one-two punch that closes this satisfyingly strange meta-comeback album – the ominous storm of “Housekeeping” and the fragile rise to the heavens that is “Check Out.” I leap toward the close of this brief record because it’s so compellingly open-ended. Hatori and Yuka C. Honda have great fun setting the stage – the catchiest track, “Déjà vu,” combines their trademark rubbery bass lines with a triumphant stroll of a chorus. But it’s those last two songs that make this more than a ’90s nostalgia trip. We’re lured in by the lulling groove of “Housekeeping,” the playful vocalizing of guest Reggie Watts keeping the disquiet at bay for a little bit. But then that maid keeps saying she’s going to “set us free.” And then, before we know it, we’re floating. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 2/14/14)

Jungle

15. Jungle – Jungle

By writing simple, irresistible pentatonic melodies, singing them almost exclusively in falsetto, and pairing them with the kind of moody, heavily synthesized soul grooves that suggest an unhealthy obsession with Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love album, this camera-shy British duo has created something unpretentious enough to energize a dance floor at 2 a.m., yet curious enough to suggest there’s something just a tad thornier under the surface. Jungle is at its best when its clear goal is to get heads bobbing, like when it argues for the cathartic benefits of endless partying on “Time” – “Don’t let it in / Just let it out / Time and time again.” Or when it leverages the swagger of hardcore capitalists on “Busy Earnin’,” explaining how we “can’t get enough” over hooks so insidious that they’d make any bleeding heart understand. It’s no coincidence that both of these songs possess lively bass lines. The duo is stingy with the low end on much of Jungle, preferring to keep its heads and equalizers in the clouds. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters, 7/15/14)

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14. Ty Segall – Manipulator

Ty Segall must be haunted by riffs. How else can you explain the absurdly prolific number of sickening garage rock hooks he’s already churned out (five LPs’ worth since 2012)? They must come to him in dreams, demanding to be released. Last year’s autumnal folk album Sleeper was still mighty catchy, but it also sounded like the kind of palate cleanser that could precede a more significant tonal shift. It wasn’t. Manipulator is an embarrassment of classically Segall-ian riches, 15 tracks that boogie you ragged like a forgotten disc from the Nuggets box set. That his Kinks and Stooges jones hasn’t gotten old is a testament to the songwriting – “Ask your bossman for a raise / Tell your mama she better keep her change” nails that classic rock sweet spot between nonsense and bad-assery – and Segall’s evolving gifts as a singer. The hushed instrumentation of Sleeper pays dividends here, with the artist paying close attention to his vocal melodies and intonations even though they’re back in the fuzzbox fray.

Rich Gang

13. Rich Gang – Tha Tour: Part I

Even though he’s only 22, Young Thug’s major label misadventures are already legion. But if there was any doubt that he couldn’t mold his inimitable quirks into universal entertainment, Tha Tour: Part I laid them to rest. Rich Gang consists of Thug, fellow Atlanta mixtape veteran Rich Homie Quan and Dirty South Svengali/Cash Money Records founder Birdman. The latter lays down the recipe for the tape’s luxurious syrup with a spoken word intro about the group’s affinity for “gold turlets,” his pronunciation crucial to his swagger—this is provincial materialism, thousands of miles away from Magna Carta Holy Grail. Thug and Quan sing as much as they spit, over the lush, organ-fueled R&B soundscapes of producers like London On The Track. It’s the lava cake after Black Portland’s backyard barbecue, a satiated dream state triggered by the kind of artistic chemistry you can’t fake. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

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12. The Roots – And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

When The Roots became the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2009, it was such a good thing – for black artists; for hip hop; for television in general. But for Roots fans, it was also a little scary. A year earlier, the band had inflamed our brains with Rising Downa raw, sickening ride on the American merry-go-ground of poverty and violence. Now that they were the next Doc Severinsen, would albums like this be a thing of the past? With And Then You Shoot Your Cousin – the third high-quality Roots album of the Fallon era – those fears have been put to bed. Like 2011’s Undun before it, Cousin is supposedly a concept album, but it’s best if you ignore the “story” and let the poverty-stricken poetry and mournfully gorgeous production wash over you. “Never” is an epic achievement, complete with a scratchy choral introduction, pizzicato-sprinkled breakdown, echoing canyon of an opening verse, and that exhilarating moment when all the elements come together. Keyboardist Kamal Gray remains the perpetual unsung hero, grabbing all the best hooks – the solemn backbone of “When the People Cheer”; the dusty saloon groove of “Black Rock”; the triumphant, cathartic chords at the heart of “Tomorrow.” “Some say that happiness will never find you / Until you find yourself,” sings guest Raheem DeVaughn on the latter. As a band that’s as self-aware as any, yet keeps piling on the challenges, The Roots must be happy as hell.

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11. Lykke Li – I Never Learn

Is it better to have loved and been shot in the head, or to have never loved at all? This is the grim scenario we’re confronted with on “Gunshot,” one of several over-the-top relationship eulogies that haunt Lykke Li’s third album. Those who had their hearts set on another batch of coy, cloudy electro-pop from the Swedish singer/songwriter might consider the song a bummer, but for the rest of us, it and the other eight tracks that comprise I Never Learn make for a stirring, pristinely rendered expression of heartache. The artist isn’t interested in poetry here. She fills her songs with theatrical 1980s adult contemporary visions – rainy days on lonely roads; hearts that shatter and crack; other hearts that are made of steel; the one that got away. Every lyric lands, however, because they’re not the result of laziness – their author is just too wracked with guilt to bullshit us. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 5/12/14)

Mastodon_-_once_more_'round_the_sun10. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun 

It’s probably unfair to compare Mastodon to Metallica. They’re from different eras, command different-sized spotlights, and play by different music industry rules. But humor me. Mastodon has been challenging its die-hard fans with a less-thrashy, more-accessible approach, at the same point in its career that Metallica did – on its fifth and sixth records. The good news is, they’re doing it in a different way. Once More ‘Round the Sun is the catchiest, most sludge-free metal LP in its catalog, but what it forsakes in lyrical weirdness (no Cysquatch this time around, folks) it makes up for with a clutch of instant-classic riffs, some of the most powerful singing in the genre, and yet another amazing album cover. Its counterpart in Metallica’s catalog is 1996’s Load, that glossy, “bluesy” turd of betrayal that played to all of the band’s weaknesses (e.g. lyrics that aren’t about war/injustice, singing that does not involve growling). Some cries of dismay have cropped up here and there, but Mastodon has avoided Metallica’s fate by embracing cleaner, richly layered prog instead of melodramatic classic rock. And by being talented enough to help us forget about subgenres while we sing along at full tilt. The thrash is gone, but by no means is the thrill.

nikkinack9. Tune-Yards – Nikki Nack

After 2011’s w h o k i l l topped the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, Merrill Garbus found herself touring arenas with Arcade Fire while trying to maintain her brash, avant-garde sensibilities. Nikki Nack is the result of these warring priorities, with the Oakland-based vocal acrobat railing against social stagnation while simultaneously celebrating the world’s fluorescent beauty. It all works because Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner stick to what they do best: chopped, clattering percussion; sophisticated, bluesy vocal melodies; walls of harmonies that jar and swirl; and spare funk basslines that make thrilling sense of it all. Perhaps nothing possesses the dualities of Garbus’s state of mind more than the album’s first single, “Water Fountain,” an irresistible, manic playground chant of a song, its beat shaped from a Waits-ian junk heap of claps and clangs and Brenner’s punchy bass, with the gusto in Garbus’s voice doing the rest. When the chorus rolls in, it sounds like a nursery rhyme, but then the first verse begins: “Nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and bones.” There’s no water in the water fountain, and that’s not just a catchy turn of phrase. This is a song about a failed public works system and a gleeful sing-along. Shades of gray aren’t usually this neon. (excerpt from my review in Slant Magazine, 5/3/14)

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8. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

The chemistry between Killer Mike and El-P was apparent on last year’s Run The Jewels, which didn’t try to be much more than a document of two talented, wise-ass artists having fun. This second volume represents Run The Jewels as a primary career focus for both. The beats are richer and rangier; more attention is paid to sequencing, and all of that boasting comes from pride and momentum rather than just the desire to blow off steam. That said, part of their secret still has to be catharsis. Killer Mike is a legend of the Atlanta underground, whose most famous moments remain guest verses on Outkast tracks, even though his solo work rivals that of his hometown peers. El-P is a candidate for indie-rap Mount Rushmore, thanks to his work as a member of Company Flow and as the founder/house producer of Definitive Jux records, but he’s never sniffed the mainstream. Run The Jewels 2 is a great listen because of the artistry on display, but it’s the pent-up frustration that makes you want to hug your loved ones and thank god for each breath while you set fire to the neighborhood. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 11/5/14)

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7. Young Thug & Bloody Jay – Black Portland

If the tidal wave of creativity in Atlanta hip hop has a center, it’s probably Young Thug, whose humdrum moniker is belied by a mesmerizing energy on the mic. Here is the next level of Outkast and Lil Wayne’s alien self-identification—a man who is bilingual in the sense that he’s speaking English and Venusian at the same time. Thugga was on three tapes in 2014, and while Black Portland is begging to be remastered, it’s still the best. At the point where rubber bands break, Young Thug is just starting to stretch out, littering his natural, lackadaisical syncopation with quizzical squawks like a chipmunk Busta Rhymes. He finds an ideal foil in Bloody Jay, who sounds gruffly amused throughout, his DJ Holiday basso tipping the scales of tracks like “Movin’” and “No Fucks” from gritty street theater to one deliriously unique party. (excerpt from my review in Paste Magazine, 11/25/14)

Swans_To_Be_Kind6. Swans – To Be Kind

If you were creeped out by the snarling wolf that adorned Swans’ 2012 album The Seer, it’s probably best to avoid the cover of To Be Kind—a screaming, Rockwellian baby that David Lynch would hang above the fireplace. The album within delivers on this unsettling entrée, boiling the meaning of life down to basic human needs while it methodically destroys the world. Yet this appeal to our animal selves is belied by the band’s exquisitely crafted annihilations, like when the angular funk groove of “A Little God In My Hands” gets pancaked by a dump truck of drunken horns, making Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” seem like “I Want Candy”. When bandleader Michael Gira screams “I’m just a little boy,” it’s not a performance. It’s an expulsion. It falls somewhere between the sneer of a playground bully and the sickening croak of a bloated raven. Maybe we all are just infants alone in our cribs, pretending that there are things we need other than love and warmth and bread. If so, this record makes for one hell of a blankie. (excerpt from my review in PopMatters12/8/14)

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5. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

“Here’s my report from the edge.” If you’re looking for a premise statement for Annie Clark’s stunning fourth album, well there you have it. On St. Vincent, the diminutive axe-slinger sits on all kinds of edges – between pop and avant garde, satire and confession, guitar solos and blood spatter patterns. In her effortless ability to make her singular personality feel universal, Clark summons the spirit of another diminutive axe-slinger; you know, the one who could claim to approximate the sound of doves crying without sounding like a flake. And while there was plenty to like about the two Prince albums we got this year (especially the sci-fi funk opus Art Official Age), it’s St. Vincent that gives us a closer approximation of the Purple One in his ruffled, enigmatic prime. Its guitar riffs consist of hyperactive clusters of notes. Its synthesizers coat everything with a thin layer of late-November ice. Yet it’s pop bliss through and through, delivered with poetic urgency. Clark makes you feel what it’s like to be chased by a rattlesnake, or hallucinate a conversation with Huey Newton, or understand that somebody out there loves you more than Jesus ever could. If you’re looking for a one-way ticket to the edge, she’s comped one for you.

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4. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

Some voices were meant to convey ache. Like Roy Orbison. Or Hank Williams. Or Sharon Van Etten. The Brooklyn transplant warrants comparisons to such hallowed figures on her fourth album, a hypnotic collection of songs about need, and all the stupid and callous ways that others fail at fulfilling it. “I need you to be afraid of nothing,” she sings on the record’s first song, her voice leaping into a yodel on that second word like an eagle peeking above the cloud line. On a record with a three-word title that contains multitudes (Do we exist? Have we reached those goals that we set? Is this the end?, etc.) the production is appropriately reserved-yet-bottomless, a mix of chiming Americana and muffled electronics that sounds like Raising Sand getting lost on a foggy night. It’s the perfect milieu for Van Etten to sing like she’s holding nothing back. Like Roy, she can sing with the kind of quaver that reveals whatever beauty there is to see in the rawest grief. It’s a voice that can bemoan “your love is killing me,” and at the same time be absolute proof that life is good.

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3. Cakes da Killa – Hunger Pangs

The line separating hip hop mixtapes from studio albums gets thinner every time another gorgeously produced triumph shows up on DatPiff (see #13 on this list, for example). But one listen to Hunger Pangs and you know you’re hearing a tape. The beats are jagged and guttural and loud. The songs are short, muscular, and barely interested in choruses. Whitney Houston’s between-song banter is fearlessly utilized as a coda. And goddamn is the emcee going off, tearing apart every verse like a gymnast with buzz saws for arms. Cakes da Killa is no stranger to tape brilliance, but Hunger Pangs is on another level. Run The Jewels deservedly got a lot of praise for spiking our adrenaline levels this year. They simply can’t touch Cakes on tracks like “Just Desserts” or “It’s Not Ovah” – just listening to one of his verses should qualify as an hour of cardio. “Coming at n***as like an avalanche,” he spews, not even coming close to hyperbole.

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2. Pallbearer – Foundations Of Burden

The greatest poetry tends to spring from the simplest subject matter. Fire and ice. The west wind. Lightness and dark. It’s the latter dichotomy that’s woven through the ravishing gloom of Pallbearer’s second album. If you’ve ever wished that Black Sabbath had a more nuanced lyricist than Geezer Butler, Foundations Of Burden is probably gonna be your jam. “Darkened heart / Enlightened mind / Whole world apart / Remain entwined,” goes the chorus to the 10-minute opening salvo “Worlds Apart,” exploring the human struggle between instinct and intellect with an astonishing economy of words. A feeling of immensity begins here and never wavers, the result of producer Billy Anderson’s shamelessly decadent approach. Every sound is given to us in its richest, warmest tone. Guitar chords fall like velvet curtains. Brett Campbell sings in a gravel-free tenor that would make him a prime candidate for the Church of Satan’s choir director. I know this is technically doom metal, but it sounds more like bloom metal to me.

Azealia_Banks_-_Broke_With_Expensive_Taste_album_cover_20141. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

Broke With Expensive Taste deserves to be the next Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – the careening masterpiece that gets dropped by its shortsighted label and ends up selling like crazy once it hits the light of day. Azealia Banks’s long-shelved debut dares to enter a churning sea of genres and attitudes, and then calibrates our voyage so skillfully, it feels like we’re standing upright on a speedboat with no need for the rails. It cares not for the cycle of intense hype and curdling frustration that preceded it. It doesn’t even remember what an “Interscope Records” is. Banks is always in complete control, even when she needs to sing in perfectly inflected Spanish or summon the spirit of Annette Funicello. If you’ve been following her since “212” shook the earth three years ago, you’ll already know five of these tunes. Yet this particular familiarity does not breed contempt. Yes, we had only been given little pieces for so long, and we were tired of it. But here is the whole puzzle in all its glory. Here are those songs we love, reenergized by the context we were dreaming they’d get. This shit is better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s better than anything that came out this year. Now let’s finally stop talking about it, and listen.

Honorable Mentions: Agalloch – The Serpent & The Sphere; Behemoth – The Satanist; Bloody Jay – #NAWFR; Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems; Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata; Future – Honest; Future Islands – Singles; Gangsta Boo & La Chat – Witch; Migos – Rich N**a Timeline; Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke; PeeWee Longway – The Blue M&M; Prince – Art Official AgeSylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso; TV On The Radio – Seeds; Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow; YG – My Krazy Life

Bob Dylan’s selfie, prettier than you remember.

Bob Dylan

Being a Self Portrait apologist is an uphill battle. And I understand why – after a run of challenging, zeitgeist-capturing songwriting like no other, Bob Dylan titled his first album of the 1970s in a way that promised new depths of introspection, yet the music he put on there delivered on none of it. A collection of Americana covers, live tracks and roughshod instrumentals with nary a T.S. Eliot reference to be found, Self Portrait was (and remains) his least self-conscious work. To a passionate fan at the time, this album must have sounded like the kind of odds and sods phone-in job artists release to fulfill label obligations.

Lucky for me, I was negative eight when Self Portrait pissed everybody off, including Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus (who delivered perhaps the most famous line in album review history – “What is this shit?”). Listening to it in a vacuum, knowing that it doesn’t have to inspire the hopes and dreams of a generation, I became charmed by its ironic self-remove, by how a man who was once perceived as a lightning rod of revolution in our country was defining himself with cowboy songs. It left me open to appreciate the record’s loose, nostalgic atmosphere, and gave me the freedom to obsess over the handful of all-time great Dylan songs nestled inside of it (e.g. “It Hurts Me Too,” “Wigwam”).

Regardless, to express this charm out loud to another Dylan fan has been a form of pop culture suicide to rival my Coldplay love. Self Portrait‘s suckiness has been a foregone conclusion ever since that Marcus review; it took Blood On The Tracks to convince people that the man’s genius hadn’t mysteriously evaporated, retroactively stocking the ’70s albums that came before it into the “transitional period” bargain bins of our minds. “But, it’s fun!” I’d say. “He’s not taking himself so seriously!” Opinions that don’t exactly hold up against decades of despair.

Another Self PortraitBut I don’t really have to argue so much anymore. Because the latest entry into Columbia/Legacy’s transcendent Dylan Bootleg Series gives us a studio feed into the 1969-1971 sessions for Self Portrait and its follow-up New Morning (as well as a pair of Nashville Skyline outtakes). And like so many Bootleg Series releases before it, Another Self Portrait is much more than some artifact for Dylan completists – it’s a carefully curated and sequenced work, meant to be listened to front to back like a new Bob Dylan release. It weaves unreleased songs, alternate takes, overdub-stripped versions of album tracks, and a few live cuts into a gorgeously insightful whole, revealing how Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning were all different chapters of the same story – a hyperbolically beloved artist turning to the sounds and ideas of old Americana for succor. If you had to pluck a “single” from the previously unreleased stuff, it would probably be “Pretty Saro” – Dylan delivers the 18th century English folk ballad with a close-miked, lullaby tone that would’ve fit snugly on any of his records from the time. Second place goes to “These Hands,” a working man’s prayer of a 1950s country song that Dylan sings with heartbreaking tenderness. These moments of intimacy and full-throated nostalgia put the listener in the right mindset to hear Self Portrait, and this set drives the point home by stripping the strings and horn sections out of songs like “Little Sadie,” “All The Tired Horses,” “Wigwam,” and “Days of ’49,” revealing the earnestness and warmth of the performances underneath. I think I’ll always prefer the original productions – especially the drunken Spanish horns of “Wigwam” – but the quieter versions do make Another Self Portrait sound more like one seamless session. (FYI: I still prefer Phil Spector’s schmaltzy-ass overdubs on Let It Be to that Let It Be … Naked experiment, so perhaps I’m just a big old sap.)

By giving context to a record that disappointed so many, Another Self Portrait gives us precious access to a Bob Dylan that was tired of the swirling stream-of-consciousness poetry slams, a Bob Dylan who just wanted to sing pretty songs he loved and jam on some blues vamps. I’m tempted to say it’s an amazing feat – to force a re-assessment of something long-reviled. But honestly, all it’s done is release this great music in an impeccable package. The most important thing that’s been stripped from the original Self Portrait? Unfair expectations.

Top 20 Tracks of 2011

It’s funny that in a year where we received a deluxe reissue of Nevermind, so few traditional rock bands truly mattered. Sixteen of 20 spots on this list belong to a solo artist, all of whom contributed to 2011’s varied and ambitious musical landscape (and one of whom sang about Solo cups).

20. Eddie Vedder – “Sleeping By Myself”

As much as I loved Pearl Jam in 1992, boy was it easy to make fun of Eddie Vedder’s hysterical mumbles. But this Ukulele Songs standout showcases a voice that’s aged well, embodying the sweet ache of unrequited love without a hint of histrionics.

19. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”

Love has been compared to pretty much everything in Mother Nature. But on “I Follow Rivers,” Lykke Li manages to breathe life into another water metaphor. When she sings “You’re my river running high/Running deep, run wild,” over a murk of B3 organ and clanky synth toms, it’s the sound of someone trusting a potentially dangerous current, because to do so is to be alive.

18. Tech N9ne – “He’s A Mental Giant”

It was a year of wasted potential for Tech N9ne. All 6s and 7s had some highlights, but was overlong. His buzzsaw of a guest spot was wasted on Lil Wayne’s underwhelming Tha Carter IV. But this track’s rumbling swagger cut through the clutter as well as anything in 2011, positioning this brilliant, tongue-twisting MC as the brainiac superhero we need to protect us from whatever the Black Eyed Peas plan to do next.

17. Beyoncé – “1+1”

Few artists have captured feelings of dumbstruck yearning like Sam Cooke did with “Wonderful World.” Which makes this Cooke-inspired, octave-leaping gem of a ballad all the more impressive. Our problems might be bigger these days, but one math problem still trumps them all.

16. Tom Waits – “Get Lost”

Tom Waits is old enough to be a grandpa, but he steps into the shoes of a sexy young hood on “Get Lost,” tossing off exquisitely penned pleas for elopement with a trembling, psycho-Elvis warble. Toss in that filthy blues groove, and you’re reaching for the passenger door.

15. Nick Lowe – “Stoplight Roses”

This song nails that moment when you know you’ve fucked up a beautiful thing, and for good this time. Utilizing a killer metaphor for something that will never last, “Stoplight Roses” goes out to everyone who didn’t miss their water until the well ran dry.

14. Beastie Boys – “Make Some Noise”

It’s been a long time since we heard a single like this from the Beasties, a hooky slab of fuzzbox funk and freewheeling rhymes that’s just messy enough to be dangerous.

13. Bill Callahan – “America!”

On this stilted blues-folk epic, Bill Callahan shows love for his homeland by attempting to soothe its damaged psyche, with comedy and drama, self-loathing and bruised patriotism. When he bellows, “Everyone’s allowed a past/They don’t care to mention,” you best remove your hat, out of respect.

12. Coldplay – “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”

This is the perfect title for a Coldplay song. A phrase so brazenly gag-inducing, you end up respecting the sensitive-guy cojones required to actually use it. Then there’s the insistent kick drum, that beautiful Jonny Buckland guitar hook, and lyrics about the power of music to transport. Sure, you might’ve just puked, but wouldn’t you know it, you feel better.

11. Dominique Young Unique – “Gangster Whips”

Few rappers these days have the energy of this 19-year-old Tampa MC, who makes it indubitably clear that she’s the shit, and that those who disagree can go take one. On “Gangster Whips,” DYU gets all thug romantic over a tremendous, orchestra-hit-heavy beat – sorry T.I., but this is swagger at its best.

10. Heidecker & Wood – “Christmas Suite”

Nothing laid to tape in 2011 was funnier than Starting From Nowhere, the subtly ridiculous yacht-rock album from Adult Swim vets Tim Heidecker and Davin Wood. And “Christmas Suite” is Nowhere’s coup de grace – eight minutes of proselytizing about the importance of “the children.”

9. Brad Paisley – “Toothbrush”

The sweetest love song of the year might’ve looked like a reach on paper (as well as an ad for Reach). But this romance-via-dental-hygiene country shuffle is irresistible, thanks to Brad Paisley’s economy with words, those bouncy guitar licks, and a twist in the third verse that’ll get your waterworks flowing.

8. Beyonce – “Countdown”

This is a jam that grabs you by the ears and doesn’t let go. Beyoncé sings her guts out about her hubby (whom she grinds up on whilst in his boo coupe) and their baby to come, making for a cut that’s simultaneously wholesome and narcotic, 3-2-1 Contact chorus and all.

7. Kurt Vile – “Baby’s Arms”

If you’ve ever loved someone to a borderline sociopathic level, this hazy folk masterpiece is your soundtrack. “I get sick of just about everyone,” Kurt Vile admits, positioning the warmth of his love’s embrace as not only a comfort, but a refuge.

6. Jay-Z & Kanye West – “Otis”

The “golden age” of rap music ended around the same time sampling laws started to be enforced. And this exhilarating single would have us believe that’s no coincidence. Over a brilliant interpolation of “Try A Little Tenderness,” Jay and ‘Ye have the time of their lives.

5. Toby Keith – “Red Solo Cup”

We all know Toby Keith the jingoistic rabble-rouser, but he’s actually more of a goofball Parrothead. And “Red Solo Cup” is more clever by half than anything Jimmy Buffett ever did. An ode to everyone’s favorite keg party drinking vessel, this back porch singalong is catchy, unpretentious, and – when Keith confesses that the cup is his friend – downright hilarious.

4. Nas – “Nasty”

The knock against Nas is that he’s inconsistent. But damn, do his flashes of brilliance burn bright. “Nasty” has no chorus, no guests, and no mainstream ambitions. It’s just Nas, spitting three glorious, amphetamine verses over a skeletal breakbeat. When he lists the places he’s stashed his cash, it’s clear he’s worth every penny.

3. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”

The Wilhelm Scream is a stock 1950s sound effect that’s appeared in countless Hollywood battle scenes, from Star Wars to Captain America. And it’s an ingenious title for James Blake’s icy cover of his father’s song “Where To Turn.” “All that I know is/I’m falling,” Blake sings, describing those moments when we feel like stunt men – silent, non-descript, and floating in space.

2. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”

It was no contest – this was the song of summer 2011. With masterfully syncopated verses from one of the most creative rappers around, soaring, shiny synth hooks, and an infectious onomatopoeia (“boom-ba doop boop, boom-ba doom boop, yeah!”), the louder you crank “Super Bass,” the more your worries fade.

1. Adele – “Rolling In The Deep”

“You had my heart inside of your hand/And you played it to the beat,” lamented 2011’s biggest rock star. It’s a great line, but what made “Rolling In The Deep” such a triumph was its organic groove – that thumping bass drum pulse belying all those lyrics about betrayal, making us stronger with every downbeat.

Top 20 Albums of 2011

Please read my words about these music records that I listened to and thought were good.

20. TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light

After a pair of masterfully ambitious rock productions made them critical darlings, these hyper-creative Brooklynites shipped their operation to California at the turn of the decade. And while it’s easy to give too much credit to the city where a recording was made, Nine Types Of Light sure does sound like TVOTR’s “L.A. album.” Overtly catchy melodies are the order of the day, with bright, relatively sparse production backing up Tunde Adebimpe’s newfound romanticism. As a result, we get some of the most unexpected, and memorable, love songs of the year. “You’re the only one I’ll ever love” isn’t exactly a tattoo-worthy lyric, but coming from a guy who used to sing about werewolf coupling, its sincerity is shocking.

19. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic

Rock musicians typically don’t know how to age. The first time they see a shock of grey in their styled-to-look-mussed-up hair, they either double down on their denial and make music that proves they “still got it,” or go off the “reinvent myself” deep end. Which just adds to the pure pleasure of listening to Nick Lowe in the 21st century. With The Old Magic, the 62-year-old pub rock/new wave legend gives us his third straight offering of gently smirking tunes about loving, losing, and getting older all the while. It’s beautifully written material from an artist who’s comfortable in his own wrinkled skin, and a production that keeps its genre jumping to a minimum – relying mostly on soft vocal jazz arrangements and sprightly Buddy Holly shuffles to support Lowe’s curious, cooing voice. Because when you’ve got metaphors for failed love that are as wonderful as “Stoplight Roses,” you don’t need much else.

18. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

If you already hated Coldplay, their fifth album wasn’t gonna change your mind. But as somebody who has always been a sucker for the band’s sweeping choruses and earnest “love is nice” aesthetic, Mylo Xyloto had me digging in my heels as a fan. For the first time since its melancholy debut, Coldplay has a defined goal here – marry their arena-baiting elements with those of modern pop and R&B. And with the help of uber-producer Brian Eno, they get the concoction just right, foregoing the usual piano balladry for shimmering synthesizers and throwing a bigger spotlight on Jonny Buckland’s dynamic guitar playing. “Princess of China,” a duet with Rihanna, is a microcosm of this mini-evolution, aiming for Billboard charts, festival stages and crowded dance floors, without ignoring its polarizing, sensitive-guy roots.

17. Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels

Here’s what Carrie Underwood couldn’t quite pull off with that car-upholstery-vandalism song. Hell On Heels is the debut album from Pistol Annies, a country supergroup comprised of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Like Underwood’s hit, this is chart-baiting female empowerment country, but the comparisons end there. Yes, these ladies are sick of male bullshit, but they go deeper than petty revenge fantasies (although those crop up here and there, most entertainingly on the killer title track). With little more than guitar, fiddle and pedal steel to guide them, the Annies sing about shotgun weddings, pill addicted tour hounds, embarrassing family squabbles and various trailers of tears. The vocals are as plain and true as the tunes; all three members have the kind of friendly, Dolly Parton drawl that lends a sickly sweetness to lines like “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire.”

16. Feist – Metals

It appears that Leslie Feist got just as tired of that iPod commercial as we did. Her third record is titled appropriately, if only because it’s an emotional palette of dark and darker greys. How decidedly un-twee are we talking? “What does sadness see?/The mirror has a mirror in its teeth/That’s what sadness sees,” the vocalist shares over the sullen acoustic chords of “Comfort Me.” Then, right when you’re starting to wonder if this is poignant or insufferable, a big “la-la-la” chorus kicks in, and you’re won over, whether you felt like moping around or not. This is what’s so compelling about Metals – there are hooks-a-plenty here, but they’re weighted down so elegantly, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a lake, feeling strangely at home.

15. Mastodon – The Hunter

The conceptual insanity of Mastodon’s first three records – a water, earth and sky cycle with story lines that I dare you to try and follow – was a big part of their appeal. No metal band has provided better fodder for nerd arguments (“Who’s more powerful, Cysquatch or Megalodon?”). But The Hunter finds the band in a different place. They’ve moved on from the soul-searching grandiosity of Crack The Skye, content to hunker down and just make thunderous rock music. They’re still on their zoology jones, singing about owls and octopi, snakes and swamp creatures, but The Hunter‘s purpose is quintessentially human – to get the party started. When the post-apocalyptic aliens arrive to analyze our civilization, this record will explain why things that made us feel good were described as “kick-ass.”

14. Drake – Take Care

Drake’s 2010 debut Thank Me Later was remarkable for its mix of monster rap hooks and confessional booth R&B. For his follow-up, the 25-year-old has put all his eggs in the latter basket, revealing himself as the antithesis of “throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care.” Take Care is a long, sumptuous gaze in the mirror, with the artist rapping and singing in equal measure over soft beds of synths. It’s a perilous road for any pop star to take, but Drake manages to come off honest, acknowledging his ego and the tax bracket that boosts it, while struggling to find a meaningful relationship with anybody beyond his trusted crew. “We live in a generation of not being in love,” he theorizes on “Doing It Wrong,” a gorgeous bit of quiet storm R&B. Then all the melodrama gets punctuated by a lyrical harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder, and Take Care’s beautiful contradiction is driven home – this is self-centered music that treats its listeners with class.

13. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

The King of Limbs is a short piece of work by Radiohead standards, which was seen as a disappointment by some. I see it as a sign of the band’s maturity. This is a magnificently dense recording, a world of lurching synths and frantic polyrhythms that unfold like a strange, binary orchid – but only after multiple listens. If it went on for an hour, it would wear down the most devout listener, much like the second half of Hail to the Thief. Plus, the band rewards us by ending the record with a pair of immediately accessible tunes – the gorgeously eerie piano ballad “Give Up the Ghost” and the lite electronica boogie of “Separator.” The only problem I have with TKOL is that it doesn’t feel like a momentous occasion, the band having painted cold, beautiful landscapes like this before. It’s an ingeniously layered production of eight well-written songs, something that could only disappoint a Radiohead fan.

12. Beyoncé – 4

Were it not for an uncharacteristically awkward guest appearance from Kanye West, 4 would be the perfect Beyoncé record, a fantastically sung, finely tuned exploration of love’s ups and downs. Her vocals have never been better, relying less on Mariah acrobatics and more on emotional shading, turning treacle like “Best Thing I Never Had” into a quality pop ballad. All the singles are excellent, from the Sam Cooke-riffing ballad “1+1” to the hyper-charged family values jam “Countdown.” And the deep cuts present varied interpretations of popular R&B, from the unrequited belting of “I Care” to the breezy, ’80s Whitney groove of “Love On Top.” All of them work except for “Party,” a half-finished-sounding summer jam that relies way too much on Kanye’s worst couplet ever: “You a bad girl and your friend’s bad too/We got the swag sauce, we’re drippin’ Swagu.” Luckily, the rest of 4 is so indelible, you can just hum one of its choruses and pretend that you didn’t just hear an endorsement for the most disgusting thing in the grocery store.

11. The Cars – Move Like This

When a game-changing classic rock band decides to get back together these days, it’s to make bank on a tour, where they play their most famous record front to back and avoid new material like the plague. So when The Cars reunited in 2010, it was refreshing, and more than a bit ballsy, that they jumped right into the studio. Of course, it’s easier to respect a choice when the results are so great. Move Like This opens with “Blue Tip,” which picks up where the band left off, fusing synthesizer earworms with rock guitars and Ocasek sing-speak to create an off-kilter pop chestnut. “It’s Late” and “Sad Song” show that they haven’t forgotten the “Drive” ballad formula either. You could call it a time capsule, but these lovingly crafted synth-pop songs just happen to fit snugly in today’s ’80s-obsessed musical landscape. Move Like This should make us reassess our rock dinosaurs – shouldn’t they still have the urge to create? Isn’t that the least we should expect from them? Which means the next time Roger Waters or The Police ask you to drop $150 to see them trot out the oldies, it’s OK to say, “No, I deserve more from you guys.”

10. The Weeknd – House Of Balloons

Band names are by no means crucial to an artist’s success (Radiohead’s a pretty awful one when you think about it). But Canadian singer Abel Tesfaye has come up with a moniker that adds even more depth to the codeine-addled bump n’ grind R&B that’s his stock in trade. On his debut mixtape as The Weeknd, Tesfaye paints explicit pictures of twisted Friday and Saturday nights, with hazy melodies and underwater drum machines to remind us that every bout of wee-hour debauchery has its aftermath. “You wanna be high for this,” Tesfaye assures us on the opening cut. Don’t trust him, though. House Of Balloons is enough of an altered state on its own. A party album for the id with arrangements that swoon like the morning after, this is a gateway drug to one of the most compelling new artists of 2011.

9. Lil B – I’m Gay (I’m Happy)

Upon hearing that Lil B was releasing an album called I’m Gay, you had to wonder if he was setting himself up for the same backlash that Sasha Baron Cohen experienced with Bruno. Would this attempt at exposing homophobia be seen as kind of homophobic itself? One listen to the record puts those concerns to rest. A concept album it’s not – the title isn’t mentioned lyrically. But it does fit Lil B’s “love everything, make cheddar” philosophy, which he elucidates in simple, straightforward couplets (e.g. “Karma is real/And you gotta love it”). There’s plenty of materialism here, but it’s tinged with a sense of gratitude. Not to mention songs like “Open Thunder Eternal Slumber,” which pleads for fair pay for plumbers. The sample choices line up perfectly with this P.M. Dawn-meets-Cash Money aesthetic – interpolated soul ballads keep things grounded, and the Spirited Away-sampling cut “Gon Be Okay” beautifully overdoses on positivity. As an antidote to hate-fueled rap, I’m Gay (I’m Happy) doesn’t just do its title justice – it transcends it.

8. Shugo Tokumaru – Port Entropy

It was a banner year for Beach Boys lovers, thanks to the revelatory Smile Sessions box set and a Brian Wilson album of Disney covers (although I admit I haven’t been brave enough to listen to the latter. Sounds like it could be OK, but I fear a tire fire). Then there was Shugo Tokumaru’s Port Entropy, a ingenious and eccentric slab of sunshine pop that’s a direct descendant of Wilson’s and Van Dyke Parks’ most famous creations. Melodies runneth over here, from the children’s choir mantra of “Tracking Elevator” to the psychedelic chorus of “Lahaha,” but Port Entropy would be just a nice record if it weren’t for its arrangements. Each cut has its own distinct personality, with the Japanese multi-instrumentalist digging through his toy trunk for a seemingly endless mix of interesting combinations. “Lahaha” is a magnificently twisted concoction of glockenspiel and flute; “Linne” a piano and trumpet ballad; “Malerina” a pizzicato reggae jam. So if The Smile Sessions has you thinking that they just don’t make records like they used to, Port Entropy is here to prove you wrong. You crusty old coot.

7. Big K.R.I.T. – Return Of 4Eva

When rappers try to give themselves their own colorful mythology, they’re playing with fire. For every Wu-Tang, there are a dozen Nastradamuses. Which makes Big K.R.I.T.’s debut mixtape all the more remarkable. With a name that stands for “King Remembered In Time” and an album title that he describes as a “movement” on its opening track, the Mississippi artist sets the bar sky high before he even gets his first 16 bars off. But Return Of 4Eva’s dreamy, Organized Noize-esque production and measured, introspective lyrics deserve such luxurious boasts. Whether he’s baiting naysayers on “Dreaming,” reminiscing about career struggles on the gorgeous “American Rapstar,” or describing the frightening allure of drug dealing on “Lions & Lambs,” there’s a hard-earned knowledge in K.R.I.T.’s voice that makes them all different paragraphs from the same essay. By the time you get to the record’s heartbreaking tour de force, “Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism,” the movement’s got you whole.

6. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

Even though the ’90s are far behind us, in 2011, the term “slacker” still dredges up visions of flannel and limp bangs. But before the record companies and film studios started telling us how cool slackers were, slackers were actually kind of cool. The way Bob Dylan lazily dropped those “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue cards, it seemed like the guy could’ve given a shit, and didn’t we love him all the more for it? It’s this image that comes to mind when I listen to Kurt Vile’s deceptively ramshackle Smoke Ring For My Halo. The man delivers every lyric of these stoner folk songs in a gentle mumble – from the sarcastic “Society Is My Friend” to the romantic “Baby’s Arms.” But instead of coming off like some half-assed bedroom album, SRFMH creates a compelling headspace. Vile’s slacker vocal stylings are likely a put-on; the guy could probably hit all the notes if he wanted to. But I say bring on the posturing – there’s something captivating about this singer who sounds like he doesn’t care if anybody hears him, who just wants to get some things off his chest and then go to bed. Something strangely and indisputably cool.

5. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

There was good reason to anticipate the release of PJ Harvey’s eighth album this year, a conceptual work about her homeland and the wars it fought during its centuries as a world superpower. Harvey’s last notable work was 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, another album about a specific place, New York City. But if you pardon the pun, Let England Shake blows Stories out of the water. This isn’t a collection of protest songs, or an allegory for specific conflicts in the modern world. It’s a record that gets right into the trenches, and the heads, of British troops throughout history. The language is harrowing, with descriptions of body parts hanging from trees sitting alongside strident patriotic cries, streaking them with regret. And while the music is understandably subdued, with Harvey’s signature dark chord changes leading the way, there’s also beauty to be appreciated, with the singer’s voice rising above the somber acoustics and digital ephemera of “England,” telling us about “the country that I love.” By the time you get to the gut-wrenching Gallipoli singalong “The Colour of the Earth,” the history lesson’s over. But the feeling lingers.

4. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

Yes, Tom Waits is avant garde. His voice is a hyper-expressive growl. His fusion of raw Chicago blues and garbage can-bashing performance art is jaw-droppingly creative. Now that we’re getting close to the 30-year anniversary of Swordfishtrombones, the record that changed it all, it’s awfully easy to forget that before he became the bizarre, trend-bucking artiste, Waits was a loungey singer/songwriter, releasing piano-heavy, Edward Hopper paintings of records throughout the ’70s. Bad As Me, his 19th record, keeps the bar high in terms of legacy-worthy freakiness – especially the whacked-out boogie of “Get Lost,” which is Waits as psycho Elvis impersonator – but it also reminds us of the sensitive hotel bar crooner of old. “Kiss Me” is a crackling, “let’s spice up the marriage” time capsule of a ballad, a quiet, achingly sexy left turn after the screwy, anti-soulmate blues of the title track. And then there’s “New Year’s Eve,” which closes things with a gorgeous, drunken bout of nostalgia. When Waits breaks into “Auld Lang Syne,” you’re reminded of another old standard he knocked out of the park in 1976, “Waltzing Matilda.” Right then and there, it’s the best of both worlds.

3. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne

In a year marked by politicians explaining why the rich should get richer, we got an album from two of the most talented beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. And when you consider that on Watch The Throne, Jay-Z & Kanye West reach some spine-tingling heights on the backs of some crazy-expensive samples, this makes for a quintessentially American success story in 2011. Sure, it’s probably unfair that West might be the only producer out there with the clout to license “Try A Little Tenderness,” but there’s no use whining about it, because he also happens to be the best person for the job. The resulting cut, “Otis,” is a magnificent swash of braggadocio that boldly reframes Redding’s theme – in the place of a tender lover making life “easier to bear,” we now have obscene wealth. Both MCs egg each other on, resulting in some propulsive egomania (e.g. “Welcome to Havana/Smoking cubanos with Castro in cabanas”). It’s the precise formula we hoped for with this pairing – huge, luxurious productions, and a palpable sense of one-upsmanship on the microphone. The best example of it might be the RZA co-production “New Day,” which finds Jay and ‘Ye pleading with their hypothetical future children over a haunting beat that runs Nina Simone through AutoTune (!!!). It’s not a track by track masterpiece a la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but on Watch The Throne, these superstars spread the wealth so generously, trickle-down economics almost starts to make sense.

2. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

If PJ Harvey made the war movie of the year, then Bill Callahan made the western. On Apocalypse, his third solo effort under his own name instead of Smog, the singer-songwriter tells tales of cowboys sympathizing with their cattle, marriages dissolving in the dust of the prairie, and panoramic vistas that enchant the minds of men. But a traditional country album it’s not – meditative folk is Callahan’s bag, with arrangements that act as delicate foundations for his beautiful, mournful baritone. It’s circular, entrancing stuff, a cowboy Astral Weeks, an attempt to document how small our country can make us feel, and how proud. “It takes a strong/Breaks a strong mind,” Callahan sings about the American wilderness. “And anything less makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.” He could be singing about his own record.

1. James Blake – James Blake

The cover of James Blake’s debut album is a nice bit of synesthesia – a portrait of the artist soaked in icy blue undertones, his face blurred to the point where he’s looking at you from two different places at once. It’s the perfect visual interpretation of Blake’s voice on this record, a silky, soul-inflected alien in a purely electronic world. On “The Wilhelm Scream,” it’s rich and full, dancing lightly over atmospheric synths; on “Lindesfarne I,” it’s distorted and chilling, comparing hope to kestrels through washes of pitch correction. Blake pines for happiness throughout, over distant, subterranean electronics that belie his optimism. It’s a Sade album for a Terminator future, where a singer clearly has soul, and the machines try to strip it from him every step of the way.

Honorable Mentions: Bon Iver – Bon Iver; Heidecker & Wood – Starting From NowhereLykke Li – Wounded Rhymes; My Morning Jacket – Circuital; Wilco, The Whole Love; Wolves In The Throne Room – Celestial Lineage; Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

Coldplay Hate: A Study

In a recent Pitchfork interview, Coldplay singer Chris Martin discussed his relationship with Jay-Z, sharing that some people can’t understand why someone as “cool” as Jay would want to be friends with someone as “nerdy” as himself. I know one thing they could definitely bond on – haters. Whether it’s coming from Foo FightersThe 40-Year-Old Virgin, or critics who can’t get over the U2 aping, moneymaking and/or Paltrow marrying, Martin has to deal with the same petty jealousies as Jay or fellow collaborator Kanye West. But unlike those artists, Coldplay’s stock in trade – huge, starry-eyed love songs with choruses that embrace listeners like teddy bears – doesn’t give him the platform to vent about it.

For now, at least. The band’s fifth album, Mylo Xyloto, finds the group aiming for a more rubbery pop sound, injecting some needed brightness and energy in its brand of moody arena rock. Synths appear as much as pianos; the rhythms have more meat on their bones, and teardrops invariably become waterfalls. It’s an ideal situation for a guest appearance by Rihanna, whose voice winningly intertwines with Martin’s over the soaring synth-pop riffage of “Princess of China.”

You could spin this as a sign of the musical apocalypse if you wanted – a monstrously popular group doing everything it can to sound even more mainstream. But for all of its chart-reaching ambitions, Mylo Xyloto doesn’t sound labored. Martin and his bandmates clearly have an affinity for the trappings of 21st century pop and R&B, and with the help of super-producer Brian Eno, they’ve woven them into their signature sound in subtle yet effective ways – much like U2 did on Achtung Baby. Critics are once again heaping praise upon that album in honor of its 20th birthday, calling it brave, despite the fact that when you took away Bono’s new hair and wardrobe, Achtung was just a tweaked version of the same old formula. It’s a great record, but it has more in common with Mylo Xyloto than U2 fans would probably care to admit.

The reviews are in on MX, and they’re the usual mix of carefully worded praise and straight-up bile. But whether they’re being nice or mean, critics still tend to sound disappointed that Coldplay isn’t an Important Artist, the kind of band that turns fans into apostles for its cause. Which leads to my theory – Coldplay’s biggest problem is that they don’t suck enough. It’s easy to spew hate about Black Eyed Peas or Maroon 5, but those Coldplay choruses are nifty little earworms. They must make it hard on Chris Martin haters, no matter how many clumsy rhymes he forces. So they rage on about how worthless Coldplay is, how they’re an insult to people who “know about music,” how their popularity exposes the ignorance of the general public. Then they catch themselves humming “Paradise,” and the self-flagellation begins.