In an age when lo-fi noise and generic indie pop unfortunately reign supreme, Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me should have failed miserably. Granted Newsom established herself back when indie wasn’t as overwhelmingly ubiquitous and homogenous as it is now, but she was a lot weirder and more indie-friendly, having more in common with the freak folk of CocoRosie rather than the early chamber pop of Kate Bush. Newsom is still a lot tamer than Bush was back in her heyday, but some of the songs on Newsom’s latest, like the opening track “Easy,” echo some of Kate’s early material. And it helps that Newsom’s voice, once an endearing, childlike croak, has grown into a more finely-tuned, traditional-sounding instrument. That voice, along with her harp and her piano, lends to her classic sound, something that’s increasingly hard to find these days.
- Arika Dean
If Swim, Caribou’s fifth studio album, has taught us anything it’s that Dan Snaith should be considered one of modern music’s true luminaries. Past albums have combined ’60′s psych, krautrock and pop sensibilities, but Swim carves out a new path in Caribou’s arc with its use of blank space and minimal vocals. The sort of macabre-dance album as it has come to be, Swim creates its most stunning moments where you might least expect them. Where past Caribou albums have centered on percussion-laden crescendos, Swim opts for minimalism to wow the listener. Take two minutes into “Bowls” for example, all the tribal loops, harps, and synthesizers cut out, drawing in a few heavy piano notes and blank air instead. It’s moments like these that not only make Swim a great album, but also prove Snaith to be one of the 21st century’s best composers.
- Erik Burg
Eminem may have sold a billion records, and ‘Ye may have made the best album of his career, but when it comes to hip-hop plain and simple, look no further than Black Thought and crew. The group simultaneously crafts an album that is perhaps their most musically ambitious to date while still delivering a record as genuine as something they would have released in ’95. House band? Nay–rap gods. In a game home to egos that seem incapable of cooperating past a few records (*cough*: Fugees, Slum Village, Little Brother – heck, even OutKast has been dormant) The Roots have kept on chugging, and this uncompromising, Joanna Newsom-featuring, vibrant record is what we have to show for it. One can only hope the egos stay in check for a long, long run.
- Chase McMullen
The first few days after The Age of Adz first appeared across the internet were not marked with glowing reviews. And I don’t know who defended the combination of his pop sensibilities with his experimental endevours first, but once the ball started rolling, The Age of Adz would soon become one of the most celebrated records of the year. Most people were confused on first listen, and seemed to wait for an indication as to what they were supposed to think. Some merely needed a few more listens to accept the glitches and the robotic voices. Still others needed the live-show with its revealing monologue about heartbreak and madness, and the remaining may never forgive the songwriter for putting down his banjo in favor of auto-tune and f-bombs. But aren’t the most worthwhile experiences…and art…and people, devisive by nature? Like your cousin that never has a stready job and occasionally does time. Like the movie with the graphic baseball bat scene in the opening five minutes. Like the roadtrip to Bonnaroo that your parents didn’t know about, but you went anyway and spent the following month without the privilege of leaving your room on the weekends. Sufjan risked losing his audience to cope with losing a love, and it worked out, because the fans who aren’t on board with the album are still on board with him. And if not, I know what Sufjan would say: “Fuck ‘em.”
- Philip Cosores
[Aftermath / Interscope / Shady]
Kanye may have stolen a bit of his thunder right at the end of ’10, but when it comes to the charts, Eminem is once again in a league all his own. Not that selling records is much to brag about these days, but that’s just what made Recovery such a big deal. It started the climate, clearing the way for hip hop to make a grand return to platinum sales without Soulja Boy beats, Lil Jon shouts, or anything of the sort. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may boast the impact of a masterwork, but Recovery went further to prove Nas wrong than any record in recent memory (in fact, in an interview, Kanye spoke of Eminem and himself as co-saviors). With one move, Shady went from overplayed punchline to outdoing the new generation at their own game, enlisting new talent and opening his world to eyes begging to pry. Eventually detractors will pop this one in and realize how damn impressive it is: Eminem made a blockbuster out of what essentially amounts to a grieving process. Over three times platinum with a bullet and the comeback’s just beginning.
- Chase McMullen
That album cover: there’s something both serene and dreadful about it, and that combination hasn’t really existed in such a manner since the cover of Throbbing Gristle’s classic 20 Jazz Funk Greats, which showed the band smiling and standing on a coastal grassy knoll—in front of a cadaver. The members of Crystal Castles (Alice Glass and Ethan Kath) are a little less morbid than the Gris, but they still have a reputation for dabbling in the dark side of life, and you get that same combined sense of serenity and dread in the music as you do with the cover, whether it’s in the icy “Celestica” or in the ominous “Birds.” Underneath that, there are still some bangin’ tracks and pure electropop bliss, so if the morbidity was what turned you off here, may this little black-clad undead girl come drag you into that cold, cold grave. (In other words, deal with it.)
- Arika Dean
“Love Cry” set the bar for Four Tet’s 2010 smash, There Is Love In You, and the bar was set high. What followed is a folktronic album that evolved past the simple jangled rhythms of Kieren Hebdan’s previous classics: Pause; Rounds; Everything Ecstatic. It fuses with the minimal techno vibes he gave in 2008’s Ringer. And most resounding, Hebdan delivers an album that operates simply–with nuance and shuffle and careful phrasing, as heard in the single, that smartly captures the bedroom-y vocal cut-up sound brought by The Field and indie-electronic artists, hot out of hipster scenes, who’ve influenced many best-of lists (think Gold Panda) with their emotive Ableton jams.
- Jason Cook
[Konichiwa / Cherrytree / Interscope]
Robyn has knack for pouring her soul into her voice, imbuing otherwise silly lyrics like “All I want is a Delorean” with a sense of regretful desperation that makes this music great for both dancing and more focused headphones-listening. But the real gems in Body Talk, the summation of three EPs’ worth of material released this year, are the hooks. The aforementioned “Time Machine” finds Robyn asking for a Delorean, but when her voice rises up to promise that “I’ll be takin’ it back / Takin’ it back,” pop nirvana has been approached. “Call Your Girlfriend” is brassy, dignified, and downright triumphant during the chorus. The boastful sound is entirely deserved, of course. For many pop singers, just one of the Body Talk EPs would be a career high; it’s therefore all the more impressive that Robyn released three of them. From the swagger of “Hang With Me” to the adrenaline rush of the album’s most famous single, “Dancing On My Own,” Robyn proves she can adopt many pop personas—spurned lover, home-wrecker, dancing queen—with equal aplomb. Most impressively, Robyn feels fully in command of her musical decisions here; as “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do” suggests, she’s her own, fabulous woman whether she’s writing the catchiest of choruses, spitting the sickest lyrics, or simply dancing on her own.
- Josh Becker
[Mom+Pop / N.E.E.T.]
Treats isn’t something I would normally force myself to endure, but I am willingly sacrificing proper hearing in my middle age because the songs are that damn good. With its blend of explosive guitars, candied melodies, sex sounds and warzone percussion all on an unrelenting quest to destroy your speakers, it’s also one of the most unique statements of the year. It’s an unabashedly visceral work that smashes genres together with reckless abandon, sounding like fragments of other bands but not like any one band. Alexis Krauss’ schoolgirl vocals contrast just about everything else in the mix and her personality shines through on all of the album’s high points. She alternates between charming, hostile and disillusioned while her bandmate and chief architect Derek Miller pounds away in the background. One of her more incisive observations kicks off the album: “All the kids these days/Do you really wanna be that way?” Sleigh Bells don’t. If they keep making music this audacious and this exhilarating, I hope they never do.
- Brendan Frank
[DFA / Parlophone]
This Is Happening is supposed to be a final chapter to the LCD Soundsystem story. It might be, but then again it was supposed to end so much sooner. There was a time when it was inconceivable that LCD Soundsystem would even make a second record, let alone a third. It’s therefore quite surprising that a third and (maybe) final LCD album not only exists, but that it is their most rewarding to date. James Murphy is having more fun with his old man imagine than ever. Surely his age plays part of the joke behind “I Can Change” and “Drunk Girls.” But the album is more than just humor. Murphy makes his music with one goal in mind: to make people dance. And there’s no shortage of danceable tunes on This Is Happening. But LCD doesn’t do things like most dance groups. Surely no other musical entity out there is capable of making “advantages to both!” an acceptable chorus for an audience to shout. Their beauty is in their idiosyncrasies; their just off-kilter beats and Murphy’s unassailable enthusiasm. This Is Happening has both in spades.
- Jason Hirschhorn
Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire of Smoke Fairies talks with Beats Per Minute about some of their favorite records.
Arrica Rose talks with Beats Per Minute about some of her favorite records.
London-based multi-instrumentalist Duke Garwood takes some time to talk briefly with Beats Per Minute about a few of his favorite records.
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