1. “James Blake” by James Blake: It’s very sad music — that much is obvious from the stark, ghostly electronics on this dubstep producer’s debut LP. But what exactly is he so sad about? Blake is a minimalist with words as well as music, and the songs here are composed of short, cryptic mantras that allude to a greater crisis brewing (on the oceanic single “The Wilhelm Scream,” he even sings, “I don’t know about my dreams/All that I know is I’m falling, falling, falling”).
That’s what makes this perfectly contained mood piece such an effective head trip. These songs don’t manipulate or direct your emotions, the way music is usually expected to. Instead, they give hints about how to feel, leaving you room to fill in the blanks yourself. This deceptively simple album rewards deeper listening with a greater emotional intensity. By inviting you to project yourself into its dark, ambiguous environment, “James Blake” is a perfect example of an album you can truly lose yourself in.
2. “Little Hell” by City & Colour: Remember in high school when you would listen to your favorite bleeding heart singer-songwriters and think about how they really meant everything they were singing? It’s hard to hold onto that mentality over time. Dallas Green, however, always gives that impression. Since 2005, he’s only released three albums under the moniker City & Colour, and each one is such a heartfelt and deeply personal collection that even the awkward moments of overstatement seem endearing.
On this album, Green turns up his volume louder than ever, dabbling in electric blues and full band folk, maybe as a nod to the Fleet Foxes. Still, it’s as intimate as anything he’s ever done, touching on everything from the redemptive joy of marriage (“We Found Each Other in the Dark”) to his enduring struggles with family history (“The Grand Optimist,” “O’ Sister”). Best of all is “Silver and Gold,” in which Green recounts an apocalyptic dream — and all the details resemble fears of isolation and hopelessness that anyone can relate to.
3. “Goblin” by Tyler, the Creator: A controversial, boyish rapper with a cult following breaks into the mainstream with a second album that addresses his newfound fame with equal parts hatred and humor. In other words, this much-anticipated release from the de facto leader of OFWGKTA is like a 10th anniversary version of “The Marshall Mathers LP,” but with a decade’s worth of post-Eminem shocks to outdo. The shocks were what drew a lot of attention to “Goblin,” which makes sense — rapping about raping and murdering gays, women and children is bound to stop a lot of listeners in their tracks.
Nonetheless, those details are just in the service of an album that, overall, is a more complex self-portrait than many gave it credit for. What makes Tyler such a fascinating rapper is that he’s more raw and disturbing when describing the realities of his 19-year-old lifestyle (“Her,” “Goblin”) than when he’s posing as a homicidal lunatic. Okay, so about half of the album’s references to pop culture and music feuds are already dated, but one of the reasons “Goblin” is so intense is actually because it’s so combustible — this is a frenzied, overwhelming snapshot of a teenage rap star angrily living in the moment.
4. “The King of Limbs” by Radiohead: Each new Radiohead album is greeted with messianic expectations. So, it was smart for the band to finally release an album like “The King of Limbs”: No bold moves, no stylistic innovations, just eight fantastic and fairly simple songs that are all done in fewer than 40 minutes.
The first four tracks have the band working in their groove, literally — tracks like “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Feral” are some of the twitchiest, most jamming songs they’ve ever done. The next four songs are slow, sparse ballads that, collectively, might be the most haunting things in Radiohead’s catalogue. There’s a jarring transition between these two halves, which seem to have little to do with each other. But that might be an indication that this time around Radiohead’s only priority was throwing together a few great songs — and in this case, that’s more than enough for another masterwork.
5. “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes: On their sophomore album, the awesomely bearded Seattle group takes a maximalist approach to the woodsy Americana that made them a surprise sensation three years ago. Everything about their signature sound greatly expanded in this album: The vocal harmonies are now a wall of sound, the arrangements are louder, livelier and more elaborate, and frontman Robin Pecknold sings with bolder force on folk epics like “Battery Kinzie,” “Helplessness Blues” and “The Shrine/The Argument.” For a band that managed to conquer the indie music world with such a humble style, this album is a very logical — and astounding — progression.
Other great albums from 2011: Mayer Hawthorne’s sophomore album “How Do You Do” once again proves that this white, Jewish former DJ can replicate the classic sounds of Motown better than anyone from the past decade of neo-soul.
“The Book of Mormon: Original Broadway Cast Recording” is a great stand-in for the Broadway musical — a lot of these songs still have to be seen to be believed, but if you don’t feel like waiting six months and paying a few hundred dollars, this will work.
The self-titled debut from Yuck is an accurate and affectionate homage to the fuzzed-out bliss of Dinosaur Jr. and My Blood Valentine, and features one of the year’s very best songs, “Georgia.”
Three years after their debut “3 Rounds and a Sound” — a perfect rainy day album — Portland band Blind Pilot return with the sunnier, folksier “We Are the Tide.”
Lastly, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” has the two larger-than-life stars letting their egos run rampant on each other. The material here is nothing new, but this gets bonus points for having the year’s most eclectic selection of beats — it’s surprising that the duo raps over everything from Motown to gospel samples, when they could have just fallen back on high energy club beats (which are still pretty great here, too).
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.