1. Destroyer, Kaputt (Merge)
It was agreed by pretty much everybody that 2010 pretty much sucked, and 2011 was going to be the year that things got better. That’s how I chose to see it, anyway. When Destroyer’s Kaputt dropped in January, I was instantly smitten with its polished ’80s soft-rock sensibilities and frontman Dan Bejar’s lazily bemused, detached vocals — as if both Hall and Oates got food poisoning and Bejar was the only guy (barely) sober enough to make the recording session. Kaputt nails both the sublime (Doobie-approved hooks, female background vocals, diet-disco grooves) and cheeseball (reverb-drenched sax and flugelhorn solos) sounds of the era. Even with all that attention to detail, Bejar never quite fits in as he croaks about the excesses of “proud Americans,” and being “poor in love and wealth.” As 2011 wore on and things — the economy, government dysfunction, The Office sans Steve Carell — didn’t get better, Kaputt took on new shades of meaning. Now the soft-rock trappings make perfect sense as an aural echo: The ’80s may have produced some smooth hits, but in general they were turbulent times marred by recession, Reaganomics, and increasingly tense global politics. Despite high hopes, 2011 wasn’t the year America got its shit together. Kaputt wasn’t crafted to keep the party going, it’s a soundtrack to one that’s winding down. 2012, be kind.
2. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music)
At 70, Simon graces us with his most creative work since Graceland, simultaneously paying homage to his pop roots while exploring its margins — and sounding like he’s having some serious fun doing it. Still crazy-talented after all these years.
3. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
These guys are the real deal — cascading melodies, tightly woven harmonies, evocative arrangements, impressively eclectic beards.
4. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (4AD)
The weirder Annie Clark gets, the more I love her. Let’s get married already.
5. Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm)
After a pair of merely OK albums, Wilco reawakens to produce their best, most experimental LP since A Ghost is Born. Wilcologists rejoice.
6. Radiohead, The King of Limbs (TBD Records)
Their most polarizing album since Kid A, Limbs is a beautiful (if brief) document of their current stylistic obsessions.
7. Okkervil River, I Am Very Far (Jagjaguwar)
This time out, songwriter Will Sheff leads a lineup skilled enough to match his outsized ambitions.
8. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther Sounds)
Blogosphere darlings avoid the sophomore slump by turning in another collection of great pop songwriting.
9. Atlas Sound, Parallax (4AD)
Whether fronting Deerhunter or his own solo project, Bradford Cox flat-out refuses to put out bad music.
10. tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l (4AD)
Capitalization-averse Merrill Garbus’s brilliant/batshit ideas benefit from higher production value.
Honorable Mention: Various Artists, Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (Lakeshore Records)
Seriously, just drive around to it and try not to feel like a total fucking badass. Actually, doing anything while listening to it still makes you feel like a total fucking badass. (“I’m going to eat this sandwich now, do you understand?”) •