by Paul Bowers
When your brain fills up with the new music of the year, it's difficult to break it apart by artist and genre and categorize everything in an organized way. Some of the most obnoxious and tedious tunes from new releases can distract one from the beauty, emotion, and sonic weirdness of the strongest stuff.
The City Paper's team of in-house and freelance music writers thought long and hard about the best and most significant releases of 2011. Listed here are staff writer Paul Bowers' top picks. —TBL
Paul Bowers' Top Five Albums of 2011
Who to trust when it comes to music recommendations? The dude at the record store? The elitist-but-frustratingly-right name-droppers at Pitchfork? Your local alt-weekly newspaper? For me, this year, NPR Music was a veritable fount of good taste. From the First Listen album streams to the up-close-and-personal Tiny Desk Concerts, the public-radio music geeks supplied me with some joyful moments of discovery.
tUnE-yArDs w h o k i l l (4AD)
During the many late nights I spent completing my senior thesis, Merrill Garbus kept me awake and on my toes. Garbus, under the stage name tUnE-yArDs, uses a ukulele, drums, R&B-worthy vocals, and a liberally applied loop pedal to craft songs that are positively childlike in their inventiveness. Add in some bouncy riffs from bassist Nate Brenner, along with lyrics that deal with white guilt and female body image, and the result is experimental lo-fi perfection.
The Lovely Few The Perseids (independent)
Sometimes, for the sake of preserving a relationship, you have to be polite and pretend that you like your friends' music. This is not the case for me with my buddy Mike Mewborne, who recorded this wispy, bleepy, unpredictable trance of an album with his wife, Kate, and a few co-conspirators from the Columbia music scene. Mike is a dyed-in-the-cardigan Sufjan Stevens fan, but you'll also often hear him channeling Ben Gibbard and layering headphone-worthy noise samples to create this soundtrack to a meteor shower.
Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
From the title track: "I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes/Unique in each way you can see/And now after some thinking/I'd say I'd rather be/A functioning cog in some great machinery/Serving something beyond me." I could sing it all day long.
Wolves in the Throne Room Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord)
For a few weeks every year, the part of my brain dedicated to dark, technical, merciless metal develops an itch that needs scratching. This year, Wolves in the Throne Room supplied me with deep-brain relief. Combine droning instrumental onslaughts, vocalist Nathan Weaver's top-of-the-throat growls, and wood-faerie female vocal interludes, and you've got a meditative and engrossing black metal recording.
Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three Middle of Everywhere (Third Man)
St. Louis native Pokey LaFarge is a bandleader/balladeer born decades too late, playing a quaint take on blues and Western swing music from the 1920s and '30s. If you're waiting for a catch, there isn't one. The guy is a slick-haired anachronism whose tunes will have you cutting a rug straight through the hard times.