2011 has seen no shortage of worthwhile music in its first six months. Many artists have pleasantly surprised on their second and third records, avoiding the sophomore slump and holding our attention with more sophisticated, focused work. Others have forced a double take with unexpectedly good first albums, taking the kind of risks that shake up the music scene. To deal with this happy dilemma, we've tried to offer a manageable list with both quality and variety here, from Cut Copy's dance rock to Raphael Saadiq's ever-cool Motown. It also doesn't hurt your cause if your band has an awesome name (ahem, Shabazz Palaces).
That being said, we can't resist throwing out some honorable mentions:
Panda Bear, Tomboy
Radiohead, King of Limbs
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes
Toro y Moi, Underneath the Pine
And for good measure, Paul McCartney's first solo album, McCartney was re-released in all its remastered glory, and is worth a revisit.
We hope you find some new favorites, and please give us your recommendations in the comments.
Is there a better album this year than Let England Shake? It's debatable for sure, but it's also not a crazy question. PJ Harvey's dark ode to England is at once lyrically thrilling and sonically gorgeous -- a rare combination, but hardly an uncommon one for Harvey. A loose sample of "Istanbul, Not Constantinople" opens the title track and sets the album off on a deeply disturbing path of death and violence in England's political history. While Harvey recounts soldiers falling "like lumps of meat" with startling bluntness, you're left behind in the dust to grapple with her words as she soldiers onward at a hauntingly shrill, sing-songy pace. This, combined with the vulnerability displayed on "England," is where the album finds its strength. As Harvey hoarsely laments her country, it's clear that love has been lost, but like an old lover, its memory still won't fade.
When Abel Tesfaye first dropped House of Balloons in March, the blogosphere scrambled to react. Who is this kid? He's 20 years old?! Why is he so good? Tesfaye's crude lyrics were unusually honest, and the blend of old-school R&B/indie sampling was intriguing -- raw in the most refreshing sense of the word. Four months later, we still don't have many answers about the kid from Toronto, but we do know the important things -- we like our sexy R&B croons with a little mystery, and Tesfaye's still got our walls "kicking like they six months pregnant."
From the first few notes on "County Line," it's immediately apparent that you've entered an expanse you'll want to sit in for a while. McCombs carefully takes his time with each track, slowly letting each word and note roll over you, "A Knock Upon the Door" being the most extreme representation of this. With beats that move like clockwork, there's not a single flair to be found here, and the end result is heartbreakingly good.
Shabazz Palaces came out of left field late last month, but it didn't take long to realize Black Up deserved a place on this list. It's hard to get a handle on the moody, synth-heavy, wildly morphing beats that emerge, but with enough bizarre twists to keep you guessing, it's hard not to like it. While at times reminiscent of Tricky, this sound remains unique to former Digable Planets member and Shabazz Palaces' frontman (and possibly only man -- the band's other members may or may not exist) Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler. Butterfly has carved out a kind of hip-hop so inventive that it seems likely to spawn imitators -- but whether it can be imitated is less clear. (Stream the full album here.)
With their third album, Cut Copy proves that they have major staying power. The group continues their trend of being infectiously catchy, while layering on so many sounds that you're not even aware of everything that is going on -- it sounds seamless, and that's a mark of their talent. If you're looking for dance rock, Zonoscope isn't quite as dance-y as its predecessor, In Ghost Colours, but there's plenty to inspire movement here. (Stream the full album here.)
If you go on a road trip this summer, Apocalypse should be your companion. Callahan's lo-fi rock is woven together simply, conventionally beautiful on the surface. Still, this superficiality can be deceiving, hinting at something darker lurking beneath his words. This is most apparent on "America!" where he sings out the country's praises calmly, in his usual, matter-of-fact tone ("Oh America! You are so grand and gold"), but with a clear disdain for the words he's spitting out. OK, maybe you shouldn't play that one on the road trip.
As we witness the slow-motion trainwreck that is Amy Winehouse, Raphael Saadiq keeps steam rolling ahead, remaining solidly at the head of the game. Saadiq's commitment to Motown is refreshing, not only because it keeps the tradition alive, but also because he keeps it from feeling dated. Few soul singers today have the range Saadiq does -- when you can go from singing about a girl lickin' on your chest to the problems facing your childhood neighborhood, and make both equally convincing, you know you're onto something good.
If you've never heard tUnE-yArDs before, it's time to remedy that. Merrill Garbus' voice alone will blow you out of the water, and with her second album, her trademark, over-stylized arrangements come together in a more organic way. Garbus' eclectic, expressive music is not for everyone, but it is among this year's more unique accomplishments.
On Smith Westerns' sophomore album, they return with a more watered-down, produced version of garage rock. It may be more focused, but it retains its sincerity, taking you back to when you were young, hopeful and reckless, and dying young still seemed like a romantic notion.