This year was a great one for music. I had a really hard time paring down the list of stuff I liked to just 10 (sorry, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, Wye Oak, and The Naked and Famous), which NEVER happens. Here, loosely ordered, are the records I found myself listening to over and over again with undiminishing enjoyment:
1. Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital
Husband-and-wife duo Handsome Furs made a bold move on their third album, relying on primarily synthesizers and drum loops with an occasional guitar track thrown in for good measure. Touching on themes of isolation and political unrest, Sound Kapital nonetheless makes for a great dance album at the same time.
2. Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials
Florence Welch really went all out with the orchestration and production on her second album, and boy has the effort paid off. From the inspiring single "Shake It Out" to the defiant "No Light, No Light," Ceremonials solidifies the fire-haired crooner as a force to be reckoned with.
3. Wild Flag - Wild Flag
Blah blah supergroup, blah blah Sleater-Kinney, blah blah four ladies. We've all heard the hype, but this album just straight up ROCKS, period. Forty minutes of face-melting, balls to the wall (ironic!) riffs and rhythms, supplemented by hook-laden harmonies? Yes, please!
4. Patrick Wolf - Lupercalia
Exuberant. That's the only way to describe "The City," the buoyant first single from Patrick Wolf's latest offering. For my money, it's just as infectious - if not more so - than Cee-Lo Green's "F*** You," not to mention more radio friendly. The song is the leadoff track on Lupercalia, and the record's all uphill from there.
5. Boy & Bear - Moonfire
This Australian indie folk quintet is my favorite new discovery of 2011. Their gorgeous, 'round-the-campfire-esque harmonies gave me chills when I saw the band live at the CMJ Music Marathon, and Moonfire is so well-produced that the songs, which blend country, folk and rock influences, feel just as intimate on record.
6. The Sounds - Something to Die For
Released all the way back in March, the Swedish group's fourth album, and strongest to date, still sounds as fresh to me as it did the first time I heard it. A nonstop, hook-laden dance party, Something to Die For gets my vote for Most Earworms of 2011. And it's tied with Handsome Furs for best use of a synthesizer.
7. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
What would turn out to be the legendary group's final album is their strongest effort in years. Sure, there are a few throwaway tracks, but Collapse Into Now as a whole trumps everything else R.E.M. has released in this century. On the final track, "Blue," Patti Smith helps the boys exit on a high note.
8. We Are Augustines - Rise Ye Sunken Ships
Brooklyn trio We Are Augustines have released the best Bruce Springsteen album of 2011. Kidding aside, the group embraces and breathes new life into the Americana tradition of blue-collar storytelling through song. Thematically, the record primarily revolves around the suicide of singer Billy McCarthy's brother, James, and its pure rock 'n' roll tracks manage to be both raucous and touching at the same time.
9. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
On her polarizing latest effort, Polly Jean Harvey tackles the history of imperialism and war throughout the world, and in particular the involvement of her native England in various conflicts. A timely record written and recorded against the backdrop of the U.S.-led and Britain-abetted war in Iraq, Let England Shake plays out like a love letter to someone or something that is treasured despite flaws that are too great to be overlooked. Viva el autoharp!
10. The Jezabels - Prisoner
The Australian group's highly-anticipated debut full-length is a grower. The album is enough of a departure from The Jezabels' previous three EPs that, upon first listen, I worried they hadn't lived up to their potential. But by the second or third spin, I realized they were just pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, and the result is tremendous. With several songs topping out at more than five minutes, Prisoner offers enough breathing room to showcase the talents of each of the four band members, and singer Hayley Mary's voice is still as goosebump-inducing as ever.