1. The Beach Boys - “The SMiLE Sessions”
It’s not every day -- heck, it’s not every YEAR -- that you drop new music onto your turntable, and when the needle lifts out of the groove, you say to yourself, “This is one of the greatest records ever made.”
Of course, we’re talking about 2011 here, and “The SMiLE Sessions” isn’t “new” exactly. But it’s not really “old” either. This isn’t the fabled, long-lost “SMiLE,” abandoned by Brian Wilson in 1967 after its recording destroyed America’s greatest rock-and-roll band and drove Wilson to the outskirts of his sanity. That “SMiLE” only exists in Wilson’s head.
But since Wilson, after more than forty years, saw fit to polish and sequence these glorious sketches of something that never was and never could be and gift them to this generation, it would be foolish not to claim “The SMiLE Sessions” as 2011’s. As ours.
If “Pet Sounds” remains the blueprint for damn near every indie band you’ve loved in the last ten years, “The SMiLE Sessions” is that next step none of them have been courageous, crazy, or talented enough to take, a free-fall into cornball experimentation and jaw-dropping grandeur whose playfulness and beauty bring me damn near tears every time I listen to it. Which has been quite often. The Side 2 song suite, on which the Beach Boys ethereal harmonies float from coast to coast, from bitter Winter to endless Summer, chasing after lyrics both absurd and poetic, is the closest American music gets to what the Beatles achieved on “Abbey Road:” a post-rock symphony whose surging movements and swelling feeling point past the radio, past the turntable, past the iPod, to a place only Brian Wilson can see.
Wilson never got there. But he left us with an inspiring star map that, perhaps, someone else will follow tomorrow.
2. Sleeping in the Aviary - “You and Me, Ghost”
You’re a bunch of smart-ass pop punks who’ve already recorded a ditty about a girl forgetting her safety word and choking to death on a ball gag.
If you’re stupid, you keep getting kinkier and nastier until fans are fleeing your sets right along with the blue hairs.
If you’re Sleeping in the Aviary, you start stalking on the DL, ducking behind sunny “Doo doo doos” while lovelorn singer Elliott Kozel follows a random cutie home, funnelling your guilty lust into a mock-”Cops” police chase and dedicating puppy love pop to every girl in the phone book, hoping that one of them calls back.
Kozel’s retro melodies and honest verging on scary lyrics dramatize all the hopeless longing, all the godawful hurt festering below the surface of our golden oldies and karaoke favorites. This is what all the rock gods and crooners really felt before the groupies descended, the manic scribblings that weren’t censored for Top 40 mass consumption.
This is how we all feel.
4. M83 - “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”
Epic, sprawling, genre-spanning, horizon-expanding -- even the big words sound small compared to Anthony Gonzalez’s 22-track double album. Like his fellow Frenchmen Phoenix, Gonzalez’s pop-rock-dance-funk-trance-ambient-spoken word whateveryouwanttocallit looks backwards (‘80s-style world music rhythms on the exuberant “Reunion”) and forwards (“New Map” sounds like it was carved into a 3D hologram with a lightsaber), synthesizing everything that was, is, and will be on its auteur’s iPod into some of the most majestic, thrilling, and original music of the year. I sure have enjoyed hearing “Midnight City” sneak its way into the mainstream, urging us all out into the streets, anticipating, hoping, that this will be the night. Memo to whoever’s picking singles off this embarrassingly abundant masterpiece: I don’t envy your job, and “Steve McQueen,” as sleek and cool as its namesake, should be next. Merci.
3. Girls - “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”
Instead of retracing “Album’s” black hellhole reverb with collaborator Chet “JR” White, Christopher Owens is getting by with a little help from John Anderson’s guitar, Darren Weiss’ drums, and Dan Eisenberg’s keys. In other words, Girls -- already great to begin with -- sounds like a fuller band on “Father, Son, Holy Ghost,” their signature druggy, punky spins on ‘50s beach rock less sparse, catchier, and more adventurous. And, yeah, just as sad: “Vomit,” maybe Girls’ greatest track to date, starts out with Owens strumming the kind of lonely acoustic shudder that drove “Album,” until the rest of the band lifts his “Come into my heart” plea into a Pink Floyd-style gospel rave prayer. Owens has always equated music with salvation. At the very least, this sensational new iteration of Girls should keep him going until he finds his true honey bunny.
5. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - “Belong”
The best music makes everything outside your headphones fade away. “Belong” goes further than that -- it’s alt-pop as an out-of-body experience. The theme is love, of course, the big, shimmering, emo kind that used to inspire Cure records and Cameron Crowe soundtracks, the kind that would sound silly and naive in our post-ironic times if not for the Pains’ wholly unironic belief in the transcendental power of human connection. I’m sure Kip Berman’s dreamy sighs on “Anne with an E” and “Even in Dreams” soothed many a lonely heart this year, if only so that Kurt Feldman’s ecstatic drumming on “Body” could get the blood pumping again.
6. The Delta Routine - “More About You”
I have absolutely no idea how you replace a towering guitar god-in-the-making like Kevin Topel, whose killer riffs -- frantic and frenzied, hooky and high-wire -- drive the love-hate romantic misadventures popping and fizzling all over “More About You.”
But I’m positive that this incarnation of the Delta Routine made, hands-down, the best record of Milwaukee’s current rock revival. In tandem, Topel’s heroics and singer Nick Amadeus’ gravelly desperation rattle the polish right off catchy pop tracks like “Felicia” or the instant sing-a-long classic “All About No. 1.” until they’re rocking like who gives a fuck? garage demos. Then there’s the mesmerizing title track, a mini-movie recording a relationship from hook-up to break-up to, ehh, who am I kidding, you’re way too hot, an electrifying Topel solo scoring the first of many one last times. With Topel exiting to focus on the also-excellent Ragadors, here’s hoping “More About You” isn’t an insanely talented band’s premature swansong.
8. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - “Mirror Traffic”
If you caught any of Pavement’s reunion shows, you know that they all still hate each other and will never make new music together. It’s time to let go of Pavement nostalgia -- your copy of “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” isn’t going anywhere -- but try telling that to the crowd at the Jicks show I attended last fall, who spent the whole set begging Malkmus to play “Cut Your Hair.”
Hell, try telling that to me -- a hundred words in, not a one about “Mirror Traffic.” I guess the shadow of Pavement isn’t going anywhere, either. Malkmus, to his credit, took the Milwaukee fans’ bitching in stride, and in a way, so does “Mirror Traffic.” Of all Malkmus’ post-Pavement records, it’s by far the most fun and least self-serious. And I’m not just talking about how Malkmus lampoons our self-absorbed me first national identity crisis on “Senator,” or the pure, relaxed pop of “Tigers.” We also get a self-effacing glimpse into the teen slacker at 45, settling into middle-aged slack on “No One Is (As I Are Be),” fretting he’s a “one-trick pony” on “Long Hard Book,” and while ripping the guitar on “Stick Figures in Love,” proving that sentiment dead wrong, once and for … eh, probably never.
7. The Celebrated Workingman - “Content, Content”
You know those annoying couples who break up but still stay best friends, either because one of them is a sap or they’re both better people than the rest of us? That’s “Content, Content,” and musically, that’s Mark Waldoch. Not the sap part -- the generosity of spirit, the boundless joy of performance, the joy just being alive and giving yourself over to all that living, breathing, aching, thrilling loving. Somewhere underneath Waldoch’s soaring histrionics is the familiar story of a guy and a girl who can’t admit that they probably shouldn’t be together. The album never bothers with the particulars -- it’s a celebration of attraction and passion, undiluted, unselfconscious, for better or worse. “You’re the only thing that I still find amazing,” roars Waldoch. Obviously he doesn’t listen to his own amazing records. And this one is still free -- FREE -- right here.
9. Maritime - “Human Hearts”
The best-sounding, most confident, and most tuneful outing yet from this Promise Ring - Dismemberment Plan lovechild abandons the distracting tinkering of Maritime’s past albums for a full-on, unabashed guitar-pop head rush that doesn’t stop for 35-minutes. Every track is a wonder, both for the sheer giddy glow of the music, and for the way that singer-songwriter Davey von Bohlen builds an anthem like “Annihilation Eyes” or a somber memory play like “Peopling of London” out of cryptically specific lines that draw you into their writer’s head and heart.
10. Kanye West and Jay-Z - “Watch the Throne”
Expectations are a bitch to manage, especially when you’re talking about an album from such humble wallflowers as Yeezy and Hova. But if we’re going to hold up every hip-hop record to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and “The Blueprint,” and shrug off the herky-jerky groove of “Otis” or the NBA-outlaw braggadocio of “Niggas in Paris,” then we’re going to be disappointed a lot of the time.