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11 for ’11: The year’s best albums

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Wild Flag

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Updated: December 25, 2011 2:22AM

This year’s best-albums list offers some curious numerology: three actors, two concept albums, one supergroup, two Chicago bands, Beyonce’s “4” and zero Lady Gaga. It’s also the Nigel Tufnel edition, cranking the picks up to 11 for ’11.

It also arrives on a whisper of momentary good news for the music industry’s numbers. Global music revenues are expected to rise 7 percent to $6.3 billion, according to Reuters, after a 2010 tally of $5.9 billion. CD sales continue to plummet, but the momentum of such online services as iTunes and Spotify are padding the gap for the time being.

As you go forth with Christmas cash — or gift cards — here are the albums from 2011 well worth the money:

1. Wild Flag, “Wild Flag” (Merge)

Joy, yes — rock was once an experience infused with reckless abandon and brazen instrumental performance, fueled by anger but also joy. A potent reminder of the latter emerged this year from an unexpected corner of the feeble old genre. Singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss (two-thirds of the celebrated alt-rock trio Sleater-Kinney), plus ex-Helium guitarist Mary Timony and keyboardist Rebecca Cole, assembled as Wild Flag and unfurled this swaggering rock record. Alternately dark and gleeful, “Wild Flag” swings and jives and shimmies and shakes and occasionally gets wonderfully weird. Influences from the ’60s to the ’90s tangle and tango, with most songs hiccupping and purring as they draw out and then snap a delicious tension. A restorative for your rock ’n’ roll faith.

2. Ezra Furman & the Harpoons, “Mysterious Power” (Red Parlor)

The third album from this Chicago four-piece is, as I gushed upon its release, “a joyous racket, a splintered confessional, an anxious thrill ride with the top down next to a fidgety poet who’s crazy in love.” Deserving of its place here and not merely topping a best-local-albums ghetto, “Mysterious Power” has forced me to practice reining in my superlatives. The range, depth and ferocity of Furman’s songwriting (to say little of his pinched squawk of a voice, somewhere between Gordon Gano and Daniel Johnston) wrenches guts and breaks hearts. The forceful but finessed backing by the Harpoons — swinging between Heartbreakers fluidity and Dylanesque grit — elevates the music beyond their years and experience. Visceral, mature and crackling with a lust for life, “Mysterious Power” is near-perfect. Alas, it’s also a swan song. Furman recently relocated to San Francisco; he’ll play a final show with the Harpoons at 9 p.m. Thursday at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia ($12, 773-227-4433, and a solo farewell at 8 p.m. Friday at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave. in Furman’s native Evanston ($12-$24, 847-492-8860, evanston

3. Girls, “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” (True Panther)

A stew of shoegaze, doo-wop, Beatles solo records, space rock, surf guitar, bubblegum pop, folk and every color of the Pink Floyd rainbow, the Girls’ sophomore album is a boiled-down synthesis of rock and pop history. Moods change as fast as the power chords, but the richness of this album’s personality never fades, particularly by the time we arrive at the paranoid “Vomit.” Given that this San Francisco band’s backstory includes membership in a cult and support from a Medici-like benefactor, you’d expect plenty of color. But lanky singer Christopher Owens and craftsman Chet “JR” White manage to make grandiose art-rock instead of a mere inside joke.

4. The Roots, “undun” (Def Jam)

January to November — the year was a pockmarked wasteland for hip-hop, littered with the torched shells of hyped but underwhelming new albums from the genre’s royalty (Lil Wayne’s fourth “Tha Carter,” Kanye and Jay-Z’s “Throne”). In the 11th hour, some fresh winds blew, bringing us this thoughtful concept album from Jimmy Fallon’s late-night chat-show jukebox. “undun” tells the story (backward) of an everyhustler whose ghetto circumstances doom him to a grisly end. MC Black Thought’s philosophy, though, is hand-delivered on a pillow of satiny, Curtis Mayfield-smooth soul music. From surreal beginning to surprising end, it’s a warm, quiet hip-hop album that winds up being, despite the inevitable arc of its narrative, hopeful and uplifting.

5. Wilco, “The Whole Love” (dBpm)

Wilco spent too many years trying to please too many, and a couple of albums settling into a consistent lineup. But everything clicks on “The Whole Love,” with the band finally stepping just above the sum of its parts and becoming a whole that’s much easier to love. Unexpectedly pleasant and pretty — but also eerie, odd and perfectly contemporary — Wilco’s eighth proper studio album lets go of many roots-rock tropes. The electronic touches are natural rather than dutiful, while the songs are easygoing and unforced. Given how well the material comes off live, they succeeded in making more than a groovy headphones record — but it certainly is that.

6. Beyonce, “4” (Columbia)

Adele’s “21” no doubt will end 2011 as the year’s best-seller, filled as it is with the hellish fury that comes from a young romantic scorned. Beyonce is 29, married to a fellow music mogul and preggers. She has no time for histrionics. For “4,” Mrs. Jay-Z wisely relaxes and explores a series of emotions as contradictory as the music styles underpinning their expression. A bit of a left turn for fans, “4” eschews B’s usual pop formula and accelerates slowly through considerable creativity. She goes from 0 to 60 in about half an hour, gliding through some impressive balladry (not always her strong suit) before careening through the clubs of the world in the dense “Countdown,” the martial “End of Time” and the bats--- crazy squall of “Run the World (Girls).” Fans freaked out when the latter was released as the first single, and Columbia execs circled the wagons — both always a good sign. A grower, not a shower.

7. The Decemberists,
“The King Is Dead” (Capitol)

Dialing back the fantastical creativity and ambitious conceptualizing, the Decemberists returned to their roots-rock form — and bettered it. Drawing from as much rural British folk as Americana, “The King Is Dead” unwinds the band’s lyrical and instrumental talents and is refreshingly straightforward, tuneful and touching. That this album came out during the same year R.E.M. surrendered to its fate should make for a passing of some jangly, earnest torch. Guitarist Peter Buck, in fact, plays on three tracks; other proper guests include Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and wonderful fellow Portland singer Laura Veirs. Long live the Big Music!

8. Childish Gambino,
“Camp” (Glassnote)

Donald Glover, aka Troy from NBC sitcom “Community,” balances his stand-up comedy career with an outsider’s stake in hip-hop and calls it Childish Gambino. Challenging the typical macho/boho identity of the hip-hop MC, Glover cops to his geek cred and dives into racial quandaries as he makes a convincing case for the inclusion of the swaggerless among hip-hop’s titans. His rhymes are funny, his tracks are tuneful, his spirit indomitable. Though his perspective on women definitely lacks maturity, Childish Gambino delivers a first full-fledged full-length that’s consistently relatable and entertaining. The Throne left little to decree, but Glover is a great court jester.

9. Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues” (Sub Pop)

The 2008 debut from Seattle’s Fleet Foxes was breathtaking, but the band’s sophomore outing was triumphant. Now up for a Grammy for best folk album, Fleet Foxes’ magnificent “Helplessness Blues” has hardly been helpless all year, basking in near-universal acclaim and propelling the band back into an equally lauded headlining slot at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival. The plaintive hymns of the debut are crafted into hard-strumming, thoughtful and worldly compositions on the follow-up. There are, of course, those exquisite harmonies — so clean and clear they could purify a glass of water — but the band also exudes greater confidence on the strings of acoustic guitars, mandolins and upright bass.

10. Ximena Sarinana, “Ximena Sarinana” (Warner Bros.)

A lot of actors are in my list this year — Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein does sketch comedy on IFC’s “Portlandia,” Childish Gambino is a sitcom star, and Ximena Sarinana, 25, is a onetime telenovela icon in her native Mexico. Her first album was in Spanish, but this mostly English album aimed for a breakthrough. Artistically, it succeeded. Filled with sophisticated, mid-tempo chamber pop and led by Sarinana’s slightly sad, round voice, this self-titled sophomore outing is fresh and lively. Collaborators such as Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio), Tim Armstrong (Rancid), Matt Hales (aka Aqualung), boyfriend Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (Mars Volta) and producer Greg Kurstin (the Bird & the Bee) shape these pretty tales of twentysomething romantic reverie into airy, textural delights.

11. F---ed Up, “David Comes
to Life” (Matador)

Dear Green Day, this is how you write a punk opera. A beautifully crafted 18-track, 80-minute narrative about romance and wrongdoing, “David Comes to Life” does just that and raises this Toronto hardcore band well above any American Idiot. Weaving as much power pop melody and shoegaze wall-o’-guitars into the formula as full-on punk fury, F---ed Up rewrites the narrative expectations of a rock album while delivering song after song worthy of pumped fists and jumping fans. The story ends with the protagonist, bomb in hand, going back and starting over from the beginning. Follow his lead, hit repeat.

The rest of my picks for those who need an even 20:

12. Foo Fighters, “Wasting Light” (RCA)

13. Raphael Saadiq, “Stone Rollin’” (Columbia)

14. The Feelies, “Here Before” (Bar None)

15. tUnE-yArDs, “w h o k i l l” (4AD)

16. Ron Sexsmith, “Long Player, Late Bloomer” (Thirty Tigers)

17. The Joy Formidable,
“The Big Roar” (Atlantic/Canvasback)

18. St. Vincent, “Strange Mercy” (4AD)

19. Battles, “Gloss Drop” (Warp)

20. Sloan, “The Double Cross” (Yep Roc)

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