5. The Roots – Undun [Def Jam]

Five years later, Undun still feels like something of a surprise. The album appeared almost out of nowhere in 2011, long after we all had accepted that this mighty group were probably stuck playing intros for Jimmy Fallon for the rest of their lives. But in between all the celebrity interviews and lip sync battles, the band were working on a high-concept record that tackled such heady ideas as the futility of life and the impact that one’s circumstances and upbringing has on oneself. At under 40 minutes in length, Undun almost flies by, but there’s so much crammed into this short space of time that one can’t help but pay close attention.

Undun tells the story of the death of Redford Stevens, a character of the band’s creation (though the name comes from a song by contributor Sufjan Stevens). Starting at his death, the album traces Redford’s life back to its beginning, telling a tale of a young, intelligent, gifted black man done in and ripped apart by a world that doesn’t give a single shit about his existence. Moral ambiguity enters the picture as Redford (played by lead vocalist/lyricist Black Thought, for the most part) regrets the choices he actively made in life while hinting at the notion that he never had much of a choice to begin with. Through it all, the band sounds monstrous, with booming drums and shimmering piano and guitar adding a considerable amount of depth to each composition. Undun remains a startlingly rich, complex musical experience, one that has only gotten more appreciable over time. – Kevin Korber

4. Radiohead – The King of Limbs [XL/TBD]

The King of Limbs is not revolutionary. It’s durable. Every Radiohead album holds up over time. Each one marks a clear point in the band’s evolution, and many of them make pioneering inroads. The King of Limbs fell short of critical expectations when it was released in 2011. But not every album can be a total invention or self re-invention. The King of Limbs is not a masterwork by this standard. Still, a masterful hand is evident.

The album is Radiohead’s eighth. It’s 37 minutes, comprising eight tracks. Short and tightly packaged, it achieves remarkable cohesion. It diverges in approach from the preceding In Rainbows, which stuck to more typical alternative rock instrumentation. The King of Limbs is instead built of ambient sound, loops and sampling, and incorporates dubstep to somewhat transformative effect. All in all, it’s less narrative than ambient.

The album is also suffused with frontman Thom Yorke’s environmental activism. Intellectually and practically, his concerns, of course, continue to resonate. So does the sense that the music itself marries organic growth with the digital age. Something lopsided runs against the locomotive, looping beats. Anxious rhythms and that angsty vocal bring a sense of urgency that continues to excite five years later.
If we see beyond novelty as the central marker of greatness, and then the album still gets a (relatively) bad rap, it’s because ambient music and elliptical rhythms are anathema to riffy American culture and impatient American ears. The King of Limbs takes a few listens to love. It endures for many beyond that. – Lillian Marx

3. Kate Bush- 50 Words for Snow [ANTI-/Fish People]

2011 was a banner year for Kate Bush fans. Early on, she put out a reworking of older material called Director’s Cut, and she topped it off a few months later with 50 Words for Snow, a collection of seven new tracks ensconced in their own hushed, wintry world. This self-contained song suite, with its relative lack of reference to anything that places it in a certain time and its reliance on acoustic instruments – piano, soft drums – gives it an ageless quality and it sounds as fresh now as it did then. The lead track, “Snowflake”, establishes a sort of template for the album with a repetitive, hypnotic piano figure reminiscent of the beginning section of her 1985 “Waking the Witch.” Only, here there’s no jarring shift into chaos as on that older cut. “The world is so loud,” she sings with a calm sadness, setting the tone for an album steeped in snow and its ability to muffle and mask, as well as comfort.

It’s notable how Bush’s first couple of albums were very piano-based and with 50 Words… she came back to that very sparsely accompanied piano-based sound, yet with 30+ years of life experience behind her. As a result, it’s the work of a mature, focused, well-adjusted woman – as opposed to the hyper-kinetic vocal acrobatics and jumping from idea to idea of those early works (effective in their own way, but very different to this album.) In a world that’s even more hurried and disjointed than it was in 2011, 50 Words…, with its lengthy meditative songs that require attention and space, is even more poignant and meaningful. – Rob Caldwell

2. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy [4AD]

A little isolation can go a long way. Burnt out by the New York lifestyle and the demands of our increasing dependence on seemingly omnipresent technology (a sentiment that would reappear on 2014’s “Digital Witness”), Annie Clark retreated to a Seattle hotel for a month in 2010 to unplug for awhile. Described by Clark as a “loneliness experiment” and a “cleanse,” she did little else than run, read and record at a studio space rented from Ben Gibbard. The result was Strange Mercy, a breakthrough record for Clark, and one that tackled weighty issues such as depression.

Opening with the Björk-ish inflections of “Chloe in the Afternoon,” Strange Mercy unfurls into a far more personal record than Clark had previously released. Album closer “Year of the Tiger” may most directly deal with her previous battle with depression, but there’s a thread of that theme throughout. This can manifest in the form of dealing with the feelings of being used, like on “Cruel,” or simply the hurt that comes with being outright mistreated, as on “Cheerleader.” Clark explores imperfections, most directly with the lines “It’s not the perfect plan/ But it’s the one we’ve got” from “Champagne Year” and with “Best, finest surgeon/ Come cut me open” on “Surgeon,” a line she partially lifted from the journal of Marilyn Monroe.

With her fuzzed-out guitar, emotive vocal and compelling songwriting, Clark made her most successful album up to that point (it would be surpassed by her self-titled 2014 LP), and it holds up so well today because her sound is so distinctively hers that it makes her music timeless. – Josh Goller

1. Destroyer – Kaputt [Merge]

The beauty of Kaputt isn’t so much that Dan Bejar leads the band as surrenders to it. For 15 years before he released his masterpiece with his non-New Pornographers band, he’d made a name off obtuse, intellectual records where you had to know about the making of Fitzcarraldo to know what he was talking about – or you could just surrender to the surrealism of his lyricism. On Kaputt, he so thoroughly surrounds himself in a thick ambient fog of horns and keyboards he essentially has carte blanche to ramble about whatever he wants for as long as he wants.

Appropriately enough, Kaputt is the easiest Destroyer record to simply sit back and let envelop you, perhaps after consuming a substance or two. Its critical and commercial cachet (compared to other Destroyer albums) comes in no small part because of how good it sounds. Even if you hate everything else Bejar’s ever done, there’s the risk of being seduced by that velvet fog Bejar cultivates here. This is one of the prettiest indie rock albums of its late-‘00s/early-‘10s peak, rich with seventh chords, saxophones, and other hallmarks pulled from the sophisti-pop ‘80s.

Kaputt came out at the peak of indie ‘80s fetishism, sandwiched between Ariel Pink’s Before Today and Nicolas Refn’s Drive – and not far removed from Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest.” But arranger Ted Bois cultivates these sounds not in the name of irony but to cultivate the lush, tired melancholy so beloved by Kaputt’s musical progenitors Donald Fagen (Steely Dan’s Gaucho) and Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music’s Avalon). As Bejar croons wistfully about chasing cocaine and seeing it all, we become aware we’re not hearing a revivalist but an heir to a tradition. – Daniel Bromfield

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