The Year in Pop

Katie Stelmanis of AustraPhoto: Norman Wong

The Top 10

1. Austra Feel It Break
The astonishing thing about this debut album of prim and chilly Canadian synth pop is singer Katie Stelmanis—the shuddery force in her operatic voice, and the way she builds it into layers and harmonies that feel like little sculptures.

2. Colin Stetson New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
This bass saxophonist summons up hypnotic flurries of notes in single takes, using the slap of his keys as percussion, while Laurie Anderson intones texts—and it’s moving in ways that aren’t remotely esoteric.

3. Shabazz Palaces Black Up
The best-sounding hip-hop album of the year, from an ex-member of Digable Planets. These abstracted electronic beats and boho raps are free-thinking, eye-opening, and beautiful.

4. Destroyer Kaputt
Indie eccentric Dan Bejar made the most immersive “soft rock” album of the year, turning smooth sounds to clever, cryptic ends.

5. PJ Harvey Let England Shake
This album’s off-kilter, sideshow sound—British folk music made gray and macabre—manages to say as much about nationhood and war as Harvey’s lyrics do.

6. Iceage New Brigade
A band of teenagers from Denmark gallops through some of the year’s most engaging punk and post-punk—with remarkable style, an ear for melody, and plenty of hustle and clamor.

7. Tune-Yards W h o k i l l
One-woman whirlwind Merrill Garbus grabs everything at her disposal—her massive voice, the sounds of African music, a loop pedal, clanging drums—and throws it all into vivid songs with refreshingly big ideas.

Kendrick LamarPhoto: Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images

8. Kendrick Lamar Section.80
Young Compton rapper obsessed with self-knowledge formulates deep thoughts on the generation of kids born during the crack era—not always good thoughts, but the earnestness with which he chases them is charming.

9. Gang Gang Dance Eye Contact
World music, sci-fi mysticism, goth, incense and synthesizers, keening and cooing—imagine a band good enough to make these things sound like they’ve belonged together for centuries.

10. Nicolas Jaar Space Is Only Noise
This New Yorker makes rarefied, minimal dance music—all open space, slow-moving beats, and murmured vocals—that might as well be a strange version of pop.

See Also:
Vulture’s End of the Year Superlatives
Listen to 50 of Nitsuh Abebe’s Favorite Songs of 2011

The Year in Pop