The best (and worst) music of 2011: Steve Smith's picks

From out of left field, Julia Holter unleashed a brilliantly provocative album.

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  • Julia Holter, Tragedy

  • Gabriel Kahane, Where Are the Arms

  • Steven Wilson, Grace for Drowning

  • Craig Taborn, Avenging Angel

  • Anthrax, Worship Music

  • Nova Scotian Arms, Winds Over Silmatera

  • Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening

  • Death Grips, Exmilitary

  • Laurel Halo, Hour Logic

  • Tombs, Path of Totality

Julia Holter, Tragedy

The best albums

1 Julia Holter, Tragedy (Leaving Records)
No one uncorked an album as artfully strange and disorienting as this charmingly alien spin on Euripides set to lo-fi electronic pop with operatic affections—still, you'll have a hard time getting the bubbly "Goddess Eyes" out of your skull.

Julia Holter - Goddess Eyes by frontpsych

2 Gabriel Kahane, Where Are the Arms (2nd Story Sound)
Anyone who's heard Gabriel Kahane needed no convincing that he's a brilliant composer; what made this album so exciting was the proof it offered that Kahane's skill as a singer is now commensurate to his genius with a pen.

3 Steven Wilson, Grace for Drowning (Kscope)
Unapologetically sprawling and defiantly virtuosic, this double-CD set from the Porcupine Tree leader evoked vintage prog—especially King Crimson's slashing chords and slow-burn tension—in a timely take on alienation and overload.

4 Craig Taborn, Avenging Angel (ECM)
Well documented as this protean keyboardist has been, his stylistic breadth and artistic depth have never stood out in more dramatic relief than on this immaculately recorded solo recital.

5 Anthrax, Worship Music (Megaforce)
Fighting the specter of its own potential demise, this veteran New York thrash-metal institution thundered back to the top of its game with a new album that easily ranks among its best ever: all compulsive riffs and catchy hooks.

6 Nova Scotian Arms, Winds Over Silmter (Hooker Vision)
Anticipating the onset of winter, in November Grant Evans unleashed this endlessly engrossing double-cassette drone magnum opus, capping a banner year for the Georgia microlabel he runs with wife and artistic partner, Rachel Evans.

Nova Scotian Arms- Veil Hollow (excerpt) by Hooker Vision

7 Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note)
From talent deserving wider recognition to talent demanding immediate attention, this young trumpet star delivered on his considerable promise with a major-label debut packed full of soul, guts and fire.

8. Death Grips, Exmilitary (Third Worlds)
So abrasive it made Odd Future sound cuddly by comparison, this California crew raised eyebrows and scorched ears with its mix of avant-garde sound-biting, Zach Hill's implacable beats and the confrontational testimony of MC Ride.

9 Laurel Halo, Hour Logic (Hippos in Tanks)
A little bit ravey and a little bit ambient, Laurel Halo rose above the analog-synth fray with a blissful EP that sucked you in at first spin but didn't reveal all its tricks at once. (The vital disc had a flip side in Antenna, Halo's gauzy cassette for NNA.)

10 Tombs, Path of Totality (Relapse)
Surrounded by carnivalesque cosplayers and semioticians in corpsepaint, Mike Hill and his towering Brooklyn trio simply delivered a slab of crushingly hard, heavy metal, rich in hardcore and industrial nuance.

Listen to tracks from Steve Smith Best Albums of 2011 on Spotify

The best single

Death Grips, "Guillotine (It Goes Yah)"
Somewhere between the shotgun onomatompoeia of House of Pain's "Shamrocks and Shenanigans" (you know: "boom, shalock lock, boom") and the in-your face punch of Onyx's "Slam"—and then again, somewhere else altogether—this Death Grips track was unsettling and infectious at once.

The worst

Venue robberies
In July, the Silent Barn, an indie-music showcase in Ridgewood, Queens, and one of the alt scene's most soulful focal points, was not only robbed but violently trashed, and has yet to make a comeback. About a month later, Williamsburg's Glasslands Gallery was also robbed; thankfully, it recovered in relatively short order.

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