1. Boston Spaceships, Let It Beard My 2011 favorites, largely a collection of ambient electronics, droning psychedelia and quiet folk, offer clear evidence of a new sonic reality, in which our earbuds gravitate toward tracks that help us work, think, even sleep. My top pick, a double-album from the genius rock brain of Robert Pollard, cut through that tranquility like a sledgehammer.
2. Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972 The cover shot—of a piano being pushed off a rooftop—mirrors the unsettling vibe of the Canadian’s latest dark-ambient masterpiece.
3. Various artists, Not the Spaces You Know, But Between Them North Carolina-based Three Lobed Recordings gathers new tracks from Sonic Youth, Steve Gunn, Bardo Pond and more for the label-anniversary set to rule them all.
4. Wugazi, 13 Chambers Drag The Grey Album into the recycle bin. Mashup for those who thought they didn’t like mashup.
5. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo This folky rock record snuck up on me—its stylistic simplicity now demands almost daily spins.
6. Demdike Stare, Tryptych Three discs worth of shadowy soundscapes that range from somewhat sleepy to full-on creepy, courtesy of British duo Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker.
7. Barn Owl, Lost in the Glare Turn out the lights for these two-guitar drones from San Franciscans Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras.
8. Bill Callahan, Apocalypse The ex-Smog man’s finest folk hour since he stopped calling himself Smog.
9. Björk, Biophilia Ignore the iPad app nonsense and turn up the tunes.
10. Wet Hair, In Vogue Spirit Former Raccoo-oo-oon players Shawn Reed and Ryan Garbes scale back the noise for a racket that might even get you dancing.
Favorite local album: Holding Onto Sound, The Sea. Favorite archival release: John Fahey, Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You. Favorite record I picked up at a show: Assateague, Good Morning Blues (at Beauty Bar). Favorite 7-inch: Caravels, “Dream Beaver”/“Girth Impressions.” Favorite cassette-only release: Rene Hell, The Canon.
1. Panic! At the Disco, Vices & Virtues The Vegas band’s first album as a duo stands as its best yet. The creative, well-constructed songs swirl up electro-pop, acoustic rock, blue-eyed soul, psych-rock and even a spicy flamenco interlude. Irresistible, whimsical and unselfconsciously theatrical, Panic! made pop music fun—and interesting—again.
2. Patrick Stump, Soul Punk The Fall Out Boy frontman crafted an endearing solo album inspired by debonair ’80s funk, soul, hip-hop and synth-pop.
3. City and Colour, Little Hell A twang-dusted collection of brittle acoustic plucking and haunted folk from former Alexisonfire member Dallas Green.
4. Cut Copy, Zonoscope Australia’s fun-loving electro troupe toned down the derivative retro-pop of past work for futuristic keyboard vistas, charming new-wave homages and subtle funk undertones.
5. Cold Cave, Cherish the Light Years Gothic synth-pop for the black-clad apocalypse, chopped up with 8-bit pixilation, industrial beats and a defiant spirit.
6. The Get Up Kids, There Are Rules The emo innovators confused longtime listeners—but pleased fans of XTC—with an album bursting with zooming keyboards.
7. Noise by Numbers, Over Leavitt This project, featuring ex-Screeching Weasel Dan Vapid, conjured the best of ’80s college rock, especially the ragged rock of The Replacements and Dinosaur Jr.’s coppertoned fuzz.
8. Lady Gaga, Born This Way The weirder moments on Mother Monster’s third album—the militant techno of “Scheiße” and the subversive synth-pop of “Heavy Metal Lover”—demonstrated her remarkable growth as an artist.
9. Kelly Clarkson, Stronger Still the most relatable pop star out there, Clarkson matches her romance-gone-wrong lyrics with interesting twists on Top 40.
10. R.E.M., Collapse Into Now The swan song for the legendary alt-rockers encompassed raucous guitar histrionics, buzzsawing punk and lush introspection—in short, everything that made them great for 30 years.
1. Descendents (Punk Rock Bowling, May 29) The annual Las Vegas festival rolled a strike with its move Downtown, packing a 6th Street enclosure just south of Fremont with punk-rock fans of all shapes, ages and sizes. Musical highlights were many, but this scorching set from Hermosa Beach’s reunited ’80s icons was the high-spirited pinnacle.
2. Drive-By Truckers (Silverton, March 3) Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and the gang finally brought their thinking man’s brand of Southern rock to town, and, hell yes, we were happy.
3. Braids (Bunkhouse, March 12) Neon Reverb delivered the wow—a late-night (what else?) set from an ethereal Canadian foursome.
4. TV on the Radio (Cosmopolitan pool, September 23) The Brooklyn band finally unleashed the electrifying performance worthy of its superb studio output.
5. Paul Simon (The Colosseum, October 24) A classy night with the rarely-seen-in-Vegas veteran, plus a “Cecilia” surprise.
6. Shellac (Beauty Bar, October 19) Steve Albini played Las Vegas. I saw it with my own eyes, and I still have trouble believing it.
7. Plastikman (Electric Daisy Carnival, June 24) Minimal-techno master Richie Hawtin served up dark beats from inside a glowing cage. What ya got for us in Year 2, EDC?
8. Melt-Banana (Bunkhouse, November 25) I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen the Bunkhouse as packed and frenzied as it was for these Tokyo noise-rock specialists.
9. Bob Dylan (The Pearl, July 16) I’d written off Dylan’s live show. Kudos for proving me wrong, Mr. Z.
10. Soundgarden (The Joint, July 23) Slag on reunions all you want, but classic lineups coming together still get me excited—especially when they deliver.
Coolest cameo: Yoko Ono, in the MGM Grand crowd for Paul McCartney. Favorite opening set: Kurt Vile, for Bright Eyes at the Cosmo pool. Weirdest venue/act pairing: Butthole Surfers at the Pearl. Zaniest encore: Jay-Z and Kanye West, ending their show with six consecutive versions of “Ni**as in Paris.”