Nate Seltenrich's Top Ten Albums of the Year 

From Destroyer to Deerhoof to The Drift, our critics recommend the best music of 2011.

Deerhoof

Deerhoof vs. Evil

When you're Deerhoof, you can't just release an album. You've got to release a work of art. You've got to challenge your foes, and challenge your fans even more. But when you're Deerhoof, you can break those rules, too, which is exactly what the legendary San Francisco act does on its eleventh album. "Super Duper Rescue Heads" begins as outright pop. With its twee chorus Me to the rescue, me to the rescue, it's almost a novelty. But it shifts on a dime to a Stereolab sort of krautrock, then returns to the chorus. Not every song is as surprising, but the album as a whole celebrates the unbridled, manic creativity that no other act can make sound nearly as nice. (Polyvinyl)

Tycho

Dice

San Francisco artist-turned-producer Scott Hansen does two things really well on Dive, his second LP. First, he paints with the right colors. They're sunset hues, tones of sea and sky like those depicted on the gorgeous album sleeve, also designed by Hansen. Aurally, this means acoustic, electric, and bass guitars; keyboards; and other synthesized harmonies and melodies cascading over a flexing, flowing, almost aqueous backdrop of electronic beats and sound patterns. Second, he takes those colors and paints engaging, escapist pictures: one on hand nothing you haven't heard before, but, if you listen, nothing you have, either. (Ghostly International)

Panda Bear

Tomboy

You'd be forgiven for favoring Panda Bear's previous effort, Person Pitch, over his 2011 offering Tomboy. You'd also be forgiven for writing his music off entirely — as droll hipster fodder, perhaps. But both positions miss the utterly unhurried, otherworldly beauty of Tomboy, unrivaled by anything Panda Bear has done or anything else released this year. It's as high-concept as it is cowardly, and the tension is alluring. "You Can Count on Me" features unrelenting reverb, space-shippy drum hits, and an unaffected-voice-from-above lyrical style, while "Slow Motion" is an absolutely picture-perfect post-apocalyptic headphone opus. (Paw Tracks)

Destroyer

Kaputt

One line in Kaputt seems to me the key to the entire album: Wasting your days, chasing some girls ... alright, chasing cocaine, through the backrooms of the world all night. I first absorbed Kaputt during the days and nights bookending my friend's wedding at a golf resort outside Phoenix. At night we stayed up late, luxuriating in warm evenings; by day, under a one-hundred-degree sun, in and out of the pool, nursing a hangover, I mainlined Bejar's opulent vocals and the album's slick saxophone solos in a way that felt both illicit and wholesome. Kaputt is an intense pleasure, an album you'll find yourself chasing without reservation. (Merge)

Future Islands

On the Water

Baltimore trio Future Islands makes an incredible effort, both artful and workmanlike, to sound anything but trite: romantic, conflicted, agonizing, hopeful. Yet after making its point, the band goes even further, producing some of the year's most complex and evocative synth-pop. I waited for an answer/you turned towards me leaving, Samuel Herring croons in the five-minute opener. "Before the Bridge" follows, a pained dance-floor number with a thumping beat and a Peter Hook bass line. Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak sings backing vocals on "The Great Fire," which assumes the pale-purple hue of an Eighties duet. Earnestness is back. (Thrill Jockey)

The Drift

Blue Hour

San Francisco instrumental-rock trio The Drift returns with Blue Hour from a trying three-year hiatus punctuated by the loss of two members, one to death and one to departure. The band's new album wears its heart on its sleeve, and artistically, the approach resonates — although the first half of the hour-long record is so dark it threatens to drag the listener deep down with it. The mood lightens around the middle with centerpiece "The Skull Hand Smiles/May You Fare Well," a patient, contemplative work surely painted as a shimmering dawn for a band struggling to emerge from the night. (Temporary Residence LTD)

Bill Callahan

Apocalypse

Callahan, better known to most as the genius behind Smog, emerges on Apocalypse, his third studio album under his own name, as a master of the American Gothic. Though solo in name, he's backed by a full band — electric guitar, bass, fiddle, flute. The approach allows him to devote maximum attention to his always-intriguing, but here particularly pointed lyrics. Listen to him sing America!/I watch David Letterman in Australia!/Oh America! You are so grand and golden, and wonder if he's kidding. Later, the essential pastoral element of Callahan's work reminds us where he found his muse: I'm standing in a field/A field of questions. (Drag City)

Battles

Gloss Drop

Midway through the process of recording Gloss Drop, guitarist-vocalist Tyondai Braxton, who played no small part in making Battles' 2007 full-length debut the revelation that it was, quit the band cold-turkey. The remaining trio carried on and re-recorded the entire album in a matter of months. Fortunately, it worked. Gloss Drop is the band's most accessible release to date, but that comes without sacrificing any of its experimental side; instead, the musicians poured the essential Battles mix — robotic riffs, intricate beats, highly technical compositions — into a newly modified mold that speaks as much of pop as it does of math-rock. (Warp)

Fleet Foxes

Helplessness Blues

Not to use the h-word, but urban American youngsters of a certain persuasion adore Fleet Foxes, particularly those residing in Northwest cities like Portland and Seattle, the latter being the band's home. This is just fine, though, as the band makes great-sounding music. Folk music reappeared on the popular consciousness about a decade ago, and Fleet Foxes surely rides the coattails of its new-folk forbearers. But it also does something new and different (for the modern era, that is): integrate gorgeous vocal harmonies reminiscent of both the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Helplessness Blues is earthy and studio-polished at once, and more than deserving of a fair shake. (Sub Pop)

tUnE-yArDs

W H O K I L L

Like WHY?s Yoni Wolf before her, Oakland musician Merrill Garbus thrives on the incongruity and unpredictability of musical pastiche. Sure, she's got her style: a sort of art-pop rooted in Afro-funk, jazz, acoustic rock, and Oakland's own experimental tradition. Listen after listen, it's a challenge to finger quite what she's doing, where it came from, or what it means — but at least the work is a hell of a lot of fun. Garbus is as colorful in song as her trademark facepaint, and she rarely lets a good beat, riff, or melody die an early death. She knows exactly what she's doing, even if we may never. (4AD)

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