The 20 Best Debut Albums of 2011

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It’s like clockwork. At this time of year, at least one friend who’s stopped paying attention to music climbs on his/her soapbox to proclaim that there are no good new bands any more, and that music’s gone to shit, etc. Inevitably, the situation devolves into an argument wherein you try to sell your friend on the virtues of a bunch of bands he or she has never heard of, and end up going to the bar in despair while they wander over to put Foo Fighters on the jukebox. Argh. But as ever, despite what people might want to tell you, there’s always plenty of great new bands and new music out there — you just need to know where to look. 2011 has been as good a year for debut albums as any, so next time you’re involved in such a discussion, feel free to point your obstreperous friend in the direction of the rest of this post — because after the jump, you’ll find our 20 favorite debut albums of 2011. As ever, suggestions are welcome.

EMA — Past Life Martyred Saints

We’ve already spent plenty of time eulogizing EMA here, but there’s always room for one more reminder of what a remarkable piece of work her debut solo record is. Simultaneously widescreen and viscerally intimate, confessional and engrossing, Past Life Martyred Saints is music that’s real. It’s made to satisfy an artist’s need for self-expression, it has something to say, and it commands your attention — even when the things that EMA has to say are uncomfortable or difficult to listen to.

Balam Acab — Wander/Wonder

This album followed a curious trajectory — it was praised to the rafters on its release, but has been curiously absent from end-of-year list loving. An inevitable backlash against Alec Koone, perhaps… So let it be said that we’re still big fans of both him and his debut album, which is full of warm, organic sounds that have very little to with the witch house/drag/whatever-else-you-want-to-call–it genre into which his early tracks lumped him.

Lost Animal — Ex-Tropical

If you can get past the rather silly video for this song, you’ll discover a whole world of musical possibility. The debut album from Lost Animal — aka Australian solo artist Jarrod Quarrell — was this writer’s single favorite record of 2011, an album that managed the improbable feat of combining garage synth beats, sardonic lyricism, and tropical pop influences to create a record that sounds like it should be soundtracking some sort of narcodisco party at an isolated island resort where everyone’s gone slightly mad. (Quarrell’s previous band, St. Helens, are also well worth checking out — they’re officially defunct, but their music is still on MySpace, and their album Heavy Profession was pretty much our favorite thing of 2009.)

Xander Harris — Urban Gothic

The “soundtrack to non-existent film” trope has worn pretty thin over the years, but Not Not Fun artist Xander Harris didn’t so much breathe new life into it as strap it to Dr. Frankenstein’s table and zap it with 50,000 volts until it got up and walked. His imaginary horror soundtrack is a gloriously cheesy piece of work that draws heavily on the sounds of genre antecedents like John Carpenter but has a gleeful charm all its own.

Julianna Barwick — The Magic Place

If Barwick’s transcendent Florine EP hinted at great things (especially the sublime “Cloudbank”), then The Magic Place represented the full realization of a remarkable talent. Rarely has an album been better named — the multi-layered harmonies and intricate vocal arrangements of The Magic Place evoked an escape into some distant dreamland of air and light, a place that you want to stay as long as possible.

Braids — Native Speaker

Braids’ arrangements are reminiscent of The Magic Place at times, although they’re more structured than Julianna Barwick’s freeform vocals-only soundscapes. But there’s a similar sense of lightness to Native Speaker, a feeling of distant half-remembered summers that’s best enjoyed in the sunshine with a pipe full of your favorite herbal supplement.

Ayshay — Warn-U

An album that sounds like an extended DJ battle between Awesome Tapes from Africa and the guy who runs Tri Angle Records? Sure, we’re up for that. Why not?

Wild Flag — Wild Flag

While Wild Flag are definitely a godsend for people (like us) who have been missing Sleater-Kinney, it’s a mistake to see them as just the next best thing for deprived fans. Their self-titled debut is a hugely enjoyable record in its own right — perhaps somewhat more melodic and light-hearted than Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss’s “other” band, but no less powerful.

The Weeknd — House of Balloons

One of the most meteoric rises to fame outside of She Who Shall Not Be Named on Flavorpill Ever Again belonged to Abel Tesfaye, who appeared out of nowhere to release not one but two albums that somehow managed to haul the genre of saccharine R&B into the 21st century, sampling Beach House and Siouxsie along the way. It’s hard to believe that a year ago, no one had the foggiest idea who Tesfaye was. Indeed, when House of Balloons dropped in March, the identity of the artist behind the Weeknd moniker was a secret — a good publicity stunt, sure, but also a fine way to let the music stand on its own. Nine months later, FACT have named House of Balloons their album of the year, and while we wouldn’t go that far, it’s a pretty stunning debut.

Widowspeak — Widowspeak

It’s no surprise that 2011 saw the arrival of many bands whose sound evoked the early and mid-’90s — music moves in 20-year cycles, and all that. If there’s one band that Widowspeak’s self-titled debut evoked, it was Mazzy Star — Molly Hamilton’s throaty voice is hugely reminiscent of Hope Sandoval’s (which, clearly, is a very good thing), and the band’s low-key arrangements showcase just as beautifully as David Roback’s did Sandoval’s back in the 1990s. Although it wasn’t included on the album, their cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” basically summed up their entire aesthetic — music that’s introverted, evocative, and really rather beautiful.

Shabazz Palaces — Black Up

If Drake was 2011’s indie-acceptable commercial hip-hop type, then Shabazz Palaces were this year’s Flying Lotus — purveyors of cerebral, immersive, and decidedly unconventional hip-hop that was light years away from the mainstream of the genre, and all the better for it. Black Up was by far the year’s most interesting hip-hop record, and it was released on Sub Pop, of all places. While it unexpectedly lobbed at #1 on Gorilla Vs. Bear’s album-of-the-year list, it’s not rated nearly as highly on other end-of-year lists. Silly critics. What do they know?

Total Control — Henge Beat

Dark, brooding synthpunk from down under. The members of this band are drawn from a loose conglomerate of Australian post-punk and hardcore acts, and this record found them collectively embracing the joys of the synthesizer, with thrilling results. Henge Beat is a record both diverse and focused, encompassing everything from two-minute punk stompers to breezy electronica, all united by a strong, consistent artistic vision and a healthy measure of down-to-earth DIY charm. They toured the US throughout November with Thee Oh Sees — hopefully we’ll be seeing more of them soon.

Iceage — New Brigade

In a similar vein, but from the other side of the world. Iceage are from Denmark, but mine a similar vein of dark, introverted punk, one that eschews being loud and bratty for brooding intensity. In a world where Green Day still get called “punk,” it’s always a pleasure to hear a band who genuinely have something to say, and also one who manage to evoke the iconoclastic feeling of being young and chafing at the restrictions of a small town/city/country/world.

Washed Out — Within and Without

Ernest Greene was one of the poster boys for the much-hyped summer of chillwave, but his debut album — which arrives two years after the crest of the much-discussed genre broke and receded — proved that there was more to his work than washes of reverb and a certain indefinable nostalgia. Within and Without showed him to be a fine songwriter, and suggested that maybe there was still a measure of life in chillwave. Is it summer again yet?

Com Truise — Galactic Melt

Apart from the fact that he’s right up there with Truman Peyote in the running for our favorite stage name of the year, Seth “Com Truise” Haley also released the single best piece of analogue synth retrofuturism in the form of “Futureworld,” which would have fit just beautifully on the soundtrack to the original Tron movie. While nothing else on Galactic Melt quite lived up to that glory, it was a most excellent debut nonetheless (especially “VHS Sex,” which basically sounded exactly like its title).

Royal Headache — Royal Headache

It’s not just electronic music that’s looked back to the future in 2011, mind you. Australia’s Royal Headache sound like you’re listening to them on an AM radio in 1983, mainly because that’s exactly how they want to sound, and how this self-titled debut is produced to sound — but also because that’s exactly the mood their music evokes. Despite the fact that their record was released on Sydney label RIP Society — best known for being home to Circle Pit, Zond, and other bands whose concern most definitely isn’t radio-friendliness — Royal Headache aren’t so much punk as pure and simple rock ‘n’ roll, purveyors of the sort of songs that remind you of a past that may or may not have existed.

Blanck Mass — Blanck Mass

Benjamin John Power is half of Fuck Buttons, and his debut solo album shares a similar sense of epic scale to that of his “main” project — although while, say, Tarot Sport sounded like it should be soundtracking the birth of galaxies, Blanck Mass is somehow more introverted, like a journey into inner space rather than outer. On his Bandcamp page, Power describes Blanck Mass as “a collection of tracks loosely themed around cerebral hypoxia and the beautiful complexity of the natural world.” Cerebral hypoxia is basically suffocation of the brain, and this certainly evokes the sort of crazy visions one might bear witness to during such an experience — or any other psychedelic journey, for that matter.

Hunx and His Punx — Too Young to Be in Love

We’ve said it before, but the sooner John Waters discovers Hunx and His Punx, the better.

Pure X — Pleasure

Naming your band after a drug is something of a statement of intent, but happily Pure X don’t fall into the trap of just trying to evoke the sound of the substance from which they take their name (nothing will ever beat The Chemical Brothers’ Surrender on that front, anyway). Instead, their music is like lowering yourself into a warm bath — luxurious, immersive and thoroughly restful. Which, actually, come to think of it, isn’t that far removed from their name. But anyway, drugs or no drugs, this is a thoroughly enchanting listen, perfect for late nights, no matter what substances are involved.

CRIM3S — CRIM3S

And finally, here’s one from our resident dark music expert Russ Marshalek, who says, “This one’s going to own.” You read it here first. This record is hot off the presses — released today, in fact. UK duo CRIM3S were originally called “Story of Isaac” (any band who names themselves after a Leonard Cohen song gets a huge tick from us), and, according to their Facebook, were renamed by Crystal Castles’ Ethan Kath, a man with plenty of experience in dealing with ornery talent.