10. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
It's really hard to give a shit if Frank Ocean is gay or bisexual or whatever. If he's saying that shit at an opportune moment for the press, or to make a point. It actually kind of gets in the way of whether or not the album is good, if it is "brave", and while it might be brave to sort of vaguely come out when you're in hip hop at all and you're a member of Odd Future. It is also 2012 and no one really gives a shit unless there are songs about explicit gay sex on the record. And there aren't, there's just some male pronouns where female pronouns used to be on Nostalgia Ultra. Channel Orange, it's not a coming out album, and I guess that's the point, but it's super problematic how much of the writing about this album (including this) feels the need to discuss Ocean's sexuality. Of course, it's because that's the conversation Ocean wanted to have or he wouldn't have been as specifically oblique on his website. Everyone overshares on the internet at some point, Frank Ocean did it before his album dropped. Maybe intentionally? But the relationship as a listener I've had with this album has truly nothing to do with who Frank Ocean wants to sleep with.
Channel Orange is an album, a pretty stellar one. It's slow to start, it doesn't really get going until "Sweet Life". It has a lot of filler skits that plague it and bog down great songs with overlong tedious filler, like the worst 90s rap records. It has guest features from artists specifically chosen for their ambivalence with the entire concept of celebrity (Andre 3000, Earl Sweatshirt, John Mayer), and who have all been burnt by it on their own volition. It has Ocean taking the first person layered storytelling approach he had on his previous album and dialing it back to something less complex (for clarity, let's hope) - except on the albums two most profound songs on the album. Those tracks - "Bad Religion", a confession sung to a taxi driver about love, language, and religion, Ocean as a heartsick Michael Clayton on top of huge strings - recalling John Brion's work on both Kanye and Fiona's records. The other a 9 minute centuries spanning pyramid song, Cleopatra on her way to her shift at Cheetahs, having more to do with Prince and Radiohead than the intentional references Ocean has made before. "Pyramids" is the best goddamn song of 2012, expansive and huge in a way nothing else was. It was also just a song, not a concept album or a confession, lived in and full of detail, riding out on a guitar solo so big I was a little shocked when I learned John Mayer was the one playing it.
But the two dominant tracks here kind of overshadow the songcraft of something as infectious as "Lost", because it's not an epic or a showstopper. Removed from their context, most of the songs here decimate whatever comes on next to them in shuffle. As a whole, if you can make the concession that it takes time to get into (not in the sense that it needs a few spins to work it's magic, you actually have to get used to it not starting strongly), it's actually a stronger album than Nostalgia Ultra. It doesn't have a song as devastating as "There Will Be Tears", but what does? Frank Ocean, he's always been someone we should be thinking of as a songwriter over everything else. Storytelling, detail, humanity, humor, utter vulnerability in unexpected moments, and all to a tune. That's all still here, that never left. The other stuff -- no matter how he meant it -- that's press. That's trivia. -SW
9. Ernest Gonzales - Natural Traits
There's a ton of goofy sounding titles on this album, the sort of bone dry nature skillet stuff you can find when you read the blurb for a Thomas Kinkaid reproduction, or on the handmade greeting cards they sell at your local pour-over coffeehouse. That's not a dealbreaker, no matter how much ones personal taste might lean towards the overly serious minimalism of naming songs after whatever their track listing happens to be. To label the obvious (and thus immediately belabor it), it's the music that makes the difference, and Ernest Gonzales lush combinations of digital composition and regular old fingers-on-instrument are strong enough to merit any level of goofball naming conventions. Natural Traits is a tricky collection, a suite of songs that don't demand a huge amount of focus and can even slip by almost unnoticed. But if you zero in on it and try to keep up with the melodies as they tumble ahead, what seems like attractive wallpaper betrays a level of depth that goes beyond what oh-so-pretty usually requires. It's tremendously good while still being embarrassingly shy, and easily one of the best albums of 2012. -TS
8. The Men - Open Your Heart
Probably the album I was hottest and coldest about this year, Open Your Heart had a jack-of-all-trades quality, and as the rest of that cliche goes, so goes the assumption: they gotta be somewhat shitty at all the stuff they're doing, right? And of course they would be, if it wasn't for the twist that what happens on Open Your Heart isn't a wide swath of music, from opera to concrete, it's in fact just guitar music. All guitar music. It's not a mixtape, or a covers album, but it does end up being a tour, a road movie with a themed soundtrack, like Spawn or Judgment Night before it. It's an album devoid of transition, a series of middle children lined up without any indication of what their parents did with the bookend offspring. It's the kind of music you could easily see being ruined by the incorporation of a turntable, from a band who might not be aware of what a bad idea that would be. Until embarrassment, we remain. -TS
7. The Swans - Seer
The Swans are one of those bands that go on tours so as to discover which of their loyal fans are masochistic enough to handle them in person, and The Seer--their second album in 16 years, the last being 2010's My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky--is a perfect collection of heavy, thunderous drone and rock music within which to bludgeon those who make the trek. There's a cautioning throughout the album, a warning that arises with the same clanging insistent fervency with which the first song "Lunacy" arrives. It's not that it feels dangerous (although it does), it's that The Seer is the sort of music that leaves no room for an audience to participate, to exist. It's the kind of music that would start playing in a yoga class, right before they murdered you with their teeth. It's not inhuman, it's just too big to comprehend--cavernous music that's unnervingly full, whereas usually this sort of work has enough empty patches where we can rest. Listen to those first minutes of "Mother of the World"--whose lead do you follow? Those drums, stepping and accelerating? The colliding noises? That humming, disonant murmer? It's circular business, and yet it seems crucial, a contained network, built from a toolbox of articles no one else would care to use. This music isn't composed. It's hewn. -TS
6. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
Japandroids’ music is full of excess, songs of hyper-indulgence in the usual indulgences. Drinking, yes. Smoking, sure. Girls, you bet. On paper, Celebration Rock could easily be mistaken for a glam-rock album. The external trappings are all there. But while the songs focus on the youthful need to capture memories, keep the internal fire burning, and make the party go on forever, they’re secretly about the quiet moments between chugging and making out and putting photos up on Instagram. Those are the moments when you’re lost, and the big questions drop in, and you’re left with a ton of frayed edges from letting the internal fire burn too bright for too long. Musically, Japandroids always have an answer for reigniting the flame—usually in the form of a monster guitar riff or desperate drum roll—but the existential thoughts always creep in. “Do we have anything to live for?” vocalist Brian King asks in the opening song. Though he answers yes, Japandroids spend the rest of the album attempting to prove it. What follows is music—indulgent music—driven by two things: panic and nostalgia. And both panic and nostalgia ask the same question: Will It Ever Get Any Better than It Was Just Now? Though Japandroids’ methods (booze, drugs, nakedness, adrenaline) are those of youth, Celebration Rock suggests that, despite the constant tug of a comedown, the constant search for the next great memory isn’t a bad way to live, no matter how old you are. When you die are you going to look back on all the great resting you did? -MB
5. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel is Than The Driver...
The percussive, minimalist, mostly acoustic approach to production here focuses even more on Fiona's words, her voice, the way she uses both as instruments. Apple's cadences are worth so much, they could be talked about on their own forever before you even got to lyrics. You can talk about Fiona Apple like you would a rapper super easily, or as a novelist, before even getting to singer/songwriters. Same as talking about her as a genius/flake of a public figure, same as her relationship history with public figures of our age (The director, the magician, the writer, though gods they were), and her mental state (which I guess she's now publicly talking about? pretty frequently?). The albums -- far apart, but not at Scott Walker/Portishead periods of delay -- are meticulously crafted, frequently sitting on shelves for long periods (at least the last 2) before the world gets to hear them, they fit the years they are produced by sounding like completely alien of their time. They are all about "you" in a way more complicated than love songs or songs of opposition. The songs, the kind of find a place between combativeness and emotional connection, but in a moment to moment kind of way. "I don't want to talk about / I don't want to talk about / anything" is a lyric that sticks out, as does the workmanlike, busy way she says "I don't cry when I'm sad anymore" that's not how anyone should say that. This is at a lot of times, a hard album to listen to comfortably, and that's kind of weird because of just how present and constant it felt once I started spending time with it. It seemed like it was always on, even though it probably wasn't. Apple's ability to take apart moments in a relationships with a surgical acuity, using only the right words in the right order... it's something unique to her. I've written too many shitty english papers to highlight lyrics as examples, how this simile, or this phrasing that changes midway through does this or this. That feels a little cheap, at least for this. Asymmetrical lyrical warfare sounds like a good description, but this isn't warfare. What we're talking about is innate talent of one human being, who is maybe not great at day to day life but profoundly great at documenting her negotiations with it. The way in which she hurdles over making the minutia into an examination of the listener's internal life is always going to be the greatest slight of hand. But slight of hand is just that, the real magic is how she keeps doing it, and on album four you don't hope she has her heart broken again. Fiona Apple's never going to make an album of lifestyle music, never going to be someone whose ferocity and humanity dies when the problems stop happening so frequently, as happens to so many people this good. If we get another album, and we may not, or we may have to wait a Scott Walker-ian length of time for, I can't imagine it being anything less than devastating and essential, just as every previous album. Idler Wheel, I need this in my life, simple as that. -SW
4. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid M.A.A.D. City
N.W.A.’s Compton was an elaborate mythology. To many of the suburban kids who rocked the tape in their ’85 Volvos, that Compton was as foreign and mysterious as the Black Gate of Mordor—and no less violent. Kendrick Lamar’s Compton, on the other hand, operates an awful lot like a suburb. Gang violence is still omnipresent, but Kendrick’s primary concerns are astonishingly rural: When can I meet up with this girl Sherane? How does my identity shift when I’m around my friends? What happened to my self-control? Most of good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a tussle between Kendrick’s conscience and his baser instincts. He’s impressionable, first to girls, then to peer pressure, then to addiction. Over the course of the album, he gets a series of phone calls from his grandmother (?), with his granddad yelling from the background of each one, getting more faded with each call. Here, his grandfather is a comic figure, irate about some missing dominos, singing about his wife’s fat ass. But in “Swimming Pools,” when Kendrick questions whether or not to take that next drink even though it could kill him, you realize that turning into his granddad wouldn’t be so terrible compared to his other possible futures—alcohol poisoning or getting swept up in a robbery spree with his homies or caught up in gun spray because his instinct was not to duck. So you start rooting for Kendrick’s conscience to win out, and all of a sudden Kendrick Lamar is relatable to the same extent N.W.A. was frighteningly romantic. But just when you think you have a vested interest in this dude winning against his nihilistic impulses, the unreliable narrator drops this suburban scenario on you: “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?/ Or see me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the street/ With a basketball and some Now & Laters to eat?”
3. Twin Shadow - Confess
The line that sticks out most on Confess, is "I don't give a damn about your dreams". Because it is kind of exactly what you want to hear on an album like this, where 80s new wave nostalgia or the "dark romance" angle of George Lewis Jr's persona could have overpowered the songs, they never do. Both of these elements could be cliche, especially in a year where both of those poses are everywhere, and usually insufferable. Lewis -- his voice sounds a little bit like Richard Marx and whole lot like Tunde Adibempe, neither of those overshadow that he's fucking feeling this stuff, without ever losing his cool, which recalls a dude he has very litle in common with sonically - Prince. "I don't believe in / you don't believe in me / so how could you / make me cry" is some ice cold shit to say to anyone, it only works if you know the singer is deflecting some pretty deep heartache. With Twin Shadow, all of that is on the surface, and gets deeper with each listen. You can dance to this album, you can dance the hell out of this record, but maybe that only counts because you feel every word Lewis Jr. sings. The resentment and hurt is there as much as the new romantic gestures of uncaring rock star, and you need both for this to work, at so when you're singing along you can get all the way into it instead of hitting the itunes delete button in 2 months. Feelings are no fun, but this is an album that gets that they're also not optional, you can't turn them off even when you say you can. Anhedonia's great in theory but in real life it only happens when you're Kanye/Bowie-level famous / crazy / coked-out / genius / some combination of those things. Or if you're like, Snake Plissken (hey, get that all my examples are pretty famous for breaking that mask to show real tenderness/pain despite themselves, it almost works!). So if you're going to have feelings anyway, might as well feel them like this guy. -SW
2. Chromatics - Kill For Love
If 2012 has been obsessed with the 80's in some form - 80's synth scores, 80's pop, 80's world-conquering rap, 80's movie references, 80's actors, 80's property revivals that aren't really revivals, 80's directors back to show us all how a procedural should look, then Chromatics is the ultimate synthesization of all of that. "Running From the Sun" is an 80's-style synth song that evokes Kathryn Bigelow's vampire western classic Near Dark and its Tangerine Dream soundtrack, and it's gorgeous in its specificity. But cultural references aren't what makes this album stick around beyond a cool novelty period. There is something else going on with Kill For Love that might take a while to sink in - the decisions made, of a long instrumental bridge yielding a declaration of love on a voicemail get deleted, of a weirdly incongruous "Into the Black" cover, the interpolations of classic rock radio motifs into songs, the persistently gorgeous female vocals singing pointedly male sentiments ("If I could only call you my lady, baby I could be your man"). If there's a narrative here, and there isn't, it's of someone pushing away from whatever messed up relationship they're entangled in, even the most romantic stuff here is wistful. Lot of vampires and rain soaked windshields on this record, but even the most stark moments of loneliness are hovering between warmth and emptiness. This band is most famous right now for a song on a soundtrack to a movie I don't like very much, and this album seems poised to appear all over film released in the next couple of years, maybe intentionally on the band's part. Results, it should be said, are important, and Kill For Love delivers. More breakup album than Eno-ian fake soundtrack, more breakup album than the actual breakup albums that came out this year. To delete this message press seven. -SW
1. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
Like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music is a battle rap record disguised as a political one. Despite the complex arguments, the copious intelligence, and the lyrical storytelling, Mike’s aim is a simple one: sonning you. Let me state, for the record, that it is an absolute pleasure to be sonned by Killer Mike. For too long, dude has been held captive by the intricacies of his own thought, oscillating on record between political screeds and strip-club joints. But “A.D.I.D.A.S.” and “Ric Flair” are monumental songs because of their simplicity; Killer Mike hasn’t been able to sustain that level of focus at album-length until now. A lot of it has to do with El-P’s boom-bap production. El-P restrains himself from his own retro-futurist impulses (ahem, breakbeats) and provides Killer Mike with straightforward, sternum-rattling beats. The production forces Killer Mike to streamline his thoughts and allow his natural strengths—his arrogance, aggression and charm—to take over. He is in complete command, firing on all cylinders, and it should surprise no one that that coincides with him sounding like he’s having the most fun of his life. -MB
-Marty Brown, Sean Witzke, Tucker Stone, 2013
30. Bobby Womack - The Bravest Man In The Universe
It's tempting to hear The Bravest Man in the Universe as some sort of callback to Johnny Cash's American Recordings series. Here's a man who fucked around and ended up with seven decades of life under his belt, despite all the drugs and recklessness he'd enlisted to try to prevent just that. All of a sudden, instead of looking forward into the abyss, he's looking back on abysmal memories. American Recordings' inspired choices of covers and standards may or may not have offered Cash a chance at self-reflection (his comments on and about the recordings hint that they might not be as introspective as we'd like to believe) but they did flesh out some of the more obtuse aspects of his persona, illuminating new wrinkles on an old cowboy.
Bobby Womack, on the other hand, makes no bones about his late-life quest for redemption, or how realistic his chances are of finding it. Like Cash, Womack sounds hollowed-out from years of using himself hard and putting himself away dirty. But Womack's persona was never as obtuse or iconic as Cash, so there’s no hidden layer of meaning to Womack’s pleas for forgiveness. They are exactly what they mean to be. Instead, the record’s duality comes from relationship between the gravity of how he’s lived and hope he’s recently found. The myth of the record is this: after years of substance abuse, Womack cleaned up, had an opportunity to record with Gorillaz, toured with the band despite being diagnosed with diabetes, rediscovered his love of songwriting on the bus, and cranked out an album’s worth of material in a flurry of in-studio activity. All of which makes the recent revelation that Womack is in the early stages of Alzheimer's both harrowing and oddly poetic — on Bravest Man, he isn't facing his own mortality as much as he's experiencing his artistic and spiritual rebirth. -MB
29. Grimes - Visions
Grimes (Claire Boucher) recorded an album named after and full of songs about Dune a few years back. It's called Geidi Primes. It was pretty good, I get the feeling I would have been more excited by that if I'd ever read past the 90th page of Dune (just started again, excited by watching David Lynch go all David Lynch and Lynch that whole thing up), but that is the kind of artist Grimes is - where there's a lot of arcane, complex thought being put into music/lyrics that are too diffuse and difficult for the listener to actually distinguish what is being said. Now it's a couple years later, and here comes Visions, and it's kind of the perfect iteration of that. Grimes is like Mariah Carey or J. Mascis or Bjork or Joanna Newsom when each of them were at their peak, before they became simulations/parodies of the people we used to love - the voice as a sculpted thing that is being used as an instrument, nothing more or less. Childlike, layered chirps and runs - if you've heard "Oblivion" and "Genesis", the whole album sounds like that. Whether that is good is pretty much going to be a gut reaction. Really, the only reason this isn't something I fought to push up higher is just how diaphanous it is - there's not a lot to attach to - "Oblivion" is a hell of a song, and there's a bit of shock when the Aphex Twin sample drops late in the proceedings, but this is a seasick fog of voices. You either wander into it or you don't. -SW
28. Nude Beach - II
Nude Beach II is a modest garage-rock album that siphons a lot of it mojo from mid-80s rock. It is to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Hard Promises what Yuck is to You’re Living All Over Me. It is full of good-to-great songs. If that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, you’re not wrong. But it’s interesting that Nude Beach, along with a ton of other bands hovering around the punk-psych-garage nexus (The Men, Royal Headache, King Tuff, Terry Malts, Mind Spiders, Thee Oh Sees, Gentlemen Jesse, Mac DeMarco, Dum Dum Girls… even Tame Impala), suddenly feel like What Rock in 2012 Is Was. Why is that? These kind of bands are usually lurking in the distance behind whoever the big-I Innovators of the time are, making no-frills rock music that doesn’t shy away from its influences. They usually get a little more attention when we’re waiting for Whatever’s Next—I’m thinking of the Gories and Thee Headcoats circa 1990, or Badfinger and The Move in the early 70s. So is that where we’re at now? Maybe. It’s also possible that when we tire of New Sounds, we collectively go back to Songs. A lot of the bands I mentioned are really good at those. Nude Beach is one of the best. -MB
27. Rick Ross - Rich Forever
I didn't find out what Rick Ross looked like until a few weeks ago, which should clue you in both as to 1) what a terrible job I did at keeping up with the music internet this year and 2) what a treat was in store for me and possibly 3) how ill-qualified I might be to handle blurbing up this album (mixtape!). Fuck it: life ain't short, he said, it's long, and you've got plenty of time for this guy right here to tell you that this mixtape (album!) is a wall to wall delight, and that Mr. Ross--who looks a lot like the man destined to take the dad from Fresh Prince off the Reichenbach Falls--is a wordsmith of the homespun variety, a man who invents slang terms when he's mumbling and/or drunk. The portion of "King of Diamonds" where he seemingly yells "condescending FUCK BOYS" might be a contender for my favorite misheard lyric (and due to general personal strengths, I've had more than my share) or it might just be that actual line, yelled amidst a million other delightful ones about Brinks trucks, and why you gotta get one. Rick Ross isn't here to save rap music, he isn't even here to improve it: he's here to make money and take the piss out of the Fuck Boys. That's alright with me. -TS
26. Niki & The Dove - Instinct
You guys hear the Kate Bush album from last year? It's kind of the album that Scott Walker would have recorded if he were a woman and obsessed with the things Kate Bush is, instead of opera and torture and Bergman, and if he had the legions of Tori Amos clones (as well as Tori Amos herself) to reckon with/apologize for instead of just struggling through a weird relationship with David Bowie. Kate Bush is an absolute outlier who does whatever she wants, and she's got zero compunction to relate to any sort of audience or artistic legacy. That can meansre-recording two early 90's albums no one had been clamoring for, or working with Big Boi, or 9 minute songs from the perspective of a snowflake. It's part of the deal. This Niki & The Dove thing is kind of a new Kate Bush album. It's got all the infuriating, insane, beautiful things that come with a new Kate Bush album, all those things that don't even matter if you like it that much or not. It's not even popular like Florence and the Machine. No one will ever sing these songs on The Voice. Oh, and they're Swedish. I probably should have mentioned The Knife at some point. -SW
25. Angel Haze - Reservation
I’ll admit that I find it difficult to write about Angel Haze without being reductive. Yet, for all the easy, zeitgeisty labels she invites (female, bi-sexual), the one I have the most difficult time navigating is “fundamentalist rapper.” She’s invested in the basic tenets of rap writing—internal rhyme, storytelling, punchlines—but the joy of her music comes from hearing her attack her craft without never really nailing it. For example, many of her zings—“That’s why my shit make your shit seem lighter than Heavy D;” “”My tongue is the fucking Rapture;” “I’m like Scorpion, bitch I will finish you”—are too clever by half, they’d be awful if her vitriol weren’t so engaging. She brings the same type of energy to the confessional raps on Reservation<, depicting her messy childhood. Like her battle raps, Angel Haze’s confessionals often shock you, but they rarely cut very deep. The worst case scenario is that Angel Haze never finds the nuance to give her songs—both the battle raps and stories of childhood abuse—a lasting effect beyond their blunt impact. The best case scenario is that she’s simply sharpening her knives. -MB
24. King Tuff - King Tuff
If there was a way to take music and bore it down to a chemical level, to strip it to its epistemological essence, bands like King Tuff--and "bands like King Tuff" is a big fucking genre right now, as long as we're understanding that the way we're using "big" here is at sharp angles with Katy Perry and Gotye and the Call Me Maybe gal--are probably not that much different from The Hives, or Keane, or Silverchair: they're bands that don't carry the banner into the room, they just show up alongside. And while this whole garage rock/dirty shit/excellent graphic design thing maybe a gigantic minefield for authenticity hunters, the rest of us can kick back and rest, content for bands like King Tuff (the best of which, in 2012, actually was King Tuff) to fill the void that there sort of music forces us to imagine having. The problem is the solution. -TS
23. Miguel - Kaledioscope Dream
Miguel built up a ton of critical cachet this year, which is strange because 1) he’s an R&B artist, and those usually aren’t on the receiving end of a ton of hype, unless their R&B is cross-pollinated with another critic-friendly genre (like indie rock or hip-hop); and 2) he’s a total fucking goober. Sincerity isn’t a musical quality that often makes the leap to internet popularity from, you know, popular popularity. And Miguel’s particular brand of sincerity—the half-dozen things he rhymes with “get in your pants,” say, or his flagrant delight in hugs—would seem to make him an easy target for cynics. At one point, as a seduction technique, he asks a lady if she likes Rock Paper Scissors and then quotes his mother. It seems to work. This fucking guy. You could probably make an argument that Kaleidoscope Dream succeeds on the basis on its production—the deceptively intricate beats, the clean experimentalism, and the references to 60s psychedelia all make it seem awfully close to a Beatles album, which would explain the critical favoritism for a populist album—but you’d be wrong. Kaleidoscope Dream succeeds because Miguel is one charming goober, and genuine enthusiasm is contagious. Even if it’s enthusiasm for hugs.
22. Death Grips - The Money Store
Picking up the heart attack beats and WTF vocal role that Atari Teenage Riot once passed onto some terrible female electro duo my old roommate wouldn't stop playing even if it was early on a Sunday morning, Death Grips first stab at mass appeal came with a long ass Charles Manson sample, which managed to top Dalek's "here's what Jeremiah Wright sounds like" in the we-get-it, you-read-books department. This year, they released two full length albums, and The Money Store--which would make terrible music for a skate video, but would work perfectly for the party they have after they record the skate video, when the alcohol convinces everybody that body parts are replaceable--was the one that thread the needle. It's not that there's nothing else out there like Death Grips--there's plenty, it's called screaming--it's that most people wouldn't want to listen to them more than once, which might be why this particular hybrid (hip-hop, yelling, Aphex Twin and its stuttering, epileptic children) rarely manages to produce more than one or two leading figures at a time. Or maybe it's just that experimental noise-electro-hip-hop is just that, experimental, and every once in a while (like say, the second out of three full-lengths) the experiment works out, resulting in the nastiest album of the year. -TS
21. Royal Headache - Royal Headache
If the last few years have been about the dirty boys doing psych, the latest slice in "what are white guys doing, again?" is lo-fi garage rock, albeit a variety that has stronger musicianship and pretty vocals. Royal Headache's take on the situation isn't that far removed from the way King Tuff deals with their own scuzzy side-genre: Headache just goes head on at making donuts, delivering solid, pretty songs that reflect their Australian origin. There's a classical sense of wonder behind what's happening on this album, a plantitive sincerity that doing shit/singing about it/playing well is its own animal, and while that emotional quality isn't going to appeal to every listener, it certainly appealed to this one. -TS
20. Jessie Ware - Devotion
So Jessie Ware is frequently heard on dance tracks, and that frequently gets mentioned when people talk about this album, but that kind of denies how timeless the great songs on Devotion sound. And by "timeless" I of course mean "a song that could have been released as early as 1993". In a good way! Ware is at home on tracks by Joker as she would have been on a missing Blue Lines b-side. Same with any comparison I make to Whitney Houston, Sade, Mariah Carey, or Mary J Blige, which would maybe seem to paint her as a soul diva whose expertise is at blowing the doors off rather than locking in with the emotion of her tracks and living inside of it, breathing with it. Songs like "Wildest Moments", "Running". and "Sweet Talk" are the slow burn power jams of the moment, and Ware's voice is the precision instrument of their delivery. Last year Destroyer recorded a late 80s/early 90s middle of the road pop album, and even he saw what was coming in 2012. The only problem is there's not going to be many albums that do that well, so we should appreciate Jessie Ware while we have her. -SW
19. Tame Impala - Lonerism
What was big in 2010 hasn't changed in 2012: Tame Impala remained the go-to band on the leaderboard for see-ya-at-sundown music this side of Wooden Shjips, and while Lonerism didn't turn out to be as wall-to-wall perfect as Innerspeaker, it did have "Elephant", the band's best song yet. Impala is a tough band not to overpraise, and if they had arrived a few years earlier, it would be extremely easy to imagine their sound becoming more of a dominant force in music than now, where they're too often classified with a whole raft of bands they have little in common with. They're also not really a true "they", being primarily the product of multi-instrumentalist Kevin Parker, the latest in a long line of music-guys-who-are-super-productive, and, like a lot of the music that's been crawling around the last few years, Australian to boot. Imagine if listening to Radiohead made you want to swim with women and animals: that's what this sounds like. -TS
18. Scott Walker - Bish Bosch
Scott Walker's voice cuts through absolute silence painfully, as if singing through pain, delivering a comedian's retorts to an unheard heckler. The following 19 minute song is kind of a series of observations and one-liners using the imagery of the ancient world. It's Scott Walker as Mel Brooks' character, Comicus, in History of the World Part 1. A stand-up philosopher, nightclub comedian in the height of the Roman Empire. Brassy percussion and talks of his "wormy anus", strings building as he says "heard this one, this'll kill ya..." like Don Rickles or Sid Ceasar, before talking about an ancient strangling and screaming inhuman distortions from the voice of an angry mother. This is on a song called "SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)", several movements later, and the humor mixing too easily with stark detail, percussion brings with it more heckler takedowns, pained and alone in nothingness. We can see the sweat dripping off of Walker's face in the stage lights, and the hecklers become terrifyingly real, crashing into the same voice as the comedian, battalions announcing their coming, hoofbeats become boiling water, "HEY BOY" cascading into wells of accusatory echoes and springy drunken disney sound effects. This isn't like describing a song or a play or opera, is it?
Stand-up philosopher actually works pretty well as a job description of Scott Walker. This album is both more and less stripped down than his previous The Drift. It has more guitars, the way that his previous album, Tilt, did. But it also has more of that isolated voice, less arrangements, more sound as cinematic tool. The only time we hear anything is for effect, puncturing the silence, or colliding with the voice, as it did in The Drift, only it's more mercenary in its economical approach to sound design (and it is more sound design than arranging at this point). And then there's the machetes. This is an album littered with the sound of machetes. It is odd to hear a Scott Walker album that is not a completely distinct step away from the previous album, but it is also pervasively clear in every word Walker says that every new album we receive from him is a gift.
Scott Walker's work has increasingly been about turns of phrase or fragments of language, incongruously sung and strung together to form narratives. Any song on Bish Bosch carries with it a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of how people speak to one another, in all manner of situations. Drunken bar storytelling dovetails into new testament gospel proselytizing, both of those elements are recursive on Bish Bosch, even as sonically there is no consistency, just repetition. Terror and uncertain noise occurring from outside our purview as listeners, even if it's a sound we're familiar with. Scott Walker's genius recluse image is something that ignore's how much Walker has lived. He's not someone who toils endlessly in a studio, he's someone who takes the time he needs to do the caliber of work he does. There's no one else who will. -SW
17. Purity Ring - Shrines
Saying that southern rap production techniques have spread way deep into pop music is now something so dated that typing this sentence has aged me signifcantly. If there's a painting of me in an attic somewhere, it just grew back some hair and lost a few pounds. So the sound of Purity Ring - a chiming female voice singing over electronics inflected with Mannie Fresh's dna - is just another sonic palette to be fucked around with. Instead Purity Ring single themselves out through sheer quality. Songs of mutilation and love, words set perfectly against the music that they push against. Bodily thoughts and urges, enthusiastically drawing the warmth out of music that could be the rote beats and skips of the moment. Megan James' voice is so light and incisive that you forget she's singing about fractured skulls and open torsos, these are songs of love. But love that compels complete physical surrender, that communing with another person might mean playing with their blood. It's beautiful, and unsettling, and twisted. But mostly beautiful, and while it doesn't always click - the guest rapper on "Grandloves" is really the most skippable thing on an album since the heyday of No Limit skits - aside from that one hiccup, it's a headspace that was completely unique this year. Compulsively listenable, and getting better with each play, these songs and loose and danceable, and the words are bloody-minded in a way only real emotion can be. -SW
16. Pallbearer - Sorrow and Execution
This list was composed prior to the determination of the Official Board of Metal Discussion that Pallbearer's Sorrow and Extinction was less of a crossover classic, and more Hipster's First Hardcore, a doom-y, populist metal album that's powered better by its public relations team than it is actual worth. It's not a debate we'll be getting into, in part because it's not really a debate, but mostly because populism and quality PR are two things we're always going to get behind here at TFO. This sort of music--a dash of prog, a dash of classic rock, long on gore, long on 'core, born from the metal tree--is difficult music to get into, it's a macrocosm of a microgenre, and there's something to be said for preferring a slice over a whole pie. Pallbearer may be metal for non-metal fans--I don't buy that for a second, but angry people are saying it, and the angry people might be right--but even if it is, not tipping the coffee guy who has been looking after you all year because you read a bunch of Yelp reviews about some amazing coffee place across town is a shithead way to live. You don't want to have to move to San Francisco, do you? -TS
15. Rustie - BBC Essential Mix 04/07/12
Let’s start with this: Rustie’s mixing is far from seamless. Tracks, rhythms, and genres ram up against one another with little regard for safety, to say nothing of flow. That may not be an intentional part of the plan, but it’s part of the cumulative effect. There may be listeners out there who still compartmentalize the rap tracks, synth workouts, and bangers that Rustie assembles on his BBC Essential Mix, so it’s only right that he juxtaposes songs by jamming them into one another’s space, rather than placing them idly side-by-side. It’s going to take years for someone to find proper lead-ins and lead-outs to Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” anyway. Just like last year’s Glass Swords, this seemingly off-the-cuff work by Rustie is all about accumulation. There’s a common thought that great artists know exactly what to leave out in their work, and while Rustie’s compilation is not a complete rejection of that philosophy (given how often he intersperses gigantic beats with airy synth trails), it’s defiantly focused on what it can fit in. -MB
14. Liars - WIXIW
The Liars aren't my favorite band, but they're as close as I've gotten to having one in a long time. Due to the nature of the way WIXIW sounds--somewhat droney, somewhat quiet, repetitive, with vocals that barely make it past sound burbles most of the time--it's easy to initially discount, and I'm not the first person to admit that it was hard to get into, enough that it remained my start-the-day album for a solid three months. It's essentially uncrackable, fluid music that propels you forward but won't let you in, like mercury. The smoothness never breaks down, to the point that you start to think dumb, weird shit about how digital files decompose, stripping out the microseconds between the sound, how a vinyl copy will slowly develop its own original remix--it's the way that we live now, things are attacked on levels they were never designed to defend against, held to standards that make no sense whatsoever. Permanence is unachievable, that's a given. Impermeability though? Now that's a goal. -TS
13. Joey Bada$$ - 1999
12. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend
So Godspeed came back from the dead, and the first thing you hear is confused people on intercoms echoing fragments of sentences back at one another, maybe trying to identify someone in a crowd. "With his arms outstretched... okay?" Godspeed don't return to the sound of triumphant guitars chiming off into symphonic infinity, like they did for us at their most beautiful. On "Mladic" they come back with a guttural, messy, dangerous sounding lope. The guitars have a build to a massive payoff, eschewing the drift-to-nowhere slow smolder approach of Yanqui UXO, instead it's all nervous tension and spiraling squall. Things haven't gotten better, this song says. They've gotten frenzied, and dangerous, and denying catharsis isn't the way to deal with it. "Mladic" is fever pitch music. This band has been gone so long, they came back less pretty, just as interested in making a narrative point with instrumental music. The drums sound like someone running for their life and continuing their march on even as they run out of breath.
Every payoff here is counterpointed by a corresponding drone piece, but instead of the "you get nothing" of their last album, Godspeed have struck an uneasy balance between discordant bagpipe helicopter drone and decimating guitar/drum theatricality. "We Drift Like Worried Fire" returns the ability of this band to be truly beautiful, and sad, and menacing all at the same moment. The final guitar build on the track is exactly what we've always wanted to hear from this band, nearly transcendent. It is a more varied piece than the opener, and "Strung like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable" is straight Boris/Sunn o)))/Earth-style decaying drone. But the emotional tenor of the entire piece is set, and never leaves, where "Mladic" leaves us. Rabbit heartbeats and flight instincts, knowing full well that it's not going to do any good. Something larger than ourselves has shifted, and all we can do is panic. This isn't apocalypse music, the way that Lift Yr Skinny Fists and Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada were. This isn't foretelling of a great cataclysm. This isn't music for the streets burning on December 21st. That's why it feels different. The tools are the same, but this isn't a forecast anymore. We are not trapped in the machine, and the machine isn't bleeding to death anymore. It was a nice idea at the time. Instead, this is a document of this moment. No poetic metaphors this time. -SW
11. El-P - Cancer For Cure
Between 2002’s Fantastic Damage and 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, El-P released a full-on jazz album, complete with one decent trip-hop song and a couple of elegiac Brooklyn piano tributes. Between I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and Cancer 4 Cure, dude put to rest the record label he’d been devoted to for more than a decade. Now a lot of this is speculation, but to me I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead sounds like an artist caught up in his own shit—perhaps a guy who witnessed the label/movement/sound he was largely responsible for slip from revelatory to Party Fun Action Committee in just a few years, maybe a guy trying to make music while also doing a lot of paperwork, maybe a guy who felt tethered by his own ideas, maybe a guy going through a jazz phase. On the other hand, is it possible that putting the kibosh on Def Jux freed up El-P to make the best album of his career? Cancer 4 Cure has all the earmarks of someone with nothing left to lose: aggression, immediacy, and a return to fundamentals that finds El-P retrofitting his futurist production (read: breakbeats) onto a solid foundation of boom-bap. Is it a coincidence that El-P’s other career highlights occurred in the wake of him severing his relationships with Company Flow and Rawkus? Again, this is pure speculation, but the El-P on Cancer 4 Cure seems revitalized, and I have no trouble imagining that’s a result of streamlining his responsibilities into simply making music.-MB
-Marty Brown, Sean Witzke, Tucker Stone, 2012
The most amazing thing about the reaction to Hologram 2Pac’s guest appearance at Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s Coachella performance a couple weeks ago was that no one thought it was actually 2Pac. After nearly two decades of speculation that dude has been alive this whole time, how is there not a conspiracy theory that Hologram 2Pac was, in fact, Actual 2Pac? If you were 2pac, and you were sequestered in, like, Bakersfield for sixteen years, wouldn’t you re-emerge from hiding by showing up at Coachella? If you were arguably the most beloved rapper of all time, wouldn’t you make it your personal mission to upstage motherfucking Wiz Khalifa every chance you got? I am convinced of an enormous dead rapper conspiracy now more than ever. It’s like my man from Theodore Unit once said: “When Biggie died, they came out with Biggie Fries.”
That aside, the second most amazing thing about the reaction was seeing people fall all over themselves to compare Hologram 2Pac to Obi Wan Kenobi. Son, you are talking to me about at forty year old movie, when this is clearly The Future? And—most importantly—The Future is EXACTLY WHAT WE THOUGHT IT WOULD BE. The next twenty years of our lives have just been explicitly spelled out for us, and, yes, wheel-less skateboards are right around the corner, just like we all imagined. The powers that be have actually been holding them back from us, waiting for this precise moment: The Moment That Changes Everything. #thuglife
In honor of this bright new day, I would like to preview some musical highlights you can expect over the next couple years. Hologram 2Pac was merely foreshadowing. This is what’s next:
Lil Wayne duets with Hologram Frank Sinatra
The duet era is back, people, and what better way to announce it than a televised concert starring Hologram Frank Sinatra and today’s hottest stars?
Kenny Chesney duets with Hologram John Denver
Katy Perry duets with Hologram Biggie Smalls
Adele duets with Hologram Young Aretha Franklin
These are all just variations on a theme, really. I imagine them all happening on The X-Factor.
No one else would agree to it.
Elton John duets with Hologram Eminem
It’s more comfortable for both of them.
That one’s just too sad. Doesn’t mean it’s not inevitable.
Lana Del Rey duets with Hologram Axl Rose
After the break-up.
Hologram Natalie Cole duets with Reanimated Nat “King” Cole
Holograms and zombies! It’s a billion Grammys waiting to happen! Three weeks on top of the box office! The revitalization of NBC’s Thursday night line-up!
Little known fact: Sublime actually pioneered the use of holograms. The white glow that appears around their dead singer in videos such as “What I Got” and “Wrong Way” isn’t a post-mortal aura. It’s technological Santeria. Sublime members Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson were operating at a super-advanced level in the Exploiting Dead Musicians game, especially considering they were “hologramming” Brad Nowell before he was even successful and, remarkably, before 2Pac had even died (if he is dead).
(Also worth noting: Lou-Dog never really existed. He was just a composite Dalmatian drawn from the collective surfer-bro unconscious.)
When Gaugh and Wilson hired 20-year old Rome Ramirez to step in for Bradley on a Sublime reunion tour, they were taking a technological step backwards (or “going retro,” depending on who you believe). Now, though, they can re-replace Bradley Nowell with Hologram Bradley Nowell, to the delight of his estate and Sublime fans everywhere.
The only hitch is that Nowell wasn’t much of a performer—he just stood still with his eyes closed in front of the microphone—which would cut down on a little bit of the brodown throwdown that Sublime With Rome brings to the plate. The solution would then be to impose Hologram Bradley Nowell onto the live body of Rome Ramirez, allowing him to encourage sing-alongs, direct people to the merch table, and reclaim Sublime’s status as a band truly ahead of its time.
U2 replaces Bono with Hologram Bono
Second Hologram Bono rumored to be chillin’ in the White House cafeteria.
The Beatles Finally Reunite!
Paul McCartney is the Prince of Darkness. This was revealed to us at the dawn of the millennium when, he began listing his name ahead of John Lennon’s on the Beatles’ songwriting credits and blatantly capitalized on 9/11 with a song that went like this:
“Talking ‘bout freedom
I’m talking ‘bout freedom
I will fight
For my right
To live in freedom”
The chorus is a limerick in which he rhymes “freedom” with “freedom.” Twice!
So it’s only a matter of time until McCartney tours with Hologram John Lennon, Hologram George Harrison, and, yes, Hologram Ringo Starr (because there is no way he is cutting that dude in on a percentage). The worst part is that the “reunited” Beatles won’t play any post-Rubber Soul material.
Justin Bieber reveals he’s been a Hologram this whole time
Mark my words.
Dr. Dre is best known as a producer, but his real talent is mass hypnosis through branding. Hologram 2Pac is his greatest achievement yet, mostly because he has convinced a nation of believers that Hologram 2Pac is a hologram when it is, in fact, only a 2-D projection. And look at how excited we’ve all become at 200-year old technology!
If you don’t think that Dre is an evil corporate overlord, you have clearly never seen his episode of Behind the Music. It’s no coincidence that he chose to resurrect a rapper who is also a quasi-religious figure. From here, it’s a straight line to Hologram Bob Marley, who will convince America that the tenets of Rastafarianism are smoking weed, expensive headphones, and transnational corporate globalization.
-Marty Brown, 2012
In a year where R&B had an out-of-nowhere renaissance, between mainstream radio and weirdo online only releases (seriously, it may not be the best album but The Dream’s “Wedding Crasher” is probably my most-played track of the year), Frank Ocean managed to not have any competition in great songwriting (or in a few cases rewriting other people’s eh songs as great songs, fudging the “your favorite hip hop/r&b artist’s taste in rock is about the same as your mom’s” rule by making a Coldplay track pretty listenable). Subject matter, this is as much about sex and relationships as the Jodeci he takes a swipe at in one of the interstitials, but there is a breadth of language and approach to subject matter on this record that makes Nostalgia/Ultra different. “Novacane” draws a parallel between a need to be numb and the current studio-frankensteined style of his genre, but still manages to walk us through a pretty specific story in a way you only see in golden age rap and singer-songwriter deep cuts. “We All Try” positions Ocean’s relationship with his girl by laying out his entire belief system. “Songs For Women” playfully navigates the before and after of becoming a songwriter to get with girls, and what it feels like when the one girl isn’t interested. A pretty rote love song is bookended with a monologue from Eyes Wide Shut, seemingly tearing into the misogyny of the track itself. On “There Will Be Tears”, Ocean gives us the heartbreaking ballad, but instead of being lovesick for a girl he sings about growing up without a father and losing his grandfather. He sings his heart out, and it hurts, and not in the way that these kind of songs ever hurt to listen to. All of Nostalgia/Ultra takes what are essentially genre tropes that have been worn smooth and impersonal and make them personal to Ocean in ways that show how idiosyncratic an approach he can take without really changing up what an album like this should deliver. Everything here is a presentation of Ocean’s personality - from the videogame cartridge noise to the way he approaches sex, and how well it speaks to you has everything to do with how you respond to him. -SW
The truth is, coke rap was always a metaphor for the music industry. Just like most rock bands’ second albums are secretly about the process of making a second album, raps about hustling on the corner are really raps about hustling to get into the studio. Hustler’s remorse is just self-doubt. Measuring weight = measuring sales. The good shit is the good shit. Keys open doors… to your new career! But these days every rapper is his own label, accountant, and marketing department. Rappers like Nicki Minaj and Kanye West use the music industry itself as a lyrical focus. So what’s the metaphor now?
On Return of 4Eva, 25-year-old Mississippi native Big K.R.I.T.’s industry talk seeps out between the UGK-indebted tributes to wood grain that define his album. He claims that rap labels aren’t interested in signing someone who’s just rapping about country shit. They’re not interested in someone aiming for a collection of songs rather than a monster single. That may be legit; it may be part of K.R.I.T.’s mythos. Either way, it’s K.R.I.T.’s relationship with his own career that gives Return of 4Eva its poignancy. When he’s not fetishizing his tires, K.R.I.T. is transparently working through the artist’s process—ambition, second thoughts, trying to be the person your family and friends see you as. Every time he contemplates writing a gangsta track or wonders if his deceased grandmother has been pulling strings for him from beyond the veil, K.R.I.T. taps into that larger metaphor—how you fight or buckle against the seemingly unmovable forces in your life, especially when it seems like you’re not built to succeed. That’s the difference between coke rap and industry rap: there’s no underdog in the crack game.
“Couldn’t pay the rent, but passed up on the deal because it wasn’t right,” K.R.I.T. raps on “Dreamin’,” “Sometimes you gotta wade the storm.” You’re not going to get better life coaching from the Clipse. -MB
The cover I usually see attached to WU LYF’s Go Tell Fire to the Mountain is a simple collage. A shard of a picture of raging fire tearing through tall, dry grass sits on top of a picture of storm clouds burrowing through mountaintops, just below a crystalline sky. WU LYF’s music is similarly elemental, a torrent of swells and decrescendos, with singer Ellery Roberts’ anguished voice calling out through the flames.
Go Tell Fire to the Mountain’s vinyl album cover is even more intriguing. It primitively depicts a group of people embracing and celebrating at the edge of a body of water, itself in front of a pyramid-shaped hill. WU LYF’s full name is displayed—World Unite: Lucifer Youth Foundation—and at the top, against a white background, sits a modified cross with a W at the top. Because the cover’s not as immediately visually striking, the vinyl album could conceivably be lost and rediscovered in a record bin decades from now, mistaken for a relic from a tribe or cult. And that’s exactly what it sounds like, from the passionate sweep of the orchestration to the organ-led songs to the chanted choruses. When lyrics do creep out through Roberts’ garbled annunciation, they are often familial (as on the self-explanatory “We Bros”), adoring (he is as unafraid to say “I love you” as anyone since Billy Corgan), or primal (the most articulated lyric is the refrain “I’m spitting blood”). It’s as if Go Tell Fire to the Mountain has been unearthed from a colony, tucked away somewhere in the Western hemosphere, where the inhabitants worship at the church of Broken Social Scene, and even the discontents are occupying bro street. -MB
While I have few music examples beyond Watch The Throne at hand, it certainly seems like 2011 was a year where our more reliable sluggers failed to get on base. David Fincher continued his post-Zodiac “i’m taking some time off from hard work”, Soderbergh remade Full Frontal with disease in place of the jokes, Thom Yorke accidentally labeled his new solo album as a Radiohead one, and then there’s that aforementioned West/Z team-up, which confirmed what we’ve all long suspected: Hova did actually retire, he just forget to take Shawn Carter with him. Enter: The Shjips. These San Francisco psych merchants have been steadily building better tracks for a solid six year bent, and West is one of their strongest and most accomplished collections to date. (The word album doesn’t really fit for West--the songs have a tendency to sound a bit better when presented side to side, and yet each of them is best experienced singularly; that way, the sea of conclusions they present remains navigable. It’s the same problem a short story collection creates. History tells us we read books cover to cover, and yet the pieces need you to give them their own private space.) There’s no denying that the Shjips will, for some, forever be relegated to the retail wallpapering category currently teeming with psycho heroes of past and present. That’s just the rules of the game, as much a subtitle as the old Parental Advisory used to be. But every once in a while, pull this one out and really give it a listen. Underneath the drone, distortion and shimmering chords, you’ll find a living center, pulsing with life, as hard as nails. Watching these guys get better is never going to get old. -TS
Dan Bejar sings on the final track of Kaputt, “Bay of Pigs (Detail)”, that he “was 20 years old in 1992”. Which places Kaputt in a different context than almost all of the past decade’s 80s nostalgia - or modified nostalgia where New Order and The Swans were as big as they are now remembered, instead of Phil Collins and Ultravox. Here, cultural memory is slammed back to jibe with actual history, and while the lyrics can poke at “Message In a Bottle”, the songs sound closer to Nothing Like The Sun, with all the weird issues of ego, race, pretension, pandering, nostalgia, and “lifestyle music” that can come with. All of it being dealt with by a guy who probably went to punk and indie shows to avoid ever listening to music like this at the time. Kaputt is an absolutely gorgeous record, one that finds the perfect way to present the lyricist side of Destroyer, because all the clusters of words and references don’t feel over-labored, instead they seem to slide along these songs. While Destroyer has been a motherfucker guitar band and a digital-only chamber pop orchestra, “ease” isn’t the kind of word you’d ever have associated with Bejar before now. There is a sense that in making an album like this, combined with the words he does “why’s everybody sing along when we built this city on ruins” - that Kaputt is a refutation of the kind of fake nostalgia records that are everywhere nowadays, the problem being that this essentially the same thing. So instead Kaputt feels like a call for a tempering of nostalgia with the kind of personal desolation every one of the records he’s referencing tried to cover up. This is where the rebellion came to die, and do cocaine and make some money. Those albums are all about the emptiness of being a rock star, but also the emptiness of singing about that. All the big statements, the gestures towards relevance, towards social conscience, and searches for love, all the stuff that dominates the record (even though in Bejar’s hands the words are wrong) were there because you’ve got to sing about something, right? It was music to listen to at dinner, before you broke out the coke, no one was listening anyway. But maybe now we are. -SW
While Pitchfork (and Pitchfork’s readers, and those White Hills fans who preceded both) have made any number of excellent cases for why the best White Hills is the White Hills you go see live, the argument seems like one lacking in necessity--after all, who says that both can’t be great, even if it’s not in equal measure? (“Great” didn’t all of a sudden get worse than good, did it?) And yes, some of the complaints have merit: the parts during the twelve minute “Paradise” where the Hills start playing with what sounds like the hissing suction straw popularized by dentists does get old around the fourth time you hear the album, and sure, “A Need To Know” seems like little more than baby’s first remix of cool movie scores. But any quibbling is drained of its strength when cast against this album’s four front attack: “The Condition of Nothing”, opening the album with a hellish descent into psychedelic metal oblivion, courtesy of the heaviest guitar available. “No Other Way”, with it’s whirling repetition and unpredictable swell, adding up to the most dynamic interpretation of being drowned since childhood nightmare. And then there’s that Basinski sounding decay at the end of “Monument”, leading up the title track, “H-p1”, and the return of vocals, albeit vocals that lurk behind the savage sonic constructions that opened the album in the first place. Angry, loud, and surprisingly political--it’s okay to forget, but yes, this is a protest album, as strongly felt as they come--“H-p1” serves as the album’s crushing send-off. It’s exciting and rewarding, the most straight ahead “song” of any that the album contains, and it’s a great reminder of the ease with which music can capture emotion at its most blunt, at its most raw. A lot of people got pissed off in 2011. White Hills? They just remembered that anger isn’t supposed to be fucking boring. -TS
I spent most of 2011 trying to find something--absolutely anything--that could closely approximate the excitement found when “Power” gave way to “All of the Lights” leading up to “Monster”. Nothing. It felt unfair, actually. Kanye’s Twisted Fantasy showed up at the ass end of the year and basically annihilated 2011 for me, it became the thing everybody had to beat, and that trio of songs was the specific height that bar got set at. When the Weeknd came along--as it was for most of us, I found out because somebody else (we all have a Marty Brown, I just happen to have access to the original model) pointed me in that direction--it wasn’t an immediate, drop-to-the-knees revelation. It was mostly just joy that somebody (besides Lonely Island) had figured out that R&B gets way more interesting when it quits trying to appeal to the Steve Harvey’s of the world and starts singing about big asses and fucking somebody’s brains into a pile next to the laundry, which you also should probably have sex with. Fuck it: you're not going to out-seduce the classics in the field, so why not out-vocalize every rapper alive: steal that attitude, and make up a story. That’s what Weeknd did on Balloons, although it wasn’t until “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” worked its way into my subconsciousness that I finally caught on to what I was hearing go down. The song suite is one of the strongest cases for the album’s production, a steel rimmed mix of stripper extravaganza and bathroom sanity check reliant on the popularity of stripped down dubstep and naked hip-hop beats amongst film portrayals of insanity. It’s creepy shit, sure--this album failed the can-that-voice-fool-mom test, f.y.i.--but that’s just a byproduct of how well the premise got nailed. It wasn’t a full-on concept album, thankfully. Instead, it split the difference--story, with narrative attention split amongst subjects and audience, a ballsy mix that somehow managed to avoid the danger of turning into a musical or (considering its delivery device) performance art. A song like “Wicked Games” lulls one in to connivance, rolling itself around like infatuation while, in reality, pleading for (and then condemning) attention, including us in the obsessive asides “Tell me you love me/I know you don’t love me”, never pretending that the playing field is an even one. (It’s not for nothing that the perspective is so one-sided--when there is a response, it’s a tinny, child-like one. A strong woman would make this whole thing way too weird to stomach.) “Keep it up” would be the mantra, if, you know, the guy hadn’t already proven himself pretty capable of doing so. -TS
Past Life Martyred Saints is a series of journal entries, indulgent and raw, comprised of rambles and sentences repeated ad nauseum so as to find a hidden meaning between the letters, teasing out ideas through admonishments, fragments of stories, shout-outs to spurned friends, thoughts of self-mutilation, twisted idealization of her grandparents—you know, all the teenage stuff you’re still going through in your early twenties. But, even though she repurposes Bo Diddly’s humblebrag, “I am just 22; I don’t mind dying,” Erika M. Anderson is 29 years old. It’s to her credit, then, that her first solo album in the wake of a break-up with her boyfriend and Gowns collaborator, Ezra Buchla, sounds less like a fragmented emotional exercise, and more like a tightly-coiled emotional assault. Eight out of nine songs are downtempo, and they’re all propelled by a stately death march, punctuated by peals of industrial noise. At one point, EMA lets out a long groan that’s somewhere between a growl, a howl, and a burp—like much of the album, it might be embarrassing if it weren’t so visceral. Even the a capella round, “Coda,” is pretty in spite of itself. On it, droning voices sing, “These drugs are making me so sad”—an observation usually made after time and distance. So maybe Past Life Martyred Saints is Erika M. Anderson allowing her 22-year-old teenage self to whirl and spit within her while externally keeping a rigid front. You know, like an adult. Like an adult who knows that teenage feelings never really go away. -MB
Clams Casino, a 23 year old producer who works with his collaborators by email, is mostly known as a producer for Lil B. Sonically, his music is hip hop production. The beats are minimal, they build and recede the way a good backing track is supposed to. But Clams Casino is taking that structure and the immediate instinctual understanding that goes with listening to it, and does it with sounds and styles that are alien to hip hop production - the go to comparisons here are Warp records, M83 at their most digitally fuzzy, 70s Tangerine Dream, the late night comedown weirdness of Burial and Photek, Capcom games for the Super Nintendo. All of which it might be assumed Clams Casino probably wasn’t listening to for inspiration. So the sense of haze, the patient approach to bass, the manipulation of voices, the languid keyboards, they’re all decisions that have been come to because he thinks they sound good. While this could be a resume record, as a lot of producer-instrumental comps can be, the final result is a cohesive whole. Which is strange considering how these tracks could have been selected at random from the 200+ on Casino’s hard drive, but the final result is a journey which builds on the track which comes before it, whether it be a wide vista full production or a raw loop of an obvious sample, each of these tracks fare better on their own than in their original intended state as showcases for rappers. Unlike a lot of music that you can apply “haze” to as a descriptor, there is a sense that you can never call Instrumentals a stoner record. It’s too propulsive, too minutely detailed in it’s attempt to shudder off the rails that Casino has laid out for each track. It never does, but it’s the trying that makes it compelling. -SW
One of the only hip-hop albums released on Sub Pop records, quietly promoted with a series of eclectic videos (one a Burnett/Heron mash-up featuring a mass grave and bleeding pigs, the other a whimsical interview featuring the loveliest--and yet most incongruous--pairing imaginable), including songs bearing titles like “A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)" it was no surprise when Black Up turned out weird. Coming at it without knowledge of pedigree--that it was Digable Planet’s Butterfly, grown-up and partnering with a multi-instrumentalist whose father is essentially African music royalty--the album’s initial bite was even fiercer, only eclipsed in audaciousness by Death Grips decision to open their 2011 album with a statement of purpose culled from an extended Charles Manson sample. But whereas Exmilitary ran itself headlong into exhaustion when the actual tracks began, Shabazz Palaces made good on theory: hip-hop’s great frontier might remain in its sound, and in the willingness of its participants to explore. On the image and statement front, you can file Shabazz's avant-garde artiste next to Twisted Dark Fantasy's real time celebrity psychopathy and Big K.R.I.T.'s termite work on today's carpenter--it's been a year of Platonic ideals. The trick to Black Up's success is in its confidence--this is a zealous album, consumed by the creativity of its creators, track after track after track of noise and unpredictability, the only constants those muffled explosions that crowd the ear and decide the tempo, while lyrics laced in double meaning and split second point of view changes swarm through wherever allowed in tight bursts of fire. Nothing sounded like this, and yet the hypnotic quality often worked to overpower the stink of newness, working--as Sasha Frere Jones so aptly put it, Black Up is the “loveliest fog”--to keel its listener over, exhausting and educating. And it accomplished it all--the intellectual satisfaction, the tromp through newness, the challenge, the weird--without lecturing, while still being compelling, still grinding out the necessary rhythm. This was the high wire act every year deserves. -TS
Heavily saturated with noise, striding across abandoned landscapes, Mazes saw the latest phase in Moon Duo’s attempt to figure out how far they want to go with the what they’re able to create. The basics haven't changed: Sanae Yamada sets the tempo with her keyboards and some electric what nots, and then Erik Johnson (of Wooden Shjips fame) rips around alongside on guitar. Vocals are a mix of the back and forth regulars--imperative statements and mumbled nature references--and the songs all tap out around five minutes. As with their previous releases, the album works as both sludgy background palliative (think Brian Eno’s Music For Slow-Motion Stumblings Through Dark, Druggy Basements) as well as old fashioned headphone friendly immersion trip. Months later, this chamber seems inexhaustible. -TS
Nicolas Jaar’s debut album is full of voices: Jaar’s own singing voice, but dialog taken from films in french and english, children playing - sometimes crying - in the distance, diced up breathing and muttering, Ray Charles. There is a physicality as well - running water, shoreline sounds, pingpong balls, hands moving across a piano. Ostensibly, this is a collection downtempo electronic music. There is enough evidence here of that for it to be classified as it and nothing else. But there is a surprising amount of found sound and manipulation of sound here. Things like fake cd skips deleting instruments and replacing them with new ones, playing the same rhythm. The final result is something that resembles nothing else but memory, messy and deliberate, fragmented and cohesive at the same time - reconstructing songs (if you want to call them songs) out of whatever is left after the passage of time. Jaar states “space is only noise if you can see”, elsewhere someone else states “the monuments have been brought down to earth, and made part of the land”. By the end of the album, it seems like memory destroys the divides between things - space/ noise/ land/ sea/ sound/ music/ self/ others. -SW
Besides mixing up about fourteen kinds of genres, as long as all of those genres involve loud drums and hyphenated words like “post-punk”, New Brigade also made use of its scant runtime to champion the strongest case since Kanye for relying on a band’s preferred listening order. Following the requisite 45 second noise intro, “White Rune” gets down to the business of laying out everything you’re about to experience. One: you’re not going to understand most of the lyrics, and won’t need to. Two: all of these songs are going to end about a minute before you want them to. Three: there is still plenty of room left in your life for a quartet of loud teenagers, especially Danish ones who tell the New York Times they heard New Jersey has good sandwiches, and maybe the next album will be longer? Somebody take a note: the hype is there for a good reason, and this is one of those times. -TS
Carrie Brownstein is, in many ways, the last guitar god standing. Any and all candidates you want to throw out just seem like shadows of other better players, or are too busy doing other thing to still be in the running. Wild Flag’s songs are written by Brownstein or Mary Timony, and while this isn’t a “guitar album”, what is most enervating about listening to it is to hear their two guitars ricochet off one another, how exciting that can be even in 2011. The songs - Timony’s feel more tuneful, Brownstein’s feel more savage - both are frequently about music in a way most bands haven’t been writing songs since... well rappers rapped about DJs and metal bands sung about metal. It feels like a very organic growth from a band that clearly derives all of its power from playing together - this isn’t a conceptual decision, it’s a byproduct. On “Future Crimes” Carrie Brownstein belts out “If you’re gonna be a restless soul/ then you’re gonna be so so tired/ if you’re gonna give up on the fight/ then I’m gonna call you a liar”, updating her previous “Entertain” for the moment, where the problem is no longer “who’s side are you on” but are you committed? To anything at all? This is organic too. -SW
Hey, Battles, what makes you think you’re so funky? Here’s an album made out of the stuff of prog-jazz-funk, by the kind of dudes who understand how to play in 17/39 time, but the end result is something you want to dance to. This is as confounding and exciting as the last time they did it, only without a breakout single to distract from the nature of the thing. This is an entirely physical album, one that’s effect is not aimed towards the musically trained listener’s mind but the body of anyone in earshot. On paper, Battles sounds like a mathletics league, but in execution it’s music that shuts your brain off and has you doing stupid dances to augmented 9ths or some other thing I’ll never understand even after it’s explained to me. Gloss Drop sidesteps any and all conversation about their musical acumen and asks us to dance with somebody, and like Whitney Huston before them, they’ve succeeded. -SW
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine that Anthony Gonzalez would never get away with any of the shit he does without being french, and it is something you’ve got to wonder about - if culturally you’re allowing for extravagances and gestures you’d scoff at if they were on an album made by some kid from Portland, if you’d really be as into it if it weren’t coming from the place where Air, Daft Punk, and Phoenix defined our parameters of taste. It’s something I’ve thought more and more about M83 because I never used to care - here was the all-digital Kevin Shields, but album-by-album in distorted noise vistas have been replaced by plaintive voices and obliteration has been replaced by naked emotionality. Which isn’t to say that all of that wasn’t present in the M83 to begin with, but it has since taken the forefront. There is a lot more bombast evident in everything, and there are certainly times where you wonder if you’re giving this record a pass because it’s french or if you really like what’s being done as much as you did “Unrecorded”. In execution, though, this is an album that earns every one of its excesses. Even at it’s most ridiculous, there is no artifice here. Or maybe, there is, but it is a particularly gorgeous artifice, one that moves past the pan and scan John Hughes worship of the previous album and goes somewhere a lot more anamorphic. -SW
One of (at least) three Gnod releases this year, In Gnod We Trust is a little over a half hour long, comprised of two songs--”Tony’s First Communion” and “Vatican”--and yet it happens to be one of the heaviest albums on this list. Both tracks are built around repetitive, incredibly loud core sounds--"Tony’s" is some kind of swelling bass, like a gigantic alien heart arytyhmia, whereas “Vatican” is a mix of various howls and some kind of never-ending organ noise--that a variety of other sounds approach and interact with. The core never really merges with those bits, but considering the conceit of the album (the press release that accompanys the music is a fantastic piece of faux-sermon), maybe those core noises are meant to serve as some approximation of monotheistic metal deity. Who can keep up with religion these days? -TS
When they start giving out prizes for album-art-that-best-describes-one’s-sound (they probably already do this), one hopes the committee will retroactively give a statue to Ernest Greene for Within and Without. Clambering bodies, eyes closed, sun baked flesh-to-flesh cast against bright white sheets, with private vocals whispered by a tongue that’s pressed directly against your warm earlobe, this is the chillwave album that snuck past people’s visceral standoffishness with that goddamned “chillwave” moniker. (Or “dreampop”. Never has there been a term more suited as a defense for homicide than the word “dreampop”.) Fuck that thinking, though. This is a great electro suite, a languid sonic bath that takes old ESG tones and turns them into the grown up version of a bubble pit. Sure, there’s going to be moments where your ear says “you realize you’re dancing to the sound of somebody dragging a sharpie across a piece of copier paper”, but power through that shit. Nobody ever kissed a negative nelly, and in the future, we’re going to be stabbing all the wallflowers anyway. -TS
The paradox of making anything is that it either has to be “timeless”, implying that it could exist at any time, at least any time where mass produced electronically recorded music was easily available. It means that it could have been released at any point between now and whatever point we currently don’t feel alienated from (so right now 70s/80s whereas the 50s/60s are starting to be periods we set tv shows. Look they wear ties and drink!). The other approach is to make music of its time - especially rap and dance music, which kind of have right NOW built into their dna simply by the way their music is released and listened to, as opposed to like, indie rock or country or whatever. The problems with both - timeless can mean who gives a shit and current can mean disposable and empty. So Friedberger manages to avoid the pitfalls of both, crafting an album full of songs that could have come out any time in the past 40 years but are still explicitly tied to a place and time. Specifically: last summer, Brooklyn, 2010. It’s hallmark is songs about being lovesick and scrolling through your inbox in bed. A very current experience, one that might be too fleeting to write a great song about. The details here - from the movies that were playing that summer to the giggle of the drug dealer she runs into - are what make Friedberger’s songs have some real emotional weight to them. The other thing is that... well there isn’t a bad song on here, and there isn’t one that doesn’t quietly get better with each listen, that’ll have you singing along with the phrasing you squirmed at on first play. Last Summer feels so alive without really being one of those “snapshot” records that always seem like someone singing their diary entries. Maybe the only one of those that ever actually felt this alive was Illmatic, which is a ridiculous comparison, especially considering what mid-30s Friedberger and 20 year old Nas have in common, but it feels like that vibrant a depiction of someones life, and how often does that happen? -SW
Common Era sounds like it was recorded miles away in some sort of cavernous industrial space, the sonic provenance of A Place To Bury Strangers even as the songs have the feel of a better-than-you-remember Slowdive single. This isn’t really shoegaze or shitgaze or even really noise music at all. It’s just a series of delicate pop songs recorded in a way to disguise how that is all they are. Belong’s second album is one that lives and dies on how well the melodies grab you, from under layers and layers of white noise and reverb - and largely the album sticks. Tthe production has a very specific effect, forcing the listener to take each piece as a whole. There are no discernible lyrics, no real dissectable aspects of each song other than drums. Each song is its own fiber optics image, no aspect of it not containing its entire corpus. What makes this different from your average pop album is that deliberate presentation, demanding that it be taken on its terms rather than anyone who listens. Common Era makes what could be a gimmick or a style into intent. -SW
While Grails has always seemed like the band you think Earth is warming up to become (until you listen to Earth and realize that no, that’s pretty much it), Deep Politics might be the album that puts their name at the forefront when it comes time to talk Western post-rock. It’s merited. “Future Primitive” opens Deep Politics with the latest bastard hybrid of Morricone and death metal, but by the end, the song has splintered open, ejaculating the sorts of LA cosmic guitar riffs that are stock & trade samples for M83 wannabes. After that, the game is on: it’s just a question of which bricks are going into the stew. There’s some fucked up New Age in “Corridors of Power”, stuff that wouldn’t be out of place if you go to a massage parlor where all sessions are concluded by cutting the electricity and abandoning you to your shame. There’s the weird cinematic work of the title track, where the guitar work chases around the idea of public displays of sorrow and revenge--"Deep Politics" indeed--all of which wrap up with the same sort of orchestral cornballing that our brains have been taught to seek true love amongst. Fuck the agrarian transition: this is what we’re talking about when we talk about the Great Leap Forward. -TS
According to the July 2007 FBI Law Enforcement bulletin, Stockholm syndrome usually involves the following conditions: “captors who do not abuse the victim, a long duration before resolution, continued contact between the perpetrator and hostage, and a high level of emotion.” That sound like a great metaphor for relationships for you? Cults thought so too. Across ten songs that echo 60’s girl groups like The Shangri-La’s, the East-Coast-by-way-of-West-Coast duo’s debut album seizes on the idea of kindness as emotional manipulation. Often the songs sound romantic, but actually live in the grey area between codependency and abuse. They’re accentuated with samples of speeches by Jim Jones and his ilk, all reminiscent of the legions of self-help platitudes that we presently use to define ourselves and our relationships. “I can never heal myself enough for you,” Madeline Follin sings at one point, revealing some hippy-speak unattainable ideal that her man expects of her. Most important, though, is that sound, steeped in the tradition of songs like The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” Cults’ melodies are as seductive as the promise of a new, better life. They hook you. Then they abduct you. Then they indict you. -MB
"I’m a diamond of God,” chants MondreM.A.N., “but a neighbor of Satan.” Like their buddy A$AP Rocky, Main Attrakionz trade in rap that hinges on plainspoken but intricately constructed statements. The Bay Area twosome’s 808s & Dark Grapes II digs into the central theme of post-Biggie gangster rap: the desire to be good, buoyed by the urge to do bad. It’s well-worn material, but statements like Mondre’s nail the angel/devil polarity precisely—it’s the kind of street poetry doesn’t need poetics; it just fucks around with big themes and taps into meaning. Producers like Friendzone, Giorgio MoMurda (have I mentioned how much I love that dude’s name?), and Main Attrakionz’ Squadda B use Clams Casino’s Instrumentals the way that The Grind Date’s producers used The Blueprint as a search engine for ideas. New Age piano, swaths of ambient noise, and castrati choral voices accentuate Squadda and Mondre’s songs, always reaching toward the sublime and sometimes grasping it. -MB
As a cultural genre, goth deserves every sling and arrow thrown at it, if for no other reason than because it’s so gosh darn fun to throw them. (Even the most tolerant would agree: people in vampire clubs are the most humorless of pits.) And by rights, level the criticisms at Conatus all you want, but don’t be deceived into mistaking its gentile qualities--air gulped vocals, synthesized homemade bass lines--for fragility. It’s a classically structured sleight of hand, songs that move past the edge of comprehension; more passion songs about love than love songs passionately sung. The same things that make that aforementioned subculture so trite--its lack of purpose, its hasty retreat into the safe, the make-believe--is what’s entirey absent from the Conatus project. That opening blend of Aphex Twin style gargled electro isn’t ill-thought, not a scam, it’s a promise; this is what we’ll put inside you, what we’ll feed you now. The jagged stripped down, delivered with a history vocal you might not have accepted otherwise. It’s a worthwhile deception. -TS
A lot has been made of how closely Yuck hews to the sound of 90s bands like Dinosaur Jr, Teenage Fanclub, and Yo La Tengo. Thing is, the London-based group is less a tribute band than it is the Platonic ideal of two decades of indie rock. On their self-titled album, Yuck refine the shortcomings and rough edges of their forebears. If that brings to mind a homogenized version of a decades-old sound, well, that may be hard to dispute; but it’s also hardly the point. Yuck seem less interested in sound than they are in songs—that is, they use the components of 90s bands’ sound to craft timeless songs. And, since Yuck doesn’t aim for the emotionally disaffected audience that 90s indie rock targeted, their songs possess the sort of brazen emotional scope and impact that Pavement never attempted. The result is an album that splits between anthems (“Get Away,” “The Wall,” “Georgia,” “Operation”) and ballads (“Suicide Policeman,” “Shook Down,” “Stutter,” “Sunday”), each of which are both familiar and elusive (two of the best qualities music can have, in my opinion). Yuck may not have invented its own sound, but its songs belong to no one else. -MB
Two of On a Mission’s primary producers, Zinc and Geeneus, are survivors of the UK garage boom of the late 90s and early 00s. Two others, Skream and Benga (who collaborate with Artwork as Magnetic Men), helped define dubstep as a genre. As dubstep and its offshoot UK funky transition into pop forces, and UK garage builds upon the comeback it mounted in 2010, it’s fitting that these four collaborated on Katy B’s debut. On a Mission all but establishes the blueprint for a successful, dubstep-based pop album. The flashpoint is the title track, “Katy on a Mission,” which churns with gnarly synths and muffled vocal clips before dropping a monstrous bass pulse. Benga’s production provides a British parallel to US pop’s current house obsession—the way it establishes momentum with just a few chords and a propulsive bass line has echoes in Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” for example. Of course, this is Katy B’s album. While she’s not the flashiest vocalist, Katy B excels in the exact area that dubstep requires: rhythm. She utilizes syncopation and vocal changes at a level hinted at on, say, SBTRKT, but mostly absent on dubstep’s crossover tracks—most of whom feature house-indebted divas. The result is a resolutely British album, rooted in tradition, with a firm idea of the near-future. -MB
Recurring themes on Relax, including guest verses - laughter, myriad Terror Squad references, not taking shit too seriously, taking shit seriously, money, how people in rap make money, how people around rap make money, 90s pop culture references, 00s pop culture references, literature, twitter, women, honesty, honestly relating to women (who may or may not have a pool), race, real life vs what rappers talk about, cultural relativism, crypto-Kanye references (what did you think “Michael Jackson” was about?), food, white castle, language (“half internet, half high school cafeteria shit”), meta-commentary by song title and sequence placement despite lyrical content or tone (“Booty In the Air” “Happy Rappy”, “Brand New Dance”), how rapping gets boring, even when you’re only a couple years in, the internet, recently dead musicians, being the best rappers alive. The last one is only implied. The criticisms of Relax have largely been that it feels more mainstream than the two previous free releases and that it’s weird that “Rainbow in the Dark” is being reused without any alteration. And yeah, both of those criticisms are valid and in some way true. The other big one, indicated by the first two examples, is that it felt like Das Racist didn’t seem to have the worldbeating urge that seemed to drive them to drop Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man back to back. Which is bullshit, and exactly the reactions you hear on everybody’s major label debut, or whatever - the first album they’ve charged money for. Relax isn’t the album that people wanted/expected, it’s where Das Racist is right now. And thank god they’re not at all interested in giving a fuck about who’s listening, or what they want, even as they talk about who’s listening. -SW
Before we dive into a proper Top 30, we thought we'd pull back the curtain a bit for a look at the albums that didn't quite make it in. Personal favorites that didn't make the cut, albums that lurked right outside the lists purview, or pieces that just didn't land specifically enough to make a fight worthwhile--a whole bunch of them follow, courtesy of Marty Brown, Sean Witzke and Tucker Stone.
Action Bronson – Dr. Lecter
Cities Aviv – Digital Lows
Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
Lil B the Based God – I’m Gay (I’m Happy)
Spaceghostpurrp – Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6 (1991)
Here’s five albums by dudes I’d consider foreriders in the current rap vanguard. Action Bronson pulls off the year’s second-best Ghostface impersonation on a Primo- and Pete Rock-indebted concept album about New York cuisine. Memphis resident Cities Aviv squeezes hard-bodied introspective joints out of high-garbage-content samples from “Float On,” “People Are People,” and, most impressively, the Alessi Brothers’ “Oh Lori,” which, yes, is about riding a bicycle in Springtime with the person you love perched on the handlebars. Kendrick Lamar, who is reportedly taking pole position on Dr. Dre’s mythical Detox, raps dexterously enough to establish himself as the post-Drake Snoop Dogg. Lil B unexpectedly steps his game up for the most anticipated album of his short, prolific career by toning down the self-help verbiage and learning how to get out of the way of his producers. And, finally, Miami-based beat-maker Spaceghostpurrp is responsible for the most intentionally ugly rap album of 2011, mastering sounds at different levels within the same song and inserting horrific/orgasmic screams with the same velocity that AarabMUZIK inserts DJ drops. From Bronson’s immaculate East-coast traditionalism to Spaceghostpurrp’s engrossingly terrible production, each of these guys has a conscientious stake in what hip-hop wants to sound like over the next decade.
The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love
In the five years since Pieces of the People You Love, dance-punk impresarios The Rapture lost half of their rhythm section but rediscovered disco and, oh yeah, Christianity. For this years’ “comeback,” they toned down the more abrasive aspects of their sound—the primacy and jaggedness that got them so much attention a decade ago as part of the first wave of DFA artists—and came up with an album jam-packed with arena-rock dance-pop. Proving that if old punks never die, they can at least age gracefully, In the Grace of Your Love is The Rapture’s best, most cohesive record to date. It’s about Jesus, but fuck it.
Tiger & Woods – Through the Green
Throughout its 75-minute run time, Tiger & Woods’ full-length debut recalls bits of nearly every hit from the electro-disco era—“Heartbeat” to “Mercedes Boy”—but it plays more like a 12-hour fever dream with Melvin Riley’s exact intonation of the words “oh” and “Sheila” stuck on repeat inside your head. Credit the reclusive duo with taking Theo Parrish-style experiments in tedium and repetition; subbing out the component parts for diva-house vocals and Salsoul orchestral stabs; and ultimately churning out ten lengthy exercises in sustained joy.
Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
You don’t often think of singer-songwriters as bitchin’ guitar players—part of the draw for “musicians” is that being one usually doesn’t involve much more than strumming and feeling your feelings; it’s not a profession for strivers. So it makes a certain sort of sense that, on an ostensibly “singer-songwriter” album, Kurt Vile plays guitar like he could shred if he really wanted to, but is content sounding like a 90’s teenager sprawled out on a couch in a cement basement, sleepily reconstructing his hazy 80’s memories of 70’s rock radio. He sings as laconically as imaginable, as if he’s barely trying to hit any note, to say nothing of the right one. It’s what you’d call effortless if effortless weren’t a compliment. Yet, in spite—or because—of Vile’s apparent laziness, Smoke Ring for My Halo is one of the most compelling singer-songwriter records of 2011. I guess it’s like Kanye says: When you try hard, that’s when you die hard.
Richard Fearless, aka Death In Vegas, has spent a lot of the past decade in the wilderness. The album, rumored to have been sitting on a shelf, unmastered for the past three years, sounds like what happens when someone has just enough money to disappear for a while and do a ton of drugs and sleep with club girls and record an album about doing just that. There is a sense of Trans-Love Energies as Fearless’ all star Chemical Brothers album but he never went and got the collaborators in order to make it the masterpiece in his head, instead released something that feels a lot more fragile than the Death In Vegas we knew. The final result is some of the most beautiful work of Fearless’ career, even as it seems to be half-complete and imperfect, addled and mercurial. There are moments that stick out - the pulse of “Your Loft, My Acid”, the finale of the piece “Savage Love”, recalls both “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Purple Rain”, without really sounding like either, constructing a space where those two pieces meet in epic-movie-score-heaven. When the album is over, you’d be hard pressed to differentiate what song and what lyric struck you, making the entire piece feel like a memory, something immediately familiar when it’s on but which disappears into vague recollection when you grasp for it. Probably how Fearless feels about it too.
This is barely an EP, four and a half songs(an intro) written by the frontman of the Arctic Monkeys for Richard Ayoade’s debut film. Intentionally written to evoke the mid-80s period the film is set, the 60s New Wave references Ayoade is playing toward, and Simon and Garfunkel’s work for The Graduate. The songs are kind of strange anachronisms in the film, fitting perfectly but Turner’s phrasing can’t help but feel modern. Turner’s language, no matter how he sings, sounds like someone from the 21st century, oddly showing how much his lyrics make the Arctic Monkeys something of it’s time. The songs are quite gorgeous, though, and it being written for a film gives it an “authenticity” (that’s the wrong word but it doesn’t feel like he’s a modern artist trying to write 60s folk-pop songs like so many artists this year) that an acoustic record from Turner would likely have lacked.
Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Pt. II
The Beasties are still the best who ever did it, ever, and opening track “Make Some Noise” is indisputable proof that they still have the stoopid in them. This sounds like the three guys who made Check Your Head, Paul’s Boutique, and Liscensed to Ill dicking around in the studio not even worried about their legacy. This album is a piece with those classics, and is a stunning achievement considering how few rappers stay not just coherent but good this far into their careers. No matter how much real life - where they are irritatingly politicized, where MCA gets sick, where they are married, have kids and are deep into their 40s - gets in the way of that. Hot Sauce Committee part II would be a return to form if the Beastie Boys ever really had a consistent form, but yes - there’s everything they do here, and done well, and with a sense of joy in rapping that can only come with not giving a shit about anything but rapping. Because really, since when did any that shit matter as much as rapping?
The track record seems to be one solid twenty minutes of material every other year with these guys. This is one of the good ones, even with the terrible album title.
Kriedler - Tank
This is what Goblin would sound like if Goblin were a bunch of fans of Goblin, and it was 2011.
Mark McGuire - Get Lost
He gets better with every release, but he’s got a way to go before people start throwing their Tim Hecker albums out the window. There's a really unusual, hard to get past noise effect on almost all of these tracks--it's sort of like a electronic rake being quickly scraped across an electronic plate--and while it's too infrequent to get used to, there is a feeling of satisfaction to be found the first time you proactively suppress the all-too-natural wince.
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
You have to be careful when you’re on the way back from experimenting with noise, because it’s really easy to end up stuck in a Starbucks indefinitely. In the same way that you don't really wish the people you dislike any actual real world harm, nobody wants PJ Harvey to get her heart broken. And yet?
You know what I'm talking about.
Spank Rock - Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar
The best album of the last twenty years?
Finally, a Ryan Adams for those of us who want to appear cool with those girls who complement their oversized aviator glasses with oversized novelty t-shirts.
You gotta give it up for a group that could totally make it big on the nerdcore scene, but chose not to.
Big K.R.I.T. - Last King 2 (God’s Machine)
While 21 of the 22 tracks on Last King 2 (God’s Machine) aren’t “Yoko (Remix)”, one of the 22 tracks on Last King 2 (God’s Machine) actually is “Yoko (Remix)”.
Cold Cave - Cherish The Light Years
My only problem with sincerity is the part where you want me to listen to you talk about The Cure.
Gauntlet Hair - Gauntlet Hair
If all the Vampire Weekend fan bands are going to sound like this, maybe the next forty years won’t be an ever-worsening series of moments. (Well, the music part at least.)
Gui Boratto - III
In the same way I would give up on food for a series of life sustaining pills, I would give up on headphones to have Gui Boratto injected directly into the base of my spine.
(Catch up with #50-26 here)
25. 151 Feva Gang – “Kush Groove"
If we’re being honest, Stardust’s deathless “Music Sounds Better with You,” which cornered the market on uptempo house jams for about three years at the turn of the millennium, would be a suspect choice as the basis for any rap song. But for a weed anthem, something that all but requires a loping, dusty beat? That’s just absurd! On “Kush Groove,” 151 Feva Gang knock a couple of BPMs off of the club warhorse. Beyond that, they keep the party hyped up. 151’s Dapper Don hosts the revelry with the enthusiasm of a young Lil Jon, incessantly screaming out “Ya Dig!?!” and veering off into digressions (like a moratorium for going H.A.M., where he suggests that instead of going Hating Ass Motherfucker, we just go Gibson). The looseness of Don’s rhymes and the gregariousness of his personality play nicely against the source material’s rigid beats, giving the song a magical, near-endless replayability, much like Stardust’s classic—the feeling that “Kush Groove” could go on forever and that’d be okay. In the end, that may be the song’s greatest gift to stoners.
24. The Weeknd – “High For This”
The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye writes a lot about what Craig Finn might call “the way that whispers bite like fangs in the last hour of the parties.” There’s a sense of drug-induced claustrophobia and impending doom present in Tesfaye’s songs, and, most of the time, he’s content to play the creepy guy in the corner, waiting for the girl’s eyes to start to roll into the back of her head. On “High For This,” the opening to The Weeknd’s out-of-nowhere free album, House of Balloons, he convinces someone to get trashed and fuck without a condom. Tones and beats stream through the song like tracers in your peripheral vision. Tesfaye tells the girl, “You don’t know what’s in store, but you know what you came for.” It’s creepy. More than that, it’s an extreme point-of-view to write an album around. But that’s exactly what the Weeknd does, and “High For This” is its most harrowing, compelling moment.
23. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
For the follow-up to their acclaimed debut, Fleet Foxes made a slight adjustment in their sound, as the band’s primary inspiration shifted from Americana to British Folk. Or from, say, Crosby, Stills & Nash to Fairport Convention. That might not seem like much, but the austerity of the British influence produced a parody of Fleet Foxes’ first album, rather than an evolution from it. Their self-seriousness seemed to get seriouser. Their melodies became drier. Though there was some grandeur (most notably in closer “Grown Ocean”), it was surrounded by tedium.
Which is not to say the band didn’t exhibit growth, the most exciting bit of which appeared in songwriter Robin Pecknold’s lyrics, which turned from vague excuses for harmonizing into thorny rambles (most of which also gave way to harmonizing). “Helplessness Blues” centers on one of the most interesting lyrical conceits I can think of, maybe because it’s antithetical to the principles of rocknroll itself. Pecknold opens explaining that he grew up believing he was “special”—he compares himself to a snowflake in what might be Fleet Foxes funniest moment by default. As he grows up, he discovers he’d “rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery,” emphasizing the power of community over the individual. As the song explodes from acoustic guitar into orchestration, Fleet Foxes ultimately wring deep pleasure out of mundane sentiment.
22. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire – “Huzzah! (Remix Feat. Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown & El-P)”
Favorite moments, in chronological order: Underground veteran Necro’s droning, UFO-landing soundtrack of a beat; Despot’s Irish pride; Victor Vazquez calling out Immortal Technique for being obnoxious (shots fired!), exactly the kind of intellectual beef underground rap needs right now; Das Racist hypeman Dap’s performance on Heems verse (I mean, I assume it’s Dap; I’ve been wrong before), especially when he reveals that two, not three of Heems’ shirts look expensive; Heems proclaiming himself “the worst rapper on this track, third coolest”; Danny Brown, who put out an album about getting older this year, actually telling stories about walking to school in the snow; the precision of El-P’s counting-themed verse; and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, like, blown away that someone could be “still hungry” after a thousand views on YouTube. A thousand.
21. Win Win – “ReleaseRPM (Feat. Lizzie Bougatsos)”
With Gang Gang Dance, the power of singer Lizzie Bougatsos’ voice frequently gets obscured by all of the “experimental” shit she does with it. She’s renowned for her vocal flexibility, and is equally comfortable obscuring her voice with effects or singing in an Indian pop style. When she plays it straight, as on 2008’s “House Jam,” she’s a force. So, on Win Win’s “ReleaseRPM,” it’s thrilling to hear her take on the role of diva/muse. Former Spank Rock producer XXXchange and friends draw upon UK Garage to create a slippery rhythmic framework, slowly adding peals of noise to build toward a climax. Bourgatsos, miles away from the inscrutable presence she is with gang, dives head on into the role of sultry pop star, even adding a little pout to her intonation as she sings, “All I need is some sort of release.”
20. Joker – “The Vision (Let Me Breathe) (Feat. Jesse Ware)”
Jesse Ware’s performance on the B-Side to Joker’s “The Vision” is my favorite vocal of the year, edging out Adele and Beyoncé and a couple of others we’ll discuss further down the list. Though she shows a similar range, Ware has fewer vocal ticks and tricks than Beyoncé on “1+1.” She’s more direct, aiming for the sternum—just like the bass that underpins her. She flaunts a bit more melisma than Adele, but—strange as it may seem—her voice comes from a deeper place. She out belts the beltiest belter of the year. Ware’s voice is unrestrained, while Adele’s—as profound as it is—still retains a professional sheen. Adele keeps her feet planted while she sings; Jesse Ware throws her entire body into the song.
Given Ware’s vocals, “The Vision (Breathe In)” has all the trappings of an attempt at pop crossover. In actuality, Joker is still digging in the same holes that he has been, following the same blueprint as “Tron,” “City Hopper,” or “Psychedelic Runway.” Eruptions of scuzzy bass pierce through Ware’s performance. Chirping melodies weave in and out. For Joker, the song’s structure is airtight so that the actual sound can be unhinged. The two of them are technicians who allow themselves to get out of control. Between them, they create the type of dystopian encroachment the repeated lyric, “Just let me breathe,” hints at.
19. Junior Boys – “Banana Ripple”
It’s All True may have been riddled with inward-looking slow-jams and meditations, but it closes with the most ecstatic track of Junior Boys’ career. For years, Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus have been building toward the kind of slippery funk they exhibit on “Banana Ripple.” Fitting, then, that they decide to spend nine full minutes with it. Fitting, also, that they take the long route toward ecstasy. “Comfort is in your past,” Greenspan admonishes, bullying you with ultimatums like, “If you don’t really want it, don’t come,” and backing you into a corner where the only way out is dance.
18. Azealia Banks – “212”
Azealia Banks and Nicki Minaj both attended LaGuardia High School in New York—AKA The Fame School. They both studied theater, which should tell us something. That something is this: Drama geeks are great battle rappers. Of course drama geeks are great battle rappers. Acting camp school is less about learning how to feel your feelings, and more a training ground for exploiting others’ self-loathing for your own personal gain. Additional acting school lessons Banks employs on “212” include flipping voices at will, dropping the word “cunt” for dramatic effect (works every time), and consistently ratcheting up the tension without ever letting it break. And, if “212” instantly eclipses any single Nicki Minaj song, well, it’s only a matter of time until these two start feeding off of each other’s intensity.
17. Tyga – “Really Raw (Feat. Pharrell, Snoop Dogg & Game)”
Tyga knows enough get his two rudimentary verses out of the way quickly. He’s making way for the real show: Pharrell’s two best performances in forever. First, there’s the Neptunes’ production, all shuffling high-hats and errant horns—an acoustic version of their era-defining early work. Then, there’s Skateboard P’s work on the hooks. He’s just listing things that are “really raw” (a catchphrase that still has a chance to take off… right?), but every line is a pearl. It never occurred to me before just how raw KFC by the bucket it, but, yeah, I’d say “really” would be a pretty apt description of how raw that is. Same goes for jackets that smell like jet fuel, or gargling with champagne. Tyga’s best line even comes from repeating one of Pharrell’s and pairing it with an impression of Timmy from South Park. Elsewhere, Snoop Dogg does his daffy Uncle Snoopy thing, going so far as to call Tyga “Nephew” because he knows who he’s hired to be now. And, finally, Game (sorry, but he’ll always be The Game to me) compares himself to Nas before… wait, did The Game just compare himself to Nas?
16. Future Islands – “Balance”
Throughout Future Islands’ On the Water, singer Samuel T. Herring fluctuates between a pronounced theatricality and a guttural snarl. It’s as if the affectation of his pleasant, “professional” voice is attempting to restrain the rawness of his real one. When the growl breaks through, a gush of emotion attends it. On “Balance,” over band-name-invoking tropical rhythms, Herring is direct about his intentions. “You can change your life,” he repeats again and again, “It just takes time.” And it’s the growl, rumbling through a measured tenor, that turns that advice from platitudes into hard-earned wisdom.
15. Phantogram – “Don’t Move”
Phantogram’s “Don’t Move” is a work of cut-and-paste beat-smithery that lets you hear the seams. It opens with a full-throated voice, clipped, repeated, and patched onto a differently-intoned “oooh.” The horn line and guttural voice that round out the musical phrase nod to Portishead. But, instead of trip-hop’s atmospheric drag, Phantogram aim for a hard-hitting pulse to brace Sarah Barthel’s vocals against. “All you do is shake, shake, shake,” she sings, mercurially, before demanding, “Keep your body still. Keep your body still.” The song’s title is “Don’t Move,” but, ultimately, Phantogram is daring you not to.
14. Wiz Khalifa – “The Race”
Wiz Khalifa released his major-label return, Rolling Papers, shortly after scoring a huge surprise hit with “Black and Yellow”—a song that timed perfectly with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ ascent to the Super Bowl. But Rolling Papers hedged its attempts to continue Khalifa’s pop crossover, providing Splenda beats and keeping the hooks closer to 50 Cent’s lazy singing than, say, Hayley Williams’ “Airplanes” chorus. That approach culminates in “The Race,” a breezy, joyous ode to the precise moment of his career when he envisions success without quite having it, completely. Yet. The result is something along the lines of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Summertime”—uplift without a touch of cynicism.
13. MNDR – “Cut Me Out”
After the second chorus, MNDR’s “Cut Me Out” launches into her version of the bassline from Robyn’s “Dancing on my Own.” Synths throb incessantly, like a drum roll performed by hammers on a keyboard. “Cut Me Out” (which vastly outclasses its origins as a free Mountain Dew label single) may be the most unintelligible British pop song of the year—for example, MNDR begins by gathering sparks in a velvet bag. It might also be the most tightly constructed, creating an insane amount of pressure with not much more than those synths and MNDR’s mechanically expressive voice.
12. Clams Casino – “Motivation”
Lil B put out “Motivation” about a month before the enthusiasm for Clams Casino as a solo artist really got going. Once @clammyclams put up the free mixtape Instrumentals for download, the reaction to the bare “Motivation” track was instantaneous: Get That Kid Offa There. Lil B’s granola rhymes—self-indulgence (which, hey, is generally welcome in rap tracks) masquerading as inspiration—so completely miss the point of the beat that they nearly tank the whole song. Clams Casino’s work is all breath and anticipation, squealing synths and clattering drums, bombast and ambience. It manages to be both calm and loud; if it were an athlete, it would be in The Zone. So maybe Lil B isn’t entirely to blame for not being able to keep up with this monster. This thing was built to stand alone.
11. Big K.R.I.T. – “The Vent”
Big K.R.I.T. has travelled a huge distance on the strength of his Everyman persona—his perpetual mix of astonishment and shrewdness toward the music industry; his (perhaps unhealthy) obsession with wood grain; his continual thanks to his grandmother. “The Vent,” his most accomplished song to date, holds his Organized Noize-indebted production chops to a few extended chords and a barely-there beat, while he unloads a complex web of familiar insecurities, ranging from mundane to profound. Should I write another song about cars, or go deeper? What do I do about this girl I’m interested in? How do I shake this depression? “I put my problems in a box beside my tightest rhymes,” he raps, “And when it gets too full and I can’t close the lid, I spaz on my family and my closest friends.” Then, 60% of the way of the through the song, K.R.I.T. begins to sing, and things come into focus. He’s commiserating, sharing every tremulous thought, in the hopes that you (or “you) get some sort of comfort out of it. It’s an act that’s rarer than you’d think, but there’s no better way to cement his Everyman reputation than becoming your friend.
10. Lana Del Rey – “Video Games”
Lyrically, “Video Games” is little more than a list of male fantasies. Lana Del Rey is literally in the backyard on a swing when her man comes home and whistles for her. She wears his favorite dress and takes it off to get his attention. She wants him to tell her what to do. “I heard that you like the bad girls, honey,” she sings, and if there’s even a hint that “Video Games” ironic, it’s in the follow-up line, when her voice lilts into a slight Betty Boop: “Is that true?” Mostly, though, Lana Del Rey doesn’t have to telegraph the desperation at the heart of her actions; the hypnotic march of the song accentuates it. After every line there’s a pause as she awaits his response, his command. “Video Games” uses many of the same components of Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game”—the steamy drawl, the arid strings, the sultry female lead—to create its exact inversion. These male fantasies are meant to be sexy, but they’re sad. Sad for her and him both.
9. Charles Bradley – “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)”
Charles Bradley may sound like a soul-revivalist, but he’s really more of a vitalist. “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” may feel like classic R&B, dredged up from the annals of Stax, but it is as resonant as any other song this year. Part of that is, of course, the subject matter, spelled out plainly in the title. Most of it, though, is due to 63-year-old Bradley’s performance. He gives everything he has. Backed by the Menahan Street Band—a super-group of Daptone musicians best known for “Take the Road By Walking,” the basis for Jay-Z’s “And the Winner Is…”—Bradley absolutely wails the words, “The WooooooRRRLD/ Is going up in flames,” as if he’s already mourning, pleading for it to come back. Nicknamed “The Screaming Eagle of Soul,” Bradley practically anticipates all of the victory, fear, and ridiculousness of the year—the overthrown governments, Republican debates, and #Occupy movements—and weighs them all in his voice. It’s a lesson in how to make the political personal.
8. Yuck – “Georgia”
Yuck doesn’t retread 90’s indie rock tropes, as much as it provides a collective memory of them. The band distills the positive aspects of Yo La Tengo, Sparklehorse, Unrest, and plenty of other bands, while conveniently forgetting their rough spots. They are a band as Platonic ideal. Band as universal consciousness. And that is how they arrive at “Georgia,” one of the most perfectly composed songs of this, or any, year. A grungy guitar riff aims for the red, but gets clipped by the mixing board, so it doubles back on itself. A man and woman sing together, their voices shrill, obscured and unsure. “Georgia, I’m still in love with you,” she sings, tapping into the one sentiment that grows stronger with longer distance and fuzzier recollection. To that effect, “Georgia” might also be Yuck’s perfect mission statement. They make the heart grow fonder.
7. Tyler, the Creator –“Yonkers (Single Version)”
Here’s the easy cut you can use to untangle the Gordian knot of ethics presented by Odd Future’s rape lyrics (or anyone’s, really): If the rape jokes are funny, then fine. If they’re not funny, then they’re not jokes; they’re “jokes,” and you’re left with a bunch of angry kids actually talking about raping people. Simple. Is that something you’re into? Probably not.
When Tyler, the Creator released “Yonkers” in anticipation of his XL debut, he seemed to inherently understand this principle. Without losing any of the vitriol of his 2010 releases and appearances, “Yonkers” is far and away Tyler’s funniest song. “Jesus called he said he’s sick of the disses/ I told him to quit bitchin’/ This isn’t a fucking hotline”; “I’m a fucking walking paradox/ No I’m not”; “Here’s the number to my therapist/ You can tell him all your problems/ He’s fucking awesome with listening”—all deeply hilarious lines that could only be a product of that particular mind. Ignore for a second that Tyler tacked another verse on for the album that upended the whole song (dissing music publications instantly reduces you to an internet commenter). Ignore that he copped out on his whole serial-killer persona on Goblin, choosing instead to go the 10-years-stale “Am I?”/”Am I not?” Eminem route. Ignore the fact that Odd Future hasn’t made a decent rap record in ten months, but they’re still showing up on the covers of magazines. Concentrate instead on those lines and the Psycho shower scene beat, as abrasive as anything since the Bomb Squad. Concentrate on that. That’s what we were all excited about.
6. Charli XCX – “Nuclear Seasons”
The Cold War lasted 45 years, which makes it the rough equivalent to the length of teenage infatuation. On Charli XCX’s second enormous single of 2011 (the first being the Gothic-industrial “Stay Away”), she dives full on into the well-worn territory of the late 80s. Taylor Dayne and Martika, like anything else, get distorted by time. The heroic voices from Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” become brief cries from the dark. Dayne’s pristine dance-pop becomes an overblown, feedback-laden mess. Charli XCX’s hair isn’t crimped; it’s fried. The sound of “Nuclear Seasons” reflects what it would be like if we were in a standoff with the Russians now. We wouldn’t try to gloss over the situation. We’d just toss it in with all the other shittiness and add some billowing drums. Of course, “Nuclear Seasons” is actually about a teenage romantic dispute, not the Reagan Doctrine. It’s an interesting choice for a metaphor though. Love is war, baby. But it’s a boring one, so let’s get crazy.
5. Killer Mike – “Ric Flair”
The promos Killer Mike uses on “Ric Flair” come from roughly ten years into the wrestler’s four-decade run, but already Flair’s confidence has meshed with wrestling’s artifice, each illuminating the other. He’s talking shit, but his words have the effect of a Zen koan—a truth you never knew you knew. Producers Sweatbox Productions accentuate Flair’s showmanship with music that has the slight ring of a Vegas act—drumrolls, variety-show horns, and a schmaltzy soul sample. Mike lets Flair do the bragging for him, because he knows it’s part of the act. For his part, Killer Mike dispenses rote street wisdom and encourages kids to become better basketball players. Question mark? He is supposed to be the voice of authority here, and he definitely sounds it, lending gravity between Flair’s rants. But whose truths are more authentic? Does Ric Flair really have more cars than most of you have friends? Probably. Most of you don’t have that many friends.
4. Purity Ring – “Ungirthed”
Plenty of forward-thinking artists spend lots of time piling tons of shit into their songs—key changes, funky time signatures, exotic instruments, weird vocals, samples, studio trickery, kids’ choirs, rap verses, Timbaland. Sometimes those things even work. But you know what usually tends to sound like The Future? Simplicity. On “Ungirthed,” Purity Ring assembles an array of unassuming elements—synth strobes, tick-tocking electronics, zeitgeisty vocal chirps—and arranges them into a deceptively complex structure. The rhythm is the melody; the bass follows it. Nearly every chord sounds like an expression starting to escape from some robot’s mouth. Megan James sings about body parts—hands, eyes, skin, knuckles, ears ringing, teeth clicking—while her partner Corin Roddick manipulates her voice to sound like aluminum. As a whole, “Ungirthed” pulls off the rare trick of being experimental and accessible. They’re giving you a chance to acclimate to What’s Next.
3. Lil Wayne – “6’ 7’ (Feat. Cory Gunz)”
Rap—the actual act of stringing words together into compelling and clever phrases—deteriorated this year. The most interesting rappers were often the least skilled or most derivative. They are lacking in one or more of the critical areas on Kool Moe Dee’s infamous report card: Vocabulary, articulation, creativity, originality, versatility, voice, records, stage presence, sticking to themes, innovating rhythms. Rap is done, and I’m pretty sure “Six Foot Seven Foot” is most of the reason why. Lil Wayne won rap. Game over. The lyrics are so dense, so clever, so twisted that there’s nowhere to go from here. Wayne has reached maximum capacity for triple-entendres, punchlines, and phrases that take hours to unpack. Just rapping your head around the magnanimity of “Real G’s move in silence like lasagna” is a PhD waiting to happen. Six months ago, I was ready to call this the best Weezy track ever. Now, I’m almost convinced it’s the greatest rap of all time.
2. EMA – “California”
Erika M. Anderson’s ramble through “California” veers wildly from seething anger to nauseous regret. From schizophrenia to violence to folk songs. From getting punched in the mouth on Christmas morning to envying someone who’s never seen the ocean. From selling menstruation-soaked pants to sensing the taste of dirt in her mouth and mistaking it for failure. From watching Mary and Joseph, marching away from the manger with guns in hand, to watching her grandparents, to watching herself carrying the gun. The gun the gun the gun. She is exhuming everything from herself she can, and that includes blood, sex, and mess. It’s a journal entry, plain and simple. That might convey intimacy, sure, but I always wrote in my journals expecting someone else to read them someday. Private thoughts that ache for sharing. “Fuck California” means nothing if no one hears you say it; neither does an apology. “I’m just 22. I don’t mind dying,” Anderson sings, echoing the words of Bo Diddley. She is 28. When you’re 22, you do the worst shit, things you intend to atone for someday but maybe never do. And, yeah, you don’t mind dying, but it would definitely bother you if you died and no one had known you didn’t mind.
1. Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx – “I’ll Take Care of U”
Here are some running themes I keep coming back to in what I like about my favorite songs of this year: How a persona can be just as articulate about Who You Are as your “real” personality; how relying on a community can enrich an individual; and how the human voice can be expressive of things beyond the scope of language. Obviously, not all of the songs I picked for this list reflect those themes, but they’re what I kept writing and thinking about as I put this together. Now, as I settle in to write about my favorite song of 2011, I realize that it embodies all of those things.
Gil Scott-Heron may or may not have known that he was nearing the end of his life when he recorded last year’s I’m New Here. Either way, the album brought with it a certain sense of closure—of taking stock of the run that he’d had and singing about it wryly, but honestly. His version of Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You” was a little bit different. Gil Scott didn’t focus so much on himself; he focused on “you.”
Jamie xx released his remix of “I’ll Take Care of You” a couple months before Gil Scott-Heron passed away, his body ravaged by drugs, and possibly A.I.D.S. With elegiac piano and steel drum accentuating his voice, “I’ll Take Care of U” would be a great tribute to Gil Scott—if it weren’t a great tribute from him. Instead, he reaches outward, with all his suffering in the last two decades channeled through his creaking voice. With Brook Benton’s lyrics he uses clichés and plain-spoken words to communicate precisely what his poetry would never allow him to say: “I’ve loved and I’ve lost.” “Dry your weary eyes.” “I’ll take care of you.”
-Marty Brown, 2011
(If you're interested, here's a 100-song mp3 mix of my favorite 2011 music, featuring most of the songs on this list.)