The Best Music of 2011 [#50-#31]
December 20, 2011 1 Comment
Our official countdown begins with albums 50 through 31. Although I was inclined to present these in groups of 10 with no particular order, that isn’t much fun. What’s the good of a Top 50 List if you can’t be totally outraged that a record ranked 47th instead of 34th?
So let the outrage begin!
As always, you can check out lots of music from this list on our Spotify playlist.
50. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx, We’re New Here
I thought Izzie B put it well in nom’ing this remix record of Gil Scott-Heron’s last album, and singling out “I’ll Take Care of U” for special appreciation. “Drake took that remix for Take Care, and while I really, really appreciate Rihanna’s vocals, I have to credit the original because the first time I heard that instrumental, I had chills up and down my spine.”
49. Night Birds, Fresh Kills #1
A great find by DBuu. He explains: “A collection of the first three 7″ releases about B-movies and freaks from this surf-ish punk band. There’s something about the songs and the style that remind me of music I got into when I was 15, sort of in that ‘touched for the very first time’ kind of way.”
48. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up
This is an incredible record that Noish brought to my attention. Did you know that Butterfly from Digable Planets is not only still in the game — he’s dropping records as fresh as anything out there? Black Up is a pretty raw, rhyme-focused record that is way out on the experimental tip. It’s kind of tough to explain what’s going on with this one, so check out “Swerve… the Reeping of All That is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)” on Spotify.
47. Iceage, New Brigade
Wha-bamm! Punk rock Danes on a mission to slay. DBuu pointed out that Iceage’s hype exceeds their greatness at this juncture, but dubbed this a “solid listen.” Twelve tightly-packed, rapid and intense tracks make this album well worth checking out for fans of noisy rock.
46. Van Hunt, What Were You Hoping For?
Fresh off having his last album buried by the record label — apparently Blue Note dislikes F bombs? — this protege of American Idol’s Randy Jackson (it’s not as bad as it sounds) returned with a fury. This self-released collection of songs dwells on recession-era blues and the misery of modern life — but the tracks are tinged with an upbeat funk that’s tough to deny. Tracks like “A Time Machine is My New Girlfriend” bust out in all directions, making you work your mind and your head-nod all at once.
45. Cass McCombs, Humor Risk
Cass McCombs released two full-lengths this year, and while WIT’S END has gotten more praise, I think Humor Risk is a more enjoyable record. This journeyman troubadour has been touring for a solid decade and his road-weariness translates straight into the music in a great way. Cuts like “The Same Thing” combine a propulsive groove with haunting harmonies. It’s a very impressive outing.
44. Arctic Monkeys, Suck It and See
The scoundrels from Sheffield return with another solid record that Mikey Jones called one of his favorites of the year. Though they are no longer working with Josh Homme as producer, they’re still rocking remnants of that sweet QOTSA sound on tracks like “Library Pictures,” and Homme appears on backing vox for one track. I’m more impressed, though, by some of the cleverer tracks like “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “Black Treacle.” Frontman Alex Turner is in great form throughout.
42. Toro y Moi, Underneath the Pine
Another of the growing legion of chillwave bands, aka lone dudes with synths and computers composing gentle melodies in their tastefully furnished apartments. Chazwick Bundick (supposedly that is a real name) is a bestie of Washed Out guru Ernest Greene, but decidedly the lesser of the two for now. Underneath the Pine is a good record, though; “How I Know” is a particular standout track and one of the better achievements of the genre thus far. It’s got a pretty damn tasty chorus. Definitely worth a pickup.
42. Bright Eyes, The People’s Key
I’ve read that Bright Eyes purists are revolting because this album was deemed “too poppy.” I have never really liked (or understood what was so great about) Bright Eyes and I thought this was marginally better than previous releases, so maybe I’m too poppy too? At any rate, C. Dave calls this one of his favorite records of the year so I’d be a fool to disrespect that opinion. Forty-second place it is.
41. Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls
The witty DBuu again: “It’s like if the Vaselines wrote songs about finding love in a graveyard and did Roky Erickson covers. Live, the lady singer plays an cartoonishly large guitar. ‘Come on Over’ would be track #1 on a mixtape to a lady.”
40. The Black Keys, El Camino
These fuckin’ guys. A year after hitting our Top 10 with Brothers, the Akron blues-rockers re-enlisted the great Danger Mouse for El Camino and recieved…not a single vote from our panel. Maybe it’s because this album came out in December, or maybe it’s because they have been utter bitches about keeping the record from any kind of streaming action beyond a couple of singles (you can listen to a bunch of cuts on their website, but you have to sign up for the mailing list).
Although it causes me rage when the Black Keys complain about how they can’t participate in Spotify because they can’t afford to lose any money, then turn around and boast on Facebook about how they moved soooo many records and sold out MSG — I still liked this album. Soft spot for Danger Mouse, I guess. “Little Black Submarines” unleashes a massive thunderbolt about a minute in, “Run Right Back” is a great groove and “Lonely Boy” has some choice, soulful background vox (and an awesome video, above). Nothing here touches the remarkable “Everlasting Light” from Brothers, but it’s a record worth owning for sure. Even if these guys are being total dicks.
39. Atlas Sound, Parallax
The best solo record yet from Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, while in the guise of his Atlas Sound side project. This was a strong recommendation from Nils Coq au Vin, and I think it exceeds a lot of the other synth-rock I heard this year. Cox augments the synthesized atmospherics with urgent and impactful vocal performances that express his troubled mental state. Standouts include the gorgeous “Te Amo” and the shuffling “Mona Lisa.”
38. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine
One of several Mercury Prize nominees to crack our list this year, this is an incredible record brought to my attention by C. Dave. King Creosote is an old-school Scottish folksman, and Jon Hopkins is a new-school English electronic guru. The combination of Creosote’s homespun melodies and the stealthily-crafted contributions of Hopkins makes for a highly compelling release. “Bats in the Attic” is a great example: as Hopkins explains, “You can hear the guitar part from his original version at the beginning, but I played it back through a mobile phone speaker simulation to decimate the quality, so that it retained its rhythm, but none of its notes, giving me freedom to change the chords of the song completely.” Hell and yes! Now that’s what I call music!
37. Battles, Gloss Drop
C. Dave’s commentary on this album was too good not to quote: “Even though I was a bit disappointed, still maybe my favorite ‘sound’ currently. Wish I had a less lame word than ‘sound’.” With former lead vocalist Tyondai Braxton leaving the fold, genius drummer John Stanier comes to the fore as the key player in the band. A revolving door of singers yields mixed results, but high points are pretty damn high. I love “Sweetie & Shag” with Blonde Redhead vocalist Kazu Makino, and “Ice Cream” with Matias Aguayo has drawn web-wide raves. When Battles is locked in, they achieve an incredibly potent recipe of audio tastiness.
36. Wild Flag, Wild Flag
I worship Janet Weiss on drums. She absolutely crushes it. I’m on board for basically anything she does.
This album was recommended highly by the Business Casual, who I think I might start calling Biz Cash because she knows how to handle both. Tough to see this Carrie Brownstein-fronted band as anything less than a Fuck You to Corin Tucker, the only key member of Sleater Kinney who isn’t in Wild Flag (though a recent Portlandia piece in the NYer argues otherwise). The record itself is uneven, but I thought “Glass Tambourine” was a monster jam, and “Electric Band” was a keeper as well. Good call, Biz Cash.
35. Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne
Easily the most overrated album of the year. But that doesn’t mean that it sucked, exactly. It was just kind of…boring. Kanye’s production always sounds great, and Jay-Z’s flows are tough to criticize, but there wasn’t much here to astound or amaze. My overall reaction to this record was “OK, I get it — you guys are rich.” Watch the Throne doesn’t access any ground that hasn’t been tread more impactfully before by either Jay or ‘Ye, and in particular, it seems like a huge step down from last year’s aurally astonishing and highly personal My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I did not hate this record, but I can’t contain my bafflement when critics say this was the best album of the year, or very close to it. It definitely wasn’t.
That said, there were two tracks that I really, really enjoyed and that made this album well worth picking up. “No Church in the Wild” was a superb coming-out party for Frank Ocean, who is quickly proving to be the class of the Odd Future Wolf Gang. And while the lyrical content of “That’s My Bitch” is subpar at best, the interpolation of vocal performances from Ellie Jackson of La Roux and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is Kanye West, Producer at his best. The fact that Vernon didn’t even know he was on the record until after it came out — meaning that, mid-production, Kanye was all “Yo, let me throw some Bon Iver from my files in there and make it insanely funky” — blows my mind. Hat tip to that, nose turned up at everything else.
34. James Blake, James Blake
Another Mercury Prize nominee. This debut album is awesome. James Blake was repped by Noish and I’ll gladly second. One track in particular earned my love and respect: “Limit To Your Love.” Dude can SANG. He takes a Feist cover and imbues it with some serious white boy soul. Then the audio effects kick in, gently at first — with a kind of wobbling thing going on that makes your mind separate from your body a little bit. Weird, disembodied harmonies creep in as the vocals repeat the same mesmerizing line. You can really lose yourself in this one. A helluva great song.
33. Cymbals Eat Guitars, Lenses Alien
An outstanding nomination by Serious Nihilism. The Staten Island band’s sophomore outing is a gem: Malkmus-inspired rock that manages to be both melancholy and uplifting all at once — and if that’s not 2011 in music, I don’t know what is. My favorite song is “Definite Darkness” — great vocals, backing vox, indie axemanship and passionate work from the rhythm section — that song pretty much sums up everything I loved about this record.
32. Radiohead, The King of Limbs
It’s probably unfair to hold Radiohead to the standard of their best work, but anything less than a masterpiece from this band seems like a disappointment — and this record is not a masterpiece. Still, legit songs like “Codex” and “Morning Mr Magpie” make King of Limbs a must-add to any Radiohead fan’s catalog…and I assume that category encompasses everyone reading this…right? Plus, Thom Yorke’s grooving in the “Lotus Flower” video was an eternal gift to the Internet.
31. Widowspeak, Widowspeak
A Brooklyn band whose debut seems pretty damn auspicious to me. According to Pitchfork, “Harsh Realm” was recorded after only six live performances as a band. Frontwoman Molly Hamilton is oft compared to Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, but I’m also reminded of the tones of Best Coast and the somewhat obscure Other Desert Cities band Gram Rabbit. Essentially, then, Widowspeak infuses their Brooklyn rock with mellow Southern California tinges, creating a pretty heady brew.
I’m all in on songs like “In the Pines” and “Gun Shy.” They sound like the music that’d be playing on the soundtrack as our heroes head off to an epic and possibly disastrous showdown in the third act of the film. Put it this way, blood will be spilt.
Admittedly, this is an aggressive ranking, but I thoroughly enjoyed Widowspeak and foresee awesome things for this band on future releases. Thought I’d secure bragging rights now for repping them from the jumpoff.
For more great music, check out the articles below or fire up this Spotify playlist.
|THE BEST MUSIC OF 2011
Introduction, Hon Mentions,
Rap Hits and Pop Songs