This year in music has been a bit lackluster, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t a few diamonds in the rough. 2011 seems to have been the year of dubstep/chillwave and indie rock rehashes of the past four decades in music. Some did it better than others.
Due to the fact that I drag-assed on this article which was supposed to be released in 2011 (i.e. two days ago) but instead finds itself released on January, 2nd 2012 and because there were a few albums that were almost too close to call, the Top 11 has become the Top 12. Consider it either a late penalty or a bonus. Also, I plan to do a Top Tracks of 2011 to follow shortly. In the meantime, enjoy.
* * *
12. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
Oneohtrix Point Never is one of the side-projects of producer Daniel Lopatin. On a side note, every time I see his name, all I can think of is David Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China; I suppose the music of Lopatin and the otherworldly evil of Lo Pan are similarly eerie and ethereal. Ok. Back to earth.
OPN’s second LP is bizarre, plain and simple. Oneohtrix Point Never may be the perfect name for this experimental project as you feel like you’re listening to an impossible radio station. The opener, “Andro,” prepares the listener for what’s to come. There is a cathartic, shoe-gazey drone followed by a few seconds of aquatic shuffle and the final 30 seconds is a bad trip in a witch doctor’s jungle hut. The songs never stand still and leave you wondering where you’re off to next.
Each song has its own mood. ”Sleep Dealer” feels like a panic attack in a taxi cab. The title track sounds like Charlie Brown is writing suicide note. ”Submersible” is a warm, relaxing wash, but don’t get too relaxed because “Up” surprises you out of nowhere with two minutes of an African passage of rites ceremony.
Perhaps what’s most interesting aspect of the album is that Lopatin reportedly sampled found sounds from a DVD of television commercials from 1985-1993. That makes listening to compositions like “Child Soldier” all the more compelling. Who knew blending clips of product advertisements could be so unnerving? If he keeps up the good work, Daniel Lopatin may become the Byrne & Eno of ambient.
* * *
11. Sepalcure – Sepalcure
Sepalcure, the garage dubstep duo of Praveen Sharma and Travis Stewart, is an artist that I stumbled upon (in the traditional sense…at least I think) a little over a month ago. Though labeled dubstep, Sharma and Stewart inject elements of house, funk, bass and dance and then reinforce each track with an echoed vocal sample. It may sound shitty on paper (or your computer screen), but I assure you, whatever they are doing works and works well.
Sepalcure would be ideal for house DJs to spin. I don’t get out very often and so I usually just leave a few glowsticks in the freezer and put a strobe bulb in my desk lamp for when I put this album on. Tracks like “Pencil Pimp” and “Breezin” were meant to be danced to.
As soon as I heard “The One” on the way to work one morning, I knew this album was something special. Sepalcure may not be “The One” this year, but their self-titled debut was a very encouraging release. As I understand it, their is some doubt as to the recording future of Sepalcure with Travis Steward moving to Germany. Keep your fingers crossed.
* * *
10. A$AP Rocky - LiveLoveA$AP
Polo Grounds Music
LiveLoveA$AP is the only rap/hip-hop/R&B album on this list. That doesn’t mean that it should be treated like the token black guy in a teen comedy; this record earned its place on my list. A$AP Rocky was referred to me a few weeks go by a friend of a friend. I have to admit, I was immediately skeptical when I heard the name. Outside of his second album, I’ve always though of Aesop Rock as over-rated and so it’s beyond me why A$AP would choose the name that he did. I mean, it’s funny, but… Plus, the $ just makes me think of Ke$ha and then all I can smell is haddock and gym socks. Then I saw the album cover: flag, flannel and french inhale. I gave it a shot anyhow, and I’m glad that I did.
A$AP’s flow is decent and shows some range. His lyrics aren’t anything to write home about necessarily, but are consistently entertaining if nothing else. My friend and I got laughing about about “I don’t give an F, told ya I’m a G.” More than anything else, Rocky just seems to have an intelligent approach to rap knowing who and what’s come before him.
The beats are terrific and remind me of Lil Wayne’s mixtape ear (which is far better than his commercial ear). A good portion of the album is produced by Clams Casino who gained a lot of critical notoriety this year after the release of his Instrumentals. The album plays like a bottle of codeine pours. A more appropriate title for the album might be Pink n’ Purple. You finish the album and expect to taste O.P.P and a Jolly Rancher.
The Pretty Boy may be a case of right place right time: New York City in the 2010′s. However, if he matures and forms the right connections he’ll be the next rap explosion. He’s definitely talented evidenced by the fact that he’s already got himself a huge contract with RCA/Sony. Let’s see what he does with it.
* * *
9. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
It would be easy to write Kurt Vile off as the indie rock answer to Tom Petty…so, I’m not going to do it. Vile is just as gifted on guitar, and is more impressive from a lyrics standpoint anyway. Plus, his face doesn’t look like it’s melting, although it’s hard to tell with all the hair.
2011′s Smoke Ring For My Halo shows Vile at his best to date. Listen to “Baby’s Arms” and tell me it’s not a gorgeous love song. If you do, I’d probably say “Well, that’s your opinion,” wait for you to walk away and then mutter, “asshole.” The finger work on songs like “Runner Ups” and “Peeping Tomboy” is impeccable.
The album cover might be just perfect. You put on Smoke Ring For My Halo and you feel like your listening to that friend of a friend in your college apartment who had a little too much whiskey, asked to borrow your guitar and then goes in the other room to be alone. You have no idea why he’s so mopey, or why your roommate allowed him to smoke cigarettes in the apartment, but you know that he’ll be sleeping on your couch and you’ll be listening to him play until he falls asleep.
* * *
8. Iceage – New Brigade
What’s Your Rupture?
It’s hard to claim a level of greatness in under 30 minutes of musical production, but if anyone did it this year it’s Iceage. It’s even harder to claim greatness before 20-years old. Iceage is a four-pack of Danish teenagers. Do you want to know what I was doing at 19?
Their 24-minute debut, New Brigade, has a ferocious energy and a relentless pace. Their sound falls somewhere in between 1970′s Wire and Swell Maps, 1980′s Husker Du and Fugazi and the more contemporary American West Coast scene. It’s nothing new per-say, but their execution is so near flawless that you forget all about the story of hardcore punk/postpunk. Their “Just a Broken Bone” approach, complete with bloody-faced live shows, has garnered them some major critical attention across the pond. If Iceage follows New Brigade with an as good sophomore release, I guarantee you will see global touring.
* * *
7. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
True Panther Sounds
Father, Son, Holy Ghost feels familiar after a single listen. It’s no wonder considering that virtually every song on the album pulls a chord progression, harmony, riff or vocal styling from another artist. What pisses me off is that I had assembled a list of the artists that Girls “borrow” from only to discover that anybody that has reviewed the album has done the same thing. So much for being original…
What sets Girls apart from other bands that rehash pop/rock familiars is that they are able to effectively assign their own identity to the songs. Does the opener, “Honey Bunny,” sound unmistakably like Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”? Sure, but the humorous self-deprecating lyrics in the first minute and a half give way to a somber recollection of mother that shows Owens’ gift for songwriting. Does Owen’s soft hum ape Either/Or era Elliott Smith? Absolutely, but it doesn’t feel out of place or cheap on the track. It’s that fine line between imitation and emulation, but Girls stay on the right side of the line
* * *
6. Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde
Smith Westerns is another group of toddlers, recording their debut s/t album in 2009 while they were still in high school. Smith Westerns had the immediate charm that only a group of high school boys performing lo-fi, psychedelic glam rock in a basement could have. Put those boys in a studio and what do you get? Dye It Blonde.
Dye it Blonde is start-to-finish fun. Just like their debut, the songs are mercilessly catchy and would make it difficult to decide on “the” single. Though I’m always concerned when a lo-fi band decides to drop the lo, the production value doesn’t detract from the album. Now Cullen Omori’s boyish Bolan isn’t so muffled. In songs like “Weekend” and “Imagine Pt. 3″ you get a taste of some Britpop. Dye it Blonde is like Teenage Rex.
Smith Westerns must be doing something right to have been picked up by Fat Possum. They’ll have no shortage of artists to tour with.
* * *
5. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
I reviewed this one last month and I encourage you to check out the full review: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
I knew when I first heard this album, even before I decided to write this article, that it was going to be one of my favorites of the year. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a big reason why I have over 400 plays for M83 this year on allmusic.com.
In short, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming feels like an epic (22 tracks), but it can easily be taken in in one sitting. Though it differs from Anthony Gonzales’ early work, it’s a hop (if not a skip or jump) in the right direction.
* * *
4. James Blake - James Blake
Long story short, James Blake is a prodigy despite his flannel, adult-Bieber look. The 23-year-old Brit recorded in his bedroom while studying music at Goldsmiths University of London, began releasing music in 2009 with the EP, Air and Lack Thereof, and is now releasing on a major label. Though his critical acclaim hasn’t really crossed the Atlantic, James Blake has proved to be one of the most important solo artists in recent musical history, dubstep aside.
His self titled release admittedly doesn’t catch you on the first listen; in fact, it may even leave you wondering what all the hype is about. Or maybe just a little uneasy. It’s not an album that lends itself to immediate gratification. With each repeat listen, you come away with more.
Blake has a silky, soulful voice for a skinny white boy which really enriches tracks like “The Willhelm Scream” and “I Never Learned to Share” and calls Jeff Buckley to mind. His attention to production is meticulous if not obsessive compulsive, particularly on “Tep and Logic” and “Unluck.” His pop sensibility and piano work make the cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” great instead of good. Basically, Blake is the total dubstep package.
James, maybe you didn’t share with your brother and your sister, but I’m glad you shared with us.
* * *
3. The Field - Looping State of Mind
There were a handful of ambient/dubstep/electronica instrumentals worthy of noting this year. The Field’s Looping State of Mind blew them all out of the water. Producer Alex Willner seems at his most confident with his third release which is far more exploratory than his first two releases. Until Looping, Willner was sometimes snubbed as formulaic; Looping State of Mind effectively separates Willner from the conventionality of electronic music.
I think Willner might have syntax dyslexia because the opening track, “Is This Power,” is clearly supposed to read “This Is Power.” It builds off of a dub bass, droning synth melody and Kraftwerk-esque tap and smack percussion…and then the bottom falls out leaving the stripped down bass and some simple percussion. It serves the same function as Gang of Four’s anti-solos; you break a song down to its essentials so that it seems all the more funky when the rest of the instrumentation is re-introduced.
“It’s Up There” and “Arpeggiated Love” might be the most Field-like tracks on the album, but they reach a sonic depth that was never reached in his earlier releases owing to the deep house feel and overall broader composition. ”Then It’s White” with its dreamy, melancholic piano loop and fuzzy cooing is The Field’s answer to Monthy Python’s “And Now For Something Completely Different…”
Willner made his name as a electronic minimalist, but I would hope that even Field purists appreciate all that he’s accomplished on Looping State of Mind.
* * *
2. Atlas Sound - Parallax
Atlas Sound is the solo side-project of Deerhunter’s front man, Bradley Cox. Cox has five albums under his belt with Deerhunter and has now released a total of seven albums (including four volumes of the Bedroom Databank last year) not to mention covers and unreleased tracks that appear only on his blog. Ambitious much?
Parallax opens with “The Shakes” where he sings from the perspective of a pop/rock Charles Foster Kane: “Found money and fame / but I found them really late. / So in my mansion I’d sit / waiting for it all to end.” Then it’s off into experimental rock akin to Thinking Fellers with “Amplifiers.” ”Te Amo” is a beautiful song where Cox opens up vocally and reels the listener back in. (“Te Amo” will also be going on my playlist of songs that could find themselves on a soundtrack for a Legend of Zelda movie. It’s got a Koji Kondo feel to it that would go great for a scene in a Hyrulean marketplace…this is not meant as an insult…Jesus, I’m such a dork). The back and forth between alternative pop/rock and more experimental rock is at the album’s core. I pulled this from dictionary.com:
par.al.lax [par-uh-laks] (n.) – the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer.
Sounds about right. Parallax is ever-shifting but Cox has both hands on the tether to pull (sometimes yank) his listener (the observer of sound) back in.
“Mona Lisa” has an ridiculously catchy Britpoppiness about it. ”Praying Man” has the self-conscious/self-righteous character which may host Cox’s musical ego. ”Angel is Broken” begins with a …Bright Lights era Interpol riff and then evolves into a surprisingly warm track despite the title. Maybe he knows where the angel glue at?? The coda, “Lightworks” is the ‘yank’ I mentioned earlier after the drowsy “Flagstaff.” It’s about as good a send off as I could have hoped for.
Parallax makes me remember the days when I used the term “alternative rock” glowingly…the 90′s. I sincerely hope that Bradley Cox begins to get more critical recognition for his music; but at the same time, I hope he doesn’t become the burnt out pop/rock pseudo-icon of “The Shakes.” One thing I don’t have to worry about, evidenced by his excessive production over the past five years, is Cox hanging up his musical spurs.
* * *
1. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Strange Mercy was the only album that I knew was going to be in my top 3 records of the year three weeks ago. I know at least a dozen guys, myself included, that have wanted to marry Annie Clark (St. Vincent) since her debut album, Marry Me. Clark added a third album to her hysterically strong catalog in 2011 (see what I did there?).
On the new album, Clark breaks away from the cutesy image on her first record. Not that the anger, sadness and terror wasn’t there the whole time, it was just overshadowed by the sweet delivery on her first two albums. Now the emotions are clear and affecting. You can still be in love with Annie Clark, but I wouldn’t piss her off and expect to get away unscathed. This kitten’s got claws!
Though the albums is tracked extremely well, each song could function as their own little narrative journey. “Chloe in the Afternoon” is “Afternoon Delight” meets “Venus in Furs.” ”Surgeon” begins like Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” and ends with Parliament’s “Flash Light.” How does she get there? By telling the story of a woman who likens sex to surgery. The most moving song is the title track. ”Lost boys” whose father is in prison, but they are still being protected by either their mother or some other benevolent force, “sneaking out where the shivers won’t find [them].” The lyrical stories are one of the strongest aspects of the album.
Strange Mercy is absolutely stacked and so you shouldn’t be surprised if you see more than one song off of this album on my Top Tracks of 2011 list. Oh, and if you don’t want to be my cheerleader no more, I’ll gladly be your cheerleader, Annie.
* * *
I’m sure that I’ve made some of you happy and some of you livid. If you didn’t see an artist up there that you were upset about, check back for the Top Tracks of 2011 list and you just might find your artist there. Anyways, I’m going to get a jump start on 2012 so that I’m not releasing an article at the 13th hour again.