If there was a year where music met the digital, it was 2011. It was the year where the persona encompassed the artist to the point where it mattered more than the music. The obsession over identity explains the rise of Odd Future, the polarizing Lana Del Rey, Kreayshawn, and countless other hyped artists. Though it’s been said, many times, many ways, Twitter and social networking have changed the perception of our favorite artists forever. Who would Tyler, the Creator be without @fucktyler? How could The Weeknd have emerged without Drake tweeting about them and without their ability to create an initial image through a free, downloadable mixtape and smoky, hazy static-image YouTube videos. Would ASAP Rocky have gotten a $3 million record deal?
That being said, my favorite music of 2011 largely stays out of these battles. With the possible exception of The Weeknd, there was no artist who leveraged their ability to construct an identity through the digital age and embody that space in their music. That’s not an easy task, and to date, only Kanye pulled it off last year with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Strictly musically, 2011 was a year where every genre flourished, and I became more and more invested in hip-hop as the most culturally important genre around right now. It’s another product of going digital, with more and more artists gaining enough publicity for us to notice. More and more artists have the tools to create music. It’s a wonderful time for music, with two of the best years in memory coming in succession. Here’s to a 2012 that pushes even further (and also we all die in the apocalypse just before Detox drops).
Tyler Fisher’s Top 25 Albums of 2011
While Relax hardly reaches the excellence of the rap group’s two mixtapes preceding it, it does establish an identity for Das Racist. They establish themselves as rappers and as social critics while maintaining that aloof sense of humor that lifted them in the first place. When Heems and Kool A.D. focus themselves, such as on lead single “Michael Jackson” or on posse cut “Power”, they’re as potent a duo as any active rap group.
It’s like when Jónsi invented his own language on ( ) the way Ellery Roberts blurts out whatever syllable seems right at the time, but there’s also those climactic moments where you actually know what he’s saying. I can’t wait to see them live and wait for the moment when we can all scream “WE BROOOOOS!”
There’s hardly a more unique voice in rap to emerge in 2011. Danny Brown is disgustingly graphic, maddeningly persistent, and borderline insane given the cadence of his voice and his fashion choices and hairstyle. And it’s all wonderful. XXX promises some great things in the future, and it’s all the more exciting when he pairs up with Das Racist all the time.
Simon Reynolds pretty much said it all in his Maximal Nation article last week, but there’s something extremely impressive about the pure virtuosity of Rustie’s Glass Swords, even if it’s all sequenced and layered digitally, and Rustie probably didn’t have to actually play most of the impressive synth licks on the album up to speed. But that doesn’t change how amazing Glass Swords sounds, and its sonic world is as enveloping as any electronica release this year. It would probably rank higher on this list if I hadn’t started listening to it last week.
Given how incredibly disappointing dredg’s Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy was, I like to imagine an alternate universe where dredg actually made “Ariel” from Stateless’s Matilda. I don’t have much justification for this, except that the looped guitar riff is something Mark Engles might do, and Stateless vocalist Chris James sounds a hell of a lot like Gavin Hayes (but only on “Ariel”, for whatever reason). Other than that, it sounds nothing like dredg, but when has dredg stuck to a sound anyway? Back to the point, Matilda filled the void that Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy left in me this year because it sounds like nothing else – something I expect out of a dredg album. From the emotive and dramatic “I’m on Fire” to the restless opener “Curtain Call”, the album encompasses a huge sonic palette, but it somehow all fits together, just like “An Elephant in the Delta Waves” somehow made sense on El Cielo.
I’ve been through a bit of a rough patch with post-rock and ambient. I’m bored by them. But not Tim Hecker, who manages to break free of all the stereotypes that ambient has against it by making truly impassioned music, never afraid to step beyond the placid nature of most ambient music and make something abrasive if he needs to.
Most of the people enamored with tUnE-yArDs have seen her live, controlling drums, instrumental loops, vocals, and everything else almost entirely by herself, constructing pop opuses out of thin air. That’s not entirely clear on the album, as it just seems like overdub after overdub. If you’re not into tUnE-yArDs, watch some live videos.
I saw someone call Nicolas Jaar “the new James Blake”, and while it seems a little foolish to be replacing Blake so quickly while he’s riding such a tidal wave of press, it’s a reasonable proposition. Although Jaar is clearly the more electronic-focused artist than Blake and not really involved in the dubstep scene at all, they operate under the same minimal ideals. Warped vocals and samples become evocative instruments. Space Is Only Noise gets a little too abstract, sometimes muttering under its breath what could be a fully-formed idea, but its excellent moments (“Variations”, “Space Is Only Noise That You Can See”) are simply brilliant and full of promise.
I was all ready to call this my album of the year before it even got released. An app album? That sounds amazing! I went as far as to say that apps would be the new music videos (I still don’t think it’s that ridiculous) within the next few years, and everybody would be hiring app designers, not video directors, to promote their music. That being said, I still haven’t bought the Biophilia apps, even though I own an iPad. I’m sure they’re awesome and add to the musical experience. After the breakbeat freakout of lead single “Crystalline”, Biophilia is surprisingly minimal, but that makes it even more of a gorgeous album. It’s not album of the year material, but still a Björk album, which is alone worth the listen.
Honestly, I don’t know much about garage, and I haven’t liked much of what I heard (FaltyDL, for example), but Sepalcure is an incredible album. It’s immersive in the way that Scuba’s Triangulation was last year, but filled with uptempo grooves and samples that recall Burial’s Untrue in a way no album has since.
My initial review of this expressed disappointment in Watch the Throne, and while time has healed much of that disappointment, there’s still the feeling that this album could have been the best album of the year bar none, especially with the creative high that Kanye has been riding arguably since 808s and Heartbreak. On the production side, Kanye still rides that high, bringing out the best in the RZA, Q-Tip, and other big-name producers for some truly incredible beats. The album still sounds premium and will for years. Much of the disappointment lies with what Kanye and Jay did with those beats: they had fun. It’s hard to fault them for having fun, especially when Watch the Throne is so fun to listen to as a result.
Stetson is another artist I didn’t fully understand until I watched some live clips. The whole album doesn’t make sense until you realize that he’s circular breathing, that his saxophone is the instrument making those screeching metal sounds, and that those overtones come in the same take as the bass drone track. The distant screams that torture the album are Stetson screaming through the saxophone while he plays. These are one-take performances. Though Stetson does everything on his saxophone, it’s an album clearly inspired by ambient and the digital age. By evoking the ethereal textures of ambient music, Stetson taps into something spiritual on New History Warfare Vol. 2.
I don’t like Christopher Owen as a person (I transcribed an interview with him, so I totally know him), but he makes beautiful music. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is full of platitudes, like the diary of a teenage boy enamored with his first love: “Just a look was all it took/Suddenly I’m on the hook/It’s magic.” The lyrics all over this album could, in the hands of most musicians, be incredibly cheesy. But Owen and the rest of Girls elevate the lyrics to a higher, heartfelt level with some incredible songwriting. It’s not original, but Owen only borrowed from the best, making Father, Son, Holy Ghost a crown jewel of 2011.
Major/Minor is the best album where Thrice does Thrice. They don’t step anywhere outside the box, not even the electronica stretches that permeated back-to-basics album Beggars. It’s the best pure rock album released this year, and it has “Words in the Water”, one of the best songs Thrice has ever written. I’d like to think that the huge cadence into the major-keyed section of that song inspired the album title. There’s hardly a more powerful moment in music this year.
It’s a shame that The Roots decided to release this album in the first week of December. December is almost never considered in year-end lists, not that a year-end list should matter to The Roots at this point. Their job on Jimmy Fallon’s show has them in the best place in their career, which makes it all the more amazing that they could make as dark and despairing an album as undun. For their past two albums, The Roots have ignored themselves (no one wants a happy-go-lucky Roots album about how great New York is) and stepped to social issues and abstractions, and it has served Black Thought well, as he turns in his best performance in a decade. He embodies the character of Redford Stephens, reportedly inspired by family members of his own, and tells the most gripping story of a street-bred dealer since [insert character from The Wire here].
During the Pitchfork festival this summer, St. Vincent ran teasers for her album featuring three women talking at the camera. I don’t remember the first two, but the third was Annie Clark herself, delivering a quick, matter-of-fact, “I love you but I have to let you go.” It’s this kind of conflict that has dominated Clark’s music, but on Strange Mercy, that conflict meets the music as well, as Clark shreds all over the otherwise pleasant backing music, unleashing her guitar chops in a way she never has before. The result is a more dramatic, more effective album. Strange Mercy is her best album to date, and she has no signs of stopping.
If it weren’t for Colin Stetson, this album would have the best use of saxophone this year, that sax solo in “Midnight City”. “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea” is one of the few things deserving of the word “epic”. And the picture I chose? It’s inspired by the most heartwarming sample of a kid I’ve ever heard in “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”. There are so many tracks– a surprising amount of tracks– on this double album by M83 that get unique descriptors and memorable moments. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is truly an achievement.
More than any other genre, hip-hop seems obsessed with “Who’s Next?” With Section.80, Kendrick Lamar established himself as the answer to that question. He’s a rapid-fire rapper with not only a unique accent that makes him instantly recognizable, but a unique voice that makes him instantly memorable. “Fuck Your Ethnicity” opens the album, and as rappers like Kreayshawn and Das Racist gaining steam, the song’s memorable chorus, “Now I don’t give a fuck if you/Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, goddammit/That don’t mean shit to me, fuck your ethnicity,” seems like an anthem for the coming, integrated generation of hip-hop. He’s touring with Drake and ASAP Rocky this coming year, so look out for Kendrick to be one of the biggest names in hip-hop in the coming years. It’ll be well-deserved.
I hated Drake on Thank Me Later, and I hated him intensely. But something changed between his debut album and Take Care, which you can see on his guest appearances (“I’m on One”, “What’s My Name?”, “The Zone”) and the songs that appeared but didn’t make the cut for Take Care (“Free Spirit”). He completely stepped into his voice and his sound, with even DJ Khaled producing with his constructed sound with Noah “40” Shebib in mind. His flow improved, not relying on his annoying random sing-song in every 16 bars to make a point. Take Care beats down on most of Drake’s familiar topics – loving fame, hating fame, Toronto, money, and guilt – but it’s done better than he’s ever done it before. The album’s proponents compare it to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it’s more like 808s and Heartbreak, an album enveloped in a sound and a mood.
Oh my, that is an awful image. See, I started a blog with some friends this year called Bon Iverson (already defunct), with the idea that we would cover pop culture and sports under one umbrella. For many of us, basketball is our favorite sport, so Iverson made sense. For the musical end, Bon Iver was about as good of a representative as we were going to get. Justin Vernon has represented so much of indie world since For Emma, Forever Ago (transformed into For Allen, Forever Ago for us), and he works with Kanye now? Can’t be a cooler guy. We also formed the blog fresh of his release of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, which pushed his own music to unfathomable new heights. Double bass drums? Beautiful horn arrangements? The best 80s ballad I’ve ever heard? It’s all here.
Palaceer Lazaro, Ishamel Butler, Shabazz Palaces – whatever you call him – this man just sounds like the future, until you find out that he’s actually been rapping since 1992 and was in Digable Planets. Then you start working backwards, tracing the grey hairs in Butler’s beard, ignoring the bass swells and bleeps and bloops associated with Black Up. “Shit, I’m dressin’ like I was at the Ali/Frazier fight!” he exclaims in “Recollections of the wraith”. Butler’s prose is closer to cummings than Kanye. And finally, there’s that ever-telling moment at the end of the album, where “Black is you, black is me, black is us, black is free” invokes “Escapism” from his Digable Planets past. While Black Up looks forward musically, it’s an album all about establishing identity in the past and the present.
He’s the golden child of electronic music, the savior that can absorb the clusterfuck of genres batted around in today’s scene. But on James Blake, Blake has no interest in speaking to the electronic music snobs that promoted him from the beginning (though they love the album too). This is Blake’s version of Adele’s 21, a pop-facing, heartbreaking album full of piano ballads and anthems. Sure, the anthems are twisted (“My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them” repeated ad nauseam), but they’re memorable and effective. The most accurate comparison I’ve seen for James Blake – and it’s been endlessly compared – is to Kid A. It’s an album that filters everything groundbreaking in the electronic scene and faces it towards pop.
It’s rare that an artist releases something two times in one year, let alone two full-lengths, let alone two excellent full-lengths. But that’s exactly what Abel Tesfaye and his production team did with The Weeknd. They’re #2 and #3 here, and they’re both pretty interchangeable in terms of ranking. While certainly standalone releases in their own right, when taken as two pieces of a larger canon (with Echoes of Silence to come), there’s already a trend to be noticed. In House of Balloons, Tesfaye did everything with his voice, putting himself above the production at all times. On Thursday, the production starts to overwhelm him, and his voice is more an instrument in the overall package. “Initiation”, the only track we’ve heard from what I assume will be Echoes of Silence so far, takes that even further, pitch-altering Tesfaye’s voice up and down to create an even more fucked up, drug-addled atmosphere. Tesfaye could have easily found success by crooning drunk love songs for the rest of his career, but he’s clearly more ambitious than that. Illangelo and Doc McKinney, the production team behind the project, have created a sound clearly built out of Drake’s but influenced by much more far-ranging sources. But I’ve already discussed that sound too much this year. On to the best album of 2011…
Once again, I’ve said more about this album than should ever be said. In the year of personas, Fleet Foxes countered that trend with an album that put the music first. I’ll borrow fellow staffer Conrad Tao’s summary: “There’s nothing genuine in music anymore. Except, of course, when there is.”