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12.19.11 Best Of 2011

Best Of 2011

Yes, I know it's effin long. This was published (and formatted properly) on and I thought I'd share.
10Wye Oak

"We Were Wealth"
Sheer volume and raucous energy are two qualities most often cited when admiring accomplished rock duos like the White Stripes, the Black Keys, and No Age --- the old "how can two people possibly make that much noise?" argument. And while I'd wager Wye Oak's singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner could give Jack White a run for his money in a shredding competition, she and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack succeed for very different reasons on their second full album Civilian. Listening to the luxurious aural details on "Two Small Deaths" or the layered climax of "We Were Wealth," it's immediately apparent that Wye Oak's sound has a richness, a fullness, that any band, whether two person or five, would covet.
Largely, it's a testament to their remarkable ability to do several things at once, whether it's Stack drumming with one hand while playing keyboards with the other, or Wasner interweaving contradictory states of uncertainty, yearning, and resilience into compositions that simultaneously project power and vulnerability. "I wanted to give you everything/But I still stand in awe of superficial things" she reluctantly admits over the title track's ragged country thump, words whose honesty and breathy weight feel excavated from some deep, gritty emotional center. The exceptional quality of Wasner's songwriting along with the genuine, sleepy-eyed coolness she projects just before bludgeoning your ears with the overdrive pedal on her Reverend Jetstream will have many late-to-the-game critics predicting greatness for the next album this criminally overlooked Baltimore duo makes. But don't miss Civilian; that future is now.
9 Burial

It's been four years plus since Burial released his seminal Untrue, an ominous, light-absorbing collage of clattering 2-step, cavernous subway tunnel echo, and obscure pitch-fucked R&B samples, perhaps the most original and compelling sonic manifestation of urban despair this young century has yet to offer. It's the kind of music for creeping along in alleyways, shuffling past rain-filled gutters, and peering into (but staying just out of) shelter's warm light. Burial (a.k.a. Will Bevan) got it so right, so quickly that he's been understandably reluctant to venture back out into the fray, preferring anonymity to fame's bright bulbs.
But like a tea kettle letting off steam, Burial resurfaced in trickles and bubbles in 2011; first the out-of-nowhere "Street Halo" single, then Four Tet/Thom Yorke collaboration "Ego" and b-side "Mirror," then finally a transcendent remix of Massive Attack's "Paradise Circus." Burial's willingness to tweak his vinyl crackles and smeared sound style by collaborating with other artists is surprising but understandable --- he possesses one of the most recognizable sonic milieus of the last decade but is confronted with the Scylla and Charybdis dilemma of either growing stale or fucking with perfection.
Damned if you do and damned if you don't, Burial somehow chooses neither, instead lurking in a nether region of remixes, collabs, limited vinyl releases and internet rips, eerily similar to the tremulous, nocturnal soundscapes he creates. Burial recording tracks with heavyweights like Four Tet and Thom Yorke isn't just a music fan's wet dream, it?s a confirmation why pretty girls always seems to hang out with hot friends and why the strongest wolves travel in packs --- proficiency attracts its equals, and all three of these guys are at the top of their game.
8PJ Harvey
Let England Shake

"Written on the Forehead"
Let England Shake is alt-rock elder stateswoman PJ Harvey's richly crafted chronicle of her beloved home country and the hardships of war it has endured. There are striking lyrical depictions of both the bravery found in battle ("To you England, I cling/Undaunted, never failing") and the senselessness ("I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat" is an unforgettable line.) Harvey's tenth album (and her second to win the UK's prestigious Mercury Prize) is stunningly somber, grand in execution, and almost too arduous to consume in one sitting if it weren't for the bright chords and catchy melodies that she employs.
There is an old phrase in the Muslim faith that a man's fate is written on his forehead, and in Harvey's impressionistic ode to the war-ravaged Middle East, that fate is doom. "Written on the Forehead" describes the apocalyptic landscape of modern day Iraq. As society crumbles around the survivors, some spend their last living moments pursuing pleasures of the flesh while others attempt to flee through a river of sewage. Trenches of burning oil glow amongst the orange and tangerine trees, an exotic, surreal backdrop to Harvey's gentle cries. It?s visually evocative, gorgeous-sounding, and haunting. Intertwined with the melody is a swaying sample from Niney the Observer?s reggae gem "Blood & Fire," itself a song about final judgment. It's a wonderfully strange pairing of darkness and light, much like Harvey herself --- the still strangely mesmerizing chanteuse who finds beauty in the end of days.
7The Weeknd
House of Balloons

"The Morning"
In the year when a genre called "hipster R&B" threatened to become what one blogger called the Next Thing White People Like, no artist was more accountable than Toronto-based outfit the Weeknd. After a few tracks were mysteriously uploaded to YouTube and Drake gave the project props on Twitter, details on the Weeknd trickled in; it was fronted by still unknown 21-year old singer Abel Tesfaye, produced by Doc McKinney and Illangelo, and heavily shrouded in secrecy. Without any interviews, photos, or press material to speak of, no one knew what made the Weeknd tick but when they finally dropped mixtape House of Balloons as a free download, it didn't matter. Nine silky, sinister jams painted a compellingly lurid picture of the underground after party scene filled with "baseheads and high women," an entire sub-culture of vampiric socialites soaked in intoxication and fornication.
Months later, the Weeknd released another mixtape Thursday, a less hooky but still gripping exercise in sensual decadence. Both albums are case studies in utilizing sound to build mood, with hypnotically spacious productions that leverage druggy synths, bluesy guitars, and 808's to craft a milieu of darkly romantic menace. But what truly mesmerizes is the unflinching honesty with which Tesfaye loves and loathes his own moral decay. "Bring the drugs, baby, I can bring my pain" he instructs a stripper one night, then the next morning tells another conquest: "All that money/The money is the motive/Girl, put in work." For someone who can make a room sweaty, Tesfaye sure is one cold son of a bitch --- not since Prince's early days has coercion sounded so inviting.
6Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues

"Grown Ocean"
"What's my name, what's my station?/Oh, just tell me what I should do" cries Robin Pecknold on the title track to Fleet Foxes' tumultuous second album, and it feels like a crisis of faith. But amidst a crippling bout of writer's block, a crumbling personal relationship, and the terrible weight of expectations brought on by his band's superb debut album, it would seem only natural that Pecknold give up the reins and seek guidance from a higher power: "I don't know who to believe/I'll get back to you someday/Soon, you will see." Whether Pecknold was referring to God, the Universe, or his lost muse, one thing is clear --- the crucible which Fleet Foxes endured while making Helplessness Blues has produced one of year's most assured and remarkable albums.
Besides the band's gorgeous campfire harmonies and daring instrumentation (a clarinet, lap steel guitar, music box, and vibraphone are all heard here), Helplessness Blues benefits in no small part from Pecknold's newly-found lyrical deftness. Whether it's the magician from "Sim Sala Bim" "lighting a match on the suitcase's latch in the fading of night" or the philosopher of "Blue Spotted Tail" gazing inquisitively at stars hung like lights across the night sky, you can practically picture these images. Most moving of all is when Pecknold finally finds peace on majestic closer "Grown Ocean." Over galloping tympani and a choir of angelic voices, he recounts the reverie that lifted his misery: "In that dream I could hardly contain it/All my life I will wait to attain it/There, there, there" Is he referring to heaven itself? It's hard to believe otherwise when seconds later the flutes trill and Pecknold exclaims an otherworldly "Oh Ohhhhhh!", blissfully taking you there.
5Bon Iver
Bon Iver, Bon Iver

While reevaluating Bon Iver's self-titled album back in July, I strangely concluded that rather than grow on me, this exceptional album had actually shrunken a bit. Six months later, little has changed; nearly all of the lyrics remain an enigma (not because the words are difficult to make out, but because they kinda don't make sense) lessening the songs' emotional impact and potentially undermining listener empathy with meaningful art. Bon Iver's first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was so powerful because, let's face it, who couldn't relate to getting dumped by an ex and holing up on their couch, depressed for weeks? (for Vernon, his couch just happened to be in a cabin in the woods.) Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a more slippery thing to connect with --- Vernon actually sounds content at times, sings about fictitious places instead of real people, and concludes the album with the mother of all 80's yacht rock anthems. Ahem.
I think a lot of people really want Bon Iver, Bon Iver to be the best album of the year because it does sound fantastic, courtesy of its textured, yet immaculate production, remarkable melodies, and Vernon's wonderfully emotive falsetto. It also possesses an intangible, intimate quality, a sort of this-could-be-the-soundtrack-to-your-life poignancy that is usually reserved for albums that help us get through difficult personal times. But that doesn't mean it's immune to criticism. Sonically, it's a giant step forward, but lyrically, a regression. Fortunately, I think Vernon's best work is still to come. When he's able to pair something that sounds this stunning with a story that touches your soul like Emma, watch out. For now, I'm more than content with pocket symphonies like "Perth,"
"Holocene" and "Calgary" --- gorgeous songs that could fill a stadium but Vernon has chosen to keep close to his heart, shrouded in mystery.
4 Jamie XX

"Far Nearer"
It?s fitting that Jamie xx's "Far Nearer" is known for its steel drums. As an instrument, the steelpan is chromatically pitched --- that is, it?s designed to produce neither the major nor minor chords that are common to Western music, but a half step overlay of both, creating an amorphous chiming echo that gives each drum note its colorful inflections. It's also an idiophone --- a rare instrument that creates sound not by vibrating a membrane, strings, or a column of air, but by vibrating itself. As instruments go, it's truly one of a kind, inhabiting a strange, twilight world of sonic in-betweens and ghostly beauty.
So too does "Far Nearer." The song is a series of paradoxes, with its signature instrument so closely associated with the warm sounds of the tropics but a 2-step time signature built upon the gritty core of UK garage. There's a warped and chopped lead vocal drifting out like a spectral moan pitted against the joyous shouts of a children's choir. Hell, even the song's name is a contradiction in terms. For a sonic minimalist like Jamie xx, "Far Nearer" is practically overflowing with ideas and aural minutiae (the way the pitch-shifting vocals and keyboards complement the steel drums' natural warble is especially brilliant), but at no time does anything feel superfluous. It all just flows.
For a producer and remix artist with Jamie xx's impressive resume (Adele, Florence & the Machine, and Gil Scot-Heron) "Far Nearer" is the type of from-the-ground-up track that hints at an even higher ceiling for him as an artist --- it combines seemingly disparate elements with the kind of sublime ease and intuition that makes it seem impossible no one thought to do it before. It's the summer anthem that's a bit too sunny to fill the 2 a.m. club dancefloor, but far too ominous for the beach. In the end, you're probably best served by clinging to the song's oft-repeated, soul-lifting lyric "I feel better when I have you near me" and just floating along, knowing wherever you are, you're in the right place.
3St. Vincent
Strange Mercy

St. Vincent's unexpectedly excellent covers of Big Black songs "Bad Penny" and "Kerosene" at the concert celebrating the 10th anniversary of Michael Azerrand's "This Band Could Be Your Life" revealed as much about Annie Clark's steely resolve as does Strange Mercy. Clark gives an audience of male hipsters a collective boner by delivering Steve Albini's immortal line "I think I fucked your girlfriend, once/Maybe twice" while absolutely shredding in the process. Clark has an exotic, stunning blend of technical mastery, ethereal delicateness, and caged sexuality that straddles the line between doe-eyed innocence and feral fixation. She's a rarity in indie rock --- a girl who truly does rawk and has plenty to say about being a woman in that man's world. Strange Mercy's eleven songs are less feminist manifesto than a personal testament to Clark's weird, wiry strength of will --- synth pop gems with guitar spasms that go for the jugular.
"Cruel" starts with the soft orchestral strings of a Disney princess film then mutates rapidly into one woman's descent into domestic hell, driven home by a video that shows Clark being (literally) buried alive by husband and child. "They could take or leave you/So they took you, and they left you" she cries over a pulsing, disco backbeat that is equal parts Blondie?s "Heart of Glass" and Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" --- both fitting antecedents to St. Vincent's new wave throb. Strange Mercy, the band's third and best album, is Clark's tour de force --- a collection of gorgeously twisted indie rock songs that triumphantly reveal her as both beauty and beast.
2 M83
Hurry Up Were Dreaming

"Midnight City"
In interviews, M83's Anthony Gonzalez described his magnum opus Hurry Up, We're Dreaming as a soundtrack to a film that hasn't been made yet. When you hear the dozens of layers of sound laid atop one another to create synth rock juggernauts like "Intro," "Reunion" and "Steve McQueen," you can easily hear why; even for a double album, this sounds colossal, practically made for the big screen. To be honest, it was almost a shock not to hear lead single "Midnight City" playing over the long dialogue-less sequences of Drive, this year's ultra-slick European-style noir thriller filled with fast cars and beautiful people. They're practically about the same thing --- soaking up the lights in a city of neon, riding in cars toward the milky skyline, and looking cool as fuck.
However, the fact that "Midnight City" does appear in a new Victoria's Secret Angels commercial isn't surprising --- just after the sixth beat of the chorus' bar a velvety feminine coo issues forth, sounding neither machine nor man-made but like a sigh from the divine. It's one of the song's many meticulous details that works its way into your brain, and like a good earworm, won't let go. Gonzalez saves the best hook for last with that orgiastic saxophone solo, which is so completely unexpected the first time you hear it but so utterly earnest that you can't imagine the song without it. Here, situated between the gutter and the stars, between nocturnal hedonism and dream-like innocence, Gonzalez elevates ear candy to high art. "Midnight City" is an amalgamation of all sounds M83 (shoegaze, new wave, electronic, and indie guitar rock) and the culmination of Gonzalez's quest for the perfect pop song.
1James Blake
James Blake

"The Wilhelm Scream"
Twenty-three year old James Blake is many things at once --- a classically-trained pianist/composer who is more at home on a Korg than a Steinway, a DJ who leaves so much silence between sounds that it says more about his courage than the sounds themselves, and a singer whose soulful voice seems incapable of coming from his slender, wiry frame. Most surprising is that for a young man who is considered one of dubstep's premier producers and studio perfectionists, everything you really need to know about James Blake you can learn by seeing him live on stage.
At most Blake shows "The Wilhelm Scream" is an obvious highlight, its delicate shape augmented by slinking jazz guitar and live percussion until a stunning apex when the whole thing explodes and a wall of synths just flattens you. Opposite sexes react differently. The guys all bob heads and frenetically jerk limbs in a way only white suburbanites are capable of. In truth, it?s the most natural thing one can do when assaulted by the rhythmic, oily undercurrent of sub-bass that threatens to cave your head in. All of these kids are tall, skinny, tousled, and rather ordinary looking --- basically spitting images of Blake. Except not really, since Blake is, by any musical standard, quite extraordinary.
And the ladies in the crowd? Well, let's just say that, while interested in the song, they seem disproportionately attentive to the performer himself. From certain angles, he is easy on the eyes, in a disarming, delicate, boyish sort of way. Between songs, when Blake shyly banters with the audience in his charmingly polite and distinctly British manner, an enrapt young blonde turns to her female companion and asks "What's he saying?" Her girlfriend has a glazed smile of contentment: "Who the fuck cares?"
It's ironic because Blake sometimes invites you not to care what he's saying, too. In most songs, he manipulates his vocals to such extreme lengths that they become simply another instrument in the mix. Words get stretched, chopped, looped, and macerated into digital debris. But the lyrics you can make out are essential, since Blake repeats lines like "Won't tomorrow ever come?" and "All that I know is I'm falling, falling, falling/ Might as well fall in" to the point where they become mantras. Absorbed over time, these words convey sadness, soul-searching, estrangement, and unmitigated longing --- the perfect accompaniment to the emotional disembodiment Blake creates by morphing his voice into a wraith-like digital smear.
What's so strange, then, is the unmistakable warmth beneath it all. Over time, Blake?s songs have a way of seeping into your consciousness when logic says their disparate, deconstructed sounds shouldn't. When heard in a live setting, all the stylistic boundaries critics hear in his music disintegrate ? the colorful, careening rush of more rhythmic dance hybrids "CMYK" and "The Bells Sketch," the skewed folk of "Lindesfarne I and II" and the baroque pop classicism of "Limit to Your Love" all running together as one river of sound, creating something completely new, something that is very much his. Whether this is dubstep, post-dubstep, or something else is irrelevant. What?s important is that it has the potential to alter the way you think about music and where it might be headed.
Blake is the man of the hour in the sound of the moment. Guys wanna be him and girls wanna be with him. And who could blame them? As a sonic auteur, Blake has the opportunity and talent to essentially go in any direction he chooses --- whether as a DJ and dubstep producer, R&B crooner, pop singer/songwriter, or some unforeseen blend of all of the above. Best of all, he's shockingly unafraid. On the title track to his year-ending Enough Thunder EP, Blake finally strips away the effects and lets his unadorned, plaintive vocals hang over a beautiful, bare piano in a repeated plea: "Tell me/Are you with me?" It feels both dangerous and tender, a young man stepping out from behind the decks, drums, and distortion to bare his naked soul. But the answer is obvious. Yes, James, we are with you. Lead the way.
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