Saturday, December 31, 2011

Gary's Top 20 Albums of 2011

After 365 days of anticipation, my fifth-annual Albums of the Year list is finally complete.  It is hard to briefly summarize the list, but overall it seems that strangeness and extra effort were handsomely rewarded this year.
As with my Top Songs, each album has a link either to Spotify or Soundcloud for your listening pleasure.  Without further ado, let's start counting backwards from twenty:

20.  Danny Brown – XXX - THE RAW: Detroit’s Danny Brown is pretty difficult to ignore.  His delivery is manic and distinct, his rhymes are wildly entertaining and his beats perfectly parallel Brown’s hyperactivity.  Tyler, The Creator got a lot of buzz this year for a similarly striking album, but Danny Brown should not (and likely will not) be ignored.
KEY TRACKS: “I Will”, “Monopoly”

19.  Cults – Cults - THE SUMMERY:  New York outfit Cults has turned the infectious “Go Outside” into a full-length album of sun-drenched, low-fi indie pop.  Somewhat reminiscent of Best Coast’s Crazy For You, but more dreamy and less surf-rock, Cults is an exciting debut that is the definitive summertime album.
KEY TRACKS: “Go Outside”, “Abducted”

18.  My Morning Jacket – Circuital - THE SOUTHERN FRIED: Evil Urges was MMJ’s previous album, a divisive effort due to the somewhat eclectic and disjoint nature of the songs.  Circuital remains a more cohesive exercise of ever-brilliant southern rock ballads more apropos of the MMJ canon.
KEY TRACKS: “Victory Dance”, “Holdin On To Black Metal”, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”

17.  Panda Bear – Tomboy - THE HYMNAL: Tomboy is not nearly as grandiose as the outstanding Person Pitch, but it does feature more bite-sized pieces of filtered, hazy psychedelia and an optimistic hymnal feel, with pick-me-up axioms like “You can count on me”.  With Noah Lennox’s trademark über-reverbed vocals at the forefront, Tomboy is a dazzling exercise in euphoria.
KEY TRACKS: “Slow Motion”, “Last Night at the Jetty”, “Afterburner”

16.  Tyler, The Creator – Goblin - THE DEPRAVED:  Tyler and his rap collective OFWGKTA had a big year in 2011, with Tyler and Frank Ocean releasing critically-acclaimed albums and that outstanding “Yonkers” video making Tyler a household name (and VMA Best New Artist).  Goblin seems caustic upon first listen, with Tyler’s gravelly delivery and abrasive lyricism (see: “Bitch Suck Dick”).  It is not some attention-seeking gimmick, however, which is explained at the end of “Sandwitches”: “We don’t fucking make horrorcore, you fucking idiots. Listen deeper to the music before you put it in a box.”  Delve deeper into the album and the listener finds an emotionally confused, tortured guy pouring it all out to his “psychiatrist”, which turns out to be Tyler grappling with his own conscience throughout Goblin.  It is a concept album that works, keeping the listener invested and excited for the future of Tyler and OFWGKTA.
KEY TRACKS: “Yonkers”, “Sandwitches” (feat. Hodgy Beats), “She” (feat. Frank Ocean)

15.  Radiohead - The King of Limbs - THE SUBTLE:  Radiohead are so universally adored, when they release a new album, it becomes an event.  Their eighth LP was suddenly sprung upon unsuspecting fans, as In Rainbows was four years prior.  What fans got was not instantly gratifying or game-changing.  Instead, The King of Limbs was a subtle and patient record that was not out to overwhelm.  Instead, the eight tracks induce a constant, understated chill and tension absent on In Rainbows.  There are also hints of nature and the environment present: Other than the album title, “Feral” plays to its namesake, conjuring thoughts of a runaway animal.  The King of Limbs is not nearly the best album in the sacred Radiohead catalogue, but it is still rewarding for those willing to put in the time.
KEY TRACKS: “Lotus Flower”, “Give Up The Ghost”

14.  tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l - THE ECLECTIC: Everything about w h o k i l l is attention-grabbing, most noticeably the plasticity of Merrill Garbus’s voice from lulling coo to punk-rock yelp.  The music incorporates Afro-pop percussion, folky guitar plucks and horns to create some multilayered music, but it is Garbus’s vocals and lyrics that are always at the forefront and that allow the songs to transcend to the next level.  The greatness of w h o k i l l lies both in its irresistible sound and its dark lyrics about violence.
KEY TRACKS: “Bizness”, “My Country”, “Gangsta”

13.  Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact - THE EXPERIMENTAL ODDBALLS: There seems to be one of these albums every year that are wrought with experimental electronica and psychedelia that are near-impossible to ignore (see: 2010’s Odd Blood and 2009’s unforgettable Merriweather Post Pavilion).  Because of its strangely hypnotic uniqueness, Eye Contact is 2011’s iteration, by yet another NYC-based experimental troupe.  At a trim seven songs (plus the three “” interludes), each one is stylistically distinct from the next.  “Glass Jar” is a trippy, eleven minute opener that shimmers before erupting, “Adult Goth” is reminiscent of an otherworldly Fever Ray song and “MindKilla” is a surprisingly catchy slice of upbeat bliss.  Overall, Eye Contact is a solidly distinct set of quirky electronica.
KEY TRACKS: “Adult Goth”, “Glass Jar”, “MindKilla”

12.  Atlas Sound – Parallax - THE INTROVERT: While Bradford Cox may have tried to make a distant album following his nervous breakdown, it is also his most accessible and warm album yet.  His vocals are not obscured by haze this time around, and the music is shimmering with a soft fragility and confidence that gives Parallax a strange, dichotomous nature: As enveloping and radiant the songs may be, there is still an unsettling isolation that makes the album even more intriguing and likely Cox’s best solo effort so far.
KEY TRACKS: “Te Amo”, “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs”

11.  Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica - THE ATYPICAL: Replica is the strangest, least accessible album on this list, likely due to the unorthodoxy of the song creation.  Sprinkled with haunting piano throughout, it is the use of an abundance of abnormal samples that makes this ambient album somewhat unusual.  The progression of the album seems eerily natural, as if it is the recording of nature at nighttime.  The centerpiece is the title track, which is laden with somber piano plinks and a whirring buzz that becomes prominent at the strangely beautiful end of the song.  At one moment still and droning and at the next jarring and uncomfortable, Replica rewards patience and open-mindedness.
KEY TRACKS: “Replica”, “Sleep Dealer”

10.  The Black Keys - El Camino - THE HEIR APPARENTS: When The White Stripes disbanded in early 2011, they left a large void in the annals of music in general, specifically critically-adored blues rock.  The Black Keys seem to have solidified their role as the proper heir of that throne with their seventh LP.  A constantly thrilling set of rock ‘n roll with blues, surf and even glam rock influences, El Camino is, at its core, a fun-filled record filled with upbeat riff-driven tracks and an unmistakable swagger.  Very few albums this year demanded repeated spins quite like the ever-enticing El Camino.
KEY TRACKS: “Lonely Boy”, “Gold on theCeiling”, “Little Black Submarines

09.  The Field - Looping State of Mind - THE ENTRANCING: The formula is so painfully simple that Axel Wilner pokes fun of it in the title of his third LP: Loop until its appeal has faded, then change it up, even if it is ever-so-slightly.  Regardless, The Field has mastered the formula and produced another set of captivating minimalistic ambient electronica.  The subtle layers and textures at play here work wonderfully, creating moods out of gorgeous repetition.  Whether it is the delicacy of the piano on “Then It’s White” or the woozy, swirling “Is This Power”, the end result is the same: The songs on Looping State of Mind are evocative without words or typical song structure, making it all the more impressive.
KEY TRACKS: “Is This Power”, “Then It’sWhite

08.  Neon Indian - Era Extraña THE CHILLWAVE: The fringe subgenre chillwave gets a bad reputation, but Neon Indian have expanded upon their initial sound from Psychic Chasms to add a psychedelic haze and ambience to the low-fidelity, 8-bit synth-pop.  The album is also seeping with nostalgia and melancholia, which is excellently demonstrated on “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)” and “Arcade Blues”.  The latter’s title perfectly sums up Era Extraña: Glitchy, bummy aural bliss.
KEY TRACKS: “Polish Girl”, “Arcade Blues”, “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)”

07.  Girls - Father,Son, Holy Ghost - THE TIMELESS:  Like 2009’s Album, Girls’ follow-up album is chock-full of polished rock ‘n roll that could easily be mistaken for a relic from decades ago.  Its influences range from surf rock on opener “Honey Bunny” to the heavy metal-aping of “Die”.  However, Father, Son, Holy Ghost consistently makes a living by borrowing heavily from gradualism classic rock of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, as best demonstrated on the standout slow-burners “Vomit” and “Forgiveness”.  Despite its unabashed borrowing from the past, Girls somehow create a powerful album that is undeniably fresh.
KEY TRACKS: “Vomit”, “Die”, “Forgiveness”

06.  Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch TheThrone - THE OPULENT: ­ The two biggest names in hip hop team up to produce a celebratory lap for the 1%.  On paper, that has potentially disastrous results.  On record, it is a delightfully enjoyable and decadent ride.  With overpriced samples (Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” on the irresistible “Otis”), capital-A-list guest stars (Beyoncé makes “Lift Off” soar) and countless lavish namedrops, Jay and ‘Ye consistently remind the listener that, yeah, they make more money than you do.  They also rap better than you do. Hov is the best he has been in years and Kanye is still in peak form from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  Or, to put it into their words, “What more can I say? / We killin’ ‘em.”  Watch The Throne is escapism rap done wonderfully well.
KEY TRACKS: “Niggas In Paris”, “Otis”, “No Church In The Wild”

05.  The Weeknd - House of Balloons - THE SEDUCTIVE:  Where the hell did The Weeknd come from? At the end of 2010, a few of his tracks were just made available via YouTube.  One year later, he has self-released a trilogy of great mixtapes, his identity as Abel Tesfaye has been revealed, and he has been linked with fellow Canadian crooner Drake (both on the Thursday cut “The Zone” and the Take Care standout “Crew Love).  It all began with House of Balloons, arguably the best of the three mixtapes.  Balloons defined The Weeknd’s sound as seductive, syrupy R&B, driven by Tesfaye’s distinct high-pitched delivery about sex and drugs.  The whole album plays like the perfect soundtrack to a late-night, drug-addled party.  All in all, there is a brooding sense of realness that separates The Weeknd from his contemporaries, making him one of the most exciting new artists of the year.
KEY TRACKS: “High For This”, “House of Balloons”, “The Morning”

04.  Destroyer – Kaputt - THE RETRO:  On the surface, Kaputt can sound like cheesy ‘80s adult contemporary or soft rock, musicianship not usually held in the highest regard. However, Dan Bejar essentially turns this initially cheeseball subgenre into something much more endearing.  Bejar counteracts the breezy strings and horns with at-times dark lyrics delivered oh-so-casually.  It is an unlikely combination that works to perfection throughout Kaputt, creating a retro/disco-tinged blithe dreamscape from opener “Chinatown” to the eleven-minute sprawling closer “Bay of Pigs”.  As introspective as it is expansive, Kaputt is a warm, beautiful trip from beginning to end.
KEY TRACKS: “Chinatown”, “Bay of Pigs”, “Kaputt”

03. Drake - Take Care - THE TRAILBLAZER:  Last year, Kanye West pushed the typical boundaries of a hip hop album to overwhelming success.  This year, Drake raised the stakes by creating an album that deftly incorporates hip hop, R&B and pop into a refreshing sound.  Singles “Headlines” and the Nicki Minaj-aided “Make Me Proud” are great, upbeat radio songs and “Lord Knows” is brimming with bombast (thanks to the soulful, choral backing) and swagger (thanks to Rick Ross).  However, the true greatness of Take Care lies in its sparser, more minimalistic moments.  Case in point: “Marvins Room” is uncomfortably still, exposing the raw emotionality as the listener eavesdrops on a Drake drunk dial.  Take Care covers a lot of bases, but does them all well.
KEY TRACKS: “Marvins Room”, “Take Care”, “Crew Love” (feat. The Weeknd)

02.  Bon Iver - Bon Iver - THE EVOCATIVE:  No album this year was quite as evocative from front to back as Justin Vernon’s excellent sophomore LP.  Between the delicate yet intricate layering of the instrumentation and Vernon’s trademark fragile falsetto, every moment of Bon Iver is powerful and moving, conjuring distant memories and painful yearning.  From the slow, subtle build-up of “Perth” to the poignant reminiscences of ‘80s soft rock closer “Beth/Rest”, Bon Iver is a brilliant expansion of Vernon’s initially introverted folk rock to a richer, larger and more masterful expression of emotion.
KEY TRACKS: “Calgary”, “Holocene”, “Perth”

01.  M83 - HurryUp, We’re Dreaming. - THE EPIC: The “epic” descriptor gets sprinkled liberally into an excessive number of album reviews, but no album fulfilled or redefined its qualifications quite like Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.  Anthony Gonzalez continues his winning streak by blending the ‘80s synth-pop of Saturdays = Youth with his more ambient earlier works.  The result is a near-flawless double album that could fill a stadium or one’s headphones.  The album title succinctly sums up the listening experience: Lucidity with striking immediacy.  This striking dichotomy is best illustrated by “Intro” and “Midnight City”, which seamlessly segues between woozy dreamscape and huge, brimming electro-pop (and those irresistible saxophones).  It is decidedly difficult to determine the ranking of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming within the prestigious M83 canon, but its ranking amongst peers thrusts it into a stratosphere by itself.
KEY TRACKS: “Midnight City”, “Intro” (feat. Zola Jesus), “New Map”

For the third consecutive year, my top song and album have been occupied by the same artist: In 2009, it was Animal Collective's "My Girls" and Merriweather Post Pavilion and last year it was LCD Soundsystem's "All I Want" and This Is Happening.

This closes the book on music in 2011. I know I missed some great albums this year that will hopefully get some spillover love into 2012. Last year, I mentioned that Das Racist and Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti would get said treatment, and they did.  This year, I plan on giving Toro y Moi's Underneath The Pine and St. Vincent's Strange Mercy some love.

Have a lovely New Year's Eve and Day, and here's to hoping that The Avalanches get their shit together and finally release their new album in 2012.

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