End of the road: These are our 10 very favorite albums of the past year. Among the buzz-heavy hip hop opuses, bedroom R&B confessionals, and post-dubstep forays lie surreptitious — by comparison — yet no less satisfying jazz, neo-psych, and Americana LPs. 2011 has yielded countless records to celebrate, and we hope to have done an adequate job in that respect.
For more 2011 releases of note, keep an eye out for our honorable mentions which we’ll publish in the coming days. As always, thanks for reading.
10. Big K.R.I.T. – Return Of 4Eva
Bullshit was the soup du jour of 2011. Campaign years are a hex on the race of man and 2011 was an especially bad one, the electorate forced into considering a group of nominees so ignorant you wouldn’t want to be acquainted with them, much less have them governing you. Two of the four major sports leagues were in months-long labor disputes, with one canceling nearly a quarter of their season. The only person who knew what the fuck they were doing died, leaving us in the hands of that sniveling Salieri, Bill Gates.
Even good things were served with a heaping serving of bullshit: any positive feelings one might have from the Arab Spring were quickly, decidedly, depressingly squashed; getting out of Iraq actually meant leaving a couple thousand troops behind; and when some people finally stood up and said, “hey, this is bullshit”, the police made it clear that bullshit is better than anyone should expect.
If 2011 was able to leave some talisman to remember us by, it would be a sturdy shovel and a heavy-duty pair of boots.
The saving grace in this cesspool of a year just might be Big K.R.I.T., it apparently requiring a drawling, 23-year-old Mississippian to give us some perspective. In a year that coughed up the walking music memes Tyler, The Creator and Lana Del Ray, it was Big K.R.I.T. who released possibly the most surprising music video of the year; instead of eating cockroaches, it depicted K.R.I.T. as a custodian in a grade school, a rapper who was signed to Island/Def Jam by the end of the year acknowledging that his life could have taken a decidedly different turn. “I told them, ‘call me K.R.I.T.’, they told me change my name/don’t be alarmed if you don’t make it that’s just part of the game,” he raps into a broom handle to an empty auditorium, “never did I rap about dope, nor did I sell it/I guess the story of a country boy just ain’t compellin.”
It’s genuinely refreshing, when it’s so common for the attitude of rappers to feel like they’re owed something, to hear an MC who wants it more than anyone else but still holds his convictions: “This my dream, this my life, I’d sacrifice it all/except my soul and a firm belief that there’s a God.”
But that’s what K.R.I.T. is all about: being honest, not only to all of us but to himself. It usually takes more than 23 years on this planet to have the wisdom to spit ‘Free My Soul’, him being completely frank about the place of rappers in the capitalists’ eyes: “They say ignorance is bliss but I’d like to state/the game is just not records and real shit they don’t like to play/you ghetto famous to us, you just Bojangles to them/tap your feet, tip your brim, and sell it back to your kin.” The title of ‘Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed & Encouraging Racism’ suggests much of the song’s content, K.R.I.T. rapping, “Tap dance if you want him to/could have fed the hungry but he bought them jewels.” And ‘The Vent’ is the solemn closer dedicated to K.R.I.T.’s recently deceased grandmother, offering to “trade my materials for a piece of mind/I so close to heaven, hell, I just need some time,” but finding traversing the rap game isn’t so easy when you’ve got more than money on your mind: “Who cares about life and the highs and lows/maybe I should write another song about pimps and hoes/cars and clothes, idol gods, golden calves, Louis scarves.”
K.R.I.T. isn’t only about dropping life lessons, though, he claims, “I don’t rap, I spit hymns”, as rhymes about society’s ills alone aren’t likely to get you signed to Def Jam. So, of course: bangers. ‘R4 Theme Song’ is the most noteworthy on here, a purely blissful anthem about being real that has to be in the conversation for song of the year. That segues nicely into the rest of the album, the “forevers” taken from ‘Ms. Jackson’ foreboding the old-school OutKast impersonations still to come — ‘American Rapstar’, ‘Lions And Lambs’, ‘King’s Blues’ — while leaving the opening for a lot of Dirty-South-inspired jams — ‘Rotation’, ‘Sookie Now’, ‘Time Machine’, ‘Get Right’.
Still, when K.R.I.T. is on his ignorant flow, he doesn’t revert to ignorant diction to describe it: he’ll not avoiding sucking, he’ll “refrain from being lame”; he doesn’t drive a car, it’s a “candy coated pearl with the bowling ball swirl”; he doesn’t divide money, he “split[s] it up with [his] forehand.”
And to think: I’ve only covered half of the songs on Return Of 4Eva. Spread over 76 minutes and 21 tracks, it is nothing if not diligent in covering every facet of the rap game that K.R.I.T. can possibly comprehend. Like its author, it composes things that would be too much for another to handle, diametric oppositions that nevertheless lend themselves to each other. It’s exactly the way K.R.I.T. is: dreaming, hustling, grinding, profiting, then philosophizing on what it all means.
And if the year of Rebecca Black and Charlie Sheen can’t embrace someone whose self-satisfaction and self-reflection are given equal measure, then perhaps 2011 is in a state it should have been in from the start: over. – Brian Riewer
9. James Blake – James Blake
For decades now, it has been a constant fear that technology would dehumanize us. The advent of film and television would eliminate the need for human interaction, the rise of texting would destroy our ability to hold conversations with one another, and the internet would bring all of our information and needs to us so that we would never have to leave the comfort of our homes again. Perhaps the best argument against this line of thought comes not from an essay or treatise, but from the English songwriter, James Blake.
Take the third track which lyrically consists of a single line — “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them” — being sung over and over. It begins as an a cappella track, but slowly builds steam for the climactic final 90 seconds of the track, which bookends the a cappella beginning with a mostly instrumental ending. While there are few easily noticeable human elements to this track, one cannot help but be moved regardless and when was the last time you were moved solely by a piece of technology? Apart from a piano, there are few acoustic instruments heard on this album. Even Blake’s voice is mildly distorted on most tracks, but the human element is never absent from this album. Blake’s voice is emotionally resonant throughout, showcasing a beautiful sense of longing at times and this is only enhanced by Blake’s simple, yet heart-wrenching lyrics.
When he sings about his brother and sister not speaking to him, he gives no specifics and reasons are absent. If he were to fully describe why they weren’t speaking, it would make the song too particular to himself instead of to his audience. His lyrics, pained and fragile as they may be in places, are inviting to the listener due to this universality. Who can’t relate to not knowing their dreams or their love anymore? – Micah Wimmer
8. Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
“I can hear everything. It’s everything time” are the first words uttered on Gang Gang Dance’s fifth studio LP, articulating the far-reaching universality to follow. Personally, I tend to gravitate towards music that adopts a more minimalistic approach, exploring a particular theme in depth while employing a sort of slow-burning payoff.
Gang Gang Dance are not that band and this is not that style of record — they want to explore everything and the aim to do it right from the get-go. ‘Glass Jar’, the 11-plus minute opener, is a tour de force; beginning with a relaxed opening before it almost bursts at the seams midway through. It’s relaxed, invigorating, restrained, and liberating all at once. Their formula, which is more than a tad risky, ends up paying big dividends on Eye Contact. The interludes are effective in the sense that they serve to switch from idea to idea while not losing the considerable momentum gained with each passing track. Every idea is approached with a sort of “chill, we got this” mindset, which lends a smooth atmosphere that was sorely missed on some of their previous efforts.
Eye Contact is Gang Gang Dance not so politely demanding to be heard; where in the past maybe they were just content to let listeners take it all in. – Joe Mateo
Even without this bit of self-definition, there were a few glaring, obvious parallels between rap and basketball’s respective Big Two (sorry, but neither is a Big Three, though comparing the ineffective contributions of Frank Ocean to those of Chris Bosh on the basketball court is both apt and hilarious). After winning the league MVP the previous two years, James opted to hook up with legend-in-the-making Dwyane Wade, whose career had seen rocky times over the past handful of years. Similarly, after cleaning up like a janitor with last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the younger, brasher West decided to team up with the aging Jay-Z, who’d seen better days after releasing Kingdom Come and The Blueprint III as of late.
Both have done their share of pestering antics, to the dismay of the hegemonic powers that be — Wade and James (mostly James) having their unveiling and their championship victory party on the same occasion, claiming they’re in line for at least eight championships, hosting The Decision, etc.; Jay and ‘Ye (mostly ‘Ye) calling out then current president Bush on unresponsive Katrina aid, interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs, fighting people in airports, etc.
The most important similarity between these two duos, though, is that, were you to ask what is the leading cause of all the animosity directed at them, what could be fingered as the main culprit for what has been a pretty rough go of things recently in the public eye, both would no doubt answer that it is because they are the best, and everyone hates them because of that. And that’s the worst part; because despite the garish ignorance of self that leads to such statements going against what we know to be true (READ: most of the hate was brought upon them by their own actions), they are still all-caps THE BEST, the most skillful human beings at their respective craft that we have. And it’s in seeing these titans decked out in that obnoxiously ornamental album cover above, these two modern-day Heracleses of the basketball court bedazzled in black and red and yellow, the color of fire and brimstone itself, that you finally admit to yourself that the bad guys have won.
The over-sentimentalized like Big K.R.I.T. and Drake don’t stand a chance in the face of a monster tidal wave of glint and glamor on ‘Who Gon Stop Me’, whose name summarizes its aesthetic pretty well — raps like “heard Yeezy was racist, well that’s only on one basis/I only like green faces” over deciduous beats flagrantly oversized like Skrillex and progressive like Flying Lotus. Death Grips’ energy has nothing on ‘Otis’, the fantastically scatted beat of which will never leave a permanent rotation in stadiums and Gatorade commercials, not least because of lines like, ‘Damn Yeezy and Hov, where the hell ya been?/Niggas talking real reckless: stuntmen”, and “Photo shoot fresh, looking like wealth/I’m bout to call the paparazzi on myself”.
A$AP Rocky and Danny Brown don’t have shit on the swag of ‘Niggas In Paris’, underscoring the overzealousness of a chorus like “Ball so hard mothafuckas wanna fine me/but first niggas find me/What’s 50 grand to a mothafucka like me/can you please remind me?” with clips of Will Ferrell from Blades of Glory and the eight(!) encores of this song they played when they were in Chicago recently.
Admit it, these guys won.
Well, almost. Like their basketball playing counterparts, Watch The Throne does come up a step short, this result being so close to what they were going for but isn’t quite there (which I guess means Merrill Garbus is playing the role of Dirk Nowitzki and Abel Tesfaye is Derrick Rose?). The first two tracks, ‘No Church In The Wind’ and ‘Lift Off’, are duds that are only remembered as, respectively, “that rhythmless song with Frank Ocean” and “that outer space song with Beyonce”; the whole sounds more like a collection of good songs than an album proper, with nothing really bridging these tracks together besides a general sense of self-indulgence, the sample stuck on the end of ‘New Day’, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, and ‘No Church in the Wild’ notwithstanding; and at points feels tossed off, the fact of the collaboration having come together and completed relatively quickly showing through some cracks.
Nevertheless, these setbacks hardly weaken what is possibly the greatest pairing of rappers ever (though early-90s A Tribe Called Quest have something to say about that), and it sets an incredibly high bar for what their follow-up(s) should be. But just ask any basketball fan who’s the favorite to win the championship this season — the Super Friends won’t be in trouble anytime soon. – Brian Riewer
6. Destroyer – Kaputt
Owner of a singular and fascinating perspective, Dan Bejar observes scenes of romance and nostalgia with easy charm and precocious verbosity that are just a touch foggier than in actuality, from his perch at the bottom of a wine bottle. He has been there seemingly forever, and Kaputt is a whimsical swoon accompanied by Bejar’s debauched storytelling that is being lauded as the best of his career. It might be, but for as debonair and urbane as he is here, he is also the most detached he’s been in years.
As always he is still talking to “you”, but he sounds like he’s strolling alone and even admits on ‘Blue Eyes’: “I write poetry for myself.” His scholarly, solitary musings have been his calling card and have ranged from manic and self-aware to gleeful and confident, but now he’s caustic and kind of drunk (again) and in the mood for some criticism. ‘Blue Eyes’ ends with him sending the press a message in a bottle that reads “Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves” and on ‘A Savage Night at the Opera’ he cracks, “Yes, I’m familiar with your scene. Some would say, shockingly uptight” before deciding, “I heard your record, it’s alright.”
But what makes Kaputt Destroyer’s breakthrough album has everything to do with what’s going on around Bejar. Only a band with this sense of sarcasm could drench a record in a blend of saxophone and flute and reverb and Balearic glitches to come up with a kind of Bohemian yacht rock and bossa nova that sashays and reels without ever feeling contrived. Or if it does feel forced (‘Downtown’ comes close), it’s because it’s too intoxicated to care.
In truth, Bejar’s woozy, slurring delivery has found the perfect accompaniment on his ninth album, the year’s best album to read/sip to. – Paul Bulow
5. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Given that we live in a generation composed of largely simulation, sounding original is more an accomplishment rather than a compliment. Perhaps adding to the perceived originality often attributed to Shabazz Palaces is the fact that they operate behind a wall of mystery and their music is no different. The various beats, rhymes, and instrumentation swirl and stalk through a variety of moods on the back of veteran Ishmael Butler’s (‘Butterfly’) stern vision. Butler has offered little insight into Shabazz, an attempt to let the music speak for itself.
It may be coincidence, but even as original-sounding as Black Up appears, it is perfectly in line with the emerging trend of minimal production while embracing the rightful rough edge inherent in hip-hop. MC Palaceer Lazaro backs Butler’s straightforward vocals with heavy, entrancing synth and jazz beats. It is almost remarkable that the record feels as concise and realized as it does given the distinct impression that Shabazz want to avoid coalescing around one idea as much as possible.
In the end, Black Up is one of the brightest musical offerings 2011 has to offer because you can feel Butler and co. approaching the limitations of their musical boundaries; and, knowing what it is like to reach the final capacities of one’s ability, that is something to truly relish. – Joe Mateo
4. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
What’s remarkable about Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges is not that it is an album composed by a single man blowing into a single saxophone on a single take with no looping, delays, or tracking of any kind but that it seems so easy to forget this fact. Our brains simply don’t seem to want to register this, the pace and breadth of his performance being so breathless and alien that it seems impossible, that the consideration of this idea is just preposterous: not only that this is only one guy, but that it was one guy, on one instrument the entire time, playing with about as much digital accoutrement as Beethoven did.
Not only is it greater, bigger, brawnier than we can comprehend one person managing, but it is more alive, it is more visceral and biological than wind passing over a reed in a bent and polished piece of brass can seem to illustrate.
Mostly because it is a largely wordless piece that nevertheless speaks to us, a record bereft of narrative that can still scald us with dramatic irony and tragic catharsis. ‘Awake On Foreign Shores’ opens with a buzzer signaling the start to the apocalypse, the spark slowly building in the smoldering bits of ‘Judges’ and ‘The Stars In His Head’. The latter shatters towards its back end, its pieces splintering the system that upheld it, the effect noticeable almost immediately: hegemony’s cracked veneer, the reared head of absurdist dissolution, the stoked tinder of the poor and desperate. You can damn near see it: breadlines collapse into survivalist madness on ‘From No Part of Me Could I Summon a Voice’, the gyre of Stetson’s looping arpeggiated sax swells to consume all on ‘A Dream of Water’, with Laurie Anderson summing up the madness humanity has succumbed to: “There were people lighting candles/there were people going crazy/there were those who walked the beach/what war is that?”
This ability to choke violent imagery out of thin air is apparently the providence of his saxophone as even just spoken word, the visuals described expertly and poetically in our own language, cannot portray what Stetson does with verbal dead silence. Ares himself must have forged his sax, out of onyx, spewing sulfur and brimstone from every valve, belching bombed-out buildings, motherless children, limbs that will never be claimed by their owners, the charred remains of what used to be someone’s husband, brother, son, friend.
It’s like watching a Ken Burns documentary, but instead of having the visuals recreated, it is the feeling, the emotional turmoil of watching whole cities be consumed by fire and ash, people by leaden bullets, our sanity by greed and bloodlust.
Man is the only one who can bring these kinds of horrors upon himself, and by the same token is the only one who can reproduce them. Thankfully for us, it’s only the rare genius that can act this viscerally, that can stoke such madness in us, that can put upon the worst we can offer as a species by means of some of our best. – Brian Riewer
3. The Weeknd – House of Balloons
Abel Tesfaye of The Weeknd has one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard. That statement has no need for qualifiers, however. It is stunning to hear such a beautiful voice singing about such decadent things. It’s easy to get sucked into The Weeknd’s world initially due to that enticing voice, but whether it’s a place where you would want to reside or not is a separate issue. Tales of sex and drugs are the basis for every track on the record, but these are perhaps the most disenchanted songs about these topics I have ever heard. On House of Balloons, the high and the orgasm hardly seem to matter for these are not activities he partakes in because they feel good, but because there’s nothing better to do. Self-destruction does not seem to be his goal, but instead something that simply happens to him.
The centerpiece of the album, and in my opinion, the best track of the year, is ‘The Party and the After Party’. While it is a seven-minute opus with distinct parts, Beach House samples, and several levels of nuance lyrically and musically, at its core, it is still simply a song about a girl who likes sex and cocaine who he wants to sleep with. ‘Loft Music’ is the album’s most upbeat track and even that track still states that “the only girls that we fuck with seem to have 20 different pills in them” and never before has that sounded like such an endearing trait. The production is mostly quiet and always haunting, providing the perfect atmosphere for his voice to soar over the tracks while still conveying the desperation and depression inherent within every track on the album.
Most R&B singers and rappers speak of lives that the average listener will never be able to relate to or fully understand, but there may be no other instance in which the listener will be more grateful for that than on House of Balloons. It’s a house to be admired, certainly, but one that the listener would only ever enter at their own risk. – Micah Wimmer
2. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
The path for beginnings is paved by endings. Endings to empty frames we’ve long buttressed, hollow perspectives we’ve long bandied about, crumbling bygones we’ve long been incapable of wholly burying. Ever since he dropped Smog for his birth name, Bill Callahan has been fidgeting to put the pieces of his fractured identity back together. Alas, where to even start amid these arid plains had him stumped. So one by one, plausible wisps of his former self — and Bill being Bill, he was not one to fence this quarry into tight quarters — were discarded, jittery funk-pop jams and orchestrated-to-pastoral-overdrive outings falling by the wayside, hinting at discovery by process of arduous elimination. Though ‘Drover’ trots along rural limbo at breakneck pace, it doesn’t take much steam to catch up. Bill remains fixated on a familiar hunt.
He casts us in his Old West right off the hop, with twangy guitars echoing down desolate, cracked canyons while drums splatter across flaxen fields with a militaristic fervor that pushes the desperation for a den to primeval new heights. “The pain and frustration is not mine, it belongs to the cattle in the valley”, he proclaims, a man veering toward the end of his line, keeping a tally of this fruitless escapade in dwindling hopes that the gibberish will decipher itself before it’s too late.
One thing about this wild, wild country
It takes a strong, strong
It breaks a strong, strong mind
Out here in the unforgiving heart of American oblivion, a few additional entries to a map that doesn’t point home are enough to send the most steadfast of shepherds reeling, reconsidering his designs on wrangling EVERYTHING and then picking and choosing tenors to live by from the litter. And so in a moment of rash repudiation, he lifts the gate, and the herd nervously inches toward a freedom it had not tasted in the time Bill has been trying to find his bearings.
In an odd turn, squandering his inroads — however paltry — is liberating to him as well. Disorienting, but liberating.
If this is what it means to be free
Then I’m free
And I belong to the free
And the free, they belong to me
No more drovering, no more straining to choreograph a ballet that only marvels when its fitfulness is awarded free rein. Instead of clamping down on his leads, Bill casts them off into distended vistas, muttering of the grace found in merely taking the glimpses as they come. At long last, we’re letting the world come to us. This is our Apocalypse, a dissolution of the mare’s nest littering our mind’s eye — the personal triumphs and tragedies, the political stances, the petty vanities. It’s all tranquil now, all about that perfect baritone and the perfect backdrops to serve it. Flute-y flutters and tender guitar strums slowly, surely swell the scope of our visions, our compass widening to capture a vaster, truer rendering of where we are. This self-portrait is all about ‘Riding For The Feeling’, trusting the feeling, riding out to meet fate’s fiats on our terms.
Back in 2005, Bill wasn’t ready: “I cantered out here…now I’m galloping back.” Now, in the tail end of 2011, turning tail has been sworn off. The shroud of indecision, the real helplessness blues, it’s yielding to a cautious faith in the hands of dawn.
“The curtain rose and burned in the morning sun”, we notice…and we notice EVERYTHING. The greenery appears lusher, livelier, the fauna chirps and coos and curlicues, and we hum along to the honeyed motions of olive branches, lilting in the tenderest zephyrs like the most goddamn flawless piano melody Mother Nature could conjure. Mountains bow down before our weary mugs, and as we stand on their shoulders for a clearer view of the panorama that awaits, disquiet’s voices peel away, muzzled by the inscrutable wilderness below.
We’re gonna ride out in a country silence. – Vinh Cao
1. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
If Merrill Garbus didn’t wear feathers or boas face paint or stare wide-eyed at the audience pointing drum sticks at them, we would be left with a worldly, unassuming young woman with a huge attitude, self-confidence issues, and deeply affected by social injustice. If she had not taken tUnE-yArDs out of the basement, added saxophones, extra percussion, korg wizardry, and a serious sense of scope, we would be left with the album’s skeleton. It would sound a hell of a lot like her debut, Bird Brains, but underneath the slick production and massive songs is a profound and challenging thread of social commentary that can get lost in just how fun and joyful and clean w h o k i l l is.
It’s just as easy to forget that Garbus is actually behind a track like ‘My Country’. All of the neon and glitter and yelling make for a bold enough statement, but there are few albums that open with a line as loaded as “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty. How come I cannot see my future within your arms?” The track takes up the yoke of the oppressed from the first person and shares in a common burden, which is what she does best: bring people together and spur them to action.
The task is easy enough live; her sold-out shows are effectively huge, vibrant dance parties. But w h o k i l l attacks listeners with themes of sexuality, identity, violence, and loss, a sobering list that deliberately jars with the fluorescent accompaniment. She functions as a siren, her wail offering warning that a) she’s vulnerable and unstable (“a new kind of woman, a ‘don’t take shit from you kinda woman’”) and human, and b) you are too, and are implicated in these issues as much as she is. It’s a challenge and a tough one when faced with a lover’s dilemma on ‘Riotriot’ or the crippling self-imagery on ‘Eso-eso’ and she knows how difficult it is. She reassures, “All of my violence is here in the sound” and if you need more re-energizing after grappling for a while, just listen to her reassurances on ‘You Yes You’ a few dozen times.
Stealthily complex, startlingly deep even after a few hundred listens and grueling if you want it to be, w h o k i l l is a remarkable album that solidifies Garbus as a fearsome songwriter, costume and studio production or not. – Paul Bulow