This may be the most diverse collection of the bunch, with terrific garage rock, Americana, hip hop, dub techno, jazz, and Scandinavian pop figuring into the mix. Though variety is hardly analogous to quality, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to sift through 2011′s musical landscape and present some of the strongest efforts it produced across a multitude of genres.
Look below for links to the other year-end installments.
30. Thee Oh Sees – Castlemania
For months, I could not figure out why Thee Oh Sees were refusing to play anything from Castlemania live. It is their best reviewed album to date, they toured heavily (as usual) behind it, and its unsettlingly catchy, easily digestible 3-minute freak-outs are guaranteed to spark a crowd, not that they need help in that department. But considering that the record involves none of the ‘Sees’ save John Dwyer, with a few appearances by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Brigid Dawson, it almost justifies them forgetting about it. It’s a shame not to hear the careening ‘Corrupted Coffin’ or Dwyer do his best Popeye on ‘AA Warm Breeze’, but Castlemania is dedicated to the band’s former space, and therefore is encapsulated in a particular place and time for specific individuals. The description casts a sobering light on an album that couldn’t be farther from it and is near-perfect for that reason.
It’s easily the funnest thing Dwyer’s done since (and maybe including) Coachwhips, and he’s so comfortable here that he even the closing pair of covers are among his best work. They may be focusing on the also excellent Carrion Crawler/The Dream as their major 2011 release, but Castlemania is special and a career highlight for one of contemporary punk’s most prolific visionaries. – Paul Bulow
29. Dolorean – The Unfazed
Singer-guitarist Al James comes across as an honest, introspective friend sitting near you at a Portland coffee bar. The intimacy of this record can almost be unsettling at times as you are drawn into his personal relationships. On one of the year’s best songs (‘Country Clutter’), James provides an indie-folk version of Cee Lo Green’s ‘Fuck You’ with more devastating results. The arrangements are intentionally sparse with plenty of empty spaces to contemplate love and life. On ‘Thinskinned’, that means hitting the open road with an unsettled lover in hopes the relationship finds better footing in new places. James’ honesty on ‘Sweet Boy’ — “I said I could wait for your past to fade away/I had no idea what I was talking about” — comes from a place that you can only reach with someone who has seen you at your worst.
These disarming truths are littered across the beautiful, carefully paced arrangements on The Unfazed. Released in January, I’m still listening to it in December with a warm cup of coffee as I watch winter color the desert hills around my home. For anyone who wears the scars of love in 2011, this album offers up a soundtrack to the moments you’re stuck with nothing but your thoughts. – Jason Lent
28. Danny Brown – XXX
I’ll get to the point right off the bat: Danny Brown’s self-portrayal is the singular act that genuinely invests the audience in his character despite all his faults, his honesty to the personification giving XXX its magnetic ardor. Cokemachineglow’s Chet Betz compares it to Heath Ledger’s singular performance in The Dark Knight, a romp of id-based insanity similar to Brown’s sex- and drug-scapades, but it doesn’t quite assume his humiliating personal affectations and his status as his story’s biographer; I prefer the parallels to Daniel Day-Lewis’ tour de force as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, a story structure that makes the villain the only significant character in the story’s world. In Brown’s universe there is no protagonist to counteract his antagonism; we’re left with the proverbial kid in the candy store, Brown snorting and smoking and fucking and scrapping and OD’ing to his heart’s content, the psychopathic trail of destruction ending only because Brown chose to close this chapter in his Adderall Diaries.
I’m aware of the daftness in comparing archetype-defining, Academy Award winning performances to an album that is liberally littered with lines like, “dick so big left stretch marks on her jaw” and “you still fucking with them freak hoes / stank pussy smelling like Cool Ranch Doritos”, but it’s a matter of honesty to a character, and as rough around the edges as Brown is, the monster he paints on XXX is clearly, undeniably himself. In this summation of self Brown lets us in on all the nastiest shit sitting in the pleasure centers of his brain, obviously, but also on the anxieties that lead to such self-destructive behavior. We get the bravado of “what you write is all vagina / what I write is wall of china / nigga that’s great”, but underlying it, constantly, is the pessimist, the 30 year-old who’s never had shit and thinks he’s probably going out that way as well. So: self-annihilation.
The juxtaposition in opener “XXX” is ripe, with Brown bragging, “I’m in your bitch mouth” and then slowly falling apart from there, expressing the level of poverty he’s sunk to with, “dark nights, trying to sleep, stomach on fire / delusional from hunger so I couldn’t get tired”, then providing an ultimatum for himself, “If this shit don’t work nigga I failed at life / turning to these drugs now these drugs turned my life”. The same happens on closer “30″: Brown endows himself with the titles “microphone Cassius / Magic with the sick shit”, then speculates on how his disturbing end will eventually come, mentions the daughter he’s leaving behind who “doesn’t really even know him because her momma thought he wouldn’t make a living off them poems”, reminisces on nights he would wear a scarf to bed and leave the stove on just to stay warm, but concludes that he has to win, that “you know who you is: you the greatest rapper ever”, that “I never learned to rap; always knew how”, that “some people never know their goals, known mine my whole life”.
It’s frankly amazing how well these two differing characters are able to inhabit the same sonic space without conflict, the crass madman who spends all of “I Will” talking about cunnilingus and “Die Like A Rockstar” talking about, well, dying like a rockstar, next to the self- and socially-aware cynic who uses “Fields” as a bully pulpit for urban poverty and “Party All the Time” to sympathize with a young women who’s gotten caught up in the same lifestyle. Then again, it shouldn’t; XXX provides an easy medium for such ideas because it is Brown laying himself completely bare. It is complete honesty and unwavering dedication to chronicling a man’s struggles between his id, his ego, and his superego, to the existential dilemma of possessing moralist and philosophic thought but needing to fulfill carnal desires to stay sane. And you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone as willing to lay themselves open to examination as Brown is, to expose the hero and the villain that gives our species its depth. – Brian Riewer
27. Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix
Three albums into their career and it still isn’t clear exactly what kind of a band Bombay Bicycle Club are. And, really, that is not a bad thing as these English youngsters continue to grow, experiment and expand their sound. The almost all-acoustic Flaws was an unexpected record and some of those dreamy folkisms found their way into A Different Kind of Fix. Nothing here stands still with the band going on a great creative adventure that can’t easily be labeled as simply as psychedelic. Sure, the repetitive droning of ‘Your Eyes’ is certainly steeped in classic British psychedelia, but the loose and grooving ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’ is a work of pure, undefined glory.
There’s nothing as raucous as was found on their debut, but things don’t suffer for it. This album just feels a little more thought-out, more challenging, and certainly more visceral. I really didn’t know what to make of these guys when they first arrived a couple of years back, but they are quickly becoming one of Britain’s most interesting guitar bands. An apt title for an album that satisfies immediately and grows more addictive with each listen.
While the rest of the world has been enjoying A Different Kind of Fix for a few months now, the US release actually doesn’t come until early 2012, so don’t be surprised if one of the best albums of 2011 is also one of the most talked about of next year too! – Matthew James
26. Andy Stott – Passed Me By
He’s taken it down from the inside. Prior to his two 2011 releases, Andy Stott was a purveyor of solid if not stock dub techno…but there was always an off-color hue to his sashays. Now we know why. As it turns out, the Mancunian wasn’t so much seeping into the rubric’s tired framework as stalking it, canvassing its terrain for foibles to exploit. The preeminent chink proves to be movement — when beats aren’t dropping every millisecond, it all falls off the rails, and Stott is there to revel in the wreckage, decelerating the stroll to a malevolent, deliberate slog on Passed Me By. Repetition and monotony needn’t stand cheek by jowl. He was never keen on standing to begin with, and so he eschews the run-of-the-mill altogether in favor of outer limits, skulking in the belly of dilapidated industrial wastelands for much of this half-hour and only relenting to refuel. In these slippery pockets of respite, the density of Stott’s visions lifts, and we do too. Almost as magnets which have been divided by a whole history of tedium and oppression, we soar to interstellar heights in both a flash and slow motion once the snags recede toward tiny, bewildering R&B constellations — skewed samples from a bygone era, mementos of our lost voices and the summits they mounted before buckling beneath the salt of the earth. In these grimy, grainy, gruesome dimensions, we’re forbidden to set foot in the middle ground.
By hitting the brakes, he’s thrown the entire machine out of whack. He’s thrown a wrench in the usual machinations of dark-alleyway throttles. He’s thrown off our balance by forcing us to soak in the quotidian’s eyesores where we’d typically gloss over them. No gloss here. It never existed. Indifference has lost out to the insidious and, on rare occasion, the iridescent.
Stott’s oeuvre has come to employ an all-consuming physicality, not insofar as it generates more foot-tapping or head-nodding than the ordinary electronic outing. It’s probably less adept than the faceless throngs in that department. However, it spawns a twinge of discomfort, a looming dread that cannot be shaken, shuttling us into incessant bouts of vertigo that are as dizzying in their bleak oblivion as they are dazzling in their ability to conjure a sentience we’d long shelved. Though it’s an ugly feeling, we can feel. Our motions no longer seem governed by bodies outside of our own. This racket doesn’t come at us willy-nilly, it emerges from within, bubbling in the deepest, dankest caverns of the gut. – Vinh Cao
25. Akira The Don – The Life Equation
I don’t think I’ve gone back to an album as many times this year as I have The Life Equation. This was a massive artistic statement from the should-be-massive London rapper-turned-pop-star extraordinaire as he took us on a genre-splicing-and-defying journey of self-discovery and personal victory in the face of blood-sucking governments, evil corporations and ex-girlfriends. With some impressive cameos — including a couple of appearances from Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys — here is a record that gives answers when you’re feeling lost, weary or just altogether fed up, but it never abandons life and even in the darkest times remains an optimistic beast. The more-than-ready-for-radio ‘We Won’t Be Broke Forever Baby’ and ‘Babydoll’ show how far Akira has come over the last couple of years while the title track is an unforgettable near-14-minute epic journey of human awakening. It’s been a great year for Akira The Don and the tireless performer has impressed many times with his stellar mixtape output leaving incredible tunes behind such as ‘(Lord I Miss) Red Dead Redemption’ and ‘I Am Not A Robot’. But it’s The Life Equation which goes down as a defining moment for a true 21st-century artist. – Matthew James
24. Drake – Take Care
Take Care has quickly become one of the best-selling records of the year, but in a way, it’s really a strange phenomenon that the general public has embraced Drake at all — especially when he portrays himself as such an asshole throughout his new album. On ‘Marvins Room’, he repeatedly and unrepentantly calls an ex while drunk letting her know that he still believes himself to be better than who she is with now. This is inexcusable behavior, yet somehow the music itself, coupled with his delivery, is so alluring we forget about how despicably he’s acting.
Additionally, we only hear his side so we pity him instead of condemning him. The greatest trick that Drake pulls on Take Care is making himself into the protagonist of the album instead of someone the listener actively roots against. It’s easy to see why, though. Drake has improved lyrically, forgoing, and even mocking, the hashtag rap style which first brought him popularity. His flow as a rapper is also much improved; he weaves through the beats much more easily than ever before and over a wider variety of styles as well, ranging from Just Blaze’s uptempo ‘Lord Knows’ to the much more somber ‘Over My Dead Body’ and ‘Take Care’. It’s also remarkable that he can make the listener sympathize at all with someone as rich as he is. Are we supposed to feel bad for him because his affinity for private jets makes him feel disconnected from the rest of society or that all the sex he has makes him even more depressed?
By all accounts, Take Care should be a repugnantly solipsistic album, but due to Drake’s newfound and improved skills as a lyricist, rapper, and vocalist, he avoids the trappings that this sort of album could very easily fall prey to. This album isn’t all gloom though, as ‘Lord Knows’, ‘Headlines’, and ‘Underground Kings’ are all more upbeat tracks, but even these reveal Drake’s seedier traits such as going through a girl’s texts when she’s in the bathroom. It leads one to wonder where Drake is heading next? More self-loathing or further excess? It’s this unique dichotomy that sets him apart: that these two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive.
Should Drake cheer up? Maybe, but then we’d probably miss out on great albums like this. – Micah Wimmer
23. Peter Evans Quintet – Ghosts
Resilience has kicked Peter Evans into high gear. His trumpet has never been nearly as spirited or soulful as it is on his first quintet album, Ghosts, as he dabbles in buoyant post-bop while drums fizz and fly across the room and processed electronics yank the affair toward avant-garde rumination. In order to keep pace with his counterparts and maintain his hold of the reins, Evans dials up an unprecedented fortitude, big and brash and brilliant, always ahead of the curve so as to not muddy the parade and squander the celebratory airs he’s puffing. While the album doesn’t venture into free jazz’s torrid seas, it too is strengthened by the clutter. Evans is perpetually on alert, ready to combat any and all comers, as on ’323′ when a blitzkrieg of, well, blitzed-to-hell buzzes races out front of the pack in hopes of setting a crash course. That trumpet, that lucent obelisk of RIGHT, won’t abide such conduct, fending off the onslaught, not quite sawing its thorns but comprehensively snuffing them out.
Throughout these seven songs, he is stapled on his toes by cyclical jabs at commandeering control, and, whether an intentional by-product on the part of its foes or not, his trumpet’s spine is reinforced and its spells reinvigorated. After facing the digitized roar of ‘The Big Crunch’ head-on, one can understand Evans winding down to simpler rhythms on ‘Chorales’, as if awed by how sumptuous his instrument can sound when the squalls are subdued. Not that he was ever a slouch, but Peter Evans’ willingness to brave the howling winds has uncovered an uncannily steady and spectacular footing. – Vinh Cao
22. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Lykke Li’s 2008 debut, Youth Novels, endeared itself to the world with a charming blend of indie-pop that hinted at even better things to come. Wounded Rhymes is undoubtedly the better thing to come, but few could have predicted how it would sound. The album sounds huge, like Phil Spector’s wall of sound filtered through Swedish dance/pop. The results are familiar structures arranged at slightly new angles. ‘Get Some’ casts Li as a prostitute over a jumpy rhythm and guitar stabs that reveals a woman as strong as she is fragile. The quiet doo-wop of ‘Unrequited Love’ unexpectedly moves a corner in Bronx, NY into the heart of Swedish pop. ‘Sadness Is A Blessing’ could be this generation’s ‘Be My Baby’ and The Ronettes are a band that comes to mind several times when listening to the music that surrounds Li’s openhearted writing.
Dark but never depressing, Wounded Rhymes is an expertly written album by a young woman discovering that what happens after love is never as good as the promise of what love will be like when she finds it. – Jason Lent
21. A.A. Bondy – Believers
Just three albums in, Believers is Scott Bondy’s departure album. Now skeptical of his trademark slick, twangy alt-country and folk, he shades these songs just like the ill-defined street lights of the record’s cover. Each track is seamless in sequence, though, so even though Bondy isn’t tugging at heartstrings or questioning his faith as overtly, the looping and heavy reverb are just as thoroughly devastating. It is the suffocating atmosphere he creates that nets listeners this time around, again bolstered by the bleak, fuzzy artwork. Believers is in fact all about imagery, which is worked to great effect live, and it’s bleary to match. But somehow, Bondy manages to be hopeful rather than forlorn and self-deprecating like his first two works.
There are enough penitent references and near-tearful, on-his-knees moments, though, like ‘Rte. 28/Believers’, which opens “You didn’t know I was a killer inside/won’t get to heaven tonight.” Most importantly, this third effort proves that Bondy is more versatile than he originally let on, capable of expertly changing shape to explore new territory without sacrificing the honesty and power that made him so entrancing originally. – Paul Bulow