2012; Top Dawg Entertainment
So it’s finally here, the album that garners Black Hippy the attention they deserve. Everyone would figure Kendrick Lamar would offer that first breakthrough. Although Section.80 was one of last year’s best releases, it got overlooked a bit; it wasn’t “BNM”, despite making the Pitchfork year end list; the release was so close to a “Universal Acclaim” from Metacritic, only losing by 1 point. So it’s ScHoolboy Q, the resident weed rapper of Black Hippy? This comes as a surprise to me. Setbacks was strong, but it felt a lot like a token weed rap album from a collective that is the best thing to happen to underground music in quite some time. This is where we meet Habits & Contradictions. It seems like Q has moved from songs like “iBETiGOTSUMWEED” into songs along the line of surprising, stark album opener “Sacrilegious”. He is his strongest when he challenges the entire rap game, in a sweeping revelation of the true grind; “Nightmare on Figg St.” opens with an embracing “What’s fifty grand to a motherfucker? Can you please remind me?”, and it continues to challenge The Throne’s hit “Ni**as in Paris”, while revealing a aggressively morose tale of how the current street game is. Q even drops the now famous “cray”, throughout the track. With the recent BNM of “Hands on the Wheel” and Q’s feature stealing the thunder from the hosting A$AP Rocky on “Brand New Guy”, Habits & Contradictions looks to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back on Black Hippy’s big break; it already has the attention of Beats Per Minute. This is an unrelenting affront on popular rap, not unlike OF’s short-lived run last year. Habits & Contradictions will certainly please any underground rap fan, along with anyone who cannot take another rapper talking about rims or chains. This is a breath of fresh air and the door is open for the rest of Black Hippy.
(This list is obviously upside down. Because I have had to edit it about ten times, I don’t feel like reversing everything. I just don’t care. This took me long enough to do. Enjoy, bitches)
26. Atlas Sound - Parallax
Bradford Cox is seemingly the busiest guy in indie rock. Last year’s Halcyon Digest was one of its best. Cox continues to create some of the best music. This album is truly a study in ambient sound, each song birthing or dying off into sound. “Te Amo” provides an excellent use of an arpeggiator with almost glitchy natural drums. Cox’s voice continues to prove it should be the center of the mix, even if it is doubled a thousand times and layered with reverb. Parallax feels like a dream you wish to remember, but can’t get every detail down. The mystery encased within the wall of sound is what will keep a listener coming back, attempting to pin down each sound and how it’s made.
27. Andrew Jackson Jihad - Knife Man
When your album starts with a track about “The Michael Jordan of Drunk Driving”, you know you’re in for something special. This is folk-punk at its finest. The two-piece have been doing this for years, but this feels like a mature magnum opus. And I know that will conjure a bunch of shit from the “true fans” whom love People Who Can Eat People, but outside of the fandom, the music speaks for itself. The lyrics are clever, little instrumental nuances chirp in at just the right time, and the more emotional songs (“Backpack” and “People II: Still Peoplin’”) seem telling of a band that tours like hell and have grown up a lot. At the end of the day, you are left with a sarcastic, biting record that doesn’t ever fail to deliver.
28. DJ Quick - The Book of David
This guy has irrefutably been around the block a few times. If you ever want to hear what a gangster rapper sounds like about twenty years after his time in the spotlight, then don’t miss The Book of David. Phenomenal beats, well-written lyrics, and an angry attack are what make the release so damn good. When DJ Quick really has fun, tracks like “Ghetto Rendevouz” and “Across the Map”, The Book of David really takes off. “Across The Map” even contains a verse from Bun B. It’s a good thing this came out in 2011 because now I have something bump in my Cadillac when the world ends.
29. The Antlers - Burst Apart
After such a heavily emotional release such as Hospice, The Antlers encountered a fork in the road; they could either go further down the emotional rabbit hole or dig for a new mixed metaphor to complete this sentence. They chose the latter. Burst Apart even opens with a song entitled, “I Don’t Want Love”. From there, the album outlines a relationship built upon a rocky foundation. This is a much different effort from Hospice, seemingly darker and not so melancholy – I did not find myself crying in the shower to this one. That being said, Burst Apart undeniably adds to the band’s already impressive catalogue of bedroom pop.
30. Bomb The Music Industry! - Vacation
Easily one of the most fun releases in 2011, BTMI! creates their most cohesive, mature record to date. I have to say that when I first heard the opening track, “Campaign for a Better Next Weekend”, I had to check my iTunes twice – I couldn’t believe it was the same band that played some of the best ska-punk of the 2000s. It was a true opener that created the aesthetic that would be Vacation. You get a sense of urgency to bop around your car to this record. I found myself pushing the volume up for each song, which ended up with a ringing in my ears for a few hours later. I cannot recommend this album as a summer listen enough. It’s just a perfect vacation album – oops!
31. The Field - Looping State of Mind
I have always been pretty fond of The Field. I love looping music that seems to reinvent itself, upon each listen. Looping State of Mind furthers my love. The production is immaculate and none of the loops seem to get old or agitate. Warm bass fills each track, cheery drums move along, and The Field continue to add to their respectable, lengthy minimal techno catalogue. The eponymous track is the highlight here and has really shown progression in the producers’ ability to create lush musical landscapes. This album certainly warrants multiple listens, in order to be fully comprehended.
32. Drake - Take Care
Take Care continues to serve as fodder for conflict – people polarize over this album more than Kanye’s interruption of T Swift. But in a post-808s era, cathartic, emotional rap continues to grow and develop. Kid Cudi failed and so it’s up to Drake to pick up the baton. Take Care’s rap tracks are impeccable. It’s the R&B tracks that create conflict. They’re not bad by any sense of the word; nonetheless, a lot of people came in expecting a proper rap album. I guess those are the same people who only heard Thank Me Later’s singles and not the beautiful opener, “Fireworks”. It’s pretty advantageous of Drake to release his second official album only a year after Thank Me Later’s success. This is an exercise in both rap and R&B, doing both extremely well.
33. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact
At first glance, Eye Contact is intimidating. The first listen conveys that first, overwhelming impression further. “Glass Jar” opens the album at a staggering eleven minutes in length. This was my first turn off to the album, conversely it is the reason this project will continue to garner my listens – there is so much going on, all at once. Once “Glass Jar” kicks in, it doesn’t let you drop your guard once. It’s a relentless attack that gets deeper with each listen; the rest of the record does the same. It must be inspiring to see Gang Gang Dance live and if you ever have the chance, you would be a fool not to go.
34. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
It must have been a daunting task to follow up Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant. And although I don’t consider it nearly as good as either of its precedents, Helplessness Blues does offer an engrossing listen. Album opener, “Montezuma”, is hauntingly engaging. It serves as a introduction to the “New” Fleet Foxes album, despite using the same method to their music. The record does a lot of what the band is known for: vocal harmonies, simple yet effective arrangements, and plenty of folky goodness. I know it doesn’t necessarily pave new ground for the band, but who needed that? They know what they’re good at and continue to produce notably.
35. Beirut - The Rip Tide
Zach Condon, the driving force behind Beirui, made a beautiful album with The Rip Tide. It’s expansive, lush, and effortless, despite having meticulously perfect production. Such a mature sound is emitted throughout The Rip Tide. There is a constant feeling of warmth in these songs. Album highlights, “Santa Fe”, “East Harlem”, and “The Rip Tide”, take their time building up grand themes of sense of place. The Rip Tide never seems forced or contrived, displaying baroque pop that floats fluently through your headphones. No other album makes you want to drop everything and fly across the world to somewere temperate and mild.
36. Curren$y - Weekend At Burnie’s
2011 saw America’s hardest working pothead’s proper major-label release, Weekend At Burnie’s. This album features the same low-eyed flow and smooth “Knight Rider” beats. Along with Curren$y’s usual guest spots, Young Roddy and Trademark, the blunted rapper takes you through over forty minutes of one of the best album to burn to. This guy puts out at least three full albums worth of work a year. It isn’t a surprise that every release is just as good as the one before, so even though this isn’t Curren$y’s best work, but it did bring him to a larger audience. Isn’t exposure exactly what every rapping pothead wants; you can find a million mixtapes released every month with a remix of “Lemonade”.
37. Gil Scott Heron and Jamie XX - We’re New Here
Coming out only shortly before Gil Scott-Heron’s death, the collaboration inherited a magical feel. It doesn’t feel awkward, even though it has a twenty something year old paired up with someone almost three times his age. This seems like a once in a lifetime remix album; it’s certainly special. It’s not common for one producer to remix an entire album, but the original producer of I’m New Here recruited Jamie to do the remixes, after being inspired by Jamie’s work on The xx’s debut album. Even though it’s so unorthodox, We’re New Here seems to work as a separate entity and not a remix.
38. The Roots - Undun
A different kind of album from what we’ve come to expect from The Roots, Undun is a concept album that sits at a much lower BPM than previous releases. It’s exceptionally darker than anything else from their discography too. Featuring Big K.R.I.T., Dice Raw, and a string of orchestral movements closing it out, Undun feels like a pretty progressive effort from a band whom put out a full album only last year. “Kool On” feels like it could fit right in on any collection of The Roots’ greatest hits. The release is just another credible project from one of hip-hop’s legends.
39. Youth Lagoon - The Year Of Hibernation
Sputnik declared this album, “Music for daydreamers. The ones paying attention, anyway.” That’s pretty much spot on. It’s easy to let this record pass you by as it washes dreamy tones over you. The Year Of Hibernation comes to around thirty-five minutes, but each minute is packed with sleepy-eyed fantasy and each song builds to a climatic, stomping beat. Nothing here is worth sleeping through.
40. Class Actress - Rapprocher
A throwback 80s synthpop album, Class Actress updates the style with an angelic voice and fresh production. Rapprocher is certainly rooted in the 80s, just the same is the feeling one gets from blasting the album before a night out; it’s perfect to rip shots and pine for a date with Emilio Estevez. One thing this releases is almost eerily perfect at is getting its hooks deep-rooted in your brain. I sang “Love Me Like You Used” every single second of every single day during finals week, even toasting my freedom from academia to it (I even made a dance not unlike the “Shot in the Arm”).
41. Mastodon - The Hunter
Understandably, The Hunter is not considered a proper release by true Mastodon fans, only failing at not being a cohesive concept album. Why is that such a bad thing? Well, to the dismay of Mastodons fans, it isn’t. This record is great, just not up to Mastodon’s ridiculously high stands they set for themselves. Feeling more like a radio-friendly record than an engrossing novel of an album, The Hunter does not disappoint at any single point. The guitar harmonies, huge drums, and thunderous bass grab hold of you and don’t stop shaking you until the record finishes. Definitely leaning on the sludge metal side, Mastodon continue their legacy as one of metal’s most notable and talented artists.
42. The Throne - Watch The Throne
Coming in, with all bonus tracks included, at a little over an hour, this album never feels as big as it can be. Replacing Kid Cudi with Frank Ocean, a much-welcomed substitute, Watch The Throne takes the combined talents of Kanye West and Jay-Z and creates something much less than its parts. Songs like “Lift Off” and “That’s My Bitch” are really just disappointing and overly self-indulgent, which is a shame because they come in at such crucial points in the album (two and seven respectively). Watch The Throne isn’t all a disappointment though. Tracks like “Ni**as In Paris”, “Otis”, and “Gotta Have It”, give the album the best one, two, three of the year. These are all mammoth, giant songs that could easily and probably will dominate the pop charts. I love both these artists, but that’s exactly why I see this proper collaboration as a sort of disappointment, despite being one of the year’s best releases.
43. Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow
Kate Bush is one of Big Boi’s favorite artists (the other being Bob Marley) and it’s no wonder why. She has a beautifully distinct voice and marvelous arrangements. The first three tracks never seem to finish. They’re beautiful and complete, despite being so open-ended. Bush creates a lush soundscape on 50 Words For Snow, without the album feeling like too much. This is definitely the work of a time tested artist such as Bush, so it comes as no surprise she makes another fantastic album with what feels like ease.
44. Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
Feeling like a film score to a remake of an early Universal horror movie, Replica offers one of the most haunting listens of the year. The keyboard textures and sounds are out of this world. They have clearly been fine tuned for hours to elicit the unease and tension found throughout this record. Lopatin’s masterful keyboard compositions paint a beautiful, melancholy picture, not unlike the unique cover art. The eponymous track is a frail keyboard melody taken to the brink of certain disaster and back several times over. It’s difficult to stop coming back to an album that tries just as hard as the listener does to figure itself out.
45. DJ Diamond - Flight Muzik
An amazing footwork album, DJ Diamond’s crystal clear production shines like the UFO this release came from. Starting off with a remix, the Chicago producer weaves an eclectic collection of trippy beats. This certainly isn’t for everyone, as footwork music tends to lean towards the more avant-garde side of music, nonetheless, if you love tight production and unique sample modification, I would definitely give Flight Muzik a few spins.
46. Feist - Metals
Leslie Feist’s voice is still amazing. Does that surprise you? Obviously the focal point of Metals, her voice always finds a perfect melody. A much darker album than The Reminder, Metals never finds its hit song, but that isn’t the goal of this effort. Almost every song builds from a stem, creating an expansive album that grows on itself, along with the listener. A lot of the nuances in the songs come from unexpected bass drops, unexplained percussion, or the song’s production itself (Björk’s Valgeir Sigurðsson). Metals is certainly akin to its title, no song shines too bright, but when it’s polished enough, any one track can stand out.
47. Heavier Than Air Flying Machines - Siam
Siam is definitely the biggest hidden gem from 2011. Filtering At The Drive-In through a heavily distorted bass, HTAFM released their grueling debut album into an era that prefers beauty and ease to the difficult and maimed. The album never slows down from its ugly gallop. The vocals range from chaotic to pent-up aggressive. It’s obvious to see that this release is from Friction Records, the same label Bear Vs. Shark graced some years back. I missed Post-Hardcore a lot in 2011. It still remains one of my favorite and most interesting genres, balancing tension and release so perfectly. With ridiculously absurd track names, Siam delivers twenty-five minutes of no bullshit post-hardcore.
48. Braids - Native Speaker
This album wouldn’t be anything without 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavillion. With that said, Braids do accomplish a lot on their debut. They reach a specific pop plateau with ease. Every song is a beautiful, spinning melody that crawls through layered guitars and odd samples. The delivery of each lyric seems dynamic enough to separate each line as its own entity. It seems like such a mature effort put forth by such a young band. Reaching such a lush sound in the vocals allows the drums to float all around the mix - panning high-hats and shifting bass drums create a tribal, natural sound. Braids are still finding their foothold, despite releasing such a mature, genuine album, so there aren’t any limits restricting where they can go to next.
49. Cymbals Eat Guitars - Lenses Alien
I was really hoping to bump these guys up into my top 25 this year, but Lenses Alien found me more confounded than captivated. At first I was really upset that the vocals had an overtly applied reverb to them, but then I dove deeper into the record, as both of Cymbals’ releases had me doing. I sifted through the static and distortion I loved to get lost in and found myself a really rock-hard, solid release. Album opener, “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)”, offers an expansive eight and a half minute sprawl that never seems to change direction too drastically. My interest is captivated throughout the length of the song, but I can’t help but wonder where my “Cold Spring” is. The album is solid, although none of the tracks boast the engrossing moments Why There are Mountains did in such an appealing matter; you have to involve yourself fully in each and every track, in order to get the full experience. This isn’t distinctly a bad thing, nonetheless, an effort needs to be put forth to make their music more accessible.
50. Panda Bear - Tomboy
A lot of people were disappointed with Panda bear’s follow up to Person Pitch, but it’s pretty much impossible to meet the standards set forth by a record so perfect. Noah Lennox sought out to make a record that would distance him from the padded layers that his previous record established. Using pretty much only a guitar, keyboard modulator, and his own voice, Lennox put forward a record that felt a lot like an artist’s struggle to live up to his own expectations. In an interview with Pitchfork concerning Tomboy and his approach to music, Lennox stated, “I like to think about music in terms of golf— it’s competitive, but only with yourself.” It seems that Lennox tried to outstroke himself, but ended up only outscoring the PGA pro, which is, in no stretch of the imagination, a failure. With an approaching Animal Collective 2012 release, it seems Lennox may be focusing more on the collective than his solo pursuits, revealing an upsetting fact: we probably won’t get to see another solo Lennox effort for a few years.