2012; Arbutus / 4AD
Could there ever be such a well-polished, Asian influenced record to come out of Canada? Probably not - that seems like a pretty well defined niche. Grimes is the project of Claire Boucher, a Vancouver native thoroughly invested in world music, mostly Eastern. Her voice is a beautiful wisp of air, floating in the ethereal waves of lush synth. Boucher’s voice is very much the focal point of Visions, leaving a lot of the synth textures to inhabit your subconscious. She described the release as “Post-Internet,” which sums up the release pretty well; a lot of the drum tracks sound like keystrokes or error notifications. The Japanese influence is stark, although progressive; each track seems to start off with a simple idea and blossom until there is a landscape of sound for Boucher to rule with her classically trained pipes. Visions certainly is not for everyone, while still grasping on to mass appeal through its synth-pop structure. Boucher offers a mature, refined release for her “Post-Internet” music, allowing all to indulge in her blissful deconstruction.
What you want to see from a band is growth. Last year’s self-titled debut full-length from this extremely young band saw a lot of maturing, with songs like “Forget You All The Time” and “Not Important”; these songs moved away from the traditional pop-punk/powerpop sound. Now, we have Attack on Memory - something completely separate from any of the earlier releases. It has a glacial, creeping opening track, an almost nine minute song, and is much more caliginous than Cloud Nothings. The Smashing Pumpkins play a huge influence on the release and is evident on songs like “No Sentiment”. The prolific Steve Albini produces, and Baldi talked about the experience with Pitchfork. Attack on Memory shows enormous growth by a band that has been almost confined within a tired genre. Cloud Nothings have been garnering a lot of attention form last year’s excellent full-length and having the first two singles, album opener, “No Future / No Past”, and “Stay Useless” declared “Best New Tracks.” What you are left with, at the end of thirty-three and a half minutes, is an expression of growing pains that transcends sounding incipient of the final product; the album depicts something greater to come, but is self-contained and very rewarding. Needless to say, Cloud Nothings have plenty in store, despite already having two excellent full-lengths releases. And it looks like we will get a lot more material from a band just starting to get serious.
25. The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient
Sputnik called this album “America, broken into a hundred tiny pieces.” I can’t think of a better phrase to sum up this album so perfectly. It’s easy to get lost in the layers of sound. At the center of the music, lay vocals shrouded in reverb. If you were to pay attention to the lyrics, Slave Ambient tells the story of a man struggling to find his place in the world. This is the band’s most focused release to date and the effort certainly shines true.
24. Actress - Splazsh
An enigma wrapped in an overused idiom, Actress lays somewhere between Fly Lo and the static in between radio frequencies. It’s a confounding record, not in a negative way though. Splazsh is at its best when you have no idea what’s going on around you and you don’t seem to care.
23. Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes
“Youth Knows No Pain” is the perfect opener to Wounded Rhymes. An album that feels reckless and free, Li crafts an organic dance album that uses unique instrumentation and clever, stark lyrics. This release will have you humming its melodies all day, in want of more and more.
22. Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde
It’s impossible to listen to Smith Western’s sophomore effort without being instilled with a sense of adolescence. Every song reminds you of the time you first fell head over heels or videotaped stupid shit with your friends. The band is only 19-20 years old, but they have crafted a mature sounding record that never feels age exclusive or juvenile.
21. Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts
Accompanied by only light strings, Beck production, and a harp, Thurston Moore continues to put out excellent music. Despite being mostly an acoustic record, Moore does reveal his noise roots on tracks like “Circulation” and “Orchard Street”, only taking a more classical approach. The album is nine tracks long, keeping every song over four minutes long. It’s a testament to just how talented Moore is and his ever-present growth as a songwriter.
20. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Anthony Gonzalez has a knack for making epic music. On M83’s sixth effort, the band ascertains that epic feeling throughout the double album. Never feeling overwrought or sloppy, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming reminds us of the wonder of being a child and all the joys that come along with being so you and innocent.
19. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Continuing Broken Dreams Club’s up-tempo rock, Girls’ third record is a throwback to hotrod rock. Diverging from their normally friendly sound, “Die”, sounds like a deep cut from Black Sabbath’s discography, showing a band that has the ability to expand outward. It’s safe to say Girls will only release material they feel confident in, and with Owens and White knowing exactly what sounds right, it’s safe to assume Girls’ next release will be just as solid as the trilogy before it.
18. Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
The year’s best ambient release, Ravedeath, 1972, offers beautifully caliginous soundscapes that were handcrafted from an organ recorded in an Icelandic church. The album artwork shows the annual event at MIT where students drop a broken piano off the roof. This is exactly what the album sounds like – a classical instrument tumbling to its impending doom. Ravedeath, 1972 is one of the year’s best headphone listens too.
17. tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L
Sounding like a children’s book on some kind of drugs, Merrill Garbus continues her project that is good as it is annoying to spell out. W H O K I L L is the most fun listen I had all year. Using sparse instrumentation and unique vocal loops, Garbus sings clever lyrics in her interesting delivery. This is certainly an idiosyncratic release.
16. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
Opening with “The Grey Ship”, a seven-minute, two-movement, personal epic, EMA lays the groundwork for a catharsis so personal, yet somehow not tied down by its specificity. Anderson clearly has problems, but they don’t come off as stale or boring. It’s a dark, winding path; nonetheless, it provides an alternative view of the world’s injustices.
15. Iceage - New Brigade
Garnering a lot of attention from their live shows that leave kids bloody and battered, Iceage accomplish a lot on their debut. Channeling a Wire-esque post-punk, the young band from Copenhagen give us twenty-six minutes of pure attack. Although it may be impossible to capture their live shows in a recording, New Brigade certainly does its best.
14. Wild Flag - Wild Flag
Formed by former members of Quasi, Sleter-Kinney, and Helium, Wild Flag produce the best straight rock and roll album of the year. Each song is a study in melodic attack. Sounding a lot like a continuation of Sgt. Pepper, Wild Flag accomplishes pushing psychedelic rock further into the harder spectrum with ease.
13. Bon Iver - Bon Iver
The album that launched a thousand hate posts, Bon Iver is an excellent exercise in musical compostion. Difficult to pin down to just one genre, Justin Vernon creates a sweeping album that wrestles with sense of place. Although it is plagues with a godawful closing track, “Beth / Rest”, the record should not be judged solely on its ability to close. Vernon has put together something really special and it should be seen as such.
12. Destroyer - Kaputt
Coined “Cocaine rock” by a close friend of mine, Dan Bejar creates a portrait of America from behind the curtains. It feels sleazy at times, despite having crystal clear, clean production. This is America in the 80s, but not the one they would ever teach you about in school.
11. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
I stand by my statement that if Annie Clark hadn’t toured with The Age of ADZ, Strange Mercy would have come out much different. Clark has always ventured into expressing the relationship between the reserved and the chaotic, but this release sees her leaning towards the chaotic. Using more cutting guitars and vocal effects, Strange Mercy will leave you dancing around your kitchen like an idiot.
10. Real Estate - Days
Real Estate’s self-titled debut is one of my favorite albums of the 2000s. Moving past the lo-fi production of its predecessor, Days still elicits the same groggy feeling as Real Estate, despite being much clearer. It just goes to show that it was the message and not the media. There are still plenty of cloudy day jams, but the band doesn’t dawdle on the way there. This is a very focused release from a still growing band.
9. Zomby - Dedication
His first release on 4AD, Dedication accomplishes so much, despite feeling unfinished. It’s a complex, dark album that offers not one low point. The record bookends its longer songs and keeps most of the shorter songs in the middle. It’s a record that never really finds itself, but it’s the feeling of being lost that elicits more and more listens. Zomby is an interesting character. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him scrap everything here and reinvent himself again next year.
8. The Weeknd - House of Balloons
Although often credited to being a mixtape, the only thing aligning it to that nomenclature is its free price tag. Expanding leaps and bounds upon the 808 formula, The Weeknd accomplish something really special on their debut and also on their two follow ups, Thursday and Echoes Of Silence. This is a dark party to attend, often ending up exactly how the host intended. Implementing sub-bass, Abel Tesfaye sings beautifully over beats that usually contain two movements, spanning a dark, vast soundscapes.
7. Clams Casino - Instrumentals
When I first learned of Clams Casino, I only knew he produced for Lil B. After that, it was difficult to see him in a different light, until I heard “Motivation”. This song paves the way for an album that’s as hazy as it is clear. Sounding like a James Bond movie set in the future and played in slow motion, Instrumentals details just how this guy established a whole new sound in indie rap production – based.
6. Fucked Up - David Comes to Life
A colossal concept album, Fucked Up reimagines what hardcore music can do. The band creates an entire town and cast of characters to live out their story. Using melodic guitar melodies, crushing drums, and dual male/female vocals, Fucked Up produce an immense record. Spanning eighteen tracks over an hour length, David Comes to Live does just what the title sets out to accomplish, creating a life from music.
5. Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise
Warranting about a dozen listens in order to allow the listener full comprehension of its material, Jaar creates a vast soundscape covered in layers of confusion and dust. At first listen, I was confused as to what all the talk was about, but around the sixth listen, to which I couldn’t understand why I was drawn back, it all came together. Even though it was recorded over the span of about three years, Space Is Only Noise feels like one solid effort. It’s scary this dude is only 21 years old.
4. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
Part rap, part afrocentricism, part bass music, and part ghost, Black Up is one of the best rap albums to come out in recent years. The beats sound like they come from a dark, future dystopia. Each song is broken into two movements, providing two different interpretations of the same musical seed. The lyrics are clever, the beats are advanced, and the whole album coalesces into one of the best records from 2011.
3. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo
Album opener, “Baby’s Arms”, floats from ear to ear using reverberated acoustic guitar and electronic pitches. This is pretty much the whole album: simplicity wrapped in layers and layers of carefully placed noise. After leaving The War On Drugs, Vile was rewarded with more time to focus on his solo effort. The time was obviously well spent, as Vile releases one of the most captivating records of the year.
2. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Tackling larger issues such as war and nationalism, Harvey’s tenth studio effort is continental in size. Harvey took over two years to write Let England Shake, most of which was recorded live in St. Peter’s Church, located in England. Harvey commands chaotic highs and haunting lows, all the while creating one of the most politically aware and challenging albums to come from England.
1. James Blake - James Blake
After Kalvierwerke EP, it was clear to see that Blake would take more of a songwriter’s approach to his full-length debut, featuring more of his own voice, still embedded in his dynamic production. James Blake does not let either side down, finding a balance between club bangers and bedrooms. The end result is an album making its own path.
(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.
5. Zomby - Nothing
Zomby had two pretty big releases this year, on his new label 4AD: Dedication and Nothing. The two came out of the darker side of the producer’s mind. It’s funny to put the two almost polar titles next to each other, stating they came from the same person within a few months of each other. Nothing has a lot of Dedication in it, but it also shares some of the rave feelings from Where Were U In ‘92? EP highlight, “Equinox”, shifts tempos so freely that you don’t feel the change at all. The EP seems effortless and it wouldn’t be foolish to expect something from Zomby, early into 2012.
4. Fresh & Onlys - Secret Walls
The Fresh & Onlys write love songs, but they feel more fitted for ghosts. I had the pleasure of meeting these guys and actually booking them last year; they’re a bunch of great guys doing what they love most. The EP feels a lot like an extension of the love ballads from Play It Strange. Found within the layered, garage pop guitars, lay dreamy lyrics about secret forces you can’t see and their effects on you. It’s easy to space out to this album, but it’s more rewarding when you pay close attention to the evolution of each instrument throughout the tracks. This band continues to build up one the most solid, little-known discographies.
3. Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate) - Home After Three Months Away
"Will all my twenties find me so guarded?" questions this little band from Michigan who channel the emo from their region during the mid-nineties. This release probably didn’t show up on too many major year-end lists, but it certainly deserves recognition, even if it is only some twenty-something year-old’s tumblr. What can be described as "Posty," a word my good friend of mine calls bands akin to a Kinsella approach to emo, Empire! Empire! is the little band that could. Emotionally felt lyrics, rich guitars, and beautiful drums write this record as the perfect testament to on of the golden ages of emo. Expect this band to put out about ten 7"s next year or something. They move fast.
2. Trash Talk - Awake
For a blistering eight and a half minutes, Trash Talk barrage your ears with hardcore punk. This isn’t just a great EP on the surface, some of the guitar melodies read much deeper. Even if you don’t feel like reading too much into this one, it’s easy to shake your brain up bouncing around to this. The drums are obviously perfect and dynamic enough to keep the rhythm bouncing along, like most great hardcore punk. I felt that Eyes & Nines was a little too long and it works out that this band fits perfectly into the EP format. What you have here is eight and a half minutes of great hardcore punk and is there anything else you wanted more from 2011 to drunkenly scream in the back of your friend’s car?
1. Burial - Street Halo
I don’t think Burial will ever stop being the best producer in bass music, until the genre self-destructs. He just is. Street Halo is three tracks long, but still clocks in around twenty minutes. What you can find here is Burial’s signature pitch-shifted vocals, 2-Step, dark garage beats, and plenty of fulfilling sub-bass. Each song winds in and out of the listener’s head and everything feels meticulously placed in the mix, even the vinyl crackles. It’s not a surprise that this guy is still putting out amazing music, whether it be working with Four Tet and Thom Yorke or solo. What is really exciting about Street Halo is that it reveals a progression from Untrue and Burial plans to release another EP early next year. I don’t think the enigmatic producer will ever stop growing, nevertheless he continues to be the best producer in bass music, no matter which part of the mainframe the genre moves to.
Indie rap blew up this year. It might have been the influx of great indie producers, but it’s probably more closely related to Odd Future’s rise to fame. Thanks to “Yonkers”, everyone knew OF and GOLF WANG. But with two disappointing proper releases, Odd Future sort of failed to live up to the hype. Out of this disappoint sprang forth a huge positive result: independent rap was garnering more attention. So cue 2011’s stellar lineup of mixtapes. The year’s roster ranged everywhere from midwest gangsters to toothless, skinny-jean-wearing hipsters. I was originally only going to write up five mixtapes, but as I started to list the tapes I enjoyed this year, I realized five wouldn’t do justice to all of this year’s amazing releases. With Drake reaching critical fame, I wouldn’t doubt seeing any of these artists blow up huge soon; maybe all they need is a shocking music video.
(All of the mixtapes can be downloaded by following the hyperlinks in their name)
10. Main Attrakionz - 808s & Dark Grapes II
With probably the best album cover from this year’s crop of mixtapes, 808s & Dark Grapes II does not disappoint people who read books because of the cover; you know you’re in for an interesting ride when the opening track samples a Glasser song. The mixtape turns into a hazy, codeine induced trip, thanks to the help of over ten different producers. Clams Casino and A$AP Rocky provide their services on “Take 1”, an indie rap manifesto and one of the best tracks on any mixtape this year.
9. DaVinci - Feast Or Famine
This Bay Area rapper features a smokey flow that sounds more refined than store bought sugar; it’s just as sweet to the ears too. Avoiding the hazy sound that every indie rapper’s production seemed to favor, Feast Or Famine has airtight beats ranging from soul sampling (D.R.E.A.M.) to a g-funk (Smoke The Night Away). This EP is a meticulously produced and performed testament to indie rap’s potential mainstream appeal.
8. Lil B - Im Gay (Im Happy)
Featuring an ode to Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night gracing the cover, Im Gay does not disappoint. Most people can’t stand this guy. To be honest, I NEVER thought I would ever give the Lil Boss a chance, but then a producer by the name of Clams Casino came out with an outstanding instrumentals album. I noticed a lot of the tracks were produced for this Lil Boss. Why not try him out? I was blown away by how well Clammy Clams’ beats matched up with Lil B’s style. I was really shocked by “I Hate Myself”, a track moving away from Lil B’s normal positivity. And the fact that Lil B is the most inspiring person on twitter who gave out this album for free is heartwarming. I would love to see Lil B become more famous, not for an “I’m ____ ____” song, but for his hard work and positive energy.
7. Big K.R.I.T. - Return Of 4Eva
The King Remembered In Time (K.R.I.T.) does not fail in following up to last year’s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. I find myself bobbing my head a lot and swaying to K.R.I.T.’s music. He has an excellent southern flow and his soulful beats accompany it perfectly. If OutKast eventually releases a new album, they would be foolish not to feature this guy on a few tracks. The tape has one of the funniest features of the year, Chamillionaire. The aptly named, “Time Machine”, is a song about cruising around in an older car…riding dirty, no doubt; Chamillionaire absolutely kills it. K.R.I.T. shows up on the new Roots album and has done work with Curren$y before. It’s easy to expect something big from an artist who stays as busy as The King does.
6. Araabmuzik - Electronic Dream
Now before you discredit this as a mixtape because it saw such a proper release, consider that this is basically a remix album. I know it even has a deluxe edition coming out too, but let’s put aside semantics and move on to why this is so darn good. This is some good ass EDM. The album flows like one long DJ set, but the tracks can be picked apart and survive independently from the mix. “Streetz Tonight” is a beautiful mixup of Kaskade’s “4 am” that builds and drops effortlessly, offering a completely different listening experience from the original. This guy has some pretty dextrous fingers working that MPC, allowing him to manipulate the featured stems into something completely unlike the originals.
5. A$AP Rocky - LiveLoveA$AP
Easily the most hyped mixtape of the year, A$AP pleases those in wait with a cohesive, blunted tape. This guy would have had a solid year, had he just released this tape, but I guess a $3 Million record deal with Sony/RCA may have improved things a little bit for A$AP in 2011. Clams Casino heads a line of producers following his dark, rolling beats. A$AP isn’t the best rapper, but his music is more about the whole, not the parts. The album breathes a cogent aesthetic into the listener that makes you feel almost as blunted as the rapper himself. With his huge record deal, I would be sorely let down if this guy doesn’t do something huge next year.
4. Black Hippy - Black Hippy
It should come as no surprise that a rap collective featuring Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, and ScHoolboy Q came out with an eye-opening mixtape — Compton rap collective sound familiar doesn’t it? This tape kills it. Every song seems like it took them one take to spit. This guys know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it. Ranging from Lamar’s nasally delivered intelligent lyrics to Jay Rock’s hardcore growl, this mixtape epitomizes rap and everything hip-hop. These guys clearly have the game figured out; maybe some lightening strike will switch them places with Odd Future…
3. Freddie Gibbs - Cold Day In Hell
It’s impossible to talk about the independent rap scene without mentioning Freddie Gibbs. This guy consistently puts out great music. Coming from Gary, Indiana, Gibbs offers a midwestern gangster rap that seems unrivaled by anyone else right now. Not to say there are a thousand gangster rappers rapping about the midwest, but the overall scene of gangster rap this day seems to relate more to horror rap and not the roots. “Rob Me a Nigga” is the perfect song to represent this tape; the hook is a repetition of “Rob me a nigga.” This mixtape is hard as anything, but with an endorsement from LRG.
2. Danny Brown - XXX
Danny Brown is something else. His voice first comes off as agitating, but that only makes you pay closer attention to what he has to say. The tape starts a fucked up party and ends with a fucked up life. I couldn’t believe my ears the fist time I heard “I Will”, an explicit song about eating pussy. This album has no boundaries and that’s what makes it so prolific: there is nothing Brown won’t touch. So far, XXX feels like a magnum opus, but I don’t want it to be; I want more songs like “Adderall Admirable” and the self-aware “Radio Song”.
1. Kendrick Lamar - Section.80
This tape blew me away. Album opener, “Fuck Your Ethnicity”, sets the whole album up as a study in intelligence, afrocentrism, post-crack influences, wordplay, cleverness, and everything else I love in rap. There are a multitude of styles found in the production; everything from Kanye soul sampling to blunted bass music. Section.80 offers an epochal look at the current state of hip-hop. I would even consider this a classic rap album of the internet age. It’s hard to tell where the members of Black Hippy will end up, but it’s almost certain K Dot will continue to be the most talented. It’s only a matter of time before the Black Hippy crew blew up; make sure you don’t miss the ride.