This has been an odd year for me musically. While most people have professed to an easy time picking out what their favorite albums were over the past year, I’ve had some difficulty with it. For the past couple of years I’ve had an album that was a clear-cut favorite: not so in 2011.
This year, in honor of that difficulty, I’m presenting my favorites as an unranked, randomized list. The list’s order does not represent a belief that one entry is better than the next, nor is the list simply confined to full-length albums. There are EPs here; there are single songs; there are simply artists. The only requirement was that their music had an impact on me.
Somewhere in the world right now there is a band or an artist that I have never heard of who will release music in 2012 that will define a portion of my year – perhaps longer. And that knowledge in and of itself is enough to keep me listening and digging and blogging for a long time. Here’s to a great 2011 and an even better 2012.
Shabazz Palaces // Black Up
When Black Up was released, Shabazz Palaces didn’t really do much talking with the media. There’s a penchant for media sprees when new albums are released, inundating the readers/listeners with so much background and so much of the artist’s thoughts about their work that we all tend to forget that when it comes down to it, the music is the only thing that should really make the statement. Shabazz Palaces didn’t forget, instead making one of the best albums of the entire year and allowing it to speak on its own accord.
As it turns out, Black Up didn’t need much in terms of hype; it’s a thick, futuristic hip-hop hybrid, combining Palaceer Lazaro’s lyrical sneer with a complete disregard for the tenets of what modern rap has become; when he sings “bitch, you know I’m free” on album opener “Free Press and Curl,” he’s warming up to make you believe it. And when the final strains of the album finish, you’re going to.
Shabazz Palaces // Swerve…The Reeping of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding) [mp3] from Black Up
Real Estate // Days
There are certain bands that I identify with our blog’s beginnings, and Real Estate is one of them. Their debut was released after we had been writing the blog for about eight months, although I feel like we heard it a lot closer to the start than that. Time is compressed in my memory, apparently. Regardless: their debut was promising – an atmospheric pop album that was a bit uneven, but with a lot to look forward to. This year, the band started to deliver on that hinted promise.
Days never rises above an ambling pace over the course of its 10 songs. It’s the music of every day life. Days is not the high points or the lows, but the endless grind of Monday through Friday, which has an uneasy perfection all its own. Somewhere in “Green Aisles” the band sings about “wasted miles, endless drives.” It’s in that mundaneness that the band reveals itself to be acutely effective.
Real Estate // Green Aisles [mp3] from Days
SBTRKT // SBTRKT
I picked SBTRKT’s debut album up without any expectations for it. I’m not a connoisseur of the London producer’s genre – nor am I even particularly a fan of it – but the album kept me coming back to it all summer. Part of that has to do with Sampha’s arresting vocals on a good portion of the songs, but without the music surrounding it, both would undoubtedly suffer.
“Something Goes Right” was a definitive song for my entire year; it’s high on my Most Played of the year, and it was the first I heard from SBTRKT. That fact doesn’t always mean that I like the entire album; more often than not the opposite is true. But the promise of that song was delivered over the rest of the album. SBTRKT is not perfect; there is some filler, but on the whole, there is more than enough that went right to make the missteps negligible.
SBTRKT // Wildfire [mp3] from SBTRKT
London singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka’s music hearkens back to something that’s before our generation’s time. It’s a feeling that we grew up with – our parents’ music – and despite the fact that his songs are original and new, Kiwanuka makes us feel like we’ve known them all along.
With two EPs released in 2011, another set for release on the first day of 2012, as well as a full length album due in the spring, Kiwanuka is setting himself up to be a name on everyone’s lips in the very near future.
Neon Indian // Era Extrana
At the end of 2009 I set about burning a bunch of the albums I’d purchased over the course of the year to CD; in part because of that process, Neon Indian’s Psychic Chasms ended up in my car for a good portion of 2010. When his follow up effort, Era Extrana was released, I burned it almost immediately and let it take up residence during my drives back and forth to work.
The album wasn’t able to be confined to the recesses of my 1994 Honda Accord, however, and spread itself out into my daily work routine, my morning runs (when they happen), and my party playlists. Era Extrana is even more affable than its predecessor; Alan Paloma has clearly gotten better at the craft of making music. Or maybe the album was the result of simply having access to more/better tools. Regardless of the reason, it’s a fantastic, easy listen.
For a band that released a total of 3 songs over the course of 2011 (one full singles and another split with Braids), Purity Ring made their presence felt. “Ungirthed,” which was unleashed just after New Year 2011, sits atop my personal Most Played of 2011 by a comfortable margin. If the remixes are factored in, it’s even farther ahead.
The Canadian duo make a manufactured brand of glitch pop that burrows so immediately into the listener’s head that it requires near constant repeat once it starts. It sounds like it has come from somewhere in the future; if the band has tricks up their sleeve for 2012 what they started this year, the future is sooner than once thought.
Purity Ring // Ungirthed [mp3]
King Krule // King Krule EP
It’s always somewhat off putting to hear an artist nearly half your age perform with such maturity (especially when considering how relatively little the rest of us have accomplished in comparison); Archy Marshall, the (young) man behind the King Krule moniker borrows titles of his songs from Basquiat, is responsible for creating a shuffling, Cockney heavy EP that easily tops my list of complete releases I listened to most. (Does that make sense?)
King Krule is quick – less than 15 minutes long – and it’s littered with incomplete thoughts – a wordless intro, a song that ends abruptly after less than two minutes. Despite those aborted ideas, the EP doesn’t feel incomplete when taken as a whole. In fact, it sounds more like an artist warming up. When the EP’s last (and best) song (“The Noose of Jah City”) comes on, Marshall knocks it out of the park.
Bon Iver // Bon Iver
Easily one of the year’s more polarizing releases, Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore album was one I tried, in the face of myriad praise, to simply write off. As it turns out, none of the praise was unwarranted, and the Wisconsin band made one of my favorite albums of the whole year.
It’s difficult to listen to music in a vacuum. It’s an art form that builds on predecessors, on top of which it recalls memories for the listener. Critics of Bon Iver made much of its similarity to the softer rock stylings of the 1980’s. But for me, viewed simply as an album unto itself, knowing musically where Justin Vernon had been, and what he’d been involved with since the release of his seminal For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver seemed to be the natural outpouring.
I don’t purchase a lot of vinyl, but I make it a habit to buy my favorite releases each year in physical form. Bon Iver has already been bought.
Bon Iver // Calgary [mp3] from Bon Iver
Dirty Beaches // Badlands
Made for his father, Alex Zhang Hungtai’s (better known as Dirty Beaches) Badlands is an understated masterpiece. Comprised of Hungtai singing and playing guitar over top of looped samples, there’s a confidence to the album that belies its muffled nature. It isn’t brash or bold or particularly in your face; it’s the confidence that comes along with being comfortable in one’s skin. There wasn’t another album out in 2011 that was remotely close to this one in terms of sound, and to pull it off in such an effortless manner is breathtaking.
Dirty Beaches // Sweet 17 [mp3] from Badlands
Alabama Shakes // Alabama Shakes EP
After Pitchfork released their Childish Gambino review, there was a discussion about what it meant to understand rap music – and subsequently music as a whole. (David at The SF Critic has a nice wrap up of the back and forth that took place if you’re interested.) Personally, I never consider my understanding of the background of the person singing or rapping when I listen to his or her music; I am far more visceral in my enjoyment that way.
Alabama Shakes might not make rap music, but they have an understanding of the human condition that belies the brevity of their four-song debut EP. It’s evident in the music itself. It’s evident in the soulful wail of Brittany Howard’s voice. Her joy and her pain don’t sound much different when she’s singing, and maybe that’s the point: in the grand scheme of things, it’s not as much about the specific emotion as it is that one is able to feel at all.
Chad VanGaalen // Diaper Island
I wouldn’t generally go in for an experimental folk album; it’s not my preferred genre. But something about Chad VanGaalen’s Diaper Island made me turn it on, and at this point I am glad that I did. VanGaalen is quirky for sure, but his album is an arresting one, layered with various sounds and textures, reminding me of Jeremy Enigk/David Bazan/Damien Jurado in the middle to late 90’s; Diaper Island hits the personal sweet spot between good and nostalgic.
VanGaalen is a consummate songwriter, and Diaper Island is enough to make me wonder what I missed out on with his previous albums.
Frank Ocean // “Swim Good”
In a year that started with rumblings about Odd Future, only to see the Los Angeles rap collective explode in popularity and controversy thanks to their vulgar lyrics and genius front man, the real star is the group’s resident crooner, Frank Ocean.
Ocean released a full-length album himself after it was delayed by labels, and while there are a few songs that stand out (“Novacane,” “Dust,” his rework of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing”), the one that best showcases what we can hope for from Ocean is “Swim Good.” Throughout Nostalgia, Ultra, Ocean is honest about the fact that he is hurt. He deals with it superficially most of the time – whether that’s through drugs or sex or something else immediate – but his vocals leave a far more lasting impression on the listener.
Frank Ocean // Swim Good [mp3] from Nostalgia, Ultra