Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Best of 2011 - Music

Yeah, I know; "Skip, January is almost over and you're just posting your best albums of 2011?"  What can I say?  My bad.

Can I say in my defense that I got some fancy pants headphones for X-Mas that completely altered my "Best of 2011" list?  Seriously, the speakers I was using on 12/24 made what I was listening to sound like mud.  The addition of the headphones completely altered my list.

Oh, are you curious now?

The Roots - undun

Apparently The Roots decided to challenge themselves in 2012.  First they decided to do an concept album with a narrative.  Then they upped the ante by telling the story in reverse.  The result, undun, is a triumph.  It's a somber affair, but what it lacks in fun it makes up for with beautifully lush arrangements.  While undun might not be for everyone, it's certainly the best album of 2011.

Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne

When WTT was announced the expectations were immediately off the scale.  Kanye West and Jay-Z collaborating on an entire album?  Bananas.  It's an interesting portrait of two superstars and how they deal with their fame.  Kanye is raging id, with his hands in everything and relishing every moment.  Jay is all ego, impressed with his journey.  WTT is the definition of spectacle.  Even the faulty lead single "H*A*M" works as a bonus track in the context of the album.

Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean

Sometimes when an artist grows and tries something new they risk turning off their fanbase, who are often fans not of the artist but of the aesthetic.  Iron & Wine ran that risk with Kiss Each Other Clean.  Gone are the hushed acoustic ballads.  Instead the album opens with fuzzy guitars before expanding into Sam Beam's new fuller sound, including horns.  But the haunting mournful lyrics are still front and center; songs feature wounded and wandering characters.  Kiss Each Other Clean is the first step on the next leg of Iron & Wine's journey.

The Kills - Blood Pressures

The Kills might be Rock's best kept secret.  Four albums deep and they continue to fly just below the radar of mainstream success.  Blood Pressures is a raucous affair.  Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince crafted an album full of energy that practically leaps through the speakers.  Mosshart's wail cuts like a knife while Hince's plays the guitar with almost primal ferocity.  Blues/Rock has never sounded more vital.

Saigon - The Greatest Story Never Told

The Greatest Story Never Told is quite the anomaly.  Firstly it's Hip-Hop album that's predominately produced by a single producer.  Secondly it's a concept album.  And lastly it's a hyped and long awaited album that's actually worth the wait. Saigon is a spitter and he manages to weave in and out Hip-Hop tropes and cliches while not only injecting his own sensibility into them but also working them into his narrative.  Just Blaze's production is superb and the entire album is just a marvel.  

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Upon first listen, The King of Limbs sounds disjointed and slight, like two halves that don't quite form a whole.  But after a couple of spins the big picture takes shape and Radiohead's latest album reveals itself to be full of nuance.  The carefully selected samples and loops create an atmosphere with the illusion of stillness, but as always with Radiohead the lyrics contain worries and fears.  In the end The King of Limbs is just a Radiohead album distilled to it's essence.

St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Strange Mercy is Annie Clark's strongest offering yet and it's quite a journey.  It can be heartbreaking at times.  "Cheerleader" is a frustrating glimpse at the trials of being a woman in American culture.  But the title track is an ode to devotion.  Clark's voice is a dichotomy; it's vulnerable yet strong and all the while beautiful.  At times Strange Mercy is morose, while the next song is bounding with energy, but it's always engaging.

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi - Rome

Rome is an almost mythical album. Danger Mouse had been working with Daniele Luppi for five years to complete his homage to the music of spaghetti westerns.  The result is mood music for the imagination.  Every song sounds like it belongs in movie or on a tv show ("Black" actually closed out the most recent season of Breaking Bad.)  Jack White and Norah Jones provide the vocals, but the real standout is the music and it's layers.  Even the interludes are glorious.

Drake - Take Care

Take Care could have been called "Schadenfreude: The Album" beause it's so entertaing to hear Drake's conflict. Take Care straddles the line between guilty pleasure and bonafide masterpiece.  It's a document detailing a guy adrift in a sea of fame and searching for "the one that got away."  It's introspective and reflective enough to feel like it's a violation of someone's privacy, yet it's catchy enough to be thoroughly enjoyable. It's actually impressive how Drake and executive producer Noah Shebib manage to infuse the synthetic beats with a sort of desolate warmth.

Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra

Frank Ocean was the fresh face of 2011.  He's also unique in that not only is he the only member of Odd Future worth paying attention to, but he's also the only male R&B singer with paying attention to.  He was the breakout star and Nostalgia, Ultra was his introduction to the world.  In a word it's refreshing.   Whether he's reworking Coldplay, MGMT and The Eagles or just detailing life's excess in "Novacane" he brings a unique perspective to the stale world of R&B.   The honesty in "We All Try" is stark, but impressive (hopefully Ocean will maintain that integrity as his fame grows.)  It's worth hoping that Nostalgia, Ultra is the sound of the future and not just a genre dead end.

And those were the albums that I loved the most in 2011.  Sorry it took so long for me to share this with you.

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