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A Music Geek’s Top Ten-ish Albums of 2011

Guthrie T. “Gus” Meade, Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina, lib.unc.edu

I’m going to be honest: this year was rough. I am happy to see it go. For some reason I have never had very good luck with my odd years. But on the bright side, even years are usually more forgiving, so I guess I have that to look forward to (hopefully the Mayans are full of shit).

Because I spent an inordinate amount of time in my house this year, revisiting all the records I listened to had this sort of weird, inverted time capsule effect. Re-listening to songs is supposed to evince specific, emotive, transitive memories, but as I listened back through my favorite albums from this year, I recalled, with alarming specificity, mundane locations and quotidian actions – like, “Right on! I remember taking a rad shower just after I listened to Yuck’s album for the first time! Pantene me, bitch! (I said to the bottle?)”

This was decidedly strange and got me thinking about a discussion I had earlier in the year with a good friend about the difference between routine and repetition. My friend and I were trying to delineate the point at which repeating an action on a consistent basis mutates from constructive reinforcement into sheer rote. We figured that the difference could be attributed to approach: The same activity could be construed as routine if goal-oriented, or mere repetition if just a shortsighted fixation. But then what did this mean about my listening habits this year? Were they repetitive or part of a routine, and what did it mean if they evoked memories of other routines? So meta.

To be frank, I have no idea about the psychological implications of my listening habits. What I do know, however, is what my friend and I decided. For me, an album can be a crutch as easily as it can be a distraction as easily as it can be an impetus.

Without further ado, here is my top ten-ish list (in a loose order, because ranking is fun but unfair)

12. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
So the first time I listened to EMA I was brushing my teeth with this sick new toothpaste. Just kidding. What if I followed through and just listed a bunch of boring shit that I did for each album? Anyway, this debut from Erika Anderson is hard for me to listen to, not because it isn’t beautiful or poetic, but because I always feel voyeuristic, like I’m experiencing something that is so earnestly someone else’s, and so vulnerable, that my presence is intrusive. Listen to “Marked” and I think you’ll know what I’m talking about.

11. Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra
I will forever be a D’Angelo apologist, but ever since he traded his neo-soul for alleged solicited sex and bong hits, I have been trying to fill the void by seeking out R&B that has as much gravity and ingenuity as his work. Though stylistically incomparable, Frank Ocean is akin to D’Angelo in the spirit of inventive enterprise. Ocean cobbles together his debut mixtape from a disjointed palette of influences: he finds a way to mix original material, interstitial Nintendo references, and a Coldplay cover –not a typical recipe for success. But it works, and works well.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMfPJT4XjAI?rel=0]

10. Kendrick Lamar – Section .80
This was the year of the New Underground for hip-hop, and Kendrick Lamar emerged as the most adroit emcee of the pack. His wit is as quick as his flow, and I always end up wanting more than just an hour-long album from him. With Roots-esque moxie, he made his debut a concept album about growing up in the crack era during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. A bold move, but “Fuck Your Ethnicity” is the most relevant hip-hop track I have heard in a long time.

 

9. Yuck – Yuck

One word: “Rubber” (I think I gave myself tinnitus listening to this song so much. Also check out my profile of frontman Daniel Blumberg)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pt2YuvrWYE?rel=0]

8. Youth Lagoon – The Year Of Hibernation
Trevor Powers is probably in my top 5 for nicest dudes of all time (see my profile of him), but his warm demeanor completely belies the brooding emotional flurry that prompted his debut, The Year of Hibernation. His album constantly straddles the line between youthful limitation and maturity, but always manages to avoid platitudes.  While I can’t decide if his wispy pop is homesick or escapist, he is definitely the most interesting act to come from Idaho this year.

 

7. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Poignant, affecting, maturing, gossamer, mythological, home-bred, convalescent, Hornsby-esque, bearded. What is left to say about Bon Iver? There is no way you haven’t heard this album yet, and so much about Bon Iver has been committed to paper that you could just mad-lib a sentence together with the above adjectives and sound totally on point. Irritating, but this attests to the universal approbation of Justin Vernon’s song crafting. Although mythology (see above list) is something that inexorably comes up when discussing Bon Iver, I think the second album has finally adopted its own lore: A former bedroom-ambition now has four Grammy nominations.

6. A$AP Rocky –LiveLoveA$AP
Kendrick Lamar may be the mind of the new hip-hop underground, but A$AP is the hustle and grind. Also, he is just the fuckin’ man. Chalk it up to being photogenic or having a really listenable flow, but this album was on repeat for two weeks when it came out. My favorite part of the album turned out to be what some took issue with: It took me one solid listen to memorize all the lyrics. Perhaps he is repetitive –“I be that pretty mothafucka,” “purple _____.” “swag” – but as a result, each song is anthemic, and I love shouting along in my car.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ob3ktDxAjWI?rel=0]

5. Clams Casino – Clams Casino
This album might have been my number 1 if I hadn’t started listening to it so recently. In the same caste as Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky, Clams Casino, aka Mike Volpe, has been the most prominent producer of the new hip-hop scene. I had been familiar with Volpe’s work as it appeared on A$AP’s album, but his isolated instrumentals are unbelievably transfixing as specter-sampling headphone music. If this is the sonic direction that hip-hop is leaning towards, I could not be more excited for next year.

4. Neon Indian – Era Extrana
Chillwave has callow limitations as far as emotive expression (I don’t think “Terminally Chill” was ever meant to be a heavy song). But on Era Extrana, Alan Palomo kept true to his synth aesthetics while taking a much-needed step in maturity.  I love listening to this album because of my aural associations: Era Extrana is Michigan in September, running on the beach, waking up at 5 pm, growing a patchy beard, and parking outside Oleson’s Grocery for free Wi-Fi. It turns out I didn’t need to take the same step of maturity to thoroughly enjoy this album.

3. James Blake – James Blake
I wonder how long it took music illuminati to create a genre for James Blake’s sound. Dubstep, though it is the obvious influence, didn’t quite fit, so “post-dub” was the go-to subgenre I encountered most when reading about Blake. What does that even mean? It means that the often-misguided critical impulse to identify a sound with a hyphenated phrase fell short, simply because of, well, complexity. Blake’s inimitable sonic instincts and musicianship – that voice! – generated one of the most addictively challenging records of the year.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isIABK-0ohQ?rel=0]


2. Drake – Take Care
This album was a crutch. I listened to it over and over and over. I started getting homesick; I started listening to Drake, and just….didn’t stop. Take Care is an album so unapologetically nostalgic that it only finds strength in recalling former vulnerabilities. Sure, Drake boasts his millions and his success, but it is a front, and not all that convincing. The bulk of the songwriting focuses on his hometown -Toronto, familial travails, and former loves that “fell through.” Consequently, Drake’s identity is so steadfastly grounded in his roots that his insecurities about fame and fruition are the only logical upshot. In so many ways, Take Care moves forward by looking back. Curiously enough, I checked my play count and the last time I listened to all of my favorite tracks was on the same day; I haven’t really touched the album since.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwyjxsOYnys?rel=0]

1. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
This was the album for me this past year, and anyone who lives with me or stalks my Spotify feed could have guessed that Kurt Vile topped my list. The dude is just a genius. My biggest regret of this past year was not saying anything to Kurt backstage at Pitchfork Festival. Instead, I just kind of stood there staring at him, you know, making him feel weird. But what are you supposed to say to someone whose art has been so important to you on so many occasions? “Hey, good job” is shallow beyond rationalization. So I stuck with staring. The closest I got to telling him how significant his work had been to me was a really drawn out conversation with his drummer about the difference between the free beer line and the free wine line backstage: “The rest of the band was making fun of me for goin’ to the free wine line, but…I’m pretty drunk!” There is no moral to that story, except this one: Go Listen To Kurt Vile!!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1VmLdZvUlo?rel=0]

Post List Notes: “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj was my favorite song for an entire month. Did anyone else notice that despite the imperial takeover of Odd Future, Goblin barely made any year-end lists. And is anyone else sure that Azealia Banks is going to be huge in 2012?

Agree/Disagree below.

Also, follow me on twitter! @MattGrosinger

Comments

  1. Kevin says:

    Good list. But no Radiohead, Toro y Moi or Cults? I also have to agree… Drake?

  2. Bill says:

    You missed the far and away best album of the year, and best hip-hop album in who knows how many years, Shabazz Palaces – Black Up.

  3. Cale says:

    Mike,

    These are actually all pretty big releases in terms of music in 2011. Aside from maybe Youth Lagoon, which I guess is a little more obscure than the rest of them. The main problem is almost any best of the year list is going to have a lot of indie releases on it, mainly because people who consider The Foo fighters and Adele the best records of the year, probably arent really interested in making list, and they also probably havent listend to 0 or 12 albums released in 2011.

    With that said, I would have added Panda Bear and Julianna Barwick to the list. And yes that Drake album is awesome!

  4. Jamie says:

    OFWGKTA.

    No Childish Gambino?

    Mellowhype?
    Earl Sweatshirt?
    The Gang?

  5. Chris says:

    I don’t know Mike, Yuck is pretty great. This is the first I’m hearing it and to me, it sounds more like Spacemen 3 or a more accessible Flying Saucer Attack than Sonic Youth. It’s very reminiscent of early/mid 90’s drone rock and I liked a lot of that stuff. I can hang with this band.

  6. Mike says:

    This seems to be a list of music that nobody has ever heard of. It’s a case of “if it’s popular, then it must not be good.” These are all VERY independent albums that get little or no radio play whatsoever and are at best a challenge to listen to.

    Where are albums like “Foo Fighters – Wasting Light” and “Adele’s 21″? Those should be on any Best Albums of 2011 lists. Yuck sounds like “Sonic Youth” and a really bad version of them.

    This is just my opinion though and I know this is yours but this list seems quite elitist to me. Good luck with too many people agreeing with you on this as it seems with the rest of the comments so far.

  7. zach says:

    No Childish Gambino!??!?!?!

  8. Dean says:

    STOP LIKING WHAT I DONT LIKE IE DRAKE
    x

    Jk. I enjoy Take Care but I don’t think it was quite one of my favourites. Bon Iver is my number one. Other stuff I liked off the top of my head: City and Colour, Horrible Crowes, Frank Turner, The Weeknd, Mogwai, Thrice and New Found Glory. Still haven’t made it all the way through David Comes To Life and I’ve listened to Mastodon’s album about once.

  9. LP says:

    Join the MIXTAPE EXCHANGE for 2011 and share this playlist with a lucky stranger. http://xo-lp.blogspot.com/2011/12/mixtape-exchange-2011-sequel.html

  10. Rich R. says:

    I’m surprised. No Childish Gambino?

  11. Fitz says:

    Worship music by Anthrax needs to be added to this list.

  12. Terence says:

    Interesting list, Matt. It’s just unfortunate that music taste can be so subjective that it’s hard to compile a list that everybody can appreciate. If anything, thanks for the recommendation for some new music!

  13. Karl says:

    Your inclusion of Wheelchair Jimmy completely kills any desire I might have had to check out the parts of this list I’m unfamiliar with.

  14. ericdano says:

    Drake? Really? Might as well have put Chris Brown on there too….

    Neon Indian and the others were good choices…..but Drake? Ugh….

  15. SlimCharles says:

    Well, Kurt Vile is cool, anyway…

  16. Ryan says:

    So i’m ghetto?
    lol.

  17. Howlin’ Pooch!!!!!! Thanks for reading everyone. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

  18. Justin says:

    I really liked “Smoke Ring for my Halo,” but I think Fucked Up’s “David Comes to Life” was far-and-away the best album to come out this year.

  19. B. Squarener says:

    howlin’ pooch wuz here

  20. Robin Burks says:

    Glad to see Neon Indian on here. But a little disappointed “Ceremonials” by Florence and the Machine didn’t put in an appearance in your list – it was definitely one of my favorites of the year. I also quite liked Noel Gallagher’s Flying Birds.

    And Drake? Really?

  21. Devin Smail says:

    I disagree, completely.