...and we're back. sorry it took so long, I forgot to post what I'd written. second part of my 2011 EOTY list.
10. Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch The Throne
This year's top ten was easily the most contentious since I started making these lists. While musicianship might not have been on par with some of the albums outside the top ten, it was always going to get by if only on pure spectacle alone. Two titans of rap, arguably the biggest names in the genre right now, together on the same album? But I'm going to be Frank here (pun intended; great move getting him on the album, he sounds great though the words Jay & Ye have him sing are garbage): Watch The Throne is one of the sloppiest efforts that we could have gotten from this combination of artists. A lot of it is a god damn mess, from Beyonce's lengthy, disjointed hook in "Lift Off" (along with the rest of it...man, that song is mangled) to the completely abrupt cutoff of "Why I Love You" and many things in between. Most of it just feels unfinished, still in its gestation phase, ready for Kanye to spend another 5000 hours rewriting. I'm tempted to blame Jay-Z for rushing the project--after all it is his name first on everything--but that's bullshit. The man doesn't put out a slipshod product on purpose. They actually believed that this was the right album to drop.
And you know what? It is, even with all its flaws. There have been dozens of thoughtpieces this year about the motive behind releasing an album of luxury rap in the current economic environment. After all, which of the Occupy protestors can be ok with Kanye rapping about his "other other Benz" when they're still hunting for decent wages? But The Throne's (first and hopefully last time I will ever use that name) debut album is about the gracious side of wealth, looking around and saying "wow, we made it" instead of laughing at the people who haven't. This is rap at its most aspirational; the sound of two moguls enjoying themselves, and damn it all if songs like "****** In Paris" don't fully accomplish that.
9. J. Cole - Cole World: The Sideline Story
COLE WORLD! Jay's semi-protoge ("semi" because I'm still not sure Jay even likes the kid) had a banger of a debut record, proving once again the benefits of a mixtape-driven promotional and marketing strategy (didn't hurt that he recycled some of his most well-known cuts, either, and though I thought I'd be bothered by them, the slightly revamped beats hold their own despite time passed). J. Cole is the rare mixtape artist whose commercial debut did not sacrifice the qualities that got him noticed by the mainstream--he crafts smart rhymes over strong, often soul-infused beats...never forcing a hook, letting them naturally flow. He picks his guests well too (for the most part, I'll get to it later), most notably on everybody's favorite new slow jam "Nobody's Perfect [Feat. Missy Elliott]."
That's not to say there aren't a couple problems, and they all come when Cole ignores his instincts and listens to the suits. Some of the beats aren't pure Cole, some of the hooks are lame (almost derailing the practically perfect jam "Can't Get Enough"), and almost every song has one extremely lazy couplet, designed to be memorable (that hilarious fake Ghostface review catches most of them). "Mr. Nice Watch" is the most glaring example of these problems; its beat is a Watch The Throne throwaway at best, complete with lame Jay-Z feature. I don't see J. Cole having the longevity of someone like Hov--he's not quite interesting enough--but right now he's occupying the same space as someone like Nas: a hard-grinding but conscientious man of the streets, a "nice guy with a mean flow" as he says. Right now, at his debut, that's all he needs...here's hoping to his continued success.
8. Augustana - Augustana
This album was a ride over the year, with a major jump up when I was putting together this list. Honestly, I debated making it my number one for a good week, but figured that was a bit too impulsive; I didn't listen to this album nearly enough in 2011 to justify something like that. First, a bit of backstory: I (like pretty much everyone else) first heard of Augustana through that ridiculously earnest piano-rock song "Boston." I picked up All The Stars and Boulevards, enjoyed myself for a bit, and then moved on. They didn't seem like anything special. When their next album came out, I didn't bother picking it up; after all, they didn't even have a strong radio single this time.
Nonetheless, there's something about this record that hit me in all the right ways, timing foremost—if it hadn’t showed up during a March lull in new albums I wouldn’t even have given it a shot. But the real reason I liked this album so much is that it encapsulates everything that resonates with me in rock music these days. There’s verve and passion in every hitch of Dan Layus’ voice as his melodies climb over folk-inspired instrumentation. That’s not to say the band has lost their roots; “Shot In The Dark,” a surefire single on alt-radio, is the best Jack’s Mannequin song that Andrew McMahon never wrote. Lyrically, the band has gotten away from the personal and tends to reminisce in expansive, philosophical musings (my personal favorite: “we’re only here on borrowed time”), phrases that are open for thought instead of precise, and better for it. Augustana has subtly tweaked what they do and successfully gotten me interested in the band again.
7. Kendrick Lamar - Section.80
Kendrick Lamar was the breakout “rapper’s rapper” of 2011 with this mixtape, an engrossing look into his insights about money, hoes, clothes, God, and history (all in the same sentence). Yet another convincing argument that the mixtape as we used to know it is dead, Section.80 features brassy production that dwarfs most of the year’s major label rap releases. His production recalls the same “Ronald Reagan Era” that Lamar raps about for much of his album. From the stuttering jazz frenzy of “Rigamortus” (probably the most ironic song title of 2011) to the slow burn from J. Cole-produced “HiiiPower”, each track is another layer of a soundscape that somehow embraces the past while remaining completely of-the-moment in intention.
Perhaps the most impressive facet of Section.80 for me was Lamar’s utter refusal to insert unnecessary hooks into his songs, forcing listeners to spend some time with the album to really appreciate its sonic value. Very few tracks have choruses in the traditional sense, relying on repetition to drum Lamar’s chants into listeners’ brains (look no further than “Ab-Soul’s Outro”). This is especially brave in the information age, where most underground rappers rely on a sung hook to hold our attention for longer than a few minutes. Kendrick Lamar is confident enough in his message to let listeners take their time with his music. It’s worth it.
6. Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra
Frank Ocean has the highest-placing mixtape on an End of the Year list filled with them, and it’s probably the most inventive of the “old-form” mixtape formats. It’s funny; I noticed that there were a lot of mixtapes on this list, but never really thought about why that was. There’s one easy answer, that the major label record system doesn’t contribute much to its artists pockets, as sales plummet more every year and musicians tend to make more and more of their living from tours and merchandise sales. In this environment, it makes more sense to release your music for free, generating word of mouth and (hopefully) financial success. Then there’s the other easy answer (they’re all easy answers, really. It’s becoming less and less apparent why record labels even exist), which is that the mixtape format allows musicians to be creatively engaged, free of clearing samples and writing marketable songs instead of doing what they were born to do.
Nowhere is that story illustrated better than with Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape. As an unlikely member of the Odd Future collective, Ocean sings confessional pop songs that employ a hybrid of R&B and alternative rock as its musical bedding. That means he is singing over samples that no one else would even think about, let alone have the guts to attempt: MGMT’s psychedelic “Electric Feel” becomes “Nature Feels,” a song about making love on the grass; The Eagles’ “Hotel Coalifornia” becomes the suitably epic “American Wedding,” a tragic divorce story. There’s none of the sonic rawness that has come to signify OFWGKTA—like his name, Mr. Ocean’s songs are smooth—but Frank puts more of his personality into these songs than the most emotional of his genre peers. His songs are funny, filled with small details and in-jokes that make the songs come alive (look no further than “Songs for Women,” one of my favorites). They’re also heartbreaking and honest, with a personality that isn’t afraid to put himself out for the world to see. Ocean released this mixtape because he was frustrated with Def Jam (the label he has been signed to for years) stalling on his debut album because “the songs weren’t there.” They’re wrong; as long as the talent is there, the songs will ring true.
5. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Finally at the top five! I guess this album showing up on my list shouldn’t be any surprise: it’s pretty much the year’s critical darling, and I’ll be surprised if I can say anything new about it. This album grew on me like moss, or perhaps like some of the album cover’s greenery. At first it was pleasant enough, and I think I called it “perfect morning hangover music” a week after it came out. That’s true; Justin Vernon’s songs wash over the listener, enveloping them in warm instrumentation while his falsetto vocals serve as an almost constant lullaby. But this album is a quilt rather than a blanket, hundreds of patches of musical fabric, seamlessly stitched together. Like its title suggests, Bon Iver, Bon Iver inhabits a space of its own, and while it plays the listener is there as well.
When I continued to listen to this album over the year, I found myself gravitating to small musical moments that I glossed over earlier: the second-long saxophone break at the outset of “Minnesota, WI”; the lowest harmony of “Holocene"’s beautiful chorus; the cash register bells in the background of “Michicant”; the harpsichord runs in “Calgary” after each guitar vamp...I could go on for hours. This record is a masterpiece of collage, sounding like a spring after the cold winter that was Bon Iver’s sparse debut For Emma, Forever Ago. With two masterful, completely different-sounding albums under his belt, I have no idea what will come from Bon Iver next, but I’m waiting with bated breath.
4. Destroyer - Kaputt
This will be a story of not judging a book by its cover. Full disclosure: I had never heard a Destroyer record before this album came out. Sometime in late January, Kaputt showed up on Pitchfork’s Best New Music section on a night when I was working on some annoying thesis research. Though I didn’t read the review, I was struck by the band’s name and downloaded the album—all under the assumption that it would be some progressive metal record that I could use to power through the 2am shift at Van Pelt Library. As I pressed “play,” instead of the driving tour-de-force I expected from a band called “Destroyer” and an album called Kaputt, I was given the soundtrack to the coolest coffee shop this side of Capo Giro: seductive horns playing minor-seventh riffs, atmospheric keyboards that fade into the ether and a rambling vocalist who sounds nearly asleep on every track (I’d later find out that he recorded some of the vocals while lying on a couch). It owes its sonics to smooth jazz and sophisti-pop, and wouldn’t be out of place on a bill with Gayngs.
Perhaps out of all the things I like about this record, I’m most struck by how comfortable Bejar sounds. It could be the reverb drenched over everything that leads to the intimate, laid-back mood, but the man practically hums along with each track, lulling listeners to sleep until you start to listen to the things that are coming out of his mouth, insightful and funny and sad all at the same time (“You're a permanent figure of jacked up sorrow. / I want you to love me, / you send me a coffin of roses. / I guess that's the way that things go these days.”). On many of the tracks, Bejar’s voice is accompanied by jazz vocalist Sibel Thrasher, and the duo sound as perfectly snug together as Conor Oberst and Emmylou Harris did back on Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Kaputt‘s M.O. opposes that record’s title, though, designed for the late nights when we’re blearily trudging towards the dawn.
3. Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong
Dawes’ second full-length is a soulful slice of Americana, complete with production tips and backing vocals from Jackson Browne. From the opening stomp-kick of “Time Spent in Los Angeles” through the breathtakingly lyrical “A Little Bit of Everything” (which slightly apes its melody from Pocohontas’ “Colors of the Wind”—I can’t un-hear it!), Nothing Is Wrong takes its listener on the road with the band, with melodic folk music that focuses on displacement and disenchantment of a band on the road. It’s wonderfully clichéd territory, but the band pulls it off effortlessly with its ability to pull off all the tricks that their old L.A. records taught them: rusty pedal steel all over “So Well,” twangy guitar leads on ”How Far We’ve Come,” and angelic harmonies on “My Way Back Home” that wouldn’t sound out of place on a James Taylor ballad. Instrumentation aside, it’s vocalist Taylor Goldsmith’s soulful croon really holds the album together, soaring over the sparse drumming and soft organ. He sounds a little like Gram Parsons from time to time, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.
It’s tempting to sum up this album using its name, but a better place to look for inspiration might be the final track, “A Little Bit of Everything” (which is a contender for my favorite song of the year). The song is a winding, plaintive ballad that manages to wrap everything up in the most beautiful way possible:
“Oh, it’s a little bit of everything,
It’s the matador and the bull,
It’s the suggested daily dosage,
It is the red moon when it’s full.
All these psychics and these doctors, They’re all right and they’re all wrong, It’s like trying to make out every word,
When they should simply hum along,
It’s not some message written in the dark, Or some truth that no one’s seen,
It’s a little bit of everything.”
With diverse instrumentation, nods to everyone from Neil Young to The Eagles, and aching lyrics that get at the heart of being lost, Nothing Is Wrong is a little bit of everything I like about folk rock.
1-TIE. The Horrible Crowes - Elsie & Drake - Take Care
Yeah, I’ll admit—a tie is a bit of a cop out. But after going back and forth for weeks about these two records, I found it increasingly silly to place one over the other. One is a “nighttime music” side project from the lead singer of the Gaslight Anthem and his guitar tech; the other, a confessional sophomore effort from one of the most introspective men in rap. Though the Horrible Crowes and Drake occupy record shelves about as far as possible from each other, their albums interact in a surprising number of spaces, sonically and lyrically.
Both Elsie and Take Care can be called “night music,” with a veneer that lends itself more to biking through the city after dark than anything else. Elsie has a brooding, contemplative atmosphere that takes notes from Springsteen’s Nebraska, with sparse instrumentation and lyrics that are as much growled, whispered, and yelped by vocalist Brian Fallon as they are sung. Meanwhile, Take Care ratchets up 40’s trademark ambient production to new levels, funneling the emotion of a late-night R&B record through a minimalist paradise of muffled drums and looped pianos. They each meet the night in their own ways, finding a stunning diversity of moods on each song. Fallon channels his best Tom Waits impression in the slow-burning “Sugar,” which erupts perfectly into the Gaslight-esque “Behold The Hurricane” before the album finding a surprising infusion of snap and pop in “I Witnessed A Crime.” That these songs could have all been written by the same artist, much less that they fit together so seamlessly, is astounding. Drake’s album has the same quality, as the tracks move from plaintive to boasting to repentant as quickly as people do in life.
Lyrically, both albums are top-notch. I’ve always been drawn to Drake’s vulnerability on record, but he takes it to new heights with songs like “Marvin’s Room” and “Doing It Wrong.” His lyrical prowess has jumped another notch as well, with a blistering verse in “HYFR” and couplets that warrant multiple plays (my favorite, from “Over My Dead Body”: “slave to the pussy, / but I’m just playing the field nigga”). Similarly, Brian Fallon has always been one of my favorite wordsmiths, and Elsie makes the claim as his strongest lyrical outing to date (the last verse of “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together” gets me every time). The beauty of both albums’ lyrics lies in their emotional rawness, their ability to speak directly to the listener, their ability to find truth in the world.
I suppose I could write for another hour or so about these albums and the various ways they have affected me, but isn’t it obvious enough already? I can only offer my highest recommendation that you should check them out if you haven’t yet, and hope that they resonate with you as much as they have with me this year.