Sunday, December 25, 2011

2011: The Top 30 Best Albums: Part II

the second part...

11. Chelsea Wolfe Apokalypsis:

though she looks positively possessed on the album cover, one quick spin of Apokalypsis and you’re the one hypnotized by her haunting refrains and sumptuous music. Resembling a younger PJ Harvey isn’t the only interesting Wolfe has going for her; her delicate vocals register different octaves and stylistic tricks with ease. Movie Screen simmers without boiling over but elsewhere the temper reaches sublime proportions like on the brilliant Friedrichshain as well as the thunderous riffs that propel Demons. Her flair for theatrics is evident but it’s not easy trying to wring art out of the punk-doom Wolfe ascribes to without being compared to those—like Harvey—before her. Apokalypsis to its credit does manage to carve out an original and refreshing space.

12. Grimes/D’Eon Darkbloom:

Darkbloom is a fitting title because the brilliance of the album releases itself slowly with repeated listens and opens up its delights within your headphones. It is also a bonafide album of the year contender and keeps both artists firmly entrenched in that ‘next big thing’ category that is increasingly centering on, of all places, Montreal, Canada. Grimes isn’t fearful of letting her grooves do all the talking or trying too hard to engineer a hit. Her focus on reverb and synths is heavy but when one considers that she’s been around for only a year, a track like Crystal Ball is even more stunning for that fact. The beats slam hard, colliding blissfully with her puerile vocals (‘faster/ faster/ the lights will flow…’). Urban Twilight returns to her minimalism but this time the twisted vocals and nefarious beat run in a spell that works. Fresh from a critically-acclaimed debut last year (Palinopsia) d’Eon announces himself with the mobile phone buzz fest instrumental Telepathy. The remaining tracks are all uniquely brilliant dance-pop songs, the type of songs that Toro Y Moi tried but failed to pull off with his sophomore earlier this year.

13. James Blake James Blake:

the best genre albums are those that don’t even sound like what they represent. The dubstep artist James Blake has been making quite a name for himself and now here, at last, is his astonishing debut. Surely critics will have the best new artist award already with his name on it and who can blame them: Unluck is a marvelous and soulful amalgamation of diverse sounds entwined and masterfully set in motion. Give Me My Month puts Antony Hegarty to shame with a stunning falsetto set to piano. It’s more soulful and sincere than anything on contemporary R&B radio in ages. The diversity on display by this 22 year old Brit is the real treat; I Mind sounds as if it’s being stir-fried from outer space while Wilhelm’s Scream is the best soul any man has done since D’angelo.

14. The Weeknd House of Balloons:

though there’d nothing new about doing a mix-tape, Abel Tesfaye has smartly mixed original compositions with thunderous, slinky R&B beats. The production though is far from cheesy. Tracks like Coming Down manage to find the right line between sex appeal and sexual imagery. It’s a new disposition we’ve seen heavily this year, perhaps a nod to the path unearthed years before by R. Kelly but, thankfully, The Weeknd manages to swill some well-needed D’angelo into the mix and that adds a stunning new coat to the formula he presents us with. It’s a new playing field for young crooners and while they like the imagery of the past, they’re also heavily rooted into the present too.

15. Alela Diane & Wild Devine Alela Diane & Wild Devine:

coming off Sharon van Ettan’s brilliant solo work last year, Alela Diane picks up the slack with a truly soulful offering. This is a clever mix of blue-grass tinged soul and poetry. Her sound is like a boom and resonates long after these lovely songs end. The energy consistent challenges the confines of folk too yet it intimates such weariness that it breaks your heart—the ending grace of Rising Greatness, the jazzy coos of Heartless Highway all attest to this. She is keenly aware of pace as well and there is a natural progression from her earlier studio albums that is as heartening as it is remarkable.

16. Iron & Wine Kiss Each Other Clean:

Sam Beam is a critic’s darling for that glorious, tremulous voice alone…he was the Bon Iver of the indie scene before Justin Vernon showed up. Here, though he’s unveiled a stunning type of diversity I hadn’t expected from him. Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me powers on jazzy textures of all things. Even the ballads are steeped in a stunning religious fervor that can be tricky. These nods to technique are meticulous but also show his growth being strong and not just merely as a token. Nor is he merely just turning out the same template like Fleet Foxes…not a swipe at them but they could take a listen to this record and learn a thing or two

17. Tom Waits Bad As Me:

Bob Dylan may be the most revered artist in music but Waits surely is his equally admired brother. Waits remains uncompromising with brutal songs spewed out like a master drunk (Satisfied), full of penitence (Back in The Crowd) or just, gulp, sobered up (Last Leaf). At sixty-one and with seventeen albums behind him, there isn’t much we haven’t gleaned from Waits but the sheer energy that he continues to extol puts his much younger admirers to shame…still.

18. Raphael Saadiq Stone Rollin’:

no stranger to critical praise, Saadiq will no doubt heap on more with one of the best R&B album of the year. The slick opener aside, he hits dizzying stride immediately after with Go to Hell. At his best, he can conjure up Al Green-like testimonials that utterly burn. At other times he seems to be digging into Terence Trent D’aby pop/rock terrain, with mixed results. It’s an ambitious attempt but one rooted within his capabilities. That is at times exciting, predictable but also versatile. It means that we hear actual instruments been featured in songs, something most soul brothers tend to forget.

19. Willie Evans Jr. Introducin’:

bookended by fantastic skits, Introducin’ is Evan’s re-entry into Southern hip/hop. Here, by himself and not with his Asamov clan, Evans hits the ground running with the title track. The album posits an interesting concept: a little boy (Willie) journals his experiences as he tries to learn music while always appreciative of it. The beats and instruments are sharp and quirky. Take 2 slurs it vocals yet the beats add great freshness. His use of samples works seamlessly too as witnessed on Cyber Sheik while Mega flows nicely. And there’s no throw-away to misogyny or sex and drugs either, just Evans Jr. spinning his inexhaustible talent and drive.

20. Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues:

the follow-up to the hugely successful debut of the Seattle band rumbles loudly and assuredly. We’re now familiar with the folk-blues blend but the band’s ambition becomes clear by the time Bedouin Dress begins. The hooks on Helplessness Blues are deeper, more nuanced even if they sacrifice a little emotion. Lead singer, Robin Pecknold is shouldering more responsibility here and his range is at time downright beautiful (‘Sim Sala Bim’) and affirming (‘Battery Kinzie’, the standout track). If the lyrics get a little shuffled then get lost within the production which has no equal—save one—this year.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011: The Top 30 Best Albums: Part I

First, the obvious: the year was not remotely as interesting as 2010. That said, we were treated to some exciting music. This was perhaps a holding-pattern year so one looks forward to better things in 2012.So, let's just get on with it:

21. Active Child You Are All I See:

it’s been a great time for Pat Grossi, one of the artists I cited last year as one to watch this year. Here, on his debut proper, he focuses solely on weaving an otherworldly falsetto over electronic-tinged landscapes, something like a night time Justin Vernon. While there are no huge standout tracks, it all works in a nice, consistent stew of sounds and ideas even though Call Me Tonight sports funk riffs that hint at a newer direction coming.

22. The Black Keys El Camino:

released literally at the death of year-end list consideration, The Black Keys needed to have come hard with material and they have done even better than expected. The band has upped the rock and funk elements to good effect…note the bluesy riff running wild on Money Maker and Lonely Boy. Things are looking up for the band again and we look for even more daring results next time out.

23. The War on Drugs Slave Ambient:

with countless Dylan and Velvet Underground claims at their head, the band still manages to remarkably carve out an original idea on Slave Ambient, an album that understands the sheer luxury of melody. Brothers and I Was There both unspool like a long, induced inhalation of smoke, with their drawl and guitars. Your Love is Calling My Name ups the tempo while imitating the best of Dylan’s vocal technique. It’s a symmetrical flattery, one brilliantly put yet heightened on the following track, Come to The City, which inserts 80s energy into the mix. All that pales to the stunning Baby Missiles though...the best track here by far and yet, ironically, the one less associated with the Dylan influence.

24. Lykke Li Wounded Rhymes:

there is no shortage of brilliant Swedish female singers around and with her sophomore, Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li now joins that pantheon which includes the likes of Robyn and Jenny Wilson with a great pop album. You know it’s great when the banging beats on the ender Jerome groove for days even after the umpteenth spin. If her promise was exposed in packets of brilliance on her debut then this album breaks out like a great adolescent discovery, akin to any John Hughes coming-of-age film. The imagery of girlish love, sex and rebellion courses freely throughout and it all coalesces into something fleshy and relevant. No review would be complete without mention of that now immortal line from Get Some (‘I’m your prostitute/ and you’re/ gonna get some’)…talk about dedication to a cause.

25. Random Axe Random Axe :

a super group comprised of Black Milk, Sean Price & Guilty Simpson. This is hardcore hip/hop the way the new school envisions it and it is heavy on theatrics and steely production. Another One finds such a delicate balance between thug and mastery that it leaves one wondering why the project got pushed back as often as it did. Being the great producer that he is, Black Milk is key to what he includes as well as what he leaves out. He believes in symmetry and tracks like Shirley C and Japhy Joe are allowed to bounce seamlessly because of his efforts. Besides, the opening vlley of this album runs a hard gamut that other MCs are sure to pay attention for years to come.

26. Childish Gambino Camp:

for all the different perspectives presented by hip-hop, there’s never been a bullied man’s perspective before Camp. Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino is known more as a comedian (30 Rock) and actor (Community) but now turns his hand to music. It is a stretch that jars slightly on the opening two tracks but, in a stunning turnaround, things get real thereafter. He gives Lil Wayne a run for swag with the devilish Bonfire, a track that epitomises his ‘black and white’ music idealism. All the Shine takes it down a peg with spoken word and a subtle yet undeniable chorus. Most review sites miss the mark on Gambino because of their own perception of what hip-hop must sound like, never once realising its global reach includes a track like Heartbeat, where electronic beats spit out in tandem with teenage musings. And for all those bitching then he drops the awesome Backpackers, the most stunning middle-finger to us since Eminem ten years ago.

27. Florence + The Machine Ceremonials:

after the hype of their debut, the band returns desperate not to fall under a sophomore jinx. Welsh has a glorious voice and Ceremonials is built around that. The range runs from exhilarating pop (Shake it Up) to spacey camp. It’s an improvement on Lungs, where too often her direction felt murky at best (Breaking Down). This is a simple pop album, the tricky type that critics are usually loathe to recognize year-end time but, remarkably, the album never sags or lose belief in itself. By the time she reaches to Lover to Lover, things take a gospel-tinged turn. It’s a gamble that pays off handsomely and once she cleans the clock with the awesome Landscapes right at the end, you know you’ve become a convert.

28. The Cool Kids When Fish Ride Bicycles:

starts with bang with Rush Hour Traffic and quickly finds an easy groove that remains challenging yet enjoyable. The beats are all uniformly fantastic but there is a retro vibe to tracks like Boomin’ and Sour Apples that show how diverse the duo has become since their EPs. It’s refreshing to hear old school hip/hop being reinvented—note the swag that propels Penny Hardaway. The guys (Mickey and Chuck) aren’t alone in wreaking these tasty grooves; Bun B drops a hot cameo on Gas Station while Mayer Hawthorne brings surprising soul on Swimsuits. Though it will take repeated listens, this is the creeper rap album of the year.

29. Fruit Bats Tripper:

five albums in and Fruit Bats have found their stride with the folk-pop Tripper. Eric Johnson’s vocals keep a tight focus of every day observances but never ignoring the personal relevance. These songs are character studies: Americana 101 for a band known for highly-romanticized look at music. The first three tracks are nice enough to reengage but from Shivering Fawn onward, the band hits a purple patch of folk brilliance that is unmatched this year: You’re Too Weird, the highlight, rests its case assuredly over a lazy yet gorgeous beat. Dolly adds funk to an experimental high and it works. The Banishment skirts Of Montreal territory with its impervious falsetto.

30. Summer Camp Welcome to Condale:

after a stunning EP last year, Summer Camp arrives this year armed with the same beach-pop melodies that have come to define their sound. There’s less haunting refrain but more of an adolescent story to tell. Warmsley remains mostly hidden, leaving Sankey with most vocal work except the 1980s-inspired Brian Krakow. The fictitious Condale serves as a preppy template for teenage dreams and angst. Love is the main emotion explored: I Want You employs a spare beat over repeated lyrics and could fit right into a John Hughes film. The only difficulty the album runs into is when it tries to stray from its aim and grow up too quickly. That said, 1988 hits its mark just right and the right moment too.

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011: The Top 100 Best Songs: Part IV

The year was far from radical but we did get some great, middle-of-the-ground songs that indicate how great next year will be. Here goes the fourth part, #21-40: Danny Brown sightings.

21. Parking Lot (Rebekka Karijord):

treads nicely between the Joni Mitchell-Tori Amos divide, Karijord’s gem was originally released to obscurity two years ago but here it pops up Stateside and now we’re converts too.

22. Unluck (James Blake):

a marvelous and soulful amalgamation of diverse sounds entwined and masterfully set in motion. For the doubters on the genre, start here at this breathless gem.

23. Landscapes (Florence + The Machines):

liquid brilliance, Welch unveils what is essentially a demo but within its folds lies the type of emotional connection that most of her peers lack.

24. Trails (Asobi Seksu):

the sound of a band finally confidence to add searing vocals to the pretty atmospherics that have, up to now, been their focus. Brilliant result.

25. The Running Range (The Go Team):

a rolling, seamless power-pop ode to sheer energy, Ian Parton’s zany collective remains fully committed to throw in everything—even the proverbial kitchen sink—to make an idea stick.

26. Fond of Jane (The Botaniks feat. Bernhoft):

an almost gospel high, Bernhoft delivers a long-overdue and obvious ode to Jane if the ‘barefoot in the park’ line hadn’t tipped us of sufficiently.

27. Mongk II (British Sea Power):

a lovely, slow-paced vibe thrives throughout this rock ballad and then all the band’s past frustrations seep out at last to a higher purpose.

28. LOL (Danny Brown & Black Milk):

Luckily, Brown isn’t the type of rapper who needs warm up time; he literally spits out his ideas over whatever groove Black Milk throws his way.

29. Lofticities (Purity Ring):

in a case of the B-side track stealing thunder from its lead, Megan James’ sex-reverberating-sadly voice perforates everything all around it.

30. One of Life’s Pleasures (Paul White feat. Danny Brown):

star cameo by Brown utterly lifts this as high as it could get…with White laying the brilliant instrumentals down and watching it blow up magnificently.

31. California (EMA):

throwback to grunge’s past but unearths a frightening future, Erik Anderson’s drawl flung over raw, sensitive issues isn’t what we want to hear but need to.

32. Tomboy (Panda Bear):

a stunning title track that runs like a fine symphony. We’re used to his water-logged beats by now but the get us each time still because they’re so irresistible.

33. Wild Man (Kate Bush):

after a six year absence, Bush returns with the erstwhile dream-pop that made her famous in the first place. A track about the musings she’s done about Yeti, the track gets turning with its stunning chorus.

34. Thunderbolt (Bjork):

a stuttering piece of hot electronic mess. It bridges the gap between her worlds, with its heavy orchestrated flow giving way to her vocals and video game-like synths.

35. To Begin (Alela Diane & Wild Devine):

a folk masterpiece, Alela unfurls a heady mix of strong will and melody into a winning combination and, surprisingly, much oompf.

36. I’m Sorry We Lied (Blood Orange):

real disco fever from the latest project by Devonte Hynes. The falsetto kills the runaway love story being shifted while being told.

37. Transparency (d’Eon):

his masterstroke, full with two-step and electro-pop flourishes that renders the notion that only black musicians can get funkiness out of soul redundant. I can’t think immediately of any of the standard black soul-pop solo males doing anything this ridiculously good and effortless.

38. Bicycle (Unknown Mortal Orchestra):

mechanical jangling meshed with impressive pop groove and a band that clearly has been influenced by the psychedelic 1960s and the freak-folk movement in equal measure.

39. Mirrorage (Glasser) (Lindstrom remix):

an impressive, tribal-sounding electronic reverb, Mesirow’s classic gets the royal treatment when mixed down puritanically.

40. Spellwork (Austra):

a crowning electro-pop jewel by the band fronted by the assured Katie Stelmanis. They may be a new band but the usage of synths over the funked-up groove shows a pro at work.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

2011: The Top 100 Best Songs: Part III

The year was far from radical but we did get some great, middle-of-the-ground songs that indicate how great next year will be. Here goes the third part, #41-60: the 'soul music' edition...

41. Countdown (Beyonce)

: hearkens back to two decades earlier but still comes out fresh. Beyonce, never one known for such emotional reach, connects effortlessly.

42. Novacane (Frank Ocean):

hip-hop soul’s response to The Rolling Stones’ Sister Morphine, Ocean unveils the type of career woman he’d link to shack up with…and the consequences thereof.

43. Underground Kings (Drake):

kudos to Bun B to be the first to recognize this track’s greatness, as Drake documents the restlessness of youth and his own personal anxieties over an outstanding flow.

44. Doorstep (Tune-Yards):

inspired partially by the controversial police-shooting of Oscar Grant two years ago (‘don't tell me the cops are right in a wrong like this’), Doorstep is a turning point in our relationship with Merrill Garbus. Now we’re really listening to her words, parsing their every meaning for the political message hidden beneath the sweet delivery.

45. Coming Down (The Weeknd):

manages to find the right line between sex appeal and sexual imagery. It’s a new disposition we’ve seen heavily this year, perhaps a nod to the path unearthed years before by R. Kelly but, thankfully, The Weeknd manages to swill some well-needed D’angelo into the mix and that adds a stunning new coat to the formula he presents us with.

46. Battery Kinzie (Fleet Foxes):

a cheer on any winter day but also the affirming way Pecknold holds on to the notes seethes with more than just emotional ambiguity.

47. Video Games (Lana del Rey):

the comparisons to Nancy Sinatra aside, one definitely sees the strains of doom that gripped Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black working itself into this frantic ballad.

48. Call Me Tonight (Active Child):

he focuses solely on weaving an otherworldly falsetto over electronic-tinged landscapes, something like a night time Justin Vernon.

49. Mother’s Meat (Dead Rider):

a little Xiu Xiu influence never hurt anyone and when lead vocalist, Todd Rittmann throws in some Bowie-esque theatrics then the full effect of this treat is enhanced beyond measure.

50. Seafarer (Tennis):

Allison Moore knows how to juxtapose her voice to atmospherics and create harmony, instead of being drowned out. She may be calling out to her love for his return but next time she’ll make sure to be a part of the journey.

51. Trip (Vacationer):

simple pop ode dressed up in a woozy bass-line for the weary jet-setter or when the voices in your head are drowning you in negativity. And to think this is merely a side project for the group when feeling especially experimental!

52. Get Some (Lykke Li):

as she sings, this is indeed like a lonely lover’s charm and who can get past the most quotable line of all songs this year, ‘I’m your prostitute/ you’re gonna get some’.

53. Wake & Be Fine (Okkervil River):

written by the band as a testament to childhood memories, they’ve uncovered a beautiful train-wrech that you can’t keep your eyes off.

54. That’s My Bitch (Jay Z & Kanye West):

royal boys night out and though the album itself didn’t redefine hip/hop, there’s no rule against these famous men from spitting out an elegantly-wasted joint once in a while.

55. Some Children (Holy Ghost):

after a surprise turn in Department of Eagles’ While You Wait for The Others, soul crooner Michael McDonald turns up here and, as unlikely as it is, strikes gold again among pre-programmed beats galore.

56. Out of this World (ASAP Rocky):

sure there’s swag here but ASAP Rocky constructs his tale deftly with so many life references that one can’t help but getting hooked immediately.

57. The Muse (Laura Marling):

a Fiona Apple-ish effort that works as well as shows the burgeoning maturity that is seeping out of this precocious singer/songwriter.

58. Just Don’t (Raphael Saadiq feat. Yukimi Nakano):

breezy bluesy jam that allows Saadiq to suffuse his own type of Prince mastery unto lyrical pyrotechnics.

59. Savage Night at the Opera (Destroyer):

there’s a scene in an early Harry Potter film where the gang are trying to decide if music could be used to lull the fierce guard dog blocking the Chamber of Secrets. Here, Dan Bejar has provided us with just the song for such an occasion.

60. Plath Heart (Braids):

a booming, sorrowful sound reverberating nicely. No doubt for the doomed American poet but the rubbed-down electronics at the end really does bleed one’s heart.