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.