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.