I know, I know, you're saying: "Another year-end list?" To which I respond: "Yes."
As years in music go, 2011 was a beaut. Underground hip-hop blew up the blogosphere with hundreds of stellar self-released mixtapes that seemed to render rap's reigning kings all but irrelevant by comparison. (Atlanta's own most anticipated commercial release of the year? It barely made it out by December and sounded a little like a white flag.) Meanwhile, the chillwave craze thankfully died out fast, but not before leaving an appreciable mark on rap and R&B, not to mention the much-needed stir it caused in the bored indie culture from whence it came. And even the mainstream got in on the creative explosion, its centerpieces sporting names like Adele, not Britney.
The year saw eagerly awaited studio releases that exceeded their billing (Kate Bush!), swift flashes of unexpected brilliance (James Blake) and fresh-faced outings from reliable standbys (too many to name just one). As far as bloated, insufferable messes go, it offered only a merciful few, the now infamous Metallica/Lou Reed collab Lulu at the front of the line. It was, overall, a very good year for music, one whose mark on our culture, I dare say, will not be an insignificant one.
So, yes, another list, because I can. Below, check my top 10 albums of 2011 with descriptors of each. Also, a (thankfully short) list of 2011's major disappointments as I saw 'em.
10. James Blake: James Blake
It's a testament to James Blake's debut full-length that though it technically emerged way back in late 2010, most critics remembered it fondly enough by the end of 2011 to include it among their favorites of the year. The audacious British dubstep phenom shocked everyone with an album that relied on his aching, soulful voice even more than his already renowned late-night club production. Still, that production was the album's coup de grace, a spare but unrelenting skeleton for Blake's beautiful, inwardly evolving tunes.
09. Big K.R.I.T.: Return of 4eva
Mississippi's Big K.R.I.T. can lay claim to the title of Mixtape of the Year with the stellar Return of 4eva, an astounding and complete work that featured precious few guest stars and a host of great material. OutKast was an easy and inescapable comparison, but K.R.I.T. was all "Country Shit" without the space fetish, a barebones-by-design set of songs that explored weighty societal issues and straight coolin' out with equally infectious passion.
08. Crooked Fingers: Breaks in the Armor
Eric Bachmann's got a pretty good track record to this point; even so, I didn't expect anything as good as Breaks, the most confident and loose album he's made yet. There's not a bad track to be found on the record, which also features the inimitable talents of Athens songwriter (and new Bachmann beau) Liz Durrett. The matching of their two highly distinct vocal stylings proved one of the year's most compelling, and it didn't hurt that the songwriting was just as sharp: sadness-cum-bliss, the sound of finally letting go.
07. KWJAZ: KWJAZ
(Not Not Fun)
We don't know much about San Francisco psych troupe KWJAZ, and it's probably better that way. The group's self-titled debut was a sprawling two-track exploration of the recesses of our cultural psyche, a mash of pop, dub and drone stylings that was just as effective heard as background noise as it was listened to with complete focus. It was a wordless meditation on our current selves, a reminder that good things take time to unfold - and released on cassette, no less.
06. Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
Seattle's Shabazz Palaces is the most unique duo in rap right now, and Black Up thus defies easy categorization. Though Ishmael Butler is most familiar to fans as Digable Planets MC Butterfly, he has since stripped away all pretension - sans stage name, Butler got real with Shabazz Palaces' 2011 offering, a dizzying and hypnotic collection indeed. The album's hyperreal political grandstanding and deliciously out-there beats might have been too much for some hip-hop fans, but those willing to take a leap of faith found a reward of the highest order.
05. Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica
Daniel Lopatin had already raised eyebrows with 0PN's first couple records, synth-based mind trips that turned electronic music on its head while relishing in both its inherent decadence and its deceptively strict conventions. Replica was the best kind of surprise, Lopatin's coming out statement, a strange clusterfuck of clipped TV commercial samples and claustrophobic but airy anti-beats. That the album attracted so much attention outside of traditional electro circles seemed indicative of a collective escapist longing, a slightly scary thought but one that hints at a promising future.
04. Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts
2011 saw the demise of indie rock's premier power couple, but before that happened, one half of Sonic Youth's famed union released a gem of a record in Demolished Thoughts. It was legendary noisenik Thurston Moore's softest showcase yet, a gorgeous and unassuming Beck-produced album that contained in its peaceful exterior some indefinable hint of impending sadness. Or maybe that's reading too much into it. Either way, it was a beautiful and heartbreaking thing.
03. Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972
Drone mastermind Tim Hecker took inspiration for his latest project from a group of MIT students' annual Piano Drop, wherein a grand piano is pushed off a rooftop simply for the overwhelming aural explosion that follows. It's a thing at once violent and moving; Ravedeath is similarly hued. Song titles like "Hatred of Music" and "Studio Suicide" suggest anger, Hecker's frustration at the lessening of his craft at the hands of nefarious outsiders and, maybe, himself.
02. Bill Callahan: Apocalypse
At this point Bill Callahan's basically a wizened old man, right? At least, he sure sounds like one. Like Leonard Cohen before him, Callahan's songwriting is only getting better and more incisive with age. On Apocalypse Callahan tones down the cynical barbs and toss-offs in favor of something that damn near approaches populism. Songs like the quietly rollicking "America!" flirt with kitsch but end up on the right side of the line, sketches of us that feel familiar and knowable despite Callahan's enduring obliqueness. The most startling thing about Apocalypse, especially given the title and Callahan's M.O., is how hopeful it sounds, a needed reminder of our shared humanity amid dark times.
01. Grouper: A I A
Listening to A I A was like hearing light as refracted through the lens of the subconscious. Its emotional effect was nearly overwhelming - one minute I felt ecstatic; the next, totally crushed. That the music on the two records (Alien Observer and Dream Loss) that made up the set was created by one woman with her guitar and some tape loops was the mark of a major achievement, a crowning glory, my favorite album of the year.
And now, the bad...
GABE VODICKA'S EXTRA SPECIAL TOP 5 MOST SERIOUSLY DISAPPOINTING ALBUMS OF 2011 A.K.A. COME ON, Y'ALL
01. Drake: Take Care
02. Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo
03. Pill: The Diagnosis
04. Bon Iver: Bon Iver
05. Yelawolf: Radioactive
So there you have it. Hats off to 2011. And of course, see you next year, suckers!
ooooohhhh, I'm so excited!! I can't wait to see them together!
come on man you know you got a bromance. you probably still rock that OutKast…
Yes, 14 is the correct answer. I'll pass your info along to the group's manager,…
That was January of 2007, and they are 21 now, so I'm guessing 14?