Here is what you have all been waiting for. The top 15 albums of 2011. And by multiple request, the top 15 in one single post! (Don’t worry, if you like it broken up, that is below as well.)
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#15) Adele- 21
Throughout 21, the sequel to her smash debut 19, Adele Adkins comes armed with a who’s who of producers and songwriting collaborators, spending much of an undoubtedly extensive recording budget on carefully crafting songs that lash out at a former lover with righteous fury. “You’re gonna wish you never had met me,” a chorus of overdubbed Adeles warn on the gospel hoedown “Rolling in the Deep.” Yet on the piano-led finale, she vows, “I’ll find someone like you,” as if that’s progress. It’s a statement that’s utterly WTF and yet true to the cyclical nature of psychological damage.
As her album titles announce, Adkins is barely an adult. And just as an appetite for self-destruction became a selling point for the Seattle grunge sound, the romantic volatility of youthful femininity colors Britain’s retro soul birds. Even while working with quintessential American mainstreamer Rick Rubin, Adkins sounds on the verge of tabloid implosion.
Though the undeniable lament “Chasing Pavements” earned a 2009 Grammy, 19 was bogged down by too many folky guitar ballads. Those have vanished; ditto Adkins’ Tottenham accent. Instead, she wails harder and writes bolder, piling on the dramatic production flourishes to suggest a lover’s apocalypse. If you’re looking for a record that’ll make you wanna trash your beloved’s belongings and have make-up sex amid the ruins, 21’s your jam.
#14) White Denim- D
Don’t laugh, but there was a time when people thought of White Denim as just more gob-flecked borstal-punks. This was a misconception arrived at by two roads: that liquid-snot of a name, a pairing of words that signals bad taste even in Belarus, and the Hives-y caveman thump of first single ‘Let’s Talk About It’.
Then we heard their synapse-frying albums, saw them exceed the most towering expectations live and had our minds befuddled by a band as lairy and noisy as they are precise and methodical. A group as vintage rock as they are Year Zero, and who are experts at their chosen tools. As this fourth album arrives with all the driving force of an articulated lorry, fans can hail their patience as wisdom.
White Denim (now a four-piece) have never been less than terrific, but as they move further from the garage and embrace their real love – early ’70s Americana – they defy all probability. This time it’s a fondness for the wiggy jam-band sound of Lowell George’s Little Feat that’s channelled through wiry post-hardcore and the triumphant yet finickity bits of post-rock. It’s a breathless fusion played at dumbfounding speed and gives rise to a sound we’ll call math-boogie.
They’re slippery buggers, though. Even their technical chops can’t disguise a sunny disposition that brings flute-wreathed acid Latin to ‘River To Consider’. The whirling prog of ‘Anvil Everything’ ushers in the same wry, psychedelic haze that saw the band pay tribute to Chile’s nut-job director Alejandro Jodorowsky in their 2009 video for ‘I Start To Run’. And nestled between hectic pin-sharp jams they toss off country-soul songs as pretty as ‘Street Joy’ and ‘Keys’ – James Petralli’s voice now dreamier than My Morning Jacket’s Jim James.
But it’s the southern riot of ‘Bess St’ and the brilliant intensity of ‘Burnished’, burrowing into its accompanying speed-jam ‘Back At The Farm’, that’ll knock you on your arse – an amphetamine-laced gumbo of Allman Brothers riffs fired off around a pile-driving rhythm Neu! would be proud of. Did someone really just mention The Hives?
#13- Unknown Mortal Orchestra- S/T
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson is the latest in a long line of musical scavengers, racing to translate the sounds in his head by pulling from what’s already there. On the debut by Nielson’s erstwhile one-man band, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, that process involves building something new from reenacted hip-hop drum breaks, some doses of bad-trip psychedelia, and heavily processed slashes of garage-rock guitar. The project has since morphed into a Portland-based power trio, but on record, Nielson’s creation is by turns a crate-digging Voltron and a circuit-bent automaton. When all the pieces are working together—propelling through the lo-fi haze of “Ffunny Ffriends” or projecting the CB-radio soul of “How Can U Love Me”—it’s a quirky vision of a pop canon that never was; when the songs confuse a rut for a groove, their hypnotic qualities lapse into repetition. Nielson’s upper-register rasp occasionally recalls that of Paul McCartney, which seems appropriate—as a mercurial experiment in home recording, Unknown Mortal Orchestra lines up nicely with the ex-Beatle’s McCartney and McCartney II LPs. And like those two releases, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s idiosyncrasies and straightforward melodies portend greater, untapped potential.
#12- Fleet Foxes- Helplessness Blues
Hello harmonies, our old friend. Hello, finger-picked guitar, we’ve come for you again. On its second album of dew-dappled cabin folk, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes tips its wool cap to Simon & Garfunkel, CSNY and other progenitors of the soaring intertwined vocals, but it knows enough to leave its heroes behind.
On “Bedouin Dress,” the second track on “Helplessness Blues,” frontman Robin Pecknold sings: “If to borrow is to take and not return, I have borrowed all my lonesome life … the borrower’s debt is the only regret of my youth.” On Fleet Foxes’ 2008 debut, naysayers wondered if the band wasn’t so indebted to ‘60s folk that Pecknold would end up in some sort of debtors’ prison, albeit one with Navajo blankets and Yerba Mate tea.
But alas, “Bedouin Dress” shows that the band has such a hunger for nuanced song construction, with each moment interlocking with the next in an inspired fretwork, that it transcends its influences. “The Shrine/Argument” starts predictably enough but it climbs through a few phases: forceful, cymbal crashes; hallucinatory near-a cappella, and a skronk blowout that would make John Zorn proud.
With more emphasis on groove and bass weight, the songs don’t seem as fragile as before but rather like they can weather some storms. The echoey waltz rhythm of “Lorelai” provides the backbone for an expansive memory of lost love, one that swings less with regret and more with gratitude.
In its best moments, “Helplessness Blues” sparkles like some sort of divine plan, but a plan that knows the value of mistakes, surprises and even regret. Stolen, lost or repaid, all of Fleet Foxes’ debts are forgiven.
#11 Charles Bradley- No time for dreaming
Charles Bradley’s voice has evolved from a lifetime of paying dues, having nomadically labored for decades at various day jobs from Maine to Alaska singing and performing in his spare time before re-settling in his hometown Brooklyn and eventually finding a musical home at Dunham/Daptone. In his distinctively rough-hewn timbre one hears the unmistakable voice of experience each note and gruff infection a reflection of his extended, sometimes rocky, personal path. It s only fitting that No Time For Dreaming s producer Thomas ”Tommy TNT” Brenneck (also a member of The Dap-Kings and The Budos Band) would recognize in Bradley a kindred musical spirit a singer whose performances exude both raw power and poignant beauty. Recorded at Dunham Studios, and mixed at Daptone Records internationally revered ”House of Soul” Studios, No Time For Dreaming is the inspired sound of an awakening.
#10) Das Racist- Relax
The myriad of ways to describe Das Racist and the mile-a-minute pop culture references, bizarre banger beats, and dizzying, clever rhymes on the rap trio’s new record, Relax, is overwhelming for even the most seasoned music writer. Its scope of content is broad, fast, and furious. Its subtext, context, content, and artist intent are all really slippery, for one, and it gets more so when you consider cultural, ethnic and racial cues. The Web 2.0 obscurity-fueled, meme-based culture and its ravenous appetite for everything current all the time is the trio’s central prism — or rather kaleidoscope — through which they see the world. It’s dizzying to take in.
Like Himanshu “Heems” Suri raps on Relax‘s rework of previous Shut Up, Dude mixtape track “Rainbow in the Dark”, “I’m an Internet thug.” It’s hard for anyone to get a handle on what that Internet thuggery is because Web-based cultures evolve so goddamn fast. But let’s try to sum Relax up: smart phone rap. I wouldn’t add this micro-genre name to the already lengthy and ridiculous list that critics have made if I didn’t think it summed up Das Racist’s approach to their music well. In a phrase, it’s knowing, tongue-in-cheek rap whose energy feeds off constant connectivity to the Internet: It’s accountable and hyper-aware.
And considering the frequent, quickly turned-around, and mostly undercooked efforts of this very niche micro-genre, Relax is Das Racist’s definitive album to date. It’s also a kick in the pants for the New York rap old guard. Perhaps that’s the group’s most accurate label– which speaks volumes about the state of NYC rap, and therefore rap in general. It’s turning into legacy music as we speak. Who’s left, you have to ask, from New York rap’s 1987 to ’97 Golden Age that still feels particularly relevant? It’s harder to come up with one than it was 10-15 years ago. Undeniably, things have fallen off.
Relax is the sound of New York rap circling its wagons trying to think of something fresh while Southern rappers, or at least non-New York ones, are eating their lunch 10 years strong, during (arguably) their own Golden Age. In light of that, here’s hoping Relax revitalizes NYC rap at a time when it needs it more than ever before.
The odds look good. The last time New York saw something as fresh, vibrant, and weird as Relaxwas Dipset circa 2003 or Company Flow circa 1997. (CoFlo’s El-P, by the way, shows up on another Relax mixtape rework, “Shut Up, Dude”.) Better comparisons for Relax may go all the way back to the ’80s with Def Jam-era Beastie Boys circa Licensed to Ill or De La Soul circa 3 Feet High and Rising.
Even The Ramones’ zeitgeist circa 1977 is telling for Das Racist, even though rap was still in its primordial house-party stage at that point. Like those four Jewish “Ramones” playing the roles of Italian greasers as stage personas, Suri, Victor Vazquez, and Ashok Kondabolu play the alter egos of Heems, Kool A.D., and Dap, respectively, in a trio that forms like Voltron on Relax (Kool A.D. moved to Queens from the San Francisco Bay Area, but whatevs). Like those fellow Queens residents, Das Racist has the brilliant lyrical gift of making intellectual, Manhattan-talk points by saying dumb shit, doing it with a be-easy, Queens swag.
The hook on Relax’s lead-off single “Michael Jackson” couldn’t be more “stupid,” but it also couldn’t fit the Manhattan wit/Queens swag profile detailed above any more perfectly. What is the difference, if any, between chants of “Now I wanna sniff some glue/now I wanna have something to do” and “Michael Jackson/A million dollars/You feel me?/Holla”? Maybe the different neighborhoods and eras they originated from, but that’s about it.
Maybe interpreting “Michael Jackson” and the bulk of Relax as something deep (a frenetic meditation on fame?) sounds ridiculous. Maybe the it isn’t supposed to mean anything. Maybe you should just party to it. Maybe the joke’s on the music press (i.e. this review) that hypes Das Racist as something “more than what it is.”
And what if the joke’s on us as listeners, too? What if Das Racist isn’t The Lonely Island-like joke rap outfit some insist? What if, at the same time, the trio isn’t just being funny? What if the dudes are actually making a point? Like Heems raps with Das Racist tour mates Danny Brown and Despot as a double entendre on Relax’s “Power,” one of its best tracks, “I don’t know why people think we give a fuck so often.”
“All art is performative, and all performance is art,” Kool A.D. said to the Village Voice in June 2009. “Existence is performance art. Everything is funny, and all jokes are serious.” No thought is more important to have in the forefront of your mind here. Maybe Relax is just a joke that’s on all of us, including Das Racist. Maybe we’re all in on it and maybe that’s okay. Maybe, in the spirit of the title of Relax, we should just crack open a beer, smoke a joint, and laugh at ourselves and at each other… together.
As aw-shucks as that interpretation of Relax seems, it does seem to be the overriding message of Das Racist through all of the irony, tough rap swag and tongue-in-cheek humor: human equality, cultural understanding and being good to one another. Relax is a pretty good step toward that.
#9) Radiohead- The King of Limbs
In the end, it arrived early. Announced on Valentine’s Day – and, perhaps not uncoincidentally, the eve of the Brits – the eighth Radioheadalbum was eventually sprung on the world a day before anyone was expecting it. That was an act of mischievous digital benevolence so typical of Radiohead, a band rewriting the rules of pop engagement on the fly.
Judging from their most recent black-and-white portrait, in which the band slope awkwardly at the bottom of an ancient tree, The King Of Limbs could, by rights, have been their acid folk album – one informed by the writing of Roger Deakin, perhaps. Indeed, seven tracks in, Give Up the Ghost – a mellow and mantric song strung on acoustic guitars and announced by birdsong – gives a hint of what might have been.
By contrast, anyone following Thom Yorke’s recent Office Chart blog posts might have been expecting a record in thrall to dubstep, or even more obscure electronic micro-genres. Fulfilling that brief is Feral, a sinuous bass shakedown at the heart of this typically contrary, intermittently stunning, album.
Yorke’s deep affinity with musical outriders such as LA’s Flying Lotus – upon whose album Cosmogramma he guested last year – is manifest. Bloom, the album’s opening track, is underscored by wild jazz polyrhythms. Well, this is a 21st-century Radiohead album; it was never going to be easy listening.
In truth, The King of Limbs sounds a little predictable, certainly at first. It is very much the heir to 2007’s In Rainbows, imbued with some of the spirit of Yorke’s solo outing, 2006’s The Eraser. Which is to say, it sounds another death knell for fans of The Bends and OK Computer still hoping for a late recantation and a return to anthemic guitar rock.
Guitars are very thin on the ground in Radiohead’s dark wood. The most traditional sounds here occur on the splendid Codex, in which a stately, distant piano bongs mournfully. Restless rhythms abound. But they never quite resolve into dance beats – despite Yorke’s brave moves in the video that accompanies Lotus Flower. It should have stopped traffic in Tokyo last Friday at rush hour, but because of crowd concerns, the screening on Hachiko Square’s giant video screens was pulled.
Radiohead’s works reward close and long listening; this dense and knotted eight-track album is no exception. But one of its most instant delights was the sense of giddy communion , as fans and observers awaited, then savoured, the record in real time.
#8) Yuck- S/T
Cute name, isn’t it? Well be prepared to feel the opposite of its sentiment. Born out of the ashes of Cajun Dance Party, and looking like they possess the physical prowess of a puppy you just kicked, they are hard to dismiss at first glance. For the people who are old enough to remember the 1990s Yuck’s eponymous debut will serve as a nostalgic hour spent reminiscing. For someone who happens across this for the first time it will probably be nothing short of a revelation. I make this distinction here because this will probably be the deciding factor in whether you think it’s simply a good album, or a great one.
Having said that, Yuck do alt-pop as well as anyone and ‘Yuck’ is a fine example of its genre. As we know in these post-post-modern times, rarely is anything completely original. They may be unapologetic in displaying their love for Pavement or the Pixies but there’s no daylight robbery. Like last year’s debut from Surfer Blood, Yuck have managed to capture the spirit of 90s guitar pop without completely pillaging it. So what transpires is an album of sweet guitar music, filled with both sunshineand heart ache. With hum-a-long riffs and harmonies, highlights include the joyous ‘Operation’ or the beautiful ‘Georgia’ where the male/female vocals explode together like fireworks. Unsurprisingly, they are just as beguiling in their more reflective moments ‘Rose gives a Lilly’ and ‘Suck’ are perfect soundtrack to being the last one left at the disco. Suck is charming in its easy dismissal of youth and hedonism, in that way that only the young can afford. Thankfully, some apparent British pop sensibilities, Yuck possess that rare gift of being able to express a wounded vulnerability without inducing any nausea. Earnest and lovely but zinging with adolescent frictions; Yuck is an exhilarating and breathless ride.
#7) Fucked Up- David Comes to Life
Did Fucked Up dodge a bullet or are they just impervious? In releasing their third LP, and first rock opera, David Comes to Life, the band chose to take quite the leap of faith. The concept album/rock opera has set some of the greatest rock acts of all time into the annals of fame, including the Who, Alice Cooper, the Kinks and David Bowie. But, it has also shuttled some of those same groups into a slow death of declining relevance. But, here, Fucked Up utilizes the songs on David more as set pieces than narratives, and create an album that is both deceptively simple and complex.
Although the album is about a young man that may or may not have killed his lady friend, you probably couldn’t figure that out from reading the lyrics. Rather, as characters walk in and out through the tracks, openly declaring their thoughts much like ancient Greek theatre, the album comes off more as a series of character studies that, despite the deceiving detail, also has a vagueness that lets the listener put the pieces together as he or she will.
Immediately upon hitting play, the cohesiveness of the album’s sound becomes apparent. Although the band has steadily distanced themselves from standard hardcore, even on their last LP, 2008’s The Chemistry of Common Life, a certain angularity remained in the riffs, giving the songs a swinging and identifiable progression. But here, perhaps to echo the album’s late ’70s English setting, the music is much more ambiguous. Somewhat referencing the post-punk meets pop of late ’70s England, the chords don’t so much snap as they flow, constantly pulsating and changing, but rarely having an identifiable start or stop. At times, the music wraps together so thickly that entire songs seem to be only one note that grows and dwindles, undulating in color and shape.
But, fascinatingly, while Fucked Up had progressed light years in sound from their earliest releases, to some degree, they’ve returned to their earliest format in song structure. While later-day Fucked Up releases like ChemCom and 2010’s Year of the Ox featured long, multi-part epics that became completely different songs by their end, the songs on David are, for the most part, short and simple. While the album itself is massive once all the songs are arranged together, the songs individually seem affixed to the classic pop formula. Many of the songs start out with a refrain that gradually grows in intensity until the end, repeating the same exhibition while subtly coloring in differences that are unconsciously apparent.
Frontman Damian Abraham is used both to his strongest and most disconcerting effect to date. While publications almost always point out that Abraham is a big guy, or that he’s bald with a beard, or that he growls a lot, or that he cuts himself, few mention his gift as a lyricist. He echoes the early viciousness and snottiness of classic punk: “We need a Peter, we got a Paul, at least Judas had some balls.” But, he’s also able to write in an almost biblical format (that is also deft for its play on words) when the album’s narrator steps into the play itself: “I couldn’t watch quietly and I won’t pretend to understand. / I don’t feign piety, but why would a God ever want to be…?”
Abraham’s voice is also at its most contrasting here. On ChemCom Fucked Up’s sound had somewhat of a nasty bite to it. Here, the bands sound is almost smooth, à la the Smiths or the Cure. Because Abraham’s voice is so gruff, it stands out more than ever against the flowing sounds, and brings to light the concept of the band in its earliest incarnation, when they wanted to be “the most dysfunctional band ever.”
To be fair, as with many double-LP rock operas, the piece can seem a little long-winded. At 18 tracks, the album doesn’t seem to be made for a single sitting, especially since that as tight as the songs are, they seem to blend together after a while, due to their warm tone and similar tempo. Then again, that’s one point of concept albums. There’s much more here than simple finger-snapping. The multiple layers are designed for repeat listens, and each quirk can be run over multiple times to discover what lies at the bottom.
In their earliest days, Fucked Up would deliberately disperse misinformation, namely about a “David Eliade” who was supposedly their mentor, while their songs were catchy by acting fairly straightforward. But, now that the band has become more transparent in their activities and goals, their music has become as amorphous as ever. In the end of the LP, the lead character may or may not resurrected himself, echoing Fucked Up’s own puzzling actions. With this release, is Fucked Up killing itself off with style, or submitting itself to cataclysm to return in a greater form later on?
#6) The Black Keys- El Camino
Whether or not the Black Keys’ seventh studio album is the Akron, Ohio group’s finest, El Camino is undeniably one of the better records of 2011.
In a year when folk music seemed to dominate the indie scene, the Black Keys’ singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney upped their blues-driven garage fuzz and delivered a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll full-length in under 40 minutes. Peppered with bits of electric organ, hand-clapping, and ’70s-inspired glam rock, El Camino is an aural smorgasbord of music history.
For Auerbach and Carney’s follow-up to 2010’s Grammy-winning Brothers, the duo enlisted the help of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, who co-produced and co-wrote each track on El Camino. (Burton also produced the group’s 2008 record, Attach and Releaseand last year’s hit “Tighten Up.”)
Over the course of 41 days at Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville, the group recorded El Camino on a 1969 Quad-8 mixing console which “took longer than any record we’ve ever done,” Auerbach said in an interview with American Songwriter. In the end, however, the labor-intensive project was well worth it.
#5) Mastodon- The Hunter
How exactly does one go about following up a series of four concept albums on each of the elements, one of which was a loose adaptation of Moby Dick and the last three of which have sold in excess of 100,000 copies? If you’re Mastodon, it means letting loose and generally fucking around a bunch for that archetypal back-to-basics record, of course. Even as the term has devolved into little more than a trite press release buzzword in recent years, employed by everyone from Kylie Minogue, Metallica and a 30-years-washed-up Zombies to imply a big, shocking departure/return to form, it isn’t unheard of for an act to revert to their old ways for their best work in years.
In many ways though, The Hunter is very much a back-to-basics album, Mastodon’s most forward-thinking record yet that reprises the punchy force and (relatively) short track lengths of their 2004 opusLeviathan, while retaining many of the increasingly divergent qualities they’ve picked up along the way to album number five. Not that they’ve been around long enough to warrant cries for a return to form – and few wouldn’t argue that their last two records have been their best – but freed from the confines of elements and concept albums, Mastodon sounds fresher than ever. Single “The Curl of the Burl” opens to Brent Hinds’ snarl of “I killed a man ’cause he killed my goat, I put my hands around his throat!”, while the brutal “Bedazzled Fingernails” offers up another hilarious reminder that metal too can have a sense of humor (the band has previously scored Jonah Hex and written songs for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie).
Any fears that Mastodon’s running out of elements to conceptualize would result in a weak, unfocused effort this time around are soundly put to rest a few seconds into “Black Tongue”, when that savage riff comes in for the first time. And that’s just track one. Perhaps Mastodon’s greatest asset as a band is their adaptability. Their ability to integrate an ever-expanding variety of influences and styles into their repertoire while balancing their raw technicality with their flair for the ambitious has made them one of the most highly regarded metal bands in the world. Indeed, Mastodon almost absorbs the qualities of each element as they recorded under its respective, drawing on sludgy, molten fury on 2006′s Blood Mountain, unofficially hailed by fans as the band’s ode to fire, and stretching their craft into epic, proggy, almost ethereal soundscapes on 2009′s Crack the Skye.
The most noted departure here is one that’s sure to rile up a fair amount of Mastodon’s fanbase, the near-total inclusion of clean, sung vocals. Mastodon has long expressed their favoring of classic rock and sludge heroes the Melvins, ZZ Top, and Thin Lizzy over the extreme metal they often share stages with, but never before have their stylistic leanings been this evident. The spaced-out “Stargasm”, on which Neurosis’ Scott Kelly lends Mastodon his vocals for the third straight album, recalls Crack the Skye in its eerie synthesizer touches, while the heavily vocoded vocal part on “Octopus Has No Friends”– a track much more somber than its jokey title lets on – will come as a surprise to most.
It isn’t until The Hunter‘s awesome midsection, though, that Mastodon fully hits their stride. In less than 10 minutes, the band creates the two best tracks of their career, encapsulating everything they do best between “All the Heavy Lifting” and “The Hunter”. Opening to a typically ferocious lead part courtesy of Brett Hinds, the band moves from Remission‘s urgent pounding and Leviathan‘s mighty riffage to Blood Mountain‘s technical battery before breaking into the sort of huge, heartfelt chorus they wouldn’t have dared attempt before Crack the Skye, conjuring up every bit of the awesome poignancy they managed on yester-album’s highest points – and in under five minutes to boot. The Hunter‘s title track is the album’s most solemn, dedicated to Hinds’ recently deceased brother. A delicately fingerpicked intro gives way to an expansive soundscape that, more than anywhere else on The Hunter, brings the band’s mastery of dynamics to the surface before culminating in a pair of colossal solos that are among the most intense Hinds has ever ripped. Prepare to be hunted.
#4) Atlas Sound- Parallax
There’s always been an otherworldly quality to Bradford Cox’s solo recordings as Atlas Sound, but on his third studio album it comes across with more unsettling clarity than ever. Parallax is dedicated to Trish Keenan, the ethereal-voiced singer with Broadcast, who died earlier this year; at times the sense of loneliness it communicates is so profound, you’d think it was Cox himself trapped beyond the grave. “Cold, cold, cold,” he chants in the final throes of Modern Aquatic Nightsongs, over ghostly echoes of guitar. The spectral shimmer ofTerra Incognita is eerier still, especially when Cox beckons “Will you join me?” in a voice as seductive as it is chilling. What you hear most of all in that voice is a full-blooded 1950s croon, with shades of Gene Vincent in ballad mode. It’s a guise Cox revels in, pouting inPraying Man, quivering across the bubbly pop of Mona Lisa, and, in The Shakes, seeming to embrace death without regret.
#3) Dirty Beaches- Badlands
Dirty Beaches is Alex Zhang Hungtai, a Taiwanese musician from Montreal whose lo-fi debut, Badlands, doesn’t sound anything like the languidly sunny blog-pop his moniker suggests. Instead, Hungtai steers clear of indie-rock jangle to marry the grimy, red-eyed rumble ofSuicide to ghostly rockabilly licks. It’s a pastiche that moves right on by ’90s nostalgia and into the warm embrace of sexy (though submerged) ’50s songcraft and mythology. Whether he’s evoking ravine races in “Speedway King” or channeling the shrieks and love pumps of Sun-era Elvis on “Sweet 17,” Hungtai’s pomaded visions are charged with spidery menace. Much of that is rooted in their mineshaft sonics; every inch of Badlands is coated in sheets of echo and shadow, giving the record an atmosphere much more in tune with the darker, twisted tones of his influences than his bedroom-bound peers. Even when Badlands softens up, as it does with the shop-window balladry of “True Blue” and “Lord Knows Best,” the result is every bit as unsettling as it is romantic.
#2) Jay Z and Kayne West- Watch the Throne
Kanye West is where pop music is at right now. If you want to know what the 21st century sounds like, listen to last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In West’s extraordinary mix of rock and soul samples with manic hip-hop grooves, you can hear 50 years of pop culture refracting and contorting in a futuristic digital prism. West has talent on the scale of a Phil Spector or a Lee Scratch Perry: he’s miles ahead of his peers, blazing a trail through his own madness.
But how do you follow a masterpiece? For Watch the Throne, West joins forces with another towering character of contemporary rap, Jay-Z, a lyricist whose skills and delivery are second to none but whose real authority comes from the philosophical and emotional depth that underpins his work.
With its live rhyme-battle roots, hip hop is uniquely suited to pitting wordsmiths against each other. So-called supergroups are all too often less than the sum of their parts, but Watch the Throne showcases rap Olympians competing at their best.
With two big egos on the microphone, braggadocio predictably hits new levels of self-aggrandisement. Yet the wit and absurdity of their rival claims creates a mood of swaggering, cartoonish heroism entirely suited to the epic scale of productions by West and his star studded collaborators.
Tracks bustle and hustle, jamming together samples from soul legends like Otis Redding, James Brown and Nina Simone with counterintuitive snippets of prog rockers Phil Manzanera and Spooky Tooth and ripe, melodic choruses sung by an eclectic array of contemporary stars including Beyoncé, Mr Hudson and La Roux.
West’s attention to detail is mesmerising, piling hook upon sound effect upon melodic twist, so that his grooves never stop developing. This is, indeed, music to boast about.
Crucially, a sense of political purpose drives the whole enterprise towards a higher plane. Counterweighing delight in their own good fortunes with observations from the mean streets, Watch the Throne builds to a powerhouse finale of musings on the worst and best of black culture.
Perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of this funny, hard-hitting, thrilling album is that it actually sounds like a coherent and purposeful piece of work, a statement of what hip hop can mean, and where it can go.
#1) Girls- Father, Son, Holy Ghost
The more cynical listeners out there might backhandedly describe Christopher Owens, the creative lynchpin behind Girls, as ‘a great student of rock history’ – in other words, somebody who knows the canon inside out and lifts from it liberally. And sure, there’s no denying that a lot of the ideas here are probably older than Owens himself; that much is clear within the first minute of the album, as “Honey Bunny” bursts out of the traps sounding like a lost early Beach Boys classic with a few Carl Perkins-esque guitar licks thrown in for good measure.
Yet one of the most fascinating things about this album for me is that it very rarely sounds truly retro, or that much like its primarily influences. Instead, it’s closer to a raft of other ‘great students of rock history’ that have appeared in the past two decades – Beulah, Elliott Smith, Oasis, Neutral Milk Hotel, Teenage Fanclub, The Magic Numbers, even Wolfmother on “Die”. It’s almost as if Girls have made a conscious decision to take those bands on at their own game, to prove that they’re better at updating all the ideas from the ’60s that indie rock has decided are worth holding onto. It’s probably not true, but if it was, they would deserve all the credit in the world, because they’ve actually succeeded.
The quality of sound and songwriting on Father, Son, Holy Ghost is frequently breathtaking, and the most telling indicator of that is that, on first listen, even though your natural instinct is to play a game of spot the influence, it becomes impossible; you’re too busy marvelling at how good it is. Even “Honey Bunny”, probably the album’s most blatant throwback, gets over the Beach Boys comparison through its breakneck energy, sheer enthusiasm, and pure melodicism, all of which are more in tune with acts like Dinosaur Jr than anything from the rock’n’roll era.
Elsewhere, the album can be described perfectly by two old adages – the first that stealing from one person is plagiarism while stealing from two or more is just good research, the second that a great song is a great song regardless of its origins. The first is a valid defense of the album but the second is the important one – these are seriously fucking great songs. Picking a favourite is nigh-on impossible – the absolutely beautiful “Jamie Marie”, the dark and panoramic “Vomit”, the wistful “Forgiveness”, and the airy “My Ma” are all solid contenders, as is “Honey Bunny”. Each song has a tune you can hum, a lyric somebody somewhere will probably get tattooed, and a musical twist to keep repeated listens as enthralling as the first, and what more can you really ask for from a pop or rock album? And that’s before we even mention the production, which is little short of perfect – it’s spacious, crystal clear, and warm, making this the kind of album that somehow sounds wrong on MP3.
And the music? Brilliant, both instantly familiar and neoteric. The album’s sole nuts-out riff fest, “Die”, will probably be described as Zeppelinesque by quite a few people, but its riff actually feels more like Wolfmother’s “Woman” and Muse’s “Knights of Cyndonia” than anything recorded before 2000, and its melody is catchy enough to overshadow the bridge, which hints at Pink Floyd. “My Ma” has a wistfulness that instantly recalls Elliott Smith, but can be traced further back to The Byrds and The Beatles, with a guitar solo that could have been on a Bowie song. “Vomit” takes it listener on an exhausting journey first time out, collapsing out of its atmospheric arpeggios into noisy, scuzzy garage rock, before pulling itself back together for just long enough to escalate into a wave of soulful female vocals and organs that doesn’t sound all that much like “The Great Gig in the Sky”, but recalls it anyway – oh, and there’s room for another guitar solo too, this time with more of a country influence. (And is it just me, or does the melody just carry the tiniest hint of The Cure’s “Lovesong” about it?)
And yet for all these half-memories of other songs that Girls conjure, it sounds bang up-to-date. A big part of that is the song structures, which often change up completely half-way through; it’s a path that’s been well-trodden by the likes of Arcade Fire, Coldplay, and Muse in recent years, but barely anybody has done it as well as Girls do here. Yet a lot of it is a simple matter of energy and, dare I say it, honesty; Owens at his best is a gloriously unrestrained frontman, both in his performance and his writing. There’s something really charming about a songwriter that’s as happy to include lyrics as silly as ‘they don’t like my bony body/they don’t like my dirty hands’ as he is to sing something as sincere as ‘maybe I didn’t realize the way I loved the way you moved, until you moved so far away I couldn’t see you anymore’, not to mention a man that’s willing to write two openly positive songs about his mother while working in a genre that places more emphasis than most on how cool you act.
One of the best thing about following music is being proven wrong, so I’m happy to say that Father, Son, Holy Ghost makes me look foolish – despite liking Album, I never, ever imagined Girls would be anywhere near this good. I didn’t even think they’d make it to a third album, if I’m being honest, yet suddenly they sound like they’ll probably end up being one of the most enduring bands of our era. I’m always happy to admit that I’m wrong though, as long as I can have albums as brilliant as this in return.