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KINGBLIND TOP 15 ALBUMS OF 2011 (#10-6) (PART 2 OF 3)

Here is what you have all been waiting for. The top 15 albums of 2011. Broken down into 3 parts. (15 thru 11) – (10 thru 6) -(5 to 1)

Today we have our second batch.. So enjoy numbers 10 through 6..

#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.