by Jason Hicks
I have long been a proponent of the album, but this year I joined the dark side and became a member of the “cult of the song.” Using new methods of music delivery such as Spotify and Turntable.fm has radically changed my listening habits, moving from ingesting entire albums at a sitting to playing a hit parade of tracks by disparate artists. Because of that shift, I struggled with coming up with this list as I never had before. It wasn’t that there was a lack of quality material; it was just that I hadn’t spent enough time with many albums to come to an opinion I felt was worth sharing. So after embarking on a month long cram session, catching up on that which I had neglected, I can confidently offer my choices for the top 10 albums of 2011. Enjoy!
10. Clams Casino- Instrumental Mixtape
As the line between electronic music and hip hop continues to blur,it’s likely that we will continue to see more producers in the vein of Clams Casino. While his compositions can be used as the backdrop for rapping, they truly come to life when heard in their instrumental form. Clams Casino’s music is easily reduced to a formula of clanging grainy beats, darkly buzzing synths and ethereal vocal samples that are often supplied by well-known singers like Bjork and Janelle Monáe. But even though his sound may be easily identifiable and deconstructed, the sense of melody and dynamism remains strong enough to remain engaging for the duration of this collection.
9. Com Truise- Galactic Melt
Com Truise, the cheeky moniker of Seth Haley, sounds like what the music of ‘80s video games could have been had their composers not been confined to a mere 8 bits. While much of the feel of Galactic Melt is indeed retro, from song titles like “VHS Sex” to the pastel geometric shapes on the album cover, the drum patterns and production values undoubtedly mark it as a product of current times. It’s a sound that I have dubbed “TronTronica”, as it brings to mind Wendy Carlos’ score for the original Tron but also comfortably coexists alongside its contemporaries in the electronica genre. So put your digitally enhanced Star Wars Blu-Ray on mute, crank this up and enjoy some retro-futurist nostalgia for a high definition ‘80s that never happened until now.
8. M83- Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
M83’s last album, Saturdays=Youth, was an unabashed love letter to the simpler times of the 80s, with dreamy Cocteau Twins style vocals and glossy guitar leads dominating its soundscape. Maestro Anthony Gonzales continues this trend with the sprawling Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming which packs candy colored synths, Seinfeld slap bass, soft rock saxophones and no small amount of grandeur into its over 70 minute running time. It seems to concern some loosely executed theme of dreaming and imagination, complete with a children’s narration of a fantastical transformation into a frog on “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire.” Like just about any album over 60 minutes there is some filler, notably the several one to two minute instrumental interludes, some of which paradoxically feel like they could be longer. But when it works on tracks like “Claudia Lewis” and “Steve McQueen”, it’s impossible to deny that Gonzales is the master of nailing the ‘80s sound and turning it into something that is indelibly his own.
7. TV on the Radio- Nine Types of Light
With 2008’s Dear Science, TV on the Radio knocked it out of the park. It was a dazzling summation and extension of their synthesis of soul, indie rock, electronica and even threw some Afrobeat and string arrangements into the mix. When placed alongside that masterwork, Nine Types of Light does feel somewhat like a step back, as it is easily the most accessible TVOTR album to date. Having said that, the album still offers enough pleasures to land it on this list and the band remains firmily entrenched in the upper echelon of indie rock royalty. Highlights include the slow burning guitars and icy synths of “You” as well as the rave up “No Future Shock.” The album peaks with the elegiac “Killer Crane” where the unlikely bedfellows of banjo, cello and synths combine to create a track of sublime beauty and quite possibly points the way forward for TVOTR’s future.
6. Little Dragon- Ritual Union
Little Dragon were thrust into the spotlight in a major way last year after being featured on two tracks of the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach and serving as an opening act on the subsequent massive world tour. With the release of the Swedish group’s third album they efficiently capitalize on the opportunity to reach a wider audience with a concise set of well-crafted electronic pop tunes. The music leans toward the leftfield side of the electronic spectrum with drones and chirps floating in the mix and at times can come off as a bit simplistic. But that only serves to highlight the group’s main strength, the delicately soulful vocals of frontwoman Yukimi Nagano. After a couple more high profile collaborations this year with the likes of DJ Shadow, she appears to be the guest vocalist du jour. One can’t help but imagine that a Nagano solo album with top flight producers might be just what she needs to really launch her career into the stratosphere.
5. Bon Iver- Bon Iver
Bon Iver’s 2007 album To Emma, Forever Ago was so universally acclaimed and adored that the follow up seemed almost destined for backlash. That the eponymous sophomore effort by Justin Vernon makes no attempt to replicate the rustic heartbreak of To Emma is not as bold of a move as it may seem on the surface. Reducing comparisons to an apples/oranges type conversation sidesteps the whole question of whether To Emma was a onetime flash in the pan. From the album opener “Perth” it’s clear that Vernon will be working with a much more expansive pallet of sound with electric guitars, drums and even a horn section cropping up. Even though the scope has been broadened, Vernon’s falsetto remains as affecting as ever and some of the songs like “Holocene” and “Michicant” remain grounded in the folk genre. Then there’s the albums real curveball, the album closing “Beth/Rest” that wouldn’t sound out of place if inserted into Air Supply’s Greatest Hits. If you heard last year’s soft rock tinged indie supergroup Gayngs that also featured Vernon, it may not be quite as much of a shock, but you still have to wonder exactly why it was included here. That aside, Vernon shows real growth on Bon Iver, and impresses with his ability to incorporate new dimensions into his music successfully.
4. Blitzen Trapper- American Goldwing
On American Goldwing Blitzen Trapper take their adept mining of classic rock tropes and spin it into a loving hommage to the America of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The songs are full of tales of the open road and dreamers gazing into vast expanses of stars while trying to find the perfect song on an old FM radio. Musically, it’s a rich slice of Americana full of harmonicas, country tinged slide guitars, banjos and Eric Earley’s world weary Dylan inspired vocals. The album itself is named after a 1980s Honda touring motorcycle, and the American rite of passage of freewheeling travel looms large. Another lyrical theme is the depiction of the natural beauty that accompany such road trips. While in the songwriting department it may not top the best tracks from 2008’s Furr, it does do an excellent job of sustaining a consistent tone. Sure it’s a nostalgia trip, but with the land of endless opportunity that American Goldwing evokes rapidly disappearing or already gone, now is as good of a time as any to pay tribute to it. Right down to the mini LP packaging and poster that come with the CD, Blitzen Trapper capture the essence of that bygone era with perfection.
3. The Roots- Undun
The Roots have been cranking out consistently outstanding hip hop albums for almost twenty years now, but never before have they attempted an album as ambitious as Undun. A true rap concept album, it chronicles the rise and fall of a hustler in reverse, opening with his violent demise and retracing the decisions and pressures that led to his undoing. It’s not the typical glamorous portrayal of the street lifestyle as a bling filled fantasy, but instead fixates primarily on the greed and short sighted get rich quick mentality that has led so many young men to a predictable dead end. As rapper Black Thought sums it up near the end of the album, “Picture me livin’ life as if I’m some animal/ That consumes its own dreams like I’m a cannibal.” It’s a bleak and unflinching condemnation of the lifestyle that has wrought ruin upon entire generations of African Americans. The album closes with a haunting four part instrumental suite for piano and string quartet that even dips into avant free jazz with “Will to Power (3rd Movement).” The last four tracks, unlike anything put down on a hip hop album before, push the album over the top from great to brilliant. While not the easiest listen, it is undoubtedly as rewarding and important album as any in The Roots catalog.
2. Tycho- Dive
There have always been two major strains of electronic music; that which was engineered primarily to move bodies on the dance floor and on the other side, music that was meant for introspective listening in a home environment. With Tycho’s (nom de reality Scott Hansen) third proper album he takes his place among the elite purveyors of the latter style. While he borrows quite a bit from the warbly analog tones of downtempo masters Boards of Canada, Tycho is quite a bit more blissful and lush as opposed to the moody and at times sorrowful sounds of his forbearers. There’s also a major emphasis on melody, with acoustic guitar on several tracks. Relying on traditional song structures is a refreshing change in the context of a genre that can often times get lost in its obsessions for rhythm and timbre. As the album title and art imply, Dive frequently evokes images of placid marine environments and on top of Hansen’s knack for hooks, the proceedings have a watercolor infused airy quality. For those looking for new electronic relaxation music with substance, Tycho is just what the doctor ordered.
1. Akron/Family- S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT
Akron/Family are a virtual encyclopedia of psychedelic motifs, moving effortlessly from heavy Black Sabbath riffs to backwoods folky jams to tribal call and response chants, sometimes all within the same song. On their fifth full length the group retains all of those qualities to some degree but adds a little more focus this time around and the result is a batch of songs that rivals their previous zenith, 2007’s Love is Simple. The album’s middle section in particular flows beautifully, starting with the brooding “A AAA O A WAY” that transitions seamlessly to “So it Goes”, which starts as a crunchy Lennonesque rocker and floats back to earth hazily into the spinning bombast of “Another Sky." That in turn leads to the marimba driven stomp of “Light Emerges” and the sequence concludes with the acoustic hymn of “Cast a Net”. From there the album moves through experimental instrumental sections and a few more folk imbued quiet tracks. The overall impression is of a band that can write top notch songs, take risks and have it all come together into a cohesive whole that is more than the sum of its parts and sounds like something truly fresh.