10. Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes
This album is still really growing on me. I didn't listen to it much when it first came out, but I started listening to it more in the fall and I got in to it. I've moved it up in this list several times, and I'll probably come to regret placing it this low in the top ten. But then, I'll probably regret every placing of every item on every list I did over the last week at one time or another in the future. But I digress. Fleet Foxes had a very promising debut EP/LP combo back in 2008. The lush arrangements of vocals and folk instruments that made the group's debut so mesmerizing are back on Helplessness Blues. But this record is more ambitious, polished, and stronger in nearly every way. Sure, Sun Giant and the Fleet Foxes LP proved the band could do a little folk jamming, but on Helplessness Blues, they've written mini-suites. The title track has independent, recognizable parts that change throughout the course of the song, but "The Shrine / An Argument" and "The Plains / Bitter Dancer" are dense, complex compositions that might as well be symphonies. So leader and principal songwriter Rob Pecknold proves he can compose music as well as anyone else on the indie scene today, but he also proves his lyrical skill with the title track, which asks some big questions. It's an anthem for today's working man, which became strikingly relevant as the OWS movement developed. Pecknold and the rest of Fleet Foxes create a sound on Helplessness Blues that both addresses important themes of today and is beautifully nostalgic.
Chris Owens and J.R. White begin their second album as Girls with what I'd like to think is a shout-out to Quentin Tarantino's 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction. "Honey Bunny" is the first song and second single from Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and is also, of course, Amanda Plummer's pet name at the beginning of Tarantino's film. The song also features that classic surf-rock guitar riff (rapid strumming on the low strings - you'll know it when you hear it...), which is borrowed from the first song in the opening credits of Pulp Fiction. One could certainly describe Girls' music as "surf rock." Owens and White are both from San Francisco, and even though I've never been to California, most of the music Girls writes makes me think of the sunny beaches of that state. California and Los Angeles are as much characters in Pulp Fiction as Jules Winfield and Vincent Vega. What really makes Owens a great songwriter, though, is his pairing of this carefree rock music with his lyrics, which are painfully honest and heartbreaking. Owens has a troubling past; he spent most of his childhood involved in the Children of God cult, and most of his adult life addicted to opiates. Needless to say, there's a lot of emotion going on in his head, and that transfers to the lyrics he writes, which are disturbing at times. "They don't like my bony body / They don't like my dirty hair / or the stuff that I say / or the stuff that I'm on," he writes in the opener, alluding to his opium problem. He's had estranged relationships with both his parents, which he addresses later in "Honey Bunny," and on the song "My Ma." I could probably write another 200 words about how it's a great tribute to classic rock and band's like Pink Floyd, but this is already far too long. Father, Son, Holy Ghost might seem simple at first, but it's one of the year's most dense and challenging records.
8. Watch The Throne - The Throne (Kanye West and Jay-Z)
This is my white-boy college kid pick of the list. Just about everyone who's attending a university will say they love Kanye and Jay. I correctly predicted that "dat shit cray" would become the new catch phrase of choice for frat boys everywhere. But that doesn't mean they're just a couple of mindless pop artists. Kanye is the greatest star music has seen since Michael Jackson, and Jay-Z is one of the greatest rappers ever. In addition to the money, they've got talent flowing out of their arseholes as well. So when two of hip-hop's greatest figures come together and make an album, we get a great hip-hop album. The production is stellar, Pat said the sound of Watch The Throne made him feel like he was 40 feet tall, and that's right. It's massive. The lyrical content isn't groundbreaking. It's mostly a chance for Ye and Jay to talk about their opulence, but it's also a sort of national anthem for black America. One thing I like most about hip-hop and rap is that it allows artists to collaborate frequently, and Watch The Throne is like a family reunion of today's pop artists. Opener "No Church In The Wild" features Odd Future member Frank Ocean, a fresh new r&b voice. "That's My Bitch" features Kanye favorite Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), and La Roux's Elly Jackson. "Lift Off," a standout from the album, features Jay-Z's main squeeze and pop superstar Beyonce. Jay-Z, who never sings, is matched with his wife's stellar vocals and Kanye's half-singing, half-rapping. The whole spectrum of hip-hop music is represented on that track, and Watch The Throne is an equally great representation of hip-hop today.
"Lift Off" (feat. Beyonce)
7. Dye It Blonde - Smith Westerns
If you haven't figured out by now that I like happy, upbeat, fun summer music, I don't think you ever will. Dye It Blonde was released way back in January, but I waited till the summer to get into it, and that was a great decision. It was the album of my summer. I listened to it as I bicycled around Fort Wayne on many a hot summer afternoon. I listened to it to and from Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago (this band's hometown), where I sweat off at least 5% of my body weight during Odd Future's terrifying set. It was basically all I listened to when my family went on its annual Michigan vacation in July. Its glittering synthesizers, catchy hooks, and blazing guitar work from Max Kakacek make Dye It Blonde almost as perfect a summer album as 50 Words For Snow is a winter album. Its stellar production gives the album character. It sounds grandiose, like it was recorded in a cathedral. It wouldn't surprise me if David Bowie had produced it. It could fit right in with the glam rock of the 1970s. Cullen Omori's airy vocals, though, make Smith Westerns sound like they're a part of modern indie rock. I know that picture makes them look really pretentious (yes, like hipsters, I'll say it), and I agree that the Brothers Omori look really, really ridiculous, but their music is brilliantly authentic and purely fun.
6. undun - The Roots
It's been less than a month since I first heard undun. I admit I'm still trying to work through it. I've maybe only listened to it all the way through three or four times. So you probably wonder why I've placed it so high up on my list. undun is one of the most complex and challenging hip-hop releases of recent memory. I can't fathom how they managed to put this together while having to record a show with Jimmy Fallon every day. But throughout their long career, the Roots have shown they know how to do this. And with stellar releases like Things Fall Apart and Phrenology, they don't need to prove anything to anyone, but still they go for this dangerously ambitious concept album, and pull it off marvelously. They even decided to tell the story of Redford Stevens backwards, starting with his death. "Dun" is the sound of his heard flatlining. "Make My" is when Redford decides to make his "departure from the world." The story of undun is frank and heartbreaking. I began watching the TV show The Wire around the time I was getting into undun, and the narrative structure, character development, and general atmosphere of the show and the album are very similar, capturing the depth of urban poverty exceedingly well. But even as intricate and captivating as the story is, what really sets undun apart from the other hip-hop albums on this list is the talent of the Roots as musical artists, namely drummer Questlove and MC Black Thought. Questlove's drums are everpresent, and always solid. I really enjoy the third movement of the "Redford" suite, where he really goes crazy, and proves he could be a great jazz drummer if he wanted to be. Meanwhile, Black Thought remains the most underrated rapper today. His voice demands attention, and his rhymes are pure poetry here. There's countless other areas I could talk about with undun, but I've already written way too much. And it's not even the top rap album on my list! What a great year for hip-hop.
"The OtherSide" feat. Bilal and Greg Porn
5. Section.80 - Kendrick Lamar
Like so many albums on this list, it took me a long time to figure out that Section.80 is great. When my good friend Kale played Kendrick Lamar for me the first time, I didn't pay attention at all. I was entirely wrong about my ignorance, and I owe both Kale and Kendrick apologies. Lamar is far and away the best new rap voice of the year, and that's saying something, considering so many great fan favorites that emerged this year, like A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, Big K.R.I.T, and others. Lamar, who is only four (4) years older than me, is the most socially conscious rapper since Talib Kweli. On Section.80, Lamar speaks of the oppression of America's youth, which he believes began with Ronald Reagan. Some people hate Reagan, but far more adore the former president, and Lamar's viewpoints are bold, and he holds nothing back. He validates his views with his talent, which is unbelievable. He can already hang with rap veterans like Kanye, Jay-Z, and Nas with his impeccable flow, which is flawlessly coherent. "Rigamortis" is amazing. In addition to his rap prowess, Lamar works with newcomer producers like THC and Sounwave and makes excellent choices. Section.80 is heavy at times and desolate at others, but its strong r&b and jazz influences are always apparent. "Rigamortis" and "Ab-Soul's Outro" feature hip horn sections, and almost every track features piano somehow. Kendrick Lamar is already a great rapper, and he has a long way to go. According to Wikipedia, Lamar's second album, Good Kid In A Mad City, is slated for next year, and I can't wait to see where he goes with it. Section.80 is the most promising rap debut since Talib's Quality and Kanye's The College Dropout. Kendrick Lamar could be America's next rap superstar.
"F*ck Your Ethnicity"
3. The Whole Love - Wilco
My favorite band changes often. Within the last year, it's been the Strokes, TV On The Radio, and others. Right now, however, it's Wilco. This band's discography is as diverse and interesting as any other active band's today. What makes The Whole Love so great is that the band's entire catalog is represented in one way or another throughout its 55 minutes. Pop songs like "I Might" and "Dawned On Me" could fit in alongside other indie rock songs on Being There and Summerteeth. Experimental jam piece "Art Of Almost" might as well be on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born. Alt-country songs like "Born Alone" and the title track evoke memories of Sky Blue Sky in me, the first Wilco album I really loved. And then, there's stuff unlike any Wilco material I've ever heard, like the twelve-minute closer "One Sunday Morning." It's a slow-moving mood piece, that doesn't really build musically at all, but through its meditation elevates the mood, and is the most comforting song of 2011. Frontman Jeff Tweedy is as strong a songwriter as ever. "I Might" makes as little sense as "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" from YHF, but is just as fitting: "The Magna Carta's on a Slim Jim blood, brotha! / The sunk soul with the coal clean toe is the mutha! / Yeah, that's right," he sings. Some of what people didn't like about Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album) is Tweedy's attempts at falsetto vocals, but here, he is back in his element, writing melodies that better fit his vocal range. The result is a record where all the parts fit together like cogs. Wilco has changed lineups many times, but the current one is wonderful. No band works together as well as Wilco does today. I like to hear the band's more experimental side, and creating their own label has allowed them to experiment more on The Whole Love, and I can't wait to see what they will accomplish next.
"Standing O" / "Rising Red Lung"
2. w h o k i l l - tUnE-yArDs
For almost the entire first minute of tUnE-yArDs' second album, it's all Merrill Garbus. "My Country" begins with her percussion and several loops of her voice. Nate Brenner's bass doesn't come in until about 50 seconds in, and the twin saxophones, the other two parts of the tUnE-yArDs touring band, don't come in for another two minutes after that. But that's what tUnE-yArDs is all about: Merrill Garbus. There's no way she'd be able to pull of her exceedingly ambitious musical project if she weren't so talented. There isn't a moment during w h o k i l l where her vocals are not spectacular. Thank God looping technology exists so she can spread herself around. Her incredible range is most apparent on standout "Powa," in which she sings a high e-flat, which is three ledger lines above the treble staff, for you music theory aficionados out there. Her ukulele work, with which she often uses distortion effects, is sophisticated. I'm consistently captivated by her use of typically non-western intervals on ukulele, most noticeably 2nds and 4ths rather than 3rds and 5ths. This gives her music an open sound, which gives her voice more room to flourish. All these parts of Merrill combined with Brenner's bass, the saxophones, and the occasional synthesizer or keyboard make w h o k i l l the most unique album on this list. The music is uncategorizable. At times you might call it worldbeat, at others you might call it jazz, rock, ambient/experimental... The list could go on and on. But through all the experimentation in which this group engages, Merrill and company still manage to make some of the most infectious and catchy music of the year. It's jumpy and energetic, just like Merrill. When I saw tUnE-yArDs at Bloomington's Rhino's Youth Center in September, everyone jumped and sang along to every song, or at least grunted with the melody if they didn't know the words. It was probably the best show I saw all year. This would probably be number one on this list if it weren't for the dud "Wooly Wolly Gong," which doesn't fit in with the rest of the music on the album at all, and is far too long. It's still a fantastic album, though, and I'll be listening to it for years to come.
1. Nine Types of Light - TV On The Radio
I had a lot of trouble selecting what I wanted to call my top album of the year. I listened to The Whole Love a ton when it came out, and at one time it would have occupied this spot in this list, but when it came down to it, there were just some inconsistencies, and a couple songs I didn't really like very much, that prevented it from winning the crown. w h o k i l l, as I mentioned above, would have been number one if not for "Wooly Wolly Gong." I considered Underneath The Pine and Dye It Blonde, as well, but those weren't right. So that left Nine Types of Light.
I love the TV On The Radio sound. I've talked about Dave Sitek's production before, and it's just as good here as on 2008's Dear Science or 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain, two of TV On The Radio's most highly critically acclaimed records. Tunde Adebimpe's vocals are excellent, as are Kyp Malone's. Adebimpe is one of the most talented rock vocalists out there, and Malone holds his own with his beautiful falsetto. Sitek's guitar work, which is similar to that of U2's Edge, is excellent and unique. The rhythm section, with percussion work by Jaleel Bunton and bass by now-deceased Gerard Smith, is strong and solid, and allows the other musicians to take the throttle. All these musicians worked together to produce a very solid album. There isn't a song I don't like, and there's never a dull moment in any of the tracks. That's what really set Nine Types of Light apart from all my other potential nominees for best album of the year. I can listen to it all the way through and I never feel like I want to skip to the next song.
It's been said that the sound and production on this album is more subdued than the band's previous two efforts. Many didn't care for the album for this reason, and it's true that Nine Types of Light is more mellow than those albums, but it is just that that makes it a refreshing and diverse addition to the band's catalog. Sure, it's got slower love songs like "Keep Your Heart," "You," and the fantastic single "Will Do," but it also has energetic, loud songs like "Second Song," "No Future Shock," and closer "Caffeinated Consciousness," which are more akin to the tracks most fans know and love from the band. But TV On The Radio have proven with this record that they don't have to knock down your speakers with a wall of sound all the time. One of the album's most captivating moments is centerpiece "Killer Crane," a six-minute track featuring piano and banjo, and, most importantly, no percussion. It's this band's twisted take on classic rock ballads like Led Zeppelin's "The Rain Song," and it's fantastic. I've talked a lot about comforting music in this list, and "Killer Crane" is one of these chilled out, nostalgic musical moments that gives me peace of mind. Now, as I write this and listen to Nine Types of Light, I realize that it does deserve this title. Ever since it came out, I've been listening to it. I don't have to be in a certain phase to like it. I can go to it any time and thoroughly enjoy it. It's like the friend who always looked out for me, who I didn't pay enough attention to. It's been the most consistent album for me this year, and it is definitely the best album of 2011.
I'd like to thank all of you who followed me during BLOGATHON 2K11, who actually read my posts and took into account what I had to say. I've spent a lot of unnecessary time on this, and I appreciate your reading it. I hope you've enjoyed what I have to say, and I hope you continue to read my blog! Thanks again, and have a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year!