Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Kevin's Top 20 Albums of 2011

Since I am leaving for Florida to celebrate the New Year's, I felt it was about time to put up this post. It's only been, what, six months since our last post. You never know, this might light a fire under us for 2012. Before putting together my list, I wasn't sure that 2011, musically, was so great, but going back over the year I found it to be 1) more interesting than I first remembered and 2) it was actually harder to put together my list than I thought it was going to be. This is probably subject to change as time marches on, but I think, for now, I believe I have it nailed down. Without further adieu:

20) Phonte, Charity Begins At Home
Phonte was one half of the duo that was known as Little Brother until they went on indefinite hiatus. Phonte whether alone or in a group as always brought it. He really is an underappreciated and criminally unheralded lyricist, check out this one line from the first track on his album, "Dance In The Reign", "Flow so addicting it’s like habit forming
Flow so hair-raising it’s like rabbit farming"
I had to rewind it the first time I listened to it, because it's so amazing, and that's just the first track.

19) Doomtree, No Kings

Doomtree is a new(ish) collective of MC's and singers from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. They come here with 12 tracks of give-and-take hip hop, in that there are never fewer than two MC's on a track, and three tracks feature all five. The interesting thing is there are no stars here, and they all work to make the others looks as good as they make themselves, if that makes any sense. I won't go so far as to compare this to the original Wu Tang, but, in a way, it seems to be what they are striving for. This is definitely their bombastic statement of purpose. Frankly, they deserve to be bigger and more popular than Odd Future. Maybe it's because they are from the Midwest and more polite?

18) We Were Promised Jetpacks, In The Pit Of The Stomach

More goodness from Scotland. This was a grower for me, I found it to be a lot like their first album, These Four Walls, except this time darker and louder, which is just fine with me.

17) Le Butcherettes, Sin Sin Sin
Amazing, fiery garage rock that sounds like Bikini Kill and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had a baby.

16) Action Bronson, Dr. Lecter
Pat O'D hepped me to this Bronx native earlier in the year. He sounds like Ghostface and sort of looks like me. But it reminds me, well, of basically where he is from, he definitely has this old school, raw, East Coast vibe (sort of like Mista eXquire from across the river in Brooklyn) and he drops a lot of old school wrestling lyrics into his raps which also goes a long way for me.

15) Wild Flag, Wild Flag
Wild Flag reminds me of Sleater-Kinney and that's a good thing since, well, a lot of us miss Sleater-Kinney. I'm not sure of that's just Carrie Brownstein's influence or what. Keep doing what you're doing because it is working.

14) Parts and Labor, Constant Future
This is actually their sixth full length album, but it was the first time I had heard them and, obviously, I like what I hear. From what I understand, they've upped the ante in that they have added an electronic element (maybe just keyboard) to their art punk sound, and well, like I said above they should keep doing what they are doing, it's harsh, but melodic, a catchy as all get out.

13) Mastodon, The Hunter
The first, maybe, truly fun Mastodon album. I really like them, and I like the fact that they are such weirdos, and this delivers all these goods in spades.

12) Frank Ocean, Nostalgia/Ultra
To me, this, so far, is the greatest member of Odd Future. He's also the one who has managed to get the most work this year. This album (actually a free mixtape-he released on his own after getting the cold shoulder from Island/Def Jam which signed him a year earlier) He's not only a great singer, but an off-kilter song writer as well. One of his pop "remakes", "American Wedding" (he uses the Eagles in the background" has this line, "“thesis on islam…virgin brides and arranged marriage. Hijabs and polygamist husbands… those poor unamerican girls.' He might just be the best lyricist.

11) The Roots, Undun
This is odd but only because this is the first of two concept albums on this list, not that the Roots are on here, because The Roots consistently put out good to great material. But even this is on another level, I mean, it's kind of crazy, a concept album following the life and death of a street hustler, which sounds small but the album is really ambitious, it pretty much broadcasts it's intentions from the mountaintops. It shouldn't work out so well, but the focus is so tight and well executed, it works so much better than it seems like it should. 

10) Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes
This is much different than her debut album, Youth Novels, and it seems in the interim between album releases someone really broke her heart. Compared to that first album this is much darker than that. It's unfamiliar territory to her but it's new for us, and we get to meet her all over again.

9) Das Racist, Relax
Even with their copious free mixtapes they released it took me a long time for me to get into Das Racist. There was some mental block there. But then around the time Relax came out, I started reading more about them and listening more to their music, actually listening, and it's interesting, being so prolific you can see them become more assured of themselves musically even in the short year or two they have been releasing stuff, and I think Relax for now, is the culmination of that. Their beats and their lyrics have progressed in such a positive direction in that they are much more focused then they used to be. Actually they've always been really good lyricists, I think their beats have become more tight. However, you want to cut, it is pretty great. "They say I act white, but sound black
But act black, but sound white
But what's my sound bite supposed to sound like?
I think I sound aight
I sound tight
They might be the next step in the evolution of hip hop. Or they might burn out, who knows?

8) Radiohead, The King Of Limbs
While maybe not the left turn that people were expecting from Radiohead, but, I mean, what could people really expect from them anyway? I guess everyone has to answer that themselves. Me? I like this somewhat bare, minimalist album.

7) M83, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
Maybe a little overlong, but Anthony Gonzalez took three years to just put layer upon layer on everything in sight. Mostly he goes for big, synth show stoppers, which will either appeal to you or grow tired really quickly. I'm not sure if it is even my favorite M83 album and maybe I was just excited that a new one came out, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

6) The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar
Just, a big, loud, soaring record that hits my sweet spots. Truth in advertising from the album title there.

5) Iceage, New Brigade
Showing what the young people can do, four guys from Denmark who are barely of drinking age put out a pummeling debut that's barely 25 minutes of Scandinavian hardcore and gloomy, post-punk. It's pretty sweet destruction.

4) Lady Gaga, Born This Way
Simply put: the best pop album that came out this year.

3) Wugazi, 13 Chambers
I'm not sure if this actually counts as a proper album, it being a free mash-up mixtape, but few things have brought me as much joy as 13 Chambers did this way. Combining Fugazi and the Wu Tang Clan seems like a dubious proposition, but it turns out that done right it can be two great tastes that taste great together (ugh). This could have been really half assed too, but these guys did a tremendous job, not only crafting unique beats out of Fugazi songs, but finding outtakes and alternate lyrics from Wu Tang songs, and coming up with actual, new songs. No matter what Joe Lally says, this was a really fun accomplishment, and I thought they did a great job.

2) TV On The Radio, Nine Types Of Light
TV On The Radio, to me, is much like The Roots above, where they are on this really unbelievable streak of releasing good to great albums. Nine Types Of Light seems like an ideal followup and even continuation of that they started on Dear Science, in which they make music that makes you want to both dance and fight the power.

1) Fucked Up, David Comes To Life
And finally, here is our second concept album of the bunch. This album is just as ambitious as The Roots's concept album. Fucked Up’s epic tells a story of love,loss,and guilt put across by lead singer's Damian Abraham’s relentless shout and by guitars that range from punk-y grind to classic rock. Also, the best show I saw this year.

Runners Up:
Monotonix-Not Yet
Absolutely-Learns To Love Mistakes
Mr. Jason-Mr. Jason Presents: Frankensteez
OFF-First Four EP’s
Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire-Lost In Translation
Owen Hart-Earth Control
Veronica Falls-Veronica Falls
 Maritime-Human Hearts
Beastie Boys-Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
Kanye West & Jay-Z-Watch The Throne


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Matt's Top 20 Albums of 2011

While I'm fairly new at creating a top 20 list of my favorite albums of the year, I can't imagine it getting any more difficult than this year.  There were so many great releases to which I was exposed and oftentimes I found myself not being able to fully digest many albums since I kept trying to hear other new releases.  In a sense, I was plagued with a lot of ADD this year and I still feel like there was a lot that I missed out on.  It's quite clear to me that with the technology we have today and the sheer amount of quality music coming out that I will never be satisfied in my musical knowledge.  Having said that, I think I have created a list that while far from perfect, is pretty close to my overall impressions this year.  So here we go.

                                        20)  Deer Tick – Divine Providence

A more bar-friendly rock album you will not find this year.  These guys just lay it all out and take you through what is mostly a forty minute in your face ode to partying, drinking, and a night out on the town.  Placed in there are a few ballads that bring the speed down but the overall sentiment is there.  At times it lays heavy on the partying (complete with retching sounds no less), but for the most part, it’s a great rock album.

                    19)  Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

The best evening/chill album of the year for me goes to this four piece from Texas who plays a style of music known as “Post Rock”.  Never heard that term before but I definitely like what I hear, which is strictly instrumental ambient music that when at its best starts from nothing and builds to a huge crescendo that bursts through the speakers in a way that few others do.  With only six tracks, the album clocks in at just over 45 minutes so each song takes you on a relatively long, yet very satisfying and exciting journey.

                                          18)  Panda Bear – Tomboy

This album took some time to grow on me but after a few months, I really saw how amazing it was.  Panda Bear (AKA, Noah Lennox) takes a much simpler approach than his previous and much more convoluted album Person Pitch which for me was a welcomed change.  However, some of the concepts and styles of this album are still very much in the same league as his previous solo efforts and those with his other group, Animal Collective as the album is chock full of electronics and beautiful harmonies that echo all over the place.  It’s not something many will like, especially right away, but upon repeated listenings you can really hear some amazing stuff going on here.

                                17)  Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials

What I can best describe as “Orchestral Rock”, Florence’s sophomore effort picks up from her first and does not deviate much from her boisterous sound that pretty much includes a full-blown orchestra complete with harp and background gospel singers.  She tops it off with a unique and powerful voice that is one of the best on the scene today.  Though the album is a bit long (over 70 minutes), most of the songs here are quite inspiring and at times even send chills down the spine.

                                       16)  Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Sweden’s newest export is also one of its best.  Lykke Li came out with a great album that varies in song structure but keeps an overall production quality that is very reminiscent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and oddly enough, Li’s voice has a very Ronnie Spector type sound to it.  Mixing between slower, somber tunes and upbeat dance tracks with sticato timpani, Li has created an excellent album that bodes well for her future.

                                      15)  M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming

80’s synth-pop enthusiasts can take comfort that the genre isn’t totally dead as 2011 saw much welcomed returns from Duran Duran and the Cars, but the true accomplishment in this vain was this double album from the French musician, Anthony Gonzalez.  Throughout the 70 + minutes on this double album, Gonzalez doesn’t hold much back and gives us all hope that this type of rock was not just a fad and has a place in the 21st century. 

                                            14)  Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Critics love this band that is mostly the brain-child of Justin Vernon.  Unlike their debut album which is mostly stripped down acoustic songs, Bon Iver takes a different approach as a much fuller and produced effort that includes more electronics than its predecessor.  A very melancholy atmosphere permeates the album that compliments Vernon’s yearning falsetto nicely.  While I am not as much in awe of this band as others, I really appreciate this album which also may include some of the best yacht rock ever heard.  Particularly the phenomenal closer, “Beth/Rest”.

                                   13)  Middle Brother – Middle Brother

Touted as a “Super Group”, this debut album from the front men of Deer Tick, Delta Spirit, and Dawes is a very complete album divided almost perfectly by the three members who trade off on beautiful ballads with lush harmonies and all-out folk/roots rock.  “Super Group” may be a little overstated here as most people are unfamiliar with the three bands these guys come from, but for those of us who are familiar with their work, the title is not only apt, but the results far exceed any expectations this venture may have brought about.

                                              12)  Tom Waits – Bad As Me

Oh man, is this guy on some other level.  Waits is sometimes hit or miss for me and at times I need to listen to his stuff over and over again before I can truly begin to enjoy it.  But for some reason, it seemed easier with this album that is chock-full of that traditional junkyard rock as well as heartfelt ballads that Waits does so well.  Despite the fact that it seems harsh and unfamiliar, at the heart of each song is a great melody or blues riff that is hard to resist. 

                                       11)  PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

The first Harvey album I ever delved into has become one of the more intriguing albums I have heard all year.  Critics have always praised her stuff, but I never took a listen until last month.  This at times haunting and eerie album also has moments of funk and jazz as it incorporates a variety of instruments including horns, xylophones, and a crisp, light, and ambient guitar sound.  I can see why some feel Harvey’s piercing voice gets wearying, but I find it to be a great contrast to what is otherwise a very palatable and beautiful album.

                                        10)  Dawes – Nothing is Wrong

The sophomore effort from this Southern California band is very reminiscent of the rock styles that originated in that area in the 70’s when Jackson Browne hit the scene, which is why it’s even more appropriate that Browne guests on this album that is loaded with great rock melodies and harmonies.  There are also reminders of Crosby, Stills, and Nash and the Band here but Dawes somehow makes it their own sound.  And though admittingly I am not much of a lyrics person, the ones found here are some of the best I’ve heard.  It might not be as good as their debut from a few years ago, but a sophomore slump it is not. 

                                           9)  Foster the People – Torches

This year’s breakout indie rock band is a trio from L.A. who blew up the spot with their hit “Pumped Up Kicks”, which is the catchiest song ever written about chasing down a bunch of kids and firing bullets all over the place.  No matter.  Torches is a full-blown pop-indie masterpiece that demands head bobbing at the very least and an all-out spontaneous dance party at the most.  Fans of 80’s synth pop will find plenty to love here and snobby hipsters will have a tough time pretending they don’t like it just because they heard “Don’t Stop” one too many times on those stupid Nissan commercials.

                                               8)  Wild Flag – Wild Flag

Ever since one of my all-time favorite acts, Sleater-Kinney, went on “indefinite hiatus” in 2006, I only hoped that one day they would reunite.  While that has yet to happen, 2011 was the second year in a row that one of its lead members produced an excellent album; this year it was Carrie Brownstein’s turn.  She returns with SK drummer, Janet Weiss and members from two lesser known bands, Helium and the Minders, and produced an all-out kick ass indie rock/punk album that is much more reminiscent of SK’s sound than last year’s effort by Corin Tucker in the Corin Tucker Band.  While I still hope for SK to get back together, as long as albums like this are produced, that itch will remain scratched.

                                          7)  Wilco – The Whole Love

The eighth album from one of my all-time favorite bands begins with their most experimental song in some time, and then continues to take you through a variety of different rock, pop, and folk songs that span all kinds of emotions.  Some have said that this album represents a band that has truly come to know itself and is comfortable and knowledgeable about what it does well.  After repeated listenings, it’s hard to argue with that.  This is the sound of a band truly hitting its stride.

                                                     6)  Adele – 21

I don’t know who the dude was who broke this woman’s heart, but whatever he did, it must have been on an epically transcendent level of doucebaggery that has rarely been replicated before.  There is no other explanation for the passionate, personal, and emotional roller coaster that this album of blues, pop, soul, and folk takes you on.  The fact that Adele was only 22 when she started recording it is even more amazing.  Every so often an album comes around that regardless of what type of genre one likes, most anyone can get down to it.  21 is that album for 2011.

                                 5)  Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones

The surprise album of the year for me is the fourth LP from this English artist who does an amazing job of melding folk and punk rock that oftentimes results in all out sing along anthems.  I knew some of Turner’s work before and liked it fine, but I was just blown away by this album that not only includes the punk and folk rock mentioned above but also has some great English/Irish traditional sounds to it that brings me back to the Irish pubs I hung out in back in Dublin in 1998.  And it could very well include my favorite song of the year “I Still Believe”. 

                                    4)  Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Even when Radiohead miss it is still a hit for just about anyone else.  Despite the fact that this could be my least favorite Radiohead album, it’s still amazing and in typical Radiohead fashion, gets better with repeated listenings.  With their eighth studio album, the band has seemed to revert back to its Kid A sounds that includes very little guitar and more electronics.  But what really puts this album in the next level is when you hear and see the band perform it live.  They’ve recruited a second drummer to enhance the intricate percussion going on here and the fact that a band can replicate a highly produced album with little traditional instruments is very special.  Particularly when they make it sound even better live.

                                        3)  The Black Keys – El Camino

After last year’s release of Brothers, I didn’t think the Keys would top it, at least not within the span of one year.  Yet it appears they have as El Camino doesn’t mess around with any slower ballads.  Now I don’t mean to knock ballads, as the Keys do that style fairly well.  It’s just that they truly shine when they go upbeat.  With Camino they opt for straight up blues rock much in the way they did in their earlier efforts, but this time they combined a more lush and produced sound that truly amplifies their talents.  It also comes in at a very digestible 38 minutes that leaves you begging for more when it ends.

                                        2)  My Morning Jacket – Circuital 

My Morning Jacket is slowly becoming one of my favorite acts.  Along with their stellar performance at Bonnaroo this year, Circuital is making that fact apparent to me.  This album, while simpler than their previous effort Evil Urges, expands their sound a bit but in a way that is truer to their roots.  There are some epic rock tracks, dramatic tunes that sound like they came out of a James Bond film, and some of the most beautiful ballads heard all year.  From start to finish, this is an amazing album and a very promising assertion that this band is here to stay.


                                   1)  The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

The year’s best album for me is a very simple release, but one that reminds me of my true pleasures in listening to music.  I loved this album from the minute I heard it and I have yet to lose any interest.  Front man Colin Meloy diverted starkly from 2009’s convoluted and epic rock-opera The Hazzards of Love and came back to earth to produce an album full of folk/rock/pop gems that he stated is really where the band’s roots are.  It also doesn’t hurt that in doing so he channeled R.E.M. and Springsteen which is highlighted beautifully in “Down by the Water”.  I’ve listened to this album around 20 times and I find it nearly impossible to listen to it and get the smile off my face.  If that’s not qualification for album of the year, I don’t know what is.