Sunday, December 18, 2011
Andrew G's Top Albums of 2011 (Plasticrock.is)
1. James Blake / James Blake
“Please fall down, testing sounds
For the deaf and the forest cold.
Trees in clouds, testing doubts
Trying hard not to be too bold
Crease your pride, telling lies,
That you're not on your own
Watching their/ faith in prayers
Will make you see your bones”
- James Blake, "Measurements"
…I honestly don’t know what these lyrics mean. They are repeated on the James Blake’s closing song “Measurements” and are gradually layered into a choir sung by Blake over a calming gospel hymn track basically composed of a few sparse bass synth notes. Yet, they effectively sum up the essential reasons why James Blake is the best album of 2011. Ultimately, James Blake is a musical source of off-kilter unique sympathy that is innovative in capturing inexplicable human emotions that are familiar to everyone.
“Testing sounds for the deaf and the forest cold”
James Blake has an unmatched sonic physicality to it that stopped me in my tracks in disbelief of an otherworldly force was coming out of the speakers. Only Portishead’s Third (2008) and Scott Walker’sThe Drift (2006) compare in possessing sonic textures and sheer strength that makes you physiologically react to the music. On James Blake, Blake is a master of using space created by restraint/silence, punctuating it with nostril rattling bass, and heightening it with munched up keyboard synth chords and awkward random beats. Moments on the album like the ungodly bass on the stark “Limit To Your Love” and the hypnotic synth climax “I Never Learnt To Share” have this frightening force to them that will either almost induce blackouts or cause a wrinkle in the time/space continuum. In this regard, James Blake ‘s uncanny use of silence and sheer bass is extremely similar to and the complete polar opposite of Sleigh Bells’ monstrous “turn it up to 11” Treats.
“Trees in clouds, testing doubts, trying hard not to be too bold”
James Blake has been criticized for being “boring.” Geoff Barrow of Portishead, picking on people of smaller cultural influence than him, tweeted wondering aloud whether “this decade [will] be remembered as the dubstep meets pub singer years?” (He even tweeted/cyber bullied on “why can’t James Blake sing the letter T?” Hang in there Jimmy!) It seems that people misjudge his restraint and use of space as boring. Instead, this album certainly swallows the listener (I found myself listening to this album repeatedly) in a patient natural way similar to those scenes in nature documentaries showing how plants can take over larger structures and animals to a surprising astounding impressive effect.
James Blake’s patience helps create the album’s unique slow worn-out slump groove. Likewise, there is a classical elegance and quasi futurist space age vibe in Blake’s patient approach to the album that's like the Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey” meeting Missy Elliot and Timbland production. This restraint and elegance combined with Blake’s old soul intimate croon perfectly convey the human emotional crux of the album which is the attempt to maintain one’s mild mannered composure all while processing the significant aching occurring on the inside.
“Watching their faith in prayers will make you see your bones”
The real impressive talent of James Blake is its ambitious sparse minimalism. Blake takes a DJ approach to his songwriting and arrangements where he distills specific essential elements of electronic music and components of other genres, like folk and R&B, and strips them down to their stark bare bones and then combines and juxtaposes them to each other. The juxtapositions of sounds on these songs are jarring but gorgeous. It’s the constant contrast and failure of these odd songs to sound classically pleasant that makes it sound so human.
The opening “Unluck” is slurring off kilter soul music. It’s impossible to decipher what he is singing through his plaintive vocals sung through a distorted vodocoder but the feeling successfully comes through. The random shifting percussion and clicks and a rising synth all feel out of place out of sync but that adds a D’angelo soul slump to it.
“The Wilhelm Scream” draws upon 80’s R&B drum “ting” sound straight out of a Luther Vandross song and subtly warped keyboard to make a song that sinks under a punctuated echo-y beat. There’s complex simplicity to the song with repeated lyrics then understated distorted loops take it over. Feels like uncertain anxiety splashing down on top of simple guarded emotions.
Blake continues to use his vocals as another loop in his DJ approach to folk music with “I Never Learnt To Share.” Here, Blake loops and layers voice to a slow slump beat that eventually builds right into a havoc wrecking synth bass part that has the punch potential to knock you in and out of consciousness.
“Lindesfarne (Pts. 1 & 2)” is the heartbreaking centerpiece of the album. Blake uses his sniper sense of minimalism to ultimately produce glitch folk ballad on this album. The song is composed of a distorted busted acoustic guitar sample and Blake’s aching vocals. It’s also complete with an odd drum machine solo that mimics but is more minimal than a heartbeat. The tender emotional apex of the song is the moment of silence before Pt. 1 transitions into Pt. 2. It’s still dubstep in theory but it’s the drastic opposite of the more popular over-stimulated breed you hear from DJs like Skrillex at festivals.
“Lindesfarne” has a disorientating artificial edge due to its processed production. However, this artificiality does not detract but strangely enhances the track to feel even more fragile, sad, and desperate. It’s like how Wall-E was more heartfelt and relatable because the main character was a robot.
From there, Blake continues to make melancholy krunk with the stark piano ballad cover of Feist’s “Limit Of Your Love” which has an earth rupturing bass that will shake your nostrils. “To Care (Like You)” and “Why Don’t You Call Me” are like piano ballads remixed by Missy Elliot to have sputtering drums and pitched up vocals straight off of a Prince jam. They’re similar to “Lindesfarne” where their artificialness only enhances their ache. Overall, Blake breaks down music in order to expand what can be considered not only electronic music or dub step, but what also can be considered as music in general.
"Crease your pride, telling lies that you’re not on your own”
Along with James Blake, 2011 had a lot of solo performers who successfully followed their own path towards original experimental music: Shabazz Palaces, Panda Bear, John Maus, and Dirty Beaches. The essential lesson that I took away from James Blake and others is to have faith in your own individual intuition towards what is natural and resonates with you. Follow it through because it will connect with others even if on face or by logic it doesn’t make sense. Blake’s intuition led him to reinvent music that is wholly new but surprisingly familiar in order to better articulate the complex feelings of being human.
"The Wilhelm Scream" (http://youtu.be/MVgEaDemxjc)
"I Never Learned To Share" (http://youtu.be/DSvb_jGwQ7s)
2. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks / Mirror Traffic
It’s fitting that Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks’ latest Beck produced album Mirror Traffic was effectively premiered/streamed/leaked by NPR this year. First reason:Mirror Traffic was newsworthy in itself. GQ, Spin, New York Times all ran features on Malkmus (former leader of indie rock pioneers Pavement) and Beck as icons of the 1990’s revival looking back. Second Reason: Over the last few years NPR has been seen as the smart hip dad playing catch up with the pitchforks and other music blogs. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s great for these groups to reach a wider audience. Yet there is the image problem of becoming a “Dad Rock” genre that finds bands like Wilco, Fleet Foxes, The National, the Decemberists all given the sanitized seal of approval for being suitable for the less risk taking mature set. The Stephen Malkmus of 2011, being a family man in his mid 40’s, can’t help but inevitably fall into the “Dad Rock” label. But in pure “dad rock” terms, Mirror Traffic is theSlanted & Enchanted of NPR sanctioned “Dad Rock.” Much like how Pavement’s debut album was 20 years ago with 90’s indie and grunge, Mirror Traffic is significant because it’s an injection of wit, energy, and smart post punk attitude into this “cool dad” strand of indie.
Further along in pure “dad rock” terms, Malkmus here is an equal cross of the goof of Phil Dunphy on “Modern Family” and the poignancy of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. He is looking at family life, relationship issues, and having a social life with a playful directness that in the past Pavement would approach with a shrug and an obscure reference. “Forever 28” deals with learning the hard way about lowering/having realistic expectations for relationships rather than falling for idealistic ones. “Share The Red” seems to be about fatherhood (“40 with a kid living on the grid”). “No One Is (As I Are Be),” “Tigers” (“We need separate rooms;” “I’m a 1-800- You-Can-Vent”), and “Brain Gallop” all analyze the give and take of relationships in domestic life as well as overanalyzing the internal struggles of just having a social life.
Mirror Traffic’s honest lyrical core is put to tunes helmed by the Jicks with Beck producing that sound more like what the ideal last Pavement album than what Pavement’s actual last album Terror Twlight did. There is a melodic breeziness to Mirror Traffic where the tunes glide by like they’re on a pacific coastal highway. Beck, as producer, brings a “flying by the seat of your pants” quality to the album that is thrilling and refreshing with it’s 2-3 minute pop songs. These concise songs get back to Malkmus’s signature Pavement style as opposed to the awkward prog rock noodling that populated the previous Jicks albums.
Moreover, Mirror Traffic recalls off the cuff spirit that was displayed on “the lost Pavement album” from disc 2 of the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain reissue. This can be heard on the buzzing “Stick Figures in Love” with its Velvet Underground jangle and on zany riffing tracks like “Spazz” and “Tune Grief” that also connect to the “off the wall”-ness of Wowee Zowee. Additionally, there are some great mid-tempo mellow tracks with angular melodies like “Asking Price” (about “putzing around the internet – revel in the disconnect”) and “Share The Red” that could have fit perfectly on Pavement’s excellent ‘mature’ album, Brighten the Corners.
Likewise, Malkmus delivers his most dynamic musical and vocal performance in years on this album. Malkmus goes from playing a 2 minute country ballad to doing some epic guitar shredding on “Brain Gallop.” Malkmus is also able to execute some of his most expressive vocals with finding some epic moments of angst release on on “Share The Red” (“I’ll be watching all the time!”) and “Stick Figures In Love.”
Beck, as producer, seems to heighten the California influence on Mirror Traffic by finding inspiration in mellow SoCal 60’s classic rock. “Long Hard Book” and “Fall Away” venture into Mamas & Papas, Byrds, and Graham Parsons territory that could very well be parody if it wasn’t so wonderfully executed. “No One Is (As I Are Be)” nails the subtle psychedelic orchestral pop of Love from their album Forever Changes.
Overall, Mirror Traffic is goofy but bittersweet album throughout. It’s main point is that you can mature/grow up, and sharpen your focus all without losing any of the spontaneity, charisma, and energy that’s associated with youth. Also, it’s further proof of Malkmus’s singular style like Lou Reed, Randy Newman, where it’ll always be interesting to hear what he is up to no matter what stage in his life.
"Stick Figures In Love" (http://youtu.be/5m8H5E3cvx8)
"“No One Is (As I Are Be)" (http://youtu.be/h-UNmW0dXhQ)
"Forever 28" (http://youtu.be/Dhu1D5GTwIQ)
"Long Hard Book" (http://youtu.be/QcoTWSPqxao)
"Asking Price" (http://youtu.be/J2MNJlcUPGs)
3. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up
“I’ve read all kinds of poetry…African poets who only speak in syllables and sound like they’re reading the Yellow Pages backwards.”
- Gil Scott Heron
Recently, this Gill Scott Heron quote was featured in Shabazz Palaces’ short film for Black Up (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUYaa7_Osik) and hits the nerve on what is the addicting fascinating appeal of the album. On Black Up, lead “Shabazzer” Ishmael Butler aka “Palaceer Lazaro,” previously of Digable Planets, basically just “came out of the cleaners” from another dimension and discovered the value of seeking unconventional, innovative ways to communicate. Black Up is filled with experimental songs that take various twists and turns. This is not pop music, but it’s nonstop entertaining.
To paraphrase Renee Zellweger in the film noir “Jerry Maguire,” Shabazz Palaces “had me at” the album’s first distorted bass line and drum machine snare hit spiked with reverb. When I first listened to Black Up in June 2011, it sounded to me like a sock puppet (http://youtu.be/bK_QEwAjUW0) going mental over beats that recall Isaac Hayes, Portishead, Tricky, and Kraftwerk composing a soundtrack for the hums of the Death Star in "Star Wars" all in hopes of making a spaced out trip hop album from 1997. (See the excellent “Are You…. Can You… Were You? (Felt)” ) This is basically the recipe for my dream album since the late 90’s.
The tunes range from spacey drum machines that seem haunted to tracks that sound like Kraftwerk getting ready for a date to early 90’s jazzy hip hop that is more alienated but still fresh. Shabazz Palaces also has interesting instrumentation that utilizes samplers, distortion pedals, drum pads and even random traditional African percussion. (Watch this performance video to get an idea of how Shabazz Palaces work their magic: http://youtu.be/djFrCb03-OI)
All of this intriguing music is being led by Ishmael Butler’s funky vocal narrative that is expressive, playful, and effortlessly beyond cool. His wordplay has a sly sense of humor- examples: “It’s mean…so mean…know what I mean?” and “clear some space out so we can spaceout.” Basically, the key to Shabazz Palaces’ success is “familiar-abstract” funk. Similar to James Blake’s debut and even Pavement, they take familiar elements/concepts of pop music, words, and slang and rearrange it in a way that makes something otherworldly.
While Black Up may seem ridiculous at first, after a few listens something deeper sinks in. Like OutKast and Funkadelic, this pioneering space funk is weighted with some gravitas. The playfulness here can only come from sophistication that also acknowledges an ominous menacing edge to life. Butler applies this approach to Black Up and goes on a personal existential mission to decimate poseurs fake things and seek out human honesty and authentic originality all while coolly tipping his hat to his own insecurities and social/political concerns.
Black Up’s closing track “Swerve” begins with the instant buoyant beat that sounds like a Xerox machine malfunctioning. The song is a call to action to motivate: “if you talk about it then it’s a show, but if you move about it - it’s a go.” It’s a fitting thesis statement capping off an album that is staking out new territory of music. As for all the naysayers or status quo poseurs who do not appreciate Black Up’s originality or direction, it’s fitting that the very last words on Black Up have a similar sentiment to another sock puppet video (http://youtu.be/UG9e72N6hP0) and eloquently sums up Black Up for the detractors: “This shit is way too advanced.”
Black Up (Album Short Film) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUYaa7_Osik)
"Can You... Are You... Were You?" (http://youtu.be/Wmxv5u734s0)
"An Echo From The Hosts..." (http://youtu.be/ajk0kEi41Vc)
"A Treatease dedicated to the Avian Airess..." (http://youtu.be/r-_ccJiiQpE)
4. Wild Beasts / Smother
“Oh, don’t you think that people are the strangest things? Designs of desire means all that the heart requires is what it can’t recognize, oh no, mmmm….”
- Wild Beasts, “Loop The Loop”
Judging from this lyric, it appears that Wild Beasts arrived at the same conclusion as a study conducted by two Columbia University professors focusing on speed dating that was featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. This speed dating study basically concluded that people do not know what they because what they consciously want in an ideal mate is different from what they subconsciously want. This dissonance and the heartache from figuring it out is what Wild Beasts’ Smother is all about. Basically, these four Brits in Wild Beasts are ripe for some counseling from “Millionaire Matchmarker” Patty Stanger even though they are the complete opposite of the majority of her clients but just as helpless (i.e. too in tune with themselves).
On Smother, Wild Beasts acknowledge that attempts at relationships require sticking your neck out and being vulnerable to failure and facing your own shortcomings. All of which can be difficult. In an interview with NPR about one of Smother’s best songs “Loop The Loop,” Singer Hayden Thorpe says that the song is about “human acceptance….acceptance of difficult things and [drawing] a positivity from those things.” (http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2011/05/10/136171523/singled-out-wild-beasts-loop-the-loop) The best moment on acceptance on Smother comes at the moment when “Loop The Loop” blooms open for a release and paraphrases Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: “Forget now/How many must I forget now? …Remember/As many as I remember/….Regret now/How many do I regret now?/…Slender/Oh there are some but they’re slender sums I regret.” Here, Wild Beasts empathetically recognize and accept the unresolved issues from love lost and the mistakes made, but drawing “positivity” or strength to pick yourself up and try again (aaliyah) that, basically, if you’re a human being you can identify with.
Although Smother may sound all self-help new age, the empathy and acceptance on the album is underscored by it’s straight up sex songs. On songs like “Plaything” and “Lion’s Share,” Wild Beasts make no bones about their universal desire for lust. However, they sound with Thorpe’s vocals like dignified yet bored, classy but menacing predatory cat and mouse games.
The songs on Smother have a sparse but still lush that perfectly suits the subject matter. In that same NPR interview, singer Thorpe describes how the album is filled with “ghost notes” meaning “almost imaginary parts…[where] when you’re recording a song it just hangs together in an effortless way.” Smother is filled with subtle shimmering guitars and melancholy grooves spiked with sensual keyboard melodies. It has a 1980’s morning drive soundtrack vibe similar to Tears For Fears or The Smiths crossed with Sade and Aaliyah – which means it’s perfect for Drake to rap over on his next mixtape. The key musical weapon to Wild Beasts are the vocal harmonies of Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto and the baritone of Tom Fleming that compliment each other exquisitely. “Reach A Bit Further” may be the best example of the two singers’ interplay with Fleming’s clear baritone singing “I say yes I will do all the things that you ask of me/ I say yes I will, come on darling, have no fear.”
Overall, Smother is an album that can be listened to on repeat and is an understanding album of unconditional acceptance where Wild Beasts put themselves right on the very cusp of the series of trials and errors and desires that comprises what it means to be living as a human.
"Loop The Loop" (download/stream)(http://stereogum.com/732201/wild-beasts-loop-the-loop/mp3s/)
"Bed Of Nails" (http://youtu.be/cZaevasFRUg)
"End Come Too Soon" (http://youtu.be/q-qZgIz79ts)
5. Eleanor Friedberger / Last Summer
“Watching ‘Footloose’ with the biggest bottle of vodka in the world”
– Eleanor Friedberger, “Inn Of The Seventh Ray”
Everybody has those bummer downtime moments alone where you find yourself endlessly checking email, or lost in the blackhole that is the “Find Friends” section or photos section on Facebook. Hopefully, you are also at least drinking by yourself while you do this browsing. Usually this technological/social media immersion brings up memories or nostalgia but also can be frustrating or infuriating dealing with past. On Eleanor Friedberger’s album Last Summer, she actually has a song, “Scenes From Bensonhurst”, about these small bummer moments (“Next, next, next. Now it’s all of them in my inbox.”)
Tracking through the songs on Last Summer is very much like tracking through emails or tagged photos on Facebook. Each of these songs are like distinct memories of past relationships, loneliness, and locations. Moreover, Eleanor Friedberger has a photographic memory personally detailing the small distinct moments in these songs and sharpening their focus with her swagger, enunciation, and alliteration. Eleanor is like a combination of Liz Lemon with a feathered haircut and Feist using humor, that’s tender and has bittersweet wit, to portray her past loneliness and relationship struggles.
Right off the bat on album opener “My Mistakes,” Eleanor is face to face with some tough memories, learning from her past mistakes. On “Inn of the Seventh Ray,” she sings about the time “watching ‘Footloose’ with the biggest bottle of vodka in the world” while sounding mischievous and disappointed. “Glitter Gold Year” is a beatdown on 2010 with the lyrics: “2-2-2-2-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-1-0….I want to erase her.” Eleanor’s stressed enunciation in the song is brutal. Time obviously hasn’t put enough distance for her from 2010. Another memory captured on Last Summer that she has to deal with.
Likewise, Last Sumer has delicate laments on regret and end of relationships. The aforementioned “Scenes From Bensonhurst” is a swaying ballad finding Eleanor clicking through emails as she lays in bed regretting things she has said. The hushed pretty yet creepy “One Month Marathon” details the end of a relationship where “the one month marathon is ending on Sunday” and “for her last ensemble [she] will be wearing nothing at all.” These songs find the Fiery Furnaces lead singer at her most personal and devastating.
In contrast, there are also bright songs that fondly recall certain places that set the scene for the relationships at the center of songs. The dreamlike “Owl’s Head Park” teeters on the surreal as Eleanor sings about her time in that New York park and the people there. “Roosevelt Island” is a roller rink jam that sounds like a lost Stevie Wonder classic from 1977 that builds a disco momentum into eternity as Eleanor croons “it goes and it goes….” The song also has Eleanor remembering how she would meet up with her BF at park benches “before we had cell phones.” This lyric about a pre-smartphone era stands in contrast with the email checking in “Scenes From Bensonhurst” where Eleanor “tempts herself with her screen” and implicitly says a lot about how the expand role of technology in our personal life may not always be for our best.
Last Summer is also filled with tight songwriting that struts and feels like lost timeless classics (“I Wont Fall Apart On You Tonight” and “Heaven”). Producer Eric Broucek, who worked as a producer/engineer/mixer for DFA on various classic albums by LCD Soundsystem and Cut Copy, helps turn Eleanor’s songs into colorful lucid jams. Likewise, the album moves great as a whole balancing the ballads with the concise pop songs, using “Roosevelt Island” to snap the listener out “Scenes From Bensonhurst,” and bleeding the dreamy “Owl’s Head Park” into “Early Earthquake.” “Early Earthquake” ends the album with a song about a start of a relationship where “the walls come crumbling down” you can’t help but feel that this cycle of memories that is Last Summer starting again and also be reminded how for every few regretful memories there are some great ones too.
"My Mistakes" (http://youtu.be/MRUOoSKt6Kg)
"Scenes from Bensonhurst" (http://youtu.be/7Rjg1lHuPp0)
"Inn Of The Seventh Ray" (http://youtu.be/f_BKLMtQZpY)
"Roosevelt Island" (http://youtu.be/ywBi5qZen1I)
"Owl's Head Park" (http://youtu.be/rPDk8Nb2XrE)
"Early Earthquake" (http://youtu.be/lk1L7QtPj74)
5. WU LYF / Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
– WU LYF, “Bros”
With protests/riots (#occupy or arab spring) going global this year highlighting social and financial divides that fall disproportionally along generational lines, the cryptic collective of British 20 year olds known as World Unite! Lucifer Youth Foundation (WU LYF) may be the right band showing up at the right time. Generation Y and younger are facing grim economic times with less opportunities than their parents. Yet, there are studies showing that Generation Y is still very optimistic about the future. WU LYF’s passionate Go Tell Fire To The Mountain embodies this tense yet hopeful angst.
WU LYF slipped onto the scene with a mysterious early recording of “Heavy Pop” that sounded like primal scream therapy gone horribly wrong with distraught vocal chords being shredded and recorded in a church. Then a seizure-inducing promo video for “Dirt” (http://youtu.be/1wKZqNkcAt8) was released. It looked like a radical anarchist recruitment film that was straight out some private sector baby boomer’s nightmare and all but announced class/generational warfare. This isn’t even to mention their press photos which had about a dozen young people loitering in a parking lot with handkerchiefs covering their face lighting firecrackers in trash barrels.
Based on all this early buzz, it was almost certain that WU LYF’s album would be the bleakest nihilist “destroy everything insight” affair. Instead, the real shock was that Go Tell Fire To The Mountain is one of the most passionate visceral albums of 2011 filled with conviction, heart, and classic epic indie rock quasi anthems that border on Springsteen-esque. The songs on Go Tell Fire To The Mountain follow this equation (early Modest Mouse + Britsh Sea Power)/(Animal Collective x Wolf Parade) + a church organ = WU LYF. Likewise, WU LYF would tear through each of these songs with frantic energy like blood thirsty banshees. The rush of these songs is also enhanced by the widescreen epic releases created by reverb effects on their vocal, melodic guitars and percussion hits. This vast reverb brings to mind sigur ros and makes the music feel like an avalanche tumbling down a mountain on tracks like “Heavy Pop”, “Cave Song”, and “LYF.” These songs are impressive reminders of the amount of power that can be generated by just four guys in a band.
WU LYF’s tense hopeful angst can be heard in the urgent unhinged howls of singer Ellrey Roberts on the album which are either inscrutable or panicked yelling “Spitting Blood!” and Tupac references “shorty wanna be a thug.” But then there are moments where you can parse out empathetic proclamations on comradery like “I love you forever and ever,” “Everybody wants you and everybody needs you,” and “we bros!” Though the vocals are unclear, the emotion and defiant hopeful message of WU LYF are clear as day.
"Heavy Pop" (http://youtu.be/73kSVQn2tYs)
"Concrete Gold" (http://youtu.be/RJSisOConxw)
"14 Crowns For Me And Your Friends" (http://youtu.be/8IA1fICVhdI)
"Cave Song" (http://youtu.be/I1ZEEqG9n5w)
6. Danny Brown, XXX
“Step 1: Admit you are powerless over your addiction – that you life has become unmanageable….”
“Step 4 – Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
– 12 Step Program for Addiction Recovery
“With Brittany Murphy…We blowin’ Hershey!”
– Danny Brown, “Die Like a Rock Star”
While spending a good part of 2011 immersed in Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (a one of kind heartbreaking sci fi novel about the human condition set in drug rehab, a tennis academy, Quebec separatist wheelchair bound terrorist cell), I found Danny Brown’s XXX to be somewhat of a spiritual twin to the book. Infinite Jest delves into the dysfunctional lives of addicts and recounts when they hit rock bottom. XXX finds Detroit’s Danny Brown using his one of kind yelping rapstyle to recount his struggle to find success in rap while experiencing addiction and his anxiety of turning 30 that is both hilarious and harrowing. Speaking of books, I remember hearing Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk speak during undergrad where he said that telling stories allows us to have some degree of control over life’s dark experiences and not be haunted/caged by them. With XXX, Danny Brown is doing just that.
Each party/drug/sex boast on tracks like “Die Like A Rock Star” and “Admiral Adderall” seems to also cover the first couple steps of the 12 Step Recovery Program. With these boasts, Brown is admitting and recognizing he’s powerless (on the opening track, Brown proclaims “It took awhile to get here now I depend on these drugs!”) and is thoroughly and shockingly exploring the low budget decadence onXXX leaving the listener wondering if this is rock bottom yet and if not, just how low is Brown going to go. Then on “Die Like A Rock Star”, which is the darkest party rock anthem of all time, he imagines himself partying and doing ungodly things with celebrities that have died from drugs. (I’m afraid to do a google search on what “blowin’ Hershey” with Brittany Murphy means with even ‘moderate’ safe search on). And that’s only the first two tracks of XXX….
It’s very fitting that XXX’s album cover uses the same font as the poster for Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” because Brown flow and rhymes tackle drugs, sex, despair with the same thrilling visceral yet comic gusto as any Tarantino movie. Likewise, Brown’s rap style is hilarious but also arguably grating. I’ve had times where I wake up with his voice in my head. He’s following along the line of fellow Detroit icon Iggy Pop and Tom Waits where his voice is a vehicle for his fine craftsmanship. Try listening to “Monopoly” and “Detroit 187” without being astonished that someone like Danny Brown actually exists. Whether he’s rapping about having income tax swag, eating lunchables for dinner, calling out dudes for wearing Crocs at Walmart, Brown brings an absurd impressive intensity to these uncomfortable dark tales.
The second half of XXX reminds me of a Buddhist story where if you think you are depressed and feeling in the dumps you should go out and talk to others in you neighborhood and realize that there are others with worse problems. Similar to this story and like Wallace with Infinite Jest, this half of XXX is where Brown tells the tales of others’ histories with drugs and poverty in Detroit. “DNA” looks at the history of addiction in his family. “Party All The Time” and “Nosebleeds” deal with young women partying their way along a downward spiral. The last half of XXX widens the album’s scope and sees struggle and sadness all around.
Another spiritual cousin of XXX is The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. Both The Suburbs and XXX look at the trappings of their old neighborhood For Arcade Fire it was the suffocating soul crushing banality of Texas suburbs where for Danny Brown it’s the wasteland of the Detroit ghetto fields (with it’s hook: “And where I live its house, field, field, field, field, field, house, abandon house, field, field.”) “EWNESW” is his version of “Suburban Wars” where both Brown and Arcade Fire are looking for escape for their own sake. Likewise, the Arcade Fire was the inspiration for Danny Brown’s haircut. (http://www.timeoutchicago.com/music-nightlife/music/14987493/danny-brown-interview)
As XXX ends, it becomes unclear what exactly what the album title “XXX” refers to. Hardcore porn, ecstasy or his age of 30 years old? All of these are on his mind. The extremely personal “30” closes out XXX and brings some clarity with Brown rapping about his anxiety about turning 30 and trying to finds some direction in life or success with rap over a beat sampling a mess of horns. The track is the most like “Suburban War” and Mountains Beyond Mountains” from Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs where they look right into the face the of diminishing opportunities and harsh reality that can come with getting older. Although Brown emerges triumphant on “30,” he does so with a whole new slew of problems: “when I turned 28 they like what u gone do now/And now a n***a 30 I don’t u heard me/So the last ten years I been so fucking stressed/Tears in my eyes let me get this off my chest/The thought of no success it got me chasing death/Doing all these drugs in hopes of OD’ing next/Triple X!” While Odd Future were the brand ambassadors for the class of 2011 of hip hop, Danny Brown’s authentic "this actually happened to me" quality and thrilling starkly honest storytelling about wrestling with his multiple personal demons are the true toast of rap this year.
"Die Like A Rockstar" (http://youtu.be/XE-BZCrcU-w)
7. Cut Copy / Zonoscope
When Zonoscope was released last January, it seemed like a lot of my friends weren’t too keen on the album. Zonoscope did not have the instantly addictive dance/rock anthems that In Ghost Colours had. I, on the other hand, became acquainted with this album in the lap of luxury sipping mai tais with seafood garnished with mangos in Maui while whales breached in rhythm to the album. Honestly, Zonoscope is pretty transcendent in the Hawaiian setting. I would go for a run in the morning by the beach to “Need You Now” as the sun would rise over the Maui mountains. It was thee most “yacht rock” moment of 2011 for me. Cut Copy should have thrown an all inclusive Sandals cruise in Hawaiian to premiere Zonoscope for all music critics.
Speaking of “yacht rock,” a full on vacation glow permeates Zonoscope. First, the album’s lush production and various melodies of songs are directly rooted in adult dance pop of 80’s. “Take Me Over” lifts/steals vocal melodies from the very yacht rockish “Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac. (http://youtu.be/IvAd6c3xHzU). Also, “Need You Now” borrows the synths and marimbas as dawn vibe of “Can’t Forget” by a very 1980’s Leonard Cohen.(http://youtu.be/zgJt2M7t2CE). On “Blink And You’ll Miss A Revolution,” those marimbas brings a tribal groove to the track that is both Polynesian and New Wave faux-masculine. This groove all leads up to the song’s irresistible chorus which is one the best of the year. Elsewhere, “Hanging On To Every Heartbeat” has a slinking bass groove that feels like a Phoenix track for sipping drinks by the pool. “This is All We’ve Got” sounds like Grizzly Bear on a dreamy tropical vacation with driving rhythm section of the Doves. With all these enjoyable songs, Cut Copy may be saving or reinventing quality yacht rock for a whole new generation.
Although there isn’t a torchburing song like “Hearts On Fire,” Zonoscope does succeed in building up a new wave tension and grooves for a satisfying release. You can imagine the skies opening up to unleash a glistening hook or melody on tracks like “Pharaohs and Pyramids” and “Corner of Sky.”
With their 80’s synth posturing on Zonoscope and how much they commit to that style live, Cut Copy begs to be asked if they are serious when they embrace such 80’s pop cheesiness. I realize that Cut Copy may have an extraordinary tolerance for cheesiness. There is no doubt that they sincerely love 80’s dance music and are emulating their synthpop heroes from 80’s. However, I can’t tell if they are self aware regarding this cheesiness. They play it straight where there is no “wink wink” to acknowledge the musical cheese. Perhaps the answer lies with different cultures. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he analyzes a crosscultural psychological study called “Hofstede’s Dimensions” which assessed how the distinct cultures of different countries each have different tolerances of uncertainty. Just like British have their own brand of humor and the French have existentialism, maybe there is an Australian cultural sensibility distinct from America that embraces the sincere enthusiastic cheese that is crafted with care without trying to establish if it’s a joke or not. Nonetheless, this 80’s cheese and cultural ambiguity brought us at least 4 new classic tracks from Cut Copy and gave us yacht rock vacation music that is finely crafted to be both emotional and to get you swaying rhythmically poolside.
"Need You Now" (http://youtu.be/tb1o42RdVzA)
"Blink And Miss The Revolution" (http://youtu.be/ysV5NuduVd4)
"Take Me Over" (http://youtu.be/IobDug0Ht1g)
8. Panda Bear / Tomboy
"Noooooooooooooooooooooooooow IIIiiiiiiiiiiiiiii Seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Yoooooooouuu.”
– Panda Bear, “Drone”
– Andrew Garman
Tomboy, like the rest of Panda Bear’s and Animal Collective’s work, sounds much better in practice than it does on paper. The album by all accounts is counter intuitive. Panda Bear uses a mishmash of influences such as the Beach Boys, The Tornadoes, Spacemen 3, Scott Walker, and Kraftwerk, to make sluggish, yet gorgeous, album filled with melancholy. Effectively, this creates an odd album full of vintage 1960’s surf pop processed through samplers and reverb for gray miserable days. Moreover, the weird grayness of Tomboy feels similar to Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born where both have clinical goofball-addled steely vibes delivered through the music’s drab drones. Also, both Tomboy and A Ghost Is Born were highly anticipated follow ups to acclaimed previous albums. A lot of credit should be given to producer Sonic Boom (Spacemen 3, Spectrum) for providing a lot of interesting detail work, like he did for MGMT’sCongratulations, that makes Tomboy work as a disorientating album of subtle psychedelic nightmare. Both of those albums feel like being half awake on a beach combining “Beach Blanket Bingo” (http://img64.imageshack.us/img64/221/cvrfrnt.jpg) and “The Seventh Seal” (http://twi-ny.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/seventh-seal.jpg).
Although it may sound like I’m complaining about the medicated sluggishness of Tomboy, it’s that specific vibe that makes the album great. Tomboy may be the most straight forward, thoroughly coherent batch of dependable songs to ever come out of the Animal Collective-collective. Likewise, it’s a weirder, more interesting, more redeeming and original than Person Pitch which for me was too focused on replicating the production of Pet Sounds.
The first half of Tomboy turns out a series of tracks that are catchy and clear to the weirdness at these songs’ core. Beginning with “You Can Count On Me” which is a beautiful slow paced song that sounds like a bored but beautiful beach ode to reliability. Then title track “Tomboy” is propelled along by a overly strummy guitar, echoy percussion, the sound of vomiting, and a buzzing keyboard straight out of Telstar by The Tornadoes that feels like a toy plane motor attached to a weather balloon rising into the atmosphere. “Slow Motion” follows suit and makes an entrance with a crack of lightening and a kicking breakbeat and a copy of Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express.” On “Slow Motion”, Panda Bear utilizes repetition to endlessly loop and layering his vocals to create a hypnotic effect. Meanwhile, “Surfer’s Hymn” and “Last Night at the Jetty” are classic 60’s surf/beach boys pop- but laced with a sort of unsettled anxiety. Probably the best track from Tomboy is “Alsatin Darn” which coalesces surf music with church hymn gospel to overcome the lethargic tone of the album in the last 1:37 of the song with a yearning redemptive emotional release. It is one of best musical moments of 2011.
Tomboy’s second half then turns claustrophobic starting with “Drone” which may be the quintessential Panda Bear track displaying his long stretched out vocal tones. The song captures the essence of an insightful migraine. “Afterburner” sounds like Donkey Kong background music. “Scheherazade” is a richly damp nighttime noir Scott Walker track. It stirs the unconsciousness with the same piano chord against a background of tinkling sound effects and panda bear’s vocals.
Tomboy ends with a question mark or a “…” with “Benefica.” The oddly serene song feels like either waking up or dying above clouds in the stratosphere. A calming conclusion to a strange album that is obscured by audible mist leaving you wondering if this is the afterlife….
“Alsatin Darn” (http://youtu.be/5yvOYoNrzWM)
"You Can Count On Me" (http://youtu.be/kQUlJ81kFBA)
"Slow Motion" (http://youtu.be/Ycw2RnSo7Q4)
9. John Maus / We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
“I believe what we all really want is to see one another and be seen.”
– John Maus (http://pitchfork.com/tv/1/1730-john-maus/2784-live-at-glasslands/)
Adjunct political theory/philosophy professor John Maus brings a sense of academia to indie synth pop. He’s like a lo-fi Dr. Who travelling through time and space using his education to create music detached from the usual conventions to find new means to connect with humans. Maus’s interviews promoting this album are fascinating but extremely intellectual and vastly nutty. He talks about how the power structure of different eras of history shaped the music of that time. In the medieval days it was the church, now it is capitalism where commoditized pop music is the most effective way to communicate and connect.
We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves seems to be Maus attempt at creating such a commoditized pop album that strives to make profound commentary on the entire history of the human species as organized in a society. Is this the most ambitious of synth pop album of all time? It may or may not be, but the tunes are undeniable. Basically, Maus looks to combine Thomas Hobbs’ Leviathan with Go West’s 1990 pop hit “King of Wishful Thinking” (http://youtu.be/ry4iwzS4Na0) (particularly on “Head For The Country”) in order to make a synthed out political theory album that’s absurd, awkward, and awesome.
The music is like Joy Division covering the “Beverly Hills Cop” theme meets medieval chants of monks. Alternatively, it sounds like Sega’s “Streets of Rage 2” soundtrack executed with the same sense of duty for justice as the games crime fighting characters. The music is undoubtedly majestic and draws upon 80’s new wave, Bowie, and even the unlikely Enya (http://youtu.be/kZ8KK8u9dN8) and Mannheim Steamroller for inspiration. Also, Ariel Pink has a influence on this album. Maus and Pink were early collaborators together and both refuse allow their lo-fi recording methods limit their ambitions. This defiance of technological limitation is apparent right off the bat on album opener “Streetlights” with it’s edited up vocals that sound like having a mild panic attack with Kraftwerk on a ride at the Epcot Center. “Quantum Leap” has blaring synths feels like it’s propelled through different dimensions and is a dated science fiction notion of what music would sound in the future. “Keep Pushing On” and “We Can Break Through” are covered in tape hiss and muffled echoes but are perfectly ready for some 80’s movie film montage where people are doing a lot of action and getting motivated!
Maus’ album seems like one awesome set up for the album’s highlight and my pick for Top Song of 2011: the irresistible powerful “Believer.” “Believer” is the equivalent of running determined in the rain. Its vocals are drenched in reverb with a propulsive bass and a glistening shimmering synth melody. The song expresses a transcendent sense of yearning and faith. In my opinion, “Believer” would fulfill whatever dissertation Maus is working on and would also earn him tenure at any university. It is the moment where lo-fi indie absurdity is touching the face of God.
Maus brings a sense of transcendence and benevolent urgency to his music and to his intense live shows where he uses his focus, which is akin to that of a heat-seeking missle, to create a human connection and to empathetically fully harness what it means to be alive. He performs with just an ipod and a microphone with reverb cranked all the way up. This just may be the new punk in the recession era of the digital age where an ipod and microphone are far more economical compared to a band or even instruments.
"Hey Moon" (http://youtu.be/EvNSXRwIu2s)
"Head For The Country" (http://youtu.be/ylkgqUgOx38)
Bonus: "Do Your Best" (Excellent tract rom previous album) (http://youtu.be/pXilShVK0fc)
10. Destroyer / Kaputt
Along with Cut Copy this year, Destroyer set out to make an album to save “yacht rock.” The 1980’s easy listening jazz vibe on Kaputt was an initial turn off. Eventually, the grooves and lyrics won me over. The lyrics, in particular, are a great tortured lovelorn affair that brought to mind 1980’s Leonard Cohen. Even the mighty Leonard Cohen spent the 1980’s and 1990’s making easy listening jazz records.
"Savage Night At the Opera" (http://youtu.be/xOMu_owpYws)
"Suicide Demo For Kara Walker" (http://youtu.be/F3hkPtQqk08)
10. Dirty Beaches / Badlands
Alex Zhang Hungtai of the one man band Dirty Beaches approaches his music more as a film auteur than a musician. OnBadlands, he creates music that’s the equivalent of California cool film noirs inspired by David Lynch and starring James Dean or a young Marlon Brando. These songs either take place all night on a pacific beach (“Lord Knows Best,” “True Blue”) or are being hypnotized by the painted lines on the highways while trying not to lose their shit quite yet about an impending doom (“A Hundred Highways,” “Speedway King,” “Sweet 17”).
"Lord Knows Best" (http://youtu.be/c1npX5-CP0A)
"True Blue" (http://youtu.be/rTch7g_gkfU)
"A Hundred Highways" (http://youtu.be/zsqxlCvK8aI)
"Sweet 17" (http://youtu.be/edV1ePcjs8g)
10. Girls / Father, Son & Holy Ghost
Girls’ albums are like the puppies and kittens that are given to super depressed people for nonjudgmental unconditional companionship. They are the St. Bernard with the barrel that will nurse you back to life from spiritual collapse. The waifish lead singer Christopher Owens has a fragile voice that is central to these semi-dorky songs about how much he loves his mom that breaks all hearts in earshot. The music on Father, Son & Holy Ghost is confident but sorrowful inspired by Spiritualized, the Beatles, Randy Newman, George Harrison, My Bloody Valentine, Brightblack Morning Light, Belle & Sebastian and Pink Floyd. Overall, Girls will always be there for you with music that sounds like it’s hitting rock bottom and but finds just enough to be hopeful about before throwing in the towel.
"Love Like A River" (http://youtu.be/xKntRFTcyKQ)
11. Cults - Cults
12. The Rapture – In The Grace Of Your Love
13. Cold Cave – Cherish The Light Years
14. Holy Ghost! – Holy Ghost!
15. Drake – Take Care
16. Kurt Vile & The Violators – Smoke Ring For My Halo
17. The Weeknd – House of Balloons
18. Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Unknown Mortal Orchestra
19. St. Vincent- Strange Mercy
20. The Kills – Blood Pressures / Junior Boys – It’s All True / / Bibo – Mind Bokeh / Twin Sister – In Heaven / / PJ Harvey – Let England Shake / Tennis – Cape Dory/ Iceage – New Brigade