Monday, January 16, 2012

Looking Back at 2011: The Top 20 Albums of the Year (Part 2)

10. Biophilia - BjorkThere's a lot of white noise that surrounds an album release by Icelandic songstress Bjork these days. Coming along with this one was a different iPad app for every song. There was chatter about the different instruments she utilized for the making of the album, including a gamelaste, a pipe organ that was played through pushing buttons on the aforementioned iPad, and, oh yeah, a mutha flippin' Tesla coil. There were the concerts, in which she rocks a wig that looks like a massive twist of cotton candy and, to my eyes at least, struggles with the unpredictability of using a Tesla coil as one of the main instruments for several of your songs. Here is the thing though: if you listen to the album, none of this stuff matters. It's there in the dancing chimes and wailing drum-and-bass that is "Crystalline." It's there in the chaotically playful sound experiment, "Hollow," and the more delicate Vespertine throwback "Virus." It's there in the organ-and-percussion blast of rousing beatfest "Mutual Core." And always there is that voice, the one that in album closer "Solstice" is proven to be perhaps the least innovative instrument on the album, but also the most valuable.

9) Hurry Up, We're Dreaming - M83
Problematic, flawed albums that nonetheless soar on the scope of their ambition. In 2011, both Lady Gaga and the Kanye West/Jay-Z collective put out perfect examples, but no album more easily defined this concept than the one released by Anthony Gonzalez, the mastermind behind the band more popularly known as M83. Distributed as a double-album and - let's be honest - slightly littered with filler material, the piece will nevertheless be remembered for the moments of ecstasy created when reaching its highest heights. Let's just dispense with the stuff that should have remained in Gonzalez's demo reel: "Splendor," "Echoes of Mine," and all the little one minute songs, bye-bye, and thanks for playing. From there - with few exceptions - you have a literal cavalcade of songs that combine blasting synths, booming percussion, and a tad of 80s nostalgia to create an epic, bombastic masterpiece. Highlights include the so-anthemic-it-could-be-Bono-singing "Intro," the windows-down, wind-through-the-hair monster "Midnight City," and "Claudia Lewis," which quite simply features the greatest cheesy bass playing since some guy dreamt up the instrument.

8) Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes
"Guy with impossibly beautiful voice (Robin Pecknold) picks up acoustic guitar, strums wonderful tunes about the wonder of his youth and gets some of his pals to provide impeccable backup vocals until the music resembles some sort of celestial chorus getting together for a backwoods rave-up." This is not supposed to be for me. I am supposed to think this is soft. Wussy. Effeminate, I guess. But I don't. Instead, "Montezuma" comes off as a master-class in layered vocal splendor. "Bedouin Dress," with its simple formula of acoustic guitar, clacking percussion, and wounded fiddling, grabs the ear immediately. The bassy piano, echoed clatter, and on-point strumming of "Battery Kinzie" is astounding, like Spector-gone-Kentucky. And when the rising electric enters into the title track. Forget it. Pecknold, you had me at "Hello."

7) Turtleneck & Chain - The Lonely Island
How good is the second album by this trio who gained unlikely rap stardom via their assorted roles on Saturday Night Live? It can't even be ruined by its incredibly dumb, mortifyingly stupid skits. I don't know if these are supposed to be ridiculous or what. Like, maybe they are making fun of the idiocy of rap skits by making ones that are ten times as horrible, but it doesn't work. Things like "Falcor vs. Atreyu - Classy Skit," "Watch Me Do Me - Classy Skit," and "My Mic - Interlude" need to be left in those writers meetings where the group sits around and tries to figure how to have Charles Barkley on the show without making it too obvious that he is staring at the cue cards like a loon. Dump that nonsense and put on more songs like the hilarious Michael Bolton guest spot "Jack Sparrow," the so-good-it-transcends-satire "After Party," and the seriously speaker-blasting title track.

6) 21 - Adele
So powerful was the effect of British soul singer Adele Adkins' sophomore album that, in 2011, it actually was able to withstand the crushing influence that was adult-contemporary radio. Seriously, you could not go to work or your dentist's office or the Starbucks or whatever your local department store is without hearing these songs on constant rotation. After hearing the sad farewell to a lover that is "Someone Like You" for the 867th time, you start to feel as if you really would be OK if it just disappered for a while. So a strange thing happened when I actually took the plunge and bought this album after months of exposure in piecemeal fashion. "Rolling in the Deep." "Rumour Has It." "Set Fire To The Rain." Yes, even the massively overexposed "Someone Like You." They all got better. Tied into the narrative that was Adele's enormously effective tale of extinguished devotion, they took on a larger meaning and, backed by a band that was absolute aces, they showed me exactly why so many people went out and laid down hard earned money for the privilege of owning this recording. And why so many dentists played it while performing root canals. The songs are just good. (Especially "Set Fire To The Rain." Wow!)

5) Strange Mercy - St. Vincent
For someone who looks like such a delicate little flower, Annie Clark (known professionally as St. Vincent) makes some weird music. I skipped over her critically acclaimed second album, Actor, thinking she was some sort of sensitive singer-songwriter. I believed my masculinity would automatically go down several levels simply by listening to her tender, heartfelt arrangements. Anyway, I don't know where I got such misleading information. With Strange Mercy, St. Vincent's music proves to be tough, adventurous, unpredictable, funky, and all kinds of other adjectives that add up to a bad-ass musical experience. "Chloe in the Afternoon" features a coterie of oddball carnival keys bolstered by pounding drums and guitars that sound like a buzzsaw filtered through Peter Frampton's voice box. Album standout "Cruel" is the one that best shows off Clark's stellar songwriting chops. Her loopy, filtered guitar creates an instantly hummable yet bizarre upper range while the drums and keys trace out a bottom that is almost danceable (OK, danceable if you were drinking a bit). And then there is "Surgeon," which features a sexy-as-hell drum beat, synths that you could wear as a blanket in the winter time, and, well, a final minute that qualifies as perhaps the best piece of music that was created by any human being during the year of 2011. All I'm saying is Pink Floyd would be jealous.

4) Let England Shake - PJ Harvey
With her eighth studio album, England's own Polly Jean Harvey sought to create an album that shone a light on the wrecking powers of war and the effect it had on the men who were sent out to fight the battles. It is a tribute to her that she was able to accomplish her aim, all while creating music that is as haunting and beautiful as it is angry and vitriolic. The title track uses lilting guitar and plucking autoharp to sketch out a hypnotic beat that accompanies lyrics about bombs going off while birds try to go about their mating business. Hand claps and cracking percussion drive the furious "The Words That Maketh Murder," a song that proffers images as scary as "arms hanging in the trees" and soldiers falling "like lumps of meat," yet wouldn't seem out of place being sang around a camp fire. "Bitter Branches" is one of the only tracks that gets above mid-tempo, but then again, there is no need to get overly aggressive when you can write a song like "The Colour of the Earth," which resembles an Irish folk song of yore. Except for the fact that it's about a soldier named Louie, a gent who got shot by the enemy and died pointlessly while shouting for his mother. It's just acoustic, a kick drum, some tambourine, and a seriously pissed off singer, but it sounds loud as hell to me.

3) El Camino - The Black Keys
I've read some reviews that have said that Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, Akron, Ohio's Black Keys, only make songs for commercials and strip joints. If that is the case, I have to get to Delilah's Den a little more often. As for those commercials, I'm willing to buy pretty much anything their selling. What is there to say about an album that, with absolutely no shame whatsoever, just wants to rock as loud as possible and seems to get better with every passing track? Aided by the production and keyboard stylings of the illustrious Danger Mouse, the boys charge out of the box with the playing-at-a-roadhouse-near-you grit of "Lonely Boy" and move seamlessly to the tweaked out guitar and ringing bell fury of "Dead and Gone." "Gold on the Ceiling" boasts nasty keys and groovy (yes, I said "groovy") handclaps, while "Money Maker" - OK, that one is probably for the dancing girls - is Auerbach's showcase, with the ax man coming with so much swagger he could be a member of the Philadelphia Phillies' pitching staff before they got unmanned in October 2011. Just when you think that every song can't be as beastly as the next, they hit you with "Sister," a song that sounds like early 80s Stones, only, you know, more awesome. Seriously, Apple, want to make more money in 2012? Sign these guys to a deal. Slap their music on your 30-second spots and I'm'll buy an iPad.

2) Audio, Video, Disco – Justice
The prospect of trying to define the appeal of French duo Justice’s second album in some sort of intellectual terms seems like it would be completely fool-hardy. The disc is the second-best of the year because it sounds cool and I had it in almost constant rotation during the last three months of 2011. “Horsepower” works as something that is becoming a specialty for the group: a dramatic, purposeful thrill-ride of an opening track. “Canon” is a monster built on buzzsaw guitar, whip-snap percussion, and woofer-obliterating distortion, while “Parade” uses a stuttering piano line and a lead guitar that Eddie Van Halen would love to wonderful effect. However, the band saves its best for the two-track onslaught that is the swaggering strut of “New Lands,” one of the best tracks of the year, and “Helix,” a sound collagey masterpiece that combines ringing synth, a chopped-up electric, and a Billy Ocean-esque vocal to create a sound that defies description. Or maybe you will just want to rewind it over and over again until you come up with a bad one. That's what I did!

1) Hot Sauce Committee Part Two – Beastie Boys

Being that I am a person that monitors such things, I have been looking at some of the year-end lists that were put out by various critics, newspapers, blogs, and other assorted tastemakers. I haven’t seen much mention of the eighth studio album by Brooklyn’s own Beastie Boys. It made me wonder: Am I giving this thing too much credit? Like, am I giving charity points due to Adam Yauch’s successful battle with throat cancer? Am I dapping this thing because they managed to make an entire hip-hop album totally devoid of idiotic skits? Maybe I am grading it on the old “white rapper” curve, the one that caused right-minded people to think that Snow’s “Informer” was a worthwhile purchase? Because when I hear it, I hear a lyrical return to form for three of rap music’s unquestioned icons. I’m hearing impossibly slinky, soulful beats like the ones featured on “Nonstop Disco Powerpack” and the Santigold-starring “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win.” I’m hearing the rock influence that results in crunky, guitar-tinged backgrounds like “Say It” and “Long Burn The Fire.” In short, I’m hearing the most complete album of the year, one that is in turns head-nodding, hilarious, rambunctious, and exhilarating. Can’t wait for Hot Sauce Committee Part Three. Unless they do Part One first.

The Pizza Project
Just a nibble:
Single slice:
The full pie:

1 comment:

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