In 2011, like every year since I’ve discovered how to harness the power of the internet (and a handful of discerning friends) to expand my horizons and unveil whole dimensions of music, has been an incredible year for listening: another slab in my monument to Why You Should Pay Attention. I held crushes on a number of albums and fell deeply in love with a select few. All deserve acknowledgement but only the most striking motivate me to gush at length. With a little luck, I can turn people on to something which will enrich their lives and change perceptions in small or significant ways. Or maybe even sell an album for one of these deserving artists!
About the list: I realized I’ve been doing it wrong by putting the best first. Now you’ll have to read the whole damn post to see how it all ends. I’ve broken these into three layers (with bonus levels upcoming!) but would like to emphasize that these are all whole-hearted recommendations. Also let me know in the comments which albums I’ve clearly forgotten, please?
Crush: The Best of 2011
KWJAZ – KWJAZ
So I’m starting with the last album I heard in 2011 and it couldn’t feel more right. This exemplefied the past year of music as much as anything I could imagine and I damn near missed it entirely. A fusion of so many things I could call it noisy lo-fi witch drone beach pop and strike bullseye or land wildly off mark, according to your point of view. If you’re a fan of Hype Williams I will gladly direct you here; this makes their best output feel like a first step in the path leading to KWJAZ. I feel echoes of The Avalanches, Rod Steward, Oneohtrix Point Never and hissing pink clouds of joy. Where to, beyond this? It’s beyond me. This is far out, in the best sense of whatever that means to you.
Seefeel – Seefeel
One of the first albums I heard in 2011 was shockingly forgotten by the end of the year, if other lists are anything to go by. Remaining in the philosophical tracks laid by Seefeel’s classic lineup (pulsing repetetive structures evolving organically; one ear on dance and dub pulse, the other orbiting with satellites) while straying in every tonal manner, the band managed a decade-and-a-half comeback with style and – most importantly – growth and change in spades. Between echogasm guitar textures Kevin Shields would die for and playfully insistent drumming courtesy of Boredoms’ E-Da there’s enough live wire action to set this on a collision course with any of the legendary post rock band’s pre-breakup output.
The Weeknd – House of Balloons
Spaced out back room late night R&B of which there is little to explain beyond the obvious appeal of mysterious smoky production with sexy-sinister vocals to match. Drug fueled downtown adventures and midnight slips down the drain are the topic of choice but despite the lyrics’ often affecting touch, the pure sound of it all is what draws me in. This is what happens when a talented artist grows up with Massive Attack and R. Kelly in equally heavy doses.
EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
This one walked up in silence and stabbed me between the ribs out of nowhere. Hitting all the nostalgic sweet spots someone raised on Nirvana and Fleetwood Mac is inherently vulnerable to, she manages to do something fresh with a sound I’d thought long dead since high school. Leaping between noisy lullabies and shamanistic Kate Bush-isms, Ericka M. Anderson (formerly of Gowns) made possibly the most unlikely loveable of the year. Going against “logic” I cannot help being drawn in over again.
The Field – Looping State Of Mind
Sometimes surprise isn’t really an issue. The Field blew me away with his first album several years ago, sending a fleeting association with minimal techno into a full blown obession. The man (Axel Wilner) imbues his perfectly tailored setpieces with just the right catchy hues and twists to grab passersby with an ease any of his peers should be envious of. This third album is yet another case of him wreaking havoc with my internal resistance to the familiar by just twisting the trick so damn perfectly. He doesn’t have to blow my mind if he’s already flattened it.
Then It’s White
DJ Rashad – Just A Taste Vol. 1
In a corner almost entirely opposite the last entry we have DJ Rashad, a footwork phenom who’s collection hit me with such an alien vibe I couldn’t help the curiosity and head nodding addiction when it hit me like a truck. I’m not going to explain what the genre is about, we have google for that. Instead, just youtube his name or check him out if you’ve got an interest in Autechre, Nas, Al Green, and having your ears reamed with something truly new.
Love U Found
James Blake – James Blake
James Blake was my first post of 2011 and although my breathless appreciation has settled into something more domestic and liveable, I stand by my words. This album hits a raw nerve and breathes revelation; it’s the start of something fundamentally different yet emotionally classic. It’s a kind of blues for a world where dubstep has become ubiquitous as the night sky before falling and dying all over us. The former producer’s producer opened up his throat and set off a hype machine which swallowed him whole but those interested in the actual sounds should stick to what’s real: the fact that a great portion of this album opens up a pandora’s box which hasn’t yet come to full fruition.
Lindisfarne [because he’s apparently too uptight to stream his single anywhere]
Julian Lynch – Terra
Urged by a friend, I listened to Julian Lynch for the first time at the end of last summer, and the warm healing sunlight of this album lifted me time after time in what had become a dark period in my life. When nothing sounds good and I can’t imagine looking forward to tomorrow, Terra sets me on my bicycle in a gentle breeze ushering clouds away. It’s clarity, it’s beauty, it’s melodic guitars, double tracked murmurs, muted horn play and subtly psychedelic synth jumps. I dream of Syd Barrett and Arthur Russell and realize that I’m thankful for a life in which I can enjoy all these things.
Fennesz – Seven Stars
Fennesz created one of my favorite albums of all time with Endless Summer, and in many ways this twenty minute 10″ release is the closest his orbit has circled that masterpiece in the decade since. The granular synthesis, guitar deconstruction, worm tunnel reverb and chest heaving melodic sense all echo that LP’s romantic vibe, yet new elements including (gasp!) live drumming give this set a beating heart all its own and point toward further greatness in store for an artist developing his aesthetic well into its second decade.
Telebossa – Telebossa
This one is going to appeal to a certain subset of music fans, an elliptical presence in the venn diagram between Brazilia and minimalism fans. I happen to like my pop lilting and tropical and my composers positively Reich-ian, so this Rio-by-way-of-Berlin confection is sweet perfection to my ears. Fans of João Gilberto and Philip Glass are equally encouraged to step up and hear something truly new. Telebossa renews the meaning behind the word fusion.
Samba Do Budista
Teebs – Collections
A couple years ago I called Teebs “utopian” and this latest set furthers my prescience. Chiming, floating, pulsing, singing and soaring. Ecstatic harp glissando, buoyant low end thump, organic everything – even the laser future synth space material emerges as if growing from sequoian roots. This is the way the future sounds in the best childhood dreams I never had.
Verbana Tea [w/ Rebekah Raff]
Love: The Best of 2011
The Psychic Paramount – II
“I had this whole through-line about jet engines and surgical instruments and LSD and This Heat and Les Rallizes Dénudés and Miles Davis and cathartic volume levels… ” I said last year. I can’t really say much beyond that, and the rest of my original post. This album is a perfectly calculated maelstrom.
Thundercat – The Golden Age of the Apocalypse
Thundercat was best known as the bassist who made Cosmogramma (see Best of 2010 and this craziness) jump like frogs in a dynamite pond, the beating heart behind Flying Lotus’ mind trip. His debut LP lays that heart on his sleeve and indulges in a master class of modern funk. Some artists merely go through the motions, dropping a slap bassline or bedroom vocals or recycling some of Prince or George Clinton’s well known turns, while others truly understand what makes funk an enduring and often timeless style. Where Dam-Funk lives and breathes it as a perfectly sculpted museum piece, Thundercat births his spaced out love jams in the here-and-today world of beat music and post-hip-hop production (courtesy of Flying Lotus himself). This is as thoroughly modern an album as 2011 begat.
For Love I Come
Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
I tried several times throughout 2011 to eloquently share my feelings on this crystaline mind stomper but never felt satisfied with the results. Gang Gang Dance hit me so directly, half a decade ago, like a comet to my brain stem: here was a sound I never knew I’d been craving all along, realized by a band who seemed to be increasing in power with each release. Their 2008 effort remains one of my favorites of all time, and sharing it was part of my inspiration for starting Optimistic Underground in the first place. Eye Contact not only refined what made Saint Dymphna such a masterpiece; it went above and beyond, leaping into the territory of my wildest dreams. This time they synthesized the disco banshee vocals, the tribal trance rhythm, the future dream synths and dub destroying guitar heroism into a laser cut diamond monstrosity. I had the good fortune to catch them live months before this release, previewing the evolution of one of my favorite bands into an even loftier tier of tranced out bliss. As close as you could get to being there in person, Eye Contact is a handy distillation of everything that made this band the first to get me to actually dance at a show.
Glass Jar [excerpt]
Ricardo Villalobos & Max Lodenbauer – Re: ECM
Electronic titans dissect the vaunted ECM catalog and reassemble the tactile familiarity and otherworld mystery of pieces by Arvo Pärt, John Abercrombie, Christian Wallumrød, and many more, threading stars into space and obliterating time. There is a pulse and a whisper of structure to much of this two disc monolith, and it’s plenty to keep me floating for the duration. Here are a few words from the artists:
“Our understanding of music in general and the resultant collaborative mode of operation embodies precisely what we have now manifested and intensified with the project Re: ECM: the synthesis of two musical worlds. To effectively implement experiences accumulated in further musical adventures, we continually oscillate between acoustic and electronic force-fields.
“Re: ECM is building many bridges between the area of influence of the original interpreters and our own area of influence. The rules of the dynamics between these two reference systems permanently shift the relation from relaxation to agitation. In this way listeners immerse themselves in different ways in the flow of our production, which in turn – and that is what we wish for – in an ideal case sweeps them along into a sensually exhilerating journey.
“The most important thing is to harmonize these two worlds, without them aspiring to mutually deactivate each other, to keep both – the organic and the electronic – in balance. That is what it will be about in the future.”
– taken from the liner notes written by Villalobos and Loderbauer in both German and English.
Dimlite – Grimm Reality
Dimlite has been perpetually orbiting my radar since I discovered and wrote about his album This Is Embracing, and in the intervening years I’ve watched him grow stronger and stranger as an artist in the meantime. Always existing on the esoteric fringes of the realm of beat music, Dimitri Grimm completely shattered the tenuous concept of musical peers with his groundbreaking Grimm Reality. Where before his ecstatic weirdness was often bound by rhythmic straightjacket and made to stand in line with the increasingly safe Warp roster or hip-hop beholden Brainfeeder crew, Dimlite finally dove into the core of his id and emerged waving the flag of his own profoundly unique sonic nation. I could mention that my first listen popped Captain Beefheart and The Residents into mind on equal footing with Faust and Neu! and Terry Riley, and that may be helpful if you’re looking for something resembling a touchstone. This is restless, kaleidoscopic evolution on a grand scale. The album transforms and twists, subsuming a carnival of influences and sublimating inner chaos into a jewel of bizarre fascination.
True Love: The Best of 2011
Destroyer – Kaputt
Here – on Optimistic Underground
This is quite simply the most lush, immaculate, concise and balanced pop album released in a long time. Produced in with a slick and glossy demeanor, all the rough edges feel tucked in yet bulging through the surface like a pair of tight jeans. This is deeply affecting and emotionally straightforward songwriting wrapped in a shining and breathing and clever and heartfelt and funy and (above all) fun package. This thing bounces and sways. It bowls me over at all the right beats and stands me to attention for all the others. I know it’s a pop masterpiece of a high degree when the first notes of the first song implant a “this is going to be a good time” feeling in my brain, every time.
Destroyer – Kaputt
Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens De Couleur Libres
Here – on Optimistic Underground (sort of)
I feel like an asshole, trying to sell this album to you. It really is that damn brilliant, scary, personal, invigorating, explosive; a fiery work by a shooting star, a true genius as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got no business even trying to approximate the electric feeling this shoots up my spine. My job here is convincing you that the feeling is true. I shake and writhe, shoulder-shrug dance in my chair, wince, nod, frown, sing along, and sit in total stillness while this LP rolls. I take in every layer of nuance from the intimate sax reverie to the scarily catchy call and response chants to the lips-to-my-ears confessional lyrics embedded in maelstroms of noise and heat. This is the world-cracking sound jazz needed but never knew to ask for; it’s the most harrowing and heartrending music I’ve heard in a long time. This is an experience meant to shake you to your core and strip away cynical resistance to actual feeling and emotion in music. This journey through dark territory ends with a sweet release all the more liberating for being hard-won.
Matana Roberts – Kersalia
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2 – Judges
Here – on Optimistic Underground
It’s been said that when the natives of South America first spotted European ships on the horizon, they mistook the gigantic sails for mountains. Their collective experience had no conceptual framework for understanding what they were viewing, no context with which to understand. Their minds interpreted this complete unknown into something tangible to their world, however far off base it was. This happens all the time; it applies to all novel ideas and sensory inputs, on a basic level, in everyday life. Colin Stetson’s album is a perfect example. Play this for someone with fresh ears and no pretext or prior knowledge and watch him grasp for edges to frame the sounds, some perch from which to observe or an angle to approach it. What Stetson does with a saxophone is remarkle and brilliant. The best part is that it’s not only groundbreaking; this is fantastic, thrilling, catchy music enticing repeat listens and sharing with friends. “Judges” is a real album’s album, with an emotional heft carrying its narrative arc through a vaguely apocalyptic story courtesy of spare words from Laurie Anderson and the evocative timbre of the starring instrument itself. How he does it all is a whole other story, so read up after you’ve been properly astonished.
Colin Stetson – The Stars In His Head (Dark Lights Remix)
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Here – on Optimistic Underground
This is not only one of the best hip-hop albums of the year (or several years for that matter). This is one of the most addictive and rewarding listens I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Black Up is a shape shifting puzzle box, equaly confounding and inspiring. Every spin highlights a novel space, a lyrical twist, a production flourish or masked instrument. Each play is an opportunity for extracting more pleasure, like a miner striking new veins of gold in every direction. Beats worthy of Flying Lotus, lyrics soaring with Digable Planets and Dr. Octagon. Shabazz Palaces have crafted one of those Complete Experiences, the sort of album where everything locks together in clockwork precision. I’ll now quote myself: Thrilling, gorgeous, head nodding and hypnotizing, worthy on its own as pure sound yet never subsuming the oft-poignant vocals, the meaning of Black Up is delivered fresh and phonetic, kinetic, poetic. I sink deeper, hearing more each time. Romantic, political, angry, meditative, militant, optimistic, futuristic, this blurs free-association and laser focus in the same moment, words and sounds in the same experience.
Shabazz Palaces – Are You… Can You… Were You (Felt)
Oneothrix Point Never – Replica
Here – on Optimistic Underground
One of my major hangups with this blog is the fact that my favorite music tends to be that which leaves me speechless. These kind of astounding reactions, best experienced first hand, are most difficult to write about; I often resort to sharing what I felt when listening, the clipped proclimations pouring from my id while my conscious mind is circling the drain of blissed-and-gone. The most telling aspect of Replica’s true mind sorcery is that I keep bouncing off the phrase pornographic flights of radiance, unable to more neatly describe the way this thing drags me under its current only to lift at just the right moment for a glorious intake of air and sunshine and light and blood and ride it out forever in dimensions we can barely perceive. Oneohtrix Point Never shared the top spot last year. The fact that he’s exploded in a completely fresh direction means there is no reason to play favorites; this time it’s another story altogether and a new reason to be both surprised and satisfied in every sense I can be.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
So here we have it. There are no numbers because I don’t believe a piece of art can be measurably better than another, but suffice to say each step down this list leads closer to my heart. As with all things, my love will change in time – and as they say, hindsight is 20/20. I hope you found something new or were reminded of an itch to scratch, and that my words hold some value. Please, let me know of omissions and developments, or anything else worthy of our time.