30. Lil B
I’m Gay (I’m Happy)
2011 was a fruitful year for The BasedGod. It began with Angel’s Exodus, whereby Lil B affirmed his complexity as an artist capable of producing genuinely cultivated rap music beyond the perpetual reincarnations of his “hoes on my dick because I look like ________” song. However, no fruit was more appetizing than the consequential I’m Gay. Its songs, like the self-assured “I Hate Myself,” featured compassionate lyricism at variance with the persona previously presented through YouTube hits “Suck My D*&* Ho” and the like. Lil B maintained that the album’s title was simply a means of advancing positivity, referring to the alternative meaning of the word ‘gay’ — i.e., to be happy. Nevertheless, it provoked criticism (including death threats) from the ever-conservative hip-hop police, with some people claiming it was less about social evolution and more about making a name and selling a product. (Lil B eventually confounded his critics, releasing the album free of charge by way of tweet: “CUZ I LOVE YOU IF YOU DONT HAVE 10 DOLLERS TO BUY MY NEW PROJECT HERE IT GOES FOR FREE.”) But with or without the controversy, I’m Gay delivered his most substantial music to date while continuing to push his ideologically distinctive basedworldview.
29. Thee Oh Sees
[In the Red]
The term “garage rock” might cover it for the Wikipedia entry on Thee Oh Sees, but the release of Castlemania demanded an expanded descriptor. It should somehow suggest Oscar the Grouch vocals, weirdo lyrics that sound like a freaked-out children’s show episode about death and decay, and evocative sonic textures that sound as if the proverbial garage contained the reanimated bones of some of the best of the 60s through the 90s. I like to think that this record showed us frontman John Dwyer getting personal in the way that the Dracula puppet-rock-opera was Jason Segal’s character’s way of getting personal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It was almost a solo project for Dwyer, as the other regulars except Brigid Dawson sat this one out. The sound remained dirty and had the familiar “alright, les do this” quality that comes from recording in your own house, but now with eerie instrumentals (e.g., Beatles-in-the-afterlife flutes) and a haunting narrative that made it seem like maybe being dead ain’t so simple. The Sesame Street comparison is apt and hard to get out of your head once it’s been suggested, but envision a Tim Burton-y corpse band — or even get specific and picture Beetlejuice — and the effect is just as good. There it is! “Burton Rock.”
28. Thee Oh Sees
Carrion Crawler/The Dream
[In The Red]
In my review of Thee Oh Sees’ other record of 2011, the similarly excellent Castlemania blurb’d above, I wrote of being impressed that the band had reinvented itself again — trading in their propulsive garage rock and (earlier) lo-fi drone for a terrifically inventive collection of 60s-style psych oddities. I didn’t realize how much I missed their “rock” side until John Dwyer and co. dropped Carrion Crawler/The Dream a few months later and simply blew the hinges off the joint; their recent gig supporting the album at Williamsburg’s 285 Kent space may’ve been the best rock show I’ve ever seen. CC/TD was such a tremendous rock ‘n’ roll album that it bumped Castlemania right out my top 10 and itself landed at my personal No. 1 record of 2011. The two respective title cuts, especially “The Dream” — which evoked an amped-up take on Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” in the best way possible — were the album’s highlights, but the whole thing was a riotous, messy, and seriously fun package that ranks as a modern garage rock classic.
27. The Weeknd
House of Balloons
Lack structured The Weeknd’s House of Balloons. A faceless and nude woman — her identity obscured by balloons, her breast artfully exposed — failed to meet our gaze from the cover art of this R&B-piece-as-a-trip-down-the-rabbit-hole. She shuns subjecthood, shameless, much like the rest of the cast, a serial group of relentlessly doped-up and psychically fractured souls. On “What You Need,” they seek what they “want, [but] not what you need.” Their insatiable appetite for sex, drugs, and drink belied what they truly demanded: love. “Just tell me you love me/ I’ll give you what I need, I’ll give you what I fiend.” Here, on “Wicked Games,” the narrative kernel emerged: grotesque hearts myopically grasping for satisfaction in one another. Desire do-si-dos another desire, circling itself, blind to the lack that motivated its movements. In a year when the specter of capital qua past labor came back to haunt the bourgeoisie, House of Balloons stood as a stark reminder of capital’s anesthetic allure. Abel Tesfaye’s aching falsetto and the unnerving production called zeitgeist into being. By uncannily holding up a mirror to our time’s injunction not to be “good” but happy, House of Balloons reminded us of a heartbreaking fact of life: that which pleases us also ineluctably causes pain.
26. Amen Dunes
Through Donkey Jaw
The notion that an album can change one’s life has become cynical fodder, but through its raw energy, Through Donkey Jaw returned the idea to fashion. Damon McMahon’s guttural warbles and soulful guitar were the heart of his second album, a cry for help as much as a cry for music to be relevant to our well-being. Despite its oft demur tone, Through Donkey Jaw was ultimately uplifting. As McMahon poured out his pain, his catharsis became our absolution. We were free to remember what it was like to enjoy music for pleasure’s sake, to turn to a song or an album in a time of emotional need, and McMahon served as our life coach. From the anguished wails of opener “Baba Yaga” to the cold beach sludge of “Not a Slave” to the pitiful pleas of “Christopher,” McMahon captured the loneliness and redemption of daily life with songs that intertwined with familiar touchstones, each journey into McMahon’s brand of psychedelic folk a gracious reminder of the narrow divide between music as entertainment and music as savior, all as we marched to the beat of our own bedroom drum.
25. Hype Williams
[Hippos in Tanks]
Have you ever had a really bad time at a rave? Hype Williams clearly have, and with One Nation, they returned the disavowed puking, jabbering, jangling confusion of the raved body to something like integrity with a great ethereal smack of downtempo downheartedness. It’s as if the mind-dulling escapism of cosmic disco’s eclecticism has been excised, leaving behind an (an)aesthetic of weird, body-oriented juxtapositions. Just two examples: “Mitsubishi” — a blunted 4/4 saga in muddy slo-mo — and the dubby darkwave of “Your Girl Smells Chung When She Wears Dior,” both exhibiting a poise only hinted at in the scrappy experimentalism of previous works. The narcotic drift of this bag of box jams further blurred the line between subversion and reverie, in an anti-social, anti-realist Balearica of codeine and early nights that staged an unsettling psychedelic meditation on rave’s death wish — on its flirtation with limit states, blank exhaustion, and brain damage. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux — these smudgewave sorcerers spent the year laughing in the dark, pushing at the boundaries of the impossible: the better, it seemed, to mockingly dissect the possible. An oily nugget of shit buried beneath layers of precious stones, this was an overdose of ecstasy at the back of a rave bunker — a trembling panic of beat-tape haze.
24. Bill Orcutt
How the Thing Sings
Bill Orcutt’s jarring style of mangled, gestural guitar playing remained unmatched in 2011, with How the Thing Sings proving that what is at first glance a one-off gimmick could bloom into a richly complex, living language in the right hands. Sings shot out of the gate in a blur of chaotic, existential picking, shards of notes flickering for a split second before returning to the general morass. Skeletons of blues progressions were endlessly hammered out in chunky chords until personalized, the only direct link with tradition being the use of repetitive bodily devotion to grasp at something intangible. Tracks like “Til I Get Satisfied” played out like a series of failed surges at the same reinforced wall, Orcutt’s high yowl conjuring ghosts of the past and chasing them away in mutant temper tantrums of the future. On quieter moments like “Heaven Is Closed to Me Now,” the strings were finally allowed to bend, ring out, and decay, with an openness that spoke (like so many canonized blues/folk meditations) to the long American horizon — before nosediving back into an alienated frenzy seconds later. For all the unrelenting abstraction, Orcutt’s private/public dance felt unusually direct, free of aesthetic pretensions, and speaking to an anxious present moment that few artists could face, let alone roll around in the mud with.
23. PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
In 2011, Polly Jean Harvey sounds nothing like she did in the 90s; in fact, she sounds considerably different from her last solo album that departed from her usual mode of expression, 2007’s superb White Chalk. Let England Shake was richly layered with delicate tones and a wide variety of instruments, the proceedings oscillating between a groove and a ballad, while her voice remained high like last time around, sounding both confident and sweet instead of vulnerable. Thematically, Harvey lamented the internal and international affairs of her native country, taking the conflicts at home and abroad and synthesizing them into poetry that ended up feeling more like personal matter, chanting rhymes of death and sorrow that winked at the listener by being catchy and sometimes upbeat. Few can write a song about a painful and complicated matter in a way that you can sing along to, but that has remained a constant in her career. Her sound and themes might differ from Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love, but the essence of PJ Harvey remained, finding new tools far from her comfort zone and challenging herself to craft something of increased quality in all aspects all while retaining the core of what she’s all about, almost 20 years after her first record.
22. Death Grips
Zach Hill noted that his 2010 solo album, Face Tat, is pop music where “the most melodic aspects to [the] recording are coming from things like the sound of […] kicking in the screen of a computer, arguments on the street, etc.” It was just a few month later, though, when Zach and his producer, Andy Morin, evolved musique concrète in ways no one had ever heard before. It would be hard to go wrong teaming up with the primordial power of rapper MC Ride. But this is a true band. Zach and Andy didn’t just dig through their record collections to find samples. They dug into the very essence of MC Ride’s flow to create music that emerges from the dissatisfied gut of our collective conscience: the same place where MC Ride’s breath comes from like a gale. Musique concrète, as a musical technique, frees all sound from context. Not a far cry from what hip-hop’s sampling and scratching legacy entails. For Zach and Andy, musique concrète is a mystical force that has allowed them to find the pure sound of MC Ride’s soul.
• Death Grips: http://thirdworlds.net
21. James Ferraro
Far Side Virtual
[Hippos In Tanks]
Simon Reynolds recently referred to James Ferraro as the Jeff Koons of our times. And he’s partially right: Both are apologists of consumerism under pop culture’s idea of advertising as art, championing the rejection of the sublime and the elevation of kitsch in spaces where commodities are eroticized, all of that apparently devoid of any sense of irony. But there’s much more than that. Far Side Virtual constituted a music catalog for the artificial paradises that post-industrial societies promise and advocate for, referencing the fetishism of high tech (wi-fi, solar panels) and the presence of formless transitional music for displacing through non-places (Dubai, Starbucks, Google) in which the habitational voidness is filled with ubiquitous hyperreal sounds, frivolous musical passages that are eerily familiar and scarily comfortable: pop structures moving one step closer toward the ‘synthetic music box’ from Huxley’s Brave New World. Life in the 21st century is indeed being transformed into a collection of staged 90s television commercials, and this digital symphony provides their soundtrack. A sarcastic statement with a sad conclusion: When virtual life is turned off, all that is left are our own trapped reflections in the black screens/mirrors (such as the tablet device depicted in the cover), accompanied by mental echoes of Ferraro’s music.