2011: Favorite 50 Albums of 2011
50 albums that defined our 2011
20. DJ Rashad
Just A Taste Vol. 1
Attaining balance between longevity and typifying niche-genre creates the perfect formula for classic-album status. You can listen to [garbage]-[verb] on repeat and learn all the licks, hits, and bits, but still never completely click with a release. The aura entombing Just A Taste Vol. 1 was exaggerated through the way DJ Rashad treated subtlety. Woofer-throbbing bass lines and gradually shifting key changes; your loose change. Slashing half beats and words ad nauseam in almost every track, while only allowing short yet heavy-handed sentences to ride out: “You’ll remember me somehow.” Or tip-toeing “En-Eye-Gee-Gee-Aye” through a plethora of lyrics. Sampled horns randomly peaking and breaking within stuttered scratching. Head nodding until your neck snapped. And the dancing? Well, they body parts is everywhere always while dancing, but it’s the minor change-ups that win originality in battles. But without the music, without DJ Rashad, there would be no dancing, and Just A Taste set the dance circles on fiiiiiiii-HIIIIIIII’er.
19. Sean McCann
As with Derrida’s interrogation of pharmakon, one likewise arrives into contradictory double-meaning of capital. Defined, on the one hand, as disposable, a means, producing; and on the other as a primary, uppercase, crowning. We still cannot escape Sean McCann’s Capital and its double. The rate at which McCann produces objects and sounds is overwhelming for the collector and listener alike, and it must be exhausting for him to keep up. The Capital is an artifact among others like it, the first of five albums from this year alone. He is the quintessential musician as laborer, fully enveloped in these overworked and consuming times. And yet, against all theories — of alienation and of detachment — there remains the work itself: utterly (obviously) connected with its producer. McCann concluded an interview with TMT earlier this year: “I want to release purely beautiful music.” The Capital — a joyful, cacophonous chorus of voice and electronics and life — was such a clear manifestation of that desire. It remains a dignified and, yes, beautiful labor and, as such, a needed reminder that work — as verb, as noun — can still be meaningful.
18. The Flaming Lips
The Strobo Trip: Light and Audio Phase Illusions Toy
[Warner Bros./Lovely Sorts of Death]
There is something to be said for the way in which six hours of strobic repetition created the illusion of time not merely passing, but alternately speeding up, slowing down, shuddering, stopping, and even, it seemed, reversing itself, as if only by extending sonic abstraction to its most absurd degree that sound, an essential component of the body’s own GPS system, by which each instance of its movement across the face of the earth is determined toward some final silent reckoning, began to refer only to its own ceaselessly recreated past and future and thereby, rhythmically, generated an alternative geography through which the ear and then the body as a whole seemed to move, partaking in ever more eccentric ways of a virtual rise and fall over a void that was nothing more than the emptiness of song itself, a trip — of sorts — compulsively taken, finished in an instant and yet seeming to last for years, connected by the barest of threads to a momentarily obscured reality and thus resembling nothing so much as the fear- and hope-bent quality of a dream, one in which the dreamer, in defiance of its body’s own torpor, found itself moved to shout, in frightened ecstasy and wonder (and yet, in the midst of said trance, no less conscious and indeed grateful that these six glorious hours have occurred in an equally brief and absurd lifetime), yes, moved to shout, with hand raised and hair on end, “Something is happening to me!”
17. Dirty Beaches
Nobody can deny that Badlands was in essence an album of nostalgia. Aside from the obvious ‘Suicide-ness’ of loops and droning riffs punctuated by shrieks, Alex Zhang Hungtai even lifted a hook directly from a Françoise Hardy song for the album’s second ballad track, “Lord Knows Best.”. He and David Lynch shared the same eerie knack for the right mix of rock and noise, and the occasional 60s bassline on repeat (“A Hundred Highways”) never failed to bring to mind 2011’s favorite newly reissued noise-garage group, Les Rallizes Dénudés. Nevertheless, Badlands was more than just repackaged product or a rockabilly throwback. Plenty of people have said that Hungtai is Suicide plus Roy Orbison plus “something else,” and it was the energy and mystery of that final “other” that made Badlands such a worthwhile listen.
[Not Not Fun]
In a year that saw a glut of cassette-crushed indeterminacy, the haunted grooves of Peter Berends’ KWJAZ struck a particularly esoteric note. Either a mixtape of vague origin or a phantom late-night radio broadcast, KWJAZ advertised its own status as readymade, an uncanny artifact of an impossible past. The album’s two sidelong tracks meandered through messy, noncommittal explorations of cosmic jazz, narcotized yacht rock, and headless dub, joining together inert fragments with swirling analog dust motes. The sort of thing that appealed to listeners with a taste for the hyperreal, KWJAZ was more like a portent of doom for watchdogs anxious about the cultural vortex of all this low-rent nostalgia. TMT’s review noted the transvaluation of adult contemporary implicit in the album’s peculiar lack of event, but we could have just as easily name-checked the messthetics of The Faust Tapes or Color Him Coma. Whether one approached KWJAZ as a frustratingly artless jam session or a perfectly surreal anti-album, its dreamlike insinuations did not fail to make an impact.
15. Bill Callahan
The downtrodden don’t always remember to laugh at themselves, even as they put on years. Sometimes in the quick maze of managing emotional weight, we absentmindedly bumrush those dead ends. Callahan is taking his time in his sad reflection and easing into a humor that is simultaneously flippant and endearingly warm. It’s oddly not tempting to snicker at him wistfully singing the catalogue number of this record at its end. DC450 is the best new endtimes-affiliated release for ages, simply due to the fact that he made the word “apocalypse” sound like his old pet parakeet or some sort of centrifugal hip movement-centered dance move. If burners like “America!” and “Universal Applicant” didn’t get you apocalypsing, you’re dead inside. The man’s never released a bad or even middling record, and the risks and the indulgences here never felt anything but well-earned. Callahan took The End in with a casual stroll, like he was taking the mute fascination with and sleepy resignation to the brutalization of mystery and letting this carry him to his bent, gangly muse. Put god away, fine. But as long as we have a burning need for truly unequivocal music, let’s please keep Bill on deck.
14. Peaking Lights
[Not Not Fun]
936 was Peaking Lights standing up from the noisier pool of previous releases like Imaginary Falcons and the whole community of lo-fi psychedelia, and letting some of that weird water slowly drip off and dry in the sun. They were still soaked in it, but they incorporated enough structure — the noticeably heavy rhythm box drum and bass — to expertly straddle that divide between pop and abstraction that may not even be there anymore. Maybe we were too deep inside our own music bubble (it’s beautiful in here), but it seemed like 936 was universally enjoyed and accepted by the rainbow of critics, blogs, drone heads, pop proponents, and casuals listeners alike. There was something innocent and earnest in the output of Aaron and Indra. It was hard to understand how their seemingly superficial lyrics about sunshine and love could be so fucking real. Maybe it was their unpretentious deadpanned delivery, but we totally believed it. We just pictured the duo in that cool basement of theirs, soldering toy gadgets and jamming and having a baby, and thought, “Man, they really love what they’re doing, and I’ll be damned if this isn’t a fun record with some knockout artwork.”
13. Shabazz Palaces
Once Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler had his Grammy for 17 odd years, he gave birth to something like the jagged teenaged nephew of the “slick,” purported to have already been reborn by his former group in their award-issued single, and remained “cool like dat,” though less strictly “jazz like dat” — avuncular in the most liminal sense. Two EPs and this single LP in as Shabazz Palaces, Butler continued to passionately intone love and liberty on top of, and within, never-warmed-over and highly varied abstract beats. “Endeavours for Never” preserved the double-bass, vibraphone, horns, and sinewy vocals of jazz, but skewered them so, offering ghostly atmospheres and stutter-stop rhythms. If you’re a Digable Planets fan, then you follow, obscurantist propagation and all, immersed as you are in the positivism of post-Dilla beatscapes: sensorial attempts at a hard-hitting subtlety, striking on something between didacticism and undersold product, efforts at getting paid beneath the breezy shade while avoiding “making wealth” by “breaking self,” as he put it. “I’m free,” Ishmael pied-piped on lead song “Free Press and Curl,” and as a high-register whistle-coo simulacra hit the track’s sky, we sensed him both gleaming and glowing, getting us high. All that was left was to drop the needle.
w h o k i l l
Okay, I’m just gonna say it: thank god Merrill Garbus sold out to Blackberry and earned enough dough to record her sophomore LP at a real brick-and-mortar, capital S Studio. Although her first album was notable for its “pop subverting” DIY production or whatever, it was clear that the woman’s immensely powerful singing and refreshingly compassionate storytelling talents didn’t need to be subverted. They needed to be freakin’ bankrolled. w h o k i l l’s larger budget not only allowed Garbus and bassist/collaborator Nate Brenner the freedom to polish each of these compositions into fierce little nuggets of rhythm-barbed, sing-along ethics-pop (a descriptor “First Lady of the Children’s Folk Song” Ella Jenkins would likely be proud of), but it also allowed the production to be improved to the point where it became nearly transparent and let the songs do all the talking. And sure, once a record marrying “pop” with “social issues” started talking, an affluent NPR crowd started listening, making the record’s themes seem like a bit of a catch-22; but I suspect that that’s just fine with Garbus. Actually, it sounds like a puzzle she could have written into one of her songs: In order for tUnE-YarDs’ funky social mediations to really break free from their own limited means of production and exist as free-standing artworks, Garbus had to get her hands on a little bit of privilege.
11. Tim Hecker
It’s a little ironic to include Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 on this list, since Hecker intended the record to express his pessimism for the future of music itself. Packaged with cover art featuring a photograph of several college students mimicking Fluxus artist Al Hansen’s Yoko Ono Piano Drop, Hecker’s critically acclaimed sixth full-length acted as the concordance to what some might consider a disappointing year of material within a collapsing industry. With atmospheric tracks of damaged pipe organ despair like “The Hatred of Music” and “The Piano Drop,” the sentiment was unmistakable. However, the pulsating fire of dark ambient symphonic swells that have become Hecker’s signature reached such perfection on Ravedeath (especially with contributions from electronic composer-god, Ben Frost) that it fortuitously reinstated one’s faith in the future of music. The result as a whole, as a concept, as a commentary, as a progression of decaying music, is perhaps Hecker’s finest accomplishment.