2011: Chocolate Grinder Mix 2011 Our favorite songs of the year in mix tape form

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

At one point this year, I thought of setting up a radio show based around the Chocolate Grinder, our multimedia section, at one of the local stations. But then I looked through the Chocolate Grinder posts and realized that such a show would be impossible. Why? Because the Chocolate Grinder is like slapping someone with a narwhal: It wouldn’t make heads explode (unless they happen to be from New Jersey), but it would make them careen in a manner that suggests something mind-boggling (or kinky) is going on.

Of course, it is this vast enterprise of unpredictability and strangeness that allow us to create the lovely year-end Chocolate Grinder Mix. This year, like last, a bunch of writers were kidnapped from the local sex cult and were told by a disembodied elbow and knee, “TELL US YOUR FAVORITE SONGS.” Keith Kawaii and Mr P then discussed the matter among themselves, their many children, and an army of ducks, before settling on 20 songs. The list was then sent to Alan Ranta, who made a double-sided mix using a boning knife, spatula, and Cubase. Here’s what he had to say: “This mix was certainly an experience for myself, reshaping my opinion of albums I’d previously skimmed, reinforcing the love of albums I knew, introducing me to tracks I’d missed, and forcing me to think about the context of music I didn’t really care for. I hope this mix opens as many doors for you as it did for me.”

Then I was asked to write an intro.

The subsequent frothy mixture, which can fit into your mom’s cassette player, serves as a testament to music of the past year. Or quacking. Behold! —Ze Pequeno



01. Delicate Steve - “Butterfly” (Wondervisions)
Start time: 0:00; Label: Luaka Bop

“Butterfly” is built on a single, repeating slide guitar hook. Sure, a lot of instrumental music is built on repetition, but guitarist Steve Marion avoids redundancy by making that hook eight full measures long. Listeners don’t even have a chance to recognize that the melody, one of the catchiest of the year, is starting over with all of “Butterfly’s” shape-shifting synth swells and volume valleys. The track’s charming homespun quirks add to the overall positive vibes, as it builds to a fuzz-filled climax with Marion’s infectious hook ripping forward with renewed euphoric passion next to suddenly pounding drums. Indeed, Marion succeeded by not only writing the most inventive hooks of the year, but by also expanding it to a grin-inducing epic. —John Crowell


02. Rafter - “Born Again” (Quiet Storm)
Start time: 4:13; Label: Asthmatic Kitty

This year, the prolific Rafter Roberts inverted his candy-coated pop into a sort of psychic punching bag, an alien neoindustrial DJ set grasping at clogged folk-implosion (or vice versa). It’s the sort of hiccup that Bruce Gilbert called “strange recognition.” “Born Again” indeed: Quiet Storm’s victory march unfurls the MIDI-mocking rattle just so it can thumb its nose at victory itself. “We’ve got our ways,” Rafter promises with a Will Cullen Hart vapor, of “keeping it together.” But really, it’s all about that corpse-orchestra insisting that its detuned swell is leading us somewhere. Christ, it’s the closest thing to Arcade Fire or happy endings under this blood-red sun, where toneless blobs and prison bars serve as unerring percussion. But far scarier than “Born Again” is the silence in its wake. It’s only then when you feel Rafter’s triumph. —Collin Anderson


03. Pepe Deluxé - “The Storm” (Queen of the Wave)
Start time: 8:22; Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Sonic explorers Pepe Deluxé delayed the release of their fourth album by two years, waiting on the renovations of the largest instrument in the world, the Great Stalacpipe Organ, in order to record the first-ever original piece for it: A mere two-minute interlude at the end of the esoteric pop opera’s second act. With that in mind, you can imagine how diligently they endeavored to make the rest of the album sound exactly how they dreamed it. Case in point: “The Storm” uses a transistor organ, an Analogue Systems synth bass, a twangy guitar with vintage pedals, a mini drum set, a choir, and an orchestra, all mixed into an epic surf rock jam via a console used in the Helsinki Olympics. Few artists go to such great lengths to sound cool, and it pays off tenfold. —Alan Ranta


04. Tom Waits - “Hell Broke Luce” (Bad as Me)
Start time: 11:34; Label: ANTI-

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce pens this cumbersome theory of art that partly argues that “proper art” is not didactic. It doesn’t try to lecture you. It just transparently and immediately brings you face-to-face with the archetypal THING that it’s representing. This may be why Waits’ shit-filthy stomp about the ponderous, deaf-and-dumb fuckeduptitude of the mindlessly marching war machine is so intensely cathartic, even to listeners who usually peg war songs as “inauthentic.” With all its reckless shifts of rhythmic accents, storyline chronology, and musical motifs, I’m so dazed by the opaque fumes of War Itself billowing from this track that I can’t even hear it as a screed. For that matter, neither can the song’s meth-addled protagonist. That big fuckin’ bomb made him deaf. —Nobodaddy


05. Thee Oh Sees - “Stinking Cloud” (Castlemania)
Start time: 15:27; Label: In The Red

How does anyone handle the deaths of close friends, especially as he or she grows older? It’s a question that seems to be on John Dwyer’s mind throughout Thee Oh Sees’ Castlemania, but he addresses it in different ways. In the case of the haunting “Stinking Cloud,” he addresses death in a manner that most would avoid: Acceptance. His reflections on living and dying, back-dropped to a lusher sound from the rest of the record, have a sincerity to them that comes with age and experience. It’s a different form of acceptance, but whose emotional resonance is just as strong. —Ze Pequeno


06. Kreng - “Petit Grimoire” (Grimoire)
Start time: 18:35; Label: Miasmah

The first time I heard “Petit Grimoire,” it literally made me jump. And I’m not talking about a jump for joy or a reflexive flinch of fear. It was more like the way you jump the first time you see Lando Calrissian lead Han Solo into that room in Cloud City where Darth Vader is just chillin’ at the end of that table with a blaster: It’s purely unexpected and utterly evil. “Petit Grimoire” is the unsettling switch to the dark side within Kreng’s magically cinematic Grimoire, an alarmingly alien and devastatingly beautiful adventure. —Kmmy Gbblr


07. Christina Vantzou - “Homemade Mountains” (Nº1)
Start time: 22:53; Label: Kranky

When I was young, I drew mountains as a mismatched series of triangles, snowcapped into diamonds. Although there is nothing childish about Vantzou’s homemade mountains, there is something simple and immediate about them. Drawn with a slow simplicity, in straight lines of strings and voice, and held together by ascension and release, they first resemble something like a sign — familiar, graspable. It’s easy to stop here, grasping, believing this mountain-sign to be enough. Yet, as you listen closely, you’re reminded that shape is only a contour. As we get older, we learn to draw more precisely. On Nº1, her solo debut, “Homemade Mountains” is but one gorgeous and successful attempt at such precision. —Nathan Shaffer


08. Cass McCombs - “County Line” (Wit’s End)
Start time: 26:30; Label: Domino

I have to admit that I’ve usually found Cass McCombs’ wordplay to be overwrought and clumsy, which despite his knack for world-weary
melodies made me keep my distance from his records. But with the first note of “County Line,” the opening track from this year’s Wit’s End,, we were introduced to a new brand of subtlety and grace to be traced out by McCombs throughout the record. Quietly scorching, mournful, and brooding, it sees his lyrics and vocals being pared down to their most modest, maybe best exemplified by the extended, barely audible falsetto of the chorus. Ultimately, I was disappointed with the remainder of the record, but this is a track I’m sure I’ll be coming back to frequently. —Jay


09. Death Grips - “Guillotine” (Exmilitary)
Start time: 32:01; Label: Third Worlds

Exmilitary operates as an antidote to the playground rap that dominated 2011. The whole album is an exercise in aggression, packed with relentless percussion, abused samples, and vocals from a disturbed and violent place. On “Guillotine,” producer Andy Morin disdains the Gatling approach to the MIDI-snare, instead letting it lurk metronomic alongside his other digital groans before overwhelming the track with a fit of electronic pulses. However, it’s MC Ride’s delivery that carries the day with a master class in cadence and bark that perfectly articulates Death Grips’ sinister appeal. One shudders at how thoroughly this dude could fuck Drake up. Tyler, too. —Daniel Sargeant


10. tUnE-yArDs - “Bizness” (w h o k i l l)
Start time: 35:43; Label: 4AD

tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus wrote “Bizness” upon moving to Oakland. Garbus sings about violence, victimhood, and racialized embodiment, but it’s not the lyrics of the song that strike us as much as its sound. Nimble, syncopated rhythms, shimmering processed ukulele, and that multiplying voice: cooing, chattering, trickling like flung sweat. “Bizness” is, above all else, full of life: conflicted and fraught, but irresistible. In Oakland this fall, bizness as usual ground to a halt as people organized, talked, and partied in occupied Oscar Grant Plaza, briefly overcoming the city’s class and racial barriers. In some ways, it felt something like this song sounds. —Ian Latta




01. DJ Diamond - “Torture Rack” (Flight Muzik)
Start time: 0:00; Label: Planet Mu

“Torture Rack” is built around a window-rattling foghorn of a beat that floats in slowly as a cargo ship. Most everything else smartly got out of its path; the few elements left just follow in its wake: the white crests of a distorted sample, the oversized droplets in the spray of bass. Only the high end’s whipcracks aren’t held in step, moved by the wind up on the mast instead of the bulk below. That’s not torture imagery, I know, but when your body begins to react on its own to the track’s slow unyielding repetition, mixing metaphors will be the last thing on your mind. —Benjamin Pearson


02. DJ Rashad - “Ghetto Tekz Runnin It” (Just A Taste, Vol. 1)
Start time: 4:01; Label: Ghettophiles

I love Ghettotech, but if I were still sitting on the fence, “Ghetto Tekz Runnin It” would be the footwork track that would help me climb down on the right side of it. DJ Rashad takes one of my favorite cans of Adult Contemporary spray cheese and shakes it until its name is Cobby Baldwell, the dancing epileptic. This is the one you keep on standby for executing power moves in your car and for bubble bath night. Somehow I must find a way to sneak this song onto the soundtrack at my dentist’s office and then film everyone thinking they’ve gone crazy, for the good of mankind. —K.E.T.


03. Hercules and Love Affair - “My House” (Blue Songs)
Start time: 9:43; Label: Moshi Moshi

A bright spot on an otherwise disappointing sophomore effort from producer Andy Butler, “My House” cribbed a page from the Frankie Knuckles/Chicago House handbook to produce a single so vivid that it instantly transcended its own status as pastiche. Butler’s classicist tendencies remain obvious — perfunctory piano riff, chunky bassline, 808, and cut-up scat vocals — but the self-referential chorus, sung with flamboyant abandon by Hercules superfan Shaun Wright, was an audacious gamble that paid off in asses on dancefloors. “My House” takes its rightful place in the pantheon of self-reflexive house classics, right next to Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body” and Femme Fion’s “Jack The House.” —Jonathan Dean


04. Tyler, The Creator - “Yonkers” (Goblin)
Start time: 14:32; Label: XL

The genius of “Yonkers” might be the only thing everyone could agree on when it came to Tyler, The Creator this year. Some called Goblin his best, while others heard a drawn-out mess; the new direction on 2012’s Wolf has as many hesitant as excited, so what he’ll be remembered for remains unclear. But we’ll always have “Yonkers”: a blunt, unforgettable outpouring of his id as infectious as it is uncompromising. Its scraping drum beat, psychopathic yet funny-as-hell lyrics, and queasy synths all lead to the emotional punch in the gut with its final bitter verse. It’s enough to make all the detractors shut the fuck up and listen in respectful awe. —Miles Bowe


05. Ursula Bogner - “Sonne = Black Box” (Sonne = Black Box)
Start time: 18:39; Label: Faitiche

Several distinct elements clash in the brilliant, understated opener to Ursula Bogner’s Sonne = Blackbox — from the insistent, nearly rhythm-less piano stabs that somehow coexist with a simple vocal harmony modulated through a vocoded unison synth, to the distant, grumbling electronic wind that completes the track. Indeed, the song thrives on the barest of ingredients. Like many other people, I initially believed Bogner’s elaborate backstory — that the music was the lost work of an synth-obsessed German house wife — but the bio’s authenticity has since been called into question. Does it matter either way? For now, I’ll revert to the stock response to the ‘fake persona’ trend (see Jürgen Müller): when we open ourselves to music that sounds this effortless, we’re willing to believe anything to amplify the experience. —Keith Kawaii


06. John Maus - “Believer” (We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves)
Start time: 21:00; Label: Upset The Rhythm

As the closing track to John Maus’ 2011 breakout album, “Believer” elevates the overall experience to a higher ground. Gone are the spooky undertones, and the listener is left with a clear bass line, a pulsating and bright synth track, and Maus’ blurted vocals before the song opens up midway to reveal a light at the end of the tunnel. Bells chime, a melodica toots, and hands are raised to praise while heads shake to take it all in. It’s a modern day revival of intellectual synth-pop packaged to leave you wanting more. —Ryan A. Detwiler


07. Xander Harris - “Tanned Skin Dress” (Urban Gothic)
Start time: 25:05; Label: Not Not Fun

The revival of retro can be a slippery slope, but Austin’s Buffy-referencing Justin Sweatt makes me sit at ease when I hear his familiar synth tones. His debut homage to the sci-fi/horror soundtracks of yesteryear is honest and effortless, and “Tanned Skin Dress” really just nails it. It’s nostalgia for early synth music remembered better than it actually was. Put on this track and just try not to picture the opening credits to your own post-apocalyptic cyberpunk horror film rolling by, with shots of badass future-punks brawling in smoky alleyways, Giallo-level buckets of bright red blood, and glowing, optically-printed special effects. It also helps that the album was packaged in pitch-perfect artwork designed by Amanda Brown. Concept, executed ingeniously. —Lee Michael


08. Jay-Z and Kanye West - “Niggas in Paris” (Watch the Throne)
Start time: 28:47; Label: Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation, Def Jam Recordings

“I don’t even know what that means.” Rundown: Kanye (epitome of celebrity fetishism) versus Jay-Z (Bono of hip-hop). They got Occupy Wall Street to obey the Throne #young$$$. “Ball so hard” make me a milli% guiltless. Try not making people sing during its 13th encore, h’ughn? Throne so hot now, they reached ageless/classic status #maybachmusic. Rap/hip-hop continues to be radio’s new pop. Pop circa 2011 went daytime court television. At the end of the day, wherever you @[nursing home, car pooling, computer screen, mailbox, dog walking, bottle bottom, mind-frying], we all “Niggas in Paris.” —C Monster


09. Doldrums - “I’m Homesick Sittin’ Up Here In My Satellite” (Empire Sound)
Start time: 32:25; Label: No Pain In Pop

O Reader, by now you surely know that Space is the Place. Between the vast soundscapes of shoegaze revivalists and chill-wave prospectors, the broad cosmos has become the choice-yet-soon-to-be-exhausted image. Doldrums’ Eric Woodhead, however, rejects this trope. Indeed, it’s a refreshing shock that, in “I’m Homesick,” instead of gazing heavenward, he’s looking back down toward Earth. Damn, he sounds ready to come home. He’s tasted the cosmic rays; now he’s missing mama’s apple pie. So, there are no digital bells or cyber whistles, only solid drums and manic fills. Horn hits. Wails. Space is a nice place to wonder and swoon. But after a while in the heavens, Earth is the place to get down. —Alexander Slotnick


10. Grouper - “Alien Observer” (Alien Observer)
Start time: 34:56; Self-Released: Grouper

Fox tail darts out of frame. Witch’s broom zooms out of frame. It’s never a blank slate. It’s always flitting with quintessential content. Dog barks out of frame. Low rage, gets it out of the way. Stranger falls in love out of gaze. Pacing with hands, with wistful angles pining on plunging in purviews currycombed with a blurry series of swipes. It’s aching that yearns for numbness and numbness pointing straight down… No trepidation. Lunatic patience. Grace of a moment’s pause. Of a marmot’s paws. What gall, what gumption — refusing the function — and supercilious and sated well past seduction. —Willcoma


[Artwork: Keith Kawaii]

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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