Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Listmania 2011: Best Albums Of The Year 10-1

As pop culture aficionados, your friends at Culture Blues are not immune to the end-of-year lists currently overwhelming the internet. Welcome to Listmania, where Culture Blues ranks their favorite shit in a handful categories. Today we bring you the second half of the best albums of the year. If you missed the first half, check them out here.

10) Return Of 4 Eva - Big K.R.I.T

With Return Of 4 Eva, Big K.R.I.T. released what is without question my favorite hip-hop album of the year. A gifted producer and emcee, K.R.I.T has become one of the game’s fastest rising stars on the strength of numerous mixtapes, none more impressive than the retro blast of southern soul that is Return Of 4 Eva. Over the course of 21 tracks K.R.I.T blows out your speakers, with thumping bangers like R4 Theme Song, poignant social commentary like Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed And Encouraging Racism, and completely superb tales of coming up, and aspiration, like Dreamin', which is hands down one of 2011’s best tracks.

9) Black Up - Shabazz Palaces

Shabazz Palace’s Black Up is the most profound and exemplary work of art produced within the hip-hop genre in 2011. From a sonic, lyrical, and conceptual aspect, this record pushes the genre to a place it is not too familiar with, but desperately needs to be. From the moment the atmosphere of Free Press And Curl begins to build, you are aware that this is not your typical hip-hop release. As the warped beat and highly intellectual lyrics present themselves, you can’t help but be both impressed and intrigued. Over a brief but dense 36 minutes, this record delivers mind-altering cuts such as Youthology, The Kings New Clothes Were Made By His Own Hands, and Swerve The Reaping Of All That Is Worthwhile- tracks which just manage to scratch the surface of the discoveries within this unquestionably great LP.

8) House Of Balloons - The Weeknd

Over the course of 2011 you heard House of Balloons everywhere; at hip parties, trendy nightspots and, if you’re anything like the people I know (which, face it, you are), numerous times when you laid down with your significant other. House of Balloons is 2011’s best R&B release, its most influential non-dub step release, and most of all, a hazy, seductive, and superb record. By employing mysterious marketing techniques, unique album art aesthetics, and choosing to take a low profile in the custom of modern internet-born artists, The Weeknd themselves cultivated a serious mystique over the course of the year. That mystique coupled with sublime songwriting like in The Morning, High For This, and the terrifyingly catchy House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls (which also wins 2011's award for best use of a Siouxsie and the Banshees sample) it all adds up to an incredible debut and fantastic record.

7) Father, Son, Holy Ghost - Girls

I have no doubt that there are friends of yours out there who think this is the best album of the last ten years, and I also have no doubt that I don’t like those people. Every now and again a record comes around that is great, but is overshadowed (and maybe even a little distorted) by the hype that surrounds it, and to some extent this is the case with the latest Girls album. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a great and, at moments, even timeless record, which I assure you is more than happy simply being one of the best of 2011. Christoper Owens manages to channel his unique childhood and an appreciation for 70s Americana into a brilliant collection of songs which play out like distant memories of places you never were. If you're looking for computer samples, psychedelia, or the beloved wobble, look elsewhere, as you will not find such things on this album. What you will find instead are near perfect representations of pop that your parents loved (Magic), six-plus minute odes to nostalgic melodrama (Vomit), and wildly catchy songs that you would have to be clueless not to appreciate (Honey Bunny). Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a prime example of using one’s influences as a sonic compass through the sea of musical composition and deserves most of the praise it has received in 2011.

6) James Blake - James Blake

To be fair, this record had made this list before it even came out. If I was a betting man, back in 2010 I would have wagered a massive sum that it would have been this year’s best. James Blake did not invent dub step, he was just responsible for bringing it to a whole new demographic of white kids. Regular readers should already be aware that I consider this young man to be a genius, and the reason is simple...this young man is a genius. In an era when bedroom recording has become a limitless conduit for inspiration, Blake crafts an obscured gray world of swells, clicks, pops, and stark silences. There is something both futuristic and organic about Blake’s music; it captures both the sterility of technology and, due mostly to the unique character of his voice, the warmth of the soul. Each track on his self-titled debut LP is a gem that deserves to be admired, but if I had to choose its best representatives I would direct your attention to Unluck, I Never Learnt To Share, and Lindesfarne I &II. If you don’t know who James Blake is as you read this column then you better act fast, because odds are the kids will move on sooner rather than later.

5) Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes

As a man who was born and raised in the city my appreciation for all things pastoral is minimal at best. Because of my fear of grizzly bears, wolves, and some families of flowers, I don’t often venture out into the woods, but if I needed to I could do so by just sitting in my apartment and listening to Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. Hailing from Seattle, this band of densely bearded acoustic guitar players has been enchanting listeners with their folk stylings since 2008. Their debut record has already become a modern classic, and its greatness has been completely eclipsed by the majesty of Helplessness Blues.

It is easy to describe art as "beautiful" due to the constraints of the English language, but in truth no other word can capture the amber glow of this record. Each song on Helplessness Blues contains a precious quality which makes them sound like they hang in the halls of quiet museums alongside the somber yet dignified works of Flemish masters. This record is pretty damn close to flawless and completely immersive. From the opening finger-picked figure of Montezuma we are drawn to the autumnal grandeur of this music, enjoying the wonders within Battery Kinzie, Sim Sala Bim, Blue Spotted Tail, and the album’s masterpiece and title-track.

4) Past Life, Martyred Saints - EMA

I was hip to EMA such a long time ago, I kind of want to stick a flag in her. Before the Nirvana covers, the Youtube video sensations, and the approval of Spin Magazine, I was already a devotee of this guitar-playing Viking descendant from South Dakota. There may be some of you out there saying “Hey man, what about her work with The Gowns?” to which I say: this is not about The Gowns, this is about the year’s best debut record and #4 album.

There’s something heartbreaking, shattered, and raw about Past Lives, Martyred Saints. The songs on this record feel like confessionals of a tortured woman who can’t possibly be in her twenties. The album aims to eviscerate you emotionally, starting with the apocalyptically bleak The Grey Ship and continuing through the gut-wrenching catharsis of California, the head-spinning bounce of Milkman, and the quiet brutality of Marked. With the release of such a stupendous debut record EMA has placed herself in a precarious position for delivering a follow-up, but we don’t need to worry about that now. All we need to do is listen to this record and be amazed.

3) Let England Shake - EMA

As I sit here typing, I have a hard time believing this album is only the third best record of the year. Since it dropped back in February, I have been nothing but captivated by the poetic and aural beauty of the ode to country/condemnation of war that is PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. It goes without saying that Harvey is one of this era’s most consistent and dependable artists, but I suspect few truly believed that she had a record of this magnitude still left within her. Fortunately for us she did, and it stands here not only as one of the year’s best, but as the best by any female artist in 2011.

One can sit and listen to the first seven tracks of Let England Shake and encounter nothing but brilliance.  Harvey is in  mesmerizing form on this album and it is palpable from the opening seconds. As a listener it is easy to hear how much the content and themes both inspired and resonated with Harvey, and it gives the impression that we are reading diary entries that were never meant to be seen. For nearly 40 minutes this record surrounds you in a smoke-filled, cloudy, fading landscape where scenes of resplendence are mourned and tomorrows are feared. Frankly, if you are sitting there thinking “Hey man, this is the best record of the year, bro” while I would tell you that you were wrong, I would be really delicate with my arguments.

2) Hurry Up We're Dreaming - M83

Much like Kanye West last year, the fact that this record came out in November essentially voided its ability to be the best record of the year. That said, what Anthony Gonzalez accomplished on his two-disc magnum opus Hurry Up We’re Dreaming is the literal definition of phenomenal. Every time I discuss electronic work, I feel compelled to reiterate the extent of the sonic responsibilities which are the composer’s burden. The electronic composer is responsible for the inspiration, the majority of the performance, and the Herculean process of producing music which is comprised of seemingly limitless musical elements. When done well the listener is usually provided with highly enjoyable and entertaining music. When done remarkably, the listener is given the gift of utterly magnificent art...which is exactly what this record is.

Within the universe of Hurry Up We’re Dreaming’s splendor we find a record conveying the sensation of what it is like to wish for your past while being at peace with your future. These are the songs of a man entering his third decade and coming to the realization that one does not end up where they expected. Thankfully, Gonzalez does not spend his time lost within lamentations, instead, he accepts the progression of both his art and his life, and with a spirit of adventure embarks on a journey to let all parties involved know it will be okay.

Because this is a double album, it would be absurd of me to highlight all of its fine moments. Not only is it hard to choose which tracks best depict this record's various glories, it also has to be experienced in its entirety to be completely appreciated. Not being one to back down from a challenge (or keep my opinion to myself) I will recommend Midnight City, Raconte-Moi Une Histoire, The Bright Flash, New Map, and Steve McQueen. Those songs all possess a little bit of Hurry Up We’re Dreaming’s stellar radiance and should be enough to convince you of its grandeur.

1) David Comes To Life - Fucked Up

Throughout history the greatest art has been propelled by equal parts ambition and inspiration, a  mixture of catalysts which compels the spirit to strive for more than the ordinary. Why create a bust of a hero when you could create a statue? Why aim for a simple painting when you could paint a mural? Why write a sentence when you could write a story? Why make just another hardcore record when instead you can compose a work about love, class, faith, and existence, all while making the best record of the year?

By this point, we’re all aware of the tragic love story that makes up the majority of David Comes To Life's narrative, but this album is about SO much more than (pfft) love. Being savvy and in-touch members of the modern world, Fucked Up interwove a murder-mystery, metaphysical struggle, and revelation into the fabric of this record, all in order to provide more than enough conversation fodder for dudes who enjoy wearing flannel and hanging out in bars. The thing is...when considering all of this record’s artistic worth (which is vast) it’s easy to forget that it totally kills. Just so we understand, when I say "kills" I don’t mean in some “current excuse/standard” for kills, I mean legit triple guitar high BPM shit. The musicians in Fucked Up have never sounded any tighter, impassioned, or unified, and their music is made infinitely better for it.

Before I go any further in this praise orgy, I would be remiss if I didn’t address the vocals of Damian Abraham. I understand the hardcore singing is an acquired taste and can be perceived as caustic to some listeners, but a matter of taste should not be enough for you to dismiss this album. If you can’t “get into” this record because Abraham’s voice turns you off then let me be the first to let you know that you are close-minded and myopic in your views on music (sorry).

Moving on.

Over 18 tracks this record delivers a constantly-pummeling attack of awesome which makes you feel like you want to get into a fight with the world (in a life conquering, non-violent way of course). As the album begins with the sublime instrumental Let Her Rest, it sets the stage for over one hour of kinetic, visceral, and unbelievably catchy tunes. This is the kind of record which rewards multiple listens, as each time you hear it your ear is drawn to a new lick, a newly deciphered line of vocals, or freshly discovered plot hook. There is no better exercise in listening than David Comes To Life, there is no finer moment in rock, and most of all, there is no greater album in 2011.

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Well there you have it my dude and dudettes, another year past us, another Best Of List. 2011 wasn’t the strongest year of musical releases, but there were enough great records to put together a pretty solid top 20. As for those artists who just narrowly missed this list, I would like to extend my apologies to Cults, Oneohtrix Point Never, Raphael Saadiq, Gang Gang Dance, The Field, Kendirck Lamar, Ice Age, Wild Flag, Atlas Sound, and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. I loved your records, but apparently not enough. Time will only tell what 2012 has in store for us (other than the coming hysteria of course), but as a critic and fan of the world’s most personal art, I hope for the best.

So what do you think? Did your favorite record make the list? What was the biggest omission? Did you like Bon Iver more, or David Comes To Life less than I did? Should have I given Adele's 21 a spot? What are you looking forward to next year?

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1 Responses »

  1. Another great list G!

    I definitely would have slipped The Field record in my top ten though and moved M83 to the teens. :)