Billy L: Top Albums of 2011

Staten Island, NY

From that very first shaker hit that starts “Baby’s Arms,” the opening track on Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for my Halo, I feel like I’m slipping into a warm bath. The album just has a sound that I kept coming back to this year, again and again. The acoustic guitars, squeaking with chord changes, the gentle percussion – shakers are especially prominent throughout the record – the drum machines, strings, and other keyboard sounds, were recorded and layered so well, creating a compelling, comfortable, vaguely familiar sonic backdrop that, on many songs, heightens the sting of Vile’s most sardonic lyrics (e.g., “Society is my friend/ It makes me lie down in a cold, cold bloodbath”; “My best friend’s long gone, but I got runner ups, yeah”; “I bet by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man/ Well, I tell you right now you best believe that I am”). I was pretty sure back in June that this would be my favorite album of the year, and it is.

Jay-Z and Kanye made a really good record this year. It’s not Black Album great, but it’s really good. Choice samples, a handful of memorable lines, a fine roster of guests — Frank Ocean, Beyonce, natch, Justin Vernon (for one extraneous but funky hook). I was rewarded on multiple listens, like when I finally realized why “Lift Off” sounded so off-kilter. (It’s in 3/4 time.) Listening to Funkmaster Flex debut “Otis” on Hot 97 was one of the most ridiculous and memorable musical moments of 2011 for me. “Otis” and “Niggas in Paris” became the hits they should be; other highlights were the RZA-helmed, Nina Simone-sampling “New Day,” the cinematic opener “No Church in the Wild,” and the super funky “That’s My Bitch,” which somehow put a new spin on the old “Apache” break. That shit cray.

Though I tried many times, I couldn’t get into the James Blake album; I wanted to like it, but it didn’t happen. Ditto tUnE-YarDs (which is actually more annoying to type than “Ke$ha”). Maybe they were a little too out there for my generally pop-leaning tastes.

Speaking of out-there, I nominated Colin Stetson’s album for inclusion in the big list, but it didn’t make my top 10. The recording is good and all, but you really have to see this guy alone onstage, rocking back and forth with a saxophone as big as a man, sweat dripping from his brow, to really understand what he’s doing with his instrument and why more people should pay attention. His solo performance in Brooklyn back in April was utterly transfixing — the audience was rapt. A record just doesn’t capture that kind of physical music-making.

Electronic music — perhaps the exact opposite of the impressive musical physicality (physical musicality?) of Colin Stetson — was everywhere in 2011. The poppiest pop (Britney, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha, LMFAO, etc. etc.) was constructed of synths, drum machines, bleeps and bloops, and the human voice was pixilated, pitch-shifted and otherwise disembodied and robo-ed up. Side note: Not so much obvious Auto-Tune this year; the vocal stutter effect was more in vogue (cf. “Till the World Ends,” “In the Dark,” “We R Who We R,” et al.).

Which brings me to Britney. What a great year for our old friend! Granted, Femme Fatale doesn’t work as an album, but it’s not meant to. As a collection of singles, it’s remarkable. The first five tracks are excellent — “Till the World Ends,” “Hold it Against Me,” “Inside Out,” “I Wanna Go,” and “How I Roll” — and three of them charted; it’s certainly a front-loaded record. I’ll continue to pretend the track doesn’t exist. There’s some filler, sure. But closer “Criminal” and “(Drop Dead) Beautiful” are also solid tracks. The production on the album’s best tracks was more forward-thinking and fun than that of any other dance-pop on the Billboard charts.

The electronic bedroom pop/chillwave trend continued this year, and I really enjoyed albums by Panda Bear, Neon Indian, Washed Out, and Youth Lagoon. More traditional electronic dance music from Junior Boys and Cut Copy also found prominent placement in my playlists. Junior Boys have long straddled the border between headphone music and dancefloor music; their gentle, whispered vocals and clean synths sound great through earbuds, but their beats are utterly danceable and work just as well in a club setting, as I experienced at Webster Hall this summer. Their album closer “Banana Ripple” was a highlight (see Best Songs list).

Another trend I got behind was the dark, garage-y take on Phil Spector and early Motown and rock’n’roll. The Cults put out one of my favorite albums this year, and the Dum Dum Girls record Only In Dreams was also excellent, especially standout tracks “Bedroom Eyes” and “Coming Down.” Well-worn chord progressions, harmonies, and backbeats, all soaked in reverb — along the same lines as what She & Him have been doing, but less polished and less twee, and more fun.

I quite liked Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues and Bon Iver’s self-titled album; the latter barely edged out the excellent Parallax by Bradford Cox’s Atlas Sound for the #10 spot on my list.

I was hoping to love Bjork’s new project, but I felt the album, save for “Crystalline,” was meh. I confess I didn’t download the suite of Biophilia apps — maybe that would give me a different perspective?

R&B took a woozy drug trip this year, and I went along for the ride. The Weeknd’s House of Balloons wasn’t consistently good from start to finish, but there were more than a few standout tracks, including the opener, “High For This.” Frank Ocean’s mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra boasted two excellent songs, “Novacane” [sic] (see Best Songs list) and “Swim Good.”

On a closing note, I wouldn’t have been able to listen to all of this stuff without a streaming music service, and I’m glad Goldfarb eventually convinced me to jump on the MOG bandwagon. It’s been a good ride so far, with just a few bumps (the Black Keys’ new album mysteriously disappeared after a day or so) and I’m looking forward to streaming lots more music, new and old, in 2012.

top ten albums

10Bon Iver : Bon Iver

Standout Track(s): Calgary, Perth

09Cults: Cults

Standout Track(s): Go Outside, Abducted

08Panda Bear: Tomboy

Standout Track(s): Last Night at the Jetty

07Destroyer : Kaputt

Standout Track(s): Blue Eyes, Kaputt

06The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient

Standout Track(s): Baby Missiles, Brothers

05Charles Bradley: No Time for Dreaming

Standout Track(s): The World (Is Going Up In Flames), Why Is It So Hard, Golden Rule

04Britney Spears: Femme Fatale

Standout Track(s): Till the World Ends, Hold it Against Me

03Radiohead: King of the Limbs

Standout Track(s): Lotus Flower, Morning Mr Magpie

02Jay-Z / Kanye West: Watch the Throne

Standout Track(s): Niggas in Paris, Otis, New Day

01Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring for My Halo

Standout Track(s): Baby’s Arms, Jesus Fever, Runner Ups

honorable mentions

Atlas Sound // Parallax
Fleet Foxes // Hopelessness Blues
Neon Indian // Era Extrana
Junior Boys // It’s All True
Colin Stetson // New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
Yuck // Yuck
Frank Ocean // Nostalgia, Ultra
The Weeknd // House of Balloons
Dum Dum Girls // Only in Dreams

A damn good year for music.

similarity to overall top ten: 32.33%, 3 matches

top songs

Pop music in 2011 was dominated by two songs. Both were ubiquitous for the majority of the year; both had killer hooks; both cut across demographics and radio station formats; both were remixed a hundred times over.

One was a fun, ridiculous romp that ran away with the “song of the summer” title, in part by deftly flipping an old Rick Ross line about selling coke into an instantly infectious and innocuous call to shake it. Let me be clear: LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” was not the BEST song of 2011. But it was THE song of 2011, so it gets the top spot on my list — deal with it. It’s not a “classic” song by any stretch of the imagination — just the opposite. It’s a time capsule song. If you hear it five, ten years down the road, you’ll instantly be transported back to 2011, when pop was having an affair with electro, the kids wore ugly glasses ironically, and, hey, remember Herman Cain? That guy was hilarious. Everyday I’m shufflin’.

The other, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” began its slow burn up the charts around February; by summer it was inescapable. Of the high-profile female vocalists working in pop, she’s got the best chops by far. And when I heard the song on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, with just acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment, I dug it instantly. Intimate, emotional… you just wanted to give her a hug after she sang it. But the production on the album/radio version didn’t totally work for me, nor did the numerous four-on-the-floor remixes that made their way into DJ sets and dance radio playlists. It remains a good song, and I’m sure it will become a classic. It holds a ceremonial spot at #10.

Rihanna’s “S&M” was another ubiquitous hit, released back in January, but its over-the-top sexiness just struck me as silly. A much better single is her more recent “We Found Love,” which also boasts one of the better videos I’ve seen in a while. As for over-the-top sexiness that was plain-old sexy? Gotta give it up for Kelly Rowland’s stark hit “Motivation,” which deserves an honorable mention here, even though the Lil Wayne verse was both unnecessary and not his best effort. Britney Spears’ “Inside Out” also gets a nod (“Won’t you give me something to remember?/ Baby shut your mouth and turn me inside out.”)

Of course there were big hits by Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, et al., but 2011 was a Britney year for me. Not really because of Britney herself, but rather her team’s cutting-edge pop production and smart songcraft that didn’t demand much from her vocally. Even an awful groaner of a line like “If I said I want your body now/ Would you hold it against me?” somehow worked for me. And the dubstep bridge/breakdown section of that song was definitely one of the coolest and most unusual beats on pop radio this year. Plus, homegirl got engaged in December. All in all, a good year for Brit Brit.

Lady Gaga, on the other hand, had a lackluster year. Her 2011 singles — most notably “Born this Way” (or as I call it, “Express Yourself, Part 2”), “The Edge of Glory,” “Marry the Night” — were much weaker than her output in 2009 and 2010. “Born this Way” did become the queer anthem it was conceived to be, but as a pop tune it wasn’t nearly as fun or interesting as, say, “Bad Romance” or “Telephone.”

The saxophone had a big year, though it wasn’t because of my man Colin Stetson. Rather, prominent sax solos on Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” (the late Clarence Clemons) and Katy Perry’s, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (mimed on the video by Kenny G, but not actually recorded by him) recalled the instrument’s ’80s heyday, while danceclub tracks like “Mr. Saxobeat” by Alexandra Stan and Dev’s “In the Dark” used melodic sax hooks (real and synthesized) to create some of 2011’s most unshakeable earworms. And in the indie world, Destroyer used sax to super-smooth effect on Kaputt.

10Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”

09Junior Boys, “Banana Ripple”

08Beastie Boys, “Make Some Noise”Classic Beasties. Nice to hear them return to form. Love that dirty synth bass.

07Frank Ocean, “Novacane” [sic]I blame it on the model broad with the Hollywood smile/ Stripper booty and a rack like wow

06Jay-Z / Kanye West, “Otis” What would Hova do?

05Rihanna, “We Found Love”What would Hova do?

04Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends”

03Jay-Z / Kanye West, “Niggas in Paris”That shit cray.

02Kurt Vile, “Baby’s Arms”

01LMFAO, “Party Rock Anthem”Everyday I’m shufflin’.

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