Thursday, January 26, 2012

Totally Unauthorized: 2011 Album of the Year Awards

I've learned a great deal in my first full year publishing to this site. I've managed to listen to and review
a great variety of music and draw from a considerable amount of resources, which was one of my goals for the site.

But I've entertained the notion of possibly narrowing my focus, or streamlining my processes in some way. I suppose it's somewhat of a reaction to the year in music. Despite it being a solid year, I don't feel like it captured the magic of 2010.

Last year featured legendary releases from Arcade Fire, Deerhunter, Orphaned Land, and Crystal Castles, and very solid albums by Best Coast, Kanye West, and Jamey Johnson. So what did this year bring us? I've laid out my top 10 albums, but first a few miscellaneous categories to touch on:

Best New Artist

James Blake

This was a pretty tight race between James Blake and Yuck. I had to side with the UK dubstep DJ due to his unique perspective and sense of innovation. Blake possesses a deep and creative mind, and it shows on his debut LP. 

Characterized by minimalist electronica and soulful vocals, it's an album that leaves you with something new to discover with each new listen. Each note is like a watercolor brushstroke upon a downbeat canvas. I usually have to be in the right mood to fully appreciate this record, but the potential shown here is more than enough for Blake to grab the Best New Artist crown.

Biggest Disappointment of 2011
  Lupe Fiasco
The third album can often be considered a make or break moment in an artist's career. It appeared that Lupe Fiasco was on schedule to launch himself into the stratosphere following a pair of albums that were critically acclaimed but flew under the radar commercially.

But a funny thing happened along the way. Lupe found himself saddled with Atlantic Records. Lasers presented Lupe the opportunity to develop his voice and take his sense of introspection to new heights, but Atlantic instead opted to deliver an album mostly filled with soulless pop rap. It's designed to be good for a weekend on the dance floor but little more.

Very little about this record feels like Lupe Fiasco, save for maybe "Words I Never Said" and the stunning "All Black Everything." Lasers should have been Lupe's chance to unveil his talent to a wider audience. Unfortunately, corporate greed and politicking doomed that vision from the start.
 Most Overrated Album 
 Bon Iver
 Bon Iver

Don't get me wrong; this is still a good album. However, since its release this summer, Bon Iver has witnessed a gargantuan groundswell of support that I can't find myself getting on board with.

It seems as though Justin Vernon's sole purpose was to impress people by showing them how emotional he can be. An endeavor like that is flawed from the get-go. True emotion is something that should just show through naturally in your music without having to do anything special.

The sense I get is that Vernon was trying to be emotional simply for the emotion's sake. It's like he's saying, "Hey, look at how emotional I am! Isn't that awesome?" I know many people have deeply connected with this record, but ultimately I just can't feel what he's talking about here.

Parody of the Year
Brock's Dubs
Jenna Haze - My Jeans

Culled from the ashes of Rebecca Black, Jenna Haze sought to wreak havoc on our ears with -- what else? An ode to designer jeans. At least the good news is that's incredibly easy to poke fun at, and Brock's Dubs has time and time again proven to be one of the best at insightful criticism and gut busting humor.

Brock replaces Haze's saccharine auto tune screech with a throaty, deep pitched voice while mocking the superficiality her clothing obsession. If you also happen to like seeing cars drive off cliffs, this might be the vid for you.

Best Live Show
    Tune Yards at Exit/In

Merrill Garbus of Tune Yards experienced a breakout year with the release of w h o k i l l, and she was even awesome enough to bring her live set right up to our doorstop in Nashville. Garbus is an artist now hitting her stride, and that fact alone was enough for the Exit/In to crackle with intensity.

Not only did we get the chance to hear almost all of the songs on the album that night, it also became evident that there are several elements in the music that are much more clearly defined when hearing it live. Those thick basslines and the raw power of her ukulele are obvious examples. Innovation, personality, and originality make Tune Yards an act you won't want to pass up.

10. Cities Aviv - Digital Lows

When Gavin Mays released his debut album, Digital Lows, on his bandcamp account, it went virtually unnoticed. This is a real shame, because Mays has managed to put his own spin onto the genre and put out a product that feels fresh, unique, and full of life.

The main attraction of the album are the beats, which move around from 70s soul to banging, clanging electronica to the downbeat backing sounds of Memphis horror rap. Digital Lows is also striking because it manages to capture a broad variety of feelings.

Sometimes you are going through hell, sometimes you feel jubilant, other times you may find yourself getting wistful over past loves, and every now and then you just want to say to hell with everyone. All this is delivered through Mays's steady tone and unflinching flow. It's a promising start for a great young artist who should only continue to improve.

9. Yuck - Yuck

A band like Yuck raises an interesting debate. How closely can you emulate your influences before you lose your own identity? UK rockers Yuck wear their influences on their sleeves, taking cues from Sonic Youth, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., The Stone Roses, and a whole host of other badass 90s rock outfits.

The instrumentation is solid, but nothing groundbreaking. So are they really just a case of a band riding the coattails of a previous generation of superior bands? The big chink in that argument is that the songwriting here is just too damn good. The aural assault of "Get Away," "Holing Out" and "The Wall" bring to mind the sun soaked joy of a summer day and the unbridled excitement of youth, while softer touches like "Suicide Policeman" and "Sunday" show off the Pavement style alt rock balladry the band has managed to capture so well. It's true that Yuck borrows heavily from their influences, but it's also clear that there is no one else capable of interpreting these sounds quite like this.

8. Opeth - Heritage

Like last year, there hasn't been much in metal that has excited me. I feel that I am losing interest in this form of music. Amon Amarth and Obscura put out technically sound releases, but I find myself coming back to Opeth as my favorite.

The first half of the album is a delicious cornucopia of sounds and senses; there's a quiet melodic piano piece, vibrant and driving hard rock, delightful blends of folk and rock, along with Opeth's own patented blend of progressive metal. The second half is more folky and progressive, and I admit I tend to space out a bit on these tracks.

But there's also sludgy Sabbath sounding riffs and twisted flute solos. What's not to like? Heritage stretches itself out in front of our imagination as the perfect embodiment of Mikael Akerfeldt's1970s inspired dreamland.

7. Ott - Mir

I have a sneaking suspicion that Ott always dreamed of being an astronaut or scientist, but he ended up producing electronic music instead. His third album, Mir, is a veritable smorgasbord of ideas. Like an all you can eat buffet; each track gives you a little of this, a little of that, and then a little something different.

He moves around from dastardly dubstep to tripped out techno reggae, and even makes time to slow it down and get insightful at times. But what doesn't change throughout the record is Ott's zany and bizarre sense of personality. This may have been a banner year for electronic music, but you won't find anything more bizarrely enchanting as Ott's Mir.

6. Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning

This also takes the cake for most underrated album of the year. Why is no one talking about this record? It's so great! Anyhow, Steven Wilson, genius songwriter behind Porcupine Tree, takes advantage of the opportunity to go all King Crimson on us and releases one of the best progressive rock records in a while.

Each song has plenty of mellow and heartfelt verse/chorus parts in that are reminiscent of Porcupine Tree, but the defining trait in most songs is the darker, twisted, more experimental solos of various nature. The sound is sometimes dramatic, like you're gearing up for some epic battle. Sometimes it's subdued, and sometimes it's downright unnerving. But it will always make you think -- precisely what progressive rock is meant to do.

5. The Decemberists - The King is Dead

Colin Meloy is a master architect of sounds and melodies. Part wordsmith and part mad scientist, he's crafted overblown colonial epics and dramatic rock operas, but The King is Dead sees him opting for a different route. The formula employed is much more simple here, drawing your attention to the warmth of the bright, vibrant harmonies.

This music is much like a sugar rush, but it's also very organic and earthy at the same time. Violins, steel guitars, and other assorted instruments provide a very folky yet also countrified feel. The lyrics possess a layer of density, but are also intriguing and well worded. Meloy proves that sometimes cutting out the fat can be a highly effective method for moving forward.

4. The Black Keys - El Camino

After releasing their breakthrough, Brothers, last year, it seemed that the Black Keys 2011 release, El Camino, would be one of the best pure rock records of the year. Focusing on their love of blues, along with some slight tinges of soul, El Camino establishes itself as a very straight ahead record. The formula is predicated upon large, catchy choruses designed to get your foot tapping and have you humming along. Along the way you get great guitar work and the catchy and driving drum beats of Patrick Carney. No matter your preference, there were few artists able to match Dan Auerbach's sense of cool in 2011.

3. Panda Bear - Tomboy

The electronic genre had an incredible showing in 2011. James Blake, Ott, Balam Acab, and Toro Y Moi all had great releases, and then there was a Sepalcure album that came out of nowhere and blew my mind. But the spoils will go to Noah Lennox for the terrific Tomboy. He draws from his experience in Animal Collective, elaborately and meticulously layering his audio files to create a lush and vibrant backdrop.

In fact, I can't think of when I've heard a record with a sound like this. There's a very fluid feeling, as though I'm riding an inner tube down a river while listening to the album. But he also takes cues from the Beach Boys in the way the harmonies are gloriously constructed. These two elements combine to forge a sound that is deeply moving and instinctively unique.

2. Tune Yards - w h o k i l l

It is fitting that the original title of this album was Women Who Kill. In 2011, Merill Garbus of Tune Yards proved she was capable of slaughtering pretty much anything in her path. W h o k i l l is a fascinating blend of several different genres that come together in a way that is bold, full of personality, and totally unique. Garbus seamlessly merges Caribbean, African, and pop styles to create a blender blowing combination.

"Gangsta" and "Bizness" show off the patented power and aggression in Garbus's compositions, "Powa" gives us a peek at her emotional prowess. At times, w h o k i l l is a bit out there and may not be for everyone. But if you love innovation and creativity, it's hard to do much better.

1. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

The ultimate album of 2011, Helplessness Blues masterfully combines folk, melody and emotion in a way no one else could. The Fleet Foxes expand on the pastoral promise of their debut by crafting increasingly complex harmonies and by forging challenging and unique instrumentation. Permeating through it all is the mellow and melodious voice of Robin Pecknold, as clear and crisp as a cool glass of amber wine.

This is an album full of daring tales of adventure and regret, daring and disquiet, wonder and introspection. It's awe inspiring how a simple tune like "Blue Spotted Tail" can fill you with the same sensation you get from staring up into the starry night sky. Few have covered as much territory, or articulated it as thoroughly as Mr. Pecknold and the Fleet Foxes did here.

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