E.’s favorite albums and tracks from twenty eleven

Again, shout out to my bro K. for motivating me to make this list. In response to the positive feedback from our lists last year, we started a tumblr, where we post about music, sports, and whatever else interests us. We’ve been featured on The Fader and some sports sites, so check us out if you’re into the whole blog scene.

Anyway, here are my favorite albums of the year. I’ve hyperlinked my favorite track from each.

10. Clams Casino – Instrumentals
Seeing this compilation album near the top of several year-end lists surprised me. Rarely do instrumentals get this much attention by themselves. Then again, rarely does a producer release his instrumentals in this way. All the songs exude a certain Zen feeling. He expertly creates spacey and dreamy tracks by warping vocals (“I’m Official” and “Realist Alive”) but always employs a steady head-nodding beat that grounds the tracks—and probably grounds the on-another-planet artists (e.g., Lil B, Soulja Boy, Main Attrakionz), too.

I listened to this album umpteen times while working, flying, sleeping, reading, and meditating. Maybe extracting Lil B’s saccharine tenor voice from “Motivation” and Soulja Boy’s velvety baritone from “All I Need” automatically improved the tracks. Regardless, this album and its success proves that Clams Casino’s production can stand on its own.

9. Big KRIT – Return of 4eva
Any listener with a pulse can sense the effort KRIT put into this album. With aplomb, he narrates his Mississippi story over tracks that he produced. The tracks alternate between thought-provoking, soul-searching songs (“Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism,” “American Rapstar,” “Dreamin’”) to trunk-rattling, speaker-bumping anthems (“Country S— (Remix),” “My Sub”). That vacillation, that seamless movement—that’s the South I know.

I guess you could consider this an OutKast tribute album. After all, almost every song features high-pitched Southernplayalistic drums; some songs quote Andre 3000 or Big Boi verbatim (“Forever-ever?”). Ultimately, KRIT and other southern rap artists recognize the meteor-sized impact OutKast left. The real question is, how could you make a southern rap album without referencing the best selling and most critically adored southern hip-hop group ever?

8. Destroyer – Kaputt
“Four more years, four more years, four hundred more years of this s—. F— it.” Though the band released this album at the beginning of 2011, it clairvoyantly tapped into a growing American sentiment: though the world’s been cracking around us, it’s time to chill out. It feels like the 1980s. True, the Cold War and the prospect of mutually assured destruction probably had other psychological effects for the youth of the 1980s, but the morass of the financial crisis and the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has had a similarly deep effect. The lyrics and instrumentation in songs “Kaputt” (originally titled “The Cocaine Addicts”; lyrics quoted above) and “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” exemplify this idea: upbeat rhythms and melodic woodwinds accompanied by solemn horns and indeterminate lyrics.

7. Curren$y and Alchemist – Covert Coup
When Curren$y left Young Money in the mid-2000s, he chose to eschew the radio/ringtone world of hip-hop. All the better. With complete creative control, he and super-producer The Alchemist crafted a classic album that gets better after each listen. Curren$y still raps about smoking and driving, but that’s his strength. Does Rolex manufacture digital watches? Does Ferrari make toasters?

Most remarkably (and maybe counterintuitively based on the limited lyrical subject matter), Curren$y displays his range by rapping over Alchemist’s mid-tempo, icy cold tracks. Usually, he rhymes over jazzy samples reminiscent of Camp Lo and A Tribe Called Quest. Here, even the soulful songs (“BBS,” “Smoke Break”) have an apocalyptic tinge. Besides Curren$y’s brilliant wordplay, the two best moments come when Fiend croons in the middle of “Blood, Sweat, and Gears” and when Freddie Gibbs picks up the mic during “Scottie Pippens.”

Radio stations, continue to play the same fifteen songs over and over. Until you change your ways, Curren$y (and Kendrick Lamar, Dom Kennedy, Killa Kyleon, Sir Michael Rocks, etc.) will continue to produce legendary music that won’t reach the airwaves.

6. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Jay-Z and Kanye West had nothing to gain from this album. Both have received almost every accolade imaginable for hip-hop. But they love their art.

Kanye, the preeminent hip-hop producer for the past decade, took his production game to another level. Critics have lambasted Kanye for sampling too much, but he freshly used the method on “Otis” and “The Joy.” Also, similar to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he presumably reached out to artists who could add something special. This time, he chose Frank Ocean whose off-kilter yet undeniably black-music lyrics (“No Church in the Wild,” “Made in America”) somehow mixed well. Ocean’s inclusion speaks to his ability but also to West’s impeccable vision. Perhaps Jay-Z’s presence brought out the best in him.

Jay-Z’s rapping on this album far surpasses anything from his recent studio albums. He reached down to an energy that I thought had died after the first Blueprint. I dread to compare his verses on “Who Gon Stop Me,” “Ni**as in Paris,” and “Illest Motherf—– Alive” to anything on Kingdom Come. Perhaps Kanye’s presence brought out the best in him.

5. James Blake – James Blake
This album stands as an exercise in consummate musicianship. Blake, a classically trained pianist, has a passion for gospel music and post-dubstep club music. That all comes out in his fragile vocals (especially on “I Never Learnt to Share”); chopped-up production and filtered singing (“The Wilhelm Scream,” “To Care (Like You)”); and his recital-worthy ivory skills (“Give Me My Month”). Simply wizard.

4. Drake – Take Care
“I’m the greatest, man, I said that before I knew I was.” In one fell swoop, Drake and his producer 40 rekindled the magic of So Far Gone and surpassed the big-budget sound of Thank Me Later. By releasing songs over the summer (“Dreams Money Can Buy,” “Marvin’s Room,” “Club Paradise”) and revealing that The Weeknd would appear on several tracks, he hinted at the album’s direction: spacey, syrup-slowed synth and drums.

But the body of work displayed Drake’s maturation as a rapper and singer. “Look What You’ve Done” and “The Ride” revealed more personal information than half of hip-hop’s new releases from 2011. And “Lord Knows” (produced by Just Blaze) and “Under Ground Kings” probably destroyed any argument that has been made against him in the past few years: shows too much emotion, sings too much, raps soft, etc. I suppose folks can keep saying all that, but they will continue to miss the point.

3. A$AP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP
A$AP Rocky’s LiveLoveA$AP is the best full-length mixtape debut for a rap artist. From its otherworldly and stellar production to its clever-than-you-think lyrics and its on-point features, it’s seamlessly excellent with no pretense. The album’s glorification of drug-use, as opposed to glorifying Rocky’s recent drug-selling past (“Crack game’s f—– up, boy / f— you think I rap for?”), tells a compelling story without feeling self-absorbed.

LiveLoveA$AP represents a significant hip-hop moment as well as an effective confluence of various rap cultures: southern (specifically Memphis and Houston; “Trilla” embodies that chopped ‘n screwed sound), West Coast (the back-and-forth with Californian Schoolboy Q on “Brand New Guy” rivals any similar flow between Jay-Z and Kanye West on Watch the Throne), ambient (“Get Lit” may have dropped from Mars or Jupiter), Midwest (never heard anyone pull off the Bone Thugs flow like Rocky on “Purple Swag: Chapter 2”), and more.

In the songs mentioned above and the other tracks on the album, you’ll hear southern-influenced beats featuring prototypical East Coast flows, indescribable warped-out Clams Casino tracks accompanied by smoked-out half-singing/half-rapping (“Demons”), and other combinations that Rocky and his ASAP crew manage to pull off.

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
This year, I kept coming back to the haunting sounds of this cozy album, especially the songs “Michicant” and “Holocene.” Vernon succeeds at maintaining his inner twang but also mixing in horns and some contemporary production elements, making the tracks sound both modern and nostalgic. He has an ear for rich harmonies, which sound most majestic when he layers his voice over his own voice.

This album stands apart because of its quality from start to finish. No need to skip any of the ten songs. If you feel chilly in 2012, crank up this album, throw on some flannel, and grab a High Life.

1. The Weeknd – House of Balloons / Thursday / Echoes of Silence
I thought the stagnant nature of rhythm and blues, which for many years defined black music and inspired other genres, had become the norm. Would Luther and Marvin Gaye accept “OMG” representing the genre?

Then The Weeknd mysteriously broke onto the scene. He released a troika of albums through the Internet over the course of the year. Contemplatively, his songs revolve around the ups and downs of nightlife: drink spilling (“The Party and the After Party”), recreational drugs (all of them), and the occasional missed connection (“Coming Down”). He also laments the unfulfilling prospect of chasing women—and more often, the problems that arise when women chase him.

House of Balloons outshines the other two albums (especially its tracks “What You Need” and “Coming Down”). Still, Thursday (“The Zone” ft. Drake, the song “Thursday”) and Echoes of Silence (“Initiation” and “The Fall,” produced by Clams Casino) best almost any other R&B album in recent memory.

and now my favorite tracks from this year

1. Frank Ocean – Thinking About You
Enigmatic, peculiar, and gorgeous. If you can figure out what the video is about, please inform me.

2. Adele – Rolling in the Deep
I expect to hear this song on the radio in twenty years.

3. DJ Khaled ft. Drake, Rick Ross, & Lil Wayne – I’m On One
Hip-hop’s song of the year. Drake and 40 killed it, once again.

4. Destroyer – Kaputt
Perfect song for this year fraught with substance-inspired songs

5. SBTRKT ft. Little Dragon – Wildfire
Unexpected but appreciated

6. The Internet – Love Song
One-and-a-half minutes of Odd Future’s Syd bemoaning a lost lady love

7. James Blake & Bon Iver – Fall Creek Boys Choir
Watch the throne.

8. Clams Casino for Lil B – Motivation
Some snaps, some moaning, some magic

9. The Weeknd – Coming Down
It’s the near-silent Japanese in the background that adds a mystical twist

10. Curren$y ft. Freddie Gibbs – Scottie Pippens
Freddie Gibbs almost stole the whole album with his verse

11. A$AP Rocky & Schoolboy Q – Brand New Guy
Schoolboy Q did the same

12. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Who Gon Stop Me
Even at age 42, Jay-Z can rap circles around anyone

13. Radiohead – Separator
The guitar at about 2:45 reminded me why this band has no equal

14. The Roots ft. Big KRIT – Make My
This video and the whole concept album drew a tear from my eye

15. Drake – Trust Issues
He and 40 flipped “I’m On One” into a ballad just for fun

16. James Blake – I Never Learnt to Share
Apparently, Blake’s an only child.

17. Big KRIT – R4 Theme Song
Refrain from being lame, indeed

18. Toro Y Moi – Saturday Love
Too much fun

19. Freddie Gibbs ft. Dom Kennedy – Menace II Society
Producer Cardo brings back g-funk for this track

20. Young Jeezy ft. Jay-Z & Andre 3000 – I Do
Heavyweights got on one knee: Jeezy and Jay for the game; 3000, for the woman of his psychedelic dreams

21. How to Dress Well – Us in the Sense of Forever
Did they ever Free Willy?

22. Drake ft. Rick Ross – Free Spirit
Probably Drake’s best verses of 2011

23. Young L – Bottle of Rosé
NorCal’s finest producer makes a tune to bump in the trunk

24. Speak! – Y’all Know
Ride out to the ghostwriter of “Gucci Gucci”

25. Kendrick Lamar – Rigamortis
To play the role of Pandora: if you like Eminem and Kanye, you should listen to this song and all of his album Section.80

and that’s it.

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