In 2011 more so than ever before, I felt like I had my finger on the pulse from start to finish. Not coincidentally, 2011 is also the year of overwhelm: I officially hit critical mass. In what was already the busiest year of my life, I managed to ingest some three or four hundred new releases. Though I can be sure that will never happen again, I attribute that drive to the inception of Good Ol’ Boys, the aesthetic outlet I never knew I wanted. In all my exploration, I can recall literally only one true disappointment, and even it had its redeeming qualities. I spent most of the year slack-jawed at how awesome the quality (and awesomely non-stop the quantity) was of the releases.
I’ll most remember 2011 as a hotbed of unparalleled creativity, the kind of true artistry that can only be born of necessity. Such necessity, the need to create and have a voice, can be born only of times of crisis, conflict, and change such as these. That’s a pretty basic truth throughout history, but it’s worth noting a silver lining: when we have less, we do so much more. Beyond even that, we do it only because it means more to us than anything. Some of the best music of the year was given away for free (and in those cases, downloads are hyperlinked). That, to me, speaks highly of the human spirit and, in its integrity, inspires me to better myself. Now, without further ado …
FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2011
40. Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble – From the Stairwell (Denovali)
39. Sundress – Sundress (self-released)
38. Tinariwen – Tassili (ANTI-)
37. Thee Oh Sees – Carrion Crawler/The Dream (In the Red)
36. YOB – Atma (Profound Lore)
35. Grouper – A I A (Yellowelectric)
34. Rival Sons – Pressure and Time (Earache)
33. Shlohmo – Bad Vibes (Friends of Friends)
32. Moab – Ab Ovo (Kemado)
31. Lo-Pan – Salvador (Small Stone)
30. 2 Chainz – T.R.U. REALigion (self-released)
29. Wizard Smoke – The Speed of Smoke (self-released)
28. James Blake – James Blake (A&M/ATLAS)
27. Weedeater – Jason … The Dragon (Southern Lord)
26. The Stepkids – The Stepkids (Stones Throw)
25. The Cosmic Dead – Cozmik Tape I (Who Can You Trust?)
“Turn on, tune in, drop out,” defined. “Cosmic” is right … it’s got a big, spacey groove that just goes on and on, making the whole world dissolve away. It made many a rush hour commute pass by me before I could realize I’d even blinked. The power to make space and time so utterly irrelevent is a testament to the great power of music.
24. Mikal Cronin – Mikal Cronin (Trouble In Mind)
Cronin, longtime friend and collaborator of Ty Segall, has put together a wonderfully weird little pop album here, where 60s SoCal vibes crash right up against chugging fuzz and noisy feedback freakouts, like ocean waves right before a storm (a fitting analogue for the emotional place Cronin apparently was in his life at this record’s genesis). “Apathy” for best chord progression of 2011.
23. Curren$y x Alchemist – Covert Coup (self-released)
If I were a hip-hop purist (of which there are still a-plenty!), Spitta would be my #1 in the game right now. He only dropped heat this year (see also: DJ Drama collab Verde Terrace), and although he typically remains in one of maybe three or four lyrical arenas, he more than made up for that with incredible rhetorical deftness and a loose-but-perfect signature rhythmic delivery, always coolly behind the beat. Curren$y’s other gift is an ear for sophisticated instros tailored to his Steve McQueen flow, and with Alchemist, we have a match made in dark-shades-and-drop-tops Heaven. JETS.
22. Cave In – White Silence (Hydra Head)
Listening to Cave In is, for me, a heavy music masterclass, in tone, arrangement, and style. Many bands have tried, but no one except Cave In sounds like Cave In. Silence concentrates the breadth of the band’s best and most disparate elements (the chunkiest and the most ethereal) and packs them densely into a gorgeous, soaring fireball of a record. “Summit Fever” is a short-haired headbanger’s triumph; “Sing My Loves” nearly brought a tear to my eye. It’s a challenging, emotive, unique, awesome record from a challenging, emotive, unique, awesome band barely stepping into their prime after all these years.
21. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
I think Will Ferrell best summated Throne‘s appeal: “It’s provocative; it gets the people going.” (That clip’s inclusion was, in a way, ‘Ye breaking the fourth wall.) Leaving be that it’s thrilling (or just cray) to have a record this extreme, sensational, and largely unrelatable to so many become such an immediate cultural touchstone, I hated Watch the Throne until I started listening to it through the ears of Aziz Ansari. Now I just don’t see how anyone who claims to like music could any less than LOVE this record. Like, why would you NOT want to ball so hard?!
20. Mariachi El Bronx – Mariachi El Bronx (II) (ATO)
2011 was the year I fell in love with Bronx, Proper and their rocking, rolling, raging,anathematic fury. for mankind at large. Almost in parallel, I fell twice as hard for their second mariachi output in all its earnest. Matt Caughthran, with this effort, has joined the ranks of my favorite lyricists, as his words read with the sensuousness and effortless poetry of an Old West outlaw’s letter home, draped in the dress of border sounds. It’s an effort that tugs at the heartstrings of every cowboy who never was.
19. Drake – Take Care (Young Money/Cash Money)
The deadpan, distant delivery of “All my exes live in Texas, like I’m George Strait/Or they go to Georgia State” summates just about everything to which I can relate and enjoy about Take Care. At this point, Aubrey Graham has it all, except peace of mind. It was Björk who famously said, “There’s no one here; people everywhere,” and no one understands that paradox better, it seems, than Drake. A complex confluence of emotions – egotism, pleasure, loneliness, nostalgia, hopefulness, melancholy, ennui – comes to a head on the sprawling, sensuous Take Care, a modern answer of sorts to Here, My Dear. It’s a terrifically human record (thanks especially to little touches like the phone recording on “Marvin’s Room”) from a person whose stature ultimately renders his humanity invalid by our cultural constructs. It’s not successful because it’s a marketable record – it often borders on stream-of-consciousness. It’s successful because Drake makes us feel what he’s feeling. Somehow, he communicates powerfully through our one universal language. Anyone suffering from the plague of purism (“it’s not hip-hop,” “it’s too soft,” etc.) has failed to speak that language and grasp the big picture: Take Care is a great album, period.
18. Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming (Daptone/Dunham)
I still can’t believe this isn’t a 70s reissue. Beyond that, though, it’s still better than your average soul record. It’s the endless-repeat record at your local nameless corner bar; one of all the proverbial “wrong places” people go looking for love. GQ aptly called it “a howling, hooting affair fit for end times or just the end of the night.” Have you ever stayed out all night after a falling out with an old flame, having the best conversation of your life under streetlights with strangers you know you’ll never see again? Have you, at any point in your life, ever gravitated to the vibe of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”? Then you’ll totally feel this.
17. Earth – Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 (Southern Lord)
Earth, in concept, inspires me more than any other art I have experienced in many years. I’ve learned much about myself and my world by the wisdom of their design. Beyond that, there is little I can say about Angels more articulately than Ian Latta of Tiny Mix Tapes.
16. Trash Talk – Awake (True Panther)
Trash Talk is one of my favorite bands, and they’re exactly the band the populace needs as we watch our Empire and our legacies crumble around us. One can only hope the seeds of unrest TTC’s reign of terror are planting proliferates. If this record finds even one person because I’m writing this and the ensuing nine short minutes of mayhem inspire that person’s resolution to live 2012 with total abandon, my job here is done.
15. The Weeknd – House of Balloons / Thursday / Echoes of Silence (self-released)
Abel Tesfaye has aptly self-applied the label “loft music” to his music. The Balloons trilogy paints a woozy panorama of a lusty, lonely lush life, a tangerine dream. It’s blown-out, psychedelic rhythm-and-blues ecstasy, it’s the atmosphere of a world we half-remember and yet know all too well, and it’s utterly unlike anything that has preceded it. On a less outstanding year for music, any of the three of these entries would top my list by leaps and bounds.
14. BadBadNotGood – BADBADNOTGOOD / BBNG (self-released)
Save for watching punk rock be reborn through hip-hop, the thing I enjoyed most about the electrifying emergence of Odd Future was Tyler’s obvious ear for jazz in his compositions. Our neighbors to the north in BBNG recognized and capitalized upon this singular element, letting the unusual chord progressions breathe and billow, seeing where they led. BBNG’s prolific output provided nearly an entire afternoon’s worth of just-right jazz jams, which, in my opinion, is the perfect complement to any beautiful afternoon.
13. Graveyard – Hisingen Blues (Nuclear Blast)
Real rock ‘n roll isn’t a sound; it’s a state of mind, one that very few bands understand. It’s a thing that can hardly be described, but when you know, you just know. Hisingen Blues, by that standard, is the realest rock ‘n roll record of the year. In the words of Marvin Berry, it “really cooks!” I’m looking quite forward to see them do their thing later this month.
12. Balkans – Balkans (Double Phantom)
The first time I heard Black Sabbath, I fell in love with the mix of the record before I even paid attention to anything else. The same is true of Balkans, who, with their dense, airtight weird-pop, would be just the kind of band Kurt Cobain would’ve insistently taken on tour.
11. Mastodon – The Hunter (Reprise/Warner Bros.)
Brent Hinds, from all I can surmise, is the Adam Levine of metal, in that he needed fame to substantiate his outrageous conceit. And that’s precisely what The Hunter sounds like: a massive, egoist “rock god” record from the last living dude who legitimately believes he’s a “rock god” (let alone that such a thing should exist). These songs are ten feet tall and bulletproof, in a way that they only could have come from the mind of a madman who knows he alone is responsible for every one of the best metal records of the past decade. It was inevitable that the madman shake loose from the chains of “thinking man’s” concept albums eventually; here, the band’s really not doing a whole lot more than showing off. But since it’s Mastodon, that’s not only okay … it’s awesome.
10. Red Fang – Murder the Mountains (Relapse)
Some of my all-time favorite records are the ones I absolutely do not like at first listen, but then, over weeks and months of the frenzy of the everyday, I drift exhaustedly back to them again and again. I’m not sure how this one kept its hooks in me for so long, but maybe it was just that: its hooks. And in Red Fang’s world, “hook” = “riff” (except in the case of opener “Malverde,” which features the “I Wish I’d Written That” turn-of-phrase of the year “Life’s a trick/Life’s a trick/I can’t believe you’re fallin’ for it”) The riffs, and the axes from which they resonate, are like their players: big, burly, and beat-up, sticking around only until the beer runs out. The most distinctly (not to be confused with “innovatively”) Red Fang thing is the way their highly robotic riffs build and build until they’ve been whipped into a full-on high-head frenzy by song’s end (see: “Wires”). I couldn’t make much sense of what they were about until I saw them live, at which point I realized it was basically the same as what I love about watching old footage of Skynyrd: they start hot and just keep hammering until, by set’s end, they’ve burned it right on down. No frills, no lulls, no bull … just riffs on riffs on riffs. Perfect dude music. Shut up and bang your head.
09. Big K.R.I.T. – ReturnOf4Eva (self-released)
I love living in a world where the Southern school of hip-hop style so integral to my young life is properly revered. As such, K.R.I.T., a true student of the game, is deservedly getting his proper shine all around. I wasn’t sure he could top K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, but he did, with a more dynamic and tightly-executed effort. No sophomore slump here; 4Eva is as organic a forward progression as I’ve heard, and as impressive to boot (not to be overlooked is that he is singlehandedly responsible for instrumentals and lyrics!). Next time you go for a night drive and the Atlanta skyline’s in your sight, let the 1-2-3 sequence of “King’s Blues”-“Time Machine”-“Get Right” reground you in the big, fat, funky, freewheelin’, fantastic glory of the Dirty South.
08. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain (Vice)
To pretty strong effect, Arabia Mountain seems to capture both the essence of the Lips’ wildness and bizarro-pop appeal. To the credit of Mark Ronson’s deftness, each song feels like a boyishly direct but brilliantly executed send-up of a particular band or sound – the Ramones on “Raw Meat,” Exile-era Stones on “Dumpster Dive,” 60s AM Gold on “Bicentennial Man,” country-western Del-Tones on “Time” – but it all remains so distinctively Black Lips. It’s sometimes hard to hang in for the duration (because you just can’t keep partying as long as they want to, I presume), but each cut on its own is a stellar party-timin’ groove. To that end, picking the record up a single at a time made it win my adoration over time: “Modern Art” and “Mad Dog” were, for a spell, two of my most-listened tracks this year. Prior to Arabia Mountain, my only exposure to the band was having seen them perform at a rainy midday set in my alma mater’s courtyard. In thirty minutes, they managed to crowdsurf a 6’ table, frisbee-toss pizzas, and spray their complimentary case of Red Bulls on a totally unsuspecting school-day crowd. I’d say that serves as a just about right analogy for this introduction to their largest audience yet.
07. Big Jesus – Big Jesus (self-released)
Four songs? Only twelve minutes? Fine, just keep it on repeat. It’s a big, bluesy, grungy first effort for these local boys that, in my opinion, would’ve translated to instant success in the 99X heyday. Nevertheless, these songs are too good to be denied, and I’m excited to see what else they have up their sleeves. A house show featuring Big J (who figuratively brought the house down with their “Breed” cover) and Atlanta’s finest rock outfits was the far-and-away highlight of my live music 2011.
06. White Denim – D (Downtown)
My first recommendation of White Denim to a friend billed them as the “hipster Allman Brothers.” That was, in retrospect, a magnificently reductive undersell and a gross inaccuracy. What White Denim actually is, as far as I can tell, is an unbelievably intricate amalgamation of years upon years, layers upon layers of blues, folk, soul, Americana, jazz, funk, psych, and prog from all over the world. D was subconsciously crafted from a peerless body of music history scholarship to feel as if culled from the memories of our senses. This was further evidenced by their stellar springtime mixtape. Come for the bliss of D’s three leading tracks, stick around once “Street Joy” helps you remember that dreamy, love-at-first-sight feeling. In all, it’s a real delight.
05. Young Widows – In and Out of Youth and Lightness (Temporary Residence)
By no coincidence, Youth was recorded in a Midwestern funeral home. That paints a picture of all the words I could use to describe it: haunted, ghostly, eerie, and pregnant with the startling wisdom of the Great Beyond. It was a fitting companion to the endless nights dovetailing the inhumanly long days of my 2011; insomniatic, world-weary, a million miles away. Evan Patterson’s demons menacingly circle the heart of this record from a distance, and the result is an arty, woozy, unsettling exorcism of broken man’s blues. It’s a slow-burner that recalls the same delayed, lingering impact as, say, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. Sonically, they’re a band’s band: a perfect mix locks in Patterson’s galaxian Telecaster jangle with bassist Nick Theineman’s near-infamous leviathan bass muscle. With Youth, the group has finally outgrown the pejorative Jesus Lizard comparisons and evolved into an exciting new territory they now solely occupy.
04. Bass Drum of Death – GB City (Fat Possum)
The “two-guy-lo-fi” approach has been beaten to death, but these cats do with attitude, like juke joint first-timers with something to prove. They have these killer Keith Richards/Jesse Hughes riffs and a knack for writing down-and-dirty, punky, bluesy jammers that stay stuck in your head (and hips) long after the record’s left a ringing in your ears. Stomp, clap, bang, hoop, holler, whatever … this one makes you move. It’s my party record of the year.
03. Trap Them – Darker Handcraft (Prosthetic)
Last year, I touted Black Breath’s Heavy Breathing as the hardest record I’ve ever heard … consider the throne usurped. Handcraft is a half-hour of unchecked primal rage. Whatever part of a man deep down inside stores venom, boiled blood, and the bitter acrimony of watching a world go to ruin; that is the very depths from which these songs are pulled. It’s all nailbombs and contagion.
02. A$AP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP (Sony/RCA/Polo Grounds)
It’s hard to put into words what I love so much about this tape. With Rocky, it’s not the flow, or the lyrical content, or the beats, or the delivery. It’s the total package. It’s the vibe, and it’s a meticulously crafted one of hypnagogia and hedonism (here, “trill,” for short).LiveLoveA$AP isn’t so much a hip-hop record, then, as a curatorial exhibit, and as such, the real all-star here is virtuoso beatmaker Clams Casino, the new best producer in the universe. You know a Clams beat when you hear it; it’s akin to the slow-rolling awe of a planetarium experience. The supporting cast of promising production upstarts DJ Burn One (the Clams to Yelawolf’s Trunk Muzik), Spaceghostpurrp, and Beautiful Lou round out the Purple planet’s landscapes. I may be blaspheming, but I find it fitting the tape’s cover recalls Stankonia. Just over a decade in its shadow, A$AP owes it everything. It may not be revolutionary like Stankonia was, but they’re spiritual cousins inasmuch as they both insist upon living on their own planet.
01. Tom Waits – Bad As Me (ANTI-)
“No good, you say?/Well, that’s good enough for me.”
Waits is one of my heroes, if little more than a rambler’s junkheap of anachronistic affectations, and Bad is 190-proof Waits. I can hardly speak about a figure so wrought with mystique, so subjectively interpretable as Waits (I still think he’s the inspiration for the Dos Equis guy), especially as pitch-perfectly as Sasha Frere-Jones has already done (what’s new?). In under an hour, he’s a troubadour, a balladeer, a savage, a salesman, a poet, a pirate, a sinner, a solider, and a saint. Waits is weird, wild, and willfully genius. Like America itself, Waits is a tall tale, full of magic, mystery, and mythos. Waits is one of my heroes.
FAVORITE SONGS OF 2011
20. “Caught In a Daze” – David Dallas ft. Freddie Gibbs (from The Rose Tint)
Its groove skates along like a windows-down ride around town in a wide-body. Best served in the Friday evening dusk before a big night out; it’s mellow and yet coolly wrought with optimistic anticipation.
19. “Zombies Never Die (Blues)” – Bohren and Der Club of Gore (from Beileid)
Picture Stephen O’Malley scoring Mulholland Drive. It’s pulpy and haunting; a noir monologue slowed to an ethereal drone.
18. “Gangsta” – tUnE-yArDs (from W H O K I L L)
Cries of unrest haven’t felt this rock ‘n roll since we lost Joe Strummer. Also, best/danciest bassline of the year.
17. “City Star” – Rustie (from Glass Swords)
In the vein of the Beatles’ spiritual journey to India, this sounds, to me, like the byproduct of a Lex Luger sabbatical on Tron. Finally, crunk gets weird.
16. “Loud Pockets” – Young L (from DOMO-KUN)
“YEEEEEEEEAH … I’m that boy.” The 2k11 anthem for anyone who feels like a million billion trillion bucks.
15. “Rumour Has It” – Adele (from 21)
“Rolling in the Deep” will still get plays in thirty years, and rightfully so, but this big-mama sweaty soul stomper is more in my wheelhouse. My choice cut from an album full of perfect songs.
14. “Machu Picchu” – The Strokes (from Angles)
A fun, breezy glam throwaway. RIYL: the 80s (unironically); sunshine (ironically); beautiful women; poolside parties where everyone is overspending, overdressed, and not swimming
13. “Takyon (Death Yon)” – Death Grips (from Exmilitary)
Remember being a kid hearing Slayer for the first time? I got the same feeling, and it was thrilling. It’s the End Times soundtrack. It’s lights-out.
12. “CDC” – Dom Kennedy ft. Casey Veggies & cARTer (from The Original Dom Kennedy)
When Stevie Johnson did the cooking dance in the endzone, I like to imagine he was actually listening to this song. Casey Veggies is that dude.
11. “cuspcake” – Time Wharp (from later.)
“So Fresh So Clean,” Outer Space Edition.
10. “Y’all Know” – SPEAK! (from Inside Out Boy)
The big, bearded creeper stealing the spotlight in the “Gucci Gucci” vid, as it were, can really spit. This cut has the same uptown grown-man swagger as “Green Onions.”
09. “Every Night” – James Pants (from James Pants)
A tacky, frenetic, neon smooth jam for our weird world of arrhythmia and bad fashion. Like if Billy Dee Williams had shot his Colt 45 commercials in a nightclub, but with a wink of irony.
08. “International Whisperer’s Anthem (Sexy Sax Mix)” – Skratch Bastid
Sorry, Willie Hutch. Juicy should’ve sampled “Careless Whisper” all along. Proof of the truth in “too much of a good thing, is a good thing.” The best jam for when the party starts winding down.
07. “Goodbye” – Killing Floor
The local band I don’t even think existed this time last year blindsided me with an amazing three-song demo, which didn’t even include this slab of white-hot psychedelic blues. The call-and-response refrain at the song’s close will linger in your bones long after the fadeout.
06. “White Limo” – Foo Fighters (from Wasting Light)
Grohl’s time with the(m) Vultures keeps paying dividends! It may be the first Foos cut that all-out rips with the same authority as his other bands – a claim only further substantiated by Lemmy’s presence in the video.
05. “You See Me” – Childish Gambino (from Camp)
In three words: That. Third. Verse.
04. “In My Car (Tha Puff Bus)” – Wiz Khalifa ft. Juicy J
Young Khalifa’s sing-song delivery and breezy braggadocio flawlessly complement a soul-powered instrumental. It was the perfect anytime groover for the whole of my 2011.
03. “Gucci Gucci” – Kreayshawn
Until A$AP dropped “Bass,” it was my runaway favorite beat of the year. If you don’t love this song, you hate freedom. Infinite repeat = endless party
02. “Thinking About You” – Frank Ocean
Lonny brought it all the way up from deep down in his gut, like Lenny Williams used to do. This one flat takes my breath away.
01. “I’m On One” – DJ Khaled ft. Drake, Rick Ross, & Lil’ Wayne (from We The Best Forever)
This song was literally everywhere; it stuck around until I caved in and fell in love. I can weave all my best 2011 stories singularly through the fabric of this song. The vibe goes beyond words; it’s an experiential, totally transcendent moment in pop. It connects us in a way that our words along fail to do. THAT’S what great music is.
Hats off to another great one, friends. Can’t wait to enjoy 2012 the same way … here’s to every sweet minute.