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The Top Albums of 2011: Honorable Mentions

By ; December 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM 


Nicolas Jaar

Space Is Only Noise

[Circus Company]

The tracklist to Space Is Only Noise looks like the table of contents for some sort of scholarly journal, and the tracks pan out like some sort of art-school magnum opus. It wears its pretensions on its sleeve, and somehow it’s still so relatable. The album begins with a prosaic speech sampled over a field recording of a flowing stream, before diving into some of the most intriguing music of the year, in that it manages to sound, feel, and pace itself like dance music, while being wholly undanceable. Sure, it has all the slow club beats and samples of dance music, but there’s just some slight thing so off about the style Jaar has defined on this album, something the listener can’t point out but knows is there. That’s hardly a discredit to the songs on Space is Only Noise, the off-kilter elements of which make the album one that demands reexamination. From the down-tempo groove of “I Got a Woman” to the tubular vocal harmonies of “Too Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust” and the spaced-out haunted-house piano hook of “Keep Me There,” an intent listen to Space is Only Noise is sure to reward.

- Harrison Suits Baer


Jay-Z & Kanye West

Watch the Throne

[Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam / Roc Nation]

Although there’s always been differences in their artistic identities, the divide between Jay-Z and Kanye West has increased dramatically in recent years. Jay-Z has found comfort in his role as an artist with nothing left to prove and nothing more to achieve – crafting his works around openly discussing and dissecting that very truth. West, on the other hand, has never been more manic – so desperate to prove his artistic prowess that he often sounds as if he’s drowning himself in it. Given this, the end result of the Watch the Throne project could have gone a lot of ways. It could have been the work of two artists too artistically removed from one another to effectively blend, it could have collapsed in on itself before it was ever completed, or, perhaps worst of all, it could have been harmless – a forgettable footnote in the career of two juggernauts.

Instead, Watch the Throne ended up being two things: one of the strongest albums of the year and an excellent companion piece to West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Both honoring that album’s expertly crafted musical identity and introducing new elements to it, West and his substantial list of co-producers somehow manage to up the off-kilter intensity that was already such a striking characteristic on Fantasy. Take the static-filled back-half of standout “Niggas in Paris” or the decision to craft an entire track off of a chopped vocal sample in lead single “Otis” as examples of this – despite all the risks West took with the production on Fantasy, it’s undeniable that in some spots, Watch the Throne’s risks are even greater.

But no amount of risk-taking could have saved this project if Jay-Z and Kanye West’s equally mammoth personas had failed to co-exist from track to track. As it turns out, it is precisely their differences in approach and ideals that allow them to play off one another so well. Whether intentional or not, Watch the Throne is the work of two artists clashing against each other, unified only in their desire to come out on top. In this light, Watch the Throne is quite unlike anything else the two have ever been involved with together – it’s not the brotherly relationship they’ve played up before, nor is it an alliance against the multitude of enemies they’ve both collected throughout the years. Instead, Watch the Throne is the story of two titans of a genre realizing the only thing left to conquer is each other.

- Cole Zercoe


Los Campesinos!

Hello Sadness

[Arts & Crafts / Wichita]

One day, you could absolutely see Los Campesinos! being the biggest small band you’ve ever heard in your life. Unfortunately, with their indie hearts placed firmly on their sleeves, it’ll take quite the effort before Los Campesinos! take that place.

There are an abundance of positives to take from Hello Sadness. The vocals are an improvement over previous releases by miles, the music is even more focused and there’s an ever-present maturity throughout the album; it’s indie-twee-pop reaching the end of its adolescence. Sure, the fun and upbeat tunes are still there, but the highlights are the slower, melancholic efforts; “To Tundra” is achingly beautiful and “Every Defeat A Divorce” is both sad and clever at the same time. Of course, being three albums in, Los Campesinos! have nailed the fun sounding songs, so ‘Songs About Your Girlfriend’ is as confident as it is danceable.

Maybe it’s the lyrics that are preventing them from getting to the next rung, so you wonder, where next for the band? They seem happy going the way they’re going, and I’m happy to listen. Perhaps a couple more adverts like the Budweiser F.A. Cup will vault them to the next level.

- Daniel Griffiths


Machinedrum

Room(s)

[Planet Mu]

Travis Stewart had a pretty good year. Room(s) was only his first album in 2011 to cause the whole of UK bass to double-take; Sepulcure, the eponymous debut from his collaboration with Praveen Sharma, followed only a few months later. Room(s) serves as a sort of reintroduction for Stewart after five records of bodied glitch-hop, incorporating a foundation of Chicago footwork filtered through the lens of contemporary bass into his already diverse pallet. Spelled out, it might seem like a cash grab of sorts, but Stewart’s melding of emotional pop sensibility, aggressive drum programming, and vast sub-octave undercurrent build a record that is unlike most else you’ll find under any umbrella in the electronic world, never mind bass. It’s also confident as all hell – hyper-specific from where it grabs and razor sharp in its execution. Aggression seems to translate to the overall attitude toward quality construction as well. With songs like “Come 1” sliding from break beat ferocity into a gorgeous array of pastoral guitar plucks and wordless moans, or “Lay Me Down” with its deep, syncopated bass pulse and heartbreaking auto-tuned coos, Room(s) shows a vast handle on visceral technical chops as well as brash sonic beauty. So can I start making Burial-level throne-grabbing predictions, yet? No, I can’t. Don’t be silly. But I will say Stewart is most certainly a dude to watch. For now, Room(s) belongs in a class of its own.

- Will Ryan


Miracles of Modern Science

Dog Year

[Self-released]

Elevators to the sun, typhoons on the moon, psychotic dreams, secret machines, these are just four of the things mentioned on Miracles of Modern Science’s debut album Dog Year. In fact, these are all within the first song of the album. The collection’s 11 other songs paint plenty more bizarre images. This should be enough to tell you a little about Miracles of Modern Science, but when I tell you that they have no bassist or guitarists, but instead have a violinist, double bassist, cellist and a mandolinist I’m not sure whether the picture of their music that you have in your mind will be becoming more or less clear. Honestly, the only way to fully solve the conundrum that is Miracles of Modern Science is to listen to their music. Their distinct brand of boastful folk-tinged indie pop is sure to cause some kind of reaction from you from the very first listen. Whether it will be overwhelmingly positive as ours is difficult to say. The way we see it, Dog Year contains twelve theatrical little nuggets of entertainment that will have no problem in brightening any gloomy day, and sometimes that’s all we ask for.

- Rob Hakimian


The Roots

Undun

[Def Jam]

There’s no doubt about it: for Undun, their thirteenth album, The Roots raised the bar. The story of Redford Stephens, a young man growing in up in an urban landscape, struggling with survival, and forced to choose between making something of himself and a life of crime (he chooses the latter), is presented in a style that opts for grandiose measures instead of stifling heaviness; lyrically, it’s as bleak as its subject matter suggests, but the music is often uplifting and packed with hooks. Away from the minimalism of “Sleep” and “Make My,” Undun is an expansive record; one that culminates in an ambitious four-movement suite based on a Sufjan Stephens song (“Redford,” from Michigan), and contains a three-song run, in “The Other Side,” “Stomp” and “The Lighthouse,” that most groups, from any genre, would kill for. Those who know them solely as the house band on Jimmy Fallon will be surprised, yet so too will long-time fans. Almost twenty-five years into their career, they’re still firing on all cylinders, and have once again produced something spectacular.

- Gareth O’Malley


SBTRKT

SBTRKT

[Young Turks]

SBTRKT is a madcap album that’s just as home in the world of Massive Attack as it is in the world of Yeasayer. One minute it’s chilled and completely downtempo, then the next the drum machine is at full speed and jarring, wailing voices are taking over, but it always sounds cohesive. Sampha’s vocals are a crowning achievement of SBTRKT’s debut offering, evocative enough to make use of the downtempo music backing them turning the album into a successful exercise into melancholy, with the odd lighter track here and there to interrupt the flow and bring a fresh sound to proceedings.

While it isn’t exactly perfect, there’s enough evidence on SBTRKT that SBTRKT is capable of some pretty awesome and unique things. It’ll be interesting to see if he can reach those heights.

- Daniel Griffiths


Total Babes

Swimming Through Sunlight

[Old Flame Records]

In a time when the production of indie rock music seems to be becoming more and more meticulous and orchestrated it can be refreshing to hear and album that doesn’t take itself seriously and is made purely for the sake of making music. That is exactly the case with Total Babes’ debut album, which has production values that would make people like Justin Vernon or Annie Clark cringe from their low quality. That, however, is of no importance when the songs are this catchy and there is such a tangible sense of fun around the whole project. Swimming Through Sunlight shows that Total Babes have an ear for the bombastic, even if their playing and recording style is not best suited to something so grand. They still go for a punchy sound and are entirely successful with it, thanks to the lack of inhibitions they seem to have in bringing these songs to life. Yes, the majority of the songs are about heartache and longing, but this just fuels the fury in the playing of every instrument here, which ultimately leads to a good time had by all despite the subject matter. The innumerable wordless chrouses, the “woo”s peppered through the album, and the singalong chorus found in every single song mean that even though this album might not be in the same leagues as more well-constructed indie albums that are out there, this will get through to your psyche just as effectively.

- Rob Hakimian


The Weeknd

Thursday

[Self-released]

Of the two EPs/mixtapes/albums Abel Tesfaye has put out this year (so far), House of Balloons is the clear winner when it comes to receiving praise. This isn’t to say that Thursday is any sort of slouch at all. There’s “Lonely Star,” one of the best openers of the past few years, and has nearly endless replay value. “Life of the Party” is The Weeknd’s answer to Kanye’s “Hell of a Life” with its near prog-ish value. Elsewhere, Drake raps maybe his best verse over on the late night drone of “The Zone,” “The Birds Part 1” and “Part 2″ expand into a vicious form, unseen on the first release, and the Cocteau Twins-influenced “Heaven or Las Vegas” hints at an even different tone on the forthcoming Echoes of Silence, which I’m sure will be just as consistent.

- Ryan Nichols


Youth Lagoon

The Year Of Hibernation

[Fat Possum]

In the tradition of many a great album, Trevor Powers came out of seemingly nowhere with The Year Of Hibernation. Though many of his peers in the bedroom pop world are doing similar things in terms of construction, Powers has a particular knack for pairing a catchy melody with a heartbreaking delivery. Tracks like “17” and “Cannons,” although less geared toward the total catharsis of Mike Hadreas’s work, mine similar emotional territory to Perfume Genius. However, where Hadreas deals in spare arrangements and downbeat emotionality, Powers works spiral upward and outward. For such obvious inwardly focused music, Powers inspires a more uplifting feel. Tracks like “July” are so massive that despite their obvious melancholic tones you can’t help but sing along at the top of your lungs. The Year Of Hibernation, though slapped with a title fitting its sleepy sound and construction, is an album that begs to be bigger and be felt outside the bedroom.

- Colin Joyce

[1] [2]

[Albums 50-01]


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