Best Albums of 2011
2011 was the year everything became a joke. At least everything in pop culture. It was hard to take anything very seriously this year. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s also not good. In every medium––film, television, music––there seemed to exist a subtle but unavoidable sense of parody. And it generally wasn’t the sort of parody that means to be funny, either. 2011 was overwhelmed by a new kind of parody: appropriation. Technically, appropriation––using borrowed elements to create a new work of art––is not new. Collage, homage, pastiche, whatever you want to call, has been around probably since the dawn of art, but somehow something about the way we appropriated this year was different. Simultaneously unconscious and mind-numbingly savvy, appropriation in the year 2011 was lazier and easier than it ever seemed before.
The most obvious culprit behind this appropriation on appropriation on appropriation is the internet. Before now, the internet was always a hotbed of re-doing, but this year saw a startling spike in the popularity of sites like Twitter and Tumblr, sites that literally offer almost nothing but the ability to say something that has already been said somewhere else––nothing but appropriation.
But there isn’t anything particularly wrong with this. Things like Twitter and Tumblr are so popular because they are so fun. They offer a strange service: instant and easy creation. By changing the context of something, even just slightly, you become an artist. If such immediate creation is fun at the individual level, it must also be fun on a much larger scale. Hence, the wildly appropriated (to some this will read as wildly lazy, crappy, or boring) pop culture climate of 2011. Movies, TV, and music were all involved in their own sort of reblogging. Movies were endless remakes and adaptations. Television was obsessed with airing hour after hour of shows that simply and largely uncritically depicted real people doing their real jobs. And music, by hiding behind nostalgia, was able to borrow to an obscene degree.
Mostly I listened to old music this year––old music that was new to me. I mined through the crap and always appreciated the context. Context is king. Obviously, I am guilty of a great deal of appropriation myself. Of course I did listen to a lot of new music too, and a lot of it was really, really good. A lot of it also, duh, borrowed liberally from the past. (Some even borrowed from the present. Look at Jamie xx’s rework of Gil-Scott Heron’s “I”ll Take Care of You”––entitled “I’ll Take Care of U”––that he then reworked again for Drake and Rihanna in its most popular current form, “Take Care,” for example.)
And again––just to be clear––there is nothing really wrong with this sort of borrowing. The fear is, though, that eventually we will all run out of the essential lifeblood of appropriation: source material. When no one is actuallymaking anything new anymore and instead simply tweaking its original context, we might have a problem. But we have at least a couple of years before that happens.
Below, the ten best records of 2011. Feel free to reblog.
10. Shabazz Palaces: Black Up (Sub Pop)
Luxurious but sparse; futuristic but old school; cool but nerdy. Black Up, the first full-length from Seattle hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces, is sort of crazy. It’s really, really chill, but deceptively so. There is a very sharp edge hidden right beneath its laidback sound. Multi-instrumentalist producer Tendai Maraire crafts the obscenely interesting, noise-flecked beats over which Ishmael “Palaceer Lazaro” Butler raps in a cool nasal snarl that sounds like an artier version of Devin The Dude. The songs melt together, but certain repeated sounds and lines easily stand out, relaxing you and then pulling you into the record’s cozy but spatial interior. Clear some space out so we can space out.
9. Prurient: Bermuda Drain (Hydra Head)
Prurient is Dominick Fernow, the prolific harsh noise veteran behind dozens (if not hundreds) of amplifier-violence classics, including The Tylenol Murders, Hunt in Couples, Pleasure Ground, and Cocaine Death. Prurient trades in confrontational, aggressive, and often terrifying sound and subject matter. Bermuda Drain is no different. Except that it’s completely different. At its core, Bermuda Drain is a noise record. However, Fernow, perhaps bored by the often stoic and oddly humorless noise genre, skillfully and tastefully incorporates dark and degraded techno beats, cold synth lines, words (spoken and shrieked), and a creepy tropical aesthetic to create a compelling and vital record. It’s a statement.
8. Hype Williams: One Nation (Hippos In Tanks)
We were talking about appropriation earlier? Look no further than the venerable and stoned Hype Williams. Their very name is appropriated; “Hype Williams” chosen, presumably, for both its hip hop music video culture connotations and un-Googleability. This Hype Williams has no Wikipedia page. This Hype Williams is a Berlin-based duo made up of Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland (no idea if those are their real names, why would they be?) Together, Blunt and Copeland “create,” I suppose, deconstructed hip hop “songs” with titles like “Your Girls Smells Chung When She Wears Dior,” “Break4love,” and “William, Shotgun Sprayer.” The music is all pitch-shifted and slowwww, with dubby drum sounds, and abundant samples from wherever and whatever. It’s all very weird. It’s all very well done. I think.
7. Liquor Store: Yeah Buddy (Almost Ready Records)
This album seemingly came out of nowhere, perfectly formed and infinitely playable. Liquor Store is from New Jersey and they play goofy, sloppy-tight, slightly craaaaaaaazyyyy PUNK ROCK. One look at the cover of this bad boy (it’s a topless stripper standing next to a hand-drawn lightning bolt under the words YEAH BUDDY) and you at least know you’re gonna be in for a good time. But you won’t know exactly how good of a time until you actually have a listen. I don’t want to give too much away, but basically the songs are deceptively complex and really exciting and much more epic-sounding than you’d ever guess them to be. “Showdown At Wookie Lake,” for example, begins with a somber repeated guitar line that goes on for some time, adding synths as it goes, until finally you get the drums and some sneering nonsense punk vocals. The vocals are really great. So are all the songs.
6. Royal Headache: Royal Headache (R.I.P. Society)
This album is so good. Hailing from Sydney, Australia, Royal Headache is one more band doing their damnedest to make down under’s music scene so excruciatingly awesome. Royal Headache the band essentially plays hyper-melodic punk music, but it’s also got this hard-to-pin-down 1960s British R&B soulful jangle running through all of it. The singer, who goes by the name Shogun (??), sounds sort of like Paul McCartney…or Eric Burdon…or Robert Pollard…singing “Twist and Shout”…or “Live and Let Die”…but softer…but also more punk…and more modern. Wow. There is not a bad song on the album, obviously, but a few transcend goodness, becoming the sort of day-changing and eventually life-changing pieces of music that I live for. “Really In Love,” the second track, clocking in at 1:42 is one of the best songs I’ve heard all year. I can’t stop listening to any of this. Band burns, record burns.
5. James Ferraro: Far Side Virtual (Hippos In Tanks)
James Ferraro is perhaps the greatest mind working in the medium if appropriation today. His brand of pop music could not exist without its countless recontextualized reference points. He has an obsession with contemporary culture and specifically how modern mainstream life works. He’s an art historian, though the art he’s interested in is neither art nor history. Far Side Virtual is a terrifyingly hi-res look at our culture this very minute. It’s bizarre. An iPad and a Google Street View screen grab adorn the cover, and the music itself breathes a sort of artificial mist over everything. It’s the ignorable but incessant music of infomercials, airport cafés, hotel lobbies, and Verizon stores, reimagined and acting as a self-contained critique of/perpetuation of disposable culture. But don’t take my word for it! Order in the next five minutes and you’ll receive not one but two…
4. Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella)
The first few times I listened to Watch the Throne, it sounded like a mixtape, a really good mixtape, but a mixtape nonetheless. It had a thrown-together theatricality to it. The dumb Disney bad-guy music interludes that were inexplicably attached to the ends of some of the songs pissed me off. The exclamations of massive wealth seemed inappropriate and out of touch, but then when they rapped about other things (race, politics, etc.), I got bored. Eventually, though, it started to slur together and sound incredible; the jewel-encrusted production and cooler-than-anything culture-creating lines proved irresistible. It all made sense: we need these kind of overblown, excessive statements in our lives. Jay and Kanye are truly the only rock stars we have. Of course they made this album. Of course they made it in France. Of course it’s good.
3. Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador)
It’s after dinnertime when you wake up. You sit up on the uncomfortable couch. You keep yawning and your eyes start to water. You smile to yourself. It’s raining hard outside; you remember it was just a slow soothing drizzle when you fell asleep. You don’t know how long ago that was. You are relaxed but there is within you a dull nervousness. You listen to Smoke Ring For My Halo. You think you’ll never leave the couch again, because when you’re out you’re on it in your mind. Then again, you suddenly think, it isn’t always that way. You look outside. Grey rain is still falling heavily but you decide to get out of the house. You put on a cheap rain jacket and walk outside. The raindrops fall on your head, but you don’t pay them any mind. Then again, it isn’t always that way. You put your hands in your pockets and walk a little faster.
2. Bill Callahan: Apocalypse (Drag City)
Bill Callahan recorded as Smog since the very early 1990s. For the last couple of years, he’s simply used his real name. The albums he has recorded as Bill Callahan seem purer somehow, and this, his third album under his given name, is by far the purest yet; there is almost nothing between the man and the music. My god, the music. It’s very real, very American. There is an empty barroom, updated country-western feeling to each song. This is dark folk. Without question, “One Fine Morning,” the last song on Apocalypse, is the prettiest song of the year. An 8-minute minimal country ballad, “One Fine Morning” is anchored to its burned-out insides by simple strummed guitar, clear, heavy piano, odd waves of singeing drone and, above all, Callahan’s rich tired but triumphant singing. Bill Callahan, ladies and gentlemen.
1. Destroyer: Kaputt (Merge)
Kaputt came out way back in January, and, even though a whole year’s worth of very good records stands in its way, it is still the best. Destroyer is Daniel Bejar and Kaputt is his ninth album. Kaputt sounds like falling backwards into a sweet cloud of perfume and cocaine would feel. It’s soft rock re-appropriated. It’s all mellow saxophones and this-side-of-cheesy synthesizers. The music seems to pour into the marble and glass room you’re lying in, filling it with a palpable and sleek smoothness. You are powerless before this smoothness, lying there on that white couch. Bejar has flow and he starts flowing. His thin full voice melts into the air-music but still manages to stick like coke to a licked fingertip. And his words connect to themselves. His animated scenes and long strands of memorable images momentarily jump from the sweaty haze before beautifully settling into it again. Lines rhyme within themselves. This is a nightlife record. It’s crystal-clear. It all sounds like a dream to me.
Sleep ∞ Over: Forever (Hippos In Tanks)
UV Race: Homo (In The Red)
Drake: Take Care (Young Money)
Peter Gabriel: New Blood (Real World/Virgin)
Total Control: Henge Beat (Iron Lung)
Moonface: Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped (Jagjaguar)
Cut Hands: Afro Noise I (Very Friendly)
Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther Sounds)
Fruit Bats: Tripper (Sub Pop)
Ford & Lopatin: Channel Pressure (Mexican Summer)
EPs and singles:
Jens Lekman: An Argument With Myself (Secretly Canadian)
James Ferraro: Condo Pets (Hippos In Tanks)
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: Witchhunt Suite for WWIII (4AD)
Sophia Knapp: “Nothing To Lose” 7″ (Drag City)
Fatima Al Qadiri: Genre-Specific Xperience (UNONYC)
Hype Williams: Kelly Price W8 Gain Vol. II (Hyperdub)
The Art Museums: “S.H.O.P.P.I.N.G.” b/w “Feel Like Dreams” & “Dancing With a Hole In Your Heart” 7″ (Dul-Ci-Tone Records & Slumberland)
Shackleton: Deadman (Honest Jon’s Records)
Lana Del Rey: “Video Games” (Stranger)
Eric Church: “Homeboy” (EMI Nashville)
Best live shows:
The Mountain Goats