Well, it's a new year. I've resolved to blog more so I can practice writing about music, since that's at least part of what I want to do in the future. With that in mind, let me roll out the first section of a three-part piece for my...
2011 End of the Year List [Part I]
There's always some sort of pressure to introduce an End of the Year List (look ma, all caps!) with a big, sweeping declaration of the year in music. I feel compelled to either describe the waves of trends that gained momentum (rap is getting really interesting these days, a constant genre flux with the cross-pollination of styles from all across the country...but that's a blog for a different day) or mention some of the biggest controversies in music last year (Tyler, The Creator's homophobia debate was vintage Eminem circa-2001 at its finest, and the arguments about Lana Del Rey's authenticity seems like they won't slow down anytime soon). And most of all, there's the inclination to try and put it ALL in perspective, making the random albums I liked this year fit into an overall theme or message.
With all that in mind, let me leave you with this thought: If the music of 2011 were a stew, it would be stone soup. Bear with me. What I mean by that is that there hasn't been a record this year that the critics have been able to come to consensus on as the "best" album of the year. Last year, there was an almost embarrassing gap between Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and EVERYTHING ELSE on most lists (If you're interested in reading more about this thought, Steven Hyden over at AV Club wrote a great piece called "The year of no Important Albums"). There's no obvious gap this year. While I typed this list's descriptions, all five of the albums in my top 5 switched places countless times, with each of them literally inhabiting all five spots at one point or another. There's no defining flavor of my year in music, which shifts from folk to rap to punk rather seamlessly, with quiet acoustic strummers and obnoxious brags getting equal time. Its focus was undefinable, as music often is, and all I know is I enjoyed it immensely. Here's the first half of twenty albums that soundtracked my year:
20. Cold War Kids - Mine Is Yours
Ultimately, I'm not sure what I want from Cold War Kids anymore. When I heard that they were in the studio with Jacquire King, who produced the last few Kings of Leon records, I got really excited. Maybe they COULD turn around their disaster of a sophomore slump and write a record with strong hooks. Unfortunately, they only pulled half of it off. The first half of the album had some of the strongest tracks of their career (especially "Finally Begin"), but it petered out right around "Sensitive Kid" and they fell back into mediocrity again on the back half of the album. I feel like they'll always be chasing the success of their debut album.
19. Blink-182 - Neighborhoods
"Woohoo!" That's what I thought when I first heard that Blink-182 had gotten back together, which is interesting because they were one pop punk band I never got into back when they were at their prime. Sure, I sang the wrong words to "The Rock Show" all the time in grade school ("She's so cool that I threw her out the window"...what?) and "Adam's Song" was one of the first songs I could play on guitar. But I never owned a Blink CD, and couldn't tell you the difference between "Mutt" and "Rollercoaster" until they announced their reunion, when I developed a sort've retrograde nostalgia for the band--devouring all the tunes I'd missed. That being said, their self-titled has always been my favorite album, so the earlier songs on Neighborhoods ("Ghost on the Dancefloor," Natives") fit in more with what I like. The more 'old-school' tracks ("Heart's All Gone," "Wishing Well") are nice to hear, but I'd rather stick with my nostalgia.
18. Tyler, The Creator - Goblin Talk about a lack of lasting value. I still think Tyler's Bastard is one of the best albums that I missed out on last year, with angry, juvenile, violent motherfucking JAMS that soundtracked a solid month or so. The sequel? Not so much. After a promising one-two of the haunting "Goblin" and Tyler's mainstream introduction "Yonkers," the tracks started to grind. Not to say there weren't good songs ("Tron Cat," "Sandwitches," and the totally different "Analog" come to mind), but 80+ minutes of music from this kid is just way too much at once. Tyler's emotions just get tiring at a certain point, and then there's about a third of the album left (it doesn't help that most of the features on the album are weak, even by Odd Future standards). Not to say that "Bitch Suck Dick" isn't one of the most fun songs I've heard all year...maybe pare it down next time, Tyler (though you most certainly won't, and that's part of what I like about you).
17. Taking Back Sunday - Taking Back Sunday
I've really liked most of Taking Back Sunday's discography (minus New Again, which might be THE weakest album ever from a band I really like), and when the OG TBS reunion was announced I got as swept up in the hype as anybody. While I wasn't taken with "Best Places to Be a Mom" at first, it grew on me like a hooky fungus, and opener "El Paso" is a straight ripoff of TDAG-era Brand New that surprisingly DOESN'T suck (awkward lyrics aside). That being said, I can tell this CD will inhabit the same space as most of the band's other albums; I'll listen to it from time to time, belt along with most of the super catchy music (especially "Call Me in the Morning," which fast became one of my favorite songs ever from TBS), and then put it away again, to be listened to on some other road trip or something. Nothing groundbreaking, but (almost) always enjoyable.
16. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
Every review of this album touched on the same three points: it is (1) Adams' most consistent output in a long, long time; (2) an obvious return to the sound of Adams' fan-favorite Heartbreaker, the album that jump-started his career; and (3) boring as hell. Yeah, there's not much left to say, really. This was far and away my most anticipated album after its announcement, and each new live video promised more quiet strummers in the vein of what I classify as "Ryan Adams music I really like." But there's too much beauty here and not enough grit, with too many songs employing stringy backgrounds that have always irked me in Adams' music (I'm a guitar/harmonica man, myself) and not enough angst. So I guess I agree with all the reviewers.
15. Childish Gambino - Camp
I was mildly obsessed with this album for a week, but then (as sometimes I happen) I just...got over it. I thought I'd be able to overlook some of the more obvious Kanye ripoffs that weren't quite executed right (the women-led chorus in "Outside," especially), but they began to stack up. Lyrically, Glover (as if anyone would ever call Donald Glover by his rap name) fits in easily with most of the pioneers of so-called emo rap these days--Kanye, of course, but also Drake and other introspectives--but whenever he decides he needs more rap cred he slips into "intelligent Lil Wayne" (his words, not mine) mode, with mixed results. He's often entrancing, but this pure punchline rap style of skipping around leaves him reaching for more than he's able to grasp. The album's faux "cohesion" is indicative of this falling short; each track is loosely held together within the 'camp' theme, but most of the connections are tenuous at best ("Firefly" is a great example). That being said, he does make some absolute jams (the scathing "Backpackers" and sing-along anthem "Sunrise" are my favorites). Glover's on the cusp of musical success, but if he's going to emulate his idols he needs to do a better job next time.
14. Logic - Young Sinatra
Here's a mixtape of the old form done RIGHT. Logic is a cool young cat from NYC who simply spits well. There's nothing overly ambitious here, just some solid rhymes, smooth flow, and a couple great songs. The production is top-notch, and Logic often flips and snips familiar samples to make something much more enjoyable. Overall, it might stretch a little long, but hey--it's all free! Songs like "Beggin" (probably my favorite, though for the life of me I can't figure out where that sample is from) and "Let Me Go [Feat. Lykke Li]" definitely belong on urban radio. I'm also giving it the extra prize for intro of the year (if you know me, you'll know what I mean when you hear it). Pick it up for free here.
13. ASAP Rocky - Live.Love.A$AP There's five mixtapes on my EOTY list this year and two in the top 10, which really speaks to how the medium has grown over the last decade or so. Drake's So Far Gone can take a lot of the credit for the mixtape-as-album trend, and it's fitting that Drake's taking out both ASAP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar (who we'll get to a little later) on his Club Paradise Tour. Rocky's from New York, but you couldn't tell it from his debut work, which draws a lot on Houston sounds for its base while not really existing anywhere. It's trill, plain and simple, and hooky trill at that. He shows his lyrical chops on songs like "Out of this World" (where he boasts "Coulda been J. Cole if I met J-Hov / Who dat? / ASAP, / But I'm fly like I never left. / You's a lie, like fly without the letter F") and then gets the speakers bumping with songs like "Peso." He leaves everybody, regardless of location, calling themselves "pretty motherfuckers" and hollering "swag" left and right. Grab it for free here.
12. The Weeknd - House of Balloons (special recognition for the entire Balloons Trilogy, actually)
It's been quite a year for Abel Tesfaye. As I type this, I'm listening to Echoes of Silence, the third mixtape of his Balloons trilogy, which dropped earlier tonight. Like all of The Weeknd's music, it's R&B at its most crushing and desolate, which is often its most beautiful. Though I certainly don't have enough time to rank Echoes among the rest of the year, you would definitely be missing out if you didn't pick up everything Abel puts out. I've always had a soft spot for R&B, but the XO aesthetic especially speaks to me (partially due to his links to Drake and OVO, I'm sure). House of Balloons is the quintessential mixtape from The Weeknd (so far!) due to the simplicity and immediacy of its hooks, coupled with its cohesiveness. Whenever I listen to this record, I always want to hear whatever song is currently playing, but as one transitions to the next I never have the heart to push back on my iPod. I can only press on and surround myself with more heartache. Free download of all three of what's easily the greatest mixtape achievement of the year right here.
11. Middle Brother - Middle Brother
Barely missing out on the top 10 is the debut album by the underground supergroup Middle Brother, made up of the lead singers of Delta Spirit, Dawes, and Deer Tick. I'm a big fan of all three bands, so when I heard they'd released an album together in March, I immediately ordered it. I wasn't disappointed; from the lazy wakeup of "Daydreamin" to the absolutely stunning closer "Million Dollar Bill" (which has what might be my favorite verse of the year on it), the album is filled with light, folky turns through all three of the singers' worlds. My biggest complaint is that it's often to easy to hear Middle Brother as a sum of its parts rather than a cohesive effort; each individual song distinctly sounds whichever one of the three bands its vocalist comes from, with relatively minor influences from the other guys (as if confirming this thought, the aforementioned "Million Dollar Bill" shows up--virtually unchanged--on this year's Dawes album). Still, there's next to no filler and these three will be something to reckon with in the future.
So that's albums 20-11 on my End of the Year List. I've got Part II (the top ten) all worked out, just writing up a little more for each of them and I'll have some more soup for you to enjoy. Thanks!