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i'm more important than you
|2011 End of the Year List [Part II.5]: The Albums (10-6)
|...and we're back. sorry it took so long, I forgot to post what I'd written. second part of my second part is coming soon|
10. Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch The Throne
This year's top ten was easily the most contentious since I started making these lists. While musicianship might not have been on par with some of the albums outside the top ten, it was always going to get by if only on pure spectacle alone. Two titans of rap, arguably the biggest names in the genre right now, together on the same album? But I'm going to be Frank here (pun intended; great move getting him on the album, he sounds great though the words Jay & Ye have him sing are garbage): Watch The Throne is one of the sloppiest efforts that we could have gotten from this combination of artists. A lot of it is a god damn mess, from Beyonce's lengthy, disjointed hook in "Lift Off" (along with the rest of it...man, that song is mangled) to the completely abrupt cutoff of "Why I Love You" and many things in between. Most of it just feels unfinished, still in its gestation phase, ready for Kanye to spend another 5000 hours rewriting. I'm tempted to blame Jay-Z for rushing the project--after all it is his name first on everything--but that's bullshit. The man doesn't put out a slipshod product on purpose. They actually believed that this was the right album to drop.
And you know what? It is, even with all its flaws. There have been dozens of thoughtpieces this year about the motive behind releasing an album of luxury rap in the current economic environment. After all, which of the Occupy protestors can be ok with Kanye rapping about his "other other Benz" when they're still hunting for decent wages? But The Throne's (first and hopefully last time I will ever use that name) debut album is about the gracious side of wealth, looking around and saying "wow, we made it" instead of laughing at the people who haven't. This is rap at its most aspirational; the sound of two moguls enjoying themselves, and damn it all if songs like "****** In Paris" don't fully accomplish that.
9. J. Cole - Cole World: The Sideline Story
COLE WORLD! Jay's semi-protoge ("semi" because I'm still not sure Jay even likes the kid) had a banger of a debut record, proving once again the benefits of a mixtape-driven promotional and marketing strategy (didn't hurt that he recycled some of his most well-known cuts, either, and though I thought I'd be bothered by them, the slightly revamped beats hold their own despite time passed). J. Cole is the rare mixtape artist whose commercial debut did not sacrifice the qualities that got him noticed by the mainstream--he crafts smart rhymes over strong, often soul-infused beats...never forcing a hook, letting them naturally flow. He picks his guests well too (for the most part, I'll get to it later), most notably on everybody's favorite new slow jam "Nobody's Perfect [Feat. Missy Elliott]."
That's not to say there aren't a couple problems, and they all come when Cole ignores his instincts and listens to the suits. Some of the beats aren't pure Cole, some of the hooks are lame (almost derailing the practically perfect jam "Can't Get Enough"), and almost every song has one extremely lazy couplet, designed to be memorable (that hilarious fake Ghostface review catches most of them). "Mr. Nice Watch" is the most glaring example of these problems; its beat is a Watch The Throne throwaway at best, complete with lame Jay-Z feature. I don't see J. Cole having the longevity of someone like Hov--he's not quite interesting enough--but right now he's occupying the same space as someone like Nas: a hard-grinding but conscientious man of the streets, a "nice guy with a mean flow" as he says. Right now, at his debut, that's all he needs...here's hoping to his continued success.
8. Augustana - Augustana
This album was a ride over the year, with a major jump up when I was putting together this list. Honestly, I debated making it my number one for a good week, but figured that was a bit too impulsive; I didn't listen to this album nearly enough in 2011 to justify something like that. First, a bit of backstory: I (like pretty much everyone else) first heard of Augustana through that ridiculously earnest piano-rock song "Boston." I picked up All The Stars and Boulevards, enjoyed myself for a bit, and then moved on. They didn't seem like anything special. When their next album came out, I didn't bother picking it up; after all, they didn't even have a strong radio single this time.
Nonetheless, there's something about this record that hit me in all the right ways, timing foremost—if it hadn’t showed up during a March lull in new albums I wouldn’t even have given it a shot. But the real reason I liked this album so much is that it encapsulates everything that resonates with me in rock music these days. There’s verve and passion in every hitch of Dan Layus’ voice as his melodies climb over folk-inspired instrumentation. That’s not to say the band has lost their roots; “Shot In The Dark,” a surefire single on alt-radio, is the best Jack’s Mannequin song that Andrew McMahon never wrote. Lyrically, the band has gotten away from the personal and tends to reminisce in expansive, philosophical musings (my personal favorite: “we’re only here on borrowed time”), phrases that are open for thought instead of precise, and better for it. Augustana has subtly tweaked what they do and successfully gotten me interested in the band again.
7. Kendrick Lamar - Section.80
Kendrick Lamar was the breakout “rapper’s rapper” of 2011 with this mixtape, an engrossing look into his insights about money, hoes, clothes, God, and history (all in the same sentence). Yet another convincing argument that the mixtape as we used to know it is dead, Section.80 features brassy production that dwarfs most of the year’s major label rap releases. His production recalls the same “Ronald Reagan Era” that Lamar raps about for much of his album. From the stuttering jazz frenzy of “Rigamortus” (probably the most ironic song title of 2011) to the slow burn from J. Cole-produced “HiiiPower”, each track is another layer of a soundscape that somehow embraces the past while remaining completely of-the-moment in intention.
Perhaps the most impressive facet of Section.80 for me was Lamar’s utter refusal to insert unnecessary hooks into his songs, forcing listeners to spend some time with the album to really appreciate its sonic value. Very few tracks have choruses in the traditional sense, relying on repetition to drum Lamar’s chants into listeners’ brains (look no further than “Ab-Soul’s Outro”). This is especially brave in the information age, where most underground rappers rely on a sung hook to hold our attention for longer than a few minutes. Kendrick Lamar is confident enough in his message to let listeners take their time with his music. It’s worth it.
6. Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra
Frank Ocean has the highest-placing mixtape on an End of the Year list filled with them, and it’s probably the most inventive of the “old-form” mixtape formats. It’s funny; I noticed that there were a lot of mixtapes on this list, but never really thought about why that was. There’s one easy answer, that the major label record system doesn’t contribute much to its artists pockets, as sales plummet more every year and musicians tend to make more and more of their living from tours and merchandise sales. In this environment, it makes more sense to release your music for free, generating word of mouth and (hopefully) financial success. Then there’s the other easy answer (they’re all easy answers, really. It’s becoming less and less apparent why record labels even exist), which is that the mixtape format allows musicians to be creatively engaged, free of clearing samples and writing marketable songs instead of doing what they were born to do.
Nowhere is that story illustrated better than with Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape. As an unlikely member of the Odd Future collective, Ocean sings confessional pop songs that employ a hybrid of R&B and alternative rock as its musical bedding. That means he is singing over samples that no one else would even think about, let alone have the guts to attempt: MGMT’s psychedelic “Electric Feel” becomes “Nature Feels,” a song about making love on the grass; The Eagles’ “Hotel Coalifornia” becomes the suitably epic “American Wedding,” a tragic divorce story. There’s none of the sonic rawness that has come to signify OFWGKTA—like his name, Mr. Ocean’s songs are smooth—but Frank puts more of his personality into these songs than the most emotional of his genre peers. His songs are funny, filled with small details and in-jokes that make the songs come alive (look no further than “Songs for Women,” one of my favorites). They’re also heartbreaking and honest, with a personality that isn’t afraid to put himself out for the world to see. Ocean released this mixtape because he was frustrated with Def Jam (the label he has been signed to for years) stalling on his debut album because “the songs weren’t there.” They’re wrong; as long as the talent is there, the songs will ring true.
lost the write-ups I did for my top 5. maybe at some point I'll come back to them, but for now...
5. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
4. Destroyer - Kaputt
3. Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong
2. The Horrible Crowes - Elsie
1. Drake - Take Care
|Tags: EOTY List, music