After 18 years of arranging songs on “best of the year” mix tapes & CDs based purely on how good they sounded together, I finally gave in to the power of the List. Artists below are ranked by the likeability, listenability, and overall influence of their work (sometimes a song, sometimes an album, and sometimes both) in 2011. Hope you enjoy.
“Colours” – Never Trust a Happy Song
Apologies to tUnEyArDs’ Merrill Garbus and San Francisco psych rockers Girls who each might have landed the #20 slot, but there’s something to be said about music that, while not critically acclaimed, grabs you by the throat and simply won’t let go. That effectively sums up “Colours” — the stellar debut single from Los Angeles quintet Grouplove that feels like a sonic reproduction of one of those private zero gravity flights, with a self-assured take off, hair-raising build up and twenty second climax that leaves you floating weightless for what you wish could be forever. If you’re a fan of Modest Mouse circa 1997, this sounds astonishingly close to those glory days – Christian Zucconi’s cracked Isaac Brock-like yelps, the jagged interplay of acoustic strums and bent electric notes and the perfectly pitted soft/loud dynamics feel like they came straight out of The Lonesome Crowded West.
In the end, what sells Grouplove, and “Colours” in particular, is as much the band members’ palpable chemistry as much as the catchy choruses and melodies. Their namesake is genuine, reflecting the group’s storybook-like inception (Zucconi and new girlfriend Hannah Hooper met fellow band mates on their first romantic vacation abroad) to their cathartic, life-affirming shows (their astonishing Letterman appearance was one of the year’s best) to their goofy team spirit vibe (um, they all have the word “Group” tattooed on their inner arms.) These guys are clearly still in that intense, honeymoon phase of their creative partnership, and we’re all reaping the rewards. If there’s any justice, they’ll get the acclaim they readily deserve.
19) Frank Ocean
“Songs For Women” – nostalgia, ULTRA
The Smoking Section, an online curator of hip-hop culture, got it right by calling Frank Ocean’s debut mixtape “strong enough for a man but made for a woman.” Sure, he’s part of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, L.A.’s controversial collective of foul-mouthed, misogynistic, and anarchistic rappers, but he’s the crooner of the bunch. On neo-soul jam “Songs For Women,” when Ocean sings about giving “you chills, harmonizing to Otis, Isley, Marvin,” he knows damn well it’s the combination for unlocking his lady’s bra strap.
Sure, Ocean’s debut mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA has a few tracks you might skip, but it’s got more genuinely superb moments than a major label release from some platinum-selling artists (see the strangely touching rewrite of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” and the sex-obsessed G-funk of “Nature Feels.”) As a lyricist, Ocean is surprisingly diverse: for every song where he’s smoking drugs with an aspiring dentist/porn star (“Novacane”) there’s another where he’s crying over a lost father figure. (“There Will Be Tears”). With that silk-on-satin voice, Ocean can get away with a tongue-in-cheek line like “All I write is
love songs,” but in truth he spends as much time documenting societal issues and his personal struggles as he does trying to get laid.
By the time Ocean made his show-stealing guest appearance on Jay-Z and Kanye’s highly-anticipated Watch the Throne collaboration, it only confirmed what underground rap fans already knew; he’s a major force to be reckoned with in hip hop. And make no mistake, he knows it too. When his girlfriend is blasting tunes from contemporaries Drake and Trey Songz in his car, Ocean half-jokingly laments “It’s like she never heard of me!” No longer, Frank, no longer.
18) Jay Z and Kanye West
“Otis” – Watch The Throne
“I’m fucking depressed” says Jay Z on Watch the Throne. That’s when you realize “luxury rap” — his and Kanye West’s curious brand of gangster bravado saturated in opulence — is a double-edged sword. The two rap moguls guessed right that we’d shell out ten bucks a pop to hear stories about flying in corporate jets and blowing wads of dough on Cristal, even with the unemployment rate in America pushing 10%. But given the disjointed, overwrought vibe of Watch the Throne, it’s hard to tell if Hova and Yeezy are ecstatic or just exhausted. The pair perfectly fit critic Hua Hsu’s description of “two artists
who no longer need dreams (because) art cannot possibly prophesy a better future for either of them.” Apparently, even unlimited wealth carries a price.
Fortunately, monster single “Otis” is three minutes of giddy summer escapism that we can all enjoy, employed or otherwise. Jay Z buries any notions he’s lost a step (“I guess I got my SWAGGER BACK!”) and Kanye again demonstrates why his skills as a producer are as formidable as his record tastes are impeccable. But the real star of the show here remains the man they’ve sampled. Rap music’s greatest egoists knew they couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of a track like “Try a Little Tenderness”, so they wisely named “Otis” after its supremely gifted progenitor.
The happy twist to this tale is that Otis Redding is getting his due again in 2011 (not just in cash, but in adoration and longevity), which is fitting because it took Pretty in Pink’s Duckie Dale dancing in a record store to reintroduce the Crown Prince of Soul to a whole new generation back in 1985. That’s the thing about truly great music like Redding’s — it perseveres, reinvents itself, yet remains unassailably true. You could argue it’s been adapted to the times, but perhaps the times are adapting to it. Welcome back Mr. Redding. So soulful, don’t you agree?
“Separator” – The King of Limbs
Dark and unforgiving, The King of Limbs stood alone as the Radiohead work of 2011, not prelude to another album (as “Separator’s” final lyric “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong” would suggest) but itself sounding almost like two glommed together EPs, the first marked by its anxious churn and the second by its serenity. Within the brief span of eight tracks, Radiohead plumb the depths of R&B, jazz, and dubstep to create their murkiest, most intensely rhythmic collection of songs to date.
Though disarmingly dense, each of the tracks is intricate sounding and textured. Check out “Give Up the Ghost” when the moan of a blurry trumpet bleeds into Yorke’s muffled yawn, or the ear fucking that Greenwood’s nimble bass gives Phil Selway’s inhuman syncopation on headphone masterpiece “Bloom.” The King of Limbs has no hits to speak of (hell, half the songs don’t even have a freaking chorus) unless you consider the slinky, weirdly romantic “Lotus Flower” a pseudo-single characterized by soul clap percussion, a lack of guitar riffs, and Yorke’s choreographed freak-ballet video. Okay then.
While it may not possess the melodic hooks and chutzpah of their best albums, it’s worth delving into The King of Limbs’ shadowed, labyrinthine corners to explore the latest evolution of Radiohead’s sound. By the time “Separator’s” understated, sensual guitar licks arrive, it’s the end of the tunnel for Yorke: “Like I’m falling out of bed/From a long and weary dream/Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying.” He’s come through the tightly wound passageway between Side One’s agitation and Side Two’s contentment. It’s an eerie and uncompromising journey through an album that’s unashamed of its own impenetrability.
16) Cass McCombs
“County Line” – Wit’s End
“County Line” becomes sadder, almost crushingly so, every time you hear it. Maybe it’s the gently cascading chorus of “whoa whoa oh oh ohhhhs” that sets you up for the fall; or perhaps it’s that organ’s golden, dulcet warmth, recalling late 70’s soft rock melodies from Steely Dan’s Aja or Billy Joel’s The Stranger. But when Cass McCombs drops a bombshell on an old flame, “You never even tried to love me/What did I have to do to make you want me?” you realize how busted up beauty can sound. By the time the second verse comes around and he unnervingly adds “I can smell the Columbine,” the song is flush with a palpable sense of unease and foreboding.
And a warning about the song’s now infamous video, a gripping VHS-clip montage of the private hell of heroin addicts — once you see it, you will never be able to forget it. What’s even more stunning is that it’s made by a fan, someone who was actually compelled enough by the song’s heartache to post something so shockingly personal and difficult to watch. It recasts the territorial border of the track’s title as both a literal and metaphorical line that shouldn’t be crossed, but ultimately is. By the end of “County Line,” you’ll be amazed that one of the year’s loveliest songs can also be one of its most depressing, and although McCombs concedes “your pain is never ending,” you somehow feel sad to see this one fade to black.