I realized that this year I didn’t get around to listening to as much new music as I should have. I spent a lot of time diving into older releases, particularly jazz, and as such I haven’t listened to many of 2011’s best. With that said, since the year end lists have come out I have taken some time to listen to what other critics are deeming noteworthy and I made the effort to pick up a good number of albums at the record store the other day. I’m not going to talk about what I don’t know, so these lists may be limited to less than 10.
Breakthrough Artist –
6: The Lonely Forest
Seattle’s current scene is hard to place a finger on. We have seen the hip-hop scene explode over the last few years, and the folk scene remains prominent. Where does this leave bands with a harder or more traditional rock edge? Long gone are the days of grunge. The Lonely Forest have emerged as Seattle’s most prominent rock band. No, they aren’t always loud and they are never sludgy, but the Anacortes product sounds big. They have toured the nation in support of their Chris Walla produced major label debut, been featured by NPR, and capped the year off with a performance on Bumbershoot’s mainstage. It is safe to say that The Lonely Forest has arrived.
5: Danny Brown/A$AP Rocky/Cities Aviv/etc. (New school of hip hop)
The vestiges of rap’s boasting, hustling mainstream are readily apparent in Jay Z and Kanye’s dual release Watch the Throne. It’s apparent how out of touch the two luminaries appear, bragging about their wealth while the country is in the midst of troubled economic times highlighted by the occupy movement. Musically speaking, labels are experiencing what is already being deemed a crisis. The rap game has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. A label is no longer needed to have success, as proven by internet-made-famous stars such as Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, Odd Future, and a host of others. This is the new landscape for the genre, and it doesn’t look like it will disappear any time soon.
4: Youth Lagoon
Boise’s Trevor Powers shocked the blogosphere with the release of The Year of Hibernation. No critic wanted to take him seriously. Name and cover art aside, Powers created a gem, coming out of nowhere to deliver what is an emotional and personal exploration of feelings that fellow blogger Vincent has already described in depth.
This brooding group of young Danish punks emerged as a spark in what has been a dead punk rock scene, rekindling the spirit of 80’s forefathers such as Black Flag and Bad Brains. Their first US tour was a cavalcade of flailing bodies, broken bones, and bloody noses. The punk rock spirit is alive and well, not just because of Iceage’s demeanor but also because the songs speak for themselves. The aesthetic is real and the music does not disappoint. Their debut, New Brigade, is a fuzzy and fast effort with hooks to spare.
2: Odd Future
The most polarizing group in not just hip-hop, but music today is this Los Angeles collective who’s intent appears to be to gain as much attention as possible. They have no qualms with broaching offensive subjects. They are loved by teens and twenties, hated by critics. Whether they are actually as unique as they appear to be is another question (soon to be discussed in a long awaited post), but that is beside the point. What matters in this context is the waves that have been made by Tyler and crew. They are an undeniable force to be reckoned with and 2012 should bring about even more exposure, with a television program and numerous releases in the works.
1: The Weeknd
Repeat listens have led me to conclude this – Abel Tesfaye is the most important voice in R&B with the biggest chance to succeed across genres and audiences. In less words, he has a chance at transcendence. With a voice that ranges from a gravelly rasp to a soaring falsetto, Tesfaye has the most uniquely beautiful and engaging delivery in music. While he has brought about comparisons to fellow crooner Frank Ocean, when I hear The Weeknd’s floating, disjointed morning-after lullabies I think of Michael Jackson. The production is immaculate, weird enough to capture the attention of the indie crowd while simultaneously able to attract a large mainstream audience. Next for Tesfaye? A headlining appearance at Coachella, production work with Lady Gaga, and a new album potentially in the works. For The Weeknd, 2011 was the equivalent of a Thursday night – the party has begun but it’s about to get a whole lot bigger.
Best Live Acts I Saw –
5: Trombone Shorty
Shorty brings funk and soul jams in spades and his band is killer.
4: Mad Rad
Seattle’s most hectic crew, Mad Rad’s Bumbershoot set brought about the most chaotic pit of the festival.
3: The Lonely Forest
Their Key Arena performance was a coming out party for the boys from Anacortes. They brought passion and energy, a mammoth show on a mammoth stage.
2: Explosions in the Sky
An un-publicized intimate show at the Crocodile from one of today’s most epic and intricate bands? Yes please. I spent my night wrapping my mind around the loudest thing I have ever heard. Such strength yet such beauty and at times fragility.
1: Manchester Orchestra
Andy Hull is one of my favorite frontmen. Simple Math is one of my favorite albums from this year. Suffice to say, this show was amazing. This band, at the end of their West Coast tour, brought it.
Best Seattle Release –
4: Nacho Picasso – For the Glory
“I got an odd flow”. That is Nacho’s first line on his crew-reppin’ banger “Moor Gang”. Yes Nacho, yes you do. It’s his endearing, self deprecating oddball raps that wax poetic about smoking and reading comic books paired with beats from Seattle-by-way-of-San Francisco duo Blue Sky Black Death that grab me. He has garnered some national exposure as well despite flying under the radar in Seattle, as he was mentioned in Spin’s issue about the state of hip hop.
3: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Robin Pecknold and crew rise to prominence based on their lush folk jams while waxing poetic in the vein of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE on their Sub Pop debut. National tours, television appearances, Starbucks support, and massive critic/fan swooning follow. Your move, Foxes, how do you counter? Their answer is an album two years in the making, constantly scrapped and rehashed by the master perfectionist with the velvet voice. Helplessness Blues discusses feelings of wanting to be part of something bigger, feelings of sameness and of not wanting to be a snowflake but a cog in a machine. This coming from a band who oozes connotations of the forest, of individuality and of recluse. Interesting. What’s next?
2: Telekinesis! – Twelve Desperate Straight Lines
Benjamin Lerner’s infectious release for indie stalwart Merge hasn’t exactly put the man on the map, even in his own city. Telekinesis! is not a band often discussed in the Seattle scene, for reasons unbeknownst to me. Lerner, assisted by Chris Walla, creates hooky pop with hints of early Weezer and Death Cab. The album gets better with every listen.
1: Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Ishmael Butler, elder statesmen and futuristic pioneer on some interplanetary galactic steez, comes to planet Earth on his spaceship made of sparkles and dust. Carried over from his debut EPs is the same cryptic delivery, delving into the struggles of an emcee and concepts of black empowerment, sexuality, and what it means to be free. New are the landscapes that surround. The album is difficult, as no single song continues an idea from start to finish. Instead, each song morphs into something new, exploring the possibilities of hip-hop and launching the genre head over heels into a new decade. While the Seattle scene is a scene widely kept to itself, Shabazz has gained praise around the globe.
Best Discovery –
5: Sandro Perri
Perri has been making and producing music since 1999, but only in 2006 did he begin performing acoustic compositions under his own name. Formerly operating under the Polmo Polpo moniker, Perri made ambient electronic music until his focus shifted, first to solo arrangements of his electronic compositions and now to songs written for a full band. His 2011 release Impossible Spaces delves into a laundry list of genres including folk, jazz, and soul.
Punk rock is alive and well. See my comments about the band above under the breakout artist category.
3: Marius Neset
I will discuss Neset’s album below.
2: Cities Aviv
Straight out of Memphis, Cities Aviv brought his own distinct flavor to the hip-hop landscape in 2011. His debut full length, Digital Lows, marks the emergence of a workmanlike MC with a keen ear for unusual beats and an easygoing flow that accentuates the lucid jams beneath it. Aviv oozes the essence of summer days while speaking about summer love, while simultaneously tackling classic racial struggles in other tracks. His is a voice that is carved to appeal to indie loving rap fans or those with a taste that is well versed in genres ranging from jazz to punk.
1: Ambrose Akinmusire
I will discuss Ambrose’s album below.
Best Jazz Albums –
2: Marius Neset – Golden Xplosion
What sets this Copenhagen native apart from a large portion of the modern jazz community is his lyricism and musicality. These elements, combined with his blistering technical chops, led to one of the best collections of songs released in 2011. Neset gained the attention of his teacher Django Bates while studying in Copenhagen at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory. His album, which features Bates as a keyboard player, holds true to the promise that the discerning mentor saw in his student. Layers of saxophone sing over a rhythm section that lays down some of the deepest grooves put to record. The album is mixed with a particular clarity that makes each band member’s contribution noteworthy. On display is versatile playing at the highest level of technicality. Musical themes are established, expanded upon, and concluded in the span of the 11 track album. It is an inspiring listen, an achievement that establishes a unique direction for jazz as a genre to go.
1: Ambrose Akinmusire – The Heart Emerges Glistening
Ambrose’s is a voice that is transcendent. You know it the moment you hear the opening trumpet notes to his Blue Note debut. The esteemed jazz label signed Akinmusire after the trumpeter had already established himself as a young performer in both Los Angeles and New York. Expectations were high for the award winning soloist out of the East Bay and he exceeded all of them. His tone, which ranges from a subdued whisper to a soaring blare, has the elements of the all-time greats. He has been compared to Miles Davis, the late trumpeter believed by many to be the greatest jazz musician our world has ever seen. This is the company that Akinmusire finds himself in, and for good reason. His lyrical lines intertwine with the frenetic pulse of his band. Angular, convulsing interactions cascade when the group is at their highest points. Soft, warm tones envelop at the groups softest moments. Trumpet trades with saxophone, drums careen into the running bass while the frantic piano either bothers or soothes the ensemble. Each player has a distinct place in the fabric that is Ambrose’s music, but none stands out more than Akinmusire; the trumpet, the virtuoso, the poet.
Most Underrated Artist –
5: Nacho Picasso
I’ve discussed Nacho already, but I will expand on what makes him underrated. Nacho is over shrouded in a Seattle scene that gives credence to its “favorite” son, Macklemore, based on the aforementioned white rapper’s widespread appeal and story telling ability. Seattle is a white market. I do think that plays into Macklemore’s popularity regardless of what others may say. He is by far the most popular musician in the scene today, having passed Blue Scholars who held the distinguished chair as deans of the Seattle scene in part because they were the only visible members of it. Now the scene is bustling. Shabazz Palaces are recognized for their artistic achievement. Macklemore is recognized for his pimping out of 206 pride and for his race. Blue Scholars are still there. Beneath these kingpins exists the fabric that holds the scene together. There is The Physics, SOL, Thee Satisfaction, OC Notes, Mad Rad, Fresh Espresso, Grynch, Spaceman, the list goes on. Nacho does not sound anything like any of these artists. He is an anomaly in Seattle, a rapper whose appeal stretches beyond the city itself. Nacho is on the same level as this new, weird brand of internet famous MC’s such as Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, Big K.R.I.T., and even Odd Future. The city has taken notice, don’t get me wrong, but we should be taking more, embracing the off-kilter demeanor and personality that makes Nacho Picasso unique.
4: Cities Aviv
Cities Aviv is discussed above.
3: Cymbals Eat Guitars
Doing their best to withhold the ethos of 80’s-90’s underground, Cymbals Eat Guitars is equal parts Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill; the group, clearly schooled on the indie guitar gods of the past, unites behind the voice of Joseph D’Agostino and weaves together lines of clarity and lines of fuzz, drums that are at times explosive and at others lucid. D’Agostino’s lyricism is similarly familiar with the late 20th century’s highlights, his are words that at the surface can appear nonsensical but still poetic. Who knows, maybe they don’t mean a thing. With this said, clarity is a quality that is not lost on Cymbals Eat Guitars. They blend cacophonous noise with intricate passages, quiet nothings of single bass notes or piano chords transposed with full four to the floor stomps, creating a vision that in today’s indie climate is solely theirs. My only concern is that people are too synth-obsessed to take notice.
2: Marius Neset
1: Manchester Orchestra
An album with a backbone. That’s what Manchester Orchestra gave us in 2011. Songs that you listen and re-listen to. Lyrics that you know by heart. Something to fall in love with. Something melodic and hard, production that captures the raw quality of the band so articulately, in such a huge way. Simple Math is an album that can fill an arena. Why then, does the band still find themselves playing mid-level venues across the nation? Why are they not recognized on a single year end list? That much escapes me. Hull, a relate-able figure who wears his heart on his sleeve, whose band accentuates everything he says with some of the most affecting melodies put to record this year…I find myself continually surprised that at this point, Manchester Orchestra is a cult favorite with mixed critical reception when they deserve to be so much more.
Best Album –
Honorable Mentions: BadBadNotGood – BBNG, Fucked Up – David Comes to Life, Sandro Perri – Impossible Spaces, Iceage – New Brigade, Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien, Danny Brown – XXX, Cities Aviv – Digital Lows, Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues, M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
10: Telekinesis – 12 Desperate Straight Lines
Perfect, infectious hooks litter the Merge debut released by a Seattle boy done good on a national scale.
9: Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Opening with the song of the year and closing with a so-sappy-its-good epic, the second album from the Wisconsin native proved that Vernon could transform his one-man cabin act into something bigger and better, if not as intimate.
8: Marius Neset – Golden Xplosion
Heady and energetic, frenetic but grounded, Neset’s debut injected something new into a jazz scene in constant need of new voices.
7: Phonte – Charity Starts At Home
The solo debut from former Little Brother and Foreign Exchange frontman is a stark portrait of the life of a working class rapper. Beats from the likes of 9th Wonder and help from up and comer Big K.R.I.T. accentuate Phonte’s harrowing accounts of a crumbling record industry and travails that hit closer to home.
6: Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Balladry reminiscent of 60’s and 70’s folk favorites drives the second album from the un-googleable San Francisco duo. Love, spirituality, and self respect are discussed as Christopher Owens asks who could care about something as trivial as war when his crush has a band.
5: Youth Lagoon – Year of Hibernation
An experiment in deeply personal self-effacing fragility, Powers comes through with remarkable aplomb. Pop songs that build and build, reaching skyward while the singer stays within himself.
4: Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
The hip-hop phoenix rises from the ashes of past glory, emerging with a fabric of evolved beats that are too advanced to fully comprehend. Ish speaks about what he knows and what he lives. His scope and his knowledge are vast.
3: The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes Of Silence
Tales recalling the zeniths and nadirs of last nights parties, oozing with drugs, booze, and lust, exploring why we let go and do these things to ourselves. None of these topics are new. On the other hand, the production, the voice, the pure unrivaled chops…those are all his own.
2: Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math
When Andy Hull lets out a yell, nothing is as real.
1: Ambrose Akinmusire – The Heart Emerges Glistening
Buzzing multi-metered grooves, near silent reveries, rainy Sunday mornings, isolated city nights – these are all elements that can be found on Ambrose’s Blue Note debut. His expression is a godsend.