Another year has ended; another list has been compiled. Often I get this feeling that in 100 years, all that will remain of today’s pop culture will be a number of well-thought-out lists. While many critics are driven to paroxysms at the thought of another year-end list, the fact is that they are essential to annual retrospective analysis. There is a feeling of security and consistency in ‘Best Of’ lists; inasmuch as one can feel safe in the presence of a numerically-ordered selection of things. But in truth, the rapid acceleration of technology and the advent of social media has completely changed the way humans organize their internal thoughts. We no longer think in prose, or even full sentences; we think in lists.
When compiling my ‘Top Ten’ lists, I always seek to find the common threads – I try to locate the shared themes and analogous aesthetics. What did it mean to be alive in 2011? What made this year unique among the rest? Invariably the previous year is examined, and then the question is posed: was this year better than the last? While the quality of releases is up in the air, 2010 and 2011 could not be more different. Contrary to the maximalism of 2010 – the grandiosity and sheer scale of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the orchestral perfection and ambition of The Suburbs, the quirk and iconoclastic innovation of Before Today (my top records of 2010) – 2011 has been a quiet year. A year of introspection and nostalgia. It is no coincidence that my top three albums of 2011 are all self-titled; the personal and reflective quality of these recordings is clear. Also, of my top ten albums, eight are created by one-man acts. It has been the year of the auteur.
This has been a year of protest; a year of social upheaval. From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the streets of London, to the streets of Moscow. But instead of celebrating our freedom of speech and solidarity, the music of 2011 gestured more towards those who shied away from the maelstrom of revolt; to all those who turned away from the news, and used this music as a means of escape. Unlike the shameless zeitgeist chasers of 2010, this year listeners chose sounds that were rooted in the past. Now, there has always been escapist music, but 2011 saw the genre renewed in the context of crisis. In this year of cultural revolution and rampant disillusionment, artists provided a vessel that transported us from the wreckage of 21st Century life, to their own more ideal world.
This escapist aesthetic manifested differently for different artists: some went back to their cabin in the woods, far from the grips of consumer society (Bon Iver); some reached for the oft-mimicked sound of the ‘60s, but warped it in a disconcertingly ‘80s fashion (Cults); some chose to inject an old sound with new life (Jamie xx); others found new life in old sounds (M83). A ‘50s-inspired starlet caused an uproar due to her alleged collagen injections (Lana Del Rey), while a group of juvenile delinquents inspired countless thinkpieces about the state of contemporary music, and stole the spotlight with their debauched, demented and generally fucked up social critiques (Odd Future).
But it is Youth Lagoon’s astonishing debut release that wins the award for the most aptly titled album of 2011: The Year of Hibernation. And looking back on the year, it did, in a certain way, feel like a long dream. But oh what a pleasant dream it was…
Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Tennis – Cape Dory
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Drake – Take Care
Summer Camp – Welcome to Condale
The Top 10
10) Real Estate – Days
If Arcade Fire lamented a life in The Suburbs, then Real Estate gladly embrace it. Days is an ode to banal and bourgeois suburban America; to freshly mown lawns, chlorine-imbuedswimming pools, tree-lined avenues. Yet Real Estate manage to take these common-place, mundane subjects and make them seem interesting and engaging. But they are by no means the first to do it. Just look at Terrence Malick’s canonical filmography: listless youth (Badlands), wheat fields and a steel mill (Days of Heaven), the expanse and emptiness of a suburban Texan universe (Tree of Life). In fact, Real Estate are rather Malick-like in character: both artists produce natural, earnest and unreserved work; both are apt at capturing the ennui of the middleclass; and both seem to do it effortlessly. The autumnal Days is easily one of the most thoroughly listenable records of 2011. Real Estate do not challenge the audience, and seek to make music that is as accessible as possible. In fact the band celebrate the uncomplicated: “If it takes all summer long/ Just to write one simple song/ There’s too much to focus on/ Clearly there is something wrong.” But the best music is often the most basic; case in point “It’s Real,” a song that is built around a single looped guitar riff, but is as effective and addictive as anything released this year.Days is the kind of album that can easily drift inconspicuously, right past your unsuspecting ears. But should you invest 40-minutes to the New Jersey quintet, you will be richly rewarded.
9) Panda Bear – Tomboy
It’s hard to believe that it has been four years since Panda Bear’s glorious Person Pitch. But in that interval we were treated to Animal Collective’s generation-definingMerriweather Post Pavilion. Noah Lennox was then faced with the daunting challenge of crafting a follow-up that matched the excellence of both his and his group’s previous recording; he set the bar pretty damn high.Tomboy is a difficult record. It is excellent, but still very difficult. But in spite of its inaccessibility, Panda Bear’s fourth solo album is artistically outstanding. This is a concept album, in the sense that it must be heard in its entirety and in sequence. Tomboy does not have a “My Girls” or even a “Bro’s.” Instead Lennox urges the listener to commit to the recording as a whole, and those brave enough to submerse themselves in his hypnotic soundscapes will be suitably rewarded. Tomboy is cathedralic, and its hymn-like tunes give the record an almost religious feel. This is an album that begs to be revered; worship it, pray to it, and you will find salvation.
8) Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation
Trevor Powers knows the danger of one-man acts; he understands how monikers can turn into aliases, and identities can get lost. “Youth Lagoon isn’t me. It’s merely a part of me. I was in and out of different bands in high school and always tried to define myself by what music I played. I tried to find a sense of meaning by being in a band. But it wasn’t until this last year – when I realized I was more than just music – that I was able to create music that means something to me. And that is Youth Lagoon.” Because of the highly personal nature of The Year of Hibernation, it is easy to get a somewhat voyeuristic feeling. We are clandestine listeners, skulking at the top stair, ear to the closed door, eye to the keyhole. Powers allows us to inhabit his head, and what a sonorous space it is. The arrangements are staggeringly beautiful, and despite the complete lack of comprehensibility of Powers’ vocals, it is easy to identify lyrical themes. But it is more of a feeling than a tangible understanding; the record is more of an ephemeral dream than something you can put your finger on. Actually The Year of Hibernation is like the moment you wake from a dream; fleeting thoughts and images race through your mind, but the more you try and remember, the faster they escape from you. Don’t think too hard, just go with Trevor Powers’ resonant flow.
7) Washed Out – Within and Without
If there is one artist likely to withstand the backlash of the chillwave movement it is multi-instrumentalist Ernest Greene, better known by his moniker Washed Out. Greene’s Life of Leisure was one of the best releases of 2009. The six song EP solidified his position as the leader of the then-burgeoning chillwave movement. Three years later, and Greene has released his debut LP. Within and Without is a crystalline aural cruise: luscious production coupled with Greene’s ear for melody gives the album an instantly accessible appeal. The vocal prowess of Ernest Greene remains something to be reckoned with. He seduces us with enigmatically opaque lyrics, a breathless urgency and audacious arpeggios; his languid vocals float weightlessly above the ebb and flow of the melody below. Within and Without is a far cry from Greene’s earlier chillwave recordings, and is as thematically sound as anything released this year.
6) Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx – We’re New Here
Jamie xx is one of the most talented producers around, and was given the opportunity earlier this year to remix Gil Scott-Heron’s final recording (his thirteenth release), I’m New Here. The result of this pairing led to one of the most surprising albums of the year. The concept, for all intents and purposes, should never have worked: 22-year-old White British electronic producer working with one of the great African American spoken-word musicians, 40 years his senior. But for some reason all of the elements come together and the final product is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m New Here was a stripped-down masterpiece. It was Scott-Heron’s first original recording in sixteen years and saw the legend revert to his initial spoken-word style. But instead of revolution or social justice, this was the fractured sound of a broken man looking within. This was an album of introspection and retrospection: Scott-Heron sounds at death’s door as he looks back on his life, not with regrets, but simple observations. Jamie xx turns the hugely personal album on its head and injects it with the electronic minimalism that made The xx so successful. From the bombastic, hook-heavy, and utterly unrecognizable “NY Is Killing Me,” to the soulful and dramatic “I’ll Take Care of U,” We’re New Here breathes an entirely new life on Gil Scott-Heron’s body of work. Jamie xx’s well-produced effort has brought Scott-Heron to a new generation of listeners, and for that fact alone he should be applauded.
5) M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Anthony Gonzalez promised us that his sixth studio album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, would be “very, very, very epic.” Which, judging from the general epicness of his earlier recordings, is certainly saying something. Gonzalez certainly kept his promise, for ‘epic’ is the only word that can describe the Herculean effort that is Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. The 23-track, 79-minute double album is as ambitious as musical ventures come. Part of its strength lies in Gonzalez’s experience as a film-score composer. The album certainly has a cinematic quality to it; songs flow together with distinct narrative structure, and the record’s dénouement is suitably grand. Zola Jesus provides magnificent vocal accompaniment to “Intro” and the piano riff to “Steve McQueen” is infectious. But all attention is focused on “Midnight City,” which in my, and most other music publications’ opinion, is the best song of the year. Harkening back to the hyper-stylized world of Michael Mann’s Heat and Miami Vice, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is rooted in the ‘80s. With extended saxophone solos that don’t sound out of place, and synth riffs that had to have been created on a keytar, M83 takes the shameless fun of ‘80s and adds his own signature dose of shoegaze – the result of which is a sound that is otherworldly, and, oh so epic.
4) Tyler, The Creator – Goblin
Few artists in recent history have sparked the public consciousness like Tyler, The Creator and his band of masked menaces (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All).Goblin is Tyler’s follow-up to 2009’s criminally underrated Bastard. However unlike the fist-pumping juvenilia of his debut, Goblin finds Tyler tackling his demons head on. The record is an unpunctuated and sprawling labyrinth; monolithically dark from its hopeful start, all the way to the final murderous showdown. Goblin takes you headfirst into the solipsistic nightmare of Tyler’s life. It’s an album of contrast: hopes and dreams, turn into doubts and fears as fast as Tyler spits his lyrics. It isn’t always easy to consume, but the naked, hypnotic intensity of the music that Tyler has created, overshadows the disturbing lyrical content. Tyler’s musings often manifest as shrewd social commentary; Goblin deals with racism, right-wing America, street culture, and most importantly it viciously damns the vapidity of contemporary R&B. Whether you are with ’em or against ’em, Tyler and his Wolf Gang have indisputably left an indelible mark on the contemporary hip-hop scene.
3) Cults – Cults
Cults seemingly came out of nowhere with last year’s 7″ and despite an awful SEO (Search Engine Optimization) rating, established a huge fanbase based on the strength of their three-song EP. Their eponymous debut sees the New York duo explore new musical landscapes, whilst retaining their devastatingly addictive ’60s pop aesthetic. The power of the record lies in its subtlety. At first listen Madeline Follin’s ethereal cries come across as innocent prom-pop. But after a few rotations, Cults’ dark undertones waft to the surface. 2011 may be remembered as the year of guy-girl duos who employ a unique blend of nostalgia: ’60s vocal styling with clear ’80s instrumentation. Summer Camp and Tennis have also successfully channeled this sonic synthesis. But Cults lead the pack with their sinister lyricism and flawless production. Cults has created a sound that is both inherently rooted in the past while sounding fresh and current. Instantly recognizable, yet somewhat mysterious; it is a difficult balance, and Cults pull it off seamlessly. The defining point on the album is “Go Outside,” a glorious urging to agoraphobics everywhere to “go outside and stop to see your day.” Infamous Jonestown cult leader Jim Jones prefaces the track with: “To me, death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s treacherous.” Cults are not afraid to grapple with dark lyrical themes, and the subtle morbidity is an example of the album’s beautiful marriage of joy and fear.
2) James Blake – James Blake
It is easy to forget that James Blake was making dubstep music before it became a trendy thing to do. Prior to the dubstep crossover, and its subsequent rapid integration into the mainstream, a 19-year-old James Blake was locked in his London apartment, fiddling with his laptop, crafting a new sound. But Blake has far surpassed his dubstep roots, and finds solace in a quieter and more restrained sound for his first LP. James Blake perfectly captures the postmodern, digitalized zeitgeist of the bedroom electronica producer. On his debut, Blake does not aim to disarm through aural aggression, instead, this auteur focuses on the minimalist deconstructionism of Brian Eno or John Cage. Gesturing more toward experimental ambience than house or dubstep, James Blake is a truly innovative and brave record: innovative in Blake’s manipulation of voice, and brave in his use of silence. Fragile vocal lines weave between the nebulous shades of electronic instrumentation; soulful mourning is undercut with gentle waves of synthesized rapture; vertiginous guitar and off-kilter drum lines evoke seamless introspection. Blake has crafted an album of quiet dynamism, and proven he’s more than just another producer. He’s a pioneer
1) Bon Iver – Bon Iver
The beautiful thing about Bon Iver is their devastatingly simple aesthetic; simple yet so, so effective. Justin Vernon is, and always will be, ‘that bearded guy who recorded music alone in the woods.’ Despite the fact that Bon Iver’s eponymous second album was recorded in a remodeled veterinarian clinic in the suburban Midwest, we all like to believe it was the product of those isolated months in the Wisconsin wilderness (though the whole remodeled animal clinic thing is almost as romantic). And even when Bon Iver record their third album in a real studio with an acclaimed producer and complete label funding, we will still hear the sound of ‘that bearded guy who recorded music alone in the woods.’ This is because Bon Iver have done the rare and wonderful thing of embodying a universal cliché. Like Kurt Cobain did to strained vocal chords; The Beatles did to four-chord pop; or Eric Clapton did to Fender Stratocasters – Bon Iver do to the romanticism of escapist songwriting; of isolation in a cabin in the wild.
To call Bon Iver a good album, is the equivalent of calling Casablanca a good film; it’s a gross understatement, and frankly, is insulting. Bon Iver is not only the best album of the year by leaps and bounds, it is one of the best albums I have ever come across. And that is because it is totally authentic. So much of music criticism is determining the degree of authenticity in the artist, and I often find myself asking the question: is this music real? On Bon Iver, because of its intensely personal nature and intimacy, it always feels genuine. The record plays like a Wisconsin winter’s morning: bright yet cold, foggy yet focused, and as beautiful as it is brutal. Vernon employs a number of new techniques to Bon Iver: rich orchestration, layered Auto-Tune, jazz guitar, R&B vocal stylings. This is not a folk album; this is pure escapism. As you travel with Vernon on the journey that is Bon Iver, you sink deeper into the enveloping instrumentation, until it becomes impossible to see your way out… But I promise that you will never want to leave.