I hit you with my picks for the Top Ten Albums of 2009, then the Top Twenty Albums of 2010, so I guess it only makes sense that I do a Top Thirty to wrap up 2011. Lucky for me, I actually didn't have any trouble coming up with 30 albums I spent some quality time with during this past year. And that's what this list is: the albums that came out in 2011 that I liked or found significant for one reason or another. A few of these I wasn't even that crazy about, but I'm going to write about them anyway. Consider the system bucked. Let's do this thing.
This one makes the cut for simply existing, and also for being all sorts of confusing, frustrating, and like a lot of other Naughty By Nature albums, really good and embarrassingly bad within the span of an hour. This thing opens strong: "Naughty Nation" is a burner of a leadoff track, with Treach proving he can still fast-rap with the best of them. From there it's a slow decline, hitting bottom with cuts like "God is Us" and "I Know It's Like," sappy R&B jams that never hit. Naughty's always had a penchant for tear-jerkers, so it's no surprise. What is surprising are the last five tracks on this thing: re-recorded versions of some of their biggest hits, including "O.P.P.," "Hip Hop Hooray," and "Uptown Anthem." Not remixes, mind you; just new vocals. Strange move, dudes. But it's good to see Kay Gee back in the fold, and it's good to see these guys still doing it.
When it comes to rappers I'm supposed to appreciate but instead loathe with an almost unexplainable, fiery passion, KRS-One is at the top of the list. So when I found out that he teamed up with Bumpy, one of my favorite badass rappers, I was torn. I had a feeling I'd like parts of this album and tolerate others, and that's about what happened. Bumpy's his usual rock-solid self on this thing, but the beats aren't the strongest and KRS doesn't do much except imply that no one understands hip-hop as well as he does. You know, the usual. The upside: these dudes don't waste space. This is basically an hour of two veteran rappers trying to outdo each other, and there's plenty of cool lyrical jabs that result from that. I just wish the production matched the intensity these cats can still manage to muster.
"Flowing With the Vets"
I used to really not like Lloyd Banks. He struck me as a Fiddy hanger-on who lucked into some quick-and-easy fame. But the dude has won me over during the last five or six years. He puts in more work than a lot of rappers out there, and for a guy who prides himself on his wordplay (a gutsy move), he never phones in a verse. This mixtape is a perfect example: Banks just busts raps for an hour straight, with only three guest spots over the course of 18 tracks. The beats are dark, trebly, and complement his gravelly delivery nicely. As of late, Banks has eschewed the more glammy aspects of rap in favor of underground cred and flat-out MCing, and I hope he keeps it up.
"1, 2, 3, Grind (feat. Prodigy)"
I don't know a whole lot about Reid Paley, I don't really know how he hooked up with Black Francis, and though I feared this album would be a bit adult contempo for my tastes, I figured I'd give it a go. Glad I did. It's mature music, but in that fractured, pounding, Tom Waits kind of way, and I'm all for that. The two chaps take turns doing vocals, and Paley's gruff delivery is a nice companion to Francis' high-pitched yelp, which sounds stronger than ever on these cuts. This just came out a few months ago, and I still don't feel like I've ingested it all. Looking forward to doing that. It's nice and raw.
Don Don! Like most Wu-Tang fanboys, it tickles me to no end that Donna J-Bird is still out there making the shit out of some rap music. He's also still nuts as all get-out, spilling over with nonsensical rhymes and contradicting himself at every turn. It's a treat. This album finds him, as usual, filled with some bold new knowledge he just acquired, and though it seems to have something to do with religion ("Put God First"), I can't really be sure ("Hoody Hoodpecker"?). What I do know is that he says "poppy wardrobe" like 12 times on this thing, and that's awesome. Also awesome: two blistering guest spots from Inspectah Deck, who has apparently been deemed down enough to hang with Cappa. Makes sense to me. Oh, and he also refers to himself as "Donna the cab driver" at one point, which is gold. Pure gold.
"Can't Believe It's Him"
I'm an unapologetic Strokes fan, and I was really looking forward to some new music from them. I thought First Impressions of Earth was an underrated record; same with Julian Casablanca's solo debut a few years back. I was hoping they'd keep the weirdness going, because the more difficult their music got, the more it seemed like it was building to something. And they did keep us guessing, but almost too much. This is still a really solid record, but unlike their previous three albums, there's not much holding it all together from one song to the next. "Machu Picchu" and "Under Cover of Darkness" hold up nicely compared to their old stuff, and so do some of the other cuts, but overall, it does feel a bit jagged. Still, I'm not going to act like I didn't listen to this a lot. Because I did. So clearly they did something right.
"Taken for a Fool"
I've been jocking this band's nuts hard for the past year, and I don't see it ending anytime soon. This EP is a warmup for their next full-length, and it's whetted my whistle and also given me a slight boner. Between their sarcastic-ass vocals, the hammering guitars, and lyrics I can't really make sense of, this is the kind of music that seems tailor-made for me, and I can't believe I didn't discover it sooner. There are six tracks here and a few of 'em are around the two-minute mark, so it's not the most fleshed-out gang of songs, but like I said, if this is the teaser for their next record, consider me prepped and ready for whatever's coming next.
"With Apologies to Emily Pankhurst"
G Rap has been crushing the mic for about 25 years now, and the dude remains one of the only gangsta rappers that sounds legitimately intimidating to me. He's been praised plenty, but I've always felt he's never received the credit he deserved for lifting hard raps off the street and onto the major labels. Eh - he doesn't seem to give a shit. He's still content to knock out an almost completely unassisted album filled with no-nonsense tracks jam-packed with straight-up MCing, which he's always been great at. You'd think "$ Ova Bitches" would be a phoned-in rehash, but G Rap makes it sound like a lost cut from the Live and Let Die sessions. And that's ill.
"In Too Deep"
It must be frustrating to be DJ Shadow. The more he tries to expand his sound and reinvent himself, the more people cry that it's all been downhill since Endtroducing.... Well, fuck that. His newest collection of sample-heavy (duh) jams takes 80's ass-rock, dices it up into rough chunks, and somehow feeds it back in a way that is initially off-putting but ultimately really interesting. No, this isn't the great return to form that idiots keep clamoring for, and that's the best thing about it. This album is dense, detailed, and begs to be listened to on headphones, just like the rest of his work. I've been rocking it for months, and I'm still finding new little bits and pieces. Is it perfect? Nah. But it's wildly different than anything else I heard this year, and that's exciting.
"Def Surrounds Us"
This one almost slipped by me, and I'm glad it didn't. For some reason I feel like I listened to a lot of heavy, serious music this year, and when I needed a break, I couldn't have asked for something more ass-out fun than this. Knocked out over a couple years when he had the time, this is the first solo record from the Eagles of Death Metal's Jesse Hughes, and though it maintains the same sexy-fun-time vibe as the Eagles stuff, here he's backed by synths instead of buzzy guitar, and your girlfriend loves it. I highly recommend picking up the LP of this one: gatefold, thick vinyl, multiple inserts (that's what she said), and a high-quality download. Support this naked freakshow.
This thing has 11 songs on it, is 46 minutes long, and for some reason they kept referring to it as an EP. Not sure how that works. Whatever. The important thing to take away from this is that when these two nutballs get together and try to out-rap each other, they're tough to beat. I was always a huge fan of their old stuff, so I was happy when they finally squashed the beef and made this album happen. Aside from an inexplicably idiotic hook from Bruno Mars on the blatantly radio-pandering "Lighters," these tracks are surprisingly un-stupid, packed to the gills with raps that you have to listen to 10 times to really understand. It's songs like these that make me still appreciate Eminem: yeah, he's addicted to mainstream anthems, but when he wants to prove he's the best big-time rapper out there, he can still do it.
Here's one that I didn't see coming. Nash and The King returned, sounding like they never left. "Mason Dixon" sounds like it could have been on the first side of The Supersonic Storybook, and that's a compliment. I didn't see a whole lot of praise for this thing, but what were people expecting? This LP surpassed my expectations for just existing, and the fact that it contained 12 Urge-worthy tracks sweetened the deal considerably. The dudes might not look as young as they once did, but they sound just like they did 20 years ago, and they can still write catchy-as-heck guitar songs that don't dare get too fancy. They leave that to their wardrobes. If you didn't like Urge before, you won't like them now. But if you were missing them, this'll set you straight.
"End of Story"
The reunions just keep getting unlikelier. And speaking of bands who pick up where they left off, this LP proved that Ric Ocasek is able to turn his Cars songwriting skills on and off at will. Yeah, he dicked around with a bunch of solo records over the past 20 years, but he never attempted to replicate the Cars sound. Here he does it with ease, with pretty much all of these songs sounding like they could have been on Door to Door. In fact, most of these songs are better than the ones on Door to Door. Yeah, the absence of Benjamin Orr's slinky vocals create a gap that could use some filling, but Ocasek's such a production guru at this point that he doesn't have any trouble rounding out the sounds. This record ended up being way better than I thought it might be, and it was a great surprise.
I could talk about some of the weak-ass rhymes on this album, or how I thought the video for "Make Some Noise" was a star-studded jack-off session, but I'd rather talk about the strength of the beats on this record, and how much better the whole damn thing was than To the Five Boroughs. It sucks that it's come to that, but that album was a stinker, and I thought the Boys may have lost it for good. This LP proved they haven't, and though it's still not the late-career masterpiece that people still think they're capable of, it is a diverse bunch of tracks that come together and feel like a real album, which is something the Beastie Boys have always been great at. I'm not sure if Mike D's even trying anymore ("I mix my style up like a cement mixer"...?), but who cares. They've earned their stripes, and if they're just doing victory laps at this point, I'll remain happy they're even doing that.
"Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win"
Any album that starts off with the lyrics "Outnumbered a million to one/ All of the dicks in this dick town/ Can't keep Johnny down" is fine by me, especially when it's sung by a guy named John who's in a band with another guy named John. They Might Be Giants are at their best when they coyly suggest that they're better than you, and between that song ("Can't Keep Johnny Down") and "When Will You Die," their first non-kids album in four years proves they can still turn on the snark and mask it in melodies that will be stuck in your cranium for weeks. John Henry has long been my favorite Giants album, and this one reminds me of it in spots, which might be why I've enjoyed it so much. The songs are catchy, the lyrics are too smart for me, and the playing is show-offy in the most non-obnoxious of ways. They still got it.
"Can't Keep Johnny Down"
DR can rap when they want to, and even when they act like they're phoning it in, they're still sticking it to you from beneath levels of oft-annoying dickishness. This is what initially made me peg them as Pitchfork-darling cool guys, but it's also the same thing that made me turn around and give 'em another chance. I still can't say I go in for every single one of their songs, but Relax, the first album they asked anyone to pay for, is worth the twelve bucks. It's the most accessible group of songs they've put together so far, and that somehow makes it their strangest full-length. There's not much song-to-song flow to this thing, but each track is album-worthy, and in the end, they all work together. DR rap, talk, sing R&B, and do it all over beats that give me a kick-drum boner. This was probably also my wife's favorite rap album of the year. If that counts for anything.
I guarantee that if Rae would have called this Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Part III people would have been a lot more excited about it. (In fact, I was a little surprised he didn't do that, until I found out he's saving that for 2012.) It's a shame that this record didn't attract the same attention as last year's Part II, because it's nearly as good, and makes Immobilarity and The Lex Diamonds Story look even shittier, which is tough to do. Also tough to do: pulling off a solid 17-track album with almost as many producers, none of which are RZA. But aside from a few random guest spots (Rick Ross, Lloyd Banks, Jim Jones), the Chef keeps shit in the family, with appearances from Meth, Ghost, and Deck, as well as verses from Nas and Busta Rhymes, who are familiar faces to Wu-Tang fans at this point. The songs are short, the rhymes are dense, and other than "Rock 'N Roll," a stinker that houses one of most ridiculously assy hooks in recent Wu-affiliated memory, the tracks aren't out to tarnish Raekwon's legacy, which I'm happy to say is back on track at this point.
"Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang"
Eddie Spaghetti's solo records always stick to the same rough format, but that doesn't mean they all turn out the same. Sundowner sounds more inspired than 2005's Old No. 2 by a long shot, and finds Eddie digging deep to pull out some cover songs that you never thought would translate to well to stripped-down country arrangements. The two original songs here are great, but it's his versions of 80's/90's punk-ish songs (the Dwarves' "Everybody's Girl," The Lee Harvey Oswald Band's "Jesus Never Lived on Mars," Thelonious Monster's "Sammy Hagar Weekend") that really make this thing shine. The acoustic version of the Supersuckers' "Marie" seems about a decade-and-a-half too late, but it's become a standard part of his repertoire, so I suppose it's deserving of a proper studio recording. I listened to this album on a continuous loop for weeks after I picked up the LP, and I still love coming back to it. My kind of country music.
"Jesus Never Lived on Mars"
The Dwarves branched out with their sound over their past few releases, and though I'm all for experimentation and enjoyed most of their forays into genres I never thought they'd tackle (Blag rapping - say wha?), I'm not going to act like I wasn't excited about the prospect of the band returning to its roots. Born Again ain't exactly Sugarfix, but it is their most "punk" album since 1997's The Dwarves are Young and Good Looking. This record is catchy, doesn't contain a song over two-and-a-half minutes long, and features track titles like "I Masturbate Me" and "We Only Came to Get High." If you hated the Dwarves before, you will hate them more now. If you liked their old stuff but forgot they existed over the past decade, this might be the record that brings you back into the fold. The creepy, drug-addled, nude-dude fold.
"We Only Came to Get High"
I first heard eXquire after checking out "The Last Huzzah," and from there I downloaded this album for free and listened to it every day on the way to and from work for about a week straight. The beats on this record are warbly, muffled, and fit eXquire's drunk/don't-give-a-fuck flow perfectly. Dude's completely filterless, and though I wasn't exactly offended by this record, there were definitely some parts that caught me off guard upon first listen. But, who gives a shit. This guy can bring it, and he doesn't sound like anyone else making hard-ass rap right now. He carries this LP almost single-handedly, and not once does he start to slip. Here's hoping the man stays this hungry in 2012, because you can tell he wants it.
"Lou Ferigno's Mad"
Who would've thought that after the "breakup" of Fugazi, Joe Lally would be the most prolific solo artist to emerge from the group? Who knows, maybe he had a George Harrison, backlog-of-songs situation going on. Or maybe he's the one with the least amount of outside commitments. Either way, this is Lally's third solo album in the past five years, and it's his best yet. Yeah, his vocals and abstract song structures take some getting used to, but once you're there, you'll realize that he makes understated, intriguing, and melodic music that can be both noisy and delicate all at once. I started listening to Lally's solo stuff just because I'm a Fugazi fanboy, but I quickly realized that his work outside the band is its own thing, and he's done a great job of creating a rhythm-section-based sound that is spare, smart, and unlike anything else in my record collection.
"What Makes You"
Arctic Monkeys have become such a reliable band that no one seems to really even bat an eye when they release a collection of songs as good as this one. Suck it and See is probably my favorite LP of theirs since their debut, and it might be because the expectations have already been satisfied with this band. They've proven themselves, and now they're free to make the music they want to make. This record sounds relaxed, confident, and it finds them getting a bit weirder with the themes and lyrics, while still keeping the hooks and melodies catchy, compact, and endlessly hummable. Sometimes I don't understand why these guys aren't mainstream rock heroes. Maybe they are, just not in the U.S.? Whatever. They write great guitar rock, haven't gotten too big for their britches yet, and it's a band that you and your lady can agree on. All good things.
"Don't Sit Down 'Cause I Moved Your Chair"
Big K.R.I.T. is going to be crazy famous soon. The dude is a poignant rapper in a time when that's actually becoming cool again, and not only does he produce his own beats, but they're dope as shit. The guy could probably get by one either one alone, and the combo is almost too smooth to handle. With Outkast leaving a hole in the Southern rap game that can't easily be filled, K.R.I.T. actually seems up for the challenge. This album is about 80 minutes long, contains 21 tracks, and is relentlessly filler-free. Thick beats, hard snares, soul samples that haven't been recycled to death - it's down-South hip hop as it should be. for such a young guy, K.R.I.T. is extremely adept at knowing what not to do. This isn't a dude trying to sound like his idols, it's a dude trying to get to their level as soon as he can. Can't wait to hear what he does next.
20 years of Sloan. Seems like it was just yesterday that I was trying to make sense of "Underwhelmed" and imagining what faraway land contained a place called "Nova Scotia." I haven't done a very good job of keeping up with the band over the past two decades, but when I heard they had a new record coming out this year, I thought I'd give it a shot. It was a good call. I was just talking to someone the other day about how bands with multiple songwriters rarely stand the test of time, and Sloan has got to be one of the most impressive exceptions. Though this record is barely over a half-hour long, they pack a lot of variety into these twelve tracks, making it one that, even though it doesn't last too long, can be played over and over. And that's what I do.
"She's Slowing Down Again"
Danny Brown is possibly unstoppable. The guy's 30, has songs coming out his ears, seems to enjoy pills with names I've never even heard of, and shrugs off getting denied a deal with G-Unit over his fashion choices like it's something that happens to a lot of people. I saw Danny live a few months ago, by himself (wonderfully hype-man free), and the guy wrecked a half-hour set flawlessly. Yeah, his sex rhymes might be a deal-breaker for some people, but for me, it's the way in which he strings his words together that makes it all so interesting. His style of speak can go from deep drawl to high-pitched wail in a split-second, depending on what borderline-insane gaggle of rhymes he's spitting through his missing teeth. XXX is weird, creepy, and one of the best rap records that's come out in the past few years.
"Blunt After Blunt"
For a dude who prides himself on experimentation, it was great to see Thurston Moore put together a collection that mostly maintained consistent instrumentation throughout, placing the focus squarely on the songs instead of sidetracking listeners into wondering what kind of drumstick he's rubbing against his pickups. This is easily Moore's most calm, thoughtful set, thanks not only to the acoustic guitar he strums throughout, but also to the straightforward lyricism, something that you don't always get from the guy. Don't get me wrong, I love Thurston when he's getting as out-there as humanly possible, but this LP really stuck with me over the year. There's not a stinker on this thing, and the violin adds a sophistication to it all that shouldn't have worked, but totally did.
Seems like the "meh" reviews started rolling in on The King of Limbs about an hour after it was released, which just proves my theory: society is filled with idiots. But I will say this: I wasn't blown away by this record the first few times I listened to it, either. But, I also remembered not being bowled over by a few other Radiohead albums when they first came out - ones that I eventually became obsessed with. So, I let this LP sink in, and once it got to me, I listened to it nonstop, much to my wife's chagrin. I love the fact that this record is short. I love the fact that it's layered, but not overwhelming. I love the fact that people apparently expect more from this band than the incredibly beautiful "Give Up the Ghost" can deliver. Not sure what they're waiting for, because this thing delivered.
The best rap album of the year is blippy, buzzy, and filled with more intricate, in-joke rhymes than your brain might be able to handle. When I heard that Busdriver and Nocando were doing an album together, I thought it might end up being an off-the-cuff experimental-type thing, and though there are tinges of that here, this is a more fully formed LP than I could have hoped for. Bus and Nocan spend 43 minutes trying to out-rap each other, and features from fellow weirdoes Open Mike Eagle and Del the Funky Homosapien make them dig even deeper in an attempt to cram as many syllables as possible into these ten tracks. They get the job done: these songs are thick, challenging, but also insanely fun. Get with it.
TV on the Radio seems to be in the same boat as Radiohead: they've been so relatively flawless for so long that when they put out a record that doesn't immediately knock everyone on their cans, it gets labeled as "decent" and doesn't receive the undivided the attention it deserves. Though I'm not exactly sure who I'm talking about here - I'm sure there are plenty of people who loved this record as much as I did this year. And they should have. Nine Types of Light may be mellow compared to TVOTR's previous output, but these are hardly entries in the handbook for soft-rock sensitivity training. They're just more straightforward (especially lyrically) than the stuff we're used to hearing from these guys. God forbid they don't do "Wolf Like Me" over and over. Wah wah. This album is amazing. Just let it in.
When news broke that Beck would be producing Malkmus's new LP, I popped a pants-exploding boner the likes of which hadn't been seen since I heard that Randy "Macho Man" Savage was recording a rap album. Malkmus was fresh off the Pavement reunion tour, so I think we were all curious to see what kind of stuff he was going to come with. If you were looking for more of the sprawl-rock jamitude that made Real Emotional Trash so awesome, you were probably disappointed with this record. If you were looking for something that expanded on the odd tones and wacky incongruences of 2005's Face the Truth, then I'd be willing to bet you're madly in love with these 15 songs. You can't exactly hear Beck's production choices as a consistent force in the overall feel of this LP, and that's a good thing. Each song is its own little experiment, and none of them sound the same. It's not really the first time Malkmus has pulled this off, but this is the strongest example. This record's still making its way to my turntable at least once a week, and I don't see that wife-annoying trend ending anytime soon. I'll convert her. You just wait.