There are a lot of reasons to be cynical of Drake. Graduating from teen TV fame to Rap/R&B stardom isn't exactly the same as coming up from the streets, and his presence on the Young Money label is probably troubling to some Hip-Hop purists. And, no, Take Care isn't very hard, and Drake's flow isn't the kind to throw you on your back, but his production and vision definitely are. Like a sort of spiritual cousin of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Drake's latest is a lengthy, critical, thorough self-inspection, all dressed up in style and enormity. Like that album, Take Care will convince you that living like a king has its consequences, but it certainly doesn't sound like its creator will be changing it up anytime soon.
This album has a true embarrassment of wealth, 17 tracks, all good to great, occupying a somewhat exhausting two hours. It's perhaps better taken in chucks of bummed-out, radio-ready excess, such as the incredible hot streak that runs from stream-of-consciousness flow Headlines, all the way to woman-worshipping Make Me Proud. The beats here, textured and varied, consistently subvert expectations of what we've come to expect from the Top 40, and Drake's singing voice, auto-tuned and otherwise, is suddenly willing and able to take center stage on a track. This is, 'Radio Music,' the way it should be: Big, Flashy, Focused, and Heartfelt. Yes, these are Jams, and they were the best Jams of 2011.
9. Days---Real Estate
Real Estate make sunny-days Pop-Rock in a vacuum, one wherein absolutely no excess of sound is permitted. The band's line-up might feature five different persons, but the music is so streamlined and so direct, you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for the work of one voice. Days is bright, light, and impossible to stop listening to, harkening back to the heyday of 60's Pop, playing with enough warmth and calm to make you forget the world happening right outside your headphones. It's music that's been expressly designed to put a smile on your face, and it does just that for 40 straight minutes.
Go ahead, just try getting all the way through It's Real without cracking a contented grin, and while you're at it, give Out of Tune a try, and get ready to have its chorus floating around in your head for days. The album is nothing if not a casual affair, each of the songs sounding natural and familiar on first listen. The band behind them almost doesn't seem like they're even trying, and that's a lot of Days' charm: That the songs within each feel so confident in their lazy ways, they might as well have written themselves. Real Estate is a comfortable band to spend time with, like a group of your oldest friends, only if they possessed an uncanny ear for streamlined pop.
Kurt Vile is a man who needs no introduction, so I'll save my energy. There are a number of charged words and glowing descriptions that I could write about his music, but the truth is a bit more simple than all of that. Vile just plain writes great songs, every time out, both his So Outta Reach EP and this glorious full-length stocked only with top grade stuff, spare no expense. Smoke Ring For My Halo is essentially one winner after another, so much so that it becomes near impossible to tell your friends where to start. There's no, 'That Song,' here, and that's because every single number here deeply believes it's, 'That Song,' and they all just might convince you.
Vile comes off as a lazy type, his deflated voice often musing about nothing more than sitting around, and watching time pass. This is, of course, all a put on, as the track list here is as fussed over as any to come out last year, each tune worked over and perfected. Consider the piano sneak-in at the end of Jesus Fever, or the swirling, slow-motion build of On Tour. This kind of subtle fleshing out of songs doesn't come to those unwilling to work at it, and Vile's drive to make each second of each song involving and pleasing to the ear reveals his meticulousness as an artist. But here I am, over-describing, just like I said I shouldn't. There are a million, quadrillion little things that Vile does to make his songs the sublime pieces of, 'Guy with a Guitar,' pop that they are, but the main one is clear and plain to see: Kurt Vile just writes really, really good songs.
7. Looping State of Mind---The Field
Based on what I managed to hear, 2011 was kind of a weak year for instrumental music. Explosions in the Sky released a new disc, as did Mogwai, but neither managed to drum up much excitement. Thank god for Axel Willner, the Swedish maestro behind The Field. Looping State of Mind does nothing if not live up to its name, each of its seven songs repeating the same refrain until it is absolutely ingrained in the listener's brain, a euphoric and unending groove that's just about impossible to pull yourself out from. LSoM is a pendulum of an album, moving from side to side in rhythmic, calculated fashion until you become completely hypnotized.
The Field is classified as Techno, but there's way too much blood and sweat on display here for me to really hold much stock in that description. Wether or not the sounds we're hearing are digital in nature or not, they sound as though they come from a real, tangible place, as opposed to a collection of sounds that needed only the push of a button to exist. And where his electro bretherin are clearly trying to get you to move your feet, Willner is much more focused on putting you in a trance, explaining emotions and feelings through methodical repetition. This is an album that's not nearly as much about the destination as the journey, and one that I'll be laying around in and becoming lost inside of for a long time to come.
w h o k i l l---tUnE-YarDs
Watch out everybody: Merrill Garbus is on the loose, and she's crazy! The very last and very best member of my proposed, "Hell Hath no Fury Like a Woman Scorned," 2011 four-pack, w h o k i l l is not only totally bonkers musically, but is also filled with searingly painful and personal lyrics by Garbus, who belts them out as if her life depended on them. Where many artists become shy, or use analogy to get their more sensative points across, Garbus absolutely screams lines like, "There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand/And like I've never felt before,"directly confronting the ugliness and mania of the world that's made her the mad-woman that she is.
Besides boasting of an otherworldly, gender-bending voice, Garbus creates her songs from the ground up, looping drums and ukulele while her bandmates help her by adding Bass guitar and Saxophone. It's quite the concoction of sounds, an unfamiliar balance that Garbus bends and molds to her liking, from badass chant-songs (Gangsta), to epic ballads (Powa) to nightmarish lullabies (Wooly Wolly Gong). Weird doesn't even begin to describe what's going on here, and those unfamiliar with the more avant-garde side of pop would be well advised to give this one a few listens before passing judgment. Not that what they think will matter much to Garbus: This is a singular artist, boldly and proudly following her muse in whatever insane direction it takes her, daring us to come along. She won't have to ask me twice.
5. Tomboy---Panda Bear
Upon its release in early April, Tomboy was met with something of a critical shrug, and, for the life of me, I still can't figure out why. Sure, it might fall a bit shy of Panda Bear's last solo effort, the genre-pioneering Person Pitch, and it might lack the cross-over appeal of Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavillion, but absolutely no album should be held to those standards. Tomboy is something else entirely, a strange and potent dose of psychedelic pop that leans more heavily on Noah Lennox's shining, soaring voice than anything that he's ever done before. The tracks here don't tower quite like they did on those aforementioned discs, but instead bask in trippy warmth.
There are a few moments where that are wrought with tension, such as the militant sounds walls of the title track, or the increasing frenzy of Alsatian Darn. More often, however, Tomboy spends its time glittering and glowing along, Surfer's Hymn riding happily on top of sonic waves, Last Night at Jetty proving a delectable, modestly-scalled joy. It all works like a charm, flowing from first track to last without so much as a hickup, even later tracks just as deliscious and melodically wonderful as their forebarers. I don't know what people were looking for when they cracked into this one that they didn't find; I'm just grateful that I did.Helplessness Blues---Fleet Foxes
Most of the time I find agreeability to be kind of boring when it comes to musical artists, but who in their right mind wouldn't love Fleet Foxes? It would have to be someone without the taste for masterfully-scaled woodsy folk, someone who couldn't stand soaring, breath-taking harmonies, a person with no use for songs that seem to put the Summer's sun right on your bare back. Robin Pecknold and his band just have a good thing going, their chemistry and palpable sense of ambition ensuring that they're here to stay.
Where the band's self-titled debut was all grandstanding, all the time, Helplessness Blues displays a lot more restraint and subtlety, some songs waiting until late in their runtimes to bloom into something bigger (The Plains/Bitter Dancer, Someone You'd Admire), others just fine with remaining small (Lorelai, Blue Spotted Tail). Pecknold's lyrical concerns have matured as well. Instead of leaning on cryptic, old-timey story-telling, Helplessness Blues is concerned with modern problems in a confusing world, the frontman restlessly searching for his place in the world. His struggles are often poetic and moving, but I have to say, it sure sounds like he already found where he belongs.
Bon Iver---Bon Iver
There is no one, and I mean no one, working in the world of music today who's found a more direct route to the hearts and souls of their listeners than Justin Vernon. The guy has a voice that projects emotion and hurt in a way that is plainly unmatched, wether breaking hearts in his now widely adored falsetto (Michicant), or dropping a register or two for something deeper and more guttural (Minnesota, WI). His voice is so amazing, in fact, that just about any album could probably skate on that good grace alone. Thankfully, Bon Iver is not so easily contented, declaring itself as more than a singer's playground by creating one beautiful sonic world after another.
The fuzzy drum rolls and gushing guitar strums of Holocene are so lush, they tempt one to forget all about the miracle of a croon that's powering the track. Same goes for the swift, crafty change-up right at the core of Towers, as well as twinkling piano wunderkind Wash. Vernon's lyrics are no less attention-worthy, stringing together thoughts and words that make little overt sense, but allude to feelings and memories that settle down deep in your chest. This is music for the heart, featuring a man whose ability to project intimacy makes all of his listeners feel like he's their very own wounded best friend. In a jaded generation like this one, that's quite the accomplishment, and Bon Iver is quite the album.
James Blake---James Blake
Dub-Step is a genre at war, against others and against itself. While the majority of the population remains unaware of the growing musical trend, those within it and outside of it are stuck deep in the trenches, trying to decide wether nifty little samples, or noisy Bass wobbles are the defining characteristic of the genre. Blake, who spent his 2010 releasing three EPs more closely hewn to the former of the two sound worlds, probably saw this one coming, and that's why he rewrote the rules to the game with his self-titled debut. Rather than picking a side, the 23-year-old Brit located/created something new altogether; A bizarre but beautiful intersection between R&B, Blues, Emo-Pop, and the genre that made him famous in the first place.
Harkening back to the nighttime minimalism of The XX, James Blake is a disc that is stripped down to its core, not exactly what we've come to expect from Dub-Step. The Wilhelm Scream has next to nothing going on, its electro bleeps and pops regulated to the background as Blake's alien auto-tune laments fill up the vast remaining space. Blake has cited Bon Iver as an influence, and the fashion in which he manipulates his voice to bring out Vernon's sense of pain is inspired and new. Beyond all the beauty, all the beats, and all of the buzz, that's what really sticks with you about James Blake: The sense that some of our favorite old parts have been stitched together to create something defiantly new. It's an exciting and emotionally rich effort, one that perfectly locates the cross roads between ambition and intimacy, and its level of acomplishment is frankly head-spinning.
And Hype Starts Here's Best Album of 2011 is...
1. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming---M83
Do you wish that you could craft an Epic? I sure do. The kind of widescreen, multi-faceted expansiveness that makes you go weak at the knees. Anthony Gonzales knows just what I'm talking about it, and it's because he's responsible for one in Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. The double disc is an absolute masterclass in huge, 22 tracks over the course of 73 minutes, filled with massive choruses, wearing its big earnest heart right out on its sleeve. Drenched in 80's pop mechanisms, HU,WD is eager to get people on their feet and dancing, but it's also filled with beautiful, seamless transition tracks that move us from one glittering, gorgeous location to the next. More so than any other album released last year, this one is a journey.
Sometimes, the destinations are lovely, like the building laments of both Wait and Splendor, or the sticky-sweet sentimentalism of silly story teller Raconte-Moi Une Histoire. Other times, they've big, ecstatic celebrations, such as Steve McQueen, or the titan of a Dance-Pop track that is single Midnight City. But everywhere is just so colorful, so full of youthful vivaciousness, energy, and zest, all thanks to a man who simply set out to make the biggest and best album that his all-world imagination could construct. No other 2011 release bit off this big of a chunk, and Hurry Up, We're Dreaming chews it with confidence, unafraid of accusations of cheese and over-indulgance, ready rock our heads and our hearts with absolutely everything it's got. Epic: It's a word that gets tossed around quite a bit in Media Art, many of its uses debatable, but if any disc deserves it, it's this one.