During my final grad school semester, I spent a lot of time reading about the ways people interact with computers, and no background music was more fitting than James Blake’s full-length debut. Blake’s lyrics tap into the exposed nerves of romantic and familial love, but his voice is run through so many levels of electronic manipulation that it sounds like the lamentations of a robot who doesn’t know he’s not human. It sounds creepy and cold at first (call it the “Uncanny Valley” effect), but after repeated listens, the effect is reversed, as simple emotional outbursts become expressions of universal sadness shared by anyone with the curse of consciousness.
As well as being the year of boring, 2011 was also the year of bands taking shit for things that have nothing to do with their music. (Or is that every year?) Like A$AP Rocky (“not New York enough”) and Lana Del Rey (“not indie enough”), Liturgy attracted hate for not being “metal” enough. Which is a ridiculous claim, especially if you, um, listen to the album instead of dwelling on the band’s hipster threads and frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s ridiculous essay on black metal theory, “A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism.” Liturgy could dress like Maroon 5 and write sonnets in their spare time, and it wouldn’t change the fact that Aesthehica is one of the most thrilling and unforgivingly heavy albums of the year.
Harlem’s A$AP Rocky doesn’t reinvent the turntable on his mixtape LiveLoveA$AP because he doesn’t need to. Instead, A$AP’s goal is to serve up a tight rap record to the people that, like the best popular music, hits that sweet spot between art and immediacy, seriousness and fun. With big assists from other 2011 all-stars like Clams Casino and Spaceghost Purrp, LiveLoveA$AP is old-fashioned hip-hop that doesn’t break ground like Shabazz Palaces, but is a lot more enjoyable.
Imagine if Frodo and company had been working for Satan, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what Wolves in the Throne Room sound like. Whether you call it ambient metal or post-metal or scorched Middle Earth, Celestial Lineage is a mythical beast of a record that challenges the preconceptions of metal and non-metal fans alike.
If patience is a virtue, then fans of The Field (a.k.a. Alex Willner) should probably be sainted. But when the delayed gratification comes on Looping State of Mind, and all the disparate, repetitive loops coalesce around a torrent of sound, it’s well worth the wait. The noises are mostly synthetic, but they slowly build on each other in a way that’s as mesmerizingly organic as watching the tide roll in. Like Oneohtrix Point Never, Willner squeezes whatever remnants of pop music he can out of a daunting genre (in this case, minimalist house) to invite unsuspecting listeners across unknown, yet navigable, musical expanses.
A few critics wrote that Nostalgia/Ultra was a nice start, but that it was more a preamble to future greatness, and that Frank Ocean would really be worth noticing “once he got out of bed.” But it’s that tossed-off quality of the lyrics that makes the mixtape so uniquely enjoyable. It lends an everyman quality to Ocean’s unbelievable voice, which is anything but mundane. Nostalgia/Ultra, with its nonchalance and idiosyncratic samples, gives the listeners the irresistible impression that Ocean is just a dude writing songs in his bedroom for no one but himself (or maybe the woman he’s trying to hook up with). And to be let in on that level of listener-intimacy is a rare and wonderful thing.
Fascinating juxtapositions between light and darkness, good and evil, and beauty and ugliness mark plenty of the albums on this list, but perhaps none more so than the Weeknd’s House of Balloons. For evidence of this, throw on “The Party and the After Party,” which features Abel Tesfaye applying his staggeringly soulful pipes to the task of convincing a drunk chick to have an orgy (all this over a prim, delicate Beach House sample). The Pusha T–grade nihilism here would be almost unbearable if it weren’t for Tesfaye and producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo’s ability to bring things back into the light through the power of the almighty hook. Sure, the new Drake album is fine or whatever, but when it comes to capturing the exhausted hedonism of a neverending party, he’s got nothing on the Weeknd.
Can music with only the loosest ties to melody and rhythm ever be considered pop? That’s the question implicitly posed by Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica. Rhythms lose shape and shift at a pace best not try to keep up with. In this way, the listener is forced to let the music work its magic on its own terms. And while there’s no such thing as a “hook” on Replica, the surprising, lively manipulation of samples creates, at best, the same endorphin rush one gets from a fist-pumping pop chorus.
All too often, the most experimental beats are wasted on rappers whose vocal talents pale in comparison. Shabazz Palaces bucks this trend with their secret weapon, Ishmael Butler, who made his name 20 years ago with the landmark hip-hop trio Digable Planets. With his new outfit, Butler leaves behind the jazzy alternative hip-hop of his youth for an electronic space odyssey that is more Flying Lotus than Tribe Called Quest. Organic and synthetic sounds move freely without regard to logic or traditional structure, but Butler’s emphatic flow is always there to bring things back down to Earth.
In an excellent piece for the AV Club, Steven Hyden called 2011 “the year of boring,” identifying Fleet Foxes as one of the bands leading the pack. Hyden didn’t say boring was bad necessarily; he merely defined it as a series of musical attributes that go down smooth to broad audiences. And in a sense, he’s right about Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues is not a particularly challenging, experimental, or confrontational album. But it is a gorgeous and intricate Astral Weeks–inspired slice of folk that could melt the heart of the crustiest punk. Is this the dawn of a post-genre world? Probably not. But while a million NPR listeners can be wrong, they got it right with Helplessness Blues.
10. Tom Waits, “Hell Broke Luce”
9. St. Vincent, “Surgeon”
8. Wilco, “The Art of Almost”
7. Smith Westerns, “Imagine, Pt. 3”
6. Tyler the Creator, “Yonkers”
5. Toro Y Moi, “New Beat”
4. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Niggas in Paris”
3. M83, “Midnight City”
2. Das Racist, “Michael Jackson”
1. Beyonce, “Countdown”
Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost