Thursday, December 29, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Tyler's Selections

Honorable Mentions:
AraabMuzik - Electronic Dream (Duke)
Destroyer - Kaputt (Merge)
Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
Mastodon - The Hunter (Reprise)
The Midnight Eez - The Midnight Eez (All City)
SebastiAn - Total (Ed Banger)
The Stepkids - The Stepkids (Stones Throw)
Toro y Moi - Underneath the Pine (Carpark)
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Fat Possum)
Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning (Kscope)

25. Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin’ (Columbia)
Raphael Saadiq is on a mission (whether he knows it or not) to supply the mainstream with the most universal music he can, through the only way he knows how; soul baby, soul. His relativist act could be dismissed as novelty, but Stone Rollin’ is proof Raphael is indeed the real deal. He’s a man of pure, raw talent; armed with a set of golden pipes, and an acute ear for sounds that would sound just as relevant 50 years ago as they do today. He rarely misses a beat on Stone Rollin’, and it's oh-so refreshing to see the mainstream taking notice of his flawless singles. Raphael is like a rain-check to pop music, because when all’s said and done, no matter how far you progress, no matter how high up the ladder you get, you can never forget where you came from. And that baby, is universal.

24. John Maus - We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (Ribbon)
Soaring somewhere high above the clouds, John Maus gazes down upon the dampness the hidden land below. His songs are in many ways a deconstruction of pop music; an unfiltered, castaway collection of synth-pop crooners that sound neither here, nor there. Ideas of ‘80s-pop revivalism are irrelevant, for Maus’ songs don’t hit the same way the over-saturated indulgence of the day did. It’s sorrow music for the upbeat; catchy hooks and vintage instrumentation pull the listener into something deeper, something darker than what’s heard on the surface. Atmosphere is key here, as everything else fuels Maus’ eerie memory without an easy association.

23. Omar S - It Can Be Done, But Only I Can Do It (FXHE)
When I began compiling this year-end list, finals week was in full throttle. In the midst of the boiling pressure that was, during a lonesome night at an unholy hour, I began studying for my Algebra exam. It was going to be difficult test, despite any fluffy mental substitution that said otherwise. As time continued to tick, I began to set up; overwhelming Algebra text-book open, 12 clean sheets of college-rule notebook paper on side, and a finely sharpened pencil wielded. Amidst the sparkling workplace, something was missing… a soundtrack; noise, background, filler, something to keep this interesting, something to fill the void. Omar S and his misunderstood It Can Be Done, But Only I Can Do It immediately came to mind, after several respectable yet hesitant listens. I knew something was there, beneath the shaded lull of consistently challenging house. After a tireless night of dim-lit questions, equations, and solutions, Omar S cradled me into a mental state I hadn’t thought possible; a cinematic night of crunch-studying. It was motivation in numbers, guided by sunken textures, pulsating rhythms, and the utter audible aroma that oozes out of every pour of this album. Off the dance floor and into your mind; Omar is there waiting patiently around the corner.

22. Stendeck - Scintilla (Tympanik Audio)
How can an artist manage to spark such a wide array of noise? How can an artist manage to spin, twirl, flatten, and crease the spark into such varied templates of mood? How can an artist manage to control it all, as the seamless by-product of an ape-shit mad scientist with a heart of gold? Questions loom, Scintilla remains. It’s an album driven by its own impending doom, only to be swept gracefully by a starry cosmic force, with its feet stuck on the ground and mind high up in the air. In the process harsh magnets crash, light explodes into fragments, dusk-ridden beats flash a dizzy pattern, and as contraction is stretched, pulled, and released from its throbbing mount, one thought remains; there is beauty in chaos.

21. Andy Stott - We Stay Together (Modern Love)
If you’re ever attempting to come up with synonyms for the word “Dark”, skip the thesaurus, and look no further than We Stay Together. Glum, somber, arcane, deep, cryptic, abstruse, dismal, morbid, the list goes on. You’d have to be a burning pessimist, a raging sociopath, or a sore anti-socialist on a steady diet of low-grade soy milk to enjoy the sounds of such music, no? How about a suburban teenager at a crossroads, or a 30-something as life begins to regress. In other words, this is music that can be appreciated by anybody. All you need is a little adventure in your belly and an eye open enough to see conventions flipped upside down. And on this level, We Stay Together is a revelation.

20. Maybeshewill - I Was Here For A Moment, Then I Was Gone (Function)
Post-rock is a relatively fresh genre taking time into consideration, and like any genre, eventually pressure has been laid on the fundamental sound to strive for further over-zealous concept, creativity, and ambition. Call it natural evolution, but as we’ve seen in the past decade, less and less “groundbreaking” post-rock albums have been released, which ultimately begs the question; how far can you take a genre? The answer lies within albums like I Was Here For A Moment, Then I Was Gone. Nothing here is the particularly awe-inspiring, sprawling, and climatic monsters of the late ‘90s / early ‘00s, though Maybeshewill aren’t out to drill away at past glory. Here they ground themselves on shorter structure and tighter arrangements, and as a result the band wastes absolutely no time in composing superbly effective little nugget anthems. The instrumentation is flawless throughout; whimsical orchestral tones in constant heat with grinding piano lines and escalating percussion, balancing a fine line between erratic and calm sentiment. It’s why no other post-rock album this year was better, and it’s why the genre will continue to strive long into the future.

19. DJ Rashad - Just A Taste Vol. 1 (Ghettophiles)
While Clams Casino was spotlighting atmosphere, BADBADNOTGOOD were creatively fusing jazz and hip-hop, and AraabMuzik was dipping beats in gooey trance, DJ Rashad reimaged bass-drilling juke in what was easily the most overlooked instrumental hip-hop album of the year. While it’s a tougher pill to swallow than the aforementioned acclaim, Rashad was completely short changed this year after managing to seamlessly mix a unique formula of 70s soul samples, repetitive vocal blips, project-approved g-beats, and furious low-end proficiency. Just A Taste is the perfect merger of soulful ecstasy and gangsta prowess, Rashad tipping his cup of hypnotic plunderphonics somewhere distant to those willing to take the first sip.

18. Irrelevant - I’ll Be OK (Kokeshi)
Slowly swaying in the view past your soaking window wipers, a hooded figure looms in the dead of night. You’re in a make-shift downtown of rotting lofts and smoky sewer pipes, unable to tell if the figure you plant your fragmented scope on is there to help, or hurt you. I’ll Be OK recorded, looped, and played with emotions. Grave textures haunted long structured atmosphere, dissonant voices echoed in despair, rhythm was molded into a mood. Cold, bleak, haunting, beautiful, that was up to you, what wasn’t was the woven drones of unsettling melancholy drifting throughout the album that persuaded a simple gesture, how much can you take until your response to it all is just.

17. Zombi - Escape Velocity (Relapse)
Zombi are the epitome of a modern group embracing the vintage aesthetic to electronic music. In the land before time, there were pioneers such as Klaus Schulze, Ashra, and Tangerine Dream embracing their work around progressive rock’s electronic rational. Zombi compose the whirling electronic psychedelia of their ‘70s kraut-ancestry in a more controlled and simplistic linear pattern. Beyond just its primal sound, what really set Escape Velocity apart from other electronic releases this year was its unrivaled consistency and pacing, that any electronic musician, whether young, old, vintage, or future-forward, should take cues from.

16. Fucked Up - David Comes To Life (Matador)
About a month ago, you couldn’t have convinced me this album would have made it on the list, absolutely not. It was long and those damn vocals were too abrasive. But oh was the guitar work just lovely, and hey it was pretty catchy too. After a chance revisit to David Comes To Life, nearly every negative I had embedded in me was replaced with positives. It’s a catchy, powerful, sprawling, and utterly magnificent album that manages to sound so coarse and raw, yet maintains its ambitious conceptual sprawl of a man and woman vs. the world. Though concept or not, Fucked Up managed to put out one of 2011’s most powerful musical statements.

15. Causa Sui - Pewt’r Sessions 1 (El Paraiso)
Pewt’r Sessions 1 breathes the same way a live album does. It sounds raw and untamed, yet there is structure and hold to the chaotic sandstorm that is Causa Sui. It very well could have been improvised, as there’s no doubting how high this band’s musicianship is. In reality, nobody jammed quite as hard as Causa Sui did this year; their post-rock leaning build-ups consistently gave goosebumps, for once they reached that shimmering gold-plated monolithic solo 40,000 feet above consciousness, there was no turning back. If this session is a testament of anything, it’s of a band with no foreseeable limits, whether it was a blazingly psychedelic solo or a reflective moment in the wind, Causa Sui were the chosen ones for those 46 minutes.

14. Apollo Brown - Clouds (Mello Music Group)
How Apollo Brown managed to make it all sound so simple, yet so god damn effective from start to finish I still don’t know. Holding a simplistic approach in hip-hop has for a long time meant a stripping of creditable, artistic merit. Apollo Brown comes out on Clouds with every gun loaded, drum-machine and sampler in hand, with 27 loop-based project beats, guided by whirling cosmic-lite synthesizers and sentimental orchestral samples, that simply don’t miss a beat. If a consistent lyrical flow is what makes a good MCee great, then the same is true for an instrumental hip-hop artist consistently delivering quality beats.

13. The Field - Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)
In many ways Looping State of Mind is the unintentional dance pop sequel to Gas' Pop. The way the album takes lush, fragmented loops of deep sonics and almost subconscious drones is astounding. Its subtle incorporation of nature samples, which often times is difficult to decipher whether or not it's coming from your own backyard, creates the ultimate effect of entranced disillusion. The Field's Looping State of Mind is similar, in that repetition is key, though replace the deeper low-ends and nature samples of Pop with thicker beats and subtle vocals samples. Looping State of Mind is the kind of dance album that's bound to be a rewarding listen, as subtle complexities and woven grooves are distinguished in given time. Ladies and gentlemen, this is real trance, not that it fits the particular genre, but the very essence, the very definition of the word.

12. The Weeknd - Thursday (Self-Released)
Thursday should be heard by all current and aspiring pop artists, as a reminder of how to get the job done. The opening two tracks embody a perfect balance of borderline commercial appeal and Abel’s signature broken-strobe, gorgeous R&B haunt. The rest digs in deeper and darker territory; smoky corridors of club ridden aftermath, parties where people with persona’s like his have never ventured. To just about any other contemporary artist, a second album within the span of a year would be a cheap victory lap from the success of the first, but that’s not the way Abel works, and Thursday is evidence he’s an artist first, entertainer second.

11. ArtOfficial - Vitamins & Minerals (Self-Released)
ArtOfficial create hip-hop that effortlessly exudes a level of confidence that was simply unmatched this year. Featuring multiple MCee’s and a complete live jazz band, their music is packed to the brim with saucy smooth jazz, catchy live beats, and more soul than voodoo night in east New Orleans. Being such a huge year for hip-hop, it’s appalling to see ArtOfficial remain so overlooked. It’s painful, it really is, because Vitamins & Minerals is the best hip-hop album of 2011, and not enough realize how good these guys really are.

10. Elder - Dead Roots Stirring (Meteor City)
Elder describe themselves as "a sonic interpretation of the forces that surround us; the pounding waves of ancient seas, the weight of stone colossi rising up from the earth and the endlessness of inflamed, majestic skies." Dead Roots Stirring proves their poetic self-description is truth. Elder's balance of doom-heavy bombast, bulky metal, and long, structured monoliths of massive, slow-burning charcoaled incense makes for what I can only call the best doom album of the year "The waves of ancient seas" act as the foundation in which their songs are layered upon, "the weight of stone colossi rising up from the earth" as the copious, blackened adrenaline of their massive guitar riffs, and "the endlessness of inflamed, majestic skies" as the mythic, earth-toned atmosphere signaled from their self-created, smoke filled sky above. Elder continue to push the limits of rock music, taking melodic heaviness to a completely new level of musicianship.

9. Radiohead - The King of Limbs (XL)
Radiohead unfortunately have live up to an unholy amount of hype every time they release an album. This year we were treated with an album that seemingly came out of nowhere; enter The King of Limbs, arguably Radiohead's most challenging set of songs yet. Most of this frame lies within the first half of the album, where glitchy atmospheric rock and subtle dub electronics scatter the plot. For most, these are songs that won't click right away. However the second half is much mellower, trading the darker vibed textures for harmonic acoustics and vocal delays. I was first on the fence with The King of Limbs for a number of reasons; it's their shortest album by far, from a production stand-point easily is their most sunken, and it packs a lot of new modern influences with it. So it's not much of a surprise why this album is so polarized amongst fans. Although, The King of Limbs is Radiohead's most cohesive work to date; its hypnotic tone glides effortlessly from song to song. It took me 6 months to come to this conclusion, though most great albums have a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. I always enjoyed it, but never to the extent I do now. And what's most striking of all is; after almost two decades, Radiohead are still a fresh and magnificant band who manage to record subtle, unique, and complex recordings to devote fans, and wide commercial audiences alike.

8. Submotion Orchestra - Finest Hour (Exceptional Blue)
Finest Hour is the sound of ethereal ships-in-a-bottle, once in the hands of humanity, now guided by the free flowing fate of nature’s whimsical embrace. Voice acts as a guide of the trumpet’s distant siren, and it’s a gracefully mellow journey to the very end. Cold resonating brass, sweeping orchestral tones, trembling, guttural low-end, and Ruby Wood’s lush vocal fragility escort the unrelenting beauty throughout. Taking all into consideration, it's a bold statement to call your debut album Finest Hour, though Submotion Orchestra demonstrate their point to a fine, glossy print with this piece of majestic finesse that may very well be their finest hour.

7. Rich Aucoin - We’re All Dying To Live (Sonic)
In the process of recording We’re All Dying To Live, Rich Aucoin compiled over 500 musicians, friends, and fans from across Canada. The album acts as a musical scrapbook of his trek to completion, sonically documenting where he’s been, who he’s met, and what’s happened to him along the way. Aucoin is an artist who on his debut album, sounds like he wants to start something new, something big, something universal. The evidence is all here; as it shouldn't take long to realize We're All Dying To Live isn't your typical indie rock album. His influences are clear; the climatic grandiose of fellow Canadians Arcade Fire and the infectious robotics of Daft Punk, though he translates them into a unique cohesion that bleeds throughout the album, as a splurge of genre-melting sonic’s mold into a completely thrilling and captivating hour of music.

6. Leyland Kirby - Eager To Tear Apart The Stars (History Always Favours The Winners)
Leyland Kirby's drowsy orchestrations of emotional unease and underlying drone eject a stark contrast between merciless beauty, and unforgiving hostility. Unrestrained delicacy, a soft haze of static electricity, gorgeous piano reflections, and frail murmurs of vaporized liquid succession harrow through the distressing climate that is Eager To Tear Apart The Stars. “We are weighed down, every moment, by the conception and the sensation of time. And there are but two means of escaping this nightmare: pleasure and work. Pleasure consumes us. Work strengthens us. Let us choose." - Charles Baudelaire. There are those who will listen and hear pleasure background ambient music, and there are those who will listen closer, and hear mind-altering sonic perceptions of their own lives. Both are equally acceptable conclusions to come to after listening, it's simply a matter of finding out which side you're on. I found the latter, and as a result the album reached a level of emotional consciousness few have ever reached.

5. The Weeknd - House of Balloons (Self-Released)
There's something mysteriously appealing about Abel Tesfaye. His smooth, sensual, and haunting compositions of stripped down R&B, depicting bleak, black and white romanticism, reflects his shattered imagination on love and loss. Structure is thrown out, continually allowing itself enough time to properly express emotion, rather than fall victim to vacuum-packed reflections of tired ideas. His mix of dwelling phantasm with engaging, borderline commercial appeal is as heartfelt as it is fresh. As a result it’s not your typical R&B album, more a scatterbrain anticipation of where it's heading. Tesfaye is indeed the real deal, and with House of Balloons, he’s created the latest standard for R&B in the 21st century.

4. Swarms - Old Raves End (Lodubs)
“The only place I get hurt is out there. The world doesn’t give a shit about me.” Sorrow, regret, and pain; ideas that can be difficult to truly express through electronic music. The operator is human, with emotions and a pulse, the hardware is not; wired and cold, completely lifeless. A debate often sparks on whether or not emotions can be conveyed through synthesizers, drum-machines, and laptops. The answer lies within albums like Old Raves End. From start to finish, Swarms created a flawless emotional rollercoaster. The tone is often faint, as cloudy textures of atmospheric low-end, descending drones of fallen reflection, and ethereal rays of hope shine down on the foggy perspective below. Ultimately where Old Raves End succeeds most is taking the concept of cohesion to new levels; a shining example of how to translate a persistent, yet distinctive sound throughout an album on each and every single track.

3. Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)
Julianna Barwick is proof there is beauty in within the simplest of things. She takes a shockingly stripped down approach to ambient music, and by incorporating sunken choral drones, subtle acoustic delays, and her gorgeous looped siren, The Magic Place struck a deep emotional chord within me. It’s an almost unexplainable feeling, the feeling of being atmospherically one with your surroundings. Whether it was on the computer or a simple walk around the neighborhood, every time I listened, The Magic Place spoke a solemn, unforgiving message of peace; an ease of mind. Feeling was a memory, pain was an illusion, and no matter where I was or how I felt, I was consumed in her mysterious place of majesty.

2. The Caretaker - An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (History Always Favours the Winners)
There’s a scene in The Pianist where Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish pianist in hiding during World War II, is caught by a German officer. In the swollen tapestry of a run-down slum consists a piano, and soon after Szpilman is caught, he’s asked by the officer to play a piece on it. It’s an engrossing, utterly haunting piece, and every time I put on An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, I’m echoed of its memory. Szpilman’s condition is devastating and his ballad is somber, yet there’s a ghostly beauty to it all; a man on his last leg, with all circumstance against him, releasing such a delicate elegance through the keys of music. The Caretaker created an entire album of such quality, ultimately rivaling any ambient release I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. It’s entrancing, emotional, and timeless music that anyone with two ears and a pumping heart can get completely lost in.

1. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute)
“I just turned 30 and I think it was the right time for me to go for it and try something like this … something I'd remember all my life." If there was one massive achievement this year in music, M83’s sprawling synth-pop epic was it. The album managed to bridge catchy pop-aesthetic in a seamless flow of unbridled ambition, making it a thunderous, unstoppable pop juggernaut. If the music here is a product M83’s urge to appeal to a wider audience, while continuing to grow increasingly more confident within his work, he succeeds in every way possible. But widening your sound doesn’t have to mean flaunting to the capital regression of artist merit, because whether it was a whirling synthesizer portrait, a mountainous percussive build-up, or a reflective pond of atmospheric adolescence, this was an album that journeyed into an ambitious scope of music’s many audible horizons. M83 dared to dream big, and in the process created a world of waning sorrow, irresistible pastoral finesse, and inspirational fireworks, exploding into an unrelenting sense of intimate nostalgia. It's my final catharsis for 2011, a place of peace only in dreams, yet despite it all this is a dream I refuse to wake up from.

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