Friday, December 23, 2011

Top 30 Albums of 2011 (Pt. I)

So to get the ball rolling on my list of the Top 30 Albums of 2011, I'm dropping the first three reviews for this list. Periodically until the year ends, I'll be unveiling the rest of my list so keep checking in for updates. Now let's get started.

#30 4- Beyoncé

Almost immediately on “1+1,” the opener to Beyoncé’s fourth album, the R&B diva swoons “I don’t know much about algebra, but I know one plus one equals two. And it’s me and it’s you.” With that one line, Beyonce recalls the ebullient soul of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.” But where that song was ultimately uncertain “if this one could be with you, what a wonderful world this could be,” Beyoncé is all-knowing. Where she was once “Dangerously in Love” she is now comfortable if still “crazy”, crooning her conviction over a simple guitar figure. 

Comfortability is the tale of 4, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for laziness. With that comfortability comes a new confidence in Beyoncé, seeing her pursue bold new ideas down their respective rabbit holes. “I still need you, why is that,” she wonders on the sparse “I Miss You.” It’s one of the tenderest tracks of her career and possesses little more than metronomic drumming and slow rolling waves of synth, simplicity giving way to sentimentality of the highest order. Elsewhere, she plays shape-shifter in the infectious “Countdown,” driving throw a litany of beat drops and switches. It’s a track endemic of the album as a whole, no longer having to look for love, Beyoncé is free to follow her muse, letting stability give way to startling creativity.


#29 The Dreamer, The Believer- Common

“What I loved most she had so much soul,” it’s a line any hip-hop head knows all too well. For anyone who’s followed Common it’s undoubtedly what they’ve loved so much about the Chicago MC as well. With the release of 2008’s Universal Mind Control, he traded in that soul for staid electro-beats courtesy of the Neptunes. Their cold-rugged thunk a far-cry from the warm rays of soul Common’s lines were often bathed in.

When it was first announced that the 2011 follow-up The Dreamer, The Believer would be entirely produced by old cohort No I.D. I was ecstatic. The Chi-city producer laced Common with some of the greatest beats the Alt-rap world had seen at the time and Common masterfully fit in. This new release picks right-up where the duo left off, beginning with “The Dreamer,” which sports a driving drum-beat No I.D. has staked his career on and a hypnotic vocal loop. “You can live the dream, just believe in it,” Common proclaims in the bridge. Throughout this record, he balances his hip-hop dreams with what 20 years in the game have taught him.

Clearly all that time has taught him well and Common is in top form throughout. He spares full-force with a furious Nas on “Ghetto Dreams” and soars on the epic ELO-sampling “Blue Sky.” “Do they end up in a coffin because we haven’t taught them,” he wonders on the John Legend feature “The Believer,” turning in his most impressive performance in years. It’s a question Common can’t help but ask. He’s been “teaching” his whole career and the rap-world still has so much to learn. “Let us dare to dream,” Maya Angelou boldly proclaims on “The Dreamer.” Common has spent his time dreaming of a hip-hop world he has yet to see, but he still steadfastly believes. Maybe one day he can still “take it all back,” like he promised all those years ago. All we can do is dream.

"Blue Sky"

#28 Just Once EP- How to Dress Well

At one point on the Just Once EP, a silence emerges I could spend hours talking about, where the lush violin and cold piano give up the ghost leaving us alone with singer Tom Krell. Time seems to stop. “It’s like there’s no air, no air, no air” Krell despondently sings. He goes on to say he “wasn’t in any pain,” but we know better from listening to the whole track.

"Suicide Dream 2 (Orchestral Version)

This is an EP of a frightened and despondent man, hopelessly lost. Where previous HTDW efforts hid that hopelessness under mountains of reverb and tape hiss, this work trots out Krell’s pain for all to see. The orchestra that plays with such warmth throughout only serves to show us how cold Krell’s world truly is. Lyrics are still obscured, this time by the still proudly lo-fi orchestra, but it doesn’t matter, one listen to that voice on a track like “Suicide Dream 1,” tells us all we need to know.

This is music transfixed on the past, every mistake made blown-up and analyzed to an overwhelming degree. When the brief respite of “Decisions,” comes at the EP’s end, it’s too late. It’s a moment of glory, frozen in a troubled time.


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