We're cracking the top 10 as the year winds down, but before we do, let's take a look at how we got there.
30. 4- Beyonce
29. The Dreamer, The Believer- Common
28. Just Once EP- How to Dress Well
27. Alien Observer- Grouper
26. Step Brothers- Don Trip & Starlito
25. Cole World: Sideline Story- J. Cole
24. Weekend at Burnies- Curren$y
23. Suck It and See- Arctic Monkeys
22. Celestial Lineage- Wolves in the Throne Room
21. The Whole Love- Wilco
20. Bad As Me- Tom Waits
19. Live, Love, A$AP- A$AP Rocky
18. Helplessness Blues- Fleet Foxes
17. 21- Adele
16. Wounded Rhymes- Lykke Li
15. Hilarious- Louis C.K.
14. Cults- Cults
13. Goblin- Tyler, the Creator
#12 Tomboy- Panda Bear
It’s no secret that 2011 has been a year for wistful nostalgia in music. This admiration for ages past has pervaded rap, electronica, pop, and indie from January to December. In a calendar year for reminiscing, Panda Bear was bound to succeed.
One second into the album, Panda Bear is recalling the Beach Boys more overtly than ever. “You Can Count on Me,” is the by-product of throwing a Pet Sounds record into a blender with layered vocals and industrial clanging. “Surfer’s Hymn,” meanders down a similar road before being coated in electric ash more akin to Animal Collective. “Slow Motion,” bleeds with broken beat-boxing and out-of-tune piano, singing about the childish-lie of “practice making perfect.”
Panda Bear’s homesickness for the past is palpable on “Last Night at the Jetty.” The wobbly beat leads to him singing about “dreams that we once had.” He dolefully inquires “didn’t we have a good time?” In the teenage fantasy that Tomboy hearkens back to, it’s a pitch-perfect question, and one Panda stalls in answering.
As marvelous as the malaise is, Panda Bear realizes on “Friendship Bracelet,” that he’s made “grave mistakes,” and daydreaming is never enough. A mature realization for the eternally-youthful Animal Collective drummer. Much of his past work both solo and with AC, has been about the pains of reliving the past while trying to grow up. Nowhere is that pain better felt than on Tomboy.
"You Can Count on Me"
#11 Strange Mercy- St. Vincent
After more than a dozen listens, I still don’t understand this album. This isn’t for lack of trying. The environs of Strange Mercy are so impenetrable, that total comprehension is futile. This is an album that delights in being willfully weird, in taking the smiling face of commercial pop sending it to another planet and bloodying it up.
“I’ll make a living out of telling people what they want to hear,” the decorous Annie Clark sings on “Champagne Year." The sentiment can’t go far for her, because who wants to hear such unfettered emotion? She lies to herself, promising a “champagne year,” that will never come, choked out by the cobwebs clinging to the unadorned walls of her life. Under the vocal manipulation of “Cheerleader,” Clark is controlled by a split she can’t comprehend. “I’ve told whole lies, with a half smile.” Her tempestuous guitar in the chorus jolts her back to life and for a time she is free. The uncertainties of “Northern Lights” are likewise put down by Clark’s guitar, a sinner in a saintly song.
Strange Mercy perpetually plays this game of stark contrast. The stutter-stepping of “Chloe in the Afternoon,” a tale of a high-class prostitute grown bored rests alongside the demure “Dilettante,” where Clark asks the fictional Elijah to “slow down.” The story-sketch is a call back to “Cheerleader.” She’s no longer having “good times with some bad guys,” but bad times with good guys. Even as she prepares for her champagne year in “Northern Lights,” she sings it’s “full of sober months.” There are still many mysteries I will never solve on this record, but with journalistic lines like these, I can come to understand the dichotomy of “strange mercy.”
#10 Parallax- Atlas Sound
If he wanted to, Bradford Cox could become a pop-star tonight. Professing to be a fan of Martha & the Vandellas, The Crystals, and a slew of other renowned girl-groups, he knows his history. On the cover of Parallax, he’s got “the look,” Sinatra-like in the way he clutches the giant- microphone. Most importantly, he can craft a catchy tune. The problem is, with his evasive lyrics and profound shyness, he’d be a fish far out of water.
“You can come around, when you’re down,” he sings over the looping harmonizer of “Te Amo.” The track is pure puppy-dog love with a mysterious edge, enigmatic Ricky Nelson. Cox pays homage to the jangle-pop of The Byrds on “Mona Lisa,” and shows he has more in common with R.E.M. than their hometown. The track is a carry-over from Cox’s “Revival,” under his work with Deerhunter. Since Atlas Sound first began Cox has been using the two projects as staging-grounds for one another.
“Praying Man,” sees Cox in garage-rock mode, singing the requisite “sha la la,” chorus in an Elvis quiver drowning in gooey reverb. “Angel is Broken,” reminds me of a warped Roy Orbison with a strange sway. The pop act for Cox continues on “Lightworks.” The track sports a Dylanesque harmonica solo and whammy-heavy guitar playing. It’s a sock-hop song for the indie scene.
The record would be outright pop were it not for his tendency to coat everything with a reverberating veneer. Likewise, the lyrics of the interrogative “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs,” are too eccentric to rub elbows with the Ronettes. “Hey you got a story, would you trade with mine,” he intones on the blipping “Doldrums.” With this third Atlas Sound LP, it’s clear that Cox wants to want to take on the life of a pop icon. It’s up to him to see if the deal goes through.
"Modern Aquatic Nightsongs"
#9 Nostalgia, Ultra- Frank Ocean
“When we were kids, we hand-painted strawberries on a swing, every moment was so precious then.” From the first line of Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean’s first mixtape we are washed in the waters of nostalgia. The innocence of “StrawberrySwing,” is soon sullied and the listener is dropped into the troublesome recollections of “Novacane.” Here the woman Ocean remembers is “paying for tuition, doing porn in the valley.” He gets too close and soon sees “cocaine for breakfast,” “yikes” being his only response.
These jarring juxtapositions cloud the view Ocean has of the past. On top of sliding guitar and in-the-pocket drumming in “We All Try,” Ocean reaffirms his faith in humanity. Such optimism is a far-cry from the 808s & Heartbreak-influenced “Swim Good,” where he envisions driving in the ocean to “swim from something bigger than me,” counting down to his own demise along the way.
Ocean succeeds because of these “walking paradoxes.” He’s at once lustful, wanting nothing more than a garden romp in the MGMT cover “Nature Feels,” but strangely loving on “Dust,” admitting to falling in love with a girl. In doing this, Ocean is more successful than any of his OF-brethren this year in creating a work that will have longevity. Our understanding of the past is often hazy, our own nostalgia regularly a contradiction. Ocean knows that full-well and has released a record that reminds of us just how often we intentionally forget our past travails, instead remembering our triumphs no matter how minuscule.