Time for the top 5 to be revealed. Let's do a little bit of backtracking, then we'll kick in to high gear for #6.
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
11. Strange Mercy- St. Vincent
10. Parallax- Atlas Sound
9. Nostalgia, Ultra- Frank Ocean
8. House of Balloons- The Weeknd
7. Take Care- Drake
6. undun-The Roots
#5 Father, Son, Holy Ghost- Girls
“It just feels like it’s gone, like all of its gone, gone away,” Girls frontman Christopher Owens sings over chiming power chords on “Just a Song.” Underscored by xylophone strikes and introduced by inspired acoustic fretwork, the seventh track off of Girls second LP represents everything beautiful about the band. Like so much of their best work, the track looks longing at the past both lyrically and musically, while desperately attempting to move forward.
That desperation is fully-encapsulated on “Vomit,” the album’s bridge. Over a gloomy guitar figure not far-removed from classic-era Cure, Owens wearily sings “nights I spend alone, I spend ‘em runnin’ ‘round lookin’ for you baby.” This tension quickly explodes into the chorus which consists of the repetitive mantra “lookin’ for love.” The next scrawl of noise to swell from the song is even more abrasive than the last and sounds like the peak of a drug-induced frenzy.
Girls have received acclaim for their co-opting of classic 60s rock and pop sounds and tempering it with noise-rock and punk. On this record though, they seem less concerned with the punk angle, preferring to mine the depths of gospel and acid-rock on the aforementioned “Vomit,” while doing their time as a Black Sabbath tribute band on the frenetic “Die.” In the group’s strongest moment to date, “Forgiveness,” ragged acoustic guitar circa late 60s Stones brings forth a defeated Owens declaring “nothing’s gonna get any better, if you don’t have a little hope.” “I can see so much clearer, when I just close my eyes,” Owens sings at the songs conclusion. For an album riddled with pleadings, destructive behavior, and biting self-deprecation, closing your eyes and pretending it’s all an illusion is the only cure, no matter how temporary.
#4 Dedication- Zomby
When I was first putting together this list, I didn’t think this album would factor into the discussion much. After all, two factors are influence and success, which handicaps this record before it can even get going. But its placement on the list is entirely due to Zomby’s success at creating a unified LP that surpasses all his prior work.
To call this album cold is an understatement. The music here is as frigid and barren as the Antarctic. The song-titles are equal foreboding referencing: death, the devil, witches, and a tortured artist (Basquiat). At times these chilly synth-lines sprinkled with piano twinkles carry us into a scene not far-removed from Halloween (“Florence” and “Haunted”). And just when you’re endanger of falling asleep listening to the lull, the drum hits of a song like “Digital Rain,” drop you right back into this audio-nightmare. This record should do away with any lingering notions that Zomby is in fact a “dubstep” artist. The overwhelming bass isn’t there and the synths are just too cold and uninviting to be framed in that light.
Any errors this album commits are forgotten the instant the luring piano-line of “Basquiat” slithers forward. In the song’s eternal two minutes, we realize that death is no longer imminent but has finally come to call us home. The rapid and “uplifting” closer “Moziak,” does little to temper this death knell and the coffin firmly slams shut.
The one error in this album is in “Things Fall Apart.” Animal Collective member Panda Bear’s vocals are just too warm, threatening to destroy the darkness. Were this a non-album track it would be a masterful collaboration, but in this desolate soundscape it comes across as a faint and underwhelming cry in the night, a night that perpetually grows darker.
#3 James Blake- James Blake
Calling this LP, James Blake’s first, post-dubstep is disingenuous. Such a term implies there is still a moderate reliance on the style proper. Though the occasional dubstep flourish does emerge, it’s short-lived, serving to mark this album as what is undoubtedly the first electronic singer-songwriter record.
In the dubstep world of 2011, Blake’s decision to sing, play piano, and bring in swipes of guitar is the electronic equivalent of Bob Dylan plugging in to an amp back in ’65. Geoff Barrow of Portishead snidely compared the work to that of “dubstep meets pub singer.” As forward thinking as the sub-genre has been since it first received a label, it is rarely kind to the vocal element, especially when those vocals are originals. Those who follow Blake closely should have seen this coming, since his work on “CMYK,” he has shown a fondness for making his tracks revolve around the vocals. When he brought in piano on the Klavierwerke EP, he was distancing himself from the scene he cut his teeth in.
All of that previous momentum pales in comparison to what can be found here, a fully-realized work that outshines all other electronic albums released in 2011. It isn’t just that Blake sings, it’s how he manipulates that singing. An touchstone is the work of Bon Iver, as Blake is often backed by an army of voices behind him. “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me,” he lonely sings on “I Never Learnt to Share.” Soon the bleak situation of the song is further spotlighted by a litany of Blake voices. When the dubstep sound does drop in the song’s second half, it’s an ironic catharsis, Blake looking at the genre he once called home and emotionally bidding it adieu.
Every song on here is a winner, whether it’s the sublime Feist cover “Limit to Your Love,” the stunning snare-backed track “Wilhelm Scream,” or the ringing piano of “Give Me My Month.” They all serve as glimpses into the frigid work Blake has crafted here, with closer “Measurements,” as the chilling summit. “Crease your pride, telling lies, that you’re not on your own,” he sings. It’s a state of affairs Blake should now be familiar with, having paid his respects to dubstep, he is now on his own. Trekking down a rousing musical road where he is the only traveler.
"The Wilhelm Scream"