2011: Evan Hanlon
A strong contender for least expected album of the year, Amateur Party’s reconstructed college rock hits take on the likes of Craig Finn, Ted Leo, and even Mike Watt. The musicianship is impeccable here, unsurprising given the band’s pedigree, a veritable who’s who of the Philadelphia post-hardcore scene (members of Off Minor, Armalite, and Kill The Man Who Questions). Civil undertones of revolutions also make it especially timely for the foot soldiers of the Occupy movement.
Standout Single: “On College Kids & Gang Signs”
A reminder of what summer is like, built for speed and shout-alongs. The songwriting shines here when the whole thing shifts gears right after the bridge, before it all just peters out.
Black Milk & Danny Brown
As good as the back nine of Danny Brown’s XXX full-length is, it took fellow Detroit denizen Black Milk to really unleash the full potential. The production makes Brown’s propensity for extreme scatology, derision and Internet obsession sound down right mainstream, often coming off as a more boisterous counterweight to classic Madvillain. It’s a real collaboration, too, with Brown able to take a breather from time to time and give Black Milk’s unrivaled touch some time to shine.
Standout Single: “LOL”
From a rap album perspective, Take Care is an unmitigated disaster. But pull back and consider it as a kind of therapy rap sheet, and it becomes rather fascinating. The production sounds downright medicated thanks to Noah “40” Shebib, who is largely the star here. As for Drake himself, he cycles through so much schadenfreude, narcissistic insecurity, self-consciousness, and revisionist personal history so as to resemble hip hop’s very own Woody Allen. Most of which, of course, is a myth, or at the least, posturing. It’s understandable why Rick Ross lies about being a drug dealer, but it’s much harder to understand why exactly Drake is so upset with success.
Standout Single: “Crew Love (ft. The Weeknd)”
Maximumrocknroll put me onto Iceage’s first single last year, and since I’ve got a thing for Danish bands, I spent a lot of time looking for it to no avail. Then New Brigade showed up with a full album’s worth of angsty teenage post-punk seconds away from exploding. In the studio and on stage, it’s pretty clear that these kids are willing to bleed for the music. They’re just one big mess with a lot of bodies pulling in every direction, each one better than the last.
Standout Single: “Remember”
Lou Barlow has spoken a bit about J Mascis having tempered somewhat in his older age. It’s one reason Dinosaur Jr. was able to get back together. But Barlow’s also pointed out that Mascis is still, ultimately, the same inscrutable human being in a lot of ways. The most important way is in his songwriting, which is boiled down to its most essential on Several Shades of Why. What’s most remarkable is that it feels of a piece with everything he’s done, from Deep Wound to The Fog, without any of the trappings. Just a plaintive voice and well-picked guitar strings.
Standout Single: “Is It Done”
Out of a sea of overhyped and/or benignly frivolous young SoCal rappers comes Kendrick Lamar, a fully formed lyrically lyrical heavyweight that’s equally in demand amongst the street, backpack and Internet rap crowds. He’s an incredibly elastic performer, twisting rhymes throughout lines, couplets and verses, as well as the intensity and vigor of the flow itself. No wonder Dr. Dre stands behind him so firmly. If he won’t put out Detox, he might as well stand behind Compton’s next great talent.
Standout Single: “Ronald Reagan Era”
It’s no secret that Kurt Vile is a masterful songwriter and one of the great evokers of mood. But personal? Not so much. Smoke Rings For My Halo changes that, with the power of each song radiating out from Vile himself. It’s a subtle difference, but now that he operates from inside the music, it feels much more conversational, even confessional at times. Instead of just talking at you, Vile talks with you. That directness, with the metaphoric veil lifted, creates the deepest connection yet.
Standout Single: “On Tour”
Australia almost singlehandedly ran the rock scene in 2011, and none more so than Royal Headache. This is one of the most joyous, rambunctious, no-frills pop records I’ve had the pleasure of hearing, with Shogun’s vocals being the most notable element. He wails as hard as the rest of the band, finding notes of Guided By Voices, The Walkmen, The Killers, Reigning Sound and even Fall Out Boy along the way. All of which is to say is they’ve mastered the catchy, and are more than willing to share.
Standout Single: “Never Again”
Ishmael Butler steps past Digable Planets into some uncharted territory in between the jazz, pop, golden age rap and “other” inclinations that have ebbed and flowed throughout his career. The result is an album that is literally bursting with ideas, shifting with too much precision to be random. Alternatively nuanced, spacey and hard-bodied, it’s the kind of album you can really sink into.
Standout Single: “Recollections of the wraith”
Teenage Cool Kids
Album to album, Teenage Cool Kids have become an increasingly complex and well-informed band, not only to the canon and but also the current goings-on of the scene. They’ve blown through phases of Meneguar, Built to Spill, Dinosaur Jr., and now into a rather original blend of Beat Happening and Pavement. And above all, these songs possess a maturity that exudes calm and control. Even when things start to fall apart.
Standout Single: “Landlocked State”
In focusing upon himself on this album, Tom Waits ends up talking about a much broader, weirder swathe of the American experience by proxy. This isn’t the first time he’s done so, but it might be the most maniacally gleeful he’s ever been doing it, or vice versa. He swings wildly from claustrophobic fugue to lovely love song with the greatest of ease, managing to simultaneously be so chaotic, so wild, and so simple at the same time. One gets the sense at the end that Tom Waits might never die.
Standout Single: “Hell Broke Luce”
TV On The Radio
It’s only when New York establishment rock bands reach the end game that I start feeling particularly strongly one way or another. Such was the case with last year’s final LCD Soundsystem album, and so it is this year with TV on the Radio. The difference here is that the band is coming back from hiatus as opposed to entering one, and it sounds like they’ve got things pretty figured out. Growing up doesn’t mean the party has to end. It just gives you more control over it.
Standout Single: “Will Do”
As super a group as you can compile in this day and age, the combined talents of Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Janet Weiss and Rebecca Cole far exceed the sum of their parts. The whole album is an all-out blitz, hitting you from every direction, with a special focus on drums, keyboard and knockout harmonies. In the end, the band’s real triumph is in showing that straightforward rock ‘n’ roll can still hit you where it hurts.
Standout Single: “Romance”
The most notable element of Civilian is the extreme density of the album as a whole. Despite the tenderness and the care that emanates from Jenn Wasner’s voice, the full-scale guitar assault is so heavy as to push this Merge indie rock band close to Torche territory. Which makes for an unexpectedly effective vehicle for the album’s main ingredient: doubt. Rather than shy away or play with insecurity, Wye Oak confronts their demons head on. The contrast between the soft-loud-soft, soothing-reckless-calming tendencies becomes a thrilling ride.
Standout Single: “Dogs Eyes”
This album should be looked back at as Zola Jesus’s coming-out party. She is both at the height of her abilities as well as her accessibility, outmaneuvering Lady Gaga in theatricality, art historical and critical theory fluency, and sheer force of songwriting. Nika Danilova takes dark, constrictive music and turns it into expansive electronic textures seemingly built for the sole purpose of exercising her voice. Only these exercises aren’t practice anymore. They’re the real deal.
Standout Single: “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake”
By Evan Hanlon