Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Best Albums of 2011 (Part 1 of 2)
I've decided to start writing reviews here again. This is not so much because I think that anyone will really read them, but rather because it will help me to hone my abilities as a reviewer. The content I will be reviewing should generally fall into two categories: Either media which I have come across that I feel the need to write about, or media which I have been eagerly awaiting.
To jump start this new page in the BWF saga, I'll be writing some "Best of 2011" lists, as per the tradition of every website in existence. I personally find these lists extremely helpful, and read probably ten to fifteen of them every year. It's convenient to be able to cut past the usual drag of blindly consuming new releases, and instead work off of these recommendation compilations/
Given that anyone who reads this blog is probably a very good friend of mine, you may not enjoy these 2011 lists, as there will be few surprises. I do, after all, have a habit of singing the praises of anything I find exhilarating, usually without being prompted. I sometimes think that I may be the definition of word-of-mouth advertising (done often annoyingly and to the detriment of the media, but still).
In any case, my first list is my top albums of 2011. Instead of going with a round number, I've decided to list the eight albums which for me defined 2011. Here are numbers 5-8, with the top four to come soon.
8. Frank Ocean, "Nostalgia/Ultra" (Self-released)
2011 saw a major evolution in the definition of the word "mixtape". In previous years, a mixtape was a shorter, more out-of-the-box version of an album in which established hip hop artists would usually sample other artists' beats. For the most part, the mixtape was a letdown, as it failed to compare to the big production feel of the mainstream album.
If ever there was a time to be a nobody, it was 2011. Suddenly mixtapes such as Frank Ocean's "Nostalgia/Ultra" and The Weeknd's trilogy of releases proved that the internet was a successful vehicle by which to get your music known, and not by a single song on you Myspace, but an entire release.
This isn't to say that Ocean was a nobody before the release of "Nostalgia". On the contrary, he had saturated the net several years ago with dozens of slow love-croons (for a time under the moniker "Lonnie Breaux") which made something of a splash. More recently he aligned himself with Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, who weren't making a splash so much as poisoning the pond for some crude but deserved attention.
Having been given a record deal and then having had it taken back away from him, Frank Ocean decided to proceed without corporate investment and release "Nostalgia" as a free download. And boy are we lucky he decided not to keep it from us.
"Nostalgia/Ultra" has a fitting name in that it hijacks many melodies and aesthetics from previous generations of music. "American Wedding" shamelessly riffs off of the Eagles' "Hotel California", while the lead single "Novacane" bumps and sparkles in a diabolically 80s-tastic manner as Ocean tells a story of becoming desensitized to the world around him. The first verse laments "I can't feel nothing/Superhuman, even when I'm fucking/ Viagra popping, every single record/ Auto-tuning, zero emotion, muted emotion/Pitch corrected, computed emotion", as he draws attention not only to the numbness he now feels, but also to the dissociative qualities of masculinity and the highly technological music industry.
The irony of this is that his tale of desensitized life is painted vividly. As the catalyst is revealed to be a young amateur porn star and aspiring dentist, the listener is treated to a truly numbing picture of pleasure. Ocean's ultimate implication equating arousal and numbness not only convinces, but more importantly intrigues.
Essential Tracks: Novacane, Swim Good
7. Jay-Z and Kanye West, "Watch the Throne" (Roc-a-fella Records)
Prior to the release of this collaboration, the hip hop world seemed to be in fairly unanimous agreement that it could not live up to its own hype. Both pairs of this duo (self-proclaimed as "The Throne") have reigned as the king of the industry at different points. Combine that raw power with the infamous faux-father/son personalities of the two and you've got a recipe for a completely unattainable goal.
So yes, the duo failed to be hip hop Jesus reincarnate. But that inevitability considered, they did a pretty damn good job of trying. Structurally, the album is an oddity. Its best moments are those that have a vicious momentum, but inevitably this momentum is blue balled by some soft, lackluster efforts. The album opener, "No Church In the Wild", has a mesmerizingly simple beat, and Jay and 'Ye play to this minimalism, foregoing complex rhymes for a more pleasing, laid-back approach. None other than Frank Ocean provides the crooning, auto-tunelicious hook.
However, "No Church" is followed immediately by the worst song on the album, "Liftoff", where Frank Ocean is swapped out for Beyonce, and the kosher hip hop momentum is wasted. It must be awkward being in a marriage with another hip hop artist. I have to assume that The Throne had enough sense to realize that "Liftoff" was some soft shit. Is it too awkward to have a little pillow talk in which he told Beyonce she just couldn't be on the album? Apparently out boy Hov can be pretty whipped.
While pitfalls like this are present throughout the album, it still has a a handful of unforgettable tracks. "Otis" is just plain fun, "HAM" is a rare perfect use of producer Lex Luger (although the track is baffling relegated to an iTunes bonus), and "Niggas in Paris" is undoubtedly the song of the year. I don't care how much rolling in the deep Adele did, she has nothing on the cultural statement that this one song made. It is, quite simply, ridiculous. Ridiculous in the context of hip hop, which thrives on bad puns and the intentional creation of controversy. Referencing his law suit with the NBA ("Ball so hard motherfuckers wanna fine me/First you niggas gotta find me/ What's fifty grand to a motherfucker like me, can you please remind me?"), Jay defines the term 'luxury rap' as the celebration of unstoppable wealth. On their own albums, Kanye and Jay make a point to be introspective, because hey, it's hard to be super famous sometimes, guys. On "Watch the Throne", however, any second thoughts are gone. "Niggas In Paris", and the whole album really, seems to act as an empathetic response to the Occupy Wall Street generation, as these two media goliaths essentially proclaim "We are the 1 percent!".
This isn't a bad thing though, is it? It's how hip hop began, in self celebration. For the rest of us, it's escapism. And no matter what you think of them as people, this album stands as a testament that they deserve to boast.
Essential Tracks: No Church In the Wild, Niggas In Paris, Otis
6. The Weeknd- "House of Balloons" (Self-released)
What happens when you take Frank Ocean's beautiful, panty-dropping voice and apply it to terrifying subject matter? Well, you get the Weeknd, R&B singer Abel Tesfaye.
In early 2011, this mixtape (the first in a trilogy released throughout the year) emerged on the internet and created quite a stir. The mysterious vocalist was talented, no doubt, but his songs seemed to depict truly unsettling scenes. It is very common in the realm of hip hop and R&B for a vocalist to narrate the events of a party. Indeed it's actually quite trite at this point. No one, however, has narrated parties quite like these. In the mixtape's opener, "High For This", Tesfaye persuades a woman into some unnamed, formidable sexual act. His lyrics are endlessly reassuring, to the point where his need to reassure becomes the most terrifying aspect of the story.
In the title track, "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls", the listener is treated to a musical representation of the high and the crash of a hard drug-oriented party. The first half of the song begins "Been on another level since you came", the narrator lost in the bliss of the party and its company. The chorus celebrates "This is a happy house, and we're happy here, in our happy house", a claim reeking of a desperate denial. This is the beginning of the night, when the drugs are in full effect.
Halfway through the inspired track, however, things take a turn for the darker. Tesfaye begins to address his addiction, specifically the need of the partygoers to keep their high going. He brings out glass tables which he bought especially for the occasion, and spirals back into his haze.
All of this is interesting, sure. But daring content doesn't necessarily make for good music, so why is "House of Balloons" enjoying the #6 spot on my list? It's because it represents a perfect union of seductive vocals and boundary-pushing production. On most R&B albums, "Glass Table Girls" wouldn't exist, given R&B's championing of romance. Here, however, Tesfaye addresses the underbelly of the soulful singer. After all, a man so in touch with his emotions must inevitably face his darker qualities.
Essential Tracks: High For This, House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls, The Morning
5. TV on the Radio, "Nine Types of Light" (DGC Records)
First off, let me just say that it has irked me since this album came out that it is called "Nine Types of Light", yet it has ten tracks. So close...
That flaw aside, "Nine" is a terrific album, although it fails to live up to the algorithym set forth by TVotR's first three albums. When TV emerged on the scene at the turn of the millenium, they were an extremely experimental band, more of a Radiohead reinterpretation than anything else, their first collection of samples even humblingly named "OK Calculator".
Their second album, "Return to Cookie Mountain" began to change things up, however. Suddenly there were some overtly catchy tunes, like the sex-crazed "Wolf Like Me", and even the more experimental tracks were underscored by infectious, ominous beats. The entire album dripped with apocalyptic foreboding, proving that the band was capable of larger-arcing motifs than their initial releases had demonstrated.
"Nine", however, feels very much like "Dear Science, Part II", and is the first notable retread in the band's catalogue. It's resemblance to "Science" is not necessarily a detriment, as both albums boast foot-tappingly yet complex smile-inducing choruses crooned by frontman Tunde Adebimpe, for whom the world has always been a sad but romantic place. The real disappointment instead stems from the band's seeming complacency, especially after such a long hiatus over the last three years. Whereas their past albums were conflicted, "Nine" is content to just be a smooth, catchy listen, and more importantly it's meant to be a reassurance that the band is not gone forever.
As such a vehicle it more than serves its purpose, despite lacking the gumption the Brooklyn-based quintet tends to demonstrate. The band certainly embraces this new calm, and as such accomplishes a homogenous, fun tracklist. Having spent their first three albums composing music in what Kyp Malone described as a grey, concrete room, TVotR took to the beaches for this release, and their laid-back mindset is certainly contagious.
On "Second Song" , the album's opener, Adebimpe proclaims "Confidence and ignorance approve me/ Define my day today/ I've tried so hard to shut it down, lock it up/ Gently walk away", and 'proclaims' really is the word for it. He's not talking, he's not singing, he's looking inwards and explaining how he ticks. When the flittery beat eventually drops in, so does the band's saccharine optimism. It's as if the listener has caught Adebimpe in a rare moment of weakness, and now gets to witness him slipping into his soothing, jovial stage presence. By the end of the track the band is in full Dear Science-esque swing, with an almost maximalist use of funky guitar riffs coupled with the band's now signature blaring horn outros. It's by far the best opening track the band has had to date, and a high point of their whole catalogue.
While perhaps not their best release, TV On the Radio still possesses a sound unlike anything in the music industry. With an ensemble so diversely talented (R.I.P. Gerard Smith, the bassist who succumbed to lung cancer a week after the album's release), they still have a bright, bright future ahead of them. We're just happy to have them back, and from the sound of their music, they're pretty stoked as well.
Essential Tracks: Second Song, No Future Shock, Will Do, New Cannonball Blues
An interesting tidbit: The woman in this video is Joy Bryant, a graduate of my and much of our readership's high school.