Favorite albums of 2011

Here we go again. Short version: you should buy Kaputt, Hotter Than July, Trap Muzik, Five Italian Oboe Concertos, Apocalypse, The Last Days of Disco OST, Night Drive, and Watch The Throne.
The same rules hold from 2008, 2009, and 2010: these recommendations are selected from all the new-to-me music I listened to this year. Old stuff, new stuff, no matter. Fortunately, 2011 started with my favorite album, which means I got to listen to it all year long.

January

Kaputt

My favorite album of this month, and the year, was Destroyer’s Kaputt, and very few come close to topping it. Amazing listen.

January was my first exposure to Freddie Gibbs, who quickly became one of my favorites. It’s not the most polite music you’ll ever hear, but still… Midwestgangstaboxframecaddilacmuzik is excellent (see: County Bounce, I’m the Man, Boxframe Cadillac).

Curren$y, Pilot Talk and Pilot Talk II. I love the production on both of these. The first has higher peaks, I think (e.g. Breakfast, The Day), but the second is more consistently good.

The Roots, Rising Down. Rock-solid.

February

Bach/Kozena - Arias

Bach. Arias. Can’t go wrong with that combo. Magdalena Kožená sings with Musica Florea cond. Marek Strync. I loved Kožená’s album of French Arias that I heard last year. The highlight from this one was an aria from Cantata BWV 208 Schafe können sicher weiden.

You might recall that I got hooked on dhrupad last summer. Gundecha Brothers to the rescue again with Tears on a Lotus: Ragas Gaoti and Shivranjani.

March

Five Italian Oboe Concertos

Five Italian Oboe Concertos. I played the shit out of this one. Nicholas Daniel and the Peterborough String Orchestra.

Mulatu Astatke & His Ethiopian Quintet, Afro Latin Soul. Great start to finish. Latin tends to wear on me after a while, but this one stays pretty fresh.

Irma Thomas, Wish Someone Would Care. Without Love (There Is Nothing) is a strong, strong tune.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs. It grew on me. Bloom and Give Up the Ghost are the top picks here.

April

Hotter Than July

Big month. Brace yourself.

In April, I started a Stevie Wonder review project, which made clear to me the trouble with best-of lists. Forget Songs in the Key of Life or Innervisions. They’re the reflexively-mentioned albums because they’re damn good. But one of the problems with them being both great and popular is that if you don’t *really* *love* the albums like you think you should, you might give up on the guy. Like I did.

So I’d never heard of his actual best album, Hotter Than July (←opinion!). All I Do, Rocket Love, I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It, and As If You Read My Mind make one of the best four-song sequences you’ll hear.

Fullfillingness’ First Finale is Wonder’s second-best album for me, in no small part because Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away has become one of my all-time favorite songs. Music of My Mind is a close third (see: Happier Than the Morning Sun and Keep on Running). Talking Book is also great (Maybe Your Baby is my fave).

I guess the bottom line is that he’s written a TON of REALLY GOOD music. I need to keep in mind the rule for many really good artists: if the super-popular super-great album/painting/sculpture/book still isn’t quite your thing, there’s still a good chance there’s another worthwhile one out there.

End of digression.

Marvin Gaye, I Want You. I’ve frequently mentioned my love for the title track, but there’s also After the Dance, I Wanna Be Where You Are and Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again.

In another example of how critically-acclaimed amazing things can overshadow other amazing things (what I loosely term the Wonder Conundrum), Let’s Get It On is known for… Let’s Get It On. Rightly so, great track. But If I Should Die Tonight is sooooooo damn good. I also have this weird association with it, as it shuffled on when I found out that Osama bin Laden had been killed. “How many hearts, baby, have felt their world stand still?”

R. Kelly’s Love Letter got foisted on me somehow and I don’t regret it. Love Letter and Number One Hit are the favorites.

John Coltrane’s Stardust was one of the few jazz albums I heard and liked this year. Title track.

Curren$y & Alchemist, Covert Coup. Mostly recommending on the strength of Freddie Gibbs’ guest appearance on Scottie Pippens, though Smoke Break and The Type are also quality.

Speaking of Freddie Gibbs again, I also got into The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Str8 Killa No Filla. Both worthwhile. See: How We Do, Do Wrong, Crushin’ Feelin’s, Slangin’ Rocks and most especially Rock Bottom.

May was another really strong month…

May

Trap Muzik

Holy shit, T.I.. My favorite rapper? Probably, yes. Trap Muzik is brilliant. See: Trap Musik, No More Talk, Doin’ My Job, Look What I Got, and Be Better Than Me.

I’d never listened to much Bill Callahan, but glad I started with Apocalypse. Such a good album. My favorite tracks are Drover and One Fine Morning.

Cass McCombs was also new to me. Wit’s End wears out just a little bit by the end, but County Line is a damn fine song.

I’m gonna go ahead and add in Terry Riley’s You’re No Good single here. Partly because it’s awesome, and also because its late ’60s minimalist sound segues nicely into June’s top pick.

June

Electric Harpsichord

Catherine Christer Hennix, The Electric Harpsichord. It’s one track that’s only 25 minutes and change, but this is fantastic.

Another must-recommend single from June was Radiohead’s Staircase (live From the Basement). I hope you didn’t miss it.

Getting back to full albums, The Rosebuds were a nice surprise. Of the albums I heard, Loud Planes Fly Low and Life Like are the best. See: Come Visit Me, Waiting for You, and Border Guards.

July

Down with the King

Bach again. He rarely goes wrong. Cantatas: Trauerode BWV 198 and Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78 is a nice pair of cantatas performed by La Chapelle Royale under Philippe Herreweghe’s direction.

T.I. again, with DJ Drama. Down With The King. This one came from a list of albums recommended in Ben Westhoff’s book Dirty South. Top picks are Jackin’ for Beats, Welcome Back, and Xtaci’s hilarious/brilliant “Why?” freestyle.

Bumba Massa, Dovi. This is sonic Prozac.

August

The Last Days of Disco OST

The Last Days of Disco OST. I previously called this an UNDENIABLE SOUNDTRACK and I stand by that statement. Disco!

I’d never listened to much MF Doom. Take Me to Your Leader is funny and mental and weird and delightful. I love his production and the use of old film clips. I ought to find some more of his work in 2012.

September

The Last Laugh

Yeah… so… Young Jeezy pretty much owned September. I’m the first to admit his lyrics often blow, but man his delivery and production are so good, so often. The Last Laugh mixtape had my favorite tracks, with Pressure’s On and Game Over on repeat pretty often. Trap or Die (see: “GA” freestyle), Trap or Die 2, and 1,000 Grams were the most consistent of the other mixtapes I listened to.

October

Night Drive

I played the shit out of Chromatics’ Night Drive. It seems to fit a lot of moods: work-time productivity, lazy lounging, driving about town…

Hariprasad Chaurasia made one of my favorite albums from last year. Raga Darbari Kanada & Dhun in Mishra Pilu is another solid one.

T.I.’s The Leak is a classic. Front Back Side to Side and Do U Really Want Me are the favorites here.

Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was the only Camera Obscura album I hadn’t heard yet. It’s amazing how consistent their sound has been since this early stuff, and how it still satisfies every single time.

November

Watch the Throne

Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch The Throne. I didn’t want to like this album. It’s part of a foolish contrarian streak that doesn’t always serve me well. I actually didn’t like much of it besides No Church in the Wild and Otis (still my favorites) on first listen, but it keeps growing and growing on me. I expect this one to last.

Drake, both Thank Me Later and Take Care. Apparently I’m a Drake fan? I also didn’t want to like these, an opinion mostly based on songs I was tired of hearing on the radio. Happy to be proven wrong. I like Marvin’s Room, Doing It Wrong, and Karaoke in particular.

December

Southern Royalty

After listening to a bunch of other mixtapes this year (and re-visiting Big Pimpin’), I realized I love Bun B. Of the mixtapes I collected, Legends Series Vol. 1, No Mixtape, and Southern Royalty are favorites. Give a listen to It Ain’t Me, I Made It, and The Champion.

I also got UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty, which is awesome — thanks again to Westhoff’s Dirty South recommendations for the tip.

Albums Recommended in “Dirty South”

Ben Westhoff’s Southern hiphop starter kit listed at the end of the book. FYI.

The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are – The 2 Live Crew
We Can’t Be Stopped – Geto Boys
The Fix – Scarface
Diary of the Originator: Chapter 12 – June 27th – DJ Screw
Ridin’ Dirty – UGK
On Top of the World – Eightball & MJG
Most Known Unknown – Three 6 Mafia
Aquemini – OutKast
Soul Food – Goodie Mob
400 Degreez – Juvenile
Ghetto D – Master P
Country Grammar – Nelly
Aaliyah – Aaliyah (Anil Dash approved!)
Under Construction – Missy Elliot
Lord Willin’ – Clipse
Kings of Crunk – Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz
Down with the King – T.I. hosted by DJ Drama
Get Ya Mind Correct – Paul Wall and Chamillionaire
We the Best – DJ Khaled
Souljaboytellem.com – Soulja Boy
Tha Carter III – Lil Wayne
Murder Was the Case – Gucci Mane

Albums Recommended in “Dirty South”

Favorite albums of 2010

Short version: you should buy How I Got Over, Watertown, White Light, Station to Station, and The Black Album. What follows are more highlights from my year, month by month. As in 2008 and 2009, the general rule here is I don’t care if it actually came out in 2010, it’s just that I happened to pay attention this year.

January

Before and After Science

Brian Eno, Before And After Science. I *love* No One Receiving and By This River. In a similar vein, but not quite as good, were Fripp & Eno’s albums Evening Star and (No Pussyfooting).

Cocteau Twins, Victorialand and Head Over Heels. Twisting vocals and dark, driving Cure-ish soundscapes. These guys are great.

Ama Maïga, Une Fleche Malienne. Kora + Afro-pop. The first and last tracks are my favorites.

Linda Perhacs, Parallelograms. Think Joan Baez/Joni Mitchell-esque dreamy acoustic guitar with solid songwriting. This album’s vibe would echoed in October with one from Françoise Hardy…

Steve Roach, Structures from Silence. I’m not quite sure how to distinguish good ambient music from bad ambient music, aside from maintaining a general sort of peacefulness, but I liked this a lot.

February

Watertown

Frank Sinatra, Watertown. This is my favorite one that wasn’t released this year. It’s another of his heartbreak concept albums, and it definitely holds its own against In The Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely. I have no idea why this one is still underground.

Antônio Carlos Jobim, Wave. His most successful album. Stone Flower came out a few years later and is worth a listen, if only for Brazil.

Sayeeduddin Dagar, Lineage of Dhrupad. I hadn’t listened to much Indian vocal work before this year, but this album sold me on it, especially the old dhrupad stuff. The voice and breathe control is super-impressive. Lots more to come later in the year.

March

The Inspiration

Young Jeezy, The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102. Atlanta’s own. He’s not the best lyricist, but I love his voice/delivery and the steady, drenched sound you hear in most of the production. And he has good samples. Standout tunes are Hypnotize and The Inspiration (Diana Ross sample!). Great nighttime city-driving music.

Hariprasad Chaurasia, Charm of the Bamboo Flute. This might be my favorite Indian album this year.

Magdalena Kožená, performing a collection of French Arias. Charles Gounod’s O ma lyre immortelle from Sapho and Nuit resplendissante from Cinq-Mars are the best ones. Ambroise Thomas’ Connais-tu le pays from Mignon is a close third.

Crystal Tears is a solid Renaissance collection from Andreas Scholl singing with Julian Behr on the lute and the Concerto di Viole Basel. John Bennet’s Venus’ birds whose mournful tunes is a good one and John Dowland’s Go, crystal tears is a classic.

Flanders Fiamminghi Orchestra and conductor Rudolf Werthen put together the awesome An I Fiamminghi Collection. Highlights for me are Alan Hovhaness’ Prayer of St. Gregory and Henryk Górecki’s Pieces in the Olden Style.

Mariem Hassan, Deseos. This might be my favorite African album of the year. Sick desert blues riffs + powerful vocals. Check out Magat milkitna dulaa, or Sbar. Mariem Hassan con Leyoad is not quite as good.

April

Radio-Activity

Kraftwerk, Radio-Activity. A lot of it is pretty toned-down and spacey compared to the earlier stuff I loved so much last November.

Gundecha Brothers & Uday Bhawalkar, Timeless Dhrupads. Whoever is playing mridangam here is just killing it.

Duruflé: Requiem & Four Motets. Lovely recording. This one is a happy medium between the sleepy Fauré Requiem and Verdi’s ridiculous one.

Yeasayer, Odd Blood. This one took a while to grow on me, though I loved All Hour Cymbals. Mondegreen is the best song, followed by I Remember.

Glenn Gould recorded Brahms’ Ballades, Op. 10 and Rhapsodies, Op. 79. I don’t know if Gould is a good Brahms interpreter or not, but he helped me overcome my long-standing aversion to the guy. I like the Ballades in particular.

May

Rosso: Italian Baroque Arias

This was baroque month, apparently. While only two albums stood out, they were very, very good.

Rosso – Italian Baroque Arias, sung by Patricia Petibon with Andrea Marcon conducting the Venice Baroque Orchestra. Highlights for me: from Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista, Queste lagrime e sospiri; from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Piangerò la sorte mia; and from Sartorio’s L’Orfeo, Orfeo, tu dormi. Dang, y’all.

I also enjoyed various Baroque Oboe Concertos with Marcel Ponseele on the oboe, with Ensemble Il Gardellino. One particular favorite is Bach’s Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156.

May was odd in its uniformity. I’m not sure what connects Bach and Bowie, but they were both highlights for the next month…

June

Station to Station

David Bowie, Station to Station is a masterpiece, pure and simple. See: Golden Years, Stay, Wild Is the Wind, and everything else.

Collegium Vocale Ghent and conductor Philippe Herreweghe did some good work on Christus, der ist mein Leben: Bach Cantatas BWV 27, 84, 95, 161.

Olivier Latry played César Franck’s organ stuff on In Spiritum. Much of it is pretty mellow. The Pièce héroïque is wonderful, as is the Prelude, fugue and variations, Op. 18.

July

Something for Everybody

Devo’s Something For Everybody was surprisingly fun. It doesn’t seem very ambitious, just upbeat, tight, and it reaps major benefits from keeping the songs brief and to the point.

Sundrips, Slow Futures. More ambient. Everything I’ve heard from Sundrips has been pretty good.

Ramakant & Umakant Gundecha, Ancestral Voices. More dhrupad. There is something incredibly fulfilling about the pattern of slow, meditative, exploratory beginnings that build to rhythmic extravagance by the end. Sooltal of Raga Charukeshi is a favorite here, but it’s not as satisfying if you don’t listen to the opening.

August

How I Got Over

The Roots, my friends. How I Got Over is my favorite album released this year. It’s a lovely piece of work. Writing, production, performances, variety. It’s all in there. Favorite track = Now or Never, followed closely by the title track.

This month actually kicked off with Beat Connection’s Surf Noir EP, which was available on their site and is probably easy to download somewhere else now. Sunburn followed by In the Water is one of the great album openings. Nice closer, too, with Same Damn Time.

M.I.A.’s Kala makes me wish I was on something. Paper Planes is one for the ages.

Like St. Vincent’s Actor last year, The Ruby Suns’ Fight Softly gets better as it goes along. It’s not as sharp as Annie Clark’s work (but what is?), but solid nonetheless. Two Humans is the one to hear.

September

Inventions for Electric Guitar

Ash Ra Tempel, Inventions for Electric Guitar. Something like Steve Reich + Robert Fripp, maybe? Whatever the ingredients, it’s good space-trippy music.

Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight. How have I ignored this so long? The title track, Silver Lining, The Moneymaker, and Dejalo are stand-outs. The rest are really good.

Fire Beneath My Fingers is a sweet collection of recorder concertos. Like I said, Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata RV 86 is my jam.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Slow Version. The speed change creates a whole different feel for a great body of work.

The Clientele, Minotaur. Like an updated version of The Byrds, tempered with a dash of Devendra Banhart or Iron & Wine or something.

Thione Seck, the Best of. I love the layers of drumming, big horns, funky guitar riffs. See Mane Mi Gnoul, Mass Ndiaye, and Yaye Boye.

October

Darker Than Blue

This might have been the best month overall. The favorite was Darker Than Blue, Soul From Jamdown 1973-1980. Jamaican bands cover American funk. Win-win. Check out Freddie McGregor’s cover of Get Involved (George Soule’s original) and John Holt’s For the Love of You (Isley Brothers original).

The Clientele, Bonfires on the Heath. Another solid album.

Washed Out. The Life of Leisure EP came out late last year, but somehow I missed it. I can’t wait to see this dude for the third time in just a few weeks. I say this summer’s song, You and I, is a must-listen. Love that slow disco-stomp + sweet bass line.

As I did with Brahms, this year I also finally came to understand That Which Is Hendrix. Are You Experienced? did the job.

Françoise Hardy’s album La question kicks off with the breezy Viens, and sweeps through 11 more songs.

Charanjit Singh’s Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat is fantastic, and apparently preceded much of what we call dance/trance/electronic over here in the States. This is my new upbeat Getting Shit Done music.

The collection of Brahms Symphonies from Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and conductor John Eliot Gardiner helped me get Brahms. It’ll take a few more listens to settle in, but they are good recordings.

November

White Light

Gene Clark, White Light and Roadmaster are excellent 70’s country-rock albums. Check out The Virgin, Where My Love Lies Asleep, and 1975. I’d never heard Clark outside of The Byrds, and I was surprised these solo albums were so good. His later album No Other misses the mark a bit for me (though Some Misunderstanding is superb).

Heart is an amazing band. I knew some of the songs from the radio, but never heard Little Queen and Dreamboat Annie all the way through. I didn’t expect them to be so good. It’s like a female-dominant Led Zeppelin + Rush + Fleetwood Mac + something else. Favorites include Love Alive, Too Long a Time and Dreamboat Annie.

Xavier Cugat, Cugi’s Cocktails. A lot of latin albums drive me nuts, but this one really hit the spot. I want to have a party where I try to mix+serve+consume each song’s corresponding drink before the song ends. The frenzy! The fun! Small portions, naturally. Favorites are Zombie and, of course, the Old-Fashioned.

Bach. Boom. James Kibbie recorded all of Bach’s organ works and they’re free for download. !!!

December

The Black Album

Jay-Z, The Black Album. Holy shit, guys. I take it all back. Jay-Z’s voice used to drive me nuts, but his writing from this era is so good. This is a seriously once-in-a-lifetime album. The Blueprint is also worthwhile. I need to check out the rest. (His latest album, with the exception of What We Talkin’ About, blows).

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. Their three albums together are pretty priceless, e.g. Give A Little Love.

The Album Covers of Brian Eno.

The album’s pastoral cover art is a detail from After Raphael, a painting by Tom Phillips, Eno’s mentor during his days at Ipswich Art College. (Some believe that the boy in the foreground, with the blond hair and the red beanie, is meant to be Eno.) The back cover depicts the decidedly un-rocking image of Eno sitting up in bed, reading a book – underlining the album’s general vibe of stillness, solitude, and quiet reflection.