As obviously belated as this list is, I’m still relieved I managed at least to post it within the first quarter of 2011. Let me trot out the usual disclaimers – one, I wish I could do the sort of critique that a real reviewer would rather than keep dwelling in my personal and fairly idiosyncratic reactions to the music, but if I tried that I wouldn’t finish this till 2015. Two, as always, I am a slow listener who often doesn’t manage to listen to albums the year they’re released, so shout at me if you think I’ve missed something out and maybe you’ll see it on the 2011 list! (For that matter, two albums that would’ve been on the 2009 list if I’d listened to them then are Two Fingers’ album of the same name and Fuck Buttons’ Tarot Sport.)
Phosphene Dream (The Black Angels): I don’t like every single one of the influences that this band wears on its sleeve, but the extent of the genre-hopping it manages with relative success in just ten songs is quite impressive. The upbeat tracks here aren’t to my taste, but the dark loud ones make up for it. Title track Phosphene Dream garlands lead singer Alex Maas’s vocals with oscillating distortion, punctuated with shrieks. River Of Blood starts with a balls-out feedback assault, then chills out a bit in the verses, then launches into a smackdown chorus of arena-shaking riffage, then dives into a filthy chaotic swamp of noise. My favourite is Entrance Song, which complements its swaggering, chanted verses with a wordless, strangely hypnotic vocal riff as chorus. In the fictional biopic of my life as a seminal rockstar even more committed to leatha than Stella from Project Runway season 5, it soundtracks the (slo-mo, grainy black and white) montage of me looking badass as I walk to the stage for the gig that will seal my destiny.
Tons Of Friends (Crookers): As a general rule, an album with “featuring will.i.am” appended to any track should be immediately dismissed. But like anyone you know in real life with tons of friends, it’s often the case that some of those friendships will be inexplicable. Thankfully, at least some of Crookers’ other pals here are appealing enough for me to accept that apart from that one dude, I’d probably enjoy their house parties. We Love Animals establishes right from the start that partying is pretty much the raison d’etre of this album and The Very Best’s sparkling bridge on Birthday Bash reminds me why they made my favourite album of 2009, but the upfront populism of these songs shouldn’t detract from how well much of the album straddles the sweet spot between catchiness and creativity. In Hip-Hop Changed, Rye Rye raps “they say hip-hop changed, but you know we still talk that language” over a tapestry of synths that segues into dubstep, Have Mercy gives Carrie Wilds a twisted melody to pwn amidst fathoms of sick murky bass, and I can only guess that Royal T was titled in honour of them asking Roisin Murphy to come be their disco / house / techno / dubstep diva and her graciously agreeing to fucking rule.
Sit Down, Man (Das Racist) (downloadable free at their site!): Das Racist’s utterly distinctive flow involves all kinds of fun with words and then some, weaving wacky free-association rhymes with erudite allusions into rich goofy tapestries of verse most of us would need several volumes’ worth of annotations to fully grasp. As can be expected from their name, race is never far from the mix, whether they’re scatting around the sound of “melanin” in All Tan Everything or dropping great lines like “See me grace the pages of your favourite Conde Nast publication / They asked me all about my views on relations of races / And cut out the radical shit for space” in Rapping 2 U, which is also a production highlight for the interesting stuff it does with what sounds like looped J-pop. Music geeks are well catered for too, with Rooftop yielding a moment of pure nerd nirvana when the hook from Nas’ Made You Look (already foreshadowed in the title of the song and one of the earlier lines) shows up surreally transmogrified into “We eatin’ / Ah, made you soup / You a slave to a bleep in the beat loop”. While not a flawless album – it’s a little long at 20 tracks and tracks 5-8, 14 and 15 aren’t up to the same quality as the others in my view – each of the many good tracks (try Puerto Rican Cousins, title track Sit Down, Man and the Diplo-produced You Can Sell Anything) is a shining example of the wordplay and whimsy that’s always delighted me about rap.
Nedry (Condors): If Portishead had released this album instead of Third (my favourite album of 2008), I would have been quite satisfied. That Portishead ended up far exceeding my limited musical imagination is of course to their credit, but shouldn’t detract from this very solid album. On paper a 2010 release which ticks all the usual boxes of The Genre Derisively Known As Trip-Hop sounds dated, but enough about this album feels fresh to me to escape that conclusion. Apples And Pears’ fingerpicked intro and pensive ethereal vocal dissolve into dirty throbbing bass with a faraway choir backing up every lament. Squid Cat Battle is like a cross between Blonde Redhead and La Roux (as remixed by Skream). Scattered abruptly interrupts its own classic dub intro with slabs of psychedelic guitar underlaid with fractured IDM beats. In Condors (live version because I can’t find the album version), elements as disparate as math rock riffs, tablas (I think), liquid bass and a repetitive chanted sigh are moulded into something cohesive and exciting – the reason, perhaps, the band saw fit to name this track after itself. This is a confident, focused debut from a band I’m definitely going to watch.
Everything In Between (No Age): In years that Sonic Youth don’t release albums I have to turn elsewhere for my noisy motorik comfort blanket, and this album fit the bill for 2010. Much of the album will make any 90s American indie fetishist happy, with some songs successfully mining that good old scrappy off-tune-yet-tuneful Husker Du / Pixies aesthetic (Depletion, Skinned, Valley Hump Crash) and others more rooted in guitar noise and the drone (Glitter, Shred And Transcend, the particularly glorious feedback screeching of Fever Dreaming). The album also makes occasional diversions to a rather more abstract sensibility, with the muddy, expectant drums of Sorts (the link describes it as Skinned, but it’s actually Sorts) sounding like they could have come off Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead album, and Katerpillar, Dusted and Positive Amputation quite reminiscent of early M83. These could have been better integrated into the flow of the album – the sequencing from Katerpillar to the end of the album lacks coherence – but they’re still decent songs if appreciated purely on their own terms.
Go (Jonsi): This is quite a departure from the stately austerity of the Sigur Ros sound I’m most used to (having not kept track of the band since Takk) but I never heard a Nico Muhly arrangement I didn’t like, and his work here is intricate, brimming over with vitality and beautifully produced. Percussionist Samuli Kosminen is also integral to the success of many of the "happy" songs like Animal Arithmetic and Around Us, his clattered rhythms egging each song on like an excited child whose enthusiasm is infectious. And then, of course, there is Jonsi’s voice, that voice that made you feel like you understood everything he was singing about even back when he was singing in a made-up language called Hopelandic. You don’t have to know track 3 is called Tornado to understand that beneath the song’s calm churns turmoil, destruction from the inside, or to know track 8 is called Grow Till Tall to let its gradual, inexorable swell elevate you. Closing track Hengilas eases you down from those rarefied heights, ending the romp that Go Do began on a surprisingly sedate note – not sombre or pensive, though, but more like the return to a peaceful home after a day out drinking in the world’s delights.
Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty (Big Boi): A big treat for hip-hop fans in 2010 was that two of the most anticipated releases of the year actually lived up to their hype, and what was even better was that they were so different. I’ll rave about Kanye’s right after this, but Big Boi deserves our undivided attention first. He went through quite a struggle with record companies and the like to get this album released, but hasn’t bogged the finished product down with the sort of resentful revenge-raps I could imagine other artists indulging in under such circumstances, choosing instead (in Turns Me On) to say “Who gives a damn about the past / I live for the day, plan for the future / Pack a lunch and haul ass.”
And haul ass he does, delivering a buoyant, relentlessly catchy celebration of the Dirty South sensibility he’s been pivotal in popularizing. In the same way Outkast’s B.O.B. sounds as vital today as it did when it was released in 2000, parts of this album seem put together by a time traveller with the benefit of perspective in every direction and an overarching commitment to the groove. When Big Boi proclaims near the start of the album (Daddy Fat Sax) "I write knockout songs / You spit punchlines for money", take that as a promise – skits aside, the first 9 tracks of the album sound like an instant hit parade. Although the inexplicable choice of some whine-rock dudes called Vonnegutt to overegg the chorus and bridge of Follow Us is one of the album’s rare missteps, the song’s clipped, minimalist beat and Big Boi’s magisterial precision in the verses still make it quite the earworm. The three song sequence from this Cadillacs-in-the-hood head-nodder to the space-funk slickness of Shutterbugg‘s glittering synths and gurgling voiceboxed bassline to General Patton’s symphonic choral bombast is a wonderful display of the creativity and fun that pervades this album. I’m not hugely fond of some songs that other reviewers seemed to love, such as Be Still and Shine Blockas, but the overall consistency of the album remains impressive. In other years it could have been my top album of the year – but now it’s time to talk about Kanye.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West): If a groovy Martian had come to Earth in December 2010 seeking to learn of this thing Earthlings refer to as "hip-hop", it may have been rather nonplussed to encounter this album as one of the most critically acclaimed releases of the year. If we assume for the sake of argument that our fictional Mork did its preliminary studies of the topic in 2004 (the year The College Dropout was released) and then spent the ensuing years travelling to our galaxy, I’m as sure as I could be about the views of an imaginary extraterrestrial that it would struggle to understand why any Earthling applying the genre touchstones outlined in its Hip-Hop 101 primer would rate this album higher than Kanye’s debut. This slightly weird tangent is, believe it or not, the best explanation I have for my initial negative response to this album, pursuant to which I pontificated drunkenly on Facebook that all this album’s ecstatic reviewers must have been smoking something.
But I get it now. To evaluate this album (as I initially did, Martian-like) in isolation from Kanye’s career history and public persona is missing the point. It isn’t meant to showcase him as a MC the way The College Dropout did (and needed to, at the time), but rather as creative director and I’m The CEO, Bitch, of the waking dreamworld that is Life According To Kanye. But while the Kanye persona we all love to hate is on full display here, its twists and contradictions mean that the album is better appreciated when listened to in its entirety, letting Kanye take you on the journey he’s sequenced – from the braggadocio of "this pimp is on top of Mount Olympus" Gorgeous Kanye, to paranoid, lonely Blame Game Kanye, to the Kanye who chooses to close this hugely ambitious cast-of-thousands production with a smattering of hollow, perfunctory applause. Much like its creator, the album is many things good and bad, but never boring.
As individual songs go, despite not finding many of them immediately appealing, almost every one has grown on me over time. A detailed rundown of my favourite moments in this album would make this writeup ten times longer than it already is, but here’s a whistlestop tour: the inimitable Kanyeworld crassness of rhyming "Phoebe Philo" with "so much head I woke up in Sleepy Hollow" in Dark Fantasy, the emphatic horns and tumultuous kick-in of the drums in All Of The Lights, Nicki Minaj’s verse in Monster exsanguinating everyone else who shares the track with her (including Jay-Z), So Appalled’s lyrical circumspection and fantastic guest performances (Jay-Z especially), the stark "and I just blame everything on you / at least you know that’s what I’m good at" line in Runaway read with the story about Pusha T struggling to achieve the level of douchebaggery that Kanye wanted in the song…like I said, the list could go on, but I’ll end it with what I enjoyed most about this album: being reminded of how great it can be sometimes when you realize you’ve gotten something completely wrong. The last time mainstream pop music got an album with so audacious and fully-realized a vision, that album was called Thriller.