The Best Tracks of 2011 (10-1)

10. WU LYF
Go Tell Fire To The Mountain (LYF)

The weight of expectation can be difficult to bear, especially for a bunch of kids in their early twenties. After a couple majestic 2010 singles (“Heavy Pop” and “Spitting It Concrete like the Golden Sun God”) and a few equally frenetic small shows, many (myself included) listed the shadowy Mancunian collective’s debut as one of the most highly anticipated of the year. Though, admittedly, I was ready to be let down, the quartet shattered my expectations by both sticking to their sonic guns and building on their burgeoning, expansive sound.

Through ten cathartic, relentlessly earnest tracks, the group unleashes the true scope of their sonic palette: two parts art-rock, one-part hardcore, a few pinches of psychedelia, and that fucking organ. The group’s sense of dynamics is their biggest strength. The celestial, reverb drenched guitar and organ lines beautifully frame vocalist Ellery Roberts’ feral howls, simultaneously abrasive and melodic (a good microcausim for the groups incredibly unique sound). Sometimes a band can be crushed by the weight of expectation. Other times, expectation is just a goddamn great way to get the word out about a special group. Lucky for us, it’s the latter in this case.

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9. James Blake
“The Wilhelm Scream”
James Blake
Speaking of high expectations, there wasn’t an album released in 2011 that I was more excited about than the South London-based producer’s debut. His stunning cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” foreshadowed the massive sonic change Blake was conjuring (and was my 16th favorite song of 2010), but the magnitude of the departure from dubstep wasn’t quite as apparent until he dropped this, the lead single from his sensational debut LP.

The thing that’s most striking about the stylistic shift Blake made was the sheer audacity and balls it took to even pull off. He had released three scintillating dubstep EP’s and was breathlessly being compared to suddenly hot genre’s G.O.A.T., Burial, and when the lights were set to shine brightest, Blake flipped the script. And amazingly, everyone was on board. This was like an 18 year-old LeBron James switching to football on draft night and racking up 1,200 yards and 10 TDs in his debut season. It’s almost an unprecedented move by someone who only recently was able to have a beer in an American bar. The world is still waiting for the incredible dubstep LP his prodigious talent promises, and his superlative recent EP Love What Happened Here, shows he still has it in his locker, but his debut album proves that he will make it when he’s ready to. Not when we are.

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8. Fleet Foxes
“Helplessness Blues”
Helplessness Blues (Sup Pop)

It was always going to be a huge year for this Seattle quintet. Save perhaps Bon Iver’s sophomore LP, there wasn’t a record more anticipated than Helplessness Blues. As we’ve come to expect from Robin Pecknold’s furry bunch, the group stormed to another excellent release full of the reflective, beautifully-harmonized folk rock.

This song, the album’s lead single, is a shimmering example of the what makes them so special. A natural successor to my all-time favorite Foxes track, “Mykanos,” the song is split into two equally successful movements. The first movement builds perfectly into the life-affirming, anthemic crescendo of the second, that is sure to have driven some of the biggest singalongs of the year. Some may roll their eyes at Pecknold’s wide-eyed lyrical soul searching, but his unwavering earnestness makes it endearing and totally believable. 

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7. Frank Ocean
nostalgia/ULTRA (Self-Released)
“Some say I lucked up, I call it perfect timing/Nigga, I can’t lose, the whole city’s behind me,” rapped a hungry, significantly less rotund Young Jeezy on his 2005 breakthrough single, “And Then What.” Whether he planned it or not, he was damn right. 2005 was the perfect time to be Young Jeezy. Trap music was blowing up. People still bought CDs. You could hide your gut in a baggy, somehow-in-style white tee.

By that same token, 2011 is the perfect year to be Frank Ocean. Sonically, America was ready for a new brand of R&B, and socially, the rap group he was connected to, Odd Future, blew up like nobody else. But regardless of the year, Ocean deserves all the accolades he’s received. “Novacane,” the highlight of his consistently excellent debut mixtape, highlights Ocean’s unique take on a genre that was running out of ideas. Riding a typically druggy beat, the New Orleans native weaves a harrowing tale of a chance meeting between an aspiring dentist/part-time porn star/full-time blow-before-10AM type of chick. Want to meet her? Of course you do. Just listen.

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6. Bon Iver
Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy loses girl. Boy retreats into remote cabin in Wisconsin. Boy cries over girl. Boy writes the next great American folk record about girl. Boy conquers world. Boy gets over girl. Boy ends exquisite follow-up with 5 minutes of unabashed, un-ironic Bruce Hornsby-esque schmaltz? Wait, what?

We probably should have seen this one coming. Whether it was collaborations with Kanye West or the cheese-tastic (and quite brilliant Gayngs album), Bon Iver mainman Justin Vernon has never seemed much interested in following the depressed folky narrative. In fact, from all accounts, he is a big, gregarious goof (see: Justin’s Workout Plan) — a million miles away from the 21st century JD Salinger that the media tried to portray him as. If we didn’t get the hint, now we do, as he chose to end his incredible Sophomore release with this audacious, schlocky, absolutely heartfelt and affecting gem, that serves the world’s most polite middle finger to the critics (myself included) who thought they had him figured out and yet another hint of what this man is capable of going forward.


5. The Weeknd
“What You Need”
House of Balloons (Self-Released)
There is something special about the beginning of a relationship. You haven’t discovered the warts yet. Things haven’t become serious enough to make you nervous. The sex is incredible. Every time you kiss it gives you that feeling in the back of your throat. It’s innocent. You have so much to look forward to. That’s what “What You Need” is to me. I fell in love with this track before I knew anything about the man who wrote it. I didn’t know what he looked like, where he was from, which Canadian child actors-cum-rappers he was friends with. I didn’t give a shit. It just felt so right.

For better or worse, we got to know Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye much better as the year went on. To be fair, a lot of it’s been good. He’s written and released two fucking incredible bedroom R&B mixtapes (House of Balloons and the equally excellent Echoes of Silence) and one other pretty good one (Thursday). He’s played a couple well-received shows, that proved his incredible, MJ-ish (yeah, I said it) falsetto comes off live. He’s loaned his voice and production chops to some pretty memorable collaborations (Drake’s “Crew Love” stands out). And while there’s plenty of bad (see: his ridiculous Twitter feed), the scope of his contribution to the year in music is quite wide.

House of Balloons was the party. Thursday was when the party started getting weird. By Echoes of Silence, the party had officially ended and life was starting to get pretty fucking dark (exhibit A: the ghastly gangbang jam —yeah, that’s a thing — “Initiation“). “What You Need” was something different altogether. It was the party before the party — the anticipation of going to a place you’ve never been with people you didn’t know. Tesfaye has the chance to have an incredible career, but he can never, never get back the innocence of “What You Need.” We know him too well now. We can never go back. And neither can he.

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4. Shabazz Palaces
“Are You…Can You…Were You… (Felt)”
Black Up (Sub Pop)

While I don’t think anyone would argue that this was anything but a banner year for hip-hop, one could make a pretty convincing argument that it wasn’t a great year for lyrically progressive hip-hop. While breakout artists like A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, Curren$y, Danny Brown, and most of the Odd Future kids are sonically extremely progressive, when it comes to consistent lyrics on a higher level (ie not about just about weed, video games etc.), really it was just Kendrick Lamar’s filthy Section 80 and this, the debut full-length, from Ishmael Butler’s Seattle-based collective. Lucky for us, both albums were incredible, especially the jazzy, dizzying latter.

Nothing sums up Black Up‘s brilliance quite like this sumptuous, multi-faceted gem of a track. Butler’s loquacious, dexterous flow shucks and jives between the stabs of staccato piano and the lazy backbeat. Just when you finally get a handle on the track’s cumbersome rhythm, they switch it up entirely by introducing an undulating, heady second movement that lets you know that this is the furthest thing from a normal hip-hop record. Butler has always had one of the most distinctive voices in rap — both lyrically and audibly — but his work here is the best of his incredible career.

If you or a friend are falling out of love with hip-hop, this is the remedy. I promise.

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3. King Krule
“The Noose of Jah City”
King Krule (True Panther)
At some point, watching sports makes you feel really old. Looking up to guys who are significantly younger than you is weird, but not even sports could prepare me for the near-stroke I suffered upon realization that that London-based renaissance man, King Krule (né Archy Marshall), was born in NINETEEN-NINETY-FUCKING-FOUR. For a man still a few years off his 20th birthday, the artist formally known as Zoo Kid has already crafted a developed, fascinating sound that is all his own.

How a voice — both audibly, lyrically, and musically — so deep and mature could come out of a 17 year-old Ginger kid is anybody’s guess, but what’s more amazing is that none of this feels forced. This doesn’t feel like rockabilly pastiche or gawkish Joe Strummer worship. Marshall obviously wears his influences — Strummer, Dury, Chet Baker — on his sleeve, but they don’t get in the way of his original voice. Never is this more apparent than on “The Noose of Jah City,” an engulfing, downcast amalgam of dark wave, indie, post-punk, and 50’s Americana. It sounds like all of those things without sounding like any of them. A truly amazing effort from a prodigiously talented artist with the world at his fingertips.

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2. m83
“Midnight City”
Hurry Up We’re Dreaming (Naïve)
What can I possibly write about his holiness Anthony Gonzalez’s thundering, gargantuan ode to the City of Lights that hasn’t been already. Simply put, it’s a fucking massive, doe-eyed synth-quake that — as all of m83’s best stuff does — expertly toes the line between cheesy and inspiring. The Frenchman — like his cross-disciplinary mentor John Hughes — has always had a knack for crafting art that aims straight for your heartstrings, daring you to try roll your eyes and disregard it. Gonzalez knows that you can easily turn up your nose when he bellows “The city is my church,” but he also knows it’s so much more fun to do it with him.

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1. memoryhouse
The Years (Sub Pop)

Though this track has been out in one form or another for the last few years, I felt like because it really didn’t get a proper release until 2011 that it was still okay to name it as my top track of 2011. And honestly, if I didn’t choose “Lately” as my favorite of the year, it would have been another one of their tracks — the bonafide 2011-only “Modern, Normal.”

Simply put, this is just about perfect. The Ontario group deftly commandeers Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind classic “Phonecall” and infuses it with their trademark ethereal, engulfing dream pop, resulting in a track that sucks you in ever-so-gently. Vocalist Denise Nouvion’s bleary-eyed coo drifts effortlessly over the track’s aqueous face, quietly imploring you to drift off to sleep. We’ve heard many versions of “Lately,” but for me, this most recent one, which came out on Sub Pop’s 2010 re-release of The Years, is the strongest, thanks mostly to the subtle additions of strings, which give the track a hopeful, lush finish. But really, it’s all about the song, which is just really fucking beautiful. That’s it. That’s what really matters.

So there you have it. Until next year….

Jamie G Hartley

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Posted on by TP1.COM in Columns, Featured

One Response to The Best Tracks of 2011 (10-1)

  1. bigpunisher


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