#10 The Roots - undun
If Sonic Youth is truly done—one of many heartbreaks in the worst year for music since I’ve cared about music—then the Roots are eligible to take their place as my longest-running favorite band. The similarities are more structural than sonic but they’re there: both bands started academically, making crappy avant-garde. Sonic Youth’s early albums were equal parts of garage demo and museum installation; only with the addition of all-time-underrated-drummer Steve Shelley did they develop the sweetness and tension/release that earmarked the richness to follow. Having developed such a hard-echoing drum sound and viciously locked-in flow over years that touched on human beatbox, tuba, hard synth and Scott Storch, The Roots’ early “jazz” albums—where keyboards were keyboards and hooks weren’t hooks—sound like muzak in retrospect.
Both bands are “growers”. With a handful of exceptions, every successive Sonic Youth and Roots album has meant exponentially more to me since the year of release and many underwhelmed me initially. Hooks are plentiful but sideways, and if you’re not attuned to their universe you may never hear them at all.
But most crucially, both bands are taken for granted because they’re institutions. undun is a slight album, maybe their fifth best, but it’s another brick in the foundation of a canon where slightness adds up. It’s comfort food the way Jay-Z and Kanye albums—including the celebratory, weird, inspired Watch the Throne—will never be. That is, I’ve played the “lesser” act a lot more because they’re easier to stomach. The Roots are the only rap I can calm down to. Which doesn’t mean boring: the tension of 2008’s “I Can’t Help It” or 2004’s “Boom!” is as hot and contained as Roni Size in 1997 or Fela Kuti in 1977. These guys are all self-management, focus and sequential logic, which is why Black Thought raps like a drummer and ?uestlove schmoozes the media like a rapper.
undun is notable for its odd pace, with sleepy single “Make My” at the top of a reverse-death cycle that claims to be a concept album without any non-narrating characters or discernable actions. I love it because it sounds like them. The Roots™ are such a perpetual idea machine that after eight straight winners they can steer the damn ship as long as they keep the concept albums to 40 minutes. So what if “The Otherside,” “Tip the Scale” and “Stomp” are just more biscuits; building that familiarity and varying it is exciting in itself. And they gave Sufjan Stevens the perfect amount of stage time: four minutes.
#9 tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l
In an artsy-fartsy indie-“rock” landscape that couldn’t be bothered for comment, she first established her lyrical vitality on the psychotically underrated BiRd-BrAiNs (after overrating scores of unfinished Bradford Cox analog twaddle, has there ever been a more call-it-as-you-smell-it sexist moment than the same people complaining about her digital mastering?) by poking at the real emotional stuff: (“rock”?) boyfriends treating her badly, wishing her own skin would crawl off. The boxier w h o k i l l isn’t as surprising or resourceful—no banging on silverware or bending ukulele strings to truly harmolodic places to achieve the right wrongness—but it established a few of Merrill Garbus’ bona fides. There’s social commentary as plainspoken as her internal stuff: “What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta” was taken the wrong way by all the right rap critics, though I doubt Mitt Romney will ever hear “My Country.” There’s a command of hi-fi instruments like a horn section that took say, TV on the Radio years to assimilate so effortlessly. And most crucially, there’s a turn toward grooves (the D’Angelo-ish “Doorstep”) and abstractions (the DiFranco-esque “Es-So”) as buoyant as her true songs even if I wished for a couple more of those. The self-described “Powa” bridged the two, along with the musical, sexual and intellectual all at once.
#8 Fucked Up - David Comes to Life
Like all rock operas, this clever bastard of an 18-song marathon sounds awesome at first. Frontloaded enough to make the words “album of the year” cross your mind on first pass through track eight or so, you eventually notice the Reich- or Branca-like uniformity wearing off and after the dozenth attempt to meet Act III halfway you just want it to be over. This makes it hardly a disgrace to Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, which it bests sonically, lyrically and conceptually. With three songwriters and who knows how many guitar techs overdubbing every syllable and riff to adhere to the anarcho-Shakespearian theme, you root for all of it, forgive the standstill “Life in Paper” and come to accept that merely three songs have those fantastic counterpoint vocals from various guest females. Forget “punk”—no one (lovingly) labored harder to keep rock fresh, fast and pleasurable in 2011, even providing a not-useless bonus “soundtrack” to the biggest project these blithe Torontoans could currently dream. And in the starring role, Damian Abraham deserves a special award for his almost rap-like contributions to what’s probably the first hardcore album in all of history played entirely in a major key.
#7 Lady Gaga - Born This Way
What ultimately put this over Femme Fatale and 4 for me was the pacing. Born This Way starts politely pro forma, peaks in the middle and blows up stratospheric for the final act, with all filler innocuous enough to provide just the right number of intermissions—approximately three—for 14 tracks. For all its bubble-pop-electric and perfect chintz factory hook-sounds, the Britney album’s just too mechanical, while Beyonce’s calculated tastefulness has always undercut her own pleasurable sound effects (even that token unserious “boof boof” one).
Gaga reaches for neither a Grammy nor sublime career sleaze; she just wants to make a great album, and her idea of such is a museum of “greatness” signifiers. A Madonna rip down to the goofy rapping. Warped thrash guitar from Michael Jackson’s new jack period. Clarence Thomas’ big-boss sax solos. A perfect country lighter-waver turned Mutt-Lange earthquake. “Hair” is too good for Broadway while “The Edge of Glory” is too good for uh, The Killers. “Americano” establishes camp value while “Heavy Metal Lover” grinds so deeply into club-subwoofer’s paradise it’s almost invisible at first. A few songs even get by on sound effects and tastefulness. And for all talk of how weird she is, she’s the most all-encompassing pop star in recent memory, without a vengeful tune to date (unless the perfectly-timed “Government Hooker” counts as an JFK indictment). None of the positivity sacrifices her flair, her wit, her intelligence, her outspokenness or her appetite for subversion. Or her charisma: “I could be your girl, girl, girl, girl, girl, girl, girl/ But would you love me if I ruled the world, world, world?” goes my favorite hook. Who could say no?
#6 The Weeknd - House of Balloons
This is who Drake’s supposed to be: the annoying twerp who nonetheless wins you over with his creeping truths. Not being able to stop playing something you’re trying to loathe says something for the critical process, as well as addiction, which is Abel Tesfaye’s greatest subject. These nine tracks are slow, long, beholden to Siouxsie and Beach House (twice!) and celebratory of activity that sounds shittier than most rappers’ because it sounds realer. Tesfaye’s initial anonymity helped create the illusion that he was the invisible man among Drake’s entourage, chronicling all that guilt and confusion (and pleasure) with a more worried man-on-the-street POV—as well as the unenviable task of being elected to find the girls to plead into the threesome. But the follow-up was never going to be good. Don’t critics know the first rule of addiction? No hit’s ever as good as the first, especially with qualities this unlikely in the first place. And the anonymity helped.
#5 Kate and Anna McGarrigle - Tell My Sister
I’m a novice so maybe these third-disc demos wouldn’t have hit me so hard if I knew the( always admired) first two albums front and back. But reducing such a smart, melodic essence to voices, wit and the simplest, prettiest chords—just piano or fingerpicking—exhumed in a dismal year for melody and song structure could leave anyone demanding no fewer than two versions of “Heart Like a Wheel” per sitting. Soul, heart, etc. sure, but this just never gives up. And it never needs to reach too far outside of these naturally rich arrangements; the songfulness is so assured, relaxed, wise. Listening back, Dancer with Bruised Knees sounded a little overarranged. Fucking Dancer with Bruised Knees!
#4 Wussy – Strawberry
The worst thing about my generation’s rockcrit values is the idea that people shut down by the time you praise the fourth straight album by a band. This never happened to the generation of Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and the white album. If that comparison makes you mad, I hope you’re not claiming those were only great because of the lack of competition at the time to have divided your attention. This Totally Normal Band has too much competition for Pitchfork to take notice, though they're extraordinarily above the norm in all musical (PJ Harvey can bend over for Lisa Walker's "Chicken," while Yo La Tengo could learn more about themselves from "Waiting Room") and literary departments ("shatter like a mirrorball" and "outside the Pizza King you tremble like an earthquake" are typical vividities). Yes, they’ve just banged out their fourth straight—well, maybe Left for Dead wasn’t all that—great album. Ignore the remarkably consistent Totally Normal Band if you will but do not talk to me about Spoon.
#3 Pistol Annies – Hell on Heels
Great albums sometimes just happen. That’s too slight for people who’d rather buy a SMiLE box set than bother themselves with the idea that Wild Honey was better. But they do. The only chance taken on Hell on Heels is giving Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley equal billing with the great Miranda Lambert, and wins big, with Monroe’s standalone lead “Beige” the melodic highlight and Presley’s “The Hunter’s Wife” one of the cleverest. Lambert herself contributes “Trailer for Rent,” whose diamond-plated wit (“Comes with some holes and dents where i got tired of his shit/ Call if you’re interested”) hasn’t been so fruitful since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which rocks harder and smokes this in theory. But I always have trouble remembering the last two songs.
#2 Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, ULTRA.
If we can lump Tyler in with his photographer-assaulting crony Left Brain, why are people so quick to distance Frank Ocean from his other friends? If he didn’t share their irreverence and rejection of authority, he wouldn’t be in Odd Future, and quite possibly we would’ve never heard his masterpiece, “released” as it happens via Tumblr after losing patience with his label. It’s possible for an R&B singer to make two great albums. But even with the year’s most gifted songwriter this is unlikely; too much of the best music on Nostalgia, ULTRA. comes from MGMT, Coldplay and the fucking Eagles. As much as we love The Private Press, it was a sigh of relief rather than an audacious surprise like Endtroducing…DJ Shadow, whose out-of-nowhere perfection relied at least in part on recognizing familiar sounds selected for new tasks. That Ocean’s still diamond-crucial to Tyler’s “She” and Jay-Z/Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” fosters hope, but it would be no shame if he never tops “Novocane,” “Nature Feels,” “Songs for Women” or “Strawberry Swing.” The shame is already his not being able to sell it.
#1 Tyler, the Creator – Goblin
The key lines on the best album of 2011 are not “I’m a fucking walking paradox/ No I’m not,” or “I’m awesome/ And I fuck dolphins,” two of its most quoted, but rather “This is the type of shit that makes a Chris Brown want to kick a whore” and “I’m a fucking unicorn and fuck anyone that says I’m not.” In the first one, note the antihero cannily separating himself from “a Chris Brown.” Sure, as the Roots have now learned, the word “whore” is still collateral damage that conceivably mars the sentiment. But nonetheless, this is a provocative musician distancing himself from the provoke-able. Maybe that’s one reason he’s “the Creator” and not a goon like Plies or a thug like Fat Joe. Tyler’s not in thrall to other peoples’ idea of fun, including kneejerk moralizers. If that means Jasper Dolphin has to insinuate “and yes, we do punch bitches” to draw the line between the freedom of Tyler’s crew and the rest of the planet’s pathetic adherence to rules, then so be it, because that’s all it means. just like the title it’s in, “Bitch Suck Dick,” is resolved into “bitch suck dick like bitch suck dick.” Meaninglessness coded in dare-you-to-flinch stupidity. He’s a unicorn. Tell him he’s wrong, he dares. Twist yourself in knots trying to explain the sky is blue, not red. Who’s the stupid one now?
The thing about Tyler is that he’s not a paradox; not actually as confused as most rappers. He knows the difference between right and wrong. He doesn’t feel the need to justify any of his wrongdoing because he wrongdoing exists only in his brain and mouth. And he takes absolute delight in seeing how much of a reaction he can get from doing just that, with no fear of jailtime. If people don’t understand what’s so new or thrilling about that, well, we’ve never seen what an anonymous 4chan troll looks like before. Or thinks like, sounds like, or how he came to be that way (like that daddy issues thing). Since Tyler’s more concerned with disclaimers (“don’t do anything I say in this song”) than daring kids to jump, we do find it poignant when he lies to his friends about a girl moving to Nebraska in lieu of rejecting him.
Right, Left Brain really assaulted a photographer who’s rightfully pressing charges after the group’s publicist called her a liar. The “kill this bitch” fantasies are the least fun exhortations on Goblin, which gets its best juice from circular-logic tantrums, fantasy double dares, like-it-or-fuck-you playground wordplay and black-hole beats as disruptive and jazzy as those on Flaming Lips’ Embryonic. I hope next year’s Wolf indeed makes good on Tyler’s promise that the rape and murder threats are out of his system, because it would prove Goblin’s need to exist as an isolated, ugly item unceremoniously hocked into a musically and lyrically inoffensive year. A year that nonetheless ignored the cognitive dissonance of Chris Brown’s multiple BET award nominations while this boy who cried swag ate up most of the public criticism for his moral failings.
But along with Azealia Banks, who’s just as delightful at brandishing the word “cunt” (in both literal and pejorative senses), Tyler’s creating a wave of black-identified teenpunk that puts a long-alienated minority of black teens in the spotlight and do what Green Day and Nirvana did for white people. Like Green Day, he wins via masturbating and talking about what a loser he is. Like Nirvana, he loves to invert tropes, because those represent rules by adults meant to be broken by “kids” like him, a demo he name-checks on “Radicals,” which is also against school. People think rock and roll has outgrown this mentality and they’ll be wrong as long as the mentality exists. They’re also wrong that it doesn’t have its uses; in “Sandwitches” he calls out people with “401(k)s.”
But the most important thing about hopefully Tyler if not his photographer-assaulting hanger-on from MellowHype is that he knows how to compartmentalize that mentality and reduce inarticulate anger to words and sounds. “They had the fucking nerve to call me immature/ What the fuck you think I made Odd Future for?” Presumably so he wouldn’t kick a whore. I hope it works; I rather enjoy compartmentalizing Goblin myself.