Best Albums of 2011: 6-10

6.

Eye Contact by Gang Gang Dance

Everything one needs to know about Eye Contact by Gang Gang Dance can be inferred on the album’s first track “Glass Jar”; a slow-building epic song filled with electronic clanks and bangs, a rambling voice espousing non-sensical mutterings, and odd, faded out noises that come from the ether that all lead to a rambunctious, ecstatic climax that seems to last for minutes. Given patience, Eye Contact is the most joyful record of the year. Every song has so many elements that it’s hard not to accuse Gang Gang Dance of assaulting the senses of the listener but they use those elements so well that it is only the unhappy, dance-fearing misanthrope who would resent Gang Gang Dance’s mastery of seemingly-discordant sounds. That isn’t to say that sometimes the album doesn’t get bogged down in its search of a common theme from the cacophony, this is true, but when it happens, it is mercifully brief and countered with yet another brilliant hook summoned out of the void. Eye Contact is one of the few albums that this reviewer would give to another person and merely say “just listen to this, please.”

7.

Ritual Union by Little Dragon

No one does funk pop alt-jazz like Little Dragon. Ritual Union is an album that delivers on almost every song. It may not be the first thing you put on at a party (unless it’s some sort of sweet funk pop alt-jazz party) but it is extremely rewarding to listen to whilst alone. Yukimi Nagano’s sweet voice dances over the electronic beats and fuzzy guitars in a way that makes one want to dance. This is music for the smart, cosmopolitan listener who watches “Lost in Translation” at least five times a year. This album is reminiscent of St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy in that it isn’t as immediately accessible as other similar albums but if the effort is put into the album then the reward is bountiful. Ritual Union alternates between fun dance tunes and more serious, dense contemplations on love and relationships. It is an album that plays to the strengths of its singer with great results. The group is famously named after Nagano’s outbursts in the studio and this album proves that when a firey presence is tempered with an extremely competent band, the production can be astounding.

8.

Camp by Childish Gambino

Oh man. This is probably the most controversial choice on the list as it is easily the most divisive album of the year. Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover (Of 30 Rock and Community fame), has cultivated a reverent fan base and produced an album that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. Would this album would have been possible without The College Dropout? Probably not. Gambino is clearly a huge fan of Kanye West, specifically the production on his earlier albums. For example, the fantastic song “Firefly” would not have been out of place on The College Dropout or Late Registration. Camp has great production throughout and Gambino’s clever lyrics betray his history as an Emmy award-winning writer. That being said, the album suffers from a lack of perspective. As brought to a razor-sharp point in the now-infamous Pitchfork review, Childish Gambino often laments the dichotomy of “real rap” and the type of rap music that he makes. But it’s been true, for a while now, that the “thug-life” era of rap, while not dead, isn’t the gold standard anymore. Gambino only needs to look at his hero Kanye West, not to mention Drake, Kid Cudi, or a host of others to see that he’s created a straw man. It’s acceptable in this day and age to be a rapper and someone who indulges in their insecurities. There are several valid criticisms of Camp but the album is consistent in that it does what it does very well and thus it is one of the better albums of the year.

9.

Instrumentals by Clams Casino

Many albums lack consistency. Instrumentals by Clams Casino is not one of those albums. It is a clinic in very good, moody instrumental music. Almost every song has a particular hook or angle that makes it immediately recognizable and engaging. From the dreamy “All I Need” and “What You Doin’” to the bass-heavy bangers “Brainwash By London” or “Illest Alive”, Clams Casino delights in the abstract and esoteric. This lends an otherworldly quality to his productions, a trait that has resulted in his explosion in indie rap world; working with artists like ASAP Rocky, Lil’ B, and Mac Miller (not really indie anymore but the point still stands). If Clams Casino continues on this path, he will take over the role as standard-bearer for excellent, dark instrumental music from CFCF, and that isn’t a bad thing at all.

10.

Strange Mercy by St. Vincent

Strange Mercy directly addresses forces that are often more indirectly felt than directly perceived. The dark menace (in the form of the lyrics and back beat) that hovers over the album juxtaposes with the often pop-esque melodies of the songs. That isn’t to say that this is a pop album given depth only through provocative diction, quite the opposite: the album may be inaccessible to the first time listener. It is a frenetic and wild in its unpredictability. However it is an album that grows over time through repeated listens. Annie Clark’s sweet voice is capable of reaching lower pitches which she uses in a masterful fashion to add an almost-growl in the album’s more intense moments. These instances are further reinforced by the buzzed out guitars that accompany several of the songs – including the stand-out “Cheerleader” and “Surgeon”. The highlight of the album though blatantly eschews this juxtaposition in favor of a more traditional slow pop song; “Strange Mercy” slowly rises from a sweet, tender address to a climax that is at once threatening and beautiful. Although it might be a difficult album to “get into”, St. Vincent has delivered a fantastic album that is easily one of the best of the year.

~ by Verse on December 23, 2011.

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