Although the internet is laden with end-of-year lists, I’m doing this one primarily for my own interest, so bear with me if I indulge. Instead of picking the top 10 albums from this year, or some such, I’m using my own Last.FM chart from the past 12 months to compile my Top 10.
This makes more sense to me as it’s an indicator of the music I’ve turned to the most when I’ve needed it – for background, for dancing, for pick-me-ups, for exploration.
It’s been a crazy year, all told, but thankfully I’ve kept a “being there” diary, plenty of notes and pieces of paper, photos, logs and other marginalia to help me remember one of the most transformative, terrifying, exciting and downright exhausting years of my life. And this list has been the soundtrack.
So, here’s the Top 10 (with Spotify links):
10: Stevie Wonder (205 scrobbles, Albums – Innvervisions, Talking Book)
I think I went through a period in April/May where I listened to nothing BUT Innervisions for 2 weeks. And like all great obsessions, the listening obsession was inspired by a girl. It took about 3 minutes for this music to fuse entirely to my idea of this person – Golden Lady in particular was a talisman that needed only a few chords before I was caught in that reverie of distraction that is so particular to the moment you meet someone you know is going to be really important to you for a really long time.
That said, I also completely flip out over the drumming on this album. Stevie plays all of his own drums which serves the preservation of his complete ideas perfectly. The time feel on Golden Lady, or Misstra Know It All, is almost impossible to duplicate – it is so uniquely Stevie on drums. The sounds and swing so perfectly complement the music that you just know it’s no one else playing.
What also helped my obsession with this album, and revisitation of Stevie in general, is a remembrance of what an absolute fucking genius he is. Innervisions swings from psychedelic reflections to swooning ballads (Too High into Visions) and throughout the album the singular vision of Stevie is perfectly preserved and presented. And like all of the artists on this list, it’s clear that Stevie’s focus is communication of something higher, something greater than ourselves (Higher Ground) while at the same time remaining very earth-bound and celebratory of the day-to-day (Living for the City).
9: To Rococco Rot (215 scrobbles, Albums – Speculation, Hotel Morgren)
I first heard this album via the excellent ithinkx podcast out of Toronto. It’s funny, but looking at this album on the charts and putting it in it’s place in my 2011 is much harder than I thought. Whereas Innervisions has a very specific place, time and person associations, Speculation has none of these. I stuck this album on when I needed to work, to focus and move things forward. It really was a workhorse of an album, one of the go-to “getting things done” or “getting from a-to-b” albums.
I think I love most the elements of Tortoise, or Fridge I hear in this album – that is, it’s there to create a space for you to inhabit, rather than the album inhabiting your space with ideas or emotions. It’s a quiet auditory room that allows you to glide through the often numbing mundanity that so often fills a year of someone’s life. And the more I think about it, I realize how absolutely vital this kind of album is to me.
8: Everything Everything (234 scrobbles, Album – Man Alive)
An album obsession that might only interest me – I just love the drums and drumming on it. It soundtracked numerous me-alone-in-the-car air-drumming sessions and late-nights-in-the-practice-room wood-shedding as I tried to master the intricacies and the various signature changes that pervade the record.
I’m not a fan of overly technical drumming. Dave Weckl is a four letter word as far as I’m concerned. But the drumming on this record is so full of cool ideas, so many little rhythmic nuances that it’s like auditory M&Ms.. But they wrap all of these great ideas in excellent pop songs too (the first track on the album MY KZ YR BF was nominated for an Ivor Novello award).
Drum Nerd highlight: Toward the end of the track Schoolin’, drummer Michael Spearman plays a groove where the last 16th note of each beat gets a rim tap – it sounds like he’s playing a hi-hat rhythm but has shifted the sound to the rim of the floor tom, and the beat itself is on the last 16th of each beat. It’s a simple but massively effective shift that is so much fun to master when playing yourself.
7: Radiohead (246 scrobbles, Albums – The King of Limbs, TKOL 1234567)
There’s nothing else I can say about Radiohead, really. It’s as if I’ve grown up with them and their music has grown with me. Each new album, with the possible exception of Hail to the Thief, is better than the last. They’re constantly exploring, pushing, looking for something. And that’s what I love, the constant shift – and the consistently stellar results. Oh, and Thom Yorke personally turns me on to new music all the time.
6: Thundercat (248 scrobbles, Albums – The Golden Age of Apocalypse)
I should hate this album. I mean, I should REALLY hate it. Let’s look at the facts:
- It’s jazz fusion. I mean, it has hallmarks of dubstep, hip-hop and rock – but it’s fusion.
- It’s by a solo jazz bass player.
- it has ridiculous solos – like proper avant-garde solos (I secretly love these)
- it has odd lyrics that border on cheese (e.g. Suddenly you came onto me, is it wrong for you to belong to me?) sang in a not-overly-tuneful way.
Despite all of this I can honestly say I love this record. It has plenty of great modern hip-hop elements, some fantastic tunes and is filled with a joy – an exuberance – that just makes it eminently listenable. A lot of the reason I fell in love with this record was the first track, Daylight – with it’s lovely squelchy bass sounds and tinkly over-melodies and “it’s sunrise!” vocals.
But I’ve discovered something else a bit shameful about why I love this record. It has some of the most ridiculously complex and fusion-y bass-melodies going on – (see Fleer Ultra) yet I find myself actually SINGING THEM IN MY HEAD WHEN I’M NOT LISTENING TO THE RECORD. Which of course just makes me want to listen to the record more. This had happened before with Eric Dolphy’s classic “Hat & Beard“, which is also ridiculously avant-garde, but I would find myself humming the lead melody as I walked down the street. It must be a jazz-related disease I have.
To paraphrase my friend Steve: I’m not sure if this is the best or most ridiculous record I’ve heard all year.
5: Wilco (291 scrobbles, Albums – The Whole Love, A Ghost Is Born, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
In my opinion, Wilco pulled a bit of a phoenix from the flames this year. Wilco (The Album) and SkyBlueSky were, I have to say, massive disappointments. YHF and it’s follow up A Ghost is Born showed a band who – like Radiohead – were growing with me musically. Constantly exploring, pushing sounds to new levels – dragging rock music along into interesting new creative territories. SkyBlueSky and Wilco (The Album) sounded like 70s FM washed-up Dad-rock – a band who were cashing in on their fame and releasing uninteresting music just because they had to record SOMETHING.
The only glimmer that they hadn’t all decided to musically retire was drummer Glenn Kotche’s 2006 effort, Mobile. It remains one of my favourite percussion albums of all time.
On The Whole Love, Nels Cline wails, Jeff Tweedy ruminates, Glenn Kotche kicks ass and all is right with the world – there’s a vibrancy in the songs, an experimentation like kids in a candy store, that was just ABSENT from the previous two albums, all while sounding wonderfully Wilco. And they’re clearly excited about what they’re playing. Come back, Wilco! All is forgiven.
4: Tim Hecker (306 Scrobbles, Albums – Ravedeath 1972, Harmony in Ultraviolet)
I’m one of those people who hear music in cars driving by on the street, or the changing of traffic lights, in the swish of windscreen wipers and the mumble of a crowded street. So’s Tim Hecker – ‘cept he records it and makes amazing records from the bits.
Tim. Oh Tim. I’ve loved the vast, sweeping dreamscapes this intelligent lovely fecker has been spitting out since I first heard Harmony in Ultraviolet back in 06. Again, like To Roccoco Rot, the music creates a room, a space to walk around in – actually, everything he does sounds more like a cathedral than a room. And I can think very clearly in that room.
A friend said to me back in February that music can be too patient with people sometimes. That it can serve up hooks and choruses and feel good moments – but that having the rug pulled out from under you is much more interesting a lot of the time. J-Dilla does it. and on the opposite end of the spectrum, Tim Hecker does it.
3: A Tribe Called Quest (386 Scrobbles, Albums – The Low End Theory, Beats, Rhymes & Life)
Musically for me, 2011 is when hip-hop took over and made me an out-and-out convert. I’m not sure when the floodgates opened, but I am sure at some point mid-January I re-introduced myself to The Low End Theory – one of, if not the best hip-hop/jazz cross over albums ever.
It was with Tribe that I first recognized true modern lyric poetry – an artform and craft in itself, both independent of “traditional” poetry while completely married to it in form and rhythm.
Everything I love about hip-hop, and music in general, could be demonstrated in that record. Incredible vocal qualities, smooth rhymes, stripped down production (sometimes only a drum sample and an upright bass sample – and to drill down more, some of the BEST snare drum sounds I’ve heard anywhere).
I’ve my obsession with Tribe to thank for letting me wallow for the first time in Nas, Dre’s The Chronic, Wu-Tang, Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Common, Madvillain, Strong-Arm Steady and others.
In 2011, when I needed to run a little harder, work a little smarter or generally feel a little better, it was to hip-hop I turned – as #2 and #1 on this list attest.
2: Flying Lotus (393 scrobbles, Albums – Los Angeles, Cosmogramma)
The guy uses samples of photon torpedoes in his music. End of.
But seriously, long walks in the spring, afternoon siestas in the summer, mad, 4-hour writing sessions in the autumn and freezing cold outside Christmas shopping trips this month, Mr. Ellison has made them all better. Like J-Dilla, he bends beats, squishifies the heaviest bass notes, never quantizes, never lets you fully relax and then hits you with a downright dance-break worthy amazesong (see GNGBNG or Do The Astral Plane!)
1: J-Dilla (693 scrobbles, Albums – Donuts, Ruff Draft)
I remember hearing of J-Dilla for the first time in 2006 when he had just died. I gave his final album, Donuts, a spin at the time and liked some tracks but I remember being put off by the shortness of the tracks, the lack of coherent structure or any real sense of purpose.
You can read about how James Yancey recorded Donuts on his deathbed, his work with Slum Village, how during his career he produced tracks for Q-Tip, Tribe and countless other amazing artists as well as his own output, how he revolutionized beat making in his short time on planet earth. Stories about how MCs squabbled over who would get to use the latest Dilla beat abound.
But what Dilla means to me now is Donuts. Every time I listen to the 30 tracks on Donuts, I hear something new. It’s music that isn’t patient with the listener, that shows an understanding of rhythm and meter that makes me want to be a better drummer, makes me think about being a poet, about what it means to make someone dance – and how to do it better. Some of the grooves are just so deep that you could get lost in them (The New), some of the transitions so jarring it’s like getting hit with a cattle-prod (Lightworks) and some of the music just so damn beautiful it brings tears to the eyes (Stop). Yes, he used an APC. But he was a damn fine musician.