The Nextbop staff is compiling its lists of the best albums of 2011 in jazz and all other genres. We’ll release our mass lists during the last week of December but we want to make sure everyone’s individual lists have the chance to shine.
10) James Blake – James Blake (ATLAS)
I didn’t get James Blake when I first heard him. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention or maybe I wasn’t in the right state of mind, but I didn’t get the big deal about him. But as often is the case with music, time and the proper context help. Blake is one of those artists who exists and feels important, so you keep giving a chance to understand (I do the same thing with Odd Future). It wasn’t until I realized what he was doing until I realized how brilliant it was. His vocals as simplistic (in much the same way one could think of Gretchen Parlato’s minimalist voice) to facilitate the texture he’s constantly building in all his songs. His melodies have vaguely bluesy tenors to them. In much the same way his music grows to black matter denseness provoking an epidemic unconscious head bobbing (if it wasn’t already crushed in the sonic wave), James Blake has to grow on you.
9) tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l (4AD Records)
When people talk about jazz failing because it’s too complicated for a public to latch onto it, I’ll think immediately of Merrill Garbus. At the beginning of this year, she was that wailing voice on those BlackBerry commercials, but that was just her opening to nudge her horn-accompanied, looping, intricately crafted caterwauls into our hearts. There’s real artistry going on here and every quirky thing about tUnE-yArDs may prove Garbus to be one of the bravest acts in music today. The fact that she can pull off a weird album like w h o k i l l with such aplomb, critical acclaim, and fan recognition is just a testament that complication means nothing if the music is fundamentally good.
8) Jonti – Twirligig (Stones Throw)
Twirligig is a playful album. Everything about it feels like pure joy. It’s 2011’s Baths’ Cerulean. No matter how often you play through it, you feel you can devote another half hour to listening to it again. It’s engrossing, capable of astral projecting the listener to a fanciful pasture made of techinicolor dreams. However, the most surprising thing about this album is that Jonti made it three years ago without even entertaining the idea of releasing it to the public. This is a gem of a release for Stones Throw which now begs the question– what wonders have Jonti already begun to make next?
7) Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine (Carpark)
The most startling song Chaz Bundick released this year was not on his exceptional album, Underneath the Pine, but on an EP he released near the end of this year, Freaking Out, in which he covers Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle’s “Saturday Love”. Grow up around black radio long enough and you’ll certainly know the tune, which is why hearing Toro y Moi reinterpret the song so perfectly, owning it as the band’s own while still hitting all the right notes so it’s not completely divergent from the original, is so refreshing. It would seem everything Bundick has done in the last few years has had that same effect, yet it’s his constant push for growth that ensures that his constant ventures never end up stale. Underneath the Pine, while preceding Freaking Out EP, encapsulates that same desire to put together a funky band and continue with the 80s revivalist music that was already running around in his head back when he was just making music in his bedroom in South Carolina. This music is made to make you dance, even if you can’t. Especially if you can’t, for the groove compels you to move involuntarily.
6) Radiohead – The King of Limbs (TBD)
It’s almost impossible for a Radiohead album to not make a music writer’s year-end list, The King of Limbs included. The group’s eighth release could almost be considered the sister album to their prior album, 2007’s In Rainbows, in much the same way people consider 2000’s Kid A and 2001’s Amnesiac as siblings in that one kid just ended up cuter than the other. Sonically, TKoL seems to pick up where In Rainbows leaves off and doesn’t seem to break any boundaries in doing so. It’s a decent Radiohead release, which is still generally leaps and bounds better than most other band’s albums. Even a disappointing Radiohead album is pretty damn good.
5) Teebs – Collections 01 (Brainfeeder)
I got hipped to Teebs a little later than I wanted to. Early this year, I heard his previous Brainfeeder release, Ardour, and was bowled over. Mtendere Mandowa started as and still is a visual artist (he made the album art) and this electronic music exhibits the same loopy, swirliness that he conveys on canvas while still holding clear form. The album stayed in rotation the whole year. Never did it leave my phone or wasn’t played on a whim throughout most of this year… and then he dropped a bomb on the world with Collections 01. The trippiness and swirliness of Ardour with its steadfast focus on making a nice, leaning groove remained and even showed more focus. I know with certainty that Collections 01 will stay in rotation through 2012 with the same staying power that Ardour has in much the same way that I know Teebs will only continue to grow as a musician.
4) The Stepkids – The Stepkids (Stones Throw)
Have you ever thought someone was too talented? Like you’ve seen someone’s work and thought there’s just no way this person could make such great work. The Stepkids’ debut album is almost too strong of a debut. They have the 70s revival psychedelic rock thing down, but this merely gives them the headway to do whatever they want musically. They tinker electronicly; they noodle around like jazz musicians; they get groovy like the psychedelic band they totally are. Bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Dan Eidenberg, guitarist/vocalist Jeff Gitelman, and drummer/vocalist Tim Walsh (yes, I listed them all as vocalists) have so much do to and do it all too well, almost indescribably well. It’s going to be insane trying to guess where this band will go.
3) Tom Waits – Bad As Me (Anti)
Bad As Me is just another Tom Waits album. In fact, Bad As Me is a distilled Tom Waits album. It seems to traverse every stage of Waits’ career, from balladeer of the 70s to the carnival barker of wandering ramshackle souls that we know and love today. Waits’ latest release seems to encapsulate everything lovers of Waits’ distinct, almost indefinable by genre music that fans have loved, however, not a single tune is any longer than four and a half minutes. Everything about this album seems to be geared toward making Tom Waits more easily digestible, or at least as digestible as the voice of a million smoldering embers can be. Whether or not this goal is achieved in and of itself, it’s great to have another collection of Tom Waits songs sure to go well with as the soundtrack to your upcoming riot played in slow motion.
2) Wilco – The Whole Love (dBpm Records)
Wilco isn’t up to many new tricks. They have always had dalliances with Americana and folk, and continue in that vein in parts on this album, but the most important takeaway from The Whole Love is that the more experimental impulses Wilco have had back in the early 00’s have returned. It seems we have a band who in its current iteration is comfortable with what it is doing and has done. They know what works and have taken it all together to make The Whole Love. The experimental touches that are truly cherishable moments with jazz infiltrator Nels Cline bring to the fore are there. The folksy rock lingers throughout. The two are beautifully intertwined in the epic closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”. This is the Wilco album for people who like Wilco or at least want to know what the big deal is. They are indeed a big deal and The Whole Love proves it.
1) The Roots – undun (Def Jam)
If there’s anything I reward more than anything else is when an arist make something truly adventurous and truly pulls it off with a certain aplomb. For The Roots to manage to pull off such an ambitous narrative album while hitting a new stride as a band, nothing else could conceivably deserve higher praise. No one else in 2011 has so boldly and publicly, especially when juxtaposed with their equally brilliant work on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon which has indeed increased the group’s noteriety, attempted to tell such a fascinating story of the complexity of crime in such an experimental way and succeed in doing so. Then consider that each song does work on its own (something that artists making concept albubms need to ensure still occurs) in digestible, catchy, but still challenging ways and this album comes together as something quite brilliant. undun should rightly be considered not only a highly esteemed point in The Roots’ career but a heralded work of art for 2011.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.