John Parsons’ Top 10 Picks for 2011
1. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Beautifully written and sonically dense, Annie Clark elevates this album to being the best pairing of live instruments combined with electronic flourishes this year. For an album that struggles with normalcy and perception, it’s truly unique.
2. Big K.R.I.T. – Return of 4Eva
Meridian, Mississippi’s Big K.R.I.T. is his own producer, and his beats are unlike most industry rap today, choosing instead to focus his sound on the rich, twangy, late-90s golden-era of Southern rap. Given that a lot of his raps revolve around memories and growing up, themes line up directly with the backdrops he creates, painting vivid pictures of Meridian as the quintessential setting for a track like “Hometown Hero.”
3. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
After catching a set at SXSW, I was blown away by Merrill Garbus’ use of a loop pedal to map out songs as instantly appealing as the ones she had offered. I had hoped the contagious fun of the live show would translate, and when I’d finally heard the album, the music was even more dense and interesting than I had remembered.
4. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
When this album was released, many complained of its short length and lack of focus. The band has mentioned they couldn’t record an album with the style or length like In Rainbows again. “It’ll kill us,” they said. TKOL may sound low key or even under dressed at times, but those spastic rhythms became increasingly better-defined in my head after each listen until I realized how well the album will wear in years to come.
5. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne
It was hard to take the idea for this album seriously, but when it was released, it forever raised the expectations for ‘the buddy album’. Featuring two artists who are superstars in their own right, they humbly share emcee and hype duties while granting a severe focus to the project. Kanye’s handpicked production is extreme and sharp while Jay brings his lyrical A-game to compete for top billing, something he hasn’t had to do in a while.
6.Wilco – The Whole Love
Jeff Tweedy and co. clearly wanted the first album on their new, self-operated label to make an impression, which is probably why they kicked it off with a 7-minute electronic track that features hard drives audibly decomposing. From there, the album warms up, but still wrestles with loneliness and letting go as Wilco masterfully does, gently but candidly.
7. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, led by Ishmael Butler (Butterfly from Digable Planets), had anonymously released two EPs last year, but its debut full length cemented its status as a space-age, deconstructive force in hip hop. For the first act of the genre to ever be signed to longstanding indie label Sub Pop, it’s definitely something special.
8. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
This guy has been co-signed from giants like Lil Wayne and Dr. Dre, which probably helped him independently sell thousands of copies of this album through iTunes without any promotion during its first week. This DIY model further blurs the lines between mixtapes and proper albums, but Lamar maintains he puts his full effort forth either way. Beyond the business, this is among the most sonically complex conceptual hip hop of the year, breaking somewhere between the youthful playful gangster-style of Curren$y and the soulful melancholy of the Weekend.
9. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
New Zealander Ruban Nielson’s warm, lo-fi debut with Unknown Mortal Orchestra was an unexpected hit of an album for everyone including Nielson, who had planned to settle for a 9-to-5 after his former band, The Mint Chicks, disintegrated upon its move to America. But soon after casually tossing up a few tracks to share with friends, UMO became one of the most discussed new acts across the globe. Perhaps that loose, carefree outlook is what made this simultaneously one of the most fun and most mysterious releases of the year.
10. James Blake – James Blake
Debut album from coffeeshop-dubstep innovator had people on either side of the fence, but its reverent themes and earnest delivery outweighed the hype that the album endured throughout the first few months of the year. And that bass goes for miles.