DJ QU – Gymnastics
Gymnastics radiantly pushes darkness back into the depths of house music. The mid tempo bpms and thumping rhythms seem to never let up. The pace can be punishing at times, however the closing track “Mixing Room” assures the listener that the sonic acrobatics would easily translate into dance floor explosions. – Rudo
Bjork – Biophilia
Wellhart Ltd./Little Indian Ltd.
Hearing Biophilia for the first time proved to be one of 2011’s biggest reliefs. “Crystalline” was too easy to fall in love with, but so was “Earth Intruders,” and let’s face it, Volta was not her best. Still, the Icelandic songstress more than pulled through with an application supported album about objects floating in outerspace that I will never see or relate to. I do not need to though. To this day, Debut, Post, and Homogenic still frequent my car stereo, and I’m happy to let those same naive, fragile words serve that purpose. Biophilia‘s true greatness stems from what Bjork is trying to accomplish. Each of her nine, solo studio albums attempt to push its own envelope. Listening to new Bjork material has just as much to do with feeling the words being sung by her impeccable voice as it does hearing what this incredible performer can get away with this time. – Stuart
Cut Copy – Zonoscope
Australians like to party. Well, at least that’s what I can gather from the most recent pack of bands to come from down under. Judging by the direction of synth pop and dance rock overall, Cut Copy’s Zonoscope might be the genre’s last great album. I sincerely hope I am wrong, but it’s time for a shift in sound. With that said, this latest gem takes the drama up a notch. Cut Copy is still pop music, but they somehow have more left over in the tank than before. Starting with “Need You Now,” the group comes out the gates with unstoppable adrenaline on the hunt for a good time. Whenever they lose the playful edge that turned In Ghost Colours into a recent classic, they make it up in sex. For instance, “Pharaohs and Pyramids” and “Blink And You’ll Miss A Revolution” sound as ironically serious as their titles would indicate, but that may only be because Dan Whitford is trying to bang every maiden listening to him croon. – Stuart
Thundercat – The Golden Age of Apocalypse
We’ve been on the Brainfeeder trip for years now it seems. Having had our coming of age during the rise of Los Angeles’ beat scene, we’ve seen the scene long since grow out of its honeymoon period of 2007 with the creation of Low End Theory in Lincoln Heights.
But a lot has happened since then. Low End Theory has exploded. Brainfeeder has attracted the likes of Martyn and exploded into a pioneering collective of genre distorting extraordinaries. Between then and now however, there have been many an artist and many a release espousing the LA beat mantra. Some of it, notably Teebs and Flying Lotus, have been consistently quality, others have failed to use the movement’s pastiche effectively.
And it is in that other that we have been disenfranchised by the excess basslines or glitchiness of some of the West Coast’s releases. Thundercat’s The Golden Age of Apocalypse came as a shining beacon in what had become a sonic dull. A bass player’s dream, this album gives Los Angeles enthusiasts a much needed respite from the clatter that has resulted from anyone can be a producer syndrome. And not just anyone produced this album, Flying Lotus, himself, stepped for the production.
Further being an homage to jazz fusion, The Golden Age of the Apocalypse takes the sultriness of pop, the romance of quiet storm, and the complexity of intricate jazz ensembles to create a complete listening extravaganza. Take FutureMan from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones add in a bit of Herbie Hancock and top off with FlyLo’s nimble fingers and you get the electronic suaveness of Thundercat. It is an album truly apt for the LA drivetime, windows down of course. – Juan
Kendrick Lamar – Section 8.0
No other rapper has sounded as honest, fresh, high or intelligent all year (that includes you Wiz). Touchstones from popular culture and life are sprinkled throughout the album marking Kendrick as a West-coast poet for a post-credit crunch generation reared on Tupac, Timbaland and J-Lo. Any hints of immaturity are quickly snuffed out by killer joints such as “Kush” and “Korinthians”, “Blow My High” and “A.D.H.D”. On Section 8.0 Lamar confidently flexes with irrepressible flow and style flirting over a full range of subject matter. – Rudo
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
St. Vincent’s third record Strange Mercy is awkwardly sexy. The album flips through stories doomed by circumstance. Musically, it breaks through a conceptual boundary between naivety and domination. Clark demands attention with beautifully off-kilter and heavy guitar riffs, fused with her sugar sweet vocals. In a world of beautiful instability, St. Vincent finds an assertive and thoughtful voice on this record. – Lizzy
Danny Brown – XXX
There are darker rap records. There are more hedonistic rap records. However, one is hard pressed to find a recent record that pairs such a desperate and hedonistic worldview with a totally thoughtful and endearing perspective on that worldview. While it’s easy to be hypnotized by songs like the piano-smashing “Blunt After Blunt”, there’s so much on XXX that serves as testimony to Brown’s personal insecurities and internal struggle. Take the introductory track “XXX”, where Brown fears failure (“cuz if this shit don’t work n*gga then I failed at life”), desperate to cope with the responsibilities of being an adult while still striving to be an artist (“Keeping it original somethin that’s overlooked”). As a seemingly too old Detroit residence, Brown captures the feeling of a man possessed to succeed in a situation where nobody wants to see him successful. This story, paired with his taste for the bizarre — beats, drugs and women, makes XXX the most powerful rap record of the year. – L.C.
Weeknd – House Of Balloons
Fact: Abel Tesfaye could not have done it better. As The Weeknd, he quickly became one of the most mysterious and talked about artists of 2011. The barely promoted House of Balloons mixtape suddenly dropped into blog feeds and spread like an unstoppable virus. The Weeknd’s voice brings back memories of 90’s R&B singers getting parties started on SoulTrain, but musically, he offers a completely fresh take on urban music seemingly too filthy and intoxicating for the mainstream. Songs like “What You Need” and “Loft Cries” sound more grown up than any smooth jam Ginuwine or R Kelly could have ever conceived. When The Weeknd gets into your bedroom, there are no gimmicks, nicknames, or jokes. There are no distractions. His beats make you limp and his words make you give in. Of course, with buzz comes discovery, and for that reason, the likes of Drake have jumped on the bandwagon. Here’s to a big 2012 for The Weeknd. – Stuart
Feist – Metals
Metals kicked off a really strong last leg of the year in music and marked the long-awaited return of Leslie Feist. She came back swinging after four years since The Reminder with an album made on its own terms, in its own time, and that soothes with newfound clarity. To me, the album is the embodiment of the beginning of October, the first month you really settle on the idea that the summer’s gone until the next year, and make your well-needed adjustments. This album is a ritual experience much like the morning after too much wine and too many words. Songs carry along with them a gust of wind and the distinct feeling of fall, the leaves turning and clouds forming overhead. It’s an album that flutters between remote and lush in single breaths and does so seemingly without a single misstep. – Kenny
Youth Lagoon – The Year Of Hibernation
What never ceases to amaze me about Youth Lagoon’s The Year Of Hibernation is it’s ability to take each song from a place of fragility and move to a state of empowerment. The title itself paints the picture of Trevor Powers holed up for a year in his bedroom overcoming the trials of youth, and through each lesson comes an anthem.
The songs seems to follow one formula, but it is no doubt a formula that works. Starting with sparse instrumentation and insecure vocals; the tracks grow to breakdown the walls of bedroom pop leading to several soaring endings. Take for example the opening track “Posters”, a song that begins with a swirling organ and distant vocal up until it reaches the point of revelation “You make real friends quickly…but not me”. It’s as if Powers has to lead himself to the understanding before he can move past the issue. While there is a risk of seeming one-dimensional, Powers rises above it with a unique and universal lesson accompanying each song. There is “17” where Powers learns to always let life prove amusing despite the hardships of reality. Or look at “July” where Trevor is forced to understand the downfalls that often come with the maturation of love. The Year Of Hibernation is an album of growth, an album that gives hope to finding the anthem with each lesson youth forces us to examine. – Bear