Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Best of 2011, part II: All genres, director's cut
Having annotated and expanded upon my year-end jazz list yesterday, I'd like to do the same for the all-genres-in-play top 10 I contributed to Time Out New York. The original list, with a brief blurb for each record I chose, is here. (I plan to discuss runners-up, singles, etc. in a separate post.)
A quick note re: streaming audio: I refuse to embed any player that's going to insert an ad before the track (or one that's going to provide substandard sound), so you're on your own for some of this stuff. I encourage you to search, sample and buy!
1. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra (self-released)
I might have slept on this record had it not been for my friend and former colleague Corban Goble, who spied it early on and made sure I gave it a fair shake. Like many, I was first seduced by "Novacane," a seductive jam if there ever was one; I loved its murk and throb, its combination of wit ("I took a seat on the ice-cold lawn / She handed me an ice-blue bong") and vulgarity ("stripper booty and a rack like, 'Wow'"), just the way it built and built and sucked you into its heavy-lidded vortex. (The entrance of that bloblike bass squelch at 1:12 still kills me.) At first, the rest of the record didn't click with me; as is often the case when I grow super-attached to a perfect single, I tend to hold the full album up to that standard, not just of quality, but of mood. I guess I was looking for 40 minutes of "Novacane."
I soon woke up, though, and realized that there was room for more than sordid, hazy, late-night/early-morning rumination in the Frank Ocean aesthetic. The whole album bloomed for me, and I know that this would be The One for This Year (there always is one, it seems). "Songs for Women," with its funky lope and aw-shucks appeal; "Swim Good," that steely, heartsick march to sea; "There Will Be Tears," a portrait of childhood grief intruding on young-adult consciousness; "American Wedding," an offhandedly brilliant riff on "Hotel California"; "Strawberry Swing," which, as solid as the Coldplay source material is, reaches a higher emotional pitch; the yearning neosoul slow jam "We All Try." I wouldn't hesitate to call this record a masterpiece. Listening back to it now, I know that it's etched itself on my heart. I believe this guy. He surprises and challenges me. Moreover, he's an extraordinary singer, reaching deep down for those wrenching peaks (the high note at 2:17 in "We All Try," the little flourish on the word "smile" at 2:08 in "Novacane").
I wasn't too big a fan of Watch the Throne, but Ocean's hook on "No Church in the Wild" slew me; this album is like that cameo writ large. So much feeling, atmosphere, poetry. I just couldn't bring myself to care much about the back story (Ocean's squabble with Def Jam), and truthfully, I didn't love Ocean's live show the way I would've liked (though damn, that new material sounds deep). In the end, the record stood alone: For me, Nostalgia, Ultra was without question the album of year.
2. Anthrax, Worship Music (Megaforce)
I had no particular expectations for this one, only mild curiosity. Anthrax was an MTV staple during my Headbanger's Ball–crazed youth, but I never cared much for them. "Got the Time," say, exuded a goofiness that turned me off; at the time, I wanted my metal stone-faced and scary. But what a joy to experience this band with fresh ears, and to hear them sounding so fired up on this comeback effort. I've since gone back and checked out their earlier material, and to me, Worship Music is stronger. What I love about it is the way the band transcends thrash; yes, that element is there, but the songs are guiding the way. When the band needs to dip into a power-metal bag, it does; same goes for grunge, or blast-beat-driven technicality. I'm just thrilled by how thoroughly this record rocks, how catchy the choruses are, how you can envision an entire arena pumping their fists in unison when you listen. (That didn't quite play out at September's Big 4 show, since the band went on at the ungodly hour of 4pm, but it was still pretty cool to see Anthrax at Yankee Stadium.)
For the most part, I'm on board with the recent art-school-ification of metal; plenty of good has come out of it. But Worship Music helps you remember that at heart, metal is a sweaty, for-the-people music—like turbocharged pop. Clarity and memorability and ROCKING-ness are not passé; those aspects of ’80s metal are still as powerful now as they were, when they're delivered with this much conviction and exuberance. There is so much youth in this record; it's exactly what a comeback album should be. And kudos to Joey Belladonna for an absolutely stellar vocal performance. He sells the hell out of this material. I think that in my youth, before I had caught the Dio bug, I wasn't prepared to appreciate his wailing, dramatic gifts. Now they make perfect sense. Can't wait for the next one from this rejuvenated powerhouse.
3. Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music)
See yesterday's jazz round-up.
4. Drake, Take Care (Cash Money/Universal)
I wasn't really ready for a new Drake album. I loved his last one, Thank Me Later, which placed at No. 2 on my 2010 best-of list. But after having been bombarded by his singles for so long, I was ready for a break; 2012 would've been okay with me. But then I heard that album 2 was coming right up, and I knew I'd have to give it a chance. The singles ("Headlines," "Marvin's Room") didn't move me when I heard them in isolation; it seemed to me like he was just going back to feed at the same trough, trying to duplicate the success of Thank Me Later. Then the record came out, and the early reactions were ecstatic. I didn't really get curious till I heard from Corban, who, awesomely, interviewed the man himself and reported that Take Care was his shoo-in album of the year. Time to listen.
All I can say is, "Whoa." It became clear after a first listen that whatever I didn't like about the album (a few corny lines here and there, an inflated sense of self-importance, that annoying faux–voice crack on the "…getting back to my ways" line on "Underground Kings," which I still can't stand), this thing was a real beast. Or, really, feast. So much to savor, so many shrewd guest appearances. Re: the latter, the Weeknd intro on "Crew Love" feels like a laser-beam of tortured (torturous?) emotion (and this from someone who isn't yet a Weekend true believer); and when I heard the Andre 3000 verse in "The Real Her" for the first time, I was straight-up shocked by its charm and effectiveness. A typically badass Rick Ross on "Lord Knows," whoever that is free-associating in a weird robot voice at the beginning of "Buried Alive Interlude" (I'm not sure it's Kendrick Lamar, who guest-raps on the track). And what to say about the fact that that's Stevie effing Wonder playing harmonica on "Doing It Wrong," elevating an already masterful song to an all-time-great level? Drake is helping me to understand something that I'm sure hip-hop devotees have known for years, even decades: that a great album in the genre is like an expertly curated revue, with multiple voices cycling in and out and everyone playing their own niche role.
As I listened repeatedly, the singles fell perfectly into place among the other tracks. Heard in context, "Headlines" and "Marvin's Room," even "Make Me Proud," which not only sounded unimpressive but downright bad to me when I heard it prior to the full record, all became new favorites. (Same goes for the Rihanna-abetted title track, wooden on a first listen but seductive and magical now.) The record is long, but only one song ("Cameras") really seems cuttable to me. I love that Drake is as committed as he is to the LP format, to making full-length sonic movies. The individual highlights of Thank Me Later might top those on Take Care, but in terms of an epic experience, there's no competition: Take Care is a world unto itself, a true journey, well worth taking in full—and repeatedly.
5. Deceased, Surreal Overdose (Patac)
Speaking of epic. Like Anthrax, another band I'd been dimly aware of since teenhood. I'd always taken Deceased for a stalwart but ultimately second-rate death-metal outfit. This album set me right in a major way. In its own way, it's as joyous and triumphant, as diverse and anthemic and rousing as Worship Music.
What drew me into Surreal Overdose is the man at the heart of Deceased: One King Fowley, who handles both drums and vocals in the studio (just vocals live). I strongly urge you to check out Fowley's first-person history of the band at the Deceased site. You'll get a sense there of the sheer delight this man takes in metal; as I discussed in a recent Time Out NY preview, he comes off as a truly kind, friendly guy (an impression I confirmed when I met him in person at the Brooklyn Deceased show back in October), and for all the darkness of the music, you can hear that good-natured-ness in Deceased.
Fowley treats his songs like mini pageants of horror. They're constructed around these gorgeous, theatrical riffs that make you feel like you're in the middle of some kind of thrilling gothic play. And Fowley plays the ghastly ringmaster so well, somehow conveying wonderful narrative flourishes even while growling vomitously. I know very little about the Grand Guignol, but the impression I have of it is similar to the feeling I get from Deceased: It's pure, gory, agonizing horror treated as stylized entertainment. You suspend your disbelief to get into songs like "Cloned (Day of the Robot)" and you actually feel moved by Fowley's borderline-cartoonish narratives.
There's something staunchly adolescent about his viewpoint (killer robot clones), but also something deadly serious: In "Kindred Assembly," "In the Laboratory of Joyous Gloom" and "Dying in Analog," Fowley is discussing topics like senility, depression and death in a very real and disturbing way. On Surreal Overdose, he's talking about emotional horror, not just the kind that involves scary monsters. The music perfectly mirrors these psychodramas; it has a real scope and sweep to it. Surreal Overdose isn't a death metal album at all; there's none of that stone-facedness to it. It's vivid, alive, varied, truly gripping. Even listening back to it now, I'm shocked by its conviction, its intensity and its sheer fun. Surreal Overdose is one of the most honest and ambitious (not to mention entertaining) works of art, musically or otherwise, that I encountered in 2011. Deceased sounds nothing like Anthrax but both take their jobs seriously: They're here to provide (and achieve) escape, pure and simple, not to wallow in inscrutable experimentalism. Long live crowd-pleasing, unabashedly theatrical metal, whatever the scale.
6. Gerald Cleaver’s Uncle June, Be It as I See It (Fresh Sound New Talent)
See yesterday's jazz round-up.
7. The Strokes, Angles (RCA)
Ripping on the Strokes has became a sport, and for those who feel like playing, the band makes it pretty easy. They're still given to whining and in-fighting in interviews, in that way that always invites those age-old "Oh, great, the famous rock & rollers are complaining again" sentiments. And there these finger-wagging notions floating around about how the Strokes should have been the ones playing a farewell show this year, not LCD Soundsystem (a band I simply cannot get into). To a degree, I can understand all this: There's something about the Strokes that can feel wimpy, spoiled, tedious.
But the thing is, they are still unbelievably good at what they do, which is creating these three-minute wonders—full of hidden surprises and endlessly scrutinizable, yet completely streamlined. It's like prog ambition mixed with garage-rock cool. In this vein, "Under Cover of Darkness" is one of the most emblematic, and best, songs the band has ever written. Yes, there are bad songs on Angles, a fact I perhaps glossed over in my Time Out review of the record. At this point, I find the languid "You're So Right" nearly unlistenable, and while I respect the curveball nature of it, the drum-less interlude track "Call Me Back" is a real buzzkill, given where it falls in the album.
Just about every other song on Angles, though, I either like very much ("Macchu Picchu," "Metabolism") or straight-up love ("Under Cover of Darkness," "Two Kinds of Happiness," the breakdown of which is like a fireball of rock, "Taken for a Fool," another song that belongs on the Strokes short list, the ridiculously fun and groovy "Gratisfaction" and "Life Is Simple in the Moonlight," one of the best chilled-out songs the band has ever issued, not to mention the source of my favorite guitar solo of 2011). In this material, the band isn't telling us much (anything?) we don't already know about them, but they are reaffirming that they're still around, and however much they claim to not enjoy being a band, their output is still the gold standard for stripped-down, attitude-heavy, pop-friendly NYC rock. I love these guys, and while Angles isn't their best, it's not even remotely a disappointment.
8. Disma, Towards the Megalith (Profound Lore)
Ah, Disma. This isn't the Anthrax/Deceased crowd-pleasing/entertaining sort of metal at all. Nor is it the introspective, inscrutable art-metal thing either. What this is, is the brutal thing, the kind of metal that satisfies your desire to be flattened by a cold, unfeeling sonic steamroller. Towards the Megalith is hands-down the heaviest album I heard all year, the sickest, the grossest. The whole thing just drips with slime and rotting vegetation. The music is pure attack, pure lumbering menace, even when the tempos are fast. And dear God, those vocals. Craig Pillard is perhaps the best low death-metal growler I've ever heard. He very literally sounds like a monster, and not a comical one. (A great side effect of Megalith has been that it's sent me back to Pillard's old band, Incantation, which has since become a serious obsession in its own right.) As conventional as it is, this music is actually scary.
The secret weapon here might actually be the production. Towards the Megalith sounds full and loud and clear. The drums actually sound real. For all the putrid-ness of the music, there's a big, round pleansantness to the way it's rendered on tape. You really sink into this album. There have been weeks this year where I've wanted to listen to nothing else. It invites you even as it repulses you, freaks you out. Re-spinning it now, I'm again totally sucked in by its unholy girth and crunch. You feel the weight of the ages in this; it's primordial and massive and it swings like a motherfucker. In terms of death metal at large, Megalith is not really anything new, but it does feel like something perfected, a revisitation of an old sound, with all fat stripped away and with all intensity heightened. It's like a new model of an old car: The basic design is the same, but all the little quibbles you might've had with the old model don't apply here. In terms of what it's trying to achieve—a sensation of suffocating heaviness and unrelenting brutality—Towards the Megalith is essentially a perfect album.
9. New Zion Trio, Fight Against Babylon (Veal)
See yesterday's jazz round-up.
10. Ben Allison, Action-Refraction (Palmetto)
And once again, see yesterday's jazz round-up.