Thursday, December 29, 2011

COLUMN: Best o' 2011

Some people are naturally gifted artists, with the inner ability to create moving and thought-provoking works that can entertain us, challenge us, and help to reveal truths about our selves, our culture, and our society as a whole. Other folks are more naturally gifted at laying around on a couch and trying to tell other people which art sucks and which art doesn't. That said, here are my annual picks for the Ten Best Records of 2011:

# 10 - The Brother Kite - Eye to Eye EP - How amazing is this unheralded band from Providence, Rhode Island? Amazing enough that they can release a 4-track EP of leftover songs that didn't make their last album and STILL have it be better than most artists' fully realized full-length works.

# 9 - Eliza Doolittle - Eliza Doolittle - It's hard to examine pop music critically, since it tends to be fun and disposable by its very nature. But sometimes the pop charts can produce timeless classics. Such is the case for 23-year-old Brit Eliza Sophie Caird and her record full of killer hooks over classic jazz/r&b samples. The end result sounds like something you'd take to a 1940's revival picnic, should one of those ever exist.

# 8 - Josiah Leming - Another Life - Pop culture junkies might remember Josiah as the homeless kid who auditioned for "American Idol" a few years back. Leming's odd faux British accent (which he claimed he picked up by listening to Coldplay & Keane records) was too left-of-center for Simon Cowell, but didn't dissuade Warner Bros., who signed him to a developmental deal. He's now matured to the point that his new record holds its own against the very bands whose style he once aped.

# 7 - Tyler, the Creator - Goblin - So what do you do with a hip-hip album that can be classified as misogynistic, homophobic, overtly violent, AND a modern classic? It's not an easy album for anyone with strong morals to enjoy, but there's no denying that the 20-year-old is one of the most lyrically gifted rappers on the planet. As frontman of the crew known as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, Tyler and his posse set a new benchmark for DIY hip-hop -- self-written, recorded, produced, & distributed, all by what's essentially a bunch of underage skater kids. With Tyler a lightning rod for controversy and live shows more often than not devolving into moshpit anarchy, the whole wild ride stands a chance of imploding as quickly as they arrived, so enjoy them now.

# 6 - The Vaccines - What Did You Expect from the Vaccines? - Every once in a while, it's good to have a band that just plain rocks without pretense. The Vaccines wear their influences on their sleeves (The Strokes, The Ramones, etc.) and march through their repertoire of 2-minute-long songs with bombast, confidence, and a wall-of-sound production that must be making Phil Spector turn green from his jail cell.

# 5 - Childish Gambino - Camp - You might know Donald Glover as an extremely talented stand-up comic and writer for "The Daily Show" & "30 Rock." But you PROBABLY know him best as Troy on NBC's "Community." It turns out what HE'S best at is rapping. As Childish Gambino (a name he was "assigned" during a visit to a "Wu-Tang Clan Rap Name Generator" website), his gifted flow can bounce from honesty to funny to tragic. At his best, it's magical. At his worst, it's second-rate Kanye West -- but second rate Kanye is still better than most of the schlock on today's radio.

# 4 - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - self-titled - It was one pre-show dressing room fight too many that finally did in British heavyweights Oasis back in 2009. The two essential halves of the band - brothers Liam & Noel Gallagher - both turned out new product in 2011 to varying degrees of success. Singer Liam grabbed the rest of Oasis, changed the name to Beady Eye, and released an impressive psychedelic blues rock album ("Different Gear, Still Speeding") that barely missed this list. While Beady Eye had all the swagger and atmospherics of Oasis, it was older brother Noel who prevailed with his first solo record a few months later. Full of the sort of midtempo love songs that brought him fame, Noel's album doesn't really pack any surprises -- but it does have the impeccable songwriting and timeless melodies that the elder Gallagher's built his brand on.

# 3 - Frank Ocean - nostalgia, ULTRA. - If OFWKTA does implode at the end of their fifteen minutes of fame (see #7), the sole survivor likely won't be Tyler, the Creator -- it'll be Frank Ocean, the collective's jack-of-all-trades vocalist who proved his worth this year with his debut record. It's not every R&B singer who puts out a record covering Coldplay and MGMT and singing another song over the instrumental of "Hotel California." Best yet, "nostalgia, ULTRA," like most of the Odd Future releases, isn't available in stores -- it's a free download.

# 2 - Ringo Deathstarr - Colour Trip - I came of age listening to the psychedelic, drowned-in-sound indie scene known as "shoegaze." Since falling from favor in the mid-90's (thanks, Nirvana,) shoegaze fans have been left to wallow and reminisce in sparsely attended chat rooms. Then along comes a band from Austin, Texas with the horrible name of Ringo Deathstarr who perfectly replicate the classic shoegaze sound (any time a band from the US spells color "colour," you know it's gonna rock.) Not exactly ground-breaking, but why open new doors when the old ones work so well?

# 1 - The David Mayfield Parade - self-titled - And in a year where most critics are fawning at over-produced, sampled, resampled, and multi-tracked studio-laden records, I instead tell you that the best record of 2011 is one of its simplest. For years, David Mayfield played second fiddle to his younger sister (acclaimed songstress Jessica Lea Mayfield) and lead guitarist for folk rock stalwarts Cadillac Sky. This year, after a Grammy nod for his production work, he decided to do his own thing. That thing is a quaint self-titled record that straddles the wavy lines between country, folk, alt-country, bluegrass, and rock & roll with ease. It's a throwback sound but produced so well you could swear the band's right there with you. All I know is there's been no more enjoyable record released this year.

Next week? I take advantage of my year of living like a couch potato with my picks for 2011's Best TV.

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