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The Longview: 2011 in Retrospect

By Brent Ables | 18 July 2012

As I get older, I find my listening habits expanding and contracting at the same time. In 11th grade I listened to nothing but Is This It (2001) for almost half a year. In college I’d plunder entire discographies over the course of a few months. I now listen to new music in concentrated bursts that rarely last more than a fortnight. While I’m acquainting myself with a vastly greater number of artists than I used to, I’m also spending significantly less time with most of them. Even an album like Julia Holter’s_Ekstasis_, which felt like the Second Coming way back in March and is still my favorite album of 2012, doesn’t get many plays at this point. I suspect I’m not the only one of my generation who’s followed this kind of course. It’s all but impossible for a person who’s passionate and curious about the art of sound to not partake of the musical smorgasbord brought to us every single day by the world wide web, and even albums we love get caught up in the ever-flowing current of new material.

But there are always stones in this busy stream, firm and unyielding, forcing the current to alter its flow ever so slightly. These are the albums we consider Great, and if there is still any sense in speaking of a musical canon, they are the candidates for induction. But just as even stone erodes and is washed away, time alters our perspective on these candidates, and where we might see twenty great albums one year we only see two a decade later. But those two have the power to be more than just plastic or 86 MB on a laptop or even just music, they become part of us: friends that we can crack open a beer with, go to for counsel on sleepless nights, or hate our upstairs neighbor with. Or they might just be really good records to throw on at a house party. Either way, time tempers our passions and sharpen our perspective. With this in mind, I’d look to look back on five records that CMG got behind in 2011 to see why, these many months later, they’re worth remembering.

Jay-Z and Kanye West: Watch the Throne

Somewhere along the way last year, CMG’s Conrad Amenta bemoaned what he called Jay and Ye’s “perpetual victory lap.” I can sympathize. Between contributing short films to Cannes and domesticating Pusha-T, Kanye’s still finding time to make videos for an album released two years ago, while Jay-Z pops up here and there where he sees an opportunity to make money off, you know, being Jay-Z. They’re both egregiously, flamboyantly wealthy in a time of scarcity and want. Neither seems to have much of a problem with flaunting it. What’s there to like?

The answer, of course, is the music. When it comes to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), I part ways with Conrad and all other heretics. I worship at the feet of that record, I do: I know every cavernous bass rip and soul-liquidating chord change (looking at you, “So Appalled”) and out-of-tune syllable. I never fell for Watch the Throne with such intensity, but I know people who have: a longtime friend of mine had nothing but disdain for rap before this album, and listens to nothing else after it. Say what you will about Kanye West, the man is a formidable emissary for his art. Paired with Jay-Z, he’s unstoppable. Who, after all, can resist the neck-snapping bravado of “Niggas in Paris”? Or the soul and joy emanating from every beat of “Otis”? I’ll be the first to tell you that Watch the Throne has a few serious misfires (“Made in America,” ugh), and a year later I see it mostly as a stellar singles album, but the quality of the best tracks here is unimpeachable. I don’t really mind the endless publicity and self-hype that surrounds these guys because I don’t care about Jay-Z and Kanye West. I care about the rhymes they deliver over the beats they choose. And not just because they set the standard for major-label hip-hop; because I really, really like them.

Moonface: Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped

The narrative of Spencer Krug begins properly with a furious explosion of an indie rock record called Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005), which stood above all others of its ilk in the aughts. It continues with Krug branching out in half a dozen directions: the baroque grandeur of Sunset Rubdown, the mutant howls of Swan Lake, the increasingly tepid contributions to Wolf Parade. Latter-day Spencer Krug is a more ponderous beast. He writes in twenty-minute tomes and dreamscapes, and composes according to self-imposed strictures that sometimes make his songs feel like art-school projects. I’d rather not talk about this year’s plodding With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery, which just seems more lifeless and spent the more I listen to it, but on Organ Music I’m still on track with the Krug. It’s only 3/5s of a great album, sure, but those first three songs are all as good as anything Sunset Rubdown ever did, in my mind, and they’re further proof that Krug’s fire burns brightest when he’s trying something new. The lyrics are dour but compelling and bleakly witty, the music repetitive but inventive and entrancing. In short: Krug.

Main Attrakionz: 808s & Dark Grapes II

It’s sometimes easy to forget, here at CMG, that not everyone has the same tastes I do. When I hear or read “cloud rap,” which I do a lot these days, I just assume everyone is talking about this record. The phrase might have first gained circulation around the Lil B—Clams Casino axis, but with all respect to Clams, the aesthetic has been refined and rethought in even more fascinating, mega-gorgeous-er ways since then. And no record documents a greater breadth or higher quality of this next-level cloud sound than 808s & Dark Grapes II. Clams’ contribution here, “Take 1,” is without any doubt some cavernous, all-consuming shit, but it’s not even the best beat on the album. That honor could go to euphoric opener “Bossilinis & Folliyones” or Squadda B’s slinky “Paperwork,” but in my mind it’s Friendzone who really takes the prize here, contributing two tracks of ungodly beauty in “Chuch” and “Perfect Skies.”

But the production, of course, is only half the story. It’s not uncommon for MCs as young as Squadda and Mondre to release good rap albums, but the assuredness and—there’s no other word for it—wisdom of songs like “Diamond of God” and “Nothin’ Gonna Change” is almost unheard of. Main Attrakionz take the peace-and-positivity message of Lil B and infuse it with a healthy dose of realism and gravity, ending up with an intensely relatable set of lyrics that I still go to when “the world’s so big I can’t find myself home.” These guys are still putting out great mixtapes on an impressively regular basis, but I don’t think anything on those releases has come close to scaling these heights. Which is fine: this album isn’t getting old any time soon.

Jenny Hval: Viscera

Like few other pieces of music I’ve encountered in my life, Viscera wounds me. I can’t say I necessarily always enjoy listening to it, although I do so almost nightly; like certain sicknesses of the soul, it draws me in with all the magnetism of a dark force unspent. Despite the cold displacement and isolation of Hval’s bodyscapes, Viscera feels painfully intimate and even, on occasion (“Milk of Marrow”), warm. But it’s the quiet, desperate, lonely pleas of “This Is a Thirst” that resonate with the shards of my spirit at four in the morning, and the ominous march of “Blood Flight” that rolls through my mind so regularly and semi-consciously that I often don’t even realize it. Mark already wrote a stunning meditation on the rich thematic concerns at play on this album in his year-end feature, and Joel captured its peculiar, Deathprod-guided ambiance with his poetic review. All I really can do here is bring this astonishing, troubling, criminally under-appreciated album to your attention once again.

And also, I could talk about “A Silver Fox.” It’s a song that most discussions of this album skirted over, which is understandable. It has none of the Bataille-worthy body horror of “Blood Flight” or “Viscera” and little of the cathartic force of “Portrait of the young girl as an artist,” but it’s my favorite track on the record by some distance. I can’t even really explain why; it’s nothing more than a simple guitar line, a lovely melody and some choice harmonies‚Ķand yet so much more than that. It reminds me that the greatest songs don’t need an explanation, or analysis. They carve out their own place in the world. In some cases, they might also scratch.

Danny Brown: XXX

Of all the artists on our list of the top 50 albums of 2011, no one—not even Kanye—has had a better year so far than Danny Brown. Although he hasn’t released anything of his own aside from a few jaw-dropping singles, his rise from underground curio to mid-mainstream hype-magnet has been steady and well-documented (he’s had an article in Rolling Stone and a Pitchfork documentary, just for starters.) More than that, he’s proved himself to be the most consistently astonishing guest rapper since Lil Wayne, taking spots on records by El-P, Alchemist, Squadda B, Ab-Soul, and others and making them into certifiable Danny Brown showcases. The lack of a new album almost seems like an afterthought—especially when the one that brought him all the attention in the first place was XXX.

This is also the album that’s grown on me more than any other from 2011. When it first came out, it ignited a headed debate behind the scenes at CMG, with half of the staff losing their shit about it while the other half—mostly Conrad and me, actually—bemoaned the album’s rampant sexism and questioned the aesthetic value of describing blowjobs in fifty different ways. I found Brown’s voice grating, even while I respected his obvious abilities on the mic.

Somehow, about a month ago, everything changed. I am in total agreement with Chet about its status as an underground classic, and what’s more, I now think it’s the best rap album from a great year for rap. The production on 808s was more consistently enjoyable, but tracks like “Bruiser Brigade” and “Lie4” are so punishing that “enjoyable” seems like a dainty, expendable notion. This shit commands neck-snappage, and like a rap-game Swans, Danny Brown makes most other contemporary rappers look like little lost babes. (Sorry, A$APs.) He’s sexist, yeah, and I’d never defend that, but he’s also insanely clever and funny and powerful. And mercy, that torrential flow on “Pac Blood.” Between brandUn DeShay’s Fleet Foxes-sampling banger of a backing track and Brown’s ferocious verses, “Pac Blood” might very well be the best rap track of 2011. No small compliment.

As always, only time will tell.