Grafton’s Top 11 Releases of 2011

Kings, fish fillet, a big pink blob, a jar of Swagu, and the Korg M1.  2011 had a lot of stellar moments, but here are the eleven that made it a year to remember.  – Grafton Tanner

Grafton’s Top 11 Releases of 2011

11 – Donnacha Dennehy – Grá agus Bás

Grá agus Bás” opens like a cinematic fade-in, with Iarla Ó Lionáird’s voice bending into pitch.  Cellos gurgle underneath, and dense clouds of stringscapes fill every inch of available space.  Each piece draws on the traditions of the sean-nós, which were Irish vocal songs passed orally through time.  But Dennehy rockets these traditions to another world.  Love and death coexist, and the music’s mix of urgency and creeping dread suggests the existence of two things that should cancel each other but don’t.  Soprano Dawn Upshaw provides vocals for “That the Night Come,” and her voice is a haunting presence indeed.  It’s hard to imagine these are born from traditional Irish songs, but Dennehy has remade the old as new in a gorgeous, frightening way.

10 – Beyonce – 4

I was watching TV with my mom when the video clip for “Run the World (Girls)” came on.  I immediately freaked out, and gaping at my excitement, so did she.  It was evident Beyonce had created something ecstatic and empowering.  4 is bursting at the seams with excitement, with love, and with courage.  Nothing makes you want to run around or cut a rug like her paean to Jay, “Countdown.”  “Party” is a slow-riding synth groove with a signature Kanye tag and a head-twisting verse penned by lightning-fast flow guru Andre 3000 (the edited version for the music video replaces Andre with J. Cole who tries unimpressively and fails quite impressively).  Beyonce has never sounded so self-assured, and the diverse instrumentation of marching drums and synth zaps throw her voice to the stratosphere.

9 – The Decemberists – The King is Dead

The Decemberists can cook up some great tunes but some over-wrought concepts.  What I love most about The King is Dead is that Colin and the gang forgot about all the epic theatrics of The Hazards of Love, embraced some of the best moments on Picaresque, and ended up with a rustic, organic heap of Americana.  Gillian Welch offers her talents on over half the songs, and her voice, when paired with Colin’s, makes for the sweetest harmonies ever heard on a Decemberists record.  Their voices were made for one another.  Songs like “All Arise!” and “Don’t Carry It All” are fun romps with two-steppin’ violin and hand claps, but “Rise to Me” is the song I can play over and over and not get bored.  It’s so simple, but it boasts the kind of chorus that stops me dead.  Stripped of every seafaring adventure story and grand display of vocabulary, the Decemberists have made their best yet.

8. Kanye West and Jay-Z – Watch the Throne

Not even a year after Kanye released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he teams up with big brother Jay and cranks out the colossal Watch the Throne.  Do these guys ever stop?  Jay and Ye sound fresher than ever as they praise and curse the grandiosity that is their life.  There’s so much material on here.  It’s not uncommon to start in one location in a song and then end up on a completely different planet.  You can find anything and everything: an Auto-Tuned Nina Simone, Blades of Glory, Justin Vernon with a ridiculous amount of soul (yeah, that’s really him on “That’s My Bitch”), and that cold, crackly carnival ditty that crops up now and again on the album.  Odd Future had their fifteen minutes (sorry) and Shabazz Palaces were definitely innovative, but Watch the Throne brings everything weird and virtuosic to the table and then leaves us reeling by the end.

7. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

When the album art for TKOL was first released, I remember thinking, “Oh man, this is gonna get weird.”  Within a week’s time in February, Radiohead announced the new album and then released it, no questions asked.  TKOL is not the kind of album that satisfies on the first listen, and it wasn’t until their Live From the Basement performance that I fully realized what Radiohead had made.  Watching them recreate “Feral” and “Bloom” live while unveiling the out-of-this-world-good “Staircase” was like watching one of the Big Five perform Mahler.  Speaking of “Bloom,” it stands as one of their best tracks ever, with its melding of organic and artificial instruments and its sloppy, drums-down-the-stairs beats.  It’s an enigma in the vein of Amnesiac but with no Kid A to balance it.  It also reminds me that with every brilliant stroke of their brush, Radiohead is still paving the way for the rest of us.

6. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

According to Robin Pecknold, his girlfriend ended their relationship during the writing of Helplessness Blues.  She eventually heard the end result, realized what it was Pecknold had gone through during the process of making it, and the two got back together.  This interests me because 1.) I am a hopeless romantic and 2.) I am a fellow artist, so I can relate, albeit on a much smaller level, to what Pecknold must have been feeling.  Helplessness Blues is a dangerous album.  It can swallow you if you give yourself over to it.  It reveals a fantastic place to which you can escape while also addressing the dangers involved in that escape.  And at the end, you’re left with only the impression that you’ve experienced an album.  A feeling that someone has told you something in a dream you can’t remember.  Helplessness Blues is beautiful and painful and open-ended, as the best art should be.

5. James Blake – James Blake/Enough Thunder EP

James Blake flooded the market this year with his releases, and with each one, he provided us with a different glimpse into his many talents.  He blew the floor out from under our feet with his cover of “Limit to Your Love” and then serenaded us with a simple rendition of “A Case of You,” complete with virtuoso piano chops and a vocal run on the line “Oh Canadaaaaaahh” that will no doubt melt you on the spot.  His repeating musical iterations contain tinges of Reich, and his propensity for thick, sultry grooves are reminiscent of the best R&B of the 90’s.  But above all, James Blake sounds like music made after the apocalypse⎯random pieces left behind after a great disaster that, when fitted together, create a diverse and alien style that is all his own.

4. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Strange Mercy achieves pure gold: it is as challenging and abrasive as it is one hell of an eargasm.  It’s sexy and horrifying at the same time.  Visceral and majestic.  Annie Clark’s delicate voice sits atop the mound of grungy fuzz guitar and cascading synth strings, a mixture that, on paper, sounds beyond wacky.  But it all fits and works because the strength of Strange Mercy comes from its songwriting.  Clark confronts the malaise of housewifery, of being a picked-apart body, of playing a part in someone else’s false production, and when I hear her sing, “I…I…I…I…IIII don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more,” I know that she has created something beautiful and ugly.  I feel operated on by the end of the album, as if she has cut me open and presented my insides to me, all done with a smile and high heels.  It’s totally grotesque, but Clark has always given us the salt with the sugar.

3. Battles – Gloss Drop

I was among the many who freaked out when lead singer and composer Tyondai Braxton left Battles after releasing their debut masterpiece Mirrored.  Braxton went on to release Central Market, a perfect classical album that, to this day, leaves me stunned with every listen.  Reluctantly, I picked up Gloss Drop, and about a minute into “Africastle,” I was a believer.  The wackiness and blunt-force-trauma heaviness of the first album is there, but a brighter, more carnivalesque element has been introduced.  The whole thing sounds like a group of slightly detuned, perhaps even mischievous, ice cream trucks doing karate.  The hardcore basses and grunge fills are replaced with something like a cross between a xylophone and some pizzicato strings.  Every song is a whimsical kick to the jaw, but it is “Sundome” that establishes Battles as one of the most creative forces around.  It’s a groovy freak out that will leave you a bit speechless.  And that’s what Battles does: blows your mind and doesn’t bother cleaning up.

2. John Maus – We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

If you consider 2010 the year of Ariel Pink, then 2011 was the year of John Maus.  Both make music that sounds like it was found in a dusty bin of old tapes somewhere in the back of your mind.  But John Maus is a reformer, a revolutionary.  Remember, he’s the guy in that interview who said we need to wipe the 90’s off the map of history.  What?  He’s also the guy who will undoubtedly reference Heidegger, John Cage, and then kinda beat himself up over the phallic symbol on the front cover of Pitiless Censors in any given conversation with him.  Maus creates micro-synthpop songs that evoke the memories of another time, maybe the 80’s, maybe not.  Like Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” the entirety of Pitiless Censors concerns the reconstruction of memory and the overhauling of cheesy pop music’s formulaic and tacky faculties that have plagued it for so long.  It’s also an album with eleven of some of the catchiest synthpop songs I’ve ever heard.

1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

And what do we do with Bon Iver?  So much has been said since this past summer when Justin Vernon took us all by surprise.  Who brought all the saxes in?  He’s nominated for four Grammys?  Is that workout video for real?.  There’s no doubt that Bon Iver is achieving widespread critical and commercial success on levels I didn’t dream of when first listening to For Emma, Forever Ago.  But Bon Iver is something different.  It’s a bold, communal experience that still manages to remain intensely personal.  It wrestles with the struggles involved in writing about memory and the past, and in a year that looked to the past with a kind of nostalgia, it outmatched every other release.  There’s an almost unspeakable beauty when Justin sings “Claire, I was too sore for sight” in “Wash.” or when he squeals through a processed filter, “Danger has been stole away” in “Beth/Rest.”  Each person I ask has a favorite line or a favorite moment, and the most joy I’ve gotten out of this record is the never-ending sharing of it with friends, reflecting on where we were when we first heard “Holocene” or what lines we say to the ones we love to remind them of why they mean something to us.  Bon Iver brings people together from all over (lord knows, Nicki Minaj had to learn how to pronounce “Bon Eye-ver” eventually), and in 2011, feeling that connection was paramount.