Best of 2011: 30-21

30. Beirut – The Rip Tide

Zach Condon has spent his career taking listeners on a sepia-toned musical field trip.  He first grabbed his horn and took us on a journey with a Gypsy clan across the Balkans with Gulag Orkestar, and then we were led to the streets of Paris with The Flying Cup Club. He last stopped at some Mexican business with the forgettable March of the Zapotec.  Throughout all of these styles, Condon is able to effortlessly craft timeless pop songs and croon the shit out them. The Rip Tide is by far Beirut’s most accessible output to date.  With an eye toward more traditional pop structure, Condon takes us on a 33 minute journey home.  Nowhere is this theme more evident than on the ode to his hometown, “Sante Fe” singing, “Sign me up Sante Fe, and call your son.”  On the title track he sings, “This is the house where I can be unknown, be alone.”  It appears through all his travels he has come to the realization that there really is no place like home. – WH

29. Childish Gambino – Camp

Donald Glover is an overly talented individual. He wrote for The Daily Show and 30 Rock, before starring as “Troy” in NBC’s Community. Meanwhile his alter-ego, Childish Gambino, is an internet savvy rap star. He released free EP’s, popularized for sampling artists like Adele and Grizzly Bear, on his website. Using his TV career and stand-up comedy shows as platforms to launch his music, Glover has built himself into an interesting triple threat. A comedian-actor-rapper. Sounds like a novelty stunt. Sounds like tabloid fodder. It’s nothing like that. Surprisingly, only a small group of people seem intrigued by this guy, even though he succeeds in this musical endeavor on all fronts. What Gambino brings to the table is a new voice, a new character in rap music. His rhymes are still about money, women, and fame, but there’s guilt and a lot of his rhymes are fueled by angst. A$AP Rocky may talk about growing up around guns and drugs, but his imagery is so common; his rhymes sound like they’re from a “how to gangsta rap” book. Gambino’s concrete versus cover everything from stealing out of the lost and found when he couldn’t afford clothes, to sleeping with a screw driver under his pillow for protection. He introduces himself  on his full-length debut with “Outside,” where he confesses his success has its price. He misses the cousin he “used to take sink baths with,” who now rejects him because Donald has what he can’t get: Money. Fame. A father. There’s some really amazing stuff being said on this record. “Hold You Down”  is one of the only bold rap songs of the year, addressing issues of race that are normally well-avoided in pop music: “This one kid said something kinda bad, he said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad. I think that’s kinda sad, mostly cause a lot of black kids think they should agree with that.” However, Childish Gambino is no saint. He, too, has his fun tracks that are just about ballin’, but that’s how records sell and get played on the radio, so don’t fault him. “Bonfire” and “You See Me” show how a comedian’s sharp wit can enhance a rapper’s flow, but “Freaks and Geeks,” a single off his self-titled EP, may be his catchiest tune to date. He does have a habit of delivering one-word punch lines, but that’s the  the comedic influence on the music. Childish makes his gimmick work because he is the most pop-culturally informed rapper making music, referencing Human Centipede and Carmen San Diego like they were vernacular. If Rivers Cuomo were black, he might be able to write rap songs like Donald Glover. Camp is this generation’s Blue album. When Donald talks about his relationship with women, he calls out his behavior as “making up for fucks from high school.” He doesn’t repent per se, but he’s aware of the shallowness of his decisions, something Cuomo would relate to. Gambino has delivered an album about being a rejected outcast, and feeling unstoppable in spite of it, conveyed through rap music instead of garage rock. This album fits great remixed in a club, or as a case-study in a class on race and society. It’s interesting without being pretentious, and it’s entertaining without being completely void of substance. If Community gets completely canceled, I don’t know what Donald Glover will do (or Chevy Chase, for that matter), but Childish Gambino’s career will be something worth following. – RF
28. Frank Ocean – nostalgia, ultra.

The sound of cassettes whirring and clicking on Ocean’s album seems to intentionally mock the “mixtape” appellation that has been attributed to self-released work by hip hop and R&B artists over the last decade. Ocean’s original songs — about heartache, fear, love, and determination — are “mixed” with covers, skits, and sounds from classic 90’s video games. This is new nostalgia, and twenty-first century R&B. But to call this brilliant debut a “mixtape” seems unfair. Ocean has had his hands in a variety of projects the last few years: from Beyoncé and John Legend to Tyler, The Creator and Nas. Following nostalgia, and the subsequent Def Jam release of his single “Novacane,” Ocean became a featured part of the also-appearing-on-this-list Watch the Throne, and his path to stardom seems more assured than ever. I just hope success doesn’t affect the humor and honesty that give tracks like “Songs for Women” and “Swim Good” their memorable punch. – MDG

27. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

After 2002’s Lifted, the Bright Eyes frontman seemed destined for either musical godhood, or spectacular self-destruction. He was going to be this generation’s Dylan, a Dionysian prophet who found ecstasy in the sun-kissed vines of the digital age, but whose pedal steel seeds were fed by American folk: strings, passion, and an arterial wanderlust, beating and spreading from an Omaha heart. Or he was going to drown in a red wine tidal wave, spitting incoherent lyrics and tumbling from the stage unfinished and defeated by his own loss for words. At a Fillmore show in the spring of 2003, I greatly feared the latter. Then, miraculously, the Fates intervened, and the psyche of Conor Oberst was split in two. Two albums, two identities, both slated for release in 2005. One record, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, was to be the electronica-infused exploration, destinations first signposted with Lifted’s “Lover I Don’t Have To Love.” The other, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, was folk-first, acoustically driven and crackling with the roots of “Make War.” Admittedly, I was much more excited about Digital Ash, but it was the beauty and emotion of Wide Awake that resonated much more deeply, not just with me, but with anyone listening. It is regarded by many as Bright Eyes’s finest album, and for the years that followed, Conor continued down that path, his soul saved by mystical intervention. Cassadaga followed and the path of pretty, albeit complacent, songwriting seemed assured. He rambled with the Mystic Valley band and rampaged zero cities as a Monster of Folk. The passion once at its rawest on the Desaparecidos record had seemingly been coded and buried on Digital Ash. This year, the spark reignited, and flames completely envelop the cover of The People’s Key. Saved and self-assured after years of building confidence as a singer/songwriter, Conor triumphantly returns, reunited with his inner fire. On “Approximate Sunlight” he seems to be singing to himself: “Now you are how you were when you were real…” Welcome back, Conor.

26. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain

A Georgia punk band formerly known more for their onstage antics than for their music, they’ve finally began developing some real chops over their last three albums. They’ve dug a nice little niche between the primal garage rock of the 1960s and the hardcore sound of 1980s acts like Husker Du and the Minutemen. I predict more consistent appearances in the Idle Time Top 40 (if they don’t electrocute themselves or OD in the meantime). – MI

25. Neon Indian – Era Extraña

“Chillwave” is a catchy moniker for dreamy, electronic pop, but can it be trusted to properly define a music? What are its parameters? As someone not too learned in its origins, I can’t make any decisive revelations about the genre, just observations as a listener. Neon Indian was the first band I heard that was labeled “chillwave,” and therefore their debut, Psychic Chasms, defined what I came to expect from it: synth-driven riffs and dissonant electronic harmonies, a gritty recording quality, and an almost hypnotic motive. The second chillwave artist I came into contact with also graces this list, but Washed Out’s brand of chillness is Braum-esque, putting you into a trance-state. Both of these bands hail from the South; Mexico-born Alan Palomo forming Neon Indian in Texas, while Washed Out’s Ernest Greene working out of the ATL, perhaps insinuating a regional aspect of the genre. But for whatever reason, Neon Indian’s music is more engaging, and in Era Extrana, the band continues to make chilled-out electronica that is whimsical and danceable. Guitarist Ronald Giehart, whose noodling brought a welcomed tone of psychedelia to some of Psychic Chasms’  gems, does not make appearance on Palomo’s sophomore album, and his absence is felt. Yet, Neon Indian’s soundscape is still rich with cool sounds and samples. The title translates to “strange era,” perhaps a reference to the band’s rise to fame and their journey to exotic locales, like Helsinki where the album was recorded. The musical interludes, which were favored on Psychic Chasms, are still used on Extrana, serving a definite purpose. “Heart Attack” the album’s intro-lude draws the curtain for “Polish Girl” the album’s undeniably strong opener, and begins the “heart” theme that is present throughout the album. The track titles are aimed at various female figures, whose encounters with Palomo must have contributed to his strange time, and inspired his songwriting. The onIy criticism I have is this: they could mix Palomo’s vocals better. Though concentrating on lyrics may dilute the “chill” aspect of the music, I would like to understand more beside the chorus. If there’s anything in a name, Neon Indian gives credence to chillwave music, proving it something of value. Outside of genre, the clever sampling, like the old Sega sounds used in “Arcade Blues,” shows Neon Indian as a band with legs, even landing a position on this year’s Coachella lineup. If Within,Without makes you want to hibernate, give Era Extranaa spin and find out how chill dance music can get. – RF
24. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical

The debut album from Brooklyn’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah earned Idle Time’s top honors in 2005. It was as important for its music — an energetic mix of tremulous dance music and quavering ballads — as it was for its ethos. The band pioneered a new age of DIY music, but they transcended the band-of-the-week hype-engine and became something more. David Bowie was showing up at their shows; other bands emulated them and started to self-market and self-release material, culminating in the world wide webfire that was Radiohead’s In Rainbows release in 2007. Success took a toll, and the follow-up effort Some Loud Thunder bore the unmistakable timidity of a band unsure of its own abilities. Even the title track, a favorite of live shows, opened the album hiding behind a mask of distortion and noise, like a wall of insecurity. At times those self-doubts were poignantly expressed, like in the beautiful love song “Underwater (You and Me),” but elsewhere the songs felt stilted and flat, turning an otherwise catchy dance song like “Satan Said Dance” into a bland parody of itself. It’s ironic, then, that CYHSY’s return, four years later, opens with the blistering “Same Mistake.” The sound is the same — anthemic vocals soaring through a catchy assault of guitar, synthesizer, and drumbeat — and Alec Ounsworth’s voice returns like a long-lost friend. But mistake? The band is confident and aware, almost brash, as the opening notes pour into the swirling “Hysterical,” before slowing down for the emotional delicacy of the album’s highlight, “Misspent Youth.” Ounsworth’s journey through Flashy Python experimentation and the recovering soul of New Orleans, not to mention his bandmates’ Uninhabitable Mansions detour, culminate on this outstanding, and surprisingly self-assured, third LP. – MDG

23. Starfucker – Reptilians

I saw the singer of this band apply red lipstick all over his starry-eyed face. It started around his mouth, but then things got out of control. It happened near the end of a great performance at the Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco. This album is one of a kind, and it just screams 2011. These are well formulated pop songs with a large dose of synthesizer melodies and layered vocals that beg you to sing along. Part of the genius of this band is their name. The concert was full of people younger than me, and it became clear to me that many of them probably wanted to feel edgy and cool for telling their friends that they were into a band called Starfucker. Listen to the whole album; you’ll be treated with a melodic journey interspersed with academic monologues about death. – DH

22. Radiohead – King of Limbs

One of the greatest qualities of music is the ability to surprise the listener. Whether the surprise is the introduction of a new instrument or variation in a familiar chord progression, the constant setup and defiance of expectations is one my favorite parts of music. Radiohead are masters of this. With the blow-up success of In Rainbows, everyone was wondering what their next album was going to sound like. When The King of Limbs came out, I was surprised. These songs were written differently than those of In Rainbows… they lack the catchy single quality of their most popular songs. There were no singles released from the album, but that isn’t to say that the songs aren’t good. They are interesting and entertaining. The sound is fresh, but chill. Less engaging, more experiential. As always, Radiohead is pushing compositional boundaries, which is why this album is worth hearing. – DH

21. The Go! Team – Rolling Blackouts

Say what you will about the Go! Team’s sound–tell me it’s a novelty, tell me it’s too noisy, say that it’s nothing more than recycled ideas from 70’s exploitation soundtracks, you’re entitled to your (jerk-ass) opinions. What you can’t do is convince me that their album has no business on the end of the year “Best of” list. Rolling Blackouts sounds as rambunctious as a late night pillow fight with your best mates, brimming with brass horns and a cacophony of explosive grit. Founder Ian Parton continues to mine his youth for inspiration, keeping the old school hip-hop samples and schoolyard chants that helped define the Team’s two previous works. The spotlight is stolen by that remarkable roller-skating lady-rapper, Ninja, and her vocalist cohorts from Japan, Chi Fukami Taylor & Kaori Tsuchida. When they aren’t hammering away on a glockenspiel or keyboard, Taylor and Tschuida lay on the sap in the saccharine, “Ready to Go Steady,” and they bring a distinctly Japanese flair to the haiku-esque “Secretary Song,” a humorously accurate ode to office managers everywhere.  Of course, Ninja is still the Team’s big gun, delivering strong, friendly flows in the classic Chuck D-style, but also unleashing some surprisingly wicked rhymes that channel Missy Elliot (without the sexy talk). I caught the Go! Team while in Norwich and with so many influences colliding in one band, it’s amazes me how collected and orchestrated their stage show was, with each player hopping on and off stage, switching instruments, and jumping about like mad, all without ever disrupting their momentum. If you’ve ever wanted to see these guys live, but haven’t got the chance, you’ll be glad to know that the raucous energy that’s captured on their albums translates seamlessly into the band’s live performance. The Go! Team may never produce as strong of a single as 2005’s “Ladyflash,” but this may be their strongest album thus far, consistent from start to finish. – RF

< 40 – 31 | 20 – 11 >

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