Some thoughts on the past year in music …

Lil B, I’m Gay (I’m Happy)

Lil B is perhaps the preeminent rap artist of the Internet age. We live his art as a constant, unfiltered stream of content. All of the embarrassing aphorisms, the idiotic inside jokes — utter excess opposing Spartan simplicity — the tension in his music cannot be dismissed. On his most successful album yet, Lil B sounds indulgent, earnest and celebratory, in a way few or no rappers can emulate. It doesn’t hurt that he’s working with the best beat-maker in hip hop right now. His charms are real, his failures ample. I feel closer to him than any rapper ever. Is this what it means to be based?

Pure X, Pleasure

This record is a ritual. Drone and heat-smeared bass, yelping goblin vocals and that guitar! I can’t think of a more somber instrument in 2011 than Nate Grace’s guitar on Pleasure. It’s supposed to have been recorded live and you can feel it — all flimsy cues and slippery notes, the casual doom of the jammier bits (sometimes I imagine the band looking at each other’s eyes when they’re not staring at their shoes) give what is otherwise an exercise in tone and pedal-play some intimacy. And don’t let that title fool you!

P.S. Wins award for best album cover of the year in my weird book.

Julian Lynch, Terra

It takes effort to make music this innocuous. Terra is a jumble of perpetual zonk-outs, jingles for crossing over the River Styx in a banana boat and what I imagine your eyes might sing after staring at the sun for too long. There’s no catharsis, no drama, no virtuosity. Just vibes, man, pure vibes. And sometimes, that is more than enough.

Grouper, AIA: Alien Observer

Oh! A woman after my own heart. When I first heard Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, I thought it was too quiet, even at full volume. Grouper’s songs are bed time-dream time lullabies, with a heart of terror and unquenchable lust. AIA: Alien Observer finds Grouper doing what she does better than everyone — making records so furiously quiet they feel cosmic.

Destroyer, Kaputt

Call it efféte. Call it limp. But never has utter devastation sounded so gorgeous. One of 2011’s many cases for the saxophone’s redemption, and ultimately, a completely un-ironic one. In “Blue Eyes” I felt Dan Bejar mocking me with, “I’ve thumbed through the books on your shelves,” sending me his “coffin of roses,” making a chant out of, “I write poetry for myself!” and now I chuckle at it. It is also perhaps 2011’s funniest record. If only you could dance to it!


Could Clarence Clemons have died in a better year for his instrument of choice? 2011 was a year-long obit for him, with top-40 pop and everything else reclaiming sax solos, with varying levels of irony. Bon Iver, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Julian Lynch, Dan Bejar … if we get Bill Clinton on the next Ke$ha song, the post-modern pop machine may crash from moving too fast. Let’s not forget, John Coltrane had a church.

Big Freedia, “Y’all Get Back Now”

The genre of New Orleans Bounce music could not be better named. When I hear this song, I am incapable of staying still. My foot doesn’t tap so much as spasm, my nose feels heavy and my head sways (halfway between bob and bang) and that’s just the first minute. Where ghettotech got a bit too tech, Bounce is back to take the throne, and Big Freedia is the most fabulous queen to claim it.

Vulnerable R&B

Drake, sitting in his castle, moping. Kanye and Jay toasting to their boredom. The Weekend, coked- and smoked-up with no place to go. Anonymous violence and violent misanthropy. When The-Dream released 1977, he put it out under his birth name. I’m hesitant to give Kid Cudi credit for anything, but “Day ‘N’ Night” was the prophetic knell that’s ushered in this wave of privileged ego death. I much preferred …

R. Kelly’s “Love Letter”

It came out at the tail end of 2010, but I spent my time with it this year. “Letter” manages to combine anxiety and post-millenial helplessness (“Miracles so amazed, soldiers far away”) and marries it to ebullience, ensconced in outmoded means of communication (“Did it touch your heart / When you read my love letter?”). Packaged with syrupy keyboards that revolve, enveloping bongos and cheap MIDI horns all leading up to a shout — “JUST CHECK YOUR MAIL!” Beautiful.

Ellen Willis, “Out of the Vinyl Deeps”

One of the best collections of pop writing released this year/ever. Most of The New Yorker’s first-ever pop music critic Ellen Willis’s columns and pieces on pop and rock music of the ’60s and ’70s are assembled here, for your enjoyment, devotion and study. There are few writers in music since who have been so casually brilliant, keen and joyous. A hero of mine, a great gift.

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