For the past five years, I’ve really enjoyed putting together these year-end personal “best-of” lists. I don’t do much in the way of music journalism anymore, so this scratches my yearly “write a bunch about music” itch.
2011 was another amazing year for music. I think I have more in my “best of” category this year (29) than any previous year. With so much music getting released (and, really, so much of it being so good), it can be easy for great albums to get overlooked. It’s impossible to be 100% complete, so here’s this year’s completely subjective rundown on my favorite music of the year.
Everything’s sorted in alphabetical order.
Best of 2011
- Andrzej Przybielski & Oles Brothers: De Profundis
Polish trumpeter Andrzej Przybielski passed away earlier this year. While I haven’t heard much of his work, this final album of his is remarkably intricate, moving, and cerebral. See also: his 2009 album with Sing Sing Penelope.
- Archie Shepp & Joachim Kühn: Wo!man
Though I haven’t enjoyed Shepp’s albums in recent years anywhere near the level of the fire music he was making in the 1960s, the releases have been good. This duet with German jazz pianist Joachim Kühn is by no means a return to Shepp’s 1960s form, but the interaction between the two is a thing of beauty. The elegant and lush arrangements have a quiet sophistication befitting elder jazz statesmen like Shepp and Kühn. There are five originals and three standards here (Ellington’s oft-covered–by Shepp especially–“Sophisticated Lady,” Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” and Hagen/Rogers’ “Harlem Nocturne”).
- Atmosphere: The Family Sign
You know you’re going to get something personal when Slug hits the mic, and this time is no different, with outstanding tracks like “The Last to Say,” “Just for Show,” and “She’s Enough” (which has the year’s most adorable video). Also: great packaging on the vinyl release.
- Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
“We were free to get back to our bread and butter: fart jokes.” That’s what Mike D. said about the Beastie’s return to form on Hot Sauce… It truly is amazing at how a group of guys in their mid-to-late-40s can make a record that sounds as fresh and fun as the stuff they did almost 25 years ago.
- Blue Scholars: Cinemopolis
A Kickstarter-funded ($62,000 of a requested $25,000) album that answers the question, “How does music influence cinema?” Song titles are all people’s names. “Anna Karina,” actress in many Godard movies, basketball player “Slick Watts” (with an excellent accompanying video featuring Slick himself), and oft-forgotten, the amazing civil rights activist “Yuri Kochiyama.” Sabzi’s production is outstanding and Geo’s lyrics are some of the best of his career. This is hip-hop.
- Brownbird Rudy Relic: I Am the Juke
Another great collection of original “holler blues” from the dynamo known as Brownbird. He goes the old-school route once again, recording on a 1950’s Concertone one-track reel-to-reel with a 1940’s era RCA Victor Radio mic in an abandoned Brooklyn loft.
- Czeslaw Bartowski/Analog Burners: Drum Dream
Inspired by Polish drummer Czeslaw Bartkowski, Analog Burners’ Mensa-El freaks Bartowski’s work into dope instrumentals.
- De La Soul & DJ TenDJiz: De La Soulviet
Classic De La tracks remixed with Soviet jazz samples? Excellent. The beats are well constructed, the samples well chosen, and the overall vibe, very chill.
- Freestyle Fellowship: The Promise
It’s been nine years since the last album from the highly lyrical collective. Considering the break, it’s amazing that the result was so a cohesive, funky, enjoyable. The album dips a bit in the second half, but the first half is outstanding. Production is handled by Eligh, Black Milk, Exile, & more.
- Greg Foat Group: Dark is the Sun
I don’t even remember how I came across this particular album, but it’s a doozy. Funky UK jazz with harpsichord, organ, and synths that goes beyond just drums and bass. Dark is the Sun is a real gem that will appeal to fans of 70s spiritual-funk-jazz. Don’t overlook this one.
- Honey Ear Trio: Steampunk Serenade
Phenomenal release with Erik Lawrence on sax and flute, the always awesome Allison Miller on percussion, and Rene Hart on bass and loops (which are so subtly integrated, I had no idea they even existed). Their take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is one of the best ever.
- Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Race Riot Suite
A concept album about the 1921 Tulsa race riot that’s intense, grooving, and wholly unique. This group’s 21st album in 18 years serves as a reminder that there’s amazing jazz coming from all around the country.
- Josh Rouse and the Long Vacations: Josh Rouse and the Long Vacations
Fun, short indie pop songs that are impossible to dislike.
- KIRk: Msza Swieta w Braswaldzie
Dark, blippy electronica-infused jazz reminiscent at times of both Pink Freud and Robotobibok.
- Matthew Shipp: Art of the Improviser
Shipp gets open on his version of “Take the A Train.”
- Muzykoterapia: Piosenki Izy
Very solid nu jazz (damn it, I hate that term, but there it is) from Poland. A nice accompaniment to Nostalgia 77’s album.
- The Natural Yogurt Band: Tuck In With
Quirky, funk-library style tunes. Massive breaks abound.
- album of the year Nostalgia 77: The Sleepwalking Society
This album got far more rotation from me than any other album this year. German vocalist Josa Peit joins Benedic Lamdin on his latest album as Nostalgia 77. Peit’s sultry voice is the perfect match for Lamdin’s nu jazz (there’s that damn term again), as heard on “Sleepwalkers,” song-of-the-year “Simmerdown,” and “Beautiful Lie.” This is one of the rare albums that I love, my wife likes, and even our 5-year-old daughter requests songs from. The Sleepwalking Society is near perfection.
Here’s a 30-minute playlist of Nostalgia 77’s videos, acoustic versions, and interviews from this year:
- Onra: Chinoiseries Pt. 2
Pitchfork pooped on it, but I loved it nearly as much as the first.
- Pharoahe Monch: W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)
Sure, I’d love to see an Organized Konfusion reunion album, but I certainly can’t complain about Pharoahe’s solo albums. Favorite songs: “Assassins,” “Let My People Go,” and the title track.
- Prince Fatty Meets The Mutant HiFi: Return of Gringo!
Spaghetti western ska dub, Ennio Morricone meets The Specials meets Augustus Pablo.
- Priscilla Ahn: When You Grow Up
Alternating between light, poppy folk and subdued contemplative folk, Ahn delivers a super mellow and very enjoyable album. Favorite cuts: the title track, which is like a breezy spring day and the über-catchy “Oo La La.”
- The Roots: Undun
A late-in-the-year contender, this short (for The Roots) concept album is deep and moving. A great addition to their discography. (See John Book’s in-depth review for a great look at the album.)
- Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
I hadn’t kept up with the Digable Planets’ Butterfly since he and his crew denied me an interview for the college paper back in 1995 (not that I hold a grudge or anything), but my jaw dropped when I discovered his abstract work as part of Shabazz Palaces. His two EPs last year were very good and this year’s Black Up is even better. Unlike anything else out there and absolutely engaging. Loved (deep breath) “An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum,” “Endeavors For Never (The Last Time We Spoke You Said You Were Not Here. I Saw You Though.),” and “Swerve… The Reeping Of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding).”
- Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings: Soul Time!
Sharon Jones has a permanent spot on this list if she releases an album.
- Shona Foster: The Moon & You
There’s a clear Tori Amos influence from this singer I found via This American Life (not how I usually find my music because, well, I already know about DJ Shadow), but there’s a little Erin McKeown-esque style thrown in the mix making Shona Foster more interesting to me than her strongest influence. Niceness on “No. 34,” “Queens,” “Bad Intentions,” and “Where We’ll Go.”
- SuperHeavy: SuperHeavy
By all predictions, this album should have been somewhere between a confused mess and an acceptible “supergroup”-style album. Turns out it was an extremely enjoyable, “big” album with great performances all around from Jagger, Junior Gong, and the rest.
- Thao & Mirah: Thao & Mirah
Quirky and varied instrumentation makes this effort from the somewhat-odd-couple pairing of indie-folk singer-songwriters Thao (of Thao with The Get Down Stay Down) and Mirah one of the most engaging of the year. Favorite tracks: “Likeable Man” and “Squareneck.”
- Various Artists: passionjunkies.it: Aa.VV. Dolphyn Surround
Dope instrumental hip-hop from Italian beatmakers. Each track is based on Eric Dolphy samples.
Almost Best of 2011
- Albert Kuvezin & Yat-Kha: Poets & Lighthouses & Live at the Stray Dog
Two more strong releases from the Tuvan throat-singing powerhouses. Poets & Lighthouses was officially released in 2010, but not released in the US until 2011. Live at the Stray Dog was graciously released for free on Bandcamp.
- AWOL One & Factor: The Landmark
I’ve always been a fan of AWOL One’s left-field brand of hip-hop and this release with producer Factor is a nice addition to his discography. Favorite tracks: “Coming to Town,” “Frenemies,” “Rewind Yourself,” and the excellent duet with Moka Only, “The Wasp.”
- Bubble Geese: #foamparty
Offensive, party-friendly hip-hop with enough pop culture references to make Entertainment Weekly blush. Love the way they freaked Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd” on their first single. (Do I have to disclose that my cousin is one of the MCs? There, I just did.)
- Common: The Dreamer, The Believer
Common’s late-year contender is his best album in years. Favorite cuts: Ghetto Dreams (feat. Nas), Lovin’ I Lost, Sweet.
- Elzhi: Elmatic
I dig Elzhi and think he’s talented, but have never placed him in the top tier. This excellent mixtape had started to change my mind. Very well done with a lot of attention to detail.
- Evidence: Cats & Dogs
The self-name-checking weatherman is back with a solid solo release on Rhymesayers. Really dug “Late for the Sky (feat. Slug & Aesop Rock)” and the DJ Premier-produced “You,” which also had an incredibly dope video.
- Moka Only: Barbecued Horse Contest Instrumental
Moka is as prolific as they come in 2011. This year alone he’s released at least five original, full-length albums. Do you even realize how insane that is? I didn’t even have a chance to check all of them out, but I really enjoyed this collection of beats quite a bit.
- Oddisee: Rock Creek Park
If you still haven’t grasped what Oddisee is capable of as a producer, this album will do it for you.
- Paul White: Rapping With Paul White
Very solid album of aggressive tunes, but not absurdly so. Does that make sense?
- Tech N9ne: All 6’s and 7’s
Outstanding effort from N9ne. “Worldwide Choppers” is absolutely epic.
- Tori Amos: Night of the Hunters
This album is a weird one for me. I’m not a big fan of Tori Amos and I don’t think I’ll listen to this album very frequently, yet it’s a really, really good release. Funny how that happens sometimes.
Best of 2010 I missed until 2011
- Levity: Chopin Shuffle
- Jason Adasiewicz: Sun Rooms
- Arszyn/Duda: ŚĘ (my review)
- Allison Miller: Boom Tic Boom
- Shabazz Palaces: Shabazz Palaces / Of Light
My Daughter’s Favorite Tracks This Year
My daughter, now five, has developed an interesting taste in music. Here are her favorite tracks this year (not limited to songs from this year), loaded up in a MOG playlist that we often spin when we’re on the road.
- Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic”
- The Upsetters: “Black Panta”
- Nostalgia 77: “Simmerdown”
- Dilated Peoples: “Live on Stage”
- Dilated Peoples: “Worst Comes to Worst”
- Rakaa: “Observatory (feat. Mad Lion)”
- Rakaa: “Delilah”
- Lee Perry & The Upsetters: “Kojak”
- Beastie Boys: “Sure Shot”
- Half Pint: “Have a Little Faith”
- Tech N9ne: “Worldwide Choppers (feat. a ton of people)”
- Go Diego Go: “Morning in the Rainforest/Diego Theme” (had to get one kids song in there)
- Scientist: “Steppers”
- The Upsetters: “Dub Organizer”
- Nostalgia 77: “Beautiful Lie”
- Dennis Brown: “Sitting and Watching”
- Kathy Young: “A Thousand Stars”
Best Tracks of 2011
Here are two mixes I put together at 8tracks.com covering my favorite tracks of the year. I tried to stick to one track per artist and per album. The first mix was put together midway through the year and the second mix I just finished up. Total listening time: 2 hours, 18 minutes, 37 seconds.