Sunday, January 1, 2012

DrakeSinister's Top 11 Albums Of 2011

Well, it's the beginning of a brand new year for The Widening Eye, a blog I started back in 2010 that has quickly become one of the fastest growing and most visited muzak blogs on the entire Internetz in the space of a mere 378 days. To celebrate this fact, I have invited a metalhead that nobody's ever heard of to make posts, talk about stupid weird shit, and all in all add some spice to the rice. 


*the sound of crickets chirping...and crying in loneliness*

Ahem...and with that, it's time for another subjective 2011 AOTY list courtesy of myself. Feej will be doing one of his own after mine, so keep an eye out.

Folks, this has been a real amazing here for every genre under the sun. No, I'm not NPR or Pitchfork or NME or Kerrang! or whatever gods of review you subscribe to, but I won't be the first to say that none of those bigwigs even remotely capture an inkling of some of the great stuff that's come out this year. They all cater to different kinds of audiences, and as a result you won't find much in the way of decent pop, progressive rock, jazz or avant-garde anything amidst their pandering and sappy accolades.

Some of this you'll know, and some of it you won't. Either way, I think it's worth a scan.

#11: Nujabes - Spiritual State

A hip-hop record that can dazzle those who aren't really into or a part of this genre's vast base of militant beat mongers and overzealous so-called Independent listeners is a thing of wonder. In 2004 that record was Madvillain's Madvillainy. In 2005 that it was CunninLynguists' A Piece Of Strange, and in 2010 that record was Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

For this past year though, even great entries like that are thwarted in depth and execution by deceased Japanese producer Nujabes's posthumous release Spiritual State, a record more about the flow between piano keys and lighter-than-air melodies, tantalizing fragilities which contemplate and dream behind such mic veterans as Substantial and Pase Rock, figments that seem to spiral toward the heart of the sun as it dies below a distant waterline.

"More of the same" is what a lot have said about this collection. For the rest of us though, we can only wish there could be more.


#10: Boy Hits Car - Stealing Fire

L.A.'s premiere agents of aggression Boy Hits Car have been decade-long favorites of those who look for something just a bit spicier in their nu-alternative bowl of punch. They've opened for Deftones and possess the sort of progressive staying power of bands like Karnivool and Tool, catchy and abrasive through the sort of Middle Eastern scaling that bands like The Tea Party pioneered back in the early 90's.

Stealing Fire is the kind of record that people wish more bands would bring themselves to craft this past year, a challenge which met almost no contenders: exotic, anthemic, finely grained and sounding like a million bucks when turned up as you roar down a highway. Sure, the whole Prometheus allusion is a tad obvious, but you can't fault these boys for their ambition. Progressive nu-metal is a train with so very few occupants in tow, and right now Boy Hits Car are at the conductor's reins. 


#9: John Martyn - Heaven And Earth

If there was one thing you could say about deceased U.K. singer/songwriter John Martyn, it's that he knew the mind of man in a way that few people ever really do. In his sandpaper voice there was a thousand truths about good, evil and all the contradiction that guides a soul through and beyond life, and he had the musicality to bring those thoughts of his into vivid, shimmering realities for all to hear.

2011 saw many a fine release hit shelves and site alike throughout the months, but one thing people seem to have forgotten is that it brought Martyn's final words and wonderings into the limelight for one last show. From the swampy thundering guitar-driven 'Heel Of The Hunt' to the (funny I know) Phil Collins co-penned 'Can't Turn Back The Years', this record is gorgeous even as you hear Martyn's voice disintegrating in his attempts to sound like anything but mishapen gravel.  

Sad in context and poignant even without it, this record walks a line that we'll all cross one day ourselves. Whether that's a good thing in your mind is up for you to decide.


#8: Dir En Grey - Dum Spiro Spero

"While I Breathe, I Hope". Or so the title of experimental J-Rock superstars Dir En Grey's 2011 masterpiece translates to, and it's a puzzling yet oddly fitting declarative. After all, beneath all the instrumental pummeling and gut-churning dissonance and intestine pulling ero-guro schematics there is but two things: Kyo in all his insane, throat-wincing glory and a wicked sharp pop sensibility to make all the musical madness bearable to pretentious, sedated masses who don't have a goddamn clue about anything.

As more than one person could tell you, there are few bands on this planet who match Dir En Grey in sheer enthusiasm and inventiveness within the worldly confines of all things Japanese, weird and metal, and this album blows almost everything else released this year in ANY genre out of the water because due to precisely those things. A horrific, blood curdling atmosphere lets its molding limbs infiltrate each and every song, from the 9-minute prog. rock extravaganza ('Diabolous') to the doomy 'Yokusou Ni Dreambox...', and the terror doesn't let up at any point throughout.

Not fitting comfortably in any particular box, but alive and decomposing in some terrible, confined place under the Earth, this is the soundtrack to nightmares induced by the fever of the present and our collective dread of places man won't tread.


#7: David Dallas - The Rose Tint

New Zealand, interesting place that it is, is full of people who represent their scene with aplomb and style in whatever discipline they call their own. Such is the case with a young white rapper/producer/hip-hop of unusual talent and ear named David Dallas, who although has been collaborating and guesting with a variety of folks over the last while (Freddie Gibbs for example), unleashed his vision on an unsuspecting public with this debut gem. Honestly, I still don't think anyone was really ready for it: otherwise, you'd see it at the top of every list in every publication imaginable.

Jazzy, flexible and mindful of the breezy side of funk and soul, Dallas is near ungodly in his knack for melding beats with the right flow, the right guest, the right arrangement. Tracks like 'Caught In A Daze' and 'Sideline' snap with an immediacy and in-the-zone flow that guys like Jay Z and Kanye West have trouble nailing years into their respective careers. Cause you see, there have been loads of lauded hip-hop releases this year, but none of them come close to the perfection that this dude's debut has down to a science. 

The best hip-hop, as I've mentioned before, is the stuff that even the genre's skeptics can drop their jaws in wonder at, and this delivers to the point of incredulity.


#6: Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow

She's been the United Kingdom's favorite experimental songstress for nearly four decades now. She's worked with, helped with, even played with pretty much anyone who's anyone during that time. She was the first woman to have a song she wrote herself chart at #1 in merry old Britain. She's got that weird voice that Indie kids go gah-gah over when they realize she looks like an older Zooey Deschanel.  

Yes, I'm talking about Kate Bush, and not only is 2011's oddly low-key marketed 50 Words For Snow one of the absolute best records of the year, but it's the single best collection of anything the woman's done since freakin' Hounds Of Love decades ago. 

Pianos, twinkling cloudlike synths, detuned guitars and a host of unpredictable, primordial percussive elements guide this set of songs into something special for these ears of mine. Bush's voice is better than it's ever been, and Gothic, endlessly open-to-interpretation-but-strangely-clever lyric sense abounds ('Wild Man', 'Misty'). Elton John even guests amidst tense vibrations on 'Snowed In At Wheeler Street', and it's a high point in an already Herculian exercise of downtempo jazz-rockery.

I have no idea where a living legend like Kate will go from here, but she's already knocked 2011 on it's arse. Chances are she'll do the same again before anyone expects it.


#5: Septicflesh - The Great Mass

You know a metal album is going to be something pretty goddamn special when the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra are given the keys to the kingdom and told to play along. Symphonic death metal is a difficult feat to accomplish organically: many bands make do with a keyboard and some advisement by ex-classmates from whatever music college the band members were kicked out of for covering Venom instead of Beethoven during recital. 

Septicflesh outdid their past work splendidly with The Great Mass, and as far as Greeks go they represent their country in my own mind far more effectively than, say, the much more internationally popular Firewind. They blast, they growl like animals as the strings soar and choral ensembles fill in the gaps behind and between the notes, and it's a fuckin' treat!

Not for everyone, but as someone who was not familiar with the band beforehand, it made one hell of a first impression.


#4: Nils Petter Molvaer - Baboon Moon

A trumpeter in an age where jazz is, even at the best of times, a marginalized and oft-ignored community of ideas, people and connections, Nils Petter Molvaer pushes envelopes in ways that most traditionalists would consider treasonous even in 2011. He doesn't do the fusion thing, the big band thing, or even the Miles Davis downtempo thing.

No, what Nils has done on Baboon Moon is revitalize, revolutionize, even regenerate an entire musical spectrum that has already experienced countless reinventions. He starkly sounds his little instrument into multitudes of post-rock dynamisms and refains, a sky soaked by deep six electronica and bursts of percussive lightning that sets the grey afire and makes you remember with every crack and dazzle why you want the talents who live their lives through music to avoid complacency, to push ahead and forget what's expected.

Records like this are blood to the vampire and coke to the addict. This is the shape of jazz to come.


#3: Ole Børud - Keep Movin'

Stevie Wonder, Ambrosia, Toto, Los Angeles between the years of 1976 and 1989: this is an era in pop music that I've got a nostalgic hard on for. In all the years I've been listening to music, observing trends, watching and trying and looking for someone (or people in general) who could re-usher in that golden era of Westcoast pop, I have never been surprised by anyone in 2011 as much as I have by a young Norwegian guitarist and songwriter named Ole Børud, who released Keep Movin' this past year...and nobody paid attention. Pathetic!

Incongruous for the most part with my usual tastes, Westcoast is a genre of music I enjoy almost giddily despite myself, and this record hits me in all the right places. Somewhere between that gorgeous early 80's jazz-pop sound and Jamiroquai in execution, Ole is blessed with an insanely beautiful set of pipes that make you do a double take at your own speakers at times, and he does what he does better than anyone on scene at present. A down-to-Earth Christian guy who plays lead guitar in progressive death metal bands when not doing music like this, it's the sort of record that has to be heard to be believed.


#2: Submotion Orchestra - Finest Hour

The best debut of the year by far and a triumph in all things jazz and electronic, this female-fronted vocal jazz "orchestra" from the U.K. is contemporary and fresh in things you think you've heard all before: ethereal vocals, horns at midnight, beats straight out of Bristol, the feeling that you're just cruising for another club to drown your troubles at....and then you hear a track like 'Angel Eyes' or the title cut and all you've heard before seems but a prelude to the first time you sit put Finest Hour at the top of your queue and press play.

This dark and stormy night in a disc, my find feathered friends, will be our grandchildren's Kind Of Blue.


#1: Work Of Art - In Progress

"Ever since I can remember, chasing love was just a way of spending time, til' you came around," soars the  voice of Lars Safsund over the sort of guitar and keyboard two-punch riff that any melodic rock band since '78 would give their arms and legs to own. It's a classic, a surefire humdinger, the cream of the songwriting crop, the hook of a lifetime.

This reaction X 11 more songs = #1 AOTY

Work Of Art, a band that peddles a brand of alternative-tinged AOR not unlike a cheesy lovechild of Toto and Journey, released the best album of 2011 back in August, and the reason it's numero uno is actually very simple-

This. Shit. Is. Catchy.

And I don't mean "catchy" as in it's melodic, pleasant or even just fun to listen to, because In Progress is every one of things. I'm talking about a little thing called "hooks". Riffs. Arrangements. Execution. Vocals. Production.

When an album excels in every single one of these things, and does so in a way that doesn't feel "quite" radio ready or part of this era, something clicks.

It's the sound of everything going right. The sound of your intuition when it's set on fire by an idea or feeling. The sound of you going off to save the fucking planet. The sound of all that's good in life and none of the baggage or bullshit.

Nothing sounds better than a perfect pop album, and that's very much what Work Of Art have delivered in a year that really needed one. 

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