Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2011 Year in Review: Music

The mainstream was very weak in terms of quality albums. There weren’t too many quirky hits like Cee-Lo's “F You” or funky dance jams like Big Boi's “Shutterbugg.” I had to suffer through "Party Rock Anthem" and tried to love it by hating it even more. But hey, every year has novelty acts. Today’s LMFAO is yesterday’s Afro Man.

But I found a lot to enjoy this year. I had to dig harder and trust folks’ judgment and I found greater joy in my own choices. Especially when SoCal produced some great music.  So 2011 will be remembered for more than just a British songbird who made us all connect with her pain. It’s the year the West Coast finally found a new rap voice to pick up where Game left off.

Best Albums
Kendrick Lamar – Section.80 (The Finest West Coast album since Below the Heavens or Documentary – my #1 album this year)
Phonte – Charity Starts at Home (Tigallo finally went solo and dropped a gem)
Big K.R.I.T. – Return of 4eva (Too many words to describe this – soulful, dope, well produced)
Adele – 21 (The most unlikeliest blockbuster pop album in ages? Well deserved)
The Roots – Undun (A powerful statement that will be listened to for years)
Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra (The Best R&B album this year hands down despite being a mixtape)
Elzhi – Elmatic (Elzhi’s tribute to Illmatic – my favorite HH album – set a high standard for future tributes)
Black Keys – El Camino (Loved the bare bones, straight forward rock sound. Consistently great)
Foster the People – Torches (Fun, fun, fun.)
Game – R.E.D. Album (Say what you will about Game but he has NEVER dropped a bad album)
Yelawolf – Radioactive (Didn’t expect much from it so maybe that’s why it surprised me)

Best Songs (Besides My Top 5 and not in any order)
Kendrick Lamar – HiiiiPower
Big K.R.I.T. – Hi’s and Lows, Country Ish (f. Ludacris and Bun B)
The Roots f. Big K.R.I.T.  – Make My (KRIT gets the Roots stamp of approval and they and Dice Raw make an elegy for their hero)
Elzhi – Memory Lane
Adele – Turning Tables
Frank Ocean – Strawberry Swing, American Wedding (very well written)
Foster the People – Helena Beat (A dead ringer for MGMT but I LOVE it)
Black Keys – Lonely Boy
Cee Lo/Melanie Fiona – Fool For You (yeah it’s 2010 but the remix is 2011. Saw em debut it live too)
Jay-Z/Kanye West – Negroes in Paris, Murder to Excellence
Game – Ricky, Born In the Trap
Lupe Fiasco - All Black Everything (a genius song, GENIUS), Lightworks
Common f. Nas – Ghetto Dreams
Tyler the Creator/Hodgy Beats - Sandwitches (struggled with putting this here, but you'll see why)
Pusha T f. Tyler the Creator - Trouble On My Mind
Nas – Nasty
M83 - Midnight City (an overwhelming beat with a killer sax solo straight out of the 80's)
Rise Against – Help Is On The Way
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie
Social Distortion – California (The OG’s of the punk scene still make great music)
Incubus – Adolescents (The album bored me but this song was amazing)
Talib Kweli – Friends and Family
Sublime With Rome – Panic, PCH
DJ Khaled – I’m On One [I hate to put this one on here but that beat is mesmerizing]

How do I top the memory of seeing Big Boi and Cee-Lo on Valentine’s Day, a great show at least with Big Boi’s set? Seeing the Purple One himself for 2 hours rocking out the old jams. Prince was still as energetic as he was in his prime and to see an entire arena go nuts? Best concert ever.

The best musical innovation this year? Hands down Spotify. Not only was I able to listen to full albums that I’ve always wanted to here but it combined the best of Real Player, iTunes and Pandora and allowed you to create music playlists for FREE. I still value buying albums but it allows you to hear a lot of older artists as well as preview new albums.

Phonte reunited with 9th Wonder and they both sounded great together. Not to be outdone, Rapper Big Pooh held his own on his solo joint. I'm perfectly okay with all 3 of them doing their own thing and reminding me why I loved Little Brother last decade. And you noticed I couldn't pick a favorite Phonte song? That's cause they all were incredible.

Rock music came back with strong singles and established acts reclaimed their throne but to me, it was the new kids from SoCal who brought some energy. Foster the People and Rome Ramirez with the reunited Sublime made rock radio have an LA feel once again.

In regards to Kendrick Lamar’s album this year, the reason I really loved it is because content wise, Lamar was a 23 year old who was speaking to and for his generation. I respect writers and figures who can do that without sounding preachy. Whether it’s speaking on drug effects, racial harmony, girls turning lesbian after bad experiences, he rapped with conviction and passion and the West Coast needed it. That’s why I loved Section.80 to death.

Mainstream hip hop was disappointing but hip hop was still fresh. There were great albums and mixtapes that showed potential. So I won’t cry about the wack music on the radio as much, I just think hip hop is in a better place away from the stream.

*Yet, R&B felt dead to me. Frank Ocean was a revelation because he showed he can write as well as he can sing. Nostalgia, Ultra felt like a departure from what I expected since he was affiliated with Odd Future but even as his star grew this year, his voice sounded great on hip hop or R&B jams. Besides him, Ne-Yo and Maxwell need to drop their next album soon.

Lupe Fiasco was a big story of 2011. After label drama he finally realized his 3rd album, Lasers. Needless to say, I hated it and blamed Atlantic for compromising him. But after hearing his Friend of the People mixtape, I believe that right now Lupe is where Nas was in 1999 – lyrically on point but has a bad ear for beats drifting from his usual production team and his work is suffering. He still spits gems when he wants to but right now, the jury is out until F+L 2 and if "American Terrorist 3" is any indication, he hasn’t lost it

Odd Future captivated music heads and Southern California. They and Kendrick Lamar gave my city much needed buzz after all that jerkin and skinny jeans craze. Tyler, the Creator and Hodgy Beats had the performance of the year with their show on Jimmy Fallon (along with Lupe on the BET Awards). Free Earl became the chant of the year - despite yall knowing how I feel about Freeing rappers.

In one year, they went from an unknown crew to heroes of the underground making moves. Yonkers for me was a fantasticly, disturbing video.  Will I be buying their albums? No, since I can't consciously see myself hearing them on and on without feeling conflicted or needing to purify my ears. Plus, besides Tyler, Hodgy and the currently gone Earl Sweatshirt, none of them dudes are great rappers.

In the end, 2011 will be all about an old soul at 23. The beautiful, British songbird Adele blessed us with her album of pain and rich soul. In a year that reminded me of Alicia Keys dominating in 2001 or Usher in 2004, Adele made hits that didn’t sound poppy but rich with the pain of a breakup. It didn’t always appeal to my ears and my mood but she wrote them well and if she wins a load of Grammys, so be it. 

I love her honesty, her no frills approach, her lack of gimmicks. She just sings and it may be boring to some, but right now it’s refreshing. It’s a shock that her album sold as well as it did but it’s a shock I’ll be happy with. In a year where you had to look hard to find great stuff, Adele was right there doing her thing without caring about sale or image. Just raw singing and rich emotion. 

I never thought I'd see somebody sell that many records again. And honestly, Adele might be in the Top 10 for albums sold in 2012 after she gets her Grammy boost. Congrats. 

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