Most Pleasant Surprise: Clams Casino - Instrumental Mixtape. I read about Clams Casino while procrastinating in Barnes and Noble with Wei in late November, right around the time when I had to start writing three seminar papers (aka when I was on the verge of a mental breakdown). Call it divine intervention that I found this mixtape/album then; I needed lots of new music to help me get through that month of hell, and this collection of ruminative, instrumental hip-hop beats (or more like soundscapes) really did the trick. It works well as background music, and it surely operated as such during many 3 AM writing sessions. But it has more depth than most pretty/haunting ambient noise, and it makes for a challenging listen: it's hard not to get lost in the shimmering waves of shoegazey sound to try and figure out the meanings behind the songs.
Biggest Disappointment: Drake - Take Care. What. A. Mess. After hearing b-sides from the Take Care sessions, and the excellent collab "I'm On One," I thought Drake was going to produce the best album of the year. Instead, Drake offered a choppy, disparate, occasionally blush-worthy, and most of all inconsistent follow-up to 2010's Thank Me Later. Here's a brief overview of the album: it begins much like Thank Me Later with a beautiful opening R&B track accompanied with female vocals, followed by the slow, reverby vocals contrasted with quick raps on "Shot for Me." Everything seems promising until Drake speaks, "May your neighbors accept you, trouble neglect you, angels protect you, and heaven accept you." What the hell is that? It sounds like he read this off a Hallmark card. I blush every time I hear this; the sheer awkwardness of it actually makes my stomach turn. But anyway, the above-average singles "Headlines," "Take Care," and "Marvin's Room" follow, along with the less ubiquitous "Crew Love," which is undoubtedly the best song on the album. Drake and The Weeknd have a strong rapport and should definitely pursue this in the future.
So 6 songs are great, minus one little blemish. But then something happens. There's the intensely narcissistic interlude after "Marvin's Room," where a no-name rapper--who's pretty good, actually--talks about Drake for 2 minutes. The Interlude really separates the fruit from the chaff: "Underground Kings" follows with its interestingly dark, guitar-looped instrumental, but Drake's nasally vocals on the chorus make the song sound more awkward than urgent. Birdman absolutely ruins an otherwise decent "We'll Be Fine" with his nonsensical chatter that closes the track. "Lord Knows" has the most overblown beat and one of the most embarrassing rhymes I've heard in a long time: "I'm hearing all of the jokes, I know that they trying to push me / I know that showing emotion don't ever mean I'm a p****." I can't listen beyond that. The sob-fest "Doing It Wrong" wallows in its platitudes, "we live in a generation of not falling in love / and not being together," and features a painfully out of place harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder. Lil Wayne continues his awful 2011 with two terrible collaborations, "The Real Her" and the otherwise great "HYFR." Read the lyrics to his verses if you need convincing. His delivery is just as awful.
By the 14th song, the incredibly personal "Look What You Done," I no longer care about Drake's life. At this point I feel like a psychiatrist whose 60 minute session is up, but Drake won't stop emoting, especially on this 5 minute snoozer. "Practice" takes the famous Juvenile beat from "Back that Ass Up," simply because it can? This album has grand ambitions; it wants to have legendary rappers (Andre 3k, Lil Wayne), up-and-coming stars (Jamie XX, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, The Weeknd), and big-name cameos (Stevie Wonder, Rihanna), while instrumentally it wants arena-sized beats next to intimate confessions. It sounds like Drake had aspirations of challenging Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but Take Care, though similar in length, drags for something like 40 of its 79 minutes. While Kanye's songs flowed and unfolded beautifully, Drake's seem deliberately extended; sometimes two totally different songs are even slapped together into one. There are several great moments on this album; if it had been cut in half, it could've been special. But Drake's narcissism, which brought him so much success, ruins him here. Well, for me. Everyone else seemed to love this album.
Oh, I really enjoyed "Cameras" and "Make Me Proud," but they're unfortunately overshadowed by all the bad.
Artist I Just Don't Understand: Childish Gambino. Why do people like him again? I find nothing redeeming. This review by Ian Cohen pretty much encapsulates all my feelings: http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/16074-camp/?utm_campaign=search&utm_medium=site&utm_source=search-ac
Favorite Pop Song: "Give Me Everything." Pitbull might be the least talented person on the universe (he's got the vocal prowess of Childish Gambino), but I found/still find this song unbelievably catchy. It's musically trite and lyrically demeaning, misogynistic, and short-sighted, but hey, that's the nature of the pop industry. (Yes, I'm aware of the hypocrisy of placing this entry below my Childish Gambino criticism. Sue me.)
Impressive Comeback: Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys. After a terrible album and EP, I gave up on you, Ben Gibbard. But Codes and Keys proved that DCFC has a lot left to offer, after all. I hear Postal Service and Arcade Fire influences here, but also some hip-hop ("St. Peter's Cathedral") and prog ("Doors Unlocked and Open," "Unobstructed Views,"). I never thought I'd connect prog and hip-hop with Death Cab, but it actually works. This album is catchy, dark, and, frankly, just interesting: I actually want to "decode" Ben's lyrics again, especially in light of his recent divorce--which makes songs like "Unobstructed Views" so interesting. It's awfully dark for a love song. Or "Some Boys," which is strangely poppy for a self-deprecating song that broadcasts Ben's emotional deficiencies. It sounds like he's apologizing, or offering a reason as some sort of closure, but he wants to disguise his anxieties through catchy melodies and distorted vocals. I hope Narrow Stairs was just a bump in the road and DCFC can produce more albums like this. Even if they can't, if they can churn out pop songs half as catchy as "You Are a Tourist" (sans the stupid 'if there's burning in your heart line' -- just take a Tums!), then I'll be happy. Welcome back, Death Cab! And thanks for bringing this to my attention, Annie!
Best Discoveries: The Velvet Underground, especially "Heroin," "Sunday Morning," "Pale Blue Eyes," "Here She Comes Now," "Candy Says," and "After Hours." "Heroin" might be my all-time favorite "classic-rock" song now. I think it's brilliant and have been trying to write a post on it since August. But I have thoroughly enjoyed almost everything I've heard from their 60's albums and now genuinely respect the extremely under-appreciated Lou Reed.
The Replacements - Let It Be. After hearing a snippet of "Unsatisfied" from Adventureland, I knew I needed to hear this song. I found the whole album and have not stopped listening to it since. It's punky, emotional, weird, and fun. It looks and sounds like the 80s, and makes me (almost) proud to be an 80s kid. "Unsatisfied" is definitely one of my favorite songs of the year.
The Pixies. I had the pleasure of seeing these guys when my Aunt Tara asked/begged me to go with her to the Welmont Theatre. My aunt has an awesome taste in music, so I took her advice, even though I never really enjoyed the Pixies before. Well, the concert was amazing and really sold me on the band. I was really into Surfer Rosa for awhile, but lately I cannot stop listening to Doolittle, an album that's almost impossible to categorize: it's poppy yet abrasive, raw yet in many ways refined, fun yet morbid. Whatever, though. It's a great album, beginning with the energetic "Debaser," which pumps me up like few others, and the feral "Tame," a song that sounds like what dozens of post-punk bands have aspired but failed to create.
Best Concert: Explosions in the Sky, with the opener The Antlers. I think. I went to a bunch of shows, but I remember this one leaving me giddy. Plus I got to take my brother, so it was special to see him enjoying the awesomeness that is EITS--especially since they played "The Moon Is Down" with the tambourine solo.
There were other great ones, though: Kevin Devine (as always), The Pixies, Bright Eyes, Lil Wayne, Two Door Cinema Club, Matt & Kim, Japandroids, Deftones, Glassjaw, Clutch. That's what I can remember off the top of my head. Seeing SSLYBY at SHU was pretty sweet, too.
Great year of music. I probably omitted a lot, so here's to being more productive in 2012!