Five Albums of 2011Envoy arts editors' top picks
1. Girls—Father, Son, Holy Ghost
If Christopher Owens, the front man of the critically acclaimed San Francisco rock band Girls, is anything, he’s sin-cere. The band’s sappy lyrics and genre-hopping may seem derivative and almost taboo, but the sincerity behind the words helps to communicate a devotion not only to the music but also to the listener. Owens’ eclectic upbringing (he was raised overseas in the Children of God cult) may contribute to both the simplicity of his words and his ability to communicate so clearly to a wide audience. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is quite a departure from Girls’ first album. Not only does it include a variety of different instruments, but it also includes talented back-up vocals reminiscent of old 1960s girl groups. The record is prolific in terms of melody, but it also reflects a new style of songwriting for Girls. Something more complex than their old songs and more culturally relevant is present throughout the album. Standout tracks include “Alex” and “Honey Bunny.”
2. A$AP Rocky—LiveLoveA$AP
It’s easy to hate A$AP Rocky, a rapper who seems more interested in mining niche subgenres for aesthetic cool points, rather than showing any discernible personality that goes beyond what he listens to. But in the unlikeliest scenario, style has prevailed on LiveLoveA$AP. What Rocky lacks as a lyricist, he makes up for with his vision. The beats are a lean and cohesive distillation of what has grown popular in blog-rap circles over the past few of years. Woozy, codeine-addled trap music finds fresh terrain within the more ethereal textures of today’s buzzing rap underground. Fellow A$AP members and other guests fall comfortably into place with strange, effective imitations of older gangster rappers. Underneath it all is Rocky playing a serviceable host. He’s hardly ever brilliant, save for a well-done Bone Thugs-N-Harmony-aping flow that he brings out occasionally, but he knows how to navigate these beats with command and when to stay out the way. That’s far more valuable than technically sound rapping could ever be.
3. Cass McCombs—Wit’s End
This record received high critical praise, but remains under-appreciated by mass audiences. McCombs is known for his mysterious songwriting and refusal to reveal personal biographical information—what is known is that he travels and records with some of the greatest musicians out there. This release reflects more of a laid-back country vibe, reminiscent of early Neil Young and some of the later Byrds records. The lap steel is a nice touch, and the clarity of the production makes it sound like it was recorded on the best analog equipment of all time. The record itself is timeless, and proves to be a significant stepping-stone for both McCombs’ career and songwriting abilities. Standout tracks are “County Line” and “The Lonely Doll.”
4. John Maus—We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
This is one of the best records of 2011. It was released on June 28th by Ribbon Music and transcends earlier pop records. Filled with countless drum machines and programmed synth sounds, this record is more than just rehashed ‘80s music. It is the definition of a timeless pop record with the ability to communicate to the masses. The songs are catchy, the choruses are memorable and Maus’ music reflects the simplicity that is prevalent in pop sensations of the past, yet he has a certain philosophy behind the music that he makes. As a Ph.D student, his interest lies in political philosophy and the communication of his music to a mass audience.
5. Max B—Vigilante Season
Perhaps an unfair admission, as most of the album was released by Max B during his prolific and severely underrated mixtape run before his 2009 sentencing to 40 years in prison. What stands out here, in versions of songs with cleaner mixes and no DJ shout outs, is Max’s uncanny ability to craft catchy hooks. Max shows traditional songwriting talents, but he adds dimension by coloring these structures with a delivery that sounds intoxicated and terribly depressed. He’s like a new-age soul artist who’s concerned with coke sales, women, and the demise of Dipset member Jim Jones. Max B’s raps are sloppy, but he makes up for it through sheer conviction, as he dips into strangely melodic pockets of frustration and occasional triumph in his verses.