Year-end Top 10 list: August Brown

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Throughout the week and holiday season, Pop & Hiss will be presenting various top 10 lists from its contributors. What follows are the favorite albums of the year from staffer August Brown.

No. 1. Drake, ‘Take Care’ (Cash Money). It’s easy to smirk at Drake’s persona of a cosmopolitan playboy tasting Caligulan delights yet still feeling implacably empty. But his character – equal parts rap swag and Woody Allen neurotic– resonated with millions of young fans in a culture hypnotized by the optimism-porn of social media, while hope for a meaningful career and stable social connections remain a bad joke. Oh, and it might be the most gorgeously-produced pop album in years.

No. 2. A$AP Rocky, ‘LiveLoveA$AP’ (self-release). Odd Future proved that weirdo Internet rap can be a self-sustaining business model. Now this crew of New Yorkers is testing if it can thrive in the existing label infrastructure. Its leader, A$AP Rocky, signed a much-ballyhooed multimillion-dollar major-label deal but this free mixtape cemented his reputation. His reserved, steely delivery owes equal debts to Houston’s syrup daze and Dipset’s uptown intensity, and the gauzy beats from Clams Casino were some of the year’s most imaginative, evocative hip-hop productions.

No. 3. The Weeknd, various mixtapes (self-release). The Toronto R&B alias of Abel Tesfaye imagines Drake freed from his obligations to “sell records” or “appeal to people with a shred of optimism about human relationships.” Across three free albums, Tesfaye stares into a Bret Easton Ellis abyss of coked-up group sex with anonymous models that admittedly treads an uncomfortable threshold of consent. But even if everyone involved comes out feeling miserable (listener included), it’s undeniably potent stuff, with mercurial productions to match its decadent, unfeeling mood.


No. 4. Gang Gang Dance, ‘Eye Contact’ (4AD). The experimental New York quartet has always made records less than the sum of their parts. But they were consistently amazing parts — East African guitar trills, crunk synths, devastating drumming and Björk-ian vocal wails. But by the time you get to the end of the career-redefining 11-minute opener “Glass Jar,” you’re already convinced that this time is different, and they do not disappoint for the rest of the record.

No. 5. James Blake, ‘James Blake’ (Universal Republic). How unfortunate that Blake got pegged as a dubstep producer right when the genre drove off the rails into self-parody. Fortunately, his major-label debut was a quietly subversive songwriters’ album that sounded both completely alien and immediate. Even when chopping his voice into broken bits of harmony, the fundamental musicality here heralded a major new artist (and he backed it up with some gobsmacking live sets). His famous Joni Mitchell cover was apropos — imagine her ladies of the canyon as ghosts in our machines.

No. 6. The Horrors, ‘Skying’ (XL Recordings). After completing one of the most surprising about-faces in rock (growing from smarmy goth punks with some of the worst haircuts in music to Neu! and Jesus & Mary Chain students), the band proved that lightning can indeed strike twice with “Skying.” Regal synths, excellent songwriting and the sonic reach of Roxy Music, Talk Talk and Simple Minds made a quiet case that, against all early expectations, they somehow became an essential rock band.

No. 7. EMA, ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’ (Souterrain Transmissions). If Nico had grown up in the ‘90s, she might have turned out like Erika M. Anderson. The statuesque singer and noise-friendly producer made one of the weirder singer-songwriter records of recent memory, with sandblasted samples and a grungy guitar tangle backing up her nihilistic tales of youth on the fringes. “Milkman” holds up to Bessie Smith in the ravenous-sex-metaphor pantheon, and the first lines of the stark “California” are enough to make any of us wonder why we live here.

No. 8. Kendrick Lamar, ‘Section.80' (Top Dawg Entertainment / Section.80). Here’s one of the year’s best surprises — a great rap record from South L.A. utterly unself-conscious about trying to become one. Lamar passes a hip-hop version of the Bechdel test on the centerpiece “Keisha’s Song,” where he strikes a deep friendship with a vulnerable woman over their shared crack-era childhoods, and it sets the tone for an urgent, defiant, learned and ambitious full-length that’s sonically forward and emotionally bare. He has a bit of backpacker’s navel-gazing streak, but it’s leavened with some unflinching social realism — he’ll tell a girl she doesn’t need makeup to be pretty, but can admit to dark fantasies about giving into criminality and the seductiveness of nihilism. Contradictions abound here (and maybe Dr. Dre, who took him under his wing, can refine them) — but it’s an accurate document of a young mind operating at white heat.

No. 9. Frank Ocean, ‘Nostalgia.Ultra’ (self-release). Carving out space for your voice between the monolithic egos of Jay-Z and Kanye West and “Watch The Throne” is a feat that deserves some kind of Swedish prize medal. Frank Ocean is Odd Future’s lady-killer (in the metaphorical sense, not in Tyler the Creator’s I’ll bury-you-in-my-backyard-if-you-don’t-date-me way), and this long-neglected full-length arrived just in time to usher his svelte tenor into the rap and R&B vanguard.

No. 10. Nicolas Jaar, ‘Space is Only Noise’ (Circus Company). Dance music’s conquest of America pop has been the genre’s big story for the last few years. So what are the scene’s weird kids up to? The not-yet-legal Jaar, at least, is making stark, virtuosic tone poems that edge up to danceability, but enticingly never quite arrive there. His insanely polyglot identity — equal parts French, Palestinian, Chilean, New Yorker and Ivy Leaguer — is deftly represented in his debut album’s reach, where Ethiopian sax, Francophile pianos and Berliner digital treatments bump into each other in the world’s best after-hours club.


Year-end top 10 list: Todd Martens

2011 year in review: Best in pop music

Best of 2011 in pop music: Randall Roberts

— August Brown