1) Drake - Take Care
Much hyped, much rated and much hated; Drake has made the best RnB since Justified. If you file Drake under the ‘lame ass rapper’ heading there is a call to say you’d be right. As a rapper he isn’t the greatest of all time but he doesn’t confess to be. It can be easy to criticise his #hashtag flow or his ‘first world problem’ lyrics. But you have to see past that. Drake works because all of these combine with near perfect production, clever melodies and a nice guy image that makes him one of the best in hip hop right now. His partnership with ‘40’ has a lot to do with his success but surely that doesnt really matter when you’re writing songs like “Underground Kings” and “Marvin’s Room”.
2) James Blake - James Blake
Call it what you like but the sound that James Blake has created for himself has pretty much defined what 2011 has been in terms of music. The xx might have gotten the minimalist ball rolling but James Blake has moved it forward to the dance floor. The tenderness in Blake’s vocals is completely juxtaposed by the heavy bass on tracks like “Limit To Your Love” but it just works. This record is the perfect collision of classic song writing and alternative dance music. Whilst his latest work has been very piano heavy, here it is used in all the right places and creates another world for the listener; one they never want to leave.
3) Gil Scott-Heron vs. Jamie xx - We’re New Here
Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album “I’m New Here” was his best release in over 30 years and proved to everybody that he is still the more relevant to street culture than most of the Billboard Hot 100. This remix album is much more than just that. It cuts and pastes the best parts of Gil Scott’s career which spans almost 50 years. The album not only proves again how important Gil Scott-Heron, who passed away in May, was but also how exceptionally good a producer Jamie xx is. His reworks of Florence + The Machine and Adele were but a show piece for what is the most consistent, well written remix album in years. It is so well produced that it feels like a new album. There is no ‘fingers-in-the-air’ club songs like Gaga’s recent effort; it is too well thought out for that. The production is so good in fact that it attracted the attention of Drake who samples “I’ll Take Care of U” in his sophomore album’s title track. “We’re New Here” is a remix album for music lovers.
4) EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
A lot of people wont ‘get’ this album. It’s distorted acoustic guitars and lo fi production arent for everybody. But if you can find a way into EMA there is no going back. The barebones approach to this record is truly beautiful. Songs like “Marked” are the reason the world needs EMA. Her voice sounds damaged and so does the music. The best way to describe this record is to imagine if Bon Iver (circa 2009) and Josh Homme merged together and into female form and were left in the desert with nothing but a guitar and an old microphone.
5) Jay Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne
it is worth mentioning at this point that none of this years albums, as brilliant as they are, come close to Yeezy’s 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. It was a deranged, magical circus of hip-hop’s greats. it is for this reason that Watch the Throne was disappointing. When the decade’s best producer and the best rapper alive collide it should be a match made in heaven. In many ways it is. Watch the Throne’s songs are excellent and both rappers, particularly Kanye, are on top of their game. It is a return to form for Jigga, who’s last album fell flat of his previous work. The only thing that stops this album from being the best album of this year (it is definitely a classic and will probably date better than anything else on the list) is that the songs dont fit together as well as they could. A good album has to feel like an album, that same way The Black Album or MBDTF does. A perfect album can only be played from start to finish with no exceptions; somewhere WTT falls short.
6) The Weeknd - House of Ballons/Thursday
If you could go back to 2010 and ask who The Weeknd was do you know what people would say? Nothing. The Canadian singer’s stunning rise to fame is mind blowing. Not only was his first, free mixtape nominated for the Solaris Prize but he co-wrote and features on 4 of the songs on Drake’s new album Take Care. In the sleeve notes of Take Care, Drake thanks The Weeknd and the rest of the XO Gang for being there and that without them he could not have made the album he wanted to. There is so little you can say about The Weeknd’s music without hearing it for yourself. If James Blake opened 2011 to an R’n’B sound, then The Weeknd has closed it. The third mixtape in the trilogy, Echoes Of Silence, is still shrouded in mystery but will drop before the year is out. After that, The Weeknd really doesn’t have to do anything to be considered a great. But let’s pray that he will.
7) Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Nobody really saw Bon Iver’s return coming. He could have remained solo; a man and a guitar writing melancholic songs about a past love that every teenage boy and girl could relate to. By returning with a full band there was a great chance to attack Bon Iver. But the self titled sophomore record is even better than the first. There is an undeniable beauty in For Emma, Forever Ago but in 2011it can feel slow. “Bon Iver” is an album that takes the ideas from that first album and injects colour into them. This album doesn’t sound like it was recorded by the same man. But dont worry, you can still cry to it.
8) Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra
Frank Ocean isn’t Odd Future. If you are one of the closed minded fools that dismiss any of the group’s affiliates as young skate rats that disrespect women then you are missing out on one of the most exciting new talents of the year. Not only is his sound different but the melodies Frank Ocean creates are some of the greatest you will hear. The same way The Weeknd released a mix tape and suddenly became the most sought out artist in the game, so did Frank Ocean. The two’s path this year can be paralleled easily. Both released R’n’B influenced mixtapes to critical acclaim, both have written songs for other artists and both ended up singing hooks on the two biggest hip hop releases of the year. Frank Ocean is less pretentious than The Weeknd but is no less talented. Nostalgia, Ultra is a fun, intelligent and seductive record that will make you fall instantly for Frank Ocean and never look back.
9) Tyler, The Creator - Goblin
You were probably shacked up in a log cabin somewhere watching old repeats of Top Gear if you haven’t heard of Tyler, The Creator. The biggest breakthrough of the year has everyone watching him - not everyone positively. No matter what you think of Tyler off the mic there is no denying his skill with producing and painting lyrical pictures. Goblin isn’t as filthy as Bastard but the progression of Tyler in the time between is clear. The production is more varied and the subjects broadened. The album isn’t the classic it was hyped to be but Tyler is growing with every release and next year’s Wolf should be what we’ve been waiting for.
10) Arctic Monkeys - Suck it And See
The only people that seem to not like the Arctics are people who dismissed their first record as lad rock and moved on. Through by-passing the 3 albums since, they missed out. Suck it And See is arguably the most consistent of the band’s records since their debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, but in every other way it is basically incomparable. They’ve moved on, further towards Queens Of The Stone age territory but it’s not bad thing. The title track is excellent and the moments where the band let themselves slip into heavy mode are some of the greatest. If they do split up as the rumours have been saying, after this album then it confirms their place in indie heaven. What ever happens the Arctic Monkeys will be remembered as, probably, the most important British band of the 2000s.