1. Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
Duh, right? Not just a big album for Sub Pop, Seattle, hip-hop, or Shabazz, Black Up stands to be one>"/>
1. Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
Duh, right? Not just a big album for Sub Pop, Seattle, hip-hop, or Shabazz, Black Up stands to be one of the best records of the year, full stop. The album elaborates eloquently on the style established in Shabazz's 2009 twin EPs--hazy yet seismic beats, unconventionally winding song structures, sharp-tongued rapping at turns slick, snarling, and sentimental--but it also opens that sound up to new light. THEESatisfaction lend some jazzy crooning, Ishmael Butler pitches beatific woo [on "A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)"], and throughout, the album's heaviest moods give way to breezy atmospheres and an inviting feeling of playfulness. In a year when so much of the hip-hop conversation has been dominated by bratty provocateurs and underedited uploads, this is your album of 2011: thoughtful, grown, artfully filler-free, and well worth all the talking about. A mindblower.
The rest after the jump . . .
2. Fucked Up: David Comes to Life
From outré hip-hop mini-odyssey to epic (78-minute) post-hardcore rock opera. I've read (most of) the lyrics to this album, and I still couldn't summarize its plot entirely here; I'll wait for the stage production, I guess. Suffice to say it's about life, love, work, and death in a small factory town. It's about freedom and dreams and disappointment and regret and the stories we tell ourselves over and over, in songs and otherwise, and how those fictions frame and shape our worlds. All of which is rendered into two-finger-pointing sing-along anthems through the band's unceasing onslaught of guitar, rhythm section, and screaming. Ace.
3. Cold Cave: Cherish the Light Years
4. The Weeknd: House of Balloons
One thing I'm noticing putting this list together is that I like my genre boundaries tweaked, if not entirely transcended: I like my hip-hop screwed up and disassembled, my hardcore sublimated into nigh-Springsteenian rock sing-along, my gothic electro-pop dialed up to epic proportions. Or I'm just a hopeless dilettante. Either way, here's the token weirdo R&B entry for the list: a free mixtape (ruh-roh) from a craftily camera-shy Toronto producer that turns The-Dream/Drake-style noiR&Bmo into an almost ambient drug/fuck suite.
5. Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise
This is kind of only a short jump from the list's previous entry, a woozy record that smears minimal techno into jazz into a cappella R&B into ambient and back again, defying pat categorization but definitely rewarding deep, repeated listening.
6. LCD Soundsystem: Live at Madison Square Garden
BUT I WAS THERE! (Well almost/close enough.) And this (bootleg? Semi-official?) recording of the band's final show EVAR turned up on the Internet almost immediately after the performance--a massive, four-hour, champagne-sweaty, Aziz Ansari crowd-surfing swan song surveying the almost-decade-long career of one of my generation's greatest bands (and certainly one of its most killer live acts).
7. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong
Honorable Mentions: James Blake: James Blake; Panda Bear: Tomboy; Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues; Battles: Gloss Drop.