100 Great (Not Best!) Songs of 2011

by Seth Colter Walls

This is not a “best of 2011” music list. I didn’t hear or read or see all the music this year. Did you? Perhaps after consulting with a suitably large staff, a publication could reasonably claim to draw a box around, say, the best music of the year. I tend to count myself rarely satisfied with these attempts, though, even if I’m consulted. How about you?

No, don’t even start, as I’ve seen every single one of you beefing on Twitter about a subjective list. You weren’t wrong to do so! Lists are always wrong. It’s a part of their power, this axiomatic guarantee of failure. A list might “start a discussion” or draw clicks (not the same thing), but it’s always gonna anger. Even should it focus narrowly on a single genre, the better to claim total knowledge, it’ll fail, because yup: a judicious myopia rankles, too.

Now: at this point, if you like, you could just jump straight to go listen to this promised music.

But it’s interesting how frequently we continue to make and read lists. I’ve set all mine, for music at least, already. The aggregate sorting and assessing included decisions about classical albums I was asked to nominate for one publication, choices for a nationwide jazz-critics’ poll that’s due in the morning, some hip-hop entries for another spot. I couldn’t really make the list for one genre without figuring out how I felt about everything. Excuse me: “everything I heard this year.” See what I did there? So what follows is not a rebuke of everything you heard and/or liked that I didn’t in 2011. It’s a list of my favorites. Hey, look: we got rid of the word “best.”

Though maybe we didn’t, quite; perhaps we never do. It’s a difficult word to escape. Paste kicked off the silly season in music criticism the other week by being more or less first out of the gate to publish a “50 Best Albums” list — before The Roots’ “undun” came out (or was even furnished to press via protected streams). That list (and a few others) also came out before Anthony Hamilton’s “Back to Love” hit NPR’s First Listen the other day. (I’ve already listened a first time, and a second, third, et al etc.)

The Paste list, to the extent that it claims to represent “the best” of music’s overall pile, expresses some eyebrow-raising inferences about aesthetics in 2011. Hip-hop doesn’t have many ambassadors to the summit as defined here; apparently Paste would have us believe that the best rap record of the year came from that one guy who acts in “Community,” followed by that other guy whose sweaters are undeniably meme-worthy and used to be on another show. R&B;’s influence is similarly limited to global sensation Adele and cause mîcroblog-célèbres Frank Ocean. Modern jazz and contemporary classical: they can go get their respective shineboxes. This list took a lot of flack along “LOL, white ppl” lines, despite the problematizing reality that it didn’t much reflect the diversity of music made by caucasian folk, either.

Not that these blinders aren’t also fronted in the opposite direction. The perspicacious critic Ted Gioia has, of late, gamely worked up a Top 100 albums list, across “all genres” … that has no hip-hop in it. Called out by Times jazz critic Nate Chinen on Twitter, Gioia doubled down:

@natechinen C’mon Nate, you know that — with a few exceptions — level of musicianship on hiphop records falls short of jazz, classical, etc.Tue Dec 06 00:09:55 via web

Ted Gioia

Now, to Gioia’s credit, he backed off a bit after Chinen (and others) raised the perfectly reasonable point that instrumental prowess is not the same thing as musicianship. (Which isn’t to suggest that instrumental prowess can’t be observed in hip-hop, either.) He solicited requests for rap that he might listen to, and expressed a willingness to give those recommendations a whirl. As Twitter debates between music critics go, this was a pretty civil, value-adding enterprise.

The “Difficult Listening Hour” column that has run, with varying frequency, here on The Awl since Summer ’09 has traditionally focused on what Sun Ra called “other planes of there.” But it can mean something else, too, aside from a devotion to experimental flights; “difficult listening” might also connote doing the work of a Fitzgerald-ian musical mind, one that absorbs a number of opposed genres and still manages to function.

One time when I was talking to Questlove, I mentioned how something on “How I Got Over” reminded me of a moment on an early Sun Ra side, and he geeked out with me for approximately five minutes. On another occasion, PJ Harvey talked my ear off about the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. (Harvey’s “Let England Shake” places high on my favorite albums list, by the way — as does the Oregon Symphony’s new account of Williams’ Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, on their all-around brilliant disc “Music for a Time of War.”)

Comprehensive knowledge remains a chimera, though even if it weren’t, I know I wouldn’t be able to claim it for myself yet: there is only one “Latin”-tinged album on my “Favorite 50 Albums” list, which follows. This is an oversight I’d like to address in the future. (And I’d be happy to take some recommendations in the comments.)

While I’ve spent plenty of time with the classical and jazz over the years, I remain convinced that almost everything from those genres in the list to come is capable of speaking to listeners who may be less versed. The buzzsaw-noise keyboard samples that kick off Annie Gosfield’s recent piece “Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers,” as performed on a new EP by pianist Lisa Moore, pack as thrilling a low-end grind as anything I heard in techno this year. (Though Lone’s “Explorers” is good on that score, also.) The one exception, so far as avant-newbies go, would be Anthony Braxton’s four-hour absurdist-modernist opera “Trillium E: Wallingford’s Polarity Gambit,” which would be a terrible place to start listening to Anthony Braxton. However, if you cherish your 8-CD Complete Arista Recordings as much as I do, you have to check out this first full studio recording of a Braxton opera. (If you don’t have the Complete Arista, maybe ask for it as a gift this holiday season.)

Were we suffering from an era of musical scarcity, I might have to grapple more vigorously with the fact that I find Kanye West both very talented and very annoying to let into my life for more than five minutes at a time. But we don’t live in that era of scarcity; No I.D. and Flying Lotus contributed beats to Killer Mike’s “Pl3dge” that seem to me as good or better than any on “Watch the Throne.” I might also have rated Beyoncé’s “4” twenty or so positions higher, if not for the witless and class-deaf nonce word “swagoo.”

I liked Annie Clark’s piece for the yMusic chamber ensemble better than anything on her latest recording as St. Vincent. And my liberal philosophical cast takes comfort in seeing women gaining ground in the sphere of “classical” composition on the whole — as with Kaija Saariaho’s clarinet concerto “D’om le Vrai Sens” — even while Hilary Hahn continues to knock slept-on modern repertoire by the likes of Charles Ives out of the park. When speaking of art that challenges our stereotypical racial constructs, I also like to make note of Yelawolf’s rapping, George Lewis’s chamber music, and Matana Roberts’ visionary approach to the avant-jazz concept album.

There’s a loose genre key at the bottom of the albums list, in case you’d like to reverse-engineer the constituent genre-segregated lists. But really, so what? I’d say to the extent that lists from critics serve any useful purpose at all, this happens not by constricting and defining anything with too much certainty, but by promoting and celebrating perceived values as widely as possible.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to see a bunch of movies before turning in my film-critic ballot next week.

The “Difficult Listening Hour” 50 Favorite Albums of 2011

(Some of my very favorite jazz of the year isn’t so much on Spotify. YouTubes are embedded in this list for a couple of incredible albums that don’t show up on the playlist.

50. Dave Douglas / So Percussion — GreenLeaf Portable Series Volume 3: Bad Mango (!)
49. Tech N9ne — All 6s and 7s (@)
48. George Lewis — Les Exercices Spirituels (!)
47. Jean-Michel Pilc — Essential (!)
46. Beastie Boys — Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (@)
45. Tyshawn Sorey — Oblique I (!)
44. Eleanor Friedberger — Last Summer (#)
43. Action Bronson — Doctor Lecter (@)
42. Beyoncé — 4 (@)
41. Now Ensemble — Awake (!)
40. Rihanna — Talk That Talk (@)
39. The Men — Leave Home (#)
38. Matthew Shipp — Art of the Improviser (!)
37. Radiohead — The King of Limbs (#)
36. Yelawolf — Radioactive (@)
35. Wild Flag — Wild Flag (#)
34. Keiji Haino / Jim O’Rourke / Oren Ambarchi — in a flash everything comes together as one there is no need for a subject ($)
33. Kepler Quartet — Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 & 10 (!)








Loose genre key / statistical splits:

Jazz/Classical (!): 21
Hip-hop/R&B; (@): 16
Punk/Hardcore/Alt-Rock/Traditional Indie (#): 8
Noise ($): 1
Tom Waits (%): 1
Country (^): 1
Autodidact-Harpist Singer-Songwriter (&): 1
Somewhat Contentiously Filed Under “Black Metal” (*): 1

And now!


If you’re on Spotify, you can just click right here to enjoy in that form. Or try this!

Killer Mike — That’s Life II
John Cage — Credo in US
Pistol Annies — The Hunter’s Wife
Fucked Up — Ship Of Fools
Goapele — Money
Miguel Zenon — Olas Y Arenas
PJ Harvey — The Last Living Rose
Death Grips — Lord of the Game (ft. Mexican Girl)
Rihanna — Watch n’ Learn
Aurora Orchestra — Byrd: Miserere Mei
Liturgy — Returner
E-40–43 Feat. B-Legit
Jean-Michel Pilc — Mack the Knife
Marsha Ambrosius — Hope She Cheats On You (With A Basketball Player)
Annie Gosfield — Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers: I. With enthusiasm and a little violence
Annie Gosfield — Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers: II. Languid and layered
Annie Gosfield — Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers: III. Machine-like, but with some groove
K’LA — All Your Love — Explicit Version
Lone — Explorers
Micachu & The Shapes and the London Sinfonietta — Low Dogg
Britney Spears — Gasoline
Red Fang — Wires
Statik Selektah — Cliff Notes
Meshell Ndegeocello — Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
Kari Kriikku — D’OM LE VRAI SENS: I. L’Ouie
Kari Kriikku — D’OM LE VRAI SENS: II. La Vue
Kari Kriikku — D’OM LE VRAI SENS: III. L’Odorat
Kari Kriikku — D’OM LE VRAI SENS: IV. Le Toucher
Kari Kriikku — D’OM LE VRAI SENS: V. Le Gout
Kari Kriikku — D’OM LE VRAI SENS: VI. A mon seul desir
Raphael Saadiq — Heart Attack
2562 — Winamp Melodrama
The Men — Bataille
The Roots — One Time
The Roots — Will To Power (3rd Movement)
Now Ensemble — Waiting in the Rain for Snow
Eleanor Friedberger — My Mistakes
Beyoncé — 1+1
PJ Harvey — The Words That Maketh Murder
Brad Paisley — A Man Don’t Have To Die
Yelawolf — Slumerican Shitizen
Nicholas Phan — Winter Words Op. 52: Before Life and After
Liturgy — Generation
Lucinda Williams — Convince Me
Kitchener Waterloo Symphony — Popcorn Superhet Receiver / Part 1
Kitchener Waterloo Symphony — Popcorn Superhet Receiver / Part 2a
Kitchener Waterloo Symphony — Popcorn Superhet Receiver / Part 2b
Killer Mike — Ready Set Go
Tom Waits — Bad As Me
John Cage — Imaginary Landscape No. 5
Tune-Yards — Powa
Wye Oak — Dogs Eyes
Anthony Hamilton — Woo
Death Grips — Takyon (Death Yon)
Eric Church — Drink In My Hand
Beyoncé — Love On Top
Akira Sakata & Jim O’Rourke With Chikamorachi — Nagoya 1 [Part 2]
Meshell Ndegeocello — Rapid Fire
Pistol Annies — Takin’ Pills
Yelawolf — Growin’ Up In The Gutter
Jean-Michel Pilc — Caravan
Rihanna — We Found Love
Beastie Boys — Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win (featuring Santigold)
Marsha Ambrosius — Lose Myself
Miguel Zenon — Incomprendido
Ryan Adams — Invisible Riverside
Oregon Symphony — Symphony No. 4 in F minor: I. Allegro
Oregon Symphony — Symphony No. 4 in F minor: II. Andante moderato
Oregon Symphony — Symphony No. 4 in F minor: III. Scherzo: Allegro molto
Oregon Symphony — Symphony No. 4 in F minor: IV. Finale con epilogo fugato: Allegro molto
Big K.R.I.T. — Sookie Now — Explicit Version
Beastie Boys — Lee Majors Come Again
Raphael Saadiq — Good Man
Dave Douglas — One More News (feat. Dave Douglas & So Percussion)
Fucked Up — One More Night
yMusic — Proven Badlands
Goapele — Play
Pistol Annies — Beige
Aurora Orchestra — Byrd: Bow Thine Ear
Radiohead — Codex
Miguel — Sure Thing
Now Ensemble — Change
Red Fang — Hank is Dead
Matthew Shipp — Take the A Train
Roman Patkoló — Penderecki: Duo concertante
Wye Oak — Holy Holy
Big K.R.I.T. — Country Sh*t (Remix) — Explicit Version
International Contemporary Ensemble — Son of Chamber Symphony I
International Contemporary Ensemble — Son of Chamber Symphony II
International Contemporary Ensemble — Son of Chamber Symphony III
Paul Simon — Dazzling Blue
The Men — LADOCH
E-40 — Serious Feat. T-Pain
Nicholas Phan — Winter Words Op. 52: Midnight On The Great Western
Mary Halvorson — The Pseudocarp Walks Among Us
Killer Mike — Swimming
Valentina Lisitsa — Ives: Sonata for Violin and Piano No.4 “Children’s Day At The Camp Meeting” — 1. Allegro
Valentina Lisitsa — Ives: Sonata for Violin and Piano No.4 “Children’s Day At The Camp Meeting” — 2. Largo — Allegro (con slugarocko)
Valentina Lisitsa — Ives: Sonata for Violin and Piano No.4 “Children’s Day At The Camp Meeting” — 3. Allegro

Seth Colter Walls is a culture critic and reporter for Slate, the Village Voice, the Washington Post, Capital New York, and also a contributing writer to XXL Magazine.