I’ve become very good at buying music these days. I rarely dislike anything I purchase, but that is a problem. With the ability to sample nearly anything and everything before I buy, my taste has become so narrowed down. Thus, my list is probably the most predictable list of all. But I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. The great thing about music is that it’s so subjective. You like what you like. I don’t listen to music as much to expand my horizon as I did when I was 15. I’m more buttoned down in my tastes. But if at 35 my tastes are much different than when I was 15, I can’t wait to see what I’m going to be into in 20 more years.
Before I get to my top 11, my song of the year is “Otis” by Kanye West and Jay-Z. When “HAM” hit the radio, I was quite concerned that the Watch The Throne project was going to falter much like Jay-Z’s work with R. Kelly did. But “Otis” changed that for me quickly. It was everything that I wanted their album to be. It was that summer jam that you expected and it just hammered home how talented both guys are. However, probably my favorite thing about the song is that it was named after the old security guard Otis from the great TV show, Martin.
I liked these albums this year.
Looking at my list, one thing is very apparent. I’m a very loyal music listener. Johnny Gill’s Still Winning (number 10 on my list) and Boyz II Men’s Twenty (8) aren’t the best albums that either has released, but to me, they were still better than nearly all R&B I heard all year long. (And how can you not like the LSG reunion with Johnny, Keith Sweat, and papa Eddie Levert filling in for Gerald?) Add to that, a Mary J. Blige album, My Life II (6) that I enjoyed more so than most of her recent releases and here’s a list of artists who were rockin’ in the early 90s and are still rockin’ today.
I really enjoyed Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger (11) more than I thought I would. Kelly has an interesting career arc. Her first album placed her in a weird category of R&B/soul/pop and her second and most successful album marketed her correctly. Since then, she’s been trying to get as close to the success (artistic and commercial) of that second album Breakaway. I think she’s come the closest with her newest album. I didn’t expect to like Childish Gambino’s Camp (9), but I haven’t laughed while listening to a rap record like this since I was a kid. And the guy isn’t just schtick. He can actually flow a little bit. If you don’t take your rap music too seriously, you’re going to really enjoy it.
I also enjoyed Amy Winehouse’s posthumous album, Lioness: Hidden Treasures (7). Putting an album that isn’t all new material on a best-of list might be a little odd, but when the material is as good as Amy’s, it’s not that odd. I have to admit, I turned it off after listening to the first track because I had to relive that she was gone. But I soldiered up and got through it and was glad I did.
11. Kelly Clarkson: Stronger
10. Johnny Gill: Still Winning
9. Childish Gambino: Camp
8. Boyz II Men: Twenty
7. Amy Winehouse Lioness: Hidden Treasures
6. Mary J. Blige: My Life II
5. Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
Stone Rollin’ is a great retro-sounding release. The one thing you have to give Saadiq credit for is for staying creative. While I would say his last release wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, Stone Rollin’ is a fun ride. You get the feeling that Raph could’ve been an artist in any decade and fit right in.
4. Mayer Hawthorne: How Do You Do
I’ve been asked to listen to Mayer Hawthorne for a couple of years now. “You’ll like him!” they said. And yes, they were right. Hawthorne is also a retro-sounding artist, but the difference between him and Saadiq is that he tries to make an old sound contemporary, while Saadiq tries to make an old sound authentic. There’s a place for both artists and it’s no surprise that they’re both in my top five. Throw Winehouse in the top 11 and you sort of understand my 2011 taste.
3. Kanye West & Jay-Z: Watch The Throne
My only real complaint with this album is that it wasn’t as good as Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and as complaints go, that’s a pretty tepid one. It couldn’t be that album. That album was Kanye at his absolute best. Here, Kanye takes a backseat and plays second fiddle to his big brother. That’s both a positive and a negative. Since it’s more so a Jay record, it’s more fun, more summery, and the rhymes are stronger. But it’s also less artistic, less emotional, and less personal than Kanye’s records. If there’s one thing you can take away from this album, it’s that Jay and Kanye have chemistry together, which isn’t always the case with superstar duos. In fact, it’s usually not the case. You can imagine them in the studio together, big brother and little brother, arguing, laughing, and collaborating. And every session probably ends with Jay-Z putting Kanye in a headlock. That shit cray.
2. Adele: 21
I had this one at number one for a little while. But then, my 15-year old self said that I couldn’t have some British singer ahead of a group like The Roots. (And also, every listen to the latest Roots album just made me love it more.) However, this isn’t just any British singer. As I described above, my tastes have become very predictable. It takes a little bit of something for an artist who I don’t know to break into my listening rotation like Adele did a few years ago. It started with Chasing Pavements, which I still find to be one of the more amazing songs in recent years. Adele didn’t only pick up where she left off at 19, but she improved on it. I just hope that when she makes 45, she still has a her voice and doesn’t sound like Bea Arthur.
The biggest compliment I can give The Roots is that they make full albums. They don’t make songs intended to be hot singles. They put together cohesive pieces of music that blend into a full work of art. When I listen to Undun, I generally listen to it from start to finish. I don’t even know the titles to the songs. To me, Undun is one song with 14 parts. There are a few things that are for sure. The sun will set. Dust will settle. And The Roots will bring it each and every time.