As we head into the final days of 2011, its time to reflect back on the musical releases this year and examine the best music from the past 12 months. Compiling this list was no easy task as it was a year stacked with quality releases. As with last year, since the focus of this site is always live music and we’re discussing studio albums, we’re providing a new live song from each artist who made the list.
1. THE ROOTS – UNDUN
Its not often when you can find a band who has been around for over 25 years and is 13 albums deep in the game (actually now 14 thanks to Betty Wright). Its even more obscure when that 13th album is among the best in their catalog, but hey, they dont call them The Legendary for nothing. Undun marks The Roots first concept album, showcasing the life and struggles of Redford Stephens, a fictional character inspired by the troubled youths of Philadelphia in the 1990s. Don’t let the album’s brief length fool you, as every note and lyric are poignant and relevant to the narrative. While The Roots’ can be seen in their playful, lighter side on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon nightly, the album is a stark contrast- a powerful reinforcement that The Roots are masters of their craft.
2. M.ANIFEST – IMMIGRANT CHRONICLES: COMING TO AMERICA
M.anifest brings a unique sound to hip-hop, heavily rooted in his Ghana heritage, with live instrumentation and a distinct African vibe. Immigrant Chronicles effortlessly transports the listener to the streets of Accra- and its journey you will want to take repeatedly as he delivers sharp rhymes over lush beats with ease. This album is not to be missed.
3. RECESS – RECESS
Recess is a Brooklyn-based collective, consisting of Sene and the band, The Clubhouse. I had always been a fan of Sene, but when Recess formed, his music was elevated to whole new level. I had the privilege of seeing Recess perform twice this year, and each time was blown away by how tight they sound as a group. They aren’t necessarily a household name yet, but you would be hard pressed to find a better live band to see and their debut album deserves to be heard. With features from Fresh Daily, Don Will (of Tanya Morgan) and Blu, any true fan of hip-hop would be missing out by passing this over.
4. BLITZ THE AMBASSADOR – NATIVE SUN
As you probably already know, we’re huge supporters of Blitz as he topped our Best of 2009 list. As the follow up to the acclaimed Stereotype, Native Sun takes his vision even further, combining boom bap hip-hop and an incredible horns section with his native Ghanian culture and music. The album is a tribute to his homeland, and you’ll often find him rapping in his native language, Twi, and even singing on a few cuts as well. Equally as impressive as the album is the accompanying short film of the same title, which was filmed on location in Ghana. Its inspiring film-making and the visuals further absorb the listener into the music (take notes Kanye, this is how you make a music film).
5. CUNNINLYNGUISTS – ONEIROLOGY
As one of the most consistent groups in hip-hop, Oneirology was almost a shoe-in to make our list before it even was released. Kno kicked it up a notch on this album creating some of his best beats to date and Deacon and Natti shine as usual. The albums is dark and moody, with hints of psychedelic undertones woven into the beats. Its not a very radio friendly album- and I say that in a good way.
6. CHRIS FAUST – FAUST
The artist formerly known as Print is reborn as Chris Faust, and with the name change comes a different approach to his music. The album contains no samples and is purely derived from organic beat making, with live instrumentation and a rich melodic sound, largely from the exceptional producer Ibe. FAUST is based on the play Dr. Faustus and is brought to life with witty wordplay and inspiring beats.
7. KENDRICK LAMAR – SECTION.80
2011 was a huge year for Kendrick as he rose to fame in the hip-hop scene, with a feature on Drake’s Take Care and the release of Section.80. He was even crowned “New Prince of the West Coast” by Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Game while onstage together at a concert this past summer. Section.80 truly outshines his previous releases as he honed his great storytelling skills (see Keisha’s Song) and was blessed with top notch production.
8. THE BLACK KEYS – EL CAMINO
The Black Keys have yet to release a subpar album, and their latest offering, El Camino, is no exception. While they have traded in their minimal drums-and-guitar set up for a fuller sound, the quality hasn’t suffered as their infectious tunes continue to effortlessly blend blues, rock and pop. They deserve to be on this list alone just for the hilarious video for Lonely Boy.
9. PHARAOHE MONCH – W.A.R.
My only complaint about Pharoahe Monch is that it takes him too long to release albums. However, when he does release music, its guaranteed to have rewind-worthy lyrics and head-nodding production. W.A.R. marked his first release since signing to Duck Down Records and was a return to a boom-bap hip-hop sound, fitting right in with his Duck Down family. The short film for Clap, starring Gbenga Akinnagbe (from The Wire) is definitely worth checking out as well as it brings the message of the song to fruition with sharp visuals.
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10. SCIENZE – WHEN SKIES FALL
Scienze has been grinding on the New York hip-hop scene for some time and finally began receiving some long overdue recognition in 2011. When Skies Fall is his strongest releaset yet and is an homage to the roots of hip-hop, back when it was just about great beats and rhymes. Its consistent, soulful production is reminiscent of J Dilla and it features guest verses from Asher Roth and Chris Faust, among others.
- Phonte – Charity Starts At Home
- Common – The Dreamer, The Believer
- Funky DL – BlackCurrentJazz 2
- Kanye West & Jay-Z – Watch The Throne
- Friendly Fires – Pala
TOP 10 MIXTAPES / FREE RELEASES:
- Asher Roth – Pabst & Jazz
- Big K.R.I.T. – Return To 4eva
- Lupe Fiasco – Friend of The People
- Kris Kasanova – War Paint
- Fresh Daily – The Quiet Life
- Danny Brown – XXX
- Elzhi – Elmatic
- Money Making Jam Boyz – The Prestige
- G-Do & Xception – Felatastic (A Tribue to Fela Kuti)
- Logic – Young Sinatra