My Five Favorite Albums of 2011 and Where I Listened To Them

(Not in any order. If you ask me what my favorite albums of 2011 were 1 month ago/ 1 month in the future you’d get an entirely different answer.)

I listened to Drake’s album Take Care last week while in the city. I started listening to the album while shopping alone on Belmont. I entered a store that was four floors tall: floor one had “fashion clothes” (their term I swear). I took my headphones off to enter the store but put them on again only steps across the doorway. I made eye contact with a floor salesperson for ~.3 seconds. The brands in the “fashion store” sometimes had Asian characters on them. Jeans cost just under 100 dollars. Drake made me feel like making impulse purchases but then as I’m swiping my card assume a detached, world-weary grimace that makes the cashier reconsider allowing me the purchase of the product, ie they look at me and get so uncertain about selling fashion clothes to someone with a “spend it all while I’m breathing” facial expression that they snap reconsider their entire occupation and, as external evidence of this reconsideration, hesitate, the hesitation being the time during which they would have snatched the fashion jeans away and buried them deep into a drawer under the register had they not immediately reconsidered that initial reconsideration and thought about lost sales and rent and ‘how things work.’ But their day would be worse for wear.

(Drake, it should be noted, is a counter-example of a big budget artist muscling past label pressures to release a pretty cohesive album. Take Care doesn’t have as scatter shot a production coalition as Rihanna’s album but it still takes a singular vision to coherently rope together Jamie XX and The Weeknd and Just Blaze.)

I listened to Danny Brown’s album XXX in late August while I was riding my bike through the western suburbs of Chicago. The weather was cloudy and windy, ‘threatening.’ I had been listening to The Game’s album but at some point I zoned out and the next thing I knew I was like three suburbs over, block after block after block of brownstones, and Danny Brown was playing through my headphones. I rode alongside an Eisenhower exit ramp, under a viaduct, took a right, accelerated to stay abreast full-sized flatbed truck, then before it could turn to cut me off shot forward into an unnamed side street used by a bookbinding company called A & H Bindery. I rode into the parking lot, attendance 1 pickup, and stared at a couple pallets beside a dumpster. “I feel like Billy Corgan, in a church playing organ, covering Too Short, smoking a Newport.” Danny Brown makes you feel like you’re going somewhere that you’re meant to be, but it’s an alien landscape that you’re traveling through.

I listened to The Weeknd’s album House of Balloons while lying on the floor of my room, sometimes face up, more likely face down. Prostrate, fleshy cheek supporting the opposite open eye, staring unflinchingly into foggy green Hitchcock carpeting. Up close, things don’t look much different. I applied to consulting jobs and thought of that two floor loft in the middle of the city and listened to The Weeknd in October-December.

House of Balloons has a habit of taking whatever your life is and choking it with the sheer black of midnight. You listen to The Weeknd enough and you could swear you’ve never heard any music besides The Weeknd; you lose all perspective and you wish you could get out. It’s fucked, give it a try.

I listened to Bon Iver’s album Bon Iver in July while lying in my bed on the third floor of Newport dorm. It was after work but before dinner time. I read from Malcolm X’s Autobiography and extended my legs out to give them a stretch. The album played out of my computer across the room, approx. eight feet or ‘far away,’ as far as I was concerned. Malcolm X has a bunch of interesting stories and often I would be very late making dinner. The room’s window faced north north west, so that as the setting sunlight slipped through at an extreme angle, in dramatic orange hue. Bon Iver makes it so you don’t have to be scared about failing to fulfill the potential imbued in places in time; maybe society will never be remade quite like you’d envisioned and maybe the deadbeat summer before senior year seems peculiarly serene in light of their now being only one semester remaining. Bon Iver makes it better, because although you can’t go back to the 60s and you can’t go back to summer, you can always replay the Bon Iver album.

I listened to Jamie xx and Gil Scott-Heron’s album We’re New Here while I was biking in south west Michigan in early August. My parents dropped me off at an intersection some fifteen miles south of Holland MI, where my family has vacationed every summer stretching back to elementary school. I made the decision to do this bike ride without thinking. I was close enough to the coast of Lake Michigan that this stretch of mid-western grain field had developed a roll. A roll that, while gradual, was very perceptible to a lone bicycler whose fitness goal five miles in was, no bones, ‘to be over with this shit.’

Except it wasn’t too lonely. Jamie xx and Gil Scott-Heron keep good company. Jamie provided the rudimentary mental momentum. At any moment, if I needed to, I could just fade out and let the insistent beat in songs like “Running” take control. But if my brain was hungrier, there was the words of Gil Scott-Heron.

The same Gil Scott-Heron, it should be mentioned, that Ms. Ambrose, my 9th grade World History teacher, played for us in class one spring like eight years ago now. Back then, I wasn’t sure about the minimal funk aesthetics, but I bought the song on Napster anyway. Why? Because it was music that held no enigma; I could play “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” for my friends and know that it was a song I could always claim as my own. Its message was obvious to me, it was radical, and it was mine. That anarchist teenager is still there somewhere, but twisted and reconfigured for the early-twenties, such as in a remix album. On my bike, I heard “NY is Killing Me” and felt like it was the exact soundtrack for those bizarrely affecting soybean fields. It’s like Scott-Heron says about the changing genre tastes: in the end, it’s all “dance music, from its earliest beginnings to where it is now.” RIP.