Rachel Swan’s Top Ten Albums of the Year

From Beyoncé to B. Hamilton to Endangered Blood, our critics recommend the best music of 2011.

Freddie Gibbs

Cold Day in Hell

Even the title speaks volumes. Indiana emcee Freddie Gibbs subscribes to a classical style of street rap — what in the Nineties might have been called “gangster.” On this new mixtape (it happens to be his fourth in two years), Gibbs uses sermonic and homiletic language to talk about street violence, allowing his oozy, minor-key backing tracks to shore up the sentimentality. (That’s most apparent on the borderline-moral tune “Heaven Can Wait.”) Gibbs’ odd bar flows and fleet, legato intonation make him an easy listen, even when his lyrics sound objectionable. His production involves a lot of simple snares and 808 beats, which only enhance the nostalgic tone. Apparently, Gibbs has been tweeting Mediafire links so fans can have the album for free, and it’s well worth the trouble of downloading. (self-released)



Of the many acts that spawned from the alterna-hip-hop group Odd Future, MellowHype is probably the most promising. Emcee Hodgy Beats is less malevolent than his cohort Tyler, the Creator, meaning he’ll use obscene language, but never go so far as to detail a whole rape fantasy. In fact, the first song on this album is a breezy rap about smoking weed the day before final exams. Producer Left Brain gives each track that signature Odd Future varnish, combining minimalist beats with atmospheric studio effects — like the distinct click of a magazine. (Fat Possum)



After the demise of their former indie band Ned, Ross Peacock and brothers Nathan and Cyrus Tilton decided to carve out a new path, first by adopting a more rigorous rehearsal schedule, second by rechristening their outfit, and third by trying a few risky innovations, like surgically opening an amp for modiciation or setting microphones around a koi pond to record the sound of someone dropping a stone in the water. They use analog gear in Mwahaha, including a lot of vintage synthesizers and rickety sounding drum machines. The resulting music often sounds purposefully austere, but it’s also riddled with interesting drum sounds and sharp guitar riffs. There’s even the occasional pop hook. (self-released)



Like Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé is ready to defy the notion that a female R&B singer’s career always hinges on youth, good looks, and sex appeal. Not that the reigning Queen B doesn’t have all those things in spades — she’s about to become the world’s hottest MILF, after all. But Beyoncé definitely made a statement by launching her new album with the song “1+1,” a more traditional, challenging R&B ballad than most of her previous hits. Four is the most consistently elegant offering in Beyoncé’s catalogue, and it’s also varied. Sure, “Party,” “Love on Top,” and “Countdown” are all made for radio. But for every lightweight party ditty, Beyoncé includes a heartfelt soul song to balance things out. Apparently, she’s not solely geared for commercialism. (Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia)

B. Hamilton

Everything I Own Is Broken

With a little luck, local singer and bandleader Christopher Ryan Parks will become famous for something other than his all-caps Internet commentary. Not only does Parks have a persuasive singing voice, but he’s also a fabulous songwriter. His new album — recorded under the band moniker B. Hamilton — includes humorous screeds about relationships, in-jokes about vapid hipsters, a country-rock nostalgia track, and an insightful, personal recount of the Oscar Grant shooting. Were it not for his reluctance to self-promote, Parks would already be a star. (self-released)

Endangered Blood

Endangered Blood

In certain circles, Endangered Blood would qualify as a supergroup. The Brooklyn quartet, led by saxophonist Chris Speed (who also wrote the bulk of the material), includes bassist Trevor Dunn (of Mr. Bungle fame), drummer Jim Black, and the monstrously talented Oscar Noriega, who alternates between bass clarinet and alto. Speed cites Ornette Coleman as a fount of inspiration, and the group does indeed err on the “free” end of the jazz spectrum. That said, it still uses conventional song structures, and even features one recognizable standard: “Epistrophe” by Thelonious Monk. Songs like “Elvin Lisbon” and “Tacos at Oscars” are fast and intricate, but still convey a sense of humor. (Skirl)


Take Care

Hip-hop listeners may carp about Drake’s ubiquity on mainstream radio, but one would be hard-pressed to find another artist who deserves such colossal fame and adoration. At age 25, Drake is iconic; his claim to being too strung out on compliments (as articulated in the song “Headlines”) is no overstatement. Take Care is a forceful sophomore album, showcasing Drake’s talent as both a rapper and an Auto-Tune balladeer. He alternates breezy braggadocio with songs about the pitfalls of success. “Marvin’s Room” has elements of both; framed as a late-night drunk call to an old flame, it’s a chance for Drake to purge his insecurities. (Cash Money)

Ambrose Akinmusire

When the Heart Emerges Glistening

Jazz trumpeter and Berkeley High alum Ambrose Akinmusire isn’t just a masterful technician; he’s also a terrific composer. And his Blue Note debut offers elements that any non-jazz-head can appreciate, like a lean and powerful spoken-word tribute to Oscar Grant and a winking reinterpretation of the Bob Haggart/Johnny Burke standard “What’s New,” complete with stride piano. The musicians on this album are all relatively young, but have played together for a long time — Justin Brown also attended Berkeley High with Akinmusire, while Walter Smith, Gerald Clayton, and Harish Raghavan are part of the trumpeter’s touring band. It definitely shows: Smith and Akinmusire’s nimble exchange on “Confessions to my Unborn Daughter” resembles a conversation between old friends. (Blue Note)

Kendrick Lamar


It takes audacity to kick off an album with an anti-racism track called “Fuck Your Ethnicity” — sure, anyone can get behind the sentiment, but the tone is disarmingly flippant. Turns out that’s an apt introduction to Kendrick Lamar, a Compton-raised Snoop Dogg protégé with snide lyrics and an intoxicating rap cadence. Were hip-hop a meritocracy, he’d already have attained the stature of a Drake or a J. Cole. That said, Lamar seems intent on staying underground. His production isn’t ear-wormy; he uses big vocabulary words and raps about Reagonomics. Ultimately Section.80 will probably fare better in music critics’ circles than it will on the market. But that will only help ensure its place in the canon. (Top Dawg Entertainment)

Charles Bradley

No Time for Dreaming

The raw, tormented, ragged-edged quality of Charles Bradley’s voice is in no way contrived. The soul singer and erstwhile James Brown impersonator got his break at age 62, roughly a decade after he was “discovered” by Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth. This year Bradley dropped his debut soul album, featuring tunes co-written and arranged by Daptones guitarist Tom Brenneck and interpreted by the Menahan Street Band. It would qualify as “revivalist” but for the fact that Bradley really does hail from the classic-soul era, and his blues are heartfelt: “Heartaches and Pain” tells the story of his brother’s murder. In the middle, Bradley issues a fierce, primal wail. (Daptone)

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