By Chris Richards,
Like the national debt, Justin Bieber and the universe itself, the Internet got bigger this year.
And that means you, dear music fan, are faced with a perennial choice: You can hide under your covers as the world of pop music grows online with ferocious speed, or you can summon your inner Lewis and Clark and bravely go bounding out into the bandwidth in search of your new favorite song.
We encourage the latter each year with a series of album reviews we’ve dubbed “Lost Tracks.” It was a feature that first launched in Style in 2004 with the tagline “Good CDs we overlooked this year.” Ah, the good old days. Back then, when our calendars flipped, the record industry would settle into its annual state of quasi-hibernation, slowing down the release schedule and giving us a chance to play catch-up with the pop recordings we didn’t get a chance to review when they first dropped.
Seven years later, as the Internet continues to sprawl and the record biz continues to disintegrate, the goal is a little different. Instead of pointing out recordings that we missed, we want to highlight the stuff that almost everyone else missed, too.
This Tuesday and next, our contributors review their favorite forgotten albums of 2011. I’m kicking it off with five recordings that I thought deserved more blogosphere love, more Facebook likes, more discussion, more eardrums, more wonderment.
Let’s get lost.
Jhene Aiko, “Sailing Soul(s)”
R&B still shares the airwaves with rap on urban radio, and the genre hasn’t spread across the Web with the same mutant hunger as hip-hop. That’s because getting an R&B career off the ground usually requires a sterling voice (they’re rare), a hot producer (they’re expensive) and a big record label (they’re going extinct).
But that started to change this year with the rise of Frank Ocean and the Weeknd, two visionary crooners who made exceptional self-released albums available online for free. Jhene Aiko nearly eclipsed them with “Sailing Soul(s),” a free digital album brimming with confectionery R&B tunes in the tradition of the late pop star Aaliyah and shoulda-been pop star Cassie.
But Aiko’s candy-coating conceals eccentricities that most R&B singers rarely allow themselves. She’s smooth with her melodies and playful with her lyrics. “Sailing NOT Selling” offers instructions on what do with your soul, while “My Mine” compares her mind to a hole in the ground. While so much lovelorn R&B acquiesces into clarity, Aiko sings of sweet confusion.
Scott Holstein, “Cold Coal Town”
This almost completely unknown country singer has roots in rural West Virginia, but his marvelous new album spent most of the year nestled away on his Web site, www.scottholsteinmusic.com. If you had $15 and a PayPal account, you could own a CD copy — 11 bluegrass-tinted songs penned by Holstein and sung in a commanding baritone that rivals anything to come out of Nashville this year.
Now, nearly nine months after its release, one of the finest country albums of the year is finally available on iTunes.
Britta Persson, “Current Affair Medium Rare”
No industrialized nation on Earth boasts more pop songs per capita than Sweden. For years, the country has been churning out an endless supply of chirpy indie rock, sunny electro pop and other sounds intended to make us smile.
Maybe that explains why so few have noticed this young Swede, whose third album — released stateside this year — quietly finds a way to reconcile Chrissie Hynde-ish cool and Bjork-ish exuberance.
But along with Persson’s passionate nonchalance comes an unmistakable sense of generosity. Even her rock-star dreams are swaddled in altruistic, feminist, youth empowerment. On the album’s strongest chorus she declares, “I want to help a teenager say good-bye/ To a boyfriend she never even liked/ But who she thought made her look more grown up.”
Los Rakas, “Chancletas y Camisetas Bordada”
This Oakland, Calif., duo — rapping cousins Raka Rich and Raka Dun — prove that some of the most exciting dance music on the planet is still coursing through the Afro-Latin diaspora.
The duo’s hard-partying boasts and earnest shout-outs to their Panamanian roots are all delivered in Spanish, but they remain fluent in a panoply of far-flung rhythms. Crammed into this eight-song EP, you’ll hear the flickering drum breaks of Baltimore club music, the syrupy pulse of reggaeton, the wheezing synthesizers of West Coast hip-hop, the buoyant riddims of Caribbean dancehall and the sound of a mattress squeaking in 4/4 time — a blush-able sound that knows no borders.
Dope Body, “Nuppin”
At last. We have a band that sounds like Henry Rollins arm wrestling Rage Against the Machine in the art school cafeteria.
Dope Body, of course, hails from Baltimore, where cheap rent and countless MICA survivors have transformed Charm City into an enduring weird-rock Shangri-La. But of all the strange sounds to come bubbling out of Baltimore in 2011, this quartet’s hyper-masculine alt-rock sludge was the most potent.
This is brawny, sweaty, herky, jerky, funky, furious, ridiculous music — and it’s more than willing to make fun of itself. One of the album’s most punishing tunes puns on a classic album title by jazz god Ornette Coleman. Take it as a bad joke or a good omen: “The Shape of Grunge to Come.”