The year is coming to a close, and in less than a week 2011 will be no more than a memory. As we set our resolutions and prepare for the next chapter in our lives, many of us will be reflecting on the past year and the events that defined it – both for ourselves and society. For Earmilk, every year is defined by the music it brings to the table. We live and breath music over here, celebrating it to the highest extent as well as scrutinizing it to the finest detail. The beautiful thing about music is that unlike memories, music will never fade away. It has been a fundamental part of our world for ages now, and will be until the end of time. To cap the year off, Earmilk has put together a list of our top albums in Hip-Hop, Electronic and Indie music. Each list was put together by a collective group of our writers in their respective genres who worked feverishly to create a set of albums that we consider the best of 2011 – not necessarily the most popular albums, nor the most successful albums, but the albums that we as experts found iconic for the artist, the genre, or our readership. We recognize that you may feel one way or another about this list, an album within it, or an album left out – so we encourage you to leave feedback in the comments below and rave about how disappointed you are that Justin Bieber’s new album isn’t #1 on the list.
As we head into the next chapter of our history one thing is certain: 2011 held some very fucked up and yet interesting moments. A classic prelude to the assumed "apocalypse," we celebrated the demise of oppressive Middle Eastern leaders and terrorists, watched politicians around the world reach unfathomably new lows and, probably most relevant to a lot of you reading, genuinely spoke out against a botched system founded in greed and class. But, where does hip-hop fit in all of this? Well, from the sound of things, the hustle that was always there remains. In fact the hustle has only grown stronger. While some of hip-hop's most established auteurs dropped notable releases, i.e. Watch The Throne, TM:103, Take Care, etc., all eyes have been on the innovation and industriousness of its tech-savvy younger generation. Crews and emcee's alike , including but not limited to A$AP, Odd Future, Dom Kennedy, Kendrick Lamar, Blu and BIG K.R.I.T, have all built some notoriety, partially off the precipice that the decrepit excrement of the industry continues to grow sicker to its kryptonite, the internet.
I mean, really? It's just too easy to say "hip-hop isn't the same anymore" despondently. Of course it isn't, but like every life cycle it changes and evolves. In this case, the D.I.Y de-evolution of hip-hop patrons over the last few years has had a few results: broader miscegenation with various genres like electro-funk and IDM resulting in L.A.'s rising beat community and genre half-life "chill-wave". Most importantly, it's widened up for a closer knit community of open-minded independents that would rather work to build each other up than wait for the next big cosign. In other words, things have been coming back around in a beautiful way. In 2011, hip-hop's perseverance shined at a time where it couldn't look more at odds with what was happening on Wall Street and Oakland, but if you think we just passively put your Drake's and Wayne's on the list due to their huge releases, think again. You wont find those kind of artists on our lists. We built it from those rising, blue collar emcees, that were working at their craft before the marches and "Occupy ___" signs. Those that understand and even stand behind the cause, but didn't let it halt their goal, moving like nothing ever changed. What little braggadocio ensues is nothing more than motivation and constant innovation begets inspiration and thus further innovation. Without further ado…we present to you Earmilk's top hip-hop albums/mixtapes of the year.
Sir Michael Rocks
The Rocks Report
Don't be surprised. You read it right. Sir Michael Rocks, also known as Mikey, 1/2 of The Cool Kids, dropped an album that could double as a definition for dope. The crazy thing about it? He did it twice with Premier Politics. But, the even crazier thing that is actually disheartening; most of you slept on him. Hipster pretension and debated credibility as the lyrical half The Cool Kids aside, Michael revealed himself as a genuine rapper on The Rocks Report. While not straying too far from Chuck Inglishs' own brand of boom-bap, Mikey enlisted the musical aid of Madlib, mpc sensei Ski Beatz, and Tyehill to lend a hand in giving this album a classic jazz-rap vibe. Combine that with witticisms like:
Now how can I complain/ dodging raindrops of rain/ and I ain't talking golf courses/ when I say driving ranges/ but not the new shit/ the oxford blue shit/ the boost kit got it 3 feet high and rising/ on some posdnuos shit
The kid in the skinny jeans isn't always the weakest link, and besides – that was 2007. Wake up or miss out in 2012. — Jahn
Charity Starts at Home
I echo the thoughts of so many devoted fans who are crying grown people tears over Tigallo's Charity Starts At Home: "Finally. I needed this album, Phonte." The self-professed "invincible principal" chops his rhymes with the speed of a machine made for mass production, yet in the process nothing is compromised as each bespoke track is delectably presented with vibrant flavor, effortlessly tailored down to the last intonation. Serving up lyrics of substance is a norm for Phonte but this? This is a work of art. In "Sendin' My Love" and "The Good Fight", Phonte ticks off the laundry list of daily ordeals each and every one of us knows so well but with a sense of earnestness and encouragement that make us so inclined to keep listening. Certainly, this album would not be what it is without the beatwork of Khrysis, Swiff D and of course, 9th Wonder. Phonte did well choosing elZHI, Big K.R.I.T, Median and Evidence as his guests as each one is able to squarely enhance the track they are featured on. Forget top ten of 2011, this is a top shelf classic. Young emcees ought to gather 'round: Phonte the sage has lessons for every sector of life. — Liz
When you say you're going to reinterpret one of hip hop's most important albums, you can bet the task will not go unnoticed and the expectation to do the job well will undoubtedly be perceived as insurmountable. In other words: you better do a damn good job or else why do it? Of the important hip hop mixtapes that surfaced this year, most involved lyrics revolving around themes of warranted struggle against the system, the daily hustle and maintaining personal dignity in spite of it all. It comes as no surprise that one of Detroit's most fearless emcees would deftly work these concepts into his bars but to do it against the backdrop of Illmatic, and to do it incredibly well? Elzhi received a Pass Go card from us with Elmatic, capturing the same raw and downright refreshing dexterity that Nas possessed when rapping about Queens. Personifying the original LP with a definitive Detroit grip, Elzhi completely reconfigures the sound with all things Detroit: audacious beats by the Will Sessions band and barely any guest work, save for an appearance by Royce da 5'9" and shoutouts from Pete Rock and Houseshoes. Listeners will be enthralled that this not just another weak attempt to reinvent Illmatic but a mixtape so carefully crafted, it succeeds at being not only a praiseworthy tribute but a standout achievement in lyricism. — Liz
Any Given Sunday Collection
J. Cole has had one of the biggest break out years seen in hip hop, receiving a Grammy Nomination for "Best New Artist", as well as having the best year out of the Rocnation artists. His Extended Play series Any Given Sunday Vol. 1-3 was truly a gift for his fans, as he filled them with unreleased and illmatic songs only weeks before his inaugural album was set to drop. J. Cole released three EPs, and almost every song included could be considered a single as the wordsmith highlights his raw flow and personal production very well. Due to his incredible work ethic, and great musical content recognition is definitely due here. — Devon
Discovering CunninLynguists is one of those rare moments where you know, instantly, that you've stumbled across something that is worth 100% of your attention. This trio has been making music together for a while now but still seem to fly just under most people's radars. They are definitely not the type of group you should be allowed to sleep on. Which brings us to their most recent album, Oneirology. Now, the title is actually a term that describes the scientific study of all things related to dreams. So right off the bat, if you come across an album with a title like this, you already know you've come across something that will at least have a minimum amount of substance and probably is trying to make some type of real statement. By the time you figure out how to pronounce the title you'll already be halfway through the album and have had your mind blown on the lyrical metaphors alone. You'll find that Oneirology elaborately speaks on all forms of "dreams," whether it's actual unconscious dream sequences, aspirations, or real-life nightmare situations and circumstances. Each topic is given varying perspectives and leaves most of the interpretations up to the listener which means you'll get different impressions from each repeat listening session. All of these elements would make an amazing album but that's even before you touch on the fact that the production, on this album, is pretty much flawless. Kno, who produces every track, is able to blend between your basic drum patterns to intricately weaved and layered electronica. You aren't dreaming. This album exists and effortlessly earns a spot on any real hip-hop fans top albums of the century. — Montrey
Sony/RCA/Polo Grounds; 2011
A$AP Rocky has stormed into the limelight with the release of his latest mixtape, LiveLoveA$AP. The Harlem native takes to his Texas influences to create the new age "trill" type music. A$AP works with some of the best producers to produce the most in depth, hyphy beats that cause a true eargasm. He has such a different, but likeable style the way he lays down his bars that you easily vibe to and start bobbing your head. Since the release of LiveLoveA$AP, A$AP Rocky and his A$AP crew's fanbase has erupted on a huge level. — Devon
Johnson Barnes, more recognizably known as Blu, has had a really awesome year in spite of not making a whole lot of dinero from this project . On top of releasing two albums and a collaboration project with longtime friend Exile, he proved he didn't need help keeping his listeners head nodding with a beat tape and Open, an album he produced entirely showcasing some very lyrical companions of his. More notable, he completely submerged himself in L.A.'s community of left-field, experimental beat conductors. Hip-hop's mad men, if you will. Collaborating with greats like Flying Lotus, Samiyam, Diabase, Daedulus, Madlib and Sa-Ra's Shafiq Husayn, No York! was deliciously stewed into a cosmic slop of electro-funk proportions. At the cost of a few followers (most of whom were growing distant from the emcee anyway), Blu, who has always flexed open-mindedness in his music, successfully architected a progressive, forward-thinking hip-hop album that will undoubtedly be seen as pushing the boundaries of the genre 20 years from now. — Jahn
Def Jam; 2011
This album is for those of us who were expecting a traditionally solid Roots album, albeit a good one, but instead received a shattered standard for storytelling through hip hop. If you thought you had accessed the young black man's plight via Shakur or Jones or Wallace, this should only elevate your arsenal. Gripping, emotive and innovative, The Roots' treatment of this tragically familiar narrative propels what hip hop could be to unforeseen zeniths. This is due in equal parts to Black Thoughts' searing lyricism, the strategic employment of guest artists like Big K.R.I.T ("Make My"), Phonte ("One Time") and Dice Raw ("Lighthouse"), and last but not least, the ingeniously methodical composition of the entire album, which boasts a cunning blend of jazz, funk, classical and experimental musical stylings. The life of a semi-fictional kid named Redford Stephens is told cinematically, without ever being theatrical; there is a shared sense of solemnity amongst all involved with this album, further deepening the impact and the significance of how real this story is. While it is a story, it's real life. Music moves and anyone who even mildly enjoys the fascinating way in which hip hop melds narrative and melody has been moved by music. While I am one who more than mildly enjoys music, I have never been moved to tears by a hip hop album until undun. There are albums out there that precede this one that I should have shed tears over and likely albums in the making that I will find myself cutting onions to. But for now, I am stuck with Undun. — Liz
Return of 4Eva
Def Jam; 2011
It's been a busy year for the Mississippi rapper, with guest spots on several of the albums and mixtapes that garnered prime spots in this list, as well as his own prolific mixtape, Return of 4Eva. If you're still "Dreamin", it's time to wake up, Big K.R.I.T: for you, this rap shit is real. As he says in the track, K.R.I.T has made believers out of all his doubters with a flow as polished as the wood grain rappers are known to clamor over and beats so saucy your earbuds will be swimming in bass ("Amtrak" and "My Sub" as reference points). Beats-wise, Return runs a steady gamut, with tracks like "Rotation" and "R4 Theme Song" that easily pander to the commercial circuit, but still prove their worth in their lyrical weight ("Rotation" a little less so, but I suppose it's a decent display of versatility). "Free My Soul" adds texture to the selection, with a slinking atmospherical sample and cascading lyrics to match each note. While Big K.R.I.T hasn't reached the peak of his work, Return of 4Eva is a large stepping stone in the right direction. And frankly, if this mixtape is any notion of what he will continue to produce, I think it's fine to let a good thing evolve into greatness. — Liz
Top Dawg Entertainment; 2011
Kendrick Lamar, the Compton rapper, was completely successful in his obvious agenda to bring a completely new style of music on his debut album, Section.80. You'll notice I said "music" and not just "hip-hop" because this album is a lot better than any type of strict genre classification could truly capture. Obviously it's a hip-hop record but any type of real labels you try to associate with it only do it a grave injustice. In regards to the instrumentals; the album is all over the spectrum and touches on the hard-hitting, license-plate-trembling bass you might expect from Compton, but then you'll hear other familiar urban sounds such as jazz and electronica effortlessly mixed in. All of which give Kendrick a diverse amount of material to which he is able to bless his lyricism over. And, in regards to his lyricism, this is where Kendrick really leaves other rappers in the dust. He rhymes about topics you would expect from someone twice his age which is explained when he spits: "I lived my 20s at two years old, the wiser man" (from "Hol' Up"). But this is just skimming the surface of what this young rapper brings to the table. He brings a swagger like he dun "been here before" but, at the same time, he encompasses the passion and hunger that you would find in someone even younger than he is. In many ways, he's all over the place.
In the opening statement of this overview there was mention of how a new style was presented, which becomes immediately evident after just you get about two to three tracks into the LP. Kendrick could have easily created an album that didn't delve into deep thought of any kind or that only appealed to those who couldn't care about lyrics. But instead he chose to be a storyteller who is able constantly change styles and to respect the listener enough to present them with rhymes with real substance. There are many of albums out there that have the deep lyricism yet sometimes they'll just sound like "spoken word" over beats or just too preachy. You never get that type of impression from Section.80 because it isn't trying to be more than it is. The album doesn't seem, in any way, to be pretentious or too verbose in places that it shouldn't be. It contains the perfect amount of all the elements that make it a true listening experience for the users. There's just not really any flaws which is awe-inspiring considering this is his debut LP. You may be looking for an album that follows some type of formula but I think Kendrick Lamar would quickly say "fuck 'dat". — Montrey