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Frank Ocean

Nostalgia, Ultra.

(Self-released; US: 18 Feb 2011)


Frank Ocean
Nostalgia, Ultra.


On one hand, it’s easy to see how Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean’s debut mixtape could be overlooked. 2011 was a banner year for free album releases, notably the Weeknd’s Mixtape Trilogy. Ocean’s skill was also overshadowed by the domineering presence of Tyler, the Creator, the controversial rapper whose presence at the VMAs last year helped put Odd Future on the path to greater stardom. Yet, Ocean’s debut is a more powerful recording than anything either of those two artists put out last year. While there is much to be said of the excellence of the Weeknd’s recordings, Tyler’s over-the-line offensiveness can’t hold a candle to the complex portrait of reminiscing that is Nostalgia, Ultra.


Whether it’s the brief vignettes in which Ocean turns over the side of a cassette tape (including a particularly humorous one involving Radiohead), or even the masterful sampling of classic songs (“American Wedding”, which samples “Hotel California”), Nostalgia, Ultra is a forward-thinking record that doesn’t forget to look back. The album feels like a glimpse into who Ocean is as a musical artist, both in his original songs and his takes on the songs of other artists. His take on Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” doesn’t sound like a boring straight-rip of that British band; it sounds like him. He blurs the line between homage and uniqueness so strongly that he makes something almost entirely new. There were many great artists distributing their music freely over the internet in 2011, but Ocean was the best of them all. Brice Ezell


 

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Old 97s

The Grand Theatre Vol. 2

(New West; US: 5 Jul 2011; UK: 4 Jul 2011)


Old 97s
The Grand Theatre Vol. 2


Dallas stalwarts Old 97’s are one of those rare bands that keep churning out reliably stellar rock n’ roll over the years without ever getting flat-out famous. They don’t have to work dayjobs, but they ain’t rich. You hear them on NPR and see them on Jay Leno, but your mom doesn’t know who they are. Which all might serve to be perfect scenario for fans, because the band gets to write great music and record it and tour behind it, without ever turning into asshole divas or imploding into their own Behind the Music episode. The Grand Theatre, Volume One rocks much harder than its last two predecessors, 2008’s Blame It On Gravity and 2004’s Drag It Up, and shows off co-founder Murry Hammond’s fabled-but-seldom-displayed Oasis fixation. Occupying that rare space of comfort-level success affords the freedom to throw it all in: Hammond’s Britpop love, frontman Rhett Miller’s smart-guy literary leanings, Ken Bethea’s melt-the-chrome-off-the-trailer-hitch guitars, and drummer Phillip Peeples’ unerring knack for sewing it all up with the beat. Jennifer Cooke


 

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Only Son

Searchlight Searchlight

(Red; US: 18 Jan 2011)


Only Son
Searchlight Searchlight


“It’s magic, ‘til you know how it works,” Jack Dishel sings. “Nobody wants to see how you do it.” Such sentiments eloquently sum up what makes Searchlight such a special listen. This is an album where the rare alchemy of genre experimentation meets with honest songwriting talent to form a rarity in today’s world: innovative pop music. The album as a whole is impeccably arranged, with each song playing as well on its own as it does as part of the complete song cycle. Searchlight proves that Jack Dishel is truly a songwriter of note, and he’s got the skills to keep us guessing while continuing to create pop music of the highest order. Whether you heard the album and forgot it after its January release, or you’re discovering the music for the first time, there’s plenty worth exxploring here thanks to Dishel’s unique, quirky arrangements and many deceptive hooks. Jonathan Sanders


 

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Orchestre National de Jazz

Shut Up and Dance

(Bee Jazz; US: 26 Apr 2011)

Review [21.Jul.2011]


Orchestre National de Jazz
Shut Up and Dance


The title of Orchestre National de Jazz’s album of John Hollenbeck compositions is a little misleading. Shut Up & Dance makes it sound like you’re about to get nagged into enjoying yourself at some hip-shaking club, but that’s not what we’re dealing with at all. France’s Orchestre National de Jazz adds Hollenbeck to its ever-growing pile of musical tributes that continue to not only shift the meaning of jazz but make ONJ so difficult to peg stylistically. The group’s sound is untouchable, bordering on absurd just how well they take turns in the heat of the music. John Hollenbeck’s pieces are the stuff of a creamy paradox; never going the well-worn path but also never, ever sounding unnatural. If Orchestre National de Jazz isn’t considered a national treasure in France, it should be—and Hollenbeck himself deserves more grants. They should have called this album Shut Up & Listen, because that’s all you feel like doing while it’s playing. John Garratt


 

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Pettybone

From Desperate Times Comes Radical Minds

(Damage Done; US: 2011)


Pettybone
From Desperate Times Comes Radical Minds


As indebted to Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy as Black Flag and Fugazi, these four women from London upstaged their male peers by delivering 2011’s finest, most incendiary punk debut. The album’s ferocity is undeniable, captured brilliantly by producer Kurt Ballou, but while Pettybone’s rage is arguably its most immediately arresting characteristic, the band shows a lot more depth than mere caterwauling and complaining. The compositions are cerebral and articulate, with lyrics that say a lot more than most young punk bands are capable of these days (“We will take the passivity and tear it apart / We will do our thing rather than waiting”), and as exemplified by standouts “To Hell With This Culture” and “Northern Line”, are capable of well-timed dynamics as opposed to tossing out the same old d-beats time and again. Adrien Begrand


 

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The Phoenix Foundation

Buffalo

(Memphis Industries; US: 14 Jun 2011; UK: 24 Jan 2011)

Review [6.Jul.2011]


The Phoenix Foundation
Buffalo


Buffalo was one of the most understatedly powerful albums of 2011. The fourth album from the Kiwi band saw them working their mixture of jam-band looseness, and wistful atmospheres and neo-psychedelic textures to near-perfection. This sort of amalgam is common these days, from Animal Collective to Gang Gang Dance, but Buffalo was special in its own way. It was evocative yet calming. Those who took this calming effect for indifference were merely fooled by the album’s placid surface, one that was actually broken to heartstopping effect on final track “Golden Ship”. Buffalo was the aural equivalent of being washed onto a strange, unknown island and quickly finding it to be a place you wanted to stay for a long time. John Bergstrom


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