CHICAGO — List-making season is pretty much over, and I am in fact much more pleased than I thought I would be, probably because I set my expectations so low. tUnE-yArDs winning the Village Voice’s big critics poll was a miracle, but even better is the contents of the top 5 – it’s hilarious and very reassuring that the new Tom Waits album ranked higher (#5) than Adele (#6), Drake (#8), Fleet Foxes (#18), etc. And So Beautiful Or So What made top 20 (#14). So I thought I’d take the time to respond to some of my least favorite albums of the year, among others. Last Of The Country Gentlemen got way too many raves to leave untouched. Bon Iver profoundly offended me. And I really tried to like Take Care, believe me, I did. I like Drake too, at least on Thank Me Later. But the new record is overhyped.

Sorry Bamba: Volume One 1970-1979

Thrill Jockey, 2011 (BUY)

Essentially a big bandleader, Sorry Bamba also worked with orchestras and dance troupes, and his music is pretty much the classy African equivalent of a jazz ensemble, namely intensely grooveful and also a little clunky. This makes sense – as an orphaned aristocrat from Mopti, the “Venice of Mali”, he comes across as more upscale than the griots who traditionally make such music. Since this is one of several vault-scouring compilations released this year that together make up his entire U.S. discography, get it while you can.

Rarely does he get as swanky as you’d expect. The guitar and voice are foregrounded, but throughout the slightly dinky rhythm bits we get joyful spurts of trumpet, organ, and flute that sounds like organ. Since he was more local than, say, Mory Kanté, he could throw in elements of Fula and Dogon hymns and still score “world psychedelic classics”. All this adds up to the refreshingly simple sound of a great band feeling the spirit. Did Western jazz ever sound this compact?

Despite Bamba’s playing so many instruments, the drift is that of a tight community expressed through a tight band. Everything relies on interplay, an effect neatly represented by the call-and-response on such tracks as “Yayoroba”, Bamba’s greatest hit. I’m told it’s about fat bottomed girls who make the world go round. A-

Josh T. Pearson: Last Of The Country Gentlemen

Mute, 2011 (BUY)

With music this slow and spare, the only salvation is in the details, and I’m sorry to say there aren’t many here. There’s plenty of atmosphere, but it’s pretty repetitive, and the words don’t help. I’m sure small things would start to jump out at you after a while – with opuses like this they always do. But nothing seems to happen in the near-hour that this album lasts, so I won’t be waiting.

It does in fact sound like the former Lift To Experience frontman put a lot of work into writing these songs, but they would do well with more instrumentation. The shreds of wit you pick up while reading the lyrics are lost in the minimalist voice-and-guitar combo, the latter of which plucks more than it strums, so the occasional violin wails actually come as a relief. When you do notice the words, his range of topics is even narrower than Dylan’s on Blood On The Tracks. Also, Dylan didn’t whisper.

This type of reactionary decorum was once seen as modern, but it turned passé faster than the grunge it protested. So it’s a relief that Pearson isn’t as thin-skinned as Richard Buckner or Mark Eitzel. If he were as sensitive as he’d like to sound, would he really punish his ex-girlfriend or whoever by releasing an hour’s worth of emotional griping? C+

Childish Gambino: Camp

Glassnote, 2011 (BUY)

What do you know? Stand-up comedian and 30 Rock writer Childish Gambino, also known as Donald Glover, is honestly one of the funniest rappers out there. His flow is inherently comical and offbeat, with subtle jokes ingrained into even the most significant-sounding raps. If it seems his lyrical talents far outweigh the music, that’s probably more revealing about his lyrics. Thanks to his ability to redeem flat-sounding songs with snappy one-liners, the most inert beats seem tight anyway.

Music has a tendency to improve with humor, and this is why I respect him. Though Glover is best when he’s flat-out bullshitting, other modes include serious storytelling and what could possibly be simple freestyling. He wants to show what he’s made of, but the autobiographical stuff about his life as an apparent misfit detracts from the screwy tone he’s spent his many careers perfecting. The beats are orchestral in-your-face when he doesn’t just use a thick synthesizer line, and they’re dry and static either way. But since the lyrics are what you concentrate on anyway, it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re laughing.

Anyone with his flow will learn quick, given that he actually has something to say. I hope he never stops trying to show off. Take this line, where he very consciously takes hip-hop simile form to a new level of obvious: “I’m in your ass/like sodomy.” B+

Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue

iASO, 2011 (BUY)

Out of a whole load of bachata compilations released on iASO, this is the one you’ll keep coming back to. The idea is to collect old Dominican standards as classic to them as prime Delta blues like Mississippi John Hurt is to us. The genre has really taken off into the Latin mainstream since it first emerged, but this starts at the very roots of the style, with nearly all of the original bachata doyens and their greatest hits. These are songs that probably still get played a lot in the heart of Santo Domingo.

The radically different types of moaning on the first two songs kick off the record with a heavy load of saudade, but it soon cheers up without sacrificing a musical restraint often mistaken for suffering. Having originated at casual backwoods parties, the selections are festive even with the sentimental ballads – sadness yes, but inspiring sadness. Given how plainly the bongos and guira determine the rhythms, even the most lyrical singing fits comfortably. But what really strings all these songs together is that arpeggiated, Spanish-derived guitar, squiggling and popping all over the place for the distinct purpose of getting carried away in the mood.

All this was initially resisted by Dominican high culture, which essentially dismissed it as crass hick music – the crackling static on Antonio Gomez Salcedo’s masterful “A Donde Andará” would insult a certain kind of grandee. But as they sidestepped the endlessly slick merengue and eventually went electric to swarm Latin dancehalls, bachata staples proved their sophistication. For a rare, most likely temporary aesthetic triumph, the underclass won. A-

Pusha T: Fear of God II: Let Us Pray

GOOD/Decon/Re-Up Gang, 2011 (BUY)

If you don’t know Pusha T from Clipse, you at least know him from the guest verse on Kanye West’s “Runaway”. There’s nothing so glorious as that here on his major label debut, and often it just sounds like what you imagine the standard modern rap album to sound like. But that’s just to say he’s talented and knows his way around hip-hop convention.

So given how customary he keeps his digitally hooky music, his verses in “fear of god” mode are a welcome shift from generic self-praise. Not quite what you would expect “intelligent rap” to be – he’d rather sell cocaine than reach any great truths. But he does come close. With his plodding keyboards and heavy bass, he uses a sound normally associated with fronting to dramatize his musings. Direct and sober even on his most unfocused verses, he raps like an excellent driver. Only he’s a rapper and could stand to take a couple risks.

The large number of guest verses is pretty distracting – in the first three songs alone, we get Diddy, Kanye, Young Jeezy, and Tyler the Creator. They don’t exactly show him up, but he could still raise his voice. When he does, though, how thoughtful he is redirects the vulgar noises of luxury rap towards an introspection few crack barons turned MCs can even dream of. B+

Eric Church: Chief

EMI, 2011 (BUY)

In an age where Nashville is dominated by megacommercial novelty acts, its most accessible album of the year is a humble collection of songs about being a good ol’ boy. With his most playful album yet, Eric Church comes closer and closer to the ideal of the flawless popular neocountry singer only Brad Paisley has really achieved. He’s also a wild comedian even on the throwaway songs.

Church is more into kicking back and enjoying himself than climbing the charts, so he steers clear of the overwrought corn that marks the sound of most countrified music nowadays. But he doesn’t soft-pedal it either. His fist-pumping anthems, what with their booming power chords and lyrics like “all you gotta do is put a drink in my hand,” are so red-blooded that he can get away with the syrupy piano theme on “Springsteen.” Even more soulful than his tribute to the Boss is one about a guy called Jack Daniels who really kicked his ass last night. Humor trumps nostalgia, meaning his priorities are in the right place.

Above all, he’s a great writer who makes the relationship songs actually sound realistic and gets the Jesus songs down like John Prine. Then there’s “I’m Gettin’ Stoned,” which does the last thing you expect it to, namely revive “Rainy Day Women #12&35.” A-

Bon Iver: Bon Iver

Jagjaguwar, 2011 (BUY)

Justin Vernon rode to success on the strength of his backstory, which involves retreating to a Wisconsin hunting cabin to record his debut alone with his guitar, and he could probably sell records if he simply continued in that vein. But it seems like the hype, the resulting fame, and the rich, layered music of his buddy Kanye West have finally gotten to him. Trying to make Bon Iver less about himself, he replaces his acoustic strum with a large art-rock orchestra, which signifies nothing in musical context so much as excess.

So however much the elegance of these elaborate horn sections and rippling guitar waves may impress you, it’s really just a modern folk ensemble — with the emphasis on beauty, the music winds up ridiculously tame. Vernon sings in a synthesized angelic falsetto that sounds like a sophomoric exaggeration of his previous record, half the time obscuring all the lyrical details. When he doesn’t, the lyrics sound like weird New Age sci-fi and lack any emotional resonance (“Our love is a star/sure some hazardry/for the light before and after most indefinitely”). He would suffer from the unfortunate illness of songs-before-music if he didn’t also suffer from atmosphere-before-songs.

You can blame his success on hippie perversity if you want. I blame him on the recession — economic uncertainty has led to spiritual yearning among trendmongers and squares alike, whereas what we actually need is instant gratification. D+

Drake: Take Care

Young Money/Cash Money/Universal (BUY)

Like LL Cool J, Drake bungles his sophomore record because he doesn’t know what to do after he breaks through. Since the main theme here is fame, whatever class he achieves musically is checked by his love for having lots of money. That’s too bad, as he’s a good rapper – “Under Ground Kings” is excellent. His flow is great on the fast ones.

Regardless, it’s depressing how quickly rap’s next great hope turned into rap’s greatest indulgence. He can get a wide range of emotions across surprisingly easily within the confines of his sluggish tone and not sound especially soft, which is impressive given how often he drops rapping for singing. But since his beats are nowhere near as lush as people say, his esteemed introspection only exposes the self-pity he previously hid behind faster music. However ritzy his inconspicuous synthesizer loops are, studio perfectionism has made them both overbearing and watered-down. You expect posers to be aggressive, but not passive-aggressive. Especially not the vulgarians.

This record sets him in place as the figurehead for a phase in modern rap culture, a depressed soulful sound whose catalyzing influence was Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak. Out of all his many g’s, he picks the Weeknd’s humorless wail on the one called “Crew Love”, buying into a trend too shortsighted to be bought into. B-

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I’ve never been one for remixes and dubs and mashups. I have enough other music to get to already. But they’re worth checking out at least occasionally, so let me give you some of my recent non-expert favorites: the sped-up Boys Noize version of Modeselektor’s “Monkeyflip,” Jamie xx’s much funnier Adele shuffle, and Chase & Status’s VIP mix of their own “Let You Go.” Also Liquid Stranger’s remix of Bandish Projekt’s 2010 single “Brown Skin Beauty,” which is featured on the greatest conceptual coup of 2011, Generation Bass Presents: Transnational Dubstep. And while I’m at it, I might as well direct you to my friend Jonathan Ratain’s MLK tribute “I Have A Dream Remix.” Like hundreds of up-and-coming semi-DJs, he could use the publicity.

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Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure dregs...

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