Published Nov 28, 2011For the last several years, the big winners (for critics looking at soul, funk and world albums), have found a sweet spot that works well in a variety of DJ sets. With WhoKill, Merrill Garbus (aka tUnE-yArDs) constructed a meeting place between dub, Afrobeat, punk, funk, hip-hop and folk. Will it work after Charles Bradley? The stomping backbeat of "Es-so" might do the trick. Next to Toro Y Moi? "Killa"'s smooth but cacophonous electro-rap and hooky bass line will do well. How about the Weeknd? Admittedly that's a bit tougher, but the laconic dubby harmonies of "Powa" could fly.
Like Frank Ocean, Raphael Saddiq and the Weeknd, Garbus distilled her eclectic tastes into powerful, individual rhythms elevated by a magnetic front person with an ear for melody. These qualities translated to the stage; her incendiary live shows may have placed her in even higher regard. Garbus's use of electronics was the most striking aspect of her sound; her combination of earthiness with DIY digitalia stood apart from every other record on this list.
Not surprisingly, these diverse expressions came from different sources, but even so 2011 raised some eyebrows. Who at the dawn of the year would have predicted an ethereal label like 4AD getting some major groove love? Not only is it tUnE-yArDs' label, but the source of the Cocteau Twins samples in the Weeknd's work. With three mixtapes, five (!) major label albums in the top 15 (in an era where there are now three major labels) and an odd assortment of indie labels (Carpark, Daptone, Knitting Factory) the business end is as diverse as the music. However, diversity is clearly a trend: tUnE-yArDs also plays well with last year's #1, Janelle Monae's The Archandroid (another major label release). The stylistic and commercial traits that may have once defined contemporary Afro-diasporic music seem blurrier, broader and more exciting than ever.