2011 Albums of the Year, Part 1 (#50-21)
50. The Feelies - Here Before
Jangle Pop, Folk Rock, Indie Rock
Chalk this one up to one of the most pleasant surprises of the year: The Feelies returned in 2011 with their first new music in 20 years, in the form of their full length record Here Before. Although they had reunited in 2008 and continued to tour vigorously throughout the subsequent three years, the prospect of new music from the band seemed bleak. But unlike some other bands from The Feelies’ era who have gotten back together over the years, this group genuinely had something left to say. In this case, it seems like they had a LOT to say; with 13 songs and a 46 minute running time, Here Before is the longest Feelies album to date. Sonically, the record does not stray from the jangly folk pop style of their past three records, but it still feels adventurous. In their lyrics, the band explores the concept of aging and gives listeners an insight as to what reuniting an indie rock band after almost two decades is like. “Is it to late / to do it again?” vocalist Glenn Mercer sings on the opening track. For fans of the New Jersey indie rock progenitors, the answer is a resounding “No!” Here Before stands as a shining example of why reunions can be truly rewarding.
49. Algernon Cadwallader - Parrot Flies
Twinkly Emo, Math Rock, Indie Rock
Here at the end of 2011, with their punkish peers Grown Ups and Snowing having called it quits, Algernon Cadwallader seems like the only big player in the twinkly emo revival scene. But when they released their sophomore LP Parrot Flies at the beginning of the summer, the scene had never been stronger. With its meandering, heavily layered guitar lines, unpredictable time signatures, and uniquely catchy vocal melodies, Parrot Flies both typified emo revival and also advanced it. There was just enough experimentation on this record to keep it interesting, and although it lacked singularly great songs with the immediate of fan favorites from the group’s first album, songs like Parrot Flies’ “Pitfall,” “Springing Leaks,” and the acoustic guitar-led “Sad” have held up to repeated listens better than anything on Some Kind of Cadwallader.
48. Man Man - Life Fantastic
Avant-garde Rock, Experimental, Indie Rock
The problem with the new Man Man record is not that it doesn’t quite live up to their previous albums, that it’s production, handled by Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis, is a little overdone, or even that after three years their experimental Modest Mouse meets Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits formula has begun to grow stale. Although all of those criticisms are true to an extent, the real reason that Life Fantastic hasn’t been particularly well-received is rather simple: Man Man’s fans have grown up. I’ve read a large handful of dismissive reviews of this record that say something along the lines of “My sixteen year old self would love this.” Well, I’m sixteen, and I love this. Or at least I like it a lot. While the annoyingly catchy “Piranhas Club” is a little silly, songs like the darkly danceable title track, the creepy murder ballad “Haute Tropique”, and the aggressive “Dark Arts” are among the band’s best tracks ever. This record was admittedly my first exposure to Man Man, but the fact that I appreciate it so much still says more about the record itself than it does about me.
47. Washed Out - Within and Without
Chillwave, Dream Pop, Electronic
I found Washed Out’s 2009 EP Life Of Leisure pretty boring. It was good for a summer makeout session (at least, it probably was, I guess…), but it held little substantial water past those summer days and nights. I suppose that sums up how I felt about chillwave in general that year; I could never really connect with it on an emotional level. On his new LP Within and Without, the first full length record from this project, Washed Out mastermind Ernest Greene turns my frustration on its head. Within and Without revels in its self-aware lack of emotion, right down to the purposefully generic stock photo album cover. Cold synth washes cover the record in an impenetrable haze, while the hushed, disconnected vocals distance the listener from the sadness at the heart of this album. By the end, that sadness bubbles up to the surface in the form of “A Dedication,” a slow, somber reminder that even chillwavers have feelings.
46. Ovlov - What’s So Great About The City? (EP)
Indie Rock, Noise Rock, Shoegaze
Lots of bands tried their hand at 90’s revivalism in 2011, but few did it better than Ovlov. On their new EP What’s So Great About The City?, the Connecticut group pays tribute to fuzz rockers such as Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, and Nirvana with their buzzsaw brand of indie rock, or as they call it, “pop songs played heavy.” With its title and loose concept about the downsides of urban life, the group also seems to be paying tribute to The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I, albeit in a much more palatable form. Although it only runs a little over 11 minutes, the four song EP has tremendous replay value. Opener “The Valley” is the grungiest track here, while “I Got Well” is the most catchy. “What Comes Next” is a propulsive punk song while “The City” features female vocals in its lofty chorus. All four tracks have personality that goes beyond their short lengths, and playability that extends for miles. If you’re fed up with boring revivalist bands like Yuck, but still want to hear some authentic sounding 90’s indie rock, give Ovlov a spin. The EP is available for whatever you want to pay over at their Bandcamp page.
45. Blue Sky Black Death - NOIR
Electronic, Dream Pop, Shoegaze
The duo behind Blue Sky Black Death made their name as instrumental hip-hop producers, but you wouldn’t be able to tell just from listening to their new record NOIR. Instead of adhering to the established hip-hop format on this record, Blue Sky Black Death have struck out their own course into virtually uncharted electronic territory. Mixing lush synth textures, piano melodies, heavy guitar leads, strings, and crisp, minimal beats, NOIR sounds like little else that was released this year. These instrumental backdrops are topped off in some cases by soulful vocal samples, including Dusty Springfield on “Farewell To The Former World” and Solomon Burke on the too-short interlude “Falling Short.” With or without the sampled vocals, NOIR is one of the most moving and organic electronic albums of 2011.
44. Holy Ghost! - Holy Ghost!
Synth Pop, Electronic, Alternative Dance
If 2011 goes down primarily as the year that LCD Soundsystem broke up and dropped the electronic indie rock torch, history will look at Holy Ghost! as the first group to pick it back up. Released on James Murphy’s DFA Records, the duo’s debut LP is quintessentially New York in all the same ways that Murphy’s own band’s first LP was; Holy Ghost! is full of smart, spastic, and singular electropop, with just enough of a rock edge to maintain the listener’s interest. Although they make music for dancing and potentially tripping to, Holy Ghost!’s self-aware lyrics clarify their nu-disco aesthetic. Look out for a guest spot from Michael McDonald on the closing track “Some Children”, and the starry-eyed but earnest “Jam For Jerry”, which was written as a tribute to the late Jerry Fuchs (of !!!, LCD Soundsystem, Maserati, and a number of other great New York bands.). It’s a musical model we’ve all seen before, but one that’s been proven to work. Hopefully we can expect even better things from Holy Ghost! in the next couple years.
43. Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts
Indie Folk, Chamber Folk, Singer/Songwriter
Dispel any thoughts or preconceptions you might have about Thurston Moore, the aging indie rock legend, or about Sonic Youth, the band that he has fronted for over 30 years, or even about Kim Gordon, his longtime wife and bandmate from whom it was recently announced that he was separating. Hell, demolish those thoughts. Download a copy of Moore’s most recent solo album and allow yourself to be overcome by the enveloping swathe of acoustic guitar textures and strings. Lose yourself in Moore’s soothing vocals, calling to mind Nick Drake, and Demolished Thoughts‘ understated songwriting. Ease yourself into the first half of Demolished Thoughts, with its lush chamber folk numbers “Benediction” and “Circulation,” and fall into the atmospheric haze of its abstract second side. Lie down on your bed with this record on in the middle of the day, and if you aren’t asleep by the end of “January”, you should stop drinking so much coffee.
Now, as you wake from your healing midday slumber, recall those thoughts and consider how amazing it is that Thurston Moore was able to create a record this beautiful in 2011.
42. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic
Indie Rock, Singer/Songwriter
This album could earn its place on this list solely for the first line of “Tigers”, which is probably the best opening line to any album I’ve heard since Silver Jews’ American Water (which, coincidentally, Stephen Malkmus was also involved with.). References to streaking in birkenstocks aside, the former Pavement frontman’s new album with his backing band The Jicks is just about as good as anything he’s done since the former band broke up. With production assistance from fellow 90’s indie rock icon Beck, Mirror Traffic is steeped in nostalgia while still coming across as forward-thinking. The jangly “Tigers” is probably the best track here, but others like the fuzzy folk rock gem “Stick Figures In Love” and the delightfully profane (and topical) lead single “Senator” round the album out for a consistently enjoyable listen. Also, you get to hear Stephen Malkmus say “blowjob”. What’s not to love?
41. The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck
Indie Folk, Folk Rock, Singer/Songwriter
When was the last time The Mountain Goats put out a bad album? Have they every put out a genuinely bad album? Perhaps the best thing about The Mountain Goats is their consistency. Over the past ten years, John Darnielle has released eight major albums under his Mountain Goats moniker, and all of them have been solid releases. Although The Mountain Goats can’t claim to have very many great albums, they certainly have a lot of good albums. Darnielle’s latest, All Eternals Deck, is no exception.
2012 marks ten years since The Mountain Goats transformed from a personal, lo-fi solo project of John Darnielle into a full band operating in a studio, with 2002’s Tallahassee. On All Eternals Deck, it seems that The Mountain Goats have finally come into their own as a studio band, and are now able to have some fun with it. Working with some interesting producers (including death metal singer/guitarist Erik Rutan), this album must have been a lot have fun to record. What All Eternals Deck may lack in coherence, it makes up for in stylistic variety. Many different kinds of music are represented here, from the band’s signature folk rock (“Birth of Serpents”), to sentimental piano/strings ballads (“Outer Scorpion Squadron”), and even barbershop-quartet style vocal music (“High Hawk Season”).
On top of this, All Eternals Deck happens to be Darnielle’s best set of songs in quite some time. The best moment comes in the form of “Estate Sale Sign”, an aggressive, high tempo number that sounds more raucous than any Mountain Goats song in years. No matter where Darnielle & Co. go next, I’ll be sure to follow behind with open ears.
40. Pianos Become The Teeth - The Lack Long After
Screamo, Post-Hardcore, Experimental Hardcore
Having tracked Pianos Become The Teeth for a while, I’ve observed a lot of refinement happening with their creative output. Looking back on the band’s earliest recordings, their 2009 LP Old Pride represented a tremendous stylistic refinement from the unrestrained madness of their previous material, with its sweeping post-rock song structures and unified conceptual ideas. On their split with The Saddest Landscape, they brought their style together even more with a meticulous attention to stylistic detail. Now, on their brand new sophomore LP The Lack Long After, I wonder just how much more refined they can get. The lengthy post-rock soundscapes are gone here, as are the slow instrumental interludes of Old Pride, and the record comes across feeling much more urgent and immediate because of it. On the new LP, the group’s established experimental hardcore style remains, but in a condensed, pressurized form. Only two songs here surpass the 5 minute mark, but all eight of them pack a serious punch — More so, arguably, than anything on Old Pride with the exception of “Filial”. Pianos Become The Teeth have been working towards this for quite some time, and as long as they don’t overstep their goal too much, listeners should be able to expect quite a bit more where this came from.
39. Desertshore - Drawing Of Threes
Indie Folk, Slowcore, Indie Rock
Despite his reclusive nature and reportedly testy personality, Mark Kozelek remains something of a gargantuan character in singer/songwriter circles. He’s been consistently putting out records since the early 90s, never adhering to any stylistic guidelines, and essentially bending every band that he’s been in to the breaking point just so that he can get what he wants out there. The guy is about as badass as slowcore types can be, and he certainly has the songwriting skills and legacy to back it up. It’s no wonder, then, that Desertshore have been eager to work with Kozelek, both on their 2010 debut and even more on their new record, Drawing Of Threes. Of course, the people behind Desertshore have had a relationship with him for quite some time, as guitarist Phil Carney was once a member of the amazing Red House Painters, which Kozelek fronted throughout the 90s. Hearing the two work together on Drawing Of Threes is incredibly rewarding, although the record doesn’t quite stack up against the best Painters material. The six songs on the album that Kozelek sings are all great, as are Carney’s understated instrumentals, although the latter require a more intense focus thank Kozelek’s immediately appealing songs. Highlights include the dense, true-to-form slowcore opener “Diana” and the subtler, more gentle “Mercy”.
38. Jürgen Müller - Science Of The Sea
Ambient, Electronic, New Age
One thing I’ve learned from getting really into ambient music this year is that every great ambient album has to have a concept to go along with it. Jürgen Müller’s Science Of The Sea is no exception. Science Of The Sea was touted in press releases as a reissue of an obscure 1980s album composed by a German oceanic science student named Jürgen Müller, who wrote and recorded the album after having powerful transcendental experiences observing sea life. Although few took the story to be true originally, it has now been pretty thoroughly debunked. If Müller ever did exist, he certainly didn’t make this album. Still, it provides the mind with something to ponder as the listener drifts off into the aqueous realms that Science Of The Sea explores. Listening to this album is like taking a trip to the aquarium as a child. The record instantly taps into those deep-seeded feelings of wonder-evoked nostalgia, in a way that no other album did this year. I may never explore the depths of the ocean, but after exploring Science Of The Sea, I feel like I already have.
37. Football, etc. - The Draft
Indie Emo, Indie Rock
For a year so apparently steeped in 90s emo revivalism, I didn’t hear many albums that actually sounded like 90s emo bands in 2011. Of the few that did, one in particular stood out. Football, etc. is a trio from Houston, Texas who have taken impressive notes from 90s legends like Mineral, Sunny Day Real Estate, and of course American Football (Their band name and all of their song titles are references to the sport, which is probably some sort of nod to the latter band). Their entire aesthetic, even down to their artwork, may be derived straight from the 90s, but their new full length record The Draft is so good that it’s easy to excuse their lack of musical innovation. One thing that sets them apart is their female singer/guitarist Lindsay Minton, who absolutely nails the teenaged emo boy whine with her nasally voice and crushingly melancholic lyrics. In addition to a genuine 90s emo-influenced sound, the band has a much better pop sensibility than many of their revivalist peers, which displays itself in the form of their earworm guitar hooks and unusual vocal melodies. The Draft is easily the best record to hate jocks to of 2011.
36. Wild Flag - Wild Flag
Pop/Rock, Power Pop, Riot Grrrl
With her new band Wild Flag, former Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein has officially returned to making awesome music, and what a return it’s been! Ever since forming back in September of last year, Wild Flag has been on a rampage of critical praise-gaining, making the rounds at festivals and establishing themselves as a fresh voice in a stagnated scene. Their debut record Wild Flag is the culmination of this steamroller of success; It’s loud, brash, punkish, and nevertheless one of the catchiest albums of the year. The band shifts styles throughout the album seemingly on a whim, going from girl-group inspired power pop (“Romance”) to rough and tumble punk rock (“Racehorse”), and even explores psychedelic rock with the 60s-influenced “Glass Tambourine”. Although the women in Wild Flag (among which are members of Helium and The Minders, along with two former members of Sleater-Kinney) aren’t the young riot grrrls that they were in the 90s, they’ve proven that almost-middle aged women can rock out with the best of them.
35. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Departing
Folk Rock, Indie Folk, Indie Rock
“Goodnight to the Alberta Advantage”
That’s a line from the closing song of The Rural Alberta Advantage’s sophomore LP Departing. It would be a pretty interesting way to end an album that would knowingly be your last, and it would certainly provide closure. Thankfully — hopefully — that isn’t the case with this band. From what I can tell, things are just getting started.
The Canadian folk rock group got their start with a 2008 record called Hometowns, a jaunty, lo-fi collection of earnest folk songs, and got saddled with Neutral Milk Hotel comparisons pretty soon after that. On Departing, they’ve cleaned things up a bit and refined their sound a lot, producing a much more cohesive and musically wholesome album of catchy, life-affirming, and meaningful folk rock songs. This time around, they’re not coming across as Jeff Mangum imitators, but one other well known folk band does come to mind: The Decemberists. Departing is the album The Decemberists wish they could have made in 2011, or at least the album I wish The King Is Dead had been.
34. Deafheaven - Roads To Judah
Experimental Black Metal, Post Rock
At the expense of not listening to nearly as much hip-hop as I should have this year, metal was one of the primary musical genres that I sought to explore in 2011. Most of my metal this year was of the “black” variety, which was probably due to the genre’s strange crossover success this year. Since I’ve never listened to much metal before this year, my qualifying judgement for most of this stuff was simply how much it scared the shit out of me and blew me away. Although Liturgy’s Aesthetica came close, no record in 2011 did either of those things more than Deafheaven’s Roads To Judah. I think the reason that it was so overpowering was that I could actually relate to it in some ways. Using the lengthy post-rock song structures that the band crafts their songs with as an entry point, I allowed myself to be drawn in to each of the four pieces on Roads To Judah, only to be blasted away by the pummeling drumbeats and incomprehensible howls of the vocalist. I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever truly enjoyed listening to this record — not in the traditional sense of the word anyway — but in terms of sheer physical effect, nothing beats Roads To Judah.
33. Powder! Go Away - Laika Still Wants Go Home
This one was an interesting find. Powder! Go Away are an instrumental post-rock band, but I didn’t know very much about the group itself until I read up on them after listening to their record. In fact, I only downloaded this album in the first place because of the title and album art; I didn’t know anything about it before listening. There was just something so immediately compelling about the album title. Laika Still Wants Go Home. Until my third or fourth listen, I didn’t even realize that the “to” was missing. You probably didn’t either. Supposedly, it is a conceptual album about the space dog Laika, the first animal in space, who was sent up by the Russians in 1957 and tragically died during her journey. As conveyed both by the simple cover art and the album title, there is a childlike wonder about Laika Still Wants Go Home, which only makes the concept even more sad. The music itself, a surprisingly lo-fi concentration of Explosions In The Sky-style post-rock with high energy sections heavy on electronic beats and keyboards, produces a very cinematic feeling akin to what I imagine a journey to space is like. I think this is one of those fascinating, one-of-a-kind, weird little albums that never lead to anything bigger, but if Laika Still Wants Go Home is the only great thing we get from Powder! Go Away, I’ll be perfectly content.
32. Ramshackle Glory - Live The Dream
Folk Punk, Folk Rock
There wasn’t much going on in the folk punk world at large this year, but one artist in particular managed to make up for the genre’s overall lack of stimulation. Pat The Bunny (of Wingnut Dishwashers Union and Johnny Hobo & The Freight Trains fame) returned to the music world this year after recovering from his heroin addiction with a new band Ramshackle Glory. Their debut record Live The Dream is easily Pat’s most mature album to date, if not his best. The songs range from self-referential odes to the struggles that Pat faced against addiction, to life-affirming punk anthems about reveling in the face of adversity. One clear highlight from the latter camp is the brilliantly-titled “Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of Your Fist”, which may be the best song Pat The Bunny has ever written. In addition to boasting some improved songwriting, Live The Dream features the best backing band Pat has recorded with, giving an impressive instrumental backbone to the new songs. Overall, it’s a positive album that makes me feel good not only for myself, but also for Pat. He’s come a long way, and it’s great to see that he hasn’t lost his songwriting talent after recovering.
31. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Indie Folk, Art Pop, Chamber Pop
You’ve heard this already. I don’t feel the need to write much about the content of the album because I’m sure that you’ve read about it already as well. I’m sure you recognize, whether or not you appreciate the album’s content, that this is one of the big records of 2011 and one that has perhaps the most potential to make a lasting impact on musical trends in the future. None of this is news. All years have their big records, and this is one of them. What’s worth looking at now, six months after the Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s release, is how it’s affected Justin Vernon himself. The sheer mass of this album and its subsequent hype train has managed to shift Vernon’s public image away from the snowy woods where For Emma, Forever Ago was meticulously crafted, and into some previously unexplored art pop territory where everything is bigger. Unfortunately, Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s success seems to have made Vernon’s head bigger along with everything else. As good as I know this record to be, I rarely find myself wanting to listen to it anymore. I would be doing a disservice to you if I were to exclude this from the list, but I probably wouldn’t lose much sleep if I did.
30. Diarrhea Planet - Loose Jewels
Garage Punk, Pop Punk, Indie Rock
Last year, Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles made me hip to a number of great bands, including The Oh Sees and Free Energy, via his blog. This year, with his discovery of twitter, Stickles’ band recommendations have been nearly constant. One of the many great bands that he turned me onto this year is Diarrhea Planet, a group of dudes with guitars from Nashville, Tennessee who play some of the most energetic and enthusiastic punk rock I’ve ever heard.
Aside from Patrick Stickles’ sponsorship, I was attracted to Diarrhea Planet of course by their ridiculous name. Most of their fans like this band in spite of their name, but I like them all the more because of it. Punks take note: If you want to show the world that you really don’t give a fuck, name your band Diarrhea Planet. Nowhere on their new LP Loose Jewels do they even approach the realm of maturity, but when your name is Diarrhea Planet, maturity isn’t exactly expected of you. Instead, Loose Jewels is true to it’s own name. It’s a loosely connected set of lo-fi, guitar heavy punk nuggets — Jewels indeed, but unpolished to say the least. Joyful gang vocals appear on every song, beckoning drunk, late night sing-alongs with tried and true melodies. Few songs (except maybe the closer “Fauser”) stack up to fan favorites from their past records like “Ghost With A Boner” or “Power Moves”, nor does Loose Jewels hold a candle to their ALOHA! EP as a whole, but it’s simply to lovable not to praise.
29. The Rapture - In The Grace Of Your Love
Electronic, Alternative Dance, Dance-Punk
The Rapture’s return to the underground musical spotlight this year wasn’t as climactic as some might have hoped, but it was certainly worth it. Given the lukewarm level of buzz surrounding their new record In The Grace Of Your Love at the time of its release, it was easy to forget that there was a time when The Rapture was the biggest band in New York. I admire the stylistic choices that the band made in creating this record in light of that. Rather than attempt to resuscitate the long-dead New York City dance-punk scene, The Rapture instead chose to strike out on a new creative route. With Grace, they have taken much of the “punk” out of their old formula, replacing angular guitars with crystalline synths and crisp Chicago house keys. Frontman Luke Jenner’s voice has gotten brighter with age, and he flexes it throughout the record, particularly on the stunning opener “Sail Away” and the soulful “It Takes Time To Be A Man”. Highlights include the starry-eyed synth jam “Children” and the song-of-the-year contender “How Deep Is Your Love?”, which was easily the biggest banger of 2011.
28. The Guru - Native Sun
Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Psychedelic Rock
In the nostalgia-fueled musical climate of 2011, many bands sang about youth, but few approached the subject with such immediacy as The Guru. When they recorded their debut album Native Sun before this past Summer, the four members of the Connecticut-based group were all on the verge of post-adolescence. But rather than approach the end of their youths with anxiety and uncertainty, The Guru chose to capture the best aspects of childhood with music, and learned a lot in the process. Like your best memories of childhood, Native Sun is fast paced, exuberant, and incredibly fun. Although the band is broaching a serious subject with this record, they always manage to keep the mood light. Thought provoking lyrics about getting older are juxtaposed against joyful lines about going to the beach, driving to Cape Cod, and playing Mario Party. The music is a mix of Modest Mouse’s sunnier side, with a psychedelic edge and emotive vocals that are strangely compelling once you get used to them. With just eight songs at 24 minutes in length, Native Sun reminds us that our youth is fleeting and short, and urges us to make the most of it while we’re still young.
27. Low - C’mon
Slowcore, Indie Folk
The latest album from slowcore legends Low puts them back about where their 2001 masterpiece Things We Lost In The Fire left off. It’s been praised as a return to form for the band (whose last two records have been rather experimental) not because of any dramatic similarities to their earliest albums, but because it strikes that perfect chord between miserable dreariness and prettiness. They reached a stylistic apex with Things We Lost In The Fire, and for the most part, C’mon succeeds in reaching it once more. Indeed, songs like “Try To Sleep” and “Nightingale” are among their most lushly melodic and beautiful. Other moments on the album hint at a bold new direction for the band. “Witches” is grim and heavy, with a snarling guitar part from frontman Alan Sparhawk and equally dark lyrics. Meanwhile, “Majesty/Magic” and the gargantuan “Nothing But Heart” build to tremendous post-rock style crescendos previously unseen from the band. Low still has new sonic territory to cover, and although it fits the mold of a return-to-form album, C’mon tells us to definitely not write them off yet.
26. WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
Psychedelic Pop, Indie Rock, Post-Rock
Hype got the better of many bands in the blog buzz cycle this year, but no one made good on hype’s promise the way that WU LYF did. They stood out from the pack as true counterculturalists, avoiding interviews and press releases at every turn. With cryptic imagery and a 2010 single that was just alien enough to resound in the ears of people eager to find the decade’s new sound, WU LYF was the greatest hype success story of the year. The less we knew about them, the more the buzz built, until the previously unknown British band released their debut LP Go Tell Fire To The Mountain. The album was recorded in an old church, giving it a natural reverb soaked sound that permeates every song, and tying into their mystical, cultish image. The music itself remains difficult to describe; It’s something like if Man Man became a post-rock band and started playing anthemic songs about brotherhood. Vocalist Ellery Roberts (who goes by “Elle Jaie”) howls with lupine resonance, rising above the churning instruments and injecting raw emotion into WU LYF’s product. It’s impossible to understand what he’s saying over the waves of reverb and pounding drums, but his conviction genuinely makes WU LYF something to believe in.
25. Into It. Over It. - Proper
Indie Rock, Pop Punk, Singer/Songwriter
As bold as it sounds, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call Evan Thomas Weiss the most hardworking and talented guy in punk right now. With his solo project Into It. Over It., Weiss has recorded a staggering body of work over the past three years, from his numerous splits with artists such as CSTVT and Koji to his monumentally ambitious 52 song debut album 52 Weeks, for which he (you guessed it) wrote and recorded one song every week for all 52 weeks of the year. Apparently being a punk genius can be time consuming; although he has recorded dozens of songs since Into It. Over It. began, he has yet to put out a traditional, proper album — until this year, of course. The aptly titled Proper is mostly about two things. It’s about coherence, and it’s about expansion. For Weiss’ first crack at producing an album of songs united by one style, Proper is excellent. It’s impossible to resist the melodic charm of “Discretion and Depressing People” and “Write It Right”, or the powerful frankness of the slower, more subdued numbers such as “Where Your Nights Often End” and the highlight “Connecticut Steps”, which was written for Mitch Dubey. The warm analog sound that Weiss capturess throughout the album brings it together beautifully, and although the songs vary greatly in mood and tone, they are unified by the album’s fantastic production style. Now that he’s gotten that whole “proper LP” thing out of the way, Weiss can hopefully begin to focus on whatever brilliant next musical project he has in mind.
24. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - Belong
Indie Pop, Noise Pop, Shoegaze
When I first heard Belong, the sophomore album from twee-gazers The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart back in April, I was already convinced it would be my favorite album of the year. Something about the album’s soaring guitar melodies and huge, glistening synthesizers, combined with the fact that I really wanted to feel happy again at the time, made me accept Belong with an open heart. Since then, the album’s appeal has faded in my mind somewhat, but not by much. I still regard Belong as the most life-affirming pop record of the year, and even when I go for long stretches of not listening to it, I still find the melodies of “Heart In Your Heartbreak” and “The Body” skittering around in my head from time to time.
Even when I backed Belong as the frontrunner for the album of the year race, I still knew that it would change anyone’s life. It probably won’t, but that really doesn’t matter when the songs are this good. If you’re seeking meaning or subtlety, look somewhere else, but if you want to have fun, Belong belongs with you.
23. Beirut - The Rip Tide
Indie Folk, Chamber Folk, Chamber Pop
Believe it or not, I never really enjoyed listening to Beirut until this record. Although the lo-fi, wine-soaked travel songs were fun to listen to in small doses, I could never stomach either of Zach Condon’s previous two Beirut albums. Then The Rip Tide came out. While I recognize the problems that older Beirut fans have with the record, I see all of those alleged issues as good qualities. Finally, Condon has been able to produce an album full of actual songs — Not just layered loops with singing over them — with great production value and a natural, live feel to all of them. Songs like the single “East Harlem”, “Santa Fe”, and the Sharon Van Etten-featuring opener “A Candle’s Fire” are the best he’s written for Beirut to date, and with the improved production, the songs actually feel like they have sonic space to occupy. In my view, a refined Condon is a better Condon, and The Rip Tide is about as clean and sharp as Beirut can possibly get.
22. Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place
Ambient Folk, Dream Pop
Brooklyn-based singer Julianna Barwick’s music seems to exist in its own sonic realm. I’ve never heard anything that evokes such a powerful emotional response with such minimal interference. Whereas other ambient artists find space and depth in synthesizers and electronics, Barwick’s music is derived from a much more natural place. Most of the sounds on her new album The Magic Place come from her own voice, which is layered and manipulated in the most subtle and unobtrusive ways to produce a wholly soothing sound. It comes from from somewhere so familiar and yet so alien; listening to The Magic Place at night, you simultaneously feel like you’re wrapped up in your mother’s arms as a baby, listening to her lullabies and exploring the great, silent expanse of an exotic foreign world. It’s dreamy and hazy, impenetrable, but light as a feather. If I were to describe The Magic Place in one word, “ethereal” wouldn’t quite cut it. “Magical” comes close.
21. Trash Talk - Awake EP
Five songs. Eight minutes. Trash Talk’s 2011 Awake EP doesn’t overstay its welcome. Like a mugger in a dark alleyway, it approaches quickly, whallops the listener in the head a few times, and runs the hell away before you realize that you’re bleeding from somewhere and it stole your wallet. I’ll make this brief, both because this album is brief, and because I’m sure you’re tired of reading after the previous 29 entries in this list: Nothing since the 80s ended has come this close to capturing the essence of 1980s hardcore than this EP. I don’t mean that Awake particularly sounds like 80s hardcore bands — It doesn’t, exactly — but it hits just like the best of them. This is straight up, no frills hardcore punk, with militantly political lyrics, superbly tight musicianship, and the vocals of a deranged, barking maniac. It’s the perfect hardcore archetype, and with the Awake EP under their belts, Trash Talk is poised to become the perfect hardcore band.
Check back here tomorrow for the next installment in this list! #20-1 are just around the corner! The full schedule of my year end lists can be found HERE. Thanks for reading!