2011 Albums of the Year, Part 2 (#20-1)
20. Total Babes - Swimming Through Sunlight
Power Pop, Indie Rock, Noise Pop
Total Babes emerged from Cleveland, Ohio initially as a side project for members of Dylan Baldi’s Cloud Nothings, a lo-fi noise pop act that’s been gaining steady buzz for the past couple years. Despite their assumedly inferior side-project status, Total Babes have proven themselves to be far and away the better band. Cloud Nothings was fun when the lo-fi crazy was really big, but Total Babes’ Swimming Through Sunlight outclasses them in terms of catchiness and songwriting. In 2011, everything about this band seems a little passe, if not entirely cliche — The blown out lo-fi aesthetic, the nasally vocals, the simplistic cover art, and most of all the name “Total Babes” suggests a band that is seriously behind the times. This criticism is true to an extent, but the music on Swimming Through Sunlight is good enough to make it easily dismissible. Inventive guitar riffs and catchy power pop melodies evoke the 60s-influenced crunch of early Weezer, and the deceptively snappy lyrics are conveyed with personality that seems alien to the bands peers. Swimming Through Sunlight is one of the most easily likable albums of the year, and holds up to many repeated listens.
19. Real Estate - Days
Indie Rock, Jangle Pop
Real Estate emerged out of the same New Jersey scene that birthed Titus Andronicus, and although they share few musical similarities, their careers seem to be following similar trajectories. 2009’s Real Estate was their The Airing Of Grievances — a messy, lo-fi debut with tremendous listening quality hidden under its surface. On Real Estate, the band went for likability, and reaped the benefits of playing easy, breezy summer songs with subtle emotional undercurrents. For their sophomore album, the band is going for maturity. Days is cleaner, warmer, and much more lucid. It’s still easy to listen to — I mean, the opening track is even called ”Easy” — but it is much more thought provoking than their debut. Martin Courtney’s songwriting has improved dramatically, and the band has gotten tighter at molding the unorganized, heavily reverb-ed sounds of Real Estate into jangly grooves. Days evokes nostalgia for a period of the 80s that hasn’t been explored much in recent years. The excellent single “It’s Real” sounds like a long lost early R.E.M. single, while the wistful, pastoral imagery of “Green Aisles” sounds like a missing link between The Feelies’ debut and their 1986 record The Good Earth. Even if you weren’t a kid in those long lost years, Days will still resonate with you.
18. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact
Psychedelic Pop, Art Pop, Electronic
When Panda Bear’s new solo album Tomboy dropped earlier this year, I had high hopes riding on it. I wanted a new, updated version of Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective’s most recent traditional full length album, which was my favorite record of 2009. Tomboy disappointed me a lot, but my desire for eye-opening psychedelic pop ended up being sated by another artist, with whom I had not previously been familiar. There was once a time when Gang Gang Dance and Animal Collective occupied the same creative niche, before Merriweather and Strawberry Jam and maybe even Feels in 2005. Now, with the success of Eye Contact, the bands are poised to stand on the same plane once more. Eye Contact is the best and most cohesive Gang Gang Dance record to date; it’s a psychedelic perfect storm of propulsive rhythms, arching synthesizer melodies, and evocative female vocals. On the album, Gang Gang Dance borrow musical touchstones from cultures around the world, with Dirty Projectors-style African guitar lines, vocals influenced by Indian music, and ecstatic tribal drumbeats. It’s all brought together as a cohesive whole, best exemplified by the unusually catchy highlights “Mindkilla” and “Glass Jar,” which stands as a strong contender for the year’s best song. If Animal Collective can produce a record as Eye Contact next year, maybe my faith in them will be renewed.
17. Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise
IDM, Downtempo, Electronic
In addition to being among the best releases of the year, Nicolas Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise was also one of the most subtle. The 21 year-old Brown University student quietly released his debut full length in February, and gained admirable praise over the subsequent months without having to do very much of anything afterwards. Space Is Only Noise made ripples among listeners, which built up into bigger ripples, which soon became waves. It wasn’t a particularly divisive or controversial record, nor was it bombastic or immediately gripping, but Space Is Only Noise had one thing in particular going for it: It was weird. The record is a spacious (sorry), expansive mix of experimental sounds, some sampled, some recorded, but all decidedly discomforting. It lures the listener in with its gentle sonic palette and Jaar’s deep, soothing voice singing offhand lines like “Replace the word ‘space’ with a drink and forget it / Space is only noise if you can see.” The eventual unsettlement comes from the album’s disjointedness. Tones and feelings fade in and out, vocals pitch up and down, but everything exists simultaneously on a singular musical plane. The only artist that I can feel comfortable about comparing Jaar to is The Books, whose early album Thought For Food produces a similar effect when listening. Space Is Only Noise isn’t as jarring to listen to as the Books’ records were when I first heard them, but that says more about me than it does about the album.
16. SBTRKT - SBTRKT
Future Garage, Dubstep, Electronic
Feel free to consider this as my list’s replacement for the James Blake album. Like Jamie Woon before him, British electronic producer SBTRKT was pegged as a James Blake acolyte pretty much from the beginning, and while his debut album SBTRKT certainly welcomes comparisons to Blake’s work, I see it as less of an imitation than an improvement. Blake took the pop route with his own self-titled LP, but held himself back with an emphasis on sounds over songs. SBTRKT finds a much better balance on his record, producing exotic beats that simultaneously feel ready for a dance club or a thoughtful nighttime headphones listen. He recruited an arsenal of guest vocalists to contribute to the album, giving it a communal feel that the lonely James Blake LP lacks. Swedish Electro-poppers Little Dragon contribute to “Wildfire”, the most overtly pop moment on SBTRKT, while British R&B singer Sampha sings on a number of the album’s highlghts. ”Hold On” is dubby and downtempo, with Sampha crooning emotionaly in his upper register. On “Sanctuary”, he’s singing electric verses over Jessie Ware’s lofty vocalizations. Above all, SBTRKT is deep, thoughtful, and experimental, but you might not notice when you’re dancing to it.
15. Balam Acab - Wander/Wonder
Witch House, Ambient, Electronic
I’ve heard that mankind knows more about outer space than we do about our own oceans. Thousands of miles of underwater tunnels and seascapes remain untouched by human influence, undiscovered, and just as alien to us as the vast expanses of our solar system. Countless artists over the years have looked to space as their source for creative inspiration, but 20 year old producer Alec Koone is different. With his experimental project Balam Acab’s debut album Wander/Wonder, Koone takes the listener on a sonic journey underwater. He explores massive subaqua caverns, illuminates the dark waters, and penetrates seemingly impenetrable depths with sound. With its churning, dark synths and dense, organic beats, Wander/Wonder simultaneously induces claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Sampled vocals, twisted and pitch-shifted beyond recognition, sound out in the darkness like the voices of shipwrecked ghosts, bringing some last vestiges of humanity to the lifeless world that Wander/Wonder evokes. It’s a cliche to say that music takes you to other worlds, but this album is deserving of that statement. Whether that should be taken as praise or criticism is up to you.
14. Wess Meets West - Chevaliers
Post-Rock has always been about sounding big, and nothing sounded more mountainous to me this year than Wess Meets West’s surprisingly great new album Chevaliers. When I saw this band live opening for Fang Island in March, I was impressed, but not particularly blown away. Nevertheless, I started following them, and when they released Chevaliers last month, I downloaded it on a whim. Needless to say, I was surprised when I heard the immediately earth shattering opening to the perfectly-named “The Mountains Are Shaking At Their Roots”. A ten minute post-rock epic of the highest order, that song alone signified to me that Chevaliers was something to pay close attention to. This is not your father’s post-rock, nor is it the post-rock of your weird, reclusive friend who you worry about sometimes. Instead of playing to the established, clean-cut Explosions In The Sky formula of post-rock, Chevaliers is aggressive, heavy, messy, and raw. Multiple searing guitar leads are laid upon each other throughout, transmuting technically proficient riffs through a distorted sheen. Of course, Wess Meets West builds cathartic crescendos into each song, but they manage to breathe life into them and convey overwhelming emotion with each percussive explosion. Although vocals are rare, they hit hard when they show up. Just when you start to get blown out on Chevaliers‘ heaviness, well-placed ambient interludes allow for relaxation. With great structure and an adventurous sound, Chevaliers is the best genuine post-rock record of 2011.
13. Tom Waits - Bad As Me
Blues Rock, Avant-Garde Rock, Singer/Songwriter
Will Tom Waits ever make a bad record? Has he ever made a bad record in the past? I think it’s pretty safe to say that no other artist who has recorded music in five separate decades is as consistently Well regarded as Mr. Waits. Looking at his track record, it should be no surprise that his latest album Bad As Me is just about as good as anything he’s ever put out in the past forty years. Each subsequent Tom Waits album seems to be more likable than the last, even if it’s only for the exciting prospect of new Tom Waits material, but Bad As Me actually stands up to Waits’ greatest classic albums Rain Dogs and Mule Variations when set up right beside them. His songwriting is in top form, as always, particularly on the lyrically ripe “Kiss Me” and “Face To The Highway”, in which he gives real personalities to inanimate household objects, a classic Waits lyrical device. Even though it may be something of a joke, the pointed “Hell Broke Luce” is also extremely fun to listen to, mostly because you get to hear the 62 year old Waits say “fuckin’” about 10 times, and for the line “How many times can you polish up a turd?” Bad As Me features guitar contributions from The Rolling Stones’ similarly badass old guy Keith Richards on a number of tracks, including the urgent opener “Chicago” and the much more languid “Last Leaf,” in which Waits compares himself to a vestigial tail and sings a duet with Richard himself. The best moment comes at the end, however, in the form of a wistful song called “New Year’s Eve”, which is poised to become one of my favorite Tom Waits songs ever. Although I initially had some doubts about Bad As Me prior to hearing it, I am so happy to say that I genuinely love it now. Long live Tom Waits.
12. La Dispute - Wildlife
Post-Hardcore, Emo, Experimental Hardcore
Before Wildlife showed me how much of an idiot I was, I had long written La Dispute off as scenester sensationalism — The kind of band that appealed to poser ‘hxc’ kids on tumblr who liked to take photos with vintage filters and superimpose their super meaningful lyrics on them. Of course, this was actually a fair criticism, as their debut album (the name of which I can’t be bothered to fully type out) was rather bland and too needlessly emotional for my tastes, and thus didn’t hold my interest for very long. I was sure that this criticism would also apply to their sophomore album Wildlife, until one night I was on a late train coming home from Providence, Rhode Island and I decided to give it a try. What I heard was something shocking and different. Wildlife is emotional, yes, and maybe too much, but its emotional weight feels justified by its incredibly heavy subject matter. Pay attention to the lyrics and you’ll hear an album that focuses on death, particularly its more horrible manifestations (manslaughter and cancer are recurring themes) and how humanity copes with it. Singer Jordan Dreyer’s half-spoken, always urgent vocals take the listener on a cinematic ride through his shockingly literal lyrical accounts of death and despair, from the self-referential opener “a Departure” to the slow, painful misery of “I See Everything”, which reads like a diary of a mother who is slowly losing her son. The album comes to a head with its best song “King Park”, in which Dreyer tells the tale of a man who accidentally shot an innocent child and killed him. It ends, in a painful suspension of catharsis, with the murderer desperately calling out to the police outside his hotel door, gun in hand. “Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?”
Because it is so unendingly depressing, Wildlife is an incredibly difficult album to listen to, but Dreyer’s storytelling is so compelling that I the listener can’t help but be strung along.
11. The War On Drugs - Slave Ambient
Indie Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Folk Rock
Do you remember being young and restless in the 70s? Did you trip on mushrooms and party with friends in your parents house, listening to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan records into the late summer nights? Did you ever come down from that extravagant high? I don’t think I know anyone who had these experiences, but if I did, I wonder what they would think of Slave Ambient, the newest record from The War On Drugs. To me, Slave Ambient sounds like the late 70s or early 80s refracted through a hazy lens of nostalgia. I got the same feeling listening to it for the first time that I did when I first watched Freaks And Geeks, the cult-followed one season show about a group of high school kids in the early 80s. Like the TV show, Slave Ambient doesn’t necessarily feel real, or sound like it comes from that period, but it somehow evokes it in a way that I can’t quite describe to this day.
Essentially, The War On Drugs make folk rock music, but plastered through a psychedelic sheen of reverb and electronics. Though seemingly innocuous, it’s a stunning mix of sounds that the band produces. They’ve been making records for some time now, and on Slave Ambient, their songwriting has finally caught up to their aesthetic in terms of quality. Whether they’re attempting to capture the anthemic qualities of Born To Run with “Baby Missiles”, or the atmosphere of early U2 with “Come To The City”, they succeed admirably. In spite of how familiar and nostalgic Slave Ambient feels, or perhaps exactly because of that, it’s one of the most unusual records I heard this year.
10. Circle Takes The Square - Decompositons - Vol. I. Chapter 1. Rites of Initiation
Screamo, Post-Hardcore, Experimental Hardcore
One of the most exciting news stories of this year was when experimental screamo pioneers Circle Takes The Square officially announced their long-awaited return to making new music, in the form of a gargantuan, multi-part new album called Decompositions. If the first part of this new mega-album is any indication, Decompositions is going to be a musical force to be reckoned with. Decompositions - Vol. I. Chapter 1. Rites of Initiation is a 23 minute, four song EP, and is their first official new release since 2004’s breathtaking LP As The Roots Undo. Although their core aesthetic of aggressive, challenging screamo with harsh male/female vocals and abstract, poetic lyrics remains unchanged, they have developed instrumentally on Rites of Initiation, bringing more of a metal-influenced sound to their guitar and drum parts. The labyrinthine sprawl of the instrumental and vocal arrangements echoes the lyrics, which deal in some sense with uncertainty and alienation. All four tracks are great, but the lengthy “Enter By The Narrow Gates” and “Way Of Ever-Branching Paths” have the most depth. Although Rites Of Initiation doesn’t completely satisfy my hunger for new Circle Takes The Square music, it is suggestive of even more great things to come.
9. Youth Lagoon - The Year Of Hibernation
Dream Pop, Chillwave, Electronic
Perhaps Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers actually has been hibernating for a year. His debut record The Year Of Hibernation would have made a lot more sense coming out in 2010, when “bedroom pop” was still a big buzzword, and it seemed like everybody had a lo-fi chillwave synth project that they were working on. But relevance aside, part of me is really glad that Youth Lagoon was a little late to the party. Had it been released earlier, The Year Of Hibernation might have been covered up by the Teen Dazes and Toro y Mois of the world — Loud, populist chillwavers aiming to please but forgetting to emotionally stimulate. The Year Of Hibernation is so quiet and so fragile that it certainly wouldn’t have taken much noise to drown it out, which is why I’m really glad that I managed to hear it. On the record, Powers sings about youth and love, dreams and memories about the Fourth of July, some number of years ago. His innocent voice has a hushed hollowness to it, and while he never reaches the emotional heaviness of Perfume Genius, from whom he takes obvious influence, his songs evoke the same solemn sadness. From the mouth of another, a line like the mantra from “17” (When I was 17 my father said to me “Don’t stop imagining, the day that you do is the day that you die”) might sound hopeful or inspiring. From Powers’ voice, one wonders whether that moment has come for him yet. If he hasn’t stopped imagining, as evidenced by this tremendous record of childlike wonder, then why does he sound so defeated?
8. Bomb The Music Industry! - Vacation
Indie Rock, Power Pop, Surf Rock
I was never a Bomb The Music Industry! fan until I heard this album. Unlike many people my age, I never had a “ska phase” (nor a Blink-182 phase, mind you), and actually grew to dislike 3rd-wave ska music pretty vehemently. This prevented me from enjoying very much if any of Bomb The Music Industry!’s earlier work, because even though they were shifting away from that kind of sound for a number of years prior to Vacation, their music retained the vestigial remnants of their skanking past. I couldn’t get behind that. But I had seen the band play a couple shows before, and so part of me always wanted to like them. Thankfully, Vacation came out this year, and immediately established itself in my mind as Bomb The Music Industry!’s best album by far. All aspects of their ska band past are gone, replaced by engaging and dynamic indie rock sensibilities and punk energy. Songs like “Vocal Coach” and “Hurricane Waves” are incredibly catchy and emotive, with surf rock-influenced guitars and power pop melodies that call to mind Weezer’s debut. The sunny anthem “Why, Oh Why, Oh Why (Oh Oh Oh Oh)” sounds like a song from Born To Run even down to its saxophone line, while the guitar-heavy “Savers” finds its musical basis in 90s grunge and music of lo-fi indie rock bands. Perhaps more than anything else, Vacation reminds me of Titus Andronicus, a band who I saw Bomb The Music Industry! open for last year. Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor topped my year-end list for 2010 with its inspirational and cathartic punk sound, and Vacation comes pretty close to taking its place for 2011. Although it pales somewhat in comparison, despite what James Webster might tell you, Vacation was the closest that 2011 got to a record like The Monitor.
7. Andrew Jackson Jihad - Knife Man
Punk Rock, Indie Rock, Folk Punk
If interviewing and seeing the band live back in September was my favorite Andrew Jackson Jihad related thing to happen this year, then their new record Knife Man is a really close second. According to last.fm, Knife Man is my most listened to album to come out this year, and although I’ve listened to it all the way through so many times, it has yet to even begin losing its appeal. When I reviewed the album originally back in early September, I gave it a 7/10 and closed by saying that I couldn’t see my opinion about the album changing much in the future. Well, I’m an idiot. All in all, Knife Man makes a strong case for being their best album — A diverse and creative punk rock record with more personality than almost any other album this year. As they mentioned in my interview, they have gotten a lot more comfortable and ambitious as a studio band, bringing in various musicians from all over the Phoenix, Arizona scene to work on making Knife Man as big and all-encompassing as it could be. Styles represented on the album range from emotive and unique pop-punk (“Gift of the Magi 2: Return of the Magi”) to dark, plodding folk (“Back Pack”), blues (“No One”), country rock (“Sad Songs (Intermission)”), and back to their own style of punk-influenced folk music, which they have hewn to perfection over the past six years. Although it lacks the coherence of any of their previous albums, excluding their debut, Knife Man boasts a large number of their best songs and represents the peak of ambition for Andrew Jackson Jihad.
6. Destroyer - Kaputt
Indie Pop, Art Pop, Electronic
I had a long discussion with my father about Destroyer’s Kaputt the other day, which was unsurprisingly motivated by hearing a song by Steely Dan on the radio. My dad exclaimed that he hated Steely Dan, and I concurred. Part of me is still pissed off that their half-baked reunion album beat out Radiohead’s Kid A for album of the year at the 2000 Grammy Awards, even though I know that the Grammys don’t really matter anyway. Mostly though, my dad and I agreed that the style of slickly sentimental, vaguely jazz-influenced ’80s pop is just a terrible style of music. In my father’s words, Steely Dan’s music is enough to make his foot curl up into a tight ball of tension. We promptly changed the radio station.
After we settled on something else, I told my dad about Destroyer and their new album Kaputt, which was released in January. On Kaputt, Destroyer mastermind Dan Bejar made music that is stylistically similar to the music of Steely Dan, and yet I deride one band while praising the other. Why is it cool and interesting that Bejar used swirling saxophone arrangements and heavily reverbed drums on songs like “Blue Eyes” and “Chinatown”, when it’s so lame and boring when Steely Dan does it? After pondering this phenomenon, I wondered what Bejar thinks about Steely Dan and other bands like that. Then I realized it doesn’t matter. So many indie rock bands in the past few years have been looking to the ’80s as their source for inspiration, making albums that ironically sound like ’80s pop in some way as commentary about the state of “indie music” itself and the commerciality of the once authentic style. While that was a cool idea initially, it got so played out in 2011 that I went through a period of never wanting to listen to any ’80s revivalist bands whatsoever. And yet, once again, I still found myself coming back to Destroyer.
Ultimately, I’ve discovered that Kaputt transcends all of that. Kaputt is not meant to be ironic, nor is it meant to be a pastiche of a greatly hated style. It translates ’80s pop for a reason, creating isolating feelings of urbanity and loneliness under the guise of its smooth, occasionally even sexy sounds. Bejar’s vocals roll over the mix with a languid laziness, often little more than a whisper, laying out some of the more brilliant lines of the year and sounding like he doesn’t even care. I hope that history looks on Kaputt as the death knell of ’80s revivalism, because I don’t believe that anyone will top it in the future.
5. Deer Leap / The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die - Are Here To Help You
Twinkly Emo, Indie Rock, Post-Rock
Original review HERE.
Watching The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die grow up has been a wonderful experience. When I was first introduced to them in the Summer of 2010, they had just one EP to their name, the stellar Formlessness, and were riding an undercurrent of local buzz on top of it. Now, about a year and a half later, the Connecticut band stands at the top of the national emo revival scene. I couldn’t be more proud. If you want to see just how far The World Is… have come, listen to Formlessness and then listen to their new split 12” record with Deer Leap consecutively. As much as I love Formlessness, it’s so clear to me how much better this record is in nearly every way. The band sounds more confident, more skilled, bigger, louder, and generally much better than they did last year. Their songs on this split, four in number, are the best songs they’ve ever written, and display their boundless ambition without looking too far away from their past successes. “I Will Be Okay. Everything” is perhaps the single best documentation of their style, condensed into four minutes of style-shifting, high energy emo. “Mega Steve” displays an unprecedented joyfulness in its first half, and then a solemn reminder of the loss of one’s youth in the second. “Bread For Brett” is as catchy as TWIABP will probably ever be, and represents the possibilities that having multiple songwriters working together in a band opens up. Lastly, “Wait… What?” boldly looks over the stylistic forefront of their post-rock influenced emo sound and towards the future. It’s the best four song stretch this year has seen, and it makes me incredibly happy to be from Connecticut knowing that this band calls my state home.
But beyond that, this split record is truly great because it showcases Deer Leap, a band from New Hampshire, that currently seems to be occupying the same niche that The World Is… filled at this time last year. Deer Leap’s side could well be their Formlessness; the four songs credited to them on the split are thought-provoking, interesting, and rather unlike any other bands I’ve heard recently or ever. Deer Leap finds a perfect crossroads between instrumental post-rock, indie rock, and atmospheric emo that is both groundbreaking and familiar, and demonstrates an impressive songwriting ability to match. Although it’s pretty clear to me that the second side of the split (that is, TWIABP’s side) is the better half, I’ve been listening to Deer Leap’s side more and more recently. Speaking of which, my vinyl copy of the split just came in the mail. Thanks Topshelf!
4. By Surprise - Mountain Smashers
Indie Rock, Twinkly Emo
Original review HERE.
Indie rock in 2011 taught me a lot about the ’90s. For the most part, they must have been pretty great, because it seemed like every band in the world who wasn’t trying to sound like an 80s soft rock band was aiming for a ’90s lo-fi indie rock sound. While I will admit that I found this revival movement to be rather boring overall, I really do love ’90s indie rock, and I genuinely believe that the bands who captured that style and sound well did a really fantastic job of it. After The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s Belong got ratcheted down a few levels, By Surprise’s debut full length Mountain Smashers was one of my early picks for album of the year for a long time. They nailed the ’90s indie rock aesthetic, channeling lo-fi slacker greats such as Sebadoh and Pavement with inflections of indie emo bands like Cap’n Jazz and Braid. Mountain Smashers’ highlight songs such as “Realometer” and “Mostly Harmless” are as anthemic and instantly likable as anything those bands put out, and when taken out of the context of its release year, the album stands up to almost any classic records by the great ’90s indie rock bands. At its best, revivalism is about creative evocation, as opposed to imitation. By Surprise evokes the ’90s and the bands that lived through that decade better than anyone else, and Mountain Smashers is a fantastic documentation of that.
It’s also worth mentioning the lyrical content of this album, which is influenced by the work of transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau. That should speak for itself. Thoreau is pretty awesome, and Thoreau via By Surprise is even more awesome.
3. The Antlers - Burst Apart
Dream Pop, Indie Rock, Slowcore
Original review HERE.
Burst Apart is the album that nobody expected The Antlers to make, and yet here it is. And it’s great. It’s better than great. It’s brilliant. It’s nearly as good as Hospice. Really it isn’t even on the same plane as Hospice but it might as well be better. The truth is that this is the best conceivable follow up to Hospice that the Brooklyn group could have made, and the fact that they made it so well says a lot. Where Hospice drained the listener of all his or her emotion with every listen, Burst Apart feels practically emotionless. It actively rejects emotion. Peter Silberman exclaims on the very first track that he “[doesn’t] want love”. This is not the same man who spent an entire album crying about losing love in 2009, and this is not the same band who supported him.
In the place of the old Antlers is a newly refined group, exorcised of its collective demons and prepared to remove those of others. Dense shoegazey guitars have been replaced by smooth, lucid guitar lines; hollow drums have given way to electronic beats and textured synthesizer pads. Lyrics about dying have gone away, only to be replaced by lyrics about living without meaning. But despite what Silberman claims on “I Don’t Want Love”, deep insecurity and uncertainty remain welled up in the heart of Burst Apart. Although the album constantly flirts with the idea of dispersion (as suggested by the title), it does not romanticize it. As Silberman sings on the lush, gorgeous closing song “Putting The Dog To Sleep”, he’s scared of dying alone. Not everyone can relate to the character Silberman crafted for Hospice, but I think that’s something that everyone can relate to.
2. House Of Wolves - Fold In The Wind
Indie Folk, Chamber Folk, Singer/Songwriter
Original review HERE.
Although I wasn’t thinking about this when I originally compiled my year end list, I can’t help but notice the similarities between this record, House Of Wolves’ Fold In The Wind, and my #2 pick for last year’s album of the year, Learning by Perfume Genius. I made the comparison between the two albums in my original review of this one, but it seems to be more poignant now than ever. It’s true; Rey Villalobos’ House Of Wolves project resonates with me in a very similar way to the way that Perfume Genius did last year. Both records are incredibly fragile-sounding, gentle folk albums, with rather effeminate singers singing rather depressing lyrics. But like I also pointed out in my original review, Fold In The Wind feels a lot less hopeless. It’s not exactly hopeful — The record still does deal with powerful themes of loneliness, abandonment, and jealousy — but even in the midst of Villalobos’ sadness there are unmistakable undercurrents of hope.
Some of this comes from the album’s prettiness. Fold In The Wind is, in a strictly musical sense, the loveliest, most pretty album that I heard in 2011. Its music is beautifully composed and expertly arranged, with subtle horns, strings, and minimal percussion rounding out its basic combination of wiry acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals. The sheer musical beauty of Fold In The Wind alone merits a high place on this list, but there is much more to the album than just a pretty aesthetic. Much of the album’s appeal lies in Villalobos’ vocals and lyrics, which form a tenuously beautiful pair throughout the album. Although his lyrics do produce some moving and evocative imagery (the opening line of “50’s” and much of “Ageless” are particularly good examples of this), it is his voice that carries their simple grace. He sings with a perilously high, cracked voice, recalling in addition to Mike Hadreas the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers. That voice alone has impregnated itself so deep in my head that I don’t think I’ll ever get it out, but I don’t think I’ll ever want to either.
1. Giles Corey - Giles Corey
Slowcore, Shoegaze, Ambient Folk
Original review HERE.
Part of me feels bad about calling this album the best album of 2011. When you name a record the best album of a certain year, that album comes to be representative of the whole year to an extent. I don’t know how comfortable I feel calling 2011 the year of Giles Corey. By contrast, last year’s number 1 record, Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor, was exactly the kind of album I want taking the top spot on my year end lists. It was inspiring, anthemic, and a lot of fun, despite its serious subject matter. Giles Corey is none of those things. Giles Corey could not be farther from any of those things. Listening to this album is an exercise in controlling depression. It is a predominantly ugly and overwhelmingly miserable album literally born out of uncontrollable depression and suicide attempts. It is an intrinsically personal album that only its creator Dan Barrett should be able to relate to; If you relate to this album and you’re not Dan Barrett, you should probably seek psychological help. Yet despite all of this, and yes, because of all of this, Giles Corey is by far the best album that I heard in 2011.
Where do I even begin with this album? For one thing, it sounds unlike anything else in the world. Barrett retains the heaviness of his work in Have A Nice Life but conveys it through the medium of folk music, abandoning dissonant electric guitars for subtler, but equally heavy acoustic instruments. He’ll multi-track his voice to sound like a choir of ghosts on one track, such as the gospel-influenced “Grave Filled With Books”, and then sing alone to even greater effect on one soon after. He builds up and takes away instrumentation in the same way, creating powerful crescendos with reverb-heavy percussion and then bringing them to a cathartic close with simple acoustic guitar strums. As messy and thick as Giles Corey is, every musical choice seems to be perfectly chosen and placed into the chaos. Sonically, Giles Corey conveys the dread and all the misery that Dan Barrett intended to express just as well as it does lyrically.
Lyrically, it’s hard to describe Giles Corey without making myself feel terrible. Honestly, it’s hard to even listen to Giles Corey without feeling terrible, as if the world is crashing in on you and there is no way to save yourself and all you want to do is scream but you can’t. Suffice to say that Barrett is skilled at being lyrically blunt. There is little room for extravagant poetry and figurative language on Giles Corey. Instead, Barrett’s feelings are often condensed into simple, slogan-like messages: “I’m going to be alone forever”, he sings on “Blackest Bile.” On the aptly titled “I’m Going To Do It,” he repeatedly whispers “I’m going to kill myself.” It’s hard to stomach, and it’s understandable that despite the fact that I think this is the best album of 2011, I still haven’t listened to it nearly as much as the rest of my top 8 or so. But even though I dread each subsequent listen, once I hit play and the opening track “The Haunting Presence” begins, I never fail to realize just how powerful Giles Corey is.