Top 10 Shows of 2011
Here we are at the very end of my extensive 2011 year end coverage. Among many other things, I saw more live shows in 2011 than ever before. Naming just ten of my favorites was painfully difficult for me, as I’ve seen so many fantastic shows this year, so I’ve included an honorable mention section at the bottom. The top ten are in descending order of preference. Special thanks to Manic Productions for making the majority of these shows possible. Connecticut wouldn’t be the same without them.
The original review for each of these shows is linked in each title, for the ones that I actually reviewed. I’ve also attached links to see more photos at the Lewis and his Blog facebook page when applicable.
WHY?’s show at The Wadsworth Atheneum happened only four days ago, well after I already started putting together my lists, but after I attended it I knew that it deserved a place here. The band debuted new material from their forthcoming record, which sounded great, and interspersed it with classics from their 2008 LP Alopecia and its followup Eskimo Snow. Recent Anticon-signee Serengeti opened, with help from WHY? multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid.
View more photos HERE.
Low’s show back in April at Daniel Street was definitely one of the most surreal and eerie concerts I went to this year. The band played in almost total darkness, and the audience was seated in front, which was an unusual arrangement for the bar/venue. Low brought out songs from their 2011 LP C’mon, and also dug into their archives to play songs like “Sunflower” from Things We Lost In The Fire. The performance was heavy and emotional, but the band didn’t lose themselves for one moment. Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk’s distinctive harmonies never sounded better.
I’m not completely positive about this, but I’m pretty sure that I saw Okkervil River play in my hometown this Summer on the exact day that I got out from school. If that’s the case, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to kick off summer 2011. Although I love Okkervil River, I was just as excited to see opening band Titus Andronicus again, whom I had just seen exactly a week prior at B.O.M.B. Fest in Hartford. Titus ruled as usual, but Okkervil River tore the house down, playing for well over an hour and a half and performing many of my favorite songs of theirs.
View more photos HERE.
Sharon Van Etten’s free show at BAR was one of the first of a long-running series of Wednesday night shows that Manic Productions hosts at the downtown New Haven pizza joint, and also one of the first shows I saw in 2011. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it was also one of the very best. It’s amazing to me how vividly I remember it; the intimacy, the atmosphere, and especially Van Etten’s beautiful vocals resonate in my mind with just as much power as they did on that day almost a full year ago.
As I wrote in my original review, this was a show that I never would have predicted I’d be seeing if you asked me about it at the beginning of 2011. But with his accommodating demeanor and beautiful music, Jeff Mangum transported everyone in the New England Conservatory Jordan Hall in Boston that night back to 1998. Mangum may have gotten older, but you wouldn’t have noticed it if you had been there. Like his songs, it seems like Mangum will last forever.
View more photos HERE.
5. The Antlers live at The Space, Hamden CT - 6/17/11
I actually did take photos at this show, but through some mishap or another I lost the files on my camera’s SD card. In retrospect, I’m pretty upset about that, and definitely disappointed that I was too busy to review this show after I saw it. Anyway, someone recorded audio from the show and took the photo above. The entire show can be downloaded over at Connecticut Recordings. Oh look, there I am in the Sebadoh shirt right behind Peter Silberman. You can actually hear me singing during the “encore” performance of “Two.” Crazy. Immediately after the show, I caught Peter Silberman before he could bolt off the stage, and got a copy of the setlist, which is now hanging on my wall.
My last.fm charts inform me that after The Mountain Goats, Bright Eyes is my most listened-to artist of 2011. Could you have guessed? I’ve been a little obsessive over Conor Oberst in this past year, and that obsession came to a head at the end of the Summer, when I took the train down to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Waterfront to see Bright Eyes on The People’s Key Tour. Oberst and company did not disappoint, playing a lengthy set of songs culled from many of the band’s past albums. The highlight of the night came towards the end, when they played the epic closer to 2002’s Lifted, “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved).” Openers Real Estate and Dr. Dog were also stellar.
View more photos HERE.
3. My Heart To Joy live at Madison Arts Barn, Madison CT - 5/14/11
As sad as it may be to admit this, 2011 will probably go down as a year of breakups, both on local and national levels. On the local level, the year’s hardest breakup for me was that of My Heart To Joy, who announced their disbandment in February. Thankfully, they decided to go out with a bang, enlisting an army of the best bands in the Northeast and Midwest punk scenes and playing a generation-defining final show at the Madison Arts Barn in May. More than anything else I did this year, attending this show made me truly proud to be from Connecticut. I wore that orange wristband for months afterward.
2. LCD Soundsystem live at Madison Square Garden, New York City NY - 4/2/11
If My Heart To Joy’s breakup was the saddest local disbandment, LCD Soundsystem’s was the saddest national one. This was a band at the peak of their creative output and potentially on the verge of massive commercial success, and they gave it all up for reasons that are still unclear to me. Thankfully, I got the chance to see their last show at Madison Square Garden, which, if anything, showed exactly how much this band mattered. The show sold out months in advance, and was anticipated with bated breath as everyone waited to see if an independent band could pull something this extravagant off. LCD Soundsystem proved that this was absolutely possible, and if they needed to break up to show just what an indie rock band could do, perhaps it’s worth it after all.
Although it wasn’t as big or as extravagant as LCD Soundsystem’s final show, Sufjan Stevens’ two night run at Prospect Park in Brooklyn holds a place in my heart as undoubtedly the most personally significant live music event of the year for me. In many ways, the two shows (both of which I attended) felt like the culmination of all of Sufjan’s previous efforts. It was a cataclysmic declaration of his creative voice, and a stunning indication of his ability to exercise that voice, with well over a dozen musicians, electronic light displays, and a focus on music from the highly conceptual Age of Adz LP from 2010. And yet, perhaps because the show took place in a venue that Sufjan called “his backyard,” the shows also felt incredibly intimate and personal. Sufjan Stevens deserves the credit for being the first artist to “get me into” modern independent music, and with the Prospect Park shows in August, I felt like my musical interests had finally, truly been validated.
View more photos HERE.
The Guru live at The Space, Hamden CT - 6/11/11
Frank Turner live at Heirloom Arts Theater, Danbury CT - 9/20/11
Hostage Calm live at The Space, Hamden CT - 9/24/11
Thank you to everyone who read and enjoyed any of my 2011 lists. This has been a very enjoyable ordeal for me, and I’m really satisfied with how everything turned out. 2011 has treated me very well musically, and all I can do is attempt to give back in some way. Now that I’ve finished covering 2011, I’m going to set my sights on 2012 and hope for the best. Thanks for everything.
15 Great Connecticut Albums From 2011
I know I promised to do a top ten list of my favorite Connecticut albums from this year back when I made my original list schedule, but it was too hard to narrow the list down to just 10. I simply heard too many good albums from my home state this year to pick so few as my favorites. I also found it too difficult to order them properly, so I just put them in alphabetical order. So, with that having been said, here is the next installment in my list series: 15 great Connecticut albums from 2011! Bandcamp links to stream each album are available when applicable.
1. boy crush - hauntr
Indie Pop, Psychedelic Pop
The High Pop singer’s debut album from his solo project boy crush demonstrates an impressive level of maturity that I never expected. Hauntr is a brief but memorable collection of fragile, lo-fi pop songs about ghosts. Apparently it was recorded in a haunted house, which you may or may not believe after hearing it.
2. Bust It! - Hell Is Other People
Seeing Bust It! live at The Mannor last month made me feel like it was 1983 and I was in Washington, D.C. Their EP Hell Is Other People, released back in March, isn’t entirely derivative of 80’s hardcore punk, but it does have that same level of raw aggression and recklessness. It’s also a lot of fun too, as evidenced by the dynamic opener “Intro/Empty Drawer,” which somehow fits three or four distinct movements into three minutes.
3. Co-Pilots - All My Friends Are Crutches, Because God Knows My Legs Are Broken
Indie Rock, Emo
You could look at Co-Pilots’ All My Friends Are Crutches EP in two ways. In one sense, it’s an album that has perhaps the most potential of any new band in the Fairfield county scene to lead to something truly great, with its inspired lyricism, very lengthy, epic tracks that never get boring, and song structures derived from post-rock. On the other hand, it’s probably the most crushingly frustrating record I’ve heard in a long time, as much of the album’s potential is stymied by its demo-quality production. Thankfully, the band has announced that they will be putting out a new EP this winter. Stay tuned for more information on that!
4. Fugue - YEARS
Post-Rock, Math Rock
In a year full of crushing breakups, Fugue’s disbandment was one of the saddest, especially for people in the Connecticut/Massachusetts scene. On their final EP YEARS, the band had just started to truly live up to their potential as a sweeping, dynamic, instrumental post-rock band. YEARS’ math rock inflections and subtle electronic influences set it apart from the pack of local post-rock groups, leaving listeners with a great last release to remember Fugue by.
5. Giles Corey - Giles Corey
Slowcore, Shoegaze, Ambient Folk
Seeing this record here is probably no surprise to anyone who read my Top 50 Albums of 2011 list, on which Giles Corey claimed the top spot. I’ve said a lot about this already, so I’ll keep it brief here. It’s interesting that despite consistently producing great music, Dan Barrett’s Enemies List Home Recordings doesn’t really feel like a part of the local scene at all. The New England identity of Giles Corey goes much deeper — Back to the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, from which Barrett’s solo project takes its name. Listening to these creepy, hollow sounding ghost folk songs in that context gives them even greater emotional power.
Purchase the album HERE.
6. The Guru - Native Sun
Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Psychedelic Pop
No other record defined my Connecticut summer this year more than The Guru’s debut LP Native Sun, a joyful, resonant, and deceptively funky indie pop gem about youth. I caught tons of Guru shows over the summer, which were consistently packed, and witnessed these songs being brought to life, but when the summer turned to fall and the kids went their separate ways (Two went off to college together), I still had Native Sun blasting through my speakers to remind me of those summer nights.
7. Heavy Breath - Ugly Americans
Sludge Metal, Post-Hardcore
A lot of great punk came out of Connecticut this year, but nothing was as heavy or as badass as this. Heavy Breath’s Ugly Americans EP is a brutal indictment of American politics, culture, and society, conveyed through scorching bass and guitar grooves and delivered by chord-shredding vocals. If you’re pissed off at America, or if you just want to feel pissed off, Ugly Americans is for you.
8. Jerkagram - We’ve Only Come To Leave
Math Rock, Post-Rock
Jerkagram is a pair of cerebral Connecticut musicians who, despite being well versed in art rock and angular math rock, really enjoy simply jamming together. Their debut record We’ve Only Come To Leave finds those two musical worlds colliding, with a stirring, semi-improvised mix of mathy guitar bursts and impressive percussive fills. Despite opening for artists like Kayo Dot and Marnie Stern, this album went under the radar, which is unfortunate. You should all check it out if this sounds like your thing.
9. M.T. Bearington - Love Buttons
Indie Rock, Indie Pop
The New Haven band M.T. Bearington have been working up to this release for quite a while, getting sponsored by the likes of Mates Of State and releasing a number of records since getting started around 2006. Love Buttons represents the apex of their vision: A smart, undeniably catchy indie pop record with just enough weirdness to stand out. I first saw the band live opening for Man Man back in October, and although I didn’t particularly understand the pairing at the time, it makes a lot of sense now.
10. Ovlov - What’s So Great About The City?
Indie Rock, Noise Rock, Shoegaze
Connecticut’s best 90’s indie rock revivalists put out an unmissable EP this year, entitled What’s So Great About The City? The album placed on my top 50 list, so I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say it’s an extremely catchy and memorable indie rock record with heavy shoegaze guitars. With just four tracks, you can sit through the record in just over 10 minutes, or replay this over and over again if you want.
11. Sinforiano Diaz - The Moosup Sessions
Although Thomas Diaz, best known as the singer from The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, has been recording as Sinforiano Diaz for years, this is the first piece of recorded material from his solo project that I’ve been able to dig up. Although the four songs on The Moosup Sessions were not recorded this year, the album itself was made publicly available early in 2011. These songs — Fragile, delicate folk gems — give listeners a tremendous insight into the mind of one of the more enigmatic frontmen in the Connecticut scene right now.
Read more about Sinforiano Diaz / Download The Moosup Sessions HERE.
12. Suns - Be Good Boy
Indie Rock, Emo
Fairfield County trio Suns raised their stature earlier this year with their EP Be Good Boy, a record that brought an aggressive rawness to their indie rock product. The album’s not as consistent as I would have liked it to be, but it’s got a great sound and some singularly great songs. Fans of anthemic, angst-ridden indie rock bands like Titus Andronicus will definitely want to check this out.
13. Wess Meets West - Chevaliers
This is another one that placed high on my year end albums list. Wess Meets West’s Chevaliers was one of the biggest and heaviest albums I heard all year, especially of the post-rock variety. With Fugue having disbanded, this decidedly smaller group now stands head and shoulders over their peers in the local post-rock scene, and this incredibly ambitious record solidifies their place.
14. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die - Are Here To Help You (split w/ Deer Leap)
Emo, Indie Rock, Post-Rock
Based on the amount of coverage that I gave it ever since its release, it should be pretty clear that The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die’s split with Deer Leap is one of my favorite records of the year. TWIABP’s side is the highlight, boasting four fantastic atmospheric emo songs that are easily my favorites from the band. Topshelf Records recently released the split as a 12”, and my copy came in the other day on white vinyl. It sounds fantastic, and I’m really glad I ordered it.
15. Year In Review - I’m Sorry Mario, But Our Princess Is In Another Castle
Pop-Punk, Indie Rock
The Fairfield County scene really cleaned up this year, as it turns out, with a number of great new bands sprouting up and releasing solid material. Year In Review is a pop-punk band from the area with indie rock credibility and none of the annoying cliches generally associated with that style of music. Their record I’m Sorry Mario, But Our Princess Is In Another Castle is an EP comprising five songs about growing older, approaching adulthood, and losing the innocence of youth. It’s pertinent, catchy, and interesting, and definitely worth a few listens.
Check back here tomorrow for the final installment in my list series, my 10 favorite shows of 2011.
Stream: Lewis and his Blog Top 25 Songs of 2011 8tracks mix
In case you didn’t see earlier, I recently posted a list of my top 25 songs of the year with commentary and links to each song. In addition, I made an 8tracks playlist of the 25 songs in descending order, which you can stream above while reading the list HERE! Thanks for following me everybody. I hope you’re all enjoying the list coverage.
Top 25 Songs of 2011
The second installment in my 2011 Year End lists series is a list of what I view to be the top 25 songs of 2011. Songs were judged for personal appeal, cultural significance, and musical memorability, and have been ordered from great to greatest. I assembled an 8-tracks playlist of all 25 songs in order which you can stream below, and listen to while you read. Youtube links to each song have also been attached if you prefer that. Check back here tomorrow for my top 10 Connecticut albums of the year!
edit: The 8tracks embed is not working so if you want to stream the mix just click HERE
25. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - “Belong”
Indie rock culture is all about finding community in a world where you just don’t belong. That’s what The Pains of Being Pure At Heart seem to think, anyway. On the title track to their new LP, the New York City indie pop group ups the shoegazey guitars and taps into that confusing but universal desire. “We just don’t belong,” frontman Kip Berman sings. Thanks in no small part to this song, it seems that they’ve found their place.
24. Into It. Over It. - “Connecticut Steps”
If you’re still wondering just how far reaching the effect of Mitch Dubey’s death last March was, look no further than Into It. Over It.’s “Connecticut Steps.” Written in reaction to the murder of Dubey, who was for years a fixture in the Connecticut punk scene and a friend to many, “Connecticut Steps” perfectly captured the feelings that countless people had on that cold March morning when we heard the news — Uncertainty, fear, sadness, denial, and more indescribable emotions — all through the uniquely personal lens of Evan Weiss’ masterful songwriting. But just as I’m sure Mitch would have wanted, the song doesn’t wallow in despair, but instead looks towards the future. “It’s what you meant / To everyone you met,” Weiss sings. We don’t know what “it” is for Weiss, but that’s what’s so beautiful about it; It allows us to supply our own memories.
23. Azealia Banks - “212” (Ft. Lazy Jay)
Azealia Banks’ raunchy, potty-mouthed banger “212” was far and away the definitive hipster-hop jam of 2011. There was something so initially jarring and perfect about the contrast between the song’s lyrics and Banks’ cute girl image that I still get surprised every time Banks says “cock” or “fuck” or “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.” I mean, seriously, that is some raw shit! Of course, the lyrical loops that Banks throws the listener for are only made more alarming by the speed at which she delivers them, which is impressive considering she claims to only have started rapping within the past year. With its bouncy Lazy Jay beat (which she illegally sampled, just so you know) and lyrics made unforgettable by Banks’ relentless delivery, 212 hints at some big things for this girl in 2(0)12.
22. Los Campesinos! - “By Your Hand”
Welsh twee punks Los Campesinos! made their gradual and inevitable transition to a relatively subdued indie rock sound this year with their new LP Hello Sadness, in an attempt to shy away from the manic energy of their previous releases and focus on developing their lyrics. Unfortunately, it didn’t really pay off on the whole, and the record came off as rather middling for the most part. The lead single “By Your Hand” is fantastic though, and succeeds where most of the rest of Hello Sadness fails at communicating a more mature vision of Los Campesinos! The angst-ridden bitterness of Gareth Campesinos!’ lyrics is still very present, but the raw clang of their past efforts has been condensed into the more palpable structure of a pop song, complete with an infectious and perfectly LC! chorus: “By your hand is the only end I foresee.”
21. Rihanna - “We Found Love” (Feat. Calvin Harris)
For a lot of people, the world in 2011 did seem like a rather hopeless place. Political riots, social/economic unrest, and revolutions swept over the globe like wildfire, being met at every turn with ardent opposition that often resulted in violence. It was a tumultuous climate that we went through, and one that doesn’t show signs of settling down any time soon. It goes without saying that these issues were/are very real to a lot of people. So perhaps it’s ill-fitting that the most compelling declaration of love in spite of hopelessness this year came from Rihanna, one of the biggest pop stars in the world, someone who would never really be negatively affected by the global economic inequity or class issues. But who really cares anyway when the song is as good as “We Found Love” is? This is pop music at its finest, with an electric, pulsating beat that seems to never stop swelling and hooks for miles. Although the instrumentation constantly teeters on the edge of self-destruction, Rihanna herself sounds confident and poised, declaring the song’s titular chorus with conviction. If she’s trying to convince listeners that she’s real, I buy it.
20. The Strokes - “Under Cover Of Darkness”
When the “Under Cover Of Darkness” digital single dropped, it seemed for a moment that there was hope for The Strokes yet. Although they’ve only gotten bigger with each of their four releases, the band has always lived critically in the shadow of their debut Is This It. But with its instantly classic guitar riff and Julian Casablancas’ distinct vocal mannerisms, “Under Cover Of Darkness” seemed like it was just great enough to make The Strokes worth caring about again. Unfortunately, even a single this good wasn’t enough to save Angles from being as bad as anything else they did post-Is This It, but at least we still have it to listen to and to remember that one time when, for a second there, it felt like 2001 again.
19. Kendrick Lamar - “Fuck Your Ethnicity”
In a hip-hop culture dominated by two idealistically separate but closely linked styles of aggressive rap, socially conscious hip-hop seems rather irrelevant. It took a truly courageous and talented MC like West Coast rapper Kendrick Lamar to send a jolt through the hip-hop community and remind people about what actually matters. On “Fuck Your Ethnicity,” the opening track to his LP Section.80, Lamar makes a powerful statement about racial identity. With tastefully soulful female vocals, piano key flourishes, and a memorable chorus as support, he spits rhyme after rhyme of stimulating and thought-provoking lyrics calling for social responsibility. 2011 was a year where a lot of rappers made it big riding on a wave of controversy, but unlike them, listening to Kendrick Lamar actually makes me feel like a good person.
18. The Decemberists - “Calamity Song”
The Decemberists apparently wrote “Calamity Song” in the midst of the 2008 United States presidential election as a criticism of the McCain/Palin ticket. Despite the alarming title, it would be pretty hard to guess the subject matter solely based on Colin Meloy’s verbose lyrics, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense. “The Panamanian Child?” That’s John McCain, born on an American military base in Panama. Meloy’s indictment of Palin is a little harder to catch, although he seems not to think so — “Hetty Green, queen of supply side bonhomie bonedrab / You know what I mean?” Well, spend a few minutes analyzing that line with a dictionary and you might. “Calamity Song” wasn’t recorded until it appeared on this year’s The King Is Dead, but its calamitous lyrics seem just as relevant now than ever.
17. Ramshackle Glory - “Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of Your Fist”
Pat The Bunny entered into Hell and somehow came out better than he’s ever been. With his new band Ramshackle Glory, Pat wrote and recorded a collection of new songs about overcoming his heroin addiction, displaying a newfound sense of optimism for the future that was entirely absent in any of his previous work. “Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of Your Fist” is the best documentation of this profound change. It’s a folk punk song that stands with the best of them — An unrelenting powerhouse of solidarity and hope that, despite its personal lyrics, resonates on a universal level. Pat The Bunny has never written a better song.
16. La Dispute - “King Park”
Although it’s only been out for a few months, “King Park’s” lyric sheet has already proven to be fodder for the lyric image-hungry tumblr hXc populace. Don’t let those ridiculous image macros influence your appreciation for the song, though. When “King Park” is removed from that context, it’s a chillingly powerful and serious piece of music. With his crazed, urgent voice, frontman Jordan Dreyer tells the story of an accidental shooting of an innocent child, playing the role of the silent observer as he describes how the family and town reacts, and how the killer himself is eventually found. It all builds up to the incredible climax, in which the killer is confronted by police, only to let out a desperate line for the ages: “Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?” Put that on your image macro.
15. The Guru - “Arizona”
“Arizona” isn’t the best song overall on Native Sun, the debut full length from Connecticut kids The Guru, but it stands alone better than any of the others. “Arizona” is a singular declaration of intent — a manifesto of youth and post-adolescence that ranks up there with classics such as The Who’s ”My Generation” and, more recently, Titus Andronicus’ “Titus Andronicus.” It’s a song that I screamed the words to in packed rooms on many occasions throughout the past year, and a song that I hope to scream again one day soon when the band comes back to Connecticut. Most of all, Arizona is a song that reminds me of what matters in my life. “I swear to grow old,” singer Eddie Golden shouts. It’s got to happen some time.
14. Real Estate - “It’s Real”
Real Estate did a lot of growing up in the past two years, and this is what they have to show for it. “It’s Real” is a perfect single that displays everything the band does well: It’s got jangly, reverb-heavy guitars, a soothing bassline, precise percussion, catchy melodies, moving harmonies, and earnest lyrics. Sure, it could have been an early R.E.M. song or a Feelies song, but it wasn’t. “It’s Real” is 100% Real Estate, right down to the name, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
13. Beastie Boys - “Make Some Noise”
Okay, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that the return of the Beastie Boys was easily the most badass comeback of the year. Hot Sauce Committee Pt 2 was extremely fun to listen to from the get go, and continues to be rewarding months later. Lead single “Make Some Noise” is definitely the best part of the record, and stands out just fine by itself for what it is. Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D spit nonsensical, hilarious rhymes over the squelching beat, at times rapping over straight feedback and just generally not giving a fuck and a great time. Line of the year goes to Mike D: “Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision / And cut out the part of your brain that does the bitchin’.”
12. Bon Iver - “Perth”
Back in March, before the release of Bon Iver’s now-hugely successful Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Justin Vernon previewed some of the songs from the album to Rolling Stone. He called the opening track “Perth” a “Civil War-sounding heavy metal song,” which kind of fits in retrospect. If there was any one moment on the new record where Bon Iver shed the “folksy”, “wood cabin” image that it had assumed since 2008, it was right when the massive sounding double bass drum hits came in on ”Perth” for the first time. Exactly right there is when I knew that Bon Iver, Bon Iver was going to be something big. It turns out that I was right, and more so than I could have possibly known at the time.
11. Giles Corey - “Spectral Bride”
Dan Barrett (a.k.a. Giles Corey) makes soul-crushingly depressing songs in such a way that the listener often doesn’t realize how depressing they are until it’s far too late. “Spectral Bride” begins with Barrett strumming a guitar, as many of the songs on Giles Corey do, and singing with multi-tracked vocals, creating the effect of a large choir. The melody sounds like something out of a gospel song, and with Barrett’s harmonizing vocals singing it, the song is actually quite beautiful. At face level, “Spectral Bride” is really quite sweet — Barrett is declaring his love to someone whom he obviously cares about a lot. But as the song reaches critical mass, and the instrumentation swells to a crescendo, the true motivations for the song become clear. Anything that might have been construed as plainly pretty or simply romantic now take on a darker meaning as the listener realizes that Barrett is not just calling out to a lover, but is instead revealing to that person his desire to kill himself. “And if I don’t survive, I’ll still be by your side,” the Barrett choir sings, as horns and heavy drums are added to the mix. This line becomes a mantra in the second half, almost as if Barrett is trying to convince himself of its truth more than his lover.
10. The National - “Think You Can Wait” (feat. Sharon Van Etten)
Both The National and Sharon Van Etten came off a big year in 2010, a year in which they both had career-defining records that received a lot of critical praise. In this way, it’s fitting that the two acts, who are separately known for their unique songwriting and their atmospheric recordings, collaborated musically in 2011. The result of this collaboration is “Think You Can Wait,” released as a single by The National earlier in the year. It’s a slow burning, keyboard led number that follows The National’s established songwriting formula with its series of restrained, subtle crescendos. Frontman Matt Berninger’s lead vocals are absolutely melting, while Van Etten’s backing vocal contributions in the chorus contrast with his perfectly. It’s a beautifully sad storm of uncertainty, and it begs for more collaboration between these two musical forces.
9. Drake - “Marvins Room”
I was never a Drake fan when he first blew up a couple years ago, but that all changed dramatically when “Marvins Room” dropped in the beginning of the summer. With this one song, the Toronto rapper singlehandedly nailed the aesthetic that had been slowly developing for the past year with the work of artists like The Weeknd and How To Dress Well. “Marvins Room” finds harmony between the swagger and excess of mainstream pop rap R&B, and the moody, down-tempo emotionalism that singer/songwriters with acoustic guitars and lonely electronic music producers have been channeling for decades. With its confessional lyrics and testy subject matter, it was an incredibly bold statement to make, especially in advance of an album as big as Take Care. Although the full album did not entirely build on the creative success of “Marvins Room,” the song works in its own context even better.
8. Low - “Try To Sleep”
I’m so happy Low went back to making music that is pretty. Their past two efforts prior to 2011’s C’mon were heavy on experimentation, but not particularly thick with substance or simple beauty. “Try To Sleep” is C’mon’s opening track, and it is perhaps the single prettiest song that the Duluth, Minnesota slowcore band has ever released over their lengthy career. With its toy piano twinkles and characteristically lush haromonies, “Try To Sleep” was so pretty that the band managed to enlist John Stamos (yes, that John Stamos) to star in a video for it. The video, which features Stamos and a woman sitting in a car in front of a screen on which moving images of a countryside road are projected, perfectly captures the tone of the song: Beautiful and eye-opening, but ultimately very sad.
7. House of Wolves - “50’s”
The past four entries on this list have all been moody, melancholic, and rather sad songs. I guess I have a type, because “50’s” is no different. On the first track to his debut album Fold In The Wind, House Of Wolves singer/songwriter Rey Villalobos captures a cracked and fleeting feeling of nostalgia for a bygone era, an era which neither I nor Villalobos himself ever experienced. “Kiss me like it’s the 50’s,” he sings, in his inflated falsetto, beckoning to an unnamed lover. Sadly, the person he’s calling out to seems just as far removed from the present time and space as the era that Villalobos is trying to evoke. With its glacial speed and gentle, sweetly layered instrumentation, “50’s” is a sad parade indeed, but one that is worth watching run its course.
6. Gang Gang Dance - “Glass Jar”
“I can hear everything. It’s everything time.”
Gang Gang Dance’s stellar new album Eye Contact opens with that simple statement, spoken in the first five seconds of the opening track “Glass Jar.” In the subsequent 11 minutes, Gang Gang Dance unfolds a stunning sonic portrayal of the birth and evolution of life. There’s no death represented here — That’s for the rest of the album to deal with — just an uncompromisingly vivacious and organic declaration of the wonders of existence. In the first half, churning synths bubble up through cracks in “Glass Jar’s” surface while atmospheric effects flit about through the speakers. But don’t let the six minute ambient/new age intro fool you; In its second half, “Glass Jar” explodes with powerful rhythms, psychedelic vocals, and an infectious repeated synth line, displaying some remarkably catchy pop attributes. Enlightenment and nirvana comes with the tapping of a foot.
5. Destroyer - “Kaputt”
Forget for a second everything you know about culture and nostalgia for the 80s, and just play this song. Disco beats, hi-fi production, and saxophone licks don’t have to be bad if you forget everything bad that you ever listened to that sounded like that. In the 6 minutes and 18 seconds of “Kaputt,” the title track from Destroyer’s new LP, Dan Bejar and his arsenal of supporting musicians and vocalists redeem the 80s pop aesthetic and give it a new purpose and feeling of life, all while making every other 80’s-referential 2011 band seem totally useless and insignificant. Just as I did when I first heard it at the beginning of the year, I still hope that “Kaputt” kills 80’s nostalgia, but I think that even if it does, I’ll still be listening to the song and getting nostalgic.
4. The Rapture - “How Deep Is Your Love?”
I’ll just get this out of the way right now and admit that yes, that the chorus of my fourth favorite song from 2011 sounds exactly like “The Thong Song.” Now that I’ve dealt with that, let’s take a moment to think about just how much of a banger “How Deep Is Your Love?” is. Are there clubs that play The Rapture anymore? Did clubs ever play The Rapture? If I were in charge of a club, I would just play “How Deep Is Your Love?” over and over again and everyone would love it. Although In The Grace Of Your Love is a good album in its own right, this song alone justified The Rapture’s comeback completely. Now I’m going to listen to it again.
3. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die - “I Will Be Okay. Everything”
On “I Will Be Okay. Everything,” The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die distilled everything that I love about them into one fantastic four minute track. The communal vibe of Formlessness is here, represented in the opening line, “No, we aren’t ghosts, ‘cause even ghosts have a home to haunt.” The aggressive urgency of Josh Is Dead is here too, conveyed by the song’s electrifying final movement. But more than anything else, I love “I Will Be Okay” because of how it differs from their previous material. The song displays a songwriting confidence previously unseen from the Connecticut band, with the three vocalists all contributing their own distinctive lyrics and singing in perfect literal and figurative harmony. The production and musicianship has also dramatically improved, as the band plays tightly and with tremendous conviction on “I Will Be Okay. Everything” The result shows that the whole is better than the individual parts, and that the forces controlling The World Is… are a great match for each other.
2. Andrew Jackson Jihad - “Big Bird”
I’ve always admired Andrew Jackson Jihad for their minimalism. Minimalistic folk instrumentation, minimalistic song lengths, minimalistic chord progressions…. The band has always been good at getting a lot out of relatively little, and it’s paid off for them. However, I never considered what the band would be capable of if they went the opposite route. “Big Bird” is the last song on Andrew Jackson Jihad’s new record Knife Man, the culmination of experimentation and a tremendous exercise in self-exploration for singer/songwriter Sean Bonnette. It’s the complete reverse of their established formula of skittery punk folk, trading minimalism for maximalism, high speed for dirge-like slowness, and clever lyrical witticisms for crushingly emotional declarations. Bonnette lists his fears like he’s reading from a grocery list, adding emotional weight that is emphasized by the heavy instrumentation. Organs, strings electric guitars, and massive percussion fall on the listener with every subsequent line, building to a moving emotional head when Bonnette references the city that he calls home, Phoenix Arizona. “But the big red bird that lives under the city doesn’t give a damn about me and it dies every night / By burning alive.” The band has come a long way from Candy Cigarettes and Cap Guns, and the future is looking amazing.
1. The Antlers - “Putting The Dog To Sleep”
“Prove to me I’m not gonna die alone”
We all have our own individual insecurities. Everyone has his or her own fears, and some people have more than others. Nothing is truly terrifying in a universal sense, but one particular notion comes close. The Antlers frontman Peter Silberman recognizes how much humans fear dying alone, and in that one line (along with its subsequent repetitions), he provokes an emotional response that is somehow even more significant and immediate than all of Hospice was. While Hospice provided a needle-like injection of extremely potent depression and sorrow into the arms of so many of its listeners, the Burst Apart closer “Putting The Dog To Sleep” speaks to a more general, farther-reaching feeling of pain. It’s the human condition in song form, conveyed as a 1950s-style doo wop piece having been run through Silberman’s aching vocals and the band’s wash of reverb and electronics. The band takes its time in building up to that powerful opening line, but once it arrives, it’s an incredibly cathartic release. That first guitar chord punches you in the gut hard enough to make you forget the lyrical subtleties of the song, but by the second verse, Silberman is back on his desperate, yearning track. By the end, it seems that he has proven whatever he was seeking to himself. Or perhaps, like Dan Barrett on “Spectral Bride” earlier, he is simply trying to prove that he is proving it to himself. “Put your trust in me,” Silberman sings, calling out once more to his unnamed target, “I’m not gonna die alone. I don’t think so.” If anything has the power to prevent that from happening, it’s this song.
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.
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!
Lewis and His Blog 2011 Lists Schedule
The end of this year marks the first full year that Lewis and his Blog has been in existence. When I started the blog in November of last year, I had no idea that it would turn into the kind of blog that it is today. I had even less of an idea that people would actually catch on to it and express interest in reading what I have to say. It’s a huge honor to know that there are people who care about what you write, even when it’s only about music. But hey, music is really fucking cool, and you can quote me on that.
2011 has been an amazing year for this blog, and I’m very proud of everything that I’ve accomplished. From interning for and getting co-sponsored by The Needle Drop to interviewing Andrew Jackson Jihad, to seeing Jeff Mangum live in Boston and reviewing it on here, I have had so many incredible musical experiences because of this blog, and I’ve had a lot of fun while doing it.
One of the first really significant posts that I made for this blog was my 2010 Top 50 Albums of the Year list, which I made in December of last year. This year, in order to commemorate 1 full year of Lewis and his Blogging, I’m upping the ante on my lists. I’ve come up with some great ideas for lists and compiled them all, and I will be rolling them out on a daily basis over the next few days. The schedule for the lists is below. Once these start getting posted, you can track all of them by going through my “2011 Lists” tag. Thank you for following me and thank you for caring about Lewis and his Blog!
- 12/15/11: 2011 Albums of the Year (#50-21)
- 12/16/11: 2011 Albums of the Year (#20-1)
- 12/17/11: WHY? Live at Wadsworth Atheneum Review (12/16/11)
- 12/18/11: Top 25 Songs of 2011 + 8tracks Playlist
- 12/19/11: Top 15 Connecticut Albums of 2011
- 12/20/11: 10 Favorite Shows of 2011
That should get me through the next five days. I hope you enjoy the lists! Everyone likes lists, right? Anyway, stay tuned and be sure to check Lewis and his Blog tomorrow for the first part of my Top 50 Albums of the Year list!