Here we are again. I’ve been writing this lists for so long that I can’t recall the first year I did it (2002?). At first it started as just being one album of the year, then it moved to 10 per year. It jumped to 20 once I moved my blogs over here to BDWPS.com, and of course last year it peaked at 40, the number I’m going with again this year. Although this may seem like a bit much, I can promise you that if it weren’t 40, I’d feel guilty for all the great albums that were left out. It’s a strange obsession, obviously, but I love music. If I can spread that love to others, it’s worth all the effort. And so it begins…
Julianna Barwick “The Magic Place”
Havok “Time is Up”
Paul Simon “So Beautiful Or So What”
Six Organs of Admittance “Asleep On the Floodplain”
Thurston Moore “Demolished Thoughts”
Times New Viking “Dancer Equired”
UV Race “Homo”
40. Marissa Nadler
[Box of Cedar; 2011]
Years ago I attended a metal showcase at SXSW, and as Bonk was hauling their guitars, amps, and gong off the stage, a petite young woman approached the microphone with an acoustic guitar hanging around her frail neck. She began finger picking away at her instrument and soon after, a huge, haunting voice came out of this little lady. I was frozen in shock at the amazing talent on the stage, and soon found myself sitting on the ground. Slowly, one by one, metal heads around me took to sitting indian style. It was quite a sight to see. Since that show I’ve followed Marissa’s career, getting everything she releases and never being disappointed with her songwriting. Her self-titled album in 2011 continues this tradition of solid music, with Marissa venturing outside her comfort zone, taking her antique sound into the 21st century. Her self-titled album shows her maturing. While her past albums featured quirky songs about living inside of a whale or a musical renditions of E.A. Poe poems, her latest is a personal portrayal of surviving a break-up. I always enjoyed the fun in her strange subject matter, but as shown with this album, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
“The Sun Always Reminds Me Of You”:
“Dress Like Your Idols”
[Magic Marker; 2011]
The cover to “Dress Like Your Idols” says it all: a collection of album cover parodies, mostly focused on albums of the 90s. Yes, there is an homage to the Ramones and Velvet Underground, but you don’t have to go beyond the 90s to find BOAT’s biggest influences. A quick listen to BOAT’s music and the first band to come to mind for most is Pavement due to Crane’s everyday lyrics and straight-forward, disaffected vocal approach. If he needs to pay his electricity bill, he sings about it. If he is walking past a convenience store, he sings about it. If he’s listening to his walkman, he sings about it. But within these tales of commonplace, everyday occurrences, he weaves in heartfelt themes of isolation, helplessness, and loneliness. Instead of going full-emo, Crane uses humor to defuse the sadness of his stories, in turn, creating intelligent power pop that is immediate and reassuring.
There are other 90s elements at play here, whether it be the guitar squeals of Built to Spill or the quaint jangle of Folk Implosion, but I can’t simply tag BOAT as a 90s rehash. A band like Yuck! would better fit that category (as much as I love their music, their borrowing from Dinosaur Jr and Superchunk borders on criminal). BOAT on the other hand have learned from the music of their youth, and taken it into the 21st century, bringing their own fresh, slacker take on the new millennium.
“Beat My Chest (Like King King)”:
“Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped”
Moonface’s first release was titled “Marimba and Shit Drums,” and the album was just that – 20 minutes of marimba and what could be best described as “shit drums.” So when Spencer Krug returned with a Moonface album in 2011 entitled “Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I Hoped,” you knew what you were in for. Plain and simple, it’s album of organ (and maybe a little bit of shit drums). You have to love the bluntness of his approach. While many artist will find their niche and stick to it, Krug is always searching for new paths of expression. With the organ he is able to create 8-bit melodies that twinkle over the constant low hum of the organ. As expected, his lyrics explore themes that you’ll rarely find set to music, so prepare yourself for the unexpected.
The only question you’ll have in the end is, “What would this album sound like if he’d used a vibraphone?” I guess we’ll have to wait for the next adventure, which will probably be called “I Finally Got A Hold Of A Vibraphone.”
“Return (To the Ocean Floor)”:
[Profound Lore; 2011]
I hate to admit, but you won’t find much metal on this list. I purchased a lot of metal in 2011, but nothing jumped out at me like years past. I attempted to submerse myself into the black metal movement, but no matter what I listened to (Liturgy, Kralice, The Atlas Moth, Wolves in the Throne Room) nothing settled with me. It all seemed like such a garble of pounding drums and cackling vocals. I’m definitely in need of BDWPS contributor SongSucks tutelage when it comes to this genre.
One album that did wet my whistle was YOB’s “Atma,” a doom metal magnum opus comprised of five crushing tracks. The longest song, “Before We Dreamed of Two,” is a sixteen minute march, the bass guitar continually lumbering forward as the guitars pursue any red-blooded creature it can devour with its slashing riffs, cutting down all that gets in its way. Album opener “Prepare the Ground” bounds on with a purpose as singer Mike Scheidt gives the song a hint of Black Sabbath, squealing like an early-70s era Ozzy. Its slow pace is perfect for an old-timer like me to bang his head to without worry of throwing out his back – probably the reason I’ll always choose doom metal over the machine gun pace of black metal.
“Prepare the Ground”:
[Ernest Jenning; 2011]
If I were to name my favorite genres of music, Folk would definitely make the cut. But I’m not quite sure if what I like is actually folk. There are a lot of artists out there creating music that is based in the tradition of Folk. This is not my bag. I definitely want my Folk to be rooted in the past, but I also like it to find its own interpretation. The New York based Folk band O’Death found their unique approach in 2011 with “Outside,” an album that borrows as much from the Middle East as it does from Americana. This is an album about mortality, inspired by drummer David-Rogers-Berry’s fight with bone cancer. Each song is consumed with death, lyrics masking each ragged melody with a darkened shade of fear. The drums rattle and shake loosely, sounding tired, old, and weak from wear. If you’re looking for the light-hearted folk stylings of the Kingston Trio, you need not listen to “Outside.” The eleven songs are pretty heady stuff . The album should be listened to by those willing to stop and look at the darker side of life. So no, I guess I’m not a fan of Folk; I’m a Folk-Goth.
35. Thee Oh Sees
“Carrion Crawler/The Dream”
[In the Red; 2011]
Michael Jordan once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and I’m guessing this is Thee Oh Sees battle cry. In the past three years they’ve released six albums, two of which came out this year. While most bands toil away at an album for years, John Dwyer and his crew kick out new material like an assembly line. And they’re not just throwing out garbage; each album features rambunctious pop gems that capture the energy of their wild live show. At the same time, none of these albums stand out above the rest, all having similar production value and songwriting. There’s usually a couple clunkers on each offering, but the great songs always outweigh the grizzle. I almost didn’t purchase “Carrion Crawler/The Dream” because I already had 2011′s “Castlemania” and figured, “Eh, I’ve had my fill of Thee Oh Sees for this year.” Fortunately, I adhered to the obsessive musicphile in me and purchased it. While “Castlemania” was a psychedelic pop trip, “Carrion Crawler/The Dream” is all business. There’s no time for silly songs about the dirt or minute-long violin freak outs. Sure, the songs are as fun as ever, but you can tell the band has purpose with “Carrion Crawler/The Dream.” From start to finish, the band is on a mission, unleashing one energetic garage rock song after another. While most of Thee Oh Sees albums are collections of great songs, “Carrion Crawler/The Dream” is a great album. Dwyer has stepped out of the spotlight a bit and allowed his talented band to show their skills. Just like Jordan realized in 91, rock n’ roll is a team sport.
“Father Son, Holy Ghost”
[True Panther; 2011]
In 2011, Girls were the apple of the music critics’ eyes. Spin, Pitchfork, Paste, Filter, NME, Consequence of Sound, Mojo – you pretty much can name a major music publication and it gave “Father Son, Holy Ghost” a score of an eight or higher. With such an outpouring of puppy love, I had to find out what all the hype was about. On first and second listen I didn’t quite get all the adulation. The songs were strong, but I didn’t hear anything that merited a nine or higher (SPIN, Pitchfork). In fact, the album kind of annoyed me in the same way Yo La Tengo have always rubbed me the wrong way. While there is definitely a unique style that is Girls, the songs are all over the place in terms of genre. How can a band start with a surfer song (“Honey Bunny”), follow it with an early 90s alternative tune (“Alex”), then go to a Black Sabbath rip-off (“Die”), and close the tour off with a 1950s love song (“How Can I Say I Love You”). The only thing tying all the songs together is Christopher Owens nasally whisper.
I shelved the album in frustration like one may throw Ulysses away after trying to read two chapters. A month ago I dusted “Father Son, Holy Ghost” off one more time to see if I missed something. The answer – I did and I didn’t. I still didn’t see what merited all the gushing done over the album, but as I re-listened to the songs, I couldn’t help but nod my head and attempt singing along (even though I didn’t know the lyrics). Yes, the band likes to genre jump, but their talent is found in their ability to personalize each style and make it their own. I also noticed that Owen’s lyrics, while simple and unassuming, are subtly beautiful in their yearning for love and acceptance. I can’t help but feel guilty at the end of “Vomit” when Owen’s sings “Come into my heart.” Please forgive me for my ill-will Girls (although I still think you’re a bit over-rated).
33. The Feelies
There’s something to be said about old friends. You may not see them or speak to them for years, but when you finally reunite, you are instantly comfortable like nothing’s changed. That’s how The Feelies “Here Before” makes you feel. There’s no pretension to their craft; there’s no attempt to impress you – it’s just The Feelies, welcoming you into their cozy little world.There’s no need to catch-up on the past; you won’t feel a disconnect if you don’t know about The Feelie’s 1980 classic “Crazy Rhythms” or the other phases the band has gone through over the past 30 years.
These songs are so familiar and friendly that there’s no need to feel uninitiated. The Feelies are just happy you’re here, an old friend, reconnecting after all these years. The album opens with the question “Is it too late, to do it again? / Or should we wait another ten?” and the answer doesn’t really matter. 10 years from now this album will be just as welcoming as it is today.
“Change Your Mind”:
32. Dirty Beaches
Have you ever noticed how every Michael Moore film starts the same: the 1950s and 60s, American Dream, cheap health care, zero violence or poverty, and a booming auto industry? I enjoy Moore’s films as much as the next tree-hugger, but it does seem to be both an overused motif and an inaccurate portrayal of the time. Anyone who has watched “Mad Men” or read On the Road knows that life wasn’t necessarily all picket fences and apple pie back then (although Sal Paradise does intake massive amounts of apple pie en route to Denver). The Dirty Beaches “Badlands” is just another artistic take on how the innocent 50s is all a sham.
“Badlands” is all about its lo-fi production – unassuming drum, and mechanical bass lines that all fit within the 1950s musical mold. If you were to play a song off this album to someone and said it was a “golden oldie” they would undoubtedly believe you. But Dirty Beaches aren’t simply a warm nostalgia trip down better times lane. These songs feature a darker tone than those that they are borrowing from. The vocals are cloaked in reverb, yet you can still discern the baritone croon that will make you wonder if Nick Cave found a time machine. These are not songs of love and joy; they are songs of lust and despair. By the time the final two tracks arrive, “Black Nylon” and “Hotel,” there is little doubt that a film noir murder has taken place, although I doubt even Detective Samuel Spade could handle the dark depths of “Badlands” homicide scene.
31. Julian Lynch
[Underwater Peoples; 2011]
Julian Lynch has his PHD in Ethnomusicology (the study of music from different cultures), but you wouldn’t know that based off his music on “Terra.” You’d more likely find Lynch’s music in the New Age section than World Music. But if you listen close enough to “Terra’s” meditative tracks, you’ll catch an occasional glimpse of Lynch’s education influencing his art. A djembe drum here, a finger chime there, and a proggy organ riff fit for the world of Kraut rock – they are all ingredients to Lynch’s soothing approach.
But it’s not his goal to surprise you or catch your attention; the music on “Terra” comes in one calming wave after another, yet it’s not the New Age music I suggested earlier. He has created his own niche, music that will help you find your chi without any need for sweeping synths. He relies on the basics; a saxophone, an acoustic piano, and the soft crackle of a hand shaker. Julian Lynch’s creativity has created a new sub-genre: Organic New Age.
“The Rip Tide”
I’d written Beirut off as a novelty. Don’t get me wrong, “The Flying Cup Club” and “Gulag Orkestar” were fabulous albums. Zach Condon and his merry-band-of-gypsies created a new sub-genre, taking The Decemberist’s stale nod to the past and injecting it with new life. Then along came “March of the Zapotec” and all high expectations washed away. The excitement had settled, and I wondered if my love for Beirut was just a fling.
Fortunately, “The Rip Tide” came along in 2011 and washed Beirut back to the shores of accordion utopia. I commend Condon for attempting to try something different for “March of the Zapotec.” The edition of a mariachi band from Mexico City sounded like a great idea on paper; not on CD. “The Rip Tide” is a return to what worked before. It may not be an exploration to uncharted waters. Sometimes it’s best to just enjoy the familiar as is the case with “The Rip Tide.” Beirut have their feet planted in the sand on the shore, allowing the natural roll of their music cleanse our memories of anything involving “the Zapotec.”
“Feel It Break”
[Domino/Paper Bag; 2011]
Austra probably should have been one of the biggest pop-radio hits of 2011, but then again, the music on “Feel It Break” is probably a bit too dark and a bit too complex for the masses. With their debut album, this Canadian threesome have created a stellar album that is only the beginning of what looks to be a promising career. It is as much a dance album as it is a series of irresistible pop songs. Katie Stelamis’s operatic voice fills each electronica groove with an emotional depth, giving dance clubs every where a moment of introspection.
Album opener “Darken Her Horse” is about as eerie as a dance song can get with a 2-minute funeral for all that is lost. But by the time the final 2-minutes arrive the mood seems more determined, more purposeful. Other songs like “The Future,” “Beat and the Pulse,” and “The Villian” share this spirit of patience, allowing the song to grow with time. While much of the dance music out there rushes to establish the melody and beat, Austra prove with “Feel It Break” that the genre can also double as art.
28. James Blake
Cold is the key word here; this album reminds me of walking through a blizzard, the howling wind creating a pocket of isolation, the blank white snow creating a curtain, hiding you from all other surroundings. Despite this setting of solitude, the synths and vocals send shivers up your spine like an arctic gust. On “Wilhelms Scream” Blake’s soulful voice sings of giving up on love, dreams, and simply falling into a drift of isolation. This bleak message continues throughout the album, and the background music only furthers the message, creating icy sheets of echoing reverb. The synths and drum machine aid this disconnect, distant from Blake’s world of wallowing. The vocodor makes several appearances as well for the same reason: to represent this feeling of being solitary, of being inhuman, lifeless, heartless, like a machine. On a song like “Lindesfarne I” this is most evident, but even more apparent in the song is the use of silence. In fact, the moments of complete quiet are Blake’s best weapon. I connected with this album deeply upon first listen because of its forlorn outlook, but also the strange jolts and jerks that pop up from start to finish. Every song will take you in an unexpected direction, yet they all remain in that great white expanse of winter cold. Listening to Blake’s self-titled album almost makes me wish I still lived in the snowdrift laden plains of my home state Iowa…almost.
27. Wild Flag
Earlier this year while watching an episode “Portlandia,” I had the sad realization that Carrie Brownstein may never make music again. It became evident pretty quickly that Brownstein could keep up with Fred Armisen when it came to comedy. Why did she need music when she could explore a new artistic venture? The release of Wild Flag’s self-titled album provides the answer bluntly – her true love will always be music.
Brownstein and her cohorts, Rebecca Cole (Minders), Mary Timony (Helium), and Sleater Kinney alum Janet Weiss, come out of the gates with a bang that is somehow both fresh and familiar. This is not an attempt to move away from where each member came. Instead it’s a celebration of the past and an exploration of what can happen when their powers are combined. Each song has a swagger to it; there’s no doubt that these ladies know how damn good they are. It’s obvious that Brownstein hasn’t lost a step in her five years hiatus. The first release by Wild Flag is one big step toward moving away from those who yearn for more Sleater Kinney. Then again, I still can’t help but wonder what Wild Flag would sound like with the edition of Corin Tucker.
Fans of old school Low might not like “C’Mon.” Not that it doesn’t resemble Low, but much of what made albums like “Long Division” and “I Could Live In Hope” popular are all but gone. The haunting spaces have been filled with sound, the instruments are no longer hiding in the shadows, and the self-loathing has turned slightly toward optimism. But the biggest difference are the vocals. In the past, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were ghostly figures, a part of the atmosphere,. On “C’Mon” their voices are up front and center thanks in part to the lush production of Matt Beckley. Not until first hearing this album did I realize what incredible vocalists the duo are. Sparhawk’s baritone is thick and hearty, and Mimi puts forth the best female singing I’ve heard this year with her dark lullabies that somehow lull the listener into a comforting dream.
Low still ventures into the dark tones of the past, but it all seems more dramatic, more ambitious and persistent. I’m not dogging on that slow core sound that the band mastered decades ago; I’m just celebrating a band who has found a way to continue thriving, evolving all the while.
“Try To Sleep”:
25. Dope Body
[Hit Dat / Hoss; 2011]
Rage Against the Machine don’t get enough credit. Sure there was some hypocrisy in their angst against corporate America while being on major label conglomerate Sony, and they were the forefathers of the rap-rock movement that went quickly sour once in the hands of Fred Durst. But when you get back to the basics of what Rage were doing, it was pretty innovative, specifically the guitar work of Tom Morello. Since the passing of Rage, there hasn’t been a guitarist out there trying to pick up where Morello left off in terms of guitar tech exploration (I like to believe Audio Slave never happened). In a sense, the day Rage died was much like the demise of NASA. Guitarists seemed to strive for the past, a mass of sheep attempting to emulate the guitar sounds of the 60s and 70s. Essentially, nostalgia killed progress (much like today’s movie industry…. “Footloose”?!).
Then along came Dope Body guitarist Zach Utz, re-examining the possibilities found in guitar pedals and leading them away from the evil planet that is home of the Linkin Parks and P.O.D. Instead, Dope Body follow the same flight path as fellow Baltimore act Pissed Jeans, creating a sort of modern-day Jesus Lizard. While Pissed Jean’s lyrics can surprise you, Dope Body rely more heavily upon ways to shock you with the strange squawks and beeps they can squeeze out of the guitars. Utz isn’t the only one having fun. The drummer is constantly testing the limits of his instrument, bass drum and snare battling for oxygen. And the vocalist ventures into David Yow’s atmosphere with his hooting and caterwauling. Make no mistake though; the main character in this whole rambunctious affair is the strange creature that is the guitar. Welcome him to our planet with open arms.
When “Burst Apart” first came out, many publications felt the need to compare it to its predecessor, “Hospice.” Not that I question their compare/contrast break-downs, but comparing these two albums is like comparing apples to oranges (idiom!). Upon closer look, “Burst Apart” is a completely different beast. While “Hospice” was great with its morbid focus on mortality, “Burst Apart” is a study of a broken relationship. Not that it is a lighter version of “Hospice”; quite the contrary. In fact, I find “Burst Apart” to be much more personal and heartbreaking than any tale of cancer and abortion on the prior release.
Now a three person band, Antlers have found a new sonic appeal, taking on hints of dance, soul, and doo-wop. I wouldn’t dare dog on “Hospice,” but I find the anguish on “Burst Apart” to be so much more painful and surreal. Pete Silberman’s voice is a dagger aiming for your heart, a powerful beacon of agony dripping with remorse in ever song. The cover of the album suits the music well; while the instruments create a dark, dreary world, Siberman’s voice provides a glowing light that may just lead you away from your grief-ridden forest.
“I Don’t Want Love”:
23. Active Child
“You Are All I See”
Welcome to the magical world that is Active Child. It’s a place where harps and angelic voices play alongside dance beats, thumping basslines, and sweeping synths. It’s a world where every song presents a new adventure, yet stays grounded in the environs established from the first pluck of a harp on “You Are All I See.” It can sometimes be mysterious, some times sensual, and other times down right mystical. And as if an album of harp-laden electronica didn’t seem alien enough, Pat Grossi infuses many of the songs with the type of bombastic beats kept quarantined to hip-hop, but no longer. The beastly beats are let loose and with the shimmering sounds washing over the thumping, it all melds together harmoniously within Grossi’s cauldron.
The trailer for The Hobbit came out last week, and if Peter Jackson had any sense, he’d drop that Enya dreck he used in LOTR, and use Active Child’s bewitching brew of melodies to enhance the entrancing land of Rivendell.
“You Are All I See”:
22. TV Ghost
[In the Red; 2011]
This past summer, while visiting my friend PthestudP in Omaha, I played TV Ghost’s “Mass Dream” for him, knowing he’d like its chaotic take on post-punk. Within the first 40 seconds of “Wired Trap” I could see his eyes light up with excitement. Half way through the song though his take on the album had been altered, “I really like this, but I don’t know if I can handle it right now.” I wasn’t offended; I knew exactly what he was talking about. He was feeling that same combination of excitement and fear that I’d felt upon my first listen. Plus, sitting in a car and listening to “Mass Dream” is like drinking a 5-Hour Energy and watching “Antique Road Show.” You can not sit still and listen to this album, and if you do, seizures are probably in your future.
Just when it seemed the post-punk rebirth had run its course, TV Ghost’s take on the genre has tossed expectations for a loop, the church organ moaning behind the shrieking, surf guitar riffs, and the ballyhooing of singer Tim Gick. His voice, a combination of David Byrne’s nervous, jerky shouts and David Yow’s tortured, muffled howls, provides the mad scientist to this séance of terror and trepidation. You cannot resist the supernatural powers of “Mass Dream,” so just let the music grasp your soul and shake it.
“An Absurd Laceration”:
21. Atlas Sound
For Christmas I bought my niece a copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and I decided to read a few poems for her as we lounged around the next day. What I remembered as a goofy collection of poetry quickly turned into one depressing poem after another. From “Snowman” to “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” I kept finding myself questioning my childhood diagnosis of Silverstein as a humorist. My niece on the other hand sat and laughed at the idea of a snowman melting away while I tried hiding the fact that I just felt a metaphorical connection with a friggin’ snowman just trying to survive until July.
Sitting here trying to describe Atlas Sound’s “Parallax” I can’t help but compare it to Silverstein’s book of poetry. On the surface, the album is a warm, lazy stroll. The lyrics may hint at darker themes like on “My Angel is Broken” and “Praying Man,” but the music’s cheery demeanor will never lead you too far astray. You could easily listen to this album and have a smile throughout. There’s nothing to suggest that there is a deep emotional struggle going on here, even on the slower tracks like “Flagstaff” and “Doldrums.” But just like my experience with my niece, everything changes once you stop and take note of the pain hidden in the shadows found in lyrics like “Kick me while I’m down,” “he gave me bruises,” and “I can finally leave this place.” The last track on the album “Lightswork” is possibly the most upbeat on the album, but ends with the ominous line “Every where I look there is a light and it will guide the way.” The final line suggests where the after-life begins, imagery very reminiscent of a little poem called “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”