Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Favorite albums of 2011

One of my New Year's resolutions for 2012 was to write a best of 2011 list. Not really. But kinda. These things aren't too much fun to write, and I generally get way too caught up in them, but it's nice to have the artifact. This year, I tried to keep things simple. Not too much analysis 'cos whats the point? You can't really explain to people why they should like music. They can listen and figure out for themselves.

I hadn't been thinking it was a great year for music, but putting together this list, I see that it was actually quite solid. In addition to becoming obsessed with a few albums that didn't come out this year (Pomegranates 2009 Everybody Come Outside and Constantines 2004 Self-Titled), here are a bunch of albums that I thought were worth listening to: 

25) Easter Vomit - Easter Vomit Vs. the Natural History Museum
One of my favorite albums of the year; however, it came out in the wrong year. I didn't include it in the few listed above because there's no chance anyone knows this album, it's very worth mentioning, and it gives me 25. They take the ethos of Pavement, while (or is it whilst) making a sound that's uniquely their own. A ramshackle, shambling, lo-fi masterpiece. Stream it here.

Slay Tracks: Grey Shapes, Grapes Already, Psychic Infection, Full Body Apparition, Whales, Rhythm Rock, Male Consumption, Antartica MemoREEE, Full Moons and Lust (Cat Hair and Dust)

24) Delicate Steve: Wondervisions

From TMT: The album as a whole remains a marvel, but it never seems the same way twice. It’s almost like a kaleidoscope, with multiple layers of sound tumbling into and out of brightly-colored patterns. But that’s the wrong metaphor — too mechanical. If anything, the album is full of warm, gentle pleasures. It’s sinewy, electric, fluid. It’s more like a curious pet — a Cheshire cat or perhaps a psychedelic seal — and each time you look, it seems to be performing some new impossible trick for you.

Also, one of my man Ryan's favorite albums of the year.

Slay Tracks: The Ballad of Speck and Pebble, Sugar Splash, Butterfly

23) Natural Child: 1971

Just look at these guys. You know exactly what you're going to get: sweaty, lo-fi, vintage rock. There's some good stuff on here, but just not enough of it to go around. Apparently they're planning on releasing three new albums in 2012. My advice: whittle it down boys.

Slay Tracks: Let it Bleed, Easy Street, Natural Blues

22) Phoenix Foundation - Buffalo

These Kiwis are chilled out. However, their ability to write blissful, psychedelic songs did not go unnoticed. The Guardian gave Buffalo five stars, comparing it to the Byrds, Fleet Foxes, and Stone Roses. They also won a NZ Music Award for best group of the year, which might not sound like much if you think of the major English speaking countries like a matryoshka doll, where New Zealand is inside Australia, which is inside England, which is inside of the US. Shame on your imperialist sensibilities.

Slay Tracks: Buffalo, Pot, Bitte Bitte

21) Iceage: New Brigade

Really good post-punk from this group of Danish teenagers. I know I wasn't doing this kind of stuff at that age. However, the same thing that give these guys so much potential is the same thing they seem kind of likely to outgrow: the raw, searing, enthusiasm. Time will tell.

Slay Tracks: New Brigade, Total Drench, Broken Bone, Never Return

20) Mother Mother - Eureka
Catchy, eccentric, extremely rich, Canadian songwriting. They don't really strike me as much of an indie band, more as just a really, really good pop band. (Kraft cheese took notice). They show an incredible knack for intra-song shifts, but I think these songs were polished a bit too much in the studio. In my opinion, this is the better album.

Slay Tracks: Chasing It Down, The Stand, Aspiring Fires, Calm Me Down

19) Los Campesinos - Hello Sadness

There are some kinds of sadness that you are happy to feel, that you kind of relish a bit. Good emo pretty much thrives on that. As you get older though, sadness becomes, well, sadder. These peppy, ironic/sincere songs mine the feelings of typical teenage breakups, and in the process make you feel a bit younger too.

Slay Tracks: By Your Hand, Songs About Your Girlfriend, Hello Sadness, (pretty much all of them, although it kind of tapers off toward the end)

18) Architecture in Helsinki - Moment Bends

The problem with making twee music is that it's hard a spot to mature from. What happens to youthful exuberance when you're no longer youthful? On this album, AiH clean up and grow up, but not without some growing pains.

Slay Tracks: Desert Island, YR Go To, Everything's Blue

17) Comet Gain - Howl of the Lonely Crowd

I vaguely remember one review of this album saying something like "there are indie musicians, and there are indie musicians that only indie musicians listen to -- these guys fall into the latter category." Not sure if you get what I'm saying. These guys have been around since 1992 and this, their sixth album, was produced by the lead singer of Orange Juice. Maybe now you get what I'm saying. It won't be for everybody.

Slay Tracks: Clang of the Concrete Swans, Herbert Huncke part 2, After Midnight, After it's All Gone Wrong

16) Baxter Dury - Happy Soup

Look at that photo cover. That's how I've tried to look in every picture that's ever been taken of me. Listening to this album is kind of like getting pissed in seedy bar -- cigarette smoke in the air, some no-name soccer team on the tv in the background -- with a seasoned Englishman as he regales you with sordid, solemn, and weirdly contemplative stories of one-night stands and life lessons. This old one is a personal favorite.

Slay Tracks: Claire, Leak at the Disco, Happy Soup

15) Poison Control Center - Stranger Ballet

My friend Dave loves to shit on indie bands (until, some two years after the fact, he realizes that he actually really likes them), and I'm sure he wouldn't like these guys. And it's true that a lot of indie bands are lazy and untalented and hide their weaknesses in the guise of lo-finess. But PCP is not one of those bands. They recorded this while on a break from a tour where they 260 shows in 13 months. My goodness. On Stranger Ballet, they come across like a lovechild of Pavement, Guided by Voices, and the Replacements. But more importantly, they come across as a confident, self-assured band that has earned their accolades the old-fashioned way: hard work.

Slay Tracks: "Torpedoes on Tuesday,...", Thousand Colors, Seagull, Porcelain Brain

14) Elbow - Build a Rocket Boys!

Some nice songs to have on in the background, but these guys will put you to sleep if you're not careful.

Slay Tracks: The Birds, Lippy Kids, The Night Will Always Win

13) Total Slacker - Thrashin'

There are a lot of reasons to be cautious about this band. They're named Total Slacker. They're from Brooklyn. The drummer is the younger brother of that Beirut guy. The reason they can get away with it though, is that they're so upfront about their early 90s influences: Weezer, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. Unlike a lot of bands, which subtly try to crib from the old guard, these guys put it all out in the open. For example, within the first minute of "Stuck in '93," the band mentions Full House, Sega, Slip n' Slides, Doritos, and Crystal Pepsi. However, this kind of thing also prevents them from attaining many moments of true emotional resonance. Still, there's nothing wrong with sitting back and enjoying the ride. Check out this weirdly hypnotic video, a kind of homage to Bill and Ted.

Slay Tracks: Secret VHS Collection, Magical Date Night, Thyme Traveling High School Dropout, Stealing from the Salvation Army

12) Wu Lyf - Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
What to make of a band whose name stands for World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation? Sorta cool, sorta pretentious. Lead singer who barks and an album recorded in a church? Again, sorta cool, sorta pretentious. I had my doubts about them, especially after pitchfork gave them an 8.4, an indication that they might be good or that they were weirdo, pretentious blowhards. Turns out they are a bit of both. Good quote by pfork though, about them having "the semblance of a roving gang more than a band." I think that's about right. A bit of a one-trick pony, but the trick is pretty good. Maybe they'll sing in English next time? 

Slay Tracks: Cave Song, We Bros, Spitting Blood, Dirt, Concrete Gold

11) Wolventrix - Ours Till Dawn

This hits a sweet spot for me. The kind of thing that feels like it should be a guilty pleasure -- which is kind of a way of saying it's not ironic; it's not trying to veil it's emotional pursuits.  There's an unjaded, warm, distinctly English romanticism here that I find refreshing. It's the kind of music you'd want to hear on a sunny day when you're far away from home, and thinking to yourself, "maybe I can do this."

Slay Tracks: Wanderlust, Always with Us, Brave Marine Explorer, Best Ways to Die, Nostalgia

10) Black Lips - Arabia Mountain

In some ways these guys are the antithesis of the last band, but they're no less sincere.  This is a raucous, polished album by a garage-punk band that isn't afraid to go way overboard.

Slay Tracks: Family Tree, Mr. Driver, Raw Meat, Dumpster Dive, Noc-A-Homa, Don't Mess Up My Baby

9) Mister Heavenly - Out of Love

This album got too little attention and for the wrong reasons. Even if you're friends with Michael Cera, don't ask him to be the bassist on your tour -- the gesture gives the impression that the album is slight, a throwaway. In truth, the album is pretty sweet. Mister Heavenly are an indie-rock super group comprised of Nick Thorburn (The Unicorns, Islands), Honus Honus (Man Man), and Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse) and Out of Love is their updated take on 1950's doo-wap that they've dubbed doom-wap. It's similar in spirit to 2009 favorite Dead Man's Bones, but sleaker, meaner, and ultimately less meaningful.

Slay Tracks: Bronx Sniper, I am a Hologram, Charlyne, Your Girl

8) Pete and the Pirates - One Thousand Pictures

Whoa -- I didn't really see this coming. I hadn't been planning on including the new P&P album on my list, but decided to give it one final listen after seeing it here and was surprised by how good it was. While I don't think it's better than their 2008 effort, Little Death, these kids definitely have a knack for very catchy, modern post-punk.

Slay Tracks: Cold Black Kitty, Little Gun, Come to the Bar, Washing Powder, United, Motor Bike, Things That Go Bump, Half Moon Street

7) Little Red - Midnight Remember

This album actually came out in 2010 in their native Australia, but wasn't given a U.S. release until 2011. It's an incredibly infectious little album and there's nary a misstep. For fans of Phoenix and Passion Pit -- although I personally prefer this, hands-down. The entire thing is streaming here.

Slay Tracks: Slow Motion, Rock It, Little Bit of Something, All Mine

6) Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic

Never heard of him.

Slay Tracks: Tigers, No One Is (As I Are Be), Senator (excluding the chorus), Stick Figures in Love, Spazz, Forever 28

5) Crooked Fingers - Breaks in the Armor

It's kind of nice that my fifth and sixth favorite albums of the year feature two of my favorite indie rock forefathers. Crooked Fingers is lead by Archers of Loaf's Eric Bachmann. If you don't know AoL, you should. They are like a punkier, poppier, more aggressive version of Pavement, but they never quite got that band's accolades. This album melds AoL's rough, off-kilter style with Crooked Fingers more stripped down, countryish leanings, and it all works quite well.

P.S. Looks like AoL have extended their reunion tour, with two nights in cambridge.

Slay Tracks: Bad Blood, Went to the City, Your Apocalypse, War Horses

4) Tammar - Visits

This album is all about atmosphere. These shoegazey songs all sort of blur into each other -- droning, surging, crashing, sprawling, pivoting, all at the right times.  Nothing about it seems cookie-cutter and that may be due to that fact that they used to be an improvisational band, so all the twists and turns are developed organically. Check it out.

Slay Tracks: Summer Fun, Yung Jun, Frost Meter

3) PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

I'm going to start lumping people who say "nobody makes albums anymore" with the kind of people who say they "like all kinds of music, except country" as an indicator that they aren't really into music. Bands are definitely still making full albums, probably more bands now than ever given how relatively easy it is. Sure people are still making singles, but f those guys.

This is a gorgeous, English wartime album that avoids the cliches of a lot of distinctly English music.  The album features out-of-time bugles, Kurdish vocal samples, and really vivid imagery that captures the surreality and detachment of war.  Kind of like if Dulce et Decorum Est had been modernized and set to music.  Of course, none of it would work without great songs -- and they are here in droves. Beautiful, propulsive, haunting, you name it. Said better than I have time for:

So what Let England Shake ends up being is both a well-paced, well-produced, well-written record, and something credibly and legitimately ethical. This album, unlike so many, exists for a reason, and by album’s end that reason is hard to see past. It will not educate, but it will penetrate to something in the listener that most artists seem uninterested in reaching. In other words, PJ Harvey has succeeded in what she set out to do: write an album that leaves the listener a little more aware, and perhaps a little more sensitive, to something much larger than the experience of listening to a song and finding it catchy, much larger than PJ Harvey, and, crucially, much larger than the audience itself.

Slay Tracks: The Glorious Land, The Words that Maketh Murder, England, in the Dark Places, Bitter Branches

2) Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation

A delicate, personal album that is way more than the sum of it's somewhat limited parts (guitar player and pianist). It's one of those rare times when a lonely, sad kid goes into his room and crafts incredibly stirring music. Watching them live at TTs was a bit of a disappointment. Their formula came through a bit more clearly (take a slow piano part, add some jangling guitar, kick it up with a drum machine). Although I suppose the fact that there were a bunch of frat kids there eager to jump around shows that these songs have serious hooks. It'll be interesting to see how he branches out.

You know who really likes this one? My man Ryan.

Slay Tracks: 17, July, Montana, The Hunt

1) Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital

Nailed it. Ubercatchy, pulse-pounding, Soviet-inspired, synth pop from (the now defunct) Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner and his wife.

Slay Tracks: Bury Me Standing, Memories of the Future, Serve the People, Repatriated, Cheap Music, no Feelings

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