December 16, 2011
Let me start by saying nothing in 2011 has come close to the affection I still have for my two favorite records of 2010: The Walkmen's masterful Lisbon and Blake Mills' so-good-why-the-fuck-haven't-you-listened-to-it-yet Break Mirrors. But that's not to say 2011 hasn't been a great year in music. In fact, I don't think I've ever discovered so many favorite new bands (Natural Child, Stone Darling, Breakfast In Fur, Marisa Anderson, Mikal Cronin, Bare Wires, Future Islands, Braids, etc.) in a single year. The internet has created so many minute niches catered by small communities, micro DIY labels, and blogs, that it's nearly impossible to keep track of every interesting new release. So while ranking and listmaking are inherently subjective and silly, it's the easiest way to filter through the overhwelming amount of great music that came out in 2011. The following 40 albums are the ones I don't want to forget anytime soon.
White Life - White Life
This retro R&B project, comprised of brother-sister duo Jon and Emily Ehrens, cherry picks some of the more fun and funky tones from the late 1980s and early 1990s—everything from cheesy drum machine patter to air guitar-quality synthesizer solos, and contagious vocal melodies—to create a highly addictive and replayable LP.
MP3: "I Want Love"
All Tiny Creatures - Harbors
Not only is this the most beautiful vinyl pressing and packaging of the year with its two 45 RPM opaque-colored 12"s and intricately designed jacket—thank you Hometapes—but it's also one of the year's strangest and most wholly unique listening experiences: an otherworldly collection of gorgeous, entrancing, and delicately layered songs from Wisconsin's Thomas Wincek, the multi-instrumentalist mastermind behind Volcano Choir and Collections of Colonies of Bees.
MP3: "Glass Bubbles"
Cut Copy - Zonoscope
This wasn't the single-heavy album most expected after the breakthrough greatness of In Ghost Colours, but it's still a masterfully executed album with moments fit for introspective day dreaming ("Strange Nostalgia For The Future"), late-night strobe-light-speckled dancing ("Need You Know"), and my personal favorite, the fist-pumping rock sing-along ("Alisa").
Crystal Stilts - In Love With Oblivion
Justin over at Aquarium Drunkard aptly compared the Crystal Stilts to Jim Morrison fronting the '67 Velvet Underground, and I can't shake that visual: as noisy, murky, and abstract as these songs are, there's also a giant (thank you reverb) and wonderfully epic quality to them with frontman Brad Hargett unafraid to reach for greatness.
MP3: "Shake The Shackles"
Twin Sister - In Heaven
Twin Sister's creative sonic palette and ability to rework cheesy vintage tones into compelling pop frameworks—the pillowy keyboards, silky smooth guitar lines—really separates and elevates them—along with Andrea Estella's one-of-a-kind voice—from their contemporaries and into their own unique place in the soft-rock-verse.
MP3: "Bad Street"
Wye Oak - Civilian
The smokey-voiced Jenn Wasner and her partner-in-crime Andy Stack have crafted their best long player to date in Civilian: a stunning, cathartic, lingering, and seemingly always-building record thats best moments are uncovered with time, repeated listens, and just the right atmosphere.
Marisa Anderson - The Golden Hour
An intimate diary-like masterpiece of guitar improvisations recorded in a Portland living room to a four-track quarter-inch reel to reel tape recorder, The Golden Hour is Marisa Anderson's journey: a guitarist soulfully experimenting, clawing, and dancing her away across six strings searching for something that's always just a touch out of her grasp.
MP3: "The Golden Hour"
White Denim - Live At Third Man
A jam band record for folks that have outgrown jam bands: a vinyl-only cut-to-tape live recording of White Denim's energetic spiraling-out-of-control punk-jazz-rock fusion that boasts 9 tracks from D, "Shake Shake Shake," "Say What You Want," and Jack White as a producer.
Ty Segall - Goodbye Bread
Lo-fi fuzz-master general Ty Segall slows down enough on Goodbye Bread to catch his breathe and show off a few of his favorite Marc Bolan ("You Make The Sun Fry") and Kinks ("Comfortable Home (A True Story)") inspired gems, though if you like the heavy crunch and that head-turning falsetto, there's that too (the chorus in "My Head Explodes" is plain head-banging awesome).
MP3: "You Make The Sun Fry"
Thee Oh Sees - Castlemania
Prolific psych-rockers Thee Oh Sees' 16-track double LP Castlemania is an epic song-driven affair with weirdo superhero John Dwyer dishing out an assortment of ghoulish and oddly wonderful originals—"Stinking Cloud," "Spider Cider," "Corrupted Coffin"—with an unexpected yet entirely welcome trio of fun album-closing crate-dug covers: "I Won't Hurt You" by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, "If I Stay Too Long" by The Creation, and "What Are We Craving?" by Norma Tanega.
MP3: "I Need Seed"
Luke Temple - Don't Act Like You Don't Care
Luke Temple trades in the samples and sparkly effects of his Here We Go Magic project on this batch of rootsy folk songs, embracing influences like Harry Nilsson and the casual home-recorded setting for a warm and occasionally brilliant album that showcases Temple's awesome set of pipes and songwriting chops.
Floating Action - Desert Etiquette
The magic of Floating Action is that whether Seth Kauffman is singing about a bourgeoisie figure of the French Revolution (Maximilien Robespierre) or the sunset at Rincon (a surf spot in Southern California), the music always feels effortless and timeless—a genre-defying freshly dusted-off collection of lost treasures.
MP3: "Please Reveal"
tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L
You really have to see Merril Garbus weave, loop, and build these songs live to fully appreciate just how wild and original this record is and to understand what an uncanny talent she is as she stops, turns, and pivots on a dime with her muscly out-of-this world voice and poetry.
Cass McCombs - Humor Risk
Both of Cass McCombs' 2011 efforts are inarguably masterfully crafted beauties, I just happened to favor the guitar-centered Humour Risk more because it travels at a bit of a higher speed with its playful lyrics and loose full-band sound.
MP3: "The Same Thing"
Wild Flag - Wild Flag
Holy heavy guitar gods do these women shred, rip, and tear through this assaultive and celebratory opus about making music: a record as sharply melodic as it is relentlessly uptempo, hypnotic, and fuzzy.
Bill Baird - Goodbye Vibrations
With current musical fads emphasizing electronic and computer-based instrumentation and voices now often hid under masks of reverb and effects, Goodbye Vibrations is a warm analog relief filled with a comforting hiss of tape, softly-plucked guitars, and Baird's voice relaying introspective, flawed, and human stories of lost love.
MP3: "We'll Meet Again Someday, or We Won't"
Craft Spells - Idle Labor
There's something charming about an artist so directly, openly, and honestly shedding light on his influences, and Craft Spells' head honcho Justin Vallesteros filters his adoration for Factory Records bands like New Order with an absurdly consistent batch of songs that never miss a an opportunity to deliver a fearsome pop hook.
MP3: "You Should Close The Door"
Ganglians - Still Living
The dynamic Ganglians smoothly cover playful, psychedelic, hard-rocking, and dreamy territory over the course of their double LP Still Living, easily capturing starry-eyed nuggets (see the coda to "Sleep") alongside the sillier ("Things To Know," "Evil Weave"), more complicated ("Drop The Act") and heavier ("Faster") without a moment of hesitation.
The War On Drugs - Slave Ambient
As grand and ambitious as it is spacey and intimate, Adam Granduciel's Springsteen-inspired methamphetamine-dosed stream of conscious poetry find its perfect partner on darkened sidewalks and back alleys filled with humming waves of feedback, persistently pounded drums, reverb-punched guitars and organ, and—oh yes—a little touch of saxophone.
MP3: "Come To The City"
Yuck - Yuck
London four-piece Yuck found a sweet spot in walls of 90s-set guitar tones and adolescent coming-of-age angst on their debut LP, turning invigorating six-stringed melodic lines and gorgeous male/female harmonies into a potent vice-grip of pop music, seeming somehow both simultaneously familiar and refreshingly new.
Braids - Native Speaker
Wholly experimental and ambient yet instantaneously accessible, the debut album from Montreal quartet Braids is a true marvel of sound: a mystical doorway into into a surreal spine-tingling sonic universe delicately colored with tones light and dark, infinitesimal and massive, ordinary and extraordinary.
Future Islands - On The Water
The combination of Samuel T. Herring's ravenous and throaty vocals with William Cashion's pulsating bass, and synth phenom Gerrit Welmers' arsenal of exotic goodies is a fiery and intoxicating beverage, perfected here with a collection of the band's best singles ("Balance," "Before The Bridge"), romantic moments ("The Great Fire"), and most personal offerings ("Where I Found You") to date.
Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong
Dawes are rock classicists that walk a knife's edge between mainstream cheese and true once-in-a-generation rock 'n' roll greatness, and on Nothing Is Wrong they often achieve the latter with frontman Taylor Goldsmith showing off some of his sharpest material to date, from the Harvest-recalling stomper "If I Wanted Someone" to "A Little Bit of Everything"—a moving ballad that features Goldsmith pulling off a food analogy with a few lines about mashed potatoes, chicken wings, and biscuits (kids, don't try that at home).
MP3: "If I Wanted Someone"
Mikal Cronin - Mikal Cronin
Mikal Cronin's thoughtful and sharply melodic debut pays tribute to everyone from The Zombies and Beatles to The Kinks while making its own unique mark, bursting from start to finish with the raw energy of a highly informed artist that's psyched to stretch out his creative legs on an LP for the first time.
The Shivers - More
Keith Zarrielo and Jo Schornikow spent every last penny to record at an analog studio just outside of Manchester, England—the LP liner notes boast "No computers were used in the recording, mixing, or mastering of this record"—and the warm near classic tone of that session is evident through every thump of bass, trebly twinkle of organ, decayed blast of vintage synth, and Zarrielo's intimately personal and impassioned Al Green-caliber delivery.
MP3: "Love Is In The Air"
Starfucker - Reptilians
We're all going to die is more or less the theme of Starfucker's 11 simultaneously life-affirming and existentially contemplative synth-pop tracks on Reptilians: a philosophical wrestling match that somehow races forward where it should drag and fist-pumps where it should be reaching for the box of tissues.
MP3: "Bury Us Alive"
Black Lips - Arabia Mountain
With producer and chaperone Mark Ronson bringing along a new set of toys to play with—who doesn't love a little spike of theremin?—and helping to sharpen these Atlanta delinquents already fearsome punk and garage rock edge, the Black Lips deliver their tightest, catchiest, and most fully realized batch of songs to date in Arabia Mountain.
MP3: "New Direction"
Thee Oh Sees - Carrion Crawler/The Dream
The second album of 2011 from the wildly prolific and lovable weirdos Thee Oh Sees, Carrion Crawler/The Dream—two separate EPs cut live to tape in Sacramento and dedicated to recently passed musicians Jay Reatard, Jerry Fuchs, and Gerard Smith—is a mesmerizingly uptempo, raw, and energetic dose of hard-rocking psychedelia.
MP3: "The Dream"
Woods - Sun & Shade
While Woods' acoustic psychedelia remains distinctively weathered and worn on Sun & Shade—that freshly dusted off quality, as if you've found some lost piece of vinyl treasure—the songs have never emerged before as this immediately appealing, melodic, brightly colored, and accessible.
MP3: "Pushing Onlys"
Middle Brother - Middle Brother
No, they're not the Traveling Wilburys, but Middle Brother is the closest approximation we've had to a highly functioning supergroup in quite some time, with no wrong turns or missed opportunities here, just fistfuls of highlights: from McCauley nailing the Replacements’ boozy and road-weary “Portland” to Vasquez’s sharp tongue in the rollicking riff-heavy “Blue Eyes,” and the Goldsmith-composed three-way verse trade-off in “Million Dollar Bill."
MP3: "Middle Brother"
Bare Wires - Cheap Perfume
Oakland's Bare Wires dish out their strongest collection of T. Rex-peppered leather-jacketed glam-rock and punk to date in Cheap Perfume, churning out gem after gem, from the anthemic fist-pumper "Don't Ever Change" to the muted-guitar roar of "Television Girls" and rhythmic power-pop tornado of "Ain't Worth Walking Away."
MP3: "Don't Ever Change"
The Poison Tree - The Poison Tree
Aside from penning one of the year's best tracks in The Bandana Splits' "Sometimes," former King of France frontman Steve Salett debuted his solo project The Poison Tree this year: a slow burning, intimate, late-night affair sparsely colored with bits of acoustic guitar, upright bass, and jazz-flavored horns with the baritone-voiced songwriter subtly recalling fellow greats Bill Callahan and Leonard Cohen.
MP3: "Never Know Me"
Those Darlins - Screws Get Loose
Smart, abrasive, and catchy as hell, the second full-length from Murfreesboro, Tennessee's Those Darlins is imbued with the boozy and tattered astringency of time spent on the road, yet the mood here is never weary, but rather brazen and unrelenting: from punk-flavored power-pop ("Let You Down") to road-tested country ("Boy") and dark early Stones and tremolo-infused psychedelia ("Mystic Mind"), Those Darlins rarely take time to catch a breath.
MP3: "Screws Get Loose"
JEFF The Brotherhood - We Are The Champions
JEFF The Brotherhood upped the pop ante on We Are The Champions: the speed, manic drumming, and grungy head-banging guitar work is all still intact, but brothers Orrall have honed that signature sound and talent into the sharpest of pop songs—a fistful of catchy and tight two-and-a-half minute testaments to the band's near constant touring over the past years (along with a clear appreciation of early Weezer).
Sonny & The Sunsets - Hit After Hit
Hit After Hit may not have a classic once-in-a-generation caliber single like Tomorrow Is Alright's "Too Young To Burn," but the second full-length from Sonny and The Sunsets is a remarkably executed affair that registers as this group's strongest statement to date: A magnum opus of playful, whip-smart and vintage minimalism of 50s and 60s-inspired California pop sunshine.
MP3: "I Wanna Do It"
Sandwitches - Mrs. Jones' Cookies
In 2011, there was no band more aggressively honest and loyal to their distinctive sound than the Sandwitches, and Mrs. Jones' Cookies is the trio's first masterpiece: wholly deranged and out of this world, yet also completely original—a near impossible feat in this day and age, and all the more impressive for it.
Hunx and His Punx - Too You To Be In Love
The flamboyant, nasal-toned, punk-lisped frontman Seth Bogart and his soulful, husky-voiced sidekick Shannon Shaw channel late 1950s and early '60s girl groups pop à la the Ronettes and Lesley Gore through a fuzzy and sharp punk rock lens, playfully subverting and updating this classic American genre while creating the year's catchiest release.
MP3: "Lovers Lane"
Pure X - Pleasure
Through a dark mess of tones and ominous layers of distortion, there’s a bright wandering sliver of light and that's pop music: deeply melodic hooks buried underneath a sea of blown-out guitars and cavernous dark swirls of tone, that through extreme levels of contrast, shine all the more brilliantly.
MP3: "Twister Mirror"
Natural Child - 1971
A hazy time-warped feeling permeates throughout 1971, as if transported to your first house party with smoke hovering around the ceiling and plastic beer-spattered cups littering the floor, but don't let the debauchery distract you, as there's something special brewing here: along with a peppering of southern blues, rock, and country, this convincingly timeless and ramshackle LP is infused with that near-magical feeling of crossing that first line—drinking that first beer, puffing that first joint, and listening to that first off-limits record and discovering just how truly great it is.
MP3: "Hard Workin' Man"
Moss of Aura - Wading
Instead of telling a story, Wading's song titles "Neville," "Bling," "Sweat," and "Slick" simply evoke images, feelings, and moments. It's a soundtrack without a movie: there's a certain amount of imagination and creative listening required from the listener to complete each picture, and whether it's conscious or not, it makes this listening experience all the more rewarding. Call it mind yoga: an instantly transportive and calming vacation only a needle groove away.