Well, here we are. An end and a beginning. 2011 is the year that’s seen me begin (sporadically) blogging and while it’s been fun, it also has been and continues to be a learning experience. Writing about music makes me listen to music differently. 2011 is also the year Larissa and I outdid ourselves in our travelling and gigging. While the last several months have been personally plagued by sadness resulting from some personal and professional disappointments, I try to remind myself of the incredible three weeks we spent in Europe in July, and the legendary musicians and bands we finally got to check off our ‘to see’ lists in the last twelve months. Indeed, it’s a pretty noteworthy year that starts with Gang of Four, ends with Prince, and contains shows by the Manics, Pulp, Big Audio Dynamite, Grace Jones, Jonathan Richman, and Lou Reed in between.
The following list contains a bit of everything, as a list by any music lover worth her salt should. There’s a lot of arty and electronic-tinged pop and dance music, but there’s also a fair amount of lo-fi music that doesn’t smack you upside the head with its production. Folk, metal, and post-punk are all accounted for and of course, no list of mine would be complete without a significant portion of straight-up (or less straight-up) rock. Many of these genres intersect, of course. Some things are weird and have required repeated listenings for them to reveal their greatness to me, and others were impressive on first listen and just got better from there. As well, I hope you enjoy the songs I’ve chosen to represent these albums. Happy New Year!
25. Hercules and Love Affair Blue Songs
Antony Hegarty’s immediately recognizable voice is nowhere to be found on Blue Songs, Hercules and Love Affair’s second release. His participation in their first album is undoubtedly what brought about at least some of the copious attention paid to Hercules and Love Affair when they debuted in 2008. Triumphantly, Blue Songs is just as lovely without Antony’s mercurial voice gracing it. Their updated ‘70s disco sound is intact, however, and it’s enhanced with vocals from a handful of collaborators who are just as adept as Antony at countering the horn-punctuated beats of the music with sensual smoothness. It’s not all party and lightness, though: there’s a deep nocturnal vein that runs through the whole of Blue Songs that makes the album feel like that point in the party when everyone’s stayed the night and has drifted off to sleep just as the sun’s coming up. In this way the songs shift and move between the navy darkness of night and the shining, refreshing blue of morning. Dancing can be a restorative, spiritual experience too.
24. Optional Wallace Optional Wallace
It honestly legitimately excites me how much a specific and current crop of British indie bands channel the indignation and fury that the Manic Street Preachers were known for in their early days. Groups like The Indelicates, Johnny Boy, and now Optional Wallace are finding that political apathy is just as rampant today as it was twenty years ago, and like their favourite bands of that period they’ve decided to do call us out on it. This Manchester three-piece have perfected their tight, muscular sound, accentuated with pounding percussion and interplay between the guitar and bass that pulls and tugs anthemic tunes like “The Ladder” into punchy shape. Like the best post-punk and indie rock of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the music and lyrics crafted by Danny Foster, Neil Meehan, and Matt Anderson are equally angry and give this, their debut full-length, a searing effect that British indie rock hasn’t had in years or, depending on whom you ask, decades.
23. Modeselektor Monkeytown
This album’s all over the place, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Offered on Monkeytown’s menu are self-aware, charmingly goofy rap, cutting-edge glitch, dance-y electropop, and sober reflections on paranoia, both lyrical and musical. Its melodic catchiness is what holds it all together, that and the fact that, start to finish, it feels like a night out at a dance club with its own successive highs and lows. There’s the calm of being on your way to a big party, and the explosion of guests each doing their own thing, looking for their ideal night out. Monkeytown becomes reflective at times, too, and its multi-genre approach is signified by a blink-and-you-miss-it shout-out to Prince on “Humanized” with the lyric “Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold.” Bold stuff indeed, but this experiment pays off in a seriously addicting album that enthrals the whole way through.
Read my review of Monkeytown here.
22. Mastodon The Hunter
Mastodon’s particular brand of metal is equally indebted to the sludge rock pioneered by early ‘70s bands like Black Sabbath and to the poppier, melodic side of hard rock. The Hunter is unquestionably a heavy metal album, but I think its appeal is far wider ranging than for just established metal fans. Mastodon’s more prog rock side is present and accounted for too, and the sound they’ve come up with here is heavy, nuanced, and above all, infinitely satisfying. This beast of a production is weird and soaring and bright and heavy and beautiful and face-melting. So, broadening their musical range and potentially winning a lot more followers with an album that has also universally impressed critics and hasn’t sacrificed their vision or prodigious skills? Dude. I’ll take one.
21. Wild Flag Wild Flag
Much has been written of this indie supergroup since they formed halfway through 2009. While I don’t necessarily want to contribute to the possible oversaturation of media about Wild Flag, I seriously cannot deny the straight-up triumph that is their debut album, released in September. Carrie Brownstein has grown significantly as a frontperson since her Sleater-Kinney days, and all the better too, because here she more often leads her band than back in S-K, when the singing was often the responsibility of Corin Tucker and her undeniably powerful pipes. Brownstein’s charm lies in her perfectly imperfect voice and infectious enthusiasm, the latter of which could easily be said about any member of this band. I didn’t think that the words ‘joyful’ and ‘rock’ could together be exemplified so perfectly, but Brownstein, along with seasoned rockers Mary Timony, Janet Weiss, and Rebecca Cole have let loose with an accomplished and unabashedly fun album that showcases their strengths and skills with aplomb.
20. Frank Turner England Keep My Bones
In my mind at least, Frank Turner’s got the folk-punk, sometimes political, earnest troubadour music market cornered at the moment. His sense of home and of his own Englishness, especially apparent on his latest full-length, England Keep My Bones, takes him into new and different territory on “Wessex Boy” and “If Ever I Stray” and his newfound preoccupation with being memorialized after his death is evident on “Eulogy” and “Peggy Sang the Blues” and he effectively covers both subjects on the heartfelt “Rivers.” Turner’s passion is, as ever, the key ingredient to his appeal and is so infectious that it makes me want to get up off the couch and practice my own politics in a bigger way, but I usually settle for singing along to his politics while driving or dancing around my living room. His anthem to atheism, “Glory Hallelujah”, closes England Keep My Bones on an appropriate note: with one foot resolutely in the realm of tradition and the other devoted to his own irreverent twist on British folk heritage, Turner crafts a defining album that finds balance between two musical traditions and still kicks ass.
Read Larissa’s interview with Frank Turner here.
19. The Antlers Burst Apart
The Antlers debuted in 2009 with Hospice, an album that seriously caught me off guard with its brutal emotional honesty, both lyrical and musical. They’ve continued developing this approach on Burst Apart. Opener “I Don’t Want Love” acknowledges the urgent need for the physical communion of sex, especially sex that doesn’t involve the tenderness of a loving relationship. The lyrics “We wake up with pounding heads, bruised down below” don’t express regret as much as they express the physical relief of deep emotional tension. Peter Silberman’s stories of fraught relationships take a backseat to the impact of his music, subdued and fragile while resonant with the drama that everyday events can be full of. Indeed, it is the minute, individual moments that make up larger periods of existence and experience, and Burst Apart pays attention to these aspects of life equally and sensitively.
18. Matt Berry Witchazel
As far as unexpected listening pleasures go, I did not anticipate actor and comedian Matt Berry’s musical ventures to be as delightful as his comedy. Although this is his third album, Witchazel was the first Berry LP that I’ve listened to, and it is truly like going down a rabbit hole of ‘60s psychedelic pop. Fifty years spontaneously evaporate upon listening to the opening dark yet lilting reed instruments as they intersect and bend, summoning the pastoral tranquility of classic British folk music. His voice’s airy, reedy quality fits the combination of instruments perfectly, and its presence is low in the mix, the whole sounding like the last strains of summer, all bright and gold. Strings, organ, and horns round out the retro sound achieved on Witchazel, but be assured, this is no mere kitschy ‘retro’ album. No, Berry’s investment in this timeless pop music is genuine, and the result is a beautiful artefact that speaks equally to the value of the past’s best psych-pop and the intriguing directions that contemporary pop and folk can take.
17. Cut Copy Zonoscope
While not universally acclaimed like Cut Copy’s 2008 outing, In Ghost Colours, Australians Dan Whitford, Tim Hoey, Mitchell Scott, and Ben Browning continue to explore their interpretation of ‘80s-esque synthpop on Zonoscope to uplifting effect. Even though they have a song entitled “Strange Nostalgia for the Future”, Cut Copy’s music lovingly plunders the past without sacrificing originality or a distinctive sound of their own. Drawing on influences like New Order, Kraftwerk, the Human League, and My Bloody Valentine, their affectionate homage to decades past also succeeds on a more intimate, lyrical level, with Whitford singing of utopian futures, departing from the darker lyrical content of his forebears. Incorporating mentions of memories, dreams, the possibilities of life and the inevitability of death, Zonoscope is larger than life and unquestionably more than the sum of its parts.
16. Butcher Boy Helping Hands
I have finally and belatedly realized one of the biggest reasons why I love Butcher Boy: their songs make me feel the way Belle & Sebastian’s songs did in their Jeepster period, back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. While these two bands certainly have similarities, like their Glaswegian origins, this doesn’t necessarily mean they sound the same. Rather, Butcher Boy pay homage Belle & Sebastian in their direct yet gentle approach and use of stringed instruments to flesh out their sound. John Blain Hunt’s signature earnest delivery is, of course, highlighted on Helping Hands, and it continues to befit his tales of tentative romance and new lovers’ stolen kisses. There’s also a distinct bittersweetness that comes through in wistful string passages and the overarching sense that these short reprieves spent in the company of a loved one are the only times his melancholy lifts.
15. Wild Beasts Smother
Wild Beasts are a wonderful anomaly of a band: they’re generally identified as a rock group, but on Smother they move in an electronic-oriented direction that accentuates their differences from other English indie rock bands currently working. Highly literate and unapologetically unusual with frequent forays into the creepy and freakish, their lyrics on Smother are about moral ambiguity and the music used to accompany those words feels lushly vulnerable as well. The yearning quality of Hayden Thorpe’s voice is particularly notable on “Plaything” where he narrates the voyeuristic desires of one-half of a sexual pairing – it’s discomfiting and obviously problematic, and that’s the point. The multiple connotations of the word ‘smother’ is what attracted Wild Beasts to this album title, and its multiplicity is an apt metaphor for their songs: they can certainly be enjoyed for their surface beauty and atmosphere, but the more the listener realizes what their (sometimes difficult to decipher) lyrics are saying, the more Smother can be enjoyed.
14. Katy B On a Mission
So, for those uninitiated listeners, what is the difference between your average Rihanna track and any of the tunes found on this debut from London’s Katie Brien, aka Katy B? A friend posed this question to me several months ago when I introduced her to the album and of course I, having listened to On a Mission only marginally and also being very slow on my feet, responded that there might not be much difference at all. That was a lie, only I didn’t realize it then. Like Robyn did last year, particularly on “Dancing On My Own”, Katy tells stories and vents her frustrations about sexual politics and feeling most alone even when surrounded by dancing club-goers. This doesn’t feel all that much like a dance album, for all that it contains some of the year’s catchiest beats. Even when she’s telling off guys that do nothing to impress her (“Easy Please Me”) or reflecting on the status of a shaky relationship (“Broken Record”), Katy never falls into the tired clichés that characterize lesser dance-pop. She stands head and shoulders above them, especially in heels.
13. Battles Gloss Drop
The cover art for Gloss Drop is perfectly indicative of what the album contains. That is, something mostly indefinable. Freeform, primitive, organic, somewhat amorphous, and terrifying in its boldness and inability to be definitely identified, that towering pink blob is a signal to expect the unexpected, cliché as that is. This is rock music, but rock music unlike any you’ve grappled with before. This is rock music that questions the parameters of any set of things rock music can or should be. With the option of figuring out exactly what Gloss Drop’s (mostly lyric-less) songs mean stroked out as an impossibility, the listener is left to grapple with sounds, impressions, movements, and feelings to guide interpretation. Conversely, no interpretation may actually be required at all. Full of texture and direction and a lot of innovative rhythms and catchy melodies, Gloss Drop’s sound suggests a kind of vivid visual excitement that’s perfectly in keeping with the presence of that pink blob.
12. Zola Jesus Conatus
I love how the chill of a Wisconsin winter has made its way into Nika Roza Danilova’s work as Zola Jesus. The physical desolation of Madison translates perfectly into the icy musical desolation presented on Conatus, a world populated by people who struggle to comprehend the depth of each others’ alienation. A chilling yet enveloping combination of synthpop, piano-driven singer-songwriter, and darker post-punk and goth sensibilities typify her sound, but these components all take a backseat to Danilova’s voice, itself a strong, slightly nasal, and emotion-drenched instrument that in a single phrase can fully transmit the scope of her pain. By the end of the album, Conatus leaves you with the same feeling that a Wisconsin winter does: it may end up killing you, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful.
Read my review of Conatus here.
11. British Sea Power Valhalla Dancehall
I am so grateful that British Sea Power exist. To solely hear them, one might easily think that they’re a fairly straight-ahead, albeit better than most, indie rock group. Thankfully this isn’t the case at all. BSP have, over more than a decade now, made a career out of highlighting their idiosyncrasies along with their superior brand of rock music; or rather, they have incorporated their finely honed sense of the ridiculous into their music, making theirs a compelling band to watch and follow whether onstage or off. Valhalla Dancehall’s lead track, “Who’s In Control,” along with its surprising video, are a case in point. The song tells of a bookish narrator observing the chaos of a political protest and slyly questioning where the lines are drawn when everyone’s in the overexcited heat of the action. Its corresponding video depicts this riot but then halfway through turns its gaze on a group of young protesters making the most of their high and partying later at home. Communities are formed, clothes are shed, sexual connections forged, and everything glows in the bliss of idealized youth.
Read Larissa’s review of Roy Wilkinson’s book Do It For Your Mum here.
10. Wye Oak Civilian
I didn’t think Wye Oak were going to be my thing. Variously classified as ‘indie rock’, ‘alternative rock’, and ‘alternative folk’, I had already mentally lumped them in with much of Ryan Adams’ more mediocre work for some reason when both my friend Elizabeth-Anne and The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle enthusiastically endorsed Wye Oak’s Civilian this year. I cannot fully express here how glad I am for their recommendation. “Civilian” is so gorgeously sad, nostalgic, and filled with self-aware longing for a fulfilling romantic relationship that it’s brought tears to my eyes more than once. After Jenn Wasner delivers the achingly honest line “I’m perfectly able to hold my own hand but I still can’t kiss my own neck” she launches into a heartrending solo that, if her words didn’t fully capture her frustration, blasts the depth of her loneliness out of her body and into the uncaring ether.
9. Isolée Well Spent Youth
Yes, I’m hanging my head in shame: I only discovered the music of Rajko Müller, aka Isolée, this year. I do, however, like to think I’m making up for it by almost immediately latching on to his most recent release, Well Spent Youth, a fascinating and quirky minimalist house production that’s one of the most addictive things I’ve listened to all year. Repetitive and unassuming on the surface, Well Spent Youth brims with weirdness and engaging ideas, and becomes less simply repetitive and more layered and twitchy with repeated listens. For example, “Thirteen Times an Hour” is an eight-minute long song that constantly shifts and morphs into new tiers and tics, revealing something different each time. Well Spent Youth exemplifies a definition of ‘album’ in which the individual songs grow and build on each other, culminating in a piece that’s made up of tiny fragments and is still resolutely whole.
8. Thurston Moore Demolished Thoughts
I really do think that even if Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon hadn’t publicly announced their separation this year that this quiet masterpiece of an album would still affect me the way that it does. Broken relationship or not, it is difficult not to read all sorts of emotional extremes into Moore’s lovely songs and even lovelier treatment of them. That said, I’m also not about to proclaim I know what Moore’s talking about in his personal, often cryptic lyrics. Primarily performed on acoustic guitar with flourishes of strings, Demolished Thoughts is equally about heartbreak and joy, about finding the heartbreaking and the joyful in the smallest minutiae of day-to-day life. Additionally, and as suggested by the title of the song “Benediction”, Demolished Thoughts has a strong spiritual quality to it that elevates the mundane to the reverential.
7. Jah Wobble & Julie Campbell Psychic Life
It goes without saying that Jah Wobble’s had a lot of collaborators since his 1980 departure from Public Image Ltd. His reggae-influenced dub basslines as well as his versatility make his playing an obvious choice for many musicians, from Brian Eno to Bill Laswell. However successful these collaborations have been, however, few have been as inspired as the pairing of Wobble and Mancunian solo artist Julie Campbell, who released her debut album last year as LoneLady. On Psychic Life they complement and contrast each other brilliantly, creating a taut tension that’s palpable. Where Wobble’s bass is dark and moody, Campbell’s voice rises, clear and brilliant, each diverging from the other sharply. Ambiguity is added in the lyrics, which tell of shadows, doubts, isolation, the failure of technology to connect us, and the horrifying permanence of the past.
Read my review of Psychic Life here.
6. Trips and Falls People Have to be Told
For my money, Trips and Falls have the most fittingly perfect name. While a clever play on the interchangeability between nouns and verbs, ‘trips and falls’ also characterizes the sound of their music, a bumbling, stumbling, and entirely charming mix of twee indie pop and something entirely more experimental and unusual. The opening lines of “I’ll Do the Dishes, You Do the Laundry” continue to haunt me in the way that Ashleigh Delaye and Jacob Romero sing about secrets and longing, yet their beautifully striking harmonies make this song feel all-encompassing, transformative, universally relatable. The quiet beauty of its verses contrasted with the dissonance fuelled by the band when they come in fully between verses makes this song in particular feel like one that could be life-changing. Elsewhere, “Marginally More than Mildly Annoying” perfectly portrays the shambling quality the music takes on at times, halting and then accelerating, running and then crawling.
Read Larissa’s review of People Have to be Told here.
5. Austra Feel It Break
I had no idea who Austra were when I first listened to their debut album, Feel It Break, when it was released in May. They were receiving some buzz for their dark, new wave-y sound from the British music press, whom I often look to for musical and journalistic guidance. It was after I fell in love with the album and just missed seeing them on a stop on their UK tour that I realized they’re actually from Toronto and the likelihood of seeing their show on turf nearer to home was pretty good. Seeing them in November along with many, many plays of Feel It Break later and suffice it to say, I’m a big fan. Katie Stelmanis’ stoic and strong, classically-trained voice is a perfect, if somewhat unlikely fit, for Austra’s dramatic music, played by Stelmanis on electric piano/keyboards, drummer Maya Postepski, and bassist Dorian Wolf. In short, Feel It Break makes me want to fall in love with someone intense and dangerous, smoke cigarettes, and dance at dark wave clubs in Berlin, and I generally don’t want to do those things. That’s some pretty evocative stuff for Canadian indie synthpop.
4. St. Vincent Strange Mercy
I think fellow St. Vincent fans will agree with me when I say that it’s been very rewarding to watch and listen as Annie Clark grows as an artist and musician with each of her full-length releases. Her musicianship has always been impressive, but on Strange Mercy it’s evident that Clark thinks of herself now as an adult, with the resignation, disappointment, and self-analysis that comes with adulthood. It’s not all feet-dragging, however; far from it: Clark is armed with an admirable sense of determination about where the future will take her and the experiences that have formed her. Also satisfying to have brought to the fore is her skilful guitar-playing, imbuing these pop songs with riffs that complement and deepen her sound and revealing the rawness buried just under the surface of Clark’s demurely feminine image.
Read my review of Strange Mercy here.
3. James Blake James Blake
Yeah, yeah, dubstep oversaturation; backlash… whatever. I actually haven’t decided yet whether I’m willing to go on the record and say that James Blake’s proper debut LP isn’t dubstep. I suppose whether it is or isn’t may not be all that relevant at this stage, because it seems to be suffering from said backlash all the same, but I digress. Back when I got around to listening to this album in March, it was the most refreshing thing my ears had been exposed to in…a while. It didn’t give me the “whoa, these beats are impressive” feeling that good dubstep often does, but a far more emotional connection based on Blake’s voice, lyrics, and the fragile atmosphere he evokes. It’s a quiet, perfectly controlled album but its emotional impact is huge, as is the artistic statement Blake makes with it. James Blake is simply an amazingly subtle and well-realized singer-songwriter album, filtered through a lens of spacious electronics and echoing depths. See, not dubstep at all.
2. Magazine No Thyself
I’ve decided I want to be Howard Devoto. Not only did he go “b’dum b’dum” back when the Buzzcocks were bored out of their skulls and subsequently inspire Orange Juice’s brilliant “Rip It Up”, even the one-off collaborations he’s done with various musicians since Magazine’s extended hiatus have been mostly very good. But what he’s primarily known for is fronting Magazine, the influential post-punk band who released three of the period’s best albums (and one bad one) before crumbling after he left the band in 1981. Thirty years later, No Thyself does one better than pick up where Magazine left off: it offers a mischievous and biting take on approaching the senility of old age and the mortality that follows. I can only hope that I’m half as badass and wickedly smart as Devoto when I get old.
Read my review of No Thyself here.
1. The Indelicates David Koresh Superstar
Even though I have come to expect seriously awesome and innovative things from The Indelicates, I did not expect a concept album about David Koresh and the Waco siege to be this emotionally nuanced and incisive. Silly, silly me. Spanning the gamut from the rather goofy, Southern-accented “The Road from Houston to Waco” that’s told from Koresh’s point of view, to the devastated and devastating post-siege scene of “Gethsemane”, and a haunting, bone-chilling rendition of the traditional “John the Revelator”, this is one of the very few albums I’ve ever listened to that has reduced me to overwhelmed tears by the time it’s through. On paper it’s fucking bold, to hear it is to be astounded by its power, complexity, and empathy, but there’s something unquantifiable about what Simon and Julia Indelicate have accomplished here that makes this album transcend even its weighty subject matter. David Koresh Superstar is that incredibly rare listening experience that evokes the beautiful tragedy of life and death in both its broadest and most specific senses.