I realize it’s already a few weeks into 2012, which means that I’m relatively overdue on my best of 2011 list (at least, by blogger world standards)…
I was exposed to a lot of music this year across a variety of genres, but I seem to have gravitated more toward a lush sensibility in music, preferring heavily layered sounds (be it guitar noises or produced loops) over simplicity. Of course, there are some exceptions to that within my list, but for the most part, I would peg 2011 as the shoegaze dreampop noise year. Yeah, whatever that means.
#10 Iceage – New Brigade (01.07.11)
On my last full day spent in San Francisco this past summer, I stopped off at the new flat of a friend of mine, Jeremy. Since the moment we met, we’ve mostly bonded over music, and I always know I can rely upon his musical taste to introduce me to something new. As I sat in his apartment, drinking a beer, he asked me if I was familiar with the band Iceage. I wasn’t, so he grabbed the vinyl from his collection and put it on. This record immediately blew me away. It certainly is raw and loud, with room for improvement, but there’s this spark of something creatively fresh on the album’s 12 tracks (which, mind you, total less than 25 minutes). It was something vaguely reminiscent of older Jawbreaker, and I appreciate the unpolished, non-perfectionist nature of the release. Even more impressive is the fact that the band is a group of four young Danish guys; I can’t wait to see what they do next.
#9 WU LYF – Go Tell Fire to the Mountain (06.13.11)
This album was another complete surprise. Initially, I thought “What the fuck kind of name is WU LYF?” but then I gave it a listen and got sucked in. I also don’t care about the fact that they’ve so elusive and evasive and won’t give interviews et cetera. We’ve already seen that with The Knife, and probably artists before that. It’s nothing new. But what does interest me is the music itself. There’s an built-in sense of tension, of impending climax, throughout the songs, that keeps me engaged with it. The intricacies of the instruments make it so that I catch something new on every successive listen. Meanwhile, the vocals demand not to be sung along with, but to be really listened to. This album is perfect for walking through the city on late afternoons when the sidewalks are crowded and there is a sense of chaos in the air. I just turn the music up loud and tune out the world around me.
#8 BRAIDS – Native Speaker (01.18.11)
Admittedly, I am predisposed to automatically dislike any band with a name that’s too similar to one I already like. For example, indie post-hardcore band Braid has ranked among my favourites for more than a decade. So when I heard of a band called BRAIDS, I was quick to dimiss it. But then, I happened to see the band, because BRAIDS was playing with Cloud Nothings and Toro y Moi – a show I was already planning on attending. In the days leading up to the show, all I heard about the band was people raving about the music, but I still wasn’t compelled to check it out beforehand. So that’s how I came to be standing in the back of Great American Music Hall while the band played, my ears delightfully overwhelmed and my jaw nearly dropping. Here was a group with long songs (think 4-8 minutes each) that kept my attention all the way through. Not only does each instrument do something unique, but the vocals act as an instrument too, experimenting with range and percussion and weaving themselves in and out of the main framework of the song. What’s also notable about BRAIDS is that the band is just as good live as it is on the album.
#7 Astronautalis – This Is Our Science (09.13.11)
I’ll admit this album was a latecomer to my list, as I first heard it in December, but I’m hooked. Prior to the end of last year, I’d heard the name Astronautalis thrown around, but had never actually listened to Astronautalis. In fact, I didn’t even know if it was a guy, or a band. Well, turns out it’s the former, and he is absolutely fantastic. The boyfriend is a long-time fan, and because our musical interests are so in line, I quickly got myself up to speed on Astronautalis’ discography, assuming I would like the music as much as he does. It was then that I realized that he had a show scheduled for Valentine’s Day here in Berlin, so I then contacted his people for an interview. And can I just say that Astronautalis rules? Not only musically, but as a person. He’s hilarious, unpretentious, and flat-out charming. But about the music: this indie hip-hop thing can be done wrong and it can be done right. Astronautalis does it right: think somewhere along the lines of Why? At least, that’s what I got out of it.
I’ll admit it: I was kind of skeptical when I first received the media download of this album. There are a lot of German bands that I like, but very few that I love. So I took a listen, and dug what I heard, but wasn’t compelled to listen on repeat. A week later, I went to see the band, and the performance sealed the deal. I was blown way by the pure energy of the live act and how the music and the members kept my attention entirely throughout. So when I got home, I fired up the old iPod and put this album on again. And again. I don’t know what it is, but there is this contagiousness to these songs. They are catchy and kind of funky and in some places just plain rock. It’s sad that the group is calling it quits this year, but they’ve definitely gone out with a bang.
#5 Yuck – Yuck (02.15.11)
I can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment when my fondness for Yuck turned into some kind of hardcore love affair, but I think it was when I was interviewing lead singer Daniel Blumberg and he asked me in his darling, far-too-young-for-me, low-in-volume and overly-seductive British accent if he could read my book when I finished writing it, and then proceeded to give me his email. Hmmmmm, yeah, that was definitely it. Regardless, the album is a work of art, with noise-y tunes that are loud and beautiful and slightly reminiscent of another generation.
#4 The Decemberists – The King is Dead (01.18.11)
Certainly, “The King is Dead” is not my favourite Decemberists album, but then again, they are one of those bands I love for specific songs more so than for entire albums. This one was a lovely release to latch onto early in the year, and almost every song easily grew on me. The pace of the 10 tracks is just right, with sweet, slow songs mixed in among faster more musically adventurous songs. I also spent my Valentine’s Day in the company of a dear friend seeing them live. It was my second time, and far more rewarding than the first (which was during “The Hazards of Love” tour – yawn). And for such a big band in a huge venue, the show was impressive, thoroughly entertaining, and well worth the $50 price tag. While this album isn’t as well-loved as some of the others lower on this list, it has definitely received its fair share of play on my part, and will always be an album I can turn to when I want to listen to something that I dig from beginning to end.
#3 Craft Spells – Idle Labor (03.22.11)
Some music seems to not only capture a moment, but sum up an entire season. This album was my spring/summer jam, and there was a point last year where I must have listened to it two or three times a day. It was initially slated for the top position on this list, but you know how sometimes seeing a band live or meeting them can put a bad taste in your mouth? When I interviewed Craft Spells, the actual dialogue was fine, but all evening I heard them complaining about having to open for bands they’ve never heard of who had less Facebook fans than they did. Really? My grand illusions regarding this band were kind of shattered after that, and I couldn’t love the album as much as I once did. But still, for what it is (which is the work of a young dude writing and recording songs in his bedroom in Stockton, Calif.), it’s pretty spectacular.
#2 Waters – Out in the Light (09.20.11)
I think this might be the only real straightforward “indie rock” album on my top 10 list this year. Of course, there are moments on this album when the songs lean toward one genre convention or another, but to me, “Out in the Light” is something that feels very modern to me, like a true product of its own time. The man behind the band, Van Pierszalowski, has a knack for making interesting pop music, with catchy hooks that draw the listener in, but then suddenly change gears, doing something unconventional with the music. I feel this combination of the familiar and the uncertain every time I listen to the album, and it’s what keeps me coming back. Although I feel it is a formula that should bore me, it doesn’t. And isn’t that what good art is about? It’s something that, in spite of your best efforts to compartmentalize it, still leaves you partially stumped and partially in awe.
#1 The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – Belong (03.29.11)
I never jumped on the Pains of Being Pure at Heart bandwagon when the band’s debut came out in 2009. I’m not certain if I merely dismissed the album entirely or if for whatever reason it never held my interest. Regardless, I thought nothing of this album when it came out. It wasn’t until sometime in the summer that I gave it a listen and immediately found myself thinking about this band constantly. It was kind of ridiculous – here I was, either listening to the album, or daydreaming about listening to it. It was like a schoolgirl crush. Months have passed and I still feel that rush whenever I listen “Belong” and those heavy guitar and seductive vocals take over my ears. I love everything about it. This album is just plain dreamy.