Well…here you have it! Being the compulsive list-maker that I am (if I could figure out how to set up print sharing on a router configured with Apple I’d put borders on my grocery lists and make them in Excel), I’ve painstakingly compiled EVERY new piece of music I’ve listened to thoroughly in 2011 and made it into a nice list, and then ordered it somewhat into favorites.
20 albums…which is sucky since there was so much good stuff this year, so I’ve included a few songs that were great songs, and for the most part on pretty good albums that didn’t make the cut. Also, there are honorable mention albums so you can “technically” get my 29 favorites of the year (which I know you’d just totally lose sleep over if you didn’t have).
For further reference, you can check out similar lists at Stereogum, Pitchfork, and Cokemachineglow. However, they’re not nearly as excellent as mine, obviously. Enjoy!
It’d be an absolute crime for me to listen to roughly 160 albums this year, and only give you a taste of 20 of them along with a snapshot of nine more. There was a TON of good music this year. Some of it; unfortunately, rested on albums that just lacked the top to bottom solidarity for me to be able to tolerate the entire thing for the year. Or they were on 4-5 song EPs, albums by bands that I like that were complete flops (Oh how you disappointed me this year, TV on the Radio), or were glimmers of hope for part of the diluted Louisiana/Alabama/Mississippi/Tennessee street/swamp mixtape set that apparently hasn’t grown stale over the last two years to anyone but myself, based off of review scores.
ANYWAYS…here are some songs that I thought were really awesome, but won’t be found on any of the albums on the following list. 25 of them…roughly enough to keep you occupied for a good two hours:
Alex Turner – “Piledriver Waltz” – Submarine OST
Azealia Banks – “212″ – (No Album)
Chemtrail – “Means To an End” – Youth Obsessed Death Culture
Childish Gambino – “Bonfire” – CAMP
Clams Casino – “Realist Alive” – Instrumentals
Cults – “Abducted” – Cults
Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi – “The Rose With the Broken Neck” – Rome
The Decemberists – “Down By the Water” – The King Is Dead
Drake – “Shot For Me” – Take Care
Fleet Foxes – “The Shrine/An Argument” – Helplessness Blues
Gang Gang Dance – “MindKilla” – Eye Contact
Iron & Wine – “Walking Far From Home” – Kiss Each Other Clean
James Blake – “A Case Of You” (Joni Mitchell Cover) – Enough Thunder EP
Jhene Aiko – “Higher” – Sailing Soul(s)
The Joy Formidable – “The Everchanging Spectrum Of a Lie” – The Big Roar
Justice – “Civilization” – Audio, Video, Disco
Los Campesinos! – “By Your Hand” – Hello Sadness
Lykke Li – “Get Some” – Wounded Rhymes
Okkervil River – “The Valley” – I Am Very Far
Rich Aucion – “It” – We’re All Dying To Live
Shabazz Palaces – “Fress Press and Curl” – Black Up
The Shoes – “Crack My Bones” – Crack My Bones
TV On the Radio – “Will Do” – Nine Types Of Light
The Weeknd – “The Birds Part 2″ – Thursday
Wilco – “Art Of Almost” – The Whole Love
Honorable Mention Albums
I can only talk about 10 albums, and I can briefly describe 10 more. However…there was WAY more music worth mentioning than just 20 albums. Unfortunately for you, my schedule’s pretty full currently with all of the cigar smoking, baby kissing, model shooting down, and single malt drinking. ANYWAYS…here’s some stuff that you may like, but for which I will not take the time to provide a description. Thus contributing to the organized herirarchy of orgasmic auditory pleasance that each group of songs represents. Also, squares of pictures are pretty so I’m choosing nine honorable mentions because it’s a perfect square. And it’s going to be alphabetical, so I can laugh from afar (or from a-close…for those of you who are in the greater Raleigh/Durham area) at your attempt to determine the order of excellence of these choices. I’ve taken the liberty of linking each album’s last.fm page, for your exploratory pleasure.
Albums Of The Year
Of everything I’ve heard this year, these are the ones that have stayed with me (if I was lucky enough to grab them at the beginning of the year), or in some cases those who made a good enough first impression to where I know they’ll stay with me throughout 2012. Some of this stuff you’ve heard before, some of it will open you up to newer artists or maybe even forms of music that you weren’t aware of. A lot of it will probably make you wonder “What the fuck goes through this nutcase’s head on a daily basis?” Either way…I can guarantee you that if you get some free time to actually comb through this encyclopedia of music, you’ll find something that you’ll at least moderately enjoy that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. At least I hope so. Here are the twenty best albums of 2011…by the musical authority that is myself. I’ve included album art, a brief (or long) description/opinion, and a few notable samples. Enjoy!
20. Russian Circles – Empros
The Russian Circles are about as geographically Non-Russian as you can get…hailing from Chicago. Empros is their fourth album of beautiful, atmospheric post-rock/metal. The album consists of only six songs, that are really more like movements. This is music for the background that sounds more like a 41-minute song than a six-song album. This music is the soundtrack to a war, to a building hurricane. The moods go from quiet and peaceful to ravaging violence over the matter of just several seconds in some cases, or through several minutes in others through slowly building crescendos until it seems like everything around is going to explode. Whereas a lot of the genre chooses to incorporate multiple instruments, Empros shows the Russian Circles’ continuing success at creating instrumental beauty through just three instruments.
19. Future Islands – On the Water
Samuel Herring is a lunatic. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Future Islands come up to stardom since I saw them perform in pizza parlors and friends’ living rooms as Art Lord and the Self Portraits when I was in college. On the Water is their second critically-acclaimed album. I’ve NEVER seen a cult following like what the Future Islands have generated. Their lead singer stands on stage and jumps and yelps and screams and sometimes cries into the microphone, and the hipsters dance around in their plaid shirts and green jeans and eat the shit right up. Herring sings about love lost on On the Water like in his last effort…with the same successes. With every word that leaves his mouth, he becomes closer and closer to his own personal breaking point. There’s no genre for this. Post-art-dance-emo? Who gives a shit…The Future Islands make the people so happy they’ll dance to sadness. The insanity in that is only matched by their stage presence. I’ve seen them three times in 2011 – twice in Chapel Hill and once in Raleigh. Don’t miss them.
“Before the Bridge”
18. The Black Keys – El Camino
I got my Dad this album for Christmas this year. He was born over 58 years ago, and he thinks this shit rocks. That’s how the Black Keys roll. They absolutely smack of everything that your ex-pot smoking parents hitchhiked across the state to go see when they were younger than you are right now. Isn’t it awesome how everything comes full circle? You were probably conceived to something that sounds suspiciously like the Page acoustic of “Little Black Submarines,” and “Stop Stop” will have you rolling your eyes at your parents getting old-folks on you by telling a 20 minute story that doesn’t make sense. Mainly it’ll be because the song reminds them of some Canned Heat concert they think they went to in 1971, but really can’t remember what songs were played. When I was a kid, I thought my Dad was invincible. El Camino encourages me to achieve more of my life aspirations…mainly because 30 years ago he was head banging to some shit like this in a stuffy coupe with no air conditioner…and he turned out just fine.
“Little Black Submarines”
“Gold On the Ceiling”
17. .L.W.H. – The Tape Hiss Hooligan
It’s pretty much set in stone that for the rest of hip-hop’s existence, topics of discussion will either be about street shit, fucking, dancing, smoking weed, where you’re from, politics, or how rap sucks. Which means the only direction this genre can take is on the instrumental end. The future appears to be the ambient, hazy vibe first displayed by Prefuse 73 musically several years ago with Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, and then with lyrics added by Edan on Beauty and the Beat. Basically, rap is merging with IDM and other forms of minimal electronic music and being sung by hipsters like Lil’ B, Curren$y, and Main Attrakionz. These are the people to watch in rap over the next few years. The PRODUCERS to watch are the ones who are really making artists like this groundbreaking…guys like Ski Beatz and Clams Casino. L.W.H. follows suit on hazy, distorted beats making old rap topics sounding fresh, new, and interesting. On Tape Hiss Hooligan he sets the bar for 2012 along the fine like that rap music will have to take to advance.
Bitin & Shakin
On My Shit
16. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
Kurt Vile can either come off to you as Elliott Smith after hypothetically picking himself up off of the mountain of needles and tears that were his bathroom floor, or a more depressed Bruce Springsteen. The result is something that leaves you really unsure how to feel, with a balance of expansive guitar and for the most part, depressing lyrics. Going solo after a successful stint as the lead guitarist for The War On Drugs (see honorable mention…they released a great one this year too), in Smoke Ring For My Halo Vile walks that tightrope that’s been missing in roots rock between being complacent and jaded. Vile manages to pull this off in his fourth solo effort in as many years better than…pretty much anyone since Blind Melon, which says a lot.
“Society Is My Friend”
15. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
“Fuck California, you made me boring.” Yes, Erika Anderson, you’re unique…just like everybody else. The only thing keeping Erika Anderson (or EMA…which you should be able to deduce are her initials) from being my celebrity crush of the year is that I don’t feel as much like Lykke Li would kill me. On her fantastic solo debut, EMA successfully comes across as that girl that you find just crazy enough to be interesting at first, until you really get to know her and realize that she is in fact batshit insane and that there’s nothing quirky or cute about it. Not the record to play on the porch with friends on a sunny spring afternoon, EMA covers topics in Past Life Martyred Saints like depression, molestation, murdering you, homosexuality, and realizing that when you move out of a small town that you’re not really as unique as you think you are. The entire record comes off as half singing, half confessional. The genuineness in her voice (which sounds like it’s on the verge of tears for the entire record) and the pure straightforward manner in her delivery are what make this album stand out.
14. Das Racist – Relax
I fall into the camp that has the musical curiosity to where I’m still trying to decide whether or not to take these guys seriously. They may be pulling off one of the most epic trolls in recent hip-hop history, or they may just be three guys from New York having a good time. Either way, Relax is enjoyable because I can relate to it. I realize that this speaks volumes to my maturity level (I’ve never denied my childish sense of toilet humor and use of obscure internet references). Relax sounds like something my buddies and I would do after the bar if we had access to an MPC, took the time to sample a few random tracks, and had any knowledge whatsoever of ProTools. Everything on here basically sounds like a drunken bout of who can say the funniest shit and have it sound halfway intelligible…with the occasional cheap Laterian Milton reference thrown in just for good measure. Relax is 14th on my list this year, which means that there is work better than this for 2011…but I’d definitely rather hang out with these guys more than anyone else you’ll find on this list.
“Power” (with Danny Brown & Despot)
13. Frank Ocean – Nostalgia/Ultra
Aside from “BroStep” (*shudder*), perhaps the most ridiculous sub-genre of music to emerge in 2011 has been dubbed “PBR&B.” It’s basically if guys who act like Lenny Kravitz made music that sounded more like Maxwell or D’Angelo…for you 1990s people. Frank Ocean is at the forefront of this music…released almost exclusively in free mixtape form and sang by guys who are too self-aware to sing exclusively about how they’re going to work your body. Think if early Boyz II Men shopped at Karmaloop, smoked marijuana at Bonnaroo, and sampled Eyes Wide Shut and “Hotel California” on an album released by Jack Johnson’s Brushfire record label. That’s Nostalgia/Ultra in a sentence. What separates guys like Frank Ocean from the rest of the R&B world and why his music has received its own unfortunately-named sub-genre is that he sings about shit that may actually happen to you. Life isn’t about trying to make two Russian twins eating grapes off of each others’ bodies romantic. It’s about the cool hippie you hit it off with at a concert, and it’s about falling in love on a whim and running away only for it to not work out. No BMWs and lofts here, it’s all about old beat up mustangs and intellectual attraction. Great new sound, just don’t let the genre name stick.
12. Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde
Where the Black Keys took us on a nostalgic journey to our Dad’s old basement, and Kurt Vile to the Kerouacian free melancholy spirit of the likes of Springsteen and Dylan, the Smith Westerns come across as those damn kids who really need to take themselves more seriously. Pretty much every musical form of the 1970s was relived by an acclaimed record in 2011…Dye It Blonde fills in the gap of the Dazed and Confused phase, where nobody can tell you shit. From start to finish, this entire work smacks of bubblegum, sunshine, and being carefree and completely oblivious to anything that’s going on outside of your own little world. And sometimes, especially on a warm spring day on your patio with friends, that’s exactly how you want to feel. The guitars swirl, the drums are simple, and the harmonies and “Oooohs and Aaaaahs” are plentiful and sung with the youthful abandon that most of us twenty and thirty-somethings probably don’t feel enough.
“All Die Young”
11. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
French Producer Anthony Gonzalez manages to continually evolve on every record, by continuously adding. His fifth album in ten years continues this by combining elements of all of his last three critically acclaimed works. The Shoegaze-y fuzz of Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts is there combined with the creepy darkness of Before the Dawn Heals Us and the overblown 1980s excessive cheese of his breakthrough 2008 release, Saturdays = Youth. On Hurry Up We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez makes something big. And by big I mean BIG. Double album big…which almost always dooms an album to failure. Not in this case. The early 1980s synthesizer-driven cheese is the most prominent sound on Hurry Up, with dance pads fit for a Sega Genesis game (or dare I even say, Mega Man?), Gonzalez’s carefree yell, and the undisputed greatest moment in music in 2011. That is, of course, the INSANE saxophone solo at the 3:04 mark of “Midnight City.” Seriously…this entire song puts a smile on your face, and the introduction of the sax makes your mouth feel as though it’s going to explode upwards, rendering you to a horror movie or a 1993 Soundgarden video. While “Midnight City” has deservingly launched M83 into the mainstream (if you think you haven’t heard it, you have…it’s been in several commercials and TV backdrops all year), the most impressive thing about this record is that Gonzalez can maintain the same atmosphere and not let his sound go stale for the hour and 15 minutes that this album spans. Gigantic in more ways than one.
“My Tears Are Becoming a Sea”
10. The Men – Leave Home
The Men. This shit sounds like you’d expect it to sound coming from a band entitled “The Men.” It’s too simple to just say that The Men make pretty much every other new band of the year sound like they need to change their names to “The Women,” so allow me to specify.
Leave Home sounds like if Iggy Pop got together with Ian MacKaye as he was leading Minor Threat through the hardcore revolution of the early 1980s. It’s like if they were playing a show together, but instead of playing songs they took turns slamming pints of whiskey and played baseball with the empty bottles and guitars as bats.
Leave Home is the last thing you’d possibly want to have in your car if you were taking someone on a first date, unless your date was with Insanity Wolf. This shit is the soundtrack to a riot. And I don’t mean your local mindless “Occupy Yourcity” movement. If everything else on this list is an Occupy protester, Leave Home is an 11-year-old Palestinian covered in rags standing on a flipped charred school bus throwing a Molotov Cocktail as hard as he can into the collective faces of the authority of everything that is calamity and sanity.
It’s tough for me to compare anything to Leave Home, the closest thing I can come up with is the video for “We Are Water” by HEALTH (which I will not link, because it’s so disturbing it will leave half of you vowing to nix me completely from your memory as a friend. I’m not taking responsibility for that…you’ll have to YouTube it for yourself), except played in fast motion over and over again for eight songs while smoking a bag of meth through an improvised shotgun barrel. A screaming, distorted nightmare that you wake up like Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, with a tail and the room flooded and everything in the ugliest, raunchiest form of disarray, except with way more things on fire.
A lot of people would consider loud, fast, hard music as good driving music. I would not recommend this. The only way to drive to this music is to drive a turbocharged bulldozer through a gunpowder factory at maximum speed while taking shots of pepper spray mixed with cheap tequila with coked-up grizzly bears jumping off of the back just eating and destroying every piece of metal they see. And of course, lots of explosions.
9. Destroyer – Kaputt
Cheese has been rampant this year. As already discussed, M83 released what is quite possibly the best song of the year primarily due to its overly cheesy saxophone solo, and Justin Vernon made the world issue a simultaneous “What the fuck, dude?” with his closer on his “self-titled” release. Hell…even Justice’s sophomore album was an overblown prog-rock travesty that at first sounded like absolute garbage, but at the end of the year it’s enjoyable enough for me to forgive them for introducing the blister known as the wobble into the sexually transmitted disease that has become dubstep.
I’m really not sure if Dan Bejar is serious on Kaputt or not…but given his track record he probably is. Where Bon Iver captures cheese in just under an five minutes, M83 in fifteen seconds, and Justice in heavy snippets throughout an entire record, Mr. Bejar dumps the listener with 46 minutes of pure overblown grandiose adjective adjective cheesy fucking BLISS in Kaputt.
Dancing with yourself across a bustling downtown 2am in a high-gravity-haze, the happiest and most carefree moments of yuppie-dom. Kaputt is the soundtrack to the happiest moments of indulging yourself, by yourself, in a place in which you’re happy. The title track is two-stepping to your car in a drunken haze after a phenomenal night at the bar. “Chinatown” is a windy fall afternoon stroll through the city, with absolutely no schedule. Enjoying a 2pm beer on the sidewalk of the Carolina Brewery on Franklin Street, taking a smoke break outside of the Museum Of Art on a cold winter afternoon, and other enjoyable activities that one engages themselves with in public on a gorgeous day.
Kaputt embodies the simplest pleasures that are exploring life and your environment, loving being you, all washed in a folk tale voice over a hallucinogenic elevator music haze.
“Suicide Demo For Kara Walker”
8. Low – C’mon
Low’s been around forever, and by forever I mean for as long as I’ve been into music. Allmusic describes them as “sadcore.” Meh. Subgenres are a tricky thing, but I suppose that the editors of that website are referring to shit that can’t be classified as emo but that you’d typically only listen to when you feel like crying shamefully in an empty apartment into a bottle of cheap whiskey. Basically, everything that Morphine and Elliott Smith accomplished over their timeframes. My consensus since roughly 2003 is that Low should be classified as “Boring-as-hell-core” and nothing else.
All of this changed when I heard the trailer for C’mon on YouTube (isn’t it funny that they do that now) and it featured a snippet from the 8-minute epic “Nothing But Heart.” This album plays like a live album, but it was recorded in a studio. It has the one-take feel of a classic live album like Wilco’s Kicking Television, with the complete raw power that can only be delivered by a live performance (reference Magnolia Electric Company’s Trials and Errors for the best example of this). A lot of really good albums are really good because you can tell the time, preparation, and attention to detail that came into production and mixing after the fact…each instrument acting as its own entity and then being put together by an extremely talented individual to make the sound cohesive.
There’s no doubt that this happened with C’mon, but what’s important is that it doesn’t sound like it intentionally happened. The details of mixing are there, but it literally sounds like these guys walked into a studio one day, started the opening bells of “Try To Sleep,” went into some amnesia trance for 45 minutes, and passed out from exhaustion after the closing harmonies of “Something’s Turning Over.” In the middle you get results like “Especially Me,” which is my favorite single of the year (and now the song I want played at my wedding, should that ever happen), and the raw energy of “Witches” that can only be explained by the empty space it seems to create.
Every track on this record seems to suck the energy from everything about it, giving it an open and desolate feel. It’s a unique feeling that I haven’t gotten from a studio album since My Morning Jacket released At Dawn. Whereas some music creates spaces all around you, C’mon takes away from the space from around you, rendering everything empty around you and only beautifully harmonized vocals, jagged guitar riffs, and simple-yet-noticeable drums. It blends without seeming blended, and it completely encompasses you, from start to finish.
“Nothing But Heart”
7. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Probably the most simultaneously overrated and underrated album of the year (seriously, Pitchfork?), depending on which website you fancy. Justin Vernon’s 2011 release had probably some of the highest expectations in the music world (along with TV On the Radio and Cut Copy, who chose to release absolutely clusterfucked train wrecks. Way to go, guys).
In 2008 Bon Iver released For Emma, Forever ago, which was the product of him breaking up with a girl (that lives in Raleigh, oddly enough), going (for the most part) Into the Wild on everyone for a few months with his guitar and probably a decent quantity of good whiskey, and giving us one of the definitive albums of the last decade. Mr. Vernon’s made some friends along the way…guest spot on Kanye West’s life work last year as well as partnering with POS and a slew of other multi-talented musicians on the project Relayted, under the supergroup moniker Gayngs (which, as noted upon initial review of this album, should make you really check your definition of “intimacy” if you don’t find it to be one of the sexiest records of the last few years).
On his “self” titled sophomore effort, Bon Iver shows us that you don’t have to be loud to be big. The largeness of this record disappointed many who gave him such high-marks for the stripped-down production and play of his debut allowing his beautiful falsetto to be the forefront of the music. Here, Vernon shows his range as a musician rather than just a singer. There are horns, strings, auto-tune, and a closer that sounds like it would’ve been played at my middle school’s version of prom if I had been born ten years earlier. He shows us that he’s not only a singer here, but an arranger.
What made Vernon famous isn’t lost on Bon Iver…there’s simple beauty on the tracks that do let his voice shine the most (which are admittedly the best) like “Holocene” and “Michicant” that should satisfy sticklers for his original sound while also possessing enough variety for the listener not to appear as if they could be b-sides from his debut. And regardless of what others may say…the size and scale of tracks like “Perth” and “Calgary” show growth without sacrificing Vernon’s amazing voice as much as some would like to point out. Even the closer “Beth/Rest” in all of its cheesiness is able to retain the intimacy of the record, and of the overall feel and mood that Vernon’s created on both his last record and this one.
I like indie rock, but if I meet a woman and pursue a relationship with her based solely on the fact that she likes indie rock as well; well, we better go to concerts every night and talk exclusively about music or shit’s going to get old really fast. Life is like that in a way…there has to be room for growth or you’re dead from the start. The critics clamoring for Mr. Vernon’s head should’ve taken this thought process when they spent their springs blogging about how Bon Iver wasn’t more of the same from an extremely talented musician. He’s not a one-trick pony. He’s shown us several over the last couple of years with this release being his biggest one, and he’s here to stay.
6. ASAP Rocky – LiveLoveASAP
I’ve been looking all year long for a rap superhero.
Last year Curren$y stole the show and made everyone else look absolutely stupid with Pilot Talk. And I hadn’t been impressed all year until a few months ago. Tyler, the Creator tried too hard and almost turned hip-hop into it’s own department at Urban Outfitters; and the only producer who could really bring out Danny Brown’s lyricism on a consistent basis was Black Milk, who only chose to do so on a 22 minute EP (your loss, Mr. Brown). Big KRIT got stale for me, Freddie Gibbs only released mixtapes (a studio would launch this guy into super-stardom) and although Curren$y put out a slew of good mixtapes this year…for whatever reason he just hasn’t called up Clams Casino yet to give his druggy lyrics the ambience they deserve. Thus…I almost wrote off hip-hop in 2011.
“The Year Of PBR&B” had failed the hip-hop genre to crown someone into the deserved fame of Frank Ocean, Jhene Aiko, or The Weeknd. See? You can tell I’ve definitely TRIED. I downloaded ASAP’s free Deep Purple mixtape in the early summertime, and was mildly impressed. A few months later he was featured on the first verse of Main Attrakionz’ “Take 1” (which would eventually become “Leaf” on LiveLoveASAP). This was when he gathered momentum for me. In November all hell broke loose. LiveLoveASAP is non-regional…actually it’s ALL-regional. Actually it’s just non-southern. A guy from Harlem largely enlists an ambient hip-hop producer and makes shit that sounds like old Scarface.
Rocky’s metaphors, word plays, and mic jokes are a step down from Lil’ Wayne at their worst. He raps about the typical “rap” stuff like smoking weed, shooting people, and having money (rightfully so…ASAP recently signed a $3M deal, which is rare for a rapper who actually deserves to get paid as much as he does). The genre of this album on my iTunes is curiously definied as “Trillwave.” Clams Casino is credited with roughly half of the tracks on here, which contribute a LOT to the success of LiveLoveASAP.
You won’t find any groundbreaking lyrics on here, only catchier versions of everything else that’s been produced in the rap community for the last ten years. However…LiveLoveASAP with Clams Casino at the controls for a majority of the time give ASAP Rocky’s skills the same effortless touch that Ski Beatz was able to pull off with Curren$y last year. And Like Pilot Talk in 2010, LiveLoveASAP smokes the shit out of every other rap album this year. Not intended.
“Leaf” (w/ Main Attrakionz)
5. Neon Indian – Era Extraña
If 2009’s Psychic Chasms was the party where Alan Palomo met the purported woman of his dreams, Era Extraña is the ensuing breakup and his hallucinogenic blur of a rebound odyssey in the deserts of New Mexico.
This album was a disappointment for a lot of people. Mainly because it was supposed to be the end-all-be-all of the chillwave resurgence of 2011 that was highlighted by (excellent) releases by the likes of Washed Out and Active Child…and an (overrated) release by Toro y Moi. These guys got snubbed because they’re apparently supposed to be an electronic group (despite only having one release, ever) and they’ve created an album here that sounds like a rock album, a breakup album, even has hints of T-Rex era glam thrown in. It’s most definitely NOT a chill album.
The levels of psychadelica are tuned to the max, with distortion and hazy pads overtaking the lead synths on almost all tracks. This is not a nighttime album like the music that the rest of Neon Indian’s counterparts make…this is a dawn album or a dusk album. This album reeks of orange and red, not black and white (Active Child) or green and blue (Washed Out). The influence of Neon Indian’s relationship with genre-bending freak-psych undisputed heavyweight kings The Flaming Lips are shown on Era Extraña.
The album cover, as mentioned in my Q3 albums of the quarter, can really sum up the entire thing. Era Extraña has the best album art of the year. Mainly because the album art is the album more than on anything else this year. Close enough to everything, yet voluntarily isolated in everything out there that makes the world beautiful. The person in the foreground, you can’t tell if they’re spinning around carefree in circles or if they’re holding their head in their hands out of sheer frustration with it all. That sums up Era Extraña (and Neon Indian in general at this early point in their musical careers) perfectly, you don’t know how to perceive it and there are multiple interpretations. All of these things make it not necessarily the most accessible electronic album of the year, but most definitely the most versatile and the best one. Chillwave or not.
“Halogen (I Could Be a Shadow)”
“The Blindside Kiss”
4. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong
I’ve kinda touched on this already, but the comparisons stay the same. I’m pretty sure I hit puberty at the exact moment in the seventh grade that I saw D’Arcy Wretzky playing her sexy ass bass guitar in a mud pit for the “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” video. Depending on who you are, you’ll either feel really old or really young after hearing that statement. I developed my first hipster crush (before the term “hipster” was in existence…damn that’s hipster) seven years later years later when I was a sophomore in college and discovered My Bloody Valentine and the hot shoegazey mess that is Bilinda Butcher.
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart can still best be described as the alien lesbian offspring of these two. I’m not going to get into how absolutely hot that is, instead I’m going to tell you why Belong is the shit. 1988-1994 is easily the best musical period in my lifetime, and in the lifetime of most of you who are reading this. Belong takes us back there.
Its critics will say that the record is predictable. Drawing on My Bloody Valentine’s haze, James Iha’s grimy ass lead guitar, and the song structure of everything that came out of the Pacific Northwest while I was learning my multiplication tables…that’s the “safe” assumption. I guess what’s so impressive about The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart is that they make this period of musical seriousness, heroin, and pseudo-nihilism sound FUN for a change. That’s something nobody in the grunge/shoegaze/brit-rock set of the late 80s and early 90s managed to accomplish.
Something that stands out about the grunge movement is that they all sang like they hated singing. Remember the movie Empire Records? Empire Records made ‘90s music fun. Belong reminds us that every art form can be used as a means of entertainment. Throwing a bunch of cheesy indie-pop lyrics into the hooks, structure, and fuzz that defined a generation and represents the biggest musical shift since the 1950s brings out the enjoyment and the glory of being in middle school. Refer to it as contrived crap smacking of Loveless and Siamese Dream with a liberal dousing of Belle and Sebastian Lyrics all you want…but I can’t dance to “Mayonaise.” And now I no longer have to wish that I could.
“Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now”
“Anne With an E”
3. The Weeknd – Echoes Of Silence
The Weeknd released three mixtapes this year, all were free. Echoes Of Silence has been in my possession for approximately 36 hours (as of 11:37am on December 23), and honestly there’s no fucking question. I’ve listened to it four times already. And I haven’t even started writing about it…that’s going to take at least ten more listens.
Okay, that’s better. This isn’t a novelty thing…like how no matter what, when you leave the newest sexual partner’s house after an 8-hour romp you naturally struggle to remember what you saw in the last; or how The Dark Knight automatically made Batman Begins feel inferior whereas they were actually pretty much on par with one another. This isn’t that.
Over the last nine months, Abel Tesfaye has launched himself from completely unknown to one of the most recognizable music figures of 2011. The crazy thing about this guy is that he’s always existed out there, somewhere, doing stuff. Eating sandwiches, clipping his toenails, buying a jacket, you name it. A year ago NOBODY outside of a few people in Toronto knew who this guy was, but there he was…doing this singing thing that he’s so damn good at. Over the course of the last nine months, Tesfaye has taken us on a three-mixtape, 27 song, 2-and-a-half hour journey through the dark corners of everything that is horrible in the minds and bodies of all of us.
Echoes of Silence represents the final nine songs of this trip. Orgies, cocaine, prostitution, strippers, pills, hard liquor, trashed hotel rooms, walks of shame, ketamine, morning-after hair. Echoes Of Silence takes the creepy ugliness of everything that is excessive indulgence and makes it beautiful. Thousands of strippers around the world will be changing their stage names to Diana for their New Year’s resolution so they can express their daddy issues via blacklight to this album’s show-stopping cover opener “DD,” which I had to listen to twice to make sure Michael Jackson hadn’t been unfrozen from carbonite.
From this opener through numerous porn backdrops through mind-exploding drums and voice alterations up to the piano acoustic emotional closer, Echoes Of Silence takes everything that made his House Of Balloons debut an ugly, guilty autobiographic and makes it beautiful. It takes everything that made the follow-up Thursday a sexual haze of oxy and gin cocktails and makes it clear. Noah40 and Clams Casino’s production provides the perfect mix between 3am shots of Nyquil in between grams and urban red-light sex appeal, with Tesfaye’s distinctive Ginuwine-gone-wild voice still leaving you wondering if he’s glorifying or regretting, or if he’s just lost like the rest of us.
“D.D.” (Michael Jackson cover)
2. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972
When you work 50 hours on a slow week, you thoroughly enjoy your downtime. I enjoy ambient music in my downtime. After a particularly rough day, there’s not a whole lot of things in life that beat stretching out in my recliner, pouring a sweet, smooth, 7% alcohol Stone IPA, burning through a book or literary magazine (don’t fucking call me self-important…if you’ve made it this far you already know how self-important I am to begin with. I can’t help it…I freaking RULE), and listening to some random noise in the background for accompaniment.
Ambient has been my trade for the entire year. Got a work PowerPoint to bang out in 30 minutes? William Basinski. Flipping through “The Only Meaning Of the Oil Wet Water” for the 358th time? Stars Of the Lid. Falling asleep at night? Got a whole playlist for it. I added Ravedeath to said playlist without even listening to it back in early March. I put it up first as I was laying down for an upcoming early morning filled with pacing furiously around an office, doing my best impression of Vince Lombardi and Ari Gold’s man-child. I tossed and I turned. I was listening to…nothing? Something? Nothing! This is ambient music! This is drone! This is background! It was…yet it rang in my ears like the most offending heavy metal you’ve ever heard. An organ and some synths. I COULDN’T FALL ASLEEP TO THIS. I hated Ravedeath.
Aside from the fact that it’s Tim Hecker’s fault that I got three hours of sleep on a Wednesday night, I’ve grown to absolutely love this shit over the past year. Ambient music exists to exist, simply. It’s just there. Hecker makes mere existence impossible on Ravedeath. Recorded originally on an old organ in Iceland, and then brought back to the studio for endless layers of distortion and reverb, every track on here forces itself out of the background and punches you in the face where you stand, sit, or lay.
There’s no genre-bending here…everything starts out innocently enough. And before you know it, you’re consumed. The background reverses itself…the email you’re sending, the macro you’re writing, the love story you’re reading, the road that you’re driving, and most importantly the nothing you’re doing becomes the ambience with what was once the ambience now the center focus of your world.
A dark-drone producer making landmark albums for the better part of the last ten years, Tim Hecker’s goal is to signify destruction on Ravedeath. The highlight of the album is a two-track suite called “Hatred Of Music,” and the cover depicts an annual ritual at MIT known as the “Piano Drop.” Ravedeath is wordless, but says enough to fill a book. Every moment of the few seconds between when the piano leaves the building and smashing into a thousand pieces of the pavement below is captured in Ravedeath, and the beauty of complete and total destruction explodes from the entire record like so many strings and fragments of ivory and wood.
“Hatred Of Music I”
“The Piano Drop”
“In the Air I, II, & III”
“In the Fog I, II, and III”
1. The Weeknd – House Of Balloons
YOUR Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
I…don’t really know how to begin to describe this. “He’s what you want, I’m what you need.” ”Trust me girl, you want to be high for this.” ”Bring your love, baby, I can bring my shame.” Not groundbreaking lyrics by any means, it’s the delivery. Every line on this record can sum this record up.
Pretty much every R&B album that’s been released like this in the last 20 years has, at its best, been a FirstWorldProblems album. You know the drill…”Oh I’m really sad because I’m a millionaire and I spend my Monday afternoons snorting coke off of naked expensive prostitutes.”
Some are better at this than others in originality and production quality (Hello, Drake!) while others give the same cough syrup overdosed vibe but at least add some sort of romantic element to the equation (Hello, The-Dream!). I sit back in my chair, admire the vocals and specifically the hazy production and I think “Yeah, yeah, I totally feel sorry for you dude. You’re really sad because you’re rich and pull hot chicks and don’t have a job except singing and plowing strippers so you’ll have more to sing about.”
Abel Tesfaye’s vibe is different. You don’t get the impression from this first of three (all magnificent) 2011 mixtapes that he’s singing about being sad because he’s doing these things. Instead…he’s singing about doing these things because he’s sad. I suppose eventually one can reach the pinnacle of emptiness to where they can’t fill it with anything of substance, so they substitute it with cheap chemicals to make them feel temporarily better, and cheap entertainment to make them feel of value to people. That’s what The Weeknd’s about on House Of Balloons. The emptier you are inside, the higher degrees of excess it takes to fill the void that’s inside you.
This isn’t a new train of thought by any means…but when expressed by the absolutely flawless beauty of Noah40’s production and Abel Tesfaye’s desperate, creepy vocals it becomes less a piece of music and more an ironic 50 minute tragedy that surprisingly most people can relate to at one point in their lives or another.
Upon first listen, you’ll be compelled to fuck someone’s absolute brains out to this album. Go ahead and listen to the words, and how Tesfaye’s voice reproduces them. You’ll stop in your tracks. This is not a sex album. This is an album about the failure of quick-fixes like money, drugs, and attention. It’s about snowballing and not knowing a way out. Whether it’s intentional or not, and whether it’s due to the male equivalent of Daddy Issues or not, The Weeknd has hit absolute fucking paydrt.
The most impressive thing about all of this? It’s a free mixtape. A product of the Internet hype machine that is social networking. None of these records have directly made The Weeknd a dime. In a world where the musical landscape continues to get clogged with mindless cowboy country making singers millions off of pickup truck commercials and revolting brostep where juiced up guidos can make a living pressing play on a laptop, one of the few artists who truly deserves to get paid for releasing his music…doesn’t.
The Weeknd has co-signed with Drake, which will surely launch 2012 into commercial fame for him and all of the money he deserves. In most music circles though, he will forever be remembered for his 2011 masterpieces, most notably House Of Balloons, which put a liquor and lipstick-stained bow on the package that will now set the bar for R&B to come.
“High For This”
“What You Need”
It’s been a hell of a year…and all of this music has taken me through it. Hopefully you’ve found something you liked. Stay tuned.