A Superfluous Look at 2011

Excuse me, I would like to begin this post with a little antagonism: Seth, you and AV Club are so wrong. This was a great year for music, absolutely ridden with important records. The variety and divergence among best-of lists around the Internet attests not to a lack of definitive music, but to an outpouring, an overflowing, a superfluity! On top of all the thrilling original music produced, this year saw massive reissues and singles collections from Disco Inferno, Talk Talk/ Mark Hollis, Throbbing Gristle, This Mortal Coil, The Radio Dept., and Ty Segall (see FACT mag’s best reissues for many, many more). Dusted came through again with their superb retrospective series, as varied and surprising a collection of lists as could be expected of any gang of hard-core music nerds. You can even find a jazz list there, if that’s your thing. (And given how above ground underground pop music has become, maybe jazz is where it’s at for those who need that sweet rarefied snobbery. It’s pretty much the only way to guarantee that Carson Daly won’t start stammering about your favorite band in the middle of the night between infomercials for four-course push-up pops and that lap-dance workout video.) I recommend the year-end features over at FACT, Altered Zones, and Gorilla Vs. Bear.

This will be annoyingly lengthy, but I’ll now put my favorites from the year into list form. First I’ll do 20 records that I considered the best, and then I’ll present a list of some records that I love but can’t take credit for knowing about before I started poring over all the year-in-review lists like those mentioned above.

  1. Panda Bear, Tomboy – A joyously claustrophobic album in which Noah Lennox’s exquisite stacked vocal harmonies are tethered to the ground by rigid techno rhythms and heavily processed, unrecognizable sampling and instrumentation. You can hear him abandoning the infantile wonder of his earlier work for a more mature understanding of the limits inherent in reality and of those further structures of order and limitation we erect for ourselves.
  2. Wild Beasts, Smother – With every album, Wild Beasts become more and more by doing less and less, and you wonder if their fourth or fifth record will consist merely of the sound of a solitary lusty breath of air.
  3. Destroyer, Kaputt – I don’t know what it is that allows Dan Bejar to inject so much gravitas and loss into the probably off-the-cuff line, “I thumbed through the books on your shelf,” or how this album always manages to sound simultaneously exhausted by the world and alive to every sensation (like the character in Miranda July’s 2011 film The Future who resolves to notice everything, especially things said by people with their hands on doorknobs). Maybe this is “poem rock.”
  4. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake – I had no problem with Radiohead’s latest album, but if you’re looking for the better example of well-crafted melancholy British post-rock, here it undeniably is, with lyrical turns of phrase and imagery so doggedly political and viscerally unforgettable as to shut up at least a few citizen-chauvinists: “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/ The fruit is deformed children.”
  5. Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972 – In the blurb at Kranky.net, it is described as “a pagan work of physical resonance within a space once reserved for the hallowed breath of the divine.” This reminds me strongly of the Phillip Larkin poem “Church Going,” in which the speaker finds himself lingering in an old Catholic church, trying to reckon the symbolism of the place with its physical actuality and temporal nature. Hecker’s work is concerned not only with the seriousness of this setting, but also with the related theme of destruction, represented by the album art depicting a piano being pushed off a building (the act portrayed in the photo is actually an annual ritual, which helps to enforce the thematic relationship I think Hecker is elaborating). Larkin’s speaker notes a similar relationship: that the gravity surrounding the place comes not from above, but rather from the graveyard, where “so many dead lie around.” Hecker recorded the source material on a church organ before processing it on a computer, stripping the sound of its reality yet perhaps imbuing it with a different sort, the mediated hyperreality we’re all pretty much acquainted with by now. In that regard it’s similar to James Ferraro’s hyperreal Far Side Virtual – listening to which feels a lot like seeing through the special sunglasses worn by the hero of John Carpenter’s They Live, but if instead of corporate drones, the disguised aliens looked liked iPads  – except it’s much more beautiful to hear.
  6. Metronomy, The English Riviera – “The Look” is a marvel of clean lines and unconventional plotting. The low and high ends of “She Wants” pull away and snap back like a rubber band. Other highlights include the expansively funky refrain of “The Bay” and the jittery buzz of “Corinne,” but the whole album is a perfect blend of impersonal post-punk and sunned electro-funk.
  7. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost – I agree with Seth’s comment about this one. A whole lot of Album seemed second-rate set against the flawless “Hellhole Ratrace.” Here they avoid that problem by, instead of writing one excellent song, writing 11 equally excellent songs, each containing multiple excellent songs compacted into one.
  8. Fucked Up, David Comes To Life – Probably the most fun and feel-good music I heard all year. The album keeps propelling you forward into cathartic heights of emotion with its surging refrains and sure-fire guitar leads. Epic rock-and-roll led by Pink Eyes in his most dynamic and relatable performance. He basically climbed on top of me when I saw them perform this year.
  9. Ducktails, Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics – I’m not sure what to think of Real Estate’s latest, which seems a little too cleaned up and milquetoast. Maybe I’ll come around on it, but for now I’ll keep enjoying the less-talked-about side-project album, whose central song, “Killin the Vibe,” has possibly the best hook of the year, knows it, and so in what is maybe the laziest thing ever just repeats the one hook over and over, overdubbing more guitars and vocal riffing at every round and dissolving into a euphoric delirium.
  10. Twin Sister, In Heaven – This band is too young to be making music this sure handed and imaginative. Their style is kind of difficult for me to pin down, but each song seems like a little sub-genre in itself, so convincing and precise a sound-world for a pop song that I almost get bored by the panache. Listen to “Kimmi in a Rice Field” to hear Cocteau Twins stranded in Twin Peaks.
10 more excellent albums submitted without comment:
John Maus, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls
Twerps, Twerps
Arctic Monkeys, Suck It And See
Toro Y Moi, Underneath the Pine
Atlas Sound, Parallax
Craft Spells, Idle Labor
Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde
tUnE-yArDs, W H O K I L L
Blackout Beach, Fuck Death

Finally, the following records flew under my radar for most of the year. They’re undoubtedly as good and in some cases clearly better than many of the more visible records released this year.

  1. The Babies, The Babies – While many columnists at Dusted offered long lists of favorites, Talya Cooper only pointed readers straight to this bizarrely neglected debut album featuring members of the better-known bands Vivian Girls and Woods. The Babies sound so much more immediate and charismatic than either of those bands, though. For a bunch of ragged pop rock songs with predictable sidesteps into folk, garage, and punk, this album cuts through the rabble with audible ease (maybe it’s that insouciant cool that Seth was referring to in his 90s post below this).
  2. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine – This album possesses an aura that is difficult to describe, but as soon as the piano and ambient electronics begin hovering over the backdrop of cafe chatter on the first track, I know I’m listening to an album with a personality that exists apart from its makers. The whole thing, with Hopkins’s sepia-toned arrangements anchored by King Creosote’s sweet and melancholy lyrics, sounds earthy, rooted, and comforting.
  3. LV & Joshua Idehen, Routes – Slippery London dance music that feels incredibly alert and alive. Standout tracks are “Northern Line” and “Primary Colours.”
  4. Christina Vantzou, No. 1 – This is something of a hybrid ambient/ neo-classical album, written on a computer and interpreted by a seven-piece orchestra. It’s slow music that should carry you away as soon as the first track enters. I find it to be really similar to Grouper in terms of tone, timbre, and movement.
  5. The Sandwitches, Mrs. Jones’ Cookies – Exemplary San Francisco psych-pop. I think one thing that sets them apart (aside from those incredibly high-pitched vocal trills) is how much country music flits around this record.
  6. Total Control, Henge Beat – In addition to Twerps and the next entry, Kitchen’s Floor, this makes three Australian garage/ punk bands that are just doing everything right. I wish I knew more about the scene or scenes from which these bands are coming, but it’s news to me, and honestly, a little mystique always helps music to sound thrilling and precarious. Iceage is good and all … not as good as this.
  7. Kitchen’s Floor, Look Forward to Nothing – Dirty garage with chugging guitars, slurred, sullen vocals, and a casual rhythm section suggestive of the early 1990s. The apathy feels earned. “116” is one of the more immediate and visceral songs I’ve heard in a while.
  8. Thee Oh Sees, Carrion Crawler/ The Dream – Following Castlemania, this is the second release of the year from a prolific band whose enthusiasm bleeds through every krautrock-tinged pysch-rock fever dream of a song.
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