Top 1o albums of 2o11
1 | Bon Iver by Bon Iver
Bon Iver’s self-titled second release was inevitable. It’s so good that at some point it had to happen, otherwise what was the point of all that other music? An album this singularly good had to come along one day, and here it did.
This is an album that woke up one morning and looked in the mirror and, nervously but with conviction said, “Okay, album, today is the day.” The album opens the top drawer in his bureau and reaches way in the back to grab his best pair of pants. This album takes 10 extra minutes getting dressed and runs a comb through his hair two times before he walks down to the bank.
This album is applying for a home loan.
And in this rough economic climate where even good people with good credit still get turned down for mortgages, this album got approved for one – and this album wasn’t even a human, it was an album. Collections of songs seldom apply for loans.
This album walks out of the bank and down to the street to the department store. This album buys a goddamned handsome suit, drags a comb through his hair one more time, and walks out of that store smelling like like an expensive leather chair and pine trees and all kinds of other smell-good stuff. And he walks down a few more blocks and that album meets with a real estate agent. And even though it’s just a group of musical recordings this album was sold a house. And this house was next to houses owned by neighbors such as, oh… Abbey Road, Dark SIde of the Moon, OK Computer, (), and other really, really amazing albums.
That is what this album is doing.
It’s one of the best albums ever. I don’t even have to describe anything about it because it’s so good that no matter what you’ll like it and you’re wrong if you don’t.
And Holocene? That song is good. That song is bleeding good. I kind of like Wash. a little more (which, incidentally, contains this album’ss best single moment, from 2:32 – 2:56) but Holocene is one of the best songs in 100 years of music. And Beth/Rest? Are you kidding me? How the fuck does he pull that off? He’s all like, “Yeah, I’m going to make a cheesy 80’s song.” AND THEN HE PULLS IT OFF AND IT BECOMES ONE OF THE BEST SONGS YOU’VE EVER HEARD.
But even still… with his new suit and his new house, this album is still sad.
2 | Mammal by Altar of Plagues
Yeah, I put a black metal album in the second spot. Because this album is absolutely amazing, but also because I think something special is going on in the genre of black metal. It’s something that needs to be taken a little more seriously because I think what some of these bands are doing is imperative. Here’s a review I wrote about it in which I took myself too seriously…
When Profound Lore Records introduced Mammal via Twitter, they did so saying that this was their “Marrow of the Spirit” of 2o11. Referring to Washington State’s, Agalloch’s massive and exquisitely executed 2o1o album of the same label. It’s a fair comparison: both are interesting studies into a bleak and desolate world. Mammal‘s approach, however, is crushing, swift, and with a singular instinct, like a prehistoric animal. Its 18-minute opener moves in like thick fog, and from that opaque mist emerges a hulking shadowy figure who continues to shift into various silhouettes; all of them as crushing as they are eerie.
3 | House of Balloons by The Weeknd
I don’t care if it’s a mixtape: it’s well curated and well remixed. It’s poignant, fresh, and extremely legitimate. The Weekend tells you ‘yo, I’mma fuck you right‘ and then it totally delivers on its promise. Here’s more things I had to say about this album when it first came out:
Building on Beach House, Siouxsie and the Banshees, etc., tracks by pouring glacial amounts of reverb into them and punctuating them with slow jams beats from an 8o8, The Weeknd has created dreary, dark, and despondent songs, are juxtaposed against his R&B falsetto. The songs are focused on four main things: drug abuse, strippers, doing it; and the remorse therefrom. I’m by no means endorsing these things, but the allure is he’s going where one shouldn’t go. “You bring the drugs, baby, I can bring my pain.” The inherent vocal swagger of Tesfaye is belied by what are actually sad, remorseful lyrics. ”Just say that you love me, only for tonight, even though you don’t love me.“
4 | Burst Apart by The Antlers
Following on their virulently painful debut, Hospice, The Antlers bring Burst Apart which succeeds conquering the sophomore slump. However, where Hospice’s best moments were in marrying the thematic opera with building crescendos and pinched, mournful vocals, Burst Apart’s best moments are subtle and un-inquisitive. Taking cues from The Flaming Lips and Boards of Canada, The Antlers put narrative in the back seat and focus more on steady beats and comfortably repetitive guitars that become hypnotically enchanting. This album feels like the drugged, lethargic aftermath of Hospice.
5 | Eye Contact by Gang Gang Dance
Eye Contact is an odyssey that probably can’t be as well experienced in individual tracks. While St. Dympha had transcendent moments in the fusion of odd world-music and synths, Gang Gang Dance demands more of the listener with Eye Contact. However, with decent effort come pretty decent things and Eye Contact holds up its end of the bargain. Taking them through psychedelic bazaars of sounds, offered up in every shape and stripe, they let the listeners drift in warm night air, mixing with opium, incense and exotic dirt, levitated by whimsical shrieks and bizarre twists of a synth knob. From that daze Gang Gang aptly pulls that listener in throughout the album as they bear down on solid beats and catchy, erratic hooks.
6 | Go Tell Fire to the Mountain by WU LYF
World Unite, Lucifer Youth Foundation (WU LYF for short) put the right channels to work for them. Hustling their image through sold-out shows and maintaining gauzy air of mystery as to their background, and it’s garnered them plenty of street cred. This album was recorded in an abandoned church whose volumetrics are heard through the depth of scraping shouts rubbing against room fulls of organs and shimmering, silvery guitars. Coming in somewere between early Modest Mouse and later Explosions in the Sky, World Unite recorded a legitimate album of anthems and a unique sense of energetic malaise.
7 | Emika by Emika
Czech-born and Bristol-raised, Emika waited tables when she was 17 to save up enough money to buy a Mac and a license for Logic. Like a girl on a mission to carry the torch of her Bristol heritage, where Portishead and Massive Attack gave birth to several offshoots of electronica, the least of which are dubstep, bass and IDM. Blending seamlessly between sensual whispers-in-your-ear to burlesque, bottom-of-the-diaphram moans, Emika keeps all of her work well under control- like a professional. And to that end, she’s a chanteuse with interesting observations on prostitution and stripping that compliment the dark and devious synths on top of her her swollen, undulating bass-heavy beats.
8 | The Year of Hibernation by Youth Lagoon
If the tenor of Youth Lagoon’s debut, The Year of Hibernation, is any indication, living in Idaho sounds pretty lonely – especially if you’re the socially awkward and hyper romantic frontman, Trevor Powers. With an overridingly pastoral undertone, Youth Lagoon sing somber, mousey songs that never fail to build into a soaring coda with a hooky piano line. If there is a fault, it’s that timidity is tiring. While often triumphant, the roads the songs take to get there can be as drab and depressing as the roads of rural Idaho.
9 | Take Care, Take Care, Take Care by Explosions in the Sky
2oo7’s All Of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, a concept album about the floods in Louisiana, was missing the epic moments of The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place or Those Who Tell the Truth… were entirely built around. I can understand wanting to change the formula up, but I was always surprised that EITS decided to keep it so small on All of a Sudden… Thankfully, Explosions in the Sky have figured out a way of keeping themselves new, while still providing the build-and-release they are so apt to deliver.
Spotify URI for Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
1o | David Comes to Life by Fucked Up
Earlier this year, this album was in the number one spot. That is, before I heard Bon Iver and before I listened to it for the 24th time. David Comes to Life has been touted as the most epic punk album, and rightfully so. I have never seen a punk band bite off such an ambitious concept. Staged around two star-crossed lovers in Reagan-era America, they tell the tale of David, a sad office worker who goes through the travails of love only to have to eventually kill(?) his beloved -all told in four acts. From “The Other Shoe,” which defined much of my summer with its catchy, back-of-the-throat chorus- to the very aggressive “I Was There,” Fucked Up made magic out of only most of the 18-tracks and 8o minutes. However, and this is totally silly, but the very last track, “Lights Go Up,” is a handicap to the entire album. It’s so sappy in its summarization of everything-that-just-happened that it stains the rest of the album upon further listen. Still a totally brilliant album though.
My album, Fugue, reviewed by Matt Elliot. See Matt’s blog here.
After underground electronic artist Bear Like Mouse completed work on his debut album This Minus Okay, a sprawling, enticing and unique array of trip hop, acoustic guitar and dark metal, he immediately began working on material for the follow up, which would take his sound in an entirely new direction. While his debut was packed with highlights and took the listener on quite the emotional journey over its 70-minute length, there was always an underlying feeling that the artist himself was never quite perfectly content with the end product; in fact, the atmosphere created by those feelings of hopelessness and frustration may have actually added to the consistency of an album that could have otherwise felt overlong and scattered. Even as the debut was actually compiled of songs written over years of creative ups and downs, it was loaded with diverse new ideas, innovative methods to create sounds and memorable melodies, but lacked an overall sense of direction and flow.
Bear Like Mouse set out to refine his sound on Fugue, and he succeeds with flying colors. Whereas vocals and impressive layers of sound at times seemed forced and excessive on the first go round, his sophomore effort shows remarkable restraint and polish, resulting in an almost symphonic effect. He takes the best elements of his previous work and combines and expands on them here over nine tracks, content to let the complex electronic orchestration do the most of talking.
Fugue is the type of album that can accompany you on a long, peaceful car ride, can wake you up gently in the morning, or help your mind drift far off into the background. It can also make you think. This isn’t exactly “mood” music per se, it is too precise and delicate to be labeled as such, but it does boast an aura of calmness and confidence as it evolves. The completely instrumental opener “Nuclear” is gorgeous and patient, and when it builds into a gentle coda around the three minute mark, it doesn’t so much explode as it pulls the listener back in, comforting them almost as a promise of things to come.
There really isn’t a weak moment anywhere here nor does the album waver with its overall style, and the only time the mood seems to shift suddenly, it does so with dramatic and meaningful effect. Centerpiece “Dirge/M” is nine minutes of completely repetitive acoustic guitar and electronic piano instrumentation that builds so subtlely with its nuanced undertones- there’s elements of an electronic horn, a fluttering guitar noise, and a soaring, whispy bit of lifted distortion that beckons Godspeed You Black Emperor- that express the aftermath of a relationship that has died.
But the tone takes a sudden turn with the equally devastating but musically opposite “Saigon and On and On”, a spectacularly loud scream fest that hits the listener like a shot to the heart and ponders the meaning of life in not the fondest light. Synthesized drums and brooding electronic horn sounds combine as we hear high pitched lyrics such as “We are slaves/ We suffer the same”, “We suffer the sun/ To wait for a point” and the honest, most desperate line of all, “There’s got to be more.” Despite its authority and anger, pound for pound, this may be the saddest track in the entire Bear Like Mouse catalog, and that’s saying something for an artist that doesn’t exactly have a penchant for creating songs filled with sappy optimism.
Perhaps the album’s best stretch comes early on. The slowly building melancholy of “Of Bird and Bullet”, perhaps the most approachable and straightforward track here from a song structure standpoint, seems harmless enough until it explodes with screaming but spot on vocals through its massive crescendo and elevates itself to standout status. The tension is taken down a notch after that with “Capital B”, perhaps the most relaxing, beautiful song in the entire Bear Like Mouse catalog. This is the type of song that makes you want to sail into the sunset and just keep going, and it showcases an unusual time signature complete with electronic horns and an airy, atmospheric falsetto vocal through the chorus that is in perfect contrast with the nonchalant, almost spoken word vocal style of the verses.
There’s plenty of innovation here as well, including the impressive electronic synth loop towards the end of the steady “River”, and an electronic violin above a trip hop beat on the beautifully textured “Oslo Also”, the first genuinely optimistic Bear Like Mouse love song. Again, the vocals on both tracks are very subtle and almost unnoticeable, but provide melodic structure rather than interference with the music itself.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Fugue, and of Bear Like Mouse’s music in general, is the mystery behind the origin of some of these musical sounds. Penultimate track “Cleary and Crux” serves as the calm before the storm, with an addictive rolling percussion track, a repetitive clanking sound created from wires, cowbells and a drum stick above lifted vocals that seem just out of reach, kind of like how a song sounds in your brain right after you wake up from a musical dream. And it is all just a set up for the closer and highlight track, the 16 minute epic “Rue St. Anne.”
Beginning with an industrial grind and heavy percussion, this evolves into a call-to-arms masterpiece, with electric guitar swirling beneath massive, epileptic drum track change ups. This is the sort of song I imagine playing in my head before going into the deciding battle of a war, or before making a life or death decision, or some kind of a monumental, life-changing and ultimately serious event. In its final half, the considerable intensity surrenders into distorted shoegaze and eerie choral and violin notes that leave some uncertainty as to the outcome of the battle. And more relevently and poignantly, what exactly was the battle for in the first place? Perhaps only Bear Like Mouse himself knows for sure, but I’ll happily keep listening to figure it out for myself, even if I never do.