Friday, January 20, 2012
TOP ALBUMS OF 2011
Com Truise - Galactic Melt
The impenetrable genre once known as "IDM" (Intelligent Dance Music) has in recent years given way to far more accessible electronic forms such as dubstep, nu-disco and dance-punk. Whether or not ths is a step in the right direction is debatable, but it does have the benefit of bringing into the spotlight a form of music which was formerly, at best, the purview of ecstasy-fueled neo-hippies, and at worst an elitist enclave of overprotective aficionados. Into this fragmented cultural landscape steps Seth Haley, aka Com Truise, an upstart from New Jersey whose retro-inspired tunes, heavy with vintage synthesizer sounds and heavy drum machine loops, harken back to such 80s producers as Paul Hardcastle, Harold Faltermeyer and Sylvester Levay. The future never sounded so deliciously familiar.
Breakout track: "Futureworld"
Cults - Cults
In the shadow of its older brother The 80s, the 90s barely had a chance to stay relevent and cool, and to be fair, such awful mis-steps as Marilyn Manson, Green Day and the Spice Girls illustrate why. Yet the 90s were also filled with incredible sounds, from the emerging landscape of electronica, to the reworking of R&B into new jack swing, to the indie rock scene that spawned Wilco and The Flaming Lips. Carrying the torch for the latter contingent is Cults, a lovely little duo from Manhattan that fuses the dream pop sensibilities of The Cranes and Slowdive with a jaunty 60s flavored vibe that would make Tommy James and the Shondells flash a thumbs up of approval. Fun, romantic music for the prom you never went to.
Breakout track: "Walk At Night"
Cut Copy - Zonoscope
We've known Australia in many musical forms over the history of pop music, from Olivia Newton-John to Men At Work to INXS to Wolfmother. Cut Copy is like all of those examples thrown together in a cuisinart and set to puree: deliciously smooth, containing a plethora of familiar flavors, yet with a unique taste all its own. This is unapologetic pop music, to be sure, with all the affectations of that wide-spanning genre. But something new and exciting is here as well, which shines through in a hopeful wash of major chords and harmonizing vocals, akin to an old Beach Boys record or one of the less-distasteful boy bands of the Justin Timberlake era, with just a hint of Sun Ra's Egyptian sensbilities and a dash of The Cure's perennial heartache.
Breakout track: "Sun God"
Friendly Fires - Pala
I want to smack people who say there's no good music anymore. Perhaps in the majority of cases it requires a bit of dilligent searching, but how do you explain a band like Friendly Fires? With a vocalist like a shaman calling the masses to ritual and overwhelming tribal beats that pummel the dancefloor into submission, you'd have to be a damned fool to claim their sound is either hard to find or of sub-par quality. This sophmore album is anything but sophomoric; continuing the motif begun with their self-titled debut from 2008, the boys from Hertfordshire do not fail to deliver the unique mashup of alternative rock, disco funk and Cuban salsa that launched such tracks as "Kiss of Life" into the global spotlight.
Breakout track: "Show Me Lights"
Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place
Like a Dead Can Dance record played through a rotary speaker in the Grand Canyon, this debut record from Louisiana born ambient artist Julianna Barwick is seductively far-sounding, slightly unnerving, and achingly feminine. No mere New Age album, the loping repititions of heavily reverbed drone vocals and sporadic punctuating piano and rhythm quotes are like songs trapped in amber and preserved for millions of years, a ghostly reminiscence of sounds past reaching sorrowfully into the present. This is dream music in the truest sense of that descriptor, a buffet of gossamer tones like acrylics on a palette, which Barwick fluidly wields with all the grace, simplicity and charm of an episode of Bob Ross's "Joy of Painting."
Breakout track: "Envelop"
M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
It was a good year for synthpop: the mainstream success of La Roux, the return of Thomas Dolby, the proliferation of chillwave artists like Nite Jewel, Small Black and Ariel Pink. It seems a perfect time for this ambitious double-album from M83, a decade after an eponymous debut brought French producer Anthony Gonzalez to the attention of the music world. Flawlessly melding electronic music with shoegazer (and favoring the latter heavily), this album is neither an abstract soundscape of ambient noodlings like Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works Volume 2" nor a concept album with a cohesive narrative like The Smashing Pumpkins' "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness", but manages to straddle a particular and refreshing line dead center of those two artistic cliches.
Breakout track: "Wait"
Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin'
I first heard Raphael Saadiq in a Payless store in the early 2000s, which would have been a forgettable instance if not for my shoe seeking friend craning her head towards the speaker and remarking: "Is that a tuba?" Saadiq has picked up the ball dropped by post-"Voodoo" D'Angelo, taking neo-soul into strange new territory with a definite sense of humor and a sincerity hardly seen in modern R&B's overproduced, materialistic landscape. "Stone Rollin'" sounds like authentic vintage Motown, right down to the instrumentation, background singers and chord progressions; one almost expects their iTunes files to have skips and scratches from overplaying the groove -- and you will be overplaying it, jack. Raphael, you so crazy.
Breakout track: "Good Man"
Snowman - Absence
When's the last time you heard a truly weird record? In a post-modern age of music where Skrillex and Lady Gaga share radio airtime, and a member of the Goodie Mob can make the Billboard top ten with a song literally titled "Fuck You", the modifier seems irrelevant. But weirdness is a subtle beast; the harder you try for it, the faster you end up back at pathetically normal. Accidentally falling into the spookiest record of 2011 (which, as the reviews of Julianna Barwick and M83 show, is a close race), Snowman's heavily reverbed vocals, syncopated rhythmic idiosyncracies and unexpected song structures come off like a collaberation between Tool and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, composing a soundtrack for a sequel to Pan's Labyrith on the Day of the Dead. Haunting, beautiful, and downright solid.
Breakout track: "Hyena"
Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
For ten years, Canadian sound artst Tim Hecker has been crafting sweeping vistas of nonsound far removed from the usual ilk of ambient and drone artists; his pieces always have a certain unease to them, a barely-contained dystrophy of distortion constantly raging just beneath a soft, controlled surface, like a Cover Girl with a facial tic. This 2011 offering is no different from his usual form, a trio of multi-track suites accented by several unrelated singles, each conveying a compression wave of alternating anxiety and relaxation through massive amounts of overdrive, tremolo, and sound stacking. You might be tempted to use this to fall asleep to, but like similar somnabulistic aids, Hecker's work will certainly leave you with unexpected aftereffects.
Breakout track: "Analog Paralysis, 1978"
Washed Out - Within And Without
Damn it, The Postal Service, see what you did now? Here all us electronic artists were, content to sit in out bedrooms trying to be the next Autechre, and you come along with your girly vocals about breakups over argeggios and SP1200 drum machine beats, and suddenly Owl City is on the radio everywhere. It's getting so bad that even the Deep South is chiming in! Hailing from Perry, Georgia is one Ernest Greene, the one-man band known as Washed Out, poised to take over the entire realm of pop music with his quirky lo-fi chillwave tunes that are as at home in ten-dollar mixtape headphones as they are in a Russian discotheque. Of all the 80s revivalism going on right now, Washed Out is far ahead of the pack; expect to see this cat blow up faster than anyone expects.
Breakout track: "Amor Fati"
Carl Finlow, "Restless"
Straight-up club song reminiscent of classic Juan Atkins. You'd never know it's title, but you'd always recognize it when it came on.
The Chain Gang of 1974, "Hold On"
Cuts the difference between Cut Copy's loping electropop and Friendly Fires' agitated disco-funk, rather deftly and magically in fact.
Christ., "The BMX Kid"
Ex-member of Boards of Canada carries the torch for the surprisingly absent band. 1970s synths, 1990s hip hop beats, pure 2010s aesthetic.
Florence + the Machine, "Spectrum"
I was almost ready to give up on the "Ceremonials" album three-quarters through. And then this ass-kicking son-of-a-bitch came on and my face was wet with tears.
Kooley High, "Skyview"
I also want to smack people who say there's no real hip hop anymore. Like a Main Source apertif with a Pharcyde chaser.
Kreayshawn, "Gucci Gucci"
If you weren't bumping this song in your ride in the summer of 2011, you were living in a cave. Awesome just for the line "bitch you ain't no Barbie, I see you work at Arby's / number 2, super sized, hurry up I'm starving".
Neon Indian, "Era Extraña"
A close contender for Washed Out's total dominion over chillwave. Imagine a John Hughes movie soundtrack covered by Toto, then remixed by Freescha.
Scorn, "Shake Hands"
When I heard Scorn was making dubstep now, I hid under my bed in sheer panic. Not so much music as audio carpet bombing.
St. Vincent, "Chloe in the Afternoon"
The soundtrack from a cybernetic strip club. Oppressively seductive, with a growling bass groove like a panther that swallowed a belt sander.
Tom Waits, "Bad As Me"
It's almost unfair to include Tom Waits in any best-of list; he never truly releases a bad song. This raw, rabble-rousing crier is Waits at his most Waits-y, an off-kilter roadhouse jukebox 45 by a Bizarro Lou Bega.
Amplifier - Fractal
Bibio - Mind Bokeh
Ceephax Acid Crew - United Acid Emirates
Destroyer - Kaputt
Holy Ghost! - Holy Ghost!
Infinite Scale - Ekko Location
Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow
Metronomy - The English Riviera
Motion Sickness of Time Travel - Luminaries & Synastry
Nite Jewel - It Goes Through Your Head