Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 Albums of the Year: 10-1

And finally, we reach the end of the year and my 2011 Albums of the Year, numbers 10-1:

10. Belong - Common Era

I am a shoegaze addict. I admit it, and I am not ashamed of it. Generally, if I read a review and it even mentions the term, I will likely buy it. Doesn't mean I will necessarily like it; I have lost count of how many bands have been poor imitators of my heroes My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Lush, Slowdive, and Swervedriver. But the call of the genre always at least peaks my interest. I was astonished to hear that New Orleans drone duo Belong had released their follow up to October Language (a classic of ambient glitch drone) and it was a shoegaze record. Belong has been very restless with their sound; moving from ambient drones to more song based structures. Common Era wears its influences on its sleeve, but I think there is enough originality in it, especially with the more drone-like atmospheres. Besides, I just can't stop listening to it. It just beautifully encapsulates a mood for me.

9. Clams Casino - Instrumental Mixtape

New Jersey producer Clams Casino is best known for his work in the "based music" genre, usually associated with Lil' B, mixing laid back free-assocation lyrics with stoner beats, stretched out samples, and dense production work. The blueprint for this style is Lil' B's single "I'm Am God," featuring his drawled delivery over a manipulated sample of Imogen Heap's "Just For Now." Clams Casino has released a mixtape of instrumentals he has put together for artists like Lil' B, Soulja Boy, and Squadda B sans vocals; putting his music out front without the rapping is an interesting concept, one that works surprisingly well. On their own, the intricacies of his productions are more apparent, standing tall alongside releases from electronic masters like Burial, Flying Lotus, and Mount Kimbie. As with "I Am God," Clams Casino is still working with samples, folding and manipulating them into something unique and different. Whether it is taking Bjork's "Bachelorette," on "Illest Alive," cutting and elongating it, pushing it through a killer hip hop drum loop, Janelle Monae's "Cold War," taking the drama and tension of the original and looping it into a paranoid fantasy; or "Realist Alive," drawing out a sample from Adele's "Hometown Glory," turning his own piece into something gorgeous and haunting

8. Burial - Street Halo EP

It's been almost four years since the release of Burial's landmark album Untrue. Might as well be 4 decades in the electronic music world considering how fast trends and genres change and mutate. While there will likely always be imitators of his distinct sound, Burial will never be duplicated. In a flurry of activity over the past few months, Burial has released several new projects. Whether producing and advising material on Jamie Woon's debut cd Mirrorwriting, or collaborating with Thom Yorke and Four Tet on a single, he has whet people's appetite for the follow up to Untrue. If anything, these three tracks reveal that Burial is still working with the same minimal palate, but is pushing outside the framework. The songs are distinctly Burial tracks, however, there are subtle differences in approach. Still notable is how, even on three tracks, he can so easily evoke moods of isolation and darkness.

7. Active Child - You Are All I See

Active Child (Pat Grossi's one man project) follows up the Curtis Lane EP with his full length debut, You Are All I See, which streamlines the angelic dream pop of the former into a gorgeous collection of tracks that hover on the edge of precious, but always retain an edge of distant melancholy that keeps the project from becoming cloying. Grossi, harpist and former choir boy, doesn't really fall neatly into a genre at all, the songs here draw equally from chillwave, shoegaze, dream pop, fractured R&B, and gauzy electronica, all of which are bound to each other by Grossi's gorgeous falsetto (sounding like a distant cousin to Antony Hegarty) and trills of heavenly harp.

6. Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972

The album cover is a striking image of the first piano drop at MIT. There is an amazing tension at play with the piano perilously perched on the edge of the building just before it plummets to the ground, shattering into a million pieces. Ambient-drone artist Tim Hecker found this photo while researching images of the tremendous amounts of digital garbage in the world: piles and piles of used up CDs, floppy disks, and other effluvia. Hecker claims "there's some connection between the computerized engineering that led to the codification of MP3s and music's denigration as an object and thus a viable means of economic survival." Thus, Ravedeath, 1972 is Hecker's comment on how music (specifically electronic music) in the digital age is becoming more homogenized, sanitized, and sterile. Hecker attempts to bring back a solemnity and purity to music, recording the album in one day in a church in Rekjavik, Iceland, using an old pipe organ as the basis for the 12 tracks. All of the pieces are dense, sculptural, and breathtakingly beautiful. The album is divided into shorter, singular tracks that are almost a battle between organic, analog elements and harsh digital effects, evoking the tension of the album cover photo; and longer suites of music that are simple and haunting.

5. Rustie - Glass Swords

Glasgow based producer Rustie's debut album Glass Swords doesn't care if you think it is the most cerebral album of the year. The motive is not the brain but the feet, and it succeeds wildly in creating its own universe of euphoric party music. Whether you want to call it rave, grime, two-step, garage, wonky, dubstep, aqua-crunk, etc., it doesn't really matter, as Rustie barely takes a breath through 13 tracks, whiplashing through every genre possible. What strikes one the most with this album is simply the exuberance of the music, the sheer joy that emanates from every pore. Every track is packed to the gills with ideas and sounds, and each time it threatens to get too cluttered, Rustie seems to instinctively know when to pull back. There is not a dull moment or weak track on this album, and is perhaps the most exciting electronic album of the year.

4. Phantogram - Nightlife EP

After touring relentlessly for the past two years in support of their debut album Eyelid Movies, New York duo Phantogram (Sarah Bartel on vocals/keyboards and Josh Carter on vocals/guitars) have returned with the 6 track EP Nightlife. There is no drastic change to their trip-hop inspired electro-pop, which they have deemed "street beat, psych pop." Street beat is sort of an apropos name to describe their sound, as it easily could be a soundtrack to late night taxi rides in Manhattan; gritty, over-saturated, world-weary. While the sound has not changed much, what has changed is the focus and breadth of the tracks. No longer does it just feel like the work of two people. There are so many details lurking within these tracks, that are revealed slowly over multiple listens.

3. Gauntlet Hair - Gauntlet Hair

Denver, Colorado art-punks Andy R. and Craig Nice are all about fractured noise. Their debut album takes heavily reverbed everything (vocals, guitars, drums, keyboards), and throws it all together, watching the various elements smash into each other, creating odd textures and sensations. Someone asked me to succinctly describe their sound and it was practically impossible. You hear snippets of Vini Reilly's pointillist guitar technique, Animal Collective's lurching, sonic experimentation, Sleigh Bell's cavernous beats, and all of the shoegaze bag of tricks. There are not a lot of stylistic changes over the course of the record; indeed, the nine tracks are all basically variations on a theme, which can be the album's curse and saving grace. Strangely, you can basically enter the album at any point and get the same impression from it. You will either fall in love with its spell, or be put off by the somewhat murky recording techniques. I have been entranced with this record from the moment I heard it. It is a record to get lost in.

2. The Weeknd - House of Balloons

At the beginning of 2011, mysterious Toronto R&B collective The Weeknd, the project of 20-year-old singer/ songwriter Abel Tesfaye, teased us with several singles, then releasing a free mixtape, House of Balloons, that can be downloaded here. The 9 songs are generally long, slow jams; creating a sustained mood of desperation, emptiness, and doubt. The music is lush and haunting, perfectly coinciding with the hedonistic tales set forth. House of Balloons is all about mood. Frequently oppressive, steeped in loneliness, the narrators in the songs searching for pleasure to compensate for the emptiness that is never filled. It is a difficult album to listen to straight through, as there is little joy or light in this dark world. This singular approach, however, works, and the production and song writing quality is so strong, it cannot be dismissed.

1. Wild Beasts - Smother

Over the course of now three records, Wild Beasts have spent their time dwelling on the romantic/philosophical/debaucherous nature of sex, particularly the debaucherous side. Their debut Limbo, Panto, dealt with themes of sexual depravity and vulnerability, lead singer Hayden Thorpe's ear-shattering falsetto playing with expectations of gender. It was a striking debut, one of the few records in 2008 that sounded like nothing else out there. Aside from a couple of more pop-oriented numbers, most of the album felt like a cabaret act on crack. It was an exhilarating listen, but also exhausting. Two Dancers, the follow up, was still sex obsessed, but charted new waters, being more subtle in their approach. The album was a major leap forward as the band reigned in their all for broke style and focused on their strengths. The most notable change was Thorpe's voice. While still one of the most distinct voices out there, he showed more control over his wild flights of fancy, even giving over several songs to bassist Tom Fleming's deep bass/baritone, which couldn't have been more different, providing a nice counterpoint to Thorpe's more distinct style. Based on the Mercury Prize nomination and widespread critical acclaim for Two Dancers, all eyes, and ears were on what Wild Beasts would come up with next. Smother finds the band in complete control, slightly altering their sound, creating a set of songs that work as a whole, yet stand alone perfectly. The album shares more with Two Dancers than Limbo, Panto, and while some fans will likely bristle at the band's neglect of its more fanciful sojourns, Smother shows a mature sound (read more complex and agile, and not boring or fuddy-duddy), placing them, in my mind, in line with Spirit of Eden era Talk Talk, forging a new path ahead for themselves. Smother is gorgeous and sensual album that unfolds like a lovers' assignation, furtive and stumbling at first, building to almost unbearable levels of passion, then over much too quickly, sending you out into the dark night, forever damaged and scarred.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Albums of the Year: 20-11

Getting closer to the number one album in my list of 2011 Albums of the Year. Here are numbers 20-11:

20. WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain

In this Internet age where you can find out basically everything about anything or anyone, it is a bit refreshing when something maintains a bit of mystery. WU LYF (or World Unite/Lucifer Youth Foundation) is a gang of Mancunians who don't have a Facebook/MySpace/Bandcamp/Twitter/Tumblr page, and not much is known about them other than their live shows are practically legendary (selling out before the band had even properly released any music), they famously ignored phone calls from famous producers to work with them, and have refused to work with major labels, choosing instead to record the album in an abandoned church and self-releasing the record on their own. Whether all of this behavior is truly meant to be a way of life, or just a PR stunt, remains to be seen, but, as I am fond of saying, at the end, all that matters is the music. Go Tell Fire To The Mountain doesn't reinvent the wheel per se, as some UK critics have pontificated, but is a stirring collection of songs drawing from many disparate sources (early U2, Sigur Ros, post-punk, post-rock, etc.), but bound together by a rich solemnity and vocalist Ellery Roberts' bizarre warble, which will either intoxicate you or make you run for the hills.

19. Iceage - New Brigade

Danish punk/post-punkers Iceage draw from Wire's precise minimalism and Joy Division's icy, cathartic despair. In a spare 25 minutes, New Brigade's 12 songs never overstay their welcome, quickly getting to the point, never containing a superfluous note. While they are really not bringing anything new to the table in terms of sound, what makes this band special is the energy they bring. It brings to mind The Strokes' Is This It? in terms of pure swagger and attitude. The band's live shows are apparently extremely aggressive affairs, the audience members referred to as "victims" and photos of the aftermath of gigs are usually posted to the band's website.

18. Chad VanGaalen - Diaper Island

In addition to his solo output, Chad VanGaalen is probably best known as the producer for Women's last two albums. He records out of his home studio and infuses a homespun, earthy quality to his records, yet always throws in some curve balls, like weird synth freakouts, and use of quirky instrumentation. Diaper Island, his fourth full length, and his most fully formed, is such a shockingly well-produced record, it provokes audio equivalents of a double-take. While there is still a homey quality to the production values, the record as a whole is musch more clear and concise. VanGaalen records primarily in a low-fi, late 80s early 90s alt-rock manner, evoking artists as diverse as Pavement, Miracle Legion, Grizzly Bear, and early post-punk Cure. The album veers back and forth from gorgeous, almost country-folk ballads, and raucous guitar raveups; linked by his wry lyrics.

17. Craft Spells - Idle Labors

Craft Spells' debut album Idle Labor travels in the same territory as 80s revivalists/chillwave acts such as Twin Shadow, Memory Tapes, and Toro Y Moi. The songs all feature delightfully tinny drum machines, echoing/chiming guitars, and soaring synths, borrowing from forbearers such as New Order, The Smiths, and Echo and the Bunnymen. I don't think it is just coincidence that the album cover blatantly recalls Power, Corruption, and Lies. When they hit their heights, as on lead song "For The Ages," with its gorgeous interlocking guitars and synths, and on "Scandinavian Crush," and its sing-song melody, you get the sense that the sky is the limit for this band. This album will take awhile to grow on you, but once it does, it is impossible to get out of your head.

16. When Saints Go Machine - Konkylie

Every once in awhile, a band or artist comes around with that spark of trying something different and challenging, but working in the realm of pop music. Danish quartet When Saints Go Machine, led by otherworldly vocalist Nicholas Vonsild, don't necessarily sound like Depeche Mode, other than the fact both primarily use synthesizers, however, they share the same restless creativity Depeche Mode enjoyed during their mid-80s tenure. It is actually quite difficult to describe the band's sound. Imagine a cross between the heavily treated electro-pop of The Knife and Fever Ray, the fluttering, archly fey vocals of Antony Hegarty, and the house music stylings of Hercules and Love Affair, and you might get slightly close to their sound. Instead of spending time trying to spot the influence, it is better to just allow the waves of quirky synth-pop wash over you. Word of caution, however, you will either love Vonsild's voice or will hate it.

15. Hooray For Earth - True Loves

Sounding like a lot of bands, but commanding their own distinct sound, Hooray For Earth is rooted in the dense, lush synth-pop of the 80s, brought into a 2010s context. Each track on their debut True Loves is built on layer upon layer of gorgeous, warm synthesizers, almost tailor made to hit the cheap seats of a stadium, but intricate and emotional enough to entrance the most jaded bedsitter. Perfectly paced, with melodies like earworms, True Loves is chock full of endlessly catchy singles that get more infectious with each listen. Their self-titled debut album and subsequent EP Momo only hinted at what this band was capable of, and subsequent tours with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and work with Twin Shadow over the past year really honed their craft, creating a truly wonderful album.

14. Young Galaxy - Shapeshifting

Canadian synth-pop duo Young Galaxy (Stephen Ramsay and Catherine McCandless) were unknown to me before the release of Shapeshifting. Having released two albums on the Arts & Crafts imprint, I was assuming they would have a similar sound to that label's two most popular acts: Broken Social Scene and The Dears. Surfing through some clips on Youtube all I found were some pleasant, yet rather dull, dream pop-like songs, that didn't give me much hope for liking the new record. Apparently, switching labels and enlisting the help of enigmatic Swedish producer Dan Lissvik of Studio has completely sparked new life into the band. The band provided Lissvik with the finished tapes of the record and he, via Skype, helped polish and mold the tracks. Throughout the album you can hear the bones of the record and how Lissvik added his warm synthesizers, thick guitars, and hazy Tropicalia to the mix. The pairing of the two together is pure genius, and they have collaborated on one of the best adult-dance pop albums of the year.

13. Arrange - Plantation

The experience of listening to Plantation, the self-released debut album from Florida teenager Malcom Lacey, is akin to rummaging around a stuffed attic, coming across old photo albums, journals, and keepsakes, being washed over by the floods of memory: the triumphs and failures, the joy and sadness, the important and the mundane. It is also an album steeped in loneliness and sadness, Lacey's voice almost a monotone, afraid to let the emotion crack the surface, less the anger break free and overtake him. The restraint fits well with these gorgeously evocative ten tracks. Despite his youth, Lacey has an amazing ear for arrangement (no pun intended) and builds these songs in layers, never adding too much or making things too bare. Plantation is truly an album that must be experienced in one sitting, as the themes and melodies flow throughout the record and with each listen, you pick up more and more, it all fitting together like pieces of a puzzle.

12. Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

Swedish indie pop princess Lykke Li's first album Youth Novels was a favorite of mine from 2008. Produced by Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John, the album highlighted Li's odd voice, setting it up against non-traditional instrumentation and song structures, yet sometimes the songs seemed to veer too close to twee territory. With Wounded Rhymes, Li, once again working with Björn, doesn't exactly reinvent herself as much as she beefs up. Her voice is stronger and meatier (though it can still be an acquired taste), and the songs, drawing from 60s girl groups, garage rock, and the wall of sound perfected by Phil Spector, are cavernous and heavy, every note dripping with decay and dirt. Drums are deep and pounding, guitars rich with reverb, and her voice settles so well into the mix, sometimes triple and quadruple tracked. The songwriting on Wounded Rhymes is more complex and varied than its predecessor. Li shows that she still can project fragility while also showing strength within herself.

11. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Diminutive, angelic looking singer Annie Clark, performing under the name St. Vincent, has released two albums of slightly subversive pop songs, Marry Me and Actor, which traffic in deceptively calm surfaces, with a dark undercurrent that is always surprising and thrilling. With the release of her third album Strange Mercy, Clark completely comes into her own. While her previous albums are quite wonderful, Marry Me could feel a little cloying at times, and Actor was almost too stuffed to the gills with embellishments that cluttered rather than enhanced the tracks. With Strange Mercy, Clark laser focuses the songs, highlighting her superb, innovative guitar playing, allowing only a few embellishments throughout, which actually add to the texture and or tone of the song to give it an extra kick. Clark still sticks to her trademark song writing style, singing tales of squeaky clean perfection always hiding dirt and grime in the background despite the characters' desperate attempts to keep up appearances.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 Albums of the Year: 30-21

Halfway to the end. Here is my continuing list of favorite albums of 2011, with numbers 30-21:

30. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is not necessarily a return to form for Mogwai; as they have never put out a bad album. But it is their most direct work since Young Team, and feels like it all works together as a whole, but with each song standing on its own as well. I know an album will be in my top list when I can't stop playing it over and over on my iPod. Hardcore has rarely not been played by me over the course of the year.

29. The Horrors - Skying

No one, least of all me, could have envisioned the tremendous leap in sound for The Horrors on their second album Primary Colours. Ditching the goth affectations completely, they showed a stunning mastery of post-punk, krautrock, and shoegaze, blending these and other genres into a call to arms, hereby announcing the reinvention into one of the most exciting bands of the last few years. Again, such an amazing transformation begs the question again as to where to go from here. Skying finds the band honing their sound rather than making a bold leap. That intense slap in the face you got from first listening to Primary Colours is absent here, and first listens can be puzzling, as there is really nothing new here from the band, however, over time, the strong melodies and increased confidence/maturity in their playing wins over. Produced by the band, Skying plays like a band wanting to expand and add depth to its sound. Keyboards are more prominent and bolder, drums boom and echo, and singer Faris Badwan all but abandons the tics and mannerisms used previously. First single "Still Life" is the perfect example of their new approach. Keyboards sparkle and glisten like outtakes from New Gold Dream era Simple Minds, with Badwan's vocals, understated and rich, blasting to new levels on the triumphant chorus.

28. Future Islands - On The Water

Over the course of now three albums, Baltimore via North Carolina synth-pop outfit Future Islands has gradually moved from synth spazz outs on Wave Like Air, to more modulated dance workouts on In Evening Air, and now progress even further with On The Water, taking their synth based template and toning things down, without taking away from what makes them so special. And most of that is due to Samuel T. Herring's vocals and lyrics. Let it be said, that the main entry point to Future Islands is Herring's voice. You will either be completely on board with it, or will want to turn it off immediately. It is grandiose, over-the-top, and steeped in drama; each word positively dripping with meaning and portent. But it is just so fascinating and gripping you can't ignore it, and it is what makes this such a great band to listen to. With On The Water, Herring has scaled things back a little bit, not from wanting to fit within what people want him to sound like, but more because the music and lyrics call for more restraint. This is serious album about disintegrating relationships, and love gone afoul, and the somber tone of the lyrics finds its way into the music, with less dancefloor oriented sounds and more moodier pieces.

27. Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica

What I like about electronic artist Daniel Lopatin is that he is so restless, he has several different names he creates under, so that he has a persona for each style of music he is into. Whether it is 80s pop that he performs first under Games and then as Ford & Lopatin, or synth drone music under his main name, Oneohtrix Point Never. And none of his side projects are merely throwaways, each is performed expertly and with the same amount of enthusiasm. His work as Oneohtrix Point Never is by far the more challenging and experimental side of his personality. Replica is his fifth album under the name, and like his previous album Returnal, is slowly making the sounds more accessible. Moving away from pure drone soundscapes, touches of melody and sheer overwhelming beauty wash over these tracks. There is still that edge to them though, like they could break and fall apart at any moment. This tension is what makes this record so endlessly fascinating. Where on Returnal, Lopatin sometimes used harsh textures to pull you out of the reverie, they often came at the wrong points, which tended to break the tension and harmed the flow of the record. Here, these textures are incorporated within the tracks and the constant buzzing and white noise aspects maintains a better pace. Replica has a lovely, analogue warmness that permeates the entire experience, as if a long lost Boards of Canada/AIR drone album had surfaced. But don't be put off by the word "drone," as this album transcends that genre more often than not. Using more samples and found sounds, Replica has a lived-in, antique feel that sounds like something you have heard in the corners of your mind your entire life, or recalling memories of film soundtracks from childhood you just can't place.

26. Sepalcure - Sepalcure

Praveen Sharma and Travis Stewart have found success with their solo work, as Braille and Machinedrum respectively, but seem to hit the mark perfectly with their work as Sepalcure. Mixing lots of different bass styles into one seamless whole, Sepalcure touches on 2-step, grime, juke, house, R&B and lends them all a surprising warmth. Using similar tricks from Burial, blocky beats, atmospheric synths, and manipulated vocal snippets, Sepalcure make sort of a counterpart to landmarks like Untrue, using the samples more for emotionally cathartic release, rather than emotional introspection. Not to say this album is a "happy" record, it is sufficient moody in parts, but it does, through use of analogue equipment, provide more warmth and feeling.

25. Cold Cave - Cherish The Light Years

Cold Cave have evolved their neo-gothic sound with each new release. Their first album Cremations (essentially a compilation of early singles) was almost oppressive in its dourness; bleak and humorless, every song mired in claustrophobic, icy keyboards and tinny drum machines. Leaps ahead in production value and sonic diversity, follow up album Love Comes Close almost sounds like a different band. For this album, there have been more changes and a fuller embrace of the hooks that made Love Comes Close such a success. Indeed, Cold Cave sounds larger, almost stadium ready, putting together a set of songs that play well to the cheap seats. Monolithic tracks like "The Great Pan Is Dead" and "Underworld U.S.A." give the album meat while tracks like the New Order-esque "Pacing Around The Church" and sparkling "Confetti" are the dessert. Where this approach seemed to hobble the recent release from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Cold Cave's use of a glossier sheen and denser production only highlights what a strong band they have become.

24. Cut Copy - Zonoscope

Cut Copy's second album In Ghost Colours, was a blast of nostalgia mixed with a modern sheen; a rush of sparkling New Order-esque synths and 80s guitars with so many sugary hooks, you got a toothache listening to them. Their latest release Zonoscope is thankfully not a verbatim repeat of In Ghost Colours, instead, it takes what was great about that album and filters it through a more mature, updated lens. While In Ghost Colours was filled with short, super poppy songs, Zonoscope allows more room to breathe. Most of the songs are north of 5 minutes in length, and experiment with more foreign textures and percussion, sounding almost like a cross between New Order, Talking Heads, and early Thompson Twins. From the brilliant build of "Need You Now," slinky rhythms of "Blink And You'll Miss A Revolution," through to the 15 minute trance closer "Sun God," Cut Copy show their mastery of their craft.

23. Nero - Welcome Reality

Nero, the duo of Daniel Stephens and Joe Ray, are one of the few dubstep acts out there right now that have attempted an actual full length record. Welcome Reality suffers from a bit of bloat, but the singles make it basically a must-have for any dubstep fan. "Innocence," "Promises," "Guilt," "My Eyes," "Me and You," and a cover of the 80s guilty pleasure "Crush On You," are too brilliant to pass up.

22. Real Estate - Days

Real Estate's debut album in 2009 was a charming mix of low-fi, sparkling pop, which sounded like it was recorded under a freeway overpass. The lack of sonic clarity wasn't enough to derail the lovely songwriting, sweet melodies, and general air of low-key charm. The success of the album and subsequent tours brought them much needed attention which was enough to make Domino Records pony up more cash for them to record the follow up properly. Days, while lacking the ramshackle nature that Real Estate provided, is another fantastic record from this band; the increase in sonics and warmth makes a monstrous difference, allowing every note to ring clearly. Their sound has not changed much on the two years since, but has become more focused. There is hardly a misstep on this record; each song sounding like you have been listening to it for years. The familiar touchstones of early R.E.M., the Byrds, the Smiths, and Felt haunt this record, illuminating their sound rather that being a direct copy. Days is a great record for a long drive through the country, with the sweep and intimate scope of the songs providing the perfect accompaniment to a journey. There is slight, melancholic feel to the record, like the narrators are all on a journey through their pasts, ruminating over their successes and failures. It makes what could have been merely a pleasant record and elevates it to something classic and touching.

21. Drake - Take Care

Canadian rapper/singer Drake has said that he was upset with how his debut Thank Me Later came out, wishing it were more polished and deliberated over. Based on the high quality of that album, Drake must be an unforgiving perfectionist. His tracks are thoughtful, unlike most high-profile rappers, relentlessly pursuing new, fresh sounds, willing to skirt the fence between pop music and more experimental textures. And his verses and rhymes, while boastful at times, are also surprisingly self-depreciating and sincere. Take Care, the follow up, continues that trend, finding Drake still dealing with becoming successful, rich, and famous, enjoying the trappings of success, but wanting more. Drake is still utilizing producer Noah "40" Shebib, but finds room to use friends The Weeknd and Jamie xx for other tracks. While there are plenty of pounding, dancefloor beats on Take Care, the majority of the album is muted and minimal, focusing on mood and nuance.

2011 Albums of the Year: 40-31

Continuing my countdown of my favorite albums of 2011, here are numbers 40-31:

40. Balam Acab - Wander/Wonder

Balam Acab's debut full length Wander/Wonder retains most of the witch house template exemplified by his EP See Birds (glacial BPMs, icy keyboards and textures, and a reliance on pitch-shifted vocal samples), however, Balam Acab is not as interested in creating a sense of dread as are most of his contemporaries. Instead, we see a studied variation of almost classical tones with Eno-esque ambient leanings. Most of the tracks are also steeped in a liquidy atmosphere, from the album cover art of an ocean fissure to the overall sound quality of the album, sounding like it were recorded deep in a diving bell. Wander/Wonder is an assured debut, and sets the bar high for his future releases.

39. Sully - Carrier

A dark trip through the underbelly of the UK garage scene, Sully's debut cd Carrier hits the highs right of the bat with such driving tracks like "It's Your Love," "2 Hearts," and the brilliant single "In Some Pattern." But just when you think you have the album figured out, it takes a sharp left turn into moodier territory. The back half featuring stark wanderings into grime territory, the synths getting harsher and bolder. Tracks like "Scram" and "I Know" seemingly made from despair. It is a strange album that never fails to get under your skin.

38. Tycho - Dive

Scott Hanson, aka Tycho, is an electronic producer whose obvious touchstones are Boards of Canada, Ulrich Schnauss, and shoegaze artists like Slowdive. His third album Dive is a downtempo gem, full of lush synths, clean beats, and hauntingly atmospheric guitars. Dive is akin to recent releases from M83, Active Child, Neon Indian, and Washed Out, taking the influences of Chillwave and morphing them into some fresh and new. While there is not a lot of dense complexity in these tracks, Hanson keeps the mix perfectly aligned, never stuffing the tracks with extraneous elements, nor making them too minimal. Each track is about the glistening synths and driving rhythm, with no room for dubstep aggression, or IDM moodiness. Dive is the aural equivalent to a blanket on a cool fall evening.

37. Explosions In The Sky - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

It is virtual impossible to mention Austin, Texas quartet Explosions In The Sky without mentioning Mogwai. Both bands are in complete control of their quiet-loud-slow-fast dynamics, which make them both live show powerhouses. Since Young Team, however, Mogwai has broadened and expanded their sound, making it more pop accessible; shortening song lengths, adding some vocals, and sticking to more formal song structures. Explosions In The Sky have basically stuck with their same template over the years, honing and focusing their sound rather that trying to expand it. Unlike their second album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, later releases have been less balls to the wall. On that classic album, the songs veered from outright gorgeous to almost painful to listen to in their intensity. Here, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, is almost hushed, each track slowly building to a catharsis, heightening the emotion and tension through carefully timed ebbs and flows and false endings. It is a collection of tracks whose sheer beauty is nothing short of transcendant.

36. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Let England Shake, is a major departure for PJ Harvey, at least lyrically. Instead of her biting and pointed observations of relationships and life of the interior mind, Let England Shake is a song cycle (or concept album, if you prefer) about how war, in the past, present and future, affects England and its people. It is a particularly difficult record to wrap one's heart and mind around, but once you let it in, it is a powerful listen. The lyrics are some of the most brutal and direct Harvey has ever written, frequently focusing on horrible images of war: "soldiers fall like lumps of meat," "flesh quivering in the heat," corpses lying in no-man's land are "unburied ghosts." While this description makes the record sound like a dour polemic, Harvey knows better than to make everything one note. She definitely brings some of her most interesting music to back up her ideas and lyrics; using non-standard instrumentation, off-kilter vocals, and odd time signatures.

35. Duran Duran - All You Need Is Now

After a rather misguided collaboration with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake on Red Carpet Massacre, Duran Duran has teamed up with producer Mark Ronson, who seems to have been a stern taskmaster with the band, forcing them to play to their strengths, the result being their best album since Rio. I was worried at first based on the advanced buzz of the album that the band was going to try and ape their previous sound, but instead of making a carbon copy, they have referenced Rio, but have created something fresh and new, and some of the best pop music of the year.

34. Radiohead - The King of Limbs

This is by far Radiohead's most divisive record. It is short (8 songs under 37 minutes), doesn't have a cohesive sound throughout, is their least "adventurous" album, and doesn't appear to have an overarching theme like most of their releases. Also, what really stands out, or in this case doesn't stand out, is that the album is not very immediate. I began listening to it in my car, and it just faded into the background most of the time. After hearing it a couple of times, I was completely unimpressed. It wasn't until I heard it on headphones that it began to grow on me. The album is a whisper, subtly insinuating itself into your body and soul. After the many listens I have given, has my opinion moved from being unimpressed to something more? Yes and no. I appreciate the album much more, but it is still a transitional record for me. Rumor is this album is the first part of two, which would make some sense, given its brevity and lack of cohesion. But because I don't have an additional part, I will have to judge it solely based on its own merit. As such, I don't love it like I love OK Computer or In Rainbows, but I can't ignore it. There are some lovely moments on The King of Limbs, and for me to listen to a record as much as I have listened to this, there is something more there. I have a feeling this record will make more sense later on; depending on what Radiohead does next, which could be anything.

33. Jamie Woon - Mirrorwriting

Jamie Woon occupies an interesting plot in the dubstep landscape; somewhere in the middle between the silence craving spaces of James Blake (who will be Woon's most obvious comparison) and the more pop leaning spectrum of artists like Katy B and Magnetic Man. Woon began his career as a soul singer, attending the BRIT School where he was a year behind Amy Winehouse, who he has opened for on tour. It was a meeting with UK dubstep/two step enigma Burial that changed Woon's path from traditional R&B, merging his velvety croon with more adventurous sonics. Burial produced his breakout track "Night Air," which made it into my top ten singles of last year, and lends his deft hand to two other tracks on Mirrorwriting. Even though he didn't produce the entire album, his influence seeps in and out of each track. Lots of ghostly samples, and haunting low end sounds push up against the more traditional elements. While not as experimental (and in my opinion lacking in soul) as James Blake's debut nor as willing to mine for pop stardom like Katy B, Woon's Mirrorwriting is a happy medium which, when playing to his strengths, is some of the finest music you will hear all year.

32. Other Lives - Tamer Animals

Channeling Ennio Morricone through a Radiohead filter, Oklahoma five-piece Other Lives creates futuristic dust bowl Americana, whose epic sweep is surprisingly intimate and emotional. Utilizing mostly traditional instrumentation, with the members shuffling between guitars, percussion, horns, and strings, Other Lives' sophomore album Tamer Animals is immediately familiar but also sounding not exactly of its time and place. Gone is the overly fussy production of their debut album, and in its stead, a more strategic focus. Not that Other Lives have gone minimal by any stretch of the imagination, the songs are stuffed with lush instrumentation and haunting harmonies.

31. The Antlers - Burst Apart

The Antlers' debut album Hospice was one of the most intimate, haunting records of 2009, a desperate song cycle about the journey through the illness of a child. The songs were simultaneously hushed and widescreen, the lyrics oblique and impressionistic, frequently blunt and always heartbreaking. It was a difficult album to listen to, but one that was impossible to ignore or forget. Hospice was such a fully formed, almost perfectly paced record, it was difficult to imagine where The Antlers could take their sound. Now a full-fledged trio, their sound still remains shockingly intimate, more due to Peter Silberman's evocative falsetto, however the music is far more urgent and less ambient. Unlike Hospice, here The Antlers aren't afraid for more volume and cacophony. The first song on the album is just a preview of where the band intends to go, featuring a strident beat and twilight guitars and twinkling synths seeking the clouds. "I Don't Want Love," is a shockingly direct song about a masochistic relationship, that sets the tone for this brutally frank record.

Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 Albums of the Year: 50-41

Last week had me counting down my Top 100 Songs of the Year for 2011. This week I will be counting down my Top 50 Albums of the Year, starting today with Numbers 50-41.

50. Salva - Complex Housing

West Coast producer Paul Salva certainly knows his way around a production studio. His debut cd Complex Housing runs the gamut in styles from standard hip-hop, electro-house, LA beat obsessives, Dirty South, to dubstep, barely letting the listener catch their breath. Even with so many different genres, each track still flows together seamlessly. Standout tracks are the hyper-programmed "Issey Miyake," glitchy throbbing bass-heavy "Blue," and the re-imagining of Robert Owen's Chicago house classic "I'll Be Your Friend." Complex Housing is constantly morphing itself, new sounds and textures emerge and disappear, all floating in a perfect mix.

49. Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise

21 year old Providence/New York/Chilean producer Nicolas Jaar has a lot on his plate these days. In between running his own record label (Clown and Sunset), remixing other artists (Matthew Dear, Azari & III, The Bees), and attending Brown University He has been compared favorably with Chilean techno lord Richard Villalobos, however, Jaar's sound is not likely to make you move swiftly to the dancefloor. While his base is dance music, he, like James Blake/Mount Kimbie et al, are interested more in texture and subverting the normal expectation as to what dance music is. Jaar's debut album Space Is Only Noise, is what I wished James Blake to be. Blake's album was too one-note at times, which resulted in killing the album's momentum. Jaar's album is more varied and interesting, constantly keeping the listener on edge, not knowing where he is going to lead. He balances the track list with gorgeous instrumentals, full of found sounds and audio collages, along with haunting electro ballads that show his bank of impressive production skills. Jaar's voice is not as lovely an instrument as Blake's, but he uses his more texturally, making it more of another component of the music.

48. Azari & III - Azari & III

2010 was the year everyone seemed to be on a 90s rave kick, every dance song flavored with glow sticks and ecstasy, and now 2011 is the come down from the excess, songs haunted by the hangovers of the the night before. Canadian mystery R&B collective The Weeknd detail nights of debauchery and shifty morality, unable to hide the shame in the blaring morning light. Similarly, Canadian house music group Azari & III also deal with the effects of all night partying, however, instead of focusing on the seediness of it all, there is much room for joy and excitement amidst all the darkness. Drawing from artists like Soul II Soul, Massive Attack, and newer acts like Hercules and Love Affair, showcasing an affinity for deep Chicago house. Azari & III are made up of Alphonse Lanza and Christian Farley on the boards, with two front vocalists, soul diva Cédric Gasaida , who is full revelry mode, tempered by the deep pulsing counterpoint voice of Fritz Helder, acting as the world weary guide to the proceedings.

47. Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow

Eccentric British art-rock goddess Kate Bush is never predictable, releasing music at her own pace and not following any trends. You are not going to hear any hip-hop rhythms or dubstep breaks in her tracks. 50 Words For Snow is only her second release of new material in over 17 years, and is a particularly odd concept album about snow. Each of the tracks touch in some form on snow, winter, and how human beings and nature interact with one another. It is a languorous album, with only 7 tracks, the shortest of which is just under 7 minutes, while the longest clocks in at almost a quarter of an hour. Bush is in no hurry to get to her destination, allowing the songs to breathe and choose their own path. Most of the tracks are composed of merely piano, and delicate backing instrumentation, and of course, Bush's dramatic voice. Only someone like Bush could create music this loopy and strange and make it come out haunting and moving, rather than silly and out of touch.

46. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx - We're New Here

Jamie xx, the beat master behind The xx, was approached to "rework" Gil Scott-Heron's 2010 album I'm New Here, bringing it up to date with the latest sounds and trends. In addition to his phenomenal production work and instrumentation for his own band, Jamie xx has recently been the go-to remixer for a wide array of acts, from Adele, Glasser, and Nosaj Thing; so, it made perfect sense to get the old guard and the new guard together. Interestingly enough, Smith only met Scott-Heron a couple of times at some gigs, and only communicated with him via traditional mail. Smith would articulate his approach for each track, and Scott-Heron would either agree or make suggestions. The resulting work, while not a track for track reworking of the album, is a fascinating album in its own right. The raw and gritty feel of I'm New Here, while still a background presence, is instead replaced with a brighter, more urgent pulse. "I'm New Here" is almost spoken word performance featuring Scott-Heron's voice reminiscing about trying to pick up a woman, and counter's it with a pitch-shifted sample from Gloria Gaynor's "Cassanova Brown," which makes it a Rashoman-like recounting of the event. Jamie xx is careful not to tamper too much with what made the original tracks so special, usually adding minimal touches or surprising counterpoints. In only a couple of instances does he radically change a song. On the original album "NY Is Killing Me," the track was a minimal rush of handclaps and haunting atmospherics. The re-imagined track retains the paranoia and creepiness, but propels it forward with an almost reggaeton beat. We're New Here is a fabulous coda to the late Scott-Heron's legendary career.

45. Esben and the Witch - Violet Cries

Esben and the Witch, lead by Siren-voiced singer/percussionist Rachel Davies, leapt out the gate with their debut album Violet Cries, their sound fully formed. Mining from artists as diverse as Dead Can Dance, Siouxsie and the Banshees, probably the entire 4AD label roster, Esben and the Witch are dramatic and gothic (but not goth) without being pretentious or mocking. Songs usually build from a minimal template (heavy, droning guitars, hushed and muted electronic beats and keyboards, and Davies' haunting voice) while gathering strength and force. Violet Cries is a very difficult, dark listen, full of moody passages and haunting melodies. At times, it feels that the weight of the music will come crashing down, but there are so many amazing, subtle textures lurking around the corners. Tracks like "Eumenides" are crafted with such care, taking time to build, respecting and utilizing silences as well. Expect major things from this band in the future.

44. The Field - Looping State of Mind

The Field's (Swedish producer Axel Willner) debut album From Here We Go Sublime was an instant classic of minimal trance techno. His uncanny ability to take simple loops and build them into such gorgeous works of art was nothing short of breathtaking. Listening to the album now, I still get the same rush I did when I first heard it. The follow up, Yesterday and Today, seemed hesitant and stagnant. While it was still beautiful and excellently produced, it just seemed like more of the same, and was a slight disappointment. With his third album Looping State of Mind, Willner doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, but he definitely takes more risks, adding subtle touches that surprise and charm. Looping State of Mind began as more of the same to me, but ended by really subverting my expectations. By adding just slight new touches to his trademark sound, Willner opens the door to allow for a lot of whimsicality to his tracks. With every listen there is something new I discover, and yet all of the tracks are bound by his distinctive sound. Looping State of Mind is a definite grower that latches on to you and won't let go. By far, one of the best techno albums of the year.

43. Yuck - Yuck

Similar to when Interpol was compared with Joy Division and other post punk luminaries a few years ago, UK buzz band Yuck is similarly saddled with comparisons to their heroes, however, in this case, the albatross around their neck are the 90s alterna-guitar bands like Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Pixies, Pavement, Jesus and Mary Chain, et al. There really is no way to sidestep these comparisons I'm afraid. The band definitely wears their influences on their sleeves, but unlike bands who are mere parrots, Yuck uses those sounds merely as a base, building their own unique take on driving, fuzzed out, effects heavy guitar rock. And with the band members barely into their 20s, it is amazing how fully formed that sound is.

42. Hauschka - Salon Des Amateurs

Volker Bertelmann is a Dusseldorf, Germany experimental composer who creates music under a variety of monikers, but uses Hauschka as an outlet for playful mixes of treated piano in a more pop vein. Treated piano usually consists of objects (which can be anything really) placed between the piano strings to create new sounds. Salon Des Amateurs is Hauschka's latest album and one that is an interpretation of dance music, more specifically house music. Of course, this being dance music based on treated piano, it is not the kind of music that will make you rush the dance floor. It is more headphones music than four to the floor head bangers. But what it lacks in BPMs, it more than makes up for it in textures and complexity, which sounds more academic than it is, as this is very playful music with lots of subtle touches. While the piano is front and center on the album, it is not all ambient, new age doodling. Hauschka works on this album with Múm drummer Samuli Kosminen and Calexico's John Convertino and Joey Burns for additional percussion which propels the album and gives it force and drive.

41. Kuedo - Severant

One half of the moody, dubstep duo Vex'd, Jamie Teasdale, aka Kuedo, drops the beat heavy compositions in favor of a more retro-leaning sound, pulling from sources such as Vangelis, Mike Oldfield, and Tangerine Dream, to create a languid collection of pristine instrumentals that sound both futuristic and anachronistic at the same time. The most obvious touchstone would be the icy instrumental soundtrack to Blade Runner run through a Georgio Moroder beat machine, but the contrast is with the vaguely hip-hop-esque beats, with crisp snares and tinny hi-hats. While a few tracks hint at Teasdale's more BPM friendly work, the majority of tracks unfold deliberately, taking several listens before their charms are discovered. The synths are sparkling and clean, and the programming is precise, and you get lost in the world that Teasdale creates. In fact, the more I listen to the record the more I find myself entrapped in its beauty.