Album-of-the-year lists no longer seem like bastions of rock-critic nerd-dom. With music literally pouring out into the digital realm, tallying the artistic high-water marks of any calender year feels like a way of keeping one's head above the flood-tide of incoming releases. This saturation of new sound —and the digital revolution that's come with— have also silenced those who used to decry any year as being mediocre. No need to summon the ghosts of 1968 anymore: with more music being made than ever before, plenty of it is bound to be brilliant. And, at its best, 2011 was awesome.
Though their bouncy, giddy electro jams have long been built on bright melody and lyrical hilarity, Metronomy proved that they're not really a pop band on The English Riviera
. Pop music is about applying the factory mentality to musical product; and, by about the time "A Thing for Me
" clocked up its three millionth YouTube view, Joseph Mount and co. should've minted their brand of quirky electro-pop and reproduced it to infinity. But their much-anticipated third album chose to happily subvert expectations, delivering a slower, stranger, less direct, more divisive set of (acoustically augmented!) oddball synth-funk. After the obligatory backlash upon the LP's release, time, the opportunity for repeat listens and listener contemplation, and a Mercury nomination
turned the tide towards The English Riviera
Few Grizzly Bear
fans would've been dreaming that Christopher Taylor's solo debut sounded as it did. On leave from his main gig, the sharp-cheekboned sonic stylist razing the wooded wonderlands familiar to fans in favor of strange synthesized slow-jams erected in airless, claustrophobic vacuum. Where Grizzly Bear builds a shrine to the glorious of harmony, Dreams Come True
explores dissonance, noise, and compositional tension. The meticulously-produced tunes attempt to match the emotional distress and thematic darkness of their confessional lyrics by creating conflict: songs routinely assaulted by static, by digital noise, or by willful interference; there an almost Radiohead-ish exploration of man's uneasy alliance —and reliance— on imperfect machinery.
Spencer Krug usually paints colourful compositions with slashing, splashing strokes: intricate, syllable-spilling lyricism; spastic jags of keyboards; gnarly tangles of clanging guitar. But as Moonface, the Wolf Parade
/Sunset Rubdown bro has gone monochrome. In making the materials the LP's title, Organ Music
's reduced palette is its binding concept. The songs are painted entirely with double-manual organ: rhythms rickety and timbre half-crumbling, its sound part twee
, part Eno, part Vegas chapel. Those keys tap out repetitious progressions long (7+ minutes) and tranced-out; Krug barking out comic mantras ("you should've been a writer/you should've played guitar/but those kids keep coming down the fucking hill") as his organ music plods wearily towards eternity.
The first two Evangelista albums scaled great heights of towering noise-rock, Carla Bozulich gazing down into the darkness from upon high, a vertiginous vantage atop the apex of grand sonic mountains. In Animal Tongue
less peers into the void than seems lost within it; the LP a serious of tone-poems in which musical arrhythmia —scraped strings and coaxed noise of no fixed tempo— mills around Carla Bozulich's ends-of-the-earth poetry. It may lack the force of, say, 2008's Hello, Voyager
, but In Animal Tongue
lacks none of its power; jams like the keening "Artificial Lamb
" and baleful "Bells Ring Fire" amongst the best things Bozulich has done in her long, strange, increasingly dark career.
It's called Work (Work, Work)
, but the second LP for London-based, Berlin-bred, Melbourne-born HTRK could easily be called Death (Death, Death)
. Reeling from the loss of their producer (ex-Birthday Party firebrand Roland S. Howard, who died late in 2009) and bassplayer (Sean Stewart, who committed suicide early in 2010), Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang let loose their grief over a set of vacant, detached, barely-there ballads of opaque, fuzzy synth wooze. Marry Me Tonight
's wall-of-distortion is pulled away to reveal nothing behind the curtain; Work (Work, Work)
an album of essential hollowness and existential nothingness. As each track progresses, the record retreats into an uneasy ambience that feels ever less 'present,' its entire Side B slowly slipping away as if fading into the hereafter.
After Dum Dum Girls' impressive 2010 debut
, I Will Be
, was built on two-minute bubblegum fuzz-pop, Only in Dreams
pronounced its change-of-pace via its lead single: "Coming Down
" a six-minute power-ballad whose chiming, cinematic guitars worshipped at the altar of Mazzy Star
. Here, there's less lo-fi
fug, less distortion, less echo, less blistering tempo. But the biggest wrinkle is the persistent, aching sadness at play; Side B a five-song suite exploring the death of Gundred's mother. "I found a necklace/that you used to wear/I found your sweater/could still smell you there," she sings, over the buzz of "Wasted Away," finding profundity mid-pop-song. Where mom was the cover star on I Will Be
, here she's the LP's theme; alive, now, only in dreams.
The 'staged radio-station' interludes device is an old conceptual favorite on LPs, and Puro Instinct employ it to suggest that their music has been salvaged from some second-hand bootleg cassette from the '80s, songs recorded off the radio onto magnetic tape that's long ago faded. Los Angelino siblings Piper and Skyler Kaplan summon those same tricks of audio time-travel as Ariel Pink
; using degraded tone to summon the passage-of-time in a way that both plays up to and subverts notions of cultural nostalgia. As the tape rolls out wobbly and woozy, Puro Instinct play sunshine-pop and soft-rock licks with a hazy laziness; the bubbly sparkle of past champagne now flat, sticky, and sad-sounding.
43. Peaking Lights '936'
Not Not Fun
On their second LP, Wisconsin husband-wife combo Peaking Lights trip fantastic into smudgy, fugged-out, third-eye psychedelia by way of home-made, hand-made, dog-eared dub. Aaron Coyes bass stands at the center of their hypnotic workouts, which wobble and bob along with rattling drum-loops, flanged guitar trails, a thick synth washes. Throughout, Indra Dunis sings simple incantations in a slurred voice swimming in echo. It's an evocative sound, for sure, but the casual greatness of 936 certainly doesn't translate to print, and isn't easily communicated in mere conversation. Even on first listen, the impressiveness of the album may not be apparent. In an era of quickly-disposable soundfile batches, 936 is an immersive work that actually improves the more you play it.
42. Psychic Reality 'Vibrant New Age'
Not Not Fun
The title of Psychic Reality's debut LP may be half-joking, but it's not inaccurate. Working with the flotation-tank synthesizer sounds synonymous with new age audio, Leyna Noel Tilbor blasts their ersatz, beige 'calm' into psychedelic, colorful realms. Vibrant New Age breaks down its banks of keyboards and rickety drum-machines; creating shocks and jags of noise in ways that speak of the 'personality' of aging machines. The music may be electronic, but it's achingly human: not least of all in the way it takes its cues from Tilbor's voice. Her singing swarms all over Vibrant New Age, in washes of sound dramatic, daring, and beautiful. The result is a strange, singular record that is one the more unexpected entries on this list.
You can hear Katie Stelmanis's childhood of opera training every time she opens her mouth: her voice is huge and forceful, capable of projecting to the back of the room, and she has excellent diction. It's not particularly punk to enunciate with clarity —nor is it the thing you normally praise someone for in review— but Stelmanis really sings
every word on her debut LP as Austra. The brilliantly-produced Feel it Break
finds the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus survivor rebranding herself as electro-goth chanteuse: huge new-wave synths and cold electronic programming taking her piano playing into dark directions. It's impossible not to note what a 2011 move this is, but Stelmanis does it with such aplomb that it's hard not to be charmed.