The year in music that was/is 2011 marked a departure from the prior two in which this blog has been in existence. This in the sense that, as opposed to waiting for albums from bigger bands one could classify as a favorite, there were far more unanticipated discoveries. I often talk of expectations, but this year I had few. For this year end list, I whittled down the list of the year’s albums slowly to include those that I felt strongly about. With the addition of new writers we decided to change formats and forego a blog-wide ranking of albums and instead focus on our own favorites. Much like what one of those writers, Brendan, stated in his entry, these lists are flawed. Fewer of the albums I may have connected with are included this year, but these are those I enjoyed most. We don’t assume to tell anyone what to think around here, so these lists are neither definitive nor ‘bests,’ but rather define own individual tastes. Onward…
14. Papercuts // Fading Parade
I continued tweaking this list right up to the point of actually deleting albums I had originally planned on including. Jason Quever’s first Papercuts release on Sub Pop Records was the final record I decided I must include. A very steady, melodic and pleasant affair, Fading Parade meshes well with the aesthetic of the modern Sub Pop, alongside contemporaries and label-mates Beach House and Vetiver. With superb songwriting, gorgeous arrangements and beautiful vocals, Quever has moved past bedroom project status and into something eminently richer.
[mp3] Papercuts // Do You Really Wanna Know
13. Dakotafish // Many Moons
We first wrote of Dakotafish in 2010, and in fact “Jitter” was included in my favorite songs of the same year. That was merely a single however, and the band officially released the album from which it officially derived, Many Moons, this past summer. Based on “Jitter” I was expecting something far more electronic. The record has varying styles throughout, alternately electro pop, experimental psych rock and straightforward pop music. Yet there remains one aligning factor: great songs.
[mp3] Dakotafish // Great Ones
12. Smith Westerns // Dye It Blonde
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is one of my favorite books. Early this year I reread the book in anticipation of its sequel, The Magician King, to re-immerse myself in the richly imagined magical universe of the novel. I happened to be listening to Dye It Blonde nearly on repeat at that juncture, and strangely I found a remarkable synergy. The songs felt as if they were what Quentin and Alice might have been listening to in the background as they studied and practiced alongside that piece of shit Penny. I will forever associate the two forever, and the excellence of this album can only make the experience of reading the excellent novel even more powerful.
[mp3] Smith Westerns // Weekend
11. Girls // Father, Son, Holy Ghost
I had Girls’ eponymous debut at my #9 in the best albums of 2009, though without further reordering I can’t say for certain whether that rank might remain true. Were I to guess I would say its status would fall, because I haven’t returned to it often other than the classic “Lust for Life.” My lack of involvement in the band’s progression led me to have lesser expectations for this follow up, as I hadn’t much delved into last year’s Broken Dreams Club either. The opening notes of Father didn’t reign me in, due to my belief that “Honey Bunny” is easily its worst track. But I knew “Vomit” was still to come, and then “Alex” started, and things moved in an inspiring direction. Song after song is filled with guitar after excellent guitar and softer, almost whispered vocals into a style I vastly prefer. This is change I can believe in.
[mp3] Girls // Vomit
10. The Antlers // Burst Apart
I don’t have a lot to say about this record, other than I enjoyed it more than all but nine other records this year. I don’t quite get the criticism’s I’ve seen lately regarding The Antlers in general, and Burst Apart specifically. Pete Silberman has an incredible voice, and the band crafts impeccable songs, it’s really quite as simple as that. There’s a remix of “French Exit” that came with the version we purchased, I think I like it more than the original, but, that’s saying something.
9. Male Bonding // Endless Now
I love guitars. More specifically, I love the rolling guitars of the young British trio Male Bonding. Moving in a slightly new direction on follow up Endless Now, expanding song structures and sounding ever so slightly more polished, the endless hooks are still present. Still fuzzy and executed mostly at breakneck speed, the record is nonetheless a subtle, yet impressive step forward. A task which proves all too difficult for many young bands attempting a sophomore record.
[mp3] Male Bonding // Bones
8. Gauntlet Hair // Gauntlet Hair
With this, their debut record, Gauntlet Hair has entered into the rarified class of bands whom I can safely assume I’ll enjoy any music from. They’re heavy, windy, and the drum work is in-fucking-credible. Simply put, I love this band.
[mp3] Gauntlet Hair // Top Bunk
7. Real Estate // Days
I first connected with Real Estate around the time of their debut release, specifically with the instrumental charmer “Atlantic City.” For me, the chiming guitars of Matt Mondanile are the main draw here, and like every other element of this follow-up, they’re better. Real Estate have an innate knack for melody, and nary is there a song where Mondanile and co. unleash something less than gorgeous.
[mp3] Real Estate // Green Aisles
6. Bombay Bicycle Club // A Different Kind of Fix
As I’ve previously stated, I was not rife with album expectations this year. In the case of Bombay Bicycle Club, a band whom I’d given the #2 spot on my albums list two years ago, this was due to the 2010 acoustic release Flaws. I never got around to listening to that record because it defied in spirit just about everything I loved from the band’s aggressive and raw 2009 debut. So when “Shuffle” was revealed this past spring, with its magnificently mangled keyboard riff, my wishes were more than fulfilled due to that tempered anticipation. A few months later upon hearing the record, I was immediately underwhelmed. I waited a few days following my first trek through the entire album, not entirely sure if the circumstances under which I first listened had anything to do with my lack of enjoyment. I listened by myself the second time, focusing intently to make sure nothing was missed. I found it not quite so disappointing the second trip through, and upon each subsequent listen I found another element of the band’s new layers and improved song writing to be both more mature and enjoyable. The slate of songs are certainly less immediate than the in-your-face rollicking nature of the debut. The hooks are still present, but more subtle and less teenage angst, and with newly located distorted edges such as on “Bad Timing.” “Take The Right One” sounds more remote and muted than anything the band has done prior, but in that departure finds perhaps the best song this album has to offer. This a band that is growing up – rataining a sense of self – but broadening and enveloping different ideas to form a more well rounded result.
5. Spanish Prisoners // Gold Fools
With this, we now move into the truly indelible records of 2011. Upon first learning of Brooklyn’s Spanish Prisoners when reading my favorite music blog, I immediately came away impressed with the band’s experimental dream rock. Gold Fools is perhaps the most challenging record of the year; a record that required multiple listens to decipher the layers of dreamy distortion and varied textures. I think I’ve got it figured out now, and I can’t wait for what’s next. I know I’ve mentioned the band multiple times this year, but it still hasn’t been enough, because there remains an alarming lack of exposure that this young outfit ultimately requires.
[mp3] Spanish Prisoners // Los Angeles Guitar Dream
4. North Highlands // Wild One
I’ve struggled to write a review for this record for months now, and it is a shame that this is the case. I’ve certainly contemplated on numerous occasions just what I should write regarding North Highlands’ self released debut. It is not necessarily a Wild One, as it is so titled, but rather I find it to be a confident and steady introduction to a band with impeccable song craftsmanship. When formulating thoughts for that until-now-never-seen review, my mind kept returning to an idea that the band had an entire album of songs written, before going back to that catalogue and truly listening to each track to determine just what extra element each was needed to push it to extraordinary levels. Whether that be an added piece of drums to punch things up on stunner “Salty,” echoed drums and handclaps on the slowed “Best Part,” or any other element throughout, I could continue on and on. Much of the brilliance is derived from singer Brenda Malvini’s assured vocals and wonderful range, yet each of the band members is technically proficient in whichever instrumental aspect they choose to present. There are multiple album highlights: the calmly paced “Benefits” starts as a leisurely number, before changing gears with swirling head-bobbing arpeggios as Malvini demands her opposite to “take what you want.” Unlike many other releases, each song here presents a strong case to listeners to find itself as the record’s best. A stunning debut.
[mp3] North Highlands // Steady Steady
3. Hooray For Earth // True Loves
Prior this debut record, I had not given Hooray For Earth their proper due. Before their show in town with Surfer Blood and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart at the German House two summers ago, we featured an interview with frontman Noel and gave away some tickets, but that was mostly Andy’s doing. Later in 2010 I latched onto a track produced in collaboration with Twin Shadow that eventually made its way onto my list of favorite songs. Despite that, my expectations were null. So upon hearing the pure synth pop joy that is True Loves, it was only reasonable for me to fall so deeply. The album is filled with formidable synth laden tracks, the keyboard hooks as impressive and catchy as any guitar. After its release in June of this year, nothing else was played for a matter of months, and none have been played louder.
2. Wye Oak // Civilian
This record was my formal introduction to the wonders of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack. Before having heard this record, following Will’s introduction, I never knew how directly within my exact musical tastes Wye Oak resided. Wasner’s crunchy guitars, Stack’s steady pacing, range and added synth elements, and the song structures they create – often exploding in sound following quiet moments – is a style I could easily call definitive of my own. Civilian was the first record I purchased on vinyl this year, and with good reason. “We Were Wealth” received close to the most plays this year, and is the perfect embodiment of the sentiment that this band authors my favorite style, emphasis on the perfect.
[mp3] Wye Oak // Civilian
1. John Maus // We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
The top three records on this list were also almost certainly my most played. From March until June, Wye Oak was nearly immovable. From June until around mid August, before I finally gave my top album its due, Hooray For Earth held a similar position. Prompted by Brendan writing the album up in the year’s eighth month, I finally listened to John Maus’ We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves. For the sake of True Loves, I’m glad I latched on to Maus two months later, if only because it might not have gotten the chance it did to make it to number 3. Checking the last.fm stats, which reflect the listening habits of both Andy and myself, it seems John Maus has received more plays this year than any other artist by nearly 100. That is because this album surprised and floored me, and I often listened to all eleven tracks before repeating that process as many more times in a day as possible. An immersive record, it begs to be listened to in its entirety. That it clocks in at just over 30 minutes facilitates this breezy, incredibly fucking awesome listen. There is a mystical, magical quality that pervades the record, perhaps most notably on the Molly Nilsson cover/collab “Hey Moon.” Twinkling synths resound throughout, and Maus’ deep vocals are fraught with reverb and echoed, tweaked to fit the mood of each track. All serve to contribute to the aura of mystical art-pop that is this record. There is no weak spot to be found with an engaging beginning, incredible middle, and a strong finish that features its best in “Believer” as the closing note. After that first day back in August in which I gave it a chance and loaded it onto my iPod and listened about 10 times, my record of the year was evident.