Getting this site back off the ground always takes me longer than I expect (chalk it up to being terminally anal retentive), so once more I am behind the curve on my 2011 lists. Still, I needed to (re)launch with the first of the monthly mixtapes in tow, and this seemed like as good a theme as any.
Feel free to preview any of the songs below, and at the bottom of this post you’ll find a link to download the whole shebang, for your infinite listening please. As always, if you enjoy what you hear, please support the artists and purchase their releases.
Now without further ado, my favorites from 2011:
Bon Iver – s/t
One day Justin Vernon woke up, itched his scruffy beard, and wondered what would happen if someone took the soft rock stylings of Mike and the Mechanics and threw it in a pot with a mess of timeless influences from soul to folk, not to mention a hell of a lot of his own inventiveness. I imagine that on that fateful day, this glorious piece of modern day easy listening was born.
What even needs to be said about Bon Iver’s sophomore effort? He’s already high on hundreds of best of lists from last year, and rightfully so. This album comes as close to flawless as anything made by human hands should be expected to, and I couldn’t be happier that it was there to provide the soundtrack to one of the biggest changes I’ve ever made in my life.
Zola Jesus – Conatus
Apparently Nika Danilova doesn’t want much to do with the goth/industrial scene, so I guess I’ll have to avoid pointing out the obvious connections between her black-as-night electro-pop and the work of such luminaries of the dark arts as Siouxsie Sioux and Cabaret Voltaire. To her credit though, Nika weaves these influences into a surprisingly accessible, ultra-modern pop tapestry that tears at the walls of genre-fication, opening her music up to a whole audience of listeners that wouldn’t touch Vivisect VI with a ten foot pole.
While I don’t think she quite topped the Stridulum EP in terms of raw power, Conatus is a brilliantly conceived collection of textural atmospheres and punchy synthetic drums, all wrapped tightly around the ever impressive strength of Nika’s haunting wail. Hell, Ixode alone would be enough to land this thing on my list of favorites, especially once I saw it live.
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Saturdays=Youth was by no means a poor effort (most any band would be proud to call it their own), but this is the album I expected Anthony Gonzalez to make after 2005’s unbelievable Before the Dawn Heals Us. In fact, this is even better than what I would have expected.
Like most of his work, Hurry Up is riddled with nods to electronic pop’s past, but once again everything here is filtered through the lens of some of the most bleeding edge techniques and grandiose arrangements your ears will ever hear. Combine that with the power of his newly discovered vocal prowess (seriously, where the hell did that come from?) and the result sounds like something that will outlive us all.
The Jezabels – Prisoner
I am definitely a fan of a lot of music, but not every band has that envious ability to knock you flat on your ass from the very first listen. Two years ago, The Jezabels did just that, and they haven’t slowed down since (I’ve taken to just sitting down before I put on one of their new records).
Prisoner is their first proper full-length, and it builds masterfully upon the groundwork laid by their previous EPs. Vocalist Haley Mary still has pipes like none other, which is a damn good thing considering she has to keep up with three incredibly talented instrumentalists – ones that are not at all shy about cranking out anthems large enough to fill a stadium or three. And the fact they do it all without a bassist (or a record label, for that matter) just makes it all the more impressive.
Cut Off Your Hands – Hollow
Hollow is probably one of my biggest surprises from 2011. Not because I wasn’t familiar with these young New Zealanders, as I was a fairly strong supporter of their 2008 debut, but because of how much they managed to step up their game between now and then. As fun and engaging as You and I was, this follow-up is the work of a significantly matured band – one that’s no longer reliant on letting the weight of their songs rest comfortably on the shoulders of big riffs and even bigger sing-along choruses.
If you have a soft spot for a little heart-on-your-sleeve 80s pop, or are just a fan of all things jangle in general, then consider this double recommended.
Surfer Blood – Tarot Classics
Another band of whippersnappers with more talent than they have a right to, Surfer Blood were quick to follow up their much hyped introduction to the world with this EP of entirely new material. Jumping back into the studio so quickly doesn’t always pay off, but Tarot Classics proves that this band is a hell of a lot more than a blip on the blogosphere.
If you’re familiar with Astro Coast (and unless you were dead last year, you probably are), then none of the material here will catch you off guard. These Floridians are still comfortably mining the recesses of surf-rock and 90s alternative, only now they’ve dialed down the reverb and injected a bit of the 80s into the mix. More importantly, they still make hooks sound like something they were born writing, and those guitars are as wonderful a thing as ever. Hell, even the two remixes manage to keep pace.
Jonas Schwartz – I Keep My Eyes Wide Open
I think it should be considered admirable that I managed to get this far into my best of list before diving into some Scandinavian indie pop. Of course, Jonas Schwartz is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but what a talented tip of the iceberg he happens to be!
I Keep My Eyes Wide Open is his third EP in a handful of years, and like the previous two, it’s chock full of passionate, shambling pop that makes me want to sing drunkenly along while spilling my fine Belgian beer all over my friends. It’s also another excellent showcase for Jonas’ distinctive warbling croon – the latest addition to a seemingly unending line of unabashedly strange Swedish vocalists (I am looking at you, Mr. Krunegård).
Future Islands – On the Water
Baltimore’s Future Islands are easily one of the best recommendations I’ve ever been given, and since a friend turned me on to their 2010 album In Evening Air, I’ve been a rabid fan to put it lightly. Suffice it to say, no one on the face of the planet makes music that sounds like these three, and that’s not praise you can loft upon too many artists. Sure, you can hear hints of everything from Joy Division to Meatloaf tucked away in the folds of their music, but what they do with those influences is so consistently surprising and brilliant that the result couldn’t possibly come from anyone other than Future goddamn Islands.
Given the trajectory of their previous releases, beginning with the spazzy dance-punk of Wave Like Home, On the Water sounds like exactly where this band needs to be. It’s easily their most reserved effort to date, ditching most of the high energy anthems in favor of slow-burners that comfortably kick back and revel in those insane melodies, as well as frontman Sam Herring’s patented theatrics. It might come as a shock to the system for anyone expecting another album chock full of the likes of Tin Man and Vireo’s Eye, but like I said, surprising people is just what these guys do.
Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital
Having never been quite swept up in the Wolf Parade hysteria that swept the music scene some years back, I didn’t exactly feel destined to enjoy former WP vocalist Dan Boeckner’s new project either. Of course, if I had know from the get-go that they sounded like Bruce Springsteen’s secret electro band, things would have been very different. Luckily, I figured it out!
Their previous release, Face Control, has some pretty outstanding highlights amongst its tracklist (check out the new wave Americana of All We Want, Baby, Is Everything), but Sound Kapital benefits significantly from a finely honed sound that puts the focus squarely on towering keyboards. Should be required listening for anyone who thinks electronic instruments are too cold and artificial to convey a healthy amount of blood, sweat and tears.
Nurses – Dracula
Apparently Scandinavia doesn’t have a monopoly on quirky vocalists, and Nurses frontman Aaron Chapman can keep up with the best of them. There’s a lot that’s memorable about this Portland trio’s intensely rhythmic brand of psychedelic pop, but it’s his off-kilter falsetto and all around vocal inventiveness that ties the package together.
I don’t think I can summon much higher praise for Dracula than by saying that, at times, such as with the hypnotic journey through melody that is So Sweet, this stuff sounds remarkably like LSD soaked outtakes from the Pet Sounds sessions. Translated live, it made for one of the best shows I’ve seen in years, and if you ever get the opportunity to shake down a room with these three gents, I recommend jumping at the chance.
Malcolm Middleton – A Quarter Past Shite
“There’s a land of ice and pretty girls who keep saying they’ll let me in. Somebody told me it’s where the good men go; I guess I’m breaking in.” Ahhhh, does anyone make rampant self-loathing sound as wonderfully appealing as Scotland’s Malcolm Middleton (he of Arab Strap fame)? I have to seriously own up to the fact that I have one hell of a man crush on this guy, because every damn song he writes makes me want to give him a beer and a hug.
Forget the fact that he can devise a mean upbeat pop number when he chooses (see this album’s sublime Penny’s Place), there’s no one I can think of that paints a world of musical misery that’s quite as charming, even humorous, as Malcolm’s. Being 18 tracks of lo-fi early recordings, A Quarter Past Shite might not be the best place to start for newcomers (for that, I’d recommend 2005’s Into the Woods), but for anyone who has already exhausted his previous five outings, this is a must own.
Jens Lekman – An Argument With Myself
If Malcolm is a master of misery, then Jens is surely the whimsy equivalent. From stalking Kirsten Dunst, to nearly slicing off his finger, there’s very little that Jens Lekman can’t make sound downright endearing. An Argument With Myself is further proof of his dominance in this particular end of the singer-songwriter landscape, not to mention the fact that he’s one of the few musicians who could ever successfully deliver a lyric like “Shut up / No, you shut up!”.
The wait for a follow up to 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala was a painfully lengthy one, no bones about it, but I only had to get about thirty seconds into the calypso-tastic title track before I realized it was worth it. There’s just no staying mad at Jens.
Dominant Legs – Invitation
If you’re anything like me, the fact that Dominant Legs is the brainchild of a former member of both Girls and Magic Numbers is enough to make this album an instant purchase. But I can probably seal the deal by saying it sounds a hell of a lot like what would have happened if Tracy Chapman had ended up the frontwoman for mid-80s Talking Heads. Only in this case, Tracy Chapman is a young white male.
Seriously, Invitation will spoil you with an embarrassment of new wave-friendly grooves, and it should get all but the most rhythmically challenged amongst us ready to find the nearest dance-floor. Even the downtempo numbers are sure to have you swaying where you stand. And don’t even get me started on those synth flutes…
Serenades – Criminal Heaven
I am pretty sure when Laakso’s Markus Krunegård and Shout Out Loud’s Adam Olenius decided to form a mini-supergroup, they knew somewhere deep down in their hearts that I would love them forever for it. It really doesn’t get much better than two of Sweden’s most talented vocalists collaborating on ten songs of indie-pop perfection.
If you’re at all familiar with the musical output of either of their primary projects, then you can probably imagine the heights Criminal Heaven reaches. In fact, I can already tell that any attempt to write about it further puts me at great risk of succumbing to a fit of unbridled hyperbole, so just give it a listen. Pretty much rules.
Palpitation – I’m Absent, You’re Faraway
More beguiling Scandinavian indie-pop, this time from a female duo that has been very quietly churning out quality listening for a solid half of a decade now (not including the time they spent together in the band Chasing Charlie). I first got on board with Palpitation in 2009, when I discovered their EP I’m Happy Now, and it’s been pretty great to watch them consistently improve in the time since. Those glorious melodies and oh so husky vocals that made them instantly likable three years ago are now met head-on with a broader range of instrumentation and the production quality they deserve.
If you missed out on the self-titled 2010 LP, then I’m Absent, You’re Faraway is as good a launching point as any. And if you like your music a little sad and a whole lot beautiful, then you’ve got no reason not to.
Austra – Feel it Break
Austra frontwoman Katie Stelmanis may be the second electro-pop siren geared towards the nocturnal set to make this list, but her music couldn’t be more different than Zola’s in many ways. Whereas Conatus is an album that can be overtly challenging at times, these Canucks opt for a silky smooth mix of airy synths and minimal percussion that goes down plenty easy, while simultaneously letting Katie’s opera trained vocal chords fully work their magic.
There’s also little about Feel it Break that comes across as intensely brooding, despite the feelings her vocal style and song titles like The Beast may initially evoke. This stuff glides along effortlessly from start to finish, happily pulsing at mid-tempo, and armed to the teeth with glittering melodies that are more likely to lull you intro a trance than frighten the neighbors.
Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
While the Pains of Being Pure at Heart threw down the twee-pop gauntlet with their well loved 2009 debut, their follow-up, Belong, is the result of them ditching those genre pretenses in favor of a sound that could amply fill your local stadium. And while some might pine for the lo-fi haze of that earlier album, I find it hard to question why the melodic juggernauts they write aren’t buried neck deep in fuzz.
These four New Yorkers dream up some seriously confident rock, carefully cultivated from the best the 80s and 90s had to offer, and littered with unforgettable hooks at every turn. It’s ridiculously easy to love, and I am pretty sure if John Hughes was alive today, he’d write a movie or two just to put this stuff on the soundtrack.
Det Vackra Livet – s/t
A year without The Mary Onettes hardly seems like a year at all, but luckily Det Vackra Livet (The Beautiful Life) was here to fill the void – no pun intended (sorry, just a bit of Mary Onettes humor). Seeing as how this side project is the work of fellow TMO members (not to mention siblings) Henrik and Philip Ekström, it’s not too surprising that it treads in the same dreamy post-punk waters as that band, and with similarly great success.
Not to sound like a broken record, but no contemporary act does melancholic post-punk like these guys, no matter what name they’re operating under. Sure, I can’t sing along quite as well when the entire thing is written in Swedish, but none of the gut-wrenching beauty and masterful songwriting gets lost in translation. And now that the cold winter nights have come calling, I can think of no better album to have by my side.
Chapel Club – Palace
More 80s obsessed post-punk, but this time from a London act that shoots straight for a decidedly muscular rock sound, mixed with a wry, poetic wit that’s obviously inspired by everyone’s favorite pompadour sporting dramaqueen.
Palace rises to the pretty high expectations set by early singles like O Maybe I and Surfacing, and delivers no shortage of thick atmosphere and soaring choruses – all laced with frontman Lewis Bowman’s knowingly disaffected baritone, as well as the occasional Dante reference (just to make sure things are properly dour). A sound as huge as their ambitions, to be sure, but so far these guys have the chops to back it up.
Cold Cave – Cherish the Light Years
It seems unlikely that the guy who once tortured his vocal chords in hardcore act Give Up the Ghost would go on to form a glum synthpop trio destined (at least after a few gentle reminders from my girlfriend) to worm their way into my heart, but here we are, living in a world where Cold Cave is now my second favorite export from Philly, following the almighty cheesesteak.
Generally speaking, the music on Cherish the Light Years could be categorized in the same genre as the above two artists, but in reality Cold Cave worship much more at the altar of various new wave & EBM godfathers. We’re talking everything from bits and pieces of Depeche Mode to those earliest days of Ministry (even the ones Al Jourgensen likes to pretend never happened), all written with an eye distinctly pointed towards crossover appeal. And if that’s going to happen, an album packed with as many anthems as Cherish the Light Years certainly could be the one to do it.