Best albums of 2011

Sorry for the delay, but we've all been a touch busy.

Tim!

Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What

The man is 70 but after about twenty years of relatively sedated albums Paul Simon's newest entry is strangely rejuvenating. He brings back his African and Latin American influences for a subtle complicated sound that simmers beneath his insightful, touching, and often hilarious lyrics.

Tyler, The Creator - Goblin

This album is seriously sick. It's disgusting. I was physically overcome with nausea while listening to this album. That's how offensive it is. I haven't been so shocked and revolted by someone's lyrics since I first heard the Marshal Mathers LP when I was 12. And I couldn't be more pleased.

Fox!

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
The Decemberists - The King is Dead
Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials
Radiohead - King of Limbs
Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto
Tom Waits - Bad as Me
Danger Mouse - Rome
Robbie Robertson - How to Become Clairvoyant
Cliff Martinez & Various - Drive

Scout!
1. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
-Well, what'd you expect. I'm not immune to beautiful harmonies, or sundrenched folk/country mixed with indie sensibilities. They might as well be recording these things just for me. I love Fleet Foxes. I think their compositions show a growth and ambition that outstrips even the "can you believe how easy we make this sound?" effortless gorgeousness of their debut. The first time I listened to this all the way through I saw an epic, a tragedy, the spanish civil war rendered in sonic brushstrokes. Maybe I'm the crest of a wave in an immeasurable tide by putting this at the top of my list, but I cannot refuse that this album had the deepest effect on me this year.

2. The Horrors - Skying
-Maturity means something when you talk about The Horrors. Listen to their debut album and EP and see five goths looking to spook the squares with their aggressively loud swamp punk. One album later and they'd accrued a sound that made perfect sense given the influences that occasionally broke through the impish twelve bar blues and yet represented a massive amount of growth. With their third album, they've expanded that sound to something with enough hills and valleys that you can lose yourself for days. Ride, Jesus & Mary Chain, Stone Roses, Sisters of Mercy, My Bloody Valentine, sure, yeah, but there's an optimism that escaped those bands. Maybe because they know they're just getting started. I realized not too long ago that whenever I can't think of what to listen to, I just put on Skying. After the thousandth time, you think I'd be even a little bored. Don't ask me, I'm just a fan.

3. TV On The Radio - Nine Types of Light
-I hesitate to make so much of this band's legacy about the death of multi-instrumentalist Gerard Smith, because while this record is a tribute to his contributions to the group's ever-evolving sound, it's also a celebration of not only his, but all of the band member's love of life. The most upbeat and beautiful of their albums to date, Nine Types of Light feels the most like a band playing in the same room. Whereas before they were architects building worlds together or chemists experiment with the DNA of post-punk and rock-and-roll, this album found them at their most relaxed. They've always been a kind of hive-mind, as evidenced by their trademark vocal blending, which here is more about support than mixing. Tunde and Kyp sing for each other, rather than as one voice, each given the breadth and space needed to showcase the resplendency of each man's range. And all the while Dave, Jaleel and Gerard split their time between crafting the usual tapestries of sound, but also just grooving. This was the band as we've never heard them, the same but different. Their sound may change forever; if so Nine Types of Light was as enlightening a closure to this part of their lives as anyone could ask for and will always be a testament to the five blinding talents that this band houses.

4. Wye Oak - Civilian
-If I ever meet the two people who create the boundless, ecstatic rock music on each Wye Oak album, I have to first apologize for stealing one of their songs in my zombie film (I've made 70 cents so far; we can certainly split it, though my cast might be angry). Then I have to thank them for making something new and inspiring out of something so simple. Jenn Wasner's guitar works as a microcosm of the miracle of the band's sound. On "Two Small Deaths," the album's opening track, the tone is threadbare, only increasing in tremolo for the chorus, yet between that and the muffled bass, the plain keyboard hum and light drumming, there's a sound big enough to blanket a city. Wasner's voice by itself is a thing of mysterious beauty, and Andy Stack, her one-man rhythm section keeps up beautifully. They never overdo it, but every song sounds impossibly big. The whole canon of 90s rock was digested to make their sound, but it's given back in the form of an understanding hug. They've taken aggression and angst and softened it to comfort their listeners. The album has its somber passages, but the feeling one is left with is overwhelmingly hopeful, as if Wasner has seen what hurts you most and, as she professes in tragic album closer "doubt," she'd do anything for you if it felt right. An honest and humble rock album that has something deeply warming at the heart of every song.

5. The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient
-I have a weakness for bands with big, friendly sounds. Arcade Fire's oddball debut gave way to an immutable call to action. Broken Social Scene's sexy shyness has since become a clear throated shout, imploring you to feel at all costs. The War On Drugs have the same peaks in them, but their delivery is quiet, brotherly and cool. Each song, whether it's a laid back guitar painting, a slight but charging rocker or an icy wall of noise, has a welcome feeling, like a dozen hands on your shoulder affirming that you've done alright. The sound is effusively pleasant and everyone's on the same page, wrapping each other in their instruments, never letting anyone go it alone. A familial familiarity greets you with each return.

6. Dirty Beaches - Badlands
-My only complaint: I want more. Badlands couldn't serve up enough of Dirty Beaches trademark (in my head) mix of Warholian buzz and old fashioned rock and roll. Like entering an abandoned factory and breaking every window on your way in (Speedway King) Badlands soon gets down to business, playing Link Wray through a hundred year old ham radio. Taking rock arrangements, cutting them with distortion and playing them ad infinitum, Dirty Beaches does for rock what Godard did for genre; cut up it up, show you its insides and then see if his meddling makes you love it any less. A statement, sure, but also one hell of a good time.

7. Psychic Teens - TEEN
runners up: The Psychic Paramount - II/Psychic Babble - My Brother's Ears/My Sister's Eyes
-One of the best parts of editing this blog is that I get to make the rules. So while some people might recuse themselves of reviewing an album made by someone they knew, I get to celebrate them. I take no little pride in saying that I know some of the Psychic Teens and they're all awesome guys. That said, I was a fan first and TEEN is one of the best fusions of styles I've ever heard. Like Joy Division meets Lunes, Psychic have a sound I find irresistable, all reverb and gliding guitar and glorious, glorious feedback. This is dark and sexy as post-punk gets.

8. Radiohead - The King of Limbs
-A friend once said that anyone who doesn't like Radiohead is trying not to like them. Their sound's been picked apart, especially on this record which was born in the age of instant gratification and rabbit-hole style music criticism. What I will say is that after hearing this album, it very suddenly became difficult to listen to their earlier albums. If they were capable of this, why hadn't they always made albums this minimal, yet striking? It's a ludicrous question, because obviously it took years to get them here, but I couldn't be more pleased that they're here. Now if only they'd release a new record a year like the free jazz mavericks they've become. I love Radiohead and won't make excuses about including them on my top 20.

9. Real Estate - Days
-Being a fan of post-punk often makes you easy to please. Like a game of spot-the-reference, I feel happiest when I can put on a new album and hear that the people making it love the same things I do. Sometimes that's enough. Real Estate take the elements I love about The Feelies, The Replacements and R.E.M. and stir them into a shimmering, shining good time. With the layers of a Philip Glass Etude, the four members of Real Estate craft a timeless feel good record that's as relentless in its way as any metal record. The guitar sound here was chosen for a reason and its legacy is assured. By never wavering from their sound, Real Estate are placing themselves daringly in rock history. Let's see what they do next.

10. The Coathangers - Larceny & Old Lace
I like the idea of Riot Grrrl more than I've ever connected with any of its tentpole albums. I was never a girl in the 90s and so I miss out on the politics to a degree and can't see through the sound to the message as clearly as its proponents. An album with all the hallmarks of that sound but whose style is much more about the No-Wavers of the late 70s? Pull up a chair and tell me about yourself. From the first time I heard them, while filming their performance in Siren Records, the Georgia quartet roared their way into my heart. Half saccharine posturing, half dissonant violence (their named after an illegal abortion, after all), The Coathangers would be a tough listen if the hooks weren't so indelible. The fact that they're adorable in spite of themselves helps too. They have it all, really.

11. The Rapture - In The Grace of Your Love
-If this record had nothing but "Blue Bird" it'd still be on here, but it's also got the typical electro funk fusion I love so much about The Rapture. And of course, it's got Luke Jenner's one-of-a-kind voice. Loving The Rapture means loving Jenner's raspy howl first and the band's dark disco sound a distant second. This time around they prove equally adept at rockers as with their usual Parisian salon electro pop, and thank god. If they'd never written "Blue Bird" my life would be less full.

12. Lisa Hannigan - Passenger
-"Home," the name of the first song, would have made a fine album title. The Irish singer-songwriter's sophomore release is the aural equivalent of laying by a fire in a cabin with the love of your life, boundless potential stretched out in front of you. Her compositions are stronger, her arrangements richer, her sound that much more endearing, her voice as warm and sweet as hot cocoa and soft as snow.

13. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
-Though she has the avant streak of Kate Bush, not to mention the capable voice, Annie Clark's goals are a little different. She's outthinks her rock contemporaries and outplays most of them too, like Thurston Moore doing Philipp Vandre. The hooks occasionally get lost under her dissonant orchestration, but they're there. She's at once more adventurously strange and poppy than on either of her last two records, producing pop gems like "Cruel" and "Cheerleader" and journeys like "Strange Mercy" which meanders through an electronic haze to reach one of her greatest choruses and that's saying something. It was for her that I coined the phrase "Transcendental Pop." She evolves more each time and watching her do so is always important, but the record has joys that even the uninitiated will love.

14. Gauntlet Hair - Gauntlet Hair
-Gauntlet Hair sounds like a demolished apartment building screaming its history in the seven seconds between implosion and full collapse. It shares the lives that have passed through it in abstraction and delivers it in the kind of echo-filled howl you can only hear when you live up the stairs from a passionately argumentative couple. It boils with life and feels loved and hated, angry and content. No other record this year sounded like Gauntlet Hair; rather, the feeling I got listening to it was more of a half-remember conversation, an overheard flirtation, of kids playfully laughing at a public pool. It's the rhythm of life transcribed in crashing symbols and guitar that's stuffed with chorus and reverb.

15. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
-Again, what could I say that you haven't thought? Harvey's most cinematic and playful release in her life. Like Serge Gainsbourg producing wartime blues, Harvey's found a niche she's never explored, sounding like the kind of thing you'd hear in a tube station during the blitz or at a mod club while David Hemmings tries to solve a murder, but of course much more modern and sexy than that implies.

16. Tom Waits - Bad As Me
-Heart Attack & Vine: The Reckoning.

17. Sonic Youth - Simon Werner A Disparu
-In a cruel twist of fate, an album made for someone else, a movie that most of their fans will never see (indeed that most have never heard of), may wind up being the last Sonic Youth album. If the legendary group doesn't survive the divorce of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, most people will believe (through stubbornness or perfectly understandable ignorance) that The Eternal is their final statement. And in a way it is. It's the last album they grew from nothing. Simon Werner was born out of a truly sexy French film of the same name and so the image spawned the sound (though try watching the film and imagining it without SY's involvement. It's impossible), but as a career summing cap, it would stand if it had to. Though it has the simmering rock of their later records, it also draws heavily from the shimmering slinky sounds of Sister, one of their most under-appreciated records. No one says a word the whole time, they let their guitars and drums talk for them, which is how I'll remember them. Not a rock band, but four people in synch, letting their hands guide their conversation and letting beauty rise to the surface, whether by design or by accident. They might shy if you called them artists to their face; Simon Werner is a minor masterpiece. Whether or not it's their last, it's just as brilliant as any in their canon.

18. Dum Dum Girls - Only In Dreams
-Sticky sweet and lovely as sin, like The Ronettes blasted through a jet engine.

19. Chad VanGaalen - Diaper Island
-Chad will always do precisely what he wants to. His sound is unique and lovely and I hope he never changes.
20. Washed Out - Within & Without
-Diaphanous bedroom music that sounds like lovemaking instead of crying, for once.


Honorary - Thai? Dai! - The Heavier Side of the Luk Thung Underground
- A brilliant compilation of Thai psych music from the 70s. Truly amazing sound.

The Suburbs- work in progress

video

Hey guys! So I've been working on my song for our next album cover project thing and thought I would post a sort of work in progress version for you all to see/hear. I'm not sure who checks this blog on a regular basis, but you're here now, so I guess that's all that's important.