A year later, a year a little more tired.
Music is a gargantuan part of what I do every day. I don’t necessarily write about it a huge amount, but I don’t spend a minute in silence if I can help it. Silence is where the thoughts get you. And so I devour music, pull album after album onto my player and hope that it spurs some spark of creativity that will get me onto the next thousand words. I probably don’t pay nearly enough attention to the things I listen to, because I’m usually done with an album after a few days. Maybe I pay too much attention. Who can tell.
Either way, these are the 40 tracks that managed to survive beyond those few days. As ever, it’s subjective, beyond even the normal measured subjectivity I’d hope to demonstrate. I managed to get them into groups of five, but the order of each five was a whimsical thing. I think I’ve got a good top spot, but tomorrow I might think myself an idiot. I usually do.
More than most musical trends this year, it feels like My Bloody Valentine are coming back, in spirit. (Although they did reform this year.) That wall of noise, interspersed with light, melodic vocals is something that has popped up time and again, and Autre Ne Veut, in this little EP, managed to emulate it without just being a cheap imitation. Bravo, etc.
And this. Maybe I’m just being drawn to it a little more, but a sizable chunk of the music on this list is washed out, submerged, filled with more sound than it should be able to handle. Layers and layers and density that makes it difficult to pick out all that much, apart from the parts which come to the surface for a moment. Water is a metaphor I’m using more and more to describe the music that I like.
And this would be the most watery track off Childish Gambino’s Camp. Comedy is all about timing, right? Makes sense that a comedian would know how to rap. And it makes sense that a comedian who is also a writer knows how to sling lyrics. Hah, I just said sling lyrics. I’ll stop now.
Sometimes an album comes along that you listen to over and over again, enjoy, subliminally learn the words to, and yet you can’t really figure out why this, rather than that other, potentially lovely, album, is the one that clicked with you. Often it’s something intangible, some attitude in the vocalist’s voice, or just a way the beat comes together. Why does music even work? Fuck knows. This album does.
If music really is like sex, which is an analogy I’ve seen drawn more than once, so it must be, then this track is the musical equivalent of a constant, almost unpleasant tease. The beat is always just about to kick in, the song is always just about to get going. And then it doesn’t. I think that makes me a bit of a masochist for liking it.
Even when he doesn’t make an album in the year, he still gets go on the list, because he’s just that good. Everything he touches is a beautiful slurry of grimey, delicious crunch. Little bits and pieces flitting in and out, before the beat drops, and it all comes together like a titan made out of rubbish. But the good kind of rubbish titan. Not a rubbish rubbish titan.
Either 2011 was the year that lo-fi really took off, or it’s the year where lo-fi really took off with me. I’ve never really been one to really listen to lyrics, just to enjoy the phonetics of the words and how they work with the rest of the music. Lo-fi does a pretty great job of taking out the mildly distracting fact that words have meaning and my brain tries to acclimatise that. Ducktails, specifically, is like a great big aural hug, albeit a friendly, lazy one.
33. Low – Witches
2011 was also the year that Low made a happy album. Ok, maybe not happy, but at least not morose. There was a certain uplifting nature to almost the whole thing that was almost unsettling. Alan Sparhawk is still a sad sounding man, but the music was working against that this time, and even more surprising was the fact that it worked. If anything, the music is even more strong and powerful than before, because they can fill all that silence up with glorious noise.
I’ve finally started to pay attention to labels. To actually follow what one label is producing and think ‘hey, maybe their other stuff is worth listening to.’ And that label is Brainfeeder, because Flying Lotus is so involved with it, and everything they’ve put out so far has been pretty fucking great. Samiyam I knew of before, but he goes a way to proving the theory.
There were a bunch of bands I found out about this year. Who have huge discographies going back a decade or so, and have been known by pretty much everyone, but I’ve just not come across them. The Horrors were one, and Beirut (further down the list), was another. I’m going to say that it’s because I was a genius recluse stuck listening to infinite loops of the Amen Break, rather than the fact I was just oblivious. Either way, The Horrors had a new album out, and it was great.
I adored For Emma, Forever Ago. I felt so personally connected to it that I had that sickening gut reaction of anger and jealousy when everyone else found out about it and it was on every tv show ever. Then Bon Iver, Bon Iver came out, and all those silly people scratched their heads and looked a little annoyed. It wasn’t the exact same thing, you see. It had Auto-tune, you see. It wasn’t recorded in a shed in Alaska, you see. And then there was that last track. Ok, I can’t defend the last track. But I can the others, especially this one.
I’m not one to fawn over the soundtrack of a game. I don’t really pay attention to the music all that often, because as soon as you start doing that you start smashing down the carefully erected walls of your immersion. But this, hidden away in that little corner of that little level on Portal 2, in its own little room with its own little radio, invited you to just stop and give it a listen. The radio would crackle a little, and you’d stare at the pictures on the walls. It was a beautiful moment that was entirely reliant on both my curiosity and my patience. Of my willingness not to interact, and just enjoy. Which was an interaction all of itself. The song, by the by, is absolutely beautiful. That swell, man. That swell.
I’d be tempted to lump Wilco along with The Horrors as ‘band I never knew existed but not listen to’, but I did know they existed. I just didn’t care. They were just another indie band, probably something like Weezer because of the ‘W’, right? Yeah, no, that was me being stupid. Then The Whole Love came along and it was incredible. I mean seriously. This is powerful stuff. And they just open with a seven minute climax, like it’s no big thing. It’s a Big Thing.
I might not care nearly so much for the rest of this album, but man! I’m a sucker for a good movie soundbite, and then they just fucking shout at the listener. They really don’t care even one little bit. It’s fantastic. That lazy beat, the meandering guitar accompanied by a huge cymbal crash and lyrics fired into your ear at a drunken shout. Beautiful stuff.
Bit of a cheat, this one. Four tracks pushed into one. But they only come to four minutes together, and they’re pretty much a single track on the album, all prefaced with a single ‘A’, so I figure it’s allowed. Oh yeah, I make the rules. So it’s allowed. And it’s worth being allowed, too, because of that excellent sludge that rumbles over and over until the whole thing pulls itself clear of that storm of muck and above the clouds, leaving you just dreaming.
Did you know he made his first full length album when he was 19? All on his own, playing most of the instruments himself? And that he’s put out pretty much an album a year since then? I weep. I’ve heard The Rip Tide being referred to as a more low-key affair than his previous work, but I think I’ve enjoyed it the most, if only because of that light hearted tone that it affects. And that lovely horn. Mostly the lovely horn.
So now I am older, than my mother and father.
That’s quite the opener. Helplessness Blues seemed like a fundamentally sad record, which I suppose suits the almost hymnal qualities of Fleet Foxes, although it never plummets into a dirge, which is helpful. Perhaps sad is the wrong word, and instead ‘realistic’ would be a much more fitting descriptor. The whole thing seems to be concerned with the futility of man and all that good philosophical stuff. But then I don’t pay attention to lyrics, do I.
I almost forgot this one. How could I almost forget this one? I mean really? Nothing about this is forgettable. It’s relentless and fun and bouncy and all over the place, when ‘all over the place’ is exactly where you want to be. Everywhere is a great place to be, so why not be all over it? Love life, man, love Tune Yards.
Another Brainfeeder offering, and my favourite EP of the year, maybe. Probably not, actually, but it certainly left a pretty heavy impression. When you call a track ‘dream-like’, it’s often because of the way it drifts, or doesn’t, how it occupies a space. I think that, by necessity, means it can’t really have all that much of a beat. But then I’m wrong, because this has a beat. Quite the beat. And it’s as dreamlike as they come.
21. Seefeel – Faults
Speaking of beats.
SPEAKING OF BEATS.
Yeah. Damn. I love.
I can’t remember how I found their first album, Hometowns. It was a crazy thing, all anger and vitriol and wonderful earnestness, and then this comes along and it’s… well, it’s still those things, but they’ve diminished a little. And while they’ve made up some of the difference in experience and the like, I can’t help but feel like something was lost. Nonetheless, Stamp was the closest they came to recovering that previous power.
I’m too young for Kate Bush. By which I mean, I was too young to enjoy her all that much when I was growing up. Besides, she was a girl and what kind of strapping young lad listens to a girl? It was all Black Sabbath and Lamb of God for me, thank you very much. Silly little boy. St. Vincent has done a pretty good job this year of being a Kate Bush substitute, which is probably a little unfair to her, but it’ll have to stand. Especially when Kate Bush went and released a bloody album and I still listened to this over that.
My, but that’s some pretty playing. My, but that’s some pretty singing, too. It swings from side to side, a grand pendulum. I could easily have made this list ’40 albums of 2011′, but that might disqualify EPs, or singles, and so this is what you’re left with. The rest of this record is just as lovely, but this is the stand out.
They’ll never fail me. If I ever run out of things to listen to, (which I never should, but I’m a lazy man who can’t be bothered to look, sometimes), The Dodos will keep me satisfied. Could be that their vocal range is about as close to mine that I’ve found, but I think it’s because each song is a great condensed form of energy that one day we’re going to figure out how to harness and then we won’t all die of hotness.
What is it about this that seems so sinister? It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, but it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon where the bodies are rotting in the swamp while the killer drinks a beer in the setting sun. He’s fine, and happy, but there’s something altogether wrong about the whole thing. That’s about as close as I can get. Just watch the video, you don’t need my words.
How many times have you been punched in the gut by a track? None? Oh, that just changed. It gives you a few seconds, and then BOOM, you’re bent double and trying to figure out why air isn’t something you’re intimately familiar with any more. And it doesn’t let up, with huge waves of that force coming over and over again. You could drown in it. You’d drown happy.
I watched a video of these guys playing live. (This video). No matter how many times they’ve done it, that doesn’t make it any less impressive. The amount of things they’re juggling, the sequences they setting off and leaving to run. There’s something incredibly powerful about the modular approach of live electronic music. Layers on layers, always building until you strip them all away and leave just one still standing. It’s the most narrative of music, I think. At least without bringing lyrics into it.
13. EMA – California
I almost went with another EMA track because I knew Kieron would pick this one. And he has. But there’s a reason for that. And that reason is that it’s a very, very good song. (It’s also very Kieron, but that’s beside the point.)
There’s, oh, a minute and a half of build. Sick little guitar licks that run over a bed of moaned, submerged vocals. That’s just the hand winding up for the slap. It’s the rings coming off, then the owner laughing and putting them back on. Because you need the pain, you need that sting. And then, at the two minute seven mark, they let rip, leaving you with a mark that will last for days. That drop, man, that drop.
11. Cults – Abducted
That was another thing. Some sort of weird appropriation of the sixties. Reclaiming the fun and innocence of the girl bands while at the same time tempering them with experience and sexuality. Not that they weren’t sexualised before, but we’ve come a long way in fifty years. Cults was the biggest one for me, not least because they tinged the whole album with the kind of unsettling that only comes when you’re obsessed with serial killers. No, really.
Did you ever hear a more heartbreakingly, achingly, desperately beautiful thing? I’m a huge fan of Stars of the Lid, those kings of Drone, but here, when you’ve got Adam Wiltzie pairing up with Dustin O’Halloran, you have that drone punctuated with little trills of melody. I’m not saying it’s necessarily better, but it is absolutely beautiful. As cinematic as they come, but it doesn’t need a film to give it strength.
I normally can’t stand accents in a singing voice. Not something as pronounced as this. But perhaps there’s a perfect genre for every accent, every vocal style. King Creosote has found that for his, for certain. I don’t think I can do this album justice with words, but it’s some beautiful stripped down acoustic stuff. Give it a go.
It doesn’t seem to matter all that much what Tom Vek does, he’ll be limited to the periphery. Which is a shame, as he’s a smart, smart man. And Leisure Seizure is a powerful, obnoxious record, but one that it’s hard not to like. It’s the kind that just goes for it and doesn’t really care about how it’s taken, or the consequences that arise. That’s how I like to think of it, anyway.
It’s hard not to expect excellent from The Mountain Goats. Because they’ve been so excellent for so long. And All Eternals Deck was excellent. But it was just excellent. What more could it be? Either way, it was just another Mountain Goats record, when they’ve all been pretty fucking good. Personally, I’d rate Estate Sale Sign almost on a par with No Children. Yeah, said it.
Of all my submersible music in 2011, this was the submersiblest. The whole thing sounds like it was recorded at 40,000 fathoms, watching giant squid amble by while the anglers looked ugly. And that chug. That chug. A chainsaw on the jaw of the world. Badadadadadada BOOM. Chugachugachugachuga CHUG.
Video of 2011, certainly. Most fun in music in 2011? Perhaps. Certainly comes very close to the kind of fun that Tune-Yards is having. But regardless of all that, it’s just music for music’s sake. And there’s never enough of that. I mean listen to that guitar. Listen to those nonsense lyrics. Listen to those drums. Listen to that DANCING.
Biggest track of 2011, for sure. It was fucking huge. I mean literally, or as literal as you can get with music. It towers over you, and it walks on by, causing village-destroying earthquakes with each oblivious step. I listened to it over, and over, and over, until my ears heard it when I closed my eyes. A titan of a track. Mammoth.
So what if the fans didn’t like it so much? King of Limbs was an incredible record. It was Radiohead managing to make an electronic album that rivalled some pretty great electronic albums. And they didn’t even break a sweat to do it, it didn’t sound like. People have been doing this for years, and they just swan in with a track like Bloom and go ‘Hey, what’s up?’. Lovely stuff.
This could only ever have been recorded in a bedroom. Vocals that sound about as small as they feel, thanks to heavy echo and low levels. And then there’s the fact that it sounds like the whole thing has been run through the tape decks a dozen too many times. But it’s not too many, because the whole thing is beautiful and delicate. And it’s always building, drums and drums and bass and bass.
I played Tenor Saxophone for nearly a decade, and got to a pretty high standard. These days, I don’t actually enjoy the saxophone all that much, instead preferring the deeper texture of something like the trumpet or the cello. Shows how much I know, really. Colin Stetson gets the saxophone. He gets all the saxophone.
His album, New History of Warfare – Judges Vol. 2 is incredible. I know I’ve used a lot of hyperbole so far in this list, but there I just used hyperbole and italics. That means you know I’m not just hyperbolising. It’s almost entirely him, on his own, with a saxophone and a dozen or so mics, and they just up and down the levels to fill out the sound, until you’ve got an entire orchestra from just one instrument. Not to mention the fact that he’s circular breathing, meaning he never has to stop putting out noise.
It’s not just technical brilliance, either. That track, The Righteous Wrath of an Honourable Man, is beyond beautiful. The whole thing slides up and down, faster than you can think, and it never stops being flighty, and delicate, while at the same time having an underlying power in its chord structure that grounds the whole thing. I’m getting technical again. Hah.
Anyway, track of 2011, for sure. Just look at his face. He deserves it.