It’s well into 2012, and I have been too lazy on this, but I’m finally ready to post my best of 2011 mix. Hoo-ray? Hoo-cares? Who knows? but it’s something I’ve been doing every year for the past several and I enjoy it. I hope you enjoy it too, and what the hell, free music, right?
So how was 2011, musically? I made a commitment early in the year to try to listen to as much new music as possible, to make the year-end list the best it could be. Unfortunately, I think the more new music I listen to in a year, the harder it gets to go through it all and come up with a coherent and accurate picture of what my favorites were. I worked on this list through the last half of November and all of December, and spent most of January picking tracks for this list and fretting over whether this or that album really belonged on it.
But eventually I decided that second-guessing myself was a mug’s game, and here you go. My favorite albums of 2011.
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|20. Russian Circles – Empros
Song: Mladek (00:00-07:20)
Russian Circles is a Chicago-based band who plays heavy instrumental rock in the vein of Pelican, but with a more melodic feel. I’ve been following them for several albums, but I think this is the first time they’ve appeared on my year-end list. This album is interesting in that their sound has grown to incorporate some more extreme elements but also quieter interludes, and the songwriting is as good or better than on any of their previous albums. The song I’ve selected highlights their typical heavy and heavily layered yet melodic sound.
|19. Deer Tick – Divine Providence
Song: Let’s All Go To The Bar (07:20-10:30)
Deer Tick are among a group of bands (like Blitzen Trapper) working a certain corner of Americana with a smirk and a stomp and an ironic mustache. They’re not typically my favorites, though I do enjoy listening to them. But this album is a bit more muscular than previous efforts, and makes it into my list almost entirely on the strength of the meathead anthem I’ve selected for this mix. Its simplistic call and response structure may not belie deep thoughts behind, but its frantic energy is a clear an homage to the Replacements as I’ve heard in years. And yes I’m probably a bit of a meathead, so the song itself appeals to me on an entirely unironic level.
|18. Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming
Song: No Time For Dreaming (10:30-13:19)
I was late getting into the whole Daptone thing. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have been putting out some great records for a while now and were never on my radar until a friend of mine brought them up to me almost a year ago. See, I listen to a lot of new music but almost completely at random, whatever strikes my fancy on a given day. And I miss a lot that way, especially since I tend not to check a band out at all if I find the hype annoying. But after dropping the ball on SJ&tDK I was on the lookout for some good throwback R&B, and this Charles Bradley album came along at just the right time. Also a Daptone artist, his James Brown-inspired sound could have been recorded in 1970 and saved in a time capsule until now.
|17. Hunters – From Birth To Soil
Song: Engine of Deceit (13:19-18:11)
Hunters are another Chicago-based band (I do like to check out the local talent) that play a kind of groovy, almost stoner-like sludge metal informed by the intensity of death metal. Comparisons could run the gamut from High on Fire to Mastodon to Carcass with a line running back through Pantera to a heavy 70s Sabbath-style groove. I’ve elected to focus on the stoner/groove aspect with the song I’ve selected, but even there it takes a break to delve into pure sludge partway through the track.
|16. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Here We Rest
Song: Never Could Believe (18:11-22:14)
Jason Isbell, formerly of Drive-By Truckers, still writes probably the best Truckers songs out there. Unfortunately, the band he’s playing with now, as good as they are, don’t quite have the same balls as DBT, so the songs don’t have the same raunchy immediacy that I think the boys would have given them, even if the songs’ subjects are as down & dirty as anything Isbell has written previously. But the songs themselves are of course still the strength here, with the focus on Southern characters and their troubles. Never Could Believe is a funky little honky tonk number with great interplay between the guitar and piano that I dig.
|15. Symphony of Science – Symphony of Science Bundle
Song: We Are All Connected (22:14-26:20)
OK, so I guess I’ve finally gotten around to cheating a little bit. I have certain rules with these year-end lists–no compilations, no rereleases, no EPs, just full-length albums initially released that year. Symphony of Science has been putting together these amazing songs out of autotuned snippets of voiceovers by some of the great minds in science (among others), sourcing them from science shows, lectures, etc., for a few years now, with accompanying youtube videos. But I believe this year is the first time they’ve released them as a downloadable MP3 album, which technically–technically–qualifies it for this list. I’ve selected a song containing some great quotes from some favorites of mine, including Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
|14. Larry And His Flask – All That We Know
Song: Blood Drunk (26:20-29:53)
Larry And His Flask are an Oregon band playing the same kind of punk-rock breakneck bluegrass that seems to find its way onto my list every year in one form or another. These guys have energy and chops and a great sense for melody. The song I’ve selected has a bit of darkness to it, but tempered by a singalong chorus and a sense of fun.
|13. Absu – Abzu
Song: Abraxus Connectus (29:53-33:44)
Absu’s Abzu, the second in a planned trilogy of records, is a psychotic onslaught of thrashy chaos. The opening 20 seconds or so may mislead you into thinking you are listening to a bad 80s hair metal throwback, but once the girlish wail subsides and the band gets to its business, the pummeling your gut takes from the lightspeed riffing will convince of the wrongness of that initial impression. I’ve selected the 3rd of six songs for this mix, and it represents this album at its best.
|12. Tombs – Path of Totality
Song: To Cross The Land (33:44-39:37)
Tombs plays a depressive style of metal that definitely draws on the influences of Neurosis-style post-metal, but has its own blend of black metal and sludge and a half-dozen other subgenres as well. The sound can range from a patient sparsity to an enveloping shroud of downtuned guitars and blastbeats but the remarkable thing about the album is the emotionality of it–oppressive, paranoid, despairing, claustrophobic… I have to admit that I’m not a guy who can really pick out lyrics in most metal, especially with harsh vocals (can anybody? I guess so but it’s hard to believe sometimes)–the emotions I’m talking about, I’m getting strictly instrumentally. The song I’ve chosen builds slowly, starting with a repeated figure that builds in frantic intensity into a blastbeat-punctuated pronouncement of doom.
|11. Original Cast Recording – The Book Of Mormon
Song: Hasa Diga Eebowai (39:37-43:59)
Show tunes? Well, I do have a little bit of a theatrical background but I don’t keep up too much. This new musical though, from Matt and Trey of South Park fame, piqued my interest, as I do tend to enjoy a good laugh (even if I don’t watch too much South Park anymore) and they can always be counted on to raise a few eyebrows. This show is… it’s just so slick; the people they teamed up with to bring it to the stage really knew their Broadway musicals, and it shows. As profane and offensive as you might expect, this soundtrack shows a real love for musical theater, with homages to everything from the Lion King to Sound of Music to bad Bono-led celebrity charity albums and a real affection for its characters, no matter how goofily it portrays them. Regarding the song I’ve selected for this mix: odds are it will offend you, but there’s also a lot to be said for the way it upends the cheeriness of the Lion King’s Hakuna Matata in favor of a darker (but funnier) look at conditions in Africa and the way people react to them.
|10. Necrocomiccon – Hot Dog Cart Hunger
Song: Everybody Wants To Rule The World (43:59-46:36)
Necrocomiccon is a black metal band that plays black metal versions of pop songs from the 1980s. They are absolutely brilliant, and they’ve released an EP and another full-length since this album without a dud among them. I’ve selected their version of a classic Tears for Fears song; it’s amazing, so is the rest of the album, look them up on Facebook and check them out because they are a couple of geniuses.
|09. Yuck – Yuck
Song: Get Away (46:36-50:11)
Shortly after this album came out, I considered it a lock for the #1 spot on this list. Something about the Dinosaur Jr. guitar tone they use liberally (though if you listen to the whole album they do veer away from the Dino Jr. formula quite a bit, most notably on a Burt Bacharach inspired number that made me think of Butch & Sundance riding bicycles) just seems to grab directly onto my spinal cord and make me do its bidding. But I think I burned myself out on it early, and truth be told there’s not much else on the album as strong as this opening song. Still top 10 material though.
|08. Low – C’mon
Song: Especially Me (50:11-55:37)
Low, though they’ve been around forever, first came to my attention with a fantastic (silly but fantastic, and it could hardly be otherwise) version of Toto’s song Africa that they did for the AV Club, and I checked out this album on the strength of that performance. Consistently mellow, and lyrically not always the strongest, still these 10 tunes present a solid wall of mesmerizing vocal harmonies. Probably the overall best song from the album (aside from the hypnotically repetitive Nothing But Heart) is the one I’ve chosen for this mix, which features Mimi’s enchanting vocals and the dreamlike sound that characterizes much of the album.
|07. Elliott Brood – Days Into years
Song: Hold You (55:37-60:14)
Elliott Brood are a perennial favorite of mine, and this album features their “death country” sound with improved songwriting. I’ve had them on my year-end list before and don’t know how much new I can say about them. Hold You is a great thumbnail of their sound; if a song can be simultaneously plaintive and anthemic, this is it.
|06. Fucked Up – David Comes To Life
Song: Life In Paper (60:14-64:50)
Fucked Up’s album David Comes To Life is an epic work that I admit, I haven’t fully been able to wrap my head around yet. But that’s not a knock on it–there’s a lot to come to grips with. Musically speaking, I’ve found it analogous to The Hold Steady in certain ways; instrumentally, you’ve got a style of music (in Hold Steady’s case it’s classic rock, in this case it’s indie punk) that I find enormously pleasing, when vocally I find both bands grating. But whereas I never really fully was able to reconcile Craig Finn’s drunken sneer with the bar band stylings of his cohort, I’ve come to appreciate the way Damian Abraham’s hardcore screaming works with the wall-of-noise guitars Fucked Up brings. The album’s epic length, daunting as it is, has presented another barrier to my understanding. But more and more, I find myself pleased with the prospect that I will probably still be wrestling with this album through the remainder of 2012.
|05. Liturgy – Aesthethica
Song: Tragic Laurel (64:50-68:55)
It’s my understanding that Liturgy often faces the epithet of “Hipster Metal.” As if metal is a ghetto undergoing gentrification, and Liturgy are the skinny tattooed white kids rolling through on tall bikes and smoking American Spirits. I don’t know about that. I dig metal, and while it’s true that I tend to lean more toward certain types of metal, that flows from the way something sounds and how that affects me more than from the application of some outside aesthetic. I have a friend who absolutely hated this album. I know there have been multiple internet bitch fights about this album. I guess I cared enough to notice, but not to keep it from being my highest-rated metal album of the year. Because it’s just so damned interesting. I’ve tried to explain it using phrases such as “it’s like somebody took pieces from a puzzle labeled ‘black metal’ and ended up putting together a math rock album with them instead” but apart from being a clumsy simile it’s not quite right either. I’m not always the best at articulating what I like about music, and honestly I’m not a guy who always goes for the most challenging fare, but something about the way that they took black metal sounds and did something completely different with them appealed to me.
|04. The Red Hills – I’m A Nightmare
Song: News And Bombs (68:55-73:09)
Here is a random Bandcamp download that ended up captivating me for a good portion of 2011. It started with the song San Diego, and eventually the whole album just got under my skin. I can’t really find out too much about these guys other than that they are from Portland Oregon and are related to the (fantastically named) band I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House. This is dark alt-country, touching on dark subjects, and without much to break that mood. But it’s compelling stuff.
|03. Amerigo Gazaway – Fela Soul
Song: Stakes Is High (73:09-78:25)
Is this a cheat? I guess I’m not familiar enough with the original works to tell how involved the work was that went into these mashups. But the concept is great, and the outcome is even better, and this list is more about my favorite new music than the most technically accomplished. Fela Soul is a mashup of works by famed Afrobeat artist Fela Kuti with songs by De La Soul and related projects, and I’ve spun it compulsively enough this year to land it high on my list.
|02. White Denim – D
Song: Burnished (78:25-81:01)
I heard these guys on turntable.fm one day and immediately sought out this album. It’s indie rock with a jazzy/mathy sound and a bit of Southern flair (the band is from Austin if I’m not mistaken). Some songs are more straightforward, but the one I’ve chosen showcases their love of complexity, with shifting time signatures and noodly, intertwining dual guitars.
|01. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
Song: The Everchanging Spectrum Of A Lie (81:01-88:03)
This Welsh band’s full-album debut is sort of a companion piece, in my mind anyway, to the previously-mentioned Yuck album. Where that album reprised the noisy early-90s sound of indie bands like Dinosaur Jr., this one incorporates the early 90s shoegazy sounds of a My Bloody Valentine, but with a bigger crunch and a louder thump and an urgency that demands my attention.