Our Favorite 50 Albums of 2011 list reflects a multiplicity of trends. Yes, it continues our own trend toward the esoteric (Hype Williams), the difficult (Tiziana Bertoncini & Thomas Lehn), and the overlooked (KWJAZ), but it also trends toward an embrace of transition in a time of sensory abundance, a time when nostalgia and memory have become aestheticized, a time when the very process of music-making has become increasingly audible and our valuation of it increasingly suspect. Trends are often equated with homogenization, superficiality, conformity, and reification, written off by those uncomfortable with change, people too afraid to commit in fear of sinking with a trend once it reaches its inevitable conclusion. But in 2011, all trends demanded critical ears, not only because they hinged on the same impulse that increased awareness and impact for marginalized voices — which, outside the music world, manifested in political occupations and revolutions before we even realized it — but also because trends are as ephemeral as our values of them, coming and going, twisting away from logic and producing ruptures and permutations that disrupt preconceived notions and turn over values we’ve internalized as given.
Pessimists might dismiss this embrace as a capitulation to the rhythm of capitalism, symptomatic of a consumer culture whose signifiers are pretty much dead weight in the context of a sanctified modernism. But optimists see this sensory explosion as simply more potential breaking points, increased opportunities to partake in both demystification (Tom Waits) and deconstruction (Bill Orcutt), democratization (Oneohtrix Point Never) and myth-making (Liturgy); more chances to extract new value from traditions (Rafael Toral) and elevate kitsch from the dumpsters (James Ferraro); to prove wrong those who prematurely announced their death two years ago (Lil B, Shabazz Palaces, Death Grips, etc.); to uncover new constructions of the mind (The Caretaker), body (Colin Stetson, DJ Diamond), and spirit (A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Grouper); to find new mediums (The Flaming Lips), temporal experiences (The Flaming Lips), and distribution methods (The Flaming Lips).
Of course, trends also remind us of instability and uncertainty. There’s a reason giants like Radiohead and Björk didn’t make our list this year while Thee Oh Sees made it twice (coincidentally placing next to each other), and that reason might be unsettling for some of us. But if longevity’s what you’re looking for, feel free to save those plastic jewel cases. Trends, like I said, come and go, but we’d rather be coming and going than staying put. —Mr P
50. Tom Waits
Bad As Me
Critics are used to pronouncing each new Tom Waits’ album as good as the last. But how did he get so dependable? It’s easy to think of his gnarled, curious art as being more like a geological accident than his own creation. 2011’s Bad As Me too had the feel of something occurring naturally, with Waits alternating between reflective piano moments (“Last Leaf “) and spluttering anti-capitalist ire (“Hell Broke Luce”). Then there was the death-boogie of “Satisfaction,” which proved once again that Tom gave less of a damn than anyone, even co-conspirators Jagger and Richards (on guitar duty). But whenever Bad As Me lumbered into protest mode, it shook with the irritability of a convict who was interrupted while eating his last meal. Its distinctive irregular gait — every second song a ballad or a stomp — was like a series of encounters with everything that Waits had done before, yet each time he was fielding his own habits with a more efficient recognition of their contours. “New Year’s Eve” took a well-earned rest in the form of the traditional sway of Auld Lang Syne, but for the real explanation of how he got to this point, you only needed to ask the penultimate “Hell Broke Luce”: ”Left. Right. Left. Right.” That’s how.
Take Liturgy’s haters seriously. They’re right. And it’s not only because the band enacts the sacrilege of engaging only about half of black metal’s essential characteristics and filling the remaining space with shards of what at one time would be termed the avant-garde; it’s because of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s capital-T Theory behind the whole thing. The theory is correct, and that’s the problem. One listen to Aesthethica proved the “burst beat” he writes is a real thing, and it proved the haters right, too: Both theory and praxis, it turns out, stand in opposition to the immanent nihilism at the core of black metal, its essential appeal. But Aesthethica approached some form of perfection anyway, finding a place for an affirmative viewpoint that few of those invested in black metal (myself included) thought they wanted and making it a force to answer to. It’s rare to find art so utterly enmeshed in its theory, each drawing the other into nearly physical presence. And this utter physicality was always at the heart of black metal, even if it was rarely for the sake of affirmation. Aesthethica staked out uncomfortable new territory by virtue of being just a little more comfortable, but the results turned out to be just as visceral as anything black metal’s ever vomited up.
48. Matana Roberts
COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres
Avant-garde jazz has a tendency to lack emotion. The music frequently proves to be little more than a blow-hard contest, or, if academic composition strategies dominate, it assumes a sterile, inhuman quality. Recorded live with a 15-piece ensemble, saxophonist Matana Roberts’ COIN COIN was a completely different beast, alive with feeling and uncompromisingly human. Inspired by family stories and the larger narrative of African-American history — “Coin Coin” is the nickname given to Matana by her maternal grandfather — this first entry in a 12-chapter story began with Coin Coin’s birth in 1742 and, in my interpretation, articulated the horrors of slavery. “My master was ruler of the land,” Roberts said above hushed horn phrases and drum splatters. “I was only 16” went the girl’s story about the year her master raped her. “There will never be any pictures of me.” Then, everything shattered — the reed and spectral vocal melodies arose, eventually raging into violent acoustic squawks, digital zings, and agonizing vocal screams. Roberts’ patchwork composition style merged jazz, blues, spirituals, lullabies, and work songs, producing a swirling world of sonic references that warmly embraced the bruised and battered characters. During a terrifying slave auction scene in “libation for Mr. Brown: Bid em in,” the singing took on a defiant mood that turned into a celebratory free-gospel romp. Horrible and beautiful at once, this album was a testament to human resiliency and the limitless powers of creative music.
47. Kurt Vile
Smoke Ring For My Halo
I often liken Kurt Vile to the late Elliott Smith rather than other artists like Bruce Springsteen, whom he’s been compared to. Like Smith, Vile is apparent in his influences as a musician providing a mixture of straightforward and vague songwriting craft that is a palpable soundtrack for Generation Y. With Smoke Ring For My Halo, his second full-length on Matador, Vile did what he has on previous records, but with more focus and intent that highlight him as a singer-songwriter with both potential commercial and underground appeal. To me, the album was a summation of Vile’s apathy to a heightened success, despite semi-controversy over opener “Baby’s Arms” appearing in a Bank of America commercial. But Vile is about creating memorable tunes. His formula worked even with the polished insincerities of the studio, as the bridge between passive-aggressive rock on “Puppet To The Man” (“I bet by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man/ Well, I’ll tell you right now/ You best believe that I am”) to Vile’s naturally slowed-down, repetitive guitar on the title track made the album an interesting listen, mirroring the subtlety present in our daily lives.
46. A Winged Victory for the Sullen
A Winged Victory for the Sullen
If there was one album this year that deserved to be experienced quietly and personally, it had to be A Winged Victory for the Sullen. The music was delicate and instantly transfixing: slowly sounded strings surged and moaned (“Requiem for Static King, 2”), amplified harmonic chords reverberated to near-distortion (“All Farewells are Sudden”), and, perhaps most strikingly, the subtle circumstantial sounds of squeaky piano keys rubbing against each other slowly became punctuated by deliberately plucked strings (“Minuet for a Cheap Piano Number Two”). On this record, collaborators Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran were masters of composing with musical elements that were not fully heard, just as they were masters of expressing an emotional journey that was never fully revealed. It was clear from the two musicians’ own comments about their work that some or all of A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s devastating melancholia was inspired by the passing of their friend Mark Linkous. However, they never succumbed to bottomless loss or sorrow; their music contained an irrepressible hope and effervescence that made this album, if it was in fact intended as a requiem for Linkous, an incredibly touching and loving one. With their respect and their intense care, Wiltzie and O’Halloran created one of the most fully realized works of the year.
45. Tiziana Bertoncini and Thomas Lehn
Like much of this year’s electroacoustic releases, Tiziana Bertoncini and Thomas Lehn’s Horsky Park made good use of its conceptual framework, even revealing its narrative in the liners. The duo pitted Bertoncini’s contemporary violin, dripping with Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, and Luciano Berio allusions, against Lehn’s analog synthesizer, a familiar, estimable voice in modern improvised music. This narrative was so explicit on the track “galaverna” as to route Bertoncini’s output through Lehn’s, literally melding the two worlds into a single, gorgeous voice. The nearly 43-minute duration of Horsky Park was without a lull; the duo were constantly engaged in a tug-of-war, never for control, but between two intense sounds somehow fitting together. The record was perpetually engaging, and, despite its difficult components and method of execution, seemed logically constructed, as if everything were in its right place. As a result, Horsky Park had a purely aesthetic appeal. This high level of aural beauty seldom companions the intellectual reward that Horsky Park offered. Because of this, among a particularly strong year for electroacoustic music, Thomas Lehn and Tiziana Bertoncini’s Horsky Park stood out as one of the year’s finest.
44. The Psychic Paramount
II was confrontational without being brutish, psychedelic without being stoned, and atmospheric without lacking poise. Put bluntly: the return of New York’s The Psychic Paramount was a very welcome surprise. In a world where recording garage pop songs with intentional trashcan production equates to “noise rock,” hearing The Psychic Paramount breathlessly pound through “DDB” and “N5” with such an erudite understanding of feedback and tension/release dynamics was not just refreshing, it was downright necessary. On II, the instrumental trio’s nigh-relentless energy was engulfing. Much like how Shellac credited themselves on At Action Park, II deservedly seemed more an album of “time,” “mass,” and “velocity.” Further still, II felt cogent and purposeful — that this trio managed to craft such a striking album out of the guitar/bass/drums approach speaks volumes to their chemistry as musicians; likewise, their ability to sustain such focused aggression (with a dynamic ebb and flow that recalls This Heat) for 40 minutes is staggering. II may have taken some time to get here, but it certainly didn’t disappoint. Rock albums — especially instrumental ones — rarely hit with such focus and aplomb.
43. St. Vincent
Annie Clark’s voice rang through Strange Mercy with a retro sort of grace, perhaps reminiscent of old Hollywood, yet her songs trembled, even rumbled, confronting such picture-perfect love stories and pretty faces. They seethed with frustration, resignation, and heartbreak: an emotional commotion that certainly disturbed any easy notions of happiness and charm. However, such conflicting sentiments never tumbled into mere chaos, for Clark arranged them into layers, balancing proclamations and confessions, allowing twists of pop resolution, then collapsing into funky breakdowns and spastic jams. The punch and protest of “Cheerleader” contrasted the dreamy acquiescence of “Surgeon,” which contrasted the catchy agitation of “Hysterical Strength,” which in turn contrasted the elegant determination of “Year of the Tiger.” Such clashes and reversals hinted at the nature of a thoroughly contemporary feminine character, one who grapples with her own enigmatic essence, pulsing with darkness and ambivalence yet all the while commanding undivided attention. She drifted along filled with questions and judgements, even grievances, so often on the verge of breaking down, yet always remaining absolutely honest — even if honesty meant revealing off-kilter and possibly unsettling discontent.
2011 was the year everyone released a dubstep track. Having released on Hyperdub and Ramp Recordings in the past, UK producer Zomby is often lumped into that club scene on paper, but his work is a completely different kettle of fish. Indeed, many of his singles and much of his sophomore album Dedication sounded like dubstep, but they had all the signature warpy bass removed. Presenting his tracks stripped down to the bare essentials, his skills as a producer and arranger were left on naked display. Zomby didn’t allow himself to hide mediocre compositions behind muddy lower frequencies and sidechain compression. His knack for melody and sound design was unobscured. As a listener acclimated to his subtle execution, they could clearly hear his choices and see the nuts and bolts of his compositions. It was a very bold, minimalist approach to dubstep, if indeed his work can still be classified as such, doing his grime and old-school influences proud. Certainly, having been released by the legendary 4AD, nestled comfortably alongside the experimental pop and indie leanings of the label’s catalogue, Dedication found a home among more thoughtful connoisseurs of electronic music in 2011.
41. Fabio Orsi
Stand Before Me, Oh My Soul
Of course, it wasn’t all about Rich Baker’s drum loops (they didn’t even populate every song!), but in a way, it was all about Rich Baker’s drum loops; in seasoned Italian musician Fabio Orsi’s hands, they were a sibilant, shapeshifting, suppurating thing, continuous even as they threatened to dislodge all spatial continuity. The surrounding instruments — already defamiliarized familiarities that materialized like overly-sympathetic resonances — reacted in strange ways to this exotic figure in the landscape of ambient. They wept. They partied. They spoke in tongues. It wasn’t all about the drum loops, but these were the coyest beckoners of divergent traditions, these made the album worthy of its histrionic name, these, crucially, were just under-the-skin enough to sell Orsi’s abstraction as a personal statement. His calling card became variety coupled with sheer persistence: one moment, we were dust mites clinging for dear life to his guitar string; the next, scoured by the harshest of fine-grain white noise; now, slowly somersaulting through the void. Each lasted too long to panic or even remain rooted in time. Perhaps memory coded it all as either more caustic or more homogeneous than the defibrillating experience itself, but the gut maintains that that was the point: Nobody blurred the line between punishment and hypnosis in 2011 like Fabio Orsi.
Artists who veer toward the more haunting end of the ambient music spectrum are surprisingly common these days; blame it on the global financial crisis for creating an environment conducive to unmitigated despair and helplessness. Or maybe the pessimists among us are just feeling a bit more musically creative these days. Whatever the case, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out as an artist creating dark ambient music, primarily because so much of it is just so not what it should be — which is to say, frightening in any sort of memorable way. Grimoire, from the mysterious Miasmah project Kreng, may very well have been 2011’s most frightening album across any genre. Classical instruments interspersed with ritualistic percussion made this release slightly more active than your proper ambient album, but the incorporation of ominous, drawn-out strings, as well as samples from recordings who-knows-how-old, helped to create a decidedly haunting and airy atmosphere. “Wrak,” with its cacophonous, free jazz-like mixture of horns and noise, was easily the standout track, but “Balkop” was similarly remarkable for how beautiful and subdued it was. Regardless of any differences between songs, the whole of Grimoire was certainly one deserving of your nightmares.
39. Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa
This year, my Tumblr’s dashboard blew up with fake Polaroids of young, decidedly non-Indians in jean shorts, big ol’ headdresses, and Indian wedding jewelry — at the same time. No matter how foreign something is, if it’s pleasing to our senses, we can find a use for it ASAP. When it comes to “world music,” that means we only jack the pretty stuff. (Not that I’m complaining — arguing against cultural appropriation is to deny that cultures are, and have always been, as fluidly impure as the US’s drinking water supply.) Then there’s Arrington de Dionyso, whose Suara Naga was built from the messy sounds that would clear a Starbucks in a snap: mainly, aggressive throat singing in Indonesian, but also bass clarinet, funky-ass guitars, sex-dripping backup vocals, and a world of musical traditions. By deliberate lyrical obfuscation through a language most Americans have never even heard before, the album probably says something about how meaning is usually left behind when music crosses cultures. But more interesting is simply how awe-inspiring it all sounded. As Arrington’s mouth teased out sounds and cadences that should only seem possible from the forked, foot-long tongue of a demon, Suara Naga made the case that, as experiences go, listening trumps intellectualizing. The album’s swagger wasn’t affect; it was ritual.
Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1
The darkness of the United State’s Pacific Northwest can be overwhelming at times. By day, the evergreens and mountains of the local wilderness are viewed as sweepingly majestic. At night, they take a looming and threatening quality, like they could take over the inhabited cities haphazardly settled inside in an instant. Earth’s Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 is the group’s most regionally referential album, from the art by Seattle native Stacy Rozich to the inclusion of new members Karl Blau on bass (K Records folk stalwart) and Lori Goldston on cello. Losing the densely packed arrangements of The Bees Made Honey in The Lions Skull in favor of a more skeletal and melodic sound, the four-person group played with a deep sound that ebbed and flowed both methodically and unexpectedly throughout. The “less is more” approach coupled with the complex melodic interplay between four musicians at their best created a record steeped in beauty, menace, and mystery. Earth released their best album in 2011. Much like the wilds that surrounded the musicians, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 must be experienced to be understood.
The Brazilian pastimes of bossa nova and samba, like most other ethnocentric genres, rarely get studied and fleshed out in their homeland. If they do, it is a mere co-opting with a “safe” popular genre such as American rock or European pop. This is not an argument that ideological purity is predominant in these genres or that such co-opting results in something of lesser quality than the original; what Berlin transplants Chico Mello and Nicholas Bussmann aspire with Telebossa is an essential deconstruction of both genres that only strengthens their compelling elements in ways thought only possible in the streets of São Paulo and elsewhere. Never once did their self-titled debut feel anything other than Brazilian, despite basic concepts such as syncopated rhythm given an expansive context with a string section from Bussmann and Werner Dafeldecker (like in “Seculo Do Progresso”). Even the one song that gave away the source of the material, “Der Falsche Raum,” felt more like a set of sambistas playing with chamber music practices than anything specifically European. But in their reassessment, they added a unique depth that greatly strengthened the punch that such genres can inspire, creating a new space for samba to work with.
36. Future Islands
On the Water
When last year’s In Evening Air came out, Future Islands probably became instant favorites for an awful lot of people. I don’t know if On the Water had the same effect. In Evening Air engendered a certain rush of love, a rush in which the Future Islands of On the Water don’t seem particularly interested. No, On the Water was more about deepening that love, and it expressed that feeling through its every aspect. From first listen, it was clearly a more measured, patient release than their past work, with an extremely rewarding focus on the lush interplay of bass and synthesizer. But the concept extended beyond pure sonics, as the record formed a 40-plus-minute examination of how love can deepen and dissipate. Who can better render that concept in righteous, verge-of-tears glory and still offer a patient, legitimately mature take? Nobody, really. Maybe fewer people learned that this year, but On the Water gave certainty to those already aware.
35. The Men
A brief survey of Leave Home’s press starts to read like a genealogy taken from some indie rock Bible, with The Men garnering comparisons to Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, The Butthole Surfers, Spacemen 3, Swans, and Neu!. One could be tempted to look at the album title lifted from The Ramones, at the bridge to “()” audaciously swiped from “Revolution,” and at the record’s frenzied contents that careen from heavy psych to bulldozer punk to paint-peeling sludge noise and chalk this up to postmodern pastiche. But The Men are working in an older tradition where, in the words of Tom Petty (as quoted by guitarist Mark Perro), “Every rock ’n’ roll song is the same.” It’s an approach so disarmingly guileless that it’s hard not to fall in love with these guys. In a year where some of our favorite pop records were quoted, sampled, and appropriated into existence, The Men posed the question, “Why should kids with laptops get to have all the fun?” With Leave Home, the Brooklyn four-piece stitched together the tattered hides and mildewed bones of our indie rock heroes to make an album that went for the throat like nothing else we heard in 2011.
34. Panda Bear
Hearing about the listening party for Panda Bear’s impossibly hyped Tomboy earlier this year, I immediately got tickets and shortly after hopped on a bus to New York. The experience was like a religious ceremony. The audience sat on the floor of venue Le Possion Rouge in silence as Tomboy boomed out of the speakers for the first time to the public. Everyone seemed to agree, despite the delays, the divisive singles, and the 12-plus months of waiting: Noah Lennox had delivered. Using the simple combination of drums, guitar, and piano with various effects. Lennox built and repeated melodies until they became musical mantras. All the while, his voice, which has never sounded better than on this record, soared over the musical foundation. In Rolling Stone, Lennox described Tomboy as emotionally heavy, having the feel of “weathering the storm.” The album balanced introspective darkness like “Tomboy” and “Scheherazade” with moments of pure euphoria found in “Surfer’s Hymn” and “Last Night at the Jetty.” That storm truly did feel weathered by the time “Benfica,” possibly Lennox’s most beautiful composition to date, brought this brilliant album to a close.
33. Rafael Toral
Space Elements Vol. III
Is it wrong to compare Space Elements Vol. III to Herbie Hancock’s 70s future-jazz masterpiece “Rain Dance”? Both rely on loose electronic exploration occasionally anchored by live drumming that’s firmly planted in the period’s new-jazz school (for Herbie, free-jazz; for Rafael, post-free jazz). I know it sounds better to put on vague critical airs, but Toral’s approach here was pretty simple: he’s injecting life into an old idiom, something jazz musicians often attempt but usually with over-calculated results. Toral’s tactic was freedom — freedom from too much knowledge, employed through various electronic instruments that “don’t have a conventional interface.” The musician had to build an understanding and method for the instrument from the ground up and then express it in a live setting. With the resurgence of analog synthesizers, a lot of artists probably unknowingly ran into this situation in 2011 (“Hey, what does this knob do?”). For Toral, this guessing game was his natural environment, allowing him to create a genuine sense of exploration. Tension was built through discovery colliding with convention, note clusters encircling bouts of silence, and our perception of jazz’s potential being continually recreated.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
M83’s Anthony Gonzalez promised something “very, very, very epic” and subsequently churned out a double album magnum opus enlightened, rather than weighed down, by nostalgia. Comprising 22 tracks, many of which were indeed epic, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming positioned Gonzalez as more of a lead singer than any of his past work allowed. Zola Jesus’ Nika Roza Danilova’s whispers opened the “Intro” and set the tone for the familiar M83 synths to come to the fore, amid a mammoth choir and, finally, Gonzalez’s most assertive vocals yet. It was indicative of what would unfold over the course of the next 73 minutes and also the perfect build up to “Midnight City,” a song featuring the memorable rooftop-shouting lyric “The city is my church!”, not to mention one of the best saxophone solos we’ve heard in a long time. Hard synths and 80s pop were still intact (“OK Pal,” “Claudia Lewis”), as were nods to childhood innocence (“Raconte-Moi Histoire”), while burning ballads (“Wait,” “Splendor”), an arena-rock era Simple Minds-like standout (“Reunion”), ascending ambient sounds (“Steve McQueen,” “Echoes of Mine”), and disco-inflections (“New Map”) helped round out this sprawling (though surprisingly undaunting) promised epic from M83.
Past Life Martyred Saints
Listen to enough albums in a lifetime and you’ll start to forget why music meant so much to you in the first place. The process of finding an artist’s place in your life becomes intellectual rather than emotional. That’s the paradox of criticism. Yet every once in a while, a musician breaks through the noise and forces you to make space for her. I’ve been listening to the feedback-drenched chord progressions and faraway, exploding percussion of Erika M. Anderson’s post-Gowns solo debut for over six months, and I still can’t entirely explain why her music cuts so deep. Sure, there’s the desolate honesty in lyrics like “Great grandmother lived on the prairie/ Nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’/ I’ve got the same feeling inside of me/ Nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’”; the way EMA radiates confidence and vulnerability at the same time; and the collective unconscious-nudging echoes of folk songs and lullabies that haunt Past Life Martyred Saints. But picking out those parts doesn’t even begin to do justice to the whole, a dangerously insightful album that dug deeper with every repetition.
• Souterrain Transmissions: http://www.souterraintransmissions.com
30. Lil B
I’m Gay (I’m Happy)
2011 was a fruitful year for The BasedGod. It began with Angel’s Exodus, whereby Lil B affirmed his complexity as an artist capable of producing genuinely cultivated rap music beyond the perpetual reincarnations of his “hoes on my dick because I look like ________” song. However, no fruit was more appetizing than the consequential I’m Gay. Its songs, like the self-assured “I Hate Myself,” featured compassionate lyricism at variance with the persona previously presented through YouTube hits “Suck My D*&* Ho” and the like. Lil B maintained that the album’s title was simply a means of advancing positivity, referring to the alternative meaning of the word ‘gay’ — i.e., to be happy. Nevertheless, it provoked criticism (including death threats) from the ever-conservative hip-hop police, with some people claiming it was less about social evolution and more about making a name and selling a product. (Lil B eventually confounded his critics, releasing the album free of charge by way of tweet: “CUZ I LOVE YOU IF YOU DONT HAVE 10 DOLLERS TO BUY MY NEW PROJECT HERE IT GOES FOR FREE.”) But with or without the controversy, I’m Gay delivered his most substantial music to date while continuing to push his ideologically distinctive basedworldview.
29. Thee Oh Sees
[In the Red]
The term “garage rock” might cover it for the Wikipedia entry on Thee Oh Sees, but the release of Castlemania demanded an expanded descriptor. It should somehow suggest Oscar the Grouch vocals, weirdo lyrics that sound like a freaked-out children’s show episode about death and decay, and evocative sonic textures that sound as if the proverbial garage contained the reanimated bones of some of the best of the 60s through the 90s. I like to think that this record showed us frontman John Dwyer getting personal in the way that the Dracula puppet-rock-opera was Jason Segal’s character’s way of getting personal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It was almost a solo project for Dwyer, as the other regulars except Brigid Dawson sat this one out. The sound remained dirty and had the familiar “alright, les do this” quality that comes from recording in your own house, but now with eerie instrumentals (e.g., Beatles-in-the-afterlife flutes) and a haunting narrative that made it seem like maybe being dead ain’t so simple. The Sesame Street comparison is apt and hard to get out of your head once it’s been suggested, but envision a Tim Burton-y corpse band — or even get specific and picture Beetlejuice — and the effect is just as good. There it is! “Burton Rock.”
28. Thee Oh Sees
Carrion Crawler/The Dream
[In The Red]
In my review of Thee Oh Sees’ other record of 2011, the similarly excellent Castlemania blurb’d above, I wrote of being impressed that the band had reinvented itself again — trading in their propulsive garage rock and (earlier) lo-fi drone for a terrifically inventive collection of 60s-style psych oddities. I didn’t realize how much I missed their “rock” side until John Dwyer and co. dropped Carrion Crawler/The Dream a few months later and simply blew the hinges off the joint; their recent gig supporting the album at Williamsburg’s 285 Kent space may’ve been the best rock show I’ve ever seen. CC/TD was such a tremendous rock ‘n’ roll album that it bumped Castlemania right out my top 10 and itself landed at my personal No. 1 record of 2011. The two respective title cuts, especially “The Dream” — which evoked an amped-up take on Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” in the best way possible — were the album’s highlights, but the whole thing was a riotous, messy, and seriously fun package that ranks as a modern garage rock classic.
27. The Weeknd
House of Balloons
Lack structured The Weeknd’s House of Balloons. A faceless and nude woman — her identity obscured by balloons, her breast artfully exposed — failed to meet our gaze from the cover art of this R&B-piece-as-a-trip-down-the-rabbit-hole. She shuns subjecthood, shameless, much like the rest of the cast, a serial group of relentlessly doped-up and psychically fractured souls. On “What You Need,” they seek what they “want, [but] not what you need.” Their insatiable appetite for sex, drugs, and drink belied what they truly demanded: love. “Just tell me you love me/ I’ll give you what I need, I’ll give you what I fiend.” Here, on “Wicked Games,” the narrative kernel emerged: grotesque hearts myopically grasping for satisfaction in one another. Desire do-si-dos another desire, circling itself, blind to the lack that motivated its movements. In a year when the specter of capital qua past labor came back to haunt the bourgeoisie, House of Balloons stood as a stark reminder of capital’s anesthetic allure. Abel Tesfaye’s aching falsetto and the unnerving production called zeitgeist into being. By uncannily holding up a mirror to our time’s injunction not to be “good” but happy, House of Balloons reminded us of a heartbreaking fact of life: that which pleases us also ineluctably causes pain.
26. Amen Dunes
Through Donkey Jaw
The notion that an album can change one’s life has become cynical fodder, but through its raw energy, Through Donkey Jaw returned the idea to fashion. Damon McMahon’s guttural warbles and soulful guitar were the heart of his second album, a cry for help as much as a cry for music to be relevant to our well-being. Despite its oft demur tone, Through Donkey Jaw was ultimately uplifting. As McMahon poured out his pain, his catharsis became our absolution. We were free to remember what it was like to enjoy music for pleasure’s sake, to turn to a song or an album in a time of emotional need, and McMahon served as our life coach. From the anguished wails of opener “Baba Yaga” to the cold beach sludge of “Not a Slave” to the pitiful pleas of “Christopher,” McMahon captured the loneliness and redemption of daily life with songs that intertwined with familiar touchstones, each journey into McMahon’s brand of psychedelic folk a gracious reminder of the narrow divide between music as entertainment and music as savior, all as we marched to the beat of our own bedroom drum.
25. Hype Williams
[Hippos in Tanks]
Have you ever had a really bad time at a rave? Hype Williams clearly have, and with One Nation, they returned the disavowed puking, jabbering, jangling confusion of the raved body to something like integrity with a great ethereal smack of downtempo downheartedness. It’s as if the mind-dulling escapism of cosmic disco’s eclecticism has been excised, leaving behind an (an)aesthetic of weird, body-oriented juxtapositions. Just two examples: “Mitsubishi” — a blunted 4/4 saga in muddy slo-mo — and the dubby darkwave of “Your Girl Smells Chung When She Wears Dior,” both exhibiting a poise only hinted at in the scrappy experimentalism of previous works. The narcotic drift of this bag of box jams further blurred the line between subversion and reverie, in an anti-social, anti-realist Balearica of codeine and early nights that staged an unsettling psychedelic meditation on rave’s death wish — on its flirtation with limit states, blank exhaustion, and brain damage. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux — these smudgewave sorcerers spent the year laughing in the dark, pushing at the boundaries of the impossible: the better, it seemed, to mockingly dissect the possible. An oily nugget of shit buried beneath layers of precious stones, this was an overdose of ecstasy at the back of a rave bunker — a trembling panic of beat-tape haze.
24. Bill Orcutt
How the Thing Sings
Bill Orcutt’s jarring style of mangled, gestural guitar playing remained unmatched in 2011, with How the Thing Sings proving that what is at first glance a one-off gimmick could bloom into a richly complex, living language in the right hands. Sings shot out of the gate in a blur of chaotic, existential picking, shards of notes flickering for a split second before returning to the general morass. Skeletons of blues progressions were endlessly hammered out in chunky chords until personalized, the only direct link with tradition being the use of repetitive bodily devotion to grasp at something intangible. Tracks like “Til I Get Satisfied” played out like a series of failed surges at the same reinforced wall, Orcutt’s high yowl conjuring ghosts of the past and chasing them away in mutant temper tantrums of the future. On quieter moments like “Heaven Is Closed to Me Now,” the strings were finally allowed to bend, ring out, and decay, with an openness that spoke (like so many canonized blues/folk meditations) to the long American horizon — before nosediving back into an alienated frenzy seconds later. For all the unrelenting abstraction, Orcutt’s private/public dance felt unusually direct, free of aesthetic pretensions, and speaking to an anxious present moment that few artists could face, let alone roll around in the mud with.
23. PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
In 2011, Polly Jean Harvey sounds nothing like she did in the 90s; in fact, she sounds considerably different from her last solo album that departed from her usual mode of expression, 2007’s superb White Chalk. Let England Shake was richly layered with delicate tones and a wide variety of instruments, the proceedings oscillating between a groove and a ballad, while her voice remained high like last time around, sounding both confident and sweet instead of vulnerable. Thematically, Harvey lamented the internal and international affairs of her native country, taking the conflicts at home and abroad and synthesizing them into poetry that ended up feeling more like personal matter, chanting rhymes of death and sorrow that winked at the listener by being catchy and sometimes upbeat. Few can write a song about a painful and complicated matter in a way that you can sing along to, but that has remained a constant in her career. Her sound and themes might differ from Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love, but the essence of PJ Harvey remained, finding new tools far from her comfort zone and challenging herself to craft something of increased quality in all aspects all while retaining the core of what she’s all about, almost 20 years after her first record.
22. Death Grips
Zach Hill noted that his 2010 solo album, Face Tat, is pop music where “the most melodic aspects to [the] recording are coming from things like the sound of […] kicking in the screen of a computer, arguments on the street, etc.” It was just a few month later, though, when Zach and his producer, Andy Morin, evolved musique concrète in ways no one had ever heard before. It would be hard to go wrong teaming up with the primordial power of rapper MC Ride. But this is a true band. Zach and Andy didn’t just dig through their record collections to find samples. They dug into the very essence of MC Ride’s flow to create music that emerges from the dissatisfied gut of our collective conscience: the same place where MC Ride’s breath comes from like a gale. Musique concrète, as a musical technique, frees all sound from context. Not a far cry from what hip-hop’s sampling and scratching legacy entails. For Zach and Andy, musique concrète is a mystical force that has allowed them to find the pure sound of MC Ride’s soul.
• Death Grips: http://thirdworlds.net
21. James Ferraro
Far Side Virtual
[Hippos In Tanks]
Simon Reynolds recently referred to James Ferraro as the Jeff Koons of our times. And he’s partially right: Both are apologists of consumerism under pop culture’s idea of advertising as art, championing the rejection of the sublime and the elevation of kitsch in spaces where commodities are eroticized, all of that apparently devoid of any sense of irony. But there’s much more than that. Far Side Virtual constituted a music catalog for the artificial paradises that post-industrial societies promise and advocate for, referencing the fetishism of high tech (wi-fi, solar panels) and the presence of formless transitional music for displacing through non-places (Dubai, Starbucks, Google) in which the habitational voidness is filled with ubiquitous hyperreal sounds, frivolous musical passages that are eerily familiar and scarily comfortable: pop structures moving one step closer toward the ‘synthetic music box’ from Huxley’s Brave New World. Life in the 21st century is indeed being transformed into a collection of staged 90s television commercials, and this digital symphony provides their soundtrack. A sarcastic statement with a sad conclusion: When virtual life is turned off, all that is left are our own trapped reflections in the black screens/mirrors (such as the tablet device depicted in the cover), accompanied by mental echoes of Ferraro’s music.
20. DJ Rashad
Just A Taste Vol. 1
Attaining balance between longevity and typifying niche-genre creates the perfect formula for classic-album status. You can listen to [garbage]-[verb] on repeat and learn all the licks, hits, and bits, but still never completely click with a release. The aura entombing Just A Taste Vol. 1 was exaggerated through the way DJ Rashad treated subtlety. Woofer-throbbing bass lines and gradually shifting key changes; your loose change. Slashing half beats and words ad nauseam in almost every track, while only allowing short yet heavy-handed sentences to ride out: “You’ll remember me somehow.” Or tip-toeing “En-Eye-Gee-Gee-Aye” through a plethora of lyrics. Sampled horns randomly peaking and breaking within stuttered scratching. Head nodding until your neck snapped. And the dancing? Well, they body parts is everywhere always while dancing, but it’s the minor change-ups that win originality in battles. But without the music, without DJ Rashad, there would be no dancing, and Just A Taste set the dance circles on fiiiiiiii-HIIIIIIII’er.
19. Sean McCann
As with Derrida’s interrogation of pharmakon, one likewise arrives into contradictory double-meaning of capital. Defined, on the one hand, as disposable, a means, producing; and on the other as a primary, uppercase, crowning. We still cannot escape Sean McCann’s Capital and its double. The rate at which McCann produces objects and sounds is overwhelming for the collector and listener alike, and it must be exhausting for him to keep up. The Capital is an artifact among others like it, the first of five albums from this year alone. He is the quintessential musician as laborer, fully enveloped in these overworked and consuming times. And yet, against all theories — of alienation and of detachment — there remains the work itself: utterly (obviously) connected with its producer. McCann concluded an interview with TMT earlier this year: “I want to release purely beautiful music.” The Capital — a joyful, cacophonous chorus of voice and electronics and life — was such a clear manifestation of that desire. It remains a dignified and, yes, beautiful labor and, as such, a needed reminder that work — as verb, as noun — can still be meaningful.
18. The Flaming Lips
The Strobo Trip: Light and Audio Phase Illusions Toy
[Warner Bros./Lovely Sorts of Death]
There is something to be said for the way in which six hours of strobic repetition created the illusion of time not merely passing, but alternately speeding up, slowing down, shuddering, stopping, and even, it seemed, reversing itself, as if only by extending sonic abstraction to its most absurd degree that sound, an essential component of the body’s own GPS system, by which each instance of its movement across the face of the earth is determined toward some final silent reckoning, began to refer only to its own ceaselessly recreated past and future and thereby, rhythmically, generated an alternative geography through which the ear and then the body as a whole seemed to move, partaking in ever more eccentric ways of a virtual rise and fall over a void that was nothing more than the emptiness of song itself, a trip — of sorts — compulsively taken, finished in an instant and yet seeming to last for years, connected by the barest of threads to a momentarily obscured reality and thus resembling nothing so much as the fear- and hope-bent quality of a dream, one in which the dreamer, in defiance of its body’s own torpor, found itself moved to shout, in frightened ecstasy and wonder (and yet, in the midst of said trance, no less conscious and indeed grateful that these six glorious hours have occurred in an equally brief and absurd lifetime), yes, moved to shout, with hand raised and hair on end, “Something is happening to me!”
17. Dirty Beaches
Nobody can deny that Badlands was in essence an album of nostalgia. Aside from the obvious ‘Suicide-ness’ of loops and droning riffs punctuated by shrieks, Alex Zhang Hungtai even lifted a hook directly from a Françoise Hardy song for the album’s second ballad track, “Lord Knows Best.”. He and David Lynch shared the same eerie knack for the right mix of rock and noise, and the occasional 60s bassline on repeat (“A Hundred Highways”) never failed to bring to mind 2011’s favorite newly reissued noise-garage group, Les Rallizes Dénudés. Nevertheless, Badlands was more than just repackaged product or a rockabilly throwback. Plenty of people have said that Hungtai is Suicide plus Roy Orbison plus “something else,” and it was the energy and mystery of that final “other” that made Badlands such a worthwhile listen.
[Not Not Fun]
In a year that saw a glut of cassette-crushed indeterminacy, the haunted grooves of Peter Berends’ KWJAZ struck a particularly esoteric note. Either a mixtape of vague origin or a phantom late-night radio broadcast, KWJAZ advertised its own status as readymade, an uncanny artifact of an impossible past. The album’s two sidelong tracks meandered through messy, noncommittal explorations of cosmic jazz, narcotized yacht rock, and headless dub, joining together inert fragments with swirling analog dust motes. The sort of thing that appealed to listeners with a taste for the hyperreal, KWJAZ was more like a portent of doom for watchdogs anxious about the cultural vortex of all this low-rent nostalgia. TMT’s review noted the transvaluation of adult contemporary implicit in the album’s peculiar lack of event, but we could have just as easily name-checked the messthetics of The Faust Tapes or Color Him Coma. Whether one approached KWJAZ as a frustratingly artless jam session or a perfectly surreal anti-album, its dreamlike insinuations did not fail to make an impact.
15. Bill Callahan
The downtrodden don’t always remember to laugh at themselves, even as they put on years. Sometimes in the quick maze of managing emotional weight, we absentmindedly bumrush those dead ends. Callahan is taking his time in his sad reflection and easing into a humor that is simultaneously flippant and endearingly warm. It’s oddly not tempting to snicker at him wistfully singing the catalogue number of this record at its end. DC450 is the best new endtimes-affiliated release for ages, simply due to the fact that he made the word “apocalypse” sound like his old pet parakeet or some sort of centrifugal hip movement-centered dance move. If burners like “America!” and “Universal Applicant” didn’t get you apocalypsing, you’re dead inside. The man’s never released a bad or even middling record, and the risks and the indulgences here never felt anything but well-earned. Callahan took The End in with a casual stroll, like he was taking the mute fascination with and sleepy resignation to the brutalization of mystery and letting this carry him to his bent, gangly muse. Put god away, fine. But as long as we have a burning need for truly unequivocal music, let’s please keep Bill on deck.
14. Peaking Lights
[Not Not Fun]
936 was Peaking Lights standing up from the noisier pool of previous releases like Imaginary Falcons and the whole community of lo-fi psychedelia, and letting some of that weird water slowly drip off and dry in the sun. They were still soaked in it, but they incorporated enough structure — the noticeably heavy rhythm box drum and bass — to expertly straddle that divide between pop and abstraction that may not even be there anymore. Maybe we were too deep inside our own music bubble (it’s beautiful in here), but it seemed like 936 was universally enjoyed and accepted by the rainbow of critics, blogs, drone heads, pop proponents, and casuals listeners alike. There was something innocent and earnest in the output of Aaron and Indra. It was hard to understand how their seemingly superficial lyrics about sunshine and love could be so fucking real. Maybe it was their unpretentious deadpanned delivery, but we totally believed it. We just pictured the duo in that cool basement of theirs, soldering toy gadgets and jamming and having a baby, and thought, “Man, they really love what they’re doing, and I’ll be damned if this isn’t a fun record with some knockout artwork.”
13. Shabazz Palaces
Once Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler had his Grammy for 17 odd years, he gave birth to something like the jagged teenaged nephew of the “slick,” purported to have already been reborn by his former group in their award-issued single, and remained “cool like dat,” though less strictly “jazz like dat” — avuncular in the most liminal sense. Two EPs and this single LP in as Shabazz Palaces, Butler continued to passionately intone love and liberty on top of, and within, never-warmed-over and highly varied abstract beats. “Endeavours for Never” preserved the double-bass, vibraphone, horns, and sinewy vocals of jazz, but skewered them so, offering ghostly atmospheres and stutter-stop rhythms. If you’re a Digable Planets fan, then you follow, obscurantist propagation and all, immersed as you are in the positivism of post-Dilla beatscapes: sensorial attempts at a hard-hitting subtlety, striking on something between didacticism and undersold product, efforts at getting paid beneath the breezy shade while avoiding “making wealth” by “breaking self,” as he put it. “I’m free,” Ishmael pied-piped on lead song “Free Press and Curl,” and as a high-register whistle-coo simulacra hit the track’s sky, we sensed him both gleaming and glowing, getting us high. All that was left was to drop the needle.
w h o k i l l
Okay, I’m just gonna say it: thank god Merrill Garbus sold out to Blackberry and earned enough dough to record her sophomore LP at a real brick-and-mortar, capital S Studio. Although her first album was notable for its “pop subverting” DIY production or whatever, it was clear that the woman’s immensely powerful singing and refreshingly compassionate storytelling talents didn’t need to be subverted. They needed to be freakin’ bankrolled. w h o k i l l’s larger budget not only allowed Garbus and bassist/collaborator Nate Brenner the freedom to polish each of these compositions into fierce little nuggets of rhythm-barbed, sing-along ethics-pop (a descriptor “First Lady of the Children’s Folk Song” Ella Jenkins would likely be proud of), but it also allowed the production to be improved to the point where it became nearly transparent and let the songs do all the talking. And sure, once a record marrying “pop” with “social issues” started talking, an affluent NPR crowd started listening, making the record’s themes seem like a bit of a catch-22; but I suspect that that’s just fine with Garbus. Actually, it sounds like a puzzle she could have written into one of her songs: In order for tUnE-YarDs’ funky social mediations to really break free from their own limited means of production and exist as free-standing artworks, Garbus had to get her hands on a little bit of privilege.
11. Tim Hecker
It’s a little ironic to include Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 on this list, since Hecker intended the record to express his pessimism for the future of music itself. Packaged with cover art featuring a photograph of several college students mimicking Fluxus artist Al Hansen’s Yoko Ono Piano Drop, Hecker’s critically acclaimed sixth full-length acted as the concordance to what some might consider a disappointing year of material within a collapsing industry. With atmospheric tracks of damaged pipe organ despair like “The Hatred of Music” and “The Piano Drop,” the sentiment was unmistakable. However, the pulsating fire of dark ambient symphonic swells that have become Hecker’s signature reached such perfection on Ravedeath (especially with contributions from electronic composer-god, Ben Frost) that it fortuitously reinstated one’s faith in the future of music. The result as a whole, as a concept, as a commentary, as a progression of decaying music, is perhaps Hecker’s finest accomplishment.
10. Demdike Stare
Tryptych compiled three excellent LPs released by Demdike Stare in 2010 (Forest of Evil, Liberation Through Hearing, and Voices of Dust) and over 40 minutes of previously unreleased material from those same sessions into one big hulking beast. It would be a whole lot to sift through for the average person, but we’ve had almost two years to digest these pieces at this point, and none of the music has lost its luster. In 2011, there was actually a considerable amount of music with a like-minded aesthetic, and all of it was fairly solid (Andy Stott, Pinch & Shackleton, and Sandwell District all come to mind), but Demdike Stare were the shining beacon. Tryptych worked because it took the strongest elements on the duo’s also-excellent debut (2009’s Symbiosis) and put them under a magnifying glass.Theirs was a sound built on minimal techno and eerie samples of library music, obscure vocal-based “world” albums, and unending darkness. Demdike member Sean Canty works for the invaluable Finders Keepers reissue label, so there was worthy pedigree behind the crate digging and samples that went into this music. The duration of the tracks and the total volume of music here continually reinforced the overall theme and rewarded careful listening, the end result being total immersion in the void.
If, like some, you had worried that 2008’s Trouble In Dreams may have marked the sputtering, wheezing end of Dan Bejar’s seemingly bottomless well of imagination that kept Destroyer so vital for an entire decade, Kaputt offered thundering reassurance that he was far from through. What most distinguished the record from its predecessors was the contrast between his soporific vocal delivery and the basslines and hi-hats, but these dance-party tracks weren’t the only thing to break the conventions of the well-established Destroyer template. Prominent backup vocals, his longest track yet with the 11-minute “Bay of Pigs,” a stark absence of self-referentialisms, and even music videos made this the least Destroyer-like Destroyer record yet. What hadn’t changed were Bejar’s brilliant lyrics (“All that slender-wristed white translucent business/ Passes for love, these days”), Nick Bragg’s searing guitar vibrato, and a singular boldness to create something huge. Although it has been one of the most lauded records of 2011, it feels strange to talk about Destroyer on a year-end list, because Destroyer has never been part of a zeitgeist; the context of any Destroyer record is no smaller than the entire past and future of rock music.
08. Gang Gang Dance
In a year bursting at the seams with brilliant pop deconstructionism, Gang Gang Dance were the peerless vanguard of musical exploration they always are, copping a gaudy, neon-filled 1980s aesthetic better than chillwave ever did, transforming blatant artificiality into something that oozed unabashedly sincere energy, and mashing it all up to create “pop music” in the giddiest, most fundamental sense of the term — that is, music that didn’t so much speak to the masses as emerge from forgotten cultural debris. Eye Contact made its ambitions of universality clear from the outset: “I can hear everything. It’s everything time.” Extraordinarily, the band’s subsequent effort to capture that nonspecific “everything” felt neither hubristic nor forced but rather the result of a gleefully anarchic subconscious where steel drums could be used thrillingly by a band that wasn’t The Knife and flammable Rhodes riffs didn’t have to be coated in ironic detachment. And we were the benefactors of that shamelessly maximalistic imagination, reaping polychromatic, multilingual, aural bliss.
07. John Maus
We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves
[Ribbon/Upset the Rhythm]
We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves was a photobook of fictitious pre-internet memories, 11 somber scenes fueled by Shadow archetypes and the logic of tape recording and storage (magnetization, chromatic aberration, blank spaces, flutter) that distort the fidelity of the images exhibited — the altered sonic narrative overlaying with the anachronistic context — while the overall contour remained notably recognizable. With these songs, John Maus presented unexplored harmonic possibilities for conventional pop forms, employing unvarnished drum-machines, boasting reverb-saturated baritone vocals — halfway between mockery and homage — and throwing on plenty of layers of old-fashioned synthesizers, a whole that was surprisingly fresher than the sum of its obsolete parts. Thus, this album transcended the ‘retro’ or ‘revival’ clichés, providing truly convincing reminiscences of an invented past that, by extension, showed how any sort of depiction of former times is an artifice. But below the aesthetic surface also lay Maus’ defiant idea of pop music as a vernacular in capitalist societies, a major language that — when handled and distorted properly — can lead to the abolition of the market-driven cultural status quo. It was a powerful dissent from the inside that, despite the album title, was intended to emancipate individuals from their self-imposed constrictions.
A I A
2011 was the year Liz Harris unveiled her masterwork, two separate albums (Dream Loss and Alien Observer) meant for continuous listening but that housed individual worlds. Despite the project’s impressive scope A I A was the pithiest distillation yet of Harris’ particular craft; its spacious, often indecipherable vocals and subtle, sweeping guitar drones coalesced into something startling and visionary. The albums were gorgeous, monolithic things, beautiful black holes that ensconced everything adjacent, the swirling, pressure-cooked sound of human existence condensed. Their titles were pointed sound descriptors — Dream Loss was half-conscious recall, a bleak and meditative pictorial of grief; Alien Observer was the sound of unfamiliar life, the sensation, first frightening and then liberating, of being forcibly removed from one’s own body. The music therein was at times almost unbearably visceral — on consequent listens, A I A could be equally blissful and devastating. Like most great records, A I A had its demands. A cosmic entity, it was all but impossible to immediately comprehend but insanely rewarding upon further study, a work of art both elusive and, ultimately, painfully graspable.
05. DJ Diamond
Inside dance circles, Flight Muzik’s suffocated samples, prickly textures, militaristic shuffling, and smack-you-in-the-face snare hits must’ve fit perfectly. Outside dance circles, Flight Muzik just sounded like a claustrophobic headfuck. There wasn’t much to grasp onto: while other footwork producers often left enough of their sampled sources for us to track down, DJ Diamond stripped his samples of their contextual significance only to be re-texturalized, injected piece by piece into a minimalistic economy of stuttering rhythms that paid tribute to house and irregular, jerky accents that envisaged the future of Windy City dance music. It was all for the rhythm, the groove of all grooves, an uncontrollable desire to Jack your body. Few releases this year could boast such an asphyxiated approach while having such profound implications on the body, and along with James Ferraro, nothing else in 2011 made me think more deeply about my relationship with music. While there were transitory moments of cold, detached resolution (“Pop The Trunk,” “Uh”) and occasional nods to narrative (“Torture Rack,” “Decoded”), Flight Muzik on the whole didn’t make any concessions to first-world concerns over modernist aesthetics; it made them feel utterly besides the point.
04. The Caretaker
An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
[History Always Favours The Winners]
2011: a year in which the bleakness of the present caused many to seek solace in impossible visions of the past. Cinema screens glowed with antique revisions, early 20th-century histories made conveniently, divertingly neat. Midnight in Paris, Captain America, Hugo, The Artist, all set within the same two-decade span, sold tinsel-toned recreations of a world that never actually was, much as we sometimes wish it had been. The urge to repair the past, in fiction, is an understandable one; at the very least, it gives hope that future generations will someday look back and see in us something worth remembering, something admirable, if not perfect. This sentimental urge, however comforting, is a lingering curse, a futile, delusional pursuit. The past was never neat, never perfect, if only because we as humans exist in a state of perpetual decay. As the year went on and the elaborate pageantry of baubled, shimmering memory continued to be performed, an Empty Bliss Beyond This World began to feel more relevant and necessary than it had upon release, serving as a rejoinder to those smitten with sentiment. Unlike Scorsese, who restored silent films and converted them meticulously to 3D, Leyland Kirby presented pre-war 78s in their current, decaying condition, as a testament to the things that cannot be restored, those people, moments, and memories lost to time, out of reach and forever unrecoverable.
• The Caretaker: http://brainwashed.com/vvm/artists/the_caretaker.html
• History Always Favours The Winners: http://brainwashed.com/vvm
• TMT Review: http://tmxt.es/2f8b
03. Colin Stetson
New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges
New History Warfare was the most muscular record released this year, no doubt about it. In terms of sheer sonic brawn, nothing else came close. It’s a masterpiece of exertion: an enormous, pulsing, swirling tempest of sound generated for the most part by just one man and his beast of a saxophone: no loops, no electronics, and mostly in a single take. Not that this sounded like any sax playing you’ve heard before. Stetson pushed both his instrument and his own body right to the limit. And because of the way the microphones had been placed, we heard everything: the clattering of keys, the heaving and sucking of breath, Stetson’s moans and melodic wails. This is what the ‘grain’ sounds like when it’s mic’d up and amplified. The effect may have been bluesless, but it was totally soulful. And, in fact, it was often when Stetson reined himself in most, in the relative calm between storms, that the effect was at its most profound: the wrenching anguish of “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” with its superb vocal from My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, the mounting drone of album closer “In Love and In Justice.” New History Warfare sounded like nothing else this year. It was totally peerless: powerful, moving, original, an eruption of sheer life-force that quickened our pulses and stirred our souls.
02. James Blake
For sure, James Blake marked a salient in his own career, but what truly made it astonishing was how logically it sprung, in equal parts, from the piano-focused Klavierwerke, the broken sampling of CMYK, and the unusual dubstep of The Bells Sketch. In the clouds of white noise that envelop “The Wilhelm Scream,” as he sang of resignation — “might as well fall in” — Blake retained his dubstep roots while proving that the speaker could be an effective instrument in its own right. Certain moments, like in the fragmented beats that uneasily propel “I Never Learnt to Share” or the sub-bass rumble and sonar toll of Feist cover “Limit To Your Love,” lent an abyssal quality to the soul-inflected melodies and lyrical themes of alienation. But perhaps the most impressive quality was his use of space, the minimal backing tracks and generous silences that allow his processed, digital choirs to leap out with so much impact. James Blake was a unique, definitive statement that primed expectations of bigger things to come from the young London artist, on which he had already begun to deliver in the form of two new EPs that rounded out his 2011 output.
01. Oneohtrix Point Never
by Ian Latta
…With a desirous and alienated ear, contemporary internet-based musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never are playing out a story that previously took place on the fringes of the avant-garde over the last century. With the invention of photography, a new human was revealed to the camera-eye: Snapshots showed a human being frozen in between readable expressions, nature on the way to culture, an uncanny contraption made of flesh, bone, and fat, vibrating, folding, filling and emptying as it moved between recognizably human expressions like a smile or a frown. We’ve all taken bad photos of ourselves and failed to recognize the subject of the photo, but who or what is this human-in-transit? What is the status of this flesh that obeys gravity more than social cues? How are we responsible to this squinting, grimacing, wincing creature? In other words: stars — they’re just like us — but who are we? Just as photography revealed the body as a nonsense poem, in the sound poetry of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica, this hidden language unveiled before the camera eye was made audible through digital micro-editing, tuning into the voices of the spectacle with a desirous and alienated ear…
…The pith of Replica: a latticework of sibilants, laminals, clicks, implosives, ejectives, fricatives, pulmonics, expands the limits of human vocal expression beyond phonetic language. Before Replica and the excellent eccojams of Dan Lopatin’s YouTube channel and early Games comes not just DJ Screw but William S. Burroughs, Antonin Artaud, the Ultraletterists, and other sound poets who found a new human articulation in these moments when expression takes a backseat to the laws of physics. Proto-Situationists and radical surrealists like François Dufrêne and Henri Chopin discovered in magnetic tape a medium that liberated speech from voice. Through splicing, manipulation of tape speed, overdubbing, addition of reverb, and other dub effects, poets like Chopin and Bob Cobbing abandoned words in favor of particles of sound, letting one mouth become an entire orchestra. In these poems, sound became a bodily landscape upon which a self might be composed, dramatized, or materialized out of the same dust that comprises the pith of Replica: a latticework of sibilants, laminals, clicks, implosives, ejectives, fricatives, pulmonics…
…OPN’s consonantal chorus of lost voices, the vocabulary of a glossa sans logos, highlighted what Roland Barthes called the “grain” of the voice, the song that comes from the body, not from the speaking subject — the body itself speaking, in a wet, libidinal poetry of consonants — not the speech of the lungs, but of “the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucus membranes, the nose.” Barthes’ posthuman voice of the desirous recording is the same discovered by Lopatin, one that doesn’t come at the level of the word or even the phoneme (not the human, not the cultural level), but at the level of the glottal stop, the fleshy mechanical part of the body. In an interview with Altered Zones, Lopatin explained his interest in this noise that surrounds and comprises signs thusly: “It’s revealing that we’re not in a perfect system though we want to be. We want to believe that we’re efficient and perfect, but things are totally out of control and chaotic, like the way we speak and the way we think.” The human subject becomes a libidinal soundscape just barely contained within our skins, looped air temporarily trapped by the folds of the body, echoing with the consonantal chorus of lost voices, the vocabulary of a glossa sans logos…
…Something like an epistemological break as compared to the pristine surfaces of OPN’s synth recordings, OPN’s disintegrated voices were not the breaths of an artist or even a synthesizer. They were both. On Replica, Lopatin united the two basic aesthetics of electronic music: the acousmatic and the cut-up. The acousmatic seeks absolute abstraction in electronic sound, totally without reference to a physical world. This is the mode of the analogue synth, the literally experimental music of the mid 20th century that sought to reform music as a purely non-referential or at least absolutely alien soundscape. The sampling, DJ aesthetic, on the other hand, doesn’t eschew reference so much as overload it, reveling in the shards of modernity, playing with reference in a way that is a replica of nothing in the world so much as postmodern consciousness itself. Replica was composed from 80s TV commercials, strangely sinister sounds of aluminum cans being popped, and totally unsated sighs of “Ahh!” Far from the dreams of a human unconscious, these were rather an insidious capitalist desiring machine. This liberated speech that emerged from the avant garde’s tape recorders could speak only through that machine — or, even more ominously, as Lopatin suggested with his source material of mass-market commercials, it could only speak using the sounds of capital. To a less subversive end, in this essay, I’ve sampled and looped Reid Scott Reid’s stellar review of Replica, but his words are not the beginning or end of this loop. On this year-end list and across the internet underground is emerging a linguistic understanding of this phenomenon of hypnagogic pop, one that hears the jams kicked out at the conceptual level, the looped breaks slipping between different ways of knowing as much as different decades of pop history. Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, in his “Art After Philosophy,” writes that the meaning of art is never in the physical object or even the thoughts or intentions of the artist, but instead “the propositions of art […] express definitions of art, or the formal consequences of definitions of art” (emphasis mine). On Replica, Lopatin is frankly inspiring to us as listeners and as writers, looping the spectacle with a damaged grandeur that is, for this reviewer’s understanding of what it means to jam in 2011, close to something like an epistemological break…
[Artwork: Keith Kawaii]
50. Tom Waits - Bad As Me
49. Liturgy - Aesthethica
48. Matana Roberts - COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres
47. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo
46. A Winged Victory For The Sullen - A Winged Victory For The Sullen
45. Tiziana Bertoncini & Thomas Lehn - Horsky Park
44. The Psychic Paramount - II
43. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
42. Zomby - Dedication
41. Fabio Orsi - Stand Before Me, Oh My Soul
40. Kreng - Grimoire
39. Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa - Suara Naga
38. Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1
37. Telebossa - Telebossa
36. Future Islands - On the Water
35. The Men - Leave Home
34. Panda Bear - Tomboy
33. Rafael Toral - Space Elements Vol. III
32. M83 - Hurry Up, Were Dreaming
31. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
30. Lil B - I’m Gay
29. Thee Oh Sees - Castlemania
28. Thee Oh Sees - Carrion Crawler/The Dream
27. The Weeknd - House Of Balloons
26. Amen Dunes - Through Donkey Jaw
25. Hype Williams - One Nation
24. Bill Orcutt - How The Thing Sings
23. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
22. Death Grips - Exmilitary
21. James Ferraro - Far Side Virtual
20. DJ Rashad - Just A Taste Vol. 1
19. Sean McCann - The Capital
18. The Flaming Lips - The Strobo Trip: Light and Audio Phase Illusions Toy
17. Dirty Beaches - Badlands
16. KWJAZ - KWJAZ
15. Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
14. Peaking Lights - 936
13. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
12. tUnE-YarDs - w h o k i l l
11. Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
10. Demdike Stare - Tryptych
09. Destroyer - Kaputt
08. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact
07. John Maus - We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
06. Grouper - A I A
05. DJ Diamond - Flight Muzik
04. The Caretaker - An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
03. Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
02. James Blake - James Blake
01. Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica