Sound Bites Favorite Albums of 2011
I waited till 2012 to finalize my albums list — all my lists — partially due to laziness, being busy, the holidays… but mainly because I’m not sure what the hurry is. I don’t do this for the web traffic (clearly), so I gave myself a little more time to decide than usual. (And as long as this goes up before the Village Voice’s Pazz n’ Jop, I don’t feel delinquent.) So here’s my list, the top five or so have been a lock for almost half a year, but the rest were in flux right till I hit “publish.”
In addition to MP3s and buy-it links, I’ve included links to stream the albums in full where possible. Most of that comes courtesy Spotify, a very handy (and free) service you should get if you don’t already. Anyway, here we go:
1) Destroyer – Kaputt (Merge)
Dan Bejar has long made epics on tinny keyboards, but here goes fully widescreen — complete with ’80s sax — and it all sounds like a (beautiful) dream to me. Released in January, Kaputt has been my favorite album of the year for the entirety of 2011.
MP3: Destroyer – Kaputt
2) Veronica Falls – Veronica Falls (Slumberland)
“Found Love in a Graveyard” made my Favorite Tracks of 2009 list and have been waiting a full-length ever since. The band does not disappoint. There’s not a dud in Veronica Falls‘ 36 minute running time. New songs are equals to early singles which appear here in newly recorded versions that might actually improve on the originals. This is haunted pop, a brisk October breeze that calls for a nice cardigan.
3) Metronomy – The English Riviera (Because Music)
After making 2008’s best album, Joseph Mount turned Metronomy into a real band and explored new sounds and styles on The English Riviera. There’s still the signature twitchy disco, but the expanded sonic palette suits the new Metronomy. It’s a better album than Nights Out, but it’s also a better year for music.
MP3: Metronomy – The Bay
4) Baxter Dury – Happy Soup (Regal)
A chip off the old block(head), Baxter Dury goes pop on his third album, with spare arrangements and production style that recall early new wave/post punk or the vibe of old Studio One 45s, which gives upbeat tracks real snap. And on more melancholic numbers (“The Sun,” “Hotel in Brixton”), there’s a dreamy warmth. Like his father, Dury is a keen observer and has a way with words — even if they tend to get stuck in his mouth. But that too is part of his charm.
5) Mikal Cronin – Mikal Cronin (Trouble in Mind)
While Charlie & the Moonhearts made some fun, garage-y records, nothing they did suggested Cronin had a record like this in him. (Touring in Ty Segall’s band probably upped his game a bit.) His solo album is just great song after great song, big hook upon big hook, wrapped up in fuzzy basslines and killer harmonies.
6) Cat’s Eyes – S/T (Cooperative Music)
Take one very tall, very skinny frontman of The Horrors, add a classically trained soprano/multi-instrumentalist and fold in a mutual love of ’60s girl groups and you get one of 2011’s most unexpected delights. Cat’s Eyes debut hangs in an ethereal limbo between the Shangri-Las and Ennio Morricone. Not a bad place to be.
7) The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (History Always Favours The Winners)
As The Caretaker, James Leyland Kirby explores the relationship between music and memory and with this album turns his focus to Alzheimer’s. Apparently, the area up there where music memory is stored is the last to go. Sampling old 78s from the ’30s, Kirby has made one of the most lovely, thought-provoking albums of the year.
8. Big Troubles – Romantic Comedy (Slumberland)
On their first album, Brooklyn’s Big Troubles were Totally Shoegaze and you could play a drinking game spotting the references. For their first album on Slumberland, the boys went to North Carolina to work with legend Mitch Easter which is a pretty inspired pairing. (And draws comparisons to Moose, who did the exact same thing 20 years ago.) The album drops the distortion and most of the other pedals in favor of crystalline, jangle-n-harmony pop. Near perfect.
9) Total Control – Henge Beat (Iron Lung)
Australian indie rock supergroup boasts members of Eddie Current Supression Ring which is what brought me to them in the first place and turn out to be just as good as that band in a much different way. Henge Beat‘s a real corker of a debut album. It divides its time between motorik synth workouts, jittery post-punk and more Eddy Current style stormers, with a nice layer of repetition repetition repetition coating the whole shebang.
10) WhoMadeWho – Knee Deep (Kompact)
Initially known for their weird costumes and theatrical stage show, Denmark’s WhoMadeWho have just gotten better as a band, laying down some serious grooves. Speaking of serious, Knee Deep gets into some heavy inner monologues but keeps you dancing. The band call this a mini-LP, but at nearly 50 minutes that’s almost twice as long as your average Ty Segall album. A more “proper” full-length is due out this month! Bring it on.
11) I Break Horses – Hearts (Bella Union)
It wouldn’t be a year end list without some shoegazy sounds from Sweden, so here we go with the debut from this duo from Stockholm which is a hazy knockout. Maria Linden, who sang for more traditional noisemakers Blackstrap, finds something much more special in the miasma here.
12) Crystal Stilts – In Love with Oblivion (Slumberland)
This record was a long time coming, as most of these songs date from the Frankie Rose era of the band and it’s hard to listen to songs like “Sycamore Tree” and “Through the Floor” and not see her standing behind the kit with that relentless drumming style of hers. But that is really neither here nor there. A better record than their debut in every way, In Love with Oblivion also bring Crystal Stilts out of the murk, allowing for bright melodies amongst the gloom. You need a little sunshine to make the best shadows.
13) The Twerps – S/T (Chapter Music / Underwater Peoples)
Recalling both ’80s Flying Nun and classic Australian groups like The Go-Betweens, Melbourne’s Twerps pay homage to their neck of the woods’ past without becoming slaves to it. It takes skill — and a load of great tunes — to make janglepop like this special but the Twerps do just that.
14) SBTRKT – S/T (Young Turks)
I am not an early adopter when it comes to new styles of dance music. I prefer it when someone comes along and takes bleeding edge sounds and sets them to a pop engine which is what you get with SBTRKT’s debut album. It may or may not appeal to the white label 12″ snobs but as a pop record it’s hooks are hard to deny.
MP3: SBTRKT – Wildfire
15) Colourmusic – My _______ is Pink (Memphis Industries)
Despite the spelling of their name, Colourmusic are from Oklahoma where you can’t be a band and not be at least a little influenced by the Flaming Lips. They are weird and psychedelic and awesome and I keep wishing they’d tour the East Coast because they were one of my favorites at SXSW 2011. The record is awesome too…obviously.
MP3: Colourmusic – Tog
16) Wax Idols – No Future (Hozac)
Hether Fortune spent time in Hunx & His Punx and Bare Wires but is taking a backseat to no one with Wax Idols, making one hell of a debut. Fuzz pedals crash into jangly guitars, vocals are high sneer but also full of harmony, and there’s room for both girl group balladry and a tough cover of Wire’s “Sand in My Joints.”
17) Cashier No. 9 – To the Death of Fun (Bella Union)
Take country-tinged West Coast style songwriting and harmonies and then add orchestral production courtesy soundtrack maestro David Holmes and you get Cashier No. 9 who are from Ireland (not Scotland as I would’ve expected). Teenage Fanclub meets Scott Walker? Something like that. One of the most criminally underheard albums of 2011.
18) BOAT – Dress Like Your Idols (Magic Marker)
Another fantastic record of classic definition indie rock from some of the nicest guys in Seattle. Production gets better along with the songwriting and Dave Crane did a great job with the cover art this time.
MP3: Wire – Please Take
20) Ringo Deathstarr – Colour Trip (Sonic Unyon/Club AC30)
If you love early ’90s shoegaze — and if you read this blog with any frequency (like even the frequency I post, which is infrequent) you probably do — then Ringo Deathstarr’s Colour Trip are going to push all your buttons. Tremolo pedals get mashed, amps get turned up and cherry pop melodies soar amongst the roar.
21) A Classic Education – Call it Blazing (Lefse)
Heart on the sleeve tunes from Canadian Jonathan Clancy who formed this band in his current hometown of Bologna, Italy. Students of indiepop history, ACE take the best bits of the last 30 years and have created a sound all their own. Tuneful, continental and clever, with charm to spare. Call it great.
22) The Horrors – Skying (XL)
You’d be hard-pressed to call The Horrors original, but there’s no denying they are master thieves. The band continue their trek from the shadows to the sunshine with their third album Skying which is an appropriate name. It’s all gossamer synths and soaring choruses. You would not know this was the same band that made Strange House four years ago. They’re not even wearing all black anymore. Can’t wait to see where they go next.
23) Sloan – The Double Cross (Murderrecords / YepRoc)
Sloan are in their 20th year of existence and have just released their tenth albumwhich is maybe the Sloan-iest album they’ve ever made which is to say the most cross-pollination we’ve heard from Chris, Jay, Patrick and Andrew in a dozen years. And it’s all for the good of the record which gets in and out in 37 minutes. Don’t stop, guys.
24) Pete & the Pirates – One Thousand Pictures (Stolen Recordings)
I initially discounted this record when culling my year-end list but upon listening again I’d forgotten just how many good songs are on here. (Maybe if they’d toured beyond SXSW they’d have been more on my mind.) Few bands are doing this kind of straight-up guitar pop, and even fewer do it with this much panache. Nearly every song is filled with some great little surprise.
25) Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer (Merge)
Pretty sure that the Fiery Furnaces have never graced one of my Best Of lists. I like them, and actually some of those early songs like “Evergreen” and “Tropical Iceland” were great, but most of their music was just a little too off kilter for my tastes. On her first solo album, wordy wordsmith Eleanor Friedberger makes the poppiest record since those early EPs and it’s a total charmer.
26) White Fence – Is Growning Faith (Woodsist)
White Fence records are like discovering some lost psychedelic LP in the back of a thrift store. You take it home you can’t tell if the record melted or warped, or if it sounds that way on purpose. But you know it’s very cool. It’s actually Tim Presley who also is in Darker My Love and Strange Boys, but White Fence is the better, stranger band and this, their second album, is a keeper.
27) Peter Bjorn and John – Gimmie Some (Cooperative Music)
No synthesizers or soundbanks this time, just three Swedish dudes playing some insanely catchy songs with an energy that belies their age. Every song’s a potential single.
28) Real Estate – Days (Domino)
For their major (indie) label debut, the New Jerseyites don’t really change up what they do — they’ve just got a budget for a nice studio this time. Real Estate clean up well. If anything, it’s a little tighter this time out, allowing themselves only one song to stretch out and jam. Perfect late afternoon lazing tunes. Also: maybe the only album on this list to be buy-able on cassette. But I could be wrong about that.
29) Radical Dads – Mega Rama (Uninhabitable Mansions)
Radical Dads will not deny their ’90s influences, which is good because they’re all over their terrific debut album, Mega Rama, which is also a contender for Album Art of the Year. One of NYC’s best bands, especially live.
30) Hong Kong in the ’60s – My Fantoms (Proper Songs)
London trio who mix sunshine pop, easy listening and a love of analogue synths…of course I love it. Somewhere between Everything but the Girl and High Llamas. The only bad thing I can say about their debut album My Fantoms is that it’s not available on vinyl.
I’ve got 20 more from 2011 after the jump.
31) Peoples Temple – Sons of Stone (HoZac)
For those who long for the days when Anton Newcomb wrote catchy psych pop instead of plodding through the haze for eight minutes at a stretch might want to check out Lansing, Michigan’s People’s Temple. Not only do they share a proclivity for catchy ’60s-ish acid pop, their name is a reference to Jim Jones’ cult. Dig.
32) Still Corners – Creatures of an Hour (Sub Pop)
Still Corners are like a magic brew made just for me: part ’60s soundtrack music (Barry, Morricone), part psych pop (Strawberry Alarm Clock, VU) and a big dose of motorik Kraut. This record gets better as the temperature drops.
MP3: Wye Oak – Civilian
34) Cold Cave – Cherish the Light Years (Matador)
Philadelphia neo-goths can no longer be called “minimal synth” if they ever were called that. They are aiming for the upper decks on their new album, Cherish the Light Years. Big, anthemic chorus and production to match. I’m a bit surprised how much I like this album.
35) Acid House Kings – Music Sounds Better with You (Labrador)
First album from AHK in six years and I’d say worth the wait. About as indiepop as you can get, and a near perfect example of its charms. Also contains “Would You Say Stop,” one of 2011’s best singles.
36) The Stepkids – The Stepkids (Stones Throw)
Like The Bees, The Stepkids recreate a specific era of sound — early ’70s psychedelic soul — with such skill you might think it was some obscure Fifth Dimension album or outtakes from Psychedelic Shack. That it works beyond an exercise is mimicry shows how talented these three are.
37) Jacuzzi Boys – Glazin’ (Hardly Art)
Now signed to Sub Pop microlabel Hardly Art, Florida’s Jacuzzi Boys cleaned up nice with a little money thrown their direction. Not that they were on the scuzzy side of things in the first place. Glazin’ brings the band’s powerpop proclivities to the forefront, giving the album a punked-out Cheap Trick vibe.
38) Hollie Cook – S/T (Mr. Bongo Recordings)
The daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, Hollie’s debut album should be on everyone’s summer playlist. Expertly produced by Prince Fatty, there’s that fast-n-cheap feel that gives it a classic sound, and Hollie’s voice floats overtop like an island breeze. Pure pleasure.
39) Peggy Sue – Acrobats (YepRoc)
Everything about Peggy Sue is just a little askew: the rhythms, the harmonies, the guitars. In a wonderful way, of course. A little more electric this time out and all the better for it. Another criminally overlooked band. If you like PJ Harvey, this may be for you.
40) North Highlands – Wild One (self-released)
North Highlands are, along with Hospitality, one of the best pop bands in New York right now and their debut album shows off their many attributes: inventive arrangements, seemingly endless melodic gifts and a level of musicianship that is hard to achieve in this town.
41) Swiftumz – Don’t Trip (Holy Mountain)
For endlessly creative types like San Francisco resident Chris McViker, having zero budget is no match for one’s imagination when it comes to making a record. (It also helps to have great songs, which he does in spades.) Defying categorization, Swiftumz mixes and matches influences (and a lot of JAMC) that fits in particularly well in this life-on-shuffle world.
42) Comet Gain – Howl of the Lonely Crowd (What’s Your Rupture)
More late night drinking anthems and footstompers from the mind and mouth of the great David Feck. The production by Edwyn Collins and Ryan Jarman — hitting that mid-fi first Modern Lovers album sweet spot — makes the whole thing soar.
43) M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute)
Like a lot of double albums, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming would probably be a lot better pared down to a single disc, as there’s a lot of songs with “whoah oh oh” style choruses. But it all sounds pretty amazing, even when it (like The Horrors) sounds like Simple Minds.
MP3: M83 – Reunion
44) Peaking Lights – 936 (Not Not Fun)
Working with homemade keyboards made out of thrift store finds, Peaking Lights project a dubby, psychedelic sound that is as warm and inviting as their Madison, WI home is cold. Turn up and bliss out.
45) Rotifer – The Hosting Couple (AED Records)
If you found the most recent Wave Pictures album a little samey, might I suggest Robert Rotifer, who works in a similar you-are-there tales of English life (though he’s Austrian-born) but is maybe — maybe — a little more varied musically. Might it interest you further to know that Wreckless Eric produced the album and that Darren Hayman is in the band? I thought it might. Hefner, Wave Pictures, Wreckless Eric…Rotifer!
The ’80s reinvented in the bedroom of someone barely alive during the decade. Sparkling. Can’t wait to hear what he can do with a modest budget.
47) Disappears – Guider (Kranky)
Chicago’s masters of Krautpunk had this in the can when the first album came out in 2010. By the time this hit stores last January, the band had begun a metamorphosis with the addition of Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly who has slowed the band down a bit. So here’s the last document of Disappears’ pedal-to-the-motorik-metal sound which kicks serious ass even though I’m super exited to hear the third album, due out very very soon.
48) The New Lines – All That We See and Seem (The Great Pop Supplement)
The New Lines are definitely not following any current NYC music trends, instead fastidiously perfecting a chilly baroque sound more akin to Broadcast, The Soundcarriers and The United States of America. Like Still Corners (with whom they shared sides of a split-7″ earlier this year), this sort of record sounds even better when the thermometer drops below freezing.
49) Sweet Bulbs – S/T (Blackburn Recordings)
Sweet Bulbs, who RIP’d midway through the year, were one of the best of the new shoegazer scene here in Brooklyn. The band is gone but the album is still here for us to enjoy, choc-a-bloc with seriously catchy songs that are buried under layers of swirly guitars and effects pedals and other sludge. As someone who loved bands like The Swirlies, Drop Nineteens, Lilys and Henry’s Dress, this is right up my alley. For those mystified by that litany of obscure ’90s indie bands, just know Sweet Bulbs make beautiful noise.
50) Gruff Rhys – Hotel Shampoo (Wichita)
The hardest working man in Welsh indie rock and one of my heroes. His new album, Hotel Shampoo, is another winner in a 15 year career. Maybe a bit disappointing in overall career terms, but compared to the rest of the world, he’s still Head & Shoulders above the rest. I could not resist a shampoo pun.