Pushing the Envelope: Music Decidedly Left of Center
Well, exams took a lot more out of me than I expected. After a week long delay, here's part II of my favorite albums of 2011. (If you missed part I, check it out here).
15. Ampere – Like Shadows
Ampere have been around for a while, in varying forms. Guitarist Will Killingsworth was in seminal emo band Orchid and a number of other projects, and has also worked as a producer for many upcoming bands. The guy works a lot, which I guess is the main justification for why Ampere has released less than 30 minutes worth of material in 7 years. 2011 marked the release of their first official LP Like Shadows, and they did not disappoint. Ampere is a hard band to pin down, as they fit so many ideas into such little time, but if you can identify all the different ideas, you should be able to appreciate it. Like Shadows is a cerebral, emotional, visceral beast, if you’re up for the task. (Check out "Tiny Victories")
14. Atlas Sound –Parallax
Bradford Cox has been extremely prolific in his recent career releasing an album every year, either under his Atlas Sound moniker or as a member of dream pop stalwarts Deerhunter, and Parallax continues that trend. With each release, Cox embraces his pop-sensibilities a little more, while still harkening back to his outsider pop quirkiness. Each song is undeniably catchy, yet just slightly off, but that only adds to their appeal. While each Atlas Sound release is impressive, it still lacks a certain intangibility that each Deerhunter release holds; however, it’s clear who the driving force of the band is. (Check out "Te Amo")
13. Pulling Teeth – Funerary
Although there was no hint of the fact at the release of Funerary in late April, the album became a self-fulfilling prophecy last week when the band announced it would break up after a final show in January. The punk/sludge/doom/thrash/everything outfit incorporated a number of different influences into their sound until all that was left in the end was a heavy riff-laden mass of noise and fury. Their 2009 release Paranoid Delusions/Paradise Illusions was one of my favorites of the year because it made perfect use of the LP format by filling the A-side with fast, heavy punk songs and the B-side with slow, sludgy doom tracks, although at 23 minutes, it was a bit underwhelming. Funerary continues that A-side/B-side trend, but this time the album clocks in at a sizeable 47 minutes. Still, Pulling Teeth are just as exciting and fresh when trudging through a ten minute doom piece as they are shredding through a 90 second riff-fest. (Check out "From Birth" and/or "Waiting")
12. Chad VanGaalen – Diaper Island
Chad VanGaalen’s been around for a while. He’s been shortlisted for Canada’s coveted Polaris Prize twice and helped to produce Women’s Public Strain, which I guess is sort of irrelevant except that it’s my favorite album from 2010. Diaper Island finds Chad VanGaalen combining the natural songwriting abilities and irreverent sense of humor found on his earlier material with a newer jangle/chamber pop atmosphere that he seemed to have found while working with Women. Although VanGaalen often likes to experiment, he’s often best when he lets his simple melodies do most of the work, like on “Peace on the Rise” and “Sara”. Although he seems yet to release a full album that truly capitalizes on his potential, Diaper Island is another solid release full of hit-or-miss tracks from VanGaalen.
11. Laura Stevenson – Sit Resist
Laura Stevenson has such a sweet and smooth voice. It works so well with the brand of Americana-infused indie pop found on Sit Resist. Each song is full of subtle, yet lush instrumentation that swirls around her frail girlish lilt and while each song features a resounding swell or upbeat nature, some somber, indiscriminate tone still remains. Perhaps it’s just the lyrics, which conceal some air of despair or longing. Whatever it is, it’s working. (Check out "Halloween Pt. I & II")
10. Grouper – A I A
To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure I’ve listened all the way through A I A all in one sitting. Although as an 80 minute ambient/drone double album, I’m not sure that was Liz Harris’s intention. Grouper broke through in 2008 with her album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill which mixed ambient and folk in a wonderfully ethereal, accessible aesthetic. A I A (which is split into two parts: Dream Loss and Alien Observer) does away with the melodic sensibilities of Grouper previous output and focuses on moods and tones. Dream Loss is much more atmospheric and experimental, while Alien Observer captures some of the melodies of Dragging..., but moving forward with the ideas. Overall, it’s a great album to fall asleep to, which is why I’ve never made it all the way through. (Check out "Alien Observer")
9. Wu Lyf – Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
Wu Lyf is exuberance personified. They describe themselves as “heavy pop” and there really is no other simplistic term to characterize their sound. The songs are incredibly catchy, upbeat, and fun but also heavily layered and in-your-face. Frontman Ellery Roberts slurs through unintelligible syllables and sounds in a drunken shout, but lyrics don’t matter when the core of your message is “We Bros”. Roberts is complemented by a band of musicians playing a sloppy mix of dream pop, post-rock, and surf rock that’s just as messy and engaging as Roberts’s vocals. When I first heard Go Tell Fire to the Mountain back in summer, I wasn’t sure if it would remain one of my favorites of the year all the way to winter, because it seemed too superficial and sweet to stay as fun as it was in the summer heat, but in the end, it was too infectious to shake.
8. Defeater – Empty Days & Sleepless Nights
Defeater just make some great, catchy-as-hell post-hardcore. There’s supposed to be a whole mythology behind each of their albums, a story of two brothers, their junkie mother, and their deadbeat dad, but to be honest, they’re a lot better if you ignore all that. Due to that, the lyrics are pretty bad, but if you can ignore them, or at least tolerate them, you can enjoy ten great post-hardcore tracks that jump all around with plenty of twist and turns and some really powerful climaxes. Although the album ends with a 4-track mini acoustic album, it may be best to ignore those as well, as they’re rather generic and focus on lyrics (man, I am really hating on this a lot to put it in my top 10). (Check out "Empty Glass" or "Quiet the Longing")
7. Pianos Become the Teeth – The Lack Long After
When Pianos Become the Teeth released Old Pride in 2009, I thought their opening track “Filial” was one of the greatest songs I’d heard in the past few years. It perfectly blended the mix of post-rock and post-hardcore that bands like Envy had been searching for their whole career. The rest of the album fell kind of flat for me, but they became a band to look out for. And so with The Lack Long After, PBtT became the band they could have been. Each song soars and falls with grace and each track bleeds into one another with permeance. Not to mention that the album is also very strong lyrically as it deals with the death of frontman Kyle Durfey’s father subtly and beautifully. (Check out "I'll Be Damned")
6. The Men – Leave Home
After just one listen, I knew Leave Home was going to be one of my favorites of the year. It’s just a hard hitting smattering of noise rock, punk, hardcore, no wave mixed and matched into a surprisingly cohesive collection of songs. Hailing, unsurprisingly, from Brooklyn the Men live up to their name with 41 minutes of fuzz, cymbal crashes, more fuzz, and shredded vocal cords. Every track on Leave Home is remarkably different, making reference to another influence without ever copying any previously existing band’s sound. (Check out "Think" or "L.A.D.O.C.H.")