Monday, December 26, 2011

best of 2011: part one of four

Best Discoveries of 2011

This is a new category from past years, as I'm always finding myself making new musical discoveries that I missed the boat on from previous years. Since these three records really added something to my music-listening life this year I figured there's no reason why I shouldn't include them in my year-end list.

Clear Horizon- s/t- 2003

This one certainly seems like a no-brainer considering how much I love Jessica Bailiff and Flying Saucer Attack. I’d always heard talk of a collaboration, but had never heard much more about it than that. I certainly didn’t know where to find it and both FSA and Jessica Bailiff’s respective discographies can be slippery enough to track down on their own, so such an obscurity, I figured, would be futile to seek out. I happened upon Clear Horizon during one of my marathon sessions trolling on ebay looking for Flying Saucer Attack vinyl (also futile, just so you know). The name escaped my orbit until I found the self-titled record on vinyl at Reckless Records one day. A few weeks later I was finally able to sell enough CDs to buy it (this was during what I’ll call ‘the lean times’ between jobs) and it has proven to be the most wonderful record I’ve heard in at least ten years. It’s not a surprise that it’s great considering the two people involved and their considerable talents and similarity of aesthetics on their own, but even given this truth the results of their collaboration could not possibly be more perfect. ‘Match made in heaven,’ is an understatement. A lot of the tracks are pretty much what one would expect—Jessica singing in her beautiful lilting voice over her strummed acoustic guitar chords while Dave Pearce cranks up the fuzzy washes and feedback in the background. In these cases, met expectations do little to diminish the undeniable beauty of the songs. If the record were made up just of these types of moments it would be more than satisfying, but the music never settles into any single, static form. On several tracks the two settle on an ultra-ambient, gauzy background wash that I have trouble believing is made up of guitars—it’s more on par with the types of noises that Sonic Boom is capable of coaxing from nothing more than a chain of effects pedals and patch cables using the mixing board as a conduit of controlled, formless tone. The best example of this would be on the stand-out ‘Sunrise Drift.’ This record has served as the perfect soundtrack for pre-dawn work commutes. Closing track ‘Open Road’ comes to life with an electronic beat and a melodic bassline in addition to the beautiful swirls of feedback colouring in the background. It almost sounds like a hip-hop track. Perhaps most delightfully to myself was the fact that Bailiff was not relegated to sole vocalist and Pearce relegated to sole noise-maker. There are textures employed here that have been hallmarks of Bailiff’s records for years and there is some acoustic strumming that evokes ‘Further’ in a way that is quintessential FSA. Pearce even contributes a few of his best vocal performances on this record to great effect. It would be great if these two would get back to their trans-Atlantic tape-trading and 4-tracking. As if that weren’t enough the production on this record (which was produced entirely on a 4-track) is to die for, ranking up there in the top tier of each artist’s (who both engineer and record their own music) production work that achieves a warmth that is missing from plenty of ‘higher fidelity’ recordings. It really puts a kink in the whole ‘lo-fi’ argument.

Sun Araw—‘Beach Head’- 2008

Another record that I use for my many pre-dawn commutes. I would’ve put this year’s ‘Ancient Romans’ in the list, but it simply doesn’t compare to this record. ‘Beams’ is my favourite track—built from delay-tinged, murky acoustic guitar plucking and chant-like vocals, it builds into this hulking, monolithic, unnameable paen to the beauty of fuzz. I almost lose my breath every time the music drops out leaving those twin, rising, feedback tones by themselves. This is what more drone bands would sound like if their heads weren’t firmly shoved up their own asses. My one frustration is the jealousy I feel when I listen to this record as this is pretty much exactly what I was going for on the shalloboi album ‘petals.’

Acetone—‘York Blvd.’- 2000

Every few years I rediscover Acetone all over again. This year I ordered a brand new vinyl copy of ‘York Blvd.’ They’re so criminally overlooked that their records are still in print and easy to find on vinyl. ‘York Blvd.’ is the final piece in the Acetone puzzle that ended when bassist/singer Richie Lee took his own life in 2001. The specter of his understandable disappointment is all over this record and it makes for a pretty eerie listen. This is the record where Acetone found the fuzz and the tension again and brought it back in spades while adding a keyboardist for good measure. The bitterness and anger are all there in the lyrics. Some of the muted minimalism of the self-titled record is present in the beautiful ‘Vibrato’ as well.

Biggest Disappointments of 2011

There are always a few records that I'm eagerly anticipating before they come out that end up leaving me feeling very disappointed for whatever reason. While I didn't hate any of these releases, I just thought that all of these artists could've done better (especially when they've made us wait so long). It happens. What can you do? In this case I made a short list.

Fleet Foxes—‘Helplessness Blues’

I’m curious to see how many people put this in their top ten this year as, judging from the meteoric rise to stardom this record seems to have raised the Fleet Foxes to, it will be a lot. My verdict—absolutely nowhere near as good as the self-titled record from three years ago. I wish they’d released the record they’d finished in 2009, as it was supposedly an ‘Astral Weeks’-styled album. Judging from the fact that so many artists have successfully mined that particular album for inspiration and come back from the well with consistently distinctive and impressive results (for example, Robert Smith cited it as an inspiration for 1980’s ‘Seventeen Seconds’ and Jason Pierce listed it in every interview as a reference point for 1992’s ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’) and from the standout ‘Lorelai’ (which is a pretty obvious result of said sessions) they should’ve just stuck with it. Would people have eaten it up as greedily and quickly as what they got? Well, maybe not. It still seems pretty obvious to me that this is the sound of a band struggling to drag themselves out of a confused mire and not quite succeeding. There are bright spots—namely ‘Lorelai,’ ‘Montezuma’ and the title track, but I can barely stand to listen to the last few tracks. I waited three years for this?!

PJ Harvey—‘Let England Shake’

This is the most disappointed I’ve ever been in any PJ Harvey record and I’ve been along for the ride since 1993’s ‘Rid of Me.’ ‘White Chalk’ was graceful and wondrous, but this is just… well, I don’t know. Shrill and irritating at times? ‘Written on the Forehead’ is so terrible I can’t even find words to voice my displeasure when I listen to it. The title track has a nice, creepy vibe that could’ve been explored more and I also love ‘Hanging in the Wire’—truly the type of beauty only Harvey is capable of. The rest of the record leaves me feeling a range from mildly to severely dissatisfied. Again, I’m interested to see this on the top 10 lists of countless others. I just don’t get it, I guess.

Radiohead—‘King of Limbs’

I love the ‘Supercollider’ 12” (speaking of which WHY THE FUCK AREN’T THOSE SONGS ON HERE?!), but this full-length (can it even be called that really?) just feels lifeless, like it was churned out on auto-pilot. Radhiohead have always been too good to their fans, taking great measures never to let this happen, but here it is, nevertheless. ‘Codex’ is to die for as is ‘Give up the Ghost’ and the closing track, but the rest is a bunch of fridge buzz interrupted only by the bright spot of ‘Lotus Flower.’ I must’ve listened to this record ten or twelve times before finally giving up. It doesn’t really matter much, though, does it? They’ve achieved a Cure-like level of journalistic immunity. I suppose this was just a good way for that truth to be confirmed finally. ‘In Rainbows’ was a record that managed to get me excited about them during a time when I barely listened to them any more. ‘Hail to Thief,’ despite its reputation as the most boring Radiohead record, has a good deal to redeem itself when it comes to stylistic variation, but this just sounds like they finally ran out of gas. I suppose it was inevitable, but does that really make it any less sad or disappointing? That said I’m going to check out ‘Live from the Basement’ ASAP because I’ve heard that it takes these songs and makes them shit-hot (which I’m inclined to believe—my faith isn’t entirely shaken).

Lost Gems of 2010

I always miss out on at least a handful of great records right after they come out. I’ve decided to start writing about them in the current year-end best-of list from now on. Just because I’m perpetually late to the party doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy myself any less once I get there.

Wild Nothing—‘Gemini’

How did I miss this one last year? It’s the perfect combination of shameless nostalgia, both thematically and aesthetically. Plus, the songwriting is strong, varied, hooky where it needs to be, but not nagging, obnoxious or contrived. As a bonus the songs are tempered with a shimmery, vaguely shoegazer-y kind of vibe. A lot of the influences are immediately apparent and yet are woven together in ways that sound fresh and heartfelt. This is one of those records that I listen to a lot where my favourite song depends entirely on my mood. I would also like to add that I LOATHE jangly music and hipsterish 80’s revivalism, but find this record entirely impossible to resist.

Warpaint—‘The Fool’

Another ‘late-to-the-party’ scenario, I was introduced to Warpaint by the violin player in shalloboi after hearing about them for a few years due to their frequent stops at the Empty Bottle. I hear a lot of people crying ‘foul’ over this record after the EP ‘Exquisite Corpse’ but I’m hard-pressed to figure out what’s not to like here. In some ways I feel like all of my favourites are crammed onto the first half, but then all of the sad, slow stuff is on the second half. It’s laid-out like a Cure album, features some beautiful female harmonies, some nice effects-laden and melodic guitars, how can I resist it? The answer? I can’t. End of story.

Tamaryn—‘The Waves’

I was just too broke to buy this around Christmas time last year when it was released. I heard it and thought it was fantastic, bought the ‘Mild Confusion’ 7”, kept hearing about how the vinyl was only limited to 1000 and was going fast, but still was never able to get my hands on it until the new year. Kind of a relief as this would’ve wreaked havoc on my year-end list. This is another one of those records that I allow myself to have the audacity to assume that it might have been made just for me. There’s a wintery theme going on here, some shamelessly dense use of delay, a stubborn analog-loyalty, buried drums and a female singer. What’s more half of the songs are slow-burning, loud brooders that they played live when I saw them open for the Raveonettes. These things are the quickest ways to my heart. In some ways it seems to me to be a shameless bit of old-school shoegaze imitation, but when I go through the old-school shoegaze stuff I find there still isn’t a lot of this kind of stuff in the vaults there. They are able to make it their own and push it forward. Could more people do this, please?

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