Wednesday, December 28, 2011

best of 2011: part two of four

Honorable mentions

I listened to more new music this year than I ever have before. This is a list of ten releases that didn't make the top 10. I thought about expanding my list to a top 20 list, but I had a difficult time trying to rank these ten (or 11 or more depending on your tolerance for technicalities). In the interest of not whole-heartedly condoning the act of list-making and rating I decided to just leave them exactly as they are here.

Wooden Shjips—‘West’/Moon Duo—‘Mazes’- Thrill Jockey/Sacred Bones

I find it hard to separate these two records from both of Ripley Johnson’s bands. To me they seem so much of a piece that I can’t talk about one without mentioning the other. Both push each band’s sound into a cleaner production style with pleasing results. This isn’t always the case with bands that record their own material, but, as with Kurt Vile’s ‘Smoke Ring for my Halo,’ the songs benefit from a fresh production style. ‘West’ is the fuzziest and bounciest of all Wooden Shjips releases while ‘Mazes’ is the most varied and upbeat of all Moon Duo releases. Both are also more reigned in as both Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo thrive on stretched exercises in disciplined minimalism (which Moon Duo returns to on the ‘Horror Tour’ EP released around Halloween this year, again with pleasing results). It’s difficult to put much into the standard criticisms about Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo as their commitment to their sound is greater than their obligation to stylistic variation. This can have its minuses, but at the same time it’s refreshing to see a band pulling off what could be a lifeless and static sound with such skill. 2011 marks the year that I was finally able to fully grasp what each band was doing and now that I finally get it I could honestly not care less if anyone else in the world is on board. If you’re not, it’s really just a shame for you, I guess.

Woods—‘Sun and Shade’- Woodsist

What can I say? Another year, another brilliant album from Woods which continues on seamlessly and beautifully from last year’s excellent ‘At Echo Lake’ (which picked up from 2009’s formidable ‘Songs of Shame’ in similar fashion). This is a band on a creative tear—there’s not much to do but sit back, watch the sparks fly and enjoy the show. The stretched and spaced-out ‘Out of the Eye’ and ‘Sol y Sombra’ sit comfortably alongside the pure psych/folk/whatever pop of pretty much any track on the first side. They even come close to merging these two seemingly opposing sides on ‘White Out.’ As if that weren’t enough there’s plenty of their stark and murky dark tracks piled up at the end. They manage to cram an awful lot into a record this short. I would say that I can’t wait to hear what they do next, but then they released two 7”es that were also of similarly high quality and blending the psych-jammy-dreaminess with their folk-tinged pop. There isn’t any evidence of an upcoming misstep.

Bardo Pond—s/t- Fire

This is the best Bardo Pond record since ‘Amanita.’ Its main success is that it combines the formidable song lengths of their most recent releases with the accessibility of ‘Amanita’ without sacrificing any of the heaviness, unrelenting fuzz or completely wacked-out sounds that they pull off so easily. It’s a nice foil for ‘Dilate,’ which is the Bardo Pond record I return to the most. ‘Await the Star’ is probably my favourite song of theirs so far—it couldn’t possibly be more perfect—all 12 minutes of it.

Mogwai—‘Hardcore Will Never Die, but You Will’/’Earth Division’- Subpop

The latest Mogwai record took some time for me to appreciate, which is okay with me. It was nice to be challenged by a Mogwai record. In the grand spectrum of their body of work (which is pretty large and much more varied than I expected when I first got into them around the time of ‘Come on Die Young’) I’d say this is their equivalent of the Cure’s ‘Head on the Door.’ What I mean by this (in case you’re not a Cure obsessive like me) is that this record is vibrant and bright and bursting with new ideas and ground for them to cover and explore for years to come. It also means that this record is very accessible and probably the best starting point for anyone wanting to get sucked into their world. As if this weren’t enough, the download code included with the LP yielded a bonus track that is my favourite extended Mogwai track since ‘My Father My King.’ Entitled ‘Music for a Forgotten Future (The Singing Mountain),’ it clocks in at 23 minutes and features only two minutes of drumming. It unfolds slowly and beautifully from practically nothing and fades away in similar fashion. It’s the sound of a band that means business and that, to me, is what has always been Mogwai’s best feature—they aren’t fucking around. They feel what they are doing and believe in it very intensely. When I heard news of the ‘Earth Division’ EP (which was released in September) the description sounded encouragingly close to this extended, moody instrumental and I was not disappointed. It even has ‘Drunk and Crazy’ which explores the potential of ‘The Hawk is Howling’s standout track ‘The Sun Smells too Loud.’

Feist—‘Metals’- Interscope/Cherry Tree

Whenever I’d listen to ‘The Reminder’ I’d always find myself wishing that Leslie Feist had made the slower, more graceful songs the focus rather than spacing them out between light, cutesy pop fare. Then there’s that whole ‘1234’ nonsense, which I don’t really care about (although the version she sang on ‘Sesame Street’ was wonderful). Then this record arrived and I couldn’t help but feel like my wish had been granted. The only song I don’t like is ‘How Come you Never Go There.’ Kudos.

Florence and the Machine—‘Ceremonials’- Universal

Yes, I love this record. Even more than ‘Lungs.’ You can go ahead and read all about it here.

Panda Bear—‘Tom Boy’- Paw Tracks

At one point this record was vying for the top spot with Low. The only thing that knocked it out of the rotation was when I finally bought ‘Person Pitch’ on vinyl. Conceptually, I love this record—an album released entirely on a series of 7”es before the full-length release?! Yes, please! What’s more, I love Sonic Boom’s mixes and mastering—they add a brightness and sharpness that (from what I’ve heard) wasn’t present on the 7” mixes. ‘Scheherezade’ is my favourite Panda Bear track, without question. The only minus was that, being restricted to the 7” format, the songs lose that graceful progression that the songs from ‘Person Pitch’ gained from their expanded lengths (if you want to know what I mean, I’d advise you to check out this clip of Panda Bear’s performance of ‘You Can Count on Me’ on Jimmy Fallon). Granted, this is a rather minor gripe as these songs explore a more energetic side to Noah Lennox’s songwriting, which is developing into something more and more beautiful with each release.

Sic Alps—‘Napa Asylum’- Drag City

Talk about a weird record. This is what I listen to on my commute when I want to feel like I’m on an impossible-to-replicate cocktail of drugs. What ties my head in knots the most about this record is the way that it’s mixed, as I find it amazing and a bit disturbing that Sic Alps have figured out a way to MIX their records in a way that will make you feel like you’re on drugs. This would’ve placed higher in the list if it hadn’t been a double LP. The first record is flawless and perfect, but the second gets a bit tangential and tends to meander a bit too much. As if that weren’t enough they managed to outdo themselves with the two 7” releases that came out right on the heels of this record, particularly with the near-perfect ‘Battery Townsley.’ All of that said I still have enjoyed this record immensely, as it’s the first Sic Alps stuff I’ve ever heard and it allows me the luxury of feeling like I’m on a bunch of drugs when I’m riding the train to work in the morning.

Real Estate—‘Days’- Domino

The only song on this record that I don’t like is the one sung by the bass player—it kind of interrupts what seems to be the carefully constructed impressionistic/narrative flow that this record seems to have. The self-titled Real Estate album is what got me through the doledrums of last summer and this record got me through this fall in similar fashion. Appropriate as the self-titled record is a perfect summer record and ‘Days’ a perfect fall album. Autumnal is harder to do than it seems. It’s easy to mistake for wintery, but autumnal this definitely is. It has all of the nostalgia and wistfulness that comes in the fall as the leaves change colours. ‘The winter was coming, but that was alright,’ is how Martin Courtney puts it in the heartbreaking college nostalgia of ‘Green Aisles.’ Courtney’s lyrics on this record are exactly the type of lyrics I wish more new bands would explore. Rather than pull more examples I recommend you get ahold of this beautiful record of the type of plaintive, earnest, indie guitar pop that most bands just don’t bother with any more and find out for yourself.

Disappears—‘Guider’/’Live at Echo Canyon’- Kranky/Plustapes

What an interesting year for Disappears. I wanted to put ‘Guider’ up in the numbered chart list, but I just couldn’t because it simply isn’t as good as ‘Lux.’ To be fair this is a case of the bar being set impossibly high. The follow-up EP ‘Live at Echo Canyon’ is a different story, though. Their first recording with Steve Shelley (who is appearing to be less and less of a temporary replacement as time goes on and the releases keep being churned out—‘Pre-Language,’ their third full-length and first LP with Shelley is due in March and looks to be fantastic), the five songs manage to outshine ‘Guider’s… errr… six. It manages to do this in a fraction of the time and pushes their sound into new territory. ‘Guider’ does have the benefit of containing the most interesting extended work-out of ‘Revisiting’ as the sole track on its second side, though.

Implodes—‘Black Earth’- Kranky

This is a beautiful record in a way that few recent releases from new bands tend to be. The songs are drenched in fuzz and all manner of odd noises, minimal cymbal-less drums and dreary vocals and yet they often manage to sculpt these elements into something transcendental and soothing. ‘Oxblood’ is a good example of this, or pretty much the entire second side (particularly ‘Hands on the Rail’).

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