10. The Brian Jonestown Massacre—‘Aufheben’ (A Recordings)
One of the most fascinating byproducts of the tangential nature of Anton Newcombe’s last two albums (2008’s ‘My Bloody Underground’ and 2010’s ‘Who Killed Sgt. Pepper?’) was the reaction of his supposedly devoted fanbase. Neither release was particularly beyond question for someone of Newcombe’s demented genius to create and yet it got so many peoples’ panties in quite the twist. I’m not sure who these people thought they were dealing with—expecting someone as unapologetic about anything as Newcombe is to do the expected seems misguided to say the least. When ‘Aufheben’ arrived in May it all made sense, though. The songs had already been leaked for the better part of a year, but as was the case with the previous two records the songs benefited greatly from a proper mix and master. The result is the most thoroughly satisfying BJM record since 2003’s ‘…And This is Our Music.’ I had to convince several to check it out as EVERYONE seemed skeptical when it first came out. As if that weren’t enough the new songs were all played live and sounded fantastic on the band’s latest rambling tour. ‘Aufheben’ is a German word that means simultaneously ‘to destroy’ and ‘to rebuild,’ after all.
9. White Fence—‘Family Perfume vols. 1 & 2’ (Woodsist)
Tim Presley has officially completed an impossible task with the ‘Family Perfume’ double set—a double LP in the truest sense and an indispensible one at that. The whole set doesn’t fit on a single CD, but fits neatly onto two separate and distinctive LPs that still manage to be pieces of a whole. ‘Family Perfume’ prompted me to dig out Darker My Love’s ‘2’ record and give it a few more spins. It’s difficult to imagine that the same man is largely responsible for both. It sounds like it could’ve been made in the 60s and yet there’s so much on it that would’ve been inconceivable to try then. What holds it all together is a dense set of solid songwriting. There are six or seven highlights that I can think of off the top of my head (‘Balance Yr Heart,’ ‘It Will Never Be,’ ‘Do you know IDA know,’ ‘Down PNX,’ ‘Breathe Again,’ ‘Lizards First,’ ‘King of the Decade’ all come to mind the quickest). I love that it was released separately first to test the waters and when both volumes quickly went out of print the complete version was made the only version.
8. Thee Oh Sees—‘Putrifiers II’ (In the Red)
Another year, another Oh Sees album. ‘Putrifiers II’ is nothing less than a delightful curveball, a dazzling surprise on their, what, 14th album in less than a decade?! Last year I crammed ‘Castlemania’ and ‘Carrion Crawler’ into a single spot. This record is almost as if the best elements of both records were mixed together perfectly with a dash of the beauty and grace of their overlooked mellow full-band period (2006’s ‘The Cool Deaths of Island Raiders,’ 2007’s ‘Sucks Blood’ and 2008’s haunting, audience-less live album ‘Thee Hounds of Foggy Notion’). When I heard that this album featured string arrangements I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but should’ve known that it would result in something as amazing as ‘So Nice.’ There’s more where this came from, too, as evidenced by their closing song at the late show with Ty Segall at Logan Square Auditorium as they played an amazingly psychedelic and driving song to close out the night. It was similar to seeing them play most of ‘Carrion Crawler/The Dream’ at Lincoln Hall in 2010 before the record had come out.
7. Tamaryn—‘Tender New Signs’ (Mexican Summer)
I reviewed this album as soon as the stream of it appeared on ‘Gorilla vs. Bear.’ My words were delirious and fawning, a fact that I remain unashamed of. It seemed to evoke a similar reaction in others, I found. The reason for this? Well, it’s a very passionate and dense album—it’s immersive and heartfelt. It’s a fresh take on a sound that’s been recycled so many times its initial impact seems to have been hopelessly lost forever. What’s more it takes that familiar sound and re-invigorates it and makes it their own. This is not an easy thing to pull off, but pull it off they definitely did. Again.
6. Godspeed You! Black Emporer—‘’Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’ (Constellation)
Despite being their first release in 10 years Godspeed sound like they haven’t missed a beat here. To say that this release sounds ferocious is a bit of an understatement. Pick a few adjectives that you like, they all apply—‘cathartic,’ ‘harrowing,’ ‘passionate,’ ‘emotional,’ ‘transcendent,’ ‘intense,’ ‘sublime,’ etc. I’ve also been enjoying how the album came packaged on vinyl—it seems to make far more sense than the way it’s supposed to be listened to. I listen to the two intense, 20-minute pieces first and then the two shorter drones to come down. It hits on everything that they do best—incorporating field recordings without it being too much of a fuss, the grandiose power of their ensemble at full throttle and the pin-drop grace of the impressive restraint that they are also capable of.
5. Jessica Bailiff—‘At the Down-Turned Jagged Rim of the Sky’ (Kranky)
Like the new Godspeed album this one appeared practically from out of nowhere with an announcement on Kranky’s website that it would be out in barely two weeks. This record pulls Bailiff’s music out of that 3am music category with some prominent drums and heavy fuzz bass. Her songs are still wrapped in ethereal ambience, but the rhythm section is the focus here along with some of Bailiff’s most prominent melodies. A few songs could be radio-friendly if they were drowned in compression and auto-tune and such. It’s a good thing they aren’t here as they sound breathtaking as always wrapped in Bailiff’s careful production.
4. Sigur Rós—‘Valtari’ (XL/Krunk)
I waited to buy this album for about a week after it came out. I wasn’t that excited when I heard that Sigur Rós had ended their two year hiatus, either. I think a friend posted a link to one of the extra tracks that came with the pre-order download (‘Logn’). Despite being completely lyric-less (I’m talking not even their imaginary language ‘Hopelandic’) and largely arrhythmic it was ambient without being boring or unengaging. It was also intensely emotional and strikingly intimate. Naturally I went out and snagged the album and found that the rest was hitting me with the same impact. I’ve not always been on board for their more drifting, exploratory moments but this has to be my favourite album of theirs possibly ever. It’s most similar to their ‘( )’ album from 2002, but a much more enjoyable and fulfilling listen. Most of their albums seemed to hold you at arm’s length (except for ‘Takk…’ which drew you in with accessibility), but this one seems to wrap you into its own cocoon. So beautiful—my faith in them is completely restored.
3. Sharon van Etten—‘Tramp’ (Jagjaguwar)
I only recently discovered Sharon van Etten. At least I made it to the party in time for this third release of hers. Talk about fully-formed—last year’s borderline EP ‘Epic’ was packed with great and intense songs that made the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. It also saw her pairing her songs with more of a band-driven format, but on ‘Tramp’ every song appears to have been arranged with a completely different band in mind. The stylistic and instrumental diversity is pretty staggering. The only choice I wasn’t wild about was having Sufjan Stevens sing on ‘We’re Alright’ but that’s mostly because I’m just not wild about his music. I have a difficult time finding a single song on here that doesn’t pack one hell of an emotional punch. ‘Warsaw’ is driving and fierce without being angry and without sacrificing subtlety, ‘Joke or a Lie’ is light, airy and minimal without sacrificing clarity or blending into the background. You’d think the jig would be up at some point, but so far it doesn’t appear to be any time soon.
2. Spiritualized—‘Sweet Heart Sweet Light’ (Fat Possum/Doublesix)
This one was a shoe-in for the top of the heap. It got a head start, admittedly, when I heard all of the songs on the aforementioned Albert Hall bootleg back in November of last year. It’s greatest strength? These are all really great songs and the production is unique among any other Spiritualized release. They have a dry, precision cut and layered sound that expands and improves upon the sound of 2008’s ‘Songs in A&E’ (which was also their last album). It takes the focused songwriting that’s been developing steadily since 2001’s underrated ‘Let It Come Down’ to its apex. It’s no wonder that Jason Pierce has mentioned in interviews that he’d like to make a more electronic Spiritualized album next as it’s something he’s always wanted to do. Judging by ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space’ reissue bonus tracks ‘Rocket Shaped Song’ and ‘Beautiful Sadness’ this would be an appealing direction for him to take. Probably a wise choice as it might get him back to the more zoned-out atmospherics of ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ and ‘Pure Phase.’ Truthfully there isn’t a lot Pierce could do that I wouldn’t find satisfying. It’s been a pleasure hearing his songwriting blossom over the last decade. Well done, Spaceman. Also, this is the best Spiritualized album since 1997’s benchmark ‘Ladies and Gentlemen…’
1. Beach House—‘Bloom’ (Subpop/Bella Union)
The only album to conceivably oppose Spiritualized for the top spot. The tie-breaker? I compared the number of plays and this one won by a landslide even when I tallied up the number of plays I logged on the Albert Hall bootleg where Spiritualized played all of ‘Sweet Heart, Sweet Light’ that I listened to from last winter and the promo version of the album I have. Not too shabby for an album that didn’t blow me away at first. ‘Bloom’ is a grower in a way similar to ‘Devotion’—its consistency of quality throughout its running time can be a hindrance upon first listen. While I still don’t like it as much as ‘Teen Dream’ (which they may never top, who knows) this album is filled with amazing songs that stand out in Beach House’s body of work. Plus it has ‘Irene’—a serious contender for their best song. These songs are all much more ‘up’ sounding compared to anything else they’ve done before (as long as you don’t take the lyrics into account, that is). They move along with an urgency and a velocity that didn’t really exist before, or only did in isolated instances. They also pop and explode in dazzling new ways.