10. DESTROYER- KAPUTT
“Kaputt” is the 9th album from Dan Bejar’s Destroyer and represents quite a left turn for the eccentric artist, who also moonlights as a member of the New Pornographers. The sound of the album is dominated by saxophones, mixing cocktail jazz and early eighties adult contemporary sounds. Bejar comes off as a coked up, but overeducated cad- like the 21st century’s answer to Bryan Ferry- actually the best album to compare “Kaputt” to is Roxy Music’s “Avalon”, but “Kaputt” comes off more skeezy and less romantic. I have about half of Destroyer’s albums and all are interesting but “Kaputt” is by far my favorite. The title track is one of the best songs of the year and the shape shifting 11 minute “Bay of Pigs” (originally released in 2009 as a standalone single) is another absolute standout.
Buy Kaputt – Kaputt
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9. IRON & WINE- KISS EACH OTHER CLEAN
Miami-based Iron & Wine are still batting 1.000. After releasing various EP’s, compilations & collaborations as well as three full length, they have still yet to disappoint and “Kiss Each Other Clean” is no exception. Their first two albums were little more than lead vocalist Sam Beam and his acoustic guitar. “Kiss” builds on their last effort “The Shepherd’s Dog” in that it’s more of a band release, with lots of additional instrumentation, taking Iron & Wine’s sound into the vintage 70’s rock territory of groups like Crosby Still, Nash & Young and singer Gene Clark. It’s amazing that Iron & Wine could change their original sound so drastically, receive little to no airplay, but still sell in good numbers and maintain their original fan base. They are a true throwback band and we are lucky to have them. But are we taking their consistently great output for granted? “Kiss Each Other Clean” didn’t land on a single year-end top ten list out of over a hundred of them- including radio stations, blogs, magazines and newspapers. What’s up with that? I’m going to go ahead and call this the most underrated album of 2011.
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8. WILD FLAG- WILD FLAG
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Damn does it feel like we needed Wild Flag. Ever since the breakup of Sleater-Kinney in 2005 it feels like there has been a void of straight up kick-ass rock music- particularly made by females (Jemima Pearl of the late Be Your Own Pet excepted). Wild Flag is comprised of 2/3 of Sleater-Kinney- singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein and the amazing drummer Janet Weiss, one of the best in the biz, as well as singer/guitarist Mary Timony & organist Rebecca Cole from the lesser known former groups Helium & the Minders. Wild Flag does not sound identical to SK, the absence of the shrieking vocals of Corinne Tucker are missed but also makes the band more accessible. However, “Wild Flag” does seem to to take off right where SK’s last album “The Woods” left off. It’s lower on angular punk and heavier on rawk jamming. Cole’s organ gives the band a fuller sound than SK ever had and connects them to the great heavy bands of the 70’s as much as the riot grrrl bands of the early 90’s. Brownstein and Timony split the singer and songwriting and while Brownstein is the star of the show both women have their great moments on the album and the diversity is welcome. “Wild Flag” is a hell of a debut and exhibit A for anyone who thinks that indie music has become too sedate in the new decade.
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7. ICEAGE- NEW BRIGADE
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And here is exhibit B! Previously unheard of before 2011, Danish punk band Iceage is made up of youngsters all between the ages of 18-20. Their music is a grab bag of the best of 70’s British punk, early 80’s American hardcore, goth, post-punk & early Joy Division. Where Wild Flag are celebratory, Iceage are morose- “New Brigade” sounds like a soundtrack for the end of the world. It rocks harder than anything else I heard this year outside of maybe F**cked Up, and is straight up motherf**king punk rock unlike anything of recent memory outside of No Age or Off!. And Iceage leaves any experimentation to the other bands- “New Brigade” is 12 tracks, 25 minutes long, every song is great and only one last over 3 minutes. They have injected a sorely needed dose of adrenalin into punk music and despite their obvious influences, have a distinct sound.
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6. BON IVER- BON IVER, BON IVER
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Bon Iver’s second album is a band effort as opposed to the great debut, which was singer Justin Vernon and his guitar in a snowy cabin in the woods in the middle of a Wisconsin winter. Though “Bon Iver” is not as spare as the debut it still feels very intimate, which is mostly attributable to Vernon’s heartbreaking falsetto. Like Destroyer, Vernon and Bon Iver add outdated production flourishes to the music, particularly to polarizing closer “Beth/Rest” which bring to mind artists like Bruce Hornsby & Howard Jones. Somehow it all works, and incredibly the album has become perhaps the most critically celebrated release and even garnered several Grammy nods. Meanwhile Vernon himself has become in demand, working with the likes of Kanye West on his brilliant 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. I’m not even sure I like this album better than their debut, but I can say it grows on me with every listen and has moved up at least seven or eight spots on this list in the past month. Songs like “Perth”, “Towers”, “Holocene” and “Calgary” are as good as anything on the debut and the rest of the songs fill in the spaces to allow the standouts to shine.
5. THE SMITH WESTERNS- DYE IT BLONDE
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This is another underrated and unfortunately mostly overlooked kick-ass rock record from the beginning of 2011. Smith-Westerns are youngsters from Chicago who showed some promise a few years ago with their self-titled debut. I wasn’t overly enamored with them then and just considered them another above average indie band. Well there second album “Dye It Blonde” better the debut by leaps and bounds. It’s close to a perfect record and I actually loved more songs on it than any other record in 2011- the only reason it didn’t place even higher is its lack of one or two truly mind blowing tracks, though the anthemic “Weekend” does come close. The band combines of early 70’s glitter rock ala Bowie & T. Rex with the 80’s L.A. Paisley underground scene as well as shoegaze and brit pop of the early 90’s to form their sound. While not exactly unique Smith-Westerns sound like a breath of fresh air in 2011. If this band gets any catchier I wouldn’t be surprised to hear them on the radio and see them selling in big numbers in a few years.
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4. ST. VINCENT- STRANGE MERCY
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Well this one REALLY snuck up on me. I had enjoyed St. Vincent’s first two albums quite a bit and liked “Strange Mercy” even more on first listen, but it wasn’t until my 4th, 5th & 6th helpings that the album’s brilliance shined through for me. St. Vincent is led by the beautiful and talented Annie Clark, who can sound like a typical, if eccentric female singer-songwriter like Kate Bush, Tori Amos or Regina Spektor, but who also has serious electric guitar chops. Every track carries surprises along with Clark’s restlessness. Though her voice and music can be quite gorgeous, she’s not singing about puppy dogs and ice cream. The emotions of her songs run the extremes of praise and kindness to cruelty and violence and her voice along with the production and instrumentation on the record reflect that. “Strange Mercy” is both her catchiest and ballsiest collection of songs yet. “Cruel” sounds like a hit and “Surgeon” and the title track are not far behind. No track is too much like the other and further listens to “Strange Mercy” make each one stand out the more. When music history is again re-written Clark and St. Vincent may end up playing quite an important role.
3. M83- HURRY UP, WE’RE DREAMING
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It takes gumption to release a double album during a time when the music industry is in a huge slump and the album itself is considered passe’. Especially when you are a fairly obscure electronic music maker from France who up to this time has released mostly instrumental music. But what do you know, the epic “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”, M83’s 5th proper album is his (M83 is a 1 man group featuring Anthony Gonzalez) most sonically diverse, song driven, most critically heralded and best release yet. And it’s selling, which is proof that eventually the cream does rise to the top. I normally turn up my nose at albums this long. 90% of them could have been edited better to get rid of bloat but “Dreaming” is exactly as long as it needs to be- it allows Gonzalez to realize his ambition and include the instrumental passages that give his music such a cinematic feel, while including two handfuls of standout songs, whereas on past albums he would have 3 or 4 at best. M83 sculpts his sound from elements of space rock, techno, 80’s synth-pop and cheese rock & the Beach Boys. With “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” he has managed to hone that sound down to increase accessibility while losing none of the experimental edge that made him great in the first place. And track “Midnight City”, already an underground hit, is turning up as one of the songs of the year on a number of year end polls.
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2. THE WEEKND- HOUSE OF BALLOONS
Download for free at http://www.the-weeknd.com/
The Weeknd is certainly one of the music stories of the year. Up until last winter, they were a mysteriously anonymous R&B group from Toronto championed by fellow Canadian rapper Drake and they released a series of three free mixtapes throughout 2011. “House of Balloons” was the first and by far the best of the mixtapes. The Weeknd’s sound is unlike anyone else’s in the R&B world. It is a sleazy, hazy, psychedelic music. The vocals are both smarmy and desperate and the lyrics are overly drug and sex focused. The overall vibe is sinister, desperate and self-loathing rather than celebratory. The singer sounds like he could be the embodiment of evil and he is clearly using the women in the songs and putting them in compromising positions, but he sure sounds unhappy about it. I’ve never heard anything remotely like this music and I don’t think I’ve though about another album more all year. For a mixtape the production on “House of Balloons” is top notch. The singing itself is excellent and definitely straight up modern R&B but the music owes more to chillwave and indie-rock than it does hip-hop or soul. One track features a prominent Beach House sample. The Weeknd’s stock is definitely rising. They appeared on the latest blockbuster Drake album and will be re-releasing all three mixtapes with bonus tracks commercially in 2012. It will be fun to get to the bottom of their story but it’s also nice to add a bit of mystery back to music.
Best tracks House of Balloons High for This
Download for free at http://www.the-weeknd.com/
1. TUNE-YARDS- WHOKILL
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My favorite album this year was a tough call. The top 5 wasn’t an strong as it has been the last several years, although the top 50 was consistently stronger. A year with more depth but less standouts. No one album stood high above the rest of the pack like Kanye last year and Animal Collective the year before. But in the end I had to go with “Who Kill” by tUnE-yArDs. It’s not a perfect album but it’s so wildly creative and unique that it may just play a big part in point ing the way forward for music over the next decade. tUnE-yArDs is Merrill Garbus. She is young, female, eccentric and unbridled and chameleon-like. Her voice is an incredibly powerful and dextrous instrument. She can hit seemingly impossible notes but manages to never overpower the song. She can sound lo-fi, bluesy and androgynous at times, while at other times sexy and decidedly female. At all times she sounds powerful, demanding and must be paid attention to. The rest of the production is as bonkers as her voice. She puts new wave, techno, Afropop, hip-hop & Jazz in a blender and draws from whatever she pleases. The music is busy and noisy- multi-tracked vocals, clattering drums and horns all over the place. It’s exciting as hell but certainly not soothing and probably not for everybody. With her lyrics Gaubus takes on the big issues & challenges the American status quo at every turn. She and her music are in your face and to me perfect for these times.
15 HONORABLE MENTIONS:
KENDRICK LAMAR- SECTION .80
LOS CAMPESINOS- HELLO SADNESS
CURREN$Y- WEEKEND AT BURNIES
DJ QUIK- BOOK OF DAVID
HANDSOME FURS- SOUND KAPITOL
DAS RACIST- RELAX
PANDA BEAR- TOMBOY
BIG K.R.I.T.- RETURN OF 4EVA
MALE BONDING- ENDLESS NOW
YOUTH LAGOON- THE YEAR OF HIBERNATION
KATY B- BROKEN RECORD
THE FOO FIGHTERS- WASTING LIGHT
THE JUNIOR BOYS- TELL ME
DANNY BROWN- XXX
FOSTER THE PEOPLE- TORCHES