I didn’t realize how good music was in 2011 until I started making my year-end lists. Though I had trouble deciding just what would make the awards podium, the wealth of remarkable material is, well, remarkable. You’ll probably notice, when it’s all said and done, there are a number of high profile omissions, that says more about the quality of music this year than what may have been “lacking” in those releases–also, I didn’t want to have 30 or 40 honorable mentions in addition to a top 20. Without further ado, let’s open the flood gates with a list of EPs, splits, and LPs that were great but didn’t quite fit in my top 20. In other words, I really enjoyed these and got tired of trying to assign numbers, but felt these in need of a spotlight. (Don’t read anything into the order, it’s all alphabetical, folks.)
The Atlas Moth – An Ache For the Distance (Profound Lore)
Chicago’s The Atlas Moth have been honing a bluesy brand of sludge for a few years, it’s pretty much as polished as sludge gets on the band’s sophomore release, An Ache For the Distance. Atlas Moth reintroduces some of the bluesy swagger to metal–harkening back to Sabbath and Zeppelin, giving the sludge all over Ache a real pulse. Because of this bluesy bluster Atlas Moth never gets lost in bong-ripped breakdowns other stoner-metal acts can get bogged-down in.
Alex Body’s latest, Cutting Down Camelot, is a phased-out wonder filled with some of the finest synth lines to come roaring out of a Midwestern basement in 2011. From the bubbly flow of “Easy Money” to the acid-dripping dirge of “The Light in the Mirror,” Body’s got a jam for just about any high your on.
Danny Brown went from best-kept-secret to everyone’s favorite rapper in 2011. While XXX is where you should go to get your pure, unfiltered Brown, the Detroit MC’s collaboration with his fellow Motor City DJ Black Milk is pretty darn good. Milk’s beats are a bit too basically banging and soul-looped to really encourage Brown’s vocal acrobatics, but basic Brown is still sweet.
James Blake – James Blake (Universal Republic)
I absolutely loved James Blake’s self-titled debut as snow still clung to the early edges of 2011, however, after about a dozen or so listens, the compositional holes really started to show on roughly half the album. The best stuff (“The Whilhelm Scream,” “Lindisfarme I & II,” “Limit to Your Love”) will probably swirl around in my head for years to come, but there’s far too much wasted space that feels flat and flabby.
Childish Gambino – EP (self-released)
Yeah, I found room in my heart for Donald Glover‘s horribly named rap alias, Childish Gambino. This transitional EP sits between the jokey stuff before and the self-serious mess–though not the travesty Pitchfork would have you think–debut LP Camp. Gambino takes hashtag rap to the damn hilt, but this is the first time in a while that a rapper’s set of references and worldview almost too neatly align with mine: no nagging homophobia or misogyny plus e.e. cummings and Freaks and Geeks references to boot.
Coppertone – Best of the First Six Months (Night-People)
Sasha Weisman (ex-Russian Tsarlag) has made such a beautiful collection of hissy, dreamy synth waves that I had to mention it despite the fact that this was released in late 2010. I rarely encourage piracy, but this wonderful tape is out of print and the youtube video below doesn’t do Weisman justice; downloads are all over the place.
Ryan Garbes – Sweet Hassle (Hello Sunshine)
When Ryan Garbes isn’t pounding skins for Wet Hair, dude makes some syrupy, shimmering gobs of psychedelic pop. Garbes’ Sweet Hassle is a wonderfully diverse collection, yet Garbes keeps the whole thing together nicely. The wound-up bounce of tracks like “Why” and “Whatever You Want” come equiped with the same wheezy synths and lo-fi veneer as the dopamine-dosed numbers like “Boys are Back” and “Slowing Down/The Walk.”
Jacaszek – Glimmer (Ghostly International)
Polish composer Michal Jacaszek isn’t charting new territory on Glimmer, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Glimmer is a sumptuous mix between acoustic and electronic instrumentation. Jacaszek relies on cellos just as much as synths for his deep, ominous drones, similarly, he’s just as apt to throw to a lute or a keyboard for the melodic leads. Jacaszek operates in the same sphere as other ambient electronic composers like Stars of the Lid: on the cusp between Brian Eno and Bach.
Zola Jesus - Conatus (Sacred Bones)
Though she’s lost some of the gritty, creepy intimacy of her earlier, lo-fi releases, Zola Jesus sounds at home in the heavily programmed–but a wee bit placid–soundscapes of Conatus. Her amazing, operatic vocals are now the only anchor, which is a mixed blessing. The voice shines through in the clean mix, but the same minimal arrangements do little to enhance the song. Not sure if it was better when it was all buried in lo-fi haze.
Since Jack Rose‘s untimely passing, there appears to be no more deserving or obvious heir apparent to John Fahey‘s throne than Glenn Jones. Jones’ fourth full-length is pure American Primitive. The guitarist takes complex chords and progressions and finds the simple beauty in breaking them down and then stretching them out wider than the horizon in Montana.
In 2011, Samuel Locke Ward teamed up with two odd-ball luminaries, first for a 7″ split with ex-Peaches guitarist Toby Goodshank. On his side, Locke Ward recruits Iowa City violinist Skye Carrasco and sax player Pete Balestreri for some of his most ornate tunes to date. Goodshank’s side is spare, lonely, and oddly beautiful
Second, Locke Ward got together with Dead Milkman leader Joe Jack Talcum for a split 12″. Locke Ward and his most recent outfit, The Boo Hoos, churn out seven barn burning power pop tunes including a recent live favorite “Do The Pinewood Box.” Talcum & The Powders (who are basically just Locke Ward & The Boo Hoos)
Calling Locrian’s latest album, The Clearing, metal is lazy. Sure, the Chicago troup definitely beats the hell out of their instruments, but the monastic bombast on “Chalk Point” or the rolling, five-minute ambient intro to the title track–which almost seamlessly leads into the torture-chamber of a song–says more than just metal. Locrian’s producing thick slabs of atmosphere to destroy your good mood.
When I heard Jeff Witscher (Rene Hell) and Daren Ho (Driphouse, ex-Raccoo-oo-oon) were getting together to make beautiful music together, I nearly plotzed. While not quite the sum of the parts one may hope, this collaboration is a worthy entry into either one of these prolific composers catalogs. Seriously, if you spent even one night at an Iowa City basement show, you should just check this out.
Ela Orleans’ A-side on this split 12″, Double Feature, is a wonder. If I didn’t dislike the Dirty Beaches’ B-side so much, this probably would have slid itself into the lower end of my top 20. The cloudy, hazy chamber-pop slathered on Orleans’ side is reminiscent of a lo-fi Nico; something slightly awkward and foreign yet strikingly beautiful.
I’m still tackling Undun, The Roots’ 10th studio LP, but I can say this one thing for certain: this is the first album from the Philadelphia hip-hop collective that is a must listen since 2002′s Phrenology. This is the group’s most exciting and experimental work since that 02 release. Beyond that, it’s also personal and moving. And, as a plus, it manages to avoid the clunky conventions of other story-based albums.
Russian Circles could probably churn out fantastic collections of instru-metal with its eyes closed. On its fourth LP, Empros, the group follows up the awesome Geneva, with maybe its strongest offering. Empros manages to showcase both Russian Circles’ growth but also their abilities to make post-rock metal accessible.
The Skull Defekts – Peer Amid (Thrill Jockey)
Another favorite from the first half of the year. That this collection of Swedes got post-hardcore legend and avant-folky Daniel Higgs to record his first “rock” record since Lungfish‘s 2005 hiatus is almost all the justification required for an Honorable Mention. However, with Higgs spewing his stream of consciousness poetry all over these circular, psychedelic riffs, Peer Amid is compelling and rewarding experience. Here’s hoping there’s more where this came from.
Chock full of reverb-laden pop somewhere between the ambling guitar work of ’90s slackers and slinking, acid drenched garage rock of the ’60s, Brooklyn’s Street Gnar has a lo-fi masterpiece in Poking the World With a Stick.
YOB – Atma (Profound Lore)
Man, the Pacific Northwest has to be going deaf with the glut of great metal happening up there. With vocals pitched between the banchy howls of ’80s English metal and the growls of more contemporary death and black metal–plus instrumentation to match, there’s a reason YOB has graced so many year-end lists: it’s hitting just about every metal head sweet spot.