Better late than never, INAUDIBLE is happy to present his 3rd annual end of year listy list!
2011 was a strange year for me musically — for the first year in probably fifteen I found myself listening to less music than normal. I felt I didn’t need to ceaselessly search out new music or always need to hear the next shit. This is not to say that music didn’t accompany me just about everywhere, it’s just that it felt different in a way it’s never felt before. Before I left for India this spring I loaded up my iPod with as much new music as possible, but while I was there I found myself listening to pretty much only one song in the morning and that was it (track to be disclosed below). I had fun listening to the Hindi equivalent of Rihanna and Tiesto while I was there, and when I returned it took a while for music (and everything else for that matter) to sound and seem fresh again. All this is to say, that this year I’ve decided to cut my list down substantially from years past, and simply index those albums that made me really, truly FEEL goddammit. And so without further ado, here they are.
TOP 14 ALBUMS OF 2011
14. Miracle Fortress – Was I the Wave? (Secret City)
Montrealer Graham Van Pelt has been making waves with his solo project Miracle Fortress since his 2007 debut album Five Roses earned him a Polaris Prize nomination, and found him channelling the pop sensibility of Brian Wilson. Four years later, and Van Pelt returned with Was I The Wave?, which earned him a second nod from the Polaris judges, and showcases a refined ear for production and his love for 80’s inspired electro pop. Van Pelt plays all the instruments on the record and shows himself adept at crafting catchy hooks and infectious melodies that beg you to play again and again. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to this album in the summer, racing my bike down the busy Toronto streets. It makes me feel young and carefree, and reminds me of Cut Copy circa In Ghost Colours. So enjoyable.
Fave track: “Tracers”
13. Peaking Lights – 936 (Not Not Fun)
Hailing from Madison, Wisconsin, husband and wife duo, Peaking Lights, make sun-speckled dub pop psychedelia. The premise is simple: deep repetitive bass, catchy drum loops, extended grooves, and ethereal vocals that also work on repetition and cavernous echo. The result, 936: a perfectly blissed-out album for the warmer months, one that lingered in my head long after the album was played out. While not too far away compositionally from many dub techno artists like Rhythm and Sound or Deadbeat, Peaking Lights style diverges, because instead of going inward they go out — it’s still heady music, but as their name implies, they take the listener up up up, floating in a headspace above the clouds and the mountain peaks, a place where just enough light and warmth peeks through to make you smile. With 936, Peaking Lights have created groovy yet subtly romantic music that allows the listener to cheerfully zone out, and the result is surprisingly radiant.
12. Holy Other – With U (Tri Angle)
Manchester’s Holy Other released the subterranean and slow-clip With U EP this year and I was immediately entranced by the mysterious producer’s dubby and slow motion house music. Earlier reviews likened Holy Other to Burial most likely because of the pitch-shifted vocal samples in each track, but perhaps also because this brief record, like Untrue, is the perfect soundtrack to be played on repeat in the chill-out room of some dark club. With U has that feeling of being heard from the other room, and although on the surface it sounds as if it fits snugly in the slower end of the dubstep scene, I call it more of a slowed down house, sure that if we cranked up the bpms, there’d be some serious bangers here. But instead, we get 20 minutes of bleak, moody gloom, and to my ears it’s never sounded sweeter.
Fave track: “Touch”
11. Sepalcure – Sepalcure (Hotflush)
After a busy year of critically lauded solo releases, NYC producers Travis Stewart (Machinedrum) and Praveen Sharma (Braille) merged talents to form Sepalcure, a duo that creates dub techno inspired music that sits nicely on the Hotflush roster, but also veers away from the sounds of Mount Kimbie, Scuba, Joy Orbison, or Burial, to produce a style that is all their own. The pair seem much more content to sound creative and fresh rather than fit comfortably in some sub-sub-genre. Vocals play a major role throughout, as they do on the best tracks of Stewart’s album Room(s), and are stretched out, reverbed, pitched, slowed down, and repetitive, which effectively creates track after track of catchy vocal hooks you’ll find yourself humming after the record’s played out. Sepalcure’s debut is an album that has grown on me over the course of the last months of 2011 and tracks like “The One”, “Eternally Yrs” and “See Me Feel Me”, make me feel a bit nostalgic, a bit futuristic, and a lot like shaking my ass in a sweaty club. So nice.
10. A Winged Victory for the Sullen (Kranky Records)
Adam Wiltzie, one half of ambient darlings Stars of the Lid, teamed up with composer Dustin O’Halloran, and together they crafted my favourite modern classical album of the year. The last time Wiltzie branched out without Brian McBride (his usual musical counterpart), was in 2004 when he released the stunning The Dead Texan album, and this new project is no different. A Winged Victory For The Sullen create richly emotive chamber music with an amazing grasp of space and atmosphere — and with the help of wunderkind Peter Broderick and cellist Hildur Gudnadottir (who’s worked with Múm, Pan Sonic, and Animal Collective), Wiltzie and O’Halloran have captured the essence of both minimal drone and melodic ambience while still working with piano and strings. “Steep Hills For Vicodin Tears” is probably the best example of their moody yet buoyant sound. A Winged Victory’s debut is one for quiet mornings and chilly nights.
9. Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do? (Universal)
Michigan native and neo-soul hero, Mayer Hawthorne released his sophomore album How Do You Do? on a big major label. And when I recently went home for Christmas, I heard lead single “The Walk” on a radio station that claims to play the best soft rock hits of yesterday and today. Yet, even though The Hawth has eschewed indie cred by leaving Stone’s Throw for Universal, his album still features more of that good time Motown music he did so well on his debut A Strange Arrangement. And to be fair, I think it is a stronger collection of songs overall. Hawthorne and his band shine brightest when they veer furthest away from emulating the Motown giants and instead use the influence of lesser knowns like The Delfonics or Bobby Womack. Moreover, Hawthorne seems to have also found inspiration in classic rock bands like Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers as well, and it all works within the context of the album. “Can’t Stop”, Hawthorne’s vocal collab with Snoop Dogg is a hilariously earnest and sexy seduction track with a West Coast beat and big synth hook that is wildly infectious and funky and Snoop sounds just dope. Closing track “No Strings” is a fantastic ode to the one night stand, while “You Called Me” is the exact opposite, a song about a strong and loving relationship.
But doesn’t it sound kind of strange to hear Hawthorne croon: “…but your shitty fucking attitude has got me changing my mind” on “The Walk”? It’s a reverse anachronism, in which modern cuss words just don’t sound right in the “great times, good oldies” context Hawthorne does so well. But other than that, How Do You Do? is another strong collection of songs about love and lust from Hawthorne and The County. His music makes me feel like I’m in the backseat of my parents car listening to the oldies station, and is great for early night kitchen dance parties and late night make out sessions. Wooh.
8. SBTRKT – SBTRKT (Young Turks)
UK masked beat-maker SBTRKT’s eponymous long player was an absolute grower, and one I found myself listening to on repeat during the warm summer months. The album features emotional vocals courtesy of collaborators Sampha, Roses Gabor, Jessie Ware, and Little Dragon, and even after first listen it’s obvious SBTRKT (real name Aaron Jones) spent a lot of time working with his talented vocalists, as the production is meticulous. This ain’t no postal service style collab he’s got going on with his vocalists; instead he had them in the studio, layering track upon track and making sure not a note was missed. It’s a soulful affair, working with elements of dubstep, drum and bass, garage, and bass music. For anyone who’s been to a club even once last year, you’ve probably heard hit single “Wildfire” blasting out of the speakers during the heart of the party, but for me “Hold On” is the track I had rocking on repeat more times than I’d like to admit. The whole album flows smooove and chill, and reveals a producer truly coming into his own.
7. Oliveray – Wonders (Erased Tapes)
Oliveray is the beautiful and understated collaboration of Nils (Oliver) Frahm and Peter (Ray) Broderick. Intermingling strings, pianos, acoustic guitar, and Broderick’s voice, this brief album is a candid and earnest collection of emotional songs by two very gifted songwriters. In my opinion, this is Broderick’s most moving work since his brilliant 2009 record Home. Based on improvisations and quiet late-night jam sessions, these songs reveal two young musicians working harmoniously in tandem, and their songs bring to mind everyone from Labradford to Mark Kozelek. “You Don’t Love” is faintly reminiscent of “Have You Forgotten” by Red House Painters in the way Broderick sings “How can you love me if you don’t love yourself?”, and closing track “Dreamer” is heartbreaking in its simple execution of guitar and sparse piano and Broderick’s lyrical emotion. So yeah, in short, this album makes me feel a whole lot. In the morns on the way to work, in the eves while reading and chilling out, this album rewards repeat listens, and truly deserves to be loved by more people. Check it.
6. Real Estate – Days (Domino Records)
New Jersey native Martin Courtney and his bandmates returned in 2011 with their sophomore album Days, a much tighter and fulfilling record than their 2009 self-titled debut. It’s an album that displays what a difference a few years on tour can do when it comes to becoming a tighter and more dynamic band. Still, the songs on Days are sparse and minimal, all dragging their heels at the same introspective clip, yet at the album’s best moments, this creates a sort of tranquil, hypnotic effect one can use to let thoughts drift about the halcyon days of youth. It’s “Range Life” by Pavement for the Dot-com generation, and for me that’s perfectly fine. This album holds a special place in my heart, mainly because it was the record I listened to most upon leaving Toronto and moving back to Montreal. It was a perfect fall album, one that I had on repeat for all of October as I rode my bike, exploring the city, watching the leaves turn and slowly fall from the trees. The strongest tracks on the album “Out of Tune”, “Green Aisles”, and “Younger Than Yesterday” reveal the band’s ability to craft catchy songs with just a brief guitar lick and showcase Matthew Mondanile’s excellent work on lead guitar.
I recently saw the band play in Montreal at La Sala Rossa and they did a solid job of jamming out their new album, but I find their music is more enjoyable at home or in transit, as the samey-ness of their songs did drag on a bit at the show. Nevertheless, Real Estate are excellent songwriters adept at crafting great slow rock tunes that remind me of Pavement, Bedhead, and Yo La Tengo, and make me feel relaxed while comfortably yearning for autumns come and gone.
5. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador Records)
Philadelphia singer/songwriter, Kurt Vile released the excellent Smoke Ring For My Halo in the spring of last year, and it’s been on constant rotation in my living room ever since. Smoke Ring is definitely an immersive experience, offering up the best of Americana, reminiscent of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and the finest folk and lo-fi rock and roll. The beauty is in the subtlety and strength of his songwriting. Vile’s lyrics are dark and lonesome, delivered in a laconic style that’s all his own. He tends to drag out words or syllables providing the perfect counterpart to his skilled finger-plucking or guitar strums.
Vile also seems to be working with the idea of restraint here, as many of the songs could easily blow up into full out jams, yet he and his backing band The Violators rarely let this happen. There is however a great fuzzy climax to “On Tour”, but even here the distortion never gets carried away — the listener is able to feel the closing kick, yet still be privy to the swirling combination of keyboard, harp, slide guitar, and mellotron orbiting Vile’s guitar. It’s truly great stuff. Tracks like “Runner Up”, “Peeping Tomboy”, “Baby’s Arms”, and “Ghost Town” are slow, sparse, and poignant, and reveal Vile’s adeptness at being one of the best songwriters out there. He creates more than just mood here, he’s created a listening experience in the classic sense, one in which you put the album on and languidly float off for 45 minutes in Vile’s sonic yet relaxed musical realm.
4. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
OK, now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. For those of you who failed to read my discloser at the beginning of this post, please let me remind you…I have decided to choose only those albums that truly made me feel, sigh, pang, pine, shiver, and smile. And Justin Vernon’s sophomore full-length under the Bon Iver moniker does all the above for me. It’s a brilliant and courageous album, with confident songwriting and sophisticated production. For those fans who for some reason were hoping for another sad-dude-with-guitar-writes-album-in-woods deal, they were disappointed, as Vernon ventured far away from the aching melancholy of For Emma, Forever Ago. One reviewer stubbornly believes Vernon totally overdid it in a desperate attempt to distance himself from his debut, and even goes so far as to compare his production skills to that of Enya! C’mon, really?
But for this listener, I find it unfair to expect musicians to feel obliged to maintain a certain style or sound over a series of records simply because that’s what the fans want. And to be sure, many musicians make their careers on the same three chords, but here Vernon has pushed further out into the textures of sonic space, and shows how much his musical palette has diversified in the four years since For Emma. Hell, he was already experimenting with Autotune on Blood Bank before he even hooked up with Kanye, so for me I see it as a natural progression of a true musician.
Sure, one could argue that Vernon is almost too ambitious with this album, but in the end (even with closing track “Beth/Rest”) I think he succeeds. I remember the first time I played this album out in full, it was a somewhat bleak Sunday afternoon and I was putzing around my apartment and “Beth/Rest” started and I literally began laughing out loud. “What the fuck is this? Phil Collins? Kenny Loggins?” I laughed. I called my friend Jeff and he too made a similar comparison and quipped that Vernon was getting all saxy! It’s true, the track seemed way way out of place, but a month or so later, somewhere on the road between Kingston and Montreal, while riding the Megabus, the song hit me the way Vernon intended it to, and now I like it. Yes, it’s cheesy, yes it’s off putting, but as Vernon has said, he just really likes singing it, and apparently makes sure to play it at all live shows with all its Bruce Hornsby-esque embellishments intact, just to annoy the haters. Nice.
It seems he’s also trying to fill the void left in the wake of Sufjan Stevens getting too “weird” on last year’s The Age of Adz, as opening track “Perth” could have easily been lifted from Stevens’ earlier discography. With this album, Bon Iver sounds so much more a band than a solo project, tracks like “Minnesota, WI” and “Towers” are full and groove well . . . and his voice! From lower spectrum to high, no one sounds like Vernon, and if anything his voice has gotten only stronger since For Emma. But for me, the best tracks are the most spare, for example “Michicant” is stunning in its simplicity with all its subtle flourish, and “Wash.” uses piano, strings, and slide guitar to brilliant effect. Sincerely, this album deserves to be as critically heralded as it was throughout 2011. It’s a haunting and mature collection of songs that makes you feel like getting momentarily lost, while still knowing exactly where you want to go.
3. Burial – Street Halo EP (Hyperdub)
Burial returned with his first new material since 2007’s Untrue, and made it in my top five with just a three song EP. Like Boards of Canada, Burial is clever in that he knows how to keep his fans waiting. He doesn’t flood the market with new tunes or remixes, and (again like BoC) his absence spawned dozens of imitators, but no one sounds like him. And so, Burial returned with three long-awaited songs, treading the same dark territory of his earlier work, yet perhaps with just a hint of influence from house and techno. Perhaps Four Tet’s style rubbed off on him a bit, as seen in the shuffling 4/4 and deep bass of “Street Halo“. This song is positively subterranean. It seems designed for shaking your ass and grinding your teeth on a pitch black dance floor. There’s even a few moments where he flirts with trancey strings, pulling them subtly up in the mix, just enough for you to acknowledge them, before they get sucked back into the crushing bassline. It’s beautifully dark stuff.
All the tracks feature his trademark use of vocals, and “NYC”s repetitive hook “this is love…when I’m around”, creates some serious emotion, as the track clods around at a much slower and pensive beat than the album’s two other tracks. “NYC” is moody, and mournful. Rainy day stuff, in which you forgot your umbrella, and have to walk five blocks home from work, but you don’t mind the rain hitting you in the face, you don’t mind feeling cold and damp.
Closing track, “Stolen Dog” is my hitter. It is my favourite song of the year, folks. And I’ll tell you why. Way up there at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that while I was in India last summer I barely listened to any music, even though my iPod was jam packed. But there was one song that I found myself listening to every morning while I was in Kolkata, and it was “Stolen Dog”. The track is just unbelievably emotional. My first morning in Kolkata, I awoke at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of someone singing the morning prayers, which in turn woke up all the birds, which in turn marked the beginning of the cacophony of sounds that is urban India.
I was staying at a hostel that had a nice courtyard that was fenced in and tucked away from the road, creating a haven from the hectic streets. So I would sit on a bench and watch all sorts of strange and exotic birds fly around in the green of the courtyard, hear the blaring of traffic from the street, and listen to “Stolen Dog”. That first morning, jet-lagged and anxious, the song hit me so hard, it was all I could do to not burst into tears. The vocal hook practically punched me in the chest. And so, it became my morning soundtrack while I was in Kolkata, and I will never be able to listen to it without remembering that trip. And so, that is why this album features so highly on the list, because Burial just knows how to do it right. He still knows how to breathe new life into his bag of familiar samples and tricks and I look forward to more material from him in 2012!
2. Tape – Revelationes (Hapna Records)
Swedish trio Tape have been making music since 2000, but it took them a decade to hit my radar with the release of their fifth long player, Revelationes. And indeed the album is a revelation — taking cues from post-rock, modern classical, electronica, folk, jazz and minimalism. The group is made up of brothers Andreas and Johan Berthling with Tomas Hallonsten, and although their music plays out as vaguely familiar, they have carved out a sound that is all their own.
There’s an emotional element to this album that grows in strength with each successive listen, and I find I get wistfully lost in each track. For example, I’ll be listening to “Companions” and enjoying the soft guitars and swirling synth, and think the next track cannot possibly be as enchanting . . . and then “Hotels” starts, and I’m quickly swept into that beautiful little sketch of sound, and think again that this must be the album’s perfect moment, but then “The Wild Palms” begins, and the whole process starts again.
Earlier reviews mention Tortoise and even Slint as markers of style, and what’s funny is, while those are two of my favourite and arguably most-listened to bands of the past fifteen years, while listening to Revelationes, those two groups don’t spring to mind. And while I won’t deny the reference points, Tape sound so much more part of the now — more akin to contemporaries like Helios, Emanuele Errante, Benoit Pioulard, and the quieter moments of Animal Hospital.
Revelationes is very song-based, each track can stand on its own, yet they all play out beautifully as a whole. The album is very economical, running at just over a half an hour, and it is still offering up new sounds and emotions the more I put it on. This is definitely one to check out, and Tape is a band that deserves a much larger fan base. Delightful.
1. Araabmuzik – Electronic Dream (Duke Production)
So…getting back to that old disclaimer at the beginning about feelings and shit. Yeah, this is a weird one. And it took me awhile to actually admit that it is in fact my favourite album of the 2011. Probably because I have no idea how to describe it…dirty trance electro hip-pop? All I can tell you is, Araabmuzik‘s Electronic Dream excited me like no other album this year. I don’t think I have ever rode my back faster than when listening to “AT2”, it made me feel practically invincible. A fist pumping, spine-tingling collection of hard-hitting, yet aesthetically pleasing bangers.
Does it border on cheesy at times? Hell yes, but that’s part of its charm, and the machine gun snare pops, dirty hip-hop drum programming, nods to AFX, and uber-crisp production completely make up for any weird trance-pop transgressions. For me, it’s one of the few albums that have really hit hard and kept its appeal after many listens. “Streetz Tonight” is a perfect example of what the young producer is trying to do with this album: craft a catchy as all hell song with a banging beat. He has this knack for always grounding the track firmly in the rhythm…just as soon as the song seems to be veering off into all out trance, he drops the beat back in like an anchor. It’s a technique he uses again and again on Electronic Dream and I have yet to grow tired of it. Also, I love his token “You’re now listening to Araabmuzik” digital watermark. I don’t find it pompous at all, I think it’s hilarious, and just another way to effectively ground the chaos of each song.
2011 was a year of change for me. A year where I left my home in Toronto of 4 years to begin anew, in an attempt to really, truly become that adult I’ve been saying I kinda think I am for the last few years now. And when I arrived in Montreal to stay, I was taking the Metro to my friends Mike and Jacquelyn’s place, and I put opening track “Electronic Dream” on my iPod, and the weight of everything came crashing down. I felt like I had abandoned my life…and for what? I thought of all my amazing friends and family in Toronto, I thought of the lovely and sketchy neighbourhood of Parkdale that I had just shrugged off like an annoying beggar…four years of my life flitted by from one metro station to the next, and I became overwhelmed, and had to get off two stops early in order to keep myself in check. I felt the pang, the sigh, the yearn, the pull…and it was Araabmuzik that was the soundtrack to that powerful and significant moment of the year 2011, and fuck if it wasn’t a memorable one. More please.
Bibio – Mind Bokeh
Deaf Center – Owl Splinters
Frank Ocean – Nostalgia,ULTRA
Jay Z & Kanye – Watch The Throne
James Blake – James Blake
Machinedrum – Room(s)
Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Luminaries & Synastry
Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
The Weeknd – House of Balloons
Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine
TV On The Radio – Nine Types of Light
Wild Beasts – Smother
Best Album of 2010 That I Didn’t Get Into Until 2011
I sure slept on this one. But once I finally gave it a listen I was hooked. Absolutely amazing songwriting. Best description I can give it: Rock and fucking Roll. But that’s the best thing about music, it doesn’t matter when you get into it, just that you do. I look forward to their next album.
RIP Gerard Smith (1974-2011)
May the end of times greet you fondly! Happy 2012 to all!