06 January 2012

Best Music of 2011

If my blog archive is to be believed, I only managed six posts in 2011, after ranging from 10 to 13 posts for the four preceding years. Some of the difference can be attributed to my having moved during the year and re-entered graduate school, not to mention my total inability to come up with anything coherent to say about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, my favorite film of the past three or four years and one I desperately wanted to write about (might try again at some point). But I think the fundamental problem is that I’m a lazy, deadbeat blogger who tends to not get much done outside the discipline of editors, deadlines, etc. I would say that I’ll do better this year, but most of my previous pronouncements to that effect have been nothing but horrible lies, so I’ll refrain from making any predictions and just hope for the best. Which is my basic attitude toward the world in general these days.

Looking at my Top 10 lists from the past two years, I couldn’t help but notice that both featured a relative crowd-pleaser in the top spot, followed by a slice of more esoteric electronica. I couldn’t bring myself do it a third year in a row, but the top two below are more like 1 and 1a. Anyway, it was another pretty good year for music, so enjoy.

1. Tim Hecker—Ravedeath, 1972
It started in a church in Iceland. That is, the Frikirkjan Church in Reykjavik, where on a single day in July of 2010, Canadian producer Tim Hecker laid down the basic tracks for what would become Ravedeath, 1972, playing guitar, drums, and most vitally, the church’s 100-year-old pipe organ. Back in the studio, Hecker and Australian producer Ben Frost added layers of digital distortion to the recordings, the digital effects blending with the natural echoes of the church acoustics to create a powerful envelope of ambient sound that seems to be decaying in real time. The interplay between the organic power of the pipe organ and the swirls of digital noise provides the basic drama of the album, particularly on extended multi-track compositions like “In the Fog” and “Hatred of Music,” peaks of tension between melody and noise that are punctuated by pastoral interludes like “No Drums” and “Studio Suicide, 1980” This music is simultaneously warm and cold, off-putting and strangely comforting, its disparate layers flowing over one another in an ocean of sound, creating fragile combinations of rhythm, mood, and texture that disintegrate as soon as you get a fix on them. Ravedeath, 1972 is an experience of duration and subtle variation, but it’s also experimental music at its most functional, the perfect rainy day album or an ideal late-night listen, with even its noisiest edges subsumed in a hypnotic buzz. (“In the Fog II” “Hatred of Music I”)

2. Fleet Foxes—Helplessness Blues
The first Fleet Foxes album was always going to be tough to follow, but Robin Pecknold and company pull it off triumphantly and with seeming effortlessness on the masterful Helplessness Blues. The band’s baroque instrumentation and eclectic blend of Americana styles is as confident and seamless as ever, and the songs bring an impressively light touch to some heavy material—lost love (“Sim Sala Bim”), the inevitability of aging and death (“Battery Kinzie”), and the limitations of any lone individual vis-à-vis the vastness of the world (“Helplessness Blues” “Blue Spotted Tail”). While not a radical departure from the band’s previous work, Helplessness Blues runs deeper, pushing the envelope of the band’s sound a bit (dig the free-jazz sax breakdown on “An Argument”), while still embracing the spirit of truly classic rock. (“Bedouin Dress” “The Shrine/An Argument”)

3. PJ Harvey—Let England Shake
There’s long been a huge rock-critical bias against non-confessional work—to say nothing of poetry or of women over 40—so I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the critical acclaim for Harvey’s best album in a decade. A seemingly impersonal yet deeply felt meditation on home, country, and war, Let England Shake is also a testament to the importance of non-musical influences and a challenge to the notion of what political art can be. But I already wrote about that (see “Black Paintings,” posted March 10). (“The Glorious Land” “On Battleship Hill”)

4. The Field—Looping State of Mind
Axel Willner’s third album is his most musically expansive, introducing hints of dub and noise into his distinctive brand of shoegazer techno. At this point, you either like Willner’s music or you don’t (or you get your music from MSM sources and have never heard of him). I don’t necessarily prefer Looping State of Mind to 2009’s underrated Yesterday and Today, but Willner surely can’t be accused of repeating himself this time around, and it’s starting to look like he may be capable of maintaining this level for quite a while. (“Burned Out” “Then It’s White”)

5. St. Vincent—Strange Mercy
For better or for worse, this album and the one that follows began to feel increasingly topical as the year drew to its close. Annie Clark’s America may be a bit less specific than Polly Harvey’s England, but there’s no denying she’s onto some kind of zeitgeist here (I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more, either). Clark’s vocals are detached without feeling disengaged and she fills in the lush settings of Strange Mercy with some of the most original electric guitar work I’ve heard in quite a while. (“Surgeon” “Cruel”)

6. Kurt Vile—Smoke Ring for My Halo
Ever get the feeling your whole life’s been one long running gag? Kurt Vile feels your pain. The songs on Smoke Ring for My Halo contrast the often foolish vitality of youth with the worn-out wisdom of adulthood, without taking sides. It sounds depressing on paper, but far from being enervating, Vile’s wry, deadpan vocals are positively uplifting, with Vile himself scanning as an indie Tom Petty. Call it inspirational music for hipsters, or motivational music for slackers. So forget your bootstraps; if it ain’t working, take a whiz on the world and punch the future in the face. (“Runners Up” “Jesus Fever”)

7. tUnE-yArDs—w h o k i l l

A relative latecomer to pop music following an abbreviated career in theater and some time studying music in Kenya, Merrill Garbus has forged an original sound from bits of various black-music genres—Afro-pop, R&B, reggae—along with her own sui generis vocal stylings. And despite operating at what would be a fatal level of self-consciousness for most people (that the album’s pervasive liberal guilt never lapses into p.c. prissiness is a minor miracle), she manages to pull it off, creating music that’s thoughtful yet playful, intricate yet accessible. (“Riotriot” “Powa”)

8. Oneohtrix Point Never—Replica
Built from synthesizers and samples, the latest from Brooklyn’s Daniel Lopatin is a dense and difficult work but ultimately a rewarding one. Recalling classics by masters like Eno and Aphex Twin, Replica requires repeated listening before its singular workings begin to open up. Many of the tracks here seek to capture the emotion and drama of pop music and freeze them in time, as if re-creating a motion picture as a disjointed series of stills, devoid of narrative movement. If I were to redo this list a year from now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one a few spots higher. That’s the trouble with these lists: they’re just a snapshot, and you only get to make them once. (“Power of Persuasion” “Nassau”)

9. Florence and the Machine—Ceremonials
A lot of reviewers knocked this album for lacking the variety of Florence’s 2009 debut Lungs, but when you’ve got a fastball as good as hers, you don’t need much off-speed stuff. Now having said that, this one might have ranked a bit higher had a couple of the more adventurous tracks not been banished to “deluxe edition” status in what’s becoming a disturbing trend in major-label releases. For about a month, at the height of Occupy Wall Street, “Shake It Out” felt like the song of the year. Then I was made to realize that it wasn’t. (“Shake It Out” “No Light, No Light”)

10. Wild Flag—Wild Flag
Supergroups rarely live up to the hype, but Wild Flag, consisting of Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Helium’s Mary Timony, and Rebecca Cole of The Minders, avoids that trap by virtue of craftsmanship and sheer force of will. Corin Tucker’s inimitable voice is missed, but Wild Flag preserves most of the best of Sleater-Kinney (along with that band’s unfortunate love for cheesy extended-metaphor conceits), and the result is the best pure rock’n’roll album in years. As that description might suggest, Wild Flag feels in some respects more like the end of something than a new beginning. But even if it’s a bit self-conscious, the joyful celebration of the “four [girls] in a room” vibe feels wholly earned. And Helium was seriously underrated, by the way. (“Glass Tambourine” “Something Came Over Me”)

Now that I’ve done this once, I guess I have to keep doing it: five runners-up. Again, these are listed in alphabetical order and shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as 11 through 15 per se, but all are interesting records that merited some Top 10 consideration.

Kate Bush—50 Words for Snow
Probably the artist I listened to more than any other in 2011. If the whole album were as good as the ethereal first three tracks (one of which may or may not be about making love to a snowman), then it would have made the Top 10. (“Snowflake” “Lake Tahoe”)

Clams Casino—Instrumental Mixtape
Background music as foreground, a trick that’s rarely worked as well as it does here. (“Numb” “Illest Alive”)

Cut Copy—Zonoscope

This is such a summertime album that the February release date initially struck me as odd. Then I remembered that they’re Australian. (“Take Me Over” “Where I’m Going”)

Radiohead—The King of Limbs
A solid effort, although not one of the band’s best and not nearly as radical as it appears on first listen. (“Bloom” “Lotus Flower”)

The Weeknd—House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence
The first of the trilogy, House of Balloons remains the best entry point, although the late-breaking Echoes of Silence is the most sonically coherent. But these three mixtapes from the year’s breakout artist are best conceived as segments of one long, sprawling work. (“The Morning” “Montreal”)

Top 10 songs not on those albums

1. Real Estate—“Green Aisles”
Winter was coming, but that was all right.

2. M83—“Midnight City”

3. James Blake—“The Wilhelm Scream”
After the thrilling innovation of the early EPs, James Blake’s first proper album felt like a baby step backward, but tracks like this one are a reminder that we’re still dealing with a major, major talent.

4. Curren$y—“This Is the Life”

5. Frank Ocean—“Novacane”
If we consider My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a genre at this point—and why wouldn’t we?—then this was the year’s best entry therein.

6. R.E.M.—“Uberlin
Reaching back one last time.

7. Lady Gaga—“Bloody Mary”
I didn’t dig most of the singles, but for an album summarily dismissed by much of the cognoscenti, Born This Way has more than its share of interesting tracks.

8. Wye Oak—“Civilian”

9. ASAP Rocky—“Peso”

10. Lana Del Rey—“Video Games”
Tragedy rendered as comedy, or vice versa.