This is going up way later than I would have liked, but unfortunately this is the first time all month I’ve had the time to put this together, so you all get yet another end-of-the-year list now. Hopefully this will be a little more in-depth and interesting than some of the other ones though.
2011 was one of those years where it just seemed like all of the planets and stars aligned correctly to bring new albums from the most artists and bands I like in any year I can recall. There was almost no point this year where I wasn’t excited about at least one upcoming album, and most of the time I wasn’t disappointed with the results. I dare say even that with all of the new music I listened to this year there’s still a ton I have yet to explore, and that in itself is thrilling. The thing that by far sticks out the most for me about the new music I heard this year though was just how big a year it was for great instrumental rock and metal. There’s a handful of bands that are really pushing the boundaries and breaking new territory for the pretty well-tread genres of so-called “post-rock/metal,” and though it is far from being the trendiest or popular area of music these days, they deserve the exposure.
More on all of that later though. I wound up whittling my favorite albums of the year down to 20 (a difficult task, believe me). In order to keep these from getting too long, I’ll be making 4 separate posts with 5 albums each. So lettttt’s goooooo!
20. Place - Build: I’ve given New Amsterdam love here before, but let me say again how nice it is to have a small local label I feel I can 100% get behind and support. It was another very good year for NewAm (Chiara String Quartet/electronic duo Matmos’s album Jefferson Friedman: Quartets just snagged a Grammy nom for best contemporary classical album), but the standout from them for me this year was this album by Build, a group rooted in chamber music but with some interesting twists and turns into jazz and the segment of indie rock over the past decade that’s aligned itself more closely with the classical and modern compositional community. On Place, Build do exactly what their name indicates. Weaving a rich tapestry of strings, piano, drums, and even vibraphone at one point, the group (under the direction of violinist/composer Matt McBane) often takes the minimalist route of finding a groove or theme and allowing it grow organically to its logical and satisfying conclusion. That isn’t to say it’s a purely cerebral experience though. The album’s more straightforward driving tracks are well-complimented by a few crushingly gorgeous compositions. Overall just a very enjoyable album for classical fans and indie rockers more likely to rock out on the violin than guitar alike.
19. Gloss Drop - Battles: A friend recently described the experience of listening to Battles’s 2007 debut album, Mirrored, as “listening to the future.” It really did sound that way when it was released, as there was simply nothing else quite like it out there between its prickly guitar and synth lines from Ian Williams and Dave Konopka, dense and complex yet very driving and accessible drumming from John Stanier, and the vocalist on helium effects from Tyondai Braxton. Since then, Braxton left the band to concentrate on his own projects and the rest of Battles was left to decide whether to go fully instrumental or attempt to replace Braxton’s unique fingerprint. On Gloss Drop the band tried to do both, with largely positive results. The instrumental tracks are just as massive and thick as ever, and with the help of several guests vocalists of the likes of Gary Numan, Kazu Makino, and Yamantaka Eye they scraped together a group of vocal tracks that each explored very different aspects of the band’s sound and makeup, from the very poppy (“Ice Cream” and “Sweetie & Shag”) to completely out there (“Sundome”). The album isn’t nearly as cohesive or consistent as Mirrored, but when the group is firing on all cylinders it still feels and sounds like nothing else out there right now. Not bad considering the whole thing was essentially cobbled together in the 4 months after Braxton’s sudden departure.
18. David Comes To Life - Fucked Up: The Toronto-based Fucked Up have for years been playing against the expectations set up by its hardcore punk exterior. Their last album, The Chemistry of Common Life, combined killer hooks and almost pop-like choruses with frontman Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham’s Tasmanian Devil-like delivery to great effect while contemplating the meaning and existence of a higher being. On David Comes To Life, the band set out on an even loftier goal: a 4-act rock opera about a lightbulb factory worker-turned activist in Thatcher-era England whose exploits wind up in his activist girlfriend’s death. It then devolves into dizzying levels of meta narrative and struggle between protagonist and narrator. Musically the album is their most ambitious yet, if only in how straightforward and almost twee some of the early tracks are before slowly transitioning into more familiar territory. At a daunting 77-minute runtime, my only real complaint about the album is in its unrelenting spree of mid-tempo anthemic headbangers from the end of the opening track right through the end. By the time I reach Act 4 I’m exhausted. A couple of slower instrumental tracks (such as “Golden Seal” and “Looking For God” from Chemistry) would have gone a long way to allow the listener to catch their breath. For a band so conscious about concept and story, they would have served themselves better in upholding a key tenet of good narration: pace. That aside though, it’s still a monumental achievement for a band that continues to surprise and push boundaries of hardcore and punk.
17. Mirror Traffic - Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: When former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus announced he was bringing ex-Sleater-Kinney/Quasi drummer Janet Weiss for his last SM & The Jicks album Real Emotional Trash I was enormously excited for the possibilities. Weiss is such a monster drummer that I knew there would be some amazing jams happening. I was correct, though unfortunately a bit too right. RET was a solid album but could’ve probably used a couple less meandering guitar solos and lengthy instrumental build-ups and twists. Apparently Malkmus grew tired of the jams as well and tightened things up a ton for his latest, Mirror Traffic. The album is brimming with the kind of spontaneity, unexpected chord progressions, and super catchy hooks that’s defined the best of SM’s work post-Pavement. And with most of the tracks averaging around the 3-4-minute mark, the tunes are compact with just the right amount of instrumental noodling and embellishment. Unfortunately Weiss’s role appears to have been cut significantly as a result, which might help explain her departure from the group after Mirror Traffic's release. Nevertheless, the album is yet another crowning achievement from one of indie rock's most prolific and enigmatic songwriters.
16. Lenses Alien - Cymbals Eat Guitars: The first time I listened to this sophomore album from the Staten Island-based Cymbals Eat Guitars I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed and disappointed. Where was the unabashed hugeness that defined their debut Why Are There Mountains? Where were the triumphant horns and carefree spirit that made you wanna jump in your car and drive around with all the windows down? Upon further listen though I realized all that largeness in sound and general feeling of wanderlust and aimless roaming were still there; they were just tucked in now under a shroud of darkness and mystery not present in their previous work. A bit more Sonic Youth than Pavement. Lenses Alien has plenty of winding guitar lines and hooks to grab your attention throughout though, and the lyrics now speak of seedy characters and murders to accompany Joe D’Agostino’s knack for parlaying boredom and jadedness into compelling prose. Far from suffering a sophomore slump, Cymbals Eat Guitars are continuing to take cues from the great guitar and riff-heavy rock groups of the past couple of decades and put their own unique spin on them.
Next up: 11-15!