There was a lot of really great music released in 2011. The following list pays tribute to the ten offerings that I think best sum up the music that I found to be really special this year. I realize that there may be many differences in opinion and make no claim to have heard every album that was released this year. However, these are the ten that popped out to me as the most interesting musical endeavors released in the past 12 months.Without further ado, here is my list:
10. Witch Hat – Brown In A Dog
Talk about a random band taking me by storm! Witch Hat are a spooky, atmospheric doom metal band from Baltimore. I saw them play a show in a New Brunswick basement over the summer with fellow Baltimore rockers Weekends. Their live set was heavy, slow, and intense, so much so that I had no choice but to buy this record right then and there. It ended up being an excellent use of $15, as the LP contains 9 tracks of pure avant-garde sludge intensity. Particularly notable is the second track on the album, “Drowned In A Bog.” It features a humongous, memorable riff that’s insanely groovy while still being heavy beyond all measure. The record has a sparse production: I particularly like the guitar tones; they’re not drowned in fuzz, which allows the intensity of the band’s angular melodies to come through very clearly. The drumming is powerful and bombastic and drives the tracks along nicely. Witch Hat are very adept at crafting intense, memorable songs that attack the listener and refuse to let go. I personally find the longer songs (“Dazzling Blade” and “Blood People”) to be the most memorable. “Blood People” in particular ebbs and flows between understated atmospheric noodling and full-throttle sludge metal onslaught. A new band with tons of raw talent and songwriting capability, I think that Witch Hat have the potential to get very far in the metal underground.
Anyone with a strong interest in modern underground music has to have at least a passing familiarity with the concept of ‘indie pop’ music. Though it’s admittedly a very broad genre of music – bands as disparate as Maps & Atlases and Belle & Sebastian fall under the classification – many of these artists tend to sound the same. While I’ll admit that I’m biased against a lot of it (I am a former metalhead, after all), I do know good music when I hear it. Tape Club, by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, is one of the good ones. This album is not an LP proper; rather, it’s a collection of B-sides and demos from the band’s entire career, ranging from their early home demos to outtakes from their most recent studio-sessions. The record’s real strength lies in its variety. Around half of the songs are acoustic guitar-centered demos; these tunes are lo-fi, intimate, and atmospheric. Even though they’re demos, they sound like full-on Elliott Smith tunes. It goes without saying that simplicity really suits these songs. On the other hand, the other half of the album is composed of lumbering, groovy indie rock tunes that, once again, have great atmospheres. The vocals throughout the album are very shoegaze: quiet, whispery and detached. These songs sound like the soundtrack to your dreams. One other thing I really dig about this album is the length. Twenty-six songs bring the record in at around an hour and ten minutes. It’s nice because it gives the listener a lot of time to really get into the songs on the record. This is indie pop/rock done right: easy to listen to songs with some musical force. Other bland, simple indie pop bands should take a page out of SSLYBY’s book.
The music of The Gaslight Anthem has always been defined by a sense of nostalgia. Their music is ‘backwards-looking,’ in many ways. Their melodies and production styles recall 50’s and 60’s music, while Brian Fallon’s lyrics paint pictures of a working-class childhood and summer romances gone astray. It’s almost superficial at this point to note that their style draws heavily upon the music of Bruce Springsteen, New Jersey’s native rock star and musical God. Bruce has joined The Gaslight Anthem on stage on three separate occasions, one of which was just a few weeks ago. Now to this record, Elsie. It is a collaboration between Fallon and Ian Perkins, who handles Fallon’s guitars for The Gaslight Anthem’s tours. The record is clearly the work of Fallon: the songs drip with reverb and heart-achingly beautiful melodies. Yet the record also stands apart from The Gaslight Anthem’s output. The instrumentation is quieter; Fallon experiments with string arrangements and quieter guitar sounds. Rhythmically, the music is less aggressive. It sounds more like soul music than punk rock as The Gaslight Anthem is known for. I’m a huge fan of this album – it’s nice to hear a talented songwriter leave his comfort zone and produce music that strikes a nice balance between familiar and novel. As an aside, the song “Mary Ann” is harder and much more reminiscent of The Gaslight Anthem’s music; it’s a fantastic tune in any case. If you want to hear Fallon wail like no other, check that out. I think this record fully establishes Brian Fallon as one of this generations most supremely talented songwriters, and I’m unbelievably excited to hear what the future holds for him and his projects.
Touche Amore, with their new album Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me, carve themselves out an interesting little niche in the modern hardcore scene. The band are heavily associated with a musical movement mysteriously dubbed “The Wave,” which is a grouping of energetic, emotional, artistic punk bands with emo-hardcore influence. These bands tend to tour together and have released split record together; bands like La Dispute (whose new album is #3 on this list), Make, Do, and Mend, and Pianos Become The Teeth are associated. Touche Amore, however, set themselves apart from this group. Occupying a music niche somewhere in between the hardcore confessionalism of the classic band Rites of Spring and the urgent brutality of Converge’s discography, the best word to describe Touche Amore’s sound is “cathartic.” Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me has 13 short songs (only one goes past the two-minute mark), and they hit hard. Lead vocalist Jeremy Bolm’s screaming awakens a simultaneous sense of fear and healing: this music plays like the background score of an angry redemption in the pouring rain. The drumming is fierce and chaotic; the band hold nothing back in their attack on the listener. The track “Wants / Needs” is a great example of this sound. I think that what ultimately sets this record apart from the others is their honestly: the band know their strengths and use them to identify with the listener. And they do a magnificent job at it.
I think the reason that I enjoyed this album so much is that it takes me back. It takes me back to a time where horn sections and upstrokes on guitars provided me with sufficient reason to like a band. It takes me back to a time where all my friends liked ska. It takes me back to my first concert, which was Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, and Streetlight Manifesto at the Starland Ballroom Summer Campout in 2007. It does all these things in a way that is also enjoyable as pure entertainment. I detailed a laundry list of reasons that this is a terrific record in my in-depth review of it a few weeks ago. All of that is true, I think, but I think the thing that really attracted me to this record is its nostalgic undertones. The lyrics express a longing for simpler times and the musical style is slightly outdated, which adds indie nostalgia-cred to their music. They don’t try to do too much, and the simplicity does a lot in their favor. Words With Enemies is one of the most enjoyable albums I heard in 2011.
It’s hard for me to come up with a lot to say about the new record by Portugal. The Man. Anyone who’s heard any of their previous records will mostly know what to expect. There are a hell of a lot of them, too. The band has been remarkably consistent in their musical output – a full-length album every year since 2006. The best part, however, is that each of their records has its own unique sound that stands out amongst the others. On first listen, however, I thought that In The Mountain In The Cloud broke with that trend. When I first heard it, it sounded an awful lot like their 2009 release The Satanic Satanist. I then realized that that’s actually just a good thing, as The Satanic Satanist is melodic, atmospheric, and incredibly heartfelt. In The Mountain In The Cloud captures all of these traits. I think the main difference, musically speaking, that sets it apart from The Satanic Satanist is the more overt incorporation of orchestral arrangements into the music. They’ve touched on this musical paradigm before (notably on their 2008 album Censored Colors) but they’ve never incorporated it into the overtly melodic pop songs that they do here. And, of course, frontman John Gourley’s unique voice is the rock around which the record organizes itself. Portugal. The Man always ends up on my top 10 lists because I have great admiration for their consistency. In addition to releasing an album every year, they tour relentlessly and make it a point to interact with their fans. You know, to a degree, what to expect. And it’s always good.
I think the defining characteristic of a lot of good modern independent music is, as I discussed in my comments for The Horrible Crowes’ Elsie, a backwards-looking musical direction. It’s hip right now to be influenced by 60s girl groups and 50s R&B records. It sounds to me like The Postelles are a direct result of that movement. Yet while they do fall fairly neatly into the modern indie rock scene (musical nods to bands like Arctic Monkeys and The Kooks are obvious at virtually all turns) they do it with a refreshing urgency and spirit. Check out the song “Boy’s Best Friend” for a great illustration. The opening guitar strokes sound like they could have been ripped right out of a 50s rock ‘n roll song. Their lyrics sound like a poetic representation of an episode of Happy Days. Yet they have an uniquely modern, punk-influenced energy that makes their music acceptable to modern ears. They sound nostalgic without being stilted, which is a nice achievement. I think that this album will act as a fantastic substitute for those disappointed by the new albums by The Kooks and the Arctic Monkeys (Junk of the Heart and Suck It And See, respectively), as I personally found both of those records to be bland, middle-of-the-road efforts. The Postelles are a group of talented songwriters who don’t try to do too much. They know exactly what their strengths are and write great songs, which is all anyone would ever want from a record like this.
I’ve already said most of what I would want to say about this album in my in-depth review, posted around two months ago. In the review, I discussed the multitude of reasons that La Dispute are an amazing band who write amazing music. To reiterate what I said there, the think that I think sets Wilflife apart from works by other modern bands playing in similar genres is their incorporation of three interrelated musical styles: emo, hardcore, and post-rock. Lyrically, the band is heavily indebted to the expressive, confessional style of emo bands like Sunny Day Real Estate. Musically, they take more than just a page from post-hardcore bands like Thursday or The Fall Of Troy. And sonically, they incorporate the post-hardcore atmospheres of bands like Slint, Russian Circles, and mewithoutYou. Yet whatever bands La Dispute draw upon, they meld all of these sounds into a style uniquely their own, guided by the tortured musings of unmistakable singer/lyricist Jordan Dreyer. La Dispute are an important band, sure to spawn a wave of imitators in their wake. We can’t yet say whether or not any takes will surpass the power and majesty of their first two full-lengths, but Wildlife sure sets the bar pretty high.
I’m surprised that Digital Veil is the only proper metal album that made this list. Even though Witch Hat, Touche Amore, and La Dispute are each strongly influenced by various genres of metal, none of their records are pure, in that sense. The Human Abstract, however, are about as metal as you can get. Digital Veil is short and sweet, with only 8 songs, clocking in at under 40 minutes in length, but those 8 songs are unrelenting and brutal. The band skillfully tear through tons of great breakdowns and riffs. While their first album Nocturne, released in 2006, firmly established them as a notable neoclassical metal band, this album takes that aspect of their sound to new heights. The neoclassical riffs are more smoothly integrated into the songs, serving as buildups between the heavy hitting math-metal breakdowns. The band does a great job of balancing their two sides, and have made a metal record for the ages. The band is precise to a fault, to a point where some of the choppy riffs sound digitally modified. That might, in fact, be the point. Listening to the title track shows the band playing with an absurd level of precision. I wouldn’t be surprised if any incidental sound (imperfect instrument muting, etc) were digitally removed from the music. Is this possibly a commentary on digital processing of music to make it sound more ‘perfect’? Maybe. The digital effects at the end of that track suggest a certain play on the practice of modifying vocals. Maybe the album title hints even more at this – does digital modification of music “pull the wool over our eyes,” so to speak? Once again, it might. I can’t say for sure. But one thing’s for sure: this album hits hard, from beginning to end. The Human Abstract have established themselves, in my eyes, as the best metal band making music today.
Anyone who knows me knew coming in that this would be #1 album for 2011, hands down. It was never a question. I’m not even going to bother rehashing all of the fantastic things that this record has in store for listeners, and believe me, that list is extensive. Anyone interested in that breakdown can check out the glowing review I posted back in September. Instead, I want to tell a quick story about an experience I had with the band. Back in October, I brought them into 90.3 The Core to do an in-studio performance, which went fantastically well. Around a month later, I was lucky enough to see them open for River City Extension at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. After their set, the band spent the evening wandering around the venue, chatting with fans. Over the course of the night, all three guys in the band recognized me from our previous meetings, approached me individually, and thanked me for bringing them into the studio. I had full conversations with each of them, more than just a passing greeting. That’s why I think that this band, and by extension this record, are so amazing: they practice their craft with care, they perform with exuberance, and they realize where their success comes from. They truly reach people with their music, and they allow those people to reach back. I think that is why the band will find real success in the independent music scene. They really give back some of what they get, and the people who experience their music know it. They are a class act, and are more than deserving of my selection for the number one album of 2011.
Thank you so much for reading this list. I think that independent music in 2011 was beyond incredible. There was a ton of great music that didn’t make this list that nonetheless could have. I leave it to my readers to sort through my reviews and setlists if they’re interested in finding out more of what 2011 had to offer. Stay tuned to Art For Art’s Sake Radio in 2012; there’s so much more to come!