Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011 End-of-Year Celebrations: TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2011 (Part 1)

20. Jenny Hval - Viscera
The minimalistic guitar notes and sparse machine noises open 'Engine In The City', then the sexually charged couplet: “I arrived in town/with an electric toothbrush/pressed against my clitoris.”

This is the beginning of Viscera, and it sets the stark tone for a darkly surreal yet equally beautiful trip. Dropping her Rocket To The Sky moniker, the Norwegian native’s first set under her own name channels the spirit of folk reverence; her voice gently plaintive in in abstract poetics or ringing with crystalline beauty in bright harmonies.

Her music is warped with arch experimentalism, her songs as sensual as they are provocative, as likely to unspool into a sea of noise as they are ascend into a delicate ether. The majority of them unwind slowly over six to eight minutes, like a strange new flower blossoming, but always with a charged sense of character, narrative or emotional effect. Truly a singer-songwriter for (and of) the modern age.
19. Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. II: Judges
Stetson’s reputation moonlighting as indie’s horn-blower of choice (he’s played with LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver) doesn’t even begin to touch on his abilities.

From the raspy pounding rhythms of 'Red Horse' to the trilling powered arpeggios of 'A Dream of Water', Stetson is single-handedly reinventing how to approach and play the saxophone. It doesn’t even take a deeper understanding of the instrument to appreciate the skill and wizadry on display, and when the liner notes claim ‘all songs recorded live in single takes with no overdubs or loops,’ it almost beggars belief.

There’s no doubting there’s an elitism to praising a concept album by an avant-garde soloist as one of the year's favourites; but far from being the kind of record you’d flaunt in a chin-stroking contest to gain the upper hand; Judges is the sound of a master challenging himself as much as the listener. Don’t let the wordy titles or Laurie Anderson’s guest poetry deter you, or you’ll miss out on an engrossing, spell-binding listen.
Judges by Constellation Records

18. Wilco - The Whole Love
Though the brilliance of their individual strengths remain appreciated - Nels Cline’s expressive guitar work, Glenn Kotche’s deceptively genius drumming and of course Jeff Tweedy’s lovable roguish croak – The Whole Love once again reminds why Wilco excel as a collective unit.

Playing to a broader array of their strengths, with more allowances to the experimentalism of their art-rock past; whether subtly in the sixties organ and buzzing bass of 'I Might' or explicitly, as on ambitious opener 'Art of Almost'.

They're perfectly capable, and comfortable, with breezy alt-rock also. See the pop shapes of 'Dawned On Me', ragtime jaunt of 'Capitol City' or even the graceful twang of twelve-minute closer 'One Sunday Morningfor reference. Its variety and subtley aren’t immediate, but it’s purely the product of a group perfectly in synch – musically and artistically. They remain one of America’s, if not music’s, most treasured acts.
17. Halloween, Alaska - All Night The Calls Came In
For album number four - the band’s first effort bankrolled by their fans through the Kickstarter funding platform – the mission statement was to make it sound like more of a band effort.

Recorded in just a week, the results crackle with the energy achieved only through four musicians playing in a single room. Though the heart of their lush composition remains, namely the synth-bound polish and eloquence of band linchpin James Dier, its sleek sound is one that’s played – not generated.

The lucid key changes and snappy backbeat of 'Dance By Accident,' as well as the steadily-building hum of 'Analogue' from cosy refrain to noisy climax, are characterised as much by their collective energy as they are their studio sophistication. From the crisp upbeat inflections of 'Empire Waist' and 'Dead Air' to the languid '3:1' and nocturnal 'Tables', their organic lineage nods towards the ambient pop of The Blue Nile as well as the free-form art ensemble of late Talk Talk. All Night The Calls Came In finds Halloween, Alaska at their most tidily immediate.

16. Mutemath - Odd Soul
After spending two albums trying to exercise their love for brittle math rock to bend to the smooth curves of groove and funk, Odd Soul finds the New Orleans three-piece striking upon a definitive alchemy.

A successful collision between the seemingly alien spheres of blues, prog and rock with a knack for electronic flourish and big choruses. It’s deft fusion flickers between reference points like controlled fireworks, 'Allies' fizzes like Jamiroquai fronting Led Zeppelin, while the title track sounds like The Black Keys raised on a love of psychedelic keyboards.

It all merely serves to show how the group have struck upon something truly original. In cherry-picking from all ends of the musical spectrum, Odd Soul risks falling foul to its desire to blend familiar accessibility with instrumental excess, but succeeds in its focus and discipline towards generating a muscular groove. These guys can play (and sing, Paul Meany’s got a soulful wail to rival the best of ‘em), powered by one of the best rhythm sections you’ll hear all year.

Possessed of a super-tight synergy more commonly found in seventies funk groups, it powers their tunes and ideas which drag seemingly nerdy or outdated genres usually reserved for men in mid-life crisis, into a shiny new context. If nothing else, it marks a career-defining arc for the band’s genre-hybrid output. 
MuteMath "Prytania" by LibbyCM

15. Mastodon - The Hunter
Calling The Hunter the metal album of the year is to do it a mild disservice, but ‘most eclectic heavy rock album that punctuates cross-over appeal without compromise’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.

While many would have expected – and been content with - Crack The Skye Part 2, instead Mastodon again proved restless innovators. While its forebear remains a titanic prog-metal masterpiece, its successor – free from the burden of a convoluted conceptual structure – refuses to bow to any one mode and instead possesses the freedom to splay into many successful stylistic tangents.

A sonic smorgasbord informed as much by the blood-fuelled rush of brutal metal riffage, as it is the heavy psychedelic fug of intelligent space-rock. Mastodon are a talented tri-headed monster of shred-tastic power, with both brains and brawn; and zero fear to exercise both.
14. Gotyé - Making Mirrors

Discount the national dominance of 'Somebody That I Used To Know' for a moment, and it’s almost difficult to remember that Making Mirrors is the end-result of a half-decade wait to follow-up the still beloved Like Drawing Blood (coming just outside the top ten spot for triple j’s hottest 100 Australian albums of all time may I remind you).

In short, Making Mirrors is a triumph. A natural evolution and successor to the Gotyé sound while being a shining reflection of its creator. Wally De Backer’s fascination with sound and arrangement charges his excursions into sophisticated, rewarding pop music and the key word here is ‘exploration.’

Whether its digging through old curios for that perfect sample of inspiration, re-discovering a bold love of eighties sounds, or even exploring the reaches of his voice – that yearning upper register that expresses both melancholy regret ('Eyes Wide Open') as much as revelry ('In Your Light'). His sonic landscapes are able to transform a near-obsessive attention to detail into universally enjoyable moments.

And there’s a lot of them. The crunchy Beatles-lite guitars of 'Easy Way Out', the floating bob and weave to the percussion and brass on 'Smoke And Mirrors'. There’s the vibrant pulse to the Motown dedication, 'I Feel Better' and stretching his voice – quite literally with pitch-shifted manipulations - to include a sinister(ish) parable of techno-fascination in 'State of the Art'. Many of these stylistic tangents work so well in isolation, but also contribute to the record’s overall mood and tone. Unified by De Backer’s organising principles, a perfectionism that equates to pop sophistication.
I Feel Better by Gotye
13. Radiohead - The King Of Limbs
Lightning doesn’t always strike twice, nor did King of Limbs have the same explosive impact that In Rainbows did four years prior, despite being released in the same immediate way over the internet with zero promotional fanfare. But this is still lightning we’re talking about and no-one bottles it quite like the Oxford five-piece. Trace the history books all you like, but few make releasing new music an event quite like Radiohead.

The equality of accessing The King of Limbs before the critics could colour it, meant that the reception to the album was as varied as the sounds emitting from it. It’s eight tracks clearly divided in two halves, the first was clattered with polyrhythms, orchestral subtlety and a love of eclectic beat-making. The latter half however, led by semi-single 'Lotus Flower,' was some of the group’s most tranquil and unfettered yet.

Despite varying criticisms (a pretty brisk listen, teeters close to being a Yorke solo-record-as-Flying Lotus-love-letter), it remains another thrilling chapter in one of music’s most interesting and influential tales. Would King of Limbs matter if it wasn’t released by Radiohead? Absolutely. But just try gleaning such restlessly creative material from someone without their vision or experience.
12. Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning
Wilson is clearly an individual who spends more time producing fine music than he does sleeping. Between fronting Porcupine Tree, writing a new Blackfield record, cultivating No-Man and the newly birthed Storm Corrosion (a side project with Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt) – he somehow managed time to release and tour his second solo record. A grand double-album at that, which again offers a stunningly detailed portrait of the man’s many musical modes.

Flush from his duties producing and remastering the King Crimson back catalogue, it’s clearly had a severe influence on the shape and outcome of Grace For Drowning. Similarly to Fripp’s ringleader approach to Crimson, Wilson enlisted a impressive list of prog-savvy players to realise his vision, with him as distinct musical auteur. It would take such a talented revolving ensemble to ensure its sonic landscape, a staggering milieu of free jazz, noodling improvisations, atmospheric work worthy of film scores, textured electronics, spidery metal guitar riffs and beautifully evocative pianos.

It takes a few listens to survive such dense material - not least the sprawling eccentricities of the epic 'Radier II' (clocking in at 23:21) - but from the achingly beautiful ('Deform To Form A Star,' 'Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye'), to the archly bombastic ('Index,' 'Sectarian'); it’s a collection worthy of Wilson’s staggering work-ethic and contributes even more highlights to his already prolific oeuvre.
11. ARMS - Summer Skills
A product of both last year’s digital EP (of which three of its five tracks made the final cut) and time spent holed up in a Brooklyn studio with Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells, Cults); Summer Skills solidifies a period of transition. It marks the sophomore conversion of ARMS from the solo project of Todd Goldstein to a full-bodied rock band.

If Kids Aflame was the sound of a bedroom-bound pop maverick, then Summer Skills is the giddy flight to the crisp suburban streets. The lo-fi indie origins flourishing into a widescreen wash of warm summer tales and winsome melodies. Probably best narrated by the fidgety guitar and fizzing energy of heralding single 'Fleeced'. Goldstein’s syrupy tenor and natty songcraft now abetted by ‘noise guru’ Dave Harrington’s bank of analog synths, robust basswork and harmonies from Matty Fasano and, most viscerally, the chattering, percussive style of drummer Tlacael Esparza.

Drawn together by a focussed determination, their tasteful sonic palette also affords various musical detours. Each passing listen providing further rewards; as well as a new favourite track. Is it the freewheeling rush of 'Dog Days'? The chunky rainbow textures of 'Glass Harmonica'? Or simply the swooping upward inflection of “there’ll be time, too” on the falsetto chorus of the reclining title track.

Whether at their most calming or their most thrilling, ARMS act as a stunning reminder of the pure power of the guitar band. Bursting with vibrant energy as well as ambition and attitude.
Heat & Hot Water by ARMS

The Top 20 so far... stay tuned for Part 2.

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