Friday, January 6, 2012

2011 End-of-Year Celebrations: TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2011 (Part 2)

10. TV On The Radio - Nine Types of Light
For all the art-rock gusto surrounding discussions of TV on the Radio, they seem to obfuscate that they can be a powerfully direct band and their fourth LP is perhaps their most approachable. Its message is simple: in the face of a fucked-up world at the end of its frayed tether, it’s important to take stock in what matters. Chiefly: love. That artsy title might not get to the heart of the matter, but the likes of You, Will Do and, most explicitly, Your Heart make it clear “With the world all falling apart/I’m gonna keep your heart.”
Where the Brooklynites’ honed their brand of horn-abetted art-funk on predecessor Dear, Science, they’ve slowed down for a contemplative set that sounds more comforting without damaging their rich scenery. The twin falsettos of Tunde Adibempe and Kyp Malone voice both alliterated poetry (Second Song) and inner-city mistrust (No Future Shock), with Dave Sitek’s adept production continuing to colour their rich sound with painterly detail. Most impressively on the record’s refined centrepiece, Killer Crane, where glowing piano chords meet slowly inked orchestral washes and metronomic banjo plucking.
It’s not all grace and tenderness, the wiry dance paranoia of Repetition and stomping crunch of Caffeinated Consciousness find the dancefloor beneath the emotional debris, but the lingering sentiment is of a band that cares. A feeling made all the more poignant when bassist Gerard Smith lost his fight with lung cancer. In retrospect, it hasn’t defined Nine Types of Light, and those who caught their recent visit to our shores can confirm their live show remains a relatively undiminished unit of funkified exorcism; but his contribution to another innovative, beautifully realised record is a fitting epitaph.

9. Dads – Man of Leisure
Dads was a side-project designed, by Tom Iansek’s own admission, to achieve nothing more than commit old songs to tape while simultaneously testing out some new gear in the process; but when those tests are done by one of Australia’s most accomplished up-and-coming songwriters - the results are so much more.
In its most partisan, Man Of Leisure does indeed recall Iansek’s day-job as one-half of Melbourne’s brilliantly diverse Big Scary. Sister focuses on a spring-heeled drum pattern against idle buzzing chords in a sibling dedication befitting of the duo, while the sepia-tinged instrumental Bron could have been a Four Seasons interlude.
However, it’s the unrestrained departures to rich, florid soundscapes that really shine. Opener Life, Oh Life begins with chaste acoustic guitar but soon takes in layered harmonies, twinkling counter-melodies and a widescreen polish that belies its DIY recording. Equally powerful are the shimmering guitar and vocal explosions of So Long, like one cathartic howl that recalls Jeff Buckley’s emotional ascendancy. So too White Knight, with Iansek channelling the purest of his choral singing voice over a plucked guitar awash in toasty reverb.
The record is flush with such intimacy, you can practically hear his lips parting to deliver the abstract lines of the beautifully sparse The Ocean, or in the toxic wail of desperation in Song For Two (Sung By One). As the aching Dreaming of Falling To Your Death flickers into the slow cathartic march of Sleepwalking, it’s worth remembering that this the musical product of one man and his equipment. Exhibiting the kind of virtuosity in sound, intent and delivery that would take others many, many records to master, Iansek nails it in one.
Life, Oh Life by musicyourdadsmake

8. Big ScaryVacation
Vacation may not seem like it to the uninitiated, but it’s a bold statement for a debut album. After the Four Seasons project honed their chops as well as earned them an audience, the question hanging over the band was which of their many competent stylistic tangents would they pursue? Lead single Mix Tape and opening cut Gladiator seemed like natural extensions of the duo’s diverse skill, crafting an explosive scale-tastic pop number in the former, and a crunchy but sensuous slick of garage rock in the latter. Both were instead a bit of a bait-and-switch, accessible lures towards an album that is best classified as ‘a grower.’
Sparser, more disciplined sounds characterised the true heart of Vacation. The hushed hypnotic tone of Got It, Lost It, the slow-burn remorse in Bad Friends, the Saint-Säens- meets-trip-hop melancholy to Of Desire – moody moments that reflected strummer Iansek and drummer Jo Syme’s dexterity and maturity in the studio. A set of vulnerable tunes that reflect the fragility and uncertainty in being thrust into their new-found lives as touring musicians. It’s secreted away in lines like Rolling By’s “I feel I’m growing old too soon” or Leaving Home’s self-addressed “Brace yourself your life’s about to change/how, you don’t even know.” These inquisitions seem a mile away however on the heady rock licks of Purple, an ambassador for their vigorous live show and serving to remind of their lovable unpredictability.
That’s perhaps the most exciting thing about Vacation, as much as it has reservations about where they’re going – and with the inclusion of a new, subtler version of Falling Away, where they’ve been - there’s few definite signposts as to their next creative destination. Even as they shoulder the role as one of the nation’s most important and enjoyable emerging acts with poise, there’s really no knowing where Big Scary will go next, and that’s precisely what we love about them.
Bad Friends by bigscary
7. Wild Beasts - Smother
Smother is the album that proves that its predecessor Two Dancers was not the exception to the rule, but the first in a chain of serious creative leaps. In just three years, they’ve evolved from the acerbic post-punk dandies of Limbo, Panto to a svelte purveyor of breathtaking aural elegance.
Softening their acerbic barbs for intimacy, their sparse rhythmic atmosphere and intellectual gaze now scoring songs seeped with a neo-noir eroticism. Their bookish minds preoccupied with topics of temptation, allure and, as Loop The Loop has it: “design of desire.” While coyly wondering, “Oh, don’t you think/That people are the strangest things?”
They’ve once again moderated their flamboyance to cunning effect. The familiar configurations of chiming guitars, swelling bass and beats are misshapen, looped and displaced into surreal new entities. Enchanting and seducing while at once achingly beautiful and quietly alarming.
Even Hayden Thorpe’s once eccentric falsetto, is now draped lavishly across the warm splashes of Albatross or shrewdly peaking with discomfort on Plaything. The perfect complement found in co-vocalist Tom Fleming, whose brassy grain is as slow and soothing as a warm embrace on Deeper and Invisible, roused and defiant on the raw Burning.
As it reaches its conclusion, with the mesmerising closing curtain of mini-epic End Come Too Soon, Wild Beasts cement their reputation as a brave, uncompromising unit with nothing short of magnetic atmosphere, poignant voices, exacting lyrics and great tunes.

6. Snowman – Δbsence
Released posthumously upon the dissolution of the ever-evolving Perth-via-Europe collective; Δbsence is a hauntingly effective swansong. Evoking the band’s demise like vanishing memories, through a series of spookily tangible impressions whose grand arrangements and vividly realised ambience seems to smear like a fading polaroid. The musical equivalent of seeing something from the corner of your eye, only to vanish as you turn to see it.
It’s precisely the kind of record that promotes those waifish, vague descriptions (that music writers so secretly relish) that don’t necessarily say anything about the music, but capture its mood.
Opener Snakes & Ladders soundtracks that limbo point between awake and asleep, while Hyena is motorised by fevered tribal drumming and warped Eastern scales. Elsewhere, White Wall glowers with brooding power and Séance drips like a limp, fevered dream. Cold, eerie precision underscores warm, enveloping texture as vocals drift between layered chants and spectral, wordless melodies.
Conversely the instrumental Δ propels towards a fusion between a buzzing synth heart and a swaying melodic phrase into a dark cloud that swallows the horizon. It gets the job done in six minutes, but it could conceivably stretch forever. Its cinematic allure best encapsulates the group’s artistic achievement. A conceptual work whose cohesion as an overall piece is far stronger than its individual tracks. An utterly unique sound world that smoulders with hypnotic menace, inscrutable but potently affecting.
Snowman - Snakes & Ladders by theQuietus
5. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Before deeper digging revealed it as the new project for ex-Mint Chicks guitarist Ruban Neilson and his Portland based backing, UMO originally emerged as an unknown quantity, making the music all the more striking. Skewing sixties psychedelia, wiry guitars and a keen sense of production clouded by a claustrophobic, hedonistic fug equally besotted to hip-hop as it was garage.
Neilson’s vision of ‘alien beatnik music’ presented an utterly engrossing chicken-and-egg conundrum to the taste-making blogosphere: which came first - the sound or the songs? What’s elemental to a hit like How Can U Luv Me? – is it the spry, flange-flecked stab of the guitar, or the popping bass and flower-power drum pounding? Or maybe the kaleidoscopic tinged, summer-of-love flavour that colours it while simultaneously recalling such a period? The playfulness inherent in Thought Ballune and Jello and Juggeranuts are as much in recreating a summer-of-love vibe as they are in conjuring their own. The mutated soul of Little Blu House and panicked tactics of Boy Witch sound as fatigued by chemical excess as they are energised by it. The real answer then, lies somewhere between, returning from a drug-fuelled trip with wonderful melodies, playfully strange pop still dripping from its acid-fried adventure. It’s an addictive kind of ear candy, at just nine cuts at half-an-hour, but also a sharp, fully-formed debut that’s as much a declarative mission statement as it is an experiment into enigmatic histrionics. As suitable to a taste-maker’s iPod as it is the obscurest corner of the junkshop vinyl collector’s.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Ffunny Ffrends by MODESTMODUS

4. tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L  
I first recall hearing about Merril Garbus, aka tUnE-yArDs in association with Dirty Projectors, whom she was supporting on an American tour at the time. Apparently she was of a similarly kooky musical disposition, and though they shared the eccentric vocal patterns, their methods – live loops, beatific polyrhythms and ukelele in place of spindling guitars – differed, they achieved equally engrossing results. Like most, my proper introduction came about through Bizness, from that striking vocal hook at the beginning it gradually expands into an overwhelming plateau of life-affirming colour and textural intricacy. Complex and vibrant, it may well be the song of the year. That the remainder of W H O K I L L lived up to the brilliance of that initial exposure, without ever shallowly repeating itself was the real surprise.
From her origins, the humble lo-fi recordings of BiRd-BrAiNs, few could have predicted the imaginative explosion to follow. But decamping to a new location (Oakland, Florida), along with bassist/partner/muse Nate Brenner was the catalyst for a fertile creative period. Their push-and-pull dynamic between vocal acrobatics and his earthy bottom-end providing the key to a whole spectrum of ideas and arrangements. While Garbus’ assured observations of her new surrounds leaked into topical matter regarding dominance, power – both real (Powa) and illusory (Gangsta) – and in Garbus’ own gymnastic singing: contortion. The key line from Riotriot finds the knotty mix of blaring horns and electronic squiggles dying away for the declaration of “there’s a freedom in violence that I don’t understand/and like I’ve never felt before.”
There’s a similar rush in the freedom to W H O K I L L’s dotty flights of fancy. The careening Gangsta, where rattling distorted bass run headlong into a muscular loop that fuses hip-hop’s serious urgency with entertaining experimentalism (a police siren impersonation anyone?). You Yes You dances about loose-wired guitars and shuffling drums in a series of vocal whoops and harmonies, while Es-So’s multiplication of hollers bounces off of its central pulse, its percussive hits like fireworks. Even the deceptively sweet girl-group harmonies of Doorstep, or the jittery rhythms of My Country shift and grow with each listen.  
The joys of tUnE-yArDs aren’t purely esoteric, its topical candour about gender, image and body are plentiful, but so too is its passionate delivery and pure rhythmic groove. Garbus’ authoritative growl demanding attention even as her flexible synthesis of organic and manipulated sounds reels you in. Her identity is her full-throated command, a fearlessly admirable voice that's at once her defining idiosyncrasy and a voice worth listening to. 
Tune-Yards - Gangsta by The Recommender

3. Kimbra - Vows 
What’s there to say about Kimbra that hasn’t already been felt by all who come under her vibrant spell? Well, I could wax all smug about how AMR has been touting Kimbra’s brilliance from very early on, but the fact of the matter is that she was certified stardom with or without my – or anyone’s help. Appearing with Gotyé on Somebody That I Used To Know didn’t hurt, but it happened to be just another element to her stratospheric momentum – not its sole contributor. 
It’s worth reminding that Vows is the summation of a pain-staking three-and-a-half years’ hard work, from just a twinkle in the eye of the girl plucked from her native town of Hamilton, New Zealand to the ARiA-dominating, chart-topping vindication of its release – the drive and focus has always been the musical talent and vision of Kimbra herself. 
Vows confirms not only her way with a winning tune, but also with an impressive grasp of the strengths of the album framework to showcase them. Short of being a series of talent-busting singles, Vows takes the listener on a visionary journey from colourful neo-pop to more reflective, internalised material. Lyrically and musically, Kimbra is gifted with the wisdom and sincerity to wax intelligently about romance and its spheres of influence that far outstrips the knowledge and experience of most people her (ripe twenty-one years of) age. Let alone the abilities to articulate and communicate them into such rich musical tapestries. 
The heralding singles, the effortless quirk of Settle Down and confetti joie-de-vivre of Cameo Lover present its joys and triumphs, while the smoky heartache of Withdraw or uncertain The Build-Up portray its gut-wrenching defeats. Between, there’s sparkling revelry (Two Way Street), slow-burning rumination (Old Flame) jazzy temptation (Good Intent), neon-lit enthusiasm (Call Me) and, of course, a primal, instinctual reading of Nina Simone’s Good Intent. 
It would all be naught however if Kimbra didn’t possess such scintillating vocal abilities, bringing her dazzling genre-hopping to life as much as the production work of refined craftsman, Francois Tetazand the meaty, low-end punch of M-Phazes. The full emotional spectrum of her creations are brought to bear through her virtuosic singing. 
So what truly separates Kimbra from the scores of talented female singers out there then? Well, to quote my original review, she’s got that intangible seperates the performers from the artist. “At a time when it seems that female performers are regularly relegated to being sex symbol jukeboxes or behaving like fey, neutered school-children, Kimbra shatters those female poppet boundaries. In one fell swoop she’s graduated from bankable songstress to artist, one with a rewarding career ahead of her. 
2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues 
Three years after their eponymous debut solidified them as the harmony-laden folk-rock act of choice for the discerning music lover, Fleet Foxes once again deliver an imperious set that lends a sense of genuine authenticity to their vital blend of folk, country, mountain blues and mythical yet contemporary chamber music. Like many successful follow-ups, Helplessness Blues reaps the rewards from the risks it takes, allowing further extensions of influence and instrumentation into their musical architecture. The official addition of multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson (formerly of hardcore act The Blood Brothers), comes with more strings, flutes and most notably: a jaunty clarinet part on Bedouin Dress and the frenzied avant-garde sax noise on the final act of The Shrine/An Argument. 
The latter is the group’s magnum opus, one of two in fact, alongside The Plains/Bitter Dancer that both show the influence of seventies progressive rock creeping in, with winding instrumental passages and fluid changes hinged to a grand design. Two towering artistic achievements that, far from being indulgent, are the group at their most creatively unrestrained, allowing their imaginative synergy to stretch into exciting new territory.
Centered by Robin Pecknold’s pure, distinguished tone, which in solo flight positively soars to glorious altitudes; or (f)locked in super-tight formation, golden harmonies befitting of a cathedral, act as the key natural dynamic of their composition. His lyrics however, have undergone a subtle alteration, his rich narratives now charged by a flowing tentativeness and hesitation.
It’d be difficult to glean from the golden results, but the recording of Helplessness Blues was plagued with difficulties. Pecknold declaring its creation took “a long time due to illness, scheduling, creative doubt, reassessment, rewriting, new songs etc. etc.” Those demons rear their heads in subversive ways. The jig and bounce of Battery Kinzie is merry, but its main meter is thrown slightly off-centre in the verse by an extra beat and dark lyrics: “All my fingers rotting/I woke up a dying man.” Additionally, the frenzied Simon & Garfunkl acoustic stomp that ends Sim Sala Bim and the roaring dramatic shifts of The Shrine/An Argument demonstrate an aggressive side to the band left previously unseen.
This struggle is one of the prevailing themes of the album, which Pecknold describes as, “between who you are and who you want to be… and how sometimes you are the only thing getting in the way of that.”  It shapes some of the record’s quietest moments, the three serene stanzas of Blue Spotted Tail are flooded with questioning pathos and philosophy. While Someone You’d Admire’s lyric declares “I walk with others in me, yearning to get out” only to finish on the conundrum “God only knows which of them I’ll become”
The title track however, snatches victory from the claws of uncertainty. A heroic, defiant testament to self-belief and perseverance that culminates in an orchestrated fantasy of living off the land in an orchard with his flaxen-haired maiden. Its moving beauty all the more so in its contrast, with Helplessness Blues as a whole, they’ve blotted in more darkness which only serves the light to shine through ever more brightly.
02 - Bedouin Dress by chrisdeets

1. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
No-one would soon forget the whole myth-making behind Bon Iver’s inception, namely ‘man escapes to log cabin for winter, emerges with intimate masterpiece’ but it’s worth reminding of where Bon Iver has been to appreciate how far they’ve come.
Yes, ‘they’, while there’s no doubting Justin Vernon as the creative gravity around which all things orbit, not least in his instantly recognisable, enchanting singing - but album number two is the blossoming of Bon Iver as a unit, a band. The stark, raw moments of his ravaged soul-bearing on his debut transplanted to a lush, expansive environment that articulates his emotional expressions in a way that For Emma only hinted at.
There are moments tucked neatly in the album’s folds that harkens to Vernon’s various moonlighting since his debut; whether it was flirting with his soft-rock fascinations with Gayngs, his experimental tendencies with Volcano Choir or simply flaunting it with Kanye West in Hawaii. All those collaborations obviously eased the transition. Aiding in delivering his sonic starting points – influenced by jazz, soft-rock and MOR Americana – to translate the principles of the Bon Iver sound into an expansive new palette, with a wealth of key contributors helping to enunciate it. 
Minnesota, WI being the best example, with Greg Leisz’ expressive pedal guitar shimmying beneath Mike Lewis’ honeyed tenor sax, while Colin Stetson lends his throaty bass sax to punctuate the chordal shifts.
The augmentation of his ensemble inspired by allowing more space into the textural layers, as well as room for his unashamed reference points. Touchstones that you wouldn’t typically associate with the toast of the indie quarter, namely Richard Buckner, Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams (Hinnom, TX’s “I got out of La Grange” quotes her Fruits of My Labour). A bold move, the controversy mainly surrounding album finisher Beth/Rest, that it may be nothing but an ironic, recreation of eighties soft-rock indebted to Bruce Hornsby’s bright ivories or, worse, Phil Collins. It was no pastiche however, Vernon defending “why would you spend time on recreating something you don’t actually like?”
While sonically, it’s worlds apart from the torch-bearing rawness of a Skinny Love or Re: Stacks, spiritually – for those really listening – it matches their emotional profundity. Or as Vernon had it “simplified down to the essence of a guy singing with an acoustic guitar – except it’s a guy with a Korg M1.” It’s the final destination in a mind-map of tempered feelings tied with geographical location, a travelogue of places both actual and fictional. Something which also describes Vernon’s lyrical technique. For every obscure or hyper-realised turn of phrase – there’s Michicant’s ‘resting in a raze the inner claims I hadn’t breadth to shake’ or Perth’s ‘to fide your name/it’s something fane,’ take your pick – there’s a piercingly direct line that rings, like Holocene’s “at once I knew/I was not magnificent,” with shattering emotional clarity.
While their personal significance may be reserved for Vernon solely, they still signify much. What I said of For Emma three years ago still apples, “even as its melodies and riffs mine their way into your subconscious, hummed or sung in your private moments, they're always at the edge of full understanding making them all the more evocative.” It’s a microcosm for the album’s bittersweet tone, just as beautifully exquisite in its sadness as much as it’s joy. Like the best songwriters, Bon Iver are able to transform the intensely personal into something altogether mythical, mysterious and universal. Even at its most puzzling, you feel the poignant anchors of reality still apply. After all, these are words that were as pain-stakingly crafted as their aural surrounds.
The fact is, you could go on forever about Bon Iver, Bon Iver, how it’s length hits that sweet-spot between fulfilment and just shy of satisfying, begging you for another spin. How the fathoms of its secrets slowly surface after multiple listens. How brilliantly it works in conjunction with the For Emma material in the live setting. But it essentially proves that Bon Iver is not a one-trick pony, that as timeless and decade-defining as For Emma was, it’s no longer the record that stunts the legacy. Bon Iver, Bon Iver is an adventurous expression of artistic vision and intent that valiantly transcends the commercial moorings of the modern industry: digital downloads, ringtones, album charts, sales, contracts… Grammy's. It does precisely what I said powerful, sensuous music should do (in my lengthy preamble): good crafted songwriting, honest expression and a creative means by which to convey them. The best album of the year not only enacts this invented dogma, it luxuriates in it, the stirring and the sublime deeply penetrating every detail.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver by boniver
The full visual montage of the Top 20 Albums of 2011

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