20. The Unthanks – “Last”
The best way to describe this is theme music for a Shakespeare tragedy. The Unthanks are a neo-classical folk band with a stark romantic feel to their tunes. Most of the songs have a dark undertone, often present via lush strings & trumpets. These stories are of heartbreak and tragedy and they’re real timeless works of art. Something that 200 years from now will still be appreciated for what it is, not what’s popular. The original music highlights the album, but there’s some really great covers on here as well. The King Crimson cover of “Starless,” still gives me chills.
19. The Coathangers – “Larceny & Old Lace”
I hate most all-female bands. They all sound the same, and make the same noisy pop music to deter from their inability to just make good music (or play their instruments well.) What’s ironic about most of these bands is that they take themselves so seriously and still suck. Enter The Coathangers–a joke band that takes itself as seriously as Lil’ B. Ironic? Sure. But these girls kick some serious ass when given the chance. Take first single “Hurricanne,” a satire about doing what you want and not giving a ****. Or “Johnny,” a song about a man the women are pissed at. They get loud & brash, they’re off beat on purpose, their lyrics are bare & straightforward, and it’s all completely brilliant. Hearing these girls live actually made me love them a LOT more.
18. The Weeknd – “House of Balloons”
The Weeknd’s second stint on my list and his most applauded record to date, “House of Balloons,” marks a stark recap in exactly what music in 2011 was about. I honestly categorize this year as a year of moods and mystery and nobody built this atmosphere quite like The Weeknd did. From his introduction to the world (weren’t details of his life unknown until only recently? Like, after that Drake co-sign during the summer?) to his music, he’s been riding on cloud atmosphere. It works for him, too. Though “House of Balloons,” is his least advanced production-wise, it’s also the darkest and moodiest of all his records (less is more, I suppose.) You leave the record feeling dirty, but grounded…something the other records didn’t really aim for.
I always come away with a locality feeling when I listen to this record. I feel like the things that Tesfaye talks about on this record have not only happened in my town, but I’m hearing it straight from one of my friends. I’m watching it as he taped the whole thing, recorded it on video or kept us updated via Twitter. It’s Future projects, while still amidst in the party & drug life never hit this locality feeling (though future records did remind me of similar situations–it’s just instead of hearing about the girl down the street taking drugs & cheating on her husband, I’m getting firsthand knowledge of someone I don’t know doing the same thing in a distant state or country) For The Weeknd, sometimes the party life is over-the-top; see “Thursday” or “Echoes of Silence.” Other times, it’s right downtown; see “House of Balloons.”
17. Wavves – “Life Sux EP”
Wavves is on a path that few indie bands enjoy. Not only are they critically acclaimed, but they’re getting a huge push into the mainstream from MTV (creating a soundtrack for a new MTV show will do that for you, I guess.) I haven’t seen MTV push a band in so long, but I won’t say it’s surprising to see Wavves get this sort of push. I’ve always believed they were mainstream enough to get some major push on radio if given the correct medium…yet still indie enough to be critical darlings.
The “Life Sux EP” is probably their most consistent record yet which is a good sign for their coming mainstream appeal. Also included is the most expected collaboration of the year as Wavves teams up with Best Coast on the god-isn’t-real/unrequited-love anthem “Nodding Off.”
16. Real Estate – “Days”
Real Estate is one of the most polarizing bands in my iTunes. On the one hand, I always love their records and on the other hand I hate them two months down the road. I loved their debut and never wanted to go back to it months later and maybe this record will be the same way. For what it’s worth, as this lasts in my iTunes rotation I’ll take it for what it’s worth. This is exactly what I need on certain days. I need to hear “It’s Real,” when on the mist of something great with someone brilliant. I need to hear “Three Blocks,” when Elliott Smith isn’t quite saying the words I need said. This reverb-centered dreamy surf rock isn’t for everyone, I admit. Easy listening never was.
15. Egyptrixx – “Bible Eyes”
Egyptrixx “Bible Eyes,” feels like a playlist for one of the grimiest UK clubs. Don’t take that as a bad thing. This is a real club record. Producer David Psutka has found an interesting sound on this record–doing his due diligence to mix the typical house and techno but to also sprinkle bits of jazz, hip hop and pop.
Egyptrixx has real control over his synthesizers & creates some truly unique sounds with it. One review described Pstuka’s use of synthesizers as being manipulated to the point where he has complete control of the space and time continuum. I think that’s really the best way to put it. Songs like “Liberation Front,” and “Bible Eyes,” thump with signature Need For Space synthesizers and drama laden background effects. Meanwhile, lighter tracks like “Naples,” and “Chrystalis Records,” are lighter in pulsation, but still just as cohesive with their heavier counterparts.
14. Coma Cinema – “Blue Suicide”
Coma Cinema is a singer/songwriter that released a free album earlier this year. It’s a lo-fi pop record that really resembles Elliott Smith in subject matter for its morbid and lustful take on the world. Smith was never a whiner (or maybe he was, just not an annoying one), but admittedly he spoke often about how people did him wrong. Coma Cinema takes a more apathetic approach to their music. They seem detached from the negativity going on in their world, which is weird considering this is a pretty negative and morbid album. While Smith was blaming others (whether that be his stepfather, drug abuse or whatever) Cinema accepts how ****ty and negative life is, in almost a “**** it” sort of demeanor.
13. Gatto Fritto – Gatto Fritto
Disco never sounded so good.
It never went on acid trips either. Gatto Fritto’s disco influenced 54-minute acid trip is easily one of the most engaging records this year. It’s an electronic disco-fused jam fest that is never short on surprises and incorporates dozens of instrumental landscapes. 11-minute epic “Invisible College,” opens with acoustic guitar and glides through synthesizers, organs, and a host of hand-claps setting for its climax (which is just all the more satisfying.) There’s some vocal laden tracks as well, but where the record really shines is on the tracks fit for your workout playlist.
12. St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy”
It’s always refreshing to hear a pretty face make a good tune or two. It’s even more refreshing that she’s probably one of the most talented female musicians in indie music right now. Annie Clark is a respectable woman, a pretty strong songwriter (I think you can make the argument that this is the most well written record of the year) and often makes a point to take on issues for females while never completely neglecting her male fans (which there are plenty of.) Musically she hardly ever disappoints and I see constant, uninhibited growth in her music as she continues. I consider this Clark’s coming out record, really–the record that five years from now when she’s known among the indie elite, we can point to this album for displaying the blueprint to a St. Vincent record.
11. Cults – “Cults”
Cults’ debut album is probably my most played record of the year. I admit, I love pop music. It’s probably my favorite genre. I love catchy melodies and hooks, appreciate strong and simple songwriting and adore a pretty female on vocals. Cults are, however one of those bands that have become critical indie pop darlings, ending up on just about everyone’s end-of-the-year list, not just my own. They make 60’s style bedroom pop, equipped with hand claps, multi-layered vocals and the like. Lead singer Madeline Follin’s choruses are infectious & her heartbreaking tales are about as sincere as it gets. She fits band mate Brian Oblivion’s production like a glove, as he relays the perfect canvas for her teenage confessional.
10. Smith Westerns – “Dye It Blonde”
The Smith Westerns are a glam rock indie band that’s received quite a bit of attention since the release of this record. First single “Weekend,” has been one of my favorite songs this year–not only because it’s a damn good song, but it’s a refreshing record in an indie culture that is smothered in noise & distortion music, call & respond techniques, chillwave and its counterparts and 80s & 90s revival bands. It’s nice to see a straight rock band on occasion, doing exactly what they feel like doing.
They succeed at song structures & epic climaxes (see: “Imagine part 3.”) They’ve received a lot of comparisons to T. Rex, but I don’t really see it. Just because they’re both interested in glam rock doesn’t mean they’re the same band–it’s like comparing Outkast and Big KRIT because they both rap.
9. Grooms – “Prom”
Grooms is a little known 90s revival band that has that Sonic Youth/Pavement sound to them.
There are a lot of bands out there that drown themselves in noise and sound like crap. Nouns is one of them. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, another. There’s using techniques to make good music and there’s using them just because you can. Grooms tends to embrace the former. That being said, you’ll notice a lot of fuzzy guitars on this record along with some slower, surprisingly more intimate tracks. Lead singer Travis Johnson is the most intriguing part of this band with his level of dominance on the standout tracks (see: “Imagining The Bodies.”) This doesn’t dispose the band of always playing second fiddle (see: “Skating With Girl” or “Into The Arms”), but more often than not this is the Johnson show, not the Grooms show.
8. Chelsea Wolfe – “Ἀποκάλυψις” (Apokalypsis)
While everyone’s been going head over heels for Zola Jesus and Austra I have yet to see anyone jump up & down over Chelsea Wolfe. In fact, I’ve yet to see one end of the year list from ANY publication mention her latest record, “Apokalypsis.” That’s a shame, really. Wolfe really embodies the mysteriously dark female vocal. In fact, this is the only record with a song that’s actually kind of scary (see: Primal/Carnal.)
Just to warn you, I plan on using the word “dark,” a lot. In fact, I don’t think there will be a lack of the use of the word “dark,” as I write this. Why? Because this record is ****ing dark man! This music actually embodies the name of the album. Wolfe uses demented, occasionally screeching guitars, creepy drum patterns and dreary themes to create an atmosphere of the afterlife after total destruction. I’m talking 28 Days Later with zombies running amok, feasting on whatever human prey is left.
There’s some smooth multi-layered vocals to creep the hell out of you on tracks like “MER,” and some animal sounds scattered about to keep you on your toes. Wolfe’s voice is fantastic in keeping with the atmosphere. Sometimes her voice is low and quiet–as if she’s both fighting the darkness and endearing all visitors to enter. Sometimes it’s loud and screeching, but never screaming unless through her guitar. One thing: her voice is never clear, which is actually a bit clever of Wolfe. Makes me wonder if she’s content in the darkness or screaming to get out…probably the former. Dark seems to be exactly what makes Wolfe click, and exactly where she belongs.
7. Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
The Foxes stand as the least disappointing band of this year, really. I had high hopes for records from Pharoahe Monch, Cut Copy, Julian Lynch and Adele earlier this year and they all either didn’t live up to expectations or completely sucked. The Fleet Foxes on the other, have actually evolved making more timeless music that will still be relevant years from now when I have grandchildren.
I think what I love most about the new record is just that–how timeless it is and yet how true it is to what makes the Foxes good. Sure, they move for some more traditional, 60s folk song structures & sounds, but I don’t think it’s deterred them from being as ambitious as they’ve always been. Just take a look at “Lorelai,” to see what I mean. Beautiful harmonies, fantastic instrumentation, introspective & biographical lyrics.
6. Anna Calvi – “Anna Calvi”
If Chelsea Wolfe is the prototypical dark female vocal, Anna Calvi is the most mysterious and intriguing vocal of this year. Her backstory is vague–Italian woman living in the UK. Listened to her father’s old tapes and mimicked them. Taught herself how to sing in the low, soulful voice that she does. A damn good guitarist (see: Love Won’t Be Leaving.)
I know I’ve said this before, but in the year of the dark female vocal it goes without saying that the atmosphere of this record is dark and…well, mysterious. Songs like “First We Kiss,” have that back alley of a bar sound to them. Calvi, actually, often reminds me of this “back alley” sound so to speak. Her clothes, hair & makeup style all scream early 1900s speakeasies and flappers. Independence before independence was accepted. Retro and feminine with the greatest dose of masculinity & maturity. Her style & music go hand-in-hand, so it’s no surprise that she’s already on the brink of 30. It’s also no surprise that her music feels so much more mature than so many other records out there.
5. A$AP ROCKY – “LIVELOVEA$AP”
When I first saw the “Purple Swag,” music video, I assumed A$AP Rocky was an internet fad (pretty blonde girl in the video will do that to you.) Then I kept hearing reviews. I saw him topping early end of the year lists. I heard Lil’ B shout him out. I had to have this album.
I listened to this record and was actually listening to it non-stop for a few hours. Repeat after repeat the album became a new drug for me. As soon as you think you’ve had enough you need another helping of songs like “Get Lit,” or “Bass.” It’s crazy to me that I could replay so many of these songs over and over again as if I was listening to my favorite pop tune and I appreciate this album for it. It fuses so many sounds from crunk and Houston styled southern rap to gritty old school east coast and this suits ROCKY perfectly as he has the uncanny ability to ride any beat whether it’s soul-based, Clams Casino cloud based or what have you.
Speaking of production, this is dominated by the cloud rap style infamously made by Clams Casino. For the most part, Clams Casino’s cloud rap production style fits ROCKY perfectly, but I think it’s ROCKY’s personality and diversity that makes everything flow in such unison.
4. Veronica Falls – “Veronica Falls”
I think I even surprised myself with how high this record is on my list. Like I said before, I love pop music and I don’t think there’s a better pop record than Veronica Falls self-titled debut record. What I love most about this album is how true it stays to that basic jangly pop sound made infamous on the C86 mixtape of years ago. Your multi-layered harmonies are in check, female vocal with male backing vocals, tight lyrics, catchy melodies. It’s actually difficult to find something I don’t like about this record.
So what makes it stand out, exactly? An impeccable amount of craftsmanship, really. These guys are just really good at what they’re doing and they show the same level of freshness their forefathers from the 80’s did. There isn’t a bad record on here. In fact, they’re all near flawless.
3. The Weeknd – “Thursday”
I know no one will agree with me, but this is easily my favorite record from The Weeknd. “Thursday,” doesn’t have the confidence of “Echoes of Silence,” and it isn’t the critical darling that “House of Balloons,” was, but it’s a damn good record on its own. The ugly stepsister of the trio. Middle child, surely. “Sophomore slump,”…hardly.
What stands out so much with this record is the production. There’s a considerable amount of rock, reggae, downtempo, hip hop and dubstep influences and it’s insane to believe that these styles can mesh well on one recording, but they do without ever sounding clunky or out of place.
Vocally/lyrically Tesfaye sounds just as good as he always does, but I think the real selling point of this record is just how high the highlights get. “Life Of The Party,” is probably the most well-produced record of the year. “Gone,” is a dubstep influenced 8-minute epic and “The Zone,” featuring Drake compares two men in love & their most conflicting ways of going about it (Tesfaye the creep and Drake the inevitable good guy.)
2. Big KRIT – “Returnof4eva”
Sometimes the best music is free, and that certainly holds true this year. Three of my top five records (this, A$AP ROCKY & The Weeknd) were released as free downloads by the artist themselves.
Big KRIT’s “Returnof4eva” has been among my favorite records for most of the year. It’s surprising that it’s actually mainted such a high spot for so many months. On this record, KRIT really starts to show his full potential as a heir apparent to Pimp C. No disrespect intended to the late Pimp C, but KRIT has the potential to be just as good if he isn’t already. He’s a real triple package when it comes to rap–ability on the mic, great singer and top-notch producer.
On the mic he touches on a lot of different topics. Some tracks are introspective, while others are just KRIT having fun riding a beat. I think KRIT is really brilliant at just about any topic when it comes down to it. He can talk about his tires and make a worthwhile song and then come back and talk about the music business without whining or sounding like a pretentious “hip hop head.” His versatility is unmatched and I’d argue that the sky is the limit for him.
1. Tammar – “Visits”
This is the one record that I’ve truly fallen in love with this year. Tammar’s “Visits,” is by far the best album to come out this year. It’s got a bit of everything, really. There’s some post-punk here, some gothic themes, certainly 90s revival, a psychedelic influence, dem fuzzy gee-tars for good measure and yet the final package still sounds original.
Looking at the track list it’s going to be hard for me to justify what I love about this album. Any album with 7 songs will immediately be criticized for the quantity of music. One of my earlier selections (#29, Beach Fossils EP) is an EP that stands at 8 songs. Thing is, this is a 7 song, 44-minute LP with a lot of ambiance. Guitars rely on some heavy, long-winded strums and improvisation seems to be key. Hooks are barely visible, if they’re even there.
The mood keeps the songs grounded without real use of a chorus. As a result, each song stays on one basic theme while still feeling like progression is being made. It’s apparent that these guys have a remarkable amount of chemistry with one another. Each instrument, each time something moves to the forefront for their solo feels so perfectly placed and still like only one person is controlling this band. The lead singer knows when to hide behind the music and when it’s time to howl over the instrumentation. So do the guitars, bass and drums. It’s so perfectly placed that I’m consistently impressed by just how fantastic these guys are at basic song structures. How in unison they are. It’s like one person with 10 hands, all equipped with instruments to make one sound.