Best Music of 2011

“Because my opinion is important.”

When Saints Go Machine, Konkylie [!K7]

A sweet, sweet Danish act of synthetic daring and vocal experimentation, despite the stupid name.  It’s nice when a group knows how to slow things down while still perching on the razor’s edge of production and programming.

 

 

 

 

 

Obits, Moody, Standard, and Poor [Sub Pop Records]

Grizzled Brooklynites Obits, fronted by former Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes frontman Rick Froberg, deliver the workingman’s doom with beautifully articulated clean, clean Fender tone.  This is the blues for post-bubble America, the debt-slave cynic’s swing low, sweet chariot.  In the song “No Fly List” Froburg urges the listener, whose “daddy’s in hell” and whose “brother’s in jail” not to cry.  Why?  In these chill years when the threat of criminalization lurks as a consequence of everything you do, “These are the things you can’t control.”

 

 

Winged Victory for the Sullen, S/T [Kranky]

I heard “Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears” as a promo stream on some website this past summer before this record was released (probably directly via their European label, the excellent Erased Tapes Records), and I loved it.  To my ears, limited as they are by a lack of deep exposure to classical music, it sounds like these guys got up from a crying jag after their 300th time listening to Gorécki’s 3rd and decided to make Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Wlll Never Die.  The background electronics are almost invisible and on some tracks you can hear the piano’s innards creaking, so softly coaxed are the notes from its belly.  It’s chamber music meets ambient music, where the sounds of the real world interact directly with the orchestrated composition, and I can’t recommend it enough.

 

 

Bibio, Mind Bokeh [Warp Records]

I first heard Bibio in 2005, when he was being compared to Boards of Canada.  That’s why I got into him.  Six years on, the BoC seem to have stopped convening, and Bibio is thousands of conceptual miles from where early critics first tried to fix and liken him.  It’s equal parts weirdness and optimism.  Particularly amazing is the T.O.Y.S. EP, based around the single “Take Off Your Shirt.”

 

 

 

 

 

Junior Boys, It’s All True [Domino]

On this breathy, vocals-centered double-slab of hot wax the production is so subtle you might at first overlook the bed of amazingly restrained dance sequencing and beautifully plastic synthesizers all the resigned musings on love are floating over.  This whole record is a tribute to remixing George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex”, that really endearingly bad “Part 2” remix inseparable from “Part 1” on Faith.  It’s lovelorn realization of loss after the glitz of lust has blown over.  It’s that coming to terms with life, the “I Want Your Sex Part 3” that didn’t make its way onto George Michael’s record back in the day.

 

 

 

 

Destroyer, Kaputt [Merge]

A stream of consciousness ride over moonlit synthesizer pads with nods to New Order and Roberto Bolaño, this is the record that gave a home to the epic single “Bay of Pigs.”  A jaunt in your summer whites from nothing and back to nothing, a soundtrack to the discovery of the terrible secret youth keeps hidden in the open.

 

 

 

 

 

 Cut/Copy, Zonoscope [Modular]

I picked up Cut/Copy’s debut, Bright Like Neon Love back in 2004 when I had just moved to New York.  Their follow-up four years later, though it was capturing lots of attention and acclaim, felt like a retread, and I wrote them off.  They were a really great band that deserved the attention, but, I thought, it was a pity that they hadn’t gotten it with their superior first release.  That made this year’s outing that much more of a surprise.  This is the sound of a band pulling out all the stops and loving it, grabbing hooks from their influences and making them better (Paul Simon and Men at Work evident on “Take me over”), doing everything a pop act has in its power to make the listener dance without hesitation.

 

 

Atlas Sound, Parallax [4AD]

I am not so pretentious that I think anything I say will in any way add to the work of Bradford Cox. He’s better than the Beatles and he makes it look effortless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

True Widow, As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth [Kemado]


If Sonic Youth were to have been a murder ballad band played at half the speed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

College, The Northern Council [Valerie Collective]


College breaks out of the confining aesthetic of the idealized ’80s (a schtick they helped to define) and produces an unexpected masterpiece of eerie atmospheric instrumental dance music reminiscent of DMX Krew’s darker catalog.

New Year

The music of 2009, in the order it occurs to me:

Screaming Females: Power Move

An excellent review can be found here at Impose.  ’70s guitars hearken back to the ’90s, and all your basic dad rock bands are fused into the soul of Ted Nugent, clarified, and injected into the very small guitar-shredding frame of Melissa Paternoster.

Clark: Totems Flare

I wrote about this record during the summer.  It’s all Eerily baroque electronics and unaccustomed sounds, a return to form of his previous milestone, Empty the Bones of You, with its impossibly short intervals between changes.  It’s a melding of his talent for off-putting tempo changes and sound processing with his more recent slowed-down and dance-friendlier music.  It’s good.  Kind of reminiscent of the vocal approach of Matthew Dear these days, but so much more complex sonically and musically.  Like Aphex Twin in Flatland.

Wheat: White Ink Black Ink


I also trained my googly eyes on this record earlier in the year, praising the high-energy sincerity, cinematic big-affect pop, loud production, and the elastic, earthquaking time signatures that each of the songs’ parts seem to run independently on.  Great new record by a good old band.

Metric: Fantasies


Emily Haines and her band come back from the farce of their last album to write a beautifully acerbic, trenchant, and hard pop record critical of those rules of fame, money, capital, and being untrue to oneself taught to all of us from the the first day we enter school.  Lesson unlearned.

Subway: Subway II



Fine, fine, FINE krautrock out on Soul Jazz Records.  Clean, simple, rhythmic, and electronic with an overt homage to one of my favorite bands of the genre.  Naming a song Harmonia and then sounding just like that band on that track counts as homage, right?  What an ineffably cool label Soul Jazz is.

Jay Reatard: Watch Me Fall


This week Jay Reatard was discovered dead at 29, well into an already 15-year long music career.  He was a prolific artist the frenzy of whose output was never diluted, whose sound only became sharper and more penetrating with time.  Watch Me Fall is a furious and fragile work of punk rock and poetry, and when I learned he died I felt the loss of never hearing another new record from such a committed and relentlessly uncompromising musician as a real shock, as a sudden cracked imperfection in the looking glass in which reality is reflected.  Everything is wrong and this is sad.

You can listen to one of the last songs he recorded, a cover of Nirvana’s “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” from his website, linked above.

Pissed Jeans: King of Jeans


In addition to coming up with hilariously insouciant record titles and subliminally offensive song titles, these guys are also capable of really, really, really, laying on the loud.  If rock were something incendiary, they would not be lasers— they would be a torrent of experimental napalm issuing at torso-bisecting PSI, flame or no.  I sort of hesitate to put this record on this list because it’s not great in the sense that I can think of half a dozen lines from songs or any songs that stand out in particular to me, but when it goes on you’re really in a new space.  You’re four or five songs in and waiting for more snide banality.  They kind of remind me of Fireballs of Freedom, whose sloppy zest for living death, southern shopping mall style, endeared them to the better fuck you angels of my nature.  What if Jeff Spicoli had a gun and a PhD in philosophy?

Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Yes, this did come out last year, and yes it’s good and a lot of fun.  It is good and a lot of fun.  I guess that’s all I really want to say about that.  Is this a record I really need to bring to anyone’s attention?

I’m really glad these guys have made it.  They’ve never done anything but keep their heads down and put out great pop records.  United and all the great tracks on that record made me a permanent fan.

Atlas Sound: Logos

Everything Bradford Cox touches turns to mystery, and from mystery comes wonder.  This record is the quiet soundtrack to your fears.  Rough Trade also released a companion to this record with acoustic and alternate versions of some of the Logos songs that is well worth checking out.  The acoustic version of “Kid Klimax” somehow takes that song even further into the heartbreaking banality of rustaway, workaday life, but youse gots to get the record from Rough Trade to check it for yourself.

I would like to see some kind of collaboration in any medium between Bradford Cox and César Aira.  In fact, I think that about sums it up:  Every song that Cox and his assembled crews write is the musical equivalent of the experience of reading any one of Aira’s novels.  Bradford, if you’re out there, please read Ghosts and tell the world what you think.

Mew: No more stories Are told today I’m sorry They washed away

No more stories The world is grey I’m tired Let’s wash away

Mew are from Denmark and put the prog in power pop.  Think “what if the Arcade fire were good?”  Then play this record and expect an answer.

Capsule: More! More! More!

This came out in 2008, but I don’t care.  This record surprised me more than half the things I heard this year, and it still never gets skipped when it comes in the rotation.  This is a record that has gone over the top and volunteered to come back around to climb up again.

Air: Love 2


If you had told me 10 years ago I’d advise you to check out an Air record, I’d have punched you in the mouth.  Then I’d give you one right in the cake.  Figure that one out.  I guess if someone has given you as long to get it right as these guys have had, though, you might put out a nice krauty suite of tunes just like Air did.  Thank the stars for the sage foresight of record execs and their infinite patience.

Say Hi: Oohs and Ahhs


Say Hi almost solely write songs about vampires.  Stripped down, echo-laden vocal tracks with quietly minimal rock riffs about romantic vampires.

David Bazan: Curse Your Branches


David Bazan thinks a lot about life and God and all that drinking and fucking he did.  It’s a wonder he has any time to sing so soulfully about it.  The above-mentioned Say Hi opened for him on tour and also played in his backing band.  While you’re checking this out, pick up 2002’s Pedro the Lion record, Control.  It just may be the best ’90s record that didn’t see release in that decade.  “Rapture” will blow the thinking adulteress’s pants off.

Propaghandi: Supporting Caste



The last time I listened to these guys was on a Fat Wreck Chords compilation- Fat Music Volume 2: Survival of the Fattest, it was- and back then they were pretty straight-ahead polemical oi-format punk.  Whatever happened in the intervening 14 years has created an entirely different animal, one that swings from the trees of a different set of time signatures but still wants to pull corruption and capitalism limb from limb, like an episode from The Murders in the Rue Morgue played on guitar.

Converge: Axe to Fall


I don’t know much about Converge.  I know they’ve been around for 10 years or so and they hail from Salem, MA.  I read somewhere something about this album featuring a lot of interesting collaborations, but when you hear something this incredibly clean and hard, you don’t ask too many questions.  I kind of like not knowing anything about a band when they’ve done something that deserves to stand alone without a backstory.  The last thing this hard that excited me anywhere nearly as much as this did was the first Genghis Tron EP.  One of those guys appears on this record, too, I think.  I would say that Torche was “the last thing this hard…etc”, but, yeah, this is way harder than Torche.  My good friend and insane drummer Erick had been anticipating this release since this teaser video and is the mensch responsible for turning me on to these guys:
CONVERGE New album out soon on Epitaph/Deathwish

CONVERGE “Axe To Fall” Out now | MySpace Music Videos

Atlas Sound at Music Hall of Williamsburg 10/21/09

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It comes as no surprise to this reviewer that I got a ticket to the Atlas Sound show at Music Hall of Williamsburg as soon as tickets went on sale.  Nothing would be left to chance for me in the idle man’s game that is CMJ, the only world-famous rock festival that isn’t a festival.  If you’re a million shows all over one of the biggest me-first shit show cities on earth and you can’t guarantee admission to someone who has a badge, you’re just a whole bunch of hyped shows and a bunch of dollars richer, CMJ.

The new Atlas Sound record came out this past Tuesday, October 20.  Entitled Logos, it hews more closely to the focused dreaming of the world-changing last Deerhunter record, Microcastle/Weird Era Continued, than the preceding Atlas Sound release from 2008, Let the Blind Lead those Who can See but cannot Feel.

The first opener, Atlanta’s Selmanaires, was the the second band I have seen in a week who would go on to support the headlining act as the backing group.  They opened the set with some dopey and lurching psychedelic rehash replete with go-nowhere tooting organ noises and vaguely middle eastern tuning.  After a song or two of that I went back to the bar to read.

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I parked my ticket stub in my book when Broadcast took the stage.  I remembered liking the tracks that KEXP had played from 2005’s Tender Buttons when that record was new.  They were stripped and simple, noisy but not unintelligible gems of foreboding electro pop.  The songs from that record even now remind me of the eerily clean and unencumbered fuzzy and ostensibly innocuous paeans to death and sex that Trevor Kampmann was putting out as hollAnd a few years earlier— most notably “Oh, Death” and the rest of the songs from 2001’s Drums.  Two tracks are below, one from Broadcast’s Tender Buttons and one from hollAnd’s Drums, so that the clever reader may draw the comparison.

Aside from becoming more incrompehensible due to the wetness of the echo effect on Trish Keenan’s vox, Broadcast has in the long interim since that record developed into a noisier, more visually oriented duo, focused mainly on making an hour or so of noise with the occasional dramatic appearance of quantized synthetic beats accompanied by Keenan’s wailing.

To clarify, it was mainly wailing, but the complementary moan was now and again employed.  She dressed in a bit of a ghostly tunic, too, though they played in the dark, their own presence second fiddle to their Spirograph inspired video accompaniment.  When you hear the direction their sound has taken in its recorded form, it is readily apparent why the two acts were playing together- they both enjoy sitting on the saturated side of fuzzy atmospherics.  Live, it didn’t quite carry, though I enjoyed the set and I am glad I got to see them.

I can say so many nice things about Atlas Sound.  I have already said so many nice things about its parent project Deerhunter to have surpassed redundancy so often it’s like I’m a track star running laps.  What can I say?  It’s the act that restored my faith in modern music from the maximum depth of jadedness.

During his set, the self-effacing Bradford Cox bantered relaxedly about how ill-at-ease he was on stage that night, engaging the audience in conversation between reworked live versions of his loop-dependent, production-heavy new album and running between his position at the microphone with his mouth harp hanging over his shoulders and his guitar in his arms to the back of the stage to beat on the skins.  He hit nearly every track on the new record, ending alone on stage with the house lights up playing an electric guitar and loops version of the title track, Logos.  Sadly, Laetitia Sadier was not in attendance to lend her ethereal vox to “Quick Canal”.  That one was a glaring omission from the tracklist.

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Cox’s presence on the stage is confounding.  He jokes that he likes to go see Tyler Perry movies with his mom, that they unironically laugh about it together, and in a deadpan throwaway comment shrugs off the disappointment the audience must feel now that they know he has nothing dark or disturbing to offer.  One can tell he takes genuine joy in doing what he does so well, and as a presence, not just as the idea of a creative mind behind great music, you believe what he says.  His music, be it with Deerhunter or under the auspices of Atlas Sound, is so ghostly and often so dark lyrically, though, as to belie all that.  “Kid Klimax,” for example, recounts how the workaday life will, after it has robbed you of your zest for taking breath, numb even your ability to be moved by the fact.  He sings (as nearly as I can make it out) “You will grow to be untouched/unphased…oh my god, oh my god.”

In a world that has turned against you, you do not have the choice to live in another one.  What Cox’s music so often says in its sometimes unaffected and sometimes sad expression, is that the artist must choose to live in this world that has turned against us, be that life beset by trouble or drowned in rapture.  Life may appear to be a conspiracy, but one can learn to hear its chinese whispers as a joke.

More pics below.
Continue reading Atlas Sound at Music Hall of Williamsburg 10/21/09

Deerhunter Plays Williamsburg on Sunday

Free Soma

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I know that I talk ad nauseum about the band Deerhunter, and I know that my friends are also quite aware that I talk incessantly about the band Deerhunter when the topic of music comes up.  I have written a thing or two about Deerhunter, I have listened to Deerhunter records, Deerhunter, Deerhunter, Deerhunter.

So, how happy am I that they are playing the free JellyNYC show tomorrow afternoon at the East River Terminal Park in trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn?  That is a rhetorical question the answer to which is meant to be very obvious, but you are free to conjecture in the comments form.  A free Deerhunter show is free Soma.  Ford is in his flivver, as far as I am concerned.

I gushed about the band here in the recent past to inaugurate the release of the Rainwater Cassette Exchange, and I mean everything I say about the grand happy circumstance of having such a committedly new band hard at work providing the world new vistas to think on.

Rainwater Cassette Exchange is excellent, but the record I cannot stop playing to this day, that will not be removed from my iPod, is the full-length preceding it- Microcastle/Weird Era Continued.  There is no comparison between the production value of the the new EP, which shares a muddy chromosome with the recently released Atlas Sound single, and last year’s double LP.  What I am hearing when I listen to the increasingly degraded sound quality of each consecutive recording (Rainwater to Atlas Sound) is a band that is trying to play to a preconceived idea of what they think they should be doing instead of just doing those things that define their genius.

Atlas Sound is one of Deerhunter hetman Bradford Cox’s side projects.  The new Atlas Sound single, “Walkabout” (you can hear it at Pitchfork), sounds a lot like something off of The Russian FuturistsThe Method of Modern Love from 2001.  Below is The Russian Futurists “The Science of the Seasons” from that record.

The Atlas Sound aesthetic has always been something striving toward a lo-fi prettiness, and that is part of the problem.  Lo-fi is an affect.  Bradford Cox and Deerhunter find their strength precisely in their ability to synthesize their influences into surprising configurations- They please and surprise in those quiet moments when the plink of a piano reminds you so strongly of a Neu! song you are shocked that the mix of the vocals or the tempo of the guitars take you in an entirely new direction, not when they are giving a ready-made notion a 1-dimensional try.  Deerhunter has a works cited in the appendix of their catalog longer than the King James Bible, but, for the necessity of all that musical knowledge in creating their sound, it is only incidental to how they synthesize it into a new whole.

The new Atlas Sound single sounds lazy by contrast, almost as though it is more dependent on out-of-the-box Acid loops than its genre forebears from the beginning of the decade, as though striving toward a sound that they think they need to achieve is standing in the way of letting them use their tools to create the sound they want to play.

As an oblique strategy this can definitely unlock new potential for a band, but it shouldn’t take top billing on the Marquee of their creative output.

This concludes my critical moment.  Now back to leaping with anticipation for tomorrow’s show, crossing my fingers in hopes that the rain holds off at least until they’ve finished playing, however appropriate playing a show in support of an EP with rainwater in the title during a shower might be on a neat symbolic level.