When it comes to post-punk and music in general, what are the two things you should look for above all else? The first would be overall artistry, the willingness to experiment and have the talent and moxie to back it up, the ability to set oneself aside in an era of cookie-cutter entertainment where everything new is merely a variant on the successful endeavors of others dressed up in some new clothes. The second quality, equally difficult to come across, is genuine and pure energy – a passion for what you are doing, intensity and vigor so powerful that it both conveys the message and moves the recipient. You would be hard pressed to find an album released this year that brings a more unique and firm blend of these two characteristics than Crystal Antlers’ sophomore album Two-Way Mirror. Yes, it largely leaves behind the insane organ that was the calling card of their debut, Tentacles, but in doing so it allows every other part to shine more vividly. Jonny Bell’s unmistakeable vocals and unsurpassed ardor gets to come to the forefront, where once it may have been overshadowed by the sometimes-chaotic arrangements of their first LP. It is still wildly experimental and vibrantly loud and a great representation of the best that garage rock has to offer.
It took more than five years for Richard Buckner to get from Meadow to his 2011 release Our Blood. For some artists this isn’t a huge gap, but for Buckner (who consistently put out a new album every 1-2 years until 2002) this seemed abnormal. Perhaps because the circumstances of its conception were indeed abnormal. In the last five years, he has worked a series of small, odd jobs, had recording machinery broken and stolen, had unfounded trouble with the law, and suffered a number of setbacks that might derail any notion of a new album from many artists. Lucky for us, he’s one persistent musician. For our wait as fans of his, we received one hell of a great album. Perhaps the most intelligently-written record of 2011, Our Blood is as lyrically sharp as it is musically beautiful. It is deep, rich, balanced, deliberate, and passionate. It’s like a river winding through the forest, tiny treasures hidden in its folds and bends, but just as enrapturing when you listen to it only on the surface. This album would be surprisingly good from just about anyone but Buckner, but from him the only surprise is that we actually have a new album. Utterly phenomenal stuff.
In this business, it is not fashionable to admit ignorance. I, however, have always been more interested in honesty than in fashion, and so I have no problem confessing when I have been wrong about an artist. In this case, I have to say that I was late to the party when it comes to the band BRAIDS. I had heard many times from friends and respected musical observers how imperative it was that I go see them, that I listen to their album, et cetera. It took them opening for Toro Y Moi, though, to motivate me enough to get off my figurative ass and investigate. Needless to say, I was more than impressed – I was awestruck. What I saw in that short opening set was the stuff of legends. The first and lasting impression was that I was witnessing the second coming of Animal Collective. They had the personality of the Grass / Sung Tongs era, the pop prowess and instrumentation of Merriweather Post Pavilion, and the flippant, don’t-care attitude of Strawberry Jam. Of course, a multitude of other influences were at play, but Animal Collective (especially pre-egocentric AC) was the most direct and noticeable of all. There may only have been 200 people there that night, but it felt like a 700-800 person dance party for those 30 or so minutes. I then was compelled to delve deeper. I found them in the smallest places (Kanine Records promo releases, most notably), caught a song here or there playing in the background at record stores, and eventually came to find them on Rhapsody in the form of Native Speaker. It is a hell of an album, both consistently brilliant and brilliantly consistent. It’s less of a dance party, even if it does house the very tunes they played live like “Plath Heart” (an instant classic), and it’s more involved with experimentalism within the indie dance / electropop sonic shell. There are plenty of danceable moments, but it’s like the difference between reading the cartoons in the newspaper and viewing an art exhibit – Native Speaker is the most mature display of blended pop and art we have seen all year, and in fact in many years.
Sarah Jarosz. The name may not be familiar to many, but if she keeps churning out great releases one after another as she has thus far you can expect that to change quickly. She and her career are both very young as compared to her peers. Follow Me Down being only her second full-length album, Jarosz is certainly still an emerging artist, but you wouldn’t know it by the maturity of her lyrics nor the experienced craftiness of her work on guitar, banjo, and just about everything she touches. With this record, she thrusts herself squarely into the debate of best country/folk/Americana artists on the scene today. Bluegrass was in need of an artist flavorful, fresh, and talented, and has found just that in Sarah Jarosz. From our initial review of Follow Me Down: “[It] is everything you could possibly hope for from Sarah Jarosz. It is intelligent, artistic, sweet, spiritual, and just overall – in every way – delightful. It reaffirms all the love we had for her first album, and puts on full display the growth of an artist that was already mature beyond her years. Jarosz remains one of the most beautiful artists in the independent music world, and in music in general. One can only hope she sticks to her roots for a long, long time, and continues to put out great work for years to come.”
“Ring Them Bells”’
“Here Nor There”
Truth be told, this album deserves to be considerably higher on this list. If any other artist had penned it, it might be the very top album of the year. But that is not the case, and the standards that we hold Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) to are much higher than “any other artist”. They were set by him three years ago when he released For Emma, Forever Ago which is and will always be a symbol of perfection in the history books of indie folk. This album is not the equal of his debut, especially as you give it time to sink in, but it is still great. It opens with two tracks (“Perth” and “Minnesota, WI”) that inspire the listener to lust; if you didn’t know the genius of Bon Iver, these are perfect introductions to his spiraling complexity and quiet ardor. Then there is “Towers”, which is speechlessly good. It’s feverish, at least as feverish as Bon Iver gets. The lyrics are, as with the rest of the album, flawless and complex and just vague enough that they can largely be applied to any number of situations. Of course, here they are most directly the words of a love song, but could he just be using romance as an allusion to something greater?
“From the faun forever gone,
In the towers of your honeycomb,
I’d a’tore all your hair out just to climb back darling.
When you’re filling out your only form,
Can you tell that it’s just ceremon’?
Now you’ve added up to what you’re from.”
As we pointed out in the full review, the only thing Bon Iver is lacking in is intimacy, something For Emma was brimming with. It is not as directly engaging to the soul, but rather to the mind. There is only one other drawback that sets it behind For Emma, and that would be the fact that it sounds a little too much like the Blood Bank EP and Volcano Choir and all his various endeavors since bursting onto the scene. You can’t hold that against him as an artist, but you can hold it against this particular record.
It’s not been a terribly long road for Woods since their first album back in the good old days of 2007, but it has been a road nevertheless that has taken them to a very different place from their outset. Where At Rear House was an exploration of psyhchedelic folk, their newest album Sun And Shade is an exploration of acoustic pop through the eyes of psychedelic folksters. It has the twang and jangle of an Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros album, but to compare it completely to the Zeroes would ignore that it’s far more artful, intelligent, consistent, and odd. In that way, it is very much in the mold of their recent releases like the At Echo Lake EP, so it’s not a totally unexpected development, and in fact something we’ve quite gotten used to. All that said, this new record still retains some of the qualities that have made Woods so noteworthy in the past. First, an eye for experimentalism; they never shy away from an opportunity to blaze – or more appropriately go for a leisurely stroll down – their own path. And second, Sun and Shade continues their legacy of being one of the most consistent groups around. There are no bad, or even mediocre tracks put forth here: every single song stands on its own as a terrific work, and all of them together create something even greater. Not everyone will see how great Woods are, as they can be an acquired taste, but I highly encourage you to look into them and start acquiring a liking for them – you’ll be a better music fan for it.
“Be All Easy”
“Hand It Out”
Four years and three full-length albums in, it’s reassuring to fans of the Vivian Girls to be able to find yourself still surprised by both the band’s consistent quality and their ability to continue developing and maturing and shaping their sound into something new without having to craft an altogether new sound. Share The Joy is still grainy and reverb-beaten, but is not nearly as dark as its predecessors. The more shaded tracks feel a little droning and drawn-out (e.g. opening track, “The Other Girls”, “Death”, “Vanishing Of Time”) whereas they might once have been dissonant off-punk anthems, thrashing and menacing and fiery. There are still a couple of songs that embody that older feel, such as the back-to-back “Lake House” and “Trying To Pretend” at the heart of the album, but Share The Joy packs a much less powerful punch than 2009′s Everything Goes Wrong. In a way, you can hear a lot more of their self-titled debut LP here, except with an underbelly of pop music to back it. Kickball Katy’s influence is much thicker on this record in that sense – you can hear evidence of her time with her side project La Sera heavily on songs like “Dance (If You Wanna)” and the swinging alt-bubblegum “Take It As It Comes”. Altogether, a damned impressive record. It’s probably not technically as good as their first two, but those are lo-fi standards that pretty much everything else is measured against, so that doesn’t mean a lot. Great live tour in support of the album earlier this year.
“Trying To Pretend”
Perhaps the most difficult album of the year to really get a handle on, Toro y Moi’s second LP was the most anticipated records we’ve had in quite a while at the time of its release. His first album Causers Of This was a game-changer in indie music. Not celebrated to the point that it should have been until at least a year after its debut, it could (or rather, should) be called the defining record of the chillwave movement. There is nothing out there that did what it did with greater intelligence or to greater effect. This of course led to a lot of speculation about how amazing Underneath The Pine would be, but no one could have expected the turn that it took. Sure there are still electronic and hip-hop influences in the beats, but this new album infused those with the sounds of disco and psychedelic pop. Somehow, from out of left field, Underneath The Pine shifted Toro Y Moi from being a one-man electronic mastermind to a psych-pop band. It is still incredible in its own ways, but hardly embodies the sound that we all fell in love with his debut for. It doesn’t conform to any industry norm, but still forsakes its precursor. It also doesn’t help that he has turned in the solo status that was a strength and a quality that set him apart, in order to take on the backing of a full band; this leads to attempting to draw in too many sounds, and gives Underneath The Pine a chaos that is difficult to wrap one’s mind around, especially in contrast to the order and wholeness of his first record. Much the same as the album, the live show in support of it was good but the mind-boggling amount of changes made it impossible to lose yourself in the music. Instead, you found yourself wondering what was going on. What happened to the Chaz that had such indomitable stage presence and command of the music and the audience when he was on his own? And why was the once-show-stealer of an artist having his show stolen (as it most certainly was) by Braids? Even for all this that might make you think Underneath The Pine was an utter disappointment, it was still a very good album and still more than worthy of making this list. “Divina” is a great, mellowed-out tune that swirls trip-hop and psychedelia into a soulful, juicy two-minute instrumental melody that transports you to some distant ethereal cloud. It’s at moments like that, and on the last two tracks “Good Hold” and “Elise”, where this record is at its best – returning in small ways to the modesty of Causers Of This with a little more energy and less forcefulness. Even if it does lack the off-the-wall looping and the unpretentious soulfulness of Causers, this is still one of the best and most memorable albums of the year.
It’s never too early to start making lists, I say. Being that the summer release schedule has now unofficially ended, I figured it was a good time to go ahead and throw together a list of our favorite albums of 2011 as of today. This is not based solely on our grades of the albums from their respective reviews, although that does factor in. In a way, this list both takes into account more than those reviews encompass. For instance, here we will include the live performances given in support of these records, their lasting effects that can only be measured after extended listening, and a much heavier emphasis on pure enjoyment of the album as opposed to the more objective means we use in the initial evaluation process. This list is in order, from 10 to 1, of our favorites but that’s not to diminish the lower-ranked albums; these are all phenomenal works, superior in many ways to their peers, and there is an argument to be made for every record on the list to be ranked number 1 overall. But they can’t be, and aren’t all equal, especially when we’re making a list of favorites.
It should be noted, obviously, that this list will certainly be changing in the coming months, especially after September 13th. I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but it’s safe to say that one of these albums will likely lose its place to Girls’ new album, and another to the new Dum Dum Girls. And I’m also sure that the order in which they are listed will shift in some ways by the time December rolls around and we’re tallying up our final list for the year.
Later this week, or perhaps next week sometime, we will be doing a “Best of the Rest” post that pulls together all the other great albums released so far this year that didn’t quite make the cut, but were not far off. As you can imagine, that will be just as daunting a task (or more) than this relatively small list, as 2011 has been a busy year – especially for records of the very-good-but-not-great variety.
Anyway, we’ll start with number 10 and work our way to the top of the list from there. Remember you can find all of these compiled on our Rhapsody page in one handy playlist for you to listen to.
For those of you with a membership to Rhapsody.com, you may have noticed this week that they have upgraded their website to now include a social feature. This function allows you to search out specific people and follow them, listen to their playlists, and get information about their musical tastes and the like. This may seem like a small step towards joining the social networking phenomenon for a site that has already pretty much mastered its own niche of granting access to a vast library of music, but this is right up our alley here at theanimalscankillyou.com and we plan to make the most of it.
From now on, our podcast playlists will all be posted there in addition to being listenable on the podcast shows themselves. This too may seem like an unnecessary and unimportant step, but I beg to differ. Now, you can see what you’re listening to, link directly to the album it is from, find other music from that artist and similar artists, and add all of that into your own personal library, all with a few simple mouse clicks. Of course, we play a lot of songs from not-yet-released albums, so those won’t be included there because, well, they can’t be. But we will, where we can, supplement those with replacement tracks from their respective artists.
We will also be posting playlists there occasionally that we would not otherwise be able to post on the blog or podcast. Sparing you the legal mumbo jumbo, essentially this will grant us the ability to compile playlists of much older music and from a much broader spectrum of musicians. For instance, our first playlist falls directly into this category. It is not so much a mixtape-style playlist as many of ours will be, but instead is a fully-listenable list of our Top 10 records of 2011 to date. Obviously, one or more of these will inevitably be replaced by albums still upcoming (cough, cough, Girls, cough), but I felt like we needed to go ahead and get this list sorted out before the biggest album release week of the year on September 13th. The order of the list may change as the last few months of the year pass, but for now we’ve got a pretty damned good Top 10, and one that is vastly different than many of those you’d find across the interenets. Upon searching, I found a list that claimed the Mountain Goats’ ALL ETERNALS DECK was the number 5 album of the year, and yet in their 20-30 listed didn’t mention a single one we have on ours. Shameful how fake some indie fans are. Anyway, we’ll have more about that list posted in the next day or two, but for now just mosey on over to our Rhapsody page, and look for the playlist to see what we’ve got.