Archive for December, 2011

Darryl Zero’s Top Albums of 2011.

Posted in best of lists with tags , on December 28, 2011 by darryl zero

Darryl Zero’s Top Albums Of 2011

This year evaporated. For real. It seems like yesterday I was freaking out over the Yuck album—which is good, I suppose, in that it actually did have some sticking power.

I also suppose this is one year in which there isn’t really much of a surprise at what’s on the list. It’s completely fair if you dismiss this as the rantings of a complete homer—wrong, but certainly fair. Still, I can’t get past it—there weren’t really a lot of new artists that spoke to me, and a lot of familiar faces released solid albums (so much so that I relegate the PJ Harvey and TV On The Radio albums to Honorable Mention); furthermore, the Helms Alee album did deliver on the considerable promise of its predecessor, and to deny it that just because it’s the predictable pick would be doing a disservice to the album, the band and, well, my own opinions. That said, I want to impress upon everyone just how good the #2 albums really were. I spent weeks going back-and-forth between the two before making it a tie.

Anyway, without further preamble–

Honorable Mention:

Wizard Smoke – The Speed Of Smoke

TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Witch Mountain – South Of Salem

Shohmo – Bad Vibes

Elzhi – Elmatic

Special Mention:

Praxis – Profanation: Preparation For A Coming Darkness

Before I continue with the list proper, I wanted to give props to an album that I wanted to include on this list, owing to the fact that it didn’t get a proper, non-import release in the U.S. until this year. Praxis’ Profanation was one of the band’s finer moments, a work of remarkable coherence and focus despite having a veritable laundry list of guest collaborators (everyone from System of a Down’s Serj Tankian to Mike Patton to frequent Tricky collaborator Hawkman and Ghostface Killah). Had the album not been properly released in Japan back in 2008 and on a limited basis during the same year, I couldn’t in conscience put it on the list—I had it slotted at #8 for a long time before finalizing the list as you see it. Profanation, according to Praxis driving force Bill Laswell, was the last Praxis album, a mind-blowing end to a nearly twenty-year project, and definitely an album to check out.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes:

10) Snowman – Absence

Snowman’s farewell release (they announced their break-up as Absence hit stores) isn’t as stark as their previous album (2008’s no wave-y The Horse, The Rat and The Swan), nor is it as atonal; in fact, there are many moments on the album that are almost sweet. “Hyena,” in particular, throbs along a two-chord progression with atmospheric vocals, jangly guitars, and primal drumming. The rest of the album alternates between a weird, Cocteau Twins-esque fogginess and Shellac-y post-punk punishment—call it “dream core,” if you will—coasting to a somewhat unresolved ending, much like the band’s too-short career.

9) Tombs – Path Of Totality

This popped up on my radar at the tail end of the year, but blew up my iPod to the point I had to toss it on. And yes, it’s on everybody’s end-of-year lists this year, but with good reason—it marries the ferocity of more extreme blends of metal (I hesitate to throw around the term “black metal” post-Liturgy, but it fits here) with the edgier breeds of progressive rock in a way that somehow doesn’t sound obnoxiously pretentious—or even like Mastodon, for that matter. Tombs doesn’t adorn their songs too much, which works in their favor–Path Of Totality bruises and bashes from opener “Black Hole Of Summer” to the final strains of “Angel Of Destruction.”

8) Omega Massif – Karpatia

German instru-metal titans Omega Massif specialize in the kind of glacial-paced crunch long-since abandoned by the likes of Pelican, Isis, and Kayo Dot—that is, they’re actually okay sticking with the awesome riff that catches your attention instead of changing things up every sixteen measures. This Mogwai-esque restraint seems to have disappeared from instrumental post-rock sometime since the mid-1990s—shit, not even Mogwai uses it anymore—to the point at which anyone who doesn’t create sixteen-minute song “suites” out of four separate fragments of unfinished songs (I’m looking at you, Explosions In the Sky) is a welcome relief. All that said–Karpatia is actually a damn fine album that finds the band stretching its muscles (they actually have a complete song under four minutes—not an interlude, an actual song) and growing in a way that doesn’t involve them tossing a bunch of unnecessary shit everywhere in an attempt to justify the “post” prefix in their genre.

7) John Vanderslice – White Wilderness

The first of two albums involving the pAper chAse frontman/ridiculously prolific-and-awesome-super-producer John Congleton (see #6), Vanderslice’s first album with a proper orchestra (Bay Area-based Magik*Magik Orchestra) actually sounds more tender and intimate than the albums that essentially consisted of only him and Scott Solter (who cedes his longtime Vanderslice producer role to Congleton, and appears elsewhere on this list—see, uh, #6 also). While it’d be easy to say White Wilderness because of Congleton’s ability to bring out the most expansive of qualities in any band he records, the truth is that it’s Vanderslice, despite his penchant for pushing himself to the background of his own recordings, who makes this album shine.

6) The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

I won’t mince words: All Eternals Deck is the most arresting work The Mountain Goats have released since 2002’s paradigm-shifting Tallahassee. It could be argued, of course, that Eternals is just as much of a shift—although the sound and approach are somewhat similar to 2008’s Heretic Pride, it’s almost as if the band was sitting around one day and one person (probably bassist Peter Hughes, because he’s crazy like that) said “hey, wouldn’t it be awesome if we worked with Solter and Congleton on the new album?”, and then John Darnielle looked up from the game of dominoes he was playing with Suge Knight via Skype and got a stern look on his face for a few minutes before saying “Yo, yo, I can behind’at, but only if we work wit’ [Morbid Angel’s] Erik Rutan too, knaamean,” and Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster sighed because they knew it was just one of those things Darnielle does when he decides he wants to do something fucking awesome and they went and did all three things just because they’re the fucking Mountain Goats and can.

Oh, and the album kicks ass, by the way.

Curiously, in what seems like an unlikely turn of events (although Darnielle would probably say otherwise), it’s the Rutan-produced songs that end up working the best—especially “Beautiful Gas Mask” and “Birth Of Serpents” (the former being the album’s best track). The rest of the songs are just as solid, forming a surprisingly cohesive whole despite having been recorded in at least four different studios—but the Rutan-produced songs are just that much more transcendent, it leaves hope that the band works with him again.

5) Yuck – Yuck

Yuck was another band beginning to blow up at the end of 2010—their video for “Rubber,” with its full-frontal human and canine nudity, was almost enough to distract from how awesome the song itself was. Much has been written in more prestigious forums than mine about the band’s obvious 90s-revival sloppy post-punk style—with good reason, as their lack-of-fear of noise comes as a welcome respite from all the irritating, soulless, ball-less synth-crap, folk-crap, or epic-crap that seems to dominate independent music as if the 1990s (THE GREATEST FUCKING ERA IN THE HISTORY OF MUSIC) never happened in the first place—but the best aspect of the band isn’t their style, but their technique. The opening chords of “Get Away” display a band built around two incredibly talented guitarists—Max Bloom and Daniel Blumberg—whose songwriting benefits from the presence of a tight rhythm section. Drummer Jonny Rogoff, the band’s Jew-froed American, keeps the band’s arrangements bouncing along (with bassist Mariko Doi), while Bloom and Blumberg’s guitars play tag. Whether they’re playing gentle (“Shook Down” or “Suck”) or pulling out the noise-tricks (“Operation” and, especially, “Holing Out”), Yuck’s youthful energy (none of the band members are over 22) pulls their obvious influences into delightful new territory.

4) Björk – Biophilia

Full disclosure: after Volta, which was good-but-not-great, I’d resigned myself to the fact that Björk wasn’t going to release an album of the cultural and artistic significance of Homogenic (one of, if not the best albums of the 1990s). Biophilia isn’t as great as Homogenic–very few things are—but it’s definitely a step up from her somewhat-meandering post-Vespertine output. From the shrewdly understated opener “Moon” to the almost lo-fi-sounding closer “Solstice,” Björk wisely uses Biophilia to create a somewhat understated (at least by her grandiose standards) approach, wisely letting her music do the talking. Even fuller disclosure: I haven’t bothered with the iPad apps that apparently accompany every track on the album—and, because of how pleasantly coherent Biophilia is, I’m not even curious about them—the album is that solid. “Virus,” one of the album’s early singles, is one of Björk’s most arresting love songs in decades, and the warbling atmospherics of “Dark Matter” and “Hollow” allow the singer to flex her muscles as a songwriter more than her previous releases (which at time seemed more dominated by her desire to use her collaborators’ vision more than her own acumen) have in over a decade.

3) Atari Teenage Riot – Is This Hyperreal?

Atari Teenage Riot’s abrupt, unexpected return in 2010 couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. With punk little more than an oft-exploited cosplay scene, electronic music back in its club-centric, insular world, and a wave of wimpy hipsters riding the post-ironic 1980s nostalgia wave flooding record stores and independent music websites with the type of ball-less, indistinct synth-pop that inspired the band’s creation in the first place, frontman/braintrust Alec Empire clearly decided he’d had enough. Enlisting longtime collaborator Nic Endo and American MC CX Kidtronik, he kicked out the incendiary single “Activate” last year. Is This Hyperreal? followed in mid-2011, building upon the single’s promise and signaling the group’s proper return. As far as music goes, ATR’s formula is blunt, brash, harsh, and completely radio-unfriendly: riot beats, riot noise, riot sounds, and vicious leftist lyrics. Using the same gear used in the 1990s, Empire and Endo craft a shrieking soundscape with a surprising maturity in their approach, deftly softening the blow when necessary (check out the outro to “Shadow Identity” or the surprisingly low-key title track). Kidtronik brings more to the group than his “featuring” credits on Hyperreal suggest; his vocal turns (especially on album highlight “Codebreaker”) are not only a deft, welcome change-of-pace from Empire and Endo’s relentless shouting—they’re an important reminder that the group owes as much to Public Enemy as they do Public Image Ltd.

[Tie] 2) Oddisee – Rock Creek Park

DC-based Amir “Oddisee” Mohamed’s Rock Creek Park was treated much like a mixtape when it first appeared in early September (at least as far as hipsters were concerned), and with somewhat good reason: it’s a largely instrumental affair, largely a showcase for Mohamed’s skill behind the boards. Regardless of how you classify it, though, Rock Creek Park is an unqualified revelation, a perfect jolt of retro-inspired hip hop with a post-millenial spin, like DJ Shadow with more of a sense of focus and less of a fear of being pigeonholed. From the soulful styles on “The Carter Barron” and “Mattered Much” to the more funky “Uptown Cabaret” to the somber, pensive “Closed After Dark,” Rock Creek’s instrumentals are range from head-nodding to the kind you just have to stand up and say “damn” to. The vocal tracks are even more amazing, particularly “For Certain,” which takes “Closed After Dark” and adds some of the most emotionally arresting verses in recent memory. Oddisee apparently has another, proper album in the works; if it’s half as good as Rock Creek Park, it’ll be an album of the year contender next year for sure.

[Tie] 2) True Widow – As High As The Highest Heavens And From The Center To The Circumference Of The Earth

”Jackyl,” the first cut off the Texas band’s unwieldy-titled LP, begins with a slow, simple drum beat that slows down even more after two measures, setting the tone for the album before a single melodic note is played or sung. Indeed, As High As The Highest Heavens is as single-minded in its purpose as it is clever in its execution: it doesn’t affect the listener’s personal atmosphere so much as gather the listener up, wrap them in sound, transport them light-years away, blow them into millions of pieces and scatter the pieces around the cosmos. Singers Nicole Estill (bassist) and Dan Phillips (guitarist) trade lazy, ethereal vocals as their instruments thump and flutter; drummer Timothy Starks keeps the vastness of the band’s sonic space as centered as it can possibly be. The band’s self-classification as “stonegaze” couldn’t be more accurate; “Blooden Horse” and “Boaz” roar with metal grit as much as their vocals kiss and tease, and “Skull Eyes” and “Doomseer” dance through druggy, reverb-drenched hazes to annihilate the listener in paroxysms of almost-sexual intimacy.

1) Helms Alee – Weatherhead

“Predictable Zero,” you sigh wearily. It’d be easy to say you were right: I found Helms Alee’s Night Terror by accident in a record store and immediately shoved them to the top of my “favorite bands” list, eagerly awaiting a follow-up like little kids wait for Christmas. A couple of years passed, the band handling their day-to-day businesses and grown-up lives, and anticipation of the follow-up reached a point at which I declared it had damn well better be awesome.

And then Weatherhead came out, and it was even more awesome than I wanted it to be.

Broader in scope than Night Terror, heavier, more intricately melodic, and downright ambitious, Weatherhead manages to blend all of the band’s apparent influences into a blistering explosion of flowing, shimmering sound. From the delicate acoustic guitars of “Anemone Of The Wound” to the ferocious post-punk bite of “Ripper No Lube,” from the overdriven, Bob Mould-esque guitar strains of “Mad Mouth” to the germanium diode-crushing guitar stomp of “Pretty As Pie,” from the ethereal female vocals on “8/16” to guitarist Ben Verellen’s thunder-summoning roar later in the very same song, Weatherhead manages to go absolutely everywhere while still maintaining a coherent vision and distinct identity. That Helms Alee is not a band as wildly popular as Nirvana, Slayer, or Metallica is one of the world’s greatest injustices; hopefully, Weatherhead is just another stop for the band on their way to the top of the world.