Hey, where’d the year go? As previously, the songs here are presented in no particular order and are selected by referring solely to the digit in the “Plays” column in My iTunes library. Thus, if I played it a lot on my iPod in 2011, it’s here. If I didn’t, it’s not. No ringers, no false aspirations to what I “should” have been listening to. All ice cream, no broccoli. Also, as previously, the song title next to the album cover is a YouTube link to the song.
Best Night / The War On Drugs
The genius of The War On Drugs lies in the rural-urban esthetic of taking an earnest, observant, heartland-evocative vocal (provided by bandleader and Bob Dylan fanboy Adam Granduciel) and harnessing it to a precision-machined motorik synthbeat worthy of Trans-Europe Express. It’s been done before, of course, most notably on Grandaddy’s 2000 opus The Sophtware Slump, but here you really get that wide-open-spaces sensation without the luxury-class travel vibe. “Best Night,” the first track on the record, is the ideal soundtrack for watching the countryside clip by through a bus window, even if the bus is just the shuttle from the Rutgers Athletic Center to High Point Solutions Stadium.
Land Disasters / Blanck Mass
Blanck Mass is the solo side project of Benjamin John Power from Fuck Buttons. This song has been a staple of my evening runs along the Jersey Shore, at Sandy Hook and Island Beach, ever since it appeared in June. Everything on the self-titled debut from Blanck Mass is amazing, but “Land Disasters,” which booms into being at 0:01 in full skyward trajectory and then soars ecstatically upward in vast cathedrals of sound from there, may be the greatest song ever recorded for running along the sea as the sun slips below the horizon.
Broken People / Jane’s Addiction
Long after 10,000 bands have hashed and rehashed JA’s original rock-funk-prog template to death, there’s a specificity to the observations on those first two records (three if you count the live disc from ’87) that keeps them fresh-sounding to this day. It’s in the way the Jane of “Jane Says” feels naked without her wig and keeps her dinner in her pocket. It’s in the off-the-cuff, wool-gathering introspection of the long-unfurling “Summertime Rolls” and in the way Perry Farrell bleats, at the end of “Pigs in Zen,” “I’m in the midst of a tra-a-a-a-auma. Leave a message. I’ll call you back!” The songs on The Great Escape Artist are big as heck; they’re anthemic to an almost U2-like extent, but they’re missing those authentic, closely observed details. They’re hard to get a grip on. And then all of a sudden, nine tracks into the record, all the stadium-rock ballast drops out and it’s just Perry, painting an intimate portrait of a lost soul in front of a tap-tap-tap bassline and a gentle Dave Navarro guitar figure. “Broken People” sounds as if the Perry Farrell of 1987 had suddenly teleported twenty-five years into the future, and contributed a guest track to The Great Escape Artist. It’s a gorgeous thing. I met Perry once, about fifteen years ago, but I was just trying to get my money back from him.
The Lazy Song / Bruno Mars
Every year, there’s a perfect pop ditty that shows up to announce that the long, long trudge through winter is over and summer-sweet-summer is at hand. This song, an effortlessly loping faux-reggae ode to “doing nothing at all,” from the ridiculously successful Doo-Wops & Hooligans album, was released as a single in May of this year, and might as well have been issued with a stack of red Solo cups and six beer pong balls. Songs of this sort don’t always make their way to my ears, but the “Official Alternate Version” of the video, with Leonard Nimoy misbehaving, ensured its safe passage into heavy rotation on my iPod.
Down By The Water / The Decemberists
There are a whole bunch of popular, undoubtedly talented bands out there that I know nothing about, simply because I disliked their first album. Thus, Radiohead is a mystery to me because Pablo Honey seemed like a copy of a copy of a copy (in the Pixies to Nirvana to Radiohead sense). The Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Same thing (Wire to Sleater-Kinney to YYY) with their debut EP on Touch & Go. Blur’s Leisure sounded like a pallid knock-off of the The Stone Roses debut to me, with too many impenetrable Britishisms. I know that all these early records are not representative of the respective bands’ later work, but that’s not where I came in, and I never really had sufficient motivation to follow up. So I was surprised when “Down By The Water” wormed its way into my brain. I’m not much for arch and fanciful tales of seafarers and gypsies, I don’t like “concept” albums, and I wouldn’t know World of Warcraft from Dungeons & Dragons, so the Decemberists were largely lost on me since I bought Her Majesty The Decemberists in 2003. This song, though, is downright Springsteenian in its stripped-down, earthy heartland romanticism. I can’t say for sure, but I think that’s Peter Buck up front, contributing the “Fall On Me” guitar bit.
Repatriated / Handsome Furs
Speaking of Springsteen, remember two years ago, when every hot band (The Hold Steady, Arcade Fire, Coldplay) had a crush on the Boss? Well, that’s all over. It’s Gary Numan now. Everybody from Sunset Rubdown to the Antlers is cobbling together some variation on Numan’s icy synths, processed vocals, and dystopian worldview for 2011. Some people just dispense with the homage thing entirely, and have Gary Numan sing on their new single, then put him front and center in their video. “Repatriated” starts out with a repeating, “Cars”-worthy synth bloop, wonders “where did the future go,” and then elevates into full futurist Tubeway Army pathos.
Bad As Me / Tom Waits
After twelve years of closet cleaning (Orphans, Glitter and Doom Live), Robert Wilson collaborations (Alice, Blood Money), and one straight-up album (the abrasive, stentorian Real Gone), I’d pretty much tempered my expectations for Waits. How many musicians release anything truly worthwhile after an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? The list includes, well, nobody. But Bad As Me is a revelation, and as good as anything in Waits’ brilliant discography. The songs here are surprisingly wide-ranging in style and substance, encompassing unhinged blues, torch songs, songs with actual “rock” riffs, and a folk song or two that could have fit on Nighthawks At The Diner. He even adds a heretofore unheard voice to his mad gallery of whispers , groans, and shrieks. On the title cut and “Get Lost,” he lets loose with a joyful, hiccupy warble that’s a dead ringer for the voice of Oogie Boogie in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. What’s not to love?
Dive / Tycho
Tycho (producer and noted graphic artist Scott Hansen) is a downtempo IDMer for people who think Boards of Canada are just too damned prolific. Every year or so, the guy releases a single. I’ve been collecting the songs on this record (“Daydream” in 2007, “Adrift” in 2008, “Coastal Brake” in 2009), single by single, for years now. All, including “Dive,” featured here, are peerless examples of hazy, fuzzy, pastoral electronic psychedelia. Unfortunately, Tycho must have printed about 7 copies of the new 10-track LP, because the thing appeared on Amazon for a single day and then was out of stock. Nothing’s easy with this guy.
Holing Out / Yuck
On first listen, your initial impulse is to say, “Hey, this album is hopelessly derivative!” And then you remember that the Breeders’ Last Splash and Swervedriver’s Mezcal Head came out twenty years ago and the kids who are buying Yuck’s eponymous debut have no idea what you’re talking about. So then you just sit back and enjoy this record for its neo-shoegaze, effects-pedal-driven, fuzz-pop self. Now, if Ride would just get back together …
Novacane / Frank Ocean
Neo-soul singer Frank Ocean is obsessively punching the buttons on the 8-track tape player in his ’80s-vintage BMW M3 Series sedan and feeling that ’70s ennui like only someone born in 1987 can. How serious is Ocean’s Laurel-Canyon-1978 jones? On “American Wedding,” he’s just rapping over the top of “Hotel California” for six minutes. Here, on “Novacane,” he’s unleashing his inner David Crosby, getting stoned and lending a sympathetic ear to a porn star he met at a show. Too mellow for ya? Try “Bitch Suck Dick,” by Ocean’s Odd Future compadre Tyler the Creator. This one’s been in heavy rotation on the iPod since the weather got colder. Odd Future linchpin Tyler the Creator is all about cold. After a litany of outrageous misogynistic slurs, Tyler plumbs the very depths of depravity when he sneers, “Fuck global warning, this the Ice Age bitch.” What would Jackson Browne say?
Room 69 / Hotel 74
Hotel 74 is two guys from France that make droning, lulling, atmospheric downtempo dance music that owes a lot to Air. That’s all I know about them. I don’t even know their names. When I Google them, all I get is a few uploaded songs on MySpace and Bandcamp. They reached out to me on my MySpace page, probably because my “friend” list on MySpace is composed entirely of ambient acts from Brian Eno to Blanck Mass. (What? MySpace. You know, like, My Space. Tom Anderson? Your portal to the World Wide Web? Tila Tequila? Oh, never mind.) Anyway, their only LP is 13 tracks, each named after various locations in a hotel (Room 87, Room 40, Elevator, Pool, Penthouse). “Room 69″ is emblematic of the lot, a dense, swirling lunarscape that would sound good on the soundtrack for a 2011 remake of American Gigolo.
Taurus Chorus / Abbe May
Another person I don’t know a whole heck of a lot about, though she does, at least, have a website, and one of her tunes was used on the HBO show Entourage. I first encountered Abbe May via the terrific art photography blog, cafe selavy. “Taurus Chorus” is a testimonial to the musical fact that any combination of raunchy, distorted guitar and ethereal vocal from a winsome Australian chick has “hit” written all over it, even if I’m the only one who hears the track in question.
Even in Dreams / The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
We all knew this was going to happen, but it still takes some getting used to, this wave of nostalgia for the indie-alternative early ’90s. The touchstones for The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart are more toward the pop end of the spectrum. Think Smashing Pumpkins or Disintegration-era Cure, with emphasis on songs about moody introspection and heartbreak. “Even In Dreams” is the soundtrack, not so much for going out to the club, but rather for staying alone in your darkened apartment all weekend when your roommates have left for winter break and you’re mooning over just breaking up with your girlfriend. It’s enough to make you wish you never grew up.
Where Are You / J Mascis
Speaking of growing up. I’ve heard J Mascis has a young son, born in 2007. So it must be time to break out the sensitive acoustic album. The loudest show I ever saw in twenty-some years of dedicated concert-going was a 1991 NYC Ritz show featuring a lineup of Screaming Trees, My Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr. The volume, particularly during Dino’s slot, was a dense and physical thing, wave after wave of sound that you had to lean into just to remain upright. Awe-inspiring. J’s recent Dinosaur Jr forays have been every bit as pulverizing and solo-heavy as his vintage ’80s stuff, so I’d give him a pass if he wanted to get soft and introspective here. But J doesn’t need a pass, as these acoustic tunes are surprisingly compelling, each a soft little bed for J’s frog-like croak of a voice. “Where Are You” is probably the rockingest of the bunch, and one of only two songs on the record with a bit of electric guitar.
Screech Owl / Implodes
Well, it’s all got to end somewhere, so let’s end it with “Screech Owl,” a dark, brooding, ambient/post-shoegaze wall of noise from Implodes. Implodes are expert at imparting an over-arching sense of menace and impending doom (check out that album cover!) that recalls conspiracy theorists/post-rockers Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Who, I’m told, have regrouped and are touring again. Look at that. Everything old is new again!
Notable 2011 Reissues:
I never heard of Disco Inferno, a British avant-rock band that recorded from 1991 to 1996, until very recently. And I bought a LOT of records in the ’90s. At any rate, “Love Stepping Out” was just about the best thing I heard all year. The rest of this reissue is brilliant, too.
Here’s a record I never thought I’d get back. My worn 1981 LP copy of Human Switchboard’s first and only release (issued on the Faulty Products label) went out in my late ’80s purge of vinyl in the first heady days of the CD. Big mistake. They were from somewhere in the Midwest. Wiry post-punk in the vein of Television or the Feelies. Reissued and packaged with some spotty outtakes and CBGB live takes. Okay, now who’s gonna reissue Robin Lane and the Chartbusters?
In the early ’80s, a German oceanic science student recorded a bunch of electronic floaty synth squiggles and effects, loosely arranged into song structures, that he hoped to sell as background music to makers of deep-sea documentaries. He pressed about 100 copies of his tunes to vinyl, nothing ever came of it, and he moved on. Thirty years later, Digitalis Recordings found them, and here they are. Because they were intended for commercial use, the effect is more Raymond Scott than Tangerine Dream, but they’re still an excellent backdrop for an excursion to Island Beach.
Related: 15 Songs For The End Of Summer