Best of 2011: Justin Spicer’s Top 25 Albums of 2011Posted by Justin Spicer
25. Cankun – Ethiopian Dreams (Hands in the Dark)
Vincent Caylet’s Cankun takes its cue from its exotic spelling and tropical influence, blending sexual beats with sensual rhythms. Though seemingly inspired by chillwave cut and pastes, the only thing chill about Ethiopian Dreams is the frosty flavors of frozen alcoholic beverages or the cold showers you’ll need to hide your arousal in response to Caylet’s heavy dose of sunburned syncopation.
24. Hobo Cubes/J. Hanson – The Self Beyond/Vac Siddha (Digitalis)
Much like the truck stop bins of yore, Hobo Cubes and J. Hanson provide two albums for the price of one courtesy of one complete cassette. Both sides speak to our apocalyptic future in the manner synthesizer albums tend to in our present times, though Hobo Cubes is the sunny side of life amidst the New Day while Hanson’s side is a primer in the language of our new robot overlords. But it’s not all thunderstorms and electric whippings; as Perry Farrell once elegantly put it: “We’d make great pets.” And here are two soundtracks to such a blissfully ignorant existence.
23. Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts (Matador)
Demolished Thoughts endures a different meaning with the recent developments in Moore’s personal life, but the album’s fragility in the face of his thrashing style is astonishing no matter the impetus. Moore has settled into demure guitar dalliances in 2011 (he also released an album of 12-string experiments equally dissonant and breathtaking) with Demolished Thoughts taking the cake.
22. Steve Hauschildt – Tragedy & Geometry (Kranky)
One-third of synth superstar trio Emeralds, Hauschildt is the unsung hero of the group. Yet he keeps plugging along with his own label (Gneiss Things) and his own attitude. Tragedy & Geometry is the culmination of that solo identity, equally experimental and pop accessible, the aptly titled album speaks to the mathematical algorithms of modern drone and the loneliness of missing one’s better half. Yet the album has its happy moments tucked inside the thoughtful—the way pop music should be.
In the midst of Guided By Voices reunion hysteria [Take 23], Pollard’s proliferation as a solo artist and collaborator has gone to the wayside. Allow Space City Kicks to remind you of just how awesome Pollard can be without the GBV army. The boozy creator sets aside the 24-pack of Iron City in favor of an album of instantly catchy and unforgettable rock ditties.
20. Danny Paul Grody – In Search of Light (Students of Decay)
As a member of the oft-overlooked San Francisco group The Drift, Danny Paul Grody is largely hidden in the sweeping tapestries the band quietly produces. The same is true for In Search of Light, a gentle guitar album that is not so flimsy as to be whipped by uproarious winds but nor is it so heavy as to be untouched by a breeze. The album hovers graciously due to Grody’s guitar chops, often dressed in no more than the strings attached and the ambiance of the home.
19. M. Geddes Gengras – Tetragrammaton (Sacred Phrases)
Gengras is a veteran of the new DIY. Lending helping hands to an endless list of equally adept projects and musicians, Gengras shines brightest through Tetragrammaton. To speak of it in particulars is to try to dissect just why synthesizer has made such a giant impression upon adventurous music listeners. The important part is how the best in the game are uncompromising in their love of abstract sound, and yet so open to swaddling them in pop nuance.
18. Barn Owl – Lost in the Glare (Thrill Jockey)
To wax poetic on the mudslide that is Lost in the Glare would be to do it injustice. Just freeze the powerful metal riffs of yore and watch as they slow down; morphing from hare to tortoise. The fast and furious movement slowed into a methodical grind of beauty. The composure and patience of Porras and Caminiti deserves just as much praise as the music; to wait for the right note, the right moment—it’s a practice in Monastic devotion. Let the ecclesiastic doom wash over you.
17. Horse Marriage – Eisenhower Interstate (Roll Over Rover)
The open highway beacons and Stewart Adams and Dave McPeters are the wailing cry to pack in cars and hit the road. The transformation of Horse Marriage from fringe experimentalists into 90s rock revivalists was subtle but Eisenhower Interstate goes over the edge, recalling the rough and ready production of the mid-90s with an equally road-weary rock that slices its way through Belleville to San Francisco.
It was a grand ol’ year for Ms. Lipstate. On top of tearing up the live circuit with the likes of U.S. Girls, Carla Bozulich, and Ben Frost, the mistress of the guitar laid upon us Glacial Glow. No doubt it’s the most direct description of Lipstate’s compositions; they glide upon icy waters, seemingly standing still until big chunks of notes and distortion tumble into the vast ocean. The waves from the crash reverberate before settling down to begin once more. A vicious yet enjoyable cycle.
It speaks to the influence of Liz Harris that the two albums (Alien Observer and Dream Loss) that compose A I A sold out in a matter of moments from distribution outlets the world over. And as masses of fans paid a hefty price to hold those albums tight and to play them on their own turntables, another gracious waited to hear Harris’ bereft. The combination of cold, echoed production and Harris’ demur demeanor expressed via sprucely played guitar is one not to miss.
14. Bird Names – Metabolism: A Salute to the Energy of the Sun (Northern Spy)
As children, many of us banged on anything we could get our hands on. It continues to define the sounds we are drawn to, seemingly the case behind Bird Names. Metabolism is pots and pans fun (whether you’re just wearing them on your head or filling them with dents). It is pure fun disguised as unadulterated fun!
13. 1958-2009 – 1958-2009 (Amethyst Sunset)
The end of the 1958-2009 song cycle is as sad and abrupt as was the death of Michael Jackson, the man whom Alex Twomey and Matthew Sullivan have paid tribute to with three cassettes (four if you count the live tape) and this self-titled vinyl finale. The results are gorgeous; the light of heaven gracing the duo with the music of angels with harps in clouds. The unearthly glow of ambiance—the slow whoosh of the soul ascending assuring us it’s all going to turn out okay. And it does.
12. mr. Gnome – Madness in Miniature (El Marko)
Madness in Miniature, the duo’s third full-length, serves as their coming out party. No more playing nice—MIM is a loud battle cry, dotted with moments of jagged tenderness. The ambered chains of the R&RHOF shaking with ferocity from Sam and Nicole’s heady stampede; the dust of a sleeping city rising like heavy fog to disguise the impending attack on history and institution. They may have ingratiated themselves with modern rock royalty (Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age) but it’s all due to their talent, not any sort of idol (or idle) worship.
The Flaming Lips drummer and drugger continues to turn the corner. When not working with the OKC gods stuffing flash drives into gummied skulls or working on a children’s album with Steve Burns (from samples, it’s going to be AWESOME), Drozd has found time to make an album as rhythmically mechanical and yet as musically organic as the work of the Lips. It is the sound of machines and man coming together harmoniously, centered on the comforting thuds of the beating heart. There’s a reason so much of our life revolves around the steady beats of the vital organ, which is why Drozd’s soundtrack is as instinctive as breathing.
10. Roped Off – Rides the Lightning/Kills ‘em All (Weird Forest)
Mike Haley and Dave Doyen may borrow their composition names from famed Metallica albums but thunderous head-banging and myth-breaking trips to group therapy do not dot their cassette under the name Roped Off. Rather, the album is a look at ‘what could have been in the nega-universe had Dave Mustaine and Les Claypool driven the Metallica sound after listening to too much Tangerine Dream’. As you might imagine, it’s a zenful motorcycle ride through metaphysical conundrums.
9. Wume – Distance (Catholic Tapes/Rotted Tooth)
We often forget kosmische is akin to pop, but the duo behind Wume allows us to remember the joy and rhythm of the German-born style. Every red-blooded American experimentalist has adopted and adapted a smattering of krautrock into their arsenal but on Distance, the only noticeable change is in the twosome’s focus on catchy melodies rather than prog exploration. Put on your dancin’ shoes!
8. A Winged Victory for the Sullen – A Winged Victory for the Sullen (Kranky)
Wiltzie’s soft touch has driven Stars of the Lid’s minimalistic approach for nearly 20 years. It’s Dustin O’Halloran’s stringed interludes that breathe new life into the elegant ambience of A Winged Victory for the Sullen. The duo has labeled themselves “harmonic Robitussin” and one listen nails down the sweet aesthetic. Recalling the rise and fall theatrics of Rameses III (the UK trio, not the sexually charged emperor), the band’s self-titled is a work of divine meditation. Any thrills you glean from the cover, those are extra.
7. Group Inerane – Guitars from Agadez Volume 3 (Sublime Frequencies)
Inerane, carved out from the Taureg style, has far more in common with Western music than you might be comfortable admitting upon initial listens. The album is heavy with psychedelic and folk rock touchstones, the language barrier of the lyrics eradicated by 12 bar blues and guitar playing considered a lost art among mainstream artists and butchered by every two-bit Stevie Ray Vaughan clone to come in his wake. Group Inerane is the music of the new world; where modern tech brings together vast populaces faster than planes, trains, and telephones.
6. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972; Dropped Pianos (Kranky)
A church organ is transformed into droned-out bliss and constructive composition at the hands of Tim Hecker. The results are some of the most inspired pieces of ambient-influence work on the 21st Century. Nothing is forced, rushed, or shoehorned into a particular style. It’s all just dust in the breeze, flowing in and out of our bodies like the intake of oxygen and the exhale of carbon dioxide. Ravedeath, 1972‘s depth is only strengthened with Dropped Pianos, breaking down the already sparse arrangements of Hecker’s imagination into primal elements. Hecker continues to become a beacon of modern composition; his name gaining influence as his name gains notoriety.
5. Circuit des Yeux – Portrait (De Stijl)
Haley Fohr’s stark, naked (get yer head out of the gutter) confessionals as Circuit Des Yeux are well disguised as sonic wonderments. Underneath the gruff exterior and lengthy mane exists a woman—-barely into her 20′s—-that has done more living than most can begin to imagine. Transforming the meaning of dirge, Portrait is not only about Fohr’s acceptance of the things she cannot change but also in how to best capture those conclusions into apropos sounds. It’s a powerful album bolstered by Fohr’s exalted vocals.
4. Black Eagle Child/Eureka – Black Eagle Child/Eureka (Stunned)
The end of Stunned does not necessarily mean the end of discovery. In its last year, Stunned delivered large—none more so than the shared tape from Michael Jantz (Black Eagle Child) and William Giacchi (Eureka). The two sides stand in contrast and yet, work well together to capture mood in sound. What that mood is lies completely in the ears of the listener and for that, BEC & Eureka capture the essence of music.
3. Chris Forsyth – Paranoid Cat (Family Vineyard)
In the same vein as Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, Chris Forsyth turns repetition into the sonicly sublime. Paranoid Cat, unlike his peers, takes a gentler but none the less striking, approach. The 21-minute opener alone would be worthy of attention but there’s three other tracks of varying influence (blues, jazz, and rock) that round out Forsyth’s ode to six-strings and the versatility of the guitar.
2. Fabio Orsi – Stand Before Me, Oh My Soul (Preservation)
Many rely on cinematic themes to carry them into musical bliss. Orsi, despite a wealth of varied releases, delves into nostalgic themes with Stand Before Me, Oh My Soul before breaking down the forth wall with his most instantly melodic release. The album injects the pop mechanism into Orsi’s ambient compositions, creating an album that is just as influenced by rock and jazz as it is by Terry Riley or Philip Glass. The wealth of influences keeps you coming back for more and in the end, that’s all we ask of music. Art and entertainment can indeed coexist, Stand Before Me, Oh My Soul stands as lasting evidence.
1. Amen Dunes – Through Donkey Jaw (Sacred Bones)
When an album is a life changer; when you find yourself listening differently than you have before, these are the moments when you know an album is meaningful. Damon McMahon’s echoing confessional, Through Donkey Jaw, is that album. It’s hard to break down the critical walls we must build but McMahon took a sledgehammer to my long-held beliefs. McMahon’s opaque lyrics, bare-boned melodies, and anguished vocals feel both cathartic and damning. We are truly stuck between heaven and hell and in the meantime, we must find what we can to express pain and produce pleasure. Through Donkey Jaw does both in steady amounts.