Being underemployed has its perks; I’m rarely able to assemble a top albums list during the year in question, much less write about my choices. This year, I’ve done just that! These are the albums I enjoyed the most this year, and there’s actually eleven of them, because I forgot about one and then didn’t feel like dropping any of the others. These things are never an exact science, no matter how much we make it out like they are, but generally I liked it more the further down the list you go. Regardless, they’re all worth checking out.
House of Balloons, by The Weeknd
There were other albums this year that composed the epicenter of this debate, but House of Balloons poses the same questions: How far is too far? When does expression of heinous thoughts and actions cease to be valuable as art and start to harm either and/or both the listener and creator? House of Balloons isn’t the first to stir up such questions, but it does so more knowingly than Goblin, and differently than its other contempories. Kanye attempts to make his remorse and internal conflict both epic and self-righteous; Drake just seems like a jerk. Abel Tesfaye manages to capture a somnambulant, broken hedonism that strikes a nerve in the way others haven’t; the scenes he’s describing rarely sound appealing, but he’s not exactly trying to escape, either. So back to my original question: are these cautionary tales, or subtle advertisements for the lifestyle Tesfave chronicles and possibly lives? I’ll vouch for the former, but I can’t deny the danger is part of the appeal.
It’s All True, by Junior Boys
I tried imagining Junior Boys as ‘80s pop stars, touring alongside the likes of Duran Duran and New Order. It almost worked; and who knows, maybe in the right moment, and with that goal in mind, they could have made it. Ultimately, though, they seem a bit too cagey to me. Junior Boys don’t write feel good dance anthems like Cut Copy or Friendly Fires; rather, the lyrics on It’s All True reflect on angst, longing, defiance, and disappointment, with just the faintest opportunity for blissful escape. Lyrically, Jeremy Greenspan seems much more embroiled within the conflict than longing or looking towards the other side. It’s that tension that largely defines “It’s All True”, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing amongst the back to back jams. Ultimately though, that tension is their greatest asset, and they manage it relentlessly until “Banana Ripple”, where all their effort pays off. Junior Boys aren’t necessarily the electronic act you’d expect to close out their album with an extended rave-up (which, if you listen closely, still sounds like a kiss-off), but they do it, and pull it off magnificently. The production and songs are top notch; though traditional Japanese instrumentation is incorporated, it’s subtle, and the album sounds mostly like a slightly refined Last Exit. They aren’t treading far from their wheelhouse here, but a more pleasing electro-pop album is hard to find.
4, by Beyonce
Although I’d like to claim earlier, could 2011 be the year I really stopped worrying and learned to love pop music? I’m still a little uneasy about this album as a whole; I find some of the songs thematically boring and clichéd; the thought that I’m only a step or two from Whitney Houston territory makes me nervous. Vocally, though, Beyoncé manages to sell them all, with a truly stunning set of performances. The martial strut of “Run the World (Girls)” is an outlier; the rest of the album is either more vulnerable, more inviting, more fun- or some combination of the three. The gems are truly gems, glittering and exciting- The rise and fall of “1 + 1” fully overcomes any weaknesses in the arrangement, “Countdown” is “My Girls” x100, and “Love On Top” leaves you, mouth agape, wondering how she just pulled of another key change. Maybe I’m not there yet, but 4 comes as close to melting my cold rockist heart as any anything.
Gloss Drop, by Battles
I guess, to some extent, people missed Tyondai Braxton. Gloss Drop didn’t make quite the splash of it’s predecessor, but I’ve found it much more intriguing. Somehow Battles have become both more colorful and weightier on their second full length, a contradiction that fits nicely with the other big one in their music: how can music be so detailed and technical, and still sound like the guys making it are having so much fun? Take pounds of pristine production, mix it with so much excitement, and pour it all over a craggy soundscape worthy of getting lost in- the results are an album I returned to again and again.
New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, by Colin Stetson
No one is doing what Colin Stetson does. I doubt anyone else ever will- his particular concoction of talents, voice, and vision are unlike anything I’ve heard before. It’s a continual source of amazement that the song on New History Warfare Vol. 2 are largely single takes, with no electronics beyond the myriad microphones used to capture the sounds Stetson produces. Even without this knowledge, the music is strange and consuming- you’d almost believe it was the work of some avante-electronic composer methodically bending the sounds through a wide array of knobs and switches, not a red-faced saxophonist pouring every ounce of his stamina into these alternately fiery and brooding pieces. That it manages to be deeply thematic and moving as well?
Despite the Gate No Mansion, by Resplendent
It’s been several years since the type of music that Michael Lenzi makes has fit well in the zeitgeist, indie or otherwise. Though the music he was making after the dissolution of The Fire Show was a departure from the metal-infused experimental post-punk of that band, in retrospect the course he was cutting would only diverge more sharply from the prevailing musical currents as time passed. Although he would mine hip hop and folk for inspiration (popular veins for sure), it was deeply filtered through his abrasive, experimental, do-it-yourself aesthetic. Despite the Gate No Mansion continues a similar exploration. It opens with an extended burst of static, and every following bloop, bleep, chord, and drum hit sounds frazzled and frayed. Every line of verse and chorus is hard won, a man making music for no other reason than that he loves to. It is deeply cathartic and personal, alternately caffeinated and meditative, a truly rare piece of art that stands on its own among the sounds of the year. It’s a refreshing reminder of what I’ve loved in music of years past, yet feels fully vital today.
(This album was self-release in the most minimal of ways, but is available online.)
The King of Limbs, by Radiohead
Perhaps destined to be Radiohead’s most underrated album, The King of Limbs stands among Radiohead’s best work. It is no Kid A, and no Ok Computer. It’s different from In Rainbows (Radiohead goes pop, to occasionally dull results), Amnesiac (striking in it’s discontinuity and experimentation), or Hail to the Thief (Radiohead goes pop, to brilliant results), but The King of Limbs presents at least two distinct sides of Radiohead while continuing to innovate sonically, if not as dramatically as in the past. All but one of their members (according to a quick web search) are in their forties- they’re not young guys anymore. That’s not meant as a mulligan- this is exactly what I would hope they’d be doing at that age, after six strong to amazing albums; I can get if this isn’t your cup of tea, but they’re still doing what they do best- let’s call this number seven.
Kaputt, by Destroyer
Come to think of it, in certainly moments, Kaputt isn’t all that different from House of Balloons: both find the narrator walking through an array of broken and possibly destructive scenes, though Dan Bejar takes a few steps back. He’s always at least somewhat on the outside looking in, and his observations are served with a healthy helping of snark. The degree to which Bejar is putting us on is unclear; although his fantasies are a little brighter, there’s something slightly unreal about the whole endeavor (the video for “Kaputt” captures that sense well). Somehow, there remains an emotional core beyond the facade; there is something true in all these songs, if just the feelings evoked. Kaputt occasionally suffers from being less wordy than it’s predecessors, but overall, Dan Bejar’s transformation to a crooner works remarkably well, and I’m not sure there’s many other who could sell me on this soft, smooth-jazz-esque palette. Bejar remains in a class all his own, and he’s by far the better for it.
Bon Iver, by Bon Iver
My most vivid memories of listening to this album involve drifting off to sleep either during or shortly after- there’s been a number of potential indie lullabies this year, and Justin Vernon’s entry may be the best. People have called this album depressing; I find it warm, inviting, and calm. Vernon is not my favorite lyricist or vocalist, but on Bon Iver he leapfrogs his previous works, revealing his tremendous (if previously hinted at) skills as a composer and producer. Bon Iver doesn’t hit you over the head with it’s charms, but if you’re ready to receive them, they are many.
Let England Shake, by PJ Harvey
“The West’s asleep”, begins Polly Jean’s latest; though we might interpret that in many different ways, it certainly strikes a chord. This is one of the most striking things about Let England Shake; that although it is incredibly intense and dramatically detailed in it’s description of the horrors of war and conflict, it never feels like Harvey is trying to force her beliefs on the listener. Although it is explicit and deeply uncomfortable (at least if you’re really listening to what she’s saying), it walks that tightrope like few albums can- even the universally loved What’s Going On can get a little overbearing. PJ Harvey takes an unflinching look at the realities of war, and while the listener can overlay their own opinions and judgment on the contents therein, Harvey rarely does. Though she is certainly not without an opinion on the subject matter — who would right a whole album about a subject they don’t care about? — she shows tremendous respect to both her subject matter and the listener throughout.
And what might otherwise become an overbearing listen is buoyed by the tone of the music and her voice, which are distinct amid her discography. The sound (and in brief moments, the lyrics) bring a levity and a vaguely sarcastic innocence to the whole proceedings. But perhaps that is really where Polly Jean says the most, and ultimately where I identify the most with this album. Even the interpolation of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Summertime Blues” speak volumes, perhaps cynically, but, somehow, not without a sense of hope.
Metals, by Feist
To the best of my knowledge, This is the first Feist album I’ve listened to all the way through. I’ve heard a couple of catchy songs, sure, but never got the impression they were anything more than good-natured, semi-organic pop. I hadn’t found her particularly compelling apart from her Broken Social Scene appearances, and was perfectly happy leaving her firmly in the background of the burgeoning adult-indie revolution. In fact, my introduction to this album might as well be right out of Spotify’s press packet (and I suppose, but extension, file sharing’s), as I would likely never have heard and purchased it otherwise.
After the first couple listens, I was ready to write it off as pleasant but ordinary folk-pop, but it had started to impress itself onto my mind, despite the half attention I’d afford it. I continued to listen, and as I did, it’s idiosyncrasies began to appear: the noisy, pounding drums of “The Bad in Each Other” and “Undiscovered First”, the shouted refrain of “A Commotion”, and Feist’s spindly, winding, and intensely human vocals. I can’t think of another album I’ve heard this year that breathes like this one does, or sounds so distinctly Canadian - I had to check to confirm that although Bryan Webb does sing backing vocals on one song, Constantines were not Leslie’s backing band.
In a year full of subdued, pleasant, and soothing music, this one stood out- not only because, like Bon Iver, it managed to feel distinctly alive, but also because it packed a hidden punch for those who dug a little deeper. I didn’t know she had it in her.