A continued list, just in time for the New Year, of my favorite tracks from 2011. If you haven’t checked out part one, where I count down 20-11, check it out here.
As I mentioned last year in my flagship post, the practice of making/searching for year-end music lists is a pastime in which all serious music fans take an unhealthy amount of pleasure. It’s exciting—validating, almost—to see an artist you’ve invested in for the entire year wind up at the top of a publication’s queue. Besides the selfish pleasure gained from seeing your favorite bands make a top spot, these lists can be equally rewarding if you can find an act you might’ve otherwise let slip through the cracks. It’s in that spirit that I again impart my mediocre knowledge of music unto you who seek out the albums that I thought were the best of 2011.
Since a collegiate winter break is accompanied by so many 4:15 p.m. sunsets and lack of productive work, I thought it’d be appropriate to include my top 20 tracks of the year in addition to my top 10 albums. This list is for tracks 20-11, look for 10-1 in the coming days.
Perhaps it makes sense that the creator of this overwhelmingly unique track is a man with an overwhelmingly unique life. Alex Zhang Hungtai was born in Taiwan, but spent a great deal of his childhood and adult life traveling Canada and the rest of Asia. Keeping that in mind, try to listen to this song and not feel like you’re in a saloon from the 1940’s American Midwest. Hungtai exceeds the 80’s nostalgia so popular in music today, and goes back almost half a century more for the source of his inspiration: a poorly recorded, droopy piano line repeats back and forth as Hungtai croons in his deep tenor, as if at any moment John Wayne will bust in with a pair of pistols.
Swedish star Lykke Li released the beautifully haunted pop album Wounded Rhymes early in the year, and the clear highlight is the up-tempo anthem “Get Some.” Heavy toms pound out the beat as Li teases, “Like a shotgun, I can’t be outdone. I’m your prostitute, you gon’ get some.” It’s a song that asserts her power by flaunting her erotic charm, all behind a classically catchy chorus that wraps up the track in a neat and perfectly dark bundle.
Maybe it’s a testament to Cut Copy’s greatness that although their third album—released in February of this year—was the weakest in their discography, it still produced what was easily one of the best dance tracks of the year. The first song on Zonoscope crescendos quickly from the wavy keyboards that mark the first sounds out of the gate; Dan Whitford starts slow, much like the instrumentation, but by the four-minute mark shimmering guitars and synths explode and Whitford wails the chorus over and over again—just enough until he’s made it perfectly clear that a party has begun.
Although virtually all of John Maus’ We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves sounds unsettlingly similar to Ariel Pink’s Before Today of last year (it would make sense since they’ve worked together in the past), the best track on the so-so album is the definitively unique closer “Believer.” Maus’ vocals are heavily reverbed and are almost completely drowned out by the ground bass and dense keyboards, but everything swirls together to create a wistful maelstrom of sounds that’s perfectly evocative of the album’s dark and ghostly artwork.
I always feel like it’s risky for a band to choose a song featuring a non-member to be the lead single off an album; if it ends up gaining popularity, it’ll be a disappointment to play live if that featured musician isn’t there to perform it with the band. Nevertheless, the almost exclusively instrumental Battles selected “Ice Cream” to be the single off of this year’s Gloss Drop. The hyper-excited keyboard riff created by Ian Williams fits in perfectly with the goofy, unintelligible singing of Aguayo and seamlessly encapsulates the fun and brightness that Battles have a built a reputation for over their career.
Although most of the praise from GGD’s Eye Contact has been directed towards the eleven-minute “Glass Jar,” “MindKilla” is really the track that deserves the most hype for succinctly hitting all of the aspects of what makes the band great in a slim 5:29. The track begins tentatively, with a thumping bass drum, a glittering but conservative keyboard, and Lizzi Bougastos seemingly invocating her muse. Soon after synths swell, Bougastos recites nursery rhymes, and the song crescendos two times—once to a filthy breakdown at the midpoint, and again at the track’s end when everything jumps off a cliff with 32 seconds remaining, leaving only the murmuring instrumental remnants of before. There’s so much oddness being thrown into the song at once that it transcends analysis; it’s something that should only be enjoyed jumping back and forth in your room.
Much like the previous track, critical acclaim has been mostly misguided in donning James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream” as the standout track, when in fact it’s really an exact cover of his dad’s band’s “Where to Turn.” Blake is being touted as a pioneering figure for the future of pop music, and “Lindisfarne” is at once original and indicative of that statement. The first part of the two-movement suite begins only with Blake’s transformed voice woefully serenading, “Beacon don’t fly too high.” By the second part of the track, Blake adds sparse accompaniment—a warbly guitar and lightly used drum machine add grace notes to the melody established in the track’s first movement, but create a brilliant new texture that makes the listener appreciate the same phrase in entirely new way. Blake’s innovation will be an incredibly exciting thing to observe as he reaches his mid 20’s.
“Otis” is probably not even the best track on mega-collab of the year Watch the Throne, but the audacity behind the lyrics and the artists who wrote them make it one of the most culturally significant tracks this decade. In a time where the economy is so bad that Time’s Person of the Year is “the protester,” Yeezy and Jigga began selling “Occupy All Streets” t-shirts that in no way benefited the Occupy Movement, dropped an unthinkable amount of money to sample “Try a Little Tenderness,” and shot the video for the song consisting of driving around in a modified Maybach with four girls in the back seat. The verses only contain incessant rhymes about their wealth and un-touchability, and it makes for what is maybe the most simultaneously sleazy and enjoyable track of this century.
If a song can be both Grammy-nominated for “Record of the year” and number two on Pitchfork’s songs of the year (two of the most separate spheres of music criticism today), there must be something special going on. Bon Iver creates what actually might be the most beautifully poignant track of the year; oscillating arpeggios and slide guitars shift in dynamics as Justin Vernon dejectedly declares “And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.” Saxophones pop up intermittently, but they’re too defeated to make a sizeable impression in the song’s vastness, a clever metaphor for the singer’s insignificance in the context of the song’s narrative. Through all this melancholy, hope sprouts in the subtle drum rolls and Vernon’s restrained delight in repeating “And I could see for miles, miles, miles.”
“What’s the Bizness, Yeah!” Merrill Garbus shrieks, completely unaccompanied, near the end the end of the first single off of this year’s w h o k i l l. Immediately, saxophones burst in, cymbals crash, snares are smacked, and Garbus continues to wail up a chromatic scale. The song was building to this moment—not to say the previous 3:40 wasn’t an altogether joyous experience. From the opening seconds of Garbus’ brilliantly looped/layered vocals to the ukulele-dominant choruses, the songstress knows how to manufacture a track with non-stop fun. “Bizness” never stays stagnant and develops back-breakingly for the duration of the of the record—the perfect centerpiece to the delightfully eccentric album that should launch Garbus to stardom.
There was nothing particularly odd about Wild Beasts front man Hayden Thorpe coming on stage wearing a tiny red beanie—it really didn’t look that out of place. Nevertheless, at every concert there will always be that proverbial “guy” in the audience that absolutely needs to comment on any eccentricity that’s present in the performance.
“Nice hat,” he boomed sarcastically from under the balcony in the rear of the Paradise.
Thorpe, unfazed, and with too much naiveté to realize the facetiousness behind the comment, responded quickly and rather humbly, “thanks.”
It was at that moment—not the hours spent listening to the band’s albums at home, or the churning synergism between guitars and bass and drums at the show—that I truly fell in love with this band from tiny Kendal, England.
I arrived at the venue on Tuesday night right as the opener, ambient pop collective Bobby, began their set. The material was far enough of a departure from their headliner that it didn’t seem like a copycat act, yet close enough that they had the audience ensnared for the duration of their time. At 9:52 the band came on to an impassioned applause, considering how many people were there (the place was only slightly over half capacity; I was at the tUnE-yArDs concert there this past Wednesday, where you could barely find a spot to breathe).
After an extremely grateful but rushed salutation, the droning bass line of “Lion’s Share,” the opening track from the band’s brilliantly paced and most recent album Smother, began. Thorpe’s vocals here—and for the rest of the night—were spot on. Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to expect from the show. An uninitiated listener could very easily accuse Wild Beasts’ repertoire to be nothing but grandiloquence, but I held out hope that the sensuality that pervades each song would translate well live.
It did. Thorpe’s bass and vocal counterpart, Tom Fleming, sounded equally as breathtaking. I can’t quite place my finger on it—maybe it’s the lack of reverb in the mix—but there’s a certain staleness, albeit minute, to many of the vocal tracks on the studio recordings of Wild Beast’s albums. On Tuesday, that wasn’t the case at all. The duel crooning between the two singers remained powerful and resounding throughout the night. Chris Talbot’s remarkable finesse on the drums, while understated and largely unacknowledged throughout the show, was something I kept a close eye on. Talbot is in my mind one of the most underrated drummers working today; his arrangements aren’t exceptionally dense or virtuosic, but he makes outstanding use of auxiliary percussion and tom drums.
As one would expect, the songs that got the crowd the moving the most came from their sophomore effort, Two Dancers, the funkiest of their three albums. “This is Our Lot,” “Hooting and Howling,” and “All the King’s Men” all were performed with expert precision, and got the audience in a dancing mood. My lone complaint came from Thorpe’s lack of enunciation on “The Fun Powder Plot,” a song that’s so much fun because of its lyrics. The highpoint of the night came from the sonically simple and beautiful jam that came in the set (and Smother) closer, “End Come Too Soon.” The ambient bass was at its heaviest and most sustained, and it resulted in my whole body vibrating cathartically for a full four minutes.
Personal opinions notwithstanding, it’s hard to pinpoint any genuine “highlights” of the show—there was an intense and mutual appreciation shared between band and audience that welcomed every song with extreme satisfaction. In an interview with British online music source, The Quietus, Thorpe told the website, “It’s about saying, are you going to come in and listen or not? Because if you’re not, we’re not going to accommodate you, to let you be part of and involved in this intimacy.” It’s a line that may come off as bombastic, but it’s in actuality more of a warm sentiment towards its existing fans. Whereas the tUnE-yArDs concert certainly had its share of fanatics, many were there for the indie spectacle that surrounds Merril’s current hype. At the Paradise last Tuesday though, everyone was united in a love for a band that has been terrifically maturing with each album and tour that they pump out.
Since year-end lists are all the rage on music site after music site — authored by any skinny white kid with a 32GB or higher iPod — it struck me as a surprise that there had been zero of these type of posts on the WMFO blog page. Although this may be a bit late, I’ve decided to post an obligatory year end top-ten list; hopefully at least one person may pick up an album they otherwise would’ve missed from a year of music that was superb.