Although the “Best Albums of 2011” was my fault, I actually sort of hate putting together strick top 10 lists for music. Given the opportunity, I could list 20+ albums that I liked from this year, including ones from Bon Iver, I Break Horses, Mark McGuire, Matthew Shipp, Portugal. The Man, Thao & Mirah, tUnE-yArDs, Deaf Center, DJ Shadow, Thurston Moore, Talkdemonic, Blue Sky Black Death, and Braids.
Since we were artificially limited to ten though, I decided that the best way to approach this was to create ten equally artificial categories and fill those in. You can listen to songs from all these albums via this Spotify playlist. Enjoy, and feel free to argue your hearts out in the comments section below.
Best Indie/Synthpop Album:
Handsome Furs, Sound Kapital
I love everything about this album, from the country-tinged opening to the distorted end in which Dan Boeckner howls “feelings no . . . feelings no . . . feelings” over and again. It’s an album that fits together, and that is influenced by their tour through Eastern Europe and Asia. There’s something about this that aligns in my mind with the Occupy Movement, especially in the songs “Serve the People” and “Cheap Music.”
Album with the Best Ending:
Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact
I saw Gang Gang Dance play here in Rochester a few years back, and it was easily one of the best shows I’ve ever seen live. The drums, vocals, danceable yet haunting hooks, the completeness of the set—all so good. I was really psyched about the new album, and it’s grown on me all year. That said, what I mostly love is the very ending, where, after almost an hour of drifting electronic noise and polyrhythmic beats, a woman’s voice closes it out by whispering “live forever.” Best experienced on headphones. Late at night.
Foster the People, Torches
Sure, Top 40 radio pretty much wrecked Foster the People by playing “Pumped Up Kicks” way, way too much, but over the past year, whenever I want to hear something simple and catchy and poppy and wonderful, I would find myself putting this on. “Helena Beat,” “Houdini,” “Warrant”—all excellent songs to bounce around to. And I like the slight disconnect between the cheery music and the somewhat dark lyrics.
Most Hypnotic “Trip Math Rock” Album:
Battles, Gloss Drop
Nate coined the “trip math rock” term because there’s no good way to describe the music of Battles. (One of the Last.fm tags for the song “Futura” is “my space ship crashes into the sun,” which is about right.) I was a bit nervous about this album, since Mirrored is so god damn good, and since Tyondai Braxton left Battles to create an excellent solo album. But not to fear! “Ice Cream” is fantastic (and in a car commercial) and the rest of Gloss Drop is remarkably similar to their earlier albums. Very easy to drift off to these songs and let the strange rhythms infect your brain . . . One other interesting thing: when my daughter first heard “Ice Cream” she loved it, declaring that it’s “a really fun song!” Just goes to show that children are open to basically anything . . .
Best Album to Listen to Under the Influence:
Akron/Family, S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT
No, I have no idea WTF is up with that title. I do know that the promo material for this album was all jacked, talking about how they wrote it on a volcano in Hawaii and recorded it in some abandoned building in Detroit . . . Also, they leaked totally fake versions of the album that were all chopped up schizophrenic noise as a way of tricking all the torrenters and blog nerds. (I think that is genius.) I’ve never been an Akron/Family fan (although “Ed Is a Portal” is a kick ass song) because of their weird godhead worshiping, freak folk vibe, but this album is pretty diverse and stunning with quasi-electro-hippie jams (“Silly Bears”) and expansive, Animal Collective-informed odes to summer (“Light Emerges”). It’s fantastic and worth listening to when your mind is in a certain space . . .
Best Metafictional Punk Album:
Fucked Up, David Comes to Life
I didn’t think there was any way I would like this album. The lead singer is way too screechy, and it’s been ages since I was really into the punk thing. (Yes, once upon a time. When I had purple hair.) Anyway, this “punk rock opera” is so damn ambitious that it drew me in . . . In short, it’s an album about David, who meets Veronica, who wants to stage a sort of revolution. Bad shit happens, the other shoe drops, etc. But what makes this metafictional is when “David” rebels against the narrator of his story . . . That’s intriguing enough for me, and the music itself is so, so catchy in that jagged sort of punk way. As I said on the podcast, it’s a great album to listen to while out for a bike ride. Oh, and be sure and check out the videos for “Queen of Hears” and “The Other Shoe”—they manage to tell part of the story in a cool, cinematic way while also emphasizing the meta nature of it all.
Album That Takes Me Back to High School:
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Belong
There’s something admirable is so perfectly capturing a particular time and place. Belong is the early-90s all day long. It’s buzzy and poppy and filled with high school concerns and nods to Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and all that things that make nostalgia (for me) all warm and fuzzy. I can imagine dancing to this at a post-football game dance. Alone. Wishing for the “Girl of a 1,000 Dreams” to dance with me . . . Or something like that. Man, high school SUCKED.
Album with the Most Juvenile Lyrics:
Fight Like Apes, The Body of Christ and the Legs of Tina Turner
I can’t exactly explain why I like Fight Like Apes (and Los Campesinos!, a similar sort of band with juvenile concerns) so much, but I do. I think it’s the poppy hooks in their songs mixed with the aggressively direct lyrics that often involve B-movies or sci-fi stuff. Mostly, I’m including this here because it contains the best insult of 2011: “You look like a hairstyle / You look like a boy named Kyle.”
Best Double Album of Epicness:
M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
I would put every song from this on the Spotify playlist if I could. Such an amazing piece of art. Earlier M83 albums are pretty good (especially Saturdays=Youth), but this is such a complete statement. It’s broad and epic and grand and is responsible for the most awesome video of 2011. (How can you go wrong with glowing blue eyes and telekinesis? You can’t.) I’m noticing that there are a couple things running through my list: grandiosity, electro-whatever, and nods to earlier eras. (In this case, the 80s.) Anyway, listen to this whole thing. It’s 100% brilliant. Oh, and French!
Best Pre-2011 Discovery of 2011:
Dan Deacon, Bromst
I have no idea how this album made it past me. It’s so perfectly in my sweet spot of crazy, fucked up noise. I love music like this—hyperactive, complicated, singular. (After listening to this album, I asked my parents to get me a synthesizer for Christmas.) To me, this isn’t just music, but sound architecture. Loops build and drop out, new noises fade in, rhythms change abruptly . . . It’s more of a journey than a collection of songs. And as I said on the podcast, I think “Snookered” is the most exacting representation of what the inside of my head is like.
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .