(Note: this also appears in slightly altered form on my blog, Martian Dance Invasion!)
DJ "DrAwkward" Hostettler's 10 Favorite Releases of 2011
Just in case you need a reference point for my tastes, they bounce around all over the place, but generally, i like noise, i believe indie rock was at its best and most rocking in the heyday of 90s Touch & Go and Amphetamine Reptile Records, and beardo folk music generally has been driving me batshit crazy for the last five years or more. So!
10. Future of the Left - Polymers are Forever (EP)
Future of the Left's lineup reshuffling (replacing bassist Kelson Mathias with Julia Ruzicka from Million Dead and adding Jimmy Watkins on guitar) opened doors for Andy Falkous to play around and experiment with what was an already-winning formula that resulted in one of 2009's best records, their sophomore Travels With Myself and Another. The piss, bile, and snarkily smart-assed lyricism that was present in that other band that existed before this one carried over, but with a, well, evolved sense of post-punk songwriting and riffcraft. Now, with an extra guitar in the mix, Falco has free reign to fuck around with synths as much as he wants, and the results speak for themselves in the opening title track of this EP (included on this list of albums because it towers that far over so many other releases this year). "Polymers are Forever" starts with disjointed synth stabs and the barest minimum of drumming, only to cohere into the most infectious earworm of 2011's second half as Falco repeats "pullin' me down, then i'm dead, then i'm gone" until you're still not tired of it.
The rest of the EP, of course, sounds nothing like the title track, veering from kamikaze punk blasts to nigh-comedic polka to the galloping grunge of the closing "Destroywitchurch.com." It all forecasts a 2012 full-length that is guaranteed to make my top 10 list next year as well. But with Future of the Left cementing their foothold as one of my favorite currently-active bands with the challenging, diverse and searingly brilliant Polymers are Forever, they could likely reimagine the soundtrack to Meet the Feebles and i'd hail it as some sort of rationalized genius.
9. Parts & Labor - Constant Future
Parts & Labor were a band that a friend of mine had gotten after me to listen to for about a year or two before a new record provided an excuse to finally get on that shit. What i discovered was Constant Future, a dazzling achievement in crafting savory pop morsels out of bloopy-bleepy noiseboxes and absolutely blistering drumming (Milwaukee native Joe Wong, you are a beast).
The secret genius of these songs is that while there's so much going on in them, the musical composition behind the synths and samples is actually fairly basic--if this were a guitar rock album, it'd be handed as many Who comparisons as Call Me Lightning's record from last year. It's non-stop triumphant, soaring arena rock anthems that just so happen to be communicated with keys and buttons instead of strings. And yet, as with TV on the Radio (who came it at number 12 for me), it all sounds perfectly organic and not at all sterile. They also put on a hell of a live show, as evidenced by their room-packing appearance at Cactus Club on a Monday night(!) early this year (did i mention Joe Wong is a beast?). Thanks for ensuring i check these guys out, Chicago pal who doesn't like her name put on the internet!
8. The Blind Shake - Seriousness
Truth be told, The Blind Shake are a much more ferocious band than what they let on in recorded form. On record, they are a more than capable surf-tinged garage band writing bite-sized blasts of reverb-soaked frenzy, but live, they're an explosion of psyched-out, double-picked noise-punk that overwhelms you in high kicks, jumps, stomps, and walls of feedback before unplugging everything 23 minutes later, leaving you to ask yourself what the hell just happened. It's criminal that one of the most searing live bands on the planet is also one of the most obscure, but so it goes in this day and age.
Still, Seriousness stands on its own with Ventures-informed nitro-burning guitar play and high-pitched vocals that leave the listener checking to see if their iPod's set to 78 RPM before realizing that, duh, they stopped making 78s long ago. "I'm Not an Animal" plows along in the most base primal punk tradition while "Hurracan" forcibly breathes new life into twelve bar blues. It's a great record, but i'd be lying if i didn't cop to ranking this a little high by projecting memories of the live show onto the wax.
7. Obits - Moody, Standard & Poor
Has any recent punk musician settled into the role of cool, laid-back elder statesman more effectively than the formerly throat-shredding voice of Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes, Rick Froberg? Obits expertly blends the urgency of those earlier, thrillingly essential outfits with the casual, effortless vibe of Creedence Clearwater Revival, of all frickin' people, and it works so well. Moody, Standard & Poor doesn't do a lot to expand from the formula that made their debut, I Blame You, a winner, but they don't have to because it still sounds completely fresh and revelatory. Anyone who thinks Obits comes off as "lazy" or "half-assed" is coming at this from the wrong angle; just because these cats aren't flooring it to the payoff a la Jehu or Hot Snakes doesn't mean there isn't fire under their asses. Instead of going nova and flaming as hot as possible, there's a slow burn underneath every Obits song that carries over to the next, slowly building to a crescendo that could be years in the making, but the journey is oh so captivating. The shuffle of "I Want Results" and the swagger of "You Gotta Lose" and "Killer" add to a growing arsenal of reserved, confident ass-kickings that won't lose steam after a mere three records, and i can't wait to hear how this band sounds five albums deep.
6. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Oh, to inhabit the brain of Annie Clark for a day, just to poke around and reverse engineer a reasonable facsimile of her songwriting process. The weird, alien angles she lets herself be photographed in only hint at the otherworldliness of her Baroquely Europan craft.
Full disclosure: Actor never really clicked with me, and i'm still not sure why. I suspect that, with so many bands i love, it comes back to having my ass handed to me in the live setting at the Pabst Theater, then finally getting my hands on Strange Mercy and immediately understanding what's going on in every little fold and crease between processed guitar and cosmic arrangement. The rhythmic intricacies of this record somehow teeter between completely illogical and completely captivating; while St. Vincent's music is nowhere near the thrash-punk metaphor of a runaway locomotive, the off-kilter vocals and guitar runs still leave the audience wondering when everything's gonna come spilling off the tracks--which, of course, it never does.
As has been mentioned elsewhere, live covers of Big Black's "Kerosene" and the Pop Group's "She is Beyond Good and Evil" have assured Clark of a degree of unimpeachable cool, but it's obviously the original material that seals the deal. To be a dazzlingly off-kilter guitar wizard, write trippy dreamscapes like "Neutered Fruit," and have killer taste in cover songs? Forgetaboutit. I'm sold for life.
5. Crooked Fingers - Breaks in the Armor
And there i thought that Crooked Fingers had run out of steam. So did Eric Bachmann, apparently, having taken off to Taiwan with little intention of recording solo material ever again. And yet, what should emerge from his stay on that island but the best Crooked Fingers release since the 2000 debut, Breaks in the Armor. The opening twofer of "Typhoon" into "Bad Blood" is classic Bachmann--a moody harbinger of what's to come followed by a full-scale landslide of earthy, bourbon-soaked romance built from weathered guitars and department store keyboards. This release has the added bonus of guest vocals from Athens singer-songwriter Liz Durrett, adding lovely background harmonies behind Bachmann's endearing half-croak, half-croon.
In this day and age of folksy beardos getting so much indie-music love, it's patently absurd that Crooked Fingers isn't huge, but screw it--if it means that the band's destined to forever pack rooms the size of the Cactus Club, it's the world's loss and my gain. As Juniper Tar's Ryan Schleicher said to me at their brilliant Cactus performance last month, "it's a crime that he's not bigger than this, but selfishly i don't want him to be." Ooh, you mean we get to stand mere feet from the man as he hunches over and spills himself into his microphone, and we never have to deal with a six-foot-high stage or barriers and security douchbags? Fine, mainstream--you can have those other guys. We're good to go.
4. The Poison Control Center - Stranger Ballet
One major regret i have from this year is the unfortunate timing of a trip i took to Oakland in July with the girlfriend. I was tagging along on a work trip, so there was no rescheduling, and it was a great time, but it also meant that i missed The Poison Control Center at (of all places) Bad Genie. Everything i've heard and read about their live show suggests that it'd rank up there with the heavyweights--The Blind Shake, Melt-Banana, the pAper chAse, etc. Alas, while 20 people at Bad Genie witnessed pure pop Armageddon (while friends of mine in the audience gleely texted me details of what i was missing), i must be content with being hopelessly addicted to Stranger Ballet, a pure, perfectly cut power-pop diamond in the Iowan rough.
God damn, this record. Who else could make "your day's just shit and piss" sound like the cheeriest affirmation of life's inherent awesomeness? And yet, that's the first sentiment expressed in the opening "Torpedoes on Tuesday," an immediately infectious morsel that uses a simple, delicate keyboard line to rope the audience in for what explodes into grandiose summertime rave-ups and singalongs. From then on, it's non-stop humming and head-bobbing and hopping and flailing and dancing on the hardwood in your jammies. There are goofy random noisy bits for the post-punkers, balls-out guitar hero madness for the rockers, laid-back fuzz for the Pavement-loving slacker indie rockers, and sugar, syrup and hooks for EVERYONE. My GOD, how is this band not on every magazine cover in the country? That "Seagull" and "Reoccurring Kind" are not burning up radio charts and sparking a revival in Big Star's album sales with their joyous Gospel-level rapture is a structural and institutional failure of America's popular culture. FIX IT, PEOPLE.
3. Helms Alee - Weatherhead
My love affair with Helms Alee began with a sweaty, drunk festival show in the basement of Seattle's Cha Cha Lounge, where my inebriated jaw was unable to do anything but hang agape while Ben Verellen, Dana James, and Hozoji Matheson-margullis did their thing. Their thing, incidentally, is a confounding and thrilling hodgepodge of mathy, melodic, and brain-squelchingly heavy doom metal that somehow occupies whatever territory lies between the Melvins and Unwound. While their debut, Night Terror, was a glorious jumble of rolling drums, moody, forceful guitar and bass, and alternating female harmonies and male screams, it all sounds downright straight-laced compared to their brilliant follow-up, Weatherhead. "8/16" is a five-minute tour de force of stylistic shifts and 90-degree inertia-defying twists and turns, showcasing everything that makes Helms Alee one of the most captivating heavy bands going.
Of all the entries on my list, this is one whose omission from most every best-of list i've seen absolutely confounds me. This is a band that knows exactly what its strengths are and plays to them while taking massive risks (in the case of this record, long, ponderous interludes and sleepy meditations) that pay off nearly every time. I haven't heard a heavy record this adventurous in some time--maybe because i don't often seek out a lot of stuff on the heavier end of the spectrum. Is that it? Am i sitting over here having my mind blown by something that seasoned metalheads consider routine? It's hard to fathom, because intelligently, thoughtfully crafted compositions that also bash your head in seem pretty hard to come by unless they're bogged down in annoying virtuoso wankery or pretentious prog rock. Helms Alee avoid pretense by virtue of being goofballs that just happen to be intensely talented and driven to kick asses nationwide.
2. Police Teeth - Awesomer Than the Devil
Full disclosure: these dudes are my labelmates and brothers, and every time i get to hang out with them is special times. That being said, part of why i love them so much as people is because they consistently put out incredible, buzzy indie-rock that gets me and that i've loved before meeting them all in person (excepting their bassist James, but that's a long story involving broken teeth and Everclear and it'll just get us off subject). As they astutely described themselves on their old MySpace page, their sound can be summed up this way: "if you're over 25, Superchunk meets the Wipers. If you're under 25. Hot Snakes meet the Thermals." Of course, they wrote that five years ago, so maybe we should bump that age to 30. (Aging, amirite?)
Awesomer Than the Devil continues many of the aging, jaded rocker themes that spun 2009's Real Size Monster Series into a concept album about the foolhardiness of devoting part of one's life to playing in a touring rock band (something admittedly not everyone can relate to); "Rock & Roll is a Pyramid Scheme (Parts 1 & 2)," in fact, advises we musical hobbyists to not "take this shit so seriously." They're dudes in the same spot as me--in it for life, but in a realistically compartmentalized manner. No, they'll never be famous, for whatever reason--they can't/won't tour extensively (does that even help anymore?), they can't afford PR, no one smells a hit single (which is just nuts), but when they're doing their thing, they do it with more heart and passion than most of the bands who get it handed to them on the proverbial silver platter. A dollar is worth more to a poor person than to a rich one, and putting out a killer record or playing a rippin' show matters more to guys like Police Teeth than to, say, the Strokes, a band with rich parents who i'm sure had nothing to do with them getting a record deal. Just saying.
1. Memory Map - Holiday Band
More full disclosure! Memory Map contains band buddy Mike Bridavsky of Russian Recording in Bloomington, IN, who previously shared the stage with my band in the excellent noise-rock ensemble Push-Pull. When he showed up in Milwaukee with this new outfit, the only thing i knew was that they most definitely are not noise-rock. But what i wasn't expecting was a hard driving, alt-country flavored rock band that could be best described as a psych-tinged Allman Brothers. But that glosses over everything that makes Holiday Band the record that i kept going back to for repeated listen after repeated listen in 2011.
The closing track, "Protection Clause," is a case study in what makes the entire record such a poignant listen. Cascading, interweaving guitar lines bob in and out and around each other while the vocals wistfully explain some vague truth about life and friendship that any listener can project into the lyrics.
so let's be honest come and see me
a lesson i've learned is "don't wait"
if afterwards it seems it just wasn't meant to be
at least we weren't stuck standing in the rain
Gorgeous vocals, gorgeous guitar work, propulsive, solid drumming, hummable melodies...slam dunk, y'all. There isn't a single record i went back to more this year to end a night, score a road trip, or just zone out, and i've been recommending it to everyone within earshot since i first picked up the record in May. So here's one more--give this stuff a spin. If it's not your bag, well, at least i tried and at least so did you.
Honorable Mentions, Part the First: Two Incredible Local Records That You Should Probably Hear
2. Absolutely - Learns to Love Mistakes
Milwaukee's Absolutely produced a truly captivating, powerfully driving throwback to the days of moody, ponderous noise-rock like Unwound and some of the forgotten gems of mid-90s Dischord Records post-hardcore like Hoover and The Crownhate Ruin. Learns to Love Mistakes mines territory that has otherwise been relegated to the dollar bin of indie-rock history while adding a fresh Beer City perspective, tying crunchy, intricate guitar harmonies and seemingly off-mic, shouty vocalizing together into extended compositions that flow despite their complexity.
Ironically, a highlight for me is the second half of "Denim on Denim," which breaks down and briefly strips away all the killer riffage and showcases what holds the whole convoluted mess together--the loose-but-locked-in rhythm section of drummer Charlie Hosale and bassist Andy Mcguire. It's hard to call them a "secret weapon" when they constitute two-thirds of the band (and especially when all their on-stage lighting emanates from inside Hosale's kick drum), so let's just call them what they are: a rhythm section that shuffles with a Verbal Kint hitch but packs the mental sledgehammering of Keyser Söze. You'll gasp and gape at how obviously it all falls together, and how you didn't see it coming.
1. Northless - Clandestine Abuse
"Dick-flatteningly heavy" was the phrase a European friend of mine used to describe Clandestine Abuse, by far the best Milwaukee record i heard this year, when i pointed him to it back in March. It opens up with unrelenting force and volume as Eric Stenglein bellows over the proceedings like a bear that was awoken a month into Winter.
And yet, as the album progresses, harmonies and downright pretty songwriting flourishes emerge like a zombied butterfly fighting its way out of amber. The sequencing of Clandestine Abuse is inspired genius--open with pummeling assaults on the eardrums and temples so that by the time Eric actually sings on the unnervingly beautiful "The Storm," the full in-album evolution from thundering doom metal to earnest, heart-wrenching doom-metal is complete. Look, this record is so good that Kuma's Corner in Chicago made the "Northless" its specialty burger of the month in March. If that's not a ringing endorsement for a metal band, then none exist.
Honorable Mentions, Part the Second: Records from 2010 That Would Have Been on 2010's List Had I been Paying Attention
2. My Disco - Little Joy
It took me months to get myself a copy of Little Joy after learning late last year that it had been released; had i been a little more aggressive in finding it, it would have made the list last year as an easy top 5. My Disco's uber-minimalist tranced-out dance beats and grooves constitute some of the most exciting music i've heard in recent years. One chord--sometimes one note--or one beat repeated for six to nine minutes. Tension and...tension. I imagine the remixes for this record sound great if you're on drugs. None of this sounds like what you'd expect one to say about a band that took their name from a Big Black song, but there it is. My Disco is about picking a vibe and running with it until the audience is hypnotized to purchase their record when they use a secret trigger word, which frankly is way more effective than backward masking.
1. Pregnant - Pregnant LP
These guys reside in Brooklyn, but if they're stereotypical trust fund Williamsburg hipsters, it doesn't show in their music, which is lean, bullshit-free post-punk, a fevered amalgam of Mission of Burma and Radio Birdman that gets its point across in songs averaging two minutes or less in length. The single "Wanna See My Gun?" is a comparative marathon at 4:15; no other song even comes close. And there's a totally refreshing don't-give-a-fuck vibe to the entire proceeding; they pressed 300 copies of an album that looks like the cover art was printed at Kinko's because they wanted to press a cool-looking record with the most minimal overhead, and then, just to get people to listen to the music, they put the whole record up on Bandcamp for FREE. Ridiculous. No frills punk rock that's as gripping as it is high energy. I hope i get to see them live someday.
Get Off My Lawn: Why the Hell Do People Love These Crap-Ass 2011 Releases
2. Washed Out - Within and Without
It was bad enough when Vampire Weekend turned Paul Simon's Graceland into an "influential indie touchstone;" now we have part of the stupidly labeled "chillwave" movement trying to do the same to even more limp-dicked 80s groovers like Billy Idol's "Eyes Without a Face" or the entire Berlin catalog. I dunno if the dude behind Washed Out is old enough to remember how uncool that nonsense was in the 80s, but i'm really afraid he legitimately thinks there's something to be said for writing boring-ass background music that would fit perfectly behind Tom Cruise giving it to Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. The perfume ad cover art certainly suggests that he's more into contrived love scenes than shooting down fricking MIG fighter planes. People, "chillwave" isn't a genre; it's a bunch of dudes in bedrooms that think Bloodsport needed more love scenes and less underground MMA.
1. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
If Bon Eye-ver were from any other part of the country, i'd likely relegate his forgettable lilting falsetto to the Fleet Foxes/Mumford & Sons "meh" column--lame, but nothing to get worked up about. But no, Mr. Eye-Ver hails from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and when someone or something from Wisconsin happens to get a little bit of national love, the entire Wisconsin media goes apeshit. "Look, everyone! We can become famous too! We're not provincial small-town nobodies after all!" Really, i suppose my beef isn't so much with Mr. Eye-Ver (to whom i give massive props for his comments "pooh-poohing" the Grammys--although The Avalanches have a good point about dude's whiskey endorsement) as it is with the breathless mystique that's risen around him thanks to his PR and his cabin in the woods story and all that nonsense. Dear Wisconsin media: stop it. And by the way, Milwaukee media? Stop pretending he's Milwaukee's property. Just because we're the largest city in the state doesn't give us an immediate claim on the entire state's cultural output. God forbid Zola Jesus blows up and we end up in a pissing match with Madison over one of their own.
Oh, and speaking of dudes making music for Top Gun fanfic sequels...