The most wonderful time of the year, right guys? ‘Twas the end of December, and all through the blogosphere, not a creature was stirring, except for the sounds of music writers springin’ chub, strokin’ egos, and Bon Iverin’ via the storied tradition of the “best of” list. Well, The Decibel Tolls participates in that jive as well, save for the latter. Be it as it may.
So yeah, man… 2011… shit. 2011 was a turbulent and gnarly year, and as such, we’ve been treated to some truly stellar music. Funny how that works – civic and economic tension tends to inform and catalyze incredible art. Remember when things were really good in the late ’90s? Gas was cheap, jobs plentiful, Spin City made us lawl… but conversely, Eagle Eye Cherry. Those days are long gone, for better or worse, so get cozy in the thunderdome. Protests in the streets, hyper-partisanship inside the Beltway, tsunamis and climate change, Skrillex… 2011 was a sonofabitch. However, from cataclysm and strife comes a very poignant and human need for escapism, and therein lies the protoplasm that cultivates the most remarkable creative endeavors – and we got it by the metric ton this year. For me, 2011 has produced some of the most exciting music I’ve ever experienced.
For the past two years, The Decibel Tolls released the year end list unenumerated and in democratic form, only compiling the cream of the crop and allowing it to exist in a list space without tier. However, it seems that this year produced particularly heavy jams, and thus, some animals turned out more equal than others, at least in my mind. I didn’t want to do it, but I did… this year’s list is ranked. #occupythedecibeltolls. Yeah, that’s weak, whatever… but I’d be remiss to not recognize that, say, the albums in the top 10 sonically kicked my ass in a profound fashion. It wouldn’t be right to present this list any other way. We’ve waded through, I dunno, a few thousands albums, EPs, and other releases throughout the Gregorian calendar year, and the following 30 are the joints that offer a substantial contribution to the propelling, freewheelin’ vehicle we call rock and roll.
Additionally, this year saw reissues of amazing albums that were not only overlooked in their heyday, but also in subsequent releases. We pay homage to those as well in our separate “best reissues” list at the bottom. Enjoy the list, and allow me to raise my glass to you real quick for an excellent 2012 before I spill all this on myself.
MIKAL CRONIN – S/T
This retro prodigy might serve as the most salient garage rock prodigy since The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and maybe even the ’60s. Don’t get it twisted though, Mikal Cronin’s eponymous debut does not simply rehash celebrated sounds without adding additional distinct flavors, prolific instrumentation, and an acumen for theatricality. The fact that Cronin and company could employ a flute solo at death metal speed on album opener “Is It Alright,” then turn around and produce over-fuzzed stadium-ready psych punk anthems like “Apathy” and “Green and Blue” makes Mikal Cronin a shoe-in for an album that ought not get slept on in 2011.
THE CARETAKER – AN EMPTY BLISS BEYOND THIS WORLD
Under The Caretaker moniker, Berlin-based British sound artist Leyland Kirby has taken on the heady subject of memory and neurological illness (seriously no pun intended). While Kirby claims his primary inspiration was the ballroom scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, his premise more closely parallels modern cult psychological thrillers like Christopher Nolan’s Memento. On An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, Kirby invites us into the mind of someone struggling to recall images from their past— aural ones, incarnated in samples and shards of old jazz 78s. An Empty Bliss… is a powerful piece of music that demands full attention– not just an ambient record for background play to allow your musically academic friends to scratch their beards (or equivalent thereof).
LE CHEVALIER – DANCER
Playful, vivid, and deeply engaging, Montreal’s Le Chevalier throws a fanciful spin on the familiar murky sounds of hauntology and mind-altering electronic exploration. His digital LP Dancer (of which he donated 50% of sales to LGBT-outreach charity The Trevor Project) is a gorgeous and brilliant array of aquatic, loosely flowing kaleidoscopic pop. Le Chevalier flies close to the carnival folk leanings of Kevin Ayers and channels the airy vocals of Broadcast’s Trish Keenan, all within a unique analog casing, yielding a refined debut that’s worth your attention.
MP3: Lully Loure
GROUPER – A | A
A mysterious array of “phantom lights” in the high desert near Marfa, TX has intrigued scientists and fans of the paranormal for over 50 years. Known as “The Marfa Lights,” this unusual phenomenon attracts so many visitors that the city erected a viewing platform. Should you ever have the chance to go, there is perhaps no better soundtrack for this ghostly illumination than Grouper’s double concept album, A I A. Though written at different times, and under varying circumstances, the release’s two discs, Alien Observer and Dream Loss, register as a single, fluid, 68-minute meditation. Over A I A‘s 13 tracks, Liz Harris explores otherworldly soundscapes, traveling from the ocean floor to the gasses of a cosmic cloud, and does it with an unrivaled aural pizzazz. A I A, simply put, is not of our known world.
MP3: Alien Observer
NATIVES – LOOSE SECRETS
Louisville six-man double-percussion sludge psych act goes hard in the paint for their vinyl and digital debut. It doesn’t matter how often you shower, as mind-permeating RnR this dirty will make you feel forever unclean. And that’s good for you, if you hadn’t heard. Just try to fuck with the unbridled swamp thrash of “Year of the Snake” and the cinematic “The Moon.” You can’t. Packed with primordial pop caked in impenetrable reverb and Black Francis-evocative vocals emitting from the other side of the wormhole, Natives are already establishing a unique sound – now you can say you were there when the first joint dropped.
MP3: Year of the Snake
TY SEGALL – GOODBYE BREAD
Dude’s a master of efficiency. On Goodbye Bread, Ty Segall commands compelling psych rock with little effects or instrumentation – usually nothing more than clean guitars with a slight amp gain, three-piece drums, and his Tyrannosaurus Rex-channeling vox play. While Goodbye Bread sees the Sic Alps collaborator reach into his bag of goodies – scorched earth fuzz, tape echo that reaches above the International Space Station – the full-length also expands on his songwriting prowess by way of the newfound slow burning, hash-informed movements that bookend the record. It’s a good look for Ty Segall, and proves he’s not a one trick pony. Or Segall… er, seagull. I’m going to work on my puns.
MP3: My Head Explodes
VINYL WILLIAMS – LEMNISCATE
Mix all the shit that you and I like – kraut, walls of noise, atmospheric melodies, tremolo bliss-outs – add a few dashes of sacred geometry, Alejandro Jodorowsky-style surrealism, and Egyptology, and you’ll achieve something close to LA’s Vinyl Williams. Williams is a multimedia artist who takes spiritual exploration and varied sonic references very seriously, and as such, his first proper full-length Lemniscate samples the timbres and ideas of psych rock that traverses three decades and myriad locales. Williams is also unabashedly fearless, throwing shades of electro lounge pop next to silky ambience, just to see what happens.
MP3: Higher Worlds
PANDA BEAR – TOMBOY
Tomboy seemed to have come and gone last spring, unfortunately. Perhaps most people were expecting Person Pitch II, but that, for someone as prolific as Noah Lennox, would’ve been the lamest possible trajectory. Haters gonna hate. The sun-soaked imagery of his mind’s eye Lisbon is all but evaporated, replaced with a more angular, terse approach to Lennox’s good time mind experiments, resulting in a wholly different effort. Tomboy feels cold – almost mechanical. Panda Bear essentially took a gamble and won. This full-length proved that Panda Bear will never allow himself to become a typecast. And when the stake are high, there’s no move I can applaud more loudly. Also, how good is “Drone”?! That’s the cut I throw on when I need a good aural slaying, god damn.
PEOPLE LIKE US – WELCOME ABROAD
For two decades, Vicki Bennett recorded albums and toured the world as People Like Us, a comprehensive audio-visual art project that makes prodigious use of archival films, library music, and vintage Billboard hits, and also coined the phrases “plagiarhymthic” and “irritainment.” You may know her from WFMU’s amazing Do or DIY. But don’t confuse Vicki with some sort of wanky inane mashup treachery or inaccessible noise exploration. People Like Us exists as more of a musique concerte-style sound collage – a carnival of trippy retro-futuristic movements and pop-oriented culture jamming. Welcome Abroad pulls tons of source material from the fair-use Pellinger Archives and her unprecedented access to the full BBC Archive (including the Radiophonic Workshop). What you get is a gorgeous deconstructing and warped reassembling of 20th century pop standards and atomic age ambient electronic that should thrill fans of Ghost Box contemporaries. As fate would have it, the cleverly titled Welcome Abroad was the result of being volcanically marooned in the U.S. throughout much of 2010 (via Iceland). She made the most of her situation by inviting members of Half Japanese and Matmos to contribute, and obviously, the result is awesome.
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA – S/T
UMO kinda ruled 2011, didn’t they? And deservingly so, their eponymous debut offered everything we hoped for but didn’t know we did – a winding journey replete with twisted versions of both American and UK R&B, soul, and simple garage rock. Unknown Mortal Orchestra plays like a version of West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band that intercepted Old Gregg’s lactating ball of funk. This shit… this shit is naaaasty. It causes you to scrunch about the nose while bobbing your head all bug-eyed and releasing a breathy gasp of “damn, that’s naaaasty.”
MP3: Ffunny Ffrends
GANG GANG DANCE – EYE CONTACT
The much-loved New York City-based experimental collective Gang Gang Dance has left me conflicted in the past. Their 2005 breakthrough sophomore effort God’s Money came packed with the sort of warped, world-infused freak-outs that would greatly upset and confuse Chipotle-core artists like David Byrne. And it was awesome. In contrast, 2008’s Saint Dymphna showcased a sonically untamed artist attempting to produce club bangers; their intriguing interstellar mysticism sullied by bizarre grime and house flavors that just didn’t mesh. This year’s 4AD-bolstered full-length Eye Contact, however, offered an extremely focused, brilliant approach to the band’s two disparate sides, providing both a return-to-form and a serious progression. Eye Contact is a polymorphous beast.
MP3: Glass Jar
AL LOVER – SATANIC TAMBOURINES
I hope claiming that Al Lover conjures the most psychedelically-inclined producer-informed hip-hop since Edan and J. Dilla doesn’t feel hyperbolic, because it’s true. This is a guy who remixed Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk in its entirety. How do you even approach that? Well, Al Lover did, and Satanic Tambourines put those serious chops on display for his cassette-only breakthrough release.
ATLAS SOUND – PARALLAX
Did Bradford Cox write the songs? Then duh, you already know – this music is some of the best of the year. You can’t even touch this dude, especially considering that Parallax is his most emotionally cathartic. I don’t even need to elaborate as to why he’s on the list. Cox will smoke any buzzy fools in our Future Shock-evocative current music paradigm. This is fine experimental American rock music – no other descriptors needed.
PHANTOM FAMILY HALO & BONNIE PRINCE BILLY – MINDEATER
Clocking in just over 20 minutes, the collaborative Mindeater explores the vibes of rustic folk and late ’60s/early ’70s twangy psychedelia, spooky glam swagger, and the desolate milieu where monolithic desert rock meets the Sweetheart of the Rodeo. When Oldham’s on the label, you know it’s good… kinda like Smucker’s. But Mindeater isn’t about the good Prince; it’s about the underserved Phantom Family Halo. The Family has the unfortunate circumstance of not fuckin’ around with en vogue wobbly synths and overcompressed beats, nor do they write stupid songs about the beach or nostalgia. They write vintage, freewheeling space rock psych-outs about nightmares, skulls, and similarly-themed wicked shit. As such, they’ve been ignored outside of Louisville for far too long, and it’s now their time to shine. While I always appreciate Oldham’s approach to the torch ballad, it’s the Phantom-penned moments on Mindeater that stick out and turn what would be a traditional release from the prolific Bonnie Prince Billy into a cross-genre, cross-galaxy sonic vision quest.
MP3: The Mindeater
SUN ARAW – ANCIENT ROMANS
The “sacred retreat” of Cameron Stallones shotguns fleeting moments of spiritual clarity to the end of the astral plane on his double LP Ancient Romans. Guns blazing, the Los Angeles artist returns with his most sonically acrobatic and, depending on your taste, accessible material yet. It’s the type of work that has the potential to broadcast Sun Araw’s Technicolor pastiche of cosmic riddim, sacramental chants, scorched dub, and aquatic ambience far outside the niche catacombs where these sorts of abstract meditations like to dwell. Keep in mind though, Ancient Romans is not just a particularly adventurous effort – it’s rife with misdirection. While the 80-minute offering keeps the ingredients for a concept album on retainer, Stallones intimates both directly and cryptically that it’s really more of an introspective affair. On a casual listen, it might sound like DMT-riddled, improvisational treatment of psychedelic Laurel Canyon lore. In actuality, Stallones reveals an unusual, tremendously detailed-oriented approach to sound sculpting. To wit, any assumptions about Ancient Romans are probably patently false, or at least inaccurate.
MP3: Lute & Lyre
NERVES JUNIOR – AS BRIGHT AS YOUR NIGHT LIGHT
Without compromise and immune to any and all trend-riding, Nerves Junior are paving their own path with a distinct spin on both the twilight fringes of post-punk electro futurism and denser-than-lead dream pop gravitas. Nerves Junior is a transcendent beast, one that can appeal to elitist niche ears as well as casual listeners. As Bright As Your Night‘s melodic sophistication and vast sonic palette is major league in every facet. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
PIGEONS – THEY SWEETHEARTSTAMMERS
Pigeons never intended to pack the sun or the sand in their weathered steamer trunk of ’60s psych flavors. Rather, Pigeons evoke the sounds of the still night long after the Flower Children had fallen into the arms of Morpheus. They Sweetheartstammers exudes the same resonating sense of mystery, sedation, and austere melodic sensibility as last year’s Liasons, but with an added sonic density this turn, as well as expanded lineup (roping in members of No Neck Blues Band and Black Twig Pickers). Despite Pigeons’ nocturnal, cavernous aura, a visceral whimsy rampantly flows behind the spooky façade, yielding a pastiche of ornate prismatic pop that lands somewhere between The United States of America and Pram. An engrossing, ghostly listen.
MP3: Dead Echo
GUITARO – JJ’S CRYSTAL PALACE
This Vancouver outfit have quietly released brilliant EPs and full-lengths under the name Guitaro since the tail end of the 20th century. With great injustice, they mostly passed under the radar of the world’s tastemaking music media, save for the critical lauding within their native British Columbia. Hopefully that will change, since after a six year hiatus, this undiscovered gem of a trio may have released the definitive album for shoegazers who like to cut rugs and reach escape velocity. JJ’s Crystal Palace is a ten-song space disco romp through varying moods, tempos, and volumes. Those amongst us who were greatly excited by M83’s Red Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts and were then fucking pissed by the weak-ass Depeche Mode-shaped turd Before The Dawn Heals Us because it was bullshit, not to mention Tubeaway Army superfans and those who believe Air can do no wrong… are in. fucking. luck. Because you will find myriad treasures within this 10-song beuaty. Guitaro has constructed some truly beautiful, cerebral, and highly hummable anthems, slathered in infectious mid-tempo dance rhythms and a liberal dose of galacticism. It totally rips.
MP3: Chateau 100
RADIOHEAD – THE KING OF LIMBS
Cutting to the chase, The King of Limbs is Radiohead’s finest work in a decade. Their mid-aughts work, Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, offered complex dark pop that often felt a bit uneven – the sound of a band attempting to fit too many ideas into concise song-structures. The King of Limbs remedies that issue, focusing exclusively on acutely inventive jazz rhythms, subterranean guitars, and a fragmented melodicism that slowly reveals itself on repeated listens. Radiohead, once again, fully embraces releasing a work that’s both abstract and accessible within an art rock package – something they haven’t captured with this level of acumen since Kid A. This is clearly an album resulting from five guys who listened to a shit-ton of Basil Kirchen and Tago Mago. The alien nature of The King of Limbs‘ songs have, historically speaking, tended to get relegated to the B-side portion of Radiohead’s catalog – the arsenal that happens to house some of the group’s best flashes of brilliance (see “Cuttooth” from the Kid A/Amnesiac outtakes). It’s nice to see Radiohead’s most bizarre approaches to their craft on an album proper again. It’s worth mentioning as well, their Record Store Day release “Supercollider” is maybe the best song they’ve ever done… and longest, clocking in over 7-minutes, prog rock be damned. True story, some Altered Zones (R.I.P.) readers acted kinda miffed that the “Lotus Flower” video was posted because it’s, like, too mainstream or whatever. Dude, Radiohead’s a band that publically embraces Aphex Twin and Harmonia… how is that not relevant to your interests? Quit your trollin’. It’s like this: “Bloom,” “Feral,” and “Separator” provide some of the best recordings from one of the most important artists of our time. The King of Limbs is a triumph.
BACHELORETTE – S/T
Compared to the warm, sample-heavy bedroom folk of her debut Isolation Loops and her mood-altering sophomore effort My Electric Family, the self-titled effort from Bachelorette is icy, distant, and minimal. Bachelorette exudes a particular air of foreboding… at least comparatively. That makes sense, considering the album was recorded and assembled in locales of turbulence, such as her native Christchurch, New Zealand (which suffered a devastating earthquake earlier this year) and Tripoli, Libya (I assume you’re aware of that nation’s civil strife). Though Bachelorette is a decidedly different beast, Alpers’ instantly recognizable blend of electro-folk and space age pop, sardonic OK Computer-evocative lyricism, and futuristic, Stepford Wife vocal play remains fully in tact. Don’t read into the eponymous title of this record – Bachelorette is not a definitive statement. Rather, it ropes in Bachelorette’s innate desire to explore all the possibilities of a solo artist. I have no doubt her best work is ahead of her, but Bachelorette is still another seminal work for Annabelle Alpers.
THE ADVISORY CIRCLE – AS THE CROW FLIES
No one offers a better preservation of what we once thought the future would sound like in post-WWII society than the world’s finest purveyor of mid-century futurism, Ghost Box. A staple artist, and one of the label’s most accessible, is The Advisory Circle. The moniker of electronic composer Jon Brooks, The Advisory Circle has maintained a rather prolific output over the past five years, dropping yet another full-length just this year – As The Crow Flies. The title track opens with a Raymond Scott-evocative, better-living-through-chemistry fluttering electronic progression, giving way to an intense mid-tempo beat, unfurling a mood equally bucolic and galactic – evoking deep space as much as fading Kodachrome sunlight. It only gets better from there, such as the perfectly catchy yet slightly unnerving “Everyday Hazards.” This is music made with magic.
MP3: Everyday Hazards
PREFUSE 73 – THE ONLY SHE CHAPTERS
Electronic spirit warrior Guillermo Scott Herren eschews all traces of the beat-centric approach he established throughout most of his career on The Only She Chapters. Herren’s latest is a wholly ambient and adventurous affair. Some of Prefuse’s trademark, glitch-saturated rhythms appear -sporadically at best, of course – but mostly he’s skewing toward dissonant and disjointed song structures, grainy tape samples, sonar calls, reverse vocal snippets, dense sonic space, and the occasional mellotron. Whether you’re surprised by this or not depends on how closely you follow all of Herren’s work. He’s hinted at this direction for a while. The trenchant repetition and eastern mysticism long inherent in Savath & Savalas is fully realized in the seven-minute hypnotic meditation “The Only Repeat” and the cheekily-titled “The Only Thief to Steal Tonality.” The blissed-out amalgamation of acoustic instrumentation and harsh power electronics on “The Only Hand to Hold” offers a fine-tuning of the sonic explorations Herren and The Books laid to tape on the Reads the Books EP. It would be disingenuous to not suggest The Only She Chapters is a challenging listen, especially for fans of One Word Extinguisher and Prefuse 73’s traditional glitch-hop. Yet, if you approach the listening experience understanding this is Herren at his most fluid, formless, and ethereal, you shall reap the rewards – the biggest being one of Trish Keenan’s final recordings on “The Only Trial of 9,000 Suns,” a song as massive as Keenan’s artistry.
DISAPPEARS – GUIDER
Sans any schtick, the Disappears sound established by Lux, the 7″s, and live boots consists solely of chugga-chugga rhythm guitar saturated in a metric shit-ton of tape echo, pliant low end, repetition, and the occasional celestial flourish. Sometimes fully realized, glistening melodies make cameos amidst the rigid, dystopian psychedelia. Historically, all these approaches appear within the same song, but on Guider, the facets of Disappears’ sonic simplicity are chemically separated. The opening title track finds Disappears at their most jangly – guitars on the upswing, gentle percussion, and a nasty Bo Diddley-esque garage blues bass groove. Disappears’ three-minute crystalline pop vision then gives way to die Disappears einschmeichelnde motormusik on “Halo.” No hummable melodies, no pomp, no circumstance, just steady motorrad riding through the chrono-synclastic infundibulum at precise 4/4 time. Krautrock done with craft and care, “Halo” has been proven to provide age-defying hormones that make skin look youthful and vibrant. And then there’s “Revisiting.” Hoo boy… “Revisiting.” That bad boy takes up a little more than half the album, clocking in over 15 minutes with nothing more than motorik beats, two chords, a newfound vocal growl from Case, and total marching-into-Mordor-via-the-Autobahn gravitas. And much like old school/best school Stereolab, the song’s intense hypnotic quality could prove medically hazardous. There’s an old legend about Can that suggests the band could focus their repetitive energy so acutely, some audience members experienced severe disorientation, even nausea. That’s power, and I think “Revisiting” proves Disappears can play ball.
LA BIG VIC – ACTUALLY
La Big Vic has written and recorded a body of songs that are essentially pop music, yet bear no sonic resemblance to anything remotely pop. Actually unfurls like a dream, conjuring fragments of familiar songs jumbled and skewed into something both bizarre and comforting. “LYNY” sounds like an anthemic sing-along as you’d hear it exiting the deepest of REM cycles. “Heyo (Silver Morning)” melodically feels like an old electric folk tune warped through some cosmic wrinkle in space-time floating over a driving, colossally reverberated apache beat sinister enough to evoke the sound of God when he’s come back to earth to kill Republicans. The product then becomes a lush and, at the sake of being corny, spiritual shimmering space pop meditation. Kosmische instrumentals “Chinese Wedding” and “Bobka Chocka” are equally as engaging as the more structured pieces – the former dabbles heavy in improv, fluttering electronic washes, and violin shredding, almost resembling Spiritualized at their most otherworldly, while the latter acts as the closest thing to Neu ’11, if that could ever exist in an alternate timeline. Actuallly shuts down shop with “Musica” – a vast 10-minute epic that provides equal time to fluid post-rock and mystic vocal melodies, giving you a damn near perfect ‘to be continued’ for whatever the group has in store next. Again, these descriptions only provide reference points that a music writer must employ. La Big Vic is a fresh musical experience that must be heard.
WIRE – RED BARKED TREE
Red Barked Tree is one of the most strident return-to-forms I’ve heard in quite some time. Even the same guitar tones and phased effects from 154’s “Blessed State” introduce album opener “Please Take.” Wisdom suggests that releasing similar albums over and over again comes off as stagnant and kind of a bullshit move, and that’s usually true. Yet Wire’s revisiting of their source material feels entirely fresh. The band has already tried new approaches, most notably in the past few years with Newman’s quirky Githead project and the band’s Read to Burn EP series. The latter saw Wire experimenting with some of the gothic motifs and industrial buzzsaw rhythms that Primal Scream and Add N to (X) concurrently toyed with. The attempt was commendable, but it didn’t fit Wire’s well-established aesthetic. These were angry sounds. Wire is aggressive, but never angry, as their Situationalist stance will never allow such. Of course, none of that is to say Red Barked Tree is simply a rehashing of their jagged post-punk. The albums’s strongest moments are also their most surprising, particularly “Adapt,” “Down to This,” and “Red Barked Tree” – all heavily centered around acoustic (!) guitar and fluttering ambient flourishes, brushing closer to dream pop psychedelia than anything the band has done in the past. However, Wire doesn’t holistically soften or “mature” (lol) like some of their contemporaries. “Two Minutes,” “Smash,” and “Moreover” prove the group as intense, snotty, sarcastic, and confident as ever. From concentrated, nuanced pop to smart, commentary-laden, self-destructive-with-a-wink punk rock, you’re treated to a full-on demonstration of the breadth and contradictions that historically made Wire so intriguing. Throughout these 11 songs, the only real giveaway that Red Barked Tree isn’t some lost LP from the early canon is the super slick production, rendering some of the lushest compositions the group has laid to tape. The sonic space, detail, and clarity is enthralling.
CHARLAMBIDES – EXILE
It’s hard to believe psych folk warriors Charalambides have been doing the damn thing for two decades. Even more difficult, the band continues to make important records, and Exile is no exception. With an equal reverence for fellow Texans The Red Krayola and Jandek, as well as the general untamed lands of fringe folk, prophetic duo Tom and Christina Carter have always demonstrated a clear sense of sonic identity. On Exile, their first LP in five years, Charalambides retain their singular vision without evoking any of their old formulae. Yes, they still retain the sparse instrumentation, timelessly haunting vocals, buoyant guitar modalities, and sense of space that can only be described in scientific notation as always. But that approach works… and works well. As always, Charalambides’ desolate desert dirges remain impervious to light yet buoyant enough to ride over the horizon line, producing an invigorating listening experience. Exile truly soars on highlights like the metaphysically damaged, achingly gorgeous Anglo folk of “Desecrated,” and the prodigious, sweeping 12-minute burner, “Into the Earth.” If you don’t feel affected, perhaps it’s time for you to see your way out.
WYLA – DEMO
Asheville, North Carolina is a remarkable place – a quaint, historic town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Appearances can be deceiving however, as Asheville is a freaky and funky enclave teeming with eccentricity. The characteristics of Wyla act perfectly congruent to their stomping ground. Wyla’s facade presents the quintet as a slow-burning, hook-heavy garage rock act, but dig deeper and you’ll discover a complex force of haunting psychedelic pop. Wyla sweeps the grime off the garage floor and pipes it through a ramshackle array of mammoth fuzz guitars, splattered rhythms, and foreboding melodies, which is augmented by Edward Madill’s engaging, cavernous baritone floating a few meters above the swirling noir grooves. Dark and deceivingly catchy, fans of Marmoset, Swell Maps, and Syd Barrett will find something familiar, and something new. This might be the best “demo” I’ve ever laid ears on.
[Bloggins Note: Technically speaking, Bandcamp lists this release as December 2010, but seeing as this release remained in obscurity until Q1 of 2011, I’m moving that shit to this year’s column; count it.]
MP3: Tomorrow I’ll Know
AMEN DUNES – THROUGH DONKEY JAW
For his 2009 debut Dia, Damon McMahon followed in the great hermetic tradition of Thoreau — holing out in a cabin in the woods, later returning to civilization with a thick beard and a cathartic experience under his psyche. Dia‘s murky color, arboreal soundscapes, insular lyricism, and sometimes frantic mood swings fit the archetype of a creative mind exorcising demons amongst nature’s splendor. On Through Donkey Jaw, McMahon again wears his shroud of mystery well, this time concealing a subtly dynamic sound that bolsters broader instrumentation and songs free of tension. Dia felt claustrophobic and confined at times, rumbling with the sounds of kinetic psychedelia attempting to bubble through the cracks in the walls of McMahon’s Catskill retreat. In contrast, Through Donkey Jaw offers ample breathing room, showcasing McMahon’s sparse and cosmic guitar melodies as they float gently across deep pockets of muffled distortion and dusty trails. The resplendent sonic palette of Amen Dunes’ grainy acid folk honestly parallels the mind-bending songwriting of Skip Spence and Roky Erickson, though McMahon carves out his own niche. A monumental and articulate effort throughout, Through Donkey Jaw proves Amen Dunes will continue his vision quest, albeit less overtly.
MP3: Lower Mind
WOODSMAN – MYSTIC PLACES
At the beginning of the year, Woodsman released Rare Forms, a full-length in which the band explored both the grimy industrial labyrinth of ’70s German experimentalism and the rustic, bucolic light flights that resemble sunshine-saturated psychedelia. During my interview with the band for Altered Zones, Trevor Peterson revealed that Rare Forms did not, conceptually speaking, represent where Woodsman is now – the culmination of both the gestation period required to properly release a record and the band’s never-ending creative stream. That was no hyperbole, as just nine months later, Mystic Places establishes Woodsman as a very different act – impressive for relatively a short time. Mystic Places is, in some ways, a harsher, less ethereal effort, with more attention to texture, rigid song structures, and rhythmic intensity. The new sound careens into dark chasms at remarkable velocity while punching at the cave walls, best evidenced on “In Circles.” But as always with Woodsman, that’s only one side of the story. These more concise songs also beget a stronger sense of pop accessibility. More importantly, though the bliss-outs of Rare Forms are all but negated on the EP, the totemic quartet has perfected a type of mach three choruses that would do early Floyd and Spiritualized fans quite well. Songs like “View From the Vision Hand” provide a natural extension to the material on Rare Forms, which offer a perfect complement to “Inside/Outside” – a driving, tension-filled, mostly instrumental piece interspersed with telescreen-evoking vocal snippets. “Parallel Minds” and “In Circles” showcase a well-established dichotomy in Woodsman’s music: one between ambient narcotic mystery tours and pummeling, skyward neo-kraut. The EP’s highlight is “Specdrum,” a four-minute expedition of interstellar overdrive that combines all of Woodsman’s key elements in utterly top form – snaky guitar melodies, celestial ambience, primordial dual rhythms, and gorgeous, shimmering canyon calls. Woodsman has always crafted arresting tribal motorik, but “Specdrum” takes it to some other, intangible level. They’ve hit a stride. What hasn’t changed throughout Mystic Places is Woodsman’s metaphysical flavor. Like their previous albums, Mystic Places draws conceptual inspiration from with various mysterious American southwest environs– the Earth Hum, the Marfa Lights, Roswell, and that oddity that is the Denver International Airport. With Mystic Places, Woodsman becomes, in tandem, more enigmatic, easier to grasp, and more accomplished. A monumental effort.
THE WAR ON DRUGS – SLAVE AMBIENT
Slave Ambient kicks off with a trifecta of steadily mid-tempo, supremely psychedelic Americana scorchers that all consist of straightforward electric folk rife with stratospheric choruses twice-baked in tape echo and a sonic space deeper than an Oceanic trench — borrowing equally from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, West Coast neo-psych, and the best of the Creation artists. But if you think you’ve ascertained the album’s overarching groove at this point, you find yourself mistaken four tracks deep with “Your Love is Calling My Name” – my song of the year. Curveball, fellas! This is a song that separates the men from the boys. Sure, the reverberated, metronomic drum beat that could send armies to war evokes The Boss at his most bombastic, but the layers of lush swirling textures is what launches this vehicle past the sound barrier and The War on Drugs into an entirely different league. This is a song that should make The Arcade Fire feel like assholes. This is a song that’s so simple, yet so abundant with subtle melodies, you’ll notice a new tone, hell, a new song, every time you drop in. This is a song that reaches out across solar systems and down into the deepest caverns of the earth. It’s fucking devastating. But there’s plenty for Slave Ambient for your headspace. The palpable tension collapses into an ambient breather “The Animator,” and since this collective is informed by the classics, they treat Slave Ambient as a cohesive work, summoning the art of the LP listening experience by herein offering the first of multiple inter-song segues. The distant transmissions over the horizon line of “The Animator” are then pulled into the blissful “Come to the City,” the second ‘holy shit’ moment on Slave Ambient. “Come to the City” follows the steadfast, borderline-apache rhythm showcased previously on the album, allowing the tremolo-saturated guitars, silky synths, and call-to-arms troubadour meets Alan Vega vocal melodies to explosively launch into orbit. It’s not aurally dynamic – the ascent is subtle and demands attention… and it’s gorgeous. Those resplendent flourishes return in instrumental form on “City Reprise,” the more cinematic counterpart to “Come to the City.” Inter-album dichotomies – such a nice touch. The album format is not dead, folks. The War on Drugs’ fist pump catalyst returns in full force on “Baby Missiles” – a classic rock swagger banger. Like the “Come to the City” vs. “City Reprise” complement, “Original Slave” farms sounds from “Baby Missiles,” morphs the timbre, and slows down the tempo a notch to create a krautrock meditation that evokes Can at their most aggressive. At this point, Slave Ambient’s pop facets have referenced full-on heartland rock, while its interstellar leanings show shades of no wave, krautrock, and shoegaze – not an easy feat to pull off. The War on Drugs do it flawlessly, coming full circle with the closer “Blackwater” that meshes bar band piano with an intergalactic, monolithic wall of sound as the backdrop, congruent to the album’s opening triad. While Slave Ambient generally dives into three aforementioned distinct approaches on each song – dusty folk, triumphant cosmic rock, and light speed ambience – all three ebb and flow throughout. It’s this deceptive heaviness and aural malleability that acts as The War on Drugs’ weapon of choice for 47 sprawling minutes of unadulterated sonic density. This album is a grandiose statement of aesthetic juxtaposition, ambition, gravitas, and craft. More importantly, it’s a timeless record – as familiar as it is new, as vintage as it is modern. The other War on Drugs originated in ’70s, a decade the band has proven an affinity for, while this War on Drugs appropriates the name for a psychedelic band in an ironic fashion that captures the zeitgeist of the Internet age. This symbolic conflict best encapsulates their vibe, because honestly, The War on Drugs represent no scene. Rather, they are purveyors of a cross-genre pastiche that celebrates attitude and sound architecture with equal reverence, and with Slave Ambient, they’ve released the definitive recorded statement that bridges the sensibilities of stadium rock with the experimental thrash of Basement Show U.S.A. The fact is, nothing in 2011 can match Slave Ambient.
ED ASKEW – IMPERFICTION
Ed Askew offers another great example of a man with an elite liberal arts education who just couldn’t get on in the practical world worth a damn. Despite crafting a truly original sound, Askew never harnessed the ability get together a serious tour or promote his recordings beyond the cult following in his native New Haven. Better late than never however, as Askew’s rustic torch ballads and bizarre songwriting see the light of day again for the first time, to my knowledge, on vinyl via the new 7″ – Here We Are Together / Yellow Dollars and reissued full-length Imprefiction (originally only reissued on cassette for a brief time in 1984). It’s a perfect sonic time capsule of late ’60s / early ’70s outsider folk, where “challenging” wasn’t an obstacle and boundaries didn’t really exist. Simple instrumentation with an insane approach, fans of The Incredible String Band and Holy Modal Rounders will want to snag these dudes a.s.a.p.
MP3: Deep Water
THROBBING GRISTLE – 20 JAZZ FUNK GREATS / D.O.A THE THIRD AND FINAL REPORT OF THROBBING GRISTLE
:: hhaa : aammbuuurggger laadddyy ::: aadyyy ::::: aadyyy )))))))))))
MP3: Hamburger Lady
SMASHING PUMPKINS – SIAMESE DREAM
Siamese Dream is one of the first CDs I ever owned and the singular reason why I’m the proud owner of a Big Muff pedal, so I’d be remiss to not recognize a sort of nostalgia toward this record that people older or younger than me perhaps don’t share. And that’s fine. More to the point though – critics have always had difficulty categorizing an album as expansive and dynamic as Siamese Dream, which adds a certain enigmatic flavor (in tandem with all the in-studio rumors at the time as well). It’s also annoying. If you strip away the alt rock/grunge pretenses that people incorrectly ascribe, Siamese Dream becomes a phenomenal psych rock/shoegaze album – one that even touches on noise and avant garde (see the last two minutes of “Silverfuck”). This kinda fucks with people, especially those who can’t subdue their own preconceived notions. More importantly though, Siamese Dream offered a formative listening experience within a crucial timeframe for both Gen X and Gen Y, informing and steering musical tastes toward envelope-pushing acts like My Bloody Valentine and Hawkwind – much like how Nirvana contributed to raising general awareness about acts like Flipper and The Vaselines. Not to mention, it’s a great fucking record. Sure, Billy Corgan is a total fucking pud who straddles the line between advanced and embarrassing (Resistance Pro lol), but Siamese Dream has, for 18 years, remained an unfuckwithable collection of anthemic, celestial, denser-than-lead rock.
ERKIN KORAY – MECHUL
For both economic and geographic reasons, Turkey often acts as the de facto representation of east meets west. While this might seem like an obvious illustration when discussing Anatolian rock pioneer Erkin Koray, his trailblazing embrace of Western psychedelia’s edgy aesthetic in a culturally ambiguous mid-20th century Instanbul (that wasn’t quite ready for him) cannot be understated. Erkin Koray is unequivocally considered the father of popular Turisk rock and impetus for increased sonic adventurousness in the burgeoning Anatolian garage scene. However, it wasn’t until the early 70s when Koray was finally afforded the opportunity to record full-length albums, as opposed to the 45 singles he was accustomed to. Here is where Erkin Koray realized a grander vision, and the period in time that the new Sublime Frequencies compilation, Meçhul, captures. Culled from Koray’s personal arsenal of rarities and lesser heard songs, Meçhul opens a brand new window into Koray’s most creative output spanning from 1970 to 1977. It was during this time that Koray looked outword from his psychedelic prism, exploring the ancestral folk sounds of the Turkish interior as well as Egyptian and Lebaneese broadcasts scanning the shortwave dial. The resulting oeuvre looked to the past and the future simultaneously, crossing decades, culture, and borders in one fell swoop.
RIDE – NOWHERE
Do I even have to explain this? Ride was the pop counterpart to the ethereal My Bloody Valentine, yet executed it with a panache that their contemporaries never really nailed. I’ve loved this record for a very long time, and a 20th anniversary commemorative was highly appropriate. While Going Blank Again contained the better songs (i.e. “Leave Them All Behind”), Nowhere, cohesively speaking, was the better record – and the one that truly endeared the band to an audience of varied ears.
NICK NICELY – ELEGANT DAZE
If you dig heavily on Garys of both the Wilson and Numan variety, you may find British outsider electro-psych artisan nick nicely to your liking, as he fits somewhere between the two extremes. Born Nickolas Laurien, the enigmatic and always lowercased nick nicely doesn’t transmit the volatility of the former, nor the new wave dance floor standards of the latter. Instead, he marries minimal disco and post-punk analog washes with the type of quirky melodic structures reminiscent of Skip Spence. Surely Sir Ariel Pink has borrowed some of his vocal inflections from this deep space banger. Captured Tracks has chronicled some of nicely’s most important work with Elegant Daze: Songs from 1979-1986, a 13-song compilation that captures nick nicely’s knack for cold futurism and hummable hooks.
CAROL KLEYN – LOVE HAS MADE ME STRONGER
If you’re on the fence about leaving everything behind and joining a commune, the pastoral beauty of Carol Kleyn might give you that extra push. Her self-released 1976 LP, Love Has Made Me Stronger, is a whismical exploration of arboreal pop and Anglo folk, featuring a voice as powerful and mesmerizing as Sandy Denny. While the harp was often Kleyn’s weapon of choice, she didn’t learn to play until she was 21, after receiving one as a gift from her friend and mentor Bobby Brown (not this one). Kleyn quickly mastered the instrument, and she and Bobby began touring in the renaissance fair circuit and play any rooms along the west coast that would have them– eventually earning a reguar opening gig for Gregg Allman. Despite some notable accolades, Love Has Made Me Stronger remained a bit too eccentric for the general mid-’70s folk sensibility, and was relegated to dusty second-hand record bins and the collections of obscurity enthusiasts. Thankfully, Drag City saved this incredible discovery from the dregs of forgotten outsider folk. The album opener, “Love’s Goin Round,” is devastatingly gorgeous and warm; a worthy introduction to a charming woman who once referred to herself as “the loving shepherdess.” Fitting, as Klyen’s gentle yet haunting sound fits somewhere between cultish and heavenly.
MP3: Love’s Going ‘Round
THE LEFT BANKE – WALK AWAY RENEE/PRETTY BALLERINA
The Left Banke folded sometime in 1967, when chief song-slinger Michael Brown defected to form Montage, partly due to the ever present “creative differences” but primarily because of the Left Banke’s baffling inability to receive much recognition. And as Fortuna is a bitch, that project didn’t take off either. As for The Left Banke, save for some spins during the decline of AM radio, the group never cultivated much of an audience even in the presence of the deafening critical lauding that labeled the group as the American response to The Zombies. Hence, not much has been done to resurrect their complex baroque pop until the mighty Sundazed label up and did something about that with the full reissue of Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina, the first real document of the group’s work in over 20 years (and perhaps done in tandem with some one-off reunion shows earlier this year). This is some of the most acute and expansive music written in one of the most creatively explosive times in history. While their brilliant “Men Are Building Sand” and “Ivy” are missing, “Barterers and Their Wives” and “I’ve Got Something on My Mind” both stand the test of time as possibly the most ornate, glistening psych rock gems you’re likely to hear. And it sounds great.
KIM JUNG MI – NOW
Spiritual scholars often debate the nature of souls, but I think this obscure gem from Kim Jung Mi acts as a great litmus test. This is some of the most undeniably beautiful music laid to tape – if you are not touched, perhaps you are part of what Father Malachai Martin calls “the prefectly possessed.” That’s hyperbolic of course, but try to listen to album opener “Toward the Sunlight” and then tell me it doesn’t dive deep into the soul. Finding tangible information on Kim Jung Mi was practically impossible, and finding her 1973 masterpiece Now even harder – until Lion Productions did the right thing this year. Many have likened Jung Mi to a Korean version of Francois Hardy. Perhaps that’s fair, but Hardy’s music still exhibits a sort of urbanite art party kitsch, while Jung Mi’s approach is a much more malleable folk flavor – and one that uses fairly simple instrumentation to monumental effect. More similar to Os Mutantes’ knack for seamlessly meshing the sounds of their native Brazil’s tropicalia with West Coast psychedelia, Kim Jung Mi incorporates traditional Korean jeongak chamber music into the type of Anglo-folk popularized by Sandy Denny-era Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Nick Drake (best evidenced in “Spring, Spring, Spring”). You also hear visceral traces of classic American R & B and Spector-esque jangle pop buried within. While sounding familiar to Western listeners, Kim Jung Mi sings entirely in Korean throughout Now. Though a foreign tongue can sometimes alienate said Western ears (which is always a bogus reason), the more probable reason for her obscurity is, well, that the southeast Asia scene was never considered an epicenter of folk and psych music by the “tastemakers” in the ’60s and ’70s. People looked to London and San Francisco, and artists on the Pacific rim were sadly not given a fair shake until collectives like Sublime Frequencies started discovering such esoteric gems in the early part of the last decade. Remember how rad all those Cambodian psych tapes were? And really, for perspective, Japan’s experimental scene wasn’t truly recognized internationally until the ’90s, when the approaches of artists like Boredoms, Ghost, and Merzbow were too brave not to notice. Yet Kim Jung Mi and the flower power music of Korea still remains a sort of mystery, but perhaps this reissue shall shed more (and well deserved) light on this nearly lost torrent of salient creativity.
MP3: Toward the Sunlight
CAN – TAGO MAGO
This album came out 40 years ago. Forty. People drove cars that looked like this. The band’s native soil would remain divided for almost two more decades. D.B. Cooper was probably still renting an apartment and shopping at the mall. American stamps cost 8 cents and most of the U.S. thought Nixon was a rad dude. Tago Mago came out in 1971 and prophesied the sounds of music decades in advance, with little more than unyielding focus, freewheeling improvisation, and an unhinged yet amicable Japanese dude who was down to ride a dark groove into the twilight zone like a boss. That happened four decades ago, and hasn’t been fucked with by anyone since then. Think about that. More astonishingly, Tago Mago served as Damo Suzuki’s first proper recording with Can, and yet, the album is unequivocally the best and most accurate encapsulation of all the sonic facets this masterful kraut collective mastered. Tago Mago is sacred ground, and Mute’s crisp, redesigned 40th Anniversary Edition serves it justice.
MP3: Oh Yeah
Eric Copeland – Waco Taco Combo
Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
Hella – Tripper
Voyageurs – Alien Iverson
JEFF the Brotherhood – We Are The Champions
Yuck – s/t
Peaking Lights – 936
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Tune Yards – whokill
Psychedelic Horseshit – Laced
Lumerians – Transmalinnia
Blithe Field – Two Hearted
Helado Negro – Canta Lechuza
Spirit Spine – Glossolalia
Woodsman – Rare Forms
Love of Diagrams – In My Dream
The NEC – Pineapple
Belong – Common Era
White Birds – s/t
Swiftumz – Don’t Trip
The Men – Leave Home
And the band that I’ve slept on the most that I’ll rectify in 2012… Thee Oh Sees