2011 really was a great year for independent and alternative music. It was also an important year for me as a musician and as a listener. I took in a lot of new music this year, and I can now say that a lot of artists are new favorites. Many of the artists I’ll be posting about below put out some great stuff that I loved over the year, even if collectively the work didn’t fall under my Favorite Albums list. I’ll be sure to watch for many of the new talents listed here, as well as to praise the work of some artists I’ve listened to for a while. Here they are:
tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
Merrill Garbus was quite the oddity this year, with her work under the moniker tUnE-yArDs. I was first exposed to the group via the video for “Bizness”, a solid track on the album. The disc is filled with many more great tracks, including “Gangsta”, a thrashing romp filled with heavy beats, screaming horns and some digitized stereo production that throws Garbus’ vocals between both channels. Love it.
Key tracks: “My Country”, “Gangsta”, “Powa”, “Riotriot”, “Bizness”, “You Yes You”, “Killa”
TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
I had never heard a single song by this Brooklyn group until this year, when I played “No Future Shock” during my show. After hearing their previous effort, Dear Science, I can say that Nine Types of Light, while certainly not a bad album, is nowhere near that prior disc’s melodic caliber. There are some great tracks all throughout the record, but altogether the effort is a little spastic and disjointed (particularly with red-headed tracks like “No Future Shock”, “No Cannonball Blues” and “Caffeinated Consciousness”). That disjointedness, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the frenetic energy present here is why this album is an honorable mention here.
Key tracks: “Second Song”, “You”, “No Future Shock”, “Will Do”, “Repetition”, “Forgotten”, “Caffeinated Consciousness”
Yellow Ostrich – The Mistress
An impressive debut on Barsuk records, Bandcamp artist Yellow Ostrich really took off this year. The Mistress is an album filled with many minimal yet grandiose moments. It’s the simple builds they do on “Mary” and bonus track “Fog” that most impress me (and even remind me of another favorite group, The Middle East). I also love their heartfelt and straightforward lyrics on tracks like “Hahahaohhoho” and bonus track “Bread”. Great stuff.
Key tracks: “WHALE”, “Hate Me Soon”, “Hahahaohhoho”, “I’ll Run”, “Campaign”, “Mary”, “Bread”, “Fog”
Atlas Sound – Parallax
Delivering some extremely catchy tracks for 2011 here is Bradford Cox, and I for one find the music of Atlas Sound, his side project, much more accessible than the music of his band Deerhunter. This is an album filled with plenty of catchy melodies, from opener “The Shakes” to the nice closer “Lightworks”. I feel like this could have ranked higher on my list had I more time to listen to it.
Key tracks: “The Shakes”, “Te Amo”, “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs”, “Mona Lisa”, “Doldrums”, “Terra Incognita”, “Lightworks”
The Antlers – Burst Apart
What was a promising performance at SXSW 2011 by the Antlers definitely delivered in the studio. However, some of the studio renditions on Burst Apart were a bit too digital for my taste and underused the band’s drummer, who is phenomenal. That’s evident on tracks like “No Widows” and “Every Night My Teeth are Falling Out” (the latter being too minimal in its studio form, unable to match the intensity of their live performance). Regardless, the songs here are still great and this is a wonderful follow-up to the stunning Hospice. One of the tracks here (“Corsicana”) even outdoes the live version, and is my favorite here!
Key tracks: “I Don’t Want Love”, “Rolled Together”, “Hounds”, “Corsicana”, “Putting the Dog to Sleep”
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
Belong is filled with plenty of stupendous alt-rock songs here, many of which sound perfect in an angst-ridden teenage soundtrack (“Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” is immediately what comes to mind!). What impresses me is how the title track alone reminds me so much of 90s-era alternative rock. The ability to replicate an older sound is something I think many listeners take for granted, brushing this type of music off as derivative, forgettable and already been done before. Aside from any of those thoughts, Belong is still a fun record to put on, filled with many great tracks.
Key tracks: “Belong”, “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now”, “Heart in Your Heartbreak”, “The Body”, “Even in Dreams”, “Girl of 1,000 Dreams”, “Too Tough”
Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness
Featuring one of my favorite tracks of the year (“Hello Sadness”), this disc, like the title, is filled with a lot of sadness. Ironically enough, it’s also filled with plenty of energy, especially on the first few tracks (“By Your Hand” to “Hello Sadness”). It’s an interesting juxtaposition that isn’t far out of place from the band’s other repertoire, or other artists on Arts & Crafts. I especially love the guitar work present here, which reminds me a lot of various bands, from New Order (“Hello Sadness”) to Pavement (“Every Defeat a Divorce”) to Modest Mouse (“Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. 2”), to even the exact reverb guitar sounds of Explosions in the Sky (“To Tundra”).
Key tracks: “By Your Hand”, “Songs About Your Girlfriend”, “Hello Sadness”, “Life is a Long Time”, “To Tundra”, “Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. 2”
Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
I think I’ve said plenty about this album in my review from a few days ago. There’s a lot of interesting sounds here that just come together to make some impressive sample-based music. And to think that a lot of the source material here was 80s-era ad campaigns! Love the ambient vibe here.
Key tracks: “Andro”, “Power of Persuasion”, “Sleep Dealer”, “Remember”, “Replica”, “Nassau”, “Up”, “Child Soldier”
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien
I was already impressed by this heavy alt Jersey outfit with their debut Why There are Mountains. A lot of Lenses Alien astounded me, and reminded me of the power of rock music. This is an act with a lot of promise, who is fully able to combine the energy and the arena-sized sound rock demands with capable songwriting and melodic force. Love it.
Key tracks: “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)”, “Shore Points”, “Keep Me Waiting”, “Definite Darkness”, “Another Tunguska”, “Wavelengths”, “Gary Condit”
Mister Heavenly – Out of Love
I loved the sound of this three-piece band, containing members of Man Man, Modest Mouse and The Unicorns. The genre of “doom-wop”, presented and prominent here, gives 50s doo-wop a dismal and distorted makeover, complete with songs all about tragedy. It all oddly enough works, and the vocal call and response between Honus Honus and Nick Thorburn are just wonderful. In fact, a lot of the sounds here, aren’t too far from Man Man!
Key tracks: “Bronx Sniper”, “I am a Hologram”, “Mister Heavenly”, “Reggae Pie”, “Pineapple Girl”, “Hold My Hand”, “Your Girl”
The Middle East – I Want That You Are Always Happy
While this release didn’t overwhelm me like the band’s first effort, The Recordings of the Middle East, I Want That You Are Always Happyisn’t exactly a sophomore slump. There are plenty of tracks here that showcase the band’s musicianship, from the intricate finger-picking on “Months” to the catchy “Jesus Came to My Birthday Party”. There are many highlights here, but the effort didn’t hit me as hard as their first disc did. It’s a real shame that they broke up (again!), as there was so much potential here.
Key tracks: “My Grandma Was Pearl Hall”, “As I Go to See Janey”, “Jesus Came to My Birthday Party”, “Land of the Bloody Unknown”, “Very Many”, “Months”, “Dan’s Silverleaf”, “Hunger Song”
Grouplove – Never Trust a Happy Song
This band really caught my ear with the energetic yet emotional “Colours”. They’ve pretty much catapulted themselves toward the ears of mainstream listeners by now, what with their recent hit “Tongue Tied” playing in iPod commercials. Still, this is a band and a record worth highlighting. While it does sort of spin out toward the end, the ride beforehand is so much fun. Some more great indie-alt-rock.
Key tracks: “Itchin’ on a Photograph”, “Tongue Tied”, “Lovely Cup”, “Colours”, “Slow”, “Naked Kids”, “Spun”
Real Estate – Days
This Ridgewood, NJ, outfit really did impress me on their debut, and sophomore follow-up Days is no disappointment either. I love their entire summery chill vibe, paired with lyrics of wasted days of youth. The problem I do have with Days though is that it’s an album merely of one sound. The band, while talented enough to produce something like this, is mainly guitar-driven, and most songs follow the same reverb-drenched sound. I would be intrigued to hear the bass/drum players push forward on a later record, only without sacrificing the chill, grounding feel they contribute to the songs. I do admire the guitar textures presented here though, and I give the rhythm section plenty of credit on tracks like “It’s Real” and “Green Aisles”.
Key tracks: “Easy”, “Green Aisles”, “It’s Real”, “Municipality”, “Wonder Years”
The Drums – Portamento
The Drums’ sophomore album, while not favored by many, impressed me on its cool juxtaposition of surf rock and 80s post-punk. Tracks like “Book of Revelation”, “I Don’t Know How to Love” exemplify this. The problem here though is this disc is filled with plenty of great tracks, yet it almost becomes monotonous. The vocal loop effects here are really cool, especially on “Book of Revelation” and “I Need a Doctor”. I do love plenty of the tracks here, and this will be listened to again and again in my collection.
Key tracks: “Book of Revelation”, “Days”, “What You Were”, “Money”, “I Don’t Know How to Love”, “If He Likes It Let Him Do It”, “I Need a Doctor”, “How it Ended”
Cults – Cults
Cults produces an extreme brand of sweet indie pop tunes that it’s a shock that this album isn’t buried in sugar. Their sound here is nice and catchy, but doesn’t necessarily hold all of the album together. The songs here are generally great, but some stand head and shoulders above the others. I do love this debut, and will be excited for a future release from this group.
Key tracks: “Abducted”, “Go Outside”, “Oh My God”, “Bad Things”, “Rave On”
Other Great Artists to Watch from 2011: Mother Mother, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Mogwai, the Horrors, Zola Jesus, Youth Lagoon, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Gauntlet Hair, Of Monsters and Men, Bobby, Memphis
Albums/Artists That May Have Made the List: Washed Out, The Wilderness of Manitoba, The Kills, Deer Tick, They Might Be Giants, Wilco, The Rapture, YACHT, Ohbijou, WU LYF, Tom Waits, James Blake, Destroyer, Fucked Up, PJ Harvey, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Comet Gain, Liturgy, The Weeknd, The Darcys, Shabazz Palaces, Man Man, Wye Oak, Little Scream