January 2, 2012

Retro-spective: My favorite albums of 2011 (10-6)

This year I've gone a little overboard in my exhibitionism. Alongside the usual long-winded review you'll find original illustrations for each of my ten favorite albums. Some draw on a particular song, others are straightforward portraits; still others aim for something more personal and evocative.

In a year crammed full of nostalgia--from Destroyer's 80s homage to The Horrors' big-haired shoegazing, not to mention the forceful return of early 90s guitar rock via The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Yuck, etc.--one album stood out for in its effort to draw this kind of memory work--and its politics--into question. But alongside PJ Harvey's meditations on nation and violence, other artists pushed through familiar territory to produce new sounds. Earlier this year, James Blake had the press swooning with his dubstep-infused R&B and Colin Stetson channelled something chaotic and primordial with his multiphonic saxophone, while both Annie Clark (St Vincent) and Chad Vangaalen entered the ambivalent spaces of domestic life with tragicomic results. With every year it becomes more difficult to narrow down and organize a list of my favorite albums--I've pared it down from thirty or so. Strong releases from stalwarts like the Dodos, Wild Beasts, Bill Calahan, The Roots, and Stephen Malkmus require some mention, as do new discoveries like Iceage, Dog Day, Main Attrakionz, Braids, the Weeknd, Shabazz Palaces, Peaking Lights and Jessica Jalbert. For many it was the year of Bon Iver, a charming enough folk-singer who turned out to be incredibly polarizing (producing among some of my friends the longest Facebook debate I've ever taken part in). Meanwhile, Radiohead fans had to grapple with a surprisingly weak showing from a band whose fans have come to expect nothing less than game-changers--besides a viral video, it seemed less an RH album--less a cultural event--than a blip.

I've split the list in half, with the first five following below. I'll try and post my top five in the next several days.

10. Chad Vangaalen - Diaper Island (Flemish Eye) 

It's not his best record, but it's probably his most consistent. If you like restrained guitar noise and conventional folk-rock this is the Chad Vangaalen album for you. It's full of moments that can only be described as "heartwarming" (but in Vangaalen's imagination, I'm sure this kind of description gets at something more perverse or grotesque than sentimental). Although it pays lip-service to domestic topics like child-rearing, relationships, etc., Diaper Island is still full of the wonderful weirdness, humor and creativity we've come to expect from Vangaalen. This illustration is based on one the album's more frenetic tracks, "Freedom for a Policeman." The song would be a straightforward punk jam about a violent encounter with the law were it not for a hilarious bridge/breakdown, where the policeman's blows slow down and we become privy to the psyche of an agent whose enforcement of the law is momentarily suspended--suddenly, at the level of fantasy, something sappy and pathetic comes into view. That's my take, anyway. Vangaalen's at his best when transforms the familiar into something strange and surprising.

9. James Blake - James Blake (Universal)

I'm not usually one for singer-songwriters, but James Blake is in a separate class. A poppier dubstepper, Blake introduced me to the wonderful world of sub-bass--his album also convinced me that I need a new stereo/soundsystem to appreciate the depth of his sound. It all sounds effortless. Sure, it's pretty music with a wide appeal, but each of the songs on Blake's debut retains a degree of darkness that keeps his music compelling, mysterious even.

8. Destroyer - Kaputt (Merge)

Dan Bejar has been kicking it for nearly two decades. In my mind, this is his best album since 2001's Streethawk: A Seduction. Those of us who've been craving layers of ambient brass and woodwinds over top mid-tempo electro beats can pass out with smiles on our faces. The much-hyped 80s motif has found an appropriate home in Bejar's well-oiled hands, and the result isn't so much sentimentalized nostalgia for a wasted decade as it is reminiscence of parties we were too young to appreciate.

7. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (4AD)

"Forgive the kids for they don't know how to live." It could be a simple accusation, but St. Vincent's Annie Clark spends the greater part of her third album accepting responsibility and dealing with the crushing guilt of her own failings. Part of what makes her so compelling is the feeling that she really shouldn't have to do so--that she's constantly reacting preemptively against what people think of her. Songs like "Cheerleader" "Neutered Fruit" take a confessional, prayerful tone that's anything but comforting: she's constantly putting herself into question, at one point memorably imploring a surgeon to come cut her open. The whole thing seems like a perverse, sacrificial offering--not so much an apology as a window into her own twisted psyche. Strange Mercy is "strange" for a variety of reasons: musically, it's adventurous and unconventional; lyrically, it's honest and evocative. But despite her best efforts to lay bare her own depravity, Clark seems unable to produce anything that's not beautiful, or at the very least, compelling. Indeed, it's strange that this confusing existential mess could be delivered with such force and candor and still require mercy. For Clark, the error of self-interest--manifested in her own guilt-ridden account of despair--is always there, lurking in the shadows. As with Terrance Malick's recent film Tree of Life, Strange Mercy succeeds in showing us how productive the traditional dialectic between nature and grace can actually be. "It's not a perfect plan," she sings on "Champagne Year," "but it's the one we've got."

6. Cymbals Eat Guitars - Lenses Alien (Memphis)

Along with a handful of well-recieved albums from the past year (such as those from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Yuck, etc.), this album sounds like it could have been released fifteen years ago and would have had no trouble finding an audience. (Here is where I would normally list a bunch of bands that New York's CEG sounds like, but it's obvious enough.) But as nostalgic retreads of the 90s go, this is by far the most dynamic and well-crafted. It's also the most melodic guitar based rock record I heard this year. The songs on Lenses Alien are the kind that harness and transform the abrasive energy of teen angst into sheer catharsis. That description's a bit overstated, but so is my subject matter. For all the missteps (such as "The Current") and cringe-enducing lyrics (that more often than not resemble bad high school poetry), I'm won over by the unapologetic delivery of Jeremy D'Agostino's vocals. Sometimes he sounds like Conor Oberst in the worst way; other times his belting sounds like a real exodus.


  1. This artwork is really great. And I'm digging the writing, too. Gonna have to comb through and read more of the music stuff and find more drawings.

  2. Thanks! Plenty more where that came from.