January 3, 2012

Retro-spective: My favorite albums of 2011 (5-1)

(Click here for the preamble and for albums 10-6, illustrated and illuminated.)

5. Colin Stetson - New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges (Constellation)

Most of the music I enjoyed this past year fit within familiar pop conventions and made use of familiar sounds. Musically, I'm a creature of habit: just as inclined toward repetition as I am toward novelty. Colin Stetson's solo record stands out not only because his vertigo-inducing songs avoid easy categorization, but because he uses unfamiliar sounds to channel the chaos of a forgotten (I want to say "Old Testament") world. To do this, Stetson bypasses most of the studio wizardry that other solo artists normally rely on. No loops here - just a muscular man and his massive machine. Along with his much talked about circular breathing technique, Stetson uses several different mics (variously located on his instrument and his body) to produce a wide range of primordial sounds that actually seem to capture the kind of archaic violence suggested by his (very pretentious) album title. The result is so utterly brutal, at once so mesmerizing and jarring, that Stetson's collection quickly became one of the most divisive and disturbing albums of the year.

4. Wye Oak - Civilian (Merge)

Here's what I wrote about this album back in May. For the most part, I think it still holds true:

It's a soothing, satisfying record: cohesive and gentle, but incredibly cathartic and uncompromising at the same time. It's the kind of record, in other words, that you'll want to listen to all the way through. This is going to sound like the worst kind of cliche, but for me, Wye Oak have found a paradoxical balance, the fullest expression of which can be found in the alt-rock of the early 90s. So it's a little creepy how much this album seems suited to my tastes.  Wye Oak's second proper LP highlights a stunning vocalist (Jenn Wasner), ample feedback, grungy breakdowns and lyrics with vaguely religious themes. For instance, there seems to be an ongoing dialectic between Creation and Evolution in Wasner's lyrics that's oddly compelling. Musically, things appear relatively stripped down (the band performs as a two-piece), but every so often Wye Oak's sound becomes incredibly expansive.

3. Sandro Perri - Impossible Spaces (Constellation)

I was introduced to the wispy voice of Toronto's Sandro Perri back in 2006 with his second proper album, Tiny Mirrors. I still like much of what I heard, but at the time I thought it sounded a little too stripped-down, a little too straightforward for a folksy singer-songwriter with clear Afro-beat influences (and a major debt to Arthur Russell). What I saw as shortcomings five years ago were perhaps over-corrected on Impossible Spaces, a cohesive collection of songs I honestly didn't think Perri was capable of. In interviews he's made it clear that he took every one of those five years (since Tiny Mirrors) to work on the new record. And it shows. The grand scope these songs--their dynamic structures and lush instrumentation--is carefully balanced by the intimacy of Perri's softly sung narratives. I tried to flesh out one of them (the ten minute epic "Wolfman") in the image above.

2. The Antlers - Burst Apart (Frenchkiss)

A haunting, absorbing chamber-pop album from Brooklyn's finest students of atmosphere and emotion, Burst Apart demonstrates that there is life after the kind of trauma explored on the Antlers' 2009 debut, Hospice. But if the conceptual overload of Hospice has indeed been left behind, it's only just barely. These songs speak of emotional collapse and relationships that are doomed to fail. Each track sounds as though its teetering on the edge of something terrible--be it chaos, the abyss, or isolation. Combine the apocalyptic tone of Menomena with the sublime reach of a group like Sigur Ros and you might have something close to the Antlers' sound. Despite the deep darkness of Peter Silberman's vision, Burst Apart is oddly comforting. For all the acknowledgments of subjective depravity, ineptitude, and confessions of deceitfulness, Silberman hits on something similar to St. Vincent's Strange Mercy and ultimately refuses to give himself the last word.

1. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Vagrant)

As expected, PJ Harvey was rolling in accolades by the time 2011 came to a close. Clearly, I'm in agreement with most critics when they praise Harvey's latest album as her best in a decade, but I'll confess that it's not a record I put on unless I'm in a particular mood. To tell you the truth, I've spent less time listening to and more time thinking about Let England Shake. It's impossible not to. And that's part of the reason I think this album is so strong--it effectively gets under your skin and stays with you. The music is catchy, at times eerily familiar thanks to some well-chosen samples from other artists; but once Let England Shake wins you over, your left to deal with a batch of heavy (and, at times, heavy-handed) questions, the kind we normally try to evade. Back in November, I wrote a lengthy Remembrance Day meditation on Let England Shake that should help to explain why I think this album was so important and so necessary for 2011. I guess I'll leave it at that.

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