For me, the punk line of the year (in a great year for punk) was probably Dan Boeckner’s yelped, “Nostalgia…never meant much to me.” That it came in the middle of “Memories of the Future”, a product of Handsome Furs’ committed turn towards dance music, gave him further cred as a non-sentimentalist. We fretted about nostalgia a lot this year, even while indulging in it. But outside of the 25 prestated albums that the L’s music section loved collectively, there were plenty of songs that kicked my ass, and not because they reminded me of being a teenager (getting his ass kicked).
90s nostalgia was supposedly the dominant form in 2011, the long-prophesied moment when slowing-down Gen X-ers settled back into the loud, fractured guitars of their youth (now helpfully emulated by semi-grown alt-radio babies). Charles Aaron, maybe the 90s critic of the 90s publication, just spent a lot of space trying to self-diagnose this syndrome. The current work of Björk and PJ Harvey, two long-paired 90s icons, launched fewer think-pieces, but continued to impress beyond trading on past glory. (Unlike their peer Thom Yorke, they actually made good records this year.) Harvey’s acidly political “The Words That Maketh Murder” felt brave in admitting pop music’s impotence in the face of continued war, death, and stasis—cruelly re-kicking long-dead 60s ideals in the process. (Good luck ending war at the United Nations dais, let alone with a guitar.) Björk’s “Crystalline” was full of transcendental wonder, expressed with operatic emotion. Starting at tiny music-box twinkle and ending in drill n’ bass psychosis, its quiet-then-loud evolution felt fresher than any guitar-based rephrasing of the old “loud-quiet-loud.” These two diverging tracks are actually a good primer for contrasting careers: one woman ever-placing her crosshairs on the ugly truth of the world as it is, one beautifully missing the trees for the forest, the planet’s inhabitants for some grand inner cosmos.
Cass McCombs might make some folks nostalgic for a gentler time when “singer-songwriter,” like “indie” after it, was a sound as much as a categorical description. But instead of regressing to smooth commercial sentiment, both of his 2011 albums contained smart, beautifully composed songs in which prettiness sharpens rather than dulls some super-creeps. “The Same Thing” used its 70s rock sheen, its pleasing AM chug, to deliver some deep Zen bummers on the sameness of hurt and joy. Even better, way more savage, was “County Line”, a slow-burn ballad about heading back home, dread building by the mile. It hinges on the line, “I can smell the columbine,” smartly evoking the power of sense-memory on its surface, while using a pitch-black cultural allusion to rip the scabs off of darker resentments. Speaking of which…
A slight shift in tack for Dominick Fernow yielded great dividends this year, moving Prurient beyond pure physical noise, towards more easily palatable and sinisterly affecting work. “Time’s Arrow” had a vibrantly dour industrial throb, relying on mood and suggestion to sell its gruesome Black Dahlia reference. He hit a wall with continually upping sonic extremes, and instead tried to bleed into listeners’ bad dreams. His friend and collaborator Wes Eisold went in a different direction with Cold Cave’s second album, forging a louder, brasher vision of goth music with rocket-fueled track “The Great Pan Is Dead”. Where the first Cold Cave songs were brittle miniatures—echoes of obscure synth heroes of the post-punk era—his new sound was big, open-hearted, hyper-compressed to a bloody roar. He broadcast his hurt over loud speakers, projected it on the town square.
Totally happening right now—to the point of near-domination—is eclectic local label Sacred Bones, who spent the year putting out an exceptional number of terrific songs. While “dark” is a decent enough descriptor for their corner of the underground, there’s a plenty of room under that vague umbrella. The Men’s “Bataille” had on-fire urgency, TRUST’s “Candy Walls” a dry-ice remove. Zola Jesus, the label’s suddenly marquee pop-star, purged her sorrows upward. Nika Roza Danilova’s spellbinding voice enabled an atypically assured version of goth. Single-serving epics like “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake” got super majestic using little else. But SB had low-key down, too. The Fresh & Onlys, maybe the most nuanced songwriters of San Francisco’s ever-multiplying garage rock scene, have never sounded better than their 2011 EP’s title track, “Secret Walls”, which used honeyed vocals, lightly bounding bass, and tasteful guitar solos to create this lovely tone of resigned melancholy. Something like this, nuanced and golden, smart and subtle, is practically the whole point of indie-rock’s continued existence as a genre in the 21st century. If you’re not on board with this stuff yet: catch up now, take detailed notes. It’s going to be important.
In a recent interview I did about another swell Sacred Bones EP, Crystal Stilts guitarist JB Townsend seemed a full-blood rocker slightly perplexed by “indie bands that are trying to sound like Top 40 bands.” I often like that stuff the best these days, myself, finding the gulf between what actually appeals to the world at large and what’s produced in lower stakes scenarios by weirder people thrillingly vast. On the real Top 40, Lady Gaga continued to make her brand of generically big music, while publicly doing sort of a half-hearted Karin Dreijer schtick. But, she always manages to stay a little glamorous in her grotesque: pointy shouldered instead of molten face ugly, gender-bending instead of genderless. The filtering of The Knife’s actual music into new underground pop artists filled me with joy, though. Plannintorock was an obvious example, given their close ties. “The Breaks” was still something of a downtown funk marvel, overpoweringly humid and heroic, like a Greek tragedy with a beat. Even better was the sugar-sweetened “Ungirthed” by Purity Ring, which used those warped voice fun-house mirrors and frigid click-beats as backdrop to more intelligible hooks. “Ears ringing, teeth clicking, ears ringing, teeth clicking.” It was the year’s best song about the feeling of blasting one of the year’s best songs.
Even further into pure pop was Drive’s love anthem, “A Real Hero” by College. Actually recorded last year, when written about Capt. Sully Sullenberger (!), the failure of this song to reach the wider zeitgeist until now is a prime example of what we lose when there is no functioning MTV. This song needed a video, and it got a great, feature-length one. Short on characterization, loooooooong on iconography, Drive provided the perfect opportunity for this song to stoically flip the movie-prop cop car that is my jaded heart. This was our “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin, you guys!
Beyoncé continued what will surely be remembered as an historic run as a singles artist, even if her stranger offerings have become more beloved critically than commercially. But boy, listen to “Countdown”. Marvel at how wrong that Boyz II Men sample could have gone, and didn’t. Listen to its continual topping of itself; how cold and cerebral those synths are against those warm and subtle horns in the killer “me and my boof and my boof boof ridin” bits. Blush when you realize how sexually frank the “grind up on him girl, show him how you ride it” line is, while seeming weirdly kind of demure. So great.
Blush muscles warmed up, everyone? Well, then let’s listen to “212” by Azealia Banks again, and then maybe three times in a row after that. Such sexual confidence! Such charming contempt! Most of all, such a genuine good time! What a perfect rap song to completely wash the taste of “Odd Future’s Big Year” out of our mouths! Those kids should stop trying to be scary and start getting scared.