Key Track:"Right Side of My Brain"
It’s been a few years since fuzzy indie-pop was all the Brooklyn rage. But while most of our local purveyors spent the year growing up, moving on, or washing out in various ways, London’s Veronica Falls compensated by dropping this perfectly styled debut. The secret to their vitality was preemptively escaping the reverbed-to-Saturn trap, instead starting at slick, brisk, and bookish. Late-period Velvet Underground as posh perfectionists with poor romantic luck? Yes, ma’am.
Key track: "The Way Things Go”
Cronin digs into the same vat of influences as his garage-rock buddy Ty Segall, but pulls out something that is much more melodic, at least at face value. His debut solo record (he’s spent time in Charlie & the Moonhearts and has collaborated with Segall for years) fleshes it out with funny little oddities: a flute here (played by Thee Oh See’s John Dwyer), a sax there, some whistling at the end. A reminder that even with psych-leaning rock being done a million times before, there are ways to make it sound better.
All Eternals Deck
Key Track: "Estate Sale Sign"
It feels strange to say that one of the year's most overlooked albums came from established indie rock veteran John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats, but it's absolutely true. After 2009's somewhat sleepy The Life of the World to Come, All Eternals Deck sees Darnielle sounding reinvigorated, full of ideas both musically and lyrically. All Mountain Goats records reward close listening, and this one does too—but it's also a relative blast even on first pass.
Key Track: "Green Aisles”
It was a good year for fans of jangle pop. R.E.M. splitting up reminded everyone to listen to Murmur again, while the Feelies released their first album in 20 years, which sounded every bit as hypnotic as they did pre-hiatus. But it was New Jersey’s Real Estate, with their sophomore album Days, who overshadowed the old guard with the year’s most effortlessly gorgeous release, one that combined surf-rock with shimmering riffs.. And it’s only going to sound that much better next summer.
Key Track: “Broken Bone”
The coldest fjords conceal the sweatiest basements. The mix of car-chase pace, car-crash noise, and drunk-tank slurring has been around awhile, but these Copenhagen teens made hurtling, white-knuckle post punk sound new again by virtue of it sounding new to them. You can’t fake the youthful energy it takes to boldly re-make these mistakes. (Or the pop sense it takes to give noise-punk such sly melody.) Beautifully corroded like a docked battleship. Jagged and heart-aching like a new toy, already broken.
Cole World: The Sideline Story
Key Track: "Rise and Shine"
Ever since we heard him upstage his mentor on Jay-Z's "A Star Is Born" we knew this North Carolina native would fulfill that song's promise. And sure, his major label debut—following several album-caliber mixtapes—makes some crossover concessions, but even those (like drippy serenade "Work Out" and Mariachi-sampling "Can't Get Enough") are strong, and burners like "Lost Ones" and "God's Gift" confirm that a star is indeed born.
Key Track: “Mona Lisa”
Bradford Cox isn’t sheepish about flatly calling Deerhunter, “one of the greatest American rock groups of our time,” a boast that’s tough to dispute, actually. But his songwriting output always races past even their ability to cope. So it’s a great pleasure to hear how warm and assured his solo work—perpetual expressions of cold, anxious lonelines—have finally become. Why, what an inviting pain cave you’ve got here!
Key Track: “Get Away”
Listening to Yuck is like hearing My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze mixed with the Smashing Pumpkins woozy vibrations, with a dash of Dinosaur Jr.’s sprawling feedback. (There’s some Pavement’s “Father of a Sister of a Thought” in there, as well.) In other words, Yuck—both the band and the eponymous album—takes the best aspects of 90s indie rock to create something not quite groundbreaking, but youthful and affecting, with warm vocals buried under a fuzz of distortion. It’s an album-long homage to the music they love, without ever sounding like a tribute record.
Key track: “You Make The Sun Fry"
“It feels cool to be like, ‘Yeah, let's turn the vocals up,’ because I actually like what I’m saying,” Segall quipped to Interview magazine, downplaying his former approach: "Oh, it's a party song, it doesn't matter.” Goodbye Bread references all sorts of Americana during its 30-some minutes, and this time you can actually hear it. Coup de Villes, California, getting married —they all get inverted through the guitar bashing, psych reeling, furious jubilance of the second-wave San Franciscan garage rocker, aka the party boy with the heart of gold.
The Year of Hibernation
Key track: “July”
In January, no one knew who Trevor Powers was. By May, he had a song up on Bandcamp under the name Youth Lagoon; by July, he'd inked a record deal with Fat Possum; by September, found himself wrung through the gears of the ever merciless hype machine. And by December, the album in question,The Year of Hibernation, still sticks to the guts, its torched synth-pop contracting and expanding, a soundtrack for being small in a big world, a Bright Eyes album for today’s freshmen.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Key Track: "How Can U Luv Me"
There was much early mystery surrounding the band, as little was known of them aside from some infectiously odd and funky lo-fi tracks up on their Bandcamp page. It was strange and exciting to hear those songs and hanker for more. Luckily, the self-titled album measured up to the appeal of the initial sample, powering through a singular, energetic collage of musical knick-knackery, making it one of the year's most addictive.
Key Track: "Take a Shot for Me"
If you'd told us last year, when this smooth-voiced Torontonian singer-rapper's lame debut Thank Me Later dropped, that his second album would wind up on our next year-end list, we would've said there was no way. But this record's astonishingly deep; none of its 18 tracks are less than enjoyable and most are impeccably layered, bass-heavy, moody and anthemic. It's finally time to thank Drake.
The Golden Record
Key Track: "Boatman"
Little Scream carried The Golden Record in her for a tumultuous decade before it was realized with the help of members of Arcade Fire and The National. The album maintains the rarest kind of intensity—reaching out to the alone, in a blink able to switch from a Joni Mitchell vibrato to a black hole of wailing distortion. This year, there’s no doubt that Little Scream has emerged as an artist from whom we can expect greatness.
Staring at the X
Key track: “Future Shadows”
A saxophone runs across Forest Fire’s sophomore album, Staring at the X, but other than that, the New York-based band is refreshingly immune to The Great Indie Rock Trends of 2011, instead forging a new brand of folk-rock, something that sounds both peculiar and familiar, belonging to a starry, demented, existential-wrestling planet. It’s a record full of grand statements without even meaning to be. Like Wilco for the young, maybe?
Key Track: "Short Version"
There was much buzz this year about Wild Flag’s all-female dream team culled from some of the best of 90s bands, and rightly so. Their self-titled debut is an unabashed celebration of straightforward rock, and one that draws directly from the influences and talent of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, The Minders and more. Looking back, Wild Flag gave 2011 a much-needed high kick to the ass and then shredded its way to our hearts.
The Rip Tide
Key track: “Goshen”
We all like to think of Zach Condon as the 21-year-old kid consumed by wanderlust, but the truth is, he’s grown up, a fact reflected here by the refinement of the “more is better” philosophy that informed his earlier work. On paper, The Rip Tide is simply less: the arrangements not quite as fussy, the baroque instrumentation toned down, the reliance on piano raising the elegance quotient. But there’s still so much damn heart in his voice, proving that “refined” doesn’t have to mean boring.
Key Track: "Helplessness Blues"
In discussing the music of Fleet Foxes, people are forever invoking the band's fondness for beards and their ever present flannel shirts, even before they invoke their acoustic guitars. The point of this is to drive home the idea that they produce a warm, comfortable and vaguely old-timey brand of folk-pop, and while this is no doubt true, it's also not telling the whole story. Not anymore, anyway. Their second album, Helplessness Blues, is as warm and inviting as their debut, but it's also grander in every way: the arrangements are more elaborate, the harmonies more intricate and the subject matter—figuring out one's place in the world, basically—a good deal heavier. You thought they couldn't improve, but then they did.
Key Track: “Civilian”
It’s always exciting when a young band puts everything together. Traces of greatness could be heard on If Children and The Knot, but it wasn’t until this year’s Civilian that Wye Oak, made up of singer-guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer-keyboardist Andy Stack, made their first fully formed record. A sense of dusty, shoegaze-like darkness hangs over the songs, while the husky-voiced Wasner sings of the world’s “terror quiet calm.” It’s a hauntingly beautiful album, half-whisper, half-howl, but all masterful.
w h o k i l l
Key Track: "Killa"
Aside from possessing sheer powerhouse vocal chords, Merrill Garbus (aka tUnEYArDs) made an album this year that brilliantly burst open wry, itching politics from a piñata of thrilling, rhythmic pop. Garbus is often described as having a “child’s sense of play,” which is fair but does little to communicate the extent of her genius—the looping, the timing, the lyrical content, the flights of jazzy dissonance. w h o k i l l, from its stomping and howling down to its own sweet sensuality, easily makes one of the most thrilling albums of the year.
Key Track:"Owl's Head Park"
One half of the Fiery Furnaces, Eleanor Friedberger has more than enough swagger to make it on her own. She sing-talks her way through her first solo effort, breathlessly telling stream of consciousness stories over a writhing pulse of funky, melodic bass. She narrates what seems like a daily log of Brooklyn life, using understatement, weird space sound effects, and unsubtle injections of reverb to illustrate a personal time at once optimistic and unsettling. And it sounds relatable, to boot, which could be the most audacious thing about it.
David Comes to Life
Key Track: Queen of Hearts” A hardcore punk album intended for a stadium-sized audience, David Comes to Life somehow managed to out-ambition Fucked Up’s last great album, The Chemistry of Common Life. Rather than play it safe, Damian Abraham & the gang went even bigger: it’s a four-act, 18-song, 78-minute punk opera about a factory worker named David who may or may not have killed his true love. Every track (chapter?) pummels you with dense sonic layers from the group’s three anthemic guitarists, and Abraham’s cathartic growls sound equal parts angry and regretful; it’s brutal in the most passionate way possible.
Past-Life Martyred Saints
Key Track: “Marked”
“You know me, I’ll be fine.” That wasn’t a line underlined on listen one, or 20, of Erika M. Anderson’s star-making solo debut. The record was too steeped in damage (sonic, emotional). The drugs were making her so sad. She wishes that every time you touched her left a mark. She don’t mind dyin’. Seeing her tour it, hearing her talk about it, so well-adjusted, so good-natured, helped you see the craft. How a melody line or a resonant image was always waiting there, at the wings of even the darkest stage. How performance can be exorcism. “If there was a way to get it out, I wanna get it out."
Key Track: Poor in Love”
This record, Dan Bejar’s belated pop masterpiece, isn’t cheesy. It’s tasteful as hell. The soft rock, the Vaseline-smeared lenses, the saxophone: we’d been conditioned by NME to see these things as the enemy. But unlike kids who try their best to sound like an unformed childhood memory, Kaputt is deadly specific, the improbable photo recall of a wine-drunk poetry professor. No one’s done cryptic decadence this well since Roxy Music. He earns the reference by equaling it, re-explaining how these things ever sounded good enough to become clichéd. And we’ve not even gotten to his devastating wit! Always hilarious, never a joke.
Key Track: Cruel”
She’s used her china-doll fragility as a Trojan horse for creepy sentiment before, but Annie Clark has never been this unsettling. Swaddled in strings, she was a touch too dull to draw blood; in sparse, erudite synths (skeletons wearing David Byrne’s big suit) she almost cuts too deep. Thuggish policemen, dead-eyed S&M trysts over lunch, contemptuous con men sticking us with the bill (“Oh America, can I owe you one?”). This is the year’s best snapshot of a country whose veneer is cracking, hard. It doubles as a guitar nerd record for a very specific kind of guitar nerd. We thank her for her texture and restraint, on their behalf.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Key Track: "Vomit"
I don't know what it says about the rest of the year in music that our choice for the number one album was in so many ways an anomaly. As production values got more and more questionable throughout indie rock, Girls frontman Christopher Owens went and made one of the most tastefully expensive-sounding recordings we've heard, frankly, in decades. As the guitar fell further and further out of favor, Owens held onto his for dear life, even throwing in the relatively blistering hard-rocker "Die," returning the favor to the growing ranks of people who'd thumb their nose at such a thing. As personal narrative came to be frowned upon, Owens boldly refused to remove himself (or at least the idea of fully formed, soul-baring main characters) from the equation—he's still mostly interested in writing about the well worn subjects of love and loss. As the focus shifts toward generalized vibes and barely hinted-at moods, Owens continues to prize melody and words above all else. All combined, this could make for a record that seems hopelessly outdated, but only if you buy into the notion that art can in fact be outdated, as opposed to merely effective or ineffective, which you shouldn't. And you don't have go making any of those silly "He's a formalist! And a wonderful one at that!" arguments either. Owens communicates his ideas brilliantly, using careful, subtly poetic language and a wonderfully expressive instrument of which he displays something resembling total mastery. To simplify it seems a shame, but to over-complicate seems an even greater one.