In the ever-changing world of the music industry, indie-pop is no longer the flavor of the month. Even its stalwart mainstays from New York City, California and England are expanding their instrumental palette in order to open up new sounds, vibes and textures. Who knew that it would be the Cajun and Zydeco hotbed of Louisiana which would produce one of the most promising talents that the genre has seen in years: Lafayette’s Givers. Their debut LP ‘In Light’ takes you on a trip around the musical world, with subtle Cajun & funk influences differentiating the band from the pack. The finger-picked acoustic guitar of ‘Saw You First’ adds a Southern feel, ‘Ripe’ has a decidedly Asian flavor, ‘In My Eyes’ and ‘Ceiling of Plankton’ contain some Caribbean calypso, while the beautiful ukulele boasting ‘Atlantic’ convincingly carries a Celtic vibe! With all 5 members being multi-instrumentalists and a brilliant boy/girl vocal dynamic, an expansive array of sounds and influences are apparent. Creative and experimental without sacrificing accessibility, ‘In Light’ is without filler and begs for repeated listens to explore its numerous layers, rhythms & melodies. Recommended Tracks: Meantime, Up Up Up, Atlantic, Noche Nada & Ceiling of Plankton. — Davey Boy
29. BNJMN – Black Square
What sets Black Square apart from BNJMN’s earlier 2011 album Plastic World (yes, The Weeknd wasn’t the only overly ambitious artist of the year), is that while all the nuances and subtle sensibilities that made his debut the charmer that it was are all still very much present, now all those delightful little intricacies and knowing nods to the past are simply refined and accentuated even more. Whereas Plastic World was the hazy after-thought where lines felt deliberately smudged and open to interpretation, here BNJMN’s musical playground is more rigid and defined, still deliberately mechanical but now not afraid to show its beating heart.
And whether the musical tableau finds itself investing in shards of more wistful techno, or staring straight at vintage Warp Records material, BNJMN’s not-house house music is a somewhat subdued yet meticulously thought out exercise in teasingly ambiguous dance music. It tends to breeze by, almost matter-of-factly, but hidden within its 30-odd minute runtime lies some of the most gorgeous and delicately crafted music of the year, almost even more precious because of its apparent shyness. Black Square is an exercise in haunted restraint, and shows BNJMN joining the pantheon of artists indebted to their respective genres but choosing to instead play to their own strengths rather than the strengths of their allegiances. — Deviant
The loss of a family member is always a hard thing to go through, especially when it is due to disease or illness. Those who you once saw as strong and invincible are reduced to a feeble shell of their former selves. Regardless of how strong the mind is, the body eventually gives out. Pianos Become The Teeth’s vocalist Kyle Durfey has touched on this in the past with tracks like “Houses We Die In” and “Cripples Can’t Shiver”, documenting his father’s slide into Multiple Sclerosis and the fear of the inevitable. The Lack Long After is that inevitable moment. It documents the loss, the anger and fear leading up and after the death of those closest to us. In a genre that prides itself on being “emotional”, and sometimes to an over the top extent, The Lack Long After is a beautiful yet melancholy catharsis that shimmers and shines on the weight of its inspiration. — Adam Thomas
After a decade where the more arty end of rock has been in thrall in post-rock’s extreme dynamic shifts, 2011 has brought a neat line in albums that lean back towards ambient structures where nothing happens – even the likes of Kate Bush, James Blake, and Tori Amos have been getting in on the act. Yet of the less song-based albums, A Winged Victory for the Sullen stands above Julianna Barwick, Kashiwa Daisuke, and Tim Hecker, and alongside Grouper as the best of the lot. This is a melting pot of ambient, drone, post-minimalism, impressionism, and the quieter, more orchestrated ends of post-rock, with cellos and piano aplenty. Fans of Adam Wiltzie’s previous bands (most notably Stars of the Lid) will know what to expect, but this is his consistently gripping release in a decade; his style blends perfectly with Dustin O’Halloran’s Phillip Glass-esque piano. — Nick Butler
There’s something both odd and unsurprising about the spirituality of Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Given Christopher Owens’ backstory, his rejection of the the Children of God cult, it follows that his music would be devoid of all spirituality, but at the same time, you can’t fully escape your upbringing. The gospel organs that run rampant throughout the album come straight out of a Baptist service, and Owens’ ability to raise the simplest lyrical lines to the highest power is something divine. Never has “come into my heart” sounded so heartfelt. It’s a turn of phrase reserved for Christian idioms (“Jesus, come into my heart”), and the allusion is all too purposeful. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is album that worships love in the cultish way that his parents worshipped Jesus Christ. The album sounds classic because of Owens’ great taste in aping only the best 60s music, but it works as a classic by making Love proper. — Tyler Fisher
Tautology fascinates me. Especially in literature, the circular repetition of specific phrases creates a sort of broken metaphor; not quite a metaphor because this is a comparison of identical things, but at the same time the contexts surrounding the repeated phrases have changed and, therefore, so to have the phrases. Example: in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India there is an oriental song sung twice by a character named Professor Godbole. Both times the British audience is unnerved by the foreignness of the melodies and scales. But there is an event in the middle that changes the context between the first performance of the song and the second: a purported rape of a British woman in the Marabar caves. Whereas the first performance elicits general confusion, the second is altogether something darker and more menacing. The tautological appearance of the song, therefore, becomes a broken metaphor representing two cultures—East and West—forever split asunder, never able to coalesce. This is exactly where New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges derives its remarkable power.
Stetson is a beast on the sax. The tautology of the album, the continuous looping of scales and figures, is absolutely entrancing. Judges is hypnotic and utterly impressive once its secret is unveiled; the circular breathing techniques mean that most of the record’s sounds are produced live by Stetson. The languid, flowing, repetitious, foundation of these compositions, collide with the metallic screeching and hums of dissonance. At times the outcome is necessarily harsh, while at others it is transcendentally ethereal in its beauty: the way the fluttering sequence of the album’s first few tracks rolls into the spoken word sampling of “A Dream of Water,” or the avant-blues of “Lord I Just Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes,” or the droning finale. New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges is a remarkable work for its circulation and continuity. Imagine the album as a large sphere of ideas always turning back on itself; but this is not a stagnant sphere, no, this sphere is forever pushed and rolling with gravity along an even greater sphere. Tautology, you see. Perhaps the only way to end this album with any sort of justice is to click repeat and play it all over again. And again. — Keelan H.
“I’ve been ramblin’, I’m just driftin’,” Adam Granduciel sings on “Come To The City,” and that’s just what Slave Ambient invites us to do – sink in and drift along. That cover is more telling than I initially thought, an ECG of color against a cloudy background, a nice little visual of just how the War on Drugs see themselves, an image hazy through all the feedback. 2010’s Future Weather EP was okay, but meandered rather than surged forward, lost in Adam Granduciel’s smoky tenor and half-baked songs. Slave Ambient has no such qualms. “Best Night” roars out of the gate drenched in waves of reverb and the classiest of classic rock riffs, Granduciel doing his best Bob Dylan (surprise! He sounds like Bob Dylan) impression, and from there it’s an unvarnished look back through rock’s heyday as seen through a psychedelic soup. Old tracks like “Brothers” have had a fresh coat of treble fuzz applied and sound better than ever, while new ones like “Your Love Is Calling My Name” rip through the foggy production with Tom Petty-sized riffs and a rock tradition indebted to the American heartland. The guitars here don’t so much punch and kick as they do claw and scratch through the finely crafted layers of noise that drift from track to track. The overriding sensation is of being carried along, with the occasional signpost (Springsteen and Spiritualized come to mind), but mostly just you and the Ginsburg-esque mumblings of Granduciel escorting you through an abstract, stoned treatise of Americana. It’s wonderful to let go. — Rudy Klapper
I know it’s fairly cliché to do this, but Thursday live up to this album’s namesake in spades. No devolución literally translates to “no return” in English; this is truly an honest insight into the real essence of No Devolución. Quite literally, the group’s gone on an indefinite hiatus – but they have also forged new sonic territory for not only themselves, but the somewhat waning genre of post-hardcore in general. Straddling the line between deliberate atmospherics and traditional emo, Thursday combine the two in ways that are not so obvious as bands like Moving Mountains for example. “A Darker Forest” definitely nods in this direction, yet the chorus forgoes post-rock distinctions in favor of Geoff Rickly’s heartbroken crooning over the bleak minor key breakdown. No Devolución is a record devoid of filler and full of heart, expounding the key features of every genre statement in the past decade while creating new exclamations at the same time (seeming footnotes). “Stay True” sums this up effectively with an anthemic plea:
Disregard the cynics’ path.
They’ll buy a drink and laugh with you
While you trade defeats.
Disregard your fear of death.
We’ve all got a lot to lose.
Whatever else you do,
Stay True. — Sobhi Youssef
Ambient music’s a hard thing to talk about. Basically this is because it’s such an impressionable style of music: what I hear, or what I get out of, Ravedeath, 1972 is going to be entirely different what you get out of it. But there’s no doubt that Ravedeath is something special, a simultaneously ugly and beautiful work of art, organic and synthetic, dissonant and soothing. Its ambient music that works in both the background and the foreground, just to catch the subtle changes, the little shifts in tone and mood and sound. It’s an inscrutable record, one that I’ve enjoyed trying to wring a meaning out of over and over again. — Cam
It’s the forgotten mixtape, sandwiched between the surprise hit House of Balloons and the bombastic Echoes of Silence, but Thursday more than holds its own against them. Indeed, Thursday makes Echoes of Silence possible, as The Weeknd becomes less about Abel Tesfaye. Although he weaves the most cohesive storyline of the three releases in this mixtape, the production duo of Doc McKinney and Illangelo force themselves beyond the backing track, drenching Tesfaye in reverb and expanding their sonic palette. Drake guests and allows a second voice to enter the fray. To describe House of Balloons in one verb, I would use “surprise”, but for Thursday, I would use “immerse”. — Tyler Fisher
With Arrows & Anchors, Fair to Midland maintain their idiosyncratic folk/art-rock mannerisms while aligning their rather unorthodox songwriting into a more conventional approach – look no further than straightforward rocker/lead single “Musical Chairs” receiving ample radio play outside their native Texas. The record’s production has been understandably slighted because of the album’s somewhat claustrophobic, there’s-a-lot-going-on-at-once sound; consequently, this is pretty easily their heaviest – yet still most accessible – album to date. Darroh Sudderth is still a monster with his three-octave range, the guitars maintain a thick crunch throughout the record, but just like last time, it’s Matt Langley who’s the unsung hero as the keys connoisseur, and it’s his work throughout that truly completes the band’s eccentric sound. Although longtime fans seem to wince at the band’s tilt towards being more radio-friendly, the lyrics and structure are just as quirky and weird as ever, and Arrows & Anchors is – without question – a grower. It doesn’t make the record any less of an absolute gem, though. Recommended tracks: “Uh-Oh”, “Whiskey & Ritalin”, and “Amarillo Sleeps on My Pillow”. — Jom
One of the best songs on Sit Resist – “Master of Art” – has a pretty tongue-in-cheek attitude toward Laura Stevenson’s career aspirations. She half-jokingly suggests that a man wait for her until she is “a master of art,” until she’s “learned everything.” I guess that’s part of the reason why people are content to call the album cute, but that’s only because they aren’t listening hard enough. The monumental amount of tenderness and uncertainty present in “Master of Art” is one of the album’s most heartbreaking aspects. It may be dressed up as indie-pop, but there are confessions in the song that most indie artists never even dream of making in their music – namely, that Laura knows she will never be considered the best and she will never be the most well-known, and she wonders what she will be worth to people without those claims to fame. For all its illusions of openness, indie is an insufferably blasé genre, and it is Laura’s willingness to lay herself bare that sets her apart. By the time the album addresses the interminable wait for people to notice what she’s doing, Laura is not nearly so ready to poke fun at herself as she did in “Master of Art.” The album’s last three songs do not conclude Sit Resist with any sort of hopeful resolution; there is only the everlasting presence of a darkness that becomes harder and harder to keep at bay as time passes. — Chan
There’s little left to be said about The Dear Hunter’s Color Spectrum that hasn’t already been jubilantly exclaimed, eloquently expressed, or meticulously explained. But for those of you who have managed to miss the hype train surrounding this 36 song behemoth, The Color Spectrum is actually a collection of nine EPs, each one pertaining to a specific color and possessing its own unique traits. It begins with the blistering, gritty Black and gradually works its way into the warm, gentle arms of White. The juicy center is where this album really rolls on all cylinders, though, with Andy Hull’s guest vocals on Red, the swaggering guitar licks on Orange, the unbridled joy of Yellow, the earthy feel of Green, the placid flow of Blue, the vibrant electronic influences woven into Indigo, and the passionate, theatrical progression of Voilet. Phew. If reading that run-on description wasn’t enough to derail you, then you just might have the patience to listen to this entire thing! — Steve
The Jezabels came to me out of nowhere, fully formed and ripping my speakers a new one with the gothic organs of “Prisoner” and the resulting cascade of drums. I had never heard their previous EPs and only knew them as “that Australian band with a chick singer,” a description that, while apt, was not particularly informative. It’s so easy to tag on a lazy analogy with the help of the Internet nowadays – “the Jezabels’ adventurous song structures and innovative drumming call to mind the similarly hyped Parades,” or “vocalist Hayley Mary’s powerful pipes and dramatic style resemble a Florence Welch or a Kate Bush with a more tenebrous tone.” Really, though, Prisoner creates its own vibrant universe distinct from genre tags and simple comparisons, and the one-two combo of the dark title track and the more buoyant “Endless Summer” pushes you in and leaves you there enraptured. The Jezabels are an Epic Rock Band, one content to explore melodies for well over five minutes on a regular basis, an attitude consistent with their defiantly DIY ethos. For a self-released record, Prisoner sounds practically flawless, all cavernous reverb, stadium ready drums, fuzzy guitar lines and, of course, Hayley Mary, who oscillates between a pissed-off Tori Amos to a more versatile Dolores O’Riordan and everything in between with the ease of a veteran. There are no gimmicks here, and Prisoner stands on its own as a complete, full-bodied album, a welcome surprise in an era where so many bands can get by on the strength of one unusually brilliant song. Prisoner is not a singular event – this kind of dynamic, consistent effort speaks to meticulous preparation and a painstaking diligence that will get this band far. “Watch it grow,” Mary sings at the close of the album, and damn, that’s going to be such a pleasure in the years to come. — Rudy Klapper
Today, when I read the line from my review of this that says “I want nothing more than to love this, just this, forever,” I can see how I was prepping myself for the cynicism I saw this record succumbing to. I’m not gonna lie and tell you that Go Tell Fire to the Mountain packs the same emotional wallop as it did when it dropped in June. Then, it was perfect, all thundering drums and twinkling guitars supporting those now-infamous, vaguely working-class howls no one could decipher. And let’s not forget that air of political mystery, the extratextual discourse centered around what exactly WU LYF was. There weren’t any answers, at least none that were satisfying. Something about a whosiewhatsit called Lucifer Youth Foundation and a soccer club and anarchy! and denim, but nothing concrete. And that’s what worked. Go Tell Fire to the Mountain‘s appeal was not what it said but what it allowed its audience to think it said. There it was: feeling, shot to the stratosphere; rebelliousness, I guess, in a scream-for-the-fuck-of-it kind of way; the kitsch of belting “I love you forever,” moving in spite of the knowledge that the platitude was merely that. This record really wasn’t saying anything, but because I wanted it to, it did, see?
I know that now. And I think I knew that at the time too because I never got sick of this album like I thought I would. I never got angry that there were just some giggly boys and a brilliant PR strategy behind the curtain because the music was still there. Now, the record sounds like a pleasant memory, a Disney movie you liked when you were 10, a nostalgia trip to a less complicated, more promising place. And fuck it, I’m still moved by that. I’ve had too real a year to deny myself the chance to scream along to “We Bros” when I’m alone in my car or to dance to the end of “Heavy Pop” when the whole thing becomes a giant shindig because I know my feelings aren’t “real,” whatever that means. Sometimes I need a little kitsch in my life to know I’m still a person. This record, more than any other in 2011, reminded me of that. — Adam Downer
“King Park,” La Dispute’s fictionalized retelling of a drive-by shooting, receives most of the attention as Wildlife‘s best song – and rightly so – but it’s not the song that best captures the overall mood of the album. Wildlife highlights the parallel decay of Michigan and its inhabitants, the crumbling walls and crumbling lives, the lack of financial security and the lack of hope. The microcosmic, hyper-personal “King Park” could never hope to paint in such broad, arcing strokes. But that’s exactly what makes the album so great. Jordan Dreyer finally realized that his sad tales of heartbreak meant nothing without proper grounding in the real world. The rest of the band – an already excellent group of musicians – stepped things up as well with some of the most inventive and unexpected post-hardcore music in years. “The Most Beautiful Bitter Fruit” stands as the best example of La Dispute’s growth as a whole; lyrically, it’s the most similar to Dreyer’s work on their previous albums, but his words are given heft by the surrounding tracks, and the band turns what could have been a sappy heartbreak song into an excellently aggressive hardcore track by never giving Dreyer a chance to pull his vocal punches. La Dispute have always been a band with massive amounts of potential. The problem was that they tried to live up to that potential before they were able to. With Wildlife, they’ve finally come into their own. — Chan
Palaceer Lazaro, Ishamel Butler, Shabazz Palaces – whatever you call him – this man just sounds like the future, until you find out that he’s actually been rapping since 1992 and was in Digable Planets. Then you start working backwards, tracing the grey hairs in Butler’s beard, ignoring the bass swells and bleeps and bloops associated with Black Up. “Shit, I’m dressin’ like I was at the Ali/Frazier fight!” he exclaims in “Recollections of the wraith”. Butler’s prose is closer to cummings than Kanye. And finally, there’s that ever-telling moment at the end of the album, where “Black is you, black is me, black is us, black is free” invokes “Escapism” from his Digable Planets past. While Black Up looks forward musically, it’s an album all about establishing identity in the past and the present. — Tyler Fisher
In a year following the overhyped, yet worthy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it is unfortunate that the hip-hop genre has done almost nothing to pick up where Kanye left off. We saw the emergence of a new production demigod in Clams Casino, yet the artists he pairs with leave much to be desired. Danny Brown continues to do his best Lil Wayne -in-Detroit impression, yet falters in the beats department (hint hint Clams Casino). No single rap record encompassed a complete package enough in 2011 to make a true musical statement for the future.
Enter Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, the spiritual inheritor of Kanye’s cross-genre torch. House of Balloons introduced the world to Tesfaye’s beautiful R&B falsetto, while firmly entrenching his art as innovation through Downtempo-laden production. The title track has easily become an anthem for 2011 in its indiefied interpretation of the original post-punk classic “Happy House”. Follow-up Thursday proved HoB wasn’t just dumb luck and met his new found audience head-on with a less chilled out offering, more influenced by trip-hop than anything else and maintaining a high standard for production and atmosphere. Tesfaye closes out a completely massive 2011 with Echoes of Silence – doing the nearly unheard of and releasing three genre classics within the span of a single calendar year. While many grasp for thematic interpretation of the Balloon-trilogy, they are missing the real essence of The Weeknd; drug/sex references and hazy nightclub escapades only take a potential artist so far with poor songwriting and create-a-rapstar production. Let the complete composition wash through your neurons and take it for what it is: a completely brilliant beginning to what hopes to be a long and bright career. — Sobhi Youssef
With Thrice going on an indefinite hiatus as a full-time band after their upcoming spring tour, it’s comforting to listen to Major/Minor as a final act, some kind of denouement that helps us (i.e. rabid fans) encapsulate and reflect upon their entire career. Most people I know who like the band, myself included, discovered them during adolescence and as Thrice’s music evolved, so did we. The frenetic riffing and punk energy of their earlier albums was what initially hooked us and the artistry and experimentation that emerged with Vheissu and The Alchemy Index pushed us to enjoy new textures and think about music not just as a vehicle for our youthful energies, but as a much more complex and multilayered canvas. To cap off the changes to the band’s sound is to do the same for our own growth, so of course we will listen to the album as a send-off.
As this convenient coda, Major/Minor is indeed a great swan song, but it’s more than that. Whether you’ve been listening to Thrice since First Impressions or just discovered them, it’s a great album. Each song is well-rounded and emotive. Choruses are uplifting and resonant. The instrumentation and production is tight. Dustin’s vocals are sonorous and powerful albeit gruff. Teppei’s guitar is understated and complementary. The brothers are synced with one another so well that most songs are propelled by rhythmic as much as melody or harmony. But, regardless of how great this album is standalone there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it as a summation. If the sly allusions to Thrice’s oeuvre throughout “Anthology” are any indicator, we should be getting a little wistful by the time “Disarmed” peters out. — Nick Greer