Friday, December 23, 2011

Fritz's Top 30 Albums of 2011 (#15-1)

15. A Winged Victory For The Sullen - S/T

This album is, quite simply, breathtaking. A side project of Stars Of The Lid, A Winged Victory make ambient drone sounds with a string quartet, guitar effects, and a piano. It's sort of easy to describe this kind of music - pretty, melancholy, hopeful, etc. But I'd say an accurate depiction of this stuff can be found by simply looking at the album art. This album transports you to the most serene, peaceful place possible, and makes you float there, in endless, self realizing bliss. This is an album for late night listening, where you can leave this world behind with all of it's troubles, and just be.

14. *shels - Plains Of The Purple Buffalo

Speaking of albums that sound like their cover art, *shels is a post rock/post metalish mostly instrumental group who make music that can only be described as epic. These guys use lots of different instruments - horns, strings, along with the tried and true guitar/drum/bass setup - to make really fantastic soundscapes. Especially evident on the title track, when you listen to this stuff, you can see purple buffalo striding across some massive field. The vocals, popping up only every now and again, add an extra layer of power with their shout-a-long lyrics. This album absolutely soars. Fantastic stuff.

13. Bruce Peninsula - Open Flames

Bruce Peninsula came out of nowhere in 2009, and quickly became a favorite of mine. With Open Flames, the group has made a very solid follow up, teeming with emotion and tinged with darkness. Still making fantastic soul/folk music, this album is filled with gorgeous choral vocals that juxtapose the gruff lead perfectly. There's more of a focus on female vocals this time around, and it matches the darker tone of the songs. There's sort of this ominous ambiance that follows these tunes, and for good reason - while this album was being created, the lead singer was diagnosed with Leukemia. That news, that feeling of impending end, made a major impact on these songs. There's always a somber tone in the vocals, in the instrumentation, especially on the second half of the album. But all the while, there's a hint of hope, a hint of happiness. Very beautiful stuff. From what I've read, he's recovered quite nicely, and I'm very excited to see where these guys go next.

12. Radiohead - The King Of Limbs

Okay, lemme just get this out of the way first. If I made a disappointments of 2011 list, this would be on there, no question. I mean, four years in the studio, and we get under 40 minutes of stuff? What the fuck Radiohead! But while this may be one of the lesser Radiohead albums, it's still one of the best of the year. There's some obvious krautrock influence on these songs, especially on Morning Mr. Magpie, probably my favorite track on the album. Jagged, stuttering drums make you wanna get up and dance. The second half is much calmer, prettier stuff that bring the record to a peaceful end. Now, while this is a disappointingly short album, Radiohead was kind enough to release four more songs, two of which, Supercolider and Staircase, are phenomenal tracks. Honestly if they were on the album itself, it would probably be one of the top for the year. But, until the next time Radiohead decides to grace us with their music, this will have to do.

11. John Knox Sex Club - Raise Ravens

The sophomore album by these Scottish Twilight-Sad-ish rockers is everything a sophomore album should be; bigger, fuller and grander, all while keeping the good stuff from the debut present. Raise Ravens starts off with a massive, 13 minute epic full of building, bombastic percussion, guitars and vocals. The other tracks on the album are decidedly calmer, introducing violin and female vocals that add gentleness to the music. The album closes with The Thaw, bringing the album to a huge, hopeful ending; "The grass grows beneath the ice and snow", they sing. These guys seem like they've been getting bigger over on their side of the world, and I hope that trend continues.

10. Braids - Native Speaker

This album came out pretty early in the year, and quickly became a favorite of mine. Braids makes that kind of music that transports you to summertime in some decade you didn't grow up in. There's a hazy, nostalgic mood to these tracks that's instantly recognizable, yet somehow unique. I've seen comparisons to Animal Collective, which I can kinda sorta see. They're more organic though, I think. Poppy tracks all about love, making love, doing love, etc etc etc. Every now and again it breaks away from it's lifetime summer attitude, especially in tracks like Lammicken, a slow dance song for the apocalypse. This album has stuck with me all year, and I can't wait to see what they do next.

9 The Dear Hunter - The Color Spectrum

I am absolutely convinced that there's something for everybody in this collection. These nine EPs, each one corresponding to one of the colors in the color spectrum, plus black and white, all tackle different genres, styles, and sounds with surprising finesse, with each set of songs surprisingly illustrating the color it represents. Red is full of high energy rock n' roll tunes, Blue is drenched in echos and reverb, Green has folky songs about love and nature, Orange is...a weird, watered down, alt-country version of Red? I dunno, Orange is such a weird color, and probably the worst in the collection. The best would probably have to be Indigo, taking you on a mind-bending trip through cyberspace, or White, probably one of the most hopeful, realized set of songs this group has put out. Maybe it's just me, but these EPs flow together tremendously, just like the colors of a rainbow. Wonderful as a whole, wonderful as parts, simply wonderful.

8. O'Brother - Garden Window

O'Brother takes the soaring rock styles of Radiohead and mixes them with metal and drone sounds to make something massive. These guys know how to mix harsh, yelling vocals and crunching guitar tones with beautiful ambiance perfectly. On tracks like Poison!, possibly my favorite song of the year, the group builds everything up into a towering wall of sound. The last song on this album is notable as well. There's a small bit that they play a few times, after the line "Keep your last breath, make it worthwhile", that, whenever I listen to it, has an interesting effect. Whenever I head that part, I feel absolutely alone, and overwhelming sense of solitude fills the room almost instantly. That loneliness, though, is accented by a shred of hope, of power, that says "you'll be fine." That theme is present over the album too, I think. Life is hard, life is tough, life is empty. And yet, life is beautiful. This is a fantastic album that I'm sure will stick with me for years to come.

7. Farewell Poetry - Hoping For The Invisible To Ignite

Calling on the post-rock gods of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Farewell Poetry burst onto the music scene this year with their four track debut album, which may be just what the stagnant genre needed. Starting with a nearly 20 minute track, Farewell Poetry quickly illustrate what makes them a band to watch. Seasoned with a dark, sensual spoken word piece about Troilus and Cressida, the band makes beautiful, brooding music that builds and builds until igniting in noise. The next piece, split into two tracks, doesn't get as immense and powerful as the previous song did, but still works as a powerful piece. I will admit, it is disappointing that the album didn't finish off as incredibly as it started, but these four tracks still make one of the better, more unique post rock albums I've heard in a long time. These guys can only go up from here.

6. Years Of Rice And Salt - Nothing Of Cities

Like I said in the last blurb, post rock is a pretty dead genre right now, over-saturated with boring, generic, twinkle-core movie soundtrack stuff. However, this group is a beautiful diamond in the rough of this genre. These guys don't try to do anything different to the formula - they just make damned good post rock. One of the things YoRaS have going for is their heavy use of strings in their music, which adds a certain beauty that no guitar effects can provide. Another thing is the general mood of the music; most post rock thrives on sadness and darkness, but this group makes some of the most hopeful music I've ever heard. Certainly helped by the massive support that this album's Kickstarter page had for it, the music suggests a sense of community, of togetherness, that I almost never hear in instrumental music nowadays. Hopefully other bands will take notice of this album, and realize post rock doesn't always have to be dark and depressing - maybe then, we can breathe life into this once wonderful genre.

5. The Beach Boys - The Smile Sessions

(It counts, it counts!)
It's interesting to think about what would have happened if this album came out when it was supposed to. Finally presented in it's most complete form, Smile is a schizophrenic masterpiece, skipping between ideas multiple times in each "song". For the most part, the sounds on this album are what you'd expect from The Beach Boys - harmonies, summery guitars, harmonies, more harmonies, etc. However, being the experimental masterpiece it was intended to be, there's definitely a noticeable, conscious effort to move away from their surfing music days. This is especially noticeable on the track Surf's Up, which was released after Smile had been abandoned. The chorus of "surfs up, before the tidal wave" carries such heavy emotions. It's a song where Wilson realized the struggles he'd have to face in order to get away from their happy-go-lucky past. On Mrs. O'Leary's Cow, that struggle is put front and center, with a chaotic, frightening track that echos (dare I say it?) Radiohead and their contemporaries. If this album was released in the 60s, who knows what would have happened? Well, who knows. The album is fantastic anyway.

4. Skeletons - PEOPLE

Skeletons are probably one of the most unique groups I've ever encountered, and this album might be their most realized yet. Among all the jagged, math-y instrumentation and odd falsetto vocals is an underlying accessibility and relatability. Lyrics that describe the drawing of our house that all of us drew in kindergarten with eerie accuracy, about the general sense of confusion that we Americans are facing nowadays, and a closing statement of hope fill this album with ideas that support it's title - PEOPLE. This is a human album. Real, jagged, beautiful, odd, and generally mysterious. Wonderful.

3. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

To be honest, I'm not really sure what it is about this album that makes it so good. Fleet Foxes' 2nd album is simply really, really good. All the songs are beautiful, filled with soaring harmonies and perfect instrumentation that paint a picture of the country side. When this first came out, I called it perfect. I actually do stick by that label, frankly. I can't find a single thing to dislike about this album. It's weird though, I can't really describe what exactly makes it so good either. Maybe it's a cop out, or maybe I'm just dreading writing the next album's blurb. Either way, do yourself a favor, and listen to this record - you won't regret it.

2. Giles Corey - S/T

"Sometime in the spring of 2009 I tried to kill myself"

That's how the accompanying book for this album starts. Dan Barret, half of the seminal Have A Nice Life is Giles Corey, and his music is his story. There's no question of what the theme of this album is. Darkness. Depression. Solitude. Sadness. Suicide. There's a fucking song where the lyrics are literally "I'm going to kill myself." The music itself is very much what an acoustic Have A Nice Life would be - stark, beautiful, and drenched in reverb. If you look past the lyrics, and look past the story behind these songs, you could easily write off this album as another trite collection of songs about how tough life is after loosing your girlfriend or something. But if you really listen, and feel this music, you'll see that it's so much more. This music is real. It's an album of absolute, pure emotion that simply can't be accurately described with words. When you listen to this album, you realize Barret's struggle, and share it with him.
And then there's the personal side of this album for me. This album came out during a pretty dark time in my life. For one reason or another, I was simply unhappy for a long period of time, up to a point where suicide almost seemed...reasonable? I'm not sure. I cried to this album, many times, simply because of how disgustingly relatable it was. I hated it. I hated the album for making me realize that those awful feelings weren't uniquely my own. And yet, I visited it, almost daily, for a long time. Through the help of time and friends, I let go of those depressed feelings, and Giles Corey almost seemed like a used prescription. I didn't need to be exposed to those feelings anymore. However, I found myself listening again and again, with a new mind frame. Now, these songs about suicide and depression, gave me a sense of hope. It's like, when I listen to it now, I realize that life is truly beautiful, and worth living.
This album has become an artifact for me. A piece of indescribable art that conjures up feelings and thoughts that simply can't be described. You have no idea how much I've dreaded writing any sort of thing for this album, because I knew I wouldn't do it justice. I still don't think I have.

1. Moonface - Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped

I'm not gonna lie to myself this year. I usually top my year end lists with the album that absolutely destroyed my emotions, like Hospice, or absolutely crushed my senses, like Swans. This year, however, Spencer Krug released his first full length album as Moonface, and I can't lie to myself and say that it wasn't the most enjoyable, rocking, kick ass group of songs I've heard all year. This thing fucking jams. With five songs clocking in at just under 40 minutes, Krug builds some really awesome soundscapes with his organ sounds. His lyrics, weird and quirky as always, have a somewhat relatable tone to them that simply adds to the enjoyability of the record. I saw him play the album live in August, a few months or so after it came out. There were only, like, 20 or 30 of us there, which wasn't very surprising. But the cool thing about it was how into it everybody in that hall was, musicians and fans alike. Everybody realized how hard these tunes jammed, and took advantage of it. Just like Fleet Foxes, this album is simply good, and absolutely worth a listen or thirty.

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