1. Wild Flag, Wild Flag
Not since 2010’s Stuck On Nothing, the high-octane debut from Philadelphia power-pop quintet Free Energy, has an album rung out with the unbridled urgency and tenacity of Wild Flag‘s 2011 inaugural offering. While it is practically every kind of rad and awesome and badass, there is almost nothing overtly retro-facing about the album; an amazing – but not necessarily unbelievable – surprise considering the supergroups’ clientele once so exquisitely defined a particular moment in alternative rock and roll’s not-so-distant past. Instead, the album is so disorientingly and effortlessly fresh it renders nostalgia obsolete… maybe forever.
2. In The Mountain In The Cloud, Portugal. The Man
For their major label debut, Portugal. The Man replaces the heavy progressive rock leanings of their previous album with a headlong dive into the bouyant, glam-ed out energy that has become a hallmark of their live performances. The result is a diverse and eclectic set of songs that by themselves are tight studies in interplanetary pop, but together are triumphant movements in a consuming cosmic opus. Portugal. The Man’s sound and sensibilities have evolved greatly since the days lead vocalist John Gourley and bassist Zachary Carouthers performed as a two-piece against drum machines and synth-loops in and around Wasilla; and the move to a major label may be the biggest signpost of their ascension yet.. But In The Mountain In The Cloud, while highly polished and concise, manages to feel as organic as anything PTM has put together, free of even a trace of anxiety or hesitation. (7/25/2011)
3. Bloom and Decay, Giant Cloud
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about Bloom And Decay, New Orleans stewards of shimmering astro-pop Giant Cloud’s semi-posthumous final album, is how instantly comfortable it feels even upon first listen, as the songs that make up this first (and last) full-length album have been integral parts of the band’s live set for over a year. But even after sitting on the shelf for almost six months, the tunes on Bloom And Decay are far from dusty. Principal singers/songwriters Ben Jones and Julie Odell’s preternatural ability to write some of the most disarmingly infectious space-pop has indefinitely extended the shelf-life of these beautifully well-worn songs and the flawless and lush production has managed to capture each composition at the ideal point in its evolution. (11/15/2011)
4. Arabia Mountain, Black Lips
The decision to work with a bona fide A-List producer, as the Black Lips did with Mark Ronson on this their sixth studio album, could not have been an easy choice for any band, not least a group of southern pranksters as famous in some circles for their urine and vomit soaked live performances as for their hyper-modern take on proto-punk garage rock. But owed to Ronson’s hit-making discretion or as simply a reflection of the maturity and experience a band gleans from making five previous albums across the entire spectrum of grease and glam, the slicker production on Arabia Mountain leaves huge amounts of room for the engaging and endearing personalities of the Lips to radiate through: This is easily the most shamelessly fun front-to-back listen you will find this year, due in no small part to the loud-and-clear directive by which the band’s delightfully deranged sense of humor is presented on each of these firebrand Nuggets-influenced rippers.
5. The Whole Love, Wilco
Far be it for me to call Wilco‘s last album, 2009’s Wilco (The Album), a disappointment; but I suppose I can understand why even ardent Wilco fans had their fair share of problems with the band’s output even as far back as Sky Blue Sky. While still light-years ahead of the vast majority of music created in 2009 and 2007 respectfully, the last two batches of Wilco songs could somewhat justifiably be dismissed as unimaginative in a world where Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born have laid bare the sheer breadth and depth of the band’s talent and ambition. So maybe that’s why The Whole Love – a lush, shifty offering that kicks off with one of the most mind-bending compositions Tweedy and Co. have ever put to wax in “Art of Almost”, was greeted with the most rabid enthusiasm Wilco has seen in a decade: a band that many think (and for good reason) can do no wrong reared back and did a whole lot of right.
6. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Unknown Mortal Orchestra
In a year when lo-fi studio alchemy seemed to be the preferred modus operandi of buzz-worthy indie bands, the style rarely fit as comfortably as it did Ruban Nielsen, the man behind the stripped down psych-funk outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Perhaps that’s because Nielsen keeps the landscape as stark as it’s ostensibly intended to be, forgoing layers of barely-there and/or frivolous atmospherics to make only enough room for the deceptively ornate and dexterous compositions found on UMO’s debut. His songs manage to be both ethereally spacious and charmingly rapid-fire – sometimes simultaneously so – and coolly entreat listeners to loosen up and let the nimble hooks run deep.
7. Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Girls
Under the tutelage of anyone except Girls’ main songwriter Christopher Owens, the sweeping, diverse extravagance of the San Franciscan duo’s second LP could have easily and despondently flown off all the rails of good taste and prudence. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is packed to the brim with resplendent arrangements, full-strength gospel choirs and not-so-subte homages to everyone from The Beach Boys to Looking Glass to Dick Dale; but the music’s objectively vapid magnificence is pinned down by Owens’ fragile voice and confessorily direct exposition as he combines disarming tales of opaque longing with overtly indulgent instrumentation. That bassist and producer Chet “JR” White doesn’t blink either as the songs confidently reach for a stratosphere few modern bands dare approach easily makes Father, Son, Holy Ghost not only one of the most affecting albums of the year but also the most fearless.
MP3: Girls: “My Ma”
8. Gifts EP, Sun Hotel
The triumph of Sun Hotel‘s latest offering is about more than the warm, expansive treatment the local indie rock heroes gave their newest batch of gospel-tech musical suites. Gifts, just like the full length Coast that preceded it or the myriad free short form offerings that have come before or after, is simply one of dozens of morsels released this year by Chinquapin Records, the indomitable independent rock engine built by the members of Sun Hotel and their friends in Caddywhompus and Country Club. In the climate of prolific creation and demonstration they’ve fostered, an album as thorough and satisfying as Gifts is made all the more impressive knowing its creators wasted little time admiring their finished product before moving on to the next project.
MP3: Sun Hotel: “Alchemy”
9. Smoke Ring For My Halo, Kurt Vile
Along with his 2009 Matador debut Childish Prodigy, Smoke Ring For My Halo could more accurately be credited to Kurt Vile and The Violators, as the former War On Drugs guitarist brought in his sometimes touring band (which includes all-time War On Drugs principle Adam Granduciel) to shower the last two LPs with tastefully added strokes of dynamism and depth. But his recent output differs from the ragged DIY recording and production featured on his early solo work not only in the number of players in the mix, but by the literal fidelity in which he is offering his wistful stream-of-consciousness tract poetry. To the chagrin of some unrepentant lo-fi apologists, the majority of Vile’s recent sonic experimentation has focused on some arguably less adventurous tropes like enunciation and instrumental separation; but for a guy used to mumbling his witty and sly confessions through a wall of fuzz, I’d argue the immediacy of the clearer sound he has all but perfected on Smoke Ring For My Halo makes his storytelling even more earnest and intimate.
10. The Endless Summer, G-Eazy
It would be far too easy to call G-Eazy‘s The Endless Summer a “mixtape”: Despite a somewhat unique inclination towards 50s and 60s rock and soul, the album is effectively the work of a buzzworthy blog rapper rapping over quirky beats borrowed from the canons of blogged-about buzzbands. But the pristine and conscientious production of The Endless Summer – in both the traditional music recording sense of the term as well as its hip hop specific beatmaking definition – fiercely eschews classification as a standard issue “mixtape”. Nearly every track puts a fine point on this important distinction, as they showcase G-Eazy’s compositional propensity to elevate the songs on The Endless Summer beyond each’s well-picked loops. (8/29/2011)