Taylor’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

1. Wild Flag, Wild Flag

In a difficult era for unconceited, forthright rock, Wild Flag has seized an opportunity to act as a bantam foil to the wealth of snobbery that permeates almost every facet of modern alternative culture.  In doing so, this infant group of alternative rock and riot grrrl veterans has also created something of an archetype for those who care not to weight marketability over substance or who simply want a balance of the two. Unlike similar-sounding bands who resign themselves to aping banal classic rock n’ roll conventions (practically guaranteeing creative bankruptcy), on their debut Wild Flag ape nothing and are derivative of no one, not even of themselves. Instead, the album plays like a flexile run-through of song sketches Mary Timony and Carrie Brownstein casually brought to Janet Weiss and Rebecca Cole knowing vaguely how they’d sound, but also knowing that everyone in the room was on precisely the same page. It’s in that lack of pretension – that unassuming, spontaneous perfection found in every crevice of this album – that Wild Flag becomes the artifact of a band operating at a level akin to the Rolling Stones circa Aftermath. And that’s only fifty percent of the reason this is the best album of 2011; in the other fifty percent are ten songs raw with confidence, subtle ingenuity and infectious self-referential joy.

MP3: Wild Flag: “Short Version”

2. The First Four EPs, Off!

An odd, though accurate, measure of Black Flag’s legacy is the pedigree of talent the band kicked out during its ten year run. Nevertheless, through that atypical lens, 2011 has been something of a pinnacle for the long-defunct hardcore punk pioneers: third bassist Chuck Dukowski has recently teamed up with Oxbow front man Eugene Robinson to form a pseudo-tribute t0 his wealth of unreleased My War era material – farcically named Black Face – while original Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris has gone light years beyond mere throwback or nostalgia with supergroup Off! to the point of revising the last fifteen underground years of hardcore by galvanizing listeners with minute-bursts of demurely-produced aggressive stimulation clocking in at a total running time of eighteen minutes – just short enough to avoid fatiguing said listeners while they compulsively give ear teeth for more.

MP3: Off!: “Crawl”

3. The Weight, Caddywhompus

We’ve written enough flowery praise about Caddywhompus over the past year to fill a J. Peterman catalog, and we probably won’t stop until we can compile an entire bathroom reader devoted to this chameleonic Houston via New Orleans-based noise duo. Though their last two albums have been a combined entrada of jarring dissonance, chaotic mathcore and striking melody, with The Weight Caddywhompus suddenly no longer feel like an unpredictable helter-skelter of feedback, pedals and alloy (though Chris Rehm and Sean Hart have done nothing to abate their creative momentum); rather, using their past experimentation with noise pop as a stylistic shorthand that their audience is now well familiar with, the duo crafts their four best offerings to date – songs whose avant-garde  freakouts and abrupt tempo changes don’t confuse as much as titillate, and whose pop sensibilities feel essential where they once could have sounded like a heavy-handed counterbalance to Caddywhompus’s weird streak.

MP3: Caddywhompus: “The Others”

4. Discography, Jesuit

Knowing that the songs found on this career-spanning retrospective are over a decade old did little to blunt the inexorable thrill of being able hear the terrifying chaos and impossible execution of this collection for the first time. Though I know little about the notoriously irreverent Jesuit or their controversial, unpredictable presence in the DIY hardcore scene of the mid-1990s, Discography – composed of one set of demos, one Black Sabbath cover and two immaculate Kurt Bellou-produced EPs – is a self-explanation of how Nate Newton and Brian Benoit – who would later go on to join Converge and the Dillinger Escape Plan respectively – are one of the most rousing guitar tandems of all time.

MP3: Jesuit: “Car Crash Lullaby”

5. Cloud Nothings, Cloud Nothings

While early low-budget recordings by Mineral and the Promise ring have avoided the fate of being viewed as unfinished products or creative stepping stones by actually containing those bands’ best material, Cleveland-based songwriter Dylan Baldi – though not nearly far enough along in his career to be judged in those terms – brazenly toys with the compositional balance of those same types of lo-fi textures on Cloud Nothings. This generally wouldn’t have much meaning considering how popular digital recording technology has made such a practice, but when done right it can create an experience as memorable as it is initially off-putting. And though the band’s distinct emo pop and light punk stylings stick out like a sore thumb in 2011, it’s hard to imagine an album this year with more reverence for the musical climate surrounding it than Cloud Nothings.

MP3: Cloud Nothings: “You’re Not That Good At Anything”

6. Belong – Common Era

Adopting a faddish facade of washed out, chillwave atmospherics, Common Era marks a noticeable shift in sound for Belong, whose debut October Language is still being talked about as an ambient kaleidoscope masterpiece. This sophomore release – while more accessible in that it contains drum machines, vocals and vaguely traceable song structures – is no less brilliant a piece of utilitarian art, capable of passively providing a soundtrack to a person’s every moment or thought – not as much as a demanding listening experience as it is an utterly captivating augmentation of reality.

MP3: Belong: “Different Heart”

7. Cave In – White Silence

It’s nearly impossible to gauge the merits of this album because almost nobody else in the country listened to the thing with an analytical ear. Having spent a decade equal times championed and panned by the mainstream, it’s no secret that Cave In‘s low-key release and marketing of White Silence was their purposeful design. As such, by placing such a critically overlooked record on a year end list, I seriously run the risk of coming off as either a shamelessly biased fanboy or one of the most deeply perceptive listeners of creative advancement today; but with the implausible, addictive textural dissonance that cult-status songwriter and producer Stephen Brodsky has found to envelope both the loud and soft on White Silence, I’m more than happy to be labeled the former.

MP3: Cave In – “Centered”

8. Human Eye – They Came from the Sky

This third-time-charmer from this previously scatterbrained, arguably lackluster Detroit noise band hits at the perfect time both for Human Eye and for upstart Sacred Bones Records, a label that has (so far) benefited more from quality under-the-radar releases like this than anyone may ever know. As the Joker to the Batman of labelmates The Men, Human Eye throws a kitchen sink of inanity – alien abduction balladry, illogical tempo changes, and a Jackson Pollack-esque canvas of engineered recording – at the listener that for the first time in the band’s seven-or-so year career engages like a tractor beam. They Came From The Sky is a sublime success both in spite of and because of its seemingly aimless pseudo-experimentation and wanton weirdness, bringing to mind the strange charm of Thin Lizzy’s Vagabonds of the Western World.

MP3: Human Eye: “Brain Zip (Kickin’ Back in the Electric Chair)”

9. Wye Oak – Civilian

The uncorrupted modesty with which Wye Oak dispatches the material on Civilian will probably cause this Baltimore folk rock duo much critical neglect as the year concludes. For better or worse though, singer Jenn Wasner’s deceptively assured delivery and percussionist Andy Stack’s reserved yet subtly precise accompaniment are what set Wye Oak apart from every band around them. Unafraid to shake a stereo with Sonic Youth-inspire feedback where bourgeois folk artists lend themselves to pretentious technical exhibitionism, and conservative with that earsplitting noise where others can’t resist the urge to bog themselves down in sonic masturbation, perhaps no band in 2011 came closer to perfecting alternative rock’s loud/soft dynamic than Wye Oak have on Civilian.

MP3: Wye Oak: “Civilian”

10. In The Mountain in the Cloud, Portugal. The Man

Not since the Brian Jonestown Massacre in the mid-1990s has a band managed to build its catalog as quickly or effortlessly as Portugal. The Man. However, where the aforementioned Massacre failed to truly make count its big opportunity to move from the psychedelic flophouse to the record industry big leagues, Portugal has made a rare, risky – and arguably successful – transition from indie to major with In the Mountain In the Cloud, delivering for Atlantic Records not their most stylistically out-of-the-box record to date, but certainly their most consistent. While this may not seem like much of an achievement on paper and may even lose the band some indie cred, it’s worth keeping in mind that Jawbox made the same transition to Atlantic in 1994 and offered up a similarly streamlined album that is now considered one of the best of that decade.

MP3: Portugal. The Man – “Senseless”

Matt’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

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.

MP3: Wild Flag: “Electric Band”

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)

MP3: Portugal The Man: “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now)”

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)

MP3: Giant Cloud: “Animal Inside”

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.

MP3: Black Lips: “Modern Art”

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.

MP3: Wilco: “Capitol City”

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.

MP3: Unknown Mortal Orchestra: “Thought Ballune”

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.

MP3: Kurt Vile: “Society Is My Friend”

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)

MP3: G-Eazy: “All I Could Do”