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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.