February 1, 2012

The Best of 2011 List! Finally!

Here it is, spacerockers! My Top Ten Albums of 2011 list, along with the runners-up:

1. Opeth - Heritage
2. Megafaun s/t
3. Jesse Sykes And The Sweet Hereafter - Marble Son
4. Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts
5. Pterodactyl - Spills Out
6. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will
Grails - Deep Politics
8. Woodsman - Rare Forms
9. White Hills - HP-1
10. Unknown Mortal Orchestra s/t

Supreme Dicks - Breathing And Not Breathing
Disco Inferno - The 5 EPs

Honorable mention:
Zs - Arms
The Psychic Paramount - II
Chris Forsyth - Paranoid Cat
Russian Circles - Empros
Battles - Gloss Drop
The Oscillation -
Yuck s/t
The Rangers - Pan Am Stories
Woods - Sun & Shade
The War On Drugs - Slave Ambient

Quilt s/t
Paul Weller - Wake Up The Nation

Opeth are the surprise sleeper of the year: a band who in the past were known for full-on BLACK METAL, replete with the growled Cookie Monster vocals and manic downtuned fretboard shredding. But apparently a deep appreciation for classic prog rock was lying under their dark veneer and on this album, my favorite of the year, it has been exposed, shined up for all to witness, and it WORKS! Brilliantly. Also residing in the near-metal realm are instrumental post-rockers Russian Circles, who leap so far out in front of the post-metal genre they helped create with this new album they're impossible to pigeonhole - another totally surprising album. Helms Alee continue their metal-gaze explorations on their sophomore effort, every bit as uncompromisingly heavy yet melodic as their first. Speaking of surprises, Yamantaka/Sonic Titan are a complete left field head scratcher: a female Japanese-Canadian face-melting prog metal duo, or as they cheekily dub it "noh-wave," referencing no wave and noh, the classical form of Japanese musical drama. Woah. Dig it.

Not surprisingly, White Hills return with a new collection of lengthy acid/prog/krautrock epics, all designed to fry your mind. Wooden Shjips also return and make no new leaps forward, not that any are necessary - their heavy trance guitar workouts reside firmly in the "if it ain't broke" camp. The Drift, who in the past trafficked in fairly lightweight instrumental post rock, have beefed up their sound on this recent release, much to our benefit. Cave continue to put the motor in motorik, zooming down the autobahn and off into outer space. And The Psychic Paramount slams the motorik throttle wide open, and careens wildly all over the spaceways, injecting high-octane free jazz flailing to the mix.

Now, Boris... what can be said about a band like Boris? Devilish Japanese sludge-metal monsters, this trio has always enjoyed confusing their audience, constantly reinventing themselves and expanding on older efforts, recombining, repackaging and remixing, as well as collaborating with the likes of SunnO)))), Merzbow, Ghost's Michio Kurihara and The Cult's Ian Astbury. And this year they've gone even farther than diehard fans may have ever anticipated, releasing not one, not two, but three new albums in one year. And by "new" I mean mostly new. Heavy Rocks shares the name of an obscure out of print Japanese release they put out early in their career, but none of the same material - the title succinctly describes the colossal sonics contained within. Attention Please shifts attention to female singer Wata and a lighter, dreamier poppier sound, if you can believe that, expanding on the quasi-shoegaze direction they've been dabbling with here and there. And a third release, simply (and bafflingly) titled New Album, takes material from both those albums along with a handful of other tracks and experiments by reworking them with a mainstream dance/pop producer to a fine-glossed crispy crunchy sheen, to mixed yet interesting results. I mean, Boris will never be a mainstream band... or will they? What's next for these illusive yet prolific tricksters? Seemingly anything's possible.

The mighty Mogwai return with yet another departure/deviation on their theme of crushing instruMENTAL musix. Dropping a bit of the head-exploding dynamcis for more subtle shifts and ethereal textures, this album is their most expansive yet. It's nice to see they can continue to reinvent themselves without losing integrity or intensity. And yes, there ARE vocals, but in their more recently tried-and-true vocoder style... just another instrument. Woodsman never disappoint with their continued exploration of Reichian guitars, chanted mantras and transcendent polyrhythms, as illustrated by this track from their fourth album. Esoteric postrockers Collections Of Colonies Of Bees popped out a stop-gap EP in 2011, but the four similarly-titled instrumentals (this from a band whose Fa.ce (a album included seven instrumental tracks and an eighth called "Mu_rder", and their Customer release contained nine tracks all called "Fun" and a tenth titled "Funeral") are more than just something to tide us over until the next full-length. In fact this collection may their most cohesive set yet, as they explore a lighter more exultant style, uplifting more than confounding. Brooklyn warehouse collective free-jazzbo-hippies Zs are a wondrous discovery for me; often erroneously filed under noise, they're anything but (if that makes you think of Black Dice or Wolf Eyes or the like). More like latter day Coltrane attending the Branca/Chatham/Riley/Reich school and jamming at recess with Fela Kuti and a mega-tight drum circle. Whew! And Battles seems like they're having more fun than ever with their herky-jerky math rock, full of bizarre time signatures and unsettling rhythmic riffs, despite retaining its complexity coming off totally light-hearted and playful. Losing their arguably most experimental member, Tyondai Braxton, has allowed the now-trio to collaborate with a host of vocalists to mix things up a bit (witness last month's installment featuring their track with Gary Numan!).

The Modfather Paul Weller put out his most expansive release yet with a sublime potpourri of slippery Northern Soul, barnburning calls-to-arms, prog mini-suites and not a little bit of psychedelia, as evidenced by this track. Very impressive, especially at this point in his long and illustrious career. Pterodactyl were previously a spazzy postpunk/mathrock unit with psychedelic tendencies but have recently been indulging a proclivity for classic prog (and not a little Beach Boys and Elephant 6 bands, especially The Olivia Tremor Control) on this new album, to monumental effect. The album's a real grower (and way underappreciated in the press), as the longest-lasting ones usually are.

A little bit softer now... Quilt conjure the Haight-Ashbury of Slicks and Garcias, tie-dyes and moonbeams, but manage to make the old new again with faithful reinventions of a bygone era, with angelic harmonies to boot. Speaking of era-specific, Grails have lately mined a wealth of a few years later and an ocean away, with raw material culled from vintage krautrock and Turkish psych, and finally melded a composite entirely their own, but with obvious touchpoints. The always patient low-and-slow Barn Owl anchor their minimal repetitive mantras with a bit more solid rhythmic ground with their latest, yet somehow still achieve completely airborne transcendency.

Plaid, normally a free-flowing and upbeat 'n' groovy psych-tronica duo, have a track here that fits right in with the current theme of gauzy fever dreams. Dark. And so krautronic that one would never know it's not Cluster. And 15 years after their last album, Seefeel make a majestic comeback with their oddest set yet, further stripping all analog instruments beyond recognition (except for their trademark dub bass in places), distorting guitars and feedback loops into electronica-sounding washes of sound augmented by fractured drum programs. This song is aptly titled, with a nudge and a wink. Welcome back!

The Horrors, as mentioned in previous installments, have morphed from gothy-glamsters worshiping at the altar of Nick Cave and Robert Smith to post-shoegazers who remember the early works of Ride, Chapterhouse, Slowdive et al., despite probably being toddlers when that music was prevalent. Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox) has moved even farther away from his Animal Collective toward the simultaneously sunny and shadowy beachscapes of Brian Wilson. If he's not careful he'll drown in a sea of reverb. Ganglians hail from Sacramento, yet come off like the elfen brethren that inhabit Syd Barrett's Cambridge garden, equal parts mischievous and mystical. Gauntlet Hair seem to come from similar climes as Animal Collective and the current crop of echo-tastic warehouse culture indie freakshows. The album is uneven but has hints at future brilliance. Another hair band (no, not hair metal), Wet Hair also borrow from the mystick origins of 60s schlockadelica, yet make it compelling and, dare I say it, fun? Groovy, baby.

Yuck's debut was a real sleeper, coming from seemingly nowhere but as immediately familiar as classic 90s American indie rock - it's an album chock full of spot-the-influence, from Archers Of Loaf's pristine noise pop to Yo La Tengo's blazing guitar rave-ups to walls of shoegazing guitars almost as monstrous as Dinosaur Jr.'s. Dang kids - they do it perfectly. Les Savy Fav came back with another post-punk ripper, perfectly melding the aforementioned 90s indie with herky-jerky Fugazi post-hardcore (but with a better sense of humor) and full-on psychedelic anthems. And the supreme sleeper of the year Unknown Mortal Orchestra aren't nearly space rock, but their lo-fi psychedelic soul and mutant R&B is so left field and exciting they fit into my top ten releases this year, despite averaging three minutes a song instead of thirteen. Psychotically catchy.

Possibly more than ANY band I've ever heard (and that's saying a lot), Supreme Dicks must be the most enigmatic and puzzlingly captivating thing I've stumbled across. Maybe because I came to them after the fact (with the help of this recently-released 4-disc compilation of pretty much their entire output), or maybe because of their amalgam of obtuse, seemingly extemporaneously-composed, guitar work a la Jandek (the mysterious yet prolific loner who has self-released dozens of albums - feeding a select and rabid underground fan base - featuring a guitar he either could not tune, refused to tune, or following an idiot-savant doctrine only he could fathom he may have intentionally de-tuned to challenge yet embrace the dedicated listener), addled vocal mumblings a la David Baker from early Mercury Rev, fractured, disjointed and nonlinear arrangements that make "bands" like U.S. Maple, Sunburned Hand Of The Man, Tower Recordings, or No-Neck Blues Band sound tight and controlled, and with meandering instrumentals reminiscent of early Hood or a more restrained Swell Maps, and spoken-sung impressionistic storytelling of a totally unique bent. This track is especially fun in how it morphs from quietly amorphous falling-apart freakout to Stonesy blooz jam (is it "Gimme Shelter"?) at the end. And this is just one example of how this band exemplifies the WTF? genre of spacey musix. Epic yet understated, and an important part of the lexicon of outsider art.

Speaking of confounding, the ironically-named Disco Inferno is a band that started life as a Factory Records style post punk unit in the early 90s, then brought in a sampler to augment their already abstruse guitar work and rambling understated speak/sing lyricism and based every song around unusual Midi-triggered samples of everything from obscure artists' songs to found-sound musique concrete. This track is from a recent compilation of obscure EPs to flesh out their catalog on one easy disc (albeit admittedly uneasy listening). Woods have always known how to strip things down without lessening their impact, as this micro-jam illustrates perfectly, acoustic improv and pocket symphony all rolled into one, on this their fifth release. Their subtle lo-fi pastorals just never get old. So... if you're the godfather of dissonant post punk experimentation with decades of band releases behind you, where do you go next? To the acoustic realm of course, as Thurston Moore has done on his finest yet solo release, augmented by swirling discordant string arrangements from Beck, of all people. Truly inspired in his stripped-down re-imagining of the style of his electric work with Sonic Youth. Ace, from top to bottom. Another one of my top albums of 2011 finds Jesse Sykes taking it up a notch or three, with her Sweet Hereafter playing a more prominent role in extended instrumental workouts evoking the Laurel Canyon of old, and instead of their previous uber-quiet slow jams focusing on her whiskey-stained velvet voice they indulge in cathartic dynamics that transport the listener. Their best release yet.

Ms. Sykes hasn't completely jettisoned her Americana/alt-country roots but she has evolved beyond them. On the other hand, many modern artists have managed to seemlessly incorporate space rock and psychedelia into true American roots music. The underground cult of personality known as Bonnie Prince Billy (aka Will Oldham, aka Palace and its various offshoots) has pretty much always done folk music, although it has varied from somnambulant minimalism to clanking clamorous newgrass. His latest in a long line a variously-ascribed releases finds him adding spacey atmospherics to the mix. The cleverly monikered Kurt Vile got his start as a guitarist for sundry alt-country outfits (see The War On Drugs a couple songs later) but his solo work showcases layered yet non-showy guitar virtuosity, a knack for the near-hook of classic folk-pop, as well as an obvious appreciation for kraut/motorik and psych. Chris Forsyth's guitar extravaganza ranged from meditative Faheyesque pickin' 'n' drones to all-out Velvet Underground-in-a-juke-joint blowouts. Though this track is more fitting with the alt-country section of this set, seek his songs out on two other previous installments. Wilco started as a fairly straight-forward alt-country unit, but maestro Jeff Tweedy's love of Beatles-esque arrangements, experimental dissonance (thanks in part to the addition of freak-jazz guitarist Nels Cline - check the guitar break around 4:30) and, again, some motorik rhythmic devices, has taken his accomplished band into diverse realms of musical genre, defying facile categorization. The War On Drugs are a more refined version of the formula we're examining here, with a sound that evokes wild vistas - the expansiveness of open space - and the sensation of movement via textbook motorik rhythms that conjure freight trains screaming through wide open spans of the American West and guitar treatments not unlike the ones Brian Eno designed for U2. Megafaun reside at the crossroads of American roots traditionalism and Chicago-school post rock (Tortoise, Gastr Del Sol), an intersection that many people would be surprised to find exists. Love the use of backwards guitars and feedback on this track - and so uplifting - my fave song of 2011. And if they come across as an Americana band trapped on a slightly sinister HAL-helmed Battlestar Galactica, searching for an ideal world to re-inhabit, they make it seem like a trip we all should be on. And aren't we, indeed, after all? And speaking of trippy, we close with a lengthy suite from the enigmatically-named Rangers, a ramshackle lo-fi contingent exploring Americana/roots and well as stuttering psychedelic soul and mangled Motown mayhem, a heady brew for the new year to come.

This here's a nearly FOUR HOUR SET, in two parts, so make some time, set the mood, relax, listen and enjoy.

The following tracks should appear in the first player below:

The Spacerock Continuum Theme - bRambles
The Devil's Orchard - Opeth - Heritage
Mlàdek - Russian Circles - Empros
Speed Sk8ter - Helms Alee - Weatherhead
A Star Over Pureland - Yamantaka // Sonic Titan - Yt // St
Upon Arrival - White Hills - H-P1
Lazy Bones - Wooden Shjips - West
Horizon - The Drift - Blue Hour
WUJ - Cave - Neverendless
Sp - The Psychic Paramount- II
Spoon- Boris - Attention Please
George Square Thatcher Death Party - Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
Tone Cloak - Woodsman - Mystic Places
Lawn - Collections Of Colonies Of Bees - Giving
Ice Cream - Battles - Gloss Drop
Nobody Wants To Be Had - Zs - Arms
Whatever Next/7 & 3 Is The Striker's Name - Paul Weller - Wake Up The Nation
Allergy Shots - Pterodactyl - Spills Out
Milo - Quilt - s/t
Future Primitive - Grails - Deep Politics
Turiya - Barn Owl - Lost In The Glare
Eye Robot - Plaid - Scintilli
Dead Guitars - Seefeel - s/t

The following tracks should appear in the next player below:

Moving Further Away - The Horrors - Skying
After Burner- Panda Bear - Tomboy
Sleep - Ganglians - Still Living
Overkill - Gauntlet Hair - s/t
Radiant Lines - Wet Hair - Radiant Lines
Ffunny Ffriends - Unknown Mortal Orchestra - s/t
Holing Out - Yuck - s/t
Clear Spirits - Les Savy Fav - Root For Ruin
Ffunny Ffriends - Unknown Mortal Orchestra- s/t
Columnated Ruins/Seeing Distant Chimneys - Supreme Dicks - Breathing And Not Breathing (The Emotional Plague)
Second Language - Disco Inferno - The 5 EPs
White Out - Woods - Sun And Shade
Circulation - Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts
Your Own Kind - Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter - Marble Son
New Whaling - Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Wolfroy Goes To Town
Baby's Arms - Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo
Anniversary Day - Chris Forsyth - Paranoid Cat
Art Of Almost - Wilco - The Whole Love
Best Night - The War On Drugs - Slave Ambient
Get Right - Megafaun - s/t
Zeke's Dream - The Rangers - Pan Am Stories