Patrick Wall is kind of an asshole.
KNEE MEETS JERK: In Which a Beleaguered Music Journalist Attempts — and Fails — to Identify Ten Records Released Between December 2010 and December 2011 That Were Better Than All Other Releases in the Same Time Period. Listed in alphabetical order. Results subject to change.
Richard Buckner, Our Blood (Merge)
The mere act of recording and releasing Our Blood was a seemingly Sisyphean task for songwriter Richard Buckner: False starts, broken gear, stolen laptops and myriad other strange turns — including a murder investigation involving a headless corpse in the charred husk of car — delayed release of the album, Buckner’s first since 2006’s Meadow. But ad astra per aspera: Our Blood is Buckner’s finest since 1997’s stellar Devotion and Doubt, its nine songs comprising a quiet, atmospheric, aural portrait of struggle, confusion, frustration and the inability to surrender. Our Blood is compellingly listenable, a record of tattered, frayed grace in which answers to questions — both past and present, elliptical and enormous — lie just beyond his grasp.
Collections of Colonies of Bees, Giving (Home Tapes)
One of indie rock’s most pedigreed acts — the band is half of Justin Vernon’s Volcano Choir, and was started as a side project for Pele’s Chris Rosenau and Jon Mueller — Milwaukee experimental rock act Collections of Colonies of Bees works not so much in indie rock tropes as delightful little mind puzzles, layering interlocking sections of Kraftwerk motorik and arena-rock guitars, and mapping movements with a bent that suggests a deep interest in Minimalism. Like Battles’ Mirrored, Giving is full of twists and turns, and melds man and machine in propulsive and enchanting ways.
Des Ark, Don’t Rock the Boat Sink the Fucker (Lovitt)
Aimee Argote’s long-gestating second full-length captures her split musical personality — the mouthpiece leading an efficient, angular rock tempest or as the seething, seated singer-songwriter singing and stomping to her own fingerpicked accompaniment — perfectly without any superficial concessions to either. It’s also her most emotionally wrenching record: “Ashley’s Song” is a brutal retelling of sexual assault squall of pugnacious post-punk; the delicate “Howard’s Hour of Shower” boasts multiple guitar and vocal lines that interact as much as they intersect.
Earth, Angels of Darkness Demons of Light (Southern Lord)
There are two schools of guitar playing — the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink method of cramming as many notes into a bar as possible, and then there’s the sparser approach, in which notes and chords are left to bloom and expand. The emphasis in the second school is on making the tones and notes more expressive; it’s at this second school at which Earth’s Dylan Carlson excels. Since reinventing Earth in the mid-aughts, Carlson has further explored texture and timbre with each release, layering skeletal yet pronounced melodies inside Earth’s trademark drones, creating the aural equivalent of vast, utterly empty desert landscapes. Like the film scores of Ennio Morricone, Earth creates tension and a slightly shifting dynamic — the two-chord vamp of “Father Midnight,” the glacially arpeggiated “Old Black” — as the music intensifies but intentionally never breaks it loose, revealing its considerable power with restraint.
Emperor X, Western Teleport (Bar None)
Chad Metheny was (is?) a high school science teacher, which likely explains his penchant for offbeat and often surreal lyrics, as well has his lo-fi experimental bent. (Not to mention geeky: “Erica Western Teleport” references Dr. Who, Tasers and poor firewire connections.) But Metheny’s arrangements — inventive and alluring — are exemplary additions to his quirky tunes, and not, as is far too often taking the crackle-and-feedback bedroom approach these days, a mask for deficient songwriting. And his lyrics, oblique as they might be, are stunningly shrewd and remarkably perceptive.
Tommy Guerrero, Lifeboats and Follies (Galaxia Records)
As a pro skateboarder, part of Powell Peralta’s Bones Brigade in the 1980s, Tommy Guerrero was well-known for his relaxed style of San Francisco street skating. His musical pursuits share that same relaxed vibe, that same carefree, urban spirit, with Lifeboats a perfect soundtrack to a lazy, back-alley, dog-dangling late-summer afternoon.
Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
There’s a constant struggle in Ravedeath, 1972, a push and pull between the underscoring, violent and disorienting discord (slashing sheets of grating digital noise, swatches of acidic feedback, distant industrial creaks and groans) and soothing bliss (clouds of soft piano strikes, serene reverb trails, arcing organ tone loops) Hecker imbues in his brooding electronic compositions. The balance Hecker strikes is genius: Ravedeath is beautiful but marked with looming darkness, lovely but woozily malevolent, soothing yet utterly unsettling.
Kendrick Lamar, Section.80 (Top Dawg)
Kendrick Lamar hails from Compton (and has a mysterious and tenuous connection to Dr. Dre), but there’s little link to southern California’s low-slung G-funk in his music. Kendrick Lamar is a product of the blog-rap era, a pointlessly hyperactive and introverted loner type who shines a light on his own insecurities and failings, but rejecting of the outright hedonism (see: Tyler, the Creator) and self-effacing braggadocio (see: Childish Gambino) of his supposed peers. If anything, Kendrick Lamar is closer to late-’90s West Coast rap a la Pharcyde: His dizzying rhymes come out lightning-fast, ideas at times stumbling over one another to escape a mind that thinks way quicker than it can, at times, handle. It’s a debut not without its flaws, but its best moments — “A.D.H.D.,” “Kush and Corinthians,” and “Rigamortus,” which more or less flattens any other rap joint from 2011 that’s not Lil’ Wayne’s “Six Foot Seven Foot” (or maybe A$AP Rocky’s “Peso” — point to a voice-of-a-generation rapper in waiting.
Liturgy, Aesthethica (Thrill Jockey)
Let’s forget all about the extravagant lengths to which black metal troll Hunter Hunt-Hendrix gone to ensure the black metal community hates him. Their hate has made him — and Liturgy — powerful: Aesthethica is alive with more labyrinthine ideas than most black metal bands in a career. Taking black metal’s component parts — razor-sharp guitar blasts, thunderously assaulting blast beats, incoherent gurgles — and invigorating them with a conservatory’s neo-classical approach, Aesthethica plays less like a black metal record and more like an exploded reimagining a Glenn Branca guitar symphony. The fanatics might hate Liturgy, but it’s the outsiders that make music evolve.
The Men, Leave Home (Sacred Bones)
The best hardcore bands are not the most technically proficient; the best hardcore bands are the ones that imbue their music with an invigorating amount of ardor and vigor, of furor and might, of noise and power. Not only is The Men’s Leave Home one of the most sonically imposing records of the year, it’s one of the most adventurous, drawing influence from a wide swath — krautrock’s droning motorik, sludgy metal, shimmering shoegaze, lazy surf — to deliver a furious blast of post-hardcore, one where fragile moments of beauty, like a rose through concrete, can be found among the broken, unhinged clamor.
Mount Moriah, Mount Moriah (Holidays for Quince)
Mount Moriah, in the context of its constituent players, is a bit of an anomaly: Frontwoman Heather McEntire led tough post-punk trio Bellafea; guitarist Jenks Miller leads the ultra-inventive black metal badn Horseback. And yet, Mount Moriah owes much more to traditional country and stately Southern jangle-pop wherein Miller’s economical arrangements perfectly befit McEntire’s strong, sharp, succinct songwriting. At times rollicking (“Social Wedding Rings”), at times torturously longing (the elegant “Plane”), Mount Moriah, whether meaning to or not, captures the unique juncture of the New South, where tradition informs innovation.
Shabazz Palaces, Black Up (Sub Pop)
If hip-hop was in need of a capital-D difficult listen — and one can argue it was — Black Up is it. At the same time it rebels against the ongoing homogenization of mainstream rap, Black Up is in tune with underground hip-hop’s minimalist trend: Shabazz Palace’s beats are murky and fractured, reminiscent of the dark space-race rap of acts like Dalek, Cannibal Ox and Kool Keith. Because the beats are so abstract, the rhymes and flow become paramount. Ishmael Butler’s sparkling rhymes, surreal imagery and bizarro flow hold everything together, eschewing street-tough slang and oblique jazz references — the latter a hallmark of Butler’s previous group, Digable Planets — for inscrutable deadpans that are at once provocative and surprisingly relevant.
Colin Stetson, New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges (Constellation)
Yes, woodwindist Colin Stetson can play powerfully while circularly breathing for long periods, can draw multiphonic melodies out of a sax with inexplicable ease, and can command an audience’s attention with his immense focus and improvisational prowess. Big deal. Lots of modern jazzers can do that. But it’s Stetson’s transcendent and muscular ability to layer sound, breath and rhythm in a meditative compositional style that sticks with you, his skronk never purposeless, his white-hot noise never uncontrolled.
Talons’, Songs for Boats / Kamakura EP (Bark and Hiss)
Songs for Boats is an album full of love songs at the end of the world; songwriter Mike Tolans, erstwhile a member of Six Parts Seven, has said as much, these boat songs came into being as he wondered how he would get home from Spain, where he was studying, once the world, as it so often threatens to do, fell apart. The song cycle plays something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, except these post-folk songs come alive, sway and pull themselves along towards humble, hopeful ends. (The Kamakura EP, also released in 2011, is an interesting instrumental companion listen, if especially minimalist.)
Toro Y Moi, Underneath the Pine / Freaking Out EP (Carpark)
The chillwave backlash was inevitable. The Pitchfork news cycle hype was so inescapable, the Hipster Runoff-coined term so instantly memetic that of course the addled masses would abandon it en masse for the next big thing. (Hey, it happened to hyphy, too.) Whereas Neon Indian and Washed Out this year put out records that respectively romanced and refined the nascent microgenre, Chaz Bundick — thought not to as a reaction to glo-fi haze of Causers of This — distanced himself from it. It would have been easy for Bundick to feel pressured to live up to the expectations of being the forefather and torch carrier for the hordes of lo-fi musicians crafting similarly sun-damaged electro-pop; it would have been easier to crap out another record of hypnagogic bedroom electronica. Indeed, Underneath the Pine puts Bundick lightyears ahead of his chillwave peers, elevating him from electronic wunderkind to funk-pop ubermensch. It strips away the synth-pop sheen of Causers for a widely expanded sonic palette, touching on musique concrète, krautrock, cosmic jazz and French and Italian film score composers. And though it trades gauzy glo-fi for soft-focus funk, Pine still retains an emotional center, one characterized by melancholy and ennui. Companion EP Freaking Out might even be better.
BONUS ROUND: Twenty Songs not From Albums Not on the List
Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” (21)
Ages, “Only a Mother Could Love” (Made in the Trade)
Ahleuchatistas, “Israel” (Location Location)
A$AP Rocky, “Peso” (LiveloveA$AP)
Capsule, “Rylan” (No Ghost)
Childish Gambino, “Freaks and Geeks” (Childish Gambino)
Coma Cinema, “Eva Angelina” (Blue Suicide)
Hammer No More the Fingers, (The Agency)
Iceage, “Broken Bone” (New Brigade)
Idaho, “You Were a Dick” (You Were a Dick)
Into It. Over It., “Pontiac, MI” (Twelve Towns)
Lil’ Wayne, “Six Foot Seven Foot” (Tha Carter IV)
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, “Senator” (Mirror Traffic)
Trae, “Inkredible” (Tha Truth)
Tyler, the Creator, “Yonkers” (Goblin)
The War on Drugs, “Baby Missiles” (Slave Ambient)
Washed Out, “Soft” (Within and Without)
Gillian Welch, “The Way It Will Be” (The Harrow & the Harvest)
Wugazi, “Another Chessboxin’ Argument” (13 Chambers)
Wye Oak, “Doubt” (Civilian)
Honorable Mention/Apologies To: Ages, Made in the Trade; Ahleuchatistas, Location Location; Apache Dropout, Apache Dropout; Arrive, And Then There Was; David Bazan, Strange Negotiations; Big KRIT, Return of 4eva; Braveyoung, We Are All Lonely Animals; Capsule, No Ghost; Crooked Fingers, Breaks in the Armor; Explosions in the Sky, Take Care Take Care Take Care; The Field, Looping State of Mind; Four Hundred Blows, Sickness and Health; The Front Bottoms, The Front Bottoms; Fucked Up, David Comes to Life; Ghostface Killah, Apollo Kids; Hammer No More the Fingers, Black Shark; Helms Alee, Weatherhead; Iceage, New Brigade; Idaho, You Were a Dick; Indian, Guiltless; Into It. Over It., Proper / Twelve Towns EP; Jealousy Mountain Duo, Jealousy Mountain Duo; Glenn Jones, The Wanting; Krallice, Diotima; Low, C’Mon; Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Mirror Traffic; Megafaun, Megafaun; Milieu, S is for Sleep; Mogwai, Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will; Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts; My Morning Jacket, Circuital; Lindi Ortega, Little Red Boots; Owen, Ghost Town; Radiohead, King of Limbs; Raekwon, Shaolin v. Wu-Tang; Royce da 5’9”, Success is Certain; Russian Circles, Empros; This Will Destroy You, Tunnel Blanket; Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest; Tom Waits, Bad As Me; The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient; Washed Out, Within and Without; Wilco, The Whole Love; Wugazi, 13 Chambers; Wye Oak, Civilian
ACCLAIMED RECORDS I DID NOT LISTEN TO
Alabama Shakes, Alabama Shakes
The Black Keys, El Camino
James Blake, James Blake
Bill Callahan, Apocalypse
Davila 666, Tan Bajo
EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints
PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
The Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck
Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, ULTRA
Josh T. Pearson, Last of the Country Gentlemen
The Roots, Undun
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy
The Weeknd, House of Balloons
Wild Flag, Wild Flag
ACCLAIMED RECORDS I DID NOT CARE FOR
Battles, Gloss Drop
Bright Eyes, The People’s Key
Childish Gambino, Camp
Drake, Take Care
Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne
M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Cass McCombs, Wit’s End / Humor Risk
tUne-yArDs, w h o k i l l
Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo