Rockin' My Turntable In 2011: Tankboy
By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 29, 2011 4:00PM
Photo by Travis Wiens
The first point is just silly. Critics make lists because it is what is expected of them, yes. However, only the laziest writer hews to the popular curve when they should be instead championing the music that actually mattered to them. I guarantee you that 90% of the albums on year-end lists are discs that the writers who put them there have listened to once or twice because it was expected of them. This does no one any favors and simply breeds mediocrity.
The second point is more surprising but, in the end, to be expected. The music business craves stability and while the mid-aughts brought us an explosion that took the powers away from the money and handed the taste-making to the people, in 2011 that balance has shifted back towards the piles of cash. Instead of Major Labels and radio making the calls, though, now we have publicists working with websites to create a new(-ish) paradigm. Instead of payola the trade is now based in hipster credibility and the result is a flood of lists proclaiming "edgy" bands with a sprinkling of pop to justify the writers' "broad tastes." While a list based on that criteria would actually be a nice thing in the hands of someone actually sharing their fine taste with us, what we actually end up with is a stack of year-end collections that might as well been cranked out of the same mimeograph machine. It also helps explain why most year-end lists were already compiled before the month of November even came to an end. I have no idea how you can credibly craft a year-end list when there's a still a month in that year to go. Oh wait, you can't.
So there's that. Now on to the actual year in music.
What follows are twenty albums I liked a lot this last year. They are all really good albums. Even the slightly obvious or cheesy ones. I'm not so filled with false modesty that I'm going to pretend I don't think other people should listen to these albums. You should. Why would I share a list of my favorite music with you if I didn't hope some of it would turn people on to something new? Some of my picks are obvious and others are less so. And yes, I notice there is a dearth of pop and hip-hop on the following list but that's not because i didn't try and seek that stuff out. It was just a ho-hum year for those genres.
So let's dig into this.
Apteka creates aggressive music you can hum along to. They don't quite fit in any easy categorization. The guitars shred and burn as they build up a trembling wall of sound that would enter shoegaze territory were it not so insistent on driving forward instead of draping easily over you. The drums and bass create a rock solid base of support without ever resorting to an easily followed rhythm. It's almost as if the drummer can't stop swallowing Pixie Stix by the caseload and unleashing the resulting jitters all over his rumbling kit. But again, there's a surprising accessibility to this music and we think the point of entry there is probably through the band's appropriation of melodies that please instead of scare. These are songs that, no matter how much they make your skin want to melt into a puddle at your feet you can still hum along to.
I am absolutely stunned The Black Keys are as popular as they are. I've gone from seeing them play tiny clubs to in the old days to now sell out the freaking United Center? How did that happen?! And then I listen to El Camino and it's obvious how this happened. The duo creates a powerful blend of soul and gut-bucket blues and turns it up to eleven. And then they circle back and make all of this rust covered din catchy as hell. The Black Keys haven't changed their sound to reach the masses, the masses came to them. Haters gonna hate but they'd be foolish to hate these boys.
Prosopopoeia was one of those albums that showed up on my doorstep and richly rewarded my belief that every single thing sent my way deserves at least one listen. The brains behind the band, Gerald Slevin, puts together a shimmering blend of power pop that plays with expectations to constantly turn the listener onto their head. Take for instance the burbling drive of "Structupoppie Rally" that chugs along as a pleasant synth-rock ditty, lulling with its beauty, before exploding into a bouncing disco chorus that would bow the floor of any house party.
Cut Copy will not be denied their dance party. Zonoscope continues their uncanny knack for creating dance-pop that hits the pleasure center without making you feel stupid for giving in wholeheartedly to the band's charms. These Aussies also walk away with the award for one of the more memorable live moments of 2011 bu turning Union Park into a huge disco club during their set at the Pitchfork Music Festival.
This was Dave Grohl and his crew's year. They came back with the best album they've put together in, what, 15 years? They toured garages. They played Metro. They conquered the elements with the second best set we have ever seen at Lollapalooza (sorry boys, Daft Punk still holds the number one spot) and punched a thunderstorm in the face to emerge the clear victor. After years of slowly drifting into a cartoonish facsimile of a heavy rock band, Foo Fighters finally snapped out of it and reminded people why you should never underestimate the drummer. Or his band.
Frank Ocean is the only name from the whole OFWGKTA collective I'm certain you'll still be hearing from in five years. His swooning and beautiful R&B manages to sound simultaneously of the now while evoking the past. There's a vulnerability to his voice that comforts and draws you in. He's not so much a crooning lover as he is an intimate confidant.
Punk rawk rock operas seem to have hit the mainstream, no? Fucked Up churned out an epic in both volume and and ambition, charting the loves and betrayals of its core characters, and piling on so many guitars that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was left quaking in its snow-caked booties. It was also the year that band became so undeniable legions of mainstream music writers tripped over themselves trying to display their wit at describing the band's name without—blush, blush!—actually saying it! Whatever, Fucked Up deserves every iota of attention being directed their way right now. Hopefully that means people will start buying their other hundred or so releases too.
It's not unusual to see an artist try and create tension between the light and the dark but it is quite the trick to transpose the two against each other and end up with something so immediately pleasurable as Phantom Films ends up being. There is no shallowness here though, don't misinterpret that statement. Instead the emotional turbulence informing the music keeps the darkness swirling beneath the surface, forcing the waters above into constantly shimmering patterns instead of placid panes of stained glass. And it's this interplay that makes Phantom Films such a deeply satisfying, broadly cinematic, listening experience.
On Audio, Video, Disco—despite what you may have heard—this French electronic duo deliver pretty much what you would expect. They've expanded their palette to mix Moroder with King Crimson, and the heavy presence of guitars serves to prove our theory that every DJ wishes they were a rock star, and in justice's case they at least make a credible argument for their inclusion in the rock pantheon. No, nothing they do here is particularly amazing by itself but the fact they tackle classic rock stereotypes and usher them onto the dance floor without embarrassing themselves is worth a hearty round of applause. And ass shaking.
M83's Anthony Gonzalez specializes in building big, shimmering mountains of sound that tug at you relentlessly and on his latest double-disc they continue to embrace wide eyed sentimentality. His dextrous mixture of '80s pop with shoegaze shimmer and whispered vocals that soar off into plaintive cries that could either be joyous whoops or lamenting refrains; it doesn't really matter which. It's like cotton candy built on sunshine and tears. And we can't get enough of it.
File this under music to run mindlessly to. Or soundtrack any television commercial you want to imbue with some sense of hipster dance culture. Oh wait, that already happened. Martin Solveig builds big ol' sugary chunks of club beats and surging synths that can warm the heart of even the most rhythmically challenged. In a world where I felt like the weirder corners of pop failed me Solveig reaffirmed my belief that sometimes big and dumb is preferable to trying to challenge your audience. Everything about these songs are painfully obvious but they are also an undeniably good time. It's all just so deliciously Eurotrashy!
Gimme Some allows this trio of Swedes the chance to come full circle back into the arms of somewhat conventional pop. Have no fear, fans of the band's more adventurous phase, because this is pop laced with the lessons learned on the last few albums! The tunes are short and jaunty but the instruments sound as if they're pushed through a sound system run through a cold German laboratory powered by steam engines.
The Popovers was the bedroom project of Tim LaFollette and Catie Braly and whichever of their friends they can recruit to play the often ornate little pop masterpieces. And little is a bit of a misleading term. While there's certainly a lo-fi aesthetic to the group's recordings the songs are stuffed to the brim with sound -- some horns here, a dash of sleigh bells there, a massive guitar run NOW -- that proves that a reduced recording budget doesn't mean you can't create a bedroom symphony. Sadly, LaFollette passed away earlier this year but we're incredibly thankful he left this gift for us behind before he left.
This is dance rock in the best sense; this is music made for cathedrals of all sorts, be they dance clubs or sticky floored bars or actual honest-to-gawd spiritual centers of enlightenment. The thrust of any great dance song is that which seeks to propel you to another plane and while most accomplish this through well-set mechanisms meant to elicit automatic replies, The Rapture instead seeks actual emotional uplift in all that they do. Lots of rock bands try to create club-worthy dance tunes but The Rapture is one of the few that actually succeeds in doing just that.
Ringo Deathstarr manage to successfully combine all the best elements of shoegaze with all the best elements of succinct pop songs. We stumbled across the band's catalog recently and it was one of the happiest discoveries we've made this year. Their clap-along tunes seem genetically engineered to pull smiles from ear to ear, and the fuzz drenching every composition delivers just enough of a sonic smear to keep things from ever getting cheesy.
The great thing about Sloan is that—twenty years into their career—they still have the ability to be a dozen different bands at the same time without ever seeming gimmicky or untrue to their inner voice. In some ways they're still a bunch of teenagers full of a jillion great ideas they can't wait to get out their and they don't care if their venue is a garage or a coliseum; everything they do is still going to be filled with an excitement that's going to swell to take over the entire space. And with The Double Cross the space they occupy continues to expand and search out new avenues despite the fact that the band seems absolutely comfortable where they are.
The Sounds will never, ever grow up. they are going to kick out heavy New Wave-influenced dance rock until the day they die (and since the kids are gonna live forever, that day is never gonna come). This would prove infuriatingly stagnant if it weren't so obvious that this crew is just so freaking good at doing what they do. The band is freakishly adept at writing fist-pumping anthems that cross generational lines. Heck, even the fogeys that "just don't get" what the kids are digging can't help but fall in love with 'em.
The Stepkids' specialize on taking things right back to the '60s with a mixture of soul-funk grooves, psychedelic song structures and aesthetic sensibilities along with a healthy handling of a jazz freakout flourish hear and there. It's as if the Bee Gees teamed up with Curtis Mayfield and took a hefty dose of acid before embarking on a sonic journey together. Their self-titled debut hints at the band's powers but this live release truly captures what's great about The Stepkids. Throw it on and freak out.
Telekinesis is the brainchild of Michael Benjamin Lerner and his sophomore album, 12 Desperate Straight Lines, is bubbly, effervescent and capable of cutting you until you bleed because the song craft is so sharp. While he records everything by himself in the studio, he expands the group into a three piece on the road including Chicago's Jason Narducy (ex-Verbow) on bass and Cody Votolato on guitar. Lerner rounds out the trio tackling singing duties from behind the drum kit. And it makes sense that the band's tunes are written from the perspective of a drummer since each one is propelled along by a seriously right-on rhythmic piston underneath melodies that attract foot stomping, hand clapping and wide smiling responses from all exposed to them.
The Weeknd, a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye, dropped his third release of the year last week, further solidifying my belief that year-end lists should actually be constructed at year's end, otherwise you miss being able to mention late arriving gems. And all three of The Weeknd's albums have been gems. Each disc is built upon vast deserts of regret and slowly billowing winds melodramatic loss slowly building to repeated crescendos of roiling introspection. This is R&B stripped to the bone, laid bare and naked upon its own cross of desperation, and it lashes you mercilessly until you submit and drift through its delicious pain.
...and, what the heck, one more!
Wilco has found a pleasant pace the band is obviously pretty comfortable with now. The Whole Love sees Jeff Tweedy and his crew crafting a collection consisting of pretty tight little pop rockers that will satisfy most. The band's ear for melody and their expertise in building beautiful sounding records is at its high-water point in the group's career, and hell, isn't that all their fans really want at this point? Isn't that all the band really wants? In the end you can call it "dad rock" if you want, but The Whole Love is proof that Wilco is a band that is still evolving even if their pace has slowed.
Apex Manor "Under the Gun"
Architecture "I'm With You"
Architecture in Helsinki "Contact High"
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti "Round and Round (The Hood Internet Remix)"
Ashtar Command "Salvation"
Battles "Ice Cream (feat. Matias Aguayo)"
The Beastie Boys "Nonstop Disco Powerpack"
Bicentennial Bear "Makeshifting"
The Black Keys "Lonely Boy"
Brian Olive "Left Side Rock"
Britney Spears "Till The World Ends (DOCTOR ROSEN ROSEN Remix)"
Childish Gambino "Heartbeat"
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah "Same Mistake"
Cold War Kids "Mine Is Yours (Yeasayer Remix)"
The Color Bars "Structupoppie Rally"
Craig Wedren "Make Me Hurt You"
Cut Copy "Need You Now"
DATAROCK "Catcher In The Rye"
Dead Rider "Stop Motion"
Decibully "Blood We Bleed"
The Features "Rambo"
Foo Fighters "Rope"
Frank Ocean "Strawberry Swing"
Fucked Up "Queen Of Hearts"
Givers "Up Up Up (CSS Remix)"
Glossies "Let's Get Awkward"
Gringo Star "You Want It"
Gypsyblood "My R.K.O. Is M.I.A."
Hey Champ "Anything At All"
Holy Ghost! "Wait and See"
Hooray For Earth "Sails"
The Horrors "Still Life"
The Idle Hands "Uptown Burning"
Jay-Z & Kanye West "Otis (feat. Otis Redding)"
Kelly Clarkson "I Forgive You"
Lady GaGa "Hair"
Light FM "Mercy"
Lindsey Buckingham "That's The Way Love Goes"
Little Red "Rock It"
Lykke Li "Get Some"
M83 "Midnight City"
Martin Solveig "Hello (feat. Dragonette) [Single Edit]"
Mwahaha "Rainbow Diamond"
Noah and the Whale "Tonight's The Kind Of Night (RAC Mix)"
Parts & Labor "Rest"
Peter Bjorn & John "Dig A Little Deeper"
The Popovers "Sad State Of Affairs"
Rachael Yamagata "Starlight"
The Rapture "Children"
Reptar "Stuck In My ID"
Ringo Deathstarr "Do It Every Time"
Sleeper Agent "Get It Daddy"
Sloan "Unkind (Radio Edit)"
The Sounds "Dance With The Devil"
Starfucker "Bury Us Alive"
The Stepkids "Sweet Salvation"
Summer Camp "Brian Krakow"
Tame Impala "Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind? (Erol Alkan Rework Edit)"
Telekinesis "You Turn Clear in the Sun"
Thee Oh Sees "Chem-Farmer"
Theophilus London "Wine And Chocolates"
TV Girl "Benny and the Jetts"
TV On The Radio "Caffeinated Consciousness"
U.S. Royalty "Equestrian (Flosstradamus Remix)"
Unknown Mortal Orchestra "How Can U Luv Me"
Walter Meego "Starlight"
War On Drugs "Baby Missiles"
Wavves "I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl"
The Weeknd "Glass Table Girls"
Wilco "Art Of Almost"
The Wombats "Tokyo (Vampires And Wolves)"
YACHT "Dystopia (The Earth Is On Fire)"