I‘ve kind of slacked off on listening to the music lately; part of that is that Metric’s new album was released in June, and I’ve kind of had it on repeat. The other part is just that I haven’t felt like listening to much else. In any case, I did find a few albums I thought worth mentioning this month in addition to Metric.
Metric – Synthetica
Frankly, there wasn’t much question in my mind that once Metric’s new album came out, it would leap to the top of my favorites for the month – in fact, most likely for the year. Metric is probably my favorite currently-working band, and I’ve never yet been disappointed by any of their releases. Of course, there’s a first time for everything, but this is not that time. Naming their new album Synthetica seems like a natural move – after all, the band is well-known for their throwback use of New Wave-esque synths. But that’s not all that’s going on here; frontwoman/songwriter Emily Haines has constructed an album about the blurring and distinctions between the real and artificial, embodied life and synthetic detachment. Like most of her lyrics, the power behind these is felt rather than explained, and the music, which harkens back to the entirety of the band’s past as well as pushing forward, matches the evocative lyrics beat for beat. An easy front-runner for my favorite of the year.
Here it is, my top ten albums of 2011. If this looks familiar, it may be because you saw this exact list on Row Three when we published our music picks earlier this week. But! I did change one video from a live performance to the music video. So there’s that.
10. Blondie – Panic of Girls
Blondie have been making music for longer than I’ve been alive; when I heard they were coming out with a new album, I was only mildly interested, since most of the time older bands who come back to make new records don’t always work too well for me. But this album both sounds recognizably “Blondie” and also quite current. I guess that makes sense, because even Blondie’s 1970s and 1980s music sounds fairly current right now – so many indie bands are picking up their style and using it themselves. Blondie pays back the favor, even, covering Beirut’s “Sunday Smile” but giving it their own flavor that makes it almost sound like a sequel to “Sunday Girl.” The band is showing their age a bit in the video for “Mother” (below), but they can still rock it out and sound great.
9. The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave
Each new Raveonettes album and tour stop is definitely an event in my home – they put on one of the best live shows I’ve seen – and after their previous In & Out of Control neared the top of my 2009 charts, I was particularly excited for this one. It’s not quite the instant favorite with me, but its quieter and more melancholic riffs have a way of haunting me when I least expect it.
8. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
Somehow despite my obvious hipster-ish music tastes, Death Cab always passed me by until this album, which I mostly picked up out of curiosity to see if they still had whatever it was that made them such a household name in my circles. Technically, I still don’t know, because I haven’t done enough listening to their back catalog yet, but holy crap did I fall for this insanely catchy album immediately. It pretty much just took the main guitar riff from “You Are a Tourist” (see below) and I was gone. So much so, you’ll note this is the only all-male band on my whole list. :)
7. Vivian Girls – Share the Joy
I have a thing for all-girl bands (and co-ed bands, as you’ll notice), so whenever I hear about one, I usually give it a listen, but I really didn’t like Vivian Girls’ 2009 release Everything Goes Wrong – a little too noisy and unfinished-sounding for me. This time around, though, they’ve cleaned it up, giving a much brighter, clearer sound without sacrificing too much of their fuzzy roots. More mainstream-friendly? Sure. But that’s not always a bad thing. From the bait-and-switch opening of “The Other Girls” to the self-consciously ’60s-pop of “Take It as It Comes” (below) and the minorly-inflected “I Heard You Say,” I’m with this album all the way.
6. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
My fiance introduced me to this band last year, and I’d just gotten really into their earlier album (which at 8 or so songs is much too short) when their first real full-length dropped – perfect timing for this trio of epic Welsh rockers to blow me away. So many of these songs are great, it was hard to pick just one, but “I Don’t Want to See You Like This” has a great video as well, so that barely got the nod. Whenever I just need to kick back with some densely-orchestrated, big sounding tunes, this is what I reach for.
5. Givers – In Light
An EP from Givers last year had me intrigued, but not totally sold – songs like “Up Up Up” are infinitely catchy, and the rest of the album bore out the promise of that initial single (which is included on both last year’s EP and this year’s album). The band is out of Lafayette, Louisiana, and Southern charm radiates from them – there’s nothing but joy on this album, and that comes through every note.
4. The Submarines – Love Notes/Letter Bombs
The Submarines are one of my favorite bands, so I was pretty sure they’d feature somewhere on my list when I heard they were releasing an album this year. The story of the now-married couple’s lives is basically told obliquely through their albums (courtship, breakup, reunion, marriage), and with this third one they settle into married life and the challenges and joys that come along with that. Their music is adorable and upbeat, but the lyrics always have unexpected depth – it’s not surprising to learn that Blake Hazard is F. Scott Fitzerald’s great-granddaughter.
3. Grouplove – Never Trust a Happy Song
This album has been steadily climbing my charts (just a week or so ago when we started putting together this post, they were in 6th place), because I cannot get their songs out of my head for the life of me. I’d heard but not been impressed with their EP last year, but the full-length takes all the things that were good about that EP, trimmed off the things I didn’t like, and ended up with an album that hits all my buttons, including ones I didn’t even know I HAD.
2. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
I’ve moved this around on my list a lot, too, but every time I pop it in, I’m overcome with the raw emotion that Lykke Li has captured this time around. I’ve tried to like her earlier album Youth Fiction without success, but this one – every lyric, every musical choice, every orchestration is simply perfect. And this video has Stellan Skarsgard in it. So there’s that.
1. Cults – Cults
Last year, Cults’ 3-song EP would likely have been on my top ten list if I didn’t resist putting EPs on my top ten list. This year, they have a full-length (with a couple of the same songs as the EP), so it’s not surprising that it’s on here – it does surprise me a little that it ended up this high! But if I mess with the list any more, I’m going to go insane, so here it stays. The indie pop catchiness of “Go Outside” and the retro ’60s stylings of “You Know What I Mean” are clearly up my alley, but there’s not a song on here I don’t like. And it doesn’t hurt that they’ve got some of the more intriguing music videos, too – especially the one for “Go Outside,” which places the band Cults inside an actual cult, blending new and archival footage to put them at Jonestown.
I‘m well on my way to buying more new albums this year than any other year thus far. As such, I could not keep this list to five, but I’m not a big fan of arbitrarily limited lists anyway – even the ordering on this is fairly arbitrary. Theese seven albums have distinguished themselves in my listening habits far above anything else I’ve gotten this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if several of them stuck around for my end-of-the-year list as well. Anyway, here they are, my favorite albums of 2011, released before July 1st.
#7 – The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
Jonathan introduced me to this Welsh band via their half album about a year ago, but I only really listened to it and got into the band just before they released this full-length, so I was perfectly primed for this to go into repeat, and that’s just what it did. It’s a big bombastic album, with lots of layers in the orchestration to go along with the lead vocals.
#6 – The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave
I didn’t fall in love with this album quite as hard as I did with The Raveonettes’ previous release In and Out of Control, but it has grown on me quite a lot since I first got it, and I do really appreciate the band’s ability to innovate their sound (here softer and more contemplative than their previous noise-heavy rock) without leaving behind who they are – there’s still plenty of fuzz to go around here, and I actually expect the more thoughtful approach here may eventually be the one that stays with me for longer.
#5 – Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
Somehow I missed out on really being a Death Cab fan back in the day – I managed to get into indie rock somewhere in between their releases, and even though their name is omnipresent and I’m plenty adept at dropping it whenever appropriate, I actually know very little of their music. I decided I’d check this one out, and lo and behold, I cannot turn it off. I didn’t expect that, but it’s addicting, and I really want to fill in the gaps of their other albums now.
#4 – Cults – Cults
I came close to putting Cults on my list last year on the strength of a 3-song EP, but I just couldn’t do it with that little to go on. Now there’s a full album (which incorporates at least some of the EP, including the hit single “Go Outside”), and I can say with very little doubt this will be on my year-end list this time. Every one of these tracks is irresistibly catchy – fair warning, they WILL get stuck in your head.
#3 – Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
I have Lykke Li’s 2009 release Youth Novel, but despite my best and repeated efforts, I have never been able to really get into it. Even seeing her live for part of a set at Lollapalooza wasn’t quite enough, even though she’s a charismatic performer. So it was with trepidation I picked up Wounded Rhymes…and loved it immediately. Still don’t love Youth Novel, but something about this new album is very nearly perfect. It’s strident and vulnerable, with a depth in the songs both musically and lyrically that I found lacking in the earlier outing. It’s a gorgeous and heartrending album that clearly cuts close to her heart, and that comes through in every song.
#2 – The Submarines – Love Notes/Letter Bombs
If the Submarines’ first album is about the dating process, breaking up and getting together again (which they did), and their second is about a young couple embarking into fully committed and joyful love together (which they did), then this third one is about dealing with the struggles and joys of married life (which they are doing). It’s more mature and more complicated than Honeysuckle Weeks, understanding that two people being a couple isn’t easy, but the happiness is worth the struggle. Not every song is autobiographical, but they can’t seem to keep the general trajectory of their lives out of their music, and when they’re able to capture their emotions as well as they are, I have no argument with that.
#1 – Dum Dum Girls – He Gets Me High EP
I usually don’t include EPs unless they’re exemplary. I guess this one is. It probably ranks high on my listening chart because I simply can’t turn it off when it starts and end up playing it on repeat forever. I had Dum Dum Girls’ full-length I Will Be on my year-end list last year, and I actually think this EP is better than that album. All three new songs are great, catchy in both music and lyrics, and the fourth now ranks a among my favorite covers, a pretty straight but really lovely rendition of The Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” The band has another full-length due later this year. Will it top this? We’ll see.
Honorable Mentions: The Pauses – A Cautionary Tale, The Violet Lights – Sex & Sound EP, Vivian Girls – Share the Joy, Obi Best – Sentimental Education EP, The Belle Brigade – The Belle Brigade
The Raveonettes’ most recent album Raven in the Grave has been out almost two months now, and it’s been kind of a slow grower on me, especially compared with their previous release In and Out of Control, which I fell in love with immediately. Raven in the Grave has taken a bit longer – it’s not quite as hook-heavy or densely layered as their previous albums, not quite as fuzzy, instead focusing on wistful lyrics and haunting vocals over a bit more pared-down sound. That’s not to say they don’t still have a distinctively shoegaze/fuzz-pop sound, because they do. Just…less so. Now that I’ve listened to it a bunch (and heard it live), I’m warming to it a lot more, and picking out a lot of things I love, perhaps especially the plaintive refrains that punctuate the main melody of several songs, including “Apparitions.” The band has just dropped a video for the song, full of appropriately retro lomo-style filters and the band’s typical preoccupation with morbid subject matter.
This is probably the first year that I’ve listened to enough current music that I feel comfortable making a top ten list. Some of my favorite bands released new records that I loved, a few released records that I don’t love as much as I wanted to, and I found a bunch of new bands that took me by surprise, overwhelmed me, and wouldn’t let me go. This list reflects both the bigger bands (though still not big by mainstream, stadium-going standards) and the local bands that I’ve grown to love – I’ll admit my bias for mixed-gendered bands with a focus on female vocals right now, because you’ll notice it anyway.
Ten Favorite Albums of 2009
10. Headlights – Wildlife
If you like perfectly-crafted, sparkling pop gems, look no further than Headlights. I first found Headlights at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2007 – they were a breath of fresh air after a bunch of noisier, less-pleasant sounding bands, and I was an instant fan. Their first full-length album Kill Them With Kindness was on repeat for months. I didn’t care as much for follow-up Some Racing, Some Stopping, but they’re back on top with this year’s Wildlife. From the upbeat yet wistful longing of “Telephones” (“I wish I wasn’t so far from home…”) to the blissfully poppy “Get Going” to the mellow sadness of “Love Song for Buddy” (very depressing yet lovely video here), there’s so much to like about this album.
9. Obi Best – Capades
When I was checking out my Last.fm charts to see what I’d actually listened to the most this year, I was a little surprised to find that Obi Best was at about #4 of all 2009 music. But I shouldn’t be, really – they’re one of the LA bands that I try to seek out every time they play, because I really can’t get enough of leader Alex Lilly’s whimsical tunes. She also sings back-up for The Bird and the Bee, and you can see some of their influence on her unusual melodic progressions, but she’s really created something special of her very own with Obi Best (and the help of ubiquitous LA musicians Bram Inscore, Wendy Wang, and Barbara Gruska, each of whom are in a whole laundry list of bands). It may be a little twee for some, but I find myself liking it more and more every time I listen.
8. Karen O and the Kids – Where the Wild Things Are Soundtrack
I don’t care if it’s cheating to put a soundtrack on here, or that I’m giving Karen O extra love this year. Finding out that she was doing the music for Where the Wild Things Are was the thing that really got me interested in the film in the first place, I loved the soundtrack on hearing it before the film was released, and I’ll grant you that a decent portion of my love for the film is due to this music. It’s simply perfect, both on its own, and for the movie – a seamless melding of joy and sadness, comfort and freedom, all with a wild edge that I doubt anyone but Karen O could pull off with such panache. There are no good videos or clips that I could find to go with this one, so here’s one of the TV spots that features “All is Love,” the main theme. But the track that moves me the most is her cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Worried Shoes.”
7. Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
It took me a while to warm up to Bat for Lashes (aka Natasha Khan), and the aha moment didn’t really occur until seeing her live at Lollapalooza. Even though most people agree that an outdoor festival is not the perfect venue for her, it worked for me, and I look forward to seeing her in a more controlled, indoor venue at some point. Her ethereal voice soars whether she’s alone with a piano or surrounded by intricate instrumentation, melding the influences of her British/Pakistani heritage together into something wholly unique. Her music is enigmatic, and her persona parallels it, appearing innocent and down to earth in some moments and otherworldly and profoundly strange in others. She’s not someone to be easily overlooked or forgotten.
6. Great Northern – Remind Me Where the Light Is
I was practically dragged to see Great Northern by a friend of mine, and now, here they are, on my top ten list. They’ve got the sort of sound that overwhelms you, especially live, coupled with a really unique timbre in Rachel’s voice that sets them apart from most other bands. I can’t seem to find a video that really captures their sound properly, but this stripped down radio station recording is my favorite of the ones that I found. They don’t perform acoustic usually, so take this and imagine it turned up to eleven with electric guitars and drums.
Click through to see my top five, and few of my favorite live shows of the year.