[Art by Sean Metcalf]
The following is a list of albums that we found to be particularly engaging this year.
The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient [Secretly Canadian]
After The War on Drugs released their debut LP, Wagonwheel Blues, in 2008, lead Druggie Adam Granduciel retired to his Philly home to experiment with samples and recording techniques. Several years later, that process spawned Slave Ambient, which combines a distinctive blend of psychedelic Americana guitar rock with celestial ambient textures that flow throughout the album in a droning undercurrent. While many bands have struggled to bring their experimental side into the studio setting, The Drugs have done exactly that with Slave Ambient. On tracks like the sprawling ambient outro “The Animator,” this experimental side comes into full view and hints at the complexity involved in the sonic layering within these songs.
“Come To The City”
Woods – Sun & Shade [Woodsist]
With each new release, Woods continue to evolve and impress. As with 2009′s Songs of Shame and 2010′s At Echo Lake, the group continues their trajectory toward a more song-oriented approach on their sixth LP, while still encompassing their creep side through extended jams like the nod to Neu!’s Hallogallo, “Out of the Eye” and spiritual sound quests like “Sol y Sombra.” Lead singer Jeremy Earl’s falsetto tone sounds slightly more polished, however, his Shagg’s style guitar work is still delectably off-kilter. This release shows major step in the group’s songwriting abilities, with many of the songs ranking alongside their best.
“Any Other Day”
Pure X – Pleasure [Acephale]
The debut full length release from Austin’s Pure X has made a profound effect on me throughout the year. You know how, sometimes, upon first hearing an album, it forever reminds you of that period of time? Well, for me, that’s the case with this one and last Winter. I played it endlessly and with each listen I discovered something new. Every one of the stoned-out songs is a sprawling trip through through mimimalist, seemingly-nonexistent melodies that thrive on the textured reverb-drenched squalls of sound as well as singer Nate Grace’s nuanced vocal approach. It’s a listening experience that requires headphones and a ready mind.
Real Estate – Days [Domino]
On Real Estate’s sophomore LP, the New Jersey suburbanites move past the lo fi surf pop heard on their debut, into a territory that is decidedly their own. The combination of dueling guitars blend together like those of Verlaine and Lloyd on many songs like “Easy” and “Green Aisles,” while others show lead singer Martin Courtney’s progression as a songwriter highly capable of evoking images from one’s adolescent years. It’s an album everyone can like, and based on it’s recent success, it seems that most people do.
Quilt – S/T [Mexican Summer]
The debut LP from Boston’s Quilt is a recent discovery that quickly made its mark on my list of favorites. The group dabbles in a wide range of sounds that channel everyone from the Airplane to The Incredible String Band and other west coast 60s psych acts to Raga to British folk influences like The Pentangle and many others. Songs “Rabid Love” and “The Silver Stairs of Ketchikan” even recall a less eerie Woods, taking on a similar minimalist freak folk approach led by the choir-like vocals of Anna Fox Rochinski. The album, produced and engineered by Apollo Sunshine’s Jesse Gallagher, is the result of a series of extended experimental jams and free form songwriting. Many of the songs take on mantra-like form, with repetitive chants and Eastern melodies that guide the listener through dreamy, transcendent sound quests.
“Cowboys In The Void”
White Denim – D [Downtown]
On D, White Denim moves in a more progressive direction. The album’s complex arrangements and near-perfect vocal harmonies showcase the group’s impressive chops and their continually evolving songwriting approach. While D is certainly White Denim’s best effort to date, it only begins to hint at the potential they can still reach.
Gillian Welch – Harrow & The Harvest [Acony]
Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s highly anticipated new release finally made its way to our ears this year, proving that the wait was all worth while. The songs hearken back to a past time, keeping alive a style of music that has seemingly packed up and gone, while still sounding fresh and current.
“The Way It Goes”
Woodsman – Mystic Places [Fire Talk]
On Mystic Places (the only EP to make this list), Woodsman successfully capture their more experimental side with a series of organic, mostly instrumental, tunes that travel through loop-heavy drones and propulsive zoned-out drum beats. Combine all of that with VHS-ripped vocal segments and the group’s nack for kraut-inspired improv and you have one of the finest psych-rock releases of the year.
Twerps – S/T [Underwater Peoples]
The debut full-length release from Melbourne, Austrailia’s Twerps is a welcome extension to the wave of jangly, surf pop flooding onto the scene in recent years. Separating themselves from the pack with the raw, matter-of-fact lead vocals of frontman Marty Frawley, the group channels 80s Flying Nun artists like the Clean, while also nodding to 90s lo fi acts. It’s as though punk sensibilities have combined with those of the pop world to help this seemingly tossed-off effort sound so cohesive and compelling. Most of the album’s warm pop numbers are driven by treble-heavy, Tom Verlaine style guitar riffs and simple, catchy hooks (“Dreaming,” “This Guy,”), while others (“Bring Me Down”) strip all of that away, exposing a far more melancholic side of Twerps’ sound. Both sides come together with the anthemic final track “Coast to Coast,” where Frawley proclaims “The sun’s in my eye, and I’ve never felt so high,” a fair declaration to close out one of 2011’s finest efforts.
Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo [Matador]
Smoke Ring for My Halo is Kurt Vile’s fourth and finest LP to date. On this one, the Philadelphia-native steps into a more polished zone, continuing to build upon his unique mix of twangy finger-picked ballads and fuzz-heavy guitar rock anthems.
Yellowbirds – The Color [Royal Potato Family]
The debut solo release from Apollo Sunshine’s Sam Cohen is a highly impressive effort from start to finish. Over the course of 11 tracks, Cohen guides us through a calming psychedelic journey that begins with the very first note of “The Rest of My Life.” Much of the album evokes a throwback 60′s psych sound, but with the addition of an arsenal of effects and an auto-harp, a fresh wave rushes through each song. Cohen’s approach to his solos shines a light on his Berkelee schooling, setting him in place among the top guitarists on the scene today.
“Our Good Days Are Gone”
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges [Constellation]
New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges is the second solo album from Montreal-based saxophone virtuoso Colin Stetson. Using mainly his saxophone, and recording many of the tracks live, Stetson builds lush soundscapes that recall the likes of nothing you’ve ever heard before. While many adventures of this type often come off as failed, free-form sonic experiments, New History is compelling and highly musical throughout.
Sun Araw – Ancient Romans [Drag City / Sun Ark]
Sun Araw’s double LP Ancient Romans, is probably the most accessible grouping of songs in the Los Angeles artist’s cannon. This one isn’t for everyone, but if you can wrap your head around the odd times and complex sound textures that guide this adventure, then you may discover the true genius behind the loop master’s art. Another one that rarely left the vicinity of my turntable this year.
Amen Dunes – Through Donkey Jaw [Sacred Bones]
Through Donkey Jaw is the second full-length release from Damon McMahon’s Amen Dunes project. Meditative, hazy guitar lines and McMahon’s floaty vocals guide the songs through minimalist psych excursions. A highly transcendent listening experience.
Megafaun – S/T [Hometapes]
The fourth full length from Durham, NC’s Megafaun, largely explores the more rugged, American side of the their rural sound. While the self-titled album is largely accessible, it also leans toward their experimental side with tracks like “These Words” and “Serene Return.” One of the year’s most stunningly beautiful releases.
Peaking Lights – 936 [Not Not Fun]
Madison, Wisconsin’s Peaking Lights are a married couple who’s music sounds like Tom Tom Club on a boatload of acid. Infusing dub-style grooves with psychy sounds and effects, 936 is, simply put, a danceable astral adventure.
“All The Sun That Shines”
Tinariwen – Tasilli [Anti-]
Recorded in a remote section of the South Eastern Algerian desert, Tassili, Tinariwen’s fifth studio release, sets a different course than previous efforts. On the long player, the group strips down their sound—trading Stratocasters for acoustics, employing the use of un-amplified percussion—and, for the first time, invites a few notable outsiders to appear. Guests include Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, who ventured to the desert to record with the band, in addition to Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Returning to the their beginnings, Tassili recreates the origins of Tinariwen’s music—acoustic songs performed by an open fire, much like the refugee camps where they originated.
“Tenere Taqqim Tossam”
Panda Bear – Tomboy [Paw Tracks]
Four years after the release of the Noah Lennox’s groundbreaking album Person Pitch, came the release of the more conventional and structured effort Tomboy. Lennox continues to churn out blissful psychedelia with modern Brian Wilson-style vocal harmonies, although in a more simplistic fashion that shows a progression in his approach to sampling and looping techniques. Deserving of many listens.
Ty Segall – Goodbye Bread [Drag City]
On Goodbye Bread, Ty Segall steps into the singer-songwriter shoes with an album full of Lennon-esque vocals and crashing, fuzzed-out guitar riffs. Another great guitar-rock album from 2011.
“I Can’t Feel It”
Thee Oh Sees – Carrion Crawler/The Dream [In the Red]
At this point I’m pretty tired of writing about albums, but this one happens to be my favorite garage rock album, in a large sea of them, to come out of 2011. Let’s leave it at that.
Best New Release From The Past:
The Beach Boys – The Smile Sessions
Best Live Releases:
Miles Davis – The Bootleg Series, Volume 1: Live in Europe 1967
Grateful Dead – Europe 72 Vol. II
Phish – Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97
Frank Zappa – Live at Carnegie Hall
The Paperhead – S/T
Middle Brother – S/T
The Barr Brothers – S/T [featured on last year's list]
The Feelies – Here Before
Wilco – The Whole Love
Bonnie Prince Billy – Wolfroy Goes To Town
MV & EE – Country Stash
Bon Iver – S/T
Beyondo – Free The Twin
Ducktails – Aracade Dynamics III
Stephen Malkmus- Mirror Traffic
Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica
Julian Lynch – Terra
Rangers – Pan Am Stories
Wooden Shjips – West
One of the integral forces behind The War on Drugs music is bassist Dave Hartley, who also commands his own one-man outfit tagged with the moniker Nightlands. In this project, some of the underlying sounds and recording methods present in the Drugs’ sound seem to carry over, but the similarities stop there. Spacious, synth-y drones blend with Hartley’s layered, effect-laden vocals to brush out a sound that is rich with subtle nuances and ambient sheets of sound. Following a recent signing with Secret City, we expect a full release to appear sometime in the near future. But, for the time being, hear Nightlands’ cover of Lindsay Buckingham’s “Trouble” off a recent free download that also includes Scott Walker’s “Big Louise.” Also check out some of the originals on the Nightlands bandcamp page.