Listen to This: The Music of 2011…So Far

So, I wanted to start a music feature where I highlight a piece of music (album, single, EP) that I think is worth checking out and briefly discuss it. Not a review per se, but an attempt to draw attention to something I’m digging and would like to turn others onto.

I don’t feel right, however, starting it almost smack in the middle of the year, so for this first installment I’m going to recap my favorite music from the first half of 2011. That means everything released before July, so no Beyoncé (sorry).

Here we go, in no particular order:

James Blake – James Blake

Forget what you know about dubstep. Mr. Blake and a handful of contemporaries might borrow some elements of the easily detestable and surprisingly long-living electronic subgenre, but don’t let that scare you off.

The 21 year-old Blake elevates the skittish drum beats and cold synths of dubstep with his soulful croon and singer-songwriter sensibility, often building on the glitchy rhythms with heaps of vocal harmony and *gasp* a real piano.

The final product is an often stunning soundscape that manages to be at once ambient and deeply emotional, delicate and powerful. It’s a beautiful work and one of my favorite releases of the year.

Shannon and the Clams – Sleep Talk

There’s something pure and eternally charming about garage rock. It’s a sound that at its simplest hasn’t changed in more than 40 years, despite the handful of styles under its enormous umbrella. It’s evocative of a specific period, whether it be the indignant punks of the early 60s or the malt shop sweetness of the 50s. But one characteristic holds across its vast landscape: it’s fucking fun.

The sophomore effort from Bay Area based Shannon and the Clams is pretty much nothing but. Frontwoman and bassist Shannon Shaw is a treasure, her scratchy wail propelling the band’s unrelenting hooks. Meanwhile guitarist Cody Blanchard kills it with the vocal harmonies.

Sleep Talk is simply the most fun I’ve had with an album in 2011. From the psychotic Buddy Holly crooner “Done With You” to the unbridled chaos of “The Cult Song,” this LP never ceases to charm, engage and rock.

I also recommend checking out Too Young to be in Love by Hunx and His Punx, something of a sister band to Shannon and the Clams. A similar sound, but a less consistent album.

Destroyer – Kaputt

On their ninth LP Dan Bejar and Destroyer cover some new ground. Gone are the massive riffs and piano runs of Destroyer’s Rubies or Trouble in Dreams (their last two releases). Instead we’re met with something more along the lines of soft rock and smooth jazz. I’m talking Chuck Mangione territory.

But it works.

It only feels a little bit cheesey and mostly it’s just pleasant. Reverbed-to-all-hell trumpet and saxophone is strewn around the album, filling in the cracks of songs ranging in sound from the soft disco of “Blue Eyes” to the U2-esque ballad “Poor in Love.”

I implore you: give it a chance. As strange as it is in this day to make a smooth jazz record, Bejar and crew do so stunningly.

Andy Stott – Passed Me By

The latest release from Manchester-based DJ/producer Andy Stott falls squarely in the dark soundscape side of electronic music. Stott, however, doesn’t shoot for ambience here. He effectively brings in fragments of his dub and dubstep background.

The result is an album that has all the spacey artistry of an ambient record, but also the dancey beats to engage the listener. Stott is simultaneously subverting two genres, turning dance music into a dark, murky soup of reverb-drenched percussion and adding balls to ambient with some consistent 4/4 bass.

The sounds are astonishing, even occasionally scary. One of the percussive elements on “North to South” sounds something like a plane taking a nose dive, complete with Doppler effect. An intermittent slapstick cuts through the oppressively bleak “Passed Me By” with ease and to startling effect.

Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

The second album from 25 year-old Swede Li Lykke Timotej Zachrisson (her stagename, Lykke Li, is just about as hard to pronounce. Think “lick-a-lee”) is miles ahead of her debut, 2008 Youth Novels. While that album excelled at creating quiet, exuberant pop songs, (none better than the simply perfect “Dance. Dance. Dance.”Wounded Rhymes is huge, powerful and stylistically varied.

Whether it’s the minimal doo-wop of “Unrequited Love” or the Zola Jesusy goth pop of “Love Out of Lust” the one unifying factor across all of Li’s music is percussion. It’s everywhere, especially on this album. Handclaps, massive bass drums and tribal tom symphonies, are all a part of the gargantuan Phil Spector-style production (handled deftly here by Björn Yttling of Peter, Björn and John).

It’s that production and arrangement that ultimately makes this a winner. There really is no way to describe the sound other than with synonyms to large. Just listen to the tidal wave of vocals on closer “Silent My Song.”

Moon Duo – Mazes

It’s pretty easy to spot the influences on Mazes, the second full-length from the San Francisco duo…Moon Duo. Take the repetitive three-chord rock of The Stooges, Alex Vega’s ghostly Suicide organs and mix them with any number of psychedelic jam bands. That’s it. That’s Mazes.

As tired as that might sound, the result is surprisingly fresh and accessible. There’s lots of looping going on. Each track is a constant build up of guitar layers ending with a multi-minute, reverbed-as-hell solo. It’s nice to hear something so strongly psych, but not too self-indulgent.

Opening track “Seer”  plays like a stoner sequel to “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The clear standout is “When You Cut,” a five minute jam, built around a little gem of an organ riff. It brings a bit of danceable levity to the center of this dense psych freak out.

I would say listen to Mazes if you like guitar solos or classic psychedelic music. Heck, listen to it just for “When You Cut” if you have any interest in rock and roll at all.

The Weeknd – House of Balloons

A pattern is emerging. Dark and hazy with a dash of dubstep seems to be sound du jour of 2011. The debut mixtape from The Weeknd, stage name of 21 year-old Torontoan Abel Tesfaye, is perhaps the epitome of this movement thus far.

Self-released back in March, House of Balloons  combines the grimy, post-dubstep of Burial and James Blake with classic 90s R&B crooning (Another sound seeing something of a revival. Thanks Beyoncé). This is baby-making music, thanks mostly to Tesfaye’s vocal performance.

The lyrics are the only thing you could possibly find fault with. They’re blunt and crude, concerned mostly with graphic depictions of sex, drugs and partying. But what else would he be singing about? This is dark, dingy, aimlessly-driving-on-a-humid-night music.

There are some absolutely thrilling moments here. The climax of opener “High for This” is monumental. A chorus of pitch-shifted snare drums leads into an eruption of bass and backing vocals that glide behind Tesfaye for the rest of the song, until the final minimal breakdown.

Oh and it’s FREE. So go download it here:

Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact

It’s impossible to talk about Eye Contact focusing most of your attention on the stunning opening jam “Glass Jar.”

It lasts about 11 minutes and more than half of that is a percolating intro filled with cymbal rolls, twinkling electronics and sparse pitched percussion. The whole track feels like a journey through a shimmering techno-cave, culminating in the discovery of a wild multi-ethnic dance party as the tune finally unfolds into a tropical synth-fest over a bossa nova beat. Some blistering drums and a guitar solo later and we’re delivered back to reality as the track comes to a close.

It’s a wild ride that sets up the rest of the album pretty well. Glass Jar, well, pretty much all of Gang Gang’s discography, is about reinterpreting various sounds from around the world through the lens of modern dance music. Closer “Thru and Thru” evokes belly dancers and snake charmers. “Chinese High” tackles afro-pop. “Mindkilla” pits the bands against reggaeton.

There’s nothing quite like Eye Contact. It’s a leap forward for the band, both as a display of their technical prowess and their listenability. It’s smart, energetic, dense and danceable. God tier stuff.

Dirty Beaches – Badlands

Another dark and hazy album. Alex Zhang Hungtai (stage name: Dirt Beaches) is a Taiwanese-born Canadian immigrant. His music is based on the quintessentially American sounds of early rock and roll: rockabilly, surf, malt shop pop. He takes these incomparably bright. poppy sounds and decimates them with the magic of lo-fi and reverb.

What’s left is a dim David Lynchian vision of a classic American scene. A smokey, black-and-white sock hop. Poodle skirts and greasers dancing drearily and without emotion.

It’s an amazing and most definitely successful experiment. These are sounds ingrained into our culture and history and using some simple techniques Mr. Hungtai has transformed them into their antithesis. A haunting, beautiful and promising debut.

Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

David Comes to Life is an 80 minute hardcore-punk opera. As strange as that sounds in this day and age, for Toronto-based punkers Fucked Up, creating something this ambitious and anachronistic seems less like an experiment than an inevitable culmination.

Their latest LP tells the story of David, a young factory worker in 1970s England, and the personal journey he takes following the loss of his beloved. The band takes the story seriously (need proof? check out David’s Town, a compilation of 11 tracks by fake bands — all played by Fucked Up — from David’s world and meant to accompany the album), but the music is just as sprawling.

This is one of the best “guitar records” in years. The up to four guitars on any given track aren’t used for volume, but texture. On tracks like “Under My Nose,” soaring riffs are layered on top of one another. It’s beautiful punk rock.

They even come close to something radio friendly on “Running on Nothing,” but the unending, canine screams of vocalist Damian Abraham Pink Eyes (not to mention the band’s name…) put the brakes on that.

Sitting down and listening to the story as a whole is an intimidating feat. Luckily, the music is compelling enough to stand on its own. Those unable to deal with screaming vocalists, however, need not apply.

The Rapture – “How Deep Is Your Love”

Modern dance-punk pioneers The Rapture are back with their first release in five years. “How Deep Is Your Love” continues the influential NYC band’s migration from post-punk to unbridled disco, ditching the razor-sharp guitars of the classic “House of Jealous Lovers” for a mercilessly catchy Chicago house piano line. The single is unmistakably Rapture though, thanks to Luke Jenner’s yelping vocals and Vito Roccoforte’s impeccable disco drumming. Toss on some hand claps and a perfectly implemented saxophone solo and you have a dance-rock classic.

Also, the chorus totally sounds like “The Thong Song.” I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad though.

The Rapture’s fourth album, In The Grace of Your Love, will be released on September 6 by DFA Records.

further suggested listening

So those were my favorite release of the first half of 2011. From here on out, I’ll be posting shorter versions of Listen to This, highlighting one or two albums I think are worth your time. Laters.

About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

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