These five artists may not have made the top 20 of 2011 but are definitely worth a listen.
Honorable mention | 20-16 | 15-11 | 10-6 | 5-1
“I Don’t Want Love” – Burst Apart
Evaluating the Antlers’ Burst Apart outside of the long shadow cast by their 2009 breakthrough Hospice is nearly impossible. Hospice, a concept album about the tragic relationship between a cancer patient and her lovelorn nurse, was so emotionally grueling, sonically austere, and alien in its loveliness, it makes Burst Apart seem almost inviting by comparison. But make no mistake; while its songwriting and instrumentation are more conventional (almost radio-friendly, in fact), Burst Apart is no less devastating. Rather than tackle the subject of love doomed by terminal illness, Burst Apart explores what happens when a heart dies on the inside, corrupted by infidelity, injury, and deceit.
A thread of damaged carnality, both emotional and physical, winds through Burst Apart. Singer Peter Silberman admits “Everyone I loved/Kept me tangled in my heart” on “French Exit” (a term for a lover’s crude departure just after sex) and in more than one song claims his “teeth are falling out,” Freud’s psychoanalytical symbol for castration. But more than any one lyric, it’s the album’s lean, elegiac sound that establishes mood. From the plangent guitars of “I Don’t Want Love” to the fractured, aching throb of “Parentheses,” Burst Apart sounds like Radiohead’s Amnesiac bled through a gauze of emotional neediness. On Hospice, the Antlers showed they could break your heart; here, they’re bent on tearing it out.
“I’m God” – unreleased instrumental
Twenty-three year old Mike Volpe, aka Clams Casino, is a well-respected name in the world of hip-hop , known for producing hypnotic soundscapes for up and coming rappers like Lil B, A$AP Rocky, and Soulja Boy. But his reputation is growing in indie circles for what happens to those hazy sonic backdrops when you take the words away — addition by reduction, in a sense.
When situated beneath a rhyme like “I smoked away my brain, I think I’m going dumb/ Cocaine up on my gums, I think they’re going numb,” Volpe’s tracks sound as murky and miasmic as the weed-rap that they soundtrack. But re-released in 2011 on his mix tape Instrumentals, these songs all breathe with a new, uninhibited vitality. Tracks like “Numb” and “I’m Official” now float by with an ethereal, hypnagogic grace, characterized by supple beats, woozy synths and vocal samples that stretch out like taffy. Volpe’s at his best when blending a beatific female voice with swooning, trip-hop atmospheres like the Imogen Heap sample on “I’m God.” That song title, though originally conceived by Lil B as the ultimate expression of a rapper’s swagger, is just as fitting for Volpe, a producer who should feel supremely confident working in any genre he pleases, period.
“The Other Shoe” – David Comes to Life
“The Other Shoe” – mp3
Everything about Fucked Up necessitates an opinion. The offensive name, the band’s ear-blistering triple guitar assault, and front man Damien Abraham’s hemorrhaged-vocal cord rants are all unavoidable reminders that this is music that gets in your face. Did I mention Abraham’s onstage appearance resembles that of a slovenly, shirtless blacksmith? Indeed, Fucked Up is the kind of band my wife hates. Come to think of it, I really didn’t like them at first either. But then I heard their 78-minute rock opera, David Comes to Life, and something clicked.
Most pop music fans are not going to appreciate a hardcore-punk musical about a disgruntled light bulb factory worker who falls in love and builds a bomb. But surprisingly, some of you will. David Comes To Life is a relentless, repetitive throng of anthemic rock that lays slabs of grating noise over sugar-spiked power chords. Yeah, the album’s meta-concept storyline is convoluted, Abraham’s voice can sound like a sore rubbing against an abrasion, and his second most-recognizable lyric might be “Feeling good is such a waste.” But before you commit to hating this, listen to “The Other Shoe” at high volume (when you’re angry) and try not to feel the same mix of exhilaration, grief, and utter futility that we all do when faced with the realization that “we’re dying on the inside.”
“Alex” – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, San Francisco indie rockers Girls have dozens of bands blushing. They have the uncanny knack of digging deep into the treasure trove of pop music history and making the sounds they find their own. Front man/songwriter Christopher Owens crams other artists’ riffs and defining traits of entire musical genres into his best creations; “Honey Bunny” wraps 60’s surf rock fret play around Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” bass line, “Die” injects the rhythm of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” into Sonic Youth-style guitar thrash, and 7-minute epic “Vomit” melds Floydian-psychedelia with gospel organ and choir.
Each transition from intro to verse, verse to chorus, and chorus to bridge offers Girls another opportunity to showcase a melody or hook that you swear you’ve heard before but can’t quite place. If there’s a criticism, it’s that Girls lean too much on their chameleonic abilities and impressive musicianship in lieu of writing enough great songs to fill a whole album (Father, Son, Holy Ghost is heavily front-loaded, and Owens reliance on 50’s pop constructs soon wears thin.) But their second full release finds them expanding creatively, sounding more self-assured, and feeling increasingly comfortable with their own identity — that of being one of today’s most promising indie rock bands.
“Bizness” – w h o k i l l
Two thousand eleven was the Year of the Protester, and no lady doth protest quite like tUnEyArDs’ Merrill Garbus. The 32-year old singer/multi-instrumentalist crafted w h o k i l l, a joyously dizzying communique of riots, social upheaval, and disillusionment, then spent the year taking her songs to the streets of Oakland, Minneapolis, Washington D.C., and New York (among others), sometimes playing in tightly-packed nightclubs and sometimes at Occupy Movement camp sites. By weaving pop hooks and ferocious rap-style lyrics around tenor saxes, fuzz bass, and Afro-beat rhythms, Garbus has created a sound that reflects both her fiery onstage physicality and the smoldering global tension of the times.
By looping percussive vocal sounds and frantic drumming into a multi-layered sonic base, Garbus is free to roam concert stages like a banshee, scatting, screaming and caterwauling melodies while simultaneously strumming a ukulele and dancing to tUnEyArDs’ blaring horn section. Her energy and message are jubilant, furious, and infectious all at once. “Gangsta” cries foul over stereotypes, “Bizness” rails against addiction, and “Powa” is an explosive feminist credo. Before concerts, Garbus dons a defiant streak of tribal face paint, almost as if she headed out to war. In a sense, she is. “My country ‘tis of thee/Sweet land of liberty/How come I cannot see my future in your arms?” belts out Garbus, but moments later slyly adds a disclaimer “Not yet.” That time is coming, and tUnEyArDs’ time is now.
Honorable mention | 20-16 | 15-11 | 10-6 | 5-1
All are worthy honorable mentions, having listened to them on my Spotify premium account (love no longer having to listen to the annoying ads). As someone who has lived in Africa as a former Peace Corps volunteer and loves Afrobeat and other styles from that continent, I am particularly fond of tUnEyArDs’ crazy sound collage.
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