Honorable mentions | 20-16 | 15- 11 | 10-6 | 5-1
15) How To Dress Well
“Set It Right” – Total Loss
What precisely is that emotion called, the indescribable flood of mournfulness, exhilaration, fury, and relief that comes all at once when you let go of the pain of a loss? How to Dress Well’s Tom Krell may not have the vocabulary to define it, but on his second album Total Loss, he expresses it vividly. Recorded during a time when he was dealing with the deaths of a close friend and family member, Total Loss is Krell’s self-proclaimed attempt to “trace an affect that’s not yet an emotion.” You can sense the strange familiarity and conflicted impulses coursing through the veins of his songs, each one an odd mixture of R&B, experimental electronic sounds, and tape loops. Krell’s voice is both soaring and sultry, the sort made for slinky slow jams and upbeat soul numbers like “& It Was U.”
But it’s the meditative downtempo tracks where Krell truly slays. On its vinyl version, album highlight “Set It Right” is subtitled “August 22, 2011”, the day of its recording and one year anniversary of the death of Krell’s best friend. That day in the studio, Krell rewrote the song’s lyrics on the fly, including its stunning bridge in which he says “And I swear to God/ It’s no coincidence that as I sing this song this day/ It’s been one year since I missed ya.” The track rides a gigantic tsunami wall of looped cries that Krell describes as sounding “triumphal,” but it could just easily pass for the essence of anguish. It’s a special moment in which Krell pulls you into the private space inside his heart, an emotional center tucked somewhere between agony and ecstasy.
“Set It Right” – mp3
See also “& It Was U”
14) Tame Impala
“Apocalypse Dreams” – Lonerism
At a time when “sounding vintage” is so common it’s become blasé, Tame Impala make retroism feel uncommonly special. The Australian rock band ape their psychedelic garage and prog rock influences with a virtuosity and pioneering studio experimentalism that pushes their second album Lonerism way past ordinary record crate delving. Bandleader Kevin Parker employs a rich assortment of echo delay, fuzz pedals, and phase effects to mimic that crunchy, groove-driven guitar vibe that exploded out of AM transistor radios in the late 60’s/early 70’s — it’s the sound of being stoned underwater.
Then there’s the matter of that voice. As Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene perfectly stated, when Parker opens his mouth it sounds “like someone trapped John Lennon’s vocal take from ‘A Day in the Life’ in a jar and taught it to sing new songs.” Fortunately, they’re great ones. “Elephant” is a delicious T-Rex style fuzz romp, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” delivers baked-out bliss, and “Led Zeppelin” sounds just like you’d expect — bluesy, acid-drenched, and ferocious.
“Apocalypse Dreams” takes opposing sides of Tame Impala’s aesthetic (sharp pop sensibilitities and rampant psychedelia) and spot-welds them at a crooked mid-song juncture. The first half is pure piano bar blues whose trash can stomp and hookiness can be traced all the way back to …well, The Beatles, and the second half is a paisley explosion of aural fireworks and headphone eargasms circa Haight-Ashbury 1967. Lonerism runs long at times, but even that’s true to the progressive spirit of the era they’re emulating. The whole thing has a giddy, extravagant, and surreal glow. “This could be the day that we push through.” Parker says. Consider it done.
“Apocalypse Dreams” – mp3
See also “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”
13) Cloud Nothings
“Stay Useless” – Attack on Memory
Here’s a familiar story: studio engineer Steve Albini inherits a band fresh off its breakthrough punk-pop album, strips away the glossy sheen, adds serrated guitar timbre and drum thwack and produces a release that’s equally superb and even more uncompromising. Sounds like Cloud Nothings, right? Actually I’m talking about Nirvana, the epochal grunge punk band Albini famously recorded on In Utero. But you get the point, right? Albini has been here before. He’s fantastic at taking great songs from angry artists and scuffing the polish right off them so that only their ragged emotional scars remains.
Indeed, the real story here is the artist behind those songs, Cloud Nothings’ front man, Dylan Baldi. Attack on Memory was staged by Baldi to be just what it’s title indicates, a visceral deconstruction of people’s perceptions of Cloud Nothings. No longer just a project from his parent’s basement, Cloud Nothings is a full-fledged live band — a sledgehammer union of guitar, drums, and throat shredding whose opening one-two punch “No Future/ No Past” and “Wasted Days” simply obliterates expectations for the sort of pop charm Baldi exhibited on the band’s self-titled debut. His sharp songwriting instincts can’t help but shine through on traditional verse-chorus gems like “Stay Useless” and “Cut You,” but the message is clear. He’s pissed off, and you’re going to hear about it.
“Stay Useless” – mp3
See also “No Future/No Past” and “Cut You”
12) The xx
“Missing” – Coexist
Oliver Sims and Remy Madley-Croft of the xx may not be lovers, but their best songs have a way of negotiating the sacred, often tremulous space known as intimacy. “Missing” is one those those moments. In the first verse, Sims’ voice is front and center as he wonders “Will you miss me/ When there’s nothing to see?” while Madley-Croft is in the periphery, softly breathing “How did I..? How did I…?” The creeping desperation is palpable. But on the second verse, producer/beats wizard Jamie xx shifts their positions almost imperceptibly; Sims is now in the background, and she’s come forward to answer.
It’s a deft slight of hand, almost like rack focus for the ears — you’re glimpsing a lovers’ quiet exchange from a camera angle in which both parties are in the field of vision but only one is in focus. As the speaker changes, the lens turns; man blurs to the backdrop and woman to sharpens to front. In reality, neither moves an inch, suggesting the distance between them is both barely there and enormous. It’s an apt paradoxical description for the xx’s vaporous sound — inches away from you, yet a world apart.
“Missing” is a conversation, a confession (“My heart is beating in different way” is as poetically devastating a way of saying you’ve fallen out of love with someone as any heard in recent memory), and a corner around which their relationship turns sour for good. Midway through, a single, plangent guitar note pierces the silence —- the closest thing Coexist‘s subdued, spartan landscape has to a climactic moment. On the emotional Geiger counter readout, this one practically feels like an earthquake.
“Missing” – mp3
See also “Chained”
11) Grizzly Bear
“Sleeping Ute” – Shields
The Sleeping Ute is a sacred place — the very manifestation of nature’s quietude, steadfastness, and immutability. It’s the highest peak in a silent, sprawling mountain range in northwest Colorado whose namesake is derived from their profile’s resemblance to that of a great Indian Ute Chief, arms folded across his chest in repose. Grizzly Bear’s music instills a similar solemnity and mesmerizing awe — a sense that you’re experiencing something greater, not just than the sum of the Brooklyn foursome’s musical parts, but than yourself as well.
While formed in the mold of a traditional guitar/bass/drum rock band, Grizzly Bear sprawl outward using intricate song structures, ornate and experimental intstrumentation, and a stained glass kaliedscope lens of folk, psychedelic, and classic rock influences. Their fourth and finest album, Shields, represents the peak of the band’s evolution from Ed Droste’s bedroom experiment to one of indie music’s most trumpeted live and studio acts. While lacking some of the pop friendliness of its predecessor Veckatimest, Shields is more gorgeous than anything the band has accomplished to date.
It explores opposing themes of wanderlust and a return to self, of peacefulness with a surging need to ramble on. On “Sleeping Ute”, the album’s first and hallmark track, singer/guitarist Daniel Rossen implores: “If I could lie still/ As that great hill.” But it’s not meant to be — all the organs, pedal effects, and tambourines crash to a halt, replaced by a delicate acoustic finger picked pattern as Rossen declares desperately, almost euphorically: “But I can’t help myself.” He’s compelled to drive ever onward, questing, searching for new adventures and new sounds— as is Grizzly Bear.
“Sleeping Ute” – mp3
See also “Yet Again” and “Speak In Rounds”
“baked-out bliss.” Knocked that one outta the park my new found friend. Looking forward to more of your countdown. Happy Holidays.