It was a polarized year in music. Pop was comically grandiose, its factory settings hardwired to “spectacle” (Gaga, Watch the Throne), while underground rock wallowed in 90s grunge—the only bands who weren’t nostalgic were oldster acts revivified and coasting on that nostalgia. But a smattering of releases this year—all of which went almost entirely unheralded—did more than recycle the familiar, instead looking forward or culling sounds from unlikely inspirations. Here are some of the best of 2011:
This group of mostly brand-newbies (with the notable exception of saxophonist Jenna Thornhill-DeWitt, late of Mika Miko and the Strange Boys) skronks and flails through a stomping din of basement punk on its aptly titled debut. Crazy Band is all about inside jokes (though you can try to follow along on Tumblr), and its members seem to feel nothing but unrequited loathing for most humans outside their cadre of Valley girls. The influence of way-dead fecal punk G.G. Allin bleeds from their two chords and crassness—a bit unexpected in 2011, and all the more charming because it’s coming from 80s-baby girl skaters. Their unhit “Can You Lick Your Own Boob?” (the source of a micro meme in their bloggings, which showcase an obsession with the amateur grotesqueries of the Interweb) sounds like a schoolyard taunt and is just as memorable. Fuck You is repulsed and repulsive, stoned and giggling—a wild 11 minutes of girly hate punk.
“The Power” seven-inch
(Blocks Recording Club)
“The Power,” the debut seven-inch from the Toronto duo of Carmen Elle and Andy Smith, was one of those magic summer singles, a lusty ode to desperation that’s just a little too pretty to count as punk. Smith’s drumming gives it a kind of mod shuffle, but Elle’s songwriting and voice—dulcet and a little scratchy, soulful and insistent—is the real story. Elle put in a few years as a guitarist and backup singer for Austra, but relegating her to a supporting role, even behind a siren like Katie Stelmanis, rates somewhere around travesty. On this single, produced by Ben Cook (Fucked Up), her voice is right out front in the mix, as it should be.
Lucky Dragons’ only substantial release this year is a two-track drone cassette of infinite loops that zing and twinkle in beatless languor. It wasn’t until the third time through that I realized my cassette was playing back on the wrong speed. That said, I liked it just as well the right way, and also when the sound started to fade and drawl as the batteries slowly died: Lucky Dragons are rapturous at any speed. So much ambient music is frosty and anemic, as though hemmed in by the lasting influence of the Teutonic big names, but Lucky Dragons reject that old-school cool stasis with their radiant LA vibes—Shape Tape is a new jubilation.
(Out of This Spark)
Do you ever wonder what’s going to come next once the last echoes of ethereal-spirit-animal, artisanal-beard music have faded away? What will be the return on all this double-rainbow witchypoo? A backlash? Something dark and negative? Brooklyn acts that sound like Power Station? Tasseomancy, the Canadian band led by twin sisters Sari and Romy Lightman (who also sing backup in Austra), seems to be pre-empting the trend’s end by galloping toward the darkness on its debut. The Lightmans have ditched their folk iteration, Ghost Bees, to do their version of acoustic black metal. Their baroque, doomy tunes preserve all the bleak intensity of BM, except without dissonance or amplification. They rhyme “slaughter” with “alter,” but their angelic alto voices are so impossibly pure and high that they make Judy Collins sound like Tom Waits.
Roses N’ Guns 2: The Badder Assed Mixtape That Rocks
I’m not a believer in pop justice—the notion that the music world would be made right if only some obscure indie act would displace Justin Bieber from the charts—but it’s unfair that Chicago MC Nikki Lynette is hip-hop’s other Nikki. Not that there should be just one, or that Nicki Minaj doesn’t deserve her celebrity, but Lynette certainly has what it takes to compete with all the singing-and-dancing rappers who are already getting over on quirk, hooks, and charismatic flow. Lynette, who’s more real woman than RealDoll, is ripe to upset the Top 40 with a devastating cameo on some star rapper’s hit single. Roses N’ Guns 2 has all the wit and skits you want from a mix tape, and it’s stacked with singles—in “Shut the F Up Boy” Lynette explains who she is with a pure party-rap thesis: “I’m thick from cereal / Sick but not venereal / You ask what kind of girl I am and I’ll answer ‘material'” (she follows up with Waka Flocka and Shia LaBeouf disses, then tackles slut shaming and the opposition to gay marriage). The city should be proud to call her its own, but given that Chicago is where hip-hop careers go to die, let’s hope she gets the hell out.
Calling a record “timeless” has become a sort of shorthand way to say it’s retro or a Fleet Foxes rip-off. Coed Australian four-piece Twerps are timeless in that their record could be 29 years old or it could be five. When they solo it’s shy and artful, but their chimey sound is a little too assertive (read: macho) to be twee—when they sing “I don’t wanna be anything but your man,” it’s a declaration, not a petition. Twerps is a solid album with no grunge throwbacking—which makes it one of the year’s more worthwhile releases.
Ben von Wildenhaus
Great Melodies From Around
Von Wildenhaus cut his teeth in Federation X, but on Great Melodies From Around he ditches the PacNW hot scuzz for some relatively genteel guitar slangin’. His debut cassette was issued as a proper album this year, and it sounds like a solo endeavor—he’s not trying to fake like there’s anything there except him, his electric guitar, and whatever loops he can conjure. The music is primarily unsettling drones, hisses, and long, ugly notes, with von Wildenhaus adding some cinematic frippery here and there. Badalamenti scores are an obvious influence: his playing is delicate and unshowy, and he lets everything get good and weird before dropping in with noodly unsolo to push it over the edge. Great Melodies isn’t the kind of record you can put on and forget about—it’s uneasy listening, and it demands attention.