Jan 26, 2012

Getting 2012 off to a great start

Typically January is a slow month for exciting new releases, it all seems to boil down to quiet releases and experiments that might not be deserving of a lot of attention. Which is fine, I'm usually spending January in music hangover mode returning to old favorites or checking out the previous year's stuff that I missed out on.

While this month hasn't really seemed to be much of an exception, I have been lucky enough to have discovered two new albums released in the past two weeks that have made me really excited. Both are from bands that have been around for a few albums already and gotten a decent bit of buzz from blogs and magazines, but both are entirely new to me.

First up is the Dutch retro metal band The Devil's Blood. Although it was technically released in Europe late last year, January saw the stateside release of their latest album, The Thousandfold Epicentre. As much as I'm loathe to describe things via a list of other bands here, I'm really struggling to come up with a way to describe these guys to the uninitiated. Think Fleetwood Mac spending way too much time in candle-lit rooms with Anton LaVey and Black Sabbath records. This would have been a cult classic had it come out in 1972, but as it is its a strong early contender for one of the best albums of this year. Check out the epic title track.

The other big release that knocked my socks off comes courtesy of Cleveland's Cloud Nothings. I remember seeing their name come up a couple times over the past few years, but I never really paid them any attention. After a glowing Pitchfork review earlier this week, I picked up Attack On Memory and was absolutely blown away. This is a thrilling indie rock record that ably balances the poppier side of punk (but decidedly NOT pop-punk), noise rock, and the kind of 1990s indie rock that was laid down by bands like Drive Like Jehu, Jawbreaker, and the Touch & Go roster. It doesn't hurt that Steven Albini engineered the thing. The first genuine surprise of 2012 and the its first must hear indie rock record. Here's a taste.

Jan 20, 2012

Etta James 1938-2012

Of course I could have chosen dozens of songs to post here today, but this one has special meaning for my wife and I. A lovely song by an amazing talent that will definitely be missed by many. The world mourns a legend today.

Jan 17, 2012

Pazz + Jop 2011

So the results of the latest Village Voice Pazz + Jop critics poll are in and, what do you know, I think we have an unexpected choice for the album of the year winner. I was convinced it was going to end up being that mediocre Bon Iver record (actually placed #9) or that spotty PJ Harvery record everyone else seemed to love (#2), so I was surprised to see the not too awful tUnE-yArDs album slide in at number one. I ultimately respected that album more than I liked it, but its great to see a surprise winner sitting at the top of the albums list.

The singles list did end up a little more predictable, with Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" running away with things, but I can't complain because my number 1 and number 2 choices ended up at #3 and #2, respectively.

Below is my ballot, complete with the actual placement of each album and single in parentheses. One thing you may notice is that my ballot was a little different from my lists posted here over the past week, this is due to two reasons. One, my "official" lists weren't anywhere near finalized back when I had to submit my ballot, so there was a bit of rearranging that had yet to happen. Two, I decided to take a slightly different approach to my ballot this year and bumped up a couple of my lower placing albums that I thought were deserving more attention, but otherwise might not have gotten much.

Top 10 Albums
1. Atlas Sound - Parallax [10 points] (#61)
2. Fucked Up - David Comes to Life [10 points] (#11)
3. Joy Formidable - The Big Roar [10 points] (#58)
4. The Psychic Paramount - II [10 points] (#132)
5. Mastodon - The Hunter [10 points] (#47)
6. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up [10 points] (#10)
7. The Cosmic Dead - The Cosmic Dead [10 points] (#902)
8. Falloch - Where Distant Spirits Remain [10 points] (#902)
9. Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats - Blood Lust [10 points] (#408)
10. The Atlas Moth - An Ache for the Distance [10 points] (#270)

(interesting side note, I was the only critic that voted for the Falloch and Cosmic Dead albums, the first time I've ever been the sole voter for anything on this poll)

Top 10 Singles
1. Nicki Minaj - "Super Bass" (#3)
2. Beyonce - "Countdown" (#2)
3. Lady Gaga - "The Edge of Glory" (#23)
4. Lana del Rey - "Video Games" (#7)
5. Fucked Up - "Queen of Hearts" (#51)
6. Tyler, the Creator - "Yonkers" (#10)
7. Cass McCombs - "County Line" (#22)
8. M83 - "Midnight City" (#4)
9. Britney Spears - "Til the World Ends" (#7)
10. Yuck - "Get Away" (#51)

So what does this all mean? Well, I'm pretty centrist when it comes to singles, since I voted for six of the songs that ended up in the top ten. When it comes to albums, except for those Fucked Up and Shabazz Palaces albums I'm pretty far outside of what everyone else voted for. I'm not terribly concerned one way or the other, I don't go into this hoping to be an outlier or a centrist but I do have to admit that it was kinda cool to be the sole vote for a couple obscure-ish records that I genuinely loved.

As for the real top ten albums, I don't think its actually all that terrible, outside of that awful, awful Drake record - I will never understand what people hear in such a boring personality that mopes his way through otherwise interesting productions. I do think the Bon Iver and PJ Harvey records were overrated, but neither were awful. And I'm actually kind of surprised with the Jay-Z and Kanye record getting that much love, I thought the party line was pretty dismissive back over the summer. At least its an interesting list once again.

Jan 16, 2012

2011 Year in Review Part IV: The Albums

And today we conclude the look back at 2011 with via//chicago's favorite fifty albums of the year.

50. Tombs - Path of Totality (Relapse)
49. Wolves in the Throne Room - Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord)
48. The Horrors - Skying (XL)
47. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo (Matador)
46. Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital (Sub Pop)
45. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (Mute)
44. Bill Callahan - Apocalypse (Drag City)
43. Nicolas Jaar - Space is Only Noise (Circus Company)
42.  Liturgy - Aesthethica (Thrill Jockey)
41. KEN Mode - Venerable (Profound Lore)
40. Falloch - Where Distant Spirits Remain (Candlelight)
39. Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
38. Krallice - Diotima (Profound Lore)
37. The Skull Defekts - Peer Amid (Thrill Jockey)
36. Obscura - Omnivium (Relapse)
35. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong (Slumberland)
34. Boston Spaceships - Let It Beard (Guided by Voices)
33. Opeth - Heritage (Roadrunner)
32. Iceage - New Brigade (What's Your Rupture?)
31. Autopsy - Macabre Eternal (Peaceville)
30. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact (4AD)
29. Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know (Ribbon)
28. Corrupted - Garten der Unbewusstheit (Nostalgia Blackrain)
27. Real Estate - Days (Domino)
26. The Gates of Slumber - The Wretch (Metal Blade)
25. Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 (Southern Lord)
24. Cold Cave - Cherish the Light Years (Matador)
23. The Atlas Moth - Ache for the Distance (Profound Lore)
22. Azari & III - Azari & III (PID)
21. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

20. Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats - Blood Lust (Self-released)
One of the year's more pleasant surprises came from this UK trio and their self-released CDR. I know its a lazy critical cliche at this point, but I can only best describe this as what would happen if The Beatles had ended up spending more time with Black Sabbath than the Maharishi. This is thoroughly convincing retro doom that wouldn't have sounded out of place in 1971, but probably would have launched heavy metal in an entirely new direction if it had. I really hope they get an official release of this soon so people can get it without having to pay insanely inflated eBay prices.

19. Ringo Deathstarr - Colour Trip (Sonic Unyon)
This was another big surprise for me in 2011, but more because I expected it be awful than anything else. The band's very name itself was enough to turn me off initially, sounding like the sort of deadend nostalgia trip that has given us hundreds of woeful chillwave band names. Then I heard some early reports of the bands slavish dedication to early 90s shoegaze and, as I've learned the hard way over a lot of years, the more a band namechecks My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain, the less likely they are to actually sound like either. Fortunately I came across "Imagine Hearts" on an internet radio station one day and realized quickly that these guys actually do such names justice. Theirs is most definitely a sound stuck in the past, but they know exactly how to distill the essence of that era and pour it into catchy, timeless tunes.

18. White Denim - D (Downtown)
This Austin band has been kicking around for about five years now, releasing a string of hyperactive garage rock albums that have allowed them to steadily build a bit of buzz across the country. This, their fourth full-length, found the band opening even more doors by streamlining their sound and focusing squarely on the psychedelic rock of the late 60s and early 70s. That's not to say these songs aren't as knotty and hyper as their older material, but there is a sense of composition and focus that keeps the album a constant joy to listen to from start to finish.

17. The Cosmic Dead - The Cosmic Dead (Who Can You Trust?)
This Glaswegian quartet made a big splash on psychedelic focused blogs over the past year with this self-released cassette full of lengthy cosmic jams that oftentimes recall the best of bands like Can, Hawkwind, and even early Pink Floyd. The album has four tracks - one just under seven minutes, two that reach nearly twenty minutes, and "Father Sky, Mother Earth" an epic forty-minute jam that leaves you no choice but to sit back in your chair with your mouth open, riding it out. Really excited to see what these guys come up with next.

16. Yuck - Yuck (Fat Possum)
This London-based quartet was easily the best 120 Minutes band to appear in 2011, basically every single track on their debut album would have slotted in nicely between Sugar and Lemonheads videos. Yuck themselves draw equal inspiration from mainstays of the alternative generation like Dinosaur Jr, Galaxie 500, and Pixies (among many others), creating a debut album that sounds at once brand new and as familiar as those old mixtapes that once littered the backseat of your car.

15. Moon Duo - Mazes (Sacred Bones)
2011 was a good year for the San Francisco based Wooden Shjips outfit, but this project by Shjips' guitarist Erik Johnson and keyboardist Sanae Yamada was the cream of an already stellar crop. While the proper Shjips 2011 album, West, was an enjoyable enough trip down the band's well-trodden psych path, the Moon Duo album finds Johnson and Yamada branching off into newer, dronier krautrock branches. Essential music for any fan of the more experimental side of rock.

14. Pistol Annies - Hell On Heels (Sony Nashville)
Yeah, I'm almost as shocked as you are to see a country album place this high on the year end list, but it shouldn't be too much of a surprise to see that it comes to us courtesy of perennial via//chicago favorite Miranda Lambert. Pistol Annies finds her teaming up with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley for a tight, concise country album that hits all the right spots - believable narration, identifiable subjects, and universal feelings of frustration and lost love. As critic Alex Macpherson pointed out, paraphrasing slightly here, this is one of the best albums about the American recession we've heard yet.

13. Blood Ceremony - Living with the Ancients (Metal Blade)
Its interesting to see how many of my favorite albums of the year throw back to distinct sounds of the past, this being another prime example. Blood Ceremony cranks out 70s fueled, metal-tinged progressive rock that doesn't sound too far removed from the likes of Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and even Jethro Tull (yes, there is heavy flute presence on this album and, no, that doesn't count as a strike against it in the least). Lead singer Alia O'Brien is the bands VIP, not only for her haunting vocals, but for adding the touches of flute and organ that fill in the shadows.

12. Destroyer - Kaputt (Merge)
This one took me a long time to come around to loving, but I'm glad I gave it the time required for it to work its spell over me. I've long been a fan of Dan Bejar's solo work, enjoying his career evolution and watching him follow his muse down new twists and turns. This time around, however, I feared that he had followed a new turn that I just wasn't going to join him on - that of 80s style soft rock and light jazz. Silly me for underestimating Bejar's talents though, his compositional strength and ear for melody makes this an album just as enjoyable as any he's done in the past, even if you have to get over your fear of saxophone solos.

11. Los Campesinos! - Hello Sadness (Arts & Crafts)
Over the course of four albums, Los Campesinos!, and particularly the lyrics of lead singer Gareth Campesinos, have straddled a very delicate line that separates the cloyingly twee and devastating heartbreak. When they aren't busy being too clever by half, Los Campesinos! tap into an achingly real vein of love and loss. This go-round things fall decidedly into the latter category, but as single "By Your Hand" quickly reassures, they haven't lost a step in the hook writing department. A particular standout is "Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)", a surprisingly successful comparison of the end of a failing relationship to the pain of watching your favorite soccer team lose. That the band can so expertly navigate the icy waters of adolescent angst and grown up emotion is a testament to their staying power.

10. The War On Drugs - Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)
There really aren't that many new and fresh ways that a band can incorporate influences like Dylan and Springsteen without sounding like lazy retreads of well-worn paths, but Philadelphia's The War On Drugs manage to blaze a new path by incorporating synth drones and subtle dreamlike textural shifts. The tools (guitars, drums, bass, keys) and tropes (leaving town, ditching your problems) and the same, but this is an entirely new way to approach them, I'm still surprised by how great this album sounds. And, oh yeah, original founding member Kurt Vile drops by to play guitar on a few tracks.

9. CAVE - Neverendless (Drag City)
This Chicago psych quartet (formerly trio) has always been right up my alley, releasing two albums and one EP full of Neu! inspired, synth powered krautrock jams, but this one is clearly the cream of the crop. From the seven minute opener "WUJ" to the ten minute closer "OJ", CAVE sounds more focused and driven than every before, with every note designed for maximum impact. This album does miss out on a little of the looseness of the previous releases, but makes up for it with tight grooves.

8. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther Sounds)
While The War On Drugs used the sounds and templates of classic rock to steer their brand of indie rock down its own dronier path, San Francisco's Girls stick a little closer to formula on this record that would probably now be a part of canon if it had come out in 1974 instead of 2011. Whether its on the Pink Floyd inspired single "Vomit", complete with gospel backing singers, or on the epic "Forgiveness" with its soulful guitar solo, Girls latch onto the timeless aspects of American rock and roll and add to its long list of great tunes.

7. Wild Flag - Wild Flag (Merge)
It always bugged me that so much of the media attention around this album was focused around the "super group" thing, when that really didn't make sense here. It has been pretty clear from the beginning that, while all of the members did spend significant time in other bands, that this was an entirely new project and not some "one off" or "side project". And, thank God for that. I'd hate to think this was all we'd ever get from Wild Flag, a disc full of some of the most joyful, triumphant indie rock we've heard in some time. An absolute joy from start to finish.

6. The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar (Atlantic)
This Welsh trio was another retro minded band that pushed all of my buttons, mixing the stadium ambition and guitar heroics of mid-period Smashing Pumpkins with the female-voiced poppier end of the shoegaze spectrum. Vocalist Ritzy Bryan is clearly the star here, just listen to her vocals on "Whirring" before she lets loose on her guitar with an epic solo.

5. Atlas Sound - Parallax (4AD)
Whether with Deerhunter, his full on rock band, or under the solo Atlas Sound moniker, Bradford Cox is no stranger to these end of the year via//chicago lists. The only surprise at this point is how consistent his songwriting is. Parallax represents his sort of David Bowie during his Young Americans days, looking back to early rock and roll for some inspiration but filtering it through his own unique sensibility - dig that cover photo with the classic mic. "Mona Lisa" is the best pop song Cox has ever written, but each and every song on the album is a treat. Cox is a true talent and its refreshing to hear him bring his vocals a little more to the forefront.

4. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up (Sub Pop)
When Shabazz Palaces started blowing up all over the internet thanks to those first two quietly released EPs, it wasn't hard to figure out that the so-called "Palaceer Lazaro" behind the project was in reality one Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler of Digable Planets. But that only lifted one of the many shadows draped over Butler's impenetrable, mysterious brand of hip-hop. The cold, stuttering beats and Butler's flows offered few easy entrance points, but once you worked your way in, this was a world that you didn't want to leave. In a year when big names in hip-hop disappointed one after the other, it was refreshing to hear a true innovator back at work.

3. The Psychic Paramount - II (No Quarter)
These guys were another great discovery for me in 2011 and I couldn't get enough of this record. The Psychic Paramount straddle an electrified line between psych and noise rock, immediately calling to mind great bands like Acid Mothers Temple, Lightning Bolt, and Comets On Fire. Each track is a thrill ride in and of itself, so by the time you compile them into an albums' worth, your head is spinning and your brain is lost if the fuzz.

2. Mastodon - The Hunter (Reprise)
Another band that is no stranger to these via//chicago year-end wrap ups, their 2009 album Crack The Skye was my number 3 album of that year and Blood Mountain was #1 back in 2006. Interestingly enough, this outing finds the boys moving farther away from the epic, prog-rock cycles that composed those previous two full-lengths, scaling things back to focus on individual, concise songs without losing any of the punch or power. Lead single "Curl of the Burl" was still massive, but contained a sense of humor that was in shorter supply on the previous two records (it was clear these guys were having fun with song titles like "Octopus Has No Friends" and "Bedazzled Fingertips"), while "Stargasm" and "Creature Lives" show off potential new directions. It says a lot when a band can shift focus this dramatically and still toss off one of the best albums of the year. Still the best American metal band going.

1. Fucked Up - David Comes To Life (Matador)
If anyone was going to pull off a successful 78-minute rock opera in 2012, I guess it these guys stood just as good a chance as anyone else. This hyper-prolific hardcore punk band from Toronto has been tossing out albums, singles, EPs, and compilations for nearly a decade now, with tracks that run the gamut from miniature bursts of hardcore energy to epic tracks based on the Chinese Zodiac that run well into double digits. David Comes To Life finds the band striving for a whole new level of ambition, littered are the halls of rock history with failed concept albums that either don't deliver tunes worth hearing or feature a storyline that barely holds together for the first half. No problems with either here. Not only does the plot hold up extremely well throughout the duration, in fact taking a clever meta twist that may take a few listens to fully unpack, but each and every song, taken in isolation, holds up among the band's best. "Queen of Hearts" was the one that got all of the attention, rightfully so, but I count no less than eight other tracks that could have served a similar purpose with equal results. When you consider how much thought the band put into this project, adding in the non-album tracks that round out some of the characters and flesh out the world, it becomes an even more impressive feat. But, ultimately, all of this immersion means nothing if the songs aren't there and thankfully this album sounds just as great as a simple "collection of songs" completely divorced from the storyline. After my first listen I said that this had a high chance of being my album of the year, despite its release back in June - but as the year went on, nothing else even came close. Album of the year. Punk rock concept album of the year. Green Day who?

Jan 12, 2012

2011 Year in Review Part III: The Songs

Continuing on with our look back at 2011, here are the 100 songs that I really couldn't get enough of, complete with YouTube links where possible.

100. "Total Decay" - The Soft Moon
99. "Holocene" - Bon Iver
98. "Judas" - Lady Gaga
97. "Jesus Fever" - Kurt Vile
96. "Second Chance" - Peter Bjorn & John
95. "Freaks and Geeks" - Childish Gambino
94. "Sadness is a Blessing" - Lykke Li
93. "The Grain" - Hammers of Misfortune
92. "The Body" - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
91. "Norgaard" - The Vaccines
90. "Hair" - Lady Gaga
89. "Wake and Be Fine" - Okkervil River
88. "Ashes & Fire" - Ryan Adams
87. "The Wilhelm Scream" - James Blake
86. "Bizness" - tUnE-yArDs
85. "Replica" - Oneohtrix Point Never
84. "Days" - The Drums
83. "Cruel" - St. Vincent
82. "Riding for the Feeling" - Bill Callahan
81. "1 + 1" - Beyonce
80. "Then It's White" - The Field
79. "Novacane" - Frank Ocean
78. "Last Night at the Jetty" - Panda Bear
77. "Space Is Only Noise If You Can See" - Nicolas Jaar
76. "Goodbye Bread" - Ty Segall
75. "Ice Cream" - Battles f. Matais Aguayo
74. "Kaputt" - Destroyer
73. "Icons of Summer" - Cold Cave
72. "Down in the Valley" - The Head and The Heart
71. "Grown Ocean" - Fleet Foxes
70. "I Wanna Go" - Britney Spears
69. "Powa" - tUnE-yArDs
68. "It's A Crime (Caribou Mix)" - Virgo Four
67. "Wrong Feels Right" - Dum Dum Girls
66. "Abducted" - Cults
65. "You're Blessed" - Iceage
64. "Banana Ripple" - Junior Boys
63. "For Love (I Come Your Friend)" - Thundercat
62. "Amor Fati" - Washed Out
61. "Need You Now" - Cut Copy
60. "Blue Jeans" - Lana Del Rey
59. "Jam For Jerry" - Holy Ghost!
58. "Someone Like You" - Adele
57. "Through the Floor" - Crystal Stilts
56. "Voice" - Soft Metals
55. "Gangsta" - tUnE-yArDs
54. "Touch" - The Crystal Ark
53. "It's Real" - Real Estate
52. "Family Tree" - Black Lips
51. "Ric Flair" - Killer Mike
50. "The Devil's Orchard" - Opeth
49. "Street Joy" - White Denim
48. "Intro" - M83 f. Zola Jesus
47. "Rolling in the Deep" - Adele
46. "Otis" - Jay-Z & Kanye West
45. "Blue Cassette" - Friendly Fires
44. "Pencil Pimp" - Sepacure
43. "Helplessness Blues" - Fleet Foxes
42. "Manic" - Azari & III
41. "Baby Missiles" - The War On Drugs
40. "Killin' the Vibe" - Ducktails
39. "Believer" - John Maus
38. "Far Nearer" - Jamie xx
37. "Swerve... (Noir not withstanding)" - Shabazz Palaces
36. "By Your Hand" - Los Campesinos!
35. "How Deep Is Your Love" - The Rapture
34. "Ultra Thizz" - Rustie
33. "Beastin'" - E-40
32. "I'll Take Care of U" - Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx
31. "Snooze 4 Love" - Todd Terje
30. "Broken Record" - Katy B
29. "You and I" - Lady Gaga
28. "Ni**as in Paris" - Jay-Z & Kanye West
27. "Pumped Up Kicks" - Foster the People
26. "Glass Jar" - Gang Gang Dance
25. "Emergency Room" - Ford & Lopatin
24. "Bad Example" - Pistol Annies
23. "Austere" - The Joy Formidable
22. "Green Aisles" - Real Estate
21. "Chinatown" - Destroyer
20. "Mona Lisa" - Atlas Sound
19. "Get Away" - Yuck
18. "Vomit" - Girls
17. "Hell On Heels" - Pistol Annies
16. "Born This Way" - Lady Gaga
15. "Underworld USA" - Cold Cave
14. "Tourist U.F.O." - Boston Spaceships f. J Mascis
13. "Whirring" - The Joy Formidable
12. "Curl of the Burl" - Mastodon
11. "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall" - Coldplay

10. "Romance" - Wild Flag
This was a perfect song to open Wild Flag's debut record, immediately putting to rest all of the Sleater-Kinney talk and letting us know that this was an entirely new entity that deserved to be reckoned with on its own terms. And oh what terms they were. Bouncy, joyful, muscular, a lot of things that indie rocks lacks far too often.

9. "Til the World Ends" - Britney Spears
By all rights Brit should have should have faded into the ether long before now, but her crafty choice in collaborators means has allowed her to stay current well past her predicted expiration date. She still isn't a great singer, but she knows how to put her talents to use and at least someone in her stable has an ear to the ground. This take on timely Europop was great fun and a treat to hear every single time it popped up on the radio.

8. "Midnight City" - M83
On an epic double-album packed wall-to-wall with widescreen cinematic moments that your local IMAX screen could barely contain, this was the most epic of them all. While this isn't the first time we've heard this guy do a sustained track-length build like this, but this was certainly the best.

7. "County Line" - Cass McCombs
This track seems incongruous when listed next to all of the other big pop moments on my tracks list, but this wormed its way into my head just as surely as anything Gaga or Britney gave us. Its an easy cop out to call this something like what Bob Dylan would be doing if he was 25 in 2011, but its pretty true. A masterful tune from an exciting talent, one that made its pleasures immediately known without relying on cheap gimmick.

6. "Yonkers" - Tyler, The Creator
Even if the Odd Future guys manage to piss away all of their remaining good will through boneheaded tweets and vile acts of misogyny, this track will stand as a prime example of the kind of bonkers stuff they were capable of tossing off. The shadowy, minimal beat was the initial draw, but Tyler's self-devouring lyrics were equally engaging - smart and introspective in ways that too many of the collective's other works were not.

5. "Countdown" - Beyonce
I still cannot even begin to fathom why this song was not absolutely massive. I'll never understand why people would choose to listen to garbage like Ke$ha and LMFAO when Beyonce is dropping absolutely bombshells like this. I don't know, just stop reading this and watch the video. It's amazing too.

4. "Queen of Hearts" - Fucked Up
Who'd have thought one of the most immediate pop songs of 2011 would have come from a Canadian post-hardcore collective better known for outrageous live shows and throat-shredding vocals? Who'd have thought it also would have come from a rock opera about star-crossed lovers? Not many, but then 2011 was kind of a fucked up year. The parent album was near double-digits in singalong anthems, but this was the shiniest of the whole bunch and the one I returned too most often. Green Day who?

3. "Video Games" - Lana Del Rey
I remember when this first crept up out of the ether and the YouTube video was getting passed around the internet like so many lolcats. The first time I watched it I nearly gave up 30 seconds in ("eh, kind of boring"), but I was transfixed by the vocals and couldn't click away. By the time I pulled myself out of the trance I had watched the video six times. Wistful, dreamlike, cutting, nostalgic, definitely sexy - there was a reason this quickly became one of the most buzz-worthy songs of the year. We'll see if she can sustain this mood over a full LP later this month, but I'm happy just to have this song in my life.

2. "The Edge of Glory" - Lady Gaga
As you probably noticed while scanning this list, I liked a lot of what Gaga gave us this year, but none as much as this. Everybody wants to talk about the sax solo or the eighties vibe, rightfully so, but I can't stop thinking about how well she sells this song. Lots of artists would kill for this sort of anthem, but they'd have no idea what to do with it once it dropped in their laps. Forget the meat suits or the drag personas, the truly scary thing about Gaga is how effortless she makes this whole superstar pop singer thing seem.

1. "Super Bass" - Nicki Minaj
When Nicki first started popping up on mixtapes a few years ago, I was instantly attracted to her playful mix of Missy Elliott and Lil Kim. Her ability to flip accents and voices like so many metaphors over the course of a couple bars left me stunned more than once. Which is why I was so disappointed when her album dropped and it felt like someone was trying to mold her into the next Rihanna or Pink. I wanted the raw, uncut Nicki that stole "Monster" out from under Kanye and Jay-Z last year, not the Nicki singing choruses and cuddling up with the king of r&bore, Drake. Then summer came along and this song was everywhere, completely redeeming in three minutes and twenty seconds every other mediocre thing she'd unleashed. Playful verses, a giant chorus, and a killer bridge - this was the perfect summertime pop song. Thing is, sitting here six months later in the middle of a Chicago winter, it still sounds amazing.

Jan 10, 2012

2011 Year In Review Part II: The EPs and The Non-Eligible Releases

As we continue out look back at 2011 in music, we move forward to via//chicago's top 10 EPs of the year and the top 20 releases that were not eligible for the main albums list - i.e. live albums, compilations, various artist collections, box sets, etc.

The Top 10 EPs of 2011:

1. Dum Dum Girls - He Gets Me High (Sub Pop)
I couldn't get enough of this slice of pop perfection over the past year. While sometimes the full-length Dum Dum Girls album could be just a little too much to take, this really hit the spot - short and sweet. Three excellent original tunes and a fabulous cover of "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out", how could you go wrong?

2. Moon Duo - Horror Tour (Souterrain Transmissions)
A slice of vinyl available only, appropriately enough, during the band's fall tour, this gives fans four more reasons to love this Wooden Shjips side project. But really you only need one, "Sickener" is one of the greatest jams of the year and very likely one of the best things out of any of the related projects yet. Just killer.

3. Enslaved - The Sleeping Gods (Scion A/V)
I'm not exactly sure why Scion decided to invest so heavily in marketing to metal dudes, but as long as they keep throwing us bones like this I'm not going to complain. Enslaved is one of the most consistent metal bands around and this stop-gap EP nicely continues the streak. It'll do until the next full length, especially at this price.

4. Between the Buried and Me - The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues (Metal Blade)
This 30-minute EP serves as the first part of a two part conceptual release that should be soon followed by a full-length, but this is a monster in and of itself. A lot of people aren't into this particular blend of schizophrenic metal, but the immense talent of the entire band elevates this to something great, when it could easily just be a mess.

5. The Soft Moon - Total Decay EP (Captured Tracks)
Like I mentioned in the introduction to this year's recap, Captured Tracks was one of my go-to labels over the past twelve months and this EP is just reason number 23 why. The Soft Moon's full-length debut was well enough, but this even darker and shadowier EP hit me in all the right spots. I can't wait to hear more from these guys.

6. The Decemberists - Long Live the King (Capitol)
To be perfectly honest, this year's Decemberists full-length was a bit of a letdown for me. It was decent enough folk influenced rock, but the blatant R.E.M. worship and slightly too Americana tinge left me a little cold. Pretty enough, but I like the band best when they stretch out, play, and get all literary on us. This EP made up some ground as far as I was concerned, the overall vibe was a little bit darker and a great cover of the Grateful Dead's "Row Jimmy" meant I spent more time with this than the album proper.

7. Crystal Stilts - Radiant Door EP (Sacred Bones)
Another reason why I'm still a big fan of the EP format? Because you get to hear slight diversions such as this. I'm not sure this shinier approach would have held my interest over a whole full-length, I tend to prefer the darker and spacier Stilts stuff, but I'm still glad to have this in my life.

8. Mogwai - Earth Division EP (Sub Pop)
Typically I get more excited for their louder and more aggressive material, but the majority of this release was quieter, more contemplative piano-based pieces and I was surprised by just how much I liked it. "Drunk and Crazy" hews closest to the up-and-down dynamic the band is known for and it works well, but Mogwai in a mellow mood moved me more.

9. King Krule - King Krule EP (True Panther)
This was one of those out of the blue surprises in 2011 that knocked me off my feet. Archy Marshall, a 17 year-old Brit, released this fascinating debut EP late this year and I've yet to completely pinpoint why I love it so much. It might be distinct voice. Or the elegant simplicity of these songs, undercut with a bleak tension that draws the ear over and over again. I don't know, but I'm anxious to see what else this kid has up his sleeve.

10. Beach Fossils - What A Pleasure (Captured Tracks)
Yep, another gem from Brooklyn's Captured Tracks. Their full-length debut was fitting for the band name, beach-leaning pop that didn't rely as much on the cloying nostalgia as other acts in this vein have depended on. This EP, however, finds the guys stuck at home in the bedroom, adding a wistful tone without sacrificing the tunes.

The Top 20 Non-Eligible Releases of 2011:

1. The Smiths - Complete (Rhino)
While this may not offer a lot of, or any really, buried gems for the longtime Smiths fanatic, this was something I was super anxious to get my hands on. I missed out on these guys in the 80s and its been hard to gather their discography in any sensible way, minus the few reasonably priced vinyl pieces I've managed to grab. This collects their four full-lengths, live album, and three compilations in remastered form, making for a great way to dive into the band's discography. Johnny Marr's remastering work is top-notch, these sound great, and the LP sleeve replicas are a nice touch. Fanatics will balk at a missing B-side or two, but really this is a minor quibble for a lovely set.

2. The Beach Boys - The Smile Sessions (Capitol/EMI)
Only probably the most anticipated album ever, long talked about and bootlegged to the moon and back since it was shelved back in the late '60s. Fans are finally given the definitive version of all the songs that have been debated about, fiddled with, and rerecorded over the past forty some years. Great packaging and lots of neat extras, particularly if you sprung for the super deluxe box. A fitting end to such a drawn out saga.

3. Demdike Stare - Triptych (Modern Love)
So this is what happens when you lock a techno DJ and a dedicated rare record collector in a dark room for long periods of time? Someone should have gotten that together sooner. This collects three previously released EPs by the duo and adds roughly 40 minutes of new material, all of it haunting and engrossing in equal measure. There are no easy tags here, but think "dark", "moody", "elemental" sample-based pieces and you'll be getting close. Really you just need to hear it.

4. The Smashing Pumpkins - Gish / Siamese Dream [Deluxe Editions] (Virgin)
The opening salvo in a years-long reissuing campaign gives me high hopes for the future, because these sets are lovingly compiled and fantastic sounding. These albums have been an integral part of my life for going on twenty years now and it feels great to rediscover them all over again. The bonus discs are amazing, plenty of newly unearthed gems that even a dedicated Pumpkins fan like me hadn't heard yet. Good enough to make me forget all about whatever is trying to pass as the Pumpkins these days. Crucial packages.

5. The Radio Dept. - Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010 (Labrador)
I'll admit to being a relative newcomer to this band, but I couldn't have asked for a better introduction. This two-disc set compiles various singles and A-sides on the first disc, with a boatload of flipsides and rarities on the other. The most pleasant surprise was how hard it was for me, a newcomer, to tell the difference when I played 'em all on shuffle - that's how consistent these guys are. This serves as a great introduction, but rather than making me content to have a nice overview, it made me want to go back and collect the entire discography.

6. Queens of the Stone Age - Queens of the Stone Age [Remastered] (Rekords Records)
7. Can - Tago Mago [40th Anniversary Edition] (Spoon)
8. Kieran Hebden, Steve Reid & Mats Gustafsson - Live at the South Bank (Smalltown Superjazz)
9. Supreme Dicks - Breathing and Not Breathing (Jagjaguwar)
10. Grateful Dead - Europe '72: Volume 2 (Grateful Dead / WEA)
11. Pearl Jam - Pearl Jam Twenty (Columbia)
12. Dwarr - Starting Over (Drag City)
13. Archers of Loaf - Icky Mettle [Reissue] (Merge)
14. Sebadoh - Bakesale [Reissue] (Sub Pop)
15. Nirvana - Nevermind [Deluxe Edition] (Geffen)
16. Rush - Live in Cleveland: Time Machine 2011 (Roadrunner)
17. Sunn O))) - 00 Void (Southern Lord)
18. Neil Young International Harvesters - A Treasure (Reprise)
19. Death - Human [Remaster] (Relapse)
20. Pearl Jam - Vs. / Vitalogy [Reissues] (Sony Legacy)
2011 Year In Review
Part I: The Introduction

I'm ashamed to be running so far behind with my look back at 2011, but sometimes the real world is a little more important than updating a blog. But, still, I really enjoy putting together these end-of-year wrapups, and this year was certainly no exception.

Personally, 2011 was a year of big change. The biggest, and most wonderful, was the birth of our son back in September. His arrival has changed my life in ways previously unimaginable and has colored my outlook on virtually everything. I'm thrilled to be a father and coming home to his smile his one of the best things life has to offer. I've also dug in further at the new job I began in 2010, dipping my toes into new projects and constantly learning more about lots of things. I got to travel more in 2011 because of this job, spending lots of time in Austin, Texas, which I've found to be a wonderful city.

Musically, there isn't really one specific driving trend or force behind what I spent the past 12 months listening to, mostly just climbing further out onto the branches I'd already started exploring. Lots of metal, lots of psych, a little less hip-hop than usual, the standard amount of radio pop and indie-flavored rock. If anything, I'd say that 2011 was about me refining and coming closer to defining exactly what it is I like in these various genres. Although still difficult to put into words, I'm feeling a lot more comfortable about what excites me in a metal band (in general - proggier, stonier) and what doesn't (still not a grind guy), which helps when I'm trying to pluck something out of the thousands of new releases constantly clamoring for my attention. I feel like I didn't waste my time on as many duds in 2011 as I may have in years past.

As I look back over some of my favorite metal albums of the year, I see that there were a lot of albums from familiar names. Bands I've found to be fairly consistent and rarely manage to disappoint me - bands like Mastodon, Wolves in the Throne Room, Opeth, and The Gates of Slumber. But there were just as many new surprises for me this year, ranging from the Beatles-meets-Sabbath pop of Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats to the gauzey barely metal blackgaze of Falloch. It was another great year for metal.

I guess if I were to drum up two consistent themes found in the indie rock I loved in 2011, they would be "Captured Tracks" and "1990s". The Captured Tracks label has become one of those few "go-to" labels with a remarkable track record. I came to discover it through Blank Dogs, but the list of bands on the label's roster I loved in 2011 is impressive - The Soft Moon, The Beets, The Jameses, Catwalk, Widowspeak, Soft Metals... such a fantastic aesthetic. I also found that aping the sounds of the modern rock I loved back in the mid-1990s was a sure way to get my attention in 2011. Bands like Yuck, Ringo DeathStarr, The Joy Formidable, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart all nailed that arena-ready alternative rock I loved in my teenage years, pulling in obvious references from My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr, and Smashing Pumpkins in a way that wasn't slavish and derivative.

I found myself wandering away from hip-hop even more in the past year, turned off by the increasingly bland radio rap of Drake and disappointing efforts by former favorites like Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy. I started out 2011 high on the outlook of the Odd Future crew, but a wildly uneven debut by Tyler, The Creator and the increasingly disgusting on and off-stage antics of the crew rapidly soured me on the whole scene. Some old favorites did step up this year though, both Killer Mike and E-40 continued impressive runs with solid albums. But the biggest surprise of the year belonged to one Ishmael Butler, formerly known as "Butterfly" of Digable Planets fame, and his Shabazz Palaces project. Easily my most played rap album of the year and one of the more forward-thinking ones as well, really exciting stuff.

As usual a lot of great albums from the expected sources - Atlas Sound, Fucked Up, Handsome Furs, Fleet Foxes, Gang Gang Dance, Los Campesinos and M83 among others, and a whole pile of brand new (and new to me) names - The Cosmic Dead, Causa Sui, The War On Drugs, The Atlas Moth, Iceage, Cold Cave, Laura Marling. Some new guises for old favorites (Pistol Annies, Wild Flag) and some interesting, to say the least, combinations like Loutallica made for fun and unexpected listening. Sure, there were some disappointments, I still don't understand the fawning over that patchy PJ Harvey record and that Get-Up Kids reunion record was a serious letdown, but I prefer to focus on the positives this time of year. So join me as via//chicago takes a look back at the best music of 2011 over the next few days.

But, before we move on, a quick look at some past favorites:

Albums of the Year:
2003: Outkast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
2004: Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News
2005: Bloc Party - Silent Alarm
2006: Mastodon - Blood Mountain
2007: Battles - Mirrored
2008: Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
2009: The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
2010: Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid

Songs of the Year:
2003: "Hey Ya" - Outkast
2004: "Take Me Out" - Franz Ferdinand
2005: "Since U Been Gone" - Kelly Clarkson
2006: "When You Were Young" - The Killers
2007: "Stronger" - Kanye West
2008: "Time To Pretend" - MGMT
2009: "My Girls" - Animal Collective
2010: "Fuck You" - Cee-Lo Green