The advance of age and the grind of writing for over two dozen publications will narrow your music intake. This dovetails with a seeming point of diminishing returns for many strains of guitar and country rock, as fresh approaches and creative energy seem increasingly hard to come by. It’s produced a personal feeling there’s something else going on out there beyond my purview, a sense reinforced by my annual pre-“list formulating” perusals of other Best of 2011 lists.
There’s clearly plenty I’m not getting from the purely unfamiliar (dance-punk cum dream popsters Metronomy, droning alt-country newcomer Josh T. Pearson) to personally unappealing but popular “soul” artists (Adele, Drake, James Blake) to sputtering Euro electro-pop (M83, Austra, Little Dragon, Robyn) and just plain overrated acts (Stephen Malkmus, Girls, Cults, Wild Flag).
It makes my list seem rather staid, full of pretty established artists continuing strings of strong releases. For me (excluding tUnE-yArDs), this year lacked unusual breakthroughs of years past like Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, Japandroids, or Baby Dee, which I see as a balkanization effect springing out of the loss or radio as a driving tastemaker and an increasing void of common musical ground to birth new trends any more substantial than Chillwave. In loose order:
• Fucked Up — David Comes to Life (Matador)
These guys are no joke. Though they began in hardcore, and that heritage remains (mostly in singer Pink Eyes’ feral growl) with their heavily-layered palette’s as expansive as King Crimson. The follow-up to 2008’s Polaris-winning The Chemistry of Common Life is an exultant 18-song, four-act ode to life, love, death, and rebirth worthy of rock’s seminary.
• Mastodon — The Hunter (Interscope)
After taking their intricately plotted yet ferocious prog-metal to Blood Mountain and beyond to Crack the Skye, they accomplish something even more impressive — paring their wild, woolly, aggressive sound into suitable bite-size, radio-ready chunks. The Hunter is the kind of great, wide appeal hard rock that’s a rarity these days.
• Wilco — The Whole Love (Anti-)
Finally free of a major label, they make their most immediate, accessible music at least since Summer Teeth, while still retaining a tasteful amount of sonic experimentation and ambition. The back-to-basics approach suits them, and compensates for several years of navel-gazing.
• PJ Harvey — Let England Shake (Vagrant) / St. Vincent — Strange Mercy (4AD)
Rock’s two most visionary female artists, Annie Clark of St. Vincent and Polly Jean Harvey, are going in different directions to the same place. St. Vincent’s latest remains some of the most unsettling pretty music around, full of odd tones and noises inhabiting catchy, often beatific soundscapes spiked with bursts of noise. Harvey’s gone the other way getting quieter, culminating in her latest, which compensates for reduced volume with emotional intensity and well-wrought lyrics, surveying the cost of war and England’s declining fortunes. Both discomfiting in different ways.
• TV on the Radio — Nine Types of Light (Interscope)
Since Return to Cookie Mountain, TVOTR has been on a crusade to simplify. Their latest is their least layered, most minimalist — and as a result — direct release. Its accessibility increased as the crisp grooves and immediacy of the hooks has become at least as important as prodigious displays of sonic frippery and experimentation.
• Fleet Foxes — Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
They find this pretty soft spot between ’60 British folk, ornate Brill Building pop, and harmony-enriched ’70s rock acts like Fleetwood Mac. As splendid as their debut is, there’s an even greater craft and magic present on the follow-up. Like the Keebler elves, if they side-lighted in rock.
• tUnE-yArDs — w h o k i l l (4AD)
The quirky, sample-laden songs percolate like Richard Simmons on simmer, as rife with vocal harmonies as the last Dirty Projectors disc. Merrill Garbus performs it all, offering a surprisingly fresh take on soul, crossing airy Kate Bush-like expansive/weird-ness and torchy Nina Simone exoticism with a touch of clubby glitchiness. It effervesces like 7-Up.
• The Feelies — Here Before (Bar/None)
One of the great unsung acts of the ’80s, the Feelies return two decades after their last album with a baker’s dozen tracks of rootsy rock. A blend of R.E.M., Pylon, and Camper Van Beethoven, it’s somewhat moody, spiky, Southern jangle-pop with really indelible vocal melodies.
• Black Lips — Arabia Mountain (Merge)
It was a pretty good year for garage rock, with fine albums by Ty Segal, Jack Oblivian, and Times New Viking. The Lips’ effort was the best, recruiting producer Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Adele, Kaiser Chiefs), polishing away some grit (much like TNV) and crafting their finest batch of songs to date, aided by their rowdy, infectious energy.