Sean’s Favorites: 2011

Well, I certainly took my time getting to this one. Before you get too far, you might want to go back and refresh your memory of my 2010 list. But anyway, in 2011 I finished my second year of college and left that school for a couple reasons (let’s just say I didn’t transition well to the college lifestyle). The Marvel Cinematic Universe began to truly take root with the release of the first Thor and Captain America movies, NASA flew the last Space Shuttle mission, and Osama bin Laden was found and killed. The role music played in my life was pretty similar to 2010. I was still listening and reading as much as I could. I continued to discover new things and dig deeper into genres I previously hadn’t explored. Here are some albums that have endured for me from that time.

Capitol

BEASTIE BOYS – HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO–4 years since their last album, 7 years since their last album with lyrics, and 13 years after their last great album (sorry to fans of To the 5 Boroughs), the Beastie Boys came back in the best possible way. They came back loud, funky, and ready to party. Hot Sauce fits nicely in the sound that the Beasties established through the ’90s with obscure samples, live instruments, synths, and punk rock attitude. Other Beastie Boy staples like instrumental funk tracks and the odd punk song are here too. This really was a return to form for the Beasties and it would become a fitting end to their discography. MCA sadly passed away from cancer in 2012 and Mike D and Ad-Rock announced that they would not make new music as the Beastie Boys a couple years later.

Nonesuch

THE BLACK KEYS – EL CAMINO–2010’s Brothers broke The Black Keys into the mainstream, then El Camino blasted them off the charts. The fuzzy guitars in the opening seconds of “Lonely Boy” tell you immediately that you’re not getting the slow-jamming R&B rock of Brothers. This is going to be a raucous, badass garage rock record, and you better buckle up. But the Keys haven’t forgotten their blues roots. “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Little Black Submarines” still have hints of their beloved delta blues. And later tracks like “Hell of a Season” and “Stop Stop” still pull from R&B. El Camino really is the total package and the crown jewel of the later half of The Black Keys catalog. They haven’t quite captured the same magic since.

Jagjaguwar

BON IVER – self titled–My ass was planted firmly on the indie folk bandwagon in the early 2010s. I had heard of Bon Iver, but my knowledge was limited to the song “Skinny Love,” I hadn’t heard the rest of the first album. When I saw that he had come out with a new album and it was getting very good reviews, I gave it a chance. I pressed play and was met with… not indie folk. I don’t really know how to categorize what I heard but it was beautiful and incredibly compelling. I put this album in my car stereo and it stayed there for months, despite not really being “driving music.” There are so many layers to uncover on this album. Even as I revisit it for this list, I’m hearing new things along with what made me love it in the first place.

Sensibility/Columbia

THE CIVIL WARS – BARTON HOLLOW–Sticking with the indie folk theme, The Civil Wars were one of many groups to emerge during the genre’s boom at the time. A collaboration between contemporary Christian singer Joy Williams and Americana singer-songwriter John Paul White, the band quickly proved they were not just another Mumford clone trying to capitalize on a trend. Their sound was much quieter (mostly), and their lyrics embodied feelings of longing and loss in ways that other songwriters only dream of. Barton Hollow itself plays almost like a timeline of a relationship with lighter songs leading to the explosive and raucous title track. The tone then turns to darker minor key songs and then ends with bittersweet goodbyes. Unfortunately we only got one other album from The Civil Wars before they called it quits, but they will be remembered as one of the better parts of the indie folk boom of the 2010s.

Samples & Seconds/Republic

GOTYE – MAKING MIRRORS–Yes, this is the “Somebody That I Used to Know” album, and that song is fantastic, but I think we can all agree that it was overplayed at the time. However, this album is so much more than that song. It’s track list has just one indie pop gem after another, some with hints of old school soul and R&B and even hints of Paul Simon. There is some art-pop weirdness here and there, but it’s way more accessible than it isn’t. I also feel like the fact that “Somebody…” became such a meme distracted from the strength of Gotye’s songwriting and his voice. You really should do yourself a favor and check out the rest of this album, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find. The only downside is this is the last thing that Gotye has really released. But I keep my fingers crossed in hopes of someday getting another album.

Universal

OWL CITY – ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL–I feel like I’m going to lose a lot of music fan cred by admitting that I like Owl City. Say all you want about how he’s a more sanitized, ultra twee version of The Postal Service, but if you follow Adam Young, you find out that he has a serious DIY attitude and he just does what he wants, and I respect that. All Things Bright and Beautiful was his second major label release and, to me, the best example of the Owl City brand of synth pop. The instrumentals are super clean and precise with intricate percussion tracks. These back catchy melodies and lyrics that are full of metaphor and beautiful language (that is, admittedly a little cheesy, but way less than some found on Ocean Eyes). I could go on for awhile on this one. Maybe I’ll do a full write-up for it someday.

Pure Noise

THE STORY SO FAR – UNDER SOIL AND DIRT–By 2011, the emo and pop-punk bands of the late ’90s and ’00s had either disbanded or were making radio rock and bland power pop. It was enough to keep the fans happy, but the world needed a new class of pop-punk to bring the energy back. The new decade brought that with bands like Fireworks, Man Overboard, Real Friends, The Wonder Years, and Handguns. One that quickly rose to the top was The Story So Far who kept the catchy pop hooks but brought back the harder edge of punk with more raw vocals and energy that would permeate through the entire scene over the next few years. 2011 was a good year for pop-punk, and Under Soil and Dirt was one of its best releases.

Hassle

TURBOWOLF – self titled–In the last entry of this series, I mentioned that The Sword left me hungry for more riff-heavy hard rock and metal, but I had a hard time finding it. However, I was lucky enough to find Turbowolf while I was stumbling about in the dark. But Turbowolf is not your typical stoner or doom metal band. They do have sludgy guitars, an occult aesthetic, and riffs for days, but they also have the attitude and occasional speed of punk, the atmosphere of psychedelic, and the weird synths of horror punk. Mix this all together and you get the tasty, hard rocking riff smoothie of their self titled debut.

Vulf

VULFPECK – MIT PECK–Somewhere in Michigan, a few friends decided that they were going to start a band that tried to capture the vibe and sound of old live rhythm sections like The Wrecking Crew or the Muscle Shoals band. Little did they know that they were about to create the minimalist funk powerhouse of the modern era known as Vulfpeck. Mit Peck was the first collection of tracks they released into the world, containing songs like “Beastly” and the band’s signature track, “It Gets Funkier.” With this EP, Vulfpeck introduced us to their brand of retro-styled funk and soul, but more importantly it introduced us to the bass playing of Joe Dart. (We’re not worthy!)

Quarantine Quick Takes, Part 2: Heavy Stuff

As is typical for me, the majority of what I end up listening to falls into the category of heavy music. So far this year, the ratios seem to be a bit more balanced, but heavy stuff is still the clear leader. As such, we can’t leave them out to dry so here are some quick reviews of heavy albums that came out in the month of March.

Century Media

BODY COUNT – CARNIVORE–Ice-T took a little break from the SVU and got his metal band back together to record an album. That’s right, Detective Tutuola fronts a thrash metal band, and has since the early ’90s. Early in his career, Ice-T noticed the similarities between the attitudes of gangsta rap and thrash metal and started his own band. And they’re not too bad, honestly. Some of the tracks on this album go straight back to old school thrash. There are features from Riley Gale of Power Trip, Jamey Jasta of Hatebreed, and Amy Lee of Evanescence. There’s also a pretty spot-on cover of “Ace of Spades.” It’s not perfect, some tracks fall into the tropes of modern alternative metal, and I could do without the spoken intros on a couple tracks. But the good stuff is pretty good. 3.5/5.0

Roadrunner

CODE ORANGE – UNDERNEATH–I’m just going to say it, these guys are the future of metalcore. There are very few bands out there being as creative and forward-thinking with the genre as Code Orange. Underneath takes what they started with their last album and takes it even further. They incorporate elements of industrial metal, alternative metal, glitch, and even a touch of harsh noise into these tracks. The result is a wild ride from start to finish. The textures and riffs and movements in these songs are so varied that they come and go before you realize it. Seriously, I never had a moment where I felt like a song spent too much time on a particular thing. This album is the fastest way to pass 47 minutes. It’s not perfect, there are some instances where the glitch elements are a little too jarring and sound more like a genuine flaw in the audio file rather than a musical glitch. But otherwise this thing is great. 4.0/5.0

Century Media

HEAVEN SHALL BURN – OF TRUTH AND SACRIFICE–I went into this one without any prior knowledge of Heaven Shall Burn, but I listened to quite a bit of metalcore back in my day. When I saw this was a double album that ran 97 minutes, I had my suspicions that it was going to be an overall “meh” experience. Turns out, I was right but that doesn’t mean there aren’t bright spots. After the intro track, the first part of the first disc is made up of some of the best things about metalcore. They also manage to have a track over 8 minutes that isn’t a slog (however there is one on the second disc that is). And on the second disc the experiments with industrial metal are interesting and the Nuclear Assault cover is decent. Otherwise, the second half of the first disc falls into metalcore tropes and the second one feels like it’s full of B-sides. If they kept it to one disc, it might have been a lot better. 2.5/5.0

Season of Mist

HYBORIAN – VOLUME II–This! This is what I look for in my stoner and sludge metal! Just riffs, riffs, riffs, riffs, and more riffs that are dirty, sludgy, and greasy. Tempos that range from ponderous swagger to blistering thrash, and lyrics that tell stories of sci-fi and fantasy. (Seriously, the band’s lyricist wrote a companion novel telling the story of this album… I want it.) Another thing that makes this album great is that Hyborian avoids the pitfall of being over indulgent. The album is only 40 minutes long and the longest track is 8 minutes and change, and even then, the last 2 minutes are taken up with a weird, reversed dialogue and Morse code. The only thing keeping it from being exceptional is that the dynamics are pretty flat and if you’re not paying attention, a couple tracks kind of blend into each other. Otherwise, I like this one a lot. 4.0/5.0

Metal Blade

IGORRR – SPIRITUALITY AND DISTORTION–Where do I even start with this one? This is probably the most fun and wildest ride I’ve had all year with a metal album. Igorrr is primarily the project of French musician Gautier Serre. With this project he combines a couple different metal subgenres with breakcore, trip hop, classical baroque, and Romani folk music. This ain’t your dad’s industrial or symphonic metal; this is a different beast altogether, and boy is it fun. What’s really impressive is Serre doesn’t try to cram every one of his influences into every track. Some lean on certain influences more than others, and he knows how to spread these variations out over the course of a 55 minute album. And the juxtaposition of accordion and double bass and black metal on a couple tracks alone is worth the price of admission. This is easily one of the most interesting and best albums I’ve heard all year. 4.5/5.0

Atlantic

IN THIS MOMENT – MOTHER–Heavy bands with female singers usually go two ways. They’re either a fantastic example of their subgenre and they don’t have to use the singer as a selling point, or they play average symphonic or power metal and have to lean on their singer’s exceptional voice and affinity for costumes or gowns. This album from In This Moment feels like it’s trying to do the second and failing. Maria Brink’s vocals feel lazy and over-indulgent throughout this, and with the exception of one or two tracks, the instrumentals are pretty boring. Then it also has three covers that just don’t land at all, and the “Fly Like An Eagle” cover feels like it was just tacked onto the front of the album with it’s own intro track because it’s followed by another intro track for the first original song. I’m sorry, I just wasn’t feeling this one at all. 1.0/5.0

Century Media

LUCIFER – LUCIFER III–There’s something about old school hard rock and doom metal that the female voice just complements so well. If you don’t know what I mean, this album from Lucifer is a great example. This band got on my radar with a strong single from their last album, but the rest of it left a bit to be desired. Nothing else really stood out on it. This third album fixes those problems. It feels like the band got into a groove with each other this time and the songwriting improved greatly. Old school riffs abound on this album, and there’s at least one moment in each song that grabs your ear. Vocalist Johanna Sadonis has exactly the effortless kind of voice that you want with these kind of tunes, too. 3.5/5.0

Shadow Kingdom

TEMPLE OF VOID – THE WORLD THAT WAS–I suppose getting into death-doom metal is a logical move considering my obsession with stoner and doom. I’m still new to it and there have already been a couple good releases in the genre this year. This is one of them. Temple of Void bring a balanced mix of fast(ish) and slow riffs and make interesting use of atmospheric synths. They very effectively evoke the right mood for this kind of album. Some moments can be drawn out a little too much, but I’ve heard worse. Also, there appears to be two versions of this album out there. If you’re listening on Spotify, make sure it’s the one that says Shadow Kingdom Records at the bottom, the mix is way better. 3.5/5.0

Sean’s Favorites: 2010

Let’s see, where was I in 2010? I turned 20 years old, I finished my first year of college, and would start my second. I did that thing almost every guy does and stopped getting haircuts and I would continue to grow my hair out for the next couple years. A lot of good movies came out and a couple would become all-time favorites of mine (Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). My interest in music was at an all-time high. I was pretty well-informed on indie and alternative music with a little help from MTVU (or so I thought). I started taking hip-hop music more seriously. And I was pretty humbled when I started reading Pitchfork and for the first week, I didn’t recognize a single artist they reviewed. But I wasn’t deterred, I just went deeper. Below are not only some of my favorite albums from 2010, but some that were important to me and my musical growth.

Nonesuch

THE BLACK KEYS – BROTHERS–This was the album that turned The Black Keys into a sensation. Not to be that guy, but I was into the Keys before they were cool. I was introduced to them in 2006 with the Chulahoma EP, and they quickly became one of my favorites. I had a lot of mixed feelings about Brothers when it first came out. At first I wasn’t thrilled about the band trading their sludgy delta blues sound for a more R&B inspired rock. But at the same time, Brothers was a huge improvement over their previous two records. In true hipster form, I also lamented the attention that the band was getting, fearing this would lead to a more mainstream sound from them. But again, I was also happy that more people knew about one of my favorite bands. It took 8 years of hard work, but The Black Keys finally made it, and it still holds up as one of their best albums.

Ferret

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA – ZOMBIE EP–In 2009, The Devil Wears Prada released their third album, With Roots Above and Branches Below, and it was their best work yet. The production finally caught up with their style, and their songwriting was better than ever. Metalcore was at its peak popularity and Prada was among the best. How could they possibly do better? Then in 2010 they released the Zombie EP and completely blew Roots out of the water with five fucking tracks! The band ramped up the speed and brutality, and the theme was based on vocalist Mike Hranica’s interest in zombie books and movies. Weirdly enough, The Walking Dead would premiere two months after this EP released and everyone else in the world would hop on the bandwagon. The band was just firing on all cylinders with this one. It’s a bright spot in Prada’s discography and one of the few metalcore releases I can still listen to today.

Parlophone

GORILLAZ – PLASTIC BEACH–Prior to 2010, I didn’t pay much attention to Gorillaz. All I really knew about them was “Feel Good Inc.” and it wasn’t my style of music when it was popular. I don’t remember what caused me to give the band another look but when I did, I became almost obsessed with them. This newfound appreciation coincided almost exactly with the release of “Stylo,” the first single from Plastic Beach. Their third album would have them moving further from hip-hop and refining their wonky alt-pop. The result would be some of Gorillaz’ best tracks and best collaborations, with contributions from artists like Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Little Dragon, and Bobby Womack (who had a bit of a resurgence in popularity, thanks to this album). Unfortunately, it would end up being the last great Gorillaz album. But they’re still making music, so there’s always hope.

Bad Boy/Wondaland

JANELLE MONÁE – THE ARCHANDROID–The first time I knew anything about Janelle Monáe was when I saw a poster at Best Buy. I was instantly intrigued by this black woman wearing a tuxedo with a massive pompadour hairstyle. What on earth kind of music could this woman make? I don’t know what I expected, but I liked what I found. Her funk infused, alternative R&B and psychedelic soul were so much fun that it quickly became a favorite of mine. Which is weird considering I didn’t give pop and R&B music much attention at this time in my life. The genres were presented through a lens that helped me bridge the gap from my preferred music at the time, with rock and progressive influences coming through. And because I’m a nerd, the overarching sci-fi narrative of the album helped too.

Big Beat/Atlantic

SKRILLEX – SCARY MONSTERS AND NICE SPRITES–This entry has probably awakened some dark memories for some readers. Memories of hard drops, wobble bass, and questionable fashion choices. But regardless of how immature some of those trends seem now, they were a key milestone on the trajectory of EDM in popular culture. And it all starts right here with this EP. Scary Monsters was the EP and the song that made brostep a phenomenon. Whether you loved him or hated him, you knew about Skrillex. And if you listen to this EP beyond the title track, it proved back then that he wasn’t just a one trick pony. He had some range, and his work since proves that he still does. He hasn’t really matched the quality of this EP since, but the mark it left has given him producer credits throughout the decade and likely well into the future.

Mom+Pop/NEET

SLEIGH BELLS – TREATS–The “Loudness war” is something that has plagued music production for the past 30 years, and it can be the difference between a good album and a bad one. But there’s something to be said for using that digital compression as an aesthetic choice. From the very first seconds of Treats, you are bombarded with guitars, synths, and drums that are bricked out so hard that everything clips. Apart from bass boost memes, this is perhaps the only time that these levels of compression 100% serve the songs. It’s just one piece of Sleigh Bells’ in-your-face approach to noise pop (or their self-described “shred pop”). I had never heard anything like it before this album, and nothing has quite captured this level of noise and energy for me since.

Kemado

THE SWORD – WARP RIDERS–I know that within the spheres of stoner rock and doom metal, this album is not held in very high regard. But, I wouldn’t know that if it wasn’t for this album. I don’t even remember where I first saw the album artwork, but the retro typeface and Roger Dean-esque sci-fi watercolors compelled me to listen to this album. Through it I was introduced to retro styled traditional metal and left hungry for more. Finding other artists like this proved difficult at the time, but I just didn’t know where to look. I finally did learn a few years later, and even though I’ve found “better” examples of what The Sword were trying to do on this album, the riffs on Warp Riders still hold a special place for me a decade later.

XL Recordings

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – CONTRA–This album was my introduction to Vampire Weekend and contains perhaps my favorite song of theirs (“Giving Up The Gun” is the song by which all other Vampire Weekend tracks are judged, and it has one of the best music videos). The bright and clean sound was a perfect break in the winter clouds when the album came out. When compared to the band’s debut, Contra took the formula they set for themselves and refined it. Rough edges were polished and influences were mined even deeper, creating a major improvement stylistically and compositionally. This really was a great work of indie rock that was only topped by their third album that took this stylistic trajectory to its logical, almost absurd conclusion.