Let’s be honest: 2011’s been a snooze-tastic year for recorded music.
Sure we’ve seen the resurgence of glorified house music in the guise of purple-plaided, skullet-rocking “Dubstep-ers” like Skrillex or the human Christmas Tree (aka DeadMau5), but it’s far from a good thing. Yes, there has been an overwhelming onslaught of post-The xx darkwavers like Twin Sister and Warpaint treading the ever-thinning waters of the popularized indie rock shoreline, but it feels like it’s made exclusively as backdrop music for an Urban Outfitters. Bon Iver is up for a Grammy (for “New Artist” nonetheless…) for what proved to be a horribly exhausted followup to his fantastic debut. Girls’ lackluster Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a critics’ darling for all the wrong reasons, sacrificing distinctive personality for throwback cliche. Talentless hip-pop, post-Gaga “shock-magnets” like Nicki Minaj are making the top 100 track list on Bitchfork. Hell, Atlas Sound put out the repetitive and sonically uninteresting Parallax, and even Panda Bear dropped the ball with Tomboy. If anything, it seems the rise of the Hipster Runoff-coined “lamestream” is upon us in full force.
Indeed, even the some of the truly great albums of the year seemed a little on the low-key side. Perpetually chilled rockers like Real Estate managed to break popular ground, while soulful producers like James Blake made music fittingly played only when the lights are off. As traditionally raucous artists like Ty Segall toned it down a notch for their new releases, it became apparent that 2011 was a year of music on quaaludes, eschewing exciting forays into energetic experimentation for stripped-down songwriting.
That said, the year hasn’t been entirely without its fair-share of hidden gems. In an effort to give some of this year’s better albums some much needed visibility, here’s a list of five deserving pieces that may have missed your gaze (in very arbitrary order):
1. Dirty Beaches – Badlands
Pretty much the closest thing you’ll get to a David Lynch film on an auditory medium (the fore-mentioned filmmaker’s own musical attempts earlier this year included). Practically oozing with atmosphere and sonic density, the one-man act Dirty Beaches calls to mind stark, menacing landscapes with a minimalist approach to sampling. He uses haphazard guitar techniques rougher than most would be willing or able to pull off… and he does it with style to spare. Not to mention, it’s named after one of my favorite movies (nice going man!).
- Download/Listen: “A Hundred Highways” – Dirty Beaches
2. John Maus – We Must Become Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
Unabashedly brazen in his use of synthesized composition, performance energy, reverb, and chest pounding bravado, the ever (disarmingly) intellectual John Maus came out with a criminally overlooked love-letter to the 1980’s earlier this year. Ominous, sprawling, and often beautiful, the album caters to those with an appreciation for pop at its purest while offering a unique, eclectic sound that is unadulterated by the conventions found in most other records of a similar vein. Including tracks with names like “Cop Killer”, the album’s title alone carries stunningly ironic connotations when weighed next to the pop-friendly tunes Maus produces. One of the few truly chill (and chilling) albums of the year.
- Download/Listen: “Believer” – John Maus
3. Mikal Cronin – Mikal Cronin
Scene contemporary and occasional collaborator with the aforementioned garage-rock stalwart Ty Segall, California rocker Mikal Cronin’s debut LP harks to familiar vibes while offering a refreshing surprise punch of pop genius that recalls everything from Beach Boys-era Brian Wilson to the harder-edges of the Beatles’ catalog. At a brisk 34 minutes, the album is over a bit quickly, but highlights Cronin’s strengths in effective songwriting: every song packs its own distinctive wallop without sacrificing a sense of pace or personality. A fantastic first taste of what is sure to be a recognizable face in the future.
- Download/Listen: “Is It Alright” – Mikal Cronin
4. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien
Following up an impressive debut LP is never an easy task and yet this talented young indie rock outfit manged not only to evade the sophomore slump, but completely out-maneuver some of the more meandering pratfalls of their previous record as well. Where 2009’s Why There Are Mountains occasionally overindulged in its own sonic wanderings, Lenses Alien plays like a deftly constructed progressive-rock opus minus the cheese. Each song stands on its own as a fantastic composition and is awash in a multitude layers unheard since Billy Corgan had ginger hair. One of the best indie rock records I’ve heard in a long time, it’s a shame it went as unnoticed as it did.
- Download/Listen: “Keep Me Waiting” – Cymbals Eat Guitars
5. Craig Wedren – Wand
After spending the majority of the 2k’s composing for film and TV, oft overlooked indie-rock deity Craig Wedren returns to songwriting styling that made him one of the most respected figures in the industry. Just as charismatic, obscure, and yet approachable as he was with Shudder to Think in the 90’s, Wedren made an LP that plays exactly as it should: with virile, unhindered energy completely at home in cleanly produced, flattering sound. The angular compositions seem to point to Wedren’s glory days while embellishing in Bowie-esque glam brought on by his time spent rubbing-shoulders with Hollywood’s indie appreciators (“slappin da’ bass”-extraordinaire Paul Rudd included). One of the best surprises of 2011.
- Download/Listen: “Make Me Hurt You” – Craig Wedren