Listen to One Thirty BPM’s top albums of 2011 in this Spotify playlist.
As a matter of policy, super groups are a bad idea. They bring a bunch of egos together without even the pretense of compromise. Wild Flag breaks all those conventions. Their debut album, Wild Flag, is perhaps the definitive indie rock super group album. Hooks and wit abound, exemplified by opening track “Romance.” Poppy and brawny, the double guitar attack of Mary Timony and Carrie Brownstein is fiercer than almost anything found in indie rock in 2011. Like many of the tracks on Wild Flag, “Something Came Over Me” uses angular riffs and Brownstone’s wrenching, feral vocals to define Wild Flag’s sound. The album is consistent; the songs are thoroughly developed and not the work of a single afternoon between friends, something all too common with similar efforts of groups of well known musicians. If you close your eyes and forget the famous names, the album actually sounds better, unleashed from the weight of the band members respective catalogs. That’s ultimately the strongest compliment one can give an album like Wild Flag. It doesn’t require you to know their history to be enjoyable. It’s better to take the music at face value and move forward from there.
– Jason Hirschhorn
Prior to Zonoscope, Cut Copy always struck me as a group that had mastered the art of the individial standout track but had yet to fully bring all the pieces together to make a complete album. In Ghost Colours is a terrific collection of songs, no doubt, but Zonoscope represents a more cohesive package in my mind. “Need You Now” is an obvious standout and has separated itself from the pack, as it were, but throughout the course of the year I found myself wavering on which one song I preferred. “Pharoahs & Pyramids,” “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution,” and “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat” all had their special time and place in my 2011. But the biggest reward of the album comes on its final track, the magnum opus that is “Sun God.” But ultimately, Zonoscope is unlike any other Cut Copy album in that it really is best served up from start-to-finish rather than as a shuffled list. It works either way, of course, because the songs are just that strong. But as a united tablet, few stacked up better over the past 12 months.
– Andrew Bailey
Smother marks the third album from the Kendal quartet Wild Beasts. And for the third straight time, they’ve crafted yet another beautiful album while raising the levels of eroticism and romanticism. Compared to their last LP, Two Dancers, Smother isn’t quite as “dancey,” but it still manages to keep the same level of emotional intensity and dramatic imagery throughout 10 tracks. Musically, the arrangements are more complex with a stronger emphasis on the pounding percussion and tickling piano chords. Lyrically, they’re still their usual sex-addicted selves. But they also allude to English Romantic writers such as Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and even throw in some Shakespeare for those literary lovers out there. As usual, it’s the intimate vocals that take the spotlight of their music. Hayden Thorpe’s yearning falsetto and Tom Fleming’s seductive baritone playfully intertwine together, showing signs of maturity as they seem tighter and more unified than before. Whereas Two Dancers is more of a lusty, promiscuous youth looking for a one night stand, Smother is the mature, sensual, and ravishing Don Juan who will be there the next morning.
– Ace Ubas
Tragically often, reinvention orients an artist alarmingly far from the natural point of utterance and the product is buried in intent unachieved. Happily, this is not the case for Balam Acab’s hypnotizing debut. It is not so different from last year’s intriguing See Birds EP, and the final moments of that release even hint toward that which Alec Koone realizes in Wander / Wonder, a spectral whisper like the unheard conversations of cave stones, rumoring of outside. And that’s just the album art. But seriously, what makes Wander / Wonder one of the most exciting debuts of the year is its simultaneous feeling of having come at just the right moment and being immediately timeless in its arrangement and execution of real beauty.
– FM Stringer
Beirut’s The Flying Club Cup is the kind of album that’s so good that recording the inevitable follow-up is an unenviably daunting task. After almost four years, the third album from Beirut has arrived in understated form on The Rip Tide. 2009’s double EP March of the Zapotec/Holland may have hinted at a possible journey through electronic experimentation, but that is not what’s in store for The Rip Tide. Rather, the new game for Zach Condon and company is restraint. Beirut’s signature Old World vibe and instrumentation are still as persistent as ever, but the baroque pop stylings have shed all hints of bombast. Here, Beirut is more subdued, and the majority of The Rip Tide’s slow-burning 33 minutes are plaintive ballads crooned with a gorgeously low-key intimacy. If The Rip Tide is like a brief journey through Eastern Europe, then it is one where the traveler pauses to savor the sights, rather than rush with a hurried frenzy to see it all.
– Frank Mojica
John Darnielle has amassed hundreds of songs over the years. The ‘90s were characterized by lo-fi boombox recordings, only to see a shift to the studio in the 21st century. His compact, flash fiction style of folk songwriting is not unlike the work of author Donald Barthelme. Describing the new album as a “surviving record,” Darnielle pockets dread like a young thief at the market by enlisting seasoned death metal musician Erik Rutan to produce four songs. The album’s other three producers also helped flesh out the subdued reflections on death and the afterlife on 2009’s The Life of the World to Come. The result is a record of great breadth, one of the most varied in the Mountain Goats’ catalogue: there are spirited songs (“Estate Sale Sign”), suspenseful songs (“Beautiful Gas Mask”), and a somber country tinged track (“Never Quite Free”). There are also some new tricks; most notable is the barbershop vocal harmony on “High Hawk Season.” No hyperbole: there is no greater modern lyricist than Darnielle. He’s both prolific and consistent; a feat matched by the elite few, not even Bob Dylan himself.
– Michael Tkach
2011 has been an interesting year for guitarist and songwriter Bradford Cox. The reclusive and intimidating musician has garnered more attention for his touring with Deerhunter than his solo work, the reason being I’m not quite sure, but his third solo album Parallax was an engrossing and spirited work. Let the Blind These Who Can See but not Feel was lauded as a landmark album, and it’s not as though Parallax flew under the radar, but the album has yet to receive the praise it truly deserves. With tracks like “Te Amo,” which we featured on our top tracks list, there was a mysterious and almost cosmic aura to the album. When I talk to other fans about Cox’s work, everybody has a different answer for their favorite release or song, but there’s an argument to be made that Parallax is his most completely realized effort. Every track weaves together in an almost soundtrack-like manor, and by the end of the album you can’t help but be entranced in Cox’s magical world. It’s reserved and tame compared to his other solo works, but he also sounds more confident than ever. Maybe the Deerhunter shows were a sort of coming out party for Cox, but in his recent interviews, and certainly on Parallax, he seems to be more at ease with himself and his work, a writer who is willing and able to do whatever he pleases.
– Erik Burg
[Jet Life Recordings / Warner Bros]
Of all the rappers that released prime efforts this year, unlikely to top any list is Curren$y. However, he certainly set the standard. With his ever growing popularity, Spitta sells out shows, his only real goal. He’s even spawned a generation of lame wannabes (we’re looking at you, Wiz) and inspired promising hopefuls (A$AP Rocky and any weed smoking rapper dropping tapes this year). The sheer amount of material he releases is staggering, you hardly have time to set with one album before the next. With the time the year provided, it’s debatable whether Covert Coup or this release is ultimately superior, but it’s this one that had the impact. With the film the title recalls serving as a sort of mission statement, the listener is instantly eased into Curren$y’s faded, laidback world. As much as Pilot Talk II is an underrated, perfect exploration of jazz rap, built for that cruise or a laidback night with friends, Weekend at Burnie’s is the exuberant vacation, each beat focused on the most fun possible. As far as feel good records go, look no further.
– Chase McMullen
[Columbia/In The Name Of]
In 2010, a Brooklyn duo shrouded in mystery released three songs via Bandcamp that made the heart of many a blogger skip a beat and landed them a major record deal and gigs at all of the world’s best music festivals. Fortunately for Cults, their self-titled debut has lived up to all the expectations generated from those much-hyped demos. On the surface, Cults may come across as a wistful collection of vintage pop laden with summery hooks. Been there, done that countless times before in just as many different ways, right?
What separates Cults from other retro-chic indie popsters is that as the duo channels that 1960s girl group pop sound, they are simultaneously subverting it. As it yearns for both freedom and self-destruction, Madeline Follin’s child-like voice is spookily duplicated throughout Cults by a glockenspiel. Doo-wop vibes are given a 21st century facelift with hip-hop beats, the reverb is as psychedelic as it is Phil Spector, and eeriness runs rampant. Follin’s vocal melodies are deceptively sweet and on “Go Outside” are juxtaposed by a sample from actual cult leader Jim Jones. Forget “Then He Kissed Me,” Cults is more akin to “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss).”
– Frank Mojica
[True Panther Sounds]
2011 might be seen as the year that artists just stopped giving a fuck. I mean that in the best possible way; from Bon Iver to Atlas Sound, some of indie’s biggest stars have cast off the shackles of genre pigeonholing to create works that have room to breathe, expand, and transcend easy classification. The latest Girls album isn’t quite so abstract — this is clearly a classic rock record — but the extended guitar jams, orchestral nods to 70s prog rock and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and high-fidelity recording go far beyond what most of us would have imagined Christopher Owens capable of after last year’s solid yet somewhat predictable Broken Dreams Club EP. Yet here we are. Echoes of the past haunt Father, Son, Holy Ghost, but they only go to show how far Owens has come in such a short amount of time. For example, at the seven-minute mark (!) of “Forgiveness,” Owens says that he can “hear so much music,” and then we hear a distant voice that almost exactly mimics the background vocals from “Hellhole Ratrace.” But whereas the latter was used to repeatedly augment an epic yet (let’s be honest) somewhat repetitive surf-rock jam, on “Forgiveness” it’s surrounded by organs, more melodically-informed guitar and bass work, and it simply caps a long, spacious track instead of having to push it along. I don’t know whether Owens is a religious man, but whatever inspired Father, Son, Holy Ghost must have been spiritually powerful in its own right. The inspiration might have been aesthetic, but the results are undeniably divine.
– Josh Becker