Before we say goodbye, we thought we'd bring you our collective favorite albums of 2011.
Ash Borer: Ash Borer [Pesanta Urfolk]
Chillwave. It's been shoved down our throats over the past couple of years due to its ease of creation and distribution (thank you Ableton Live soft synths and plug-ins; thank you Soundcloud and the blogs that embed you!!), and a lot of it fucking sucks. This year saw some lazy remixes and underwhelming sophomore releases from the first batch of the genre's icons, and the honeymoon phase ended. Disappointment sets in as the blogosphere continues to herald "the next big thing" and humors publicists' requests for coverage-- maybe for the sake of traffic, maybe for the lack of a better voice. You feel a craving for something visceral. Something different.
Ash Borer enters the scene with an undeniably strong album that doesn't asked to be loved, appreciated, or even known at a time where being an artist seems to require having at least three social media outlets. The sheer weight of this headbanging LP is staggering, and its tension-building ambient moments are just as captivating as the chaotic ones. You don't have to be a diehard black metal fan to feel the impact of their bludgeoning drums, soaring guitars, and anguished screams; Ash Borer's raw power translates to any audience. Epic. --Ric Leichtung
Blues Control & Laraaji: FRKWYS Vol. 8 [RVNG Intl.]
There've been a bunch of all-star collaborations this year-- Kanye and Jay-Z, James Blake and Bon Iver, Flaming Lips and Lightning Bolt-- that've doubled as a stroke of marketing genius and a fan's wet dream come true. There have also been a few lesser known meetings-of-the-mind orchestrated by RVNG Intl.-- Julianna Barwick and DNA founder Ikue Mori, Emeralds and soundtrack man Alan Howarth, the staggering five-way between Borden, Ferraro, Godin, Halo, and Lopatin-- that've been truly stunning. But the synergy between Blues Control and new age zitherist Laraaji trumps them all. Laraaji's been playing music for more than 30 years and is a seasoned improviser, taking on the role of the trio's leader and lifting the noise duo’s psychedelic scuzz to celestial heights. Few collaborations have tapped into something as special as this one. --Ric Leichtung
The Caretaker: An Empty Bliss Beyond This World [Self-Released]
It was a busy year for Leyland Kirby and his peripatetic musical endeavors. Under his given name, Kirby released the beautifully meditative Eager to Tear Apart The Stars before delving into three volumes of electronic manipulations in the Intrigue & Stuff series. His release as The Caretaker, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, landed the softest but burnt the brightest. Using a collection of run-down ballroom jazz 78s as his basic source material, Kirby continued his thematic study into the mind's inevitable fissures, the disconnects that frustrate the desire to cling to a perfect, complete memory.
Kirby's masterful manipulation and distortion of the 78s was so effective that they no longer seemed to belong to the past, or to the present.. An Empty Bliss resides in a kind of temporal limbo, reminding us that the opaque memories of a life -- what is salvaged and what is lost -- follow a most mysterious, inaccessible logic. It was a moment of exquisite calm, humility, and fragility amid the mad dash to omnipotence that is information super highway; it told us that no matter how imperfect, what we are left with is all that we have, and must be cherished. --Daniel Gottlieb
Death Grips: Exmilitary [Self-Released]
Death Grips are a mess, an anomaly that coheres through a set of intertwining delusional threads, mostly relating to personal obsessions and their limits. As much the phrase "practice makes perfect" proves true for beatsmith Zach Hill, MC Ride does the same in his mantras, using repetition as a coping mechanism for his abyss. There's a reason a Charles Manson sample opens this album: he's taken delusion into another universe. Ride really believes he's the king. Tell yourself anything enough times and you're Ringo Starr, guy.
Future Shuttle: Water's Edge [Intercoastal Artists / Holy Mountain]
When Future Shuttle released their debut EP Water’s Edge in late August, they established themselves as an outfit that makes nu age music for body and spirit alike. Their blend of synth, flute, samplers, and beats elegantly intertwines the cosmic and the earthly. Through sounds that evoke flowing streams, bird and dolphin calls, and the vibrations of ancient rock formations, Jessa Farkas’ voice resonates with striking humanity. It is as commanding as it is sorrowful, bringing to mind both the mortal condition and our desire and power to transcend it. In “Rain Source,” Farkas repeats the mantra, "I became everything that I’ve ever encountered," as the relationship between humans and each element of their environment is emphasized. Similarly, as “spacey” as Future Shuttle’s music is, every component is crystal-clear, a voice within its vast landscape. --Samantha Cornwell
Holy Other: With U [Tri-Angle]
Due to the ghostly vibes and his Tri Angle roster spot, Holy Other's work is mistakenly cast as something gothic, dark, or due to be canonized in wing-ding letters in some infinitely vacuous witch house manifesto. In reality, this past year found the veiled Manchester producer offering something far different from those suspected shock and horror tropes: the romantic hybrid house of With U. Holy Other's deep, disembodied vocals echo like distant memories as screwed orchestral swells and choral bass moans swallow them up. The atmosphere of yearning is palpable, whether for past love or new direction; the subdued lust of a simultaneously ravenous but tender one night stand looms over the hungry pleas of With U, especially in the meter- and momentum-shifting standout, "Touch." Holy Other's debut is a triumphant melding of R&B's emotion, bass culture's sensuality, and house's heartbeat, and the result is one of the year's most intimate albums. --Matt Sullivan
Iceage: New Brigade [Escho]
It's been a hell of a year for Iceage. Their first full-length dropped in their native country of Denmark in January. By June, they had gotten What's Your Rupture on board for a US release, toured with Fucked up, captured the attention of an Odd Future-obsess press (remember them?), and basically taken the underground music world by storm-- all pretty much by accident. They put out one of the most talked-about records of this year, and although their high school status, their notoriously bloody shows, and the controversy surrounding the Nazi doodles surely played their parts, the album had the kind of energy that hadn't been heard in years. Iceage is the type of band that sparks obsession. They put their hometown of Copenhagen on the music map by coining a movement and rekindled faith in a genre that had been stagnating for a few years. Mostly, they brought punk back into our minds, at least for a little while. --Ric Leichtung
John Maus: We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves [Ribbon]
If 2010 was the year when the music elite deemed Ariel Pink worthy of their ever-loving embrace, then 2011 was the year when they extended a tender hand to his CalArts classmate and lo-fi co-"discoverer" John Maus. However, as a series of revealing interviews following the release of his remarkable We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves made clear, Maus’ relationship with industry success was a complex and acrimonious one. Pitiless Censors was brimming with concepts and conjectures about modern political inertia, the sclerosis of advanced global capitalism, and the challenges they pose to the individual subject.
The album balanced and combined these influences accordingly: it's cerebral and conceptually driven, but also a revealing portrait of John’s personal and artistic struggle to break through these restrictive forces. Pitiless Censors thus gave us an image of Maus inhabiting a role not dissimilar to the lighthouse that appears on his album art: luminary but mysterious, vulnerable yet resolute, anxious to illuminate a place that lies just outside what it can reach. "This is where a human being finds himself"-- using the musical tools of the past, feeling ambivalent about the present, and longing for the possibilities of the future. In 2011, we welcomed back John Maus, the Believer. --Daniel Gottlieb
Julia Holter: Tragedy [Leaving]
Equal parts electronic pop and minimalist chamber music, Julia Holter’s Hippolytus-inspired debut puts both conservatory kids and bedroom producers to shame. Not too many artists manage to square the large and sprawling with the focused and minutely detailed, but this Los Angeles composer will channel just as much rigor into an extended drone as she will a loaded pause. Rather than belabor the plot details of Euripedes’ tormented love story, she abstracts it into a feeling of hovering doom.
The atmosphere is thick on Tragedy. Husky strings, white noise, harpsichords, fog horns, and crackling opera LPs cohere with mounting pressure, only to plateau until we forget that they are supposed to set the scene for a narrative event: a bit of dialogue or monologue set to words, such as in “The Falling Age” and “Celebration,” where her voice evokes Enya auditioning for a Madrigal choir, or single “Goddess Eyes,” where it’s clipped, vocoded, and maybe a little cold. Tragedy is the kind of record that makes you feel as though you’ve traveled far by the end-- through time, though space, though multiple musical languages and sounds that you never thought of as musical to begin with. Still, from start to curtain call, you can feel the clock ticking at every moment. --Emilie Friedlander
Julian Lynch: Terra [Underwater Peoples]
As life on Earth tends to move in circles, so has much of the music of 2011. Where many of this year’s releases are grounded in computer-driven loops and synth-based repetition, Julian Lynch’s Terra cycles through nylon, four-stringed guitar, meditative jazz clarinet, and hushed, tabla percussion. The Madison, Wisconsin-based ethnomusicologist refines the wide panorama of influences that was already present on his past releases, reaching into the past with smokey, prohibition-era falsetto croons and ‘50s music box piano symphonies while keeping it “modern” with his proggy guitar-synth. His third studio effort sounds more refined, more concise, and more three-dimensional than anything we've heard from him before. In another instance of coming full circle, Terra marks his return to Underwater Peoples, the home of his first non-CDr release, a split 7” with childhood friend Ducktails.. --Mary Katherine Youngblood
Jürgen Müller: Science of the Sea [Foxy Digitalis]
In 1979, German oceanographer Jürgen Müller built a music studio on his houseboat off the North Sea and slowly recorded an album inspired by the natural wonders that surrounded him. There were about 100 copies made, most of which were given away to his peers in the oceanic field; by some bizarre stroke of chance, one of them ended up in the hands of Brad Rose at Foxy Digitalis, who reportedly restored the album. The story is a library music collector's dream, and is unbelievable from the get-go, but Science's sophisticated palette is probably the most conclusive piece of evidence we have that Jürgen Müller and his project are the stuff of myth. Most exotica albums coming from "Jurgen's" time were awfully shallow listens, the cute wordplay and kitsch concepts constituting the core of their appeal. Science draws from the shimmering textures of the late, great Mort Garson and evokes the minimalist side of Raymond Scott. It's too damn good to be true. Its story is an integral part of the album, but its validity as a work of art doesn't hinge on fact-- it's in the beauty of the music, and the ideas lurking in its great depths that make this album more than a myth. --Ric Leichtung
Laurel Halo: Hour Logic [Hippos In Tanks]
MP3: Laurel Halo: "Aquifer"
One night at CMJ this year, I pushed forward to the front row of 285 Kent's attendees to catch Laurel Halo. As I walked away from the stage, the buzz in my headspace was killed with another concert-goer's groan-inducing synopsis: "Wow, she really killed it… for a girl." The blatant sexism of the analysis was a little stunning, but it seemed to fit in oddly well with a long line of bizarre preconceptions about this year's divisive ode to time-leaping-- and her best work yet-- Hour Logic. Halo's EP is the soundtrack to an imaginary silent sci-fi film where a cultural shift in information retrieval and consumption leaves significant effects on our brains' memory capacity and habits. It's a contemporary thesis on the possible aftermath of inhabiting a world like Far Side Virtual's for too long, drawn from futuristic bouts with electronic classics. Ultimately, that cerebral take is best left for the forum; Hour Logic's constant forward momentum is designed to be felt. The finer details of the painstakingly orchestrated domes and arcs of this symphony can be almost overwhelming, but the Detroit EMF veteran hasn't taken a left turn-- she's reached further for the future. --Matt Sullivan
Liturgy: Aesthethica [Thrill Jockey]
There’s no doubt that Brooklyn black metal outfit Liturgy pissed a lot of purists off this year when Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, their philosophizing Columbia grad of a frontman, published his infamous “Transcendental Black Metal” essay on the Internet. It renamed the “blast beat” the “burst beat,” boasted several black-and-white diagrams, and combined a band manifesto of sorts with a vision of the genre moving toward its ideal culmination in "the self-overcoming of Hyperborean black metal." (The implication being, of course, that Liturgy would be the band doing all the overcoming). At the end of the day, Altered Zones can only admire Hunt-Hendrix’s willingness to think deeply about what his own aesthetic choices mean, and will remember 2011 partly as the year when Aesthetica took the pummeling 16th notes, ecstatic death cries, and shifting guitar tremolos of black metal and showed us non-specialists just how powerful that language can be. It was also the year that the band lost perhaps its strongest music asset in virtuoso drummer and Guardian Alien mastermind Greg Fox; whatever you’d prefer to call his athletic and idiosyncratic pattering, it combined the thrill of total destruction with the joy of being alive. --Emilie Friedlander
Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica [Software]
For those of you keeping score at home, this is Dan Lopatin’s third appearance on an Altered Zones year-end best album list, the first two being for Games’ That We Can Play and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal last year. November’s Replica reconfirmed Lopatin’s status as an ingenious samplist whose complex process doesn’t prevent him from creating music that’s both erudite and somehow nearly as accessible as the TV commercials that provided his source material. The songs shirk narrative and explicit meaning, opting instead for contrapuntal juxtapositions and textured sound collages. Lopatin's magnum opus. --Luke Carrell
Peaking Lights: 936 [Not Not Fun]
Peaking Lights had several key elements of their sound place for their 2009 album, Imaginary Falcons, but the duo’s ability to weave noise-pop together with a humid strain of dub lay buried under a heavy dusting of drone and hiss. The project had plenty of promise, but it needed to be coaxed out into the setting sun. 936, this year’s subtly addictive gem of an album, has been buffed to a faded neon sheen, run through the heaviest dubplates, and pumped through a V.F.W. hall public address system straight into our hearts. Scotch Taped beats snake through oil-slicked puddles of bass that feel perfectly primed to rumble the speakers of the average ‘78 Escort. Indra Dunis’ honeyed coo seems to languish forever in a pool of hushed purple light while Aaron Coyes’ homemade synths billow into every available audible nook left behind. In short, 936 is a sweaty beast of a record. --Andy French
Pete Swanson: Man With Potential [Type]
I was wrong when I said the NYPD should play this on LRAD -- it belongs to Occupy. I mean, can you imagine the first hook, a full four minutes in, dropping as Zuccotti Park or Frank Ogawa Plaza faced eviction? Though Pete Seeger's endorsement was nice, did we expect much energy or inspiration from a 92-year-old, withering "This Little Light"? If the opener of Pete Swanson's Man With Potential, "Misery Beat," was meant for any catharsis at all, there's plenty of miserable subject matter to mine nowadays. Sure, it's named for the singular, but this entire release carries the imminent movement of massive crowds, exemplifying the power and potential of wordlessness. Perhaps the title points more to Swanson's autonomy, as he departed from the much-loved Yellow Swans duo three years ago.
Throughout this edict for Type Records, Swanson ping-pongs pointed loops through fields of scuzz, his deliberate modulation stretching each interval to its limit as agressive, head-bobbing beats sneak in. And while you can almost read the formula adhered to, no two tracks carry identical temperament or momentum. Man With Potential is thoughtful on a long-term scale, speaking to anyone with a pulse and a modicum of collective sense. --Dale W. Eisinger --Dale W. Eisinger
Prince Rama: Trust Now [Paw Tracks]
I think it's no secret that times are pretty tough for everyone nowadays, and Taraka and Nimai Larson of Prince Rama know this as well as anyone. Trust Now is their first album since founding member Michael Collins left the group and it slimmed to a duo. It's an airing of grievances, a mourning period, but also a survivor's statement of perseverance. We find a new Rama, re-energized and dressed for the battle arena. Shadow Temple's sophisticated drumming, swarming synths, and banshee-strength wails are more potent than ever on "Rest In Peace" and "Summer of Love," although the celestial prog of "Incarnation" and "Golden Silence" alludes to an age of enlightening surrender, a place where moments in time seem to lose their linearity. Trust Now is an important message of faith in an era where hope is dwindling and little seems trustworthy. --Matt Sullivan
Pure X: Pleasure [Acéphale]
Calling Pure X’s Pleasure a summer album wouldn’t be wrong. Lord knows it had a strong run as the soundtrack of choice for a host of sweaty activities over the course of the season, but as the album made so many return trips to headphones, ear canals and turntables, a new character emerged in the textures of those carefully interpreted songs: a tinge of darkness, equally honest and murky, that never really takes shape, but might be a bit sticky. Fellow Austinite Malcolm Elijah’s vids for "Surface" and "Easy" and the glamour shot of bondage cuffs on the album art display this theme, but avoid devolving into camp menace. This is holistic music, best enjoyed live and loud-- exactly like it was recorded. --Luke Carrell
Run DMT: Dreams [Culture Dealer]
Mike Collins has been an ambassador to all sounds weird and wonderful for a couple years, making the Run DMT moniker a mascot for the type of abstracted sound collages that have characterized the best of Baltimore's underground. Dreams is a series of fleeting, intergalactic visits that channel the spaced-out pondering of Bong Voyage, the classic '60s pop bounce of his Spruce Bringsteen split 7", and the spiritual awakenings of a deemster-fueled blast-off. Considering that it was recorded a few years ago, there's something of an old (but not that old) school charm to Dreams, recalling the excitement of exploring the vast unknown of the late aughts' blogosphere --the scene that Collins cut his teeth on-- for the very first time again. I am reminded of a time when I first heard Run, discovered Altered Zones, and ran away to Brooklyn to fashion dreams into reality. Needless to say, it's inspiring to hear Collins do the same with this labor of love, which almost didn't see the light of day. --Matt Sullivan
Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 [Kranky]
From Tim Hecker’s interest in the sonic refuse of the digital age emerged one of the most enduring albums of 2011. "I became obsessed with digital garbage, like when the Kazakstan government cracks down on piracy and there's pictures of 10 million DVDs and CDRs being pushed by bulldozers." From the portmanteau of the record to the image of the piano drop to track names like “Studio Suicide” and “Analog Paralysis, 1978," Ravedeath, 1972 was consumed with the timelessness and transience of sound. Its twelve elegiac pieces shifted from moments of action to periods of stasis. Passages of ambient purity tussled with lurching movements of hazy noise; synthesisers from the studio dialogue with organ sub-bass recorded in an Icelandic church. It was a journey that slowed down time to the point of stopping it altogether. --Daniel Gottlieb
By Ric Leichtung
In 1979, German oceanographer Jürgen Müller built a music studio on his houseboat. While he had been fascinated by the water since childhood, Müller hadn't felt it as a muse until he conducted research on the North Sea. Inspired by "the mystery and romance of the great seas," Müller borrowed synths from friends and put his limited keyboard skills to work. You won't find the kind of suspense-inducing chords, creeping chromaticism, or startling keyboard attacks that you'd expect to hear on "Shark Week"; Müller has neither the ear nor the musical know-how to pull off a production that calculated. The sonic delights to be uncovered on Science are in the impressionistic ripples of its layered pads and and echoing arpeggios. "Sea Green" and "Coral Fantasy" yield breathtaking underwater landscapes that evoke an abstract sense of spirituality, and it's fragments of deep sea serenity like these that make Science of the Sea a valuable relic from a then-nascent new age culture.
Science thrives on simplicity, but given its delicate balance between linear harmonic structures and unfurling textural variation, Müller's lack of training is impressive-- especially on meatier cuts like "Beyond The Tide" and "Sea Green." Thematically, there are pieces that really speak to one another-- "Dream Sequence for Jellyfish" and "The Elusive Seahorse," "Sea Green" and "Sea Bed Meditation"-- but some follow an all-too-similar path, content to revolve around a single arpeggio. "Waterworld" and "Marine Technology" are flashy enough to hook listeners in, but lack a climactic compositional arc. It's true: Müller's sound pallette can feel a little repetative, but in their vividly emotive textures, even the album's sleepers shimmer with their own charm. Had the less-than-three-minute lifespans of tracks like "Chasing Submarines" or "The Lonely Voyage" been extended and more developed, the album could have been truly legendary. But then again, the music isn't what solely defines Science of the Sea.
What makes this album a truly captivating listen is its story-- one of a 30-year-old scientist with no musical know-how who was touched by nature's profound beauty. And even more hypnotizing, originally less than 100 copies of the album were pressed. Half of those were given to Müller's friends and collegues in the oceanic field who probably didn't know kosmische from kraut (losers!). That said, the album is suspiciously crafted with waxidermists in mind-- almost too sensational to be true. Nearly thirty years after Science's release, it's a wonder that the music found its way to Digitalis Recordings via Foxy D writer Jan-Arne Sohns, who was shown the album by a member of Müller's extended family, who allegedly told Sohns in broken English that the album sounded like, "music like that weird stuff you like!" Skeptics have to wonder whether or not its origins are too good to be true. Wild claims can be made about the album's authenticity-- one being that Müller's studio locale shares the same name as Foxy founder Brad Rose's main music project (hm). The album's fishy background leads to some interesting questions about the power of the press release and the common record collector's obsession with obscurity, but casting half-baked conspiracy theories aside, Science's serves as an earwitness account of a non-artist's creative and spiritual awakening. On a grander scale, the album unwittingly mirrored the sounds of a brewing movement, and now that new age has been declared on the rise, this album couldn't have come at a better time than now.
On a boat more than 30 years ago, German oceanographer Jürgen Müller wrote an album of new age synth songs inspired by the North Sea. Pressing less than 100 copies and giving most of them away as freebies to peers and clients, Müller's Science of the Sea was rediscovered by Foxy Digitalis writer Jan-Arne Sohns, who had worked with a member of his Jürgen extended family. Like the unbelievable and seductively sensational story behind Dramatic Records' Endless House, the origins of Science of the Sea sound almost too good to be true. --Ric Leichtung, Altered Zones
Science of the Sea is available now from Digitalis Recordings
When your parents were getting hazed in college and watching "Animal House", Jürgen Müller lead a more withdrawn lifestyle as an oceanic science student. While conducting research on his house boat by the North Sea, Müller was struck with musical inpiration. In 1979, he built a mobile studio on the vessel and began to compose Science of the Sea, a 35-minute album that aimed to capture the mystery and romance of the marine. In 1982, the finally recorded work saw an extremely limited release of less than 100 copies, but has since quietly situated itself as a shining example of homebrewed early '80s new age, exploring the connections between man, nature, and spirituality through music. --Ric Leichtung, International Tapes