Rene Hell, “Terminal Symphony” (Type)
Iâ€™m still trying to fully grasp this album.Â Jeff Witscherâ€™s second full-length as Rene Hell simultaneously attacks and celebrates classical music with a retro-futuristic lens and jagged production.Â Witscher seems to have perfected his hand at editing and effects-work, as every sound is essential to the whole.Â Terminal Symphony is a concept album fully-realized by an artist in his own genre and operating in his own realm.Â Deeply meditative music buried underneath chaotic, synthetic noise.
Bill Callahan, â€śRiding for the Feelingâ€ť (Drag City)
Iâ€™m sure it still irks people to hear that Bill Callahanâ€™s only gotten better since shedding his smog/(smog) moniker.Â Get over it, people.Â For his third studio album under his own name, Callahanâ€™s vision is astoundingly lucid and gorgeous, not to mention hilarious and heartbreaking.Â He shed his introverted voice with Woke on a Whaleheart, mastered stringed accompaniment with Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, and released his most engrossing and genuine work with Apocalypse. Â â€śRiding for the Feelingâ€ť is classic Callahan, with stark yet descriptive scenes of isolation, over-/under-dramatized events, and contentment with personal dilemmas.Â The song’s effective slow waltz pacing, resolved delivery, and effective touches of instruments give me chills every time.Â Here’s a high-quality live video of the song recorded earlier this year in Kansas City.
Lyonnais, “Want for Wish for Nowhere” (Hoss)
Perfectly synthesizing a whole bunch of sounds I adore, Lyonnaisâ€™ debut sounds like what Spacemen 3 would have sounded like if they were on Factory.Â The sound on this record are spiritually akin to brooding sounds of British post punk, NY no wave, and Krankyâ€™s 90s drone rock, but emphasize a dense and cold production style like no other guitar-based band Iâ€™ve heard in a while.
Runner-up: A Winged Victory for the Sullen, A Winged Victory for the Sullen
Harald Grosskopf, “Synthesist/Re-Synthesist” (Rvng Intl.)
2011 seems to have had more essential reissues reaching out-of-print status than any other year, in my mind.Â Digitalisâ€™ beautiful reissue of JĂĽrgen MĂĽllerâ€™s Science of the Sea has gone through at least three pressings that Iâ€™m aware of, while Talk Talkâ€™s Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis solo album received lovingly reproduced editions courtesy of Ba-Da-Bing!.Â Even a handful of â€śundergroundâ€ť albums were reissued out of the blue, like Toleranceâ€™s Nurse with Wound-List-approved Divin.
RVNG Intl. has been the one of the best new labels to launch in the past couple of years, and reissued Harald Grosskopfâ€™s landmark in percussion-cum-synthesizer krautrock.Â The label made sure to highlight the albumâ€™s importance in 2011â€™s retro-futuristic tendencies by including a companion disc of Grosskopfâ€™s songs reimagined and reinterpreted by such heavy-hitters as OPN, Arp, Blondes, and Stellar Om Source.
Best Various Artists Compilation
“SMM: Context” (Ghostly International)
Kompaktâ€™s annual Pop Ambient series hasnâ€™t necessarily fallen in the past few years, but there might be a stale quality lurking.Â I still love the series (and the Total companion series), but Ghostly Internationalâ€™s dark compilation of ambient collages seems to be a counterpoint to Kompaktâ€™s long-running institution. Â Even some of the artists whoâ€™ve contributed to previous Pop Ambient compâ€™s showed up here, and with arguably better material.Â Leyland Kirby’s “Polaroid,” Jacaszek’s “Elegia,” and Christina Vantzou’s “11 Generations of my Fathers” are all stand-outs amongst the other great pieces.Â Bonus points for the unnecessarily heavy gatefold cover and double 180-gram vinyl for the wax edition.
The Radio Dept., “Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010 ” (Labrador)
Nothing like a singles collection for a band like The Radio Dept.Â The bandâ€™s harshly sweet, somewhat shoegaze pop is presented here with the cinematic aesthetic of the Labrador labelâ€™s best band. Including the bandâ€™s earlier, â€śharsherâ€ť songs and their recent upbeat songs like â€śPulling Our Weightâ€ť and last yearâ€™s â€śNever Follow Suit,â€ť Passive Aggressive is roughly an hour-and-a-half of sincere and succinct noise-pop.
Best Cover Art
Tim Hecker, â€śRavedeath, 1972â€ť (Kranky)
Tim Heckerâ€™s beautifully cathartic and destructive album rips apart your ears with timeless instrument.Â Itâ€™s only fitting that the albumâ€™s cover shares the beautiful and chaotic theme.
Best Vinyl Only
Lawrence English, “The Peregrine” (Experimedia)
I’ve summed up my thoughts on The Peregrine and the album’s effects on me in my review of the album and my interview with English himself.Â However, I can honestly say that it’s as captivating now as it was when I first put the thing on my stereo.
Best Cassette Only
Mark Lord, “Tachyon Firing Squad” (Phaserprone)
Christopher Forgues’ pseudonym for recording dark, distant synth experiments flirts with industrial noise and pop at the same time.Â It was a toss-up between the other Mark Lord tapes (Killed at 13 in particular) and all of the other Phaserprone tapes released this year (Roe Enney in particular), but Tachyon Firing Squad seems to be Forgues’ most fully-formed work as Mark Lord yet.Â Also, bonus to Forgues for his album with Sakiko Mori as Daily Life on Load.Â Underground synth-pop at its best.
(photo taken in Atlanta by Michael Konig)
Best Live Show
Bill Callahan @ Smith’s Olds Bar, Atlanta, 7/16/11
I’ve missed Bill Callahan the handful of times he’s played Atlanta due to my being underage and/or being out of town, and have always been under the impression that he’s not a fan of playing my town.Â Not sure why or even if he actually doesn’t like performing in Atlanta, but I’ve noticed him skip our fair city on most of his tours of the southeast.Â That being said, I had rather high hopes for this sold-out event.Â Mr. Callahan, in a dapper pin-stripped white suit, performed most of Apocalypse, many of the songs from Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, and even two or three songs from the final smog album, much to the appreciation of the standing-room-only crowd.Â People hooted and hollered throughout the entire two-and-a-half hour set and did not disappoint the reputably-grumpy artist.
Runner-up: Swans @ Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, 9/16/11
Frank Ocean, “nostalgia, Ultra” (self-released)
This thing really came out of nowhere for me.Â Completely indifferent to the whole Odd Future craze and their music, I passed nostalgia, Ultra off as another unlistenable heap of crap.Â Luckily, I kept seeing the album referenced again and again, but not from shock tactics like Goblin (ultimate flop of the year?) but rather with praises of sincere lyrics and melancholic melodies.Â I was not disappointed, to say the least.Â Christopher Breaux’s short, alt-rock and classic-rock-sampling mixtape is kind of epic in a way, with overwrought stories of nostalgia (obviously) and leaving things in the past.Â On the cheesy side at times; kind of amazing at times.Â The originals here are great on their own, but Breaux somehow perfected the songs repurposed for this collection.Â Most notably, Coldplay’s “Strawbery Swing” with sloppy melody with decent production is fine-tuned into a clean, bittersweet tune.Â The original version, although produced by the Great Eno himself, is more than annoying after hearing the Frank Ocean version.Â Definitely give it a shot if you haven’t already.
Brian Eno’s 2011 recorded output? Sorry.
Bon Iver; Lana del Ray; Tyler, the Creator; etc.
p.s. – Also for good measure, here’s my straightforward list of the 10 records I enjoyed most of all:
Rene Hell-Â The Terminal Symphony (Type)
Seefeel-Â Seefeel (Warp)
Bill Callahan-Â Apocalypse (Drag City)
Tim Hecker-Â Ravedeath, 1972 / Dropped Pianos (Kranky)
Mark Lord-Â Tachyon Firing Squad / Killed at 13 / Forced Out (Phaserprone)
Daily Life- Necessary & Pathetic (Load)
The Field-Â Looping State of Mind (Kompakt)
JĂłhann JĂłhannsson-Â Minersâ€™ Hymn (Fat Cat)
Lyonnais-Â Want for Wish for Nowhere (Hoss)
Frank Ocean-Â Nostalgia, ultra. (Self-released)
A Winged Victory for the Sullen-Â A Winged Victory for the Sullen (Kranky/Erased Tapes)