2011 Year-End Round-up

January 11, 2012
By Matt Blackall

Best Album
Peaking Lights, 936 LP/CD/tape (Not Not Fun)
Where to begin with this? Peaking Lights really took off into the stratosphere on this one. It’s certainly not as hazy as their older stuff, but no less excellent. Equal parts surf music, dub, pop, synth music (there’s a track called “Synthy” for crying out loud), funk, and who knows what else, this album swirls and morphs something unto itself over its length.  I can’t put my finger on it entirely, but it evokes a certain atmosphere and fantasy location where the past and the future meet up to chill out and trade tapes.  (More on that below).  To put it a little more simply, it’s a great album that will burrow its way into the furthest corners of your brain. 936 has been my go-to late night album for months and I can’t imagine anything replacing it for a long time to come.

Best Song
“Tiger Eyes (Laid Back)” from Peaking Lights, 936 (Not Not Fun)

(Listen to it here.)
I hate to lean to heavily on any one band or album in particular, but it’s really no mistake that my favorite song of the year is on my favorite album.  While the rest of 936 is stellar, this song takes things to another level altogether.  This is where Peaking Lights really brings everything together.  Fat dub bass line?  G-funk synthesizer riff?  Chintzy organ melody?  Disco sound effects?  Spaced-out vocals?  Sparse drum machine rhythms?  Echo-laced surf guitar?  Check, check, check, check, check, check, and check.  Still, this song is way more than the sum of its parts.  Remember what I said about the whole atmosphere thing?  “Tiger Eyes” is what the past and future will listen to on their rocket ship ride after they’re done swapping music.

Best Debut
Den, Bronze Fog (Retrograde Tapes)

There were lots of interesting debuts this year, but I found myself going back to this one a lot more often than most.  Mix one part crazy sound experimentation with one part loud and fast punk rock and you get Den.  For the whole album, they manage to mix both of these aesthetics together in a way that makes them seem inseparable.  Throw in an inspired cover of Sabbath’s “Symptom of the Universe” and you’ve got one hell of a tape.  Den hasn’t released anything since this tape came out, so hopefully we’ll be hearing something new from them in 2012.

Best Reissue
V/A, Busted At Oz LP (Permanent Records)
Being from Chicago, I’m always interested in finding out about the history of underground music in my city, in particular early punk rock. Busted At Oz is one of the key documents of Chicago’s early-’80s scene, featuring a 1981 recording from the last days of Oz, one the city’s original punk clubs.  The city government had shut down the club for a variety of violations, so everyone involved decided to go out in style, with performances from Naked Raygun, the Effigies, DA, the Subverts, Strike Under, and Silver Abuse.  At any rate, the proceedings were taped and a record was released and was out of print for years until Permanent Records decided to do a limited repressing this year.  Really, my only complaint is that only 500 new copies were pressed, which doesn’t really help make this amazing record any easier to get your hands on in the long run.  Still, this is definitely a great document of a musical moment in time, but more importantly, it’s a kick-ass album.  It’s also great proof that excellent punk rock didn’t just come out of New York or L.A., but popped out of hole-in-the-wall clubs all over the country.

Best Various Artists Compilation
Inscriptions Vol. 1 2xtape (Sacred Phrases)
This incredible double C65 set is a veritable who’s who of the current synth/electronic/improv scene.  There are tracks from Cloudland Ballroom, Mohave Triangles, Pine Smoke Lodge, Sundrips, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Hobo Cubes, to name only a few of the twenty-four performers on here.  While the lineup is impressive, it’s the music that really makes this work, obviously.  Everyone seems to have brought their A-game for this one, which makes for a great listening experience across both tapes.

Best Anthology
Void, Sessions 1981-83 (Dischord)

If you were ever a teenage kid interested in punk rock, Void’s half of their split LP with Faith was essential listening.  Hell, it’s still essential listening for punk rockers of all ages.  I always felt like Void distilled everything that was fun, wild, and out-there about punk rock into short, intense songs, and I don’t think I’m alone in this sentiment.  Anyway, this album collects everything Void recorded leading up to that particular release and then some.  This contains 30 tracks from two different demo sessions, two outtakes from the Faith/Void split, and two live tracks.  Aside from a few tracks that were released on comps, barely any of this has every been officially released, although it’s been bootlegged like crazy.  If you’re a Void fan, chances are you’ve heard a lot of this before, but you’ve never heard it sounding this good, as it’s freshly remastered from the source tapes.

Best Cover Art
Cankun, Jaguar Dance tape (Not Not Fun)
Seriously, just look at it.

Best Vinyl Only
Caethua, The Summer Is Over Before It’s Begun (Turned Word/Water Wing)

Over the years, Caethua’s music has evolved, but there’s always been a deep sense of ghostly, backwoods mysteriousness that really sets it apart and that same feeling permeates the latest album.  As the title implies, this is a perfect compliment for quiet fall and winter nights, with it’s gentle, melancholy music.  Even though it seems quite subdued at times, there’s a deep intricacy to this music with layers of instrumental sounds and dense, personal lyrics.  This is definitely one of those albums you can spend ages digging into and still find new ways to get lost in it.

Best CD-R Only
Mem1 + Stephen Vitiello, Age of Insects (Dragon’s Eye Recordings)

It seems like there aren’t as many CD-R releases coming out as there were even a few years ago, but there are still some great things being released in the format.  For example, this album by Mem1 and Stephen Vitiello.  With their combined skills in experimental music, Age of Insects is an incredible mix of instrumental drone and electronic effects.  There are some deep, monster sounds on this album and altogether, this is really powerful stuff.  If music this good keeps coming out on CD-R, I think the format will remain vital for some time to come.

Best Cassette Only
Ben Wildenhaus, Great Melodies from Around (Globos Recordings)

This is one of the best concept albums I’ve heard in some time. Wildenhaus weaves together repeating melodies and motifs across the length of the tape, while mixing genres ranging from Spaghetti Western style instrumentals to odd bits of funk and sine-wave noise. Really, hearing this is like twiddling the knobs on some world-band radio and stumbling across random snippets of music, only to have them fade quickly into something else. It seems like Wildenhaus’ intention was to make something mysterious and unclassifiable and I think he succeeded. (Note: This came out at the very beginning of 2011, and I think it has since been re-released on vinyl and CD. I’m still pretty fond of my cassette copy, but if anyone has an extra copy of the LP laying around. . . I’m just sayin’.)

Altered G, European Gees (L’animaux Tryst)

I just wrote about this at length, but I had to give it a little more year-end love.  Seriously, check this one out.

Best Live Show
Steve Ignorant Presents The Last Supper @ Bottom Lounge, Chicago, April 23, 2011
Yes, I know I’m leaning a bit heavily on the punk rock in this list, but I guess it was just that kind of year. And honestly, I feel like a lot of this kind of music led me to the things I like today, so it makes some kind of sense, right?  Anyway, it’s easy to scoff at any kind of nostalgia-trip tour from aging rockers, but I can honestly say that I was blown away by this show.  The anarcho-punk outfit Crass was one of those bands that I found at the right time who really opened up a world of thought and musical possibility to me when I first listened to them years ago.  To explain this particular show a little bit, Steve Ignorant, who was the singer for Crass, decided to dust off the tunes of his old band one last time and tour the world, or at least the US and Europe.  Granted, Ignorant was the only original member of Crass involved in this, but it still seemed like quite the opportunity to me, given that the band broke up when I was roughly four years old.  And yes, it was totally worth it to hear Crass songs live from the guy who first sang them (and to help him out by singing along the whole time).  I’d been listening to the music for years, but I can honestly say this was the first time I soaked in the full impact of it.  Really, there are few times I’ve felt such a collective vibe of positivity and energy from a live concert as I did at this show.

Biggest Surprise
Radiohead, King of Limbs (TBD Records)

If nothing else, Radiohead is constantly unpredictable.  After the relatively the straightforward (by Radiohead’s standards) In Rainbows, who would have thought that they’d follow it up with their most out-there album since Amnesiac?  Plenty of people may disagree with me, but I think a proper follow-up to that album (in spirit, anyway) was long overdue.  I know there’s been lots of debate about this, but I was really impressed that Radiohead still has a strong experimental drive and a knack for intense, powerful songs that are catchy, to boot.

Biggest Disappointment
Sun Araw, Ancient Romans 2xLP/CD/DL (Drag City)
I really wanted to love this, but in the end I felt like I just spent the entire 80 or so minutes of the album waiting for things to get going.  It seems like all the usual elements are there, it’s just that whatever inspiration or spark was behind albums like “Heavy Deeds” and “On Patrol” is missing.  Honestly, I didn’t hate this, but I expected a lot more.

Most Overrated
Who else is tired of hearing about that Bon Iver guy?

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