Peaking Lights “936″ (Not Not Fun)
There were a ton of great albums released in 2011 (The Caretaker, Dirty Beaches, Tim Hecker, Natural Snow Buildings, Myrmyr, Prurient, Charlambides, etc.), but I definitely listened to this one more than all of them combined. I’ve been pretty evangelical about making sure other people hear it too. Every damn song is wonderful- the perfect mix of experimental weirdness, strong hooks, charmingly clunky and off-kilter grooves, and depressive sultriness. I never would have guessed that white people combining faux reggae/dub grooves with Crass-esque military-sounding drums could possibly yield something that isn’t embarrassing.
Tie: “Confetti” from Cold Cave’s “Cherish The Light Years” (Matador)/”Lady Friend” from Christina Carter’s “Texas Blues Working” (Blackest Rainbow)
Great songs have a tendency to appear in unexpected places. For example, “Cherish The Light Years” is easily Cold Cave’s most maligned album, but “Confetti” might very well be their best song ever (apologies to “Youth and Lust”). It isn’t wildly different than anything Wes Eisold has done before, but damn is that an awesome synth hook. Great chorus too. I can’t get enough of it. Obviously, Eisold will never escape comparisons to New Order, but this is probably darker, smarter, and more tastefully understated than anything Bernard Sumner would’ve come up with
“Lady Friend” is a bonus track added to a reissue of a 2008 cassette. It doesn’t get much more modest than that, but “Lady Friend” is 20 minutes of deranged, slow-burning intensity that easily eclipses the entirety of the original album. It sounds like a slow-motion psychotic breakdown disguised as minimalist blues. I think even Jandek would find this piece uncomfortably raw and uncompromising.
Julia Holter “Tragedy” (Leaving)
This is a unique, beautiful, and sometimes otherworldly album. Kind of a puzzling and unpredictable one too- I did not expect the cheesy ’80s pop touches at all. Or a lengthy non-music stretch of field recordings. I can’t figure her out, which I guess is a very good thing. I like being surprised.
The entire Throbbing Gristle catalog (Industrial Records)
I’ve always liked the idea of Throbbing Gristle more than I liked their actual music, but these albums made me re-evaluate my opinion. I still think I’d rather read Wreckers of Civilization or listen to Coil or Chris & Cosey than put on “Second Annual Report,” but some of these songs still hit hard more than 30 years later. Also, I am still struck by how willfully ugly and unlikable they could be when they put their minds to it.
There were a ton of other great reissues this year too though (Annie Anxiety’s first album, Sunn o)))/Nurse With Wound, early Esplendor Geometrico albums, Archers of Loaf, Emil Beaulieau, etc.). This category is overwhelming. It is hard to pick just one.
Best Various Artists Compilation
“…I Listen To The Wind That Obliterates My Traces (Music in Vernacular Photographs 1880-1955)” (Dust-to-Digital)
This is always my favorite category and winner will probably always be something on either Soundway or Dust-to-Digital. Some other compilations were perhaps a little bit better than this one musically, but this is easily the best complete package due to Steve Roden’s mesmerizing accompanying book of antique photographs. Also, it has an impressively enigmatic and melancholy title.
There were a lot of other killer comps this year too though: Ian Nagoski’s “To What Strange Place,” Sublime Frequencies’ “Pakistan-Folk and Pop Instrumentals 1966-1976,” and the usual instant classics from Analog Africa and Soundway. And I am very much looking forward to Hospital Productions’ “White Eye of Winter Watching” and Dust-to-Digital’s “Opika Pende.”
John Fahey “Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You” (Dust-to-Digital)
I haven’t gotten around to picking this up yet (expensive!), but I really can’t see any other anthology being better. Oddly, two bands that I love (This Mortal Coil and The Smiths) also had extravagant box sets issued this year, but they seemed like pretty shameless attempts to get completists to spend more money on stuff that they already have in like three other formats. Boo.
Best Cover Art
Tie: Andrew Chalk “Violin By Night” (Faraway Press)/Alvarius B “Baroque Primitiva” (Poon Village/Abduction)
This was an incredible year for great cover art, but releasing a record that looks like some kind of inscrutable antique Japanese scroll is pretty hard to beat…unless you have a entire booklet of heavily stylized, quasi-Expressionist nudes. And, of course, all my old favorites dazzled me yet again (Big Blood & The Wicked Hex, Solange Gularte’s inner gatefold art of Twinsistermoon’s “When Stars Glide Though Solid” reissue, Joe Blanchard’s photography for Christina Carter’s “Texas Blues Working” reissue, etc.). I also loved Rotorelief’s striking Soviet-looking cover art for their Vivenza reissues.
Best Vinyl Only
Eli Keszler “Cold Pin” (Pan)
Andrew Chalk’s “Violin By Night” was pretty great, but nothing can top wild free jazz with a motorized installation hacking away at giant strings. Absolutely killer.
We Need To Talk About Kevin
I love everything Lynne Ramsey has ever done (Morvern Caller, Ratcatcher), but this totally destroyed every other film I saw this year. I have never been so intensely uncomfortable and filled with dread for the entire duration of a film before. Brilliant.
Most Embarrassing Bit of Nostalgia
My friend Dave once worked with a guy at a record store who told him that bands are only great for three years or five albums, whichever comes first. I’ve had an incredibly difficult time trying to find any exceptions to that rule, which has added greatly to my extreme trepidation about any band I love ever getting back together. Nevertheless, when I heard that The Promise Ring was reforming and touring next year, my heart jumped. Man, I used to love them. I wanted to immediately tell someone the exciting news, but instantly realized that absolutely no one I knew would care (in fact, they’d probably mock me witheringly). Then I remembered that I hated their final album and that there was absolutely no chance that they would ever recapture the magic of “The Horse Latitudes.” Then I was sad. Then I shrugged and went back to whatever I was doing. On an unexpectedly brighter note, I was startled by how great Blake Schwarzenbach’s new band Forgetters is. It is inspiring when people I loved 20 years ago still sound intense, smart, and hungry.
The continuing resurgence of print zines.
Last year I was thrilled by the appearance of As Loud As Possible. Now Lasse Marhaug has started Personal Best and I have belatedly discovered Special Interests. Noise guys are awesome. Also, my zine-love was further enhanced by the release of John Kristiansen’s The Slayer Mag Diaries, which covers his years as an obsessive music nerd amidst the birth of the infamous Scandinavian Black Metal scene. Wide-eyed, altruistic enthusiasm always cheers me up, even if it is applied to racist murderers in ridiculous costumes.
Best Live Show
Blood Stereo @ Upstate Artists Guild, Albany, NY
Yet another year in which I did not attend many concerts. Still, there were some fun ones (Jens Lekman) and some interesting ones (Keith Fullerton Whitman/Jason Lescalleet, an elaborate Francisco Lopez installation, finally going to The Vortex in London) anyway. Seeing Dylan Nyoukis and Karen Constance nonchalantly weave absorbing soundscapes from crazy guttural noises was definitely the most revelatory and inspiring thing I witnessed this year though.
I guess I basically liked Ensemble Economique before, but I did not expect to be so floored by “Crossing The Pass, By Torchlight.” Great, great album. Also, the first time I heard Dirty Beaches “Badlands,” I was utterly aghast at how brazenly Alex Zhang Hungtai ripped off Suicide and Les Rallizes Denudes. I kept listening to it anyway though and it eventually won me over. I guess being derivative is acceptable if you have good taste and know how to write a killer song. Also, the rapid rise and fall of Altered Zones surprised me too.
Driving to NJ in February and nearly freezing to death outside Izod Center only to see Fedor Emelianenko get completely destroyed by Antonio Silva. Current 93 deciding not to play any US shows yet again. The closing of Dominick Fernow’s Hospital Productions storefront. Finishing The Pale King and knowing that I will never get to read a new David Foster Wallace novel again. Missing Jandek playing with a country backing band in Northampton, MA.
I have been underwhelmed by nearly every artist that could be classified as hypnagogic pop- I am very happy to see that particular phenomenon waning. Also, I like Oneohtrix Point Never, but I am a bit unsettled by how excited people get about each new Daniel Lopatin release.