Best Albums of 2011: #20

Grouper - A I A / Alien Observer
Grouper is the moniker for ambient-folk, Portland artist Liz Harris and A I A / Alien Observer is her fourth full-length album. If you are into ambient music in any way, shape, or form, this should be your album of the year. In this double album, Grouper still uses an assortment of acoustic and electric instruments to create her majestic soundscapes, but never in a way that feels synthetic. Her whispered vocals stretch out through the mixes like comets with long tails of reverb bouncing through the night sky, always giving the tracks a very "human" feel. Rather than creating ambient music that place the listener wandering the stars lost in space, Grouper's vocals and acoustic sounds instead plant the listener on the ground in the midst of a labyrinth of fog and light.

Even in the song "Alien Observer", one of the most accessible tracks off the album, Liz Harris finds herself looking inward and seeing herself as the outsider looking in -- an "alien observer in a world that isn't mine". Ultimately, a lot of these tracks seem more concerned with exploring the complex soundscapes and emotions within the interior of a person and that's where it has often struck me. Despite how muddled and inaccessible these "songs" can be, I often found myself finding strange moments of clarity in the album while the ambient the soundscapes cleared out the exterior world for me. While A I A / Alien Observer is not as accessible as her previous album, it is no less expansive as a piece of art.

Best tracks: "Alien Observer", "She Loves Me That Way"


Best Albums of 2011: Honorable Mentions

As I started out doing here last year, I'm excited to begin my countdown of my favorite albums of 2011. Its been such an incredible year in music and I've been exposed to more music than I probably ever have been in my entire life. So much, in fact, that I haven't been able to review here anywhere close to all of the great albums I've encountered this year.

I love end-of-year lists because they allow more time for the listener to really see which albums stick with him or her in the long run. I can highly recommend all of these albums, each of them for different reasons, but all amazing in their own merit. I hope this goes without saying, but this is just my personal opinion -- music I've really liked from this year. So take what you like and toss out what you don't. I'm also really interested in what some of your guys' favorite albums from this year are, so post your favorites in the comment section!

To start out, here are my five honorable mentions from this year:

TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
An album that will unfortunately be overlooked based on the accomplishment of the band's previous album. While that may be true, that doesn't change the fact that Nine Types of Light has got some great songs on it and continues TV on the Radio's success in its more accessible sound.
Best tracks: "Second Song", "Will Do"

Little Dragon - Ritual Union
This little gem of an album comes from four artists: three producers and one singer/songwriter. The unique vocals of Swedish singer Yukimi Nagano tie the electronic drum machines and experimental synthesizer sounds into wonderfully crafted pieces of pop electronica.
Best tracks: "Ritual Union", "Shuffle A Dream"

Big K.R.I.T. - Return of 4Eva
Big K.R.I.T.'s flow is one of the most consistent flows around and Return of 4Eva is perhaps his best mixtape yet. Full of dirty southern beats, creative songs, and excellent rhymes, if you are a rap fan, do not miss this one.
Best tracks: "Rotation", "Sub"

Destroyer - Kaputt
While there's plenty of saxophone to find in albums from this year, few do it better than Destroyer. If you can get past the "ironic" smooth-jazz feel of the album, you'll find a wonderfully catchy and beautiful album.
Best tracks: "Kaputt", "Bay of Pigs"

John Mark McMillan - Economy
Not sure if its fair to call this "Christian rock" anymore, but if it is, John Mark McMillan's newest release is a manifesto of how to do it right. With a decidedly Springsteen-influenced sound, Economy progresses the band's sound forward and spotlight's McMillan's outstanding lyricism with its themes of poverty, desperation, and hope.
Best tracks: "Daylight", "Love You Swore"


M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming



"When you're young, you can do anything. And the more I grow up, the less I think that way. Through my music, I'm really trying to convince myself that I can do it. It's like therapy," says Anthony Gonzalez. For a guy that started making music on his laptop in his bedroom, he's going into some awfully daring territory in Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. But that really seems to be his point: dream big. There's no room to be shy about it. M83, a synth-pop shoegaze band made up of one single French dude, Anthony Gonzalez, has never known for being subtle. But Hurry Up, We're Dreaming makes his previous work sound like a mere warmup. The Peter Pan-esque dream world that M83 has crafted is a strange and quirky place to live in over the course of its 72 minutes, but once you fall for it, there's no going back.

My first few listens through the album sparked something of a personal journey inside me, which I wrote about in an article here. Its as if M83's willingness to go forward and create an album this monumental was so absurd that it challlenged the cynic inside me to do the same. I started out wondering if Gonzalez had gone a bit over the top which this whole epic double-album pop thing. After all, these are just pop songs and he's still just singing about following your dreams and falling in love. Furthermore, it doesn't help that M83 isn't exactly subtle about this kind of stuff.

What I really found liberating about the album though was that throughout the album Gonzalez's desire to open up and take chances really drives the music in Hurry Up. The best example I could give is the opening track "Intro (feat. Zola Jesus)", where Gonzalez sets his ambitious intentions for the double album. Zola Jesus whispers some stuff about deserts and light and real worlds and stories before Gonzalez showcases his new, confident vocal style. Where Gonzalez' vocals were once hushed and timid, he is now singing out the top of his lungs in what sounds like a cross between Phil Collins and Animal Collective. The synths are bigger and more extravagant; the drum beats aren't afraid to be upbeat and exciting; the songs simply aren't afraid to let go and simply do what feels good.

But that does not, by any means, mean that the album is not properly thought out either. In fact, Gonzalez has mentioned in interviews how happy he was when he finished the album because it turned out exactly how he had planned it to from the beginning. The album plays in two parts very intentionally -- as mirror images, each song on each album has a corresponding song on the other. This clever structure gives the album unified and succinct feel that is so unlike the "collection of songs" that make up most albums. There are plenty of moments of both quiet solitude and grandeur -- but it all feels like one sweeping expression of one ambitious vision. While I have a couple minor gripes in the mixing and arrangement, there's nothing here that's keeping me from enjoying every single track on this album.

With all that said, I can totally see why some would be turned off by this album. Its overambitious. Its pretentious. Its "trying to take on the world". If for no other reason, on "Raconte-Moi Histoire", M83 lets a little girl talking about frogs take the vocal lead, while the album also features lyrics that a child could have written. But like anything, its easy to brush off art that "takes itself too seriously" in a conceptual way. To me its rare to find music in our postmodern culture that isn't wholeheartedly tongue-in-cheek or utterly apathetic that still retains some shred of sincerity and artistic dignity. Hurry Up is not only the best thing M83 has ever done, its also one of my favorite albums of the year and one I won't soon be forgetting.


Surfer Blood - Tarot Classics EP


Warner Bros. Records

You know the days of "selling out" are over when a band like Surfer Blood can sign to Warner Bros. Records and no one even notices. When Surfer Blood's debut album dropped last year, it was something of a breath of fresh air. Here was a young band who was not afraid to play anthemic melodies over distorted power chords in the midst of an indie scene obsessed with reverb and banjos. So how does their sound translate to a major label over a year later?

In one thought: pretty well. If you were a Surfer Blood fan who listened in for the big anthemic melodies and the chugging guitar rock, you'll be quite pleased to hear a lot of that sticking around in the Tarot Classics EP. In fact, in just four songs and 15 minutes, the EP does everything you'd want a follow-up to an album that got as much hype as Astro Coast. The EP opens with the chilled-out surf rock song "I'm Not Ready," which is every bit as catchy as many of the tracks off of their debut album. The first thing I noticed when I first heard the EP though, was the improved production and a stronger sense of confidence coming from frontman John Paul Pitts.

Whereas their big hit from Astro Coast, "Swim," was a sloshy rock song soaked in reverb and effects, "I'm Not Ready" features a John Paul Pitts who is confidently seeing past the hype and not having to rely on effects to create a grand sense of scale. And while the band feels as confident in themselves musically as ever, Tarot Classics also finds the band exploring some deeper sentiments lyrically. On "I'm Not Ready," the context of a relationship gives Pitts the chance to sing some surprisingly good advice that goes beyond the beaches and babes: To be a friend means owning up and giving all of yourself / And loyalty is started through loving others like self.

"Miranda," the EP's big single, is also a track that feels like the boys feel right at home at their new Warner Bros. home. While the production throughout the album definitely shines and glistens considerably more than Astro Coast, "Miranda" proves Surfer Blood have still got that youthful, punk-rock attitude that differentiates them from the crowd of indie-wannabes. And although they retain so many of those same unique qualities that made Astro Coast the hit it was, Tarot Classics is most definitely not the sound of a band in stagnation either.

The big surprise of the album is definitely "Drinking Problem," the final track on the album. Featuring an assortment of drum machines and synthesizers, "Drinking Problem" finds the band reaching out and exploring some unexpected sonic territories. Intricate drum machines, warm synth textures, manipulated vocal samples and nostalgic reverb carry Pitts’ melodies out to sea, not so unlike a more rocked-out version of Panda Bear’s album from earlier this year. The lyrics follow Pitts into the psychological traps of addiction and self-pity, repeating “at least I know who my friends are” over and over. Don’t worry, its nothing too deep, but Pitts’ thematic flexibility is reassuring in the least. Ultimately, the track and the EP overall successfully follow-up Astro Coast and paint a promising future for the four-piece beach rockers.

(This review originally appeared at RELEVANTmagazine.com. Score rounded to fit requirements.)


Kathryn Calder - Bright and Vivid


File Under: Music

Supergroups are peculiar entities in that they often end up sounding like the egos of their stars battling it out for the listener’s attention. I would guess this is the reason why a band like New Pornographers has always sought to distance itself from such a term. Although it’s true that many of the members of the band had solo projects or previous band experience (Dan Bejar’s Destroyer, Neko Case and Carl “A.C.” Newman’s solo careers), The New Pornographers was many of these indie stars’ first widely successful project, where they encouraged each other to expand out in their solo careers. This open and inspiring environment was what Kathryn Calder (at only 18 years of age) was welcomed into when she officially replaced Neko Case back in 2006—so when she launched her solo career with her first solo album last year, it didn’t come as much of a surprise.

Where that first album of hers, Are You My Mother?, was incredibly personal and introspective, Calder’s sophomore album is much more open and outward-looking. According to Calder herself, Are You My Mother? was an album that she wanted to record for her dying mother at the time, and that deep personal emotion could be plainly heard, bearing itself on each and every song from that album. As a follow-up, Bright and Vivid finds Calder exploring wider sonic landscapes that range from cutesy synth-pop (“Who Are You?”) to more experimental indie rock (“New Frame of Mind”, “All The Things”). While I usually commend artists for branching out, some of the risks she takes on Bright and Vivid just don’t convince me that she is sold on these ideas either.

The album starts with “One, Two, Three” which features these noisy, distorted guitars that come in swelling and layering on top of each other in a way that wouldn’t sound so out of place in a Sonic Youth album. Although even the vocals are a bit distorted, Calder sings a fantastic melody in the verse of “One, Two, Three” that turns and spins in unexpected ways. Easily one of my favorites off the album, this is a song that shows off Calder’s daring new musical persona that is both sweet and catchy, but also dirty and distorted. Unfortunately, not all of the songs on Bright and Vivid manage to strike that same balance.

Check out the rest of the review in this Issue 18 of the Paste mPlayer.