Sunday, January 1, 2012

Top 40 of 2011 Part IV

Here is the final installment of the Top 40 releases of 2011: The Top 10

I hope everyone takes a chance to share some of your favorites from this past year in the comments below!

10. We Were Promised Jetpacks
In the Pit of the Stomach
A couple of years back Ox and I went to see the Scottish lineup of The Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit perform at Dante’s as part of Portland’s Music Fest NW. At that time, the second Twilight Sad CD was due to be released and they were to play some new material, so we were pretty stoked. As we walked into the crowded and appropriately burning hot club, we first headed to the bar for beer, the merch table to secure the new CDs and then to the stage. The soundtrack during this entire adventure was another band from Scotland, who despite how many times I’ve asked and had answered who they were, their name never stuck with me. All I knew is that they sounded incredible, were really intense, and their singer reminded me of golfer Lee Westwood gone insane. It wasn’t until recently that I put together their silly and apparently too difficult to remember name with a moment when I could actually seek out this four-piece’s music. They have two albums, and much like their live set, both are full of incredible intensity. This second offering, much like The Twilight Sad’s second Forget the Night Ahead, is maybe a bit too much, as there’s nary a chance to take one’s breath, aside from the closing “Pear Tree,” and the opening segment of the fantastic “Act on Impulse.” True be told though, I kind of admire the all-in fire of this music. The complex and always forward pressing drumming pushes the string shredding passes of the guitars, which act as fuel to ignite a fire into singer Adam Thompson who lays his heart on the line with commitment and searing passion. If you need feel this kind of fire burning inside, then throw on the singles “Medicine” and “Human Error,” and the surprisingly hummable “Picture of Health,” or “Sore Thumb,” and the undeniable force that is the album opener “Circles and Squares.”

9. Veronica Falls
Veronica Falls
(Bella Union/ Slumberland)
Veronica Falls have been releasing singles now for a few years, but this is their proper debut album and it’s a welcome beginning, though a pretty dark one. We start out with “Found Love in a Graveyard” a song that seems to be about having a love affair with a ghost, while we definitely don’t want to go to “The Fountain,” or delve into “Misery” or “Bad Feeling” (another ghostly entry). That’s just side one! Some of these songs sound fairly upbeat with their nice male/ female vocal harmonies, pounding barely in control drums, and tight strumming guitars, but things are definitely not all good here in Veronica Falls. The bleakness of their words isn’t overwhelming and only adds an added depth to their brand of indie pop, which is often described in terms of the C86 explosion and a touch of the Sarah brand sound, but I hear more of Australia’s late great Cannanes here, though a bit less ramshackle and a lot more focused. “Stephen” comes off as a lost Pixies track, if maybe they had decided to strip things down a bit, instead of adding the keyboard flourishes of later albums. Veronica Falls’ sound fits the black and white pastoral cover of the album. It has a wintery feel; one that is tinged with sadness, but has a familiar comfort. Don’t miss their title song “Veronica Falls,” the fairly uplifting “Come on Over,” “Right Side of my Brain,” along with the previously mentioned tunes for a sense of their sound and let’s hope they continue to make such touching music.

8. The Rifles
Freedom Run
(The Rifles/Nettwerk)
This third LP from Chingford UK’s mod-pop band The Rifles is a bit of a shock to the system. Having absolutely gone apeshit over their spiky early singles and debut No Love Lost, and enjoyed their progression to a bigger sounding act with their second album Great Escape (my 2009 # 2 pick), this new one threw me. After the first few listens, and even after hearing and loving the pre-LP single “Tangled Up in Love,” pretty much nothing sat well with me. Besides that single, at best, I felt indifference, while at worst, I was annoyed. However, this is the Rifles - this is the band that gave us “Peace and Quiet,” “Local Boy,” “Science in Violence,” and my two ultimate favorites: “When I’m Alone” and “Out in the Past.” I had to give the new material more of a chance. And, believe it or not, most of these songs started to grow on me. Their earlier work had a very punk/mod flavor (think The Clash and The Jam) and they’re blessed with huge pop sensibilities. This new work focuses more on their pop sensibilities. Really, much of this album wouldn’t sound out of place amongst work by UK pop acts from the late 60s when there was a fair amount of concept album and orchestration happening. For whatever reason, it didn’t click with me at first, even though my tastes with age have leaned more towards classic pop sounds.  Maybe it’s because of songs like “Love is a Key” and “Little Boy Blue (Human Needs)” tread in a direction that I don’t want to go. The rest of the album though, has won me over in a big way. The opening four tracks form a dazzling spectacle of chiming guitars and catchy harmonies. “Dreamer” is a builder that acts as a bridge between older Rifles and this new one (literally, as they now have a new rhythm section), while “Sweetest Thing” and its falsetto vocals climbs to sparkling heights. The other unendingly catchy number is the sing-along simplicity of  “I Get Low.” Overall, though a bit too much, but a brave step in a new direction and once one’s mind (meaning mine) is open, this proves to be a winning album that sounds classic and modern at the same time, much like Oasis did during the mid-90s with Definietly Maybe. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

7. Trembling Blue Stars
Correspondence 10” EP
Okay, so I thought last year’s double CD release, Fast Trains and Telegraph Wires (last year’s # 4 pick), was to be the final statement from longtime favorites Trembling Blue Stars. However, this 10” orange vinyl EP sprang up earlier this year to treat us to one last taste from this Robert Wratten led collective. With releases like this, the farewell can go on forever as far as I’m concerned. The opener is a mix of two songs from the last album, “Outside” and one of the highlights “Half-Light,” strung together into an ambient masterpiece re-titled “The Light outside.” Up next is another short instrumental that reflects the theme of the last album, with its quiet airwave static. “Sunrise on Mars” jumps in and acts as this set’s true single. It’s a spot on example of this band’s ability to craft perfect three minute bits of stellar heartfelt pop. Side two opens with an old 80s Wire favorite: “Kidney Bingos” with help from Caesar McInulty (The Wake) on vocals with late term member Beth Arzy (ex-Aberdeen). This straightforward rendition, though welcome, offers nothing revelatory. The final two songs are the very strong though. “A Field at Dusk” is an acoustic strummer that carries the listener into a melancholic state of total reflection, while “A Spell of Songs” is a classic finger picked number with a slowly unfolding story that has marked all phases of Wratten’s storied career stretching from the Field Mice, Northern Picture Library to this band. Will he start again? I sure hope so.

6. exlovers
“Blowing Kisses” 7”
“Starlight, Starlight” mp3
(Young and Lost Club)
Enough already! exlovers need to release an album now! This is getting ridiculous. This UK five-piece has released 3 7” singles and a 10” EP since 2008 with nary a fumble throughout, but still no full length. This year started off with promise with the 7” release of “Blowing Kisses,” another short driving song on par with their excellent Stephen Street produced “You Forget So Easily” (last year’s #15 pick) from late 2009. The B-side, “Motheaten Memories” is even better with its single guitar intro that builds into an upbeat number that crashes through some soaring peaks and valleys musically. Both of these songs show an aggressiveness that much of their prior work hasn’t shown, but the ever consistent twin vocals of Peter and Laurel guide us through these songs of fractured relationships. I thought this single for sure would mean a new album in 2011, but nothing all year…until just recently on their website they’ve announced that an album is immanent and have provided a chance to download a free track: “Starlight, Starlight.” I suggest everyone take advantage of this free preview; it’s quite a treat.

5. Secret Shine
The Beginning and the End
Secret Shine were a Sarah band in the early to mid 90s, but they were one that mined the shoegaze world more than the fey shyness of most of their label mates. Vocally, they fit right in, but musically they were bit a more noisy. Even though I treaded those Sarah grounds quite a lot back then, I somehow overlooked them. It wasn’t until after they reformed after their original drummer Tim Morris died, that I found my way to their two EPs of very nice new material released in 2006. They followed those with a new album that harkened back to their prior 90s album in 2008 (All of the Stars), which sounds great, but sometimes lacks memorable moments – like so much of the newer shoegaze material out there. This second album in their new version is a big leap forward from that one. Along with their own signature sound, this has a feel of “Pearl”-era Chapterhouse with it’s combination of electronic atmospherics mushed together with the waves of guitars and the cooing of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell. This set opens with a fiery “In Between” to get the adrenaline going, while “Perfect Life” eases into a nice universal groove. Other standouts include the burning back to back side two songs: “Hole in Your Heart” and “It’s Killing Me.” “Touching Nothing,” and the big beat of “Trying to Catch the End” finish the album off in dreamy Slowdive-ish fashion. My only complaint here is that the vocals don’t quite fit right in the mix productive-wise. They sound like they’re piped in from somewhere else. Maybe it’s the odd seeming use of auto-tune, but something’s amiss in the sound at times. This is a minor complaint, because the songs are strong and most-likely the most consistent and best of their recording career.

4. Dum Dum Girls
Only in Dreams
He Gets Me High EP
(Sub Pop) 
I liked the Dum Dum Girls’ first album (2010’s home recorded, mostly solo I Will Be), but it felt more like sketches of songs. There are catchy short bursts with some great melodies, but the drum machine grows a bit old throughout and there’s far too much reverb shadowing Dee Dee Penny’s vocal gifts. I wondered what their second album would sound like with a full band and more fully realized songs. The result? I absolutely have fallen head over heels for Only in Dreams! Firstly, Dee Dee’s vocals are way more upfront and forceful here, which is a plus, because she gets to showcase her cool early - Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders) inflected voice. Oh, and her oohs and aahs throughout can be spine tingling, such as in the sad plea of “Heartbeat (Take It Away),” which makes me melt. The full live band proves to be a huge benefit as well, after a year of solid touring; they have formed a tight knit base and Jules adds some tasteful 60s-ish surf guitar leads that fits beautifully inside these girl group inspired songs. Everything here is recommended, but start with the endlessly refreshing “Bedroom Eyes,” the Cramps-like “Just a Creep,” “Caught in One,” and “Tears on My Pillow.” Then, turn to the epic and haunting “Coming Down” and the emotional “Hold Your Hands.” Come to think of it, this album is actually stuffed with heartbreak and sadness and loneliness and it is a beautiful and comforting way to deal with it.

The pre-LP four song EP He Gets Me High is also highly recommended. The three originals are all worthy of making the album, especially the single standout title track. Lastly, is a cover of the Smiths’ oft-covered “There is a Light that Never Goes Out,” which is a song that doesn’t need to be covered, but this is easily the best I’ve heard. The loud buzzing guitars drive this song with an urgency that most covers seem to lack and it has reinvigorated life into a song that had kind of faded from my old lexicon of favorites. Thank you!

3. Lanterns on the Lake
Gracious Tide, Take Me Home (2 CD)
(Bella Union)
After three stellar self-released CD EP’s, Northeastern England’s Lanterns on the Lake finally come through with a full length album. Last year’s EP feature “Lungs Quicken” (#14 pick for me for 2010) opens this 11 song set with its life affirming urgent plea. There are a few other holdovers from the original limited EP’s dating back to 2008’s Starlight EP. From that debut we find two songs that have undergone major overhauls: the heart wrenching “If I Have Been Unkind” and the now sweeping epic plea of “I Love You, Sleepyhead.” Also, appearing from their 2009 second EP Misfortunes and Minor Victories, another transformed treat finds “A Kingdom” becoming the upbeat centerpiece in this cinematic collection. If you thought those early EPs were impressive displays of subtle beauty and introspection, this album will fulfill and surpass all expectations! I’m pretty sure that the weather has changed to dark and menacing outside while I’ve listened to this beauty, as it evokes the myriad greys, dark blues, and greens of a misty coastline. The gentle guitar plucks and foggy atmosphere of the layers of strings envelop these songs with shimmering depth. Check out the autumn colors of “Blanket of Leaves,” “Not Going Back to the Harbour,” and the perfect “Tricks.”

Also, if you have the chance, find the version of this album with the “Rough Trade Bonus Disc.” Two of the songs are reprised remixes from the album, but are really the full superior versions of what made the LP. While the two new tracks are both stunners!

2. The Wild Swans
The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years
Tracks in Snow EP
Could this really be true: a third album from the Wild Swans? I hear their trademark icy keyboard atmospherics, some twinkling piano fills, pristine guitar leads and Paul Simpson’s distinctive and personable voice; it is true! Let’s see, they formed in like 1980, released their first official LP in 1988 and find their way to this: The Coldest Winter in a Hundred Years by 2011. Maybe most surprising is that these 13 tracks collect the sound, the passion and the romanticism first heard from these northern Brits back in 1982 with their legendary “Revolutionary Spirit” single and their early BBC recordings. I cannot tell you how welcome this release is! You see, as a young kid, I discovered this band through the vinyl only release of their three song Peel Session, which is stunning (a record I purchased twice due to wearing it out). That very release spawned a rebirth and led them to finally record their first album: Bringing Home the Ashes, an album that has not fared well critically over time, but one which I proudly claimed in 1988 as my favorite of that year and am not ashamed that it still holds a warm place in my heart. Yes, it has dated a bit, due to a heavy 80s production sound (drums that sound like machines, etc), but the songs are stellar. An odd second album followed two years later and was way too influenced by producer Ian Broudie, whose Lightning Seeds were splashing rainbows and candy all over the world at that time. Space Flower was mildly interesting, but turned out to be fleeting ear candy that has not been a favorite to return to. I’m not sure why I’m going through the history lesson here, though it is an interesting one – considering that the band is more of a legend or myth than an actual entity. In 2009, they shocked me by releasing a magical 10” two song single with the catchy UK referencing “English Electric Lightning,” (included here) and the wonderful short story/song “The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years” which details the early years of the Liverpool music scene through the eyes of main Swan Paul Simpson. “Liquid Mercury” was the next peak at new material (also included here) and it shines as a prime example of their new material – a pristine classic catchy tune. Most of these songs are simple 3 minute pop nuggets, yet they jammed full of feeling and depth. The clear theme throughout is a sense of loss – and that loss being England’s fall from grace – at least in Simpson’s mind. It is probably a bit overdone, but there’s a little bit in all of us that looks back into parts of the past longingly and the supposed good times. This one will feed that desire and provides the perfect reflective soundtrack to do so. “Falling to Bits,” the opener, with its declaration “This town is falling to bits and I don’t like it/ We need a bonfire lit and I’ll ignite it” serves as a proper thesis that leads to the aforementioned songs, the heavily referenced “My Town” and the lamenting closer “The Bluebell Wood;” all of which provide examples of better times. The best songs though lie in the other tracks. I love the bursting chorus of “Chloroform,” and the tragedy of its both World War referencing lyrics, and the mournful yet comforting conversation with loved ones now passed in “Lost At Sea.” This is what I signed up for and why this CD has stayed in constant rotation throughout much of the year. I don’t know if the Wild Swans will stick around this time or disappear for another 10 years, but I recommend everyone seek this out while they’re still here. I would start with their early years 2 CD retrospective from 2003, Incandescent, but I hear that’s now out of print and selling at outrageous prices, so get this while the opportunity still exists!!

Through direct mail order from Occultation, one can also pick up the 3 song suite Tracks in Snow, which should be released as a single. All three songs are easily album worthy, if not radio single ready. “Dark Times” works as the perfect Wild Swans anthem in less than 3 minutes! Wait! No! “Disintegrating” is the perfect Wild Swans single that encapsulates their ability to capture broken hearted moments with a comforting touch. Meanwhile, the closing “Poison” is a nice little love song - also highly recommended.

1. The Joy Formidable
The Big Roar (Box set)
I am in love with this band. I have to come clean. There’s no way around it. When I first ran across their impressive mix of soaring shoegaze atmospherics mixed with the grinding propulsive drive of the best post-punk, and the crazy frenetic drumming, I was hooked. Listening to this, their official debut album (though 2009’s A Balloon Called Moaning was basically an album – my #1 pick from last year!!), has made me feel like a high school kid again! They have rekindled that early spark I had when I first became a music obsessive fanatic. When I wanted to follow bands on tour, wear their t-shirts every day and litter my walls with posters and album art. The Big Roar fits that bill too! Its mix of epic barnstormers and short fast pounders, along with an unusual bent on lyrics; reminded me of the sprawling mess that I fell in love with when I first came home with The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me in 1987, as a 16 year old. Not that they sound anything like each other, but the creative drive and willingness to go for it at all costs is what is appealing. The only downside of their debut is that four of these twelve numbers were already on last years’ EP/LP, though these are bigger sounding and “Whirring” now is a closer approximation of the unbelievable show-stopper that this gale force band is live (a must see!!!). Also, last autumn’s stunning single “I Don’t Want to See You like This” appears here as well. We’ll let this go though, since these songs needed more exposure, because they are simply that damn good. The remaining seven songs are glimpses into the shear raw power that this Welsh by way of London trio possess. The opening track “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie” is a slow building lengthy glider that spirals itself into a frenzied show stopping force! Though it’s not the easiest way to be exposed to the band, it certainly shows off where they’re about to take us. The highlights for me, besides the appearance of the double-kick drum on a handful of tracks (feeding my secret metal head needs), come with the bursting short-ish songs, such as the punky “The Magnifying Glass,” the explosive “Chapter 2,”and the cryptic “A Heavy Abacus.” I hope they don’t burn themselves out too quickly! This is amazing stuff.

The box set, if you can get your hands on one, comes with a second disc with 6 tracks from their earlier days. The highlights are the Catherine Wheel-like shredder “Greyhounds in the Slips” and the underrated 2010 single “Popinjay,” which is downright creepy. Also included are two DVDs. One disc follows the band a journey from their home base to the beach where they filmed the video for “I Don’t Want to See You like This,” (video included) as well as compiling all of their early videos for “Whirring,” “Austere,” and “Cradle.” The other disc is an up close, audience perspective view of the band in an early NYC gig. It gives one a taste of how impressive they are in person.

Here's to a new year and much much more great music and don't forget to share your choices for the best of 2011!

Links: Top 40 #'s 40-31
                      #'s 30-21
                      #'s 20-11

1 comment:

  1. i completely agree - exlovers need to release an album already. cause it's gonna be great! not surprised to see the joy formidable in at #1. they are clearly on the rise. and now i'll give a better listen to we were promised jetpacks. i've never been able to get past the name.
    love the veronica falls album, too.