Single-Song Obsessions: Kate Bush — “Misty”

In our current age of ADD, I’ve been somewhat blessed with an extremely long attention span. Unfortunately, I don’t really use it to do anything productive, but it has given me a special love for long songs — really long songs. Whenever I see an album with a song over ten minutes long, I get really excited.

Long songs are special little nuggets in the music world, especially these days when most bands are focused on trying to create the next great three-minute pop single that can be added to someone’s “workin’ out” playlist on their iPod shuffle. They allow so many more possibilities for storytelling and showcases of musical skill. Of course, they also require a lot of ambition and are difficult to pull off effectively, which is why most bands steer clear of them.

My favorite recent use of long songs is easily Kate Bush’s late-2011 album 50 Words for Snow (which I stupidly left off my “best albums of 2011” list, something that still eats at me even though nobody else cares). It’s a delight for long song aficionados, with just seven songs that add up to a 65-minute run time — the shortest song is album closer “Among Angels” which is 6:49. The longest is “Misty”, which is 13:32.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also my favorite song on the album. In fact, it could be said that I am somewhat obsessed with “Misty” — not just the song itself, but all of the artistic qualities it represents. After the album came out, I excitedly told everyone about how it had a “13-minute song about falling in love with a snowman.” Because who makes a 13-minute song about falling in love with a snowman? Why would anyone do that? And how could it possibly be good?

Perhaps the only person in the world who could do it or would do it is Kate Bush, who in her 30+ year career has consistently pushed the boundaries of art and has an affinity for oddball subject matter. A very underrated trait among great artists, especially ones I admire, is the willingness to go through with ideas that seem insane on the surface. As someone who has a lot of half-finished posts sitting in my drafts folder on this blog, I feel a lot of respect towards Bush, who sat down at her piano and hammered this song out because she knew it would be good. I imagine her picking up the phone during the writing process and having to tell whoever called “I can’t speak right now. I’m working on my song about loving a snowman.” She probably put off other real-life responsibilities while writing her snowman song, confident that people would want to listen to it when it was finished. To me, that is pretty much the definition of an artist.

Now, when you read that the song is about falling in love with a snowman, you probably figured “oh, it’s a metaphor for being with a cold, distant lover or something.” Nope. Another reason why this song is great is that Bush attacks the subject matter head-on instead of using bland, figurative language. Above a recurring piano figure, she recounts building the snowman, then how the snowman ends up in her bed.

Unfortunately, like all one-night affairs with snowmen, Bush’s tryst was doomed to end in heartbreak. “I can feel him melting in my hand,” she laments, knowing that you only have a limited amount of time to be with a snowman. At about the 8-minute mark, a guitar and some light strings join the piano as the song picks up in tempo. “I can’t find him… the sheets are soaking,” Bush sings, her voice full of very real yearning. The seriousness with which Bush sings the song is just another way that I think she’s in on the “joke” and is aware of the song’s dark comedy and absurdity.

But even though this song is absurd, it has a genuine emotional impact. Once you let the initial concept sink in (and since the song is so long, it will if you have the patience), it becomes a pretty stirring tale of two star-crossed lovers who obviously can never have a future. She was the good girl from the high-class family who wanted the best things in life. He was three balls of snow stacked on top of each other with a mouth full of dead leaves. You can see why it would never work out.

“Misty” is probably not a song that everyone will enjoy — you have to have patience and a tolerance for some weirdness. But when it comes to unabashed love songs, I’ll take this one over just about anything from the last few years, especially the little three-minute radio songs. It’s an absolutely unique song by an artist who clearly doesn’t think like everyone else.

YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN is Really Cool

Sometimes I can’t really describe what exactly makes a band awesome, except that it’s instinctively “cool.” That’s the case for the YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN, a Canadian group fronted by drummer Alaska B and signer Ruby Kato Attwood that combines many disparate elements to create music that seems to be an attempt to redefine exactly what “music” is.

On their bandcamp page, where you can stream or buy their debut album YT//ST, they describe themselves as a “psychedelic noh-wave opera group fusing noise, metal, pop and folk music into a multidisciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of ‘east’ meets ‘west’ culture clash in giant monochrome paper sets.” It’s a more apt description than anything I could come up with. One thing is basically guaranteed: This band is unlike anything you’ve heard before. And in 2012, that’s quite an accomplishment.

The fact that I had never heard anything quite like the band is what really blew me away, and their 7-song, 30-minute album has become probably my favorite of the last couple of months. After seeing the description I expected them to fall into a trap of sounding like a different band on every song, but they’re able to take all of those influences and turn it into something that is extremely cohesive.  I never get the sense that the band is experimenting with a genre or that their influences are fighting to be heard; they just naturally sound like a band that is dabbling in several different genres, often in the space of a single song. Most of the tracks also bleed into each other, which makes YT//ST seem more like one 30 minute piece of music rather than an album in a traditional sense.

YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN seems almost like a band from a future where no music genres or labels exist. As someone who has always been a bit annoyed with how we as listeners feel the need to pigeonhole bands into certain segments of music, the way they completely ignore such meaningless labels is refreshing.

Of course, none of this would matter if the songs weren’t good. Their debut starts with the minute-long “Raccoon Song,” a ritualistic chant that serves as prelude to the album and bleeds into the second track “Queens,” which is probably the closest the album comes to a pop single, with a soaring melody followed by a proggy instrumental section in the center.

The delicate folk song “Oak of Guernica” follows, after which the band kicks it into high gear with the two part “Reverse Crystal // Murder of a Spider” which resembles a 7-minute progressive rock jam with almost operatic vocals. The album’s other poppiest moment, “Hoshi Neko” comes next, and its propulsive beat reminds me a bit of Stereolab if they were suddenly imbued with pan-asian sensibilities.

The album closes with a pair of primarily instrumental tracks, “A Star Over Pureland” and “Crystal Fortress Over the Sea of Trees.” They’re probably the two heaviest songs on the album, drifting more into metal and noise while still retaining the band’s “Noh-Wave” ideas.

While their debut album is relatively brief, it’s full of twists and turns and journeys into the unexpected. Sort of like a tiny musical rollercoaster. I haven’t really analyzed the lyrics at all (a lot of them are in Japanese), but just the pure sound and the cryptic nature of the album has grabbed me and made me want to listen to it over and over. In addition to the music, the band also puts on theatrical, operatic live shows, complete with costumes and special effects.

It’s bands like this that really make me excited about music. With so many bands looking back to find their sound, YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN only looks forward, refusing to fall into genre trappings and confounding expectations at every turn. Hopefully “YT//ST” is just the tip of the iceberg, because I think this band has tons of potential (I’m hoping for an epic 75 minute album and corresponding live performance eventually).

SubRosa: The Metal Band of My Dreams

I’m sure it’s fairly evident by now that I’m not a metalhead. Most metal I’ve heard doesn’t do much for me, but it’s for different reasons then usual: For me, it’s never been about the noise and abrasiveness, it’s been about how all metal, while advertised as being this rebellious genre, seems very formulaic. It always has the loud, precise guitars, the lyrics about blood and killing and other “shocking” topics, and of course it always has to have the awful grunting male vocals that drive me up the wall.

Basically, metal is very masculine and always has been. The music is pretty much a dick-waving contest to see who can outshock others and the entire genre seems to live in some prehistoric world where women are completely unseen and unheard, unless they’re approximating the aforementioned male vocal style of grunting incomprehensibly instead of actually, you know, singing. I love loud and abrasive music, but it has to have a purpose to really be effective. Metal is too often loud just for the sake of it.

These are just my opinions of the genre as an outsider, since I obviously have no concept of just how many different kinds of metal there are (according to Wikipedia, about 4.5 billion). Part of why I’m repulsed a bit by the genre is that it comes so close to being something I could really embrace, but bands keep indulging in the same clichés all the time. There seems to be very little growth in metal compared to other genres, as most bands are going by the same formula that it’s always had. It’s hard to blame them: Metal has a rabid fan base that will support you if you give them what they want, and what they want is the loud, fast-paced guitars, bro-tastic vocals, and songs about skinning cats for the devil.

I mention all of this because, as I’m sure most readers know by now, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with how soft and non-threatening most indie music is today. And eventually that feeling has led to me dipping my toes into the metal pool, albeit in a very cautious way with a look of disgust on my face.

Of course, the problem now was I had to find metal bands I actually liked, which avoided all of the issues I raised with the genre earlier. I’ve become a pretty big fan of the Japanese band Boris, who play loud, crushing rock music but also relentlessly experiment in other genres and resist falling into the staid clichés that I’ve come to associate with metal. Then, after some more searching, I was finally able to find my perfect metal band: SubRosa.

SubRosa are a band based in Salt Lake City, of all places, and they play the slower-paced, doom-laden metal that I’ve found myself gravitating to more than the hyper-aggressive thrash stuff. But what really makes the band unique, and what drew them to my attention, is that it’s a female-fronted group, with three different women that provide vocals. Even better, they actually sing instead of buying into this idea that all metal needs to have the same vocal style.

Two of the women also play violin, which adds an otherworldly element to the band’s sound, which is characterized by loud, sludgy riffs and slow tempos. There is a small amount of the growling vocals (usually relegated to the background), but for the most part the women sing in normal voices. The lyrics are focused on medieval, fantasy themes that remind me of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, but the basic themes can be applied more universally. Overall, I find the band oddly reminiscent of the Breeders or the Raincoats, if one of those bands had randomly done a bunch of drugs, gotten obsessed with fantasy, and decided to record a metal album.

SubRosa is a textbook example of how women can really bring an effortlessly unique sound and perspective to a genre that sorely needs it. In the world of metal, just the fact that it’s women singing instead of a face-painted dude makes the band already sound completely different from their peers. Along with the violins, that turned their album No Help for the Mighty Ones into my go-to “heavy” album of 2011. It’s all the skull-crushing rock awesomeness that metal has always potentially provided, but without any of the annoying elements.

It also has a surprising amount of versatility. At times I find myself getting lost a bit in all the noise, almost like I do when listening to shoegaze. There’s even a medieval folky number, “House Carpenter,” at the end of the album, which is the kind of song that I doubt very many other metal bands could pull off.

I don’t know much about how SubRosa is received in the metal world, but they seem to be gaining popularity there, which is refreshing to see. As evidenced by a lame indie dork like me enjoying them, the band also has obvious crossover potential to indie listeners who are frustrated with the current state of music or just want to hear something different. I’m pretty sure no other band on earth sounds like SubRosa right now.

2011: A Retrospective and Look at the Future

As the year comes to an end, I thought it’d be fitting to take a look back at some of the events and debates that stood out for me in the last year.

The death of Trish Keenan

Most of the year-end “in memoriams” will be focused on Amy Winehouse, but no musician death affected me this year like Trish Keenan’s, who died on January 14th of pneumonia at age 42. Keenan fronted the UK dream pop group Broadcast, who, while consistently admired, never really got the level of popularity and acclaim that I felt they deserved. They quietly made some of the most beautiful and original music of the last decade, drawing from their 60’s inspirations like the United States of America and obscure foreign soundtracks to create something completely new.  At the center of their sometimes dark, psychedelic sounds was Trish and her warm vocals, which ensured that there was always a heart at the core of their music.

Trish’s death struck me because of how unfair it was for such an amazing singer to die of something like pneumonia, and because her death seemed to be met with relative shrugs or lack of acknowledgement from a lot of places. Considering her band was responsible for some of my favorite music ever, it was depressing to see it all get glanced over, or to see the band’s plays spike on last.fm before settling back down to normal just a couple weeks later. Her death didn’t just remind me of how life can seemingly end at any moment, but also the inherent sadness that comes with loving a band that nobody else seems to care about.

I named my blog after their debut album in tribute (and because it’s a great name for a music blog anyways), and I’ll continue to preach the greatness of Broadcast everywhere, even if I just get met with shrugs.

The year of “boring”

The biggest ongoing debate in music this year seemed to surround one word: “boring.” Is music today boring? What music is boring? What does boring actually mean in the context of music?

For me, this has been a subject of my attention for a couple years, when I noticed that local indie radio station The Current was playing a lot of music that bored the hell out of me (typically mopey folk). But the issue really came to a head this year when widely celebrated albums by the likes of Bon Iver, James Blake, and Fleet Foxes were branded as “boring” by many people (including me).

One of my favorite music writers, Steven Hyden, wrote an essay about the topic for The AV Club, where he criticized those that lazily use the word “boring” to describe music. I agree with some of what he says, but disagree with some of it as well. For one thing, I don’t think people that call music “boring” are wearing it with a badge of honor, but instead are simply disappointed at the direction music has taken.

But I agree that the word “boring” is dumb to use for music, which is why I’ve struggled a lot with this issue in 2011. Because, as much as I hate saying it, a lot of music this year really was boring. It’s not just that the sound of a lot of these artists is so low-key and passive, but there’s also the sense that it’s all been done before.  More than ever before, a lot of the most acclaimed music this year seemed to be stuck in the past, either fixated on reviving some trend (like the whole 80’s easy listening revival done by artists like Bon Iver and Destroyer that still completely baffles me) or recalling a specific sound and era. Even as I enjoyed some of the music by these revivalists, I still found it frustrating that so many seemed to be swimming in their own influences instead of making something we haven’t heard before.

Lame indie kids schooled by female veterans

While the whole boring music thing was happening, with most of it propagated by the same types of male artists that have always dominated indie music, an interesting trend for me emerged this year: A whole bunch of female artists returned from long layoffs and made some of the best, most original music of 2011.

It started in February when PJ Harvey released Let England Shake, her first solo album since 2007’s White Chalk and likely her best in over a decade. Like all PJ Harvey albums, it was an original, literate piece of work, but it also benefited from a broader scope as her look at war and her homeland felt bold and provocative when so much music this year felt lifeless and limp.  Her contemporary in original female songwriting, Björk, also returned with her first new music since 2007 with the dazzling multimedia Biophilia project. Arguably Biophilia’s music didn’t live up to its ambitious iPad app packaging, gravity-based instruments, science classes, and all the other crazy stuff Björk was up to this year, but it reminded me of how refreshing it is to see an artist actually try something new and attempt to take music somewhere it hasn’t been before.

Elsewhere, all-female supergroup Wild Flag, which included Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of the dearly departed Sleater-Kinney, released what I thought was the year’s best rock album in September. For Brownstein, who has spent the last few years blogging for NPR and appearing on Portlandia,  it was her first recorded music since that band’s 2005 album The Woods. Wild Flag also included Mary Timony who had been relatively under the radar since her mid-90’s work with Helium.  For members with such pedigrees, their debut album was wonderfully unpretentious, a celebration of the greatness of rock music coming at a time when we need it most.

The reclusive Kate Bush even came back with 50 Words for Snow, her first new music since 2005’s Aerial. With its seven songs clocking in at a whopping 65 minutes, Bush’s album was an ambitious work that was remarkably distant from any sort of current indie trends.  Its lengthy songs never wear out their welcome and showcase Bush’s knack for quirky storytelling. The song lengths became an issue for me as a couple songs I didn’t like as much took up about 1/3 of the album, but it also had some of my favorite songs of the year, especially the 13 minute “Misty” about Bush falling in love with a snowman and “Wild Man,” her ode to the yeti.

So what does it say about music that the most ambitious, thought-provoking music this year was made by females in their late 30-50’s?  I’m not really sure, but I do think today’s entitled indie youngsters could learn a thing or two from the artists that helped make indie music what it is.

(These veterans were joined by up-and-comers like St. Vincent, EMA, Tune-Yards, Eleanor Friedberger, etc.  Overall, I think this was probably the strongest year for female artists in a long time.)

Looking forward to 2012

When I started this blog because I was bored over the summer, I figured it would be a fun challenge for myself, but one that few other people would care about.  For the most part I think that’s still true, but I’ve had more activity than I was expecting on it and have already learned a lot (such as that putting pictures of Björk in your posts is a great way to get a lot of google images hits).  I’ve gained a lot of respect for websites I used to make fun of all the time now that I know how difficult it is to write about something so subjective.

For the next year, my goal is to listen and write fairly prolifically, with more focus on new music than I had in the past year.  Hopefully that will lead to more people reading and taking an interest in the blog, and who knows what happens from there.  I’m thankful to anyone who read or took an interest in my writing this last year, and hope you stay on board through 2012.  This blog wouldn’t be possible without you.  Well, actually it would be, but it’d be a lot sadder than it already is.

Confessions of a Bon Iver Hater

The old cliché about music is that it brings people together. It’s a unifying force in our lives, something we can often discuss with people we have little else in common with. However, I sometimes find that music is just the opposite for me. A lot of the time, music is alienating: It’s the band you love that nobody else seems to know or the band you hate that everyone else seems to love. Both seem to happen to me all the time.

In 2011, no artist represented that idea more than Bon Iver. The band, led by Eau Claire native Justin Vernon, released their self-titled second album this year to rave reviews from the music press and fans, topping many year end music lists in the process. He was the subject of countless magazine covers and articles, Facebook posts, and was even nominated for the Grammy for best album, signifying his breakthrough into the mainstream consciousness. Living in St. Paul, which is right in the heart of Vernon’s midwest stomping grounds, it seems like everyone loves Bon Iver.

Except for me, of course. In the months since his last album came out, I’ve been carrying around a horrible secret:  I kind of hate Bon Iver. I haven’t told anyone because I’ve been afraid of possible retribution (Bon Iver’s fans are an intimidating bunch) and, in general, it’s hard to tell someone that you think one of their favorite artists sucks. Especially when it seems to be the favorite artist of  half the campus where you spend most of your time.

It wasn’t always this way. Bon Iver’s first album, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago wasn’t my cup of tea, but I at least respected what went into it. The story of Vernon secluding into a cabin after having his heart broken and just writing music in isolation appealed to me, even if it was a tad corny. I didn’t like it, but I saw the appeal because it came from such an honest, genuine place.

I can’t say the same for his self-titled second album, which has baffled and frustrated me pretty much all year. It’s a long way from the spare, “cabin” arrangements of his first album, instead opting to bury his voice under layers and layers of glossy 80’s style sheen. For the most part, you can barely understand what Vernon is singing about through the album. This works for me if you’re a musical genius like Kevin Shields or Radiohead; it doesn’t when your album sounds like it was produced on a synthesizer made in 1983.

Most of all though, though, Bon Iver is just so… dull. Nothing about it grabs my attention. This is incredibly subjective, of course, because different things are interesting to different people. But I have an incredibly hard time picturing anyone getting pumped up to listen to Bon Iver. The same could be said about a lot of folk music, but at least most folk singers have concrete lyrics that I can grab on to so there’s an actual meaning to their songs. Any emotional connection I could make to Bon Iver was typically buried under a synthesizer, a guitar, a saxophone solo, autotune, and the washed-out production.

It’s rare that I outright dislike an album that is so widely acclaimed, so I thought a lot this year about why I had such an intensely negative reaction to Bon Iver. For awhile, I looked at it as sort of a character flaw. Maybe I’m just biased against Vernon and his bearded white male folky brethren, or just wanted to hate the album because it was popular. Perhaps I’m just too stupid to understand the album’s complexity, similar to how I don’t get Animal Collective.

These are all still valid possibilities, but I also think Bon Iver just lacks pretty much everything I look for in music. To illustrate this point, and to try to figure out why I hated this damn album so much, I thought it would be interesting to compare it to my favorite albums of this year.

At the very top is PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which is probably the most sensible comparison to Bon Iver. These are the two most acclaimed albums of the year and both are primarily folk-influenced. Both have been called boring by a lot of people, yet I found Let England Shake incredibly powerful and moving while finding Bon Iver tedious. It’s really in the conception where PJ blows Bon Iver out of the water: She made a searing portrait of war in her homeland.  Bon Iver made… what exactly? Another folk album where a white guy sings about how sad he is?  Where Bon Iver’s lyrics were either cliche or impossible to understand, PJ’s grabbed me and jolted me and had a visceral impact. Let England Shake was my favorite album this year because of its ambition and literary depth.  Bon Iver had neither of those things.

That might have been an unfair comparison, since Let England Shake is an amazing album by one of my favorite artists. Perhaps a more fair comparison would be EMA, whose debut album Past Life Martyred Saints was third on my list and was also somewhat folk-influenced. I don’t think any song this year jolted me and made me say “who the hell is this?” the way EMA’s “California” did when I first heard it. It was raw, bold, and confrontational, lyrically and musically. It pulled no punches, which is something I really love in music.

Bon Iver is a far cry from that idea. To say Bon Iver pulls punches would be an understatement. It doesn’t even punch at all. It just kind of sits there. There is no attempt at standing out, no hint of challenging listeners, none of the sense of emotional catharsis that I thought Past Life Martyred Saints had. It has absolutely no boldness or originality. It’s just another in a long line of indie folk albums, the type that we hear seemingly thousands of every single year.

In the end, I’m left wondering what it says about the state of indie music today that something like Bon Iver is so widely adored. Is this really what we want from music? Is this what we’re willing to accept from artists? I don’t doubt that for many people the album had a profound emotional impact. Personally, I expect more. I want music that challenges me, excites me, is bold and original. In other words, I don’t want Bon Iver.

Favorite Albums of 2011

At this point, most sites and magazines are releasing their 2011 music lists (even though there’s still some time left) so I figured I’d join in the party.  Rather than over-analyze which albums are “important” my list is basically the albums I listened to the most and felt the strongest about.  I think, based on previous posts, the stuff I like is pretty clear.  First and foremost, I enjoy albums that at least try to accomplish something unique and have some sort of ambition, and I felt like 2011 had a good supply of those.

The list, unsurprisingly, is also quite female-heavy.  Admittedly, this is largely due to my bias towards female singers and those are the types of artists seek out and listen to the most. But let it be known that I did listen to many of the acclaimed albums released by male singers, and I found most of them oppressively dull.  The shift in the last few years away from guitar rock and into folk, bedroom pop, and other genres largely populated by bearded wan guys has done nothing but reinforce my female-biased perspective.

So, in 2011 particularly, I felt that female artists gave music something it was missing in most aspects.  If you have a problem with it, make your own list, or just yell at me in the comments or on Facebook.  I’ll be happy to argue with you.

10. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

I don’t think any album this year was as pleasant of a surprise to me as Last Summer, the solo debut of the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger.  I’ve only been a casual fan of the Furnaces (particularly their zany 2004 epic Blueberry Boat), but at times their overstuffed, wildly imaginative music could become frustrating to listen to.  Last Summer solves most of those flaws, building songs around simple instrumental configurations, with an emphasis on bass, piano, and occasionally saxophone.  What really elevates the album beyond the typical indie pop fare is Friedberger’s idiosyncratic charm as a vocalist and lyricist, which helps it strike the perfect balance between accessibility and experimentation.  High points like “My Mistakes” and “Roosevelt Island” are beautiful, nostalgic pieces of summery pop and prove that Eleanor is capable of succeeding just fine without her brother.

9. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

It’s a good thing Radiohead released The King of Limbs in February.  After purchasing it in advance with massive expectations, I was incredibly let down by my first two listens and frustrated by the lack of guitar, the mere eight songs, and its general obliqueness.  Of course, like most Radiohead albums, King of Limbs is a grower, and after revisiting it a few months later I began to appreciate the underrated rhythm section’s contributions to the album, plus the back half which has some of the band’s most beautiful work to date like “Codex” and “Give up the Ghost.”  While The King of Limbs may not be an essential, ambitious Radiohead album like Kid A or OK Computer, it’s still a Radiohead album, and it shows the band settling into a comfortable groove rather than trying to change the world.

8. Widowspeak – Widowspeak

First thing’s first: Yes, Widowspeak singer Molly Hamilton sounds a lot like Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval.  Despite that obvious influence, the band is able to bring something unique to the table, combining Mazzy Star’s hazy aesthetic with the sounds of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks.  What’s most impressive is how well-crafted and self-assured the band’s songs are on their debut album, full of catchy melodies and memorable guitar riffs like on the knockout track “Gun Shy.”  Widowspeak is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s one of the most fully-formed albums of the year and one that I found myself listening to repeatedly.

7. Yuck – Yuck

Much like Widowspeak, Yuck has obvious 90’s influences: Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine among them.  Those are some of my favorite bands, so the group of age 20ish youngsters had big shoes to fill, and for the first couple listens I couldn’t help but be annoyed as they pillaged basically every element from those bands in creating their sound. What separates Yuck from the rest of the bands that knock off these indie rock heroes is that their music never feels cynical or calculated.  Rather, it’s the sound of young people playing the kind of music they like to listen to (and doing it quite well to boot, such as on noisy, melodic guitar tracks like “Get Away” and “Holing Out” and the sweet male/female “Georgia”). Besides, is sounding kind of like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth really a bad thing?

6. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

This is another album I wasn’t expecting to like, probably because of the silly band name and the lead singer’s growling, roaring vocals. Most of the time I’d lament what could have been had the band picked a cool female singer instead of a questionably talented guy, but it’s hard to imagine another singer capturing Fucked Up’s anarchic spirit.  David Comes to Life is an 18 track, 77 minute rock opera, clearly indebted to the ambitious punk albums of bands like Husker Du.  Like most concept albums, the storyline isn’t anything special and the album is fairly monochromatic and arguably about 25 minutes too long, but it’s also full of some of the most exciting rock music of the year with one fist-pumping anthem after another and many layers of arena-ready guitar.  David Comes to Life filled a void for me in 2011 as an ambitious, epic rock album.

5. Björk – Biophilia

In typical Björk fashion, most of the build-up to Biophilia focused on everything but the music. People talked about the made-up instruments, the iPad apps, and all of its other multimedia connections.  Perhaps that’s why critics were surprised at Biophilia‘s sparse sonic landscapes and immediately complained about the lack of “songs” on the album.  (Could there be a lazier criticism of music?)  In the end, it seems like critics didn’t really grasp what Björk was doing: For example, many complained that a song called “Dark Matter” was too formless and lacked pop hooks (see what she did there?). Every song on Biophilia  ties into science and nature in a clever, uniquely Björky way, like the quirky love song “Virus” which compares lovers to being a “host”  or “Mutual Core” which begins contemplatively before exploding into noise and beats.  Biophilia is unlikely to convert any non-believers, but it’s a completely unique album full of wonder and awe at the natural world.  And there’s songs too, if you give it some time.

4. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Fully entrenched in her status as an indie goddess, Annie Clark easily could have settled into a zone and kept making quirky, whimsical pop songs like on her second album Actor. Fortunately she didn’t, and Strange Mercy represents a quantum leap forward for her as an artist.  Her music retains its quirks and charms, but Strange Mercy is more aggressive and strange than any of her previous work, from the ominous “Surgeon” to the creepy-but-catchy “Cruel” (with its disturbingly funny music video).  It also has some of her most personal songs (particularly “Cheerleader”) and she allows her guitar skills to be at the forefront far more than she has previously.  Strange Mercy is another step forward for St. Vincent, who has staked a claim as one of the most unique and interesting artists in music today.

3. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

Erika M. Anderson, formerly of Gowns, put a lifetime’s worth of pain and anguish into her debut solo album Past Life Martyred Saints, and we’re all better off for it.  EMA not only establishes herself as a fearless singer-songwriter on Past Life Martyred Saints, but also a unique one, as she channels her emotions into a pair of epic folk-noise suites (“The Grey Ship” and “Red Star”) which bookend the album.  In the middle is some of the most cathartic, raw music of 2011, including the apocalyptic, Kim Gordon-meets-Patti Smith tale of alienation “California” and the horrifying “Butterfly Knife” which is about body mutilation.  All of it is held together by EMA’s strong, versatile singing voice and guitar playing.  Past Life Martyred Saints might be too much gloom for some people to take, but for me it was one of the most powerful albums of 2011 and an astonishing debut.

2. Wild Flag – Wild Flag

All-female supergroup Wild Flag were burdened with massive expectations for their debut album. The band, consisting of Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of The Minders were simultaneously supposed to be saviors for women in rock and appeal to die-hard Sleater-Kinney fans who had waited for 6 years since their final album The Woods.  While saving rock music may be a stretch, Wild Flag is able to move beyond the supergroup label and sound like a legitimate band, one with skilled members who know their way around a great rock song.  More than anything else, Wild Flag is just plain fun, which can be refreshing in this era of self-serious navel-gazing.  And with songs like “Romance” the band celebrates the joy of rock music while simultaneously sharing it with starving Sleater-Kinney fans.

1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

There’s not much left for me to say about PJ Harvey at this point.  Her 10th album marked yet another departure in a career that has been full of them, presenting a study of her homeland of England and how it has been affected by war through time.  Let England Shake unfolds like a great World War I memoir as Harvey acts as a narrator through some of the country’s greatest atrocities, singing about the inevitable sense of war with a grim sense of resignation rather than shrill protests.  In many ways, Let England Shake is a culmination of PJ Harvey’s 20 year career:  It has the visceral, occasionally gory lyrics of Rid of Me, the higher-register singing of White Chalk, and the beauty and sense of place of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.  While this version of PJ Harvey may be quieter, her songs still hit with incredible weight emotionally, and it’s arguably her best work lyrically (I got chills reading the lyrics after I bought my copy of it).  Let England Shake is catchy, horrifying, and beautiful, often at the same time, and it stands tall above any other album this year for me.  It’s my favorite album of this year, the last few years, and probably the next few.

St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy”

One of my favorite things in music is to hear a talented artist that finally puts the pieces together and begins to live up to their potential. On her forthcoming album “Strange Mercy”, which is currently streaming on NPR, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) does just that, and in the process asserts herself as one of the top artists in music today.

Clark’s 2009 album, “Actor”, was one of my favorites of the last few years, and it established Clark as a unique voice and talent.  Yet, it was abundantly clear that the artist behind it was capable of doing a lot better.  For one thing, despite proving on stage that she is a tremendous guitar player, “Actor” was curiously devoid of many great guitar songs, with Clark instead focusing on disney-type strings that were only occasionally punctuated by noisy guitar blasts.  The songs were well crafted and enjoyable, but also frustratingly coy and conventional for someone that could be capable of rocking souls.

My desire for St. Vincent to embrace her inner rock goddess only intensified a few weeks ago, when she did an earsplitting cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the This Band Could Be Your Life show at the Bowery Ballroom.  Rather than do a quirky, “unique” cover of the song, Clark instead opted to embrace Big Black singer Steve Albini’s misanthropic rage, and, while some may think it came off as phony, I thought she did a pretty admirable job on a song that seems really difficult to truly replicate.  It was the exact kind of thing I had been hoping to hear on “Strange Mercy.”

I am happy to report, then, that “Strange Mercy” fulfills what I wanted it to be, and I think it’s one of the best albums of the year.  In every way, I think it’s a quantum leap over “Actor” (which, again, I liked a lot).  Clark’s voice continues to develop, as she’s able to convey more emotion and sound less detached from her dense arrangements.  The lyrics are better too — still sinister like they were on “Actor”, but decidedly more personal.

Most of all though, “Strange Mercy” is weirder than “Actor”, and it’s much better off for it.  Clark continues to use strings, but rather than be the focus, they’re more of a complement to her guitar playing, which finally begins to shine on this album.  There’s funk undercurrents, like the synth solo at the end of “Surgeon”, which is one of the album’s surreal highlights.  All of the bizarre touches on “Actor” are ramped up here, and while it may drive some listeners that appreciated her poppy side (like on her first album “Marry Me”) away, I think it makes her music far more compelling.

Not that “Strange Mercy” doesn’t have its pop moments.  Lead single “Cruel” is one of the best songs of the year so far, and it showcases Clark’s unique ability to turn all of the sounds and influences into an accessible rock song.  While there are layers of strings and woodwinds, Clark’s guitar shines through with the repeated twangy riff and a couple solos in the middle and end.  It’s also one of the best music videos I’ve seen in a long time, as Clark gets literally buried by all of her domestic duties after getting kidnapped by her family.

On “Cheerleader”, maybe the most personal song Clark has ever written, she sings “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more.”  That chorus, which explodes after the more delicate verses, is one of the best moments on the album, and in a truly hacky piece of music criticism, I decided that this was more than just a song about trying to stop being a pushover:  It was Clark rejecting the idea of being an indie pop princess.  Many had pegged “Strange Mercy” as a commercial breakthrough for her — and it still very well could be — but I think this music is far too weird, psychedelic, and sinister to be showing up the next iPod commercial.

My other favorite song is probably “Northern Lights”, which is the guitar song I’ve been waiting for from St. Vincent.  It’s pretty much pure noisy rock more in the vein of the Pixies or Breeders, with some roaring guitar solos and a constant build up to the end.  I think Clark could still use to sing more forcefully at times, and this one of the moments on the album where she approaches that idea more, particularly towards the end when she begins to sound more hysterical.

As good as “Strange Mercy” is, I think there’s still room for improvement for St. Vincent.  But this album proves that she’s someone who is going to follow her own muse and evolve musically, which is the most important thing to me.   Her ability to put that ambition into well crafted rock songs is a large part of what makes “Strange Mercy” one of the best, most exciting records of 2011 in my book.