Thursday, December 8, 2011

Greatest Hits 2011: Albums I really liked (but didn’t love), part two

Yesterday I started end-of-2011 coverage (unimaginatively dubbed Greatest Hits) with a first chunk of albums I liked a lot but didn’t quite love. Here’s the second bundle of 5:

Neon Indian - Era Extraña

Era Extraña drew me in with its fantastic, memorable singles and then trapped me with its unique brand of dizzy, future-shocked romanticism. First, those singles: I’d put up this album’s triptych of “Polish Girl”, “Fallout” and “Halogen (I Could Be a Star)” against any other 2011 record’s best three. I can’t say enough about them: all three explode from gooey, synth-laden verses into these titanic, starry-eyed choruses. They dwarf you as you listen. After their effects wear off, the rest of the album starts to sink in: the humid atmospherics of the “Heart:” series, the pop-glitch of “Hex Girlfriend”. Era Extraña is the sound of Alan Palomo murdering chillwave and bringing it back to life as a lovelorn cyborg. 

Panda Bear - Tomboy

Roughly a week ago, Rawkblog proprietor Dave Greenwald posited the following questions: “Do you remember that Panda Bear even put out a record? Could you name a single song from it?” I think Tomboy was destined to fall through the cracks from the very beginning, devoid of the sunny glow and euphoric release that defined Person Pitch. It’s a very dark album, rich with mysticism and desolate moments; even its most melodic entry (the sublime “Last Night at the Jetty”) is underlined by longing and failing memory. Its climax and defining track is the angry, clashing maelstrom of “Afterburner”, and relief doesn’t arrive until the soothing waves of closer “Benfica”. It’s an album that forces you to confront ugly, misshapen sounds and uncomfortable ideas. Tomboy was never going to match Person Pitch; honestly, I’m glad it didn’t try. 

St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Strange Mercy is another album that crept up on me over multiple listens and wormed its way into my heart. It’s a testament to the quality of these songs that they still find ways to surprise me, even after spending hours with them: the lurching “Dilettante”, the jittery art-funk of “Surgeon”, the lyrical unpleasantries of the title track. And if “lurching” and “jittery” don’t sound particularly appetizing to you, there’s always “Cruel”, Annie Clark’s turn towards the pop light that’s one of my favourite cuts from 2011. If you haven’t given the album a chance, don’t get scared away by the seasick atmosphere or the guitar crunch; let Strange Mercy find your weak point.

tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l

I like this album so much that it’s included despite possessing the most frustrating artist/album name combo of the year. w h o k i l l is a record defined by its balance between moments of ecstatic joy and uncomfortable, unrelenting darkness. The juxtaposition of sweet musical elements and startling lyrical imagery, like the flighty coo of “Policeman shot my baby as he crossed over my doorstep”, remains fresh and intriguing months after the first listen. The peaks of “Powa” and “Bizness” are still undeniable too, although my favourite song from w h o k i l l is “You Yes You”, a beacon of unfiltered optimism. Everything’s going to be OK, everything’s going to be alright, I put my back into it, hit repeat.

Washed Out - Within and Without

Within and Without represents the other path of chillwave evolution: where Alan Palomo moved into the future and embraced glitchy electronic landscapes, Ernest Greene looked to the (recent) past, to trip-hop and R&B. (I suppose Chaz Bundick traveled even further, into the realm of ’70s jazz-pop, but I digress.) Within and Without is a sweaty, humid record: synths and percussion hang heavy and low over every single track. I spent all of July and August grooving to the muted thump of “Echoes” and the glittering sheen of “Soft”, and to my surprise they still play relatively well in the frosty Canadian December. Between Era Extraña, Within and Without, and Toro y Moi’s quite-solid Underneath the Pine, 2011 offered plenty of proof that chillwave’s leading men could support the style that initially defined them with individual chunks of musical substance.