Wednesday, December 7, 2011

2011 in review - top 100 albums of the year (part 1/4)

Now, for the main event. I always preach the same message when I do these lists - if you can't think of at least 20 records you really, really liked in any year, then you're looking for your music in all the wrong places. Every year is a good year for music, and you don't have to lower your standards or branch out into genres you don't like to get a lot of enjoyment from new stuff every year. Of course, if you only listen to, say, raw black metal bands from the Ukraine who must have black and white album covers and no more than two members, it might be hard to put together a big list, but then again, in that case you're not much a music fan to even care about lists, are you?

Having said that, it is true that some years do offer an even bigger quantity of good records overall, and 2011 has been remarkable in that aspect. So much that a top 100 list was actually hard to put together (don't laugh, now) without leaving out a whole bunch of stuff I really loved. Therefore, in this year's list, I'll be using a little workaround to that, with some positions holding two or more albums. Not random pairings, of course, but music I feel is in some way connected and that you should listen to with equal urgency. See it like those stickers they use in records shops with "for fans of..." recommendations, or something. It's just an excuse to fit more great bands in the list and talk about them with you guys, which is the whole point.

Onwards!

100. JACK AND THE BEARDED FISHERMEN Places To Hide
See? It's a testament to the abundant quality of 2011 that a record as cool as this only sneaks in at #100. These weirdly-named Frenchies put out an unassuming little second album, but one that grows on you enormously the more you listened to it. Theirs is a curious mix of heavy riffs and melodious harmonies, with vocals that try and succeed in carrying better tunes than on their 2009 debut 'Hunting Isn't Easy... When Dogs Become Wolves'. Highly recommended whether you're into stoner, sludge, post metal or just damn good heavy music.

99. SAMIAM Trips
My love affair with Samiam is a long-term one, the hooks and subtleties of their quirky punk rock are completely stuck in me ever since I discovered their second album 'Soar' some 20 years go. So it's with great joy that all these years and all these albums later, they're still doing it with the same excitement as before. Of course, the brilliance of 1997's 'You Are Freaking Me Out' remains untouched, but the morose tales and perfectly crafted songs of Samiam are still universally appealing.

98. GROG Scooping The Cranial Insides / CORPUS CHRISTII Luciferian Frequencies
Two of the best examples of what Portugal's extreme music underground can offer, if anyone bothers to pay attention. Grog are a legendary deathgrind institution who came back with a vengeance after a few years of discographic inactivity, dropping this crushing record and a string of devastating live performances. Intense, wildly technical but still able to write great songs. Corpus Christii, on the other hand, are already more well-known internationally, especially in black metal circles, and 'Luciferian Frequencies' (their Candlelight debut and seventh album overall) is a journey of torment and horror, voiced through the unique screaming abilities of their leader and frontman, Nocturnus Horrendus.

97. FULL OF HELL Roots Of Earth Are Consuming My Home
What a fucking racket! You might want to pass up on this band if you just check out their photos or videos and realize how they look like scrawny little kids, but you'd be ignoring one of the most noisily abrasive experiences of the year. Sick vocals, patches of face-melting power electronics and confrontational sludge of variable speed are all thrown in a filthy cauldron, and the end result is very ugly and very promising indeed.

96. COLD BODY RADIATION Deer Twilight
Cold Body Radiation's 2010 debut 'The Great White Emptiness' already made it into my list last year, and it's great to have such a wonderful follow-up shortly after. "Hazy, nebulous and distant, its cosmic slumber will numb you into a bittersweet oblivion," is how I described it at the time, and 'Deer Twilight' has a similar effect, except I find it less cold and more vague and meandering in comparison, a different mood with the same distant fascination.

95. ASVA Presences Of Absences
Asva's 'What You Don't Know Is Frontier', from 2008, is one of the best records of its (rather vague, admittedly) genre, throwing drone and doom and post rock into the night and letting the stars do the rest. 'Presences Of Absences' isn't as instantly captivating, maybe an effect of Stuart Dahlquist allowing new members (Asva is a constantly renewing open collaboration affair centered on Stuart) Greg Gilmore, Jake Weller and Kayo Dot's Toby Driver a bigger role in the songwriting than before, but its diversity will inevitably conquer you. Even Driver's vocals, apparently out of place on the first couple of listens, settle into the creepy beauty/horror duality and help make this an unsettling but remarkable album.

94. MOGWAI Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
This is probably Mogwai's most natural, effortless record to date. For once, you can tell the band didn't really try to achieve ultra-heaviness or a crescendo bigger than the previous one, or anything. They just lied back and let their own inspiration and chemistry as a band do its thing, and the result is a wonderfully flowing album, even punctuated by the odd bit of experimentation like the upbeat 'Mexican Grand Prix', that ends up actually being one of the highlights of the album. A return to form in every way.

93. AN AUTUMN FOR CRIPPLED CHILDREN Everything
'Everything' is a great improvement over last year's 'Lost', it seems the mysterious Dutch trio has really captured their essence this time round. A basis of desperate black metal enwreathed in a thick layer of snowy melancholy, it's furious and achingly beautiful at the same time, as if one of the birds on the gorgeous cover would suddenly swoop down and attack you while you were admiring the perfect trajectory of its flight.

92. ABSU Abzu
Much tighter and to the point than 2009's 'Absu' (the first one on the Abyssic trilogy, of which 'Abzu' is obviously the second), 'Abzu' sees Proscriptor getting back to a more punishing delivery to his occult incantations, in the vein of 'Tara' or even earlier stuff like the amazing 'The Third Storm Of Cythraul' because of its more obvious raw approach. Business as crazy and as irresistible as usual.

91. VICTIMS A Dissident / ENTRAILS The Tomb Awaits
These two are fun to pair up because they're the perfect example of how you can take the same basic blueprint, Swedish death metal, and run with it in distinctly different directions to reach the results that suit your band's musical personality. Victims might even have their roots and basic intentions reside elsewhere, on the crusty d-beat that they so gloriously have practiced in the past few years, but their Dismember-drenched melodic leads and riffage shine through clearly, as if it's part of their inspiration DNA. You might not feel like you're listening to something revolutionary when you're banging your head and your fist to 'A Dissident', but this mix of NWOSDM and dis-crust is actually pretty refreshing and part of the reason why it feels so exciting. Entrails, on the other hand, didn't really run anywhere with their influences. This is essentially an Entombed album with the last few letters of the band name changed, but that's okay. It ain't broke, and not every album we enjoy has to be experimental black spazz-o-core or whatever. I'd even love for there to be a new Ent-metal movement, with every band being called Ent-something and doing their very best impression of Entombed. Besides, Entrails have a right to sound like this, because they've been there since the beginning of it all, recording some demos in the early 90s that they never released and then disappearing until their 2008 resurgence.

90. SERPENT VENOM Carnal Altar
I got this album really early due to the band's enormous kindness towards one puny journalist who's into doom such as myself, so I already knew all those sombre and soaring riffs and twisting vocal lines (by the unique throat of ex-Sloth Gaz Ricketts) by heart when the album finally came out. We may be poor as dirt, but sometimes it pays off to be a music writer. I did a band of the week post about Serpent Venom that should cover all your info needs.

89. THE WOUNDED KIONGS In The Chapel Of The Black Hand
Their first album 'The Shadow Over Atlantis' made it into my 2010 list, a year where they blew me away with a great Roadburn show as well, but then almost the whole line-up changed, leaving only leader and guitarist (and pianist) Steve Mills as the sole remaining member, and I feared that magic couldn't be recaptured so easily. Especially since the new vocalist turned out to be a girl, Sharie Neyland. Nothing against girls, but that would surely mean a whole new approach to the sound... or not. It's great to be wrong sometimes. 'In The Chapel Of The Black Hand' features the very same occult mood as its predecessor, the same traditional Sabbath/Pentagram doom vibe, and Sharie has an astonishing set of pipes and carries the ghostly melodies with class and aplomb.

88. DOPETHRONE Dark Foil
It's one of those things - I've always avoided listening to Dopethrone before on principle, because I thought it was silly for a band to name itself after such a well known album. Well, it's a stupid principle. I'm glad 'Dark Foil' is strong enough to break through my randomly built mind barriers and smash them down through vicious vocals, mean and dark riffs and an absolutely outrageous cover of Bill Withers' 'Ain't No Sunshine' that's, like, the best cover ever. I've gone back to 'Demonsmoke', their debut, to catch up, and while it's not as loose or devilishly groovy as this one, it's still a kickass record. I'm looking forward to their Roadburn show in 2012, where I intend to go up to them and apologize personally for ignoring them for so long.

87. DARK CASTLE Surrender To All Life Beyond Form
This thunderous duo emerged apparently all fully-formed with their amazing first album, 'Spirited Migration', and it seems that was just the first step. 'Surrender To All Life Beyond Form' is deeper, more complex and further into Dark Castle's very own style than its predecessor was, and judging by the band's terrifying live performances (last witnessed with YOB a couple of months ago around these parts) they intend on making sure no one misses the point, even if it has to be by force.

86. *SHELS Plains Of The Purple Buffalo
A constant breath of fresh air in post rock, *shels can be delicate, moving and just plain gorgeous, and maintain the balance with super-heavy parts and surprisingly abrasive moments that build up perfect dreamy constrasts. Of course, the high point are still Mehdi Safa's vocals, a world unto themselves full of emotion and graceful power.

85. BLACK COBRA Invernal / BLACK HAVEN Harmbringer / BLACK TUSK Set The Dial
See what I did there? The only common link between these bands, aside from the obvious, is their heaviness. It's so cool how it's possible to transmit the feeling of four elephants sitting on your head by such different means. Be it by two dudes pounding the shit out of their drumkit and guitar, churning out sludge-via-Slayer riffs like Black Cobra do, or by tearing it up Integrity-gone-punk-via-NWOSDM style like awesome Belgians Black Haven, or by dropping the best album of your career, full of bourbon-drenched fat grooves like Black Tusk do. It's all black, and it's all great.

84. THRALL Vermin To The Earth
You know what? Read my Terrorizer review of this album, it'll tell you everything you need to know about how good these Aussie black metallers are, and in a much more polished and professional language.

83. ANAAL NATHRAKH Passion
Minor deviations, but all in all it's yet another uncontrollably chaotic blast from the dynamic Hunt/Kenney duo, complete with a highlight sure to become another anthem of filth for Anaal Nathrakh, in the form of 'Drug-Fucking Abomination'. Charming stuff.

82. DRUGS OF FAITH Corroded
I don't think my fuss-wave really got going, but you should still check out Drugs Of Faith, one of the most underrated and unsung bands of the year. Just read that post to realize why they deserve your attention.

81. THISQUIETARMY Resurgence / Vessels
Here he is, just like I told you on the splits list, and with two releases on top of it. The mesmerizing aquatic force of the powerfully evocative 'Vessels' and the diverse, multi-faceted approaches of the drone/shoegaze/dreamlike atmosphereic tour-the-force that is the two-disc 'Resurgence' both show a vivid, inspirational mind at work.

80. IRON & WINE Kiss Each Other Clean
Where Sam Beam surrounds himself with a full band and tries to grow a little bit out of the more minimalist first records, where it was basically him and his guitar taking care of the achingly fragile songs. It's a bold step, a step that he's been building up to ever since the 'Woman King' EP, calmly and gradually, but one that people of considerable genius like Eric Bachmann with his Crooked Fingers on 'Forfeit/Fortune' or Ray LaMontagne with his latest record have failed at. But Sam pulls it off beautifully, and shows hints of being able to maintain and even improve. Especially on the first song, 'Walking Far From Home', a deliriously beautiful song that will create a thousand images in your mind and one that keeps tugging at your heart from all directions, both the literal and metaphorical meanings of the lyric hitting you a different way. It's probably the best song of the year, and even if nothing comes even close for the rest of the album, there's still enough spots of brilliance ('Tree By The River', 'Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me') for it to be worthy of Iron & Wine's amazing discography.

79. ÅRABROT Solar Anus
Here's a tip, if you have a band and no idea for a concept - read up on Georges Bataille. It's working fine for some of the weirdest but also most wonderful bands in the world, like L'Acephale first and now these Norwegian noise-mongers. That's right, 'Solar Anus' takes its name from the French writer's text 'The Solar Anus' and it's both noise and noise-rock, it's both minimalist and colossally huge, it's both hideously deformed and strangely appealing. It's like a glorious Viking sent from the Gods to rape you in a dark alleyway. Just listen to the damn thing already.

78. BOOK OF BLACK EARTH The Cold Testament
Leaner, meaner, sharper and entirely keyboard-less, this is where Book Of Black Earth finally mean business. A far cry from their all-over-the-place previous albums, this one is a black/death/thrash attack that goes straight for the throat, like that big fucking wolf-man-thing on the cover, and rips it open in one ferocious bite. You'll be hooked right from the opener 'Weight Of The World', you'll see.

77. GRAYCEON All We Destroy / SUBROSA No Help For The Mighty Ones
It would always be inevitable to pair these two up for me, even if it's rather hard to pinpoint an exact reason why. While there are some vague connections between the bands, like a decisive female presence in both (three of the five members in SubRosa and celloist/violinist Jackie Perez Gratz in the Grayceon trio) and the same record label (inevitably, Profound Lore), or even the fact that they're both finally hitting the jackpot on their third record, nothing else would hint at such a coupling. But the way they approach the little universes contained in their songs, the underlying melancholy (Grayceon's subtle use of the cello for this is staggering), the development of feelings through intricate and progressive songwriting, the way they seem to turn hard-hitting, downtuned sludge-rock into utter beauty, everything seems to me like it's coming from the same cavity of the heart somehow. And they both feature one special song, one of those so good you could die for it, 'Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes' for SubRosa and 'Shellmounds' for Grayceon, where Jackie sings, appropriately, the line "it breaks my heart in two". So, get them both and prepare for your mental journey.

76. MOMENTUM Whetting Occam's Razor
Another band featuring Alex from Fall Of Efrafa after Light Bearer, this one is much more direct and brutal. I made a post about them (and about the great Icelandic band of the same name) at The Living Doorway, so head over there to see why I loved this album.

7 comments:

  1. this is some undertaking, dude. stoked to see the rest!

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  2. Thanks Brett! Hope you'll like what I still have in store.

    I just added Annihilate Next Week to my little link list up there, by the way. I've been a regular reader/fan for a while. :)

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  3. will be the new morbid angel album be on the next series?

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  4. Holy crap... and i thought my List was ambitious. How come FxC is not on your "places you should go"?? Still want those beers José? Think about it... think.

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  5. Dude, no idea what you're talking about. It's been there for years, look.

    Ahem.

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