Top Albums of 2011
// Colin Spensley

December is the time of year to look back on all the great or tragic things that may or may not have happened to you. For most music nerds/snobs, it’s also the time of year to hand out metaphorical gold stars and first prize medals to artists they felt really “captured” the sound of the year.

Indie rock moves so quickly in this modern age that a group you may have loved only a year ago has already faded into obscurity and been replaced by another act. Not only has there not been a heck of a lot of good, relevant, and catchy downloadable singles this year, the ones that are great don’t seem to have solid albums to back them up. Many writers in the musical blogosphere have started to refer to 2011 as “the year of the MP3 dry spell.”

For example, highly acclaimed artists James Blake and Bon Iver combined efforts to release one of the worst songs of the year, “Fall Creek Choir Boys”. What seemed like a good idea prior to first listen turned into a boring incoherent mess of vocodered Bon Iver and random unnerving owl hoot samples, not what you’d expect from artists who both had critically acclaimed albums last year. But all is not lost; your favourite Capilano music writer is here to cure those indie blues.

Real Estate – Days

When did everything become so “beachy”? It’s a word that both sums up and alienates the genre of music it was created to represent. Bands like Beach House and Beach Fossils have both taken beachy and incorporated the term into their name as well as their music, and both of those acts had hugely successful years in 2010.

However, no band has been able to put a solid face to beachy indie rock like New Jersey’s Real Estate, who incorporate soft and fuzzy guitar music drenched in a wash of reverb and catchy melodies that often leave a warm feeling in your chest when you listen to it. The early fall release of their album Days was highly anticipated across the online music community and it delivered tenfold. When Real Estate garnered attention in 2009 with their first self-titled release, it did seem as though they, too, would fade away, a one trick pony with a niche sound that couldn’t stand the test of time.

Luckily for fans past and present, Days delivers with a vibe that takes you off the beach and puts you into that sunny gazebo with a chilled beer in your hand. The songwriting and production value of Days has drastically improved from their first record, and that signature beachy sound remains to compliment songs like “Green Aisles” and “All The Same”. Bassist Alex Bleeker steps up to the plate and takes the vocalist role on one track entitled “Wonder Years”, which may just be the most solid song on the entire record.
Listen if you like: Smoking weed and walking through suburban sprawl or drinking coffee at the beach.

Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreams

Motown music is often called the “golden age” of modern music. From its conception in 1959 by Smokey Robinson through the wonder years of the ‘60s, to its cocaine-fueled downfall in the ‘80s via James Brown, Motown may just be the best thing to ever happen to pop music.

The only trouble is that if, like me, you’re a white kid from the 1990s whose parents raised you on a steady diet of Credence Clear Water Revival, it’s pretty hard to dive into a genre with about 30,000 different bands playing one song on a dusty 45 record you could never get your hands on. So let’s bring it back, right!

Enter Charles Bradley. He’s the working man’s James Brown; a gnarled and wizened Detroit native who finally got his big break in 2011; a modern Motown hero. In No Time For Dreams, Charles Bradley has created a masterpiece, or at least has made an album that sounds like it was pulled from the vaults of James Brown’s Motown Mansion. Bradley oozes soul; he tugs at your heartstrings and pulls you down into his world, only to make it all right again.

No Time For Dreams has received great reviews from Spin, Rolling Stone, and Paste magazines. As one Spin review of the album states,
“This 62-year-old Brooklynite isn't making a comeback; he's just touching down.”
Listen if you like: Dancing to The Jackson 5 or making out to Marvin Gaye.

Adam & The Amethysts – Flickering Flashlight

Adam Waito and his band The Amethysts are a couple of Montreal vagrants who make literary indie-folk music that sounds like honey. The tones are thick and sweet and Adams’ lyrical prose is deep and engaging. As Adam & The Amethysts steadily gain notoriety across the country from tastemakers like Exclaim and CBC Radio 3, they seem to only shroud themselves in more mystique.

Listening to Flickering Flashlight, one does not feel like Adam & The Amethysts should be playing to you across the radio or internet; their music sounds more like it should be heard in a dimly-lit occult book store as the musicians softly play their guitars surrounded by crystals, candles, incense, and witchcraft. With Adam Waito as the sole songwriter, Flickering Flashlight is a window into his mind, and it’s a pretty surreal place to hang out.

Listen if you like: Casting love spells on your crush or listening to The Beach Boys on mescaline.

Wu Lyf – Go Tell Fire To The Mountain

Wu Lyf is an anagram, not a reference to the Wu Tang Clan; sorry to disappoint. World United Lucifer Youth Foundation is an enigmatic group of Manchester youth who want you to pay attention to them, but don’t often tell you why. Their website and personal branding is rampant with revolution, violence, passion, and anarchist undertones.

The imagery and aggression is only overstated by their lack of giving fans any sort of hints as to what Wu Lyf is up to. For about a year, they had about three MP3s floating around the Internet, a few reverb-blasted Tupac remixes, and a seven-inch record cut onto porcelain, which is now fetching $500 on Ebay. That’s a lot of hype for such little content.

However, if you’d heard the song “Heavy Pop” (pretty much the only real song they had released until now), it was pretty obvious the huge amount of potential harboured in the hearts of Wu Lyf.

Go Tell Fire To The Mountain is an insane mix of huge, bombastic indie, slow ambient instrumentals, and chant-inducing incomprehensible lyrical drawl. Ellery Roberts, the lead singer of Wu Lyf, probably has the thickest and growliest English accent ever, but that doesn’t stop him from yelping every single line like a Manchester teenage Tom Waits, and that’s what pushes Wu Lyf past any other current indie act. It’s one of the most original-sounding records of the year.

Listen if you like: Beating the dirty pavement with your jean jacket on while reciting Chaucer through a megaphone.

Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

Every music journalist writing for a music blog seems desperate to find the “saviours of hip hop” or find an artist who is “the future of hip hop.” Shabazz Palaces have had both titles pinned to their chests more times then can be counted, but they don’t need the hype to prove their worth.

Shabazz Palaces have managed to forge an eclectic mix of obscure trip-hop, or “art rap”. With frontman Palaceer Lazaro’s to-the-point vocal delivery and enigmatic lyrical style, every song on Black Up sounds different from the one before it. From glitch-looped vocals used as beats or minimalistic synth swells with no beat at all, the feelings of tracks range from stark cold beats, to chilled back-lounge grooves. Somehow they manage to make the entire album coherent.

Black Up is a sophisticated and abstract take on hip-hop as well as jazz, pop, and ambient music. This may confuse listeners at first, but after a few listens, the album becomes not only infectious and catchy, but bewitching and mind expanding. Upper level hip-hop for people that think Lil’ Wayne is a heathen and Gucci Mane is a pretentious hack.

Listen if you like: Drinking codeine cough syrup at the Emily Carr grad show.

//Colin Spensley, columnist
//Illustration by Arin Ringwald

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