Year in Review: Music
A retrospective of 2011’s foremost albums
Portland-based ambient noise musician Liz Harris doesn't veer far afield from her usual method on Grouper's double LP. Anything these solo compositions might lack in differentiation is more than compensated for by consistency and quality. Harris pulls back her starry mantle and reveals ambient maps of her esoteric emotional landscape. “Alien Observer” harkens to Harris' traditional singer-songwriter days and “I Saw a Ray” combines a harsher palette with lilting vocals.
Prolific composer Leyland Kirby released three albums for three solo projects in 2011. Kirby's release as The Caretaker centers on the idea of memory and its loss. Pieced together from ghostly emanations captured off scratched-up ballroom jazz 78s and conjured from spectral static and spooky loops, this is a high-minded concept album that requires little to no intellectualization. At Kirby's amnesiac ball, the listener is swept up in a haunted ballroom dance by an urgent, sentimental fetch.
Electronica wunderkind Alec Koone's full-length debut is a supernatural lagoon of pitch-shifted vocals and sound that is awash in emotive tides and hypnotic beats. Every track features water as an instrumental element. Sounds of dripping and roaring water churn with ethereal siren songs, while glitch and circular rhythms crash into a wall of frothy synth. “Apart,” “Motion” and “Oh, Why” are particularly memorable whirlpools of wonder.
One of the best albums of 2011 was created by an aspiring librarian; there is more than a little comfort in that fact. Atlantan chillwave prodigy Ernest Greene released a nine-song full-length debut that bursts with hope and sensuality. “Eyes Be Closed” is one of the sexiest songs ever laid to proverbial tape. Frequently remixed song “Amor Fati” is a euphoric reflection on radical acceptance and sounds the way sunshine looks after it's filtered through a prism.
San Francisco twang-n-psych pop coven weaves bewitching three-part vocal harmonies amid heartfelt strum and bang. This is the sound of furies singing love songs to their besotted victims. From throaty, explicit paeans like “In the Garden” to tall, dark glasses of rose water like “My Heart Does Swell,” the dreamy, swampy, Americana-laced potion proffered by The Sandwitches is an aural confection.
Nika Roza Danilova's stage name, Zola Jesus, began as an experiment. As a gothic teen growing up in the Midwest, Danilova wanted to test people's boundaries and so adopted as her moniker a pseudonymous portmanteau referencing both the Christian savior and French naturalist writer Émile Zola. It's a colossal name and she owns every syllable. The operatically trained, dark wave chanteuse and her celestially melodic vocals are the main attraction on “Conatus,” but the arrangements of sparkling synths and simmering strings certainly don't hurt.
Husband-and-wife dub-psych pop duo Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis' second album is all expansive synth, psychedelic pop and refracted dub grooves. The twinkle- and reverb-laden “Hey Sparrow” and “Tiger Eyes (Laid Back)” spin Dunis' deliciously somnolent voice into a Day-Glo web of gorgeous post-reggae pop. Keep your ears peeled for the couple's forthcoming album, featuring a guest appearance by their baby, Mikko.
Ethiopian-born, Finland-based Mirel Wagner has one of those voices that stops you in your tracks, before encircling your heart like a boa constrictor. Wagner's sparse guitar-based instrumentation allows the listener to meditate on her eldritch vocals and dark, blues-inspired lyrics. If tracks like “No Death” and “To the Bone” are any indication of Wagner's future output, folk fans may wish to have the songwriter's countenance engraved on their lockets.
New York trio Widowspeak crafts exquisitely woebegone pop music. Its self-titled debut blends dark country sounds with a bevy of other popular influences. Lead vocalist Molly Hamilton is frequently compared to Mazzy Star—there is a striking similarity but subtle differences in vocal technique, and the more classic rock instrumentation makes for an entirely un-Mazzy-like listening experience. For all its crepuscular glory, this album is a supremely uplifting listen.
The debut EP from cloaked Manchester producer Holy Other is an aching amalgam of sumptuous house and chillwave. Voice is transformed into instrumentation and swirled with syrupy synths and reverb on five sybaritic tracks. The mystery of Holy Other's identity adds intrigue to this EP, but this downtempo debut succeeds more on its own substance than it does on enigmatic allure.