Best of 2011: Brian's picksBrian's picks (2011) staff picks
Reviewer Rating: 5
Contributed by: JeloneBrian (others by this writer | submit your own) Brian is a former reviews editor. - ed.
Hi there. I'm Brian. Some of you might know me as the former reviews editor here. Hell, some of you may not even realize a transition took place. But a few short months ago, I stepped down from the volunteer position I've held here at Pu.
Brian is a former reviews editor. - ed.
Hi there. I'm Brian. Some of you might know me as the former reviews editor here. Hell, some of you may not even realize a transition took place. But a few short months ago, I stepped down from the volunteer position I've held here at Punknews.org for the last seven years (!) out of respect for my new full-time job at Bridge Nine Records. It involved a major life change, moving up the country a pretty fair distance from the shores of Long Island to the colloquial North Shore of Massachusetts. I'm finally a grown-ass man, but more importantly, one who has managed to find some stability in an otherwise unpredictable industry and continue doing the things I love in some relative capacity. You can't be anything but grateful for that, and judging from some other movements on our little staff, perhaps there's a debt of gratitude to the 'Org involved. It's amazing to see how we've grown over the years into a respected news source, recognized brand and apparent CV strongpoint for our niche.
As you might have already seen, I'll still be contributing the occasional review here, for either live shows or albums. You can also continue to read my work in Alternative Press every month and on altpress.com every week. I'll also be penning reviews for Lambgoat here and there.
Some other media I enjoyed this year and would recommend wholeheartedly: Boardwalk Empire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Parks & Recreation, Community, The Office, Source Code, Moneyball, 50/50, Super 8, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and NHL 12.
Thanks for sticking with us all these years. It's been a good ride.
And thanks for presumably paying attention to my yearly indulgence of extraneous divulgence.
I think these guys still have a bit of a boner for mewithoutYou, but there are times where they definitely have their own fearless spin on narrative, stream-of-consciousness post-hardcore. They're some of the best storytellers in "punk rock," and the jazzy, loose control they have over the sonic backdrop is at once effortless and deliberate.
Timing is everything, but The King Is Dead was already a great record before a certain, iconic college/alt-rock act called it a day. The fact that the Decemberists wrote a paean to R.E.M. the same year that band stunned the rock world with their abrupt breakup could very well make it even better. Sure, The King Is Dead is a bit transparent in being a loveletter to the era of albums like Document and Green, but it just does it so goddamned well. And there's a sure folk-rock slant that allows the Decemberists to retain some of their identity, a little more stripped-down and rustic than past efforts but just as catchy and entrancing.
The progression Banner Pilot makes from record to record is an often incremental, indeterminate amount. You really just have to hope they bang out a tight collection of gravelly, frumpy punk rock with great, ragged hooks. Fortunately, Heart Beats Pacific delivers. The band sound as worn as ever, and there's actually a little bit of range in the vocals, offering a something little extra with Banner Pilot's teeth-clenched frustration and love-lost fucking-up, spitting melodic hooks that dig in hard and heartily.
I Am the Avalanche fans had to sit by idly while the band's members settled into real lives with families and work schedules. But when they finally returned with this, their sophomore full-length, we were all rewarded tenfold. Avalanche United is an irrepressibly fun, punchy and melodic punk rock record with just the right amount of versatile influence from the pop-punk and hardcore worlds to round it out nicely without shoehorning anything or cheesing up the vibe. While it doesn't really step outside frontman Vinnie Caruana's comfort zone given the arc of his musical career, it completely dominates everything within it.
Raein: Sulla linea d'orizzonte tra questa mia vita e quella di tutti
self-released June 16
The latest LP from Italian screamo veterans Raein is a wonderful contradiction. The band continues to operate with its fiercely DIY business model (even offering this album as a free, legal download), but their cover art is a wildly classy branding, like something out of an expensive graphic design firm, while the production sparkles with a crystal clear sheen. And yet, it all makes perfect sense together. Sulla... actually marks new musical territory for the band as Raein takes influence from outside their scene with shoegaze and noise pop textures, piecing together an emotional and erratic album that glistens with melody and minor stylistic abandonment while staying true to their sound and smartly intricate tendencies.
Thursday will forever be primarily associated with the push-pull, sing-scream dynamics of the 2001 emo classic, Full Collapse, but that designation ignores too many moments of greater progression and realization within their discography. No Devolución is a great instance of such growth. The band's final album, having announced their dissolution just last month, is pained and desperate, more synth-heavy, yet with significant restraint in the context of their catalog (frontman Geoff Rickly doesn't even scream until the fifth track). As icy and atmospheric as it might be, No Devolución's also a heartbreaker. The riddles of "No Answers" make up a desolate, lost quest, while the melodica opening "A Gun in the First Act" mirrors that of Refused's aching curtain call, "Tannhäuser/Derivé". Both this act of frightened panic by Thursday and quiet push for revolution by Refused do something else, though: signal the end of respective eras for important entries in progressive (post-)hardcore.
My experience with black metal before Roads to Judah was null, and black metal purists (if I somehow ever came into contact with one) would likely dismiss Deafheaven as a false introduction. Frankly, I don't give a damn. Roads to Judah is a splendid orchestration of post-rock, shoegaze, screamo and, sure, what I can only defer to as black metal, and it all blends into an enduring and atmospheric wonder, with sporadic fits of curiously foamy, percussive maltreatment and apocalyptic, vocal ululation.
Ampere have been doling out rapid-fire bursts of damaged, violent emotional hardcore for nearly a decade now, but only this year managed to compile enough of them to form a proper full-length effort. Screamo traditionalists are all the better for it, as Like Shadows is a tightly wound, torrid napalm bomb of ferociousness. The allure in this sound is how amazingly dense and complex Ampere compose their "songs," and how they smash the listener in the face just long enough to feel overwhelmed without needing to visit the emergency room.
Dallas Green's full-time focus on City and Colour might have been the death of Alexisonfire (and considering blistering efforts like Dog's Blood, that's quite a pity). But if Little Hell is any indication, it might have been the right choice. Green imbues his third full-length with the same sort of patience and beauty he always has, but with a newfound knack for captivating melodies and refreshingly creative deviance. His voice is impressively buoyant, carrying from the swaying wistfulness of "Natural Disaster" to the strained, beautiful chorus of "Fragile Bird" and through to the reverb-drenched, tense rhythms of "Weightless" and minimal, Rhodes-accompanied "Hope for Now".
Conor Oberst took some time in the last few years to explore side excursions, from a self-titled solo effort to his generally well-received album with the Mystic Valley Band, Outer South...plus that whole Monsters of Folk thing. But his first album in nearly four years under the Bright Eyes moniker is a treat. Perhaps Bright Eyes' best in more than a decade, the high-concept The People's Key is a darker and murkier digression, influenced by the technological theory of singularity. It gives the album a uniquely eerie feel, elevating it to science fiction status if not for its inspirational literature being rooted so heavily in statistics and legitimate research. In any event, it keeps its emotions varied (from the raspy playfulness of "Shell Games" and "One for You, One for Me" to the nervous din of "Firewall" and "Ladder Song"), and its content always compelling.
When Thrice presented their pre-production demos for Major/Minor to eventual producer Dave Schiffman, his reaction was, "Oh, so you guys are making a grunge record." While this early assessment proved to be a little bit off, there is something inherently straightforward and a shade dirty about Major/Minor that could almost put the band in the company of '90s staples Soundgarden and Red Hot Chili Peppers, while remaining a snarling and bombastic rock record of its own. It means that even as Thrice has arguably made the quietest stylistic shift of their career (from 2009's groove-laden Beggars) before they take their long-deserved hiatus, they made strides to progress and differentiate, and it results in one of their strongest albums to date.
The Lack Long After is one slow pull of a scab. Frontman Kyle Durfey lays out a brutally bare account of his experience in dealing with the loss of his father to multiple sclerosis, and there's nary a second of these 37 minutes that isn't downright chilling as a result. He yelps choked-up lines like "I think about your last three breaths" while his bandmates build mournful, twinkling atmospheres with jarring, rhythmic undercurrents; if your eyes aren't watering by incredibly sad and yet optimistic closer "I'll Get By"...well, there's a pun here that's probably too insensitive to make. That torch Thursday let go of this year? It's already been picked up.
Brian Fallon is riding a hot streak. Everything he touches turns to gold lately, and his Midas touch here is complemented by his guitar tech, Ian Perkins, with the duo conducting a warm, brooding and moody affair that channels their somewhat more esoteric tastes. Okay, sure, the Afghan Whigs, the National and Tom Waits aren't terribly off the mark of the Stateside vernacular, but they still seem a far cry from the punk-honed Americana rock of Fallon's main gig, the Gaslight Anthem. What results is an incredibly meticulous record culling the musky air of chamber rock and lounge, but with an energy and pacing this project can call its own.
The debut long-player from these unassuming Atlantans is an epic journey that explores the faults and fractures of Biblical theology through a stunning hybrid of crushingly heavy beats and bone-tingling lightness. Everything from touches of post-metal (Neurosis, Isis) and smokey alt-rock (Queens of the Stone Age, Tool) to falsetto-speckled indie rock (Blonde Redhead, latter-era Sunny Day Real Estate) infect Garden Window to deliberate delight. It's rare to hear a band combining such disparate influences on their debut--let alone do it with such grace and superb execution.
Yeah yeah--I started working for the label this past October, but that was well after Defeater had already enraptured the punk and hardcore communities with their sophomore LP, continuing a storyline that started with 2008's Travels. Case in point? My first few days, I was assembling the fourth pressing for a record that had just come out in March. And it's certainly warranted: Empty Days & Sleepless Nights is an utterly relentless and yet thoughtful album that anachronistically captures the pain of post-World War II families suffering from broken homes and addiction with roaring, pressing hardcore full of quiet complexities, melodically melding chaos and subtlety to perfection--and even closing with a quartet of bustling, hearty folk songs.
I remember the first time I saw Title Fight was January 2009. While a flood of kids were losing their minds, the most memorable moment for me was when they kicked off "Youreyeah". I had heard the song before and yet still thought, "Oh, cool, they're covering something from Can't Slow Down." Obviously, they weren't, but that kind of mistaken perception sums up their nascent material well: sloppy, emotional pop-punk/melodic hardcore that might have been a little derivative for its own good. And sure, Shed still reeks of its influences (namely Lifetime and Jawbreaker), but the variety and depth Title Fight achieves with their long-anticipated full-length debut is warm and enriching. They're growing leaps and bounds, and you can hear it in both their enthusiastic, signature speeds and slow-churning, gravelly mood pieces.
Former Thieves conjure all the wonderful aspects of aggressive rage without a trace of the bullshit that tends to accompany it. The small-town group, hailing from Cedar Falls, IA, cuts through Midwest boredom to create a forceful, metallic hardcore debut that's both fierce and creative. Time signature changes, smoldering guitars, and howled, end-of-earth emissions funnel the artistic harshness fuming from the likes of Botch, Breather Resist and Modern Life Is War. Similarities to underappreciated contemporaries like Achilles and the Minor Times crop up as a result, but one can only hope that Former Thieves don't fall victim to the same sort of ignorant dismissal.
Manchester Orchestra's third full-length, following 2009's breakout Mean Everything to Nothing, was a challenge to the fans latching on after the success of inherently catchy radio singles like "I've Got Friends" and "Shake It Out." The Atlanta, Ga. indie rockers conduct the rather complex Simple Math with a progression that picks up as it goes along, with everything from the sweet, folky "Deer" situating the band directly between Neil Young and Band of Horses to the dramatic, hushing title track, and Floyd-ian children's choir of "Virgin." While certain moments are sure throwbacks (the playful intro to "Pensacola" feels like a lighter moment from 2006's Like a Virgin Losing a Child, and "April Fool" could fit right in on MEtN), the band actually live up to their namesake with violins and cello tastefully touching up a variety of tracks. Yeah, "string sections" doesn't automatically mean "growth," but Simple Math is a confident statement of musical forward-thinking and familiar, honest diction.
Touché Amoré's rapid ascent to the upper echelon of the modern hardcore ranks has been a justified ride: No other band is writing hardcore punk with such a sense of making every second meaningful. The band's short, sub-two-minute bursts of darkly melodic, urgent and emotional hardcore--with flailing percussive bursts forever tying them to elder screamo movements--wastes as little time as possible. Every word is punctual (the clever turns of phrase in "The Great Repetition)". Every chord quick and cutting (the panicked yet deeply moving "Home Away from Here"). While their sophomore full-length forgoes the socially aware angle of their past records, opting to instead explore the personal politics of self-worth and life-changing decisions, it's an inward stare that's consistently gripping.
The '90s became nostalgia territory well before 2011, but its emotive, powerful musical landscape continuously provides an expansive spectrum to pull from. Case in point: The first proper full-length from Doylestown, Pa.'s Balance and Composure, Separation digs its heels in and grinds out a cathartic and thunderous display drawing blood from the likes of Nirvana, Neutral Milk Hotel, Jawbreaker, Red House Painters and countless others. The running cliché about musically thoughtful bands brilliantly mining their record collections has admittedly become a tiresome one (although, as noted in my review back in June, there's a metaphor for B&C that's quite literal). But Separation's unrelenting drive of dynamic exercises, unpredictable turns and persistently distraught tensions puts Balance and Composure in a class all their own--in other words, its title creates just that for the band.
The first batch of fresh material from '90s emo heroes Braid in 13 years panders to no one. The aged quartet throw one curveball after another, first fronting backing vocalist Chris Broach on opener "The Right Time," and later covering singer-songwriter Jeff Hanson on "You Are the Reason." It's nimble and creative, melodic indie rock that defies expectations--just like their old stuff, actually.
Hostage Calm's entry in Run for Cover Records' 7" Singles Series is a great one as the band continue to refine their adventurous, punk-influenced alternative pop. The A-side is a more emphatic version of the closer from their excellent 2010 self-titled full-length, while the flipside is a haunting, Elliott Smith-referencing waltz that explores darker, reverb-drenched grounds, but affixed to that '50s feel and aesthetic.
The heavy, awe-inspiring space rock Cave In released on Hydra Head in the early 2000s before starting their short-lived major label stint is some of my favorite stuff ever. Judging from the long-delayed Mile High City, Memorial probably shares that feeling, and I'm quite alright with that.
A pre-cursor single to Transit's proper Rise debut, Listen & Forgive, features two exclusive songs showing the band at the top of their game. One of their best releases to date (and they've got quite a few), "Take What You Can" is an invigorating mix of their signature noodly guitars and scrappy urgency, while "I've Never Told That to Anyone" is earnest, shimmering emo balladry that picks up where Moneen's The Red Tree left off.
The long-awaited followup to 2004's The New What Next from beardpunk's most heralded is a seven-inch teaser that's simply delightful. Sure, it basically sounds like a split between Chuck Ragan and the Draft, but the grizzled recording tone is a fresh feel, and both turn in yearning, ruggedly endearing performances.
A split single between two of the strongest in their respective niches. Junius offer sweeping, majestic post-rock/alternative new wave on "A Dark Day with Night", upping the dramatic melancholy, while Rosetta's "TMA-3" is howling, plowing, twinkling post-metal with a dizzying guitar loop that pummels ferociously at its close.
This Las Vegas outfit have been dabbling under the radar in complex, emotional hardcore for several years now. While the spotlight is only starting to shine on them now, it's well-deserved. Caravels' self-titled seven-inch single and Topshelf debut offers their most melodic material to date. More shouty than screamy, the band condenses Envy's gut-tickling twinkle into four-minute slabs of flailing, clenched fists and damaged optimism.
Glassjaw's recent singles collection, Our Color Green, comprised a collection of songs the band had been writing since 2002. So it was no surprise that those tracks mostly sounded like a logical (though highly enjoyable) extension of their last album, Worship and Tribute, with quavering abrasion and sneered hooks. Coloring Book, however, is something else entirely: an experimental, rhythmic assault of post-something with dense instrumentation and programming--wildly tense, but retaining the band's tender emotions with repetitive melodies driving its points home. A progressive and mature statement from one of the smartest and most clever bands surviving "The Summer of Screamo."
The latest batch of fresh material from these prolific Long Island unknowns runs the gamut from brooding beauty to taut pensiveness in even better measures than their previous material. With Brand New only putting out an album every three years, this is the next best thing you can get in terms of alternative/indie rock that's bursting with melody, dark moods and meticulous production.
When a collection of seasoned musicians comes together for a new project, the inherited experience can lead to immediate greatness. Cue Daytrader's proper debut EP, a focused and yet deliberately varied assemblage of tracks that update early 2000s emo (Stay What You Are, The Moon Is Down) with rock-solid dynamics, aggressive drive and just the right touch of multi-structured complexity.
ANNE culls remixed/remastered tracks from their demo and first mixtape along with some new material, and the resulting collection is wonderful. They're ostensibly a shoegaze band, but there are too many multiple musical references in ANNE's sound to pigeonhole them so easily. They've got the atmosphere of the Cure's Disintegration and My Bloody Valentine that would them just as well place them in the company of peers like Jesu (scope that intro to "All Your Time") and Junius. Hell, when a certain thumping guitar tone follows a gothic dance synth opening "Lower Faiths", it's like the band is tracing lines from Depeche Mode to U2. They're all over the alternative spectrum, and it remains cohesive and engaging all the same.
Sure, they're essentially the U.K.'s answer to the Gaslight Anthem, if you swapped out the frontman's fascination with the Boss for an obession with Woody. Regardless, SHARKS create a wonderfully ragged, melodic and confident take on roots rock with all the requisite Replacements and Clash influences one could ask for. These various EPs and new jams promise one hell of a full-length in the forthcoming No Gods.
Admittedly, this compliation was penciled in at #1 before I even heard it, as it's more or less a rundown of my favorite punk (-ish) bands that formed after 2004. And all but one deliver previously unreleased tracks. But it helps that bands like Daytrader, Balance and Composure, Hostage Calm, End of a Year/Self Defense Family and the World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die all kill it.
Aficionado - The Things You Like
Wayfarer - Collide
Nothing like anything else I've heard from this band. The perfect lovechild of Alkaline Trio and Balance and Composure.
Other Lives - Tamer Animals
Makes me think of the National covering Foals' "Spanish Sahara". Love it. Shame all their other stuff is by-the-numbers indie folk.
Mock Orange - End of the World
Throwback track for this post-emo indie rock act.
Saves the Day - Fucked Up Past the Point of Fixing
Part II of the opening five-part title track suite on Daybreak, this is a crunchy, desperate sway, showing a rare, comparative bite from Chris Conley.
Daytrader - Texts and Tomes
Sadder than their other stuff and standing out for that reason.
Bomb the Music Industry! - Campaign for a Better Next Weekend
Jeff Rosenstock's fetish for '90s indie rock has never been more brilliantly realized.
Late Nite Wars - Bones
Great tone--touches upon the emotional pain in Fairweather's early stuff.
Cave In - Sing My Loves
Touché Amoré - Home Away from Here
The Hotel Year - An Ode to the Nite Ratz Club
Young upstarts combine the wistful heartbreak of Piebald and the Weakerthans. I swoon.
Bridge and Tunnel - Synchronized Swimming
An epic and gripping example of their heartfelt delivery and atmospheric expertise.
Anne - Virginal Plight
The guitar tone in this song is killer.
Thursday - No Answers
Reverse the Curse - To Dig a Hole
Kevin Devine - 11-17
City and Colour - Fragile Bird
Chorus of the year.
Self Defense Family - I'm Going Through Some Shit
A psychological, spitting, echoing spiral. Possibly their best song to date, and that says something given the mass of their recorded output.
Dum Dum Girls - Coming Down
Incendiary - Head in Check
Best heavy band out there at the moment.
Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Reminds me of Good Old War. Great standout on an otherwise occasionally dull album.
Bon Iver - Holocene
Justin Vernon's probably never even heard of American Football but he's updating them wonderfully. Even if the hipster mainstream doesn't hear it either.
J Mascis - Not Enough
Frank Turner - Redemption
Just beautifully sad.
Deer Leap - To Moscow and Quickly
Radiohead - Codex
A time-stopping piano ballad on an otherwise very ambient record.
Restorations - When You're Older
"Maybe it's desire for displacement I've known, or the storied promise that keeps me coming home." Sums up my year well.
Most Anticipated for 2012
I'm already amped on the new records from Person L / Weatherbox (split EP), the Menzingers, the Saddest Landscape, No Trigger, the Twilight Sad and Eisley (EP). Here's another 30 I'll definitely be checking out:
Circle Takes the Square: Decompositions: Volume I (Gatepost; TBA)
Daytrader (Rise; TBA)
The Gaslight Anthem (Mercury; summer)
Verse (Bridge Nine; TBA)
Further Seems Forever (Tooth & Nail?; TBA)
The Casket Lottery (No Sleep; TBA)
Gatsbys American Dream EP (Equal Vision; TBA)
Make Do and Mend (Rise; summer)
Circa Survive (Atlantic; TBA)
Tegan and Sara (Sire/Warner Bros.; early fall)
Title Fight (SideOneDummy; September)
Hot Water Music (Rise; late May)
Hostage Calm (Run for Cover; TBA)
Anthony Green: Beautiful Things (Photo Finish; Jan. 23) & Young Legs (TBA)
Caravels: TBA LP (Topshelf; TBA) & Well Worn [Gifts from Enola split] (Topshelf; Jan. 24)
Cursive: I Am Gemini (Saddle Creek; Feb. 21)
SHARKS: No Gods (Rise; March 20)
Rise and Fall: Faith (Deathwish; TBA)
Weatherbox (Youth Conspiracy; TBA)
This Town Needs Guns (Sargent House; TBA)
The World Is a Beautful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die (Topshelf; TBA)