Before you decide to rip on or rave about the following top ten list, you should know that the picks are all from our writer Ace Ubas. Ace did a tremendous job covering festivals and concerts for us all year and listening to and writing about a lot of the music that YOU enjoy. This site has a large and diverse demographic but Ace’s picks are pretty representative of the taste in music of the majority of our readers. Check out Ace’s top ten albums of the year.
I’ll admit Sister Crayon’s Bellow was rather a late entry into my top 10. Though this album came out early in the year, I didn’t get around to listening to it until last month prior to seeing them live. Regardless, I feel that this is an overlooked album since no one I know has actually heard of them. Bellow is their impressive debut that blends elements of shoegaze/electronica (i.e. School of Seven Bells) and dream-pop that’s reminiscent of label-mates Warpaint and Beach House. The highlight of their music is centered on vocalist Terra Lopez, whose powerful-yet-haunting voice shines through the hazy atmosphere of synths and electronic percussion.
9. North Highlands-Wild One
Wild One by Brooklyn-based North Highlands is another album that has flown under-the-radar that I feel deserves recognition and attention. Main songwriter/vocalist/keyboardist Brenda Malvini shows off her chops as a witty lyricist as she writes about themes of longing and nostalgia, while she sings them in a huskier Annie Clark-like manner. Musically, they’re more along the pop side of things (think Minus the Bear), but incorporate post-rock melodies into their songs. From opening track “Bruce” to closer “Here’s,” it’s 11 of the most infectious songs that I’ve heard all year.
8. The Horrors-Skying
With their first album Strange House, The Horrors were heavily criticized for their outdated goth rock sound that was paired along their excessive gothic look. Then their second album Primary Colours saw a shift towards a more post-punk sound, which transferred to their impressive third LP, Skying. This time around, they managed to incorporate more shoegazey guitars while putting their own twist to 80s new wave. This is definitely a mature and confident band has me excited for what they’re going to put out next.
If there’s one word to describe Gang Gang Dance, it’s otherworldly. Not only does their music sound something that’s not from this world, but it has the ability to take you out of this world. But in all seriousness, Gang Gang Dance is really the only band that I know that produces “world music.” What I mean by that is that their songs are bluntly influenced by pop music from the Middle Eastern and Asian regions. Eye Contact is easily the best album in their catalog as it blends their interpretation of world music with electronic beats and My Bloody Valentine-esque soundscapes. There really is no other band that’s comparable to Gang Gang Dance and “Eye Contact” proves it.
6. Wild Beasts-Smother
You know the saying “three times’ the charm?” That saying applies to Wild Beasts and their third LP and Mercury Prize-nominated Smother. The only exception is that their previous two albums were also “charms.” There is no other band that comes into mind that has the dramatic vocal styles of Hayden Thorpe’s counter-tenor or Tom Fleming’s baritone. Together, their vocals intertwine seductively with the romantic lyrics that make Wild Beasts as the most sexually erotic band today, making them a musical aphrodisiac.
5. Wye Oak-Civilian
Listening to Wye Oak, it’s hard to believe that the band is comprised of the duo of drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack and vocalist/guitarist Jenn Wasner. Wye Oak is essentially a folk-rock band, but what makes them unique is that they incorporate a lot of reverb on the guitars, almost to the point where you can call it shoegaze. Wasner’s husky voice is reminiscent of Beach House’s Victoria LeGrande that gives their music a certain charm. But it’s Stack that steals the spotlight with his aggressive drumming and subtle
keys. In a live setting, they’re even more impressive as he plays the drums and keys at the same time with relative ease. If 2011 was the year that they made themselves known, 2012 will be the year that they make an impact – I guarantee it.
Under the moniker St. Vincent, Annie Clark has become one of the most prominent musicians in the indie music scene. Her latest effort Strange Mercy is, without a doubt, one of the best records of year. What makes Clark standout is her ferocious guitar-playing ability such as on tracks “Surgeon” and “Cruel.” Then again, she has always been known for her maniacal riffs. What’s different this time around from her previous work is the dressing that she adds to her salad. The spontaneous string arrangements, melodic keys, and blistering distortion make this album pleasantly unpredictable. If you haven’t listened to St. Vincent before, what are you waiting for?
3. Active Child-You Are All I See
Harp: Check. Classically trained falsetto: Check. No I’m not talking about Joanna Newsom. On paper, it may seem like I’m describing her, but rather, I’m talking about Pat Grossi, who has been the biggest surprise for me this year. It didn’t take long for me to be blown away by You Are All I See – it only took the first two tracks to make my ears have an audible orgasm. As an L.A. native, I’m still beating myself up over the fact that it took me awhile to even find out about him since he’s local. Clocking in at just under an hour, “You Are All I See” is a nice blend of classical aesthetics and electronic beats with the aforementioned harp as the central instrument. And because of the reverb, the songs sound like they should be transcending beyond the listener’s ears – it’s that expansive. Tell me what other musician can intricately play a harp and sing a pitch-perfect falsetto on top of an electronic foundation? Go on, I don’t mind waiting.
2. Braids-Native Speaker
Braids, the quartet hailing from Montreal, was a band that I wasn’t familiar with until I saw them play live a few months ago, where they were so highly impressive that I bought their 12” debut. They garner a lot of comparisons to Animal Collective, but other than the minor psychedelic factor in their music, that comparison doesn’t do them justice. The vocal melodies seem to create their own wall of sound since they come from all four members, led by vocalist/guitarist Raphaelle Standell-Preston. And the swirling guitars give them a post-rock quality to them. What’s even more impressive are the lyrics that are delve into themes of sexual curiosity and maturity that come off as poetic. The most exciting thing about this band is that they’re young. The future for them is vast and because of that, I’m already excited for their next release.
“WU LYF? Who LYF? No Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes? This is a BS list!” Calm down, their albums were good, but it wasn’t good enough to make it a favorite like World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation’s debut album, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain. This quartet from Manchester, England burst onto the scene with such a gritty effort, yet they put up a shroud of mystery behind their own identities by declining to do interviews at first, dictating the focus to solely be on their music. There’s also a DIY factor behind them by starting up their own label, LYF Recordings, just to put out their album so there is that kind of punk aesthetic of doing things. Musically, their songs contain plenty of post-rock melodies in a pop structure with vocalist Ellory Roberts’ Tom Waits-like gravelly singing style in between. All this put together results in their own self-branded genre, heavy-pop. Some may be turned off by Roberts’ incomprehensible vocals, but it definitely injects a certain type of energy that isn’t found anywhere else. For bands putting out debut albums, it’s not often that they create something so original and unique. WU LYF is one of those rare bands, making them an easy selection into people’s year-end list. It doesn’t take long to soak in their tunes, so once you have, be prepared for their second album that’s slated for released next year.