We obsessive music fans are quite the organized bunch sometimes. There’s a reason why too many dudes who really like music feel such a kinship to Rob Fleming and/or Gordon, and it’s not necessarily because most of them are failed record store clerks. Multiple times a year (and with even greater frequency when we’re staring down the endpoint of a decade), we compartmentalize our favorite records, pitting them against each other in rank, hoisting the ones that have made the biggest impact on us. This is why I’ve decided to roll out a new list series, predictably titled Douglas Martin’s Favorite Shoes, to discuss music in everybody’s favorite way: by openly proclaiming which records are better than others. Since we’re at the halfway point in our year, it seems most appropriate to start with my favorite slept-on records of this first-half of 2011. Pop a No-Doz and take this in. — Douglas Martin
The Babies – The Babies [Shrimper]
Being as though Cassie Ramone’s voice neither adheres to traditional standards of “pretty, feminine singing” nor uses an aggressive bark to get her point across, she has to deal with having her vocals criticized at every turn. Because she’s a woman who is not as virtuosic as Annie Clark of St. Vincent or Merill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs– nor as vanilla and pleasant as Leslie Feist– her songwriting is routinely dismissed. Temporarily leaving behind the alternate footing of girl-group bliss and noise-punk violence of her main gig as Vivian Girls’ principal songwriter, Ramone teamed up with Woods bassist Kevin Morby to create a low-stakes-but-excellent full length of mid-fi folk rock, sounding cozy on “Voice Like Thunder” and confrontational on “Wild 1”. Songwriting duties were pretty much split down the middle on The Babies, and the chemistry between Morby and Ramone is subtle yet sublime, a Lee Hazelwood / Nancy Sinatra for the DIY set.
Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place [Asthmatic Kitty]
It’s kind of hard to place an album that has had the headline-grabbing Best New Music honor bestowed upon them in the “slept-on“ category, but The Magic Place still gives off the feel of a relatively quiet album that has received an equally quiet reception. A sad fate for an ambient album that revolutionarily uses the human voice as its central instrument. Barwick’s wordless vocals do an extraordinary number of things on this record, as they jump off of cliffs and soar into the air, glide from the sanctuary to the pews, and hover tenuously over minimal (and sometimes, even nonexistent) instrumental accompaniment. There’s a very specific type of serenity found on songs like “White Flag” and “Vow,” while album highlight “Prizewinning”– with its spirited choral arrangements cascading over marching band drums– sounds like a tribe of old-world monastics attempting to reach the heavens and coming damn close. The Magic Place is emotionally resonant in the way not many ambient records are; the liberal use of the human voice gives it a particularly human quality.
The Beets – Stay Home [Captured Tracks]
There’s something about the concept of The Beets that makes their particular brand of primitivism really infectious. Maybe it’s their pseudo-ironic Crayola artwork, maybe it’s their untainted reverence toward classic groups like the Rolling Stones and The Ramones, or maybe it’s the complete absence of the cymbal. Aside from the concept, the music of The Beets has the playfully artless swagger of the lo-fi greats of the late-80’s and early-90’s, the type of off-the-cuff joyous pounding in their brand of garage-pop that seems both entirely beholden to bands like Beat Happening and gleefully taking the piss out of them. They sing of alienation (“Hens and Roosters”), of romance (“Your Name is on My Bones”), of watching television (“Watching TV”). They sing of the things that made you feel alive when you were young and the things that you felt were going to kill you. Stay Home is described on the album’s front cover as “a collection of 12 songs about staying home,” but it’s about more than that. It’s also a collection of twelve songs that whittle down the universal aspects of music to its bare essentials.
Crystal Stilts – In Love With Oblivion [Slumberland]
Crystal Stilts were touted as one of the vanguard acts of the Great C-86 Revival of 2008 with their debut album Alight of Night. When I went to see them live a couple months back, they played to a crowd that, at the top-dollar most, tipped the scales at about thirty-five people. That’s a shame, being as though the band’s sophomore album is probably even better than their first– finding the band stretching out stylistically, taking more creative risks, and doubling both the band’s ambition and skill levels. It doesn’t hurt that it contains last year’s twitchy single “Shake the Shackles,” which was a bounty of nervous tension and a perfect guitar line, making for what is easily the band’s best song to date. Given the title of the album, In Love With Oblivion should have caught fire like a fatal car crash. Instead, it faded away from people’s minds all too quickly.
Grouper – Dream Loss / Alien Observer [Yellowelectric]
As one of the best drone artists of her generation and quite possibly my favorite drone artist of all-time, Liz Harris released the wildly popular (at least by experimental music standards) and near-perfect Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill three years ago. Though it makes sense that her two 2011 efforts haven’t received as much acclaim (the half-acoustic, half-drone Dead Deer was nothing if not a red herring– a gorgeous one, but a red herring nonetheless), Dream Loss is as good as any of Harris’ pre-Dead Deer output (particularly Way Their Crept), and Alien Observer is even better, sharing company with her 2008 album and 2007’s Cover the Windows and the Walls as her best work. With a glacial pace, balmy guitar work, and a couple of flourishes as foreign to the Grouper template as the acoustic guitar was on Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (particularly the heavily distorted toy piano on “Mary, On the Wall”), these twin albums further prove that Liz Harris is on another plateau in the experimental music world, and it sure is lonely for her at the top.
Minks – By the Hedge [Captured Tracks]
With the popularity afforded to Wild Nothing last year, you’d think that the demand for new wave-leaning dream-pop wouldn’t have dissipated as quickly as it had. By the time Brooklyn duo (now a band) Minks released their excellent debut album earlier in 2011, the impact was akin to a shoe hitting a brick wall, barely registering only among followers of dime-a-dozen Tumblr music bloggers with degrees in Library Sciences. While they’re sadly only a small blip on the radar of most indie music fans, By the Hedge still turns out to be one of the most assured debuts of 2011, with shoegaze-y guitars, bright synths, and excellent songwriting abound. Plus, “Funeral Song” is the best New Order song anybody has written in a while.
No Joy – Ghost Blonde [Mexican Summer]
Slept-on because they released their debut album in November 2010, when most of our year-end lists were either almost concrete or already turned in. Slept-on because nobody has pointed out the frightening similarities between guitarist Laura Lloyd and J Mascis. Slept-on because they’ve completely annihilated every single act they’ve shared a stage with (including but not limited to Best Coast, Wavves, and Vivian Girls) and is still being regulated to tour opener status. Slept-on because “You Girls Smoke Cigarettes?” and “Still” are such barnburners that they approach the literal sense of the term. Slept-on because they’re constantly pegged as a shoegaze band when they are so much more.
MP3: No Joy-“Hawaii”
The Strokes – Angles [RCA]
I’m not going to outright deny that people wanted this Strokes record to be good, but I find it a little suspicious that people don’t see how good it actually is. Sure it’s been well noted that the band themselves didn’t have a blast making it, and sure there are plodding weak spots (“You’re So Right,” “Metabolism”), but it’s still an insanely enjoyable record, with The Strokes sounding like nobody but The Strokes while trotting into new creative territory. Not to mention “Taken for a Fool” and “Gratisfaction” fill their quota for having at least two of the best songs they’ve recorded on every Strokes album. No album they could have recorded would have lived up to the anticipation by the scores of fans wanting an album on par with the now-immortal Is This It, but if you think there’s any band around doing tight-pants-rock better than The Strokes, now’s your chance to revisit Angles.
White Fence – Is Growing Faith [Woodsist]
You wanna know how I know Is Growing Faith, the second White Fence record in a year, is slept on? Because I’ve hardly heard any fans talk about it, but almost every single rock musician I’ve talked to this year has asked me, “Aren’t you the one who wrote that White Fence review for Pitchfork? I fucking love that record.” While finding it amusing that it is somewhat a claim to fame, the point remains that Is Growing Faith is one of the best under-the-radar rock releases of the year so far– a harvest of sun-kissed psych and surf, bedroom experimentation, and occasional moments of genuine weirdness. Capped with a sublime, even-better-than-the-original cover of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” Is Growing Faith is the high watermark of one of the underground rock scene’s most promising emerging talents, which is why it’s not surprising that in-the-know artists are raving about it. Game recognizes game.
Young Prisms – Friends for Now [Kanine]
The term “neo-shoegaze” has been a descriptor to inaccurately describe a lot of bands who have effects pedal setups more expensive than my car, but it’s quite fitting for San Francisco band Young Prisms. While the songs are markedly different from each other, the sounds bleed together in a way that only shoegaze bands do right, guitars gnashing and droning and stuttering all over the place, while dual vocalists Stefanie Hodapp and Giovanni Betteo serenely blend their voices so much that they often sound like the same person. The singing is used as a compositional element right along with the guitars, hashing out compulsively memorable melodies while attempting to incinerate everything in its path. With an album both as loud and endlessly replayable as Friends for Now, it’s baffling that their reputation hasn’t made quite as much noise as their music.