Maybe you’re a complete different from me. Perhaps you didn’t think that 2011 was an unspeakably good for music. Maybe you didn’t pull all-nighters narrowing down your favorite music of the year to a manageable– not concise, but manageable– length. Perhaps you didn’t have to tweak your lists dozens of times to make sure it accurately reflected just how much you liked those albums and songs. Maybe you opened a word processor document, quickly made a list of what you feel is the best music from 2011, and said, “Hmmm. That was easier than it usually is.” Perhaps you should give me your address and I should come to your place of residence and smack you, because I almost drove myself crazy trying to pick my favorite music released this year.
There aren’t too many more ways for me to say that more great music was released in 2011 than most any other year of my adult life. And for that reason, I will be spending the entire month of December recapping all of the great artists, labels, and musical moments of the eleven months that we just came out of. I may even post the diary of when I spent an entire week listening to nothing but chillwave. (I wish I were joking.) First up are my top five seven-inch singles of the year. I sincerely hope that your 2011 was just as fruitful as mine in terms of great new music. If not, I hope you are thoroughly entertained by my affliction. — Douglas Martin
5. Grouper – “Water People” (Yellowelectric)
Portland drone music queen Liz Harris had already dropped an impressive amount of music already in 2011 in the form of Dream Loss and Alien Observer, twin albums released on the same day. For her next trick, she wiped the heavy gauze clear off of everything and presented herself in the clearest form. I suppose it’s easy to be mislead from the beauty of Grouper songs when you have to get past the thick, murky layer of noise on top. With the gorgeousness of “Water People” and its B-side “Moving Machine,” two stark, lonely songs that sound like Warpaint at half-speed, being spellbound by Harris’ charms is unavoidable.
4. Woods – “Find Them Empty” (Sacred Bones)
After recording two of the best lo-fi records of this young century– 2009’s Songs of Shame and last year’s At Echo Lake— Woods did something we weren’t anticipating: they made a record that was merely good. With the lulling, warm blanket vibes of Sun and Shade turning their creative spark into a vibe more suited for daytime nap, “Find Them Empty” is the jolt entirely missing from the full-length that proceeded it. With a lead guitar line that sounds like what happens when you wash your hands and then stick your finger in an electrical socket, the song is pretty much everything great about Woods condensed into a little over two minutes. The penetrating darkness. The jammy, bleary-eyed guitar solo. Jeremy Earl’s haunting falsetto. “Find Them Empty” is a reminder that no matter when Woods stumble, they’re still only a step away from where we want them to be.
3. Bleached – Francis (Ooga Booga)
“Is Douglas Martin on the Bleached payroll?” “Is Douglas Martin trying to date one (or both) of the Clavin Sisters?” “Has anyone ever seen Douglas Martin and Smell stalwart Blaque Chris in the same room?” No, no (though I’m sure they’re both very nice girls), and once at an Abe Vigoda show at a show at some weird bar in Downtown LA where I also encountered a person wearing a mannequin face and a wig. The reason I write about Bleached is because they’re good. In fact, they’re better than good. Over the course of three singles, the Mika Miko ex-pats have proven to be one of the most thorough new songwriting tandems in modern punk music.
“Searching for the Past” nailed early-80’s mall-punk. The Carter seven-inch– though sadly not containing punk covers of “Go DJ” or “Bring it Back”– perfectly captured everything great about early-period Ramones. And their debut single? Only four minutes of the best twangy, bratty, threadbare garage-punk you’ll hear in 2011. Jennifer and Jessica Clavin’s first spark of energy finds them sounding like one stray drum hit away from completely falling part, and that just adds to the relentless catchiness of “No Friend of Mine” and “Dazed.” If their output in 2011 is any indication, the possibility of Bleached eventually putting out a singles collection practically has me foaming at the mouth. Or at least considering a French prefix for my name.
2. Lower Dens – “Deer Knives” (Sub Pop)
Just when you thought having two cult classic folk records was enough, Jana Hunter ditches her acclaimed solo work to be the frontwoman of a band. Usually the whole band / solo artist thing is dealt with in reverse order, but if you know anything about Hunter, it’s that she doesn’t lightly tread creative water for anyone. She took a risk and succeeded wildly on last year’s Twin Hand Movement, and then had to go and write a song that clears the high-bar she’s set with ease. With shoegaze texture, Buddy Holly-style 50’s sock hop ballad songwriting, and Hunter’s singular drawl, “Deer Knives” is simultaneously classicist and forward-thinking, building up to a noisy, cathartic climax that sucks the wind from your lungs. Though its components are easily traceable, Hunter manages to put them in a combination that sounds fresher than any of her peers. Well, that’s a half-truth. There are few bands around making music that sounds like this.
1. Dirty Beaches – “Lone Runner” (Suicide Squeeze)
If I can indulge in a little behind-the-scenes director commentary of the making of this list: For a while, “Deer Knives” was supposed to be the Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes Seven-Inch of the Year award, but that was only due to my own self-consciousness. I hope I don’t ruin the fun of your guessing what my favorite album of the year is, but it’s Badlands. So how could I possibly place Badlands atop my albums list and the non-album single as my favorite seven-inch of the year? Is that a douche move? Is it an abuse of power? (And by “power,” I mean all of these crappy promos from The Oogldey Stank Boogledeys or whoever that will make a mess of my apartment until I decide to burn them in effigy.) Is Douglas Martin on the Dirty Beaches payroll?
Alex Zhang Hungtai has been endlessly compared to the legendary Alan Vega, with the formers desperate shouts somewhat evoking those of the latter in his late-70’s heyday. “Lone Runner” casts that aside and adopts both the creepy sexual energy of Cramps frontman Lux Interior and the desperate psychosis of Nick Cave. Hungtai wails over the lurching bassline and looped, emotionless handclaps that flows just as well as a character in a David Lynch movie walking down a dark, dank hallway, slowly preparing himself to kill someone. The blast of drone is the key, as it ratchets up the song’s paranoia, a paranoia usually reserved for fugitives and people fucking in restaurant bathrooms. There’s an underlying creepiness in all of Badlands, but with the way everything comes together, “Lone Runner” is undoubtedly the darkest, creepiest, most gripping four-and-a-half minutes of music released in 2011.