Douglas Martin listened to 1,498 records this year. By a rough estimate.
A bunch of great indie labels released music this year. If I paid tribute to them all, it would feature over 100 albums with a word count that rivals The Iliad. Sub Pop, Matador, Merge, Domino, 4AD, Slumberland, Captured Tracks, Woodsist, In the Red, Underwater Peoples, Goner, Mexican Summer, Hozac, Not Not Fun, Carpark, Hardly Art, and Drag City all released a bunch of new music worthy of your time and money, but one label rose above the fray.
From industrial clang (Zola Jesus) to cassette-manipulated sci-fi pop (Gary War), from the blistering noise of Human Eye’s They Came From the Sky to the alluring guitar-pop of The Fresh and Onlys’ Secret Walls EP, the Brooklyn label spent 2011 going from a pretty good experimental-leaning indie label to the weirdo rock music equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Since the golden ticket I forged to try and sneak into the Sacred Bones offices wasn’t convincing enough– thus throwing my chances of featuring an exclusive look at their headquarters out of the window– here are my five favorite 2011 releases from the label.
5. Psychic Ills – Hazed Dream
Though the content of this column might suggest otherwise, I don’t spend all of my time looking for music to take drugs to. Aside from occasionally getting stoned and indulging in six-hour Party Down marathons, I just really enjoy weird shit. I’ve lead a full enough existence to know what people sound like when they’re on drugs, though: Hazed Dream is the soundtrack of desert sunstroke and weeklong peyote benders. A record that makes you realize it’s been too long since the last time we heard from Brightback Morning Light. It captures the kind of tranquility you can only receive from tranquilizers.
4. Crystal Stilts – Radiant Door EP
Brooklyn’s resident kings of psych-pop have long cornered the market on combining Factory Records darkness with Flying Nun jangle– scratching an itch most of us never knew we had. For their latest trick, they showcased the depth of their record collection while implementing a sense of levity they’ve only hinted at before.
3. Moon Duo – Mazes
Before Ripley Johnson reconvened with his Wooden Shjips to record the follow-up to 2009’s Dos, he and Sanae Yamada pared down the menace of debut effort Escape to make good on all of the Suicide comparisons his main band gets. Filled with the same cycling song structures and exploratory guitar work Johnson is best-known for, Mazes perfectly nails the hypnotic quality of psychedelic music.
2. The Men – Leave Home
I usually have very little interest in heavy music. Even though I love punk, the albums that get replay are the sorta-poppy but really trebly, arty, and noisy kind of stuff (hence why No Age is my favorite band formed in the past five years). Leave Home is like watching a wrecking ball hit your apartment building and then someone hitting you in the stomach with a sack full of bricks from the debris. The guitars punch, dart, and scramble like the SST records they’re compared to. There are guttural shouts, desperate screams, and even the drum machines carry enough weight to split your head open. More often than not, Leave Home literally sounds like a human being getting incinerated. Its charms were too bountiful for even me to ignore.
1. Amen Dunes – Through Donkey Jaw
Damon McMahon sounds tortured. Not tortured like the quiet desperation of Elliott Smith or the punk angst of Kurt Cobain. I mean tortured to where you can’t sculpt your emotions into something pop-friendly. Through Donkey Jaw, like the rest of his work as Amen Dunes, turns acid-rock into an exorcism and psych-folk into near-hallucinatory psychosis. The results are narcotized (“For All”), nightmarish (“Jill”), and almost uplifting (“Bedroom Drum”). Almost. For a label that has released a shitload of interesting music in 2011, Through Donkey Jaw is not merely the best album this label has released this year. It’s one of the most stirring, captivating guitar records I’ve heard in 2011.