Feist, Bon Iver, Radiohead: Best indie albums of 2011

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site |  December 31, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

Indie is a hard genre to love. And yet, it’s delightfully worth the effort.

Often associated with hipsters and snobbery, indie’s detractors have called it “rhythmless, stodgy and increasingly of a rarefied air.”

But can it even be clearly defined? Originally describing the do-it-yourself, iconoclastic sounds associated with independent music outside the major record labels, today “indie” seems a catch-all term for acts that can’t be well-placed elsewhere – and others that really should just be called rock, pop, folk or (cringe) “singer-songwriter.” Which, by the way, should NEVER actually be considered a genre.

Some bands (like Modest Mouse) have now signed to major commercial labels – but retain their distinctly “indie rock” sound — and at the same time indie-friendly labels like Merge (which hosts the Arcade Fire and She & Him) just grow and grow as the newly minted genre becomes popular, much as “alternative” did, for better or worse, back in my teens.

Vancouver has a thriving indie music scene (although, sadly, this year didn’t make any local albums stand out to me – if one did to you, add a comment below!). Offering often original, creative music that aims to free itself from the shackles of pop and rock cliche and conformity – and usually charging less than $20 for concert tickets – independent bands are benefiting from increased exposure and interest these days, and can only expect to grow. Every December, the widely consulted Pitchfork and NME put out lists of the best 50 albums of the year.

Without defining the genre too strictly, here’s VO’s crack at a top-ten list of 2011’s best indie albums.
10. Beirut – The Rip Tide
Highlights: “A Candle’s Fire”, “Vagabond”

Collectively, this New Mexico ensemble conceals an orchestra of instruments behind its mere six members – trumpet, flugelhorn, ukulele, accordion, cello, drums, melodica, electric and upright bass, French horn, glockenspiel, trombone and tuba. Known for singer Zach Condon’s completely incomparable crooning vocals and iconic music videos using alleyway garbage bins for percussion, Beirut’s newest album lacks some of the melodic heights and energy of previous albums, but the band stays true to its intention to move away from its previous “world music” influences (Mexico, the Balkans, France) and build its own sound.

9. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
Highlights: “You Yes You”, “Riotriot”

Ukulele is a popular instrument on this year’s chart, but this use of the instrument is wholly unique. And WHOKILL is arguably among the most creative of this year’s offerings. Be warned: this album – making NME’s authoritative top-ten list for the year — is not by any measure easy listening. And while I normally shy away from the vast array of indie rock that seems clattery and cluttered, New England’s Merrill Garbus plays wildly fun games on this album which explores delightful imagery, vocal rhythms, drum loops and ukulele. Vancouverites might be interested (or offended) in the song “Riotriot”’s exploration of some of the emotional energy of rioting: “Pop go the windows / So we can see you more clearly / Pop go the windows / So you can hear us / Through the night.” It might be experimental in its sound, but WHOKILL lacks the pretension of much hipster indie crap these days.

8. Thao + Mirah – self-titled

 Highlights: “Little Cup”, “Rubies and Rocks”

This fascinating and original collaboration between San Francisco’s Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn and Thao Nguyen is a sensitive, accessible exploration of vocal soundscapes, rhythm and pop song-writing. Each song is so different this album is hard to categorize – it ranges from the raucous, synthesizer-heavy opening track “Eleven” to the delicate “Little Cup,” in which Mirah’s intimate vocals and guitars are anchored to the echoes of whispered voices. Mirah fans will find in here her usual elegant, humble poetry “I chose the strangest little cup / to drink you from and stir you up / and you were beautiful it’s true / and all I ever wanted was to be good to you.”


7. Jenny Berkel – Here on a Wire
Highlights: “Cover my Grave”, “Love is a Stone”, “Crook of Now and Then”

It’s hard to know whether an “indie” categorization fits in the case of Jenny Berkel. Recently performing at Vancouver’s Railway Club, the Winnipeg singer-songwriter comfortably entwines her bluegrass and folk sensibilities with string, accordion and brass – and deeply personal lyrics – to create a well-produced and textured second album that’s been on repeat on my playlist for the past month. Instrumentally, the album is more conventional than many others on this list or in the “indie” genre, but Here on a Wire is a touching contribution to Canadian independent music and deserves more attention.

6. Wild Beasts – Smother 

Highlights: “Lion’s Share”, “Bed of Nails”

I hadn’t heard of this band from the UK’s Lake District until NME awarded them the fourth-best album of the year, which was enough to make me to check them out. From the opening tracks of Smother, the band’s third album, the Wild Beasts set an ambitiously serious tone – haunting piano, slightly over-dramatic vibrato vocals, lyrics such as: “Surround me like a warm bath / Sum me up like an epitaph / Be blatant as a bailiff / I want my lips to blister when we kiss.” Smother doesn’t hold up as strong from beginning to end, which leaves it in fifth place on my list – but I’ve had bits of this delightful discovery in my head for days for good reason.

5. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
Highlights: “Little by Little”, “Give up the Ghost”, “Lotus Flower”

In all honesty, the King of Limbs is not stellar compared to Radiohead’s previous offerings (Amnesiac and Kid A being my favourites), and the British band’s superstar status make it slightly painful to call it “indie” lest I be shunned by hipsters. But despite being one of the most popular bands in the world (ranked 73rd best band of all time by Rolling Stone), Radiohead continues releasing its albums on its own private record label, so yes, both literally and sound-wise, they’re as indie as you can get. And to their credit, the album soars above most other offerings this year – it’s stellar by any standard other than Radiohead’s. The album is more rhythmically complex and high-energy than previous recordings – employing ambient electronic rhythm-scapes reminiscent of Four Tet – with soaring vocals and, as usual, incomprehensible lyrics. Interestingly, crowds at Occupy Wall Street swelled after a false rumour spread that Radiohead would perform at the protest camp. The band, however, voiced its support for the movement.

4. Feist – Metals
Highlights: “How Come You Never Go There?”, “The Circle Married the Line”

It’s not just the prominence of driving rhythm and the substantial range between Metals’ orchestral climaxes and the solitary sparsity which marked much of Lesley Feist’s previous work. There’s something qualitatively different (I think, better) about Metals, the celebrated Toronto artist’s fourth album. Hitting Number One among Billboard’s U.S. rock charts, and seventh on the charts overall, it’s Feist’s first album to make the top ten in the U.S. But Feist has not sacrificed originality for popularity. Metals experiments with unbalanced drum flourishes, held phrases, staccato background vocals — sacrificing none of her talented song-writing, catchy melodies or resonant lyrics for a place in the charts.

3. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
Highlights: “Damn These Vampires”, “High Hawk Season”, “Never Quite Free”

If you do not yet know the Mountain Goats, it is absolutely time to: I just wish somebody had told me that years ago when they started releasing a treasure trove of always-incredible material. In case you thought the Mountain Goats is a novelty band, this is no flock of cliffhanging mammals, but a single person: John Darnielle. The Claremont, California singer-songwriter is one of the most skilled at his craft out there – his poetry is poignant, his vocals crystal-clear and earnest, and the overall impact is a new, well-rounded album that holds together beautifully from beginning to end.

2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Highlights: “The Glorious Land”, “Words that Maketh Murder”

Let England Shake, PJ Harvey’s strongest album yet, delves into war’s psyche through soldiers’ eyes – and was awarded top honour as NME’s best album of 2011. Refusing polemics, Harvey sows poetic seeds into death fields – seeds both bitter and beautiful – by adopting WWI-era characters longing for lovers, missing friends, betrayed by a crumbling empire: “What is the glorious fruit of our land? / The fruit is orphaned children.” Harvey’s haunting imagery – “Far off, a symphony / D’ya hear the guns beginning?” – is furrowed with disjointed but familiar sounds mixed with her layered folk-rock sound: military bugles, flat male backing vocals, offbeat drums. The result is an aching for beauty in the midst of apocalyptic violence: “The country that I love / England / You leave a taste, a bitter one… I have searched for your springs.”

1. Bon Iver – Self-titled
Highlights: “Holocene”, “Wash.”, “Perth”

It’s hard to imagine any album could have beat Let England Shake for number one – personally, that phenomenal album has been on regular repeat since it was released and has never once bored me. And concept albums – especially ones that delve into multiple characters and stories – deserve highest praise. But Bon Iver’s second album – a follow-up to the successful folksy For Emma, Forever Ago, which was certified “gold” in the UK, Australia and Denmark – pushes past all the others to first place in my books. Why? Well, it is a concept album in its own way – each song represents a different place, both real and imaginary. Many of the lyrics seem chosen for texture and resonance, not meaning – and yet, the entire album sculpts a deeply absorbing, nostalgic experience without being saccharine. Bon Iver clutches comfortably for images of an imagined past, amidst coined phrases and singer Justin Veron’s falsetto vocals, as in “Holocene”:

“Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright / above my brother, I and tangled spines / we smoked the screen to make it what it was to be / now to know it in my memory:

…and at once I knew I was not magnificent / high above the highway aisle / (jagged vacance, thick with ice) / I could see for miles, miles, miles.”

Describing this self-titled album as inspired by “dream-logic, the way memory works,” the revered Pitchfork end-of-year list selected Bon Iver for its album of the year. An honour well-deserved.

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