Saturday, December 24, 2011

Four really awesome EPs from 2011

I've already listed my "favourite 15 Canadian records of 2011" and my "favorite 22 non-Canadian records of 2011". I may or may not get around to the list of what's not on the lists.
Yeah, I have those albums that other people are going nuts over. The ones by Bon Iver, Cults, The Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, Girls, Real Estate, The Sea and Cake, Wilco. I like all of those. They just didn't make the cut. I even have the new Radiohead record, and it was a massive disappointment for me. There are others that almost made my lists, and I may get around to explaining all of that. But I probably won't.

In a sort of related theme, today's list is about knowing what to leave out. Somebody once said "the great artist knows what to leave out". Cameron Crowe borrowed that quote in his movie Almost Famous, when "Russell Hammond" says "It's not what you put in. It's what you leave out... Yeah. That's rock-n-roll. What you leave out"

Knowing what to leave out. A lot of full length albums contain four or five good songs and five or six mediocre songs. Filler. Sometimes a band will do this because they're contractually obligated to release a full-length album. Sometimes, they just don't know what to leave out. That's where the EP comes in. If you have four or five great songs, why not leave it at that? It may be harder for record companies to market the EP than the full album. Some music buyers are reluctant to spend their money on a record that only has four songs. Those though, aren't good enough reasons not to make an EP instead of a using filler to make a full-length album.

I think the EP is a beautiful thing. Helium's Pirate Prude is one of my favorite recordings of the last 20 years, but I would like it a lot less if there were four more songs just to fill it out as an LP.

In 2011, I bought a handful of EPs, and there are four that stand above the rest. I won't rank them. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Brave Irene -- Brave Irene
Jangly guitars, organ, and riot grrrls in their late 30s/early 40s.
This Vancouver-based band is fronted by Rose Melberg, who was the front of the brilliantly twee girl foursome Tiger Trap in the early 1990s. She went on to play in other cuddle-punk bands The Softies and Go Sailor. The sound of this band is pretty much the sound of those bands.
This EP was released by Slumberland Records in March of 2011. It's warm and gooey and fun. It's like a bag of swedish fish, bought from the store and smuggled into the movies.

Sample a couple of tracks here, then buy it from the Slumberland website
Brave Irene sampler by Slumberland Records

50 Foot Wave -- With Love From the Men's Room
Stacks of amps, plenty of aggression and some people in their mid-40s
Built around Kristin Hersh and her long-time Throwing Muses bassist Bernard Georges, this is nothing like the Muses or Kristin's folky, mostly acoustic solo stuff. 50 Foot Wave is much harder, faster, louder and angrier.
This is their fourth EP, and Kristin has made everything this band ever released available for free, with the suggestion that you donate to or become one of her "Strange Angels", who finance her creative process via a quarterly "subscription" fee.

This is crunchy and sticky. Like a peanut butter and bacon sandwich.

Download the EP free and legally here, (you have to do it track-by-track) but seriously consider leaving something in the tip jar.
50 Foot Wave -- Grey by dlee71

SPC ECO -- Big Fat World

Father, daughter, and the holy effects pedals.
Pronounced "Space Echo", this shoegazy/dreampop band is built around Dean Garcia from Curve and his daughter. They released an album in 2009, an EP in 2010, then this in the first half of 2011. Later in the year, they released a full-length album with half of the songs from the ep, plus seven other songs. To be honest, I don't have that full-length, so I don't know whether those other songs are filler or legitimate. Still, I don't like the fact that there's previously released stuff on the "new album". It's a little disrespectful to the fans.
I'm reminded, naturally, of Curve. Also of the first Hooverphonic record.

Somehow, I didn't know about these cats until one of the Geeks suggested this EP to me. Viva la Geek!

This is smoky as all get-out, and warm-and-soothing as hell. Like a beef brisket sandwich.

Buy the ep from their bandcamp page, but don't file-share with your friends, as it "fucks (them) over".

If I was doing this kind of thing, I would list this song as one of my favorite songs of the year:

Weekend -- Red

Please don't get confused. I'm not talking about that "mix-tape" girl called The Weeknd. This is an indie rock band from San Francisco who spell their band name in the traditional way.
I missed the boat to their Sports album last year, so it didn't make my list, but if I wrote a "favorites of 2010" list today, it would be close to the top. This EP, released in September, is pretty much blowing me away. With their pedals and their hooks, I find myself putting the EP on infinite repeat and slipping into noise pop heaven.
It's clear that these guys listen to a lot of Joy Division. And a lot of mid-1990s British shoegaze bands. I was actually surprised to learn that they're not from the same town as The Catherine Wheel or Adorable or one of the other great bands of that ilk.

This is thunderous, exciting, familiar and new. Like opening night of hockey season.

Buy the album from Slumberland after sampling the song "Hazel". And then listen again. And again. It's that good.

There you have it. My favorite EPs of 2011. I might not be done with my list-making, so keep your eyes peeled.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Our 22 favorite non-Canadian records of 2011

On Tuesday I hurriedly, and with little commentary, compiled and posted my list of my favourite 15 Canadian records of 2011. Now it's time to tackle the bigger project. Last year, I made a list of my 15 favorite non-Canadian records. I'm going to expand it a little bit this year.

I'm not one of these guys who's going to say that 2011 was a weak year for new releases. I think I got more new releases this year (about 150 in all) than I have in a long time. Some of them were pretty mind-blowing.

I struggled making the list last year, and I thought that broadening it a little bit this year would help. I'm not sure that it did, but in any case, I felt like I would be leaving too many on the editing room floor if I didn't expand it a bit.

The criteria for this list are that it has to be a full-length album(generally defined as "more than 30 minutes and/or more than eight songs"), the band has to be other than Canadian in origin, and the record had to have been released in 2011. Anniversary re-issues aren't included in this list. And again, I'm not saying that these are objectively better. I'm just saying that I liked them a lot.

I should add that I couldn't have done any of this without the support of a group of Music Geeks with whom I've been engaged in music email conversations for the last 18 months or so. They've opened my eyes to some new stuff and given me some fresh views and different opinions on some stuff that I already knew. As we like to say, "Viva la Geek!"

So, here we go with the countdown. With some commentary, and a video for each. Feel free to make your voice heard in the comments section

22. Fredrik -- Flora (Sweden)
I know next to nothing about this band. They're Swedish. I never would have known that they exist if not for the suggestion of one of the Music Geeks.

21. Big Troubles -- Romantic Comedy (New Jersey)
One of many great releases from Slumberland Records this year.
This video is, umm... goofy.

20. Zola Jesus -- Conatus
She came in at #5 on last year's list, and it didn't take long for a new record to come out. It's more of the same, but it doesn't get near the top this year.

19. Telekinesis -- 12 Desperate Straight Lines (Seattle)

Telekinesis - Please Ask for Help from Merge Records on Vimeo.

18. Wild Flag -- Wild Flag (Portland)

I wanted to like this more. I should like this more. I had the privilege of seeing them play live about 8 months before the record came out, and it was an amazing show. I always used to say that Sleater-Kinney was more enjoyable as a live band than on record, and the step-sister of that band is no different.

Wild Flag - Romance from Merge Records on Vimeo.

17. Yuck -- Yuck (London, England)

I loved this record passionately for about seven weeks. The romance has fizzled out a bit, but we're still really good friends, and it's definitely worthy of a spot on this list.

This video is NOT SAFE FOR WORK:

Yuck - Rubber from Yuck on Vimeo.

16. Mogwai -- Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (Glasgow, Scotland)
This record has way more vocals than I'm accustomed to with this band, but then again, their sound has changed a bit over the years. This is the first Mogwai record I've bought since 1999's Come On, Die Young

Mogwai "How to Be a Werewolf" (in Thirty Century Man) from Sub Pop Records on Vimeo.

15. This Will Destroy You -- Tunnel Blanket (San Marcos, Texas)
Only their second proper album, this took a long time and was highly anticipated. Not exactly a disappointment, but nothing earth-shattering either. With TWDY, the key word for the listener -- especially the first-time listener-- is "patience". Stick with it.

14. M83 -- Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (France)
This double-album is something that front man Anthony Gonzalez has wanted to do for a long time. Every song is a little different, and it's all good. It doesn't chart higher because I see this record as an exercise in decadence. As one of the Music Geeks (Viva la Geek!) brilliantly put it :
(I) can't help thinking that there was an amazing single album hidden amongst the overwrought double
This video, for "Midnight City", is a little unsettling, but really well made:

13. Julianna Barwick -- The Magic Place (Brooklyn)
Not much other than a bunch of wordless vocal loops and some really sparse instrumentation. Very haunting and very good.

12. Jessica Lea Mayfield -- Tell Me (Kent, Ohio)
I got this early in the year, thanks to one of the Geeks and gave it a little bit of play. I had it on a back burner for a long time until she had a fantastic Daytrotter session a couple of weeks ago. I was thankfully reminded of how great this record is

11. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart -- Belong (New York City)
Another great release by Slumberland Records. Like the others, it brings to mind the mid-1990s, which was a real good time for indie music, and a real good time for Slumberland Records.

10. Los Campesinos -- Hello, Sadness (Wales)
This one kinda came out of nowhere. I've liked this band in the past, and there have been some standout tracks on some otherwise average albums. They've gotten better as a band (and changed the lineup again), and they've put out a solid record from start to finish.

By Your Hand - Los Campesinos! from Los Campesinos! on Vimeo.

9. Explosions in The Sky -- Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (Austin, Texas)
I love this band. However, it's been four years since their last record, and my first response to it wasn't exactly favorable. It took a while to grow on me, but it did. Like most of the records on this list, I don't have a physical copy of the release, but I'm told that the liner notes can be folded out to make a tiny house. I keep telling myself to order one of these.
Here they are performing a short song "Trembling Hands" at a show that I should have gone to:

8. Blouse -- Blouse (Portland)
These guys just dropped their debut record in November, and I don't remember how I first heard about it, but I was taken right away. This also reminds me of some of the dream-pop from the early-mid 1990s. In a lot of ways, this record reminds me of the brilliant (and only) record -- Blow by the band Swallow. Everyone should own a copy of that. Tragically, Blow is out of print, but digital copies are available. Get it.
Anyway, this debut record from Blouse is pretty amazing. Here's an unofficial video for the great song "Into Black":

7. Bird of Youth -- Defender (Brooklyn)
I'm pretty sure that I discovered this band because I follow Kathryn Calder on twitter. At any rate, I'm glad I found them. This is largely the work of Beth Wawerna, but she's got a band, and she's got a lot of important friends. I'm convinced that she's written a song that Colin Meloy of The Decemberists wishes he had written. Here's that song:

6. The Antlers -- Burst Apart (Brooklyn)
I was so excited about this record that it's one of four on this list that I pre-ordered a physical copy of. I don't buy very many physical copies these days, so that's sort of a big deal. I absolutely love it.

5. Low -- C'mon (Duluth, Minnesota)
Another that I pre-ordered. Every time I think that this band can't make another great record, they do. I think, actually, that they keep getting better. I love how they eschew the "slowcore" categorization even when they're the pioneers of the genre.
Here's a fantastic video for "Try to Sleep", featuring John "Uncle Jesse" Stamos and some girl who used to be a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model:

4. Wye Oak -- Civilian (Baltimore)
The Maryland two-piece became indie darlings in 2009 with their towering sophomore record The Knot, and it's been full-steam ahead since then. They've been a touring machine and they put out a well-received EP last year. They've come through here about three times in the last 18 months, but I've somehow missed or been shut out of each show. I won't let that happen again. If they keep doing what they're doing, they won't be playing small clubs very much longer.
This isn't a record that'll leave you slack-jawed and gasping for air. It's much more subtle than that. It will, though, make you want to play it again. And again.
Here's a great video that was probably less fun to make than it looks like. That Coney Island Cyclone is one hell of a bumpy ride, and somewhere along the line Jen got a nasty bump on her forehead. It's all about rock and roll:

Wye Oak - Holy Holy from Merge Records on Vimeo.

3. Veronica Falls -- Veronica Falls (London, England)
A bit like the legendarily twee Heavenly. A bit like nearly everything on Slumberland's roster back in 1995. Dark as hell. Clearly inspired by 1960s rock, or at least those production values. Pop with a bit of noise. And a ultra-minimal drum kit of bass, snare, a floor tom and a tambourine. Veronica Falls and Slumberland Records is a perfect marriage. I hope it lasts for a long time.

2. The Head and The Heart -- The Head and The Heart (Seattle)
This Seattle sextet self-released their album in 2010, then created a bunch of buzz in the Puget Sound area. Enough for Sub Pop records to take notice and give the album a proper release. They released it digitally in January, when it was recommended to me by eMu. I fell in love with it immediately. In April, it was released in physical format on Record Store Day, for which I pre-ordered a copy.
Five smelly dudes and a girl with a violin. Great vocal harmonies. A piano. The best tag for this band is "indie-folk", which is pretty much what described my entire list in 2010. I don't think I would like these kids as people, but I sure do like them as a band.

1. The Dodos -- No Color (San Fransisco)
Ever since I saw them open for The New Pornographers a couple of years ago, I've loved this band, and eagerly anticipated this new record. I pre-ordered a physical copy as soon as I found out that the fabulous Neko Case was doing guest vocals on the record. Sadly, the label messed up my order and sent me vinyl instead of the CD that I ordered, but there was a coupon for the lossless download, so it didn't really matter. I kept the vinyl. Unopened.
I love every song on the album and often play it twice in a row.
These guys are known for playing oddball instruments and using oddball techniques to play them. There's also some really strange time signatures and some drastic change of signature within songs. It's a bit shocking, and it really works well for me.

No video that I like enough to share, so I'll just share this song, which is currently my favorite song on the record.

Hunting Season by The Dodos by Mute-Song

Okay. That's it. Those were my favorite 22 non-Canadian records of the year 2011. I know there are some big names left off that list. It doesn't mean that I didn't like them. It just means that I liked them less than this lot. I'll probably make an "also ran" list at some point. And if I get really squirrely, I might make a composite list of my favorite 25 records of the year, regardless of nationality.

What do you say?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Our favourite 15 Canadian records of 2011

It's that time of year again. Time for everyone to post their lists of "best (number) albums of the year". I do things a little differently around here. This is only my second year doing this, but I always make two lists. One comprised entirely of Canadian albums, and the other of "non-Canadian". And I'm careful to say that these are my favourite albums, instead of calling them the best. It's all subjective, and this is simply my view.

The criteria are pretty simple. The band must be at least "mostly" Canadian. In the case of a solo artist, it's pretty obvious. I'm dealing only with full length albums. No singles. No EPs. It must have been released in the year 2011. Simple.

I'm trying to meet a deadline here, and I won't be able to go into depth about each record the way I've done in the past. At some point in the very near future, I may or may not edit this post to include detail.
For now, with a video and minimal commentary for each, my favourite 15 Canadian records of 2011:

  • 15. Dinosaur Bones -- My Divider

    14. Destroyer -- Kaputt

    13. Chad VanGaalen -- Diaper Island

    12. Feist -- Metals
    This video, from the "Later with Jools Holland" show, features the gals from Mountain Man on backing vocals.

    11. Kathryn Calder -- Bright and Vivid

    10. Colin Stetson -- New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
    Listening to this album requires a lot of patience, and it's not the kind of thing I can listen to every day. That's what prevented this from appearing in the top third of this list. One man. One horn. Amazing.

    9. Austra -- Feel it Break
    A little more bloop bleep than I usually care for, and I really dislike this video, but..

    8. Dan Mangan -- Oh Fortune

    7. The Dears -- Degeneration Street

    6. Jenn Grant -- Honeymoon Punch

    5. Braids -- Native Speaker
    Kids. These are freakin' kids.

    4. Lindi Ortega -- Little Red Boots
    Yes. It's a country record. And it's great.

    3. The Luyas -- Too Beautiful to Work
    People say they sound exactly like Broadcast. I can't really argue.

    2. Drawn Ship -- Low Domestic
    A very late addition to the mix. Maybe just a "flavour of the month" for me, but I kinda doubt it. Some songs on this record sound like they should be on Helium's Pirate Prude EP, which I still listen to all the time, 17 years after it was released.
    Oh, and they're a two-piece.
    Sadly, no video. Not anywhere where I could find it, anyway, but here's a song:
    Glass Eye by DRAWN SHIP

    1. The Rural Alberta Advantage -- Departing
    They didn't disappoint me with their sophomore effort.
    They made a few really creative videos, thanks to Saddle Creek Records. This is pretty great:

    So there you have it. Without much commentary. The "non-Canadian" list is going to be much more difficult to parse, and it should be up soon. I'm supposed to have it done by Friday. We'll see.
  • Tuesday, December 13, 2011

    Looking back at last year's lists

    As I prepare to compile this year's lists of my 15 favorite long-players in the "Canadian" and "Non-Canadian" categories, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit last year's lists. To see how they've held up, one year later.

    Here's last year's top 15 Canadian records. I think that some of those records made the list simply because they were fresh on my mind at the end of the year. This is a natural tendency, and it's exactly the reason that some movies are re-introduced just before the voting for the Academy Awards takes place. Anyway, there are a few of those records that I haven't listened to very much at all since then. Still, though, I think the list held up pretty well. On that list, the records that are still in heavy rotation around here are:
    • Hannah Georgas -- This is Good (#11 on the list)
    • Land of Talk -- Cloak and Cipher (#8)
    • Kathryn Calder -- Are You My Mother (#7)
    • Dan Mangan -- Nice, Nice, Very Nice (#5)
    • The New Pornographers -- Together (#3)
    • The Besnard Lakes -- ...Are the Roaring Night (#1)

    The "non-Canadian" list was a bit of a mess right from the drop, and I think I immediately had doubts about how I numbered them. It looks like that list didn't hold up as well as the Canadian list. The records that are still in heavy rotation are:
    • School of Seven Bells -- Disconnect From Desire (#13 on the list)
    • Sharon Van Etten -- Epic (#10)
    • Thrushes -- Night Falls (#9)
    • The National -- High Violet (#4)
    • Kristin Hersh -- Crooked (#3)

    I'm not going to retrospectively re-order those lists, but I would have put that Sharon Van Etten record at #1 if I'd known then what I know now. And The National at #2. And as luck has it, SVE and The National recorded a fantastic song together this year for the movie "Win Win".

    Over the next two weeks, I hope to be working hard on getting my 2011 lists together. This means doing a lot of listening, a lot of video watching, and a little bit of research.