The orgy of pop-culture list-making that takes place every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tradition as old as Leonard Maltin’s beard-trimmer. But this year, there was a significant increase in list-making activity between Memorial Day and Independence Day. “Best of ’11 (so far)” music lists appeared on many prominent pop-culture websites last month—including Spin, NPR, and Stereogum—reminding readers that those Bon Iver and Tune-Yards albums they’d heard about just a few weeks earlier are still critically acclaimed. (As for that endlessly hyped Tyler, The Creator record… well, music critics would rather pretend it never existed.)
I’m not about to jump the gun and start ranking my favorites of 2011 just yet—cough, David Comes To Life, cough, Smoke Ring For My Halo, cough—since the whole list-making exercise is silly to do once a year, let alone multiple times. (I mean “silly” in an affectionate way. I’m not above taking great fun in ranking records, so long as everybody understands that “best” really means “favorite out of what I heard during the prescribed period of time.”)
What I would like to do instead is talk about five albums from the first half of 2011 that haven’t already been reviewed by The A.V. Club. A few of these records haven’t been reviewed by most publications; those that have were graded and mostly forgotten about. That happens a lot with worthwhile music. I hear so many complaints about all the “crap” bands cluttering up blogs and Bandcamp sites, but the bigger problem is the glut of good-to-great music that gets discussed for a week, then pushed aside for the next week’s batch. You won’t find these albums on most mid-year best-of lists, but I’m hoping that they’ll be re-discovered in time to appear on the year-end ones.
The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar
When I had to back out of my plans to attend South By Southwest earlier this year, one of the bands I most regretted missing was the mighty British trio The Joy Formidable. Reports of the band’s energetic performances in Austin only poured salt in the wound, though the buzz around The Big Roar has appreciably quieted since then. Which is a shame, because The Joy Formidable’s stadium-sized update of early-’90s shoegaze has resulted in one of the most invigorating rock records of 2011. Highlighted by Ritzy Bryan’s powerhouse vocals, which range from breathy coos to hellacious wailing, The Joy Formidable lives up to the boast of the album title, creating mile-high walls of sound that tower over the year’s relatively mild-mannered crop of high-profile indie-rock releases. (Only Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life dares to sound so huge.) The Big Roar gets a little wearying by the final third, but songs like “Whirring,” “A Heavy Abacus,” and “The Everchanging Spectrum Of A Lie” demand high volume and wide-open spaces—as well as an appropriately large, adoring audience.
Fergus & Geronimo, Unlearn
Whether because of the unfashionably high level of musicianship on his records, his high-minded “composer” pretenses, or his iconic (and ridiculous) facial hair, Frank Zappa remains a not-wholly-reputable influence for contemporary rock bands. Thankfully, Texas duo Fergus & Geronimo didn’t get that memo. The group’s full-length debut, Unlearn, shares Zappa’s irreverent sense of humor and love of doo-wop, and recalls the free-floating weirdness and unpredictable formlessness of his late-’60s work. Just as Zappa tweaked the airheaded platitudes of hippies in his day, “Where The Walls Are Made Of Grass” hilariously takes the piss out of the nature-boy fantasies of contemporary beardos like Fleet Foxes. (“Shitting in the woods, mud on my face, I am one with Mother Earth” could be substituted for any number of lines on Helplessness Blues.) F&G is also good at writing conventional indie-pop songs like “Baby Don’t You Cry” and “World Never Stops,” but Unlearn really shines on soulful ballads like the title track, which work both as parodies and as loving homages to ’50s pop forms.
Spectre Folk, The Blackest Medicine, Vol. II
One of my favorite record labels right now is Woodsist, which has put out a bunch of really great lo-fi folk and indie-rock records in the last few years by Woods (whose frontman, Jeremy Earl, runs the label), Real Estate, Kurt Vile, Ducktails, Nodzzz, The Art Museums, and now Spectre Folk. The Blackest Medicine, Vol. II is the latest EP from this four-piece, which is led by Pete Nolan of the noise-rock band Magik Markers, and features Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums. I haven’t heard any of the previous Spectre Folk records yet—Nolan has recorded under the name since 1995—but The Blackest Medicine supposedly boasts beefed-up psych-rock muscle compared with the more stripped-down, guy-in-a-bedroom sound of the early records. Now, Spectre Folk resembles a leaner and meaner Black Mountain, with lots of heavy guitars that manage to simultaneously sound murky and swing hard.
Chris Forsyth, Paranoid Cat
Philadelphia guitarist Chris Forsyth has been compared to John Fahey, Neil Young, and Sonic Youth, and it’s a testament to the captivating instrumental fireworks of Paranoid Cat that he pretty much lives up to those expectations. Actually, fireworks might be the wrong word: The album’s 21-minute title track is a slow burn of cinematic mood and smoldering tension, where the quest for harmonic convergence for Forsyth and his band takes precedence over showing off his supple six-string dexterity. The subtle power of Forsyth’s music doesn’t so much knock listeners over the head as wash over them with the cumulative force of an ocean wave. While Forsyth’s background is in avant-garde art music, Paranoid Cat works as a tripped-out, jam-oriented rock ’n’ roll record, particularly the blues-based rager “New Pharmacist Boogie (For Jack),” which imagines Glenn Branca sitting in with Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Absolutely, Learns To Love Mistakes
In my hometown of Milwaukee, plenty of bands are working in a vein similar to that of post-punk trio Absolutely—most notably Call Me Lightning, whose 2010 album When I Am Gone, My Blood Will Be Free was my No. 2 favorite album of last year. CML drummer Shane Hochstetler recorded Absolutely’s debut, Learns To Love Mistakes, which explains the record’s no-frills naturalism and punishing, teeth-rattling drum sound. But credit for Absolutely’s aggressively inspiring post-hardcore anthems goes solely to the band, which takes its cues from the unstoppable hard-riffing Who-isms of When I Am Gone and lays on an extra layer of heaviness from George Ananchev’s sledgehammer guitar and a subtle dose of funk from the fluid rhythm section of drummer Charles Hosale and bassist Andy McGuire. Milwaukee basements are some of the most screamingly loud places on earth, and Learns To Love Mistakes shows why. (Stream the record for free here.)