The Best Alternative Songwriters of 2011

by Robert Alford

14 December 2011


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Bradford Cox (Atlas Sound)

From his early work with his band Deerhunter, which blended elements of noise and punk with pure rock ‘n’ roll, to his recent loop-based songwriting under the solo moniker Atlas Sound, Bradford Cox has always been fueled by an obvious love of his craft. Cox builds songs that feel like collages of familiar motifs, drawn from across the spectrum of rock, pop, and experimental music, rearranged in masterful patterns that both mystify and reveal. This year’s Atlas Sound release Parallax is the latest entry in his ever-growing pantheon of critically lauded releases and it deserves all of the accolades that it has received. Cox’s singing voice shines through here in a way that we haven’t heard before and it colors the wandering, narcotic haze of his instrumental backdrop with a confident urgency. On “Te Amo”, he sings in a rising baritone “We will go to sleep / And we’ll have the same dreams.” And that’s exactly how listening to this album feels, like peering into a private world of waking dreams and moving through the sadness and the beauty that lies within.



Annie Clark (St. Vincent)

Annie Clark’s work as St. Vincent defies all modes of categorization. She utilizes elements of various music styles and genres just as seamlessly as she moves from one instrument to the next, building carefully constructed songs that burst with energy and grace. The most powerful weapon in her arsenal is undoubtedly her guitar, which she wields with virtuosic proficiency, drawing equally from the realms of art, math, and glam rock, alternating angelic appregios with demonic downstrokes; this interplay between lightness and darkness is a theme that runs throughout her body of work. Behind the guitars and the confident presence of her singing voice on her 2011 album Strange Mercy there is a shifting and varied collection of rhythms and sounds from the refined and elegant disco of “Cruel” to the proggy P-Funk of “Surgeon”s epic build. Clark’s lyrical content is as rich as her instrumental work, building dramatic worlds with unreliable narrators and strange, counterintuitive desires. The standout track “Surgeon” features a protagonist who longs for a sadistic form of transformation, uttering the haunting refrain “Best, finest surgeon/ Come cut me open,” over and over, whereas “Chloe in the Afternoon” describes a sadomasochistic obsession involving a “black leather horse hair whip” that functions as an inversion of “Surgeon”‘s twisted power relations. On Strange Mercy, Clark combines experimentation and accessibility, technical prowess and pop catchiness in wonderfully engaging ways, further establishing herself as a preeminent lyricist, songwriter, and musician.



Tom Waits

Tom Waits is an artist whose body of work is so distinctive that any new material he produces can only be justly compared to his own sprawling and luminous oeuvre. His 2011 release Bad As Me has been hailed by some critics as the 61-year-old singer-songwriter’s greatest offering since his 1980s renaissance period that gave us such seminal albums as Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years. I would argue that Waits has given us some pretty great albums in the meantime: Bone Machine, The Black Rider and Alice all come to mind, but there is no doubt that Bad as Me can hold its own within this lineage. Waits draws more broadly from his own varied musical repertoire here than he has in recent years, from the clanking, snarling blues racket of “Satisfied” to the scrap pile rhythms and jazz damaged descending guitar lines of the title track to the woozy, debonair falsetto crooning of “Talking at the Same Time”. As usual, Waits has assembled an impressive ensemble of collaborators for this album, including his wife and longtime songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan, guitarists Marc Ribot and Keith Richards, and Flea on bass. Bad as Me is the work of a legendary songwriter whose indomitable spirit of invention and individuality only grows stronger with age.



Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs)

Merrill Garbus’s work as tUnE-yArDs smashes up genre conventions with a voracious appetite for blending disparate, yet oddly congruous worlds of sound. There are echoes of Afrobeat, indie rock, R&B, funk, and pop all ricocheting around together throughout her 2011 release w h o k i l l. But rather than devolving into some kind of shuffle addled chaos, in Garbus’ hands, these varied elements blend into a seamless and dynamic whole. Performing live, she utilizes loop pedals and samplers to build her songs in layers of drum beats, ukulele strumming, and the force of her incredible lungs which she wields as an instrument, shifting from raspy, guttural screams to lilting, gorgeous melodies. On the block-rocking track “Gangsta”, she mocks the hypocrisy of gentrified hipster enclaves, something she should know a thing or two about having spent a fair amount of time in Oakland.

And this will to self-critique, digging below the surface of identity politics as usual is a thematic concern that runs throughout this record. On “Riotriot” the music drops out and Garbus exclaims “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand / And that I’ve never felt before,” holding the note of the last syllable for several beats until the horns and rhythmic strumming roll back in laying down a funky, rollicking groove that carries us through for several measures. It’s a troubling observation that feels discordant with the track’s head-nodding revelry, but perhaps that’s the point. Just as Garbus’s cited influence Fela Kuti often couched his anti-colonial politics in a blanket of propulsive dance music that worked as a revolutionary ode to social unity and movement, here too Garbus channels her cultural critique of identity and power through a mash-up of converging sonic elements. It’s a sound that yearns to capture the contemporary cultural moment in all of its complexity, and there are few other artists working today who have come closer to realizing this lofty goal than Garbus.




PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey is a force to be reckoned with. Her early ‘90s output combined the punk infused proto-grunge of the Pixies, and Bleach-era Nirvana with the artistry and attention to detail of her English contemporaries Radiohead. Two decades later, she has amassed a body of work that is entirely her own. Her most recent album, Let England Shake sees her stretching her powerful and dynamic singing voice into a world of softer, higher tones to construct an album’s worth of narrative songs detailing a ground level account of Britain’s involvement in World War One. The themes that she explores here are grandiose and sometimes morbid: violence, nationalism, hatred, and loss. And in the hands of a less masterful artist, it is an attempt at high narrative concept that could come across as strained or overwrought. But Harvey keeps her wildly ambitious vision grounded in a framework of simple, stripped down arrangements of clean guitars and drums. And her disturbing excavation of this tragic history compels the listener to consider the world’s current state of perpetual war making, and the passive implication of all who sit idly by as acts of violence are perpetrated in their names.

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