Music

The Best Alternative Songwriters of 2011

Robert Alford

Some of 2011's best songwriting came from artists whose work could be broadly defined as "alternative". Few of these artists fit the mold of the traditional singer-songwriter, creating music the blurs the lines defining genres.

The best songwriting of 2011 came from a group of artists whose work could be broadly defined as "alternative". Some are burgeoning indie upstarts, while others are career musicians whose work is as eccentric as it is distinctive. Whether it is due to their use of innovative musical technologies or their uniquely developed approach to their craft, few of these artists fit the mold of the traditional singer-songwriter and some are creating music the blurs the lines defining genres.

In this age of digital music creation and consumption, the laptop computer has effectively supplanted the guitar and piano as the songwriter’s primary medium of choice. Whether used as an instrument in and of itself, or as a powerful vehicle for composition and production, affording possibilities that were once the sole domain of the professional recording studio, the laptop has emerged an iconic symbol of a new era of songwriting. In 2011, more than ever before, songwriters are limited only by the scope of their own imaginations and the result has been a rising tide of fresh and innovative works that refuse categorization according to previously held notions of style or genre.

In the midst of all of this revolutionary potential, it seems fitting that this year also saw the release of a handful of masterworks by esteemed songwriting veterans. These releases serve as reminders that even through shifting boundaries and technological innovations characterize the contemporary moment in music, the essential values of song craft remain vital and enduring. The greatest songwriters are those who possess a singular and enduring vision for their work, through which all of the various elements at play cohere into a seamless, and powerful whole. For these artists, lyrics, instruments, arrangements and recording techniques are all components of this gestalt. Stylistically, their works may vary from stark minimalism to expansive worlds of sound, however these musical auteurs are united by possessing their own distinctive voices that draw the listener inside a world that is entirely their own. Robert Alford

 
Artist: Kurt Vile

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Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile's epic folk music explores the uncharted territory between the straight talking Americana of Dylan and Springsteen and the sprawling guitar rock of indie icons like Thurston Moore and J. Mascis. The songs on his 2011 release Smoke Ring for My Halo are built upon familiar foundations of simply strummed chord progressions, but they are painted with the vivid hues of Vile's intricate and understated guitar work. Vile's conversational vocal delivery is reminiscent at times of ‘70s era Lou Reed, dropping lines like, "I bet by now you probably think that I’m a puppet to the man / I tell you right now you best believe that I am," with a sneering, street wise swagger. But it is the musicianship here that really sets this album apart. Whereas many of the artists on this list are multi-instrumentalists or electronic programmers, Vile pours the entirety of his creative energy directly into his six string and the result is a uniquely focused and confident sound.

 

Artist: Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)

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List number: 9Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)

Over the past several years, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has gone from relative indie rock unknown to DIY folk savior to A-list hip-hop collaborator to his current incarnation which could be characterized as progressive soft rocker. His mercurial and meteoric rise has seen a few forced and awkward moments, such as Vernon’s guest spot on Kanye West's otherwise impeccable “Monster”, but through it all, Vernon’s work as Bon Iver has only grown richer and more fully realized. There is a lonesome weariness to the softly unfurling tunes that comprise his latest record Bon Iver. These are songs that speak to visions beheld in the early hours of morning, coming down. But there is also a transcendent clarity here in Vernon’s perfectly raspy falsetto. The instrumentation on the album washes over you in lush and swirling waves of sound. Each part seeming to merge into the next, an essential element of the deceptively complex architecture that Vernon and his bandmates carefully assemble with every passing song.

 
Artist: Kate Bush

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Kate Bush

Kate Bush is one of the more enigmatic figures in the last few decades of popular music. Since the early '80s, her work has been variably classified as new wave, prog or art rock, with the occasional foray into Top-40-style dance and pop. 50 Words for Snow is Bush’s tenth studio album, and it is the most hushed and intimate record of her career. These seven long, meandering, jazz-tinged songs are composed primarily of piano, voice, and the perfectly measured stick work of drummer Steve Gadd. The entire album is a meditation upon the dark, cold months of winter, filtered through a series of narrative vignettes that explore among other things a sexual encounter with a snowman who melts away the morning after and a hunt for the mythical and reclusive yeti. The interplay between Bush's literary lyrical approach and elegant musicianship endows her work with a refined aesthetic quality that is missing from much of today's popular music. While many musicians' approach to their craft is more akin to that of a poet or perhaps a short story writer, Bush brings to her work the ambition, scope, and complexity of a novelist.

 
Artist: James Blake

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James Blake

James Blake's early EPs firmly established the 23-year-old producer as a rising prospect in the British electronic music scene. On his debut full length, James Blake, he takes the skills that he honed in that vernacular of loops, beats, and synthesized textures, and applies them to the realm of popular song. While the most salient crossover components here are the bass heavy drones and chopped up beats of dubstep, it is the structural elements of electronic music that Blake has absorbed which infuse his music with its truly innovative properties. These songs are built in layers and loops, a compositional technique that adds to the somber and meditative quality of the arrangements. On songs like “The Wilhelm Scream” and “I Never Learned to Share”, Blake’s heavily processed, soul-inflected vocals function as just another element of the whole rather than the songs' focal points. Phrases repeat over and over as rhythms and tones rise and fall beneath them, carrying the songs to often strange and fascinating places.

 
Artist: John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats)

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John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats)

John Darnielle's impassioned yet sardonic vocal delivery, his seemingly endless capacity for producing memorable and engaging folk-pop numbers, and perhaps most of all, his tremendous gift for developing character and story through song have won the Mountains Goats a loyal following of fanatically adoring fans. His concerts often evolve into full-on sing-a-longs with the audience drowning out Darnielle’s voice as they belt out the lyrics. For these are words that work their way inside your head, creating visions of life's many crises and conflicts, forever unresolved but raised to a place of tragic beauty in the stories that Darnielle tells. From his early days as a lo-fi boom-box troubadour recounting tales of doomed alcoholic lovers, meth heads, and suburban existential dread to his recent more polished and personal work, Darnielle has never lapsed in his ability to deliver one excellent album after the next. His most recent sees him returning to the energy and pathos of his works such as Tallahassee and We Shall All Be Healed. Songs like “Damn These Vampires” and “Estate Sale Sign” burn with an urgent, almost desperate intensity that the Mountain Goats have perfected over the course of their long and distinguished career.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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