A “Best of Indie Rock” list, by definition, will be an eclectic bunch. The term, itself — “indie rock” — serves as a catch-all, a way to scoop up an enormous collection of acts who eschew, either by choice or by default, major labels and the big business dealings of the music industry that accompany them. Like 2010, 2011’s Best of Indie Rock list narrows things down by focusing on acts who are more rock-oriented, taking their cues from the genre’s styles and traditions. We have to trim things down somehow, don’t we?
And the process of culling is a task this year — the indie world has had a banner 2011. Aggressive, loud rock music saw a resurgence in favor, with acts like Iceage, Trash Talk, and Fucked Up storming eardrums and stages worldwide. On the other hand, quieter, more restrained artists rode the tail end of the chillwave/bedroom-pop movement to serious acclaim; Youth Lagoon, Real Estate, James Blake, and others used negative space and careful instrumentation to get more out of less. Finding some middle ground, plenty of bands embraced pop structures to create immediate, catchy, life-affirming music — Girls, Destroyer, and Atlas Sound impressed as well.
10. Blackout Beach – Fuck Death [Dead Oceans]
“For all the endings,” warbles Carey Mercer, “war is in my heart”. Mercer, the frontman for British Columbia’s shamefully underrated Frog Eyes, has always come across as a warlike creature. In that band, he shrieks and stammers like a hound calling for its prey, slicing his songs clean through with jagged stabs of guitar. With Blackout Beach, his solo project, Mercer exchanges the full-throttle pummeling of Frog Eyes for a quieter, impressionistic wash of skittering drum machines, eerie synths, desiccated guitar, and — as ever — his superb, unmistakable voice.
Fuck Death’s title, taken from a painting by Leon Golub, hints — not so subtly — at its contents. Mercer explores themes of mortality, escape, cowardice, transcendence — in other words, his favorite playbook. On the song quoted above, “Be Forewarnded, the Night Has Come”, for example, he offers these pitch-black images: “The soul’s enflamed, / The foul wind is rough, / I feel it stopping, / Deforming my rise…” Mercer, a fantasist with his feet on otherworldly plains but his eyes on our own world, uses his gifts to create an album at once terrifyingly bleak and, somehow, comforting in its studied acknowledgment of that darkness.
Highlights: “Be Forewarnded, The Night Has Come”, “Hornet’s Fury Into the Bandit’s Mouth”, “Drowning Pigs”, “Broken Brayings of the Donkey’s Cry”
9. Wye Oak – Civilian [Merge]
Annie Clark of St. Vincent, and her band’s excellent Strange Mercy, will likely receive 2011’s blue ribbon honors for again reminding audiences that the guitar is not solely the provenance of flannel-clad dudes. On Mercy, Clark shreds her way through more killer riffs than most bands manage in a lifetime. But don’t overlook another candidate for guitarist of the year: Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner. The beautiful, aching Civilian has Wasner leading her band through a wonderfully wide array of emotional expressions and guitar tones. Her subtly sultry, soulful voice provides a perfect accompaniment to her guitar stylings, be it the massive swaths of distortion on “Holy, Holy”, the dissonant, show-stopping solo on album highlight “Civilian”, or the tightly-wound, loud-soft dynamics of “Fish”. Civilian, a remarkably patient album, takes its time unfolding; by the time you know it well, it will feel like a close friend.
Highlights: “Two Small Deaths”, “Holy, Holy”, “Civilian”, “Fish”
8. Wild Flag – Wild Flag [Merge]
Supergroups rarely make do on their promise: too many egos, too few new ideas. Wild Flag are here to embarrass everyone from Temple of the Dog to Monsters of Folk –though, let’s be real, it wouldn’t take much. Together, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney), Mary Timony (Helium), and Rebecca Cole (The Minders) play rock music not too far removed from their celebrated early acts. A bit more bubblegum than Sleater-Kinney, less noisy than Helium, but still ready to pop your eardrums at a moment’s notice.
We’re talking anthems here, the kind to get your fists in the air and your adrenal glands working overtime. Timony’s breezy, slightly stoned presence gives the perfect balance to Brownstein’s hellfire rock-star charisma, while Weiss annihilates her drums in typical fashion. Cole, probably the least well-known member of the group, proves to be a secret weapon, her organ melodies providing both heft and serious hooks to Wild Flag’s ten songs. Wild Flag accomplishes a major coup: it’s so good, you’ll listen to it on its own merits, forgetting about the considerable lineage that came before.
Highlights: “Romance”, “Something Came Over Me”, “Future Crimes”, “Racehorse”
7. Yuck – Yuck [Fat Possum]
From the opening chords of “Get Away”, Yuck transports you back to a time when the guitar reigned supreme. Yes, the young British band traffics in a particular style of ‘90s revivalism, with Dinosaur Jr. and early Pavement at the forefront of the group’s touchstones. But Yuck doesn’t merely retread the hallowed ground of those bands. Rather, they take that DNA — bright, warm guitar tones, lightly distorted vocals, masterful melodic sensibilities — and transfuse it into something all its own.
Vocalist Daniel Blumberg has an easy, endearingly adolescent voice, and that youthful quality lends charm to purple proclamations like, “You could be my destiny / You could mean that much to me”, on “Shook Down”. It helps, too, that the sentiment is backed by a perfectly minimal, evocative guitar solo. Blumberg and lead guitarist Max Bloom use their instruments toward feeling rather than pyrotechnics, though they’re both clearly gifted on a technical level. Yuck, with its cloak of reverb and unabashed pop sensibilities, positively radiates warmth — good for the winter months, and all of the ones after, too.
Highlights: “Get Away”, “The Wall”, “Georgia”, “Stutter”
6. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints [Souterrain Transmissions]
Erika M. Anderson has swagger. Live, she slings her guitar low, musses her hair into her face, and holds court with the confidence of a musician twice her age. Good thing, then, that her debut record as EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints, burns with a similar fire. Anderson previously ruled the stage in the noise-rock outfit GOWNS, and that band’s penchant for squall shows up all over Saints. This time, though, Anderson strips her songs down to their essential bones, allowing her craft to show through the haze. Her breakout track “California” sees Anderson spitting poetry over a lurching, scorched soundscape — think Joni Mitchell, post-apocalypse.
Elsewhere, “The Grey Ship” builds to the most devastating finale of the year (check the final couplet) and “Marked” lets Anderson growl her way through a song ugly in all the most beautiful ways. “I wish that every time he touched me”, she sings in her curdled voice, “left a mark.” Past Life Martyred Saints will do just that.
Highlights: “The Grey Ship”, “California”, “Marked”, “Anteroom”