5. Wild Beasts – Smother [Domino]
Those voices. Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming have the sort of voices that could fill opera houses — and here they are, in the same band. On previous Wild Beasts records, Thorpe employed his grand falsetto toward maximum theatrics, with Fleming’s baritone rumble providing a sinister counterpoint. On Smother, the duo tone things down, and their band follows suit. Smother operates on remoteness, its crystalline beauty the sort that feels as if it would evaporate on contact if you were to touch it. And yet, the songs here breathe with such human life as to make listening to Smother an all-encompassing endeavor, not so much demanding your full attention as drawing it out of you by hypnosis. Longtime fans of the group might miss its rollicking sense of humor, but Smother makes up for the lack of the deadpan and macabre by creating a singular world, one in which you will want to bury yourself, again and again.
Highlights: “Loop the Loop”, “Reach a Bit Further”, “Invisible”, “End Come Too Soon”
4. WU LYF – Go Tell Fire to the Mountain [L Y F Recordings]
Here’s a fun party game: drop the needle on WU LYF’s debut record, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, and take a drink every time you understand something gravel-throated frontman Ellery Roberts says. Chances are you’ll end up stone-cold sober by the time album closer “Heavy Pop” fades away. Roberts’s voice sounds like he gargled a smoothie made of turpentine and broken glass, and — depending on where you sit — it’s either the selling or the sticking point for this Manchester act. But deciphering Roberts’s barking misses the point of his appeal; on Mountain, he transforms English into a foreign tongue, making his vocals less a tool for delivering lyrics than another instrument in the band’s arsenal.
WU LYF make music that sounds as vital as the blood in your body, all huge drums, and huger crescendos. Bassist Thomas McClung anchors these songs with his hook-laden, grooving rhythms, allowing for Evans Kati’s guitars to shift without a hitch from disco stutter to power-pop freneticism. “We Bros”, the record’s shapeshifting, pulse-pounding centerpiece, is the sound of platonic love rendered into the best rock song of the year.
Highlights: “Cave Song”, “We Bros”, “Spitting Blood”, “Heavy Pop”
3. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l [4AD]
“Ladies and gentlemen, Merril is performing…” An old recording croaks this announcement to open tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l. And that’s what Merril Garbus proves herself to be, over and over again: a performer, in the classic sense. Garbus is a veritable one-woman show, looping layers of drums, vocals, and ukulele — watching her navigate her pedal array live is something special — to create boisterous, funky music. Garbus has charisma in overflow, and her passion pours right through the speakers. The vocal climax of “Powa”, for instance, is as gripping as anything you’ll hear this year — or in recent memory, period. w h o k i l l and its eclectic musical influences — dub, Afropop, punk, free jazz — create an epicurean atmosphere; Garbus’ lyrics, which tackle the personal and political with equal fervor, do the same, and listening to her songs has the effect of making one feel a part of something bigger. That’s no small feat, and her ever-growing fanbase has rewarded her by offering that enthusiasm right back to her.
Highlights: “My Country”, “Gangsta”, “Bizness”, “Powa”
2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver [Jagjaguwar]
Who knew Justin Vernon had it in him? When Vernon self-released his first collection of songs as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007), those stripped-down, emotionally bare songs connected with listeners on a visceral level. The formula was simple, and it worked: quietly strummed acoustic guitar, the occasional crack of a snare, Vernon’s ethereal falsetto, all used in the service of exorcising heartbreak. Bon Iver is the work of an artist completely uninterested in repeating his past successes.
If For Emma was a charcoal sketch on white paper, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a full-color, eye-popping, Church landscape. Vernon ditches the acoustic guitar for jazz-inflected electrics, employing a vastly talented collection of his peers — including saxophone maestro Colin Stetson — to flesh out these compositions. And that’s what these songs sound like: compositions, strange and elliptical constructions that swell and fade in impressionistic bursts. Where For Emma sought to cue specific emotions in its audience, Bon Iver will mean something different to each listener. Calling it “expansive” seems cheap; this is a record with no horizons in sight.
Highlights: “Perth”, “Michicant”, “Calgary”, “Beth/Rest”
1. Future Islands – On the Water [Thrill Jockey]
Baltimore’s Future Islands made waves in 2010 with In Evening Air, an album that had, at its heart, frontman Sam Herring’s animal howl. Fans flocked to the trio’s peerless live performances to see Herring scream his heart out on barnburners like “Long Flight” and “Inch of Dust”. On the band’s 2011 follow-up, On the Water, Herring scales things back. He sings more than he bellows, though he may punctuate his verses with Waits-ian growls and gasps. His band, bassist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers exercise similar restraint. Cashion’s Peter Hook-flavored basslines still bounce and weave, but he gives more attention to rhythm over lead riffs, and Welmers’ synth lines have lost the Technicolor sheen of the group’s early work, replaced by subtle, engrossing orchestration.
The results are magnificent, at once crushingly downcast and affirming in their open-hearted expressions. Herring and Future Islands can still write a dancefloor-ready anthem, like “Before the Bridge”, but the true highlights of Water come when the band explore new emotional textures. The raw, stately ballads “Where I Found You” and “The Great Fire” don’t explode so much as smolder. On the Water should be an emotionally exhausting listen, but Herring’s relentless energy and earnestness push these songs past despair and somewhere closer to acceptance. Or, call it what it is: transcendence. Future Islands is making vital music, music to calm the heart and then get it beating again.
Highlights: “Before the Bridge”, “The Great Fire”, “Where I Found You”, “Balance”
This article originally published on 20 December 2011.