EMJ Top 20

Readers voted and here’s the result… welcome to EMJ’s Top 20 Releases of 2011.


Bon Iver- Bon Iver

Despite this being Justin Vernon’s second album as Bon Iver, as self-titled albums tend to suggest, it is a bit like a new beginning. Though it clearly retains his introspective, emotional style, it’s much more instrumentally developed and has a more rounded sound than his debut. While this has been panned by some for being overblown and failing to deliver, none can deny Vernon’s ability to write incredibly touching songs. With his high-pitched voice lending itself to honest outpourings, in only four years the Wisconsin native has crafted a spellbinding style of enigmatic pop that has enchanted the world and earned him four 2012 Grammy nominations. It’s no mistake Bon Iver evokes many comparisons to wintry isolation – Vernon named his project after an intentional misspelling of the French term for “good winter”. On his second album he indulges the bleak, stark feeling, filling every song with intimacy. It’s fragile and even-tempered, with orchestration pale enough to retain a delicate air. Elsewhere it can get heavier, but he balances it well. And yes, there’s a little autotune again, lingering at the end in ‘Beth/Rest’, where country lap steel meets clanging ’80s ballad-piano and the occasional squealing guitar. A taste of something almost obscenely unfamiliar. But that’s why Bon Iver’s loved – he’s not afraid to expose himself sonically, even if that means varied results.

Watch Bon Iver’s video for ‘Calgary’

Purchase Bon Iver from Jagjaguwar



Unknown Mortal Orchestra- Self-titled

These guys popped up rather mysteriously earlier in the year, amid a wave of speculation about who was fronting the Portland-based project. It turned out to be former Mint Chicks guitarist Ruban Nielson and his two buddies, Jake Portrait and Julien Ehrich. They were rumoured to be releasing music via New Zealand label Flying Nun, but it later turned out to be Fat Possum Records who had picked up the deal to release their wildly eccentric debut album. “Troublegum-pop” was a term used to describe The Mint Chicks’ sound and Nielson seems to have run with the idea of making eclectic pop music and has added an unusual psychedelic slant. With a dizzying fantasy effect, where the finished product sounds slightly ragged and rustic, UMO’s music is almost anti-pop, mixing pop melodies with sharp, piercing rhythms that have a frisky punk sound reminiscent of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.

Purchase Unknown Mortal Orchestra from Fat Possum Records



High Places- Original Colors

High Places’ most introspective and mature album yet is characterised by foreboding melodies, with Mary Pearson’s vocals utilised in an eerie, haunted way and Rob Barber’s ever-clever programming taking a dancier route. With isolated riffs and creepy sounds trickling through, the LA (by way of Brooklyn) duo’s third album is all about delicately constructed songs that show they’re more sure of themselves than ever before. Pulsating bass, murky chimes and swampy synths are spun together in an effortlessly hypnotic and dubby way. The creeping shapeshifting of ‘Sonora’, with Mary’s elegant soprano leading the way through ’90s-style production brings to mind Massive Attack, where other songs drift deeper into hallucinogenic territory. Despite the band sounding so comfortable in their sound, there’s a certain nervous quality that keeps you guessing and ultimately draws listeners further under their spell.

Buy Original Colors from Thrill Jockey



Kurt Vile- Smoke Ring For My Halo

Smoke Ring For My Halo has helped Kurt Vile grow from a cult underground icon into an indie rock superstar. The album received top marks from almost every major music press outfit worldwide and has consistently been included in ‘Best of 2011’ lists, more so than any other album this year. Vile’s storytelling is the main attraction, echoing sentiments of young America, particular appealing to the working class and the increasing number of students struggling with debt and the unavailability of skilled jobs. His relatable persona has a wide reach, and fans have been able to engage with him in a way that few modern artists allow. His lack of pretension makes for a really comfortable listen, challenging the listener with words rather than complex instrumental arrangements. Kurt Vile also gives proof that political engagement is slowly making a comeback in popular music, with songs like ‘Puppet to the Man’ and ‘Society Is My Friend’ showing an acute social awareness.

Purchase Smoke Ring For My Halo from Matador Records online store



St. Vincent- Strange Mercy

When I interviewed Annie Clark in 2009 she was an exhausted mess, fumbling over facts about her second album Actor. She was mid-way through a gruelling tour of the US and at that point she seemed ready to give up music for good. Then she started telling me about how she wrote the songs on Actor, which revealed a similar story of exhaustion and disillusionment after touring in support of her first album Marry Me and it started to make sense. But like all good career musicians Clark recovered and her third album, Strange Mercy, is perhaps her best. The album was recorded in isolation in Seattle, away from what she describes as “the information overload” of New York City. Her guitar work is the major attraction on Strange Mercy and it’s what sets the album apart from her previous two. It also reaffirms her attraction as a singer/songwriter, with many of the songs developing into stories accompanied more rigidly by a single guitar, while other instruments play a less prominent role.

Purchase Strange Mercy from 4AD



John Maus- We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

With a dazzling array of ambient synths and moody vocals, John Maus’ third album is a masterpiece that explores the seedy underground of pop. A former keyboard player for Animal Collective, Panda Bear and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (and political science PhD student), Maus’s lyrics are dark, philosophical and sung in an almost medieval-chant. We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is awash with razor-sharp post-punk basslines, primitive drums, Ian Curtis-influenced vocals and Night Rider-esque sing-along synths. One of his simultaneously loved and hated qualities is perhaps his grandiose booming baritone – it would be pretentious if it wasn’t so cool. One of our favourite songs is ‘Cop Killer’, a threatening and incredibly addictive ballad. Maus says, “The song’s not about killing a human being, but about overcoming inhumanity; destroying the machinery that turns us toward an end other than ourselves.” In an age of effortless mediocrity, he’s trying to inspire us all to lift our game. “We live in a world where information travels faster and is circulated more widely than ever before, yet all it delivers is inanities… no art stands a chance unless we struggle, unless we make some kind of effort to think.”

Buy We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves from Upset the Rhythm



Rackets- Down With The Kids

Like their name suggests – this Auckland three-piece sure do make a racket. And it’s true that they are down with the kids, as the young Auckland punk scene adores them. Their music is plain and simple; punk with a pop melody, and they are one of the most enthusiastic bands around. They’ve been pretty innovative with Down With The Kids and have proved to be quite savvy entrepreneurs, driving traffic to their website by releasing what they’ve called “Six Sick Singles” – a video every two weeks to go with the EP. Watched in sequence, the videos follow the band through a series of silly gags and daily-life rituals, with guest appearances by several minor New Zealand celebrities.

Visit Rackets’ website to watch all “six sick singles”

Purchase Down With The Kids from Bandcamp



Toro Y Moi- Underneath the Pine

Like Washed Out and Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi has defined a new strain of indie pop in 2011 (and 2010 – he featured on our last End of Year List). But while many ride the chill wave, few do it so consistently well as Chaz Bundick of Toro Y Moi. With funky hooks tight enough to reside in a Motown number-one and melodies harking back to Michael Jackson’s most creative efforts, the beauty of Chaz’s second album is its perfect flow, easy vibe and undeniable finger-snapping, toe-tapping pop goodness. With silly little synth bits and steadfast basslines and shakers peppering the rubbery R&B, Chaz’s chilled singing remains a constant, tying it all together. This is another album that keeps drawing listeners back with its super cool riffs and relaxed energy. Underneath the Pine is one of my personal favourites of 2011 – every time I listen to it I end up humming it for days.

Stream Underneath the Pine

Buy the CD/LP from Carpark Records



PJ Harvey- Let England Shake

From her 18-year solo career it’s hard to pick a highlight, but for many it’s PJ Harvey’s tenth studio album Let England Shake. It saw her win the coveted Mercury Prize for a second time (the first was 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea), to become the only artist to win the award twice. Recorded in a church in Dorset, England, the album has a grand sound, and has a heavy theme based around conflict and social unrest. Harvey cites the poetry of Harold Pinter and T.S Eliot as major influences, but the Orwellian ideas that the album addresses suggests that her strongest literary influence comes from a less cryptic source.

Watch a series of short films shot by war journalist Seamus Murphy that accompany each song off Let England Shake

Purchase Let England Shake from Island Records


Radiohead- King of Limbs

It doesn’t matter if you’re a latecomer to the King of Limbs party like we are – Radiohead’s one of those great bands that constantly bubble away in the background, honing and redefining their sound every step of the way. With the band’s eighth album they take the electronic jungle of their wranglings from the start of last decade (on Amnesiac and Kid A) and make it softer, more poppier but also more weird. With consistent jazzy beats never breaking a sweat, weird grungey guitar riffs filter in and out amongst a steady bed of sounds. There’s an element of the immediately accessible but also the aloft otherworldliness that the band has made their trademark. Long may they keep at it!

Watch the epic video for ‘Lotus Flower’

Buy King of Limbs



Chad VanGaalen- Diaper Island

Chad VanGaalen surely wins the award for most creative album of 2011. Not only is Diaper Island a diverse mix of garage, grunge, folk, pop and punk, Chad’s own artistic skills grace its cover and then there’s his amazing digitally animated psychedelic video for hit single ‘Peace On The Rise’. While comparisons to Neil Young will always hover over Chad VanGaalen, this album kind of pays tribute to the Canadian hero. Diaper Island is bursting with political energy and social satire, but it’s perfectly balanced by a number of romantic songs that clearly demonstrate VanGaalen’s intellect.

Purchase Diaper Island from Subpop’s online store



M83- Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

One of the biggest drawcards for this year’s Laneway Festival, M83’s stunning sixth studio album has finally found them the worldwide fame they deserved long ago. Sprinkled with delightful drone, a mixture of noise and luscious pop songs decorate this 22-track double album, beginning with a duet with US goth-pop princess Zola Jesus. ‘Midnight City’ was the album’s biggest hit – a refined synth-pop extravaganza that slides through waves of industrial synths and percussion before fading out to a saxophone solo. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is arguably one of the best produced albums of 2011, capturing the big studio sound of LA’s Sunset Sound Recording studio.

Purchase Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming through Mute Records



Mogwai- Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

The seventh album by Glasgow stalwarts Mogwai has been touted as one of their best yet. In the quintet’s sixteenth year together, they’ve struck a successful balance between noise, post-rock and ambient music. Intensity builds as each song progresses from a skeletal form to a full-bodied masterpiece. Drawing on Neu!’s boundless, rhythmic drive and Explosions in the Sky’s intensity, HWND, BYW knows when to be delicate and subtle, but also when to be more brutal.

Buy Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will from Sub Pop

Stream it at Rolling Stone



The Eversons- The Eversons EP

Lil Chief snapped up Wellington’s latest purveyors of modern pop, The Eversons, fast – and with good reason. Fronted by Mark Turner (ex-Little Pictures) and with Chris Young (Insurgents, No Aloha), Tim Shann and Blair Everson, The Eversons have a crisp, clear garage rock vibe that strongly recalls Art Brut and American college rock with its undeniable catchiness and the immediate satisfaction this brings. With classic guitar riffs and day-in-life-style lyrics telling stories about girls, the five-song EP is instantly likeable. Central song ‘Boyfriend’ brings perhaps the most diversity, with its alternating vocalists and building a story about a burgeoning relationship. This is one of those bands that doesn’t muck around, delivering a top-class release very early in their career, which makes us excited about future things to come from them.

Watch the video for ‘I’m a Conservative’

Listen to The Eversons EP on bandcamp and pay what you like to buy



Meese- Pieces of You, Pieces of Meese

As far as young Auckland guitar bands go they don’t get much better than Meese. Their rendition of ’90s guitar rock referencing Pavement, Superchunk and Sebadoh has been put together perfectly well, with distinct vocal melodies that set them apart from most other bands on the local scene. Pieces of You, Pieces of Meese isn’t the most polished release, but it’s been rewarded by fans looking for something a little different, while retaining a reference point to those classic ’90s rock bands.

Watch ‘Waiting For A Holiday’ on Youtube

Downoload Pieces of You, Pieces of Meese from Bandcamp



Twin Sister- In Heaven

In Heaven, Twin Sister’s debut album, came after two cosy EPs which saw the band labelled ‘pillow-pop’ by Pitchfork. Strikingly different was the band’s tightening up of their rhythms, breathing life into music that had previously relied more on having a sleepy composition. There’s more sway and experimentation too, with new avant-garde guitar sounds lifting Twin Sister beyond their previous limitations.

Purchase In Heaven from Domino Records



Leno Lovecraft- EP#1

Here at EMJ we never gave this EP much time when it was released in September, but thanks to A Low Hum label owner Ian ‘Blink’ Jorgenson Leno Lovecraft has now been played in clubs throughout Europe and the USA. That happened on Disasteradio’s world tour and it just so goes that the two label-mates somewhat define the A Low Hum label’s sound of the past two years. EP#1 was the only A Low Hum release of 2011. Leno Lovecraft is the more disco orientated of the two, using glam rock fills, laser striking synths and some super sexy vocals to create posh electro-pop.

Download Leno Lovecraft’s EP#1 from Bandcamp



Male Bonding- Endless Now

Sometimes an album will come out of left field at you. I never expected to become infatuated with Male Bonding, but such is the power of the London-based group’s perfectly formed grunge pop. With tightly-wound hooks balanced by oddly placid vocals and a relentlessly energetic undercurrent driving every song, the band’s second LP Endless Now comes off as an instant classic. The songs are simple and to the point, with a singability to rival Blink 182, but anyone who’s likely to be rankled by the latter is sure to find solace in this band’s approach. Consistency is key, arguably any song could be picked off as a single, but in traditional album format they lead with their strongest contenders. Endless Now makes good use of a myriad of classic pop elements, but the band’s youthful vantage point has them unquestionably forward-thinking. This was easily my favourite album of the year, despite the brutal competition. I will keep coming back to this again and again because it never fails to raise my spirits and remind me of the hugely exciting potential that’s still out there.

 Buy Endless Now from Sub Pop



Girls- Father, Son, Holy Ghost

When first single ‘Vomit’ dropped in July this album quickly became one of the most anticipated of 2011. Vomit’s mix of 70’s psychedelia, circa Pink Flyod’s Dark Side of The Moon, its epic six-minute running time and its build up in intensity through to a grand climax similar to Guns N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’ laid a pretty solid foundation for an album to be packed full of nostalgic power ballads. Father, Son, Holy Ghost ended up being the complete opposite – a schizoid mix of ’60s pop, rambling folk ballads and gospel backed R’n’B.

Watch the video for ‘Vomit’

Purchase Father, Son, Holy Ghost from Insound



Nevernudes- Cereal EP

In 2011 Nevernudes returned to making spazzy punk after experimenting with mumbly grunge in 2010 on their debut album Creepy Crawlies. Mixing noisy, grungy guitars with pop melodies and writing songs about growing up in Auckland’s often boring, socially oppressive CBD have proved influential and appealing to their peers.

Download Nevernudes’ Cereal EP

Posted by Nick Fulton under New Zealand
[3] Comments