Is it just us, or do most of the “best albums of 2011” lists this year tend towards a certain amount of sameness? That’s understandable given the undeniable greatness of a handful of records, but on the whole, when we’re facing down a few weeks of holiday stress, travel woes, and inane over-festivity, we’re generally not in the mood to listen to something as milquetoast as Bon Iver. Give us something darker, moodier, bleaker to get us through those days of familial celebration. Something from, say, the record label Blackest Ever Black.
So, both as a holiday coping mechanism and as an alternative to all the best albums lists that have placed that unfortunately boring Real Estate record so near the top, we present an alternate best of 2011, recognizing 15 records that are twisted, dark, and out there. Take note: we’ve purposely left out metal, as that could be its own list entirely.
Pictureplane — Thee Physical
Oh, Pictureplane, what would 2011 have been without you? When we pegged his massively fantastic album Thee Physical as being “gleefully plunderous” of old rave and industrial, we had no idea how much that concept would shape the coming year. Since then, Travis “Pictureplane” Egedy has become a freaky cottage industry, starting a zine, hacking the planet , and writing a dissertation on Psychic TV. Through it all, his musical aesthetic, akin to shoving Enigma’s “Return To Innocence” (a song he actually opened his show with when we saw him live this year) into a dark, desolate hole with Jock Jams Volume 1 and Pretty Hate Machine, has become one of defining sounds of 2011. Sure, his Mishka tights, his gothic cyber-hippie leanings, and his obvious desire to be reincarnated as Genesis P-Orridge have inspired many jokes, but frankly our musical world wouldn’t be the same without Pictureplane.
Water Borders — Harbored Mantras
The fondness for industrial sounds, for rave, for world music: Water Borders’ Harbored Mantras made it all make sense. Grinding and slashing gears rip apart wet bogs of sub-bass as Amitai Heller’s arcane chanting, like Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry begging for his life, ties it all together. Harbored Mantras is not an easily accessible album, but one listen on a good pair of headphones and the layers of murky dispair unwind brilliantly. Tri Angle records is a label we enjoy lavishing praise on here, and this is by far the most important record they’ve ever released.
6V6 — Les Byes Mystique
We’re going to confess to knowing no more about the occult French group 6V6 than a Google Translate-assisted read of their site would yield, and that’s basically nothing. But the music of Les Byes Mystique speaks for itself: ferocious in its intensity, but with constant, recurrent moments of beauty. The record is brutal beyond belief, and the fact that the lyrics are in a language we don’t speak make it all the more hypnotic.
Salem — I’m Still in the Night
Speaking of bands this list would be nowhere without, how about Salem? 2011’s been pretty quiet for them, since they decided to only play art parties and hang out with celebrities, and with the general acceptance of witch house as a genre with the power to both stay and evolve, it seemed the godfathers of it all had left the building, so to speak. Then, at the tail end of this year, we get this: I’m Still in the Night, four monstrously brilliant cuts that show Salem growing and evolving into a band that’s as lush as it is terrifying.
Noveller — Glacial Glow
Sarah Lipstate’s solo guitar project Noveller has always made some thoroughly moving music, but this year’s Glacial Glow is her finest moment by a longshot. That old adage (and music writer cliché) about guitars sounding like crawling icebergs? Yeah, someone finally made a record that actually sounds like an iceberg melting, and it’s this. Glacial Glow creeps before expanding and exploding into waves, an album that combats Seasonal Affective Disorder even as it courts it.
Zola Jesus — Conatus
Sure, this was the year that even your uncle started listening to Zola Jesus, but that doesn’t detract from the crystalline dark pop perfection of Conatus. Simply because you can finally hear the remarkable voice of Nika Danilova, it doesn’t make what she’s actually saying any less powerful. “Sicker in the daylight/sicker on the inside,” the statement from the gothic soul track “Hikikomori,” could also be the working concept behind the record itself: Zola Jesus is showing you everything she has, and it’s darker in the light.
Kreng — Grimoire
It seems hilarious, a “dark” record whose title means “book of spells” — why not just call it “OMG DEVIL 666,” right? Sure. Absolutely. But then you LISTEN to Kreng’s Chris & Cosey-via-Jack the Ripper in hell take on bleak gothic minimalism and you feel like you truly know fear. This is an absolutely antisocial record in every respect, and we recommend it to only the bravest of listeners.
Chelsea Wolfe — Ἀποκάλυψις (Apokalypsis)
One of the most beautiful song lyrics we heard this year was, “We could be two straight lines/ In a crooked world,” from Chelsea Wolfe’s “Tracks (Tall Bodies).” It’s delivered in in a strong yet yearning voice, a voice that’s believable and trustable. In fact, the believability and trustability of Wolfe’s singing voice become the guiding lantern through the doom-folk tempest of Apokalypsis, a stunning, fully realized musical vision.
The Haxan Cloak — The Haxan Cloak
The Haxan Cloak work within one mission statement: “the very real potential and power of the actual physical properties of sound.” That gives this eponymous debut record a less cohesively narrative feel than something so obviously conceptual might suggest, but the treated strings, the throat-crushing sub-bass, and the strained dissonance are very, very real. A fine piece of work, with more to come: The Haxan Cloak recently signed to Tri Angle Records for a release in 2012.
Moon Wiring Club — Clutch It Like a Gonk
Ian Hodgson’s Moon Wiring Club project has, for a minute now, been making some of the most magickal (yes, with a k) stuff in the hauntological scene. Low fidelity and nostalgia rub arm and arm with absolutely punishing bass here; this is what dubstep would have sounded like in the early 1900s on Radio 1.
The Caretaker — An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
Speaking of hauntology: the sound of an old, decrepit ballroom waltz slowly decomposing is the primary theme on Leyland Kirby’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. Focusing on the the ability of Alzheimer’s patients to use snippets of song recollection to piece together memory, the slow, dusty record fragments conjure both the joy of memories past and the cinematic hallucinations of Punchdrunk’s theatrical experience Sleep No More.
Ayshay — Warn U
Fatima Al Qadiri’s Ayshay alias has created something entirely unique: an album comprised entirely of her own treated vocals, inspired by traditional Muslim songs of worship. Warn-U is obtuse, not always pleasant, but extremely gratifying to encounter and oddly fulfilling. You’re guaranteed to hear absolutely nothing like it this year. For more of Ayshay’s jaw-dropping take on “world music” (a term that doesn’t begin to describe the power of what she’s doing), be sure to check both her FACT mix and the more beat-heavy album she released under her own name, Genre-Specific Xperience .
John Maus — We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves
John Maus’s “Believer” was a light-in-the-gloom song for us in 2011, and his album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves made Flavorpill editors’ list of things we were most thankful for this year. It’s brainy, dark, affecting synth music that ties the head and the heart together and begs for repeated listens.
Tropic Of Cancer — The Sorrow Of Two Blooms
The Sorrow Of Two Blooms is Tropic Of Cancer’s love letter to misery. This is what would’ve resulted if Joy Division and Grouper recorded together: compression, despair, introversion. Try, just try, to make it through “Dive” without feeling romance, fear, and loss all at once. If you succeed, you’ve a stronger soul than we.
Demdike Stare — Tryptych
Combining witch house and hauntology in a way that’s been captivating since their first releases trickled out, Demdike Stare’s Tryptych collects much of their most popular vinyl-only music with a large dose of new material, and it’s a gift. Like a walk through the Blair Witch’s forest, Demdike Stare’s sound is cold and calculating, manipulative, and entirely their own.