Monday, December 26, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011 (10-6)

I truly believe that 2011 was the best year for music I've ever participated in, but that's probably only because every year feels that way as I dive deeper and deeper into my personal abyss of musical obsession. Like every year, most of what I heard was underwhelming, but the things that I loved – the things that challenged my thinking the most and made me the most uncomfortable– were more enriching than ever. Black metal, my favorite genre, still mostly reigned supreme, but for the first time since 2008's self-titled Fleet Foxes debut blew my mind, a black metal album did not top my list.

If you know me, thank you for putting up with conversations about all ten of these albums, for hearing them nonstop in my car, for helping me work my way through my thoughts about them, for reading what I've written about them already, and for helping me decide once and for all that, yes, these were the ten best albums released in 2011.

10. Leviathan, True Traitor, True Whore

I've never had a harder time convincing myself that it's acceptable to like a record than I had with this one. Sure, Varg Vikernes is a convicted arsonist and murderer, in addition to being an anti-Semite, homophobe and racist, but at least Burzum lyrics are in Norwegian and about The Lord of the Rings. Here, we have Leviathan's lone member Jef Whitehead (aka Wrest), a man arrested less than a year ago on sexual assault charges leveled by his girlfriend, releasing what might be black metal's most misogynistic (and personal) statement to date. And try as I may to hate songs with titles like "Every Orifice Yawning Her Price" and "Her Circle Is the Noose," I can't. Whitehead is too skilled at his craft, too aware of how crucial he is to the entirety of USBM and too willing to push its boundaries. This is a psychedelic album ("Not very black metal at all," Whitehead told Decibel), but unlike the more recent Nachtmystium releases, that atmosphere isn't forced with Pink Floyd puns and saxophone solos. It's found in the way Whitehead constructs his riffs, layers them in relation to one another, emits his trance-like vocals into the musical ether and, most importantly, lets producer Sanford Parker arrange it all. Some of the songs are so abstract they barely qualify as musical, but there always seems to be some subtle hook lurking in the darkness. I've never had too hard a time with the art/artist debate, but when the most morality-taxing album I've ever consumed is this good, it's that much easier to make an ethical listening decision. Hate Wrest because he's a woman-hater and possibly a rapist, but hear True Traitor, True Whore because it's one of the most maddeningly beautiful black metal albums of the last decade.

Best Tracks: "Every Orifice Yawning Her Price," "Contrary Pulse," "Brought Up to This Bottom"
Best Moment: The longing, seemingly infinite spaces between the notes at 0:35 in "Contrary Pulse"

9. Rwake, Rest

I bought my first pair of hi-fi, over-the-ear headphones in 2007 in the same transaction that saw me bring home Rwake's Voices of Omens, so naturally, the two converged in my first-ever truly high-quality listening experience. It was a revelation, partly because of the quality of the sound, but mostly because I'd never heard anything quite like Rwake before. The Little Rock sextet's take on sludge metal is fucked up in a way that has nothing to do with the way Eyehategod is fucked up. It's a backwoods acid trip in audio, the band's sound equal parts terrified and terrifying. Rest adheres to the same self-constructed formula as Voices of Omens – Skynyrd-fried guitar leads, shouted-from-the-top-of-the-Ozarks vocals, gnarly, winding riffs – but is arguably an even better record thanks to its penchant for long-form songwriting. Apart from two interludes, everything clocks in at more than eight minutes, with centerpiece "The Culling" destroying minds and reaping souls for a punishing 16. This is a career-defining record by a band unmatched in its ability to create an unsettling atmosphere and a very distinct understanding of what that atmosphere can be.

Best Tracks: "It Was Beautiful But Now It's Sour," "Was Only a Dream," "An Invisible Thread"
Best Moment: 8:07 in "Was Only a Dream," when everything but a lonely acoustic guitar and CT's distorted roar drops out of the mix for nearly 90 glorious seconds.

8. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Bon Iver's Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Just say it. Listen to the poetry in it, the sound of the language. That's the core of this gorgeous record, an album full of lyrics like "Armour let it through borne the arboretic truth you kept posing" and synthesizers lifted straight from dentist's office soft rock radio. Justin Vernon followed up the deeply personal For Emma, Forever Ago with what may well end up going down as his grandest gesture. Each of Bon Iver, Bon Iver's ten tracks is a tableau in which specific reminiscences of youth coexist with beautiful vagueness and where anything goes so long as it contributes to the album's unofficial mission statement of expressing inexpressible beauty. These aren't songs rife with conflict; they're vignettes for Vernon and his ever-growing crew of hired hands to give life to emotions more complex than post-breakup agony. Make no mistake, this is still an album built for heartache, but it's a longing for the past and for attaining something just out of reach ("Climb is all we know") that Vernon concerns himself with here, not Emma. It's less personal for him, but better for the rest of us.

Best Tracks: "Holocene," "Calgary," "Minnesota, WI"
Best Moment: The '80s Bolton/Collins intro to "Beth/Rest," when we realize that even on album where the songs are this different from one another, we're in for something really different.

7. SubRosa, No Help for the Mighty Ones

Apart from the seemingly limitless bounds of black metal, the metal subgenre with the most room for innovation is undoubtedly doom. While still nodding to the bands they're supposed to nod to (Sabbath and Sleep, mainly), the Salt Lake City natives in SubRosa have taken the genre in a direction that has never been explored before. Call it rebellion against the repression of living in Utah, but this majority-female doom crew with two (!) lead electric violinists is pushing doom metal somewhere truly bold. The band simultaneously embraces and rejects what makes them so strange, playing up the female presence with songs like the darkly idyllic a cappella number "House Carpenter" and granting the violins main melodies throughout the record while still remaining more or less subservient to the doom canon in their approach to songwriting. Even if some of the best tracks are familiar in structure, they're wildly unique in execution, with vocals harmonizing with violins in a way that seems more typical of opera than heavy metal. Profound Lore Records (responsible for two other albums on this very list) has been a bastion for forward-thinking heavy music from the day it was founded, and label head Chris Bruni's discovery of SubRosa shows that he hasn't lost his touch. No Help for the Mighty Ones will rock the Latter-Day Saints right out of you.

Best Tracks: "Whippoorwill," "Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes," "The Inheritance"
Best Moment: The last vocal hook to the Cormac McCarthy-inspired "Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes" that kicks in around 4:30 and rides the song to its epic conclusion.

6. Burzum, Fallen

The last decade or so of black metal has been its finest thanks mostly to a crop of bands who have challenged the very notion of what it is to be black metal. Burzum's Varg Vikernes does not do that with Fallen. It is no more radical today than it would have been in 1996, and it's so good that that's perfectly alright. If anything, Fallen may be Exhibit A in Vikernes' prolonged case that he doesn't make black metal but fuzzed-out European folk music. His pseudo-Gregorian chants are brought to the front of the mix here, making the Norwegian language catchier than it has any right to be, and the acoustic instrumentation of bookends "Fra Verdenstreet" and "Til Hel Og Tilbake Igjen" is anything but metal, but unlike Burzum's past non-metal experiments, also not ambient electronics. There's also a case against him, however, as the riffs on this album are as black metal as the riffs on any other 2011 release. The monster that opens album highlight "Jeg Faller" could be the best pure blackened riff of Varg's storied career, and the chaos that drowns the middle section of "Vanvidd" practically begs him to start going by Count Grishnackh again and burn some churches. As the questionable From the Depths of Darkness compilation suggests, Varg Vikernes is interested in revisiting his past for the first time in a long time. Fallen marks a serious progression for Burzum, but it's also a tribute to its creator's own legacy. He burned some churches, he killed a dude, and he isn't the biggest fan of Jews and gays, but releases like this ensure that the focus stay where it belongs – on the music, man.

Best Tracks: "Jeg Faller," "Enhver til Sitt," "Valen"
Best Moment: The stark raving madness at 3:42 in "Vanvidd" that would make even Deathspell Omega shit their collective pants.

Tomorrow, my top five albums of 2011, followed by my favorite songs, live performances, and movies of the year.

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