RoundLetters’ Best of 2011: Top Albums

little dragon ritual union

Part Two in my Best of 2011 coverage: Top 10 albums!

Now, I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: I did not really like 2011 for music. It was pretty bad. I waited and waited and waited multiple times this year for music to hit me in the face that I would love and it took forever. I don’t like what feels like all the indie artists who got really popular this year. I don’t like Top 40 either. It just happens. I can dance around to stuff but that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit and really give it my time and thoughts. Though I’m a total grump about this, the albums that did break through for me are pretty great. I can say that I’m in love with my top two or three, I think they’re amazing. It’s similar to what happened to me last year. (My top 3 were Foals, Junip and !!! – still three of my favourite bands, and still three albums that I listened to well into 2011.) My top 3 mean the most to me this year and they’re a mixture of a band someone got me into and I then became obsessed, a singer who I’ve been into since her first album came out a couple years ago and a new local band that shot to stardom as fast as you can say stardust.

So here goes:

10. Peter Elkas – Repeat Offender

I spent January dancing around to Repeat Offender, and I’ll always remember my mom dancing around to it too when I had it on one day while I was visiting home. Peter brought us simple yet hearty songs that were infectious in charm and easy to sing along to, and it was even more fun to see him play them at the Dakota Tavern.

9. Pat Jordache – Future Songs

Pat took me by surprise. At first I didn’t think I could get into his music, but it didn’t take me very long to fall right into it. He keeps you coming back, leading you by a hook on a string, to his carefully crafted quirkiness and dark, deep vocals. His bass playing drives every other little bit through and through all of that, the songs come out catchy.

8. Dog Day – Deformer

I cannot resist Seth Smith and Nancy Urich’s ways. Deformer saw the band’s first full-length release as just a duo of the married couple, and I found it to be their best work yet. Songs like “Part Girl” and “Scratches” are gems, and I still can’t help waiting for Seth’s high notes that work so perfectly. I was also really glad to be able to see them play again this year – if they ever come through your town, go.

7. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

This year, St. Vincent fully caught my attention, and not just for those big brown eyes. (Note: if you see her live, many a bro will yell things like ‘Annie, you’re so beautiful!’ ‘Annie, I LOVE YOU!’ which just feels hilarious, but there is more to this siren.) Her lyrics are amazingly well thought-out, you won’t find work like that very far in indie music these days. Strange Mercy puts a hold on you, but it doesn’t shake you or anything like that, it sits you down and explains things and maybe ruffles your hair up a bit. “Cheerleader” is one of my favourite songs of the year.

6. David Lynch – Crazy Clown Time

2011 was the year I was introduced to Twin Peaks and I’ve loved every minute of it. So when I found out the creator/director David Lynch had an album coming out, I was intrigued and excited, knowing my neck hairs would raise and be tingled in weird delight. David definitely has songs on here that sound just like you’re in that wooded town, and every time it comes on it feels like an adventure. “Pinky’s Dream” and “Good Day Today” are two of the coolest songs I’ve heard in a while, and they make me dreamy and optimistic, respectively. Try playing this album while driving along the highway at night, I have, and you’ll be captivated. Each song on this album brings up crazy imagery to me, which is another reason that made me love it. I’ve pictured a cyclops dragging his arms along his sides in woe and so much more. Now that’s how you do music.

5. Hooded Fang – Tosta Mista

I declared it then, Tosta Mista was my album of the summer. It’s full of fast jams and lyrics that somewhat mask the opposite feeling of what it’s showing in a sunny light. It’s a lot of fun, and that’s exactly what I needed when it came out. It’s impossible to resist bopping around to.  It’s over very quickly and so you just play it over again. A fine piece of work that came from a local band.

4. High Places – Original Colors

Though I have to keep stopping myself from writing ‘colours’ and they’re not as good live as they are on record, I still loved this. It brings me to a new level of mindset whenever I listen, like I’m in some hazy art gallery club where the walls are slanted and the lights are red and moving around and people are all dressed in glittery costumes. But they’re talking about reality, not dreams. It’s slow and fast at the same time. “Year Off” is compelling.

3. Austra – Feel it Break

Austra blew up in 2011. It was the craziest rocket to fame I’ve seen for a band since the emo days in high school with Cute is What We Aim For (heh). I remember Dorian, the bass player, talking about how he was in a new band with a bunch of girls after Spiral Beach ended, and they had to come up with a name before a show. They were Private Life, then back to the leader’s name Katie Stelmanis and then Austra. I interviewed Katie in the spring and I was stunned by the response to them then, but look at where they are by now, it’s incredible. And well-deserved. Feel it Break is a magical piece of work, like Katie and the gang struck gold while digging and digging and digging for years. Yes, they had to switch gears in the music they were normally working in, but as long as they love what they’re doing now, I’ll love it too. “The Beat and the Pulse” knocked me over and still does every time it comes on. I’ve seen them live a couple times and it’s dazzling, even though the Phoenix last month felt packed beyond capacity and I was all the way at the back. I’m really curious to see what’s in their future, and for god sakes I hope they get some rest soon. Poor guys, getting to go to Europe about a million times this year.

2. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

Dear Merrill Garbus, you are my hero. I dressed up as you for Halloween and won a costume contest. I wish I could dress that way every day. I can’t stop smiling whenever I see you play (twice this year, hell yes) and neither can anyone else. Your shows are my happy place. Your energy is extremely positive, whether you’re feeling that or not, which makes me think you’re a strong, in control woman who knows how to get things across, even though every time you play, you seem utterly surprised at the response you get from the crowd (not just the things people try to get your looping pedal to pick up). It’s just warm and fuzzy and it’s so great to see an entire venue dancing and smiling. So great. Especially in Toronto. I loved BiRd BrAiNs but w h o k i l l knocked it out of the park for me. I knew this kind of music was coming – more streamlined and focused, but put together much better and with you taking on drums – so I was prepared. This album is brilliance to me. I tear up to the “Bizness” video and I get my girl power on with “Killa.” I played “My Country” over and over when I was upset at the ugly response of Americans to the death of Osama Bin Laden (yes, it’s a good thing this is over, yada yada, but those people were ridiculous in the way they celebrated, and it made me ashamed to come from there). This album will stick with me for a long time.

1. Little Dragon – Ritual Union

My coworker introduced me to Little Dragon in the summer and my year was changed from that point on. I was obsessed with Ritual Union. “Nightlight” and “Brush the Heat” are mesmerizing and exciting. I saw them play in the fall and fell in love with the entire band. Each member has this way they move and it’s amazing to watch. They have their own charm that works together even though they all seem so different. I wasn’t too familiar with their other two albums at that point, but seeing those songs played live – especially the ones they let loose on – was so cool. From that point on, I wanted to hug myself whenever I played them but it wasn’t until I could not stop playing older songs “Place to Belong” and then the trio of “Looking Glass” “My Step” and “Feather” that I was really, really hooked. Ask any of my close friends and they will tell you. Those songs mean so much to me and the year I’ve had, and they bring this strange aura over me whenever I play them, especially “Place to Belong” and “Feather.” Ritual Union is my album of the year, but really it’s all three of their albums together in my mind. Plus, Little Dragon makes it very easy to be a fan, they’re all over the web from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram to YouTube. I’ve watched a ton of great things from them on YouTube that are quirky and cute or captivating and interesting. Everything about this band is so fascinating to me, and their blend of electro soul is so fresh and exactly what I needed.

 

Albums of note from 2011:

Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital
Rubik – Solar
Casiokids – Aabenbaringen Over Aaskammen
Little Scream – The Golden Record
The Albertans – New Age
Young Galaxy – Shapeshifting
Sam Roberts – Collider
Feist – Metals
Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

Album Review: WAZU – EP

wazu

Consider this a premature review for an EP that won’t be released until January 10th. But seeing as WAZU is so kind to put up the three tracks up online for streaming, the good words need to be spread earlier than later.

I saw WAZU two weeks ago in Brooklyn. It was the first show I’ve ever been to outside a city I’ve lived in, and the first I’ve seen in New York City. I was in town with The Ruby Spirit, and this Aussie couple played the set just before the Toronto art pop-rockers. The Ruby Spirit curated the show, and have been fans of WAZU for a while, but this was the first I’d heard of them. Their curious stage persona was instantly appealing to me as Matt (WA) punkily plugged away on his guitar and Riz (ZU) played her synth with one hand and the other hand on her hip, donned in all black — an Adidas t-shirt, pants and jacket to the floor. With them in front of a movie projection, it was striking to their dark, electro pop.

WAZU have this sneaky charm about them, they seem to find optimism in the seediest places. These songs kind of taunt you and please you in a way you might not expect at first. What we hear from them is edgy and mysterious, and especially because we only have three songs right now, it definitely leaves you wanting more. (Their album is set for a May release.)

From the haunted house full of anxiety and zombies in “Murder 1” with numerous pressure points (perhaps my favourite being the tornado synths at 1:15) and alternated hushed and rise-from-the-underbelly vocals to the upbeat whirligig with a killer hooked chorus that’s  “Happy Endings” to “Walk All Night,” which is ghostly and lovely, WAZU shows a lot of promise and I know I’ll be paying attention throughout 2012 and you should too.

Stream the tantalizing earworm EP below:

Album Review: Dog Day – Deformer

Dog Day deformer

The record’s skipping in my head, ohh

Dog Day is back. Halifax howlers Seth Smith and Nancy Urich have finally released their anticipated album that first fully sees them as a duo after last year’s split from Chrystal Thili and Robbie Sheddon. Deformer is that look we’ve all been waiting for closer into the duo’s dynamic. It’s refined but messy, sour but oh so sweet and droney but full of melody.

Dog Day’s sound hasn’t changed much, it’s just become a bit simpler, what with only four hands. You can barely tell though, as this married couple makes a lot of noise and sometimes adds some effects.

They both still have their trademark singing drones, which is interesting for the fact of how well they pull it off. I’m willing to bet if I heard many other acts sing like this, I wouldn’t be so pleased to the ears. But I can’t get enough of their vocals that flow so well together as Seth goes low and Nancy gets high, like in the point-blank “Nothing to Do.” (But when Seth works the notes up high on a ladder, it’s one of the finest points, like in the stellar ‘Part Girl” and “Scratches.”) Seth still rips at his noisy guitar, but now Nancy’s plodding away on the drums and even singing more lead parts (“Blueish Grey” is like that summer thunderstorm you’ve been waiting out). They’re shoegaze but starting to let more obvious fun slip into the cracks, whether it’s recording their dog Woofy while he yips during dreams or through the lyrics that are smart, tender, happy, honest, conscious of anything and everything.

When you showed up on the scene, I fell into a daydream. You’re not so bad

Deformer is a really enjoyable listen for multiple moods and headspaces. Seth and Nancy live in a forest, raise chickens and are actually two of the sweetest rockers you’ll meet. They’ve created something that both encapsulates their environment but is also accessible to those not living in the bubble.

I’ve been waiting for this album since 2009’s Concentration kicked things up a notch, but especially since I saw the duo play at Sneaky’s last summer, when it was clear they were pleased as their plump chickens to be in a space they wanted. Deformer is the confidence to their former shakiness, and Dog Day are all the better for it.

Someone took the life out of my heart, I won’t let it put me down, I used to have a negative approach, I’m turning it upside down, think positive, positive, positive, yeah yeah yeah

mp3 download: Dog Day – Part Girl

Stream Deformer on the band’s Bandcamp page.

Album Review: Hooded Fang – Tosta Mista

hooded fang tosta mista

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Tosta Mista is the album of my summer 2011. And not only is it summery in a breezy, surf rock, fun, light-hearted party kind of way, or even the I feel like I’m on vacation with the Brady Bunch way, but it also dons the air of the ’50s, a time of nostalgia, polka dotted dresses, bowties, pumps and lots and lots of dancing. Sounds good, right? Right.

So Tosta Mista is clearly a grand old time, we will boogie oogie oogie like the best of ’em when it marathons itself through every rotation. But one of the most notable qualities of the album is the change in this Toronto band’s sound. (Perhaps this has something to do with the main songwriters also having a surf rock sideproject, Tonka Puma.) Since last year’s cleverly titled Album, they’ve sped up, grown up and got down to business. Album was long-listed for this year’s Polaris Prize, but frankly, as much as I loved that album too, I wish it was this one that got the nomination. Listening to Tosta Mista blows Album right out of my mind. It’s sharper, wittier, faster, more refined and more aware of itself. The lyrics are snarky and memorable, filling songs with stories of love and hate and phrases like “legs like stems” and “gypsy gnome.” They’re thoughtful and point blank, something you can appreciate out of a song and write down as a note for later.

Tosta Mista is only 22 minutes long. And that includes three tracks of the same running trance interlude 30 seconds-long or less. So the album as a whole starts to feel like it’s racing itself to the clock towards the end until it’s broken up by one of the interludes or even the swoon and croon melody of  “Den of Love.” The start of the album is the strongest, with “Clap,” “ESP,” “Brahma” and “Tosta Mista” all proving themselves as groovy gems. “ESP” is the best out of those, with “Tosta Mista” a close second.

Overall, Tosta Mista is a great album, showing significant growth and achievement for this band who just a year ago were still trying to rev themselves up in the local scene. I think we can say now they’re abandoning the “cute” moniker they were given with Album (I am guilty of saying such as well, but I was honest and still back that) and I assume that was a big goal of theirs. I also can honestly say I hope this boosts their live performance, as it hasn’t been their strongest suit when I’ve seen them in the past, but I think a cleaner sound could mean a cleaner set, easier to play through. I’m intrigued to see them again. I just hope that when I do see them play Tosta Mista they’re donned in ’50s garb.

Hooded Fang play as part of SummerWorks festival with Steven McKay on August 5. Let’s all dress up and get ready to tap that jukebox.

Tosta Mista came out this week, but you can hear the party for yourself, the band is streaming the album on their Bandcamp page.

Album Review: Little Dragon – Ritual Union

little dragon ritual union

It’s strange, sometimes my favourite music is the kind of music I can’t entirely wrap my head around. I don’t get it, nor do I feel like trying to. I just want to let it play at me, around me, on me, in me. The music might even be more important than the lyrics, sometimes. It’s the way it makes me feel. It’s like if someone was to crack open my head and see the inside thoughts and feelings as albums, what would they be?

Little Dragon’s minimal electro-soul album Ritual Union has joined this realm of music for me. I’ve been listening to it non-stop for weeks, and each time I get something new out of it. I’m starting to figure it out, but at first I just wanted it to grace my ears. I wanted to keep getting that feeling of exhilaration that an album hasn’t really given me this year yet because it’s just so good. Now when I listen, it makes me dance or tap my fingers on my purse or leg as I walk. It makes me think. It keeps me coming back. It does what it should.

So what is it about Ritual Union that I respond to?

The synths and percussion pairing

One cannot be without the other on Ritual Union. There are so many exciting layers. They’ll hit you in the face or you won’t even notice until a few listens in. They fit so effortlessly together, even though they could be moving at different beats and frequencies. But they’re not trying to be puzzle pieces and fit crevice to crevice. This is a stacked, 3D puzzle with a mind of its own, and your mind will be all “this works!” It’s hypnotizing.

Examples: “Ritual Union,” “Shuffle a Dream,” “Nightlight,” “Precious”

Yukimi Nagano’s voice

Woaaaah, soul! First off, you wouldn’t be able to tell girl’s from Sweden but doesn’t that make it so much sweeter knowing it? She shows control but passion, from starting us off a little on the vulnerable side in “Ritual Union” (and again in “Please Turn” as she wails ‘please! pull the string now! turn the winds all round and round!’) to coming into this vortex of confidence and attitude in “Brush the Heat” and “Precious” to reigning over mystery in “Nightlight.” She’s an incredible vocalist, with soul, R&B and pop tones. And it’s not just the instruments that are layered, she gets that treatment too.

The lyrics

Ritual Unions have got me in trouble again / I was wonderin’ how the white dress and the mistress and the spirit are holding my hand

There’s something missing in your smile / there’s something missing in your soul / are you suffering the blues? / Tell me why, tell me when, tell me why, when

I’m giving in to the rhythm on my feet / brush the heat

I fly like a heroine

Just some phrases I have caught and loved. From catching pieces of what Yukimi is singing, I’m intrigued to find out what they are. What I have heard (not just what’s here as an example) is enlightening and simply poetic.

Overall

Ritual Union is an album to me that just completely works. It knows itself and what it’s going for, and I just need to sit here and enjoy it. Every spark that the Little Dragons bring to their flame feels like it was well thought out in the process of their time together, but there are definitely fun moments that feel like someone could have pressed a key or a button and realized that it worked. Ritual Union is a stroke of luck in that sense and that it’s coming to us.

Little Dragon was introduced to me through their Glastonbury set by a coworker. Then I heard “Nightlight” and was put under a spell. Then Ritual Union kicked me right in the chest and I’m still dizzy. It’s working its way up to be quite likely my #1 of 2011 so far, beating out two albums that I thought were pretty locked in.

PS – Read this explanation of every song by the band themselves, over on DIY.

Album Review: Graham Wright – Shirts vs. Skins

The following was originally published on Exclaim.ca.


Graham Wright

Shirts vs. Skins
By Jessica Lewis

Shirts vs. Skins was created following a break-up after a tour with Wright’s band, Tokyo Police Club. Years later, we’re hearing how the light-hearted atmosphere found here emerged from that. Wright, usually a keyboardist, isn’t a natural singer, but establishes himself as a confident one, as well as a multi-instrumentalist and witty lyricist. As the first in a planned trilogy of albums written during that time, this solo foray uses characters dripping with snark and irony to tell accessible stories accompanied by fun, friendly music. It’s identifiable and honest, feeling like you’ve heard it before, meaning you’re instantly caught by Wright’s indie pop guitar-/handclapped-/harmonica-laden hooks. Recorded at Toronto’s Chemical Sound studio, using the talents of owners Dean Marino and Jay Sadlowski, as well as Will Currie, Luke Lalonde and Mika Posen, among others, Wright’s album shows how he learned to stand on his own, and at the ready. (File Under: Music)

Album Review: Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math

The following was originally published on Exclaim.ca.

manchester orchestra simple math review

Manchester Orchestra
Simple Math
By Jessica Lewis

Coming to this Atlanta, GA-based band with new ears ― turns out they’re neither British nor an orchestra ― makes for a powerful introduction. A concept album of conversations between frontman Andy Hull to his wife, or God, there are many dark themes, lyrically, mainly about dealing with failure and Hull feeling sorry for himself. There’s a great deal of frustration and guilt packed in, but it’s laced with strong electric guitar pushes and percussion. It has the intention for fingers to bleed and ears to perk. Simple Math is aggressive (“Mighty”), tender (“Deer”) and sometimes both (“April Fool”). This means it changes pace constantly throughout, but as a concept album listened to in full for its effect, it works. Dan Hannon’s production is clean and grandiose; it’s an exciting release for new listeners and a look deeper into the band’s mentality for old fans. (Columbia)