(BadWolf did something like this last year — HERE — and it looks like it’s becoming a tradition.)
You might as well call this list “Bad Wolf’s ongoing love affair with angsty woman-rock.”
Yes, it’s true—I have loves outside of metal. I have lesser-but-significant passions for female-fronted lyrical rock outfits, Trip-hop, underground Hip-hop, Hard Rock, Folk, Pop, and extreme non-metal music like math rock, prog and noise. The best concert I saw all year, except possibly Converge, was Portishead.
2011 was a poor year overall for Hip hop, I think—and there hasn’t been a good year for Trip-Hop in close to a decade. Pop is stuck in an awful electronica-fueled gutter binge, and grungy rock n’ roll has been almost completely devastated by radio friendly emo-metal hybrids. Ugh.
But 2011 brought a bumper crop of amazing femme-rock, much of it drenched in filth and darkness fit for goat-throwers to enjoy (not-included but honorably mentioned would be St. Vincent, Florence + The Machine, Cults, and Zola Jesus). Hell, one of them feels like a black metal wolf in indie sheep’s clothing.
I challenge you all to listen to some of this music, broaden your horizons, and explore those darknesses from foreign shores. Without further ado:
BAD WOLF’S TOP 10 NOT-METAL RECORDS OF 2011
Anna Calvi – Self Titled
My most-listened-to album of the year. Anna Calvi plays hyper-sexual garage rock with a flurry of exotic twists: she plays electric lead guitar with a Spanish Flamenco pick style, and her minimal backing arrangements sound like love letters to Ennio Morricone’s classic film scores (Metallica has begun their concerts with Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly for over 20 years).
She sings from her sexuality, simultaneously all-encompassing and strangely enigmatic. Is she bisexual? Lesbian? Does it even matter? (Probably, maybe, and absolutely not, in that order). For the duration of this 40-minute masterpiece, her angelic voice (think Siouxsie and the Banshees) transported me to a cinematic netherworld, equal parts velvet and barbed wire.
Battles – Gloss Drop
Helmet fans out there have probably heard of Battles—their drummer John Stanier mans the kit here, backing members of Lynx and Relapse signees Don Caballero.
Battles play an experimental brand of progressive math rock, where their arrangements mimic the effects of looped electronic arrangements. The group dropped an instant-classic debut album in 2007 with the assistance of lead guitarist and front man Tyondai Braxton. Four years after, the sophomore LP is here, sans Braxton.
Good riddance, I say! Battles drop the vocals for most of the album, except for a few guest spots from amazing vocalists like Gary Neuman. The remainder of the record is a leaner, tighter instrumental brain-fuck.
Bjork – Biophilia
Bjork, either you get her or your don’t. Personally, I don’t know what’s not to understand: Bjork is an amazing singer, Bjork is also insane, Bjork makes amazing vocal music that is also insane. Simple, right?
Biophilia is receiving odd press focusing around the iPhone app that interacts with the record, and the new instruments Bjork and her associates invented (see? Insane) to play the album.
Underneath the paraphernalia, this is just a solid, morbid album with a tinge of Cronenberg-esque body horror, and a series of intriguing experiments with dubstep that show their furious heads at random during Biophilia.
Chelsea Wolfe – Apokalypsis
Chelsea Wolfe is an LA singer-songwriter who came to my attention earlier this year for doing a Burzum cover using only her voice and a loop pedal.
… I know, right?
Chelsea plays what I like to call Apocalypse Folk Rock—think Tom Waits (below), Nick Cave, and the acoustic side projects that members of Neurosis and Cobalt quietly tour with. Her music is morbid and evil—low-key minimalist filth drenched in reverb. Apokalypsis, her second album in as many years, made me an instant fan, and I’m not alone: Krallice’s Nick McMaster has posted aobut her merits on Facebook (not that I’m stalking or anything) and Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix has played concerts wearing her Tee-shirts.
Is it a little hip for my tastes? Sure. But listen to Chelsea Wolfe’s hair-raising cover of “You Are My Sunshine” and tell me she isn’t more necro than 90% of black/doom metal today.
Drive – Soundtrack
If you have not seen Nicolas Refn’s Drive, do so. It’s one of my favorite films this year. Its soundtrack is a throwback to 80’s synthpop, but with a dark and biting edge.
The theme song by Kavinsky is the hookiest number here—most of the soundtrack is instrumental and more abstract in nature.
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes blend Americana folk with Beach Boys style four-part harmony, and the results must be heard to be believed. If you need to imagine it, think of their more radio-friendly cousins Mumford and Sons, minus the douche bit. This is tender, plaintive music that seems plucked from a bygone era. Every sound here pre-dates metal by decades, and yet I’d hold this up as a critique to most modern folk metal.
To me, folk, like punk, is not a collection of sounds or a style of playing, but an attitude. Folk is not happy, or jubilant. It mourns, then adores, then mourns again. I’ll take these sad pickers weeping over faux-Vikings drinking (almost) every time. If that sounds too milquetoast for your tastes, consider this: Fleet Foxes absolutely shred on their acoustic instruments, as well.
Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
When it comes to rock and roll on the radio, the pickings are slim, post-90’s. Incubus is alright but really just make me crave The Deftones. In my neck of the woods you never hear Queens of the Stone Age, or Rage Against the Machine, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers have lost that lovin’ feeling big time. That leaves us with Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters, who know how to write a great single or two, but haven’t put out a solid album in over a decade.
Until now. Holy shit. I had no idea Dave Grohl had anything this cool left inside of him. The Foos recorded this whole album garage-style on analog tape, and recorded the album’s music videos direct to VCR. Something in the imperfect grain of those antiquated technologies returned Grohl and Co. to their roots—heavy garage rock.
This is the Foo’s most emotionally mature album and at the same time their most metal. In other words, it’s the best album of their career.
Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Gonna Eat That?
Hail Mary Mallon is a collaboration album by rappers Rob Sonic and Aesop Rock (both signed to the-best-hip-hop-label-ever, Def Jux, even though the album was released by second-best-hip-hop-label-ever, Rhymesayers).
I’m not a huge fan of Rob Sonic, but Aesop Rock hasn’t released a full album since his ‘retirement’ after 2007’s None Shall Pass. If you don’t know why this is a big deal, do yourself a favor and listen to everything Aes has ever done. The man spits faster and harder than James Hetfield’s right hand picks. And unlike some other emcees, he packs his lyrics with literary left hooks, right? If that isn’t enough incentive, the album title is a reference to Typhoid Mary. Aesop Rock! Disease! Get it!
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
As much as I love dark, bitter femme-rockers like Alanis Morisette and Tori Amos, PJ Harvey is the queen. I still prefer her Steve Albini-produced sophomore LP Rid of Me, and 2000’s super sleek Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, but Let England Shake is the third instant-classic in her career.
And it’s weird. PJ sticks to her upper register on Let England Shake, and the accompaniment adopts a tinnier sound to match. This album jangles and clangs as it rolls—juxtaposing with the thinly veiled menace and Orwellian phobia that colors PJ’s lyrics.
Tom Waits – Bad as Me
Tom Waits should be familiar to most of you, by virtue of having one of the longest, most critically-acclaimed careers in modern music. To the uninitiated: Tom Waits has one hell of a voice. It’s the most brutal death-rattle you can imagine, but that’s just the way he sounds. Years of smoking and whisky will do that to a man.
Waits takes American folk rock to dark places, punctuating his music with staccato beats. He’s heir to Johnny Cash’s crown, except with a lo-fi, nearly industrial/noise bent. His new record, Bad As Me, is a return to form after near to a decade of spotty records. He’s always brilliant, but this is the first record of his I’ve loved front to back since Bone Machine.
THE MOST METAL NOT-METAL SPLIT OF THE YEAR
HotChaCha – Do It (Split with Summer People)
My love of HotChaCha is well-documented; I even implored R Loren to sign them on his Handmade Birds label, but to no avail. Regardless, they put on an amazing live show with frequently brutal mosh pits (I left one with a black eye, and this is an indie band we’re talking about!).
HotChaCha play furious noise rock, complete with dance beats and bursts of psychdelia. This EP is their last release with their original four-girl lineup, but it’s a fitting swansong to that stage in their career. These four songs are the best thing they’ve ever written; the swift opening salvo of “Aorist” fits snuggly against the sinister crescendo of “Suicide Mission” and the wicked creep of “All Babes are Wolves,” before “German Soldier” closes the EP in a libido-fueled implosion.
More than any of their previous releases, this one’s about frontwoman Jovana Batkovic—fitting, since she’s remained with the band after guitarist Mandy and bassist Heather left, apparently on amicable terms. With the upgrade in production comes a clarity of voice and lyric. Considering her heritage, Do It feels personal—tales of lust, fascism (speaking as victim, not enactor. Fuck Varg) and violence, juxtaposed against young love.
THE MOST METAL NOT-METAL SONG OF THE YEAR
Tyler the Creator – “Transylvania”
[Disclaimer – this video is mean, and grossly offensive to women. Does it offend me? Yeah. So does Arghoslent, still got that shit on my ipod… wait for the end, it takes time.]
Because he’s Dracula, bitch.