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Catchy choruses, guitars dominate 2011 in indie rock

By Julian De Ocampo ’13

While the music journalists embraced established acts in 2010 (think back and remember the big albums: Arcade Fire, Kanye West, Gorillaz, etc.), 2011 was a year with a dearth of new releases from critical darlings.

Instead, the focus turned to mostly out-of-left field artists or relatively novice musicians only now starting to pick up steam.

For  my second year writing a year-end album list, I’ve compiled a list of my top five favorite albums of the year as of the beginning of December.

5. St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy”

If Annie Clark’s career milking her near-saccharine, angelic voice for all it’s worth doesn’t work out, she could always reinvent herself as a guitar hero for the modern age.

In fact, one could argue that the singer, better known as St. Vincent, has already began to do just that on her third album, “Strange Mercy,” which found the usually enchantingly placid musician juxtaposing her saintly singing voice with increasingly aggressive guitar work.

Her previous album, “Actor,” often placed orchestral arrangements as the center of Clark’s music, leading to grandiose and expansive soundscapes that lent themselves well to the ambiguous nature of her lyrics.

“Strange Mercy,” however, turns up the grit and uses St. Vincent’s ever unsettling demeanor in ways unexpected and equally unpredictable, hinting at that Clark might just be starting to prove herself as a guitar goddess.

4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – “Belong”

I was initially severely disappointed by “Belong,” the sophomore effort by New York’s The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, because the album strayed far away from the fuzzy black-and-white graininess of their reflective debut.

But after a few listens, I’ve come to appreciate this album as yet another great work by the sprightly young band.

On “Belong,” singer Kip Berman steps out from behind the curtain of guitar effects to sing like a bonafide rock star. The additional muscle, while disorienting for fans of the band’s first album, works well in tandem with Berman’s move towards larger, more anthemic hooks.

And while I consider the first Pains album to be the superior work, “Belong” is a great entry point for those looking into the band simply due to the fact that it boasts enough catchy hooks to win over even the staunchest detester of independent music.

3. James Blake – “James Blake”


Believe it or not, if British electronic musician James Blake and the music journalism industry are to be believed, there’s more to dubstep than Skrillex’s filthy beats and massive drops.

In fact, James recently went on the record to criticize the recent trend in dubstep by saying in an interview with The Boston Phoenix, “I think the dubstep that has come over to the US, and certain producers — who I can’t even be bothered naming — have definitely hit upon a sort of frat-boy market where there’s this macho-ism being reflected in the sounds and the way the music makes you feel.”

On his self-titled debut, James Blake does indeed utilize wubbing in a way that drastically contrasts with the monolithic bass being put out by most contemporary dubstep musicians. The bass often bubbles up or builds up slowly amidst Blake’s soft, delicate crooning before going into brief crescendos, forceful enough to make you feel it when it comes, but swift enough to be gone in the blink of an eye.

James Blake – “I Never Learned to Share”

2. Foster the People – “Torches”

“Pumped Up Kicks” may be the sleeper hit of the summer, but Foster the People’s debut helped prove that the band was more than a one-trick pony.

Although some may decry “Pumped Up Kicks” as rising to the top on a cloud of novelty at best, the full “Torches” album paints the band as synth-pop navel gazers intent on creating massively catchy choruses worthy of the recent line of indie-pop success stories like MGMT and Phoenix.

Those willing to dig deeper into the band’s album are rewarded with some of the most easily accessible and instantly likable choruses of the year.

Foster the People may be topping one-hit wonder lists in a few years, but their deftness at crafting a good hook is enough to provide lifeblood for a long career in the alternative scene.

Foster the People – “Pumped Up Kicks”

1. Yuck – “Yuck”

A lot of critics like to accuse Yuck of retro fetishism and a desire to filch nearly every great hook in the history of distorted indie rock.

But I’ve always seen them as alt-rock fanatics who’ve listened to enough Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth records to work their way around a fuzzy guitar lick and make it sound fantastic.

Yuck feels more like a refinement of every indie rock band that ever decided to flick on a wah-wah pedal and crank up the fuzz, serving both as a spot-the-influence band and something startlingly well-formed for a group that seemingly emerged out of nowhere in just a few months.

On their debut, the band goes for searing guitar licks (“Get Away,” “Operation”), upbeat wistfulness (“Georgia”), and surprisingly endearing bare-bones melancholia (“Sunday”).

For a band that often gets called out for being too derivative of classic indie rock acts, “Yuck” proves that the band has enough flexibility to fit into nearly any mold while crafting songs that challenge the greatness of the classics they so-often imitate.

Yuck – “Get Away”

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