There are some goddamn phenomenal releases this year that just scream tension. Most of them would fit into one of two broad genres, "electronic" or "noise," and in some instances both. Examples include Fuck Buttons' Street Horrsing, Dan Friel's Ghost Town, Times New Viking's Rip It Off, or Crystal Castles' self-titled.
All of these albums have received considerable and well-deserved praise. Mojo made Street Horrsing its "Underground Album of the Month" and Pitchfork gave it the "Best New Music" distinction. CMG's Clayton Purdom said of Ghost Town: "This album is poised at a strange nexus of holy-fucking-shitdom...This is better than every other record you like right now." Times New Viking received a 9/10 from Drowned in Sound for Rip It Off. And Allmusic called Crystal Castles an "altogether striking debut."
While it's no surprise these releases are garnering strong reviews, some of the language used by the reviewers cited above is a bit confusing. Pitchfork's Marc Masters describes the "prettier sounds" Fuck Buttons mix in with their repetitive noise. Purdom calls Friel's Ghost Town "gorgeous" and DIS's Sam Lewis says Rip It Off is a "beautiful pop record." And while it would be entirely unfair to paint Heather Phares' Allmusic review of Crystal Castles as inaccurate, she does manage to throw out the descriptors "serene" and "ethereal."
Look, I'm not here to argue semantics, but unless you happen to have a very deranged sense of what the word means, there simply isn't a whole lot of "beauty" in these albums. I listen to and love each one because more than anything else, they're the badasses on the playground this year. And again, they're pushing themselves in directions the rest of the kids are too scared to go. Simply put, I would highly recommend these records, but for crying out loud, not because they're "pretty" or "gorgeous" or "beautiful" or "serene" or fucking "ethereal."
Unfortunately, there simply hasn't been a whole lot of worthwhile music released this year that I would describe as such. There are, however, a handful of exceptions worth exploring:
Sam Amidon - All is Well
A simple-is-better Vermont singer/songwriter reinterprets public domain Appalachian compositions with impressive results. Nico Muhly's string and brass arrangements add invaluable support without ever overpowering or masking the beauty of the songs themselves. Look no further than "Saro," in which Amidon painfully recalls the love he left for a new country.
Check out "Saro":
Kathleen Edwards - Asking for Flowers
Another solid release from the Canadian alt-country vet. As usual, a bit of a mixed bag of upbeat numbers and downtempo heartbreakers. It's in that second group where "Sure as Shit" lies, a quiet love song with sharp words, as gorgeous as anything you'll hear this year.
Check out "Sure as Shit" here.
Shearwater - Rook
Recalling the work of post-rock giants Talk Talk, Shearwater's newest album is, more than anything else, dramatic. That's not to imply that they just do the slow-build crescendo rock thing (à la Explosions in the Sky). But the well timed moments of serenity, such as album closer "The Hunter's Star," allow lead singer Jonathan Meiburg's vocals to lift Rook to places this young group has only begun to explore.
Check out "The Hunter's Star" here.
TV on the Radio - Dear Science,
The big exception. The only band I've found this year that's truly pushing music to new heights without forgetting the limitless power of a beautiful track. The album's fulcrum, "Family Tree," is unlike anything the band has ever produced before. Soaring strings and an echoing piano accompany an utterly gorgeous vocal melody; it's easily their most accessible track to date. Now this is what I call pretty.
Check out "Family Tree":