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The Official Rambling Fox best of 2011: #10-#6

06/01/2012

The top 10 countdown of 2011 proper begins now! After the cut, the bottom quintet of great 2011 music.

#10: RUBIK – SOLAR

Solar, Rubik‘s third album, is the first one of theirs not to throw a curveball. After starting out with some heavily OK Computer-inspired moodtastic rocking, 2009’s amazing Dada Bandits had the band suddenly transform into a caleidoscopically colourful and wildly frolicing prog-pop band that bounced madly around in unabashed glee. Solar then continues on Dada Bandits’ footsteps rather than changing the formula drastically again, changing very few things from the style of its predecessor. Yet the changed parts are surprisingly significant. The layered melody parades of Dada Bandits have now been toned down and instead the spotlight is on rhythm. Tempos change suddenly, time signatures frolic about and the drums take a step towards a more central role. A major part of most songs lies in their powerful backbone and in some it becomes the very core and essence, most notably on “Laws of Gravity” where all the other elements of the song are almost drowned by the army of various percussion constantly pounding and banging for their lives. here previously the songs sounded larger than life simply because they were so loudly covered in all manners of awesome things, they now sound so because they’re powered by massive rhythmic strength.

Additionally, Solar tones down the whimsy and takes a slightly more grounded attitude. Not too much – this is still vibrant, playful music with a big heart – but enough to move the approach from constantly bombarding the listener with new twists and twirls to a more serious approach at crafting an album. Musical parts and lyrical themes are shared and the track sequence plays a more important role than ever before, culminating in a handful of songs that sound a wee bit off if you were to first hear them outside their context but which make perfect sense when surrounded by their companions. As far as I know there’s no great sense of a genuine concept album going around, but Solar is one of those albums that sounds like it could be one.

Yet the band’s greatest weapon still is the sheer excitement and joy that flows through their music. Despite appearing early on in the year, Solar still makes me feel giddy as if it was all fresh and new when I listen to it now. The oddball twists and turns still delight, the quirky lyrical hooks (only this band can make things like “combination error” and “black fortress, evil empire” into singalong hooks) never fail to invite me to sing along, the fantastically poptastic melodies still make my body groove along. The music itself sounded so excited and giddy itself that it is impossible not to join along in the fun. Solar might not be another curveball, but it solidifies Rubik’s status as one of Finland’s best acts right now. They’ve found their true nature and it’s wonderfully infectious.


Laws of Gravity

Check also: Sun’s Eyes / Storm in a Glass of Water

#9: REGINA – SOITA MULLE

With Soita mulle, Regina establish themselves as one of those bands who do not really have a trademark sound but who manage to make everything they touch sound perfectly like their own. After two albums of somewhat similar artsy electronica-tinged indie pop it was almost dead-certain that they had found a nice slot to fit in, but here they go switching gears big-time again. Participating in the current 90s revival that seems to have began to raise its head this year, Regina switch drum machines and twee keyboards to some summery 90s-vibed guitar pop, complete with the faint trace of shoegaze to make it all dreamy and ethereal. It’s the sort of music that will make anyone who grew up in the 90s feel incredibly nostalgic; the sound of carefree summer vacations and innocent childhood days. It’s at the same time both something radically different from Regina as well as something that sounds like natural progression and something that was always in them.

At little over half an hour, Soita mulle is a short and snappy package of guitar indie pop that time forgot; if there’s a flaw to the album it’s that it feels painfully underlong, but then again further exposure could have dimmened the magic it displays. And what magic it is: Soita mulle is immensely feel-good, sounds wonderfully daydreamy and packs a ton of utterly irresistable hooks and melodies within its nine songs. Iisa Pajula’s whispery vocals are the perfect accompaniment to the soft, adorable music. There’s something gorgeously innocent and soft to Soita mulle: it’s the musical representation of a daydreaming on a grassy field during a summer’s day, watching the clouds drift by and enjoying the still moments of life.

I know there’s a high chance they’re just going to change gears again for the next album, and by now that’s become a part of this band’s charm, but a part of me wishes they didn’t. The feel and sound of Soita mulle is the perfect fit for Regina, to the point that it’s without a doubt their strongest album.


Unessa

Check also: Jos et sä soita / Lepään aalloilla

#8: BON IVER – BON IVER, BON IVER

The first and foremost side of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, its most defining feature in fact, is the aura of peace and tranquility eminating from it. It’s strong enough to create a bubble of stillness to even among the strongest traffic or the wildest public rush, and when played in a quiet room with nothing distracting you from it it enhances the moment of peaceful solitude and makes the moment seem magical and worth treasuring. It’s particularly powerful in the early morning, the hazy and waking world working perfectly alongside the lush music, making dawn seem immacutely serene. It’s beautiful. It’s also, like said, the album’s key draw – anyone who loves atmospheric music will find themselves in bliss with the second Bon Iver album.

All this wouldn’t be possible without the layers upon layers of delicate sounds and masterfully crafted subtleties that the self-titled bring to the Bon Iver table. The sparse debut For Emma, Forever Ago made it clear that Vernon knows how to create something beautiful even with only his oft-falsetto’d voice and an acoustic guitar: going this deep into full-band mode after such a stripped-down start was a risky move but in doing so he gets the chance to really show off his talent for creating something mesmerising. Bon Iver Bon Iver is packed with sound in every single moment but never feels crowded or suffocating, and instead all the delicately picked guitar melodies, ambient keyboard textures, double drumkits and triumphant horn sections sound light as air and work in perfect harmony. The contrast with For Emma Forever Ago is immense and without Vernon’s distinctive singing style it would be hard to think the two albums come from the same source, but while the shell has transformed the most important part – the fragile, intimate core that was the source of much of For Emma’s magic – has remained the same.

Where For Emma Forever Ago came with a fleshed-out backstory (romanticised and exaggerated or not) and was effectively a musical snapshot of one specific moment in one man’s life, Bon Iver Bon Iver acts more like the camera taking the snapshot of whatever moment you want it to take. It creates moments whenever it’s on, transforming mundane contexts to feel like something special for a while. It’s not a full-points perfect album itself but it creates perfect personal snapshots of life.

(the right answer to this year’s burning question of whether “Beth/Rest” is amazing or terrible in its shameless embracing of 80s AOR pop: of course it’s bloody amazing)


Calgary

Check also: Holocene / Perth

#7: ELBOW – BUILD A ROCKET BOYS!

Elbow are at peace. For the first time ever they’re in a perfectly comfortable position. Their critical acclaim has been matched by commercial success, families have began to grow around the members, life is perfectly peachy. Rather than to fight against the tide, the quintet flow with it: Build a Rocket Boys! is the band’s most peaceful and relaxed album, with the sort of genuine calmness that could only come from people who have decided that for once simply sitting down and enjoying life is the most appropriate thing to do. There’s nary a loud chord or musical chaos in the album (closest it gets is the triumphantly noisy final stretch of “Neat Little Rows”) and Guy Garvey finds inspiration in the nostalgic haze of youth and the good memories of the past.

Build a Rocket Boys is a subtle album filled with hidden strengths. It’s not one to go around tooting its horn in your face: it simply plays the music and lets you come to the sound instead. Nearly half the album consists of mood pieces of various kinds where little rhythm or energy is found and much the rest is similarly calmed down. That’s why it’s an album that can take a lot of time for it to really dig in: it’s music that’s lost in a hassle and which best reveals itself in happy calm. Ironically for such a grower, it’s also Elbow’s most inviting album. It’s a heartwarming hug and a celebration of friends and family and good times. As the album goes on, the overall statement becomes clear: years come and go, people grow and change, but there’s always a warm seat waiting for you at home and everyone is ready to greet you with a smile.

From the majestic opener “The Birds”, whose celebratory orchestral explosion is one of the year’s crowning musical moments, to the rested bow-out closer “Dear Friends” that could move the toughest grown man to happy tears with its genuine care and love, Build a Rocket Boys is a wonderful collection of songs from five people who feel happier than they’ve ever been. Quite often in music, particularly in my listening habits, a lot of emphasis is placed on melancholy and sadness and their incredible evocative powers that make us feel that much closer to the artists; the less often mentioned flipside is that genuine feel of peace and restful happiness (in contrast to the over-the-top happyhappyjoyjoy school of upbeat music) can be just as evocative, just as touching and just as sentimental. Elbow have long since proved themselves to be the masters of the former, and now that they’ve tapped onto the latter it’s clear that they’re just as adept at transferring those emotions across their sound as well.


Lippy Kids (live)

Check also: The Birds / Dear Friends

#6: R.E.M. – COLLAPSE INTO NOW

I admit I’ve got difficulties trying to come up with something new to say from what turned out to be R.E.M.‘s swansong, considering I’ve already written about in length both before and after the break-up announcement. There is little left for me to analyse on or to expand upon Collapse Into Now. A band that has been making amazing music throughout their whole career did another great album and despite its occasional slipups, most notably Stipe’s lyrical stumbles, it holds his head proudly up high. It’s an album that musically alludes to most parts of the band’s history throughout its twelve songs; songs that easily showcase the members’ talents. It’s an album that’s great because of what it actually contains, not because of its emotional impact as the trio’s final statement. It’s already, after such a short time, began to sound like a musical friend just like the rest of the band’s discography does to me.

I’ve drained my ability to come up with some new way of nutshelling Collapse Into Now with words and of that I apologise. But do not let the shortness of this entry compared to the others in any way deceive of Collapse Into Now’s quality compared to its companions here on this list. It’s the natural conclusion and perfectly fitting final chapter in the tale of a band with a long, legendary history, and when you consider what a daunting, nearly impossible feat something like that is, you truly realise how good the album is. Long live.


Überlin

Check also: It Happened Today / Discoverer

————

The grand finale coming soon!

Man, I only just now realised how 4/5 out of the albums in this update are all about joy, serenity, happiness, peace, giddiness and other such things. Looks like 2011 might have had some sort of an overaching theme to it.

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