The Underground: Albums of the Year

God damn, this was a good year for unsigned bands – or at least, their musical output. This was the year I finally, finally sat down and started working on The Underground – something I’d wanted to do for a long time. And you know what? Not only was I sharing music I had discovered earlier, but I myself discovered way more music than I thought I would. Good music. In fact, if you were to ask me whether I preferred the creative outputs this year of the signed or unsigned, I’d genuinely be stumped. There were just so many gems I found this year buried deep in the bowels of the internet. Hopefully, I’ll get around to all of them in time, but for now, you’ll have to settle for my top five Underground albums of 2011.

Minus Ned – Are We Finally Fitting in?

There’s something totally whole and fulfilling about this album. There’s a nostalgic formula buzzing around its tracks – partly due to the open (and wonderful!) use of the word “Daddio” – but mostly it’s down to the sweet harmonies, tight song structure, cooing vocals and compositional authority on the album. The songs on Are We Finally Fitting In? sound cool – they sound very much like the band are playing it loose – which is a testament to the talent of the band members. “Cool” is, as we all know, something that is hard to bottle or stumble upon. Most of the songs I’d call “cool” are one-offs (singles or just random songs) – if you set out to write a “cool” album, you’re almost certainly doomed to fail. But by golly, Minus Ned went and did it. The songs balance well the musical tropes of yesteryear with a smooth, cool atmosphere. The vocals also manage to be a record highlight, ranging from polished crooning to Alison Moorer-esque vocal highlights, and the music never fails to keep up. Minus Ned’s Are We Fitting In? is the album you’ve been searching for all this time to listen to when you look behind you, smile slightly and then walk into the sunset. What, isn’t your life like that?

Listen to and purchase (for only eight of your finest dollars!) Are We Finally Fitting In? here. Like Minus Ned on Facebook here.

Micah Buzan – Word Salad

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh. That’s me breathing a sigh of relief – something that happened as soon as I heard Word Salad for the first time. You see, as I stated above (and have done many, many times before), I adore composition. I love when the music clicks and you hear what the artist heard in their head when they conceptualised the song. When all the pieces work together and act as a whole.

You know else I love? God damn chaos.

That is what you’ll find on Word Salad. It’s an album that dives headlong into the expressionistic, the atonal and (I’m saying it) the avant-garde. It’s an album that rejoices in being flat-out weird and delightfully, flat-out ugly. Please, don’t think I’m insulting Word Salad in any way – it’s an incredibly intelligent, well-written album. There’s an obvious method to the madness here, and an even more obvious understanding of musical theory at play. What Micah Buzan writes is strange, experimental and imposing, but it’s still music, and if anything, the bizarre shape the music takes is reflective of the emotional content of the record. Word Salad is named after the psychological disorder in which someone misplaces words and (to put bluntly) speaks nonsense. It’s a title that speaks a lot of the state of the album. Word Salad is an album about confusion, fear and uncertainty, and it explores these themes in a personal and intelligent way. It makes the moments of clarity (such as the strings towards the end of “Ignorance is Bliss”) all the more beautiful and meaningful. Also there are lots of references to seeds – puns work, people.

Listen to and purchase (for only five clams!) Word Salad here. Like Micah Buzan on Facebook here.

Mmmmmmm… That’s good crazy.

Quiet Company – We Are All Where We Belong

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year! Here’s an album about a bitter atheist.

Okay, well, to be fair to Taylor Muse, We Are all Where We Belong never seems bitter. It’s a song about struggling with what his atheism means to himself. It’s about the affect it has both on the world around him and his perception of the world around him. It’s not so much a concept album as it is an exploration album. It’s about where this view has taken Mr. Muse and where he sees it taking him in the future. Naturally, due to the subject matter, We Are All Where We Belong is a deeply personal, introspective album that examines Quiet Company’s frontman. It does this, it’s worth mentioning, while also being petty damned good.

From the wonderful, rapturous (Haha! Inappropriate) clapping and harmony of “Are You a Mirror”, to the emotionally-charged, powerful “Preaching to the Choir Invisible” (both parts), We Are All Where We Belong is an album that doesn’t shy away from beauty. It’s a beauty that’s immediately obvious and meaningfully reveals itself when the album is at its most reflexive. The album captures the sense of self-discovery wonderfully this way, and it feels as if you’re walking with the band along that mysterious, uncertain journey. It’s an album that, no matter what your particular outlook may be, becomes consoling by the end. Through the vibrance, energy, frustration and torment, there’s resolution. Not a certain or universal reassurance of purpose, but a joyous, teary-eyed, relieved and beautiful sigh of “Everybodies probably ganna be all right”. When the album sings “Hallelujah”, it means it.

Listen to and purchase (for only five smackers!) “We Are All Where We Belong” here. Like Quiet Company on Facebook here.

Slothpop – Slothpop

I’ve already spoken at great length about my love for this release, but a little more praise won’t hurt. I’ll try to summarise:

Kristin Newborn is an astounding singer. I don’t say that lightly – she really, really is a beautiful vocalist. More than that, her voice is an absolute perfect match for the music. The music is at one clandestine and touching, utilizing emotional distance and resonance in equal measure, guaranteeing that when the album hits you, it hits you. Slothpop is also totally overpowering, and you melt into it when you hear it. There is not a single weak song on the album. The album continuously climbs until it reaches a dazzling, emotional apex, then sinks into a calming epilogue, “Shuffler”.

Slothpop is a desirous, gorgeous, poignant and intimate album. It’s an album that not only excites me for the bands future, but is timeless in and of itself. Slothpop is more than a simple introduction to the band used to whet your appetite for future releases – it’s generally an amazing album.

Listen to and purchase (for only a Hamilton!) Slothpop here. Like them on Facebook here.

The Big Motif – Does it Weight Heavy

Okay, this one’s going to be hard to talk about.

2011 was a year sorely, sourly lacking in good blues. Heck, there wasn’t even much room for it on my top 25. That is, signed blues. Because honestly, the seven tracks on Does it Weigh Heavy, to me, make up for the otherwise complete lack of the genre this year. Does it Weight Heavy is, simply put, blues done right.

It’s worth listening to Does it Weight Heavy paying attention to a single instrument. The musicianship on display is not only staggeringly impressive, it’s flat-out fun. It’s hard to imagine The Big Motif ever giving a dull performance, and it’s even harder to imagine not getting totally swept up by the music. It’s the kind of music that dominates an audience, an converts non-believers of the band instantaneously. Even when listening to Does it Weigh Heavy alone (Which I have done many, many times), it’s an album you’d describe as “communal”. It’s music you want to have on at parties, music you want to tell your friends about, and, if you’re lucky, play with your friends. It doesn’t achieve this through some atmospheric aspect that’s separate from the music itself – it achieves this through its quality:

Does it Weigh Heavy is an unbelievable album. It’s the kind of album you’ll put on to work or do something, and then suddenly realise that you’ve totally forgotten what it was you were doing, and have just been listening to the music for the past five minutes. I view as an album that presents the argument (if it was ever needed) that talent is tantamount to coolness. This is incredibly cool music by virtue of its quality. Ah – remember when I said this was going to be hard to talk about? It’s because it’s an album that’s hard to describe without resorting to praise (in a way, I suppose I’d just define the album as “good”. I’m dumb) or sounding like (perish the thought!) some kind of fanboy. The honest truth is, Does it Weigh Heavy is a joy to listen to.

You can listen to and purchase (For only six bucks!) Does it Weigh Heavy here. You can like The Big Motif on Facebook here.

We're looking for writers and editors to join the team. Interested? Apply today!