My favorite local albums of 2011 all happen to be debuts, so consider this one a twofer. Here I give you the five best local albums of the year and the five best local debuts of the year:
5. Ugly Animals, Retox (Ipecac): The guys in Retox are no strangers to aggressive music: Singer Justin Pearson and drummer Gabe Serbian are both members of sci-fi grindcore favorites The Locust, and they've played in countless other hardcore and grindcore bands. But they've outdone themselves with Ugly Animals. In this 11-track debut full-length, Retox lets out an entire Occupation's worth of frustrations in a 13-minute blast of punk fury. Ridiculously fast, unsparingly brutal and deeply cathartic, Ugly Animals is hardcore at its best.
4. Audio Sapien Medicine Show, The Big Thank You (self-released): If there were ever a soundtrack to a face-melting magic-mushroom trip, this would be it. On Audio Sapien Medicine Show, experimental group The Big Thank You forge into uncharted musical territory, passing through eastern-tinged psychedelia (“Beyond Within”), Residents-style weirdness (“Lingering Spirits”) and the downright unclassifiable (“Ghost Song,” “Interlude”) before closing with the utterly spellbinding “Analog Duel,” an eight-minute opus of droning didgeridoos, space-age synthesizers and pulsating drums. This makes for strange, unpredictable listening, but it's as enthralling as experimental music gets.
3. Woman, Cuckoo Chaos (Lefse): It's no wonder why Cuckoo Chaos hit it big this year: They're wickedly talented, dedicated to the point where it hurts and know how to make complex music sound fun. You can hear it all on Woman. These guys are playing their asses off, weaving together Afropop-style guitars, cooing vocal harmonies and pulsating, ultra-syncopated rhythms to make a summertime soundtrack that's just as well-suited for a local dive bar as a nightclub in the Congo. But Cuckoo Chaos are just getting started—they're already working on a new album—so, if anything, this mini-album is a mere sampler of great things to come.
2. Generous Shadows, The Tree Ring (self-released): Generous Shadows is thematically set in the bosom of a beauteous forest landscape, what with singer / guitarist Joel P West's reedy vocals and sylvan-obsessed lyrics. But it makes sense that The Tree Ring recorded the music video for the spine-tingling album highlight “Dreams Where I Am Sleeping” at a dog park in Golden Hill. If you take a walk around this neighborhood with Generous Shadows playing in your ears, you'll find that its immersive harmonies, cozy textures and cinematic twists mirror the neighborhood's rolling hills and woodsy canyons, offering an ideal accompaniment.
1. A, Who Sings that Beat?, Ale Mania (Volar): Some of the biggest buzz-bands in 2011 played it safe with nostalgic dance-floor fodder (Washed Out), wintry beardo ballads (Fleet Foxes) and sappy-sweet, Phil Collins-style sax solos that blurred the lines of irony and sincerity (Bon Iver, Destroyer). While some of it was undoubtedly good music, these bands also sounded rather tone deaf in the face of so much economic hardship and global protest. This year, I wanted music that was darker, more revolutionary, and I found it in this stunning album. In it, Ale Mania strikes an uneasy balance between finely honed songcraft and volatile performance, pairing deeply moving pop hooks with grimy guitars and half-yelled vocals in highlights like “Robust Universe” and “United States of Abamonation.” This album is a true classic—a radioactive stain on anemic indie-music trends, it's surprising, poignant and terrifically dangerous.