Top 20 of 2011: 10-6

10. Dance Gavin Dance – Downtown Battle Mountain II

Late in 2010 came the news that the ever-evolving Dance Gavin Dance lineup was changing again, this time back to more or less the same lineup as the band used for the breakthrough Downtown Battle Mountain. This meant that the inimitable Jonny Craig and Jon Mess would again be teaming up on vocals. Everything old, it seemed, was new again.

Downtown Battle Mountain II was the resulting release. With the lineup change came yet another change in sound, with the epic, technical sound of DBM melding with the looser feel of Happiness taking the band, in my opinion, closer to their true potential than they had been at any time since that debut full length. It is more playful than the band’s first 2 releases with Jonny Craig, but more focussed than either of the Kurt Travis helmed releases. Full disclosure here – I am thoroughly in the “DGD is better with Jonny Craig” camp and feel that DBM is one of the best records ever released in this genre. If DBM II doesn’t reach the heights of And I Told Them I Invented Times New Roman or Lemon Meringue Tie it isn’t far off, with Craig’s vocals again elevating the band to another plane.

Dance Gavin Dance has always been about the interplay between the clean and screamed vocals, but in a more intricate and exciting way than most scene bands. There are layers to these songs. Nothing is ever as it seems, and each listen reveals something new and surprising. There are genuinely eccentric and flawed personalities within the band, and the tensions which constantly seem to destroy the band’s lineup also seem to help to create music that is, in the truest sense of the word, incomparable. There is no band, for better or for worse, that sounds like Dance Gavin Dance.

 

9. Living With Lions – Holy Shit

Canada’s Living With Lions play a sort of melodic hardcore influenced pop punk that, to an extent, defies genrefication (I just invented that word). They manage to be contemporaries of bands like The Wonder Years as well as bands like Make Do And Mend, showing a versatility that is admirable in a genre-driven scene. The most apt comparison I can come up with is maybe Broadway Calls, who make the same sort of accessible but still genuine as hell punk rock. Holy Shit is a record of uptempo, gruff-voiced punk songs that bleed sincerity, dealing with everyday themes with enough passion and authenticity to make what could be tired subject matter burst fresh from the speakers.

None of that is intended to make the record seem revolutionary – put simply it isn’t – but then that’s not what music is about. With Holy Shit Living With Lions have made a traditional, meat and potatoes punk rock record that has just the right combination of influences, along with the right amount of passion, to make it sound fresh and exciting. Super solid effort.

 

8. Balance & Composure – Separation

Balance and Composure manage to sound like the best grunge band you never heard while simultaneously avoiding sounding like a nostalgia act. There is nothing dated in this band’s sound, but plenty that is timeless. In a way it’s like Nirvana filtered through Brand New’s The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, but somehow better than Daisy, which was Brand New’s attempt at that sound.

But enough with the comparisons. This is a heavy record, but never inaccessible. The touchstone of the record is the pure passion exhibited in the vocals, with Jon Simmons striking the perfect balance between resignation and defiance in much the same way as From Autumn To Ashes’ Fran Mark managed on Holding a Wolf By The Ears (oops, another comparison). Separation is also lyrically strong, catchy and melodic – essentially covering all bases. It is an astonishingly assured debut full length from a band with huge crossover potential.

 

7. letlive. – Fake History

Almost indescribable, Fake History is a post-hardcore (emphasis on the hardcore) record brimming with ambition, spastic energy, literary flair, passion, philosophical introspection and aggression. At first it can appear to be simply a maelstrom, the passion of the band hitting the listener in the face and leaving little room to comprehend anything else. But over time the nuances, the lyrics, and yes, even the hooks become apparent and make this an unforgettable album. It is an album that never allows the listener to feel comfortable, with the lyrical themes and raw aggression seemingly designed to challenge. As great as it is as a whole, however, the record is all about the track that anchors it – the absolutely stunning Muther is simultaneously poignant, touching, urgent and exhilarating. One of the best songs released this year.

On the whole, this is an unmissable album. 2012 is set to be huge for this band.

 

6. Lydia – Paint It Golden

The mere existence of this record is surely the most welcome surprise of 2011. Lydia were done following the end of their farewell tour in Australia late last year, but in news that made 2011 for thousands of Lydia fans Leighton Antelman announced mid-year that the beloved band was coming back full time with a new full-length and a tour.

Paint It Golden is the result, picking up where 2010’s beautiful Assailants EP left off. Gone is the female vocal counterpoint that was once so prominent, along with the long, stop start opuses that populated This December, It’s One More And I’m Free, but as was clearly evident on Assailants Antelman’s delicate voice always was, and always will be, the definitive characteristic of Lydia’s sound. His fragile, cracked, hesitating delivery has evolved further with Paint It Golden, and perfectly conveys the intimacy and emotion that has always been so much a part of his lyrics. Paint It Golden doesn’t drastically change the Lydia recipe – it is all lush instrumentation that is sometimes hushed and sometimes huge along with that voice and those lyrics – but it still feels like another step, another evolution. Touches like the lyrics to Hailey, in which Antelman refers to the band’s debut album and its stunning Her and Hailey, create even further intimacy for die-hard fans and make the album feel like simply the next step in a journey that Antelman and Lydia fans are on together.

This is a band that should be huge, but whose thoroughly unfashionable sincerity seems destined to hold them back from indie stardom. To their dedicated fanbase, however, they will forever be one of the most important bands in music.

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