INDIE ROCK 4EVER Big Troubles’ Romantic Comedy was one of many standout 2011 releases off Oakland’s Slumberland Records.
During a year when political conversations are increasingly focused on the widening gap between the rich and poor, the corporate elite versus the rest of the world, it makes sense that arts criticism follow. After all, a small handful of multi-national corporations run 80 percent of the US music market, flooding our venues and airwaves with the most commercially viable plastic products. A truly "alternative" year-end list should focus solely on the independent voices that, in a music world strangled by the One Percent, created ample breathing space in 2011: the independent labels, the mom-and-pop shops trying to make ends meet on the music world's Main Street. This was a massive year for the musical 99 percent.
The crew at 22-year-old SLUMBERLAND were the masterminds behind some of the year's best pop albums. Their stand-out record was Big Troubles' sophomore full-length Romantic Comedy, for which the Jersey quartet hit the studio with R.E.M./Pavement producer Mitch Easter, melding all sorts of underground pop influences and shedding the super lo-fi sound of their home-recorded debut. Also via Slumberland, we heard the psych-gaze noise pop of Crystal Stilts' In Love With Oblivion, and two of the most charming '80s-inspired indie-pop recordings of the year: Veronica Falls' eponymous disc and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's Belong.
Three-year-old Brooklyn label CAPTURED TRACKS were also responsible for some of the year's best, most notably Widowspeak's moody debut LP and Beach Fossils' introspective What a Pleasure EP. The label's entire roster — Beach Fossils side projects Dive and Heavenly Beat, plus Craft Spells, Blank Dogs, Hoop Dreams, Minks, and reissues of long-lost underground noise-pop — set up Captured Tracks as not only one of the most accomplished super-indie labels of 2011, but one to trust in 2012.
In a more experimental vein, the exceptional 2011 line-up from Brooklyn's MEXICAN SUMMER included Replica, the sixth album by Brooklyn-via-Boston ambient artist Daniel Lopatin, a/k/a Oneohtrix Point Never, and the debut full-length LP by Boston's own psych-folk stars Quilt. Early in the year, MS was also behind the weirdo dream-pop hits on Puro Instinct's Headbangers in Ecstasy.
WOODSIST's output was smaller than years past, but it would make this list even if its only release were Woods' Sun & Shade, a blissed-out summer soundtrack meld of ambient tape hiss and hooky verse sung in falsetto. Other 2011 favorites were Ducktails' Arcade Dynamics III and White Fence's Is Growing Faith LP. The label launched an inspired deep-psych imprint, Hello Sunshine, releasing two albums by Herbcraft, our 50 Bands 50 States pick from Maine, Herbcraft.
New Jersey-based UNDERWATER PEOPLES notably released the debut LP by Brooklyn experimental trio La Big Vic — a retrofuturistic album of kosmische-inspired soundscapes, trip-hop beats, and looped violin/vocals. UP also put out an LP by Aussie garage-pop quartet the Twerps, the comforting jams of Julian Lynch's spacious Terra, and Family Portrait's full-length.
Brooklyn's SACRED BONES gave us a full-length by avant-pop songstress Zola Jesus and complex punk by the Men. Los Angeles label HIPPOS IN TANKS surfaced as one of the strongest new West Coast labels, with Laurel Halo's Hour Logic, Sleep Over's Casual Diamond, and a split release from Montreal artists d'Eon and Grimes.
One model child of the indie label is Marissa Nadler's BOX OF CEDAR RECORDS. Jaded by experiences with labels, Nadler set up a Kickstarter to release Marissa Nadler — another of the year's best LPs. She vowed to the Phoenix she'd never release anyone else's music, to avoid becoming business-minded, and said something that speaks to this roundup: "Commercial viability and good music are not one and the same."