A banner year for experimental pop: Paul Smirl ’13

Paul Smirl

1. Richard Buckner, “Our Blood”

Richard Buckner is a wanderer and his songs are like whispers echoing through a dark, empty house. A godfather of modern folk, Buckner has quietly released a collection of colorful records since the early nineties known for their stark arrangements and hushed, yet intensely emotional vocals. On “Our Blood,” Buckner furthers his legacy as a unique songwriter with a nine-track album of lush, intimate acoustic and electric recordings. In addition to Buckner’s signature vocal delivery, electric piano stands out on “Our Blood,” providing another noticeable voice that separates Buckner from the rampant pack of 21st century folk artists. Buckner’s sincere tunes are not only extremely listenable, but also seem to flow directly from his thoughts. Plus, during the recording process, Buckner endured a police investigation that involved a headless body being found in a car in front of his house. Dang.

2. Radiohead, “The King of Limbs”

Radiohead’s latest has been treated like a black sheep by much of the music press. Possibly the least poppy Radiohead album, “The King of Limbs” at first listen has few sing-able or even hummable passages. Likewise, TKOL takes on a different arc than most albums do. Beginning with an intense, busy, and percussive piece at the beginning and ending with a trio of ballads, TKOL hits you hard first before gently setting you down. Yet, upon multiple listens, the album sounds like pure Radiohead: transformative, innovative, and always surprising. Try the eerily bright guitar licks that burst out at the end of the last cut.

3. Earth, “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I”

Earth has transformed a lot since their early drone days, and with “Angels,” Dylan Carlson and company display some of their most melody-driven music to date. Noting British folk experimenters Pentangle — RIP Bert Jansch — as key inspirers, Earth brings an epic post-rock sound that couples mellifluous guitar and cello playing with sonorous drum sounds. The first of a two-part all-instrumental piece, Earth’s “Angels”provides a slow and winding listening journey.

4/5. All Tiny Creatures, “Harbors” and Collections of Colonies of Bees, “GIVING”

Southeastern Wisconsin is big for instrumental rock, and this year brought the release of two excellent albums by two intertwined groups: All Tiny Creatures and Collections of Colonies of Bees. Fresh off their successful collaboration with Bon Iver-man Justin Vernon as Volcano Choir, CoCoBees dropped a concise, upbeat, jam-ready record in “GIVING” that features ATC mastermind Tom Wincek. Likewise, Wincek and the Creatures display an electronic, yet spacey album of their own, showcasing some guest vocals from JV and members of Megafaun that slide in nice between atmospheric instrumentation. The real reason why they made it on my end of the year list though, is their artwork. Both signees of Hometapes Records, “Harbors” and “GIVING” are decked out with rad physical designs: Check ATC’s cloudy green and orange vinyl and CoCobees’ pink-and-black-spiraled records.