In a year that seemed dominated by burbly synth odysseys, it was easy to overlook guitar records as formulaic, particularly those with fairly obvious aesthetic lineage. Yuck faced additional derision in the press as the “third best band of 1991,” counterfeiters of a style popular when the members were five years old. It’s a shame, because “Yuck,” their brilliant debut, has value far beyond “Dinosaur III” jokes. Opener “Get Away” is almost a thesis in the art of fuzz, and “Operation” has a more angsty riff than anything on “Nevermind,” while crystalline ballads “Shook Down” and “Suicide Policeman” evoke Malkmus at his finest. Though it occasionally reads like a simulacrum, “Yuck” underscores the breadth of emotion and beauty simple guitar rock can achieve, and champions “alt” in a time of constant subgenre taxonomy.
2. JEFF the Brotherhood, “We Are the Champions”
“Back to basics” is an understatement for a band like JEFF, in which brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall make a louder-than-God racket with only a drum set and half a guitar. JEFF, at the forefront of the Nashville independent scene, release their records on their own Infinity Cat imprint, and it’s no wonder Warner Bros. made a distribution deal with them after their newest record: “We Are the Champions” is a primal, adolescent blast of occasionally psychedelic garage rock, ping-ponging from dorky shout-along choruses à la Weezer to droning sitar zone-outs. When the frontman of your band can start your record with the line “I’ve been thinking about your mom,” and still seem like a huge badass, you’re onto something. “Champions” has mass appeal but never seems dumb, working hard for its “funnest record of 2011” status.
3. Veronica Falls, “Veronica Falls”
Twee is often bouncy and fun to a saccharine degree, but any Kurt Cobain fanatic will tell you there’s a darker edge to be found in the Sarah Records catalog. Veronica Falls sit on the boundary of cute and manic, and a listen through their self-titled debut shows an equal affection for Heavenly and the Pixies. The guitars never venture past chiming, and the complex boy-girl harmonies are always on key, but there’s something sinister in the turn of the chord. The lyrics spell out the foreboding in playground-like rhymes: “I’m broken-hearted/ dearly departed” on “Found Love in a Graveyard,” for instance, and their song “Beachy Head,” about the cutest-named suicide locale anywhere. The sheen of the production and the studied precision of the instrumentals highlight the sophistication of “Veronica Falls,” a crucial element of the quartet’s singularity in a generally lo-fi sector of indie pop, so you won’t feel too juvenile singing along, either.
4. Neon Indian, “Era Extraña”
I am as guilty as anyone of riding the chill wave once in a while, but Alan Palomo is sure trying to distance himself from the trappings of the moniker. His second record as Neon Indian keeps a lot of his acid-drenched vintage synth work but leaves most of the analog tape hiss and warble behind. Punctuating “Era Extraña” with a series of “Heart” tracks, named after the usual controllable parameters of a synthesizer, he drives home his effort to make all the electronic noise a thematic and emotional element of the record. “Polish Girl” has a transcendent, melancholic groove, while “Fallout” should be sound-tracking the prom in an ‘80s movie. The second half of the record lapses into slow-burning and heavily processed jams, cementing Palomo’s reputation as more of a dance-music architect than a songwriter. By reconstructing the past through a kaleidoscopic and more noirish lens, Neon Indian evolves beyond its generic novelty on “Era Extraña.”
5. The War on Drugs, “Slave Ambient”
This Philadelphia outfit pulls Americana down a highway of droning atmosphere and moody recollection. Though Kurt Vile, a former member with immense success this year, is missed, “Slave Ambient” takes the group’s successes to a more focused, populist sound. “I Was There” could be a Dylan song without its spacious chorus effect, and “Come to the City” channels Springsteen through similar territory as the Arcade Fire. “Baby Missiles” even hearkens back to their own “Wagonwheel Blues,” placing the War themselves in their re-interpretive tradition. It’s hard to get a respite from the constant sameness of American folk rock tradition, but “Slave Ambient”is 2011’s addition to the songbook, a shot of shoegazey medicine for a staid genre.