If you’ve heard our radio show or come to one of our events, you already know what we’re about. So here’s our overview of some of the year’s most interesting recordings from queer and gender-defiant artists, including some females who smash the glass ceilings of male chauvinist tree-houses, whether or not their music has overt feminist content. Now, don’t get us wrong — some of our best friends are straight, cis-gendered males, but they already get enough attention elsewhere (even when their normative views don’t yield the most creative musical output).
Some choices made it to our list for their songcraft and sonic storytelling, others for their political content. Our #1 pick nailed it on both points. A couple tracks were more or less arbitrarily plucked from albums that were jammed front to back with engaging material. So please don’t consider this list as definitive or exhaustive — just use it as a jumping off point to discover more amazing music. Click the tabs to navigate through our selections…
25. Fatima Al Qadiri ”D-Medley” UNOuno
Fatima Al Qadiri is a visual artist, musician and writer, carving a niche within each discipline. When choosing a song, it was tough to decide between Genre Specific Xperience versus something from Warn-U under her Ayshay alias — both EPs are captivating in their own way. We went with the former, mostly because the artwork is radder (but only slightly so). “D-Medley” is a meditative number with steel drum sounds woven together with synthesized choir voices, carefully accented with minimal percussion for a sense of urgency.
24. Hunx and his Punx “If You’re Not Here” Hardly Art
Hunx and his Punx‘ debut album (not counting last year’s Gay Singles collection), Too Young to be in Love, is unabashedly throwback: the two lead tracks are loose re-writes of early 60s hits “Last Kiss” and “My Boyfriend’s Back” — but the overtly he-on-him subject matter turns the retro trope on its back. Further defying standard expectations is frontman Seth Bogart’s all-female backing band, including bassist Shannon Shaw (see #15). The loose, jangly ”If You’re Not Here” features Hunx’ typical queer sneer augmented with Shannon’s heartbroken howling. If John Waters gets around to making another film, he’d be remiss not to bring Hunx on board for the soundtrack.
23. R.E.M. feat. Peaches “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” Warner
As much as we idolize Peaches, having her guest on an R.E.M. song doesn’t sound that good on paper to be honest. But rather than rhyming “Alligator” with, say, “Masturbator”, she keeps her spoken word section clean and classy, and her sung backing vocals hark back to Kate Pierson on 1991′s classic Out of Time. Have a listen to Dickey Doo & Larry Tee’s reworking while you’re at it. Congratulations to R.E.M. for ending their career on a high note with Collapse into Now.
22. Sissters “There’s a Party in my Mouth and You’re Not Invited” Coraille
This is the title track from Sissters‘ debut EP, a neurotic meth-surf jam built on just guitar, drums and vocals. The whole record is solid, but it’s their live show that really reveals their musical alchemy, the perfect balance of emotional resonance and technical ability.
21. o F F Love “Close to U I’m Not” m=maximal
Formerly just o F F but having recently appended his name to avoid any ambiguity regarding his sentimentality, o F F Love is a “one-man boy band”, citing Akon, Backstreet Boys and Arther Russell as major influences. “Close to U I’m Not” is a stark, mournful, slightly derranged ballad from his latest EP Probably Love.
20. Heatsick “Tertiary” Pan
As Heatsick, Steven Warwick uses layers of Casio sounds to compose pieces that ultimately transcend any notion of what such a dinky little keyboard could produce, some of them danceable and some of it abstract. His new LP Intersex is inspired by German physician Magnus Hirschfeld, a pioneering homosexual advocate and feminist who studied the variations of human sexuality. Warwick explains to Resident Advisor, ”It’s funny because the idea of, ‘Do you want to be known as a gay artist?’ or whatever, and I don’t know if it’s like that, but you would definitely want to push gay themes into the foreground because it’s who you are, it’s part of who you are, and I feel that it’s very ignored.” Also check out his 12″ “Dream Tennis”, released earlier this year on Berlin’s own CockTail d’Amore Music.
19. tUnE-yArDs “Gangsta” 4AD
Peaches probably thought she had a monopoly on people named Merrill who are queer and feminist and rock out with their proverbial cock out. But no! Merrill Garbus AKA tUnE-yArDs also makes balls-out beat-downs, like this one, the siren-mimicking “Gangsta”. You can find it on her second album w h o k i l l, an onslaught of vaguely tropical, dubby grunge. But she has a softer side, too, so it’s more like a pillow fight. And though her mustache might not be as thick as J.D. Samson’s, she’s got way more sass.
18. Crazy Bitch in a Cave “Alarm” Comfortzone
A gentle falsetto gets sucked into a whirlwind of swampy dancehall beats, getting jostled around until it regains footing for an anthemic piano breakdown. It’s just one of the many bewildering moments on Crazy Bitch in a Cave‘s compelling self-produced debut full-length album Particles.
17. Friends “I’m his Girl” Lucky Number
We ignored this one first time around — the boring band name, the overused font (Futura) and the gratuitous boobs traced by 80s Warhol instantly turned us away. Then we heard the tune out of context one day and realized that not only is it damn catchy, but it actually has a powerful message behind the sexy nonchalance. The Hairpin sums it up as ”the best song about healthy relationships that has ever been recorded… your worth doesn’t depend on your relationship status and … relationships are not about possession. Even if she’s his girl, she does exactly what she wants when she’s with him and when she’s not.”
16. Julia Holter “Goddess Eyes” Leaving
Julia Holter‘s Tragedy is one of the most richly textured albums we heard this year, merging buzzing tones, opera singing, dissonant strings, wind tunnels and raw drum machines into a new-age noise symphony. When “Goddess Eyes” enters after about 20 minutes, the “O Superman”-eque vocoder harmonies are a welcome melodic element. We never knew the whole thing was based on the Greek tragedy Hippolytus til we read this Altered Zones article, but that didn’t affect our enjoyment of getting totally immersed in Holter’s soundscapes.
15. Shannon and the Clams “The Cult Song” 1-2-3-4 Go!
There’s absolutely nothing innovative about Shannon and the Clams‘ Sleep Talk — it’s just animalistic, reverb-heavy garage rock founded on good songwriting, filled with coos, howls and yelps. It’s a consistent listen from start to finish, but the frenetic chugging of “The Cult Song” gets the highest marks from us. Shannon is a fine full-figured frontwoman (as well as the bassist for Hunx, #24), and if old-timey rock ‘n’ roll is what turns you on, then the Clams are a natural aphrodisiac.
14. Hercules & Love Affair “Answers Come in Dreams” Moshi Moshi
Kudos to Andy Butler for his expansive take on what a “band” can entail, with the rotating colorful cast of Hercules & Love Affair and its members’ various solo projects found on mr.intl, the DJ-oriented label he co-runs. Hercules’ second full-length Blue Songs was an exercise in classic disco and house grooves, but for some listeners, too referential (not to mention the slew of mediocre remixes that followed the album’s release, diminishing the overall picture). Still, we won’t complain when Aérea Negrot (see also: #4) steps in gracefully as a certain Ms. Jones, mingling with the acid bassline, jacking rhythms and nervous guitar licks.
13. Jessica 6 feat. Antony Hegarty “See the Light” Peacefrog
Two former Hercules & Love Affair vocalists, Nomi Ruiz and Antony Hegarty, team up for a resonating dancefloor anthem that builds upon disco and house traditions while still sounding current. Jessica 6‘s debut album See the Light might not be as consistent overall as Hercules’ latest Blue Songs, but its highs such as “See the Light” sound much less constrained by retro fetishism.
12. Barbara Panther “Rise Up” City Slang
Since seeing her perform in 2008, we were anxiously awaiting the debut album from Rwandan-born, Belgian-raised Berliner Barbara Panther, poised to be underground pop’s next pagan princess. But when her self-titled record finally came out this spring, there was surprisingly no fanfare. It’s a shame, because Panther’s oddball arrangements and expressive voice, coupled with studio touches from Matthew Herbert, make for a truly unique (if not always soothing) listening experience, and her visionary lyrics couldn’t be more timely in Occupy 2011.
11. Beth Ditto “I Wrote the Book” Deconstruction
After the Gossip frontwoman providing the highlight of Simian Mobile Disco’s otherwise forgettable Temporary Pleasure, and SMD’s James Ford co-producing a track on Gossip’s last album, Beth Ditto teamed up once again with the SMD duo for a four-track self-titled EP. We hope this isn’t the last of their collaborations, not just because her bluesy voice sounds so good over their fat, boisterous synths, but because we need more female pop figures who have outgrown the old-fashioned oppressive standards of beauty.
10. †DRESSER ”It’s a Choice” self-released
We came across this self-proclaimed “witch-hip-house drag troupe” when they posted a link to their video in the comments section of our article on witch-house (which continues to be one of our most-read posts to date, despite being published in spring of 2010). †DRESSER‘s lyrics re-appropriate the right-wing trope that homosexuality is a “choice” to rage against the biological determinist argument that individuals are “born this way” (Gaga et al.), proclaiming that we are free to construct our own identities (and that sexual minorities don’t need a thin, blonde hetero spokesman for validation). We booked †DRESSER for the Halloween edition of «Mort à la Différence» and they totally killed it.
9. Laurel Halo “Hour Logic” Hippos in Tanks
Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of women making proggy sci-fi techno. In fact there aren’t many humans making this kind of music at all. The 9-minute title track from Laurel Halo‘s Hour Logic EP sounds more like it was composed by A.I. to soundtrack a Discovery Channel program about nanotechnological spirituality. While on her previous EP she put her singing in the spotlight with majestically unfolding melodies, on Hour Logic she relegates her voice to the background so the pulsing grid can dominate. Meanwhile, her recent remixes for Grimes and Planningtorock are completely beatless. With such varied prolificacy, we don’t expect Halo to rest on her laurels.
8. Light Asylum “Dark Allies” Mexican Summer
Technically, this one came out in 2010 on the Brooklyn duo’s self-pressed tour-only CD, but it wasn’t til this summer that it got an official 12″ and digital release with noticeably improved mastering. Shannon Funchess’s deep, thunderous voice and Brother Bruno’s shimmering production abilities are a match made in purgatory, where lost souls hope for just a glint of silver in the stormy black clouds. And like, the 80s and stuff. Check a clip of Light Asylum performing “Dark Allies” at the first edition of «Mort à la Différence», and head to Altered Zones for Joey Hansom & Dickey Doo’s campy revamp of the track.
7. Kate Wax “Dancing on your Scalp” Border Community
Most female singers concentrate on performing and find a male to do the production work, and inversely, most male electronic producers are too timid to step behind the mic and recruit a pretty lady when they want their tracks to have vocals. Kate Wax does both, and adeptly, combining shivering synth work and crisp beats, both housey and downtempo, with her gentle but unnerving vocal delivery. ”Dancing in your Scalp” is one of the highlights from her new album Dust Collision.
6. Austra “Beat and the Pulse” (Kool Thing Remix) Domino
Although it didn’t reach global public consciousness til this year, Austra‘s debut single “Beat and the Pulse” was actually released in 2010 before getting reissued this spring, paving the way for their acclaimed album Feel it Break. But we’ve found a loophole to put it on our list anyway, in the form of this version from the Sparkle remix EP. We’ve been fans of neo-primitivist synth-wavers Kool Thing since the beginning, so we knew their reworking would not disappoint, but we didn’t expect it to eclipse all the other big-name remixers like Planningtorock, Panoramabar’s Steffi, or Hercules & Love Affair’s Mark Pistel — it’s easily the most imaginative of the bunch.
5. Planningtorock “I am your Man” DFA
Both musically, with her frequently down-pitched voice, and visually, with her Greco-Roman power-brow, Planningtorock challenges concepts of gender and identity, but never pedagogically — there’s a wide open world of interpretation. In her interview with The Quietus, Janine Rostron explains: “[T]he prosthetic was just a way to play with the notion of what gender I was. Not ‘is she a man or is she a woman?’ but more about ‘who is this person?’ to try and draw you into my head. Also, I feel that the internal worlds of women are not that well represented by society. It is not an immediate thing people think about – the imagination of women or women’s philosophy.” With her album W on numerous year-end lists, we’re thrilled that a few new listeners might be drawn into her head and away from dominant masculine thought processes. And we’re thrilled with the saxual assault and doo-wop Muppet background vox in “I am your Man” — it could almost be a long-lost Flying Lizards cut.
4. Aérea Negrot “Arabxilla” BPitch Control
Although her membership in Hercules & Love Affair (see #14) is what raised Aérea Negrot‘s profile, it’s her solo projectin which her own eccentric character truly shines. The title track from her debut full-length sums things up fairly well, combining producer Tobias Freund’s synthetic percussion, weirdo piano chords and Negrot’s theatrical tendencies, somehow making shopping at Tesco sound sexy. “I go diagonal” she repeats throughout, which encapsulates Arabxilla‘s bent toward the bizarre.
3. SSION “Listen to the Grrrls” self-released
Cody Critcheloe and his talented cast of collaborators have offered their latest full-length Bent as a free download via the official SSION site. This track is the gay marriage of club kid and riot grrrl culture, and a holy union between aesthetes and activists is exactly what the world needs right now. Self-described as “Kylie Moroder Pink Huggy Bear Floyd”, we’ll throw in Gwen Stefani as another reference point. Also check Joey Hansom’s remix for SSION, a free download over at Catch Fire.
2. Maria Minerva “Ruff Trade” Not Not Fun
It’s hard to pick just one track from Maria Minerva‘s busy breakthrough year in which she released two albums (the limited edition cassette Tallinn at Dawn and the CD/LP Cabaret Cixous) and two 12″ EPs. “Ruff Trade” seems to represent as well as any the intriguing tension her music radiates as the dichotomy between academic and pop starts to deteriorate. When we invited her for her first Berlin show at «Mort à la Différence», the audience were simultaneously nodding their heads to the beat and nodding off into dreamworld. In her Expatriarch interview, she explained she tries to move minds rather than bodies — and whether live on on tape, she succeeds.
1. YACHT “Dystopia (The Earth is on Fire)” DFA
If we can’t dance to it, it’s not our apocalypse. As YACHT, Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans put a socially conscious Portlandian spin on DFA Records’ disco-rock template, and on the lead single from their fifth album Shangri-La, they warn of — or rather, welcome — the end of the world, using pretty vocal harmonies and sugary synths to make the “lower skies” and “blacker shores” less doomy. ”We let our children multiply / ’cause we’re afraid of dying”. Is the human race breeding itself to death with rampant heteronormative plundering? Bonus points for YACHT’s creative use of triangles, crosses and smiley faces, and for the pun in The Straight Gaze, the name of their live backing band.