Thursday, December 22, 2011
5. Joe Bonamassa - Dust Bowl
I love the blues, specifically guitar driven blues rock. Joe Bonamassa, who happens to hail from upstate New York, is the best blues guitarist of this generation. He was a child prodigy and has lived up to the high expectations. While "Dust Bowl" has plenty of Joe’s amazing guitar work, it also showcases his talents as a songwriter. While some of my friends didn’t like the songs that leaned towards country, it all works for me. Highlights include “Slow Train”, “The Meaning of the Blues”, and “The Whale That Swallowed Jonah.”
4. Wilco - The Whole Love
Music can be very personal for me. There is a soundtrack to my life. My father passed away this fall and as fate would have it, the first time I heard "The Whole Love" was during a long, lonely ride to make final arrangement for his memorial service. When “One Sunday Morning” came on, I had to pull off the road to compose myself. And while the relationship I had with my father was completely different than the one depicted in the song, I will always remember that drive. The rest of the album is fantastic, with Wilco returning to form. If I was making a list of the best songs of the year, "One Sunday Morning" and the "Art of Almost" would both be on that list.
3. The Who - Quadrophenia - The Director's Cut
The Who were the best live band ever, end of discussion. Their studio albums never captured the energy and power of their live performances. This was especially true of my favorite Who album "Quadrophenia" which took on new life when performed live. I still have a vivid memory of The Who playing Folsom Field in ‘82 and John Entwistle’s bass thundering through the Front Range while they played “5:15”. This reissue sounds magnificent and goes a step closer to capturing the dynamics of their live shows.
There has been considerable debate in the Who community about the sound and production on this CD. For me, everything does sound cleaner. The real star here is the late, great Keith Moon, the Tasmanian Devil of the drum kit. This comes as close to capturing what Moon sounded like in concert as anything I’ve heard, even more so than “Live at Leeds”. The inclusion of several of the demo tapes is an added bonus. Hearing how Townsend first envisioned these songs and how they were finally recorded is fascinating. All in all, this reissue breaths new life into a timeless classic.
2. Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning
Grace for Drowning is magnificent. To quote the review from our local paper - “If you’ve been wondering whatever happened to the heady commingling of serious musicianship with the might and majesty of rock, here’s your answer.” Wilson is joined by several legendary musicians including Steve Hackett, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, and Theo Travis. This is progressive rock at it’s finest. The influences from Genesis, ELP, Jethro Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson can be heard throughout this masterpiece. And while much of progressive rock is pretentious and collapses under its own weight, the songs here are very listenable.
And then there is the sound. The 5.1 mix will take your breath away. Unlike the classic albums from the 70’s and 80’s that have been remastered for surround sound, "Grace for Drowning" was conceived and created for 5.1. It is the best example of a three-dimensional sound stage I’ve ever heard. Pro tip - if you have a 5.1 setup for movies, buy it on blu-ray. The difference between the stereo version and the 5.1 version is incredible. Wilson is hoping to bring the wonders of surround sound to the masses by using the blu-ray format. I hope blu-ray can succeed where DVD-audio and SACD failed.
This is now the album I will use to demonstrate my surround sound system. I’m considering hosting a listening party at my house as part of #heweb13. Expect "Grace for Drowning" to be prominently featured.
1. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
Almost 30 years ago I received a phone call from a friend of mine insisting we leave that night on a road trip to Athens to catch a club show of a relatively obscure band. Given that skipping work was involved I was hesitant, but I respected her musical tastes so off we went. Thus began my love affair with R.E.M., a band I have always strongly identified with. (There's a reason that "It's the end of the Web as We Know It" is the title I chose for my most popular presentation.) Unlike some of my other favorite artists, I am the same age as the members of R.E.M. and IMHO, they have been the spokesmen for my generation.
Most bands who survive for 30 years experience a sharp decline in creativity during the tail end of their careers. Not so with R.E.M. I thoroughly enjoyed “Accelerate”, though it was very one-dimensional. “Collapse Into Now” captures all that made R.E.M. great, showcasing both their hard and soft sides. So is this a nostalgic pick? Absolutely. 2011 will be the last time that R.E.M. will ever be included in any yearly best of lists and it’s only fitting that the best American rock band of all time goes out on top.
With that said, below are my favorite albums of 2011, with commentary for the first few. If you're interested, here's a Spotify playlist with one song from each album in the order below. It should be noted that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo soundtrack came out after I created this list, and it's a rather epic (word not used lightly) album, so I've listed it as an asterisk at the end. Enjoy! (or don't!)
1 Puscifer - Conditions of My Parole
Vocal harmonies a'plenty, this album improves on Puscifer’s first in every way. From front to back, it’s a much more interesting listen sonically, both instrumentation and vocals, and Maynard does far more singing. When you’re the best rock vocalist in the world that matters. As you'd expect, humor is sprinkled around here and there, but it's not near as a focal point as before. Most of these songs have some serious themes. My favorite of the year.
2 SONOIO - Red
The biggest difference between Red and Blue (his first album) is Allesandro Cortini’s confidence. He seems way more comfortable behind the mic and that comes across in his melodies and the pop-feel many of the tracks have. His pitch is high, but it works surprisingly well within the context of the music, and the vocal arrangements are excellent.
3 Glassjaw - Coloring Book EP
Though it’s only an EP, this is the best music Glassjaw has ever produced, IMHO, which is why it's ranked this highly. If you can get behind Daryl Palumbo’s voice (not everyone can, but I love it), I think there’s an incredible amount to appreciate here. More experimental than what they’ve done in the past, these songs feel slowed down, even when they really aren’t. There’s a lot of variety within each song but that variety is pieced together to perfection. It’s a different, more mature kind of aggression from Glassjaw.
4 Bon Iver - Self Titled
I think it’s kind of crazy to see this masterpiece number 4 (and behind an EP nonetheless!) but that’s what makes these lists personal. This album is otherworldly and you’ve probably heard all that can be said about this record. Let's just say GREAT. In fact, head to a cabin in the woods to listen to it.
5 Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
This dreamy instrumental album will take you places that you don’t understand; places that make little, if any, sense. Then again, it could take you somewhere familiar, too. Just be assured you'll travel somewhere, and that can be a very rewarding thing.
6 ††† - EP †
I don’t take including EPs in these lists lightly. It’s certainly appropriate to judge them a little harder given they’re going up against full-lengths. But when the art is great, the art is great. When Chino Moreno dabbled in Team Sleep, I thought the results were mediocre, even boring at times. In his first side project away from the Deftones since then (I think), he’s found something that works and I only hope a full-length is in the works. Dude can sing (but you knew that), and this EP captures what Team Sleep was missing. Several songs have almost power ballad-like melodies.
7 James Blake - Self Titled
I’m not sure if I’m a James Blake fan in the whole scheme of things, but I couldn’t stop listening to this album when it came out and I have the utmost respect for it. I was constantly thinking that I’d never quite heard anything like this before. Such close attention to music detail, plenty of off-timed beats, quirky arrangements, and spacey vocals, all wrapped up in something very raw and stripped down.
8 Tycho - Dive
A headphone listen if I’ve ever heard one, much of this record strongly reminds me of Boards of Canada. There is plenty of thumping that’s easy to bob your head to, but it’s ultimately reserved, and results in a peaceful listening experience from beginning to end.
9 The Horrors - Skying
10 M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
11 Tim Hecker - Dropped Pianos
12 Lights - Siberia
13 Big Black Delta - BBDLP1
14 TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
15 Animals as Leaders - Weightless
16 Amon Tobin - ISAM
17 The New Regime - Speak Through the White Noise
18 Grouper - A I A : Alien Observer / A I A : Dream Loss
19 The Cool Kids - When Fish Ride Bicycles
20 Washed Out - Within and Without
21 Gold Panda - Companion
22 Does It Offend You, Yeah? - Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
23 Com Truise - Galactic Melt
24 Apparat - The Devil's Walk
25 Radiohead - The King of Limbs
* Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Monday, December 19, 2011
25. Wye Oak - Civilian (2 votes, 93 points)
Singer Jenn Wasner has a smokey, emotive stoicism that leaves you feeling as though you were there when it all happened. The music doesn't let you down, but it's not upbeat by any stretch of the imagination. Still, one of my favorite albums of this year. Very much a "time and place" album. - RB
Jenn Wasner is a great songwriter, a great singer, and a great guitarist. The result is almost magical. And no, this isn't cheery listening, but "Holy Holy" and "Civilian" are epic tracks. - dw
24. James Blake - James Blake (3 votes, 97 points)
In a time when dubstep is becoming the new Autotune, James Blake manages to take it in a new, quieter direction. And he pretty well succeeds at it. - dw
Another album I should placed higher. Quickly becoming one of my current favorites. Haunting. Like the love child of Bon Iver and Crystal Castles. - GR
23. P.J. Harvey - Let England Shake (4 votes, 98 points)
I'm not a huge P.J. Harvey fan, but it was nice to hear from her again. This album is a sort of love letter from the artist to her homeland. - AC
Yes, it is a very British record from a mercurial woman who would make an entire album played on spoons and a washboard if she could. But like a good, old single malt, you have to know what you're drinking to appreciate, and if you know what you're drinking, you're going to know what's great and what's brown liquor. And you have to tolerate a certain amount of peat and smoke to understand what's great. Polly Jean Harvey makes albums about being British. And being British means confronting their recent wars, the grief over what was lost in the Great War and what has been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and really, what does being British mean? Her words are at times grotesque (Soliders falling like lumps of meat, e.g.), but every word is well-thought and well-crafted. Much as how The Suburbs was less about "here's what's wrong with the suburbs" and more about "these are stories from the suburbs," this is an album about being British, not about how horrible the British are. And in the hands of one of the greatest woman rockers in history, it's a beautiful declaration of ugly, lovely love for England. - dw
22. The Black Keys - El Camino (3 votes, 101 points)
Since our deadline to submit albums happened before this one was released, I didn't include El Camino in my list. Now I wish I had. It's a terrific, loose album -- the Black Keys unleashed. - AC
Gave it a listen. To borrow a roller derby reffing term, this would have had no impact on my list. - TN
I've been listening to The Black Keys since I was writing for Australian indie/punk rock magazine Blunt and was tasked with reviewing Thickfreakness and one of their shows in 2003. They've come a long way from recording lo-fi blues on a Tascam 388 and not being able to sell out a club with a capacity of 250. They were a revelation back then, and they're something I look forward to every couple of years now. This album is really solid, if a little watered-down from their previous offerings. Still one of the best of 2011. - GR
El Camino puts the pedal to the metal with the opening track Lonely Boy and never looks back. One of the best of 2011. - MG
Shoulda had it out two weeks earlier, fellas. - CD
I wish I'd been able to listen to this one before we put our lists together because I'm really enjoying it so far. It appears they've opted not to make the album available on streaming services, but this one is actually worth buying. - AW
21. Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto (4 votes, 103 points)
Yes, it’s Coldplay, and I feel like I’m not supposed to like Coldplay. But Mylo Xyloto is pretty catchy from beginning to end. - AC
I wasn't thrilled with the first single, but the album is solid. -CD
It's so funny that Andy said he feels like he's not supposed to like Coldplay. That's exactly how I feel. Why is that? Whatever, I like this album a lot and included it in my top 10. - AW
20. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds (4 votes, 106 points)
The Oasis front man spreads his wings and flies solo. A nice effort. I was surprised to see it make the top 20 of our list. - AC
Me too. Really enjoyable listen. I feel like these guys should get together with Beady Eye and make a record together. -CD
Noel Gallagher's first solo effort since the demise of Oasis is surprisingly fun to listen to. Especially when compared to the atrocity that is Liam Gallagher's Beady Eye. Just goes to show that Noel was Oasis. - JG
19. The Drive By Truckers - Go-Go Boots (4 votes, 112 points)
I keep hoping that the Truckers will get it together and create an album as cohesive as their magnificent Southern Rock Opera. This isn’t it. It has its standout tunes, most notably the first track “I Do Believe” and “Everybody Needs Love,” but even for a die-hard DBT fan like me, some of the southern gothic shtick is starting to get old. - AC
Any album by the Athens, Ga. roots rockers is bound to contain wonderfully twisted storylines, cheating lovers and dead bodies. In that context, this album does not disappoint. - TN
18. TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light (4 votes, 115 points)
This one didn't make my personal top 50. Rather disappointing, I think. - AC
I didn't find it disappointing. Maybe a little overwrought, not as good as earlier works, but still a great piece of indie pop. - dw
Not their best, but even that's better than most everything else out there. - GR
17. Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne (4 votes, 123 points)
Everything about this album is "boys behaving badly and loving it." The beats are off the charts, the rhymes superfluous but fun. La Roux and Bon Iver (yes, that's him) check in and Frank Ocean is hip-hop's rookie of the year after contributing his vocals on the lead track "No Church In The Wild." - RB
This album would be so much better if Kanye never opened his mouth. - GR
16. Foster the People - Torches (3 votes, 131 points)
An album full of catchy tunes that just kept growing and growing on me, despite my best efforts to ignore it. The L.A. band’s “Pumped Up Kicks” has to be the earworm of the year. Every track on this album is catchy, and if you can get past the poppiness to tune in to the message of the lyrics, so much more the better. - AC
"Pumped Up Kicks" was the single of the summer. Other decent tracks, but just couldn't get into the whole album. - TN
This felt like a guilty pleasure. A lot of enjoyable songs, but it's more hooks than craft. The definitive party album of the year. - dw
This is a great album to play over and over when you're doing something tedious at work. I really like it, and I haven't gotten tired of it yet (which says something). - AW
Bonus: For those of you sick of "Pumped Up Kicks," try the acoustic version:
15. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow (5 votes, 132 points)
They shift gears, play well off each others vocals and give the best country album of the year on Barton Hollow. Standout tracks for me include "Barton Hollow, I've Got This Friend and Girl With The Red Balloon." - RB
I did not like this album. I know they promote themselves as being a collaboration between two non-lovers, but maybe for as destructive band relationships can be (sometimes taking out a promising duo like Eastmountainsouth or ultimately leading to the end of the band like Sonic Youth), that relationship tension is what creates the interesting sound. The Civil Wars are uninteresting. - dw
Love. I don't even know what else to say. It's a beautiful album. - AW
14. Adele - 21 (6 votes, 136 points)
At the ripe old age of 21, Adele has become heiress to the jazz-pop singer throne vacated by Amy Winehouse. - AC
Heiress? She damn well stormed into the throne room and took the chair herself this year. After years of white British girls nibbling at the edges, Adele blows right past Amy and Joss Stone to get into the jazz/pop singer pantheon so dominated by Americans. And she's only 21. - dw
Absolutely stunning album. I hope Adele sticks around a lot longer than her predecessors. - GR
Adele just kept resurfacing this summer. I kept trying to avoid her and with each track -- from "Rumor Has It" to "Rolling In The Deep," she just kept showing up on my radar. - RB
While not my type of music, Adele has a voice that can't be denied. One of the few albums that my entire family enjoys. - MG
There's no denying that the girl's got a voice. It's so very refreshing to see a truly talented female artist getting recognition, one who doesn't need to be autotuned or choreographed. - AW
While Adele's incredible voice can't be denied, the songwriting on 21 is mediocre at best. I mean, there's only 1 song on the entire record! - JG
13. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now (4 votes, 162 points)
How on earth did this make it only to the No. 13 spot on our list? Collapse Into Now was my pick for album of the year. Ah, well, that's consensus for you, I guess. Even before R.E.M. announced that they were breaking up for good, I had more or less christened this as my favorite album for 2011. R.E.M. has always been masterful at articulating self-aware alienation and putting it to music. With their previous release, 2008’s Accelerate, the band wavered a bit. But they returned to form with Collapse Into Now, their strongest release since Automatic for the People. There isn’t a weak track on the album. Favorite tracks: “Oh My Heart” (about post-Katrina New Orleans), “UBerlin” and “Every Day Is Yours To Win.” - AC
If this is how R.E.M. is going out, it's a good way to go. - dw
One of the most important bands in the history of American rock goes out on top. - MG
12. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (5 votes, 163 points)
I didn't enjoy this when I first heard it. Then I revisited and felt differently. There is no real parallel for what Fleet Foxes output these days. Emotive, ethereal and even serene...no sophomore slump from these guys. -RB
Unlike Ron, countless revisits didn't help me find much love for this album. A Brian Wilson-like tenor kicks off the opening track, “Montezuma,” and gives me some hope for this album. But despite strong lyrics and mellifluous, flowing tunes, there’s a little too much mellow and not enough flow for my liking. Helplessness Blues is too inconsistent to hold my interest for long. “Sim Sala Bim,” for instance, starts out quietly, and rather boringly, but then transitions quickly into a mandolin jam fit for Led Zeppelin IV. Then the next track, “Battery Kinzie,” begins like a bad Simon and Garfunkel song. Too often, as with the experimental“The Shrine/An Argument,” the songs just fall apart. Still, tunes like the title track demonstrate Fleet Foxes have amazing talent. If they could just put it all together. - AC
I don't get it. Probably never will. - TN (Me too. -CD)
Man, so much hate for the Foxes. And yeah, maybe I'm biased by being a Seattleite, but seriously. Right after Fleet Foxes' eponymous album came out, I was at a Seattle bloggers event and talking music to, among many, No Depression and New York Times music writer Kim Ruehl. "I think Fleet Foxes sounds like the second coming of Fairport Convention," I said. Kim gave me this look like I'd just suggested that George W. Bush was the second coming of Abraham Lincoln. But Helplessness Blues, I think, reinforces that idea -- it really does sound like a throwback to those heady, glorious days of British folk in the early 70s, but with their own American twists. They're better than Mumford and Sons. I just wish the rest of the world (and the rest of the reviewers!) would finally acknowledge it. - dw
My top album this year. And I don't regret it. These guys are always shoehorned into the folk category, but I think that's underselling what they're doing. - GR
Yeah, never understood the hype around Fleet Foxes. Still don't think they're that original. - JG
11. Cults - Cults (4 votes, 170 points)
Usually when I play bands people haven't heard of, they complain. When I played Cults this summer, folks consistently asked me who they were. Upbeat, fun and containing a tinge of 60s pop flavor, Cults hit the scene with aplomb. - RB
A nice debut by Madeline Folin and Brian Oblivion. Jingly shoegaze pop that features sampled quotes from various cult figures and psycho killers. Nice relevant touch, no? - AC
10. My Morning Jacket - Circuital (7 votes, 171 points)
Jim James and company have finally put together an album that feels cohesive, even while showcasing the band's diversity of talents and stylings. - AC
To be brutally honest, this album bored me. I tried, I really tried to like it, but ultimately I gave up. - dw
I'm with Dylan. I suppose if I sat in a dark room with headphones and really dug in, but... nah. -CD
I'm a fan of My Morning Jacket, and while not their best album, I thought Circuital was good, and one of the better albums of the year. - JG
9. Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys (6 votes, 184 points)
Until this album, I was not much of a DCFC fan. But Codes and Keys has made me rethink my preconceptions. Some great lyrics on songs like writing and a tighter production than previous efforts. - AC
>This is a comfortable and tidy record, which is to say fairly uninteresting in Death Cab for Cutie terms. Is it wrong that I hope Ben Gibbard's breakup with Zooey Deschanel will bring the band back to better material? - TN
My list had a heavy Seattle/Northwest bias this year. But this album didn't make the cut. DCFC is repeating themselves of late, and like a photocopy that's been recopied over and over, they're losing definition. - dw
An average effort from DCFC. I gave it several listens when it came out, but only a couple of songs have stuck. - MG
I got this one from the library too, didn't like it, brought it back. My wife had the next hold on it; she loved it. Whatever. -CD
Sorry. Once again Gibbard & Co. leave me disappointed and wishing for the sounds of Photo Album or Something Like Airplanes. - JG
8. Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire (6 votes, 191 points)
As far as Ryan Adams and I are concerned, the rawer his music the better. This album has some terrific tracks, typical of Adams’ superb songwriting style. But overall I think Ashes and Fire suffers from a bit too much production, and maybe too many guest appearances (like Norah Jones). Still, solid writing, with tracks like “Lucky Now” offering Adams’ fans a glimpse of the artist confronting his own mortality. - AC
It takes some getting used to, this happier and mellower Ryan Adams, but the outstanding songwriting and songcraft remain. "Lucky Now" is easily one of the top singles of the year. - TN
One reviewer called this album "Saturday morning housecleaning music." It's a nice sounding album, but it sounds like background music. And Ryan Adams shouldn't be background music. - dw
It's a pleasant listen and it's still unmistakably Ryan Adams. His mindset has changed, and I'm happy for him. I think there's a lot of fuel back in his tank, which can only be a good thing. Not oozing bare emotion like his past work, which is a bit of a let down, but it remains in my rotation. - GR
Ryan Adams is the kind of guy I should like, but I just can't seem to fit him into my groove anywhere. This album did nothing for me. - CD
I have a confession. I have never once listened to Ryan Adams. I couldn't even name a Ryan Adams song if you asked me to. I promise to check him out in 2012. - AW
Besides loving the story behind this album, this is the best record Ryan has written since Jacksonville City Nights. It proves that he is able to write good songs even when he isn't strung out of his mind on God-knows-what substance. Solid, not his best, but one of the better albums of the year. - JG
7. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (6 votes, 197 points)
This band, named for a galaxy (Messier 83), certainly produced one of the most out-of-this-world concept albums that I heard this year. The dreamscape mixes a range of influences, form the stylings of Peter Gabriel’s So to School of Seven Bells to classic Pink Floyd. And you never quite know where the dreamscape is going. For example, track 5 -- “Wait” -- starts off sounding like a commercial for Cialis but ends up sounding like a missing cut from Dark Side of the Moon. This album is uneven but beautiful. - AC
I liked this album, but to be honest, I'm still digesting it. I couldn't go without recognizing it, because it's very good. -RB
6. Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest (7 votes, 223 points)
Mellow and melodic, with that old-timey influence that Gillian Welch brings to all of her recordings. - AC
I can't believe how disappointed I am with this album after the eight year wait. It's dull and a little too lifeless. I won't say this is Gillian Welch's Duke Nukem Forever, but come on, Gillian, you're better than this! - dw
There is something about the combination of Gillian Welch's voice and acoustic guitars that I find haunting and memorable. I've been burning a lot of midnight oil to this one lately. - MG
5. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead (6 votes, 238 points)
Finally! The Decemberists drop the sea shanties (for the most part) and create a roots-rock album I can appreciate. Lots of Neil Young influence, and with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck contributing his distinctive style to some of the best tracks (“Calamity Song,” “Rox in the Box”), The King Is Dead stands strong as one of the year’s best. - AC
R.E.M. released their best album in years. The Decemberists, however, released the best R.E.M. album in years. - dw
The King is Dead sounds exactly like it was ripped off of Damion Suomi's self-titled album of two years ago. Did I like it? Yes. But I loved Damion Suomi's album. Was I underwhelmed? TOTALLY. - JG
4. Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials (6 votes, 248 points)
Florence Welch may have the most amazing pipes in the business today, as demonstrated on Florence + The Machine’s previous release, appropriately named Lungs. Florence can belt it out with the best of them (read: Adele) but can tone it down to a smooth, luxurious honeydripper voice, channeling Annie Lennox. On Ceremonials, she not only benefits from the backing of great musicians, but also from slick production. An outstanding album. - AC
The combination of Florence Welch's tour-de-force vocals and the imaginative arrangements on this set can be breathtaking. Captivating tracks such as "Only If For A Night," "Shake It Out" and "Never Let Me Go," among many others, show that Flo has leapt to the top ranks of female singer-songwriters on today's scene. - TN
Easily one of the best albums of the year. Just a joy to listen to. - RB
Florence Welch is the best female vocalist going, and that's saying something. A tour de force and one of the year's best. - MG
Nope. I don't get the hype. Horrible vibrato, ridiculously poor pitch, crappy production, and some of the most boring songwriting I've heard in a long while. - JG
3. Feist - Metals (7 votes, 250 points)
I've never had a Feist album where I could get more than one or two song to hold my attention at a time. Metals is easily her most accessible release to date. In the past, she's always demonstrated a vocal range that few can match and even a kind of soul that doesn't get invoked nearly enough in indie singer-songwriter tunes. Standout tracks include "The Bad In Each Other, The Circle Married The Line, Undiscovered First & How Come You Never Go There." - RB
Her follow-up to can't match the sterling standard set by "The Reminder," but listening to her voice deliciously treat words like cherished lovers is always a pleasure. - TN
Metals eschews some of the poppy hooks of The Reminder for something that sounds more parlor music. But it brings out an intimacy and a maturity in her voice and her lyrics in the process. And I'd agree with Ron on Feist having a kind of soul voice now, and I think it suits her well. A nice album for a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon. - dw
Feist makes me fall in love with female vocals (even more so than usual) every time I fire up this album. I made a playlist in iTunes of all the music I have with women on lead vocals just because this album made me want to consistently listen to more. I haven't felt this way about a vocalist since Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses, The Breeders, Belly). - GR
Feist has grown up and her sound has matured. This is a good thing and a great album. - MG
2. Wilco - The Whole Love (6 votes, 264 points)
After a couple of rootsy, meandering albums, Jeff Tweedy and company get experimental again, with shades of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot reverberating throughout The Whole Love. There are some bright spots here, but unlike that earlier effort, this one doesn’t quite gel. On The Whole Love, the band saved the best for last, the 12:04 anthem “Once Sunday Morning.” - AC
I'm thankful Wilco managed to wander back toward the era that saw it emerge from the Alt-Country pantheon and become the manic, vibrato-saturated, avante roots rock
A great album. The Art of Almost may be my favorite song of the year and the epic One Sunday Morning is a song I'll be playing until my dying days. - MG
What do you say? Better than Wilco The Album, not as good as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost is Born, but definitely harkening back to their better stuff. Tweedy is hit or miss, but this album he hit. - JG
1. Bon Iver - Bon Iver (7 votes, 306 points)
I gotta admit, I wasn’t even planning to listen to this at first. I was so disappointed with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, even though it was the darling of many music critics, that I had abandoned hope. But I gave Bon Iver a shot, and found this self-titled release to be the most majestic thing I’ve heard in a while. The ghost of Aaron Copland must have been guiding singer-songwriter Justin Vernon as he envisioned tracks like “Calgary” and “Holocene.” Bon Iver is a big album. This is not a disappointment. - AC
One of the interesting notes about Bon Iver is that while it got the most votes of all the reviewers, it failed to garner a single first place vote. It didn't finish first on my ballot (settling for third) because I felt the two albums ahead of it were better technically and more daring. That said... this is miles ahead of For Emma. I've gone back to Bon Iver over and over again all year long and found something new every time amid the melancholy. It's about the only album that makes me stop what I'm doing just to listen to it. Yes, "Beth/Rest" is the Howard Jones/Kenny G collaboration that thankfully has never happened, but the rest of the album is quiet genius. - dw
I expect this to be album of the year for most critics. The fact that our little band of eclectic higher ed music critics also voted it #1 is a testament to its wide ranging appeal. - MG
Weird. This doesn't sound anything like Bon Jovi at all. I'm going back and listening to "Slippery When Wet" instead. -CD
Sunday, December 18, 2011
First, I’m an audio snob. Call me crazy, but how music actually sounds matters. I’m one of a dying breed that stills believes in high fidelity. I have a state-of-the art 7.1 surround sound system in my family room that is capable of knocking the pictures off the walls in my neighbors house without even a hint of distortion. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) This would be a much different list if I only listened to music on my computer or in the car. My 45,000+ plays on last.fm are only half the story.
Secondly, I’m old! One of the highlights of the year for me was getting carded as I entered Buffalo Billiards in Austin at #heweb11 and showing the bouncer my AARP card :) I bought my first album in 1969 and my musical tastes were formed during the late 1960’s through the mid 1970’s. If I was making a list of the top 50 albums of all time, at least 40 of them would come from that time period. (Bonus points to anyone who can name the first album I bought.)
2011 was a mediocre year of music for me. Many of my favorite artists did not release new material this year. I also found myself buying several reissues of classic albums. I debated about including reissues in this list. While I could have included several, in the end I decided to include just one.
Listed below are albums 25 - 6. On Tuesday I will share my top 5, including my thoughts and some personal stories on each.
25. Adele -21
24. Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What
23. Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow
22. Death Cab For Cutie - Codes and Keys
21. F—— Up - David Comes to Life
20. Robbie Robertson - How to Become Clairvoyant
19. M83 Hurry up, We’re Dreaming
18. Feist - Metals
17. Warren Haynes - Man in Motion
16. Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
15. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
14. Tom Morello (The Nightwatchman) - World Wide Rebel Songs
13. Tom Waits - Bad as Me
12. Teduschi Trucks Band - Revelator
11. Peter Gabriel - New Blood
10. Bon Iver - Bon Iver
9. Florence and the Machine - Ceremonials
8. The Black Keys - El Camino
7. Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
6. Sigur Ros - Inni
Friday, December 16, 2011
First, a bit about methodology. How did this list come about? First, we each compiled our own individual lists, then combined those lists and ranked our favorites and assigning a point value for each. Each number-one pick received 50 points, number two received 49, number three got 48, and so on down the line. Among our 11 judges this year, no album received votes from all 11, but four albums made it to the ballots of seven judges. Each of us submitted our choices for a minimum of 10 albums and a maximum of 50.
Here are albums 50 through 26. We will post the top 25 a bit later.
P.S. - A partial Spotify playlist of tunes from these albums is linked at the bottom.
50. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2 votes, 55 points)
Mogwai gets style points for the album title alone. - AC
This album was one of the first ones I really enjoyed this year. I'd never spent a lot of time with Mogwai before this LP, but it's just such a great background noise album. Certainly worth adding to your list if you're one of those "sit at your desk all-day" types. - RB
47 (tie). Danger Mouse & Danielle Luppi - Rome (2 votes, 56 points)
Danger Mouse seems on a concept album kick of late -- first the Dark Night Of The Soul recording with the late Mark Linkous, and now this piece, a kind of tribute to the spaghetti Western soundtrack (the same music that was the backbone of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy.") Ultimately, though, while it's nicely done, it's just not as emotionally satisfying as Dark Night Of The Soul was. - dw
47 (tie). Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes (2 votes, 56 points)
While this album sounded more like the Black Crowes than vintage Social D, it worked for me. This had a permanent home in my car CD changer this summer. - MG
Yeah, I can see the Black Crowes here a bit (and I type this just as "Jealous Again" comes in on the background), but it definitely still has the Social D punch. -CD
47 (tie). The Strokes - Angles (3 votes, 56 points)
It was good to hear a new release from these guys. But despite a few strong tracks, as a whole this album didn't hold together very well. - AC
And yet, it somehow made our top fifty while Butch Walker gets shafted. /shakes head sadly -CD
I put Angles in my top list as it was one of the few albums I listened to more than once this year. It's not great, but don't feel like 2011 had that much *great* new music. - JG
46. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (2 votes, 58 points)
St. Vincent seems to be an acquired taste, and despite giving her 2007 release Marry Me several goes, it's a taste I just haven't acquired yet. - AC
Strange Mercy marks the moment when Annie Clark transitioned from being an ingenue singer/songwriter/guitarist into the best singer/songwriter/guitarist in indie rock, period. The songs are confessional, the guitar playing aggressive and soulful, and the singing, well, she still has one of the prettiest voices in hipsterdom. I was transfixed by this record from the first play. - dw
44 (tie). Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing (2 votes, 59 points)
It's just good ol' fashioned hipster Americana. Enjoyable stuff. - RB
44 (tie). Fucked Up - David Comes to Life (2 votes, 59 points)
Punk rock died after London Calling. #justsayin - AC
Yes, London Calling is as good as it gets. That being said, David Comes to Life continues the tradition of rock operas and pushes the envelope with a very listenable effort. - MG
43. Tom Morello (The Nightwatchman) - World Wide Rebel Songs (2 votes, 61 points)
This was an unexpected surprise for me. Here is a protest album in the spirit of the 60's and Morello is a much better vocalist than I expected. This was my soundtrack as I watched #OWS unfold this fall. - MG
I love Tom Morello's Nightwatchman stuff; this ramps it up a notch. Well done. -CD
42. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up (2 votes, 64 points)
The cognitive dissonance involved with a rap album on Sub Pop Records was enough for me to give this one a listen. One of the artists in this group was a member of the 90s jazz-rap group Digable Planets. Space-age beats are tight, the rhymes are generally on point. -RB
40 (tie). Cymbals Eat Guitar - Lenses Alien (2 votes, 65 points)
An album that seems to try to go in a lot of different directions. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Uneven but enjoyable, especially if you like a lead vocalist who sounds like a young Tom Petty with a head cold. - AC
I agree with Andrew in that this is uneven, but it's a somewhat enjoyable album to me and feels somewhat like a mix between Circa Survive and Thrice. - RB
40 (tie). Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What (2 votes, 65 points)
A terrific but uneven album by one of pop music’s greatest poet-philosophers. Still creative after all these years, Simon mixes international rhythms and ambient sounds into his well-crafted tunes. So Beautiful or So What stands on its own as a terrific work by someone who continues to create beautiful music. - AC
39. Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes (2 votes, 66 points)
The latest Scandinavian pop sensation to catch on, this Swedish singer-songwriter’s haunting quality is worth more than a few listens. - AC
I didn't rate this, because I thought it came out last year. But I do enjoy Lykke Li's work. She's consistently raising her game and this LP is no exception. - RB
38. Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee, Part II (2 votes, 67 points)
I picked this up on a whim at the library; thought it looked interesting purely from the cover. I was really pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. -CD
Just an enjoyable set of tracks here. It's very understated and a different sounding output than their 2009 LP "Hospice." In the era of downloading just the tracks you like, you can turn this one and let it play all the way until the end. - RB
35. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost (3 votes, 74 points)
As a pure rock album, this might be my favorite of the year. - dw
A great album
34. WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain (2 votes, 75 points)
I heard this late in my voting cycle, but mostly because I'd been avoiding it for months. It's hard to really peg, but I like the sound a lot. - RB
Who are these guys? Where did they come from? Are they a bunch of guys from Manchester who recorded this album in a church, or are they space aliens who heard Dave Mathews and thought, "Oh, we can do better than THAT" and broadcast it back to us? Regardless, this album is equally parts strange and beautiful. "We Bros" sounds like a frat anthem... if the frat you were in was Sigma Alpha Fleet Foxes. - dw
33. Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin' (2 votes, 78 points)
A throwback to a different era of R&B music. The former Tony! Toni! Toné! member has done a heck of a job in the 2000s putting his own fingerprint on soul. Stone Rollin' is his best effort yet. - RB
Tim Nekritz recommended I give this guy a listen. I’m happy that I did. - AC
My favorite discovery of the year also released what I consider 2011's best. Could be best described as a young Billy Bragg with a better voice. The simple-wisdom set opener "Eulogy," hometown paean "Wessex Boy" and rousing "I Still Believe" are among many standouts. The version with a half-dozen bonus tracks is worth it for the stunning "Balthazar, Impresario" alone. - TN
31. Dum Dum Girls - Only In Dreams (2 votes, 83 points)
On their second full-length release, the Dum Dum Girls dial down the noise to let lead singer Dee Dee Penny’s luxurious vocals break through. The result is a cleaner, more luxurious product. But the Girls still have plenty of kick -- evidenced from the opening track, “Always Looking” -- and enough reverb to keep them connected to their lo-fi roots. - AC
Andrew turned me on to this as I'd forgotten about it completely. This is just an entertaining rock and roll effort. In a world where we have no Sleater-Kinney, Dum Dum Girls gives us a good grrrl rock band to hang our caps on. - RB
OK, I'm a sucker for the retro-girl-band-rock sound, and few acts do it better. The Dum Dum Girls deliver the goods with "Bedroom Eyes," "In My Head," "Coming Down" and other tracks that shake, shimmer and shine. - TN
30. The Foo Fighters - Wasting Light (4 votes, 84 points)
I don't listen to much "modern rock" anymore, but I did give the new Foo Fighters album a spin and enjoyed it. - dw
Nothing earth-shattering here, and not necessarily their finest work, but it's solid. (Can't take the Lemmy tune, though.) -CD
29. Yuck - Yuck (3 votes, 87 points)
The spirit of Dinosaur Jr. lives on. - AC
It's as if the 90s never left. - RB
Don't get me wrong, I like Yuck's nostalgic throwback to the days I was a college student jamming to Teenage Fanclub, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. It's as warm and comfortable as one of those flannel shirts I wore. But it feels too nostalgic. And it makes me feel damn old. It's dad-rock not because it's something your dad would like, it's dad-rock because I AM A DAD NOW. - dw
26 (tie). Radiohead - The King of Limbs (4 votes, 89 points)
Radiohead's name-your-own-price approach to their previous album, In Rainbows, spoiled me. I listened to a few cuts from this album, but didn't buy it. - AC
Radiohead was overdue for a dud. - dw
26 (tie). Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know (2 votes, 89 points)
I'm really torn on Laura Marling. She's an immense talent, a once a generation folk singer. On the other hand, she still sounds 21 and immature, and she's still not fully translated that immense talent into what she could be. I hate to say she's the Ryan Adams of British music, but I have the same "this is good, now show me great" feeling about her albums. In fact, I wonder what it'd sound like to have them in the same room... oh wait, they have been! - dw
What Dylan fails to mention is that Ryan Adams feels it's the opposite. Disregarding the fact that DW says Ryan Adams is "good but not great" – okay, not disregarding it... Ryan Adams has the respect of a ridiculously large body of legendary musicians and producers, recorded with Elton John, produced a Willie Nelson album, has his music known all over the world even if people still ask "Bryan Adams???", and puts on one of the greatest live shows I've ever seen... has DW listened to Heartbreaker? Or Pneumonia? /rant – at 21 Laura Marling sounds a helluva lot more mature than someone like Adele, writing some of the most haunting heart wrenching songs I've heard from anyone at any age. So much so that Ryan Adams scrapped his nearly finished record to re-record Ashes & Fire because he didn't feel his songwriting compared to Marling's. If anything I would argue that Marling showed us great in 2010's I Speak Because I Can and this year she has given us really good. A Creature I Don't Know is a more than solid record with 3 or 4 pure gold songs like Sophia, Salinas, and All My Rage. If you don't appreciate folk, you won't appreciate this album. And though I don't believe it is her most exciting work, it was the best album – complete album – I heard this year. - JG
26 (tie). Ben Folds - The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective (2 votes, 89 points)
This went high on my list because there's a ton of value here, and a ton of stuff you haven't heard. Three-disc retrospective done right. -CD
2011, on the other hand, is just another year in transition for music. There were some high points, some low points, but meanwhile record sales keep right on declining in the face of a global recession and online music.
So when you look at the two years side-by-side, you start asking what has become of modern music. Where's the innovation? Where's the new and different? It's still there. It's just waiting to bubble up into the mainstream, just as we all waiting for the moment college/indie rock would finally break through and be seen as legitimate, and then came these kids from the Northwest with the album with the baby in the pool on the cover.
Here's my best of list for 2011.
- Let England Shake, PJ Harvey. I get the sense I'm going to be one of the few who rates Let England Shake as highly as I do (much less even put it on their top 10 list), and yes, it is a very British record from a mercurial woman who would make an entire album played on spoons and a washboard if she could. But like a good, old single malt, you have to know what you're drinking to appreciate, and if you know what you're drinking, you're going to know what's great and what's brown liquor. And you have to tolerate a certain amount of peat and smoke to understand what's great. Polly Jean Harvey makes albums about being British. And being British means confronting their recent wars, the grief over what was lost in the Great War and what has been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and really, what does being British mean? Her words are at times grotesque (Soliders falling like lumps of meat, e.g.), but every word is sincere. Much as how The Suburbs was less about "here's what's wrong with the suburbs" and more about "these are stories from the suburbs," this is an album about being British, not about how horrible the British are. And in the hands of one of the greatest women rockers in history, it's a beautiful declaration of ugly, lovely love for England.
- Strange Mercy, St. Vincent. Strange Mercy marks the moment when Annie Clark transitioned from being an ingenue singer/songwriter/guitarist into the best singer/songwriter/guitarist in indie rock, period. The songs are confessional, the guitar playing aggressive and soulful, and the singing, well, she still has one of the prettiest voices in hipsterdom. I was transfixed by this record from the first play.
- Bon Iver, Bon Iver. One of the interesting notes about Bon Iver is that while it got the most votes of all the reviewers, it failed to garner a single first place vote. It didn't finish first on my ballot (settling for third) because I felt the two albums ahead of it were better technically and more daring. That said... this is miles ahead of For Emma. I've gone back to Bon Iver over and over again all year long and found something new every time amid the melancholy. It's about the only album that makes me stop what I'm doing just to listen to it. Yes, "Beth/Rest" is the Howard Jones/Kenny G collaboration that thankfully never really happened, but the rest of the album is quiet genius.
- Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes. Right after Fleet Foxes' eponymous album came out, I was at a Seattle bloggers event and talking music to, among many, folk music writer Kim Ruehl. "I think Fleet Foxes sounds like the second coming of Fairport Convention," I said. Kim gave me this look like I'd just suggested that George W. Bush was the second coming of Abraham Lincoln. But Helplessness Blues, I think, reinforces that idea -- it really does sound like a throwback to those heady, glorious days of British folk in the early 70s, but with their own American twists. They're better than Mumford and Sons. I just wish the rest of the world would finally acknowledge it.
- The King Is Dead, Decemberists. R.E.M. (on their way to breaking up) made their best album in years. The Decemberists, though, made the best R.E.M. album in years.
- Civilian, Wye Oak. Jenn Wasner is a great songwriter, a great singer, and a great guitarist. The result is almost magical. I cannot say enough about how talented Jenn Wasner is and how much "Holy Holy" makes me stop and listen every time it comes on.
- House of Balloons, The Weeknd. This was a rap mixtape that floated around earlier this year from an Ethiopian-Canadian singer named Abel Tesfaye, and I think it's the best piece of hip-hop I've heard all year. It's downtempo stuff, strangely weary for a kid who's barely 21, but it's poignant and quiet -- things you don't often hear about modern R&B.
- WHOKILL, tUnE-yArDs. Honestly, this is the funnest music I've heard all year. Merrill Garbus creates a great mashup of musical styles -- Afrobeat, R&B, indie rock -- that transcends the usual "white kid thinks he's Paul Simon with Warby Parker glasses" sound to something, well, fun. Intensely soulful. Yes, there's a message, but unlike some heavy folk singer hammering the point home, she mixes it into the music.
- Go Tell Fire To The Mountain, Wu Lyf. Who are these guys? Where did they come from? Are they a bunch of guys from Manchester who recorded this album in a church, or are they space aliens who heard Dave Mathews and thought, "Oh, we can do better than THAT" and broadcast it back to us? Regardless, this album is equally parts strange and beautiful. "We Bros" sounds like a frat anthem... if the frat you were in was Sigma Alpha Fleet Foxes.
- Cults, Cults. I can't get enough of Madeline Follin's voice, personally.
The Go! Team – Buy Nothing Day
The Decemberists – Calamity Song
St. Vincent – Cruel
The National – Exile Vilify (From the Game Portal 2)
WILD FLAG – Future Crimes
The Kills – Future Starts Slow
Tune-Yards – Gangsta
Yuck – Georgia
Fleet Foxes – Grown Ocean
Foster The People – Helena Beat
Bon Iver – Holocene
Wye Oak – Holy Holy
Girls – Honey Bunny
Real Estate – It's Real
Fleet Foxes – Lorelai
M83 – Midnight City
PJ Harvey – On Battleship Hill
Jessica Lea Mayfield – Our Hearts Are Wrong
Little Dragon – Ritual Union
Adele – Rolling In The Deep
Beirut – Santa Fe
Florence + The Machine – Shake It Out
James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream
One More Thing: I've become a junkie for the AV Undercover series, where the AV Club asks bands to cover songs from a reader-selected list. (Admittedly, I'm just a junkie for covers.) It can be a big crap shoot -- just stay away from the Hold Steady's abysmal cover of "The Power Of Love" -- but when the stars align, it's glorious stuff. For example, Scandinavian hipster rockers Peter, Bjorn, and John just tearing up the Otis Redding classic "Try A Little Tenderness."
Peter Bjorn And John cover "Try A Little Tenderness" by Otis Redding
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Once again, friend and fellow music fan Andrew Careaga asked me to participate in his HigherEd Music Critics combined countdown this year. From my perspective, 2011 brought too many good albums for a Top 10, so I did a Sweet 16 instead.
16. Rachel Yamagata, "Chesapeake." I keep waiting for Yamagata's material to catch up with her voice, which is warm and sweet as honey. Still waiting, but it's not the worst wait in the world.
15. Death Cab for Cutie, "Codes and Keys." This is a comfortable and tidy record, which is to say fairly uninteresting in Death Cab for Cutie terms. Is it wrong to muse that Ben Gibbard's breakup with Zooey Deschanel may bring DCfC back to better material?
14, The Rural Alberta Advantage, "Departing." I generally liken them to a Canadian version of Neutral Milk Hotel, and while the RAA's second full-length album isn't as good as their debut "Hometowns," it's an intriguingly offbeat effort.
13. Drive-By Truckers, "Go Go Boots." Any album by the Athens, Ga. roots rockers is bound to contain wonderfully twisted storylines, cheating lovers and dead bodies. In that context, this album does not disappoint.
12. Ryan Adams, "Ashes and Fire." It takes some getting used to, this happier and mellower Ryan Adams, but the outstanding songwriting and songcraft remain. "Lucky Now" is easily one of the top singles of the year.
11. City and Colour, "Little Hell." With gems like "We Found Each Other in the Dark," "Grand Optimist" and "Northern Wind," singer/songwriter Dallas Green continues to excel.
10. Feist, "Metals." Her follow-up can't match the sterling standard set by "The Reminder," but listening to her voice deliciously treat words like cherished lovers is always a pleasure.
9. Mother Mother, "Eureka." This album from the quirky Canadian band features two superlative tracks -- "The Stand" and "Baby Don't Dance" -- plus enough other good songs to warrant attention.
8. Dum Dum Girls, "Only In Dreams." OK, I'm a sucker for the retro-girl-band-rock sound, and few acts do it better. The Dum Dum Girls deliver the goods with "Bedroom Eyes," "In My Head," "Coming Down" and other tracks that shake, shimmer and shine.
7. Big Talk, "Big Talk." As much as I love Brandon Flowers, this album by Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. shows talent runs deep in the band. Big Talk delivers relentlessly Killeresque catchy riffs drawing influences ranging from Big Star to the Cars, pulsing through top tracks like "Katzenjammer," "Replica" and "Girl at Sunrise."
6. Colin Devlin, "Democracy of One." Whether in the Devlins or on his own, Colin Devlin offers lightly tinged Irish vocals and often deceptively dark lyrics over cinematic backdrops. "The Heart Won't Be Denied," "Raise the Dead" and the title track show this combination in fine form.
5. Matthew Good, "Lights of Endangered Species." One of Canada's best singer-songwriters never stands still, as this album injects strings and horn sections into his brooding, captivating material. He's done better albums, but songs like "Zero Orchestra," "Extraordinary Fades" and "Non Populus" lead a strong lineup.
4. The Damnwells, "No One Listens to the Band Anymore." I have a bias with this album, since I supported it via their Pledge Music fund drive, but the results speak for themselves. Not a bad track here, and in a fairer world, marvelous melodies like "Feast of Hearts," "Werewolves" and "The Monster" would easily merit plenty of radio airplay.
3. The Wiyos, "Twist." How can you NOT love a rocking retro-jazz/blues/Vaudeville album nodding to "The Wizard of Oz" and beginning with the lines "Last night my house came down on the witch/Now Munchkinland round here's got one less b*tch." The songwriting, musicality and atmosphere on this whole effort just deserve so much attention, and even admiration.
2. Florence + The Machines, "Ceremonials." The combination of Florence Welch's tour-de-force vocals and the imaginative arrangements on this set can be breathtaking. Captivating tracks such as "Only If For A Night," "Shake It Out" and "Never Let Me Go," among many others, show that Flo has leapt to the top ranks of female singer-songwriters on today's scene.
1. Frank Turner, "England Keep My Bones." My favorite discovery of the year also released what I consider 2011's best record. Could be best described as a young Billy Bragg with a better voice. The simple-wisdom set opener "Eulogy," hometown paean "Wessex Boy" and rousing "I Still Believe" are among many standouts. The version with a half-dozen bonus tracks is worth it for the stunning "Balthazar, Impresario" alone.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
10. "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn" - Various Artists
I'm not sure how to describe the experience you get at a Ben Folds live show. He has an energy and a joy that's contagious, and a way of improvising composition that's nothing short of magical. This retrospective offers a glimpse into the fun and the storytelling, and gives longtime fans a few new Ben Folds Five recordings.
I'm always skeptical of a new Coldplay album. The singles are often overplayed and then the world becomes collectively sick of Coldplay all over again. But, with each new album, I remember that at the root of it all, Coldplay is good. At least I think so. And say what you will, but I've yet to own a Coldplay album that doesn't make me feel good to listen to.
When music is described as "synth-dance," I don't expect to like it immediately. "Odd Soul" is more diverse than what I expected, and I absolutely did like it immediately.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
I spent a lot of 2011 isolated from the world of pop culture. I read fewer books and watched fewer movies than I have in ages. Thankfully, I wasn’t cut off from the world of music. With the U.S. launch of Spotify last June and Google’s launch of a new cloud music service soon thereafter, I had access to new music (and, thanks to the Google service, favorites from my own library) during a hectic summer. With much of my time spent shuttling between home, work and hospitals, the ability to access music on the go helped keep me sane.
2011 turned out to be a good year for the kind of music I like, which is a mix power pop, some standard rock'n'roll, and a brand of indie I would classify as folk- or Americana-inspired. I downloaded several decent albums (it’s OK to still call them “albums,” right?) and even broadened my listening a bit. Thanks to @amazonmp3’s big promo last spring, I even purchased my first Lady Gaga album, Born This Way, for the stupid low price of 99 cents. That promotion had a downside for Amazon, though, as demand from all Gaga’s little monsters choked the company’s servers.
A handful of works from 2011 may stand the test of time and make it to a future best-of-decade list. We’ll see about that in another 9 years or so. For now, let’s take on 2011.
As for my criteria, the albums that I can keep on repeat for extended periods make it to the top of my list. Since I also listen to much of my music on the go, while running or at the office, as opposed to quietly sitting somewhere with headphones on, like a true audiophile, I also take into consideration the adaptability of music to my default environments. These days, most of my music is in mp3 format. What can I say? I've become more utilitarian in my old age.
Here are my picks (accompanying Spotify playlist linked at the bottom):
10. John Hiatt - Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns
I was thrilled to find out that Mr. Hiatt was releasing an album this year. As raw and bluesy as the title implies, troubador Hiatt tells tales about hard luckers, down-and-outers and ex-cons but balances the blues with paeans to fast cars and undying love. His ode to New York after 9/11 is powerful and heartbreaking.
9. Wanda Jackson - The Party Ain’t Over
The 70-something rockabilly songstress was once known as the female Elvis. But decades after the King’s departure, Ms. Jackson shows no sign of leaving the party as this Jack White-produced album gives testament. In her gritty, whiskey-drenched style, she brings new life to hard-country standards (“I’m Busted”), rockabilly classics (“Nervous Breakdown,” “Shakin’ All Over”) and even Bob Dylan (“Thunder on the Mountain”). White’s influence breaks through on nearly every track, and he performs on several. This is as much Jack White’s album as it is Wanda’s.
8. Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest
Mellow and melodic, with that old-timey influence that Gillian Welch brings to all of her recordings.
7. Peter Bjorn and John - Gimme Some
Nothing sophisticated here. Just good, harmonic, jangly power pop from this trio. Three thumbs up.
6. Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials
Florence Welch may have the most amazing pipes in the business today, as demonstrated on Florence + The Machine’s previous release, appropriately named Lungs. Florence can belt it out with the best of them (read: Adele) but can tone it down to a smooth, luxurious honeydripper voice, channeling Annie Lennox. On Ceremonials, she not only benefits from the backing of great musicians, but also from slick production. An outstanding album.
5. Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Gotta admit, I wasn’t even planning to listen to this at first. I was so disappointed with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, even though it was the darling of most music critics, that I had abandoned hope. But I gave it a shot, and found this self-titled release to be the most majestic thing I’ve heard in a while. The ghost of Aaron Copland must have been guiding singer-songwriter Justin Vernon as he envisioned tracks like “Calgary” and “Holocene.” Bon Iver is a big album. This is not a disappointment.
4. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
This band, named for a galaxy (Messier 83), certainly produced one of the most out-of-this-world concept albums that I heard this year. The dreamscape mixes a range of influences, form the stylings of Peter Gabriel’s So to School of Seven Bells to classic Pink Floyd. And you never quite know where the dreamscape is going. For example, track 5 -- “Wait” -- starts off like a commercial for Cialis but ends up sounding like it should have been on Dark Side of the Moon. This album is uneven but beautiful.
3. Foster the People - Torches
An album full of catchy tunes that just kept growing and growing on me, despite my best efforts to ignore it. The L.A. band’s “Pumped Up Kicks” has to be the earworm of the year. Every track on this album is catchy, and if you can get past the poppiness to tune in to the message of the lyrics, so much more the better.
2. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
Finally! The Decemberists drop the sea shanties (for the most part) and create a roots-rock album I can appreciate. Lots of Neil Young influence, and with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck contributing his distinctive style to some of the best tracks (“Calamity Song,” “Rox in the Box”), The King Is Dead stands strong as the year’s runner-up album.
1. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
Even before R.E.M. announced that they were breaking up for good, I had more or less christened this as my album of the year. But the band’s announcement cinched it. R.E.M. has always been masterful at articulating self-aware alienation and putting it to music. With their previous release, 2008’s Accelerate, the band wavered a bit. But they returned to form with Collapse Into Now, their strongest release since Automatic for the People. There isn’t a weak track on the album. Favorite tracks: “Oh My Heart” (about post-Katrina New Orleans), “UBerlin” and “Every Day Is Yours To Win.”
Playlist on Spotify
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
5. Amy Winehouse, RIP. The troubled “Rehab” singer’s death at age 27 (July 23, 2011) brought immediate comparisons to Janice Joplin, another soulful femme who died of a drug overdose at the same age. Whether the comparisons are fair or not, the news of another talented but troubled musician who left the stage too soon was tragic news for many music fans. But her music lives on, as a new album of unreleased material is coming out just in time for the holidays.
4. Enter the new divas. While Amy Winehouse’s death may have left a void for some music fans, 2011 saw many other female acts step up. Most visible was Adele, a crooner who drew inspiration from Winehouse’s jazzy style. Rihanna never left, and showed up in the oddest places, including a Coldplay track. Lykke Li brought a fresh new voice from Scandinavia, Fiest made a comeback and Florence Welch (Florence + The Machine) came on strong toward the end of the year.
3. R.E.M. calls it quits. “You mean they were still around?” So asked one Facebook friend in her status update upon hearing the news that, after 30 years, one of the greatest rock bands of my generation announced they were breaking up. Unlike many bands, however, Michael Stipe and company left on a high note, on the heels of one of the group’s strongest albums in years, Collapse Into Now.
2. Going Gaga -- for 99 cents. When Amazon decided to offer an mp3 version of Lady Gaga’s latest album, Born This Way, for 99 cents, they discovered that even their servers couldn’t handle the demand of Gaga’s little monsters. And curiosity seekers, like me, who decided it was worth a buck to download the album. But was it really worth the buck?
1. Get on my cloud. But which one? Cloud music services burgeoned in 2011. Amazon’s cloud music service, digital streaming service Spotify opening to the U.S. and the public launch of Google Music all could change the music game. Both Amazon and Google Music allow users to upload their own tunes to the cloud, while Spotify lets you play tunes from your hard drive while also accessing music from the cloudstream. Is cloud music the wave of the future? Some in the music business aren’t enamored of streaming services. One distributor, STHoldings, which represents 200 (mostly small) labels, recently announced it was withdrawing its entire catalog from Spotify, Napster, Rdio and similar services. But that may not mean much to Spotify, which announced today that it was launching a platform for third-party apps. That could be the biggest news of the year for the music business, and could also impact publishing and other sectors.