Top Albums 2011: Honorable Mention

I listened to somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-100 new albums in 2011. Here’s an armload of records that I really liked last year, but for whatever reason didn’t make my Top 5.

  • Givers – In Light: Really enjoyable, very promising, though maybe a little too dense and overly vocalized. It goes like this: in each song, Givers reach a sort of climactic groove, a swirl of rhythm and harmony, but through some process that I can’t explain the ascent to this point often seems hurried and a bit planned. I just want them to slow down and live in the moment. "In My Eyes" and "Atlantic" hit the right pace. I don’t mean to sound like an ingrate – this is a really enjoyable record. I’m glad this crew is on the scene, and can’t wait to see what they cook up for round 2. (original review)
  • My Morning Jacket – Circuital: Now here’s an album I was essentially wrong about. JJ’s (or are we calling him YY?) game here is to divorce himself from the irony that has become so closely linked with rock and roll that folks have apparently forgotten how to have silly fun. What results seems a bit too emotionally direct at first, but at the heart of this album is a vision that isn’t afraid to make something beautiful out of simply feeling wonderful. Sure, it’s not a high concept, but try to find a more beautiful tune than "Movin’ Away" among last year’s bunch. (original review)
  • Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues: Hands down, a great follow-up to their brilliant debut, one that pushes them beyond any previous laurels. After a nearly perfect first half, the record flags a bit in the middle and toward the end, mostly due to the fact that the first four songs (and then the title track) transcend space, time, and human emotion, and it’s almost not humanly possible to stay consistent with something so great. Hard to fault an album for that, but it’s also hard to come down from that kind of high and keep interest. (original review)
  • Real Estate – Days: Real Estate’s debut was one of my favorite of 2009, and I really expected this to make my top 5 without a doubt. While there are a handful of outstanding breezy garage pop cuts, the band unfortunately departs from one of the things that made their first album so great: that layer of sonic ointment that smudged everything to the point of uncertainty. There was a impressionistic magic to the first LP, the sense of looking at old, grainy home video footage and feeling like "that was the past, when things were better." Days is simply a more immediate record, and while some of the tunes are better than those on the debut, overall it’s not the cohesive artistic statement that its predecessor was. (original review)
  • Sarah Jarosz – Follow Me Down: I don’t know why Sarah Jarosz was a big deal a few years back – I never really listened to her debut LP – but what I hear with this offering is a strong set of tunes, from gorgeous originals ("Run Away", "My Muse") to choice covers (Dylan’s "Ring Them Bells", Radiohead’s "The Tourist"). It’s not going to blow any minds with a concept – it’s basically just a gal and her pals making beautiful music – but weirdly enough that’s part of the magic of this LP.  (original review)
  • Death Cab For Cutie – Codes & Keys: "Eno" and "Another Green World" were buzz terms that preceded this record, and the influence of the experimental overlord’s escapist masterpiece is easily discernible from the opener "Home Is A Fire" to the middle passage of "Unobstructed Views."  But really, this is just another Death Cab record, no sharp left turn, no mid-career creative revolution,  just business as usual with a few new influences thrown in for good measure. Nothing wrong with that, and one finds that the songs and the production hit all the right notes. It may not be the latter-day crown jewel we are still expecting Death Cab to make, but it’s a highly enjoyable record in its own right, and maybe the best of their major label efforts, with enough multi-dimensionality to keep you coming back for more. (original review)
  • Laura Veirs – Tumble Bee: I’ve heard bits of her work in the past, but this, her children’s album, is the first full album I’ve listened to from Laura Veirs. It’s impressive, and while I’d argue that it’s more of a "kids music for grown-ups" album than a straight-up kids album (trust me – I’m a father), I’d also say that the fact that it’s marketed as a kids album makes it far more accessible than it might otherwise be. Let’s not haggle with labels though. Simply put, Tumble Bee is a memorable effort because it’s a well performed, well produced collection of choice tunes. Light with humor, heavy with whimsy. Gives the world what it needs, a little more music and a little more melody. (original review)
  • Wilco – The Whole Love: Not a great album unfortunately, but The Whole Love deserves mention because of 3 important highlights. First, there was the pre-release single "I Might", which was essentially Wilco reminding us that they are freakin’ Wilco, and that they can blow our minds with great pop tracks at will. The next was "The Art of Almost", this album’s opener, and Wilco’s reminder to us that they are the American Radiohead (when they choose to be). And then there’s the closer, the epic "One Sunday Morning", which is basically Wilco reminding us that they can operate outside the box and move us to tears at will. Those three highlights are enough to make this a worthy album, even if it’s not great, or even one of Wilco’s best. (original review)
  • Over the Rhine – The Long Surrender: Like a couple of bands on this list, Over The Rhine are automatically at a disadvantage because I am such a fan that I have extremely high expectations for any new work from them. And while The Long Surrender may not be my favorite album from the duo, it’s nevertheless a promising and enjoyable next step forward. Maybe it has something to do with the hand of producer Joe Henry (what the hell is wrong with me, yes, I know), maybe I got the slight sense that their tunes were becoming a bit too musicious (new word!), but for whatever reason The Long Surrender didn’t grab me like some of their past efforts. However, the album is still a first-rate listen, and there’s plenty to love about it, especially dark and intimate cuts like "The Sharpest Blade", "Oh Yeah By The Way", and the stunning, Kim Taylor-penned "Days Like This." (original review)

Initial Reactions (2011): Coldplay, M83, Kathryn Calder, Surfer Blood, Josh Rouse

Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto – (++): Yes, it’s poppy, but I’m hearing Stone Roses. Hipsters will sneer, but aside from CM’s frequently atrocious stabs at transcendent lyrics, can there be any doubt that "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall" recalls "Waterfall" on a few levels, or that "Hurts Like Heaven" has traces of "She Bangs the Drum" in its DNA? I really don’t like the Rihanna duet, but that might just be because I am a curmudgeon when it comes to R&B since the dawn of hip-hop (I know, I know). On the flipside, for all of their U2 jr. posturing,  they seem to be catching up with U2’s latter-day missteps a little too quickly. Let’s not forget that U2’s fifth album was The Joshua Tree, not Atomic Bomb. The band might be trying to skip a few rungs on the ladder, and they are beginning to come dangerously close to a major plummet. Still, one thing I’ve learned with Coldplay is that you should never judge their latest album too quickly. Lord have mercy, but they are perhaps the Tim Tebow of modern rock: technically and artistically messy with the uncanny ability to put stars in your eyes as they genuflect before the great unknown. ("Hurts Like Heaven", "Paradise", "Us Against the World", "Major Minus", "Up in Flames")

M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming – (++): I’m divided on this one. On one hand, I admire the scope of the album. On the other, it’s thin on truly memorable songs, and that leads me to think of that old quip about "sound and fury." The melodies are big and juicy, but they savor like Starburst rather than fruit fresh from the vine. Certainly "sounds a lot like My Bloody Valentine," yeah. So, it’s enjoyable, but that’s all I feel about it at this point. Epic though. Maybe it will grow on me? And what the heck is that mask??? Last, I wish the guy had a deeper voice. Imagine the Simple Minds dude singing on these songs, or Peter Gabriel, or hell, even the guy from Elbow. A little more gravitas. That would do the trick. ("Midnight City", "Reunion", "New Map")

Kathryn Calder – Bright and Vivid – (!!!!!): Songs, songs, songs. Kathryn Calder gets it. A lot of flash and crazy concepts will only get you so far. She’s hit back to back homeruns with her solo work now, and that is because she never strays far from the thing that makes pop music so great in the first place. That’s not to say it’s all convention and no style. The production on the opener takes the great melody to a gauzy, dreamier level, like My Bloody Valentine working with Natalie Merchant. Carl Newman, thank you for shining a spotlight on your cousin. Neko who? ("One Two Three", "Turn a Light On", "Walking in my Sleep", "All The Things", "New Frame of Mind")

Surfer Blood – Tarot Classics EP – (++): In terms of sound, it’s a good reprise of the meaty guitar pop on their debut LP. It’s enough to get me excited about a second LP. ("I’m Not Ready", "Drinking Problem")

 

Josh Rouse – Josh Rouse & the Long Vacations EP – (++): This won’t surprise anyone who has been following the music of Josh Rouse. "Long Vacations" says it all – this is music to put you on a sunny beach, and it has a care-free, well-to-do, throwback sound. Longtime fans will find plenty to enjoy. ("Diggin’ in the Sand", "Fine Fine")

REACTION KEY

[!!!!!]: Enthusiastic. Frequent rotation. A buyer. Contender for year’s best.
[++]: Positive. Good stuff. Possible grower?
[ind]: Indifferent.. Underwhelmed. I don’t expect to come back to this one.
[—]: Negative. A real screw-up. Don’t even bother.

Quick Review (LP): The Harrow & The Harvest by Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch
The Harrow & The Harvest
2011

My Rating: B (68/100)

Best Tracks: "Dark Turn of Mind", "The Way It Will Be", "Hard Times", "Silver Dagger", "The Way The Whole Thing Ends"

No longer an orphan. On her 5th album, GW sounds right at home.

TRACK NOTES

"Scarlet Town"

  • Fairly typical GW.
  • Rawlings sounds like an Appalachian Hendrix on his little acoustic.
  • Recalls "Caleb Meyer" a bit.
  • Has a dark feel, something almost Native American about it.

"Dark Turn of Mind"

  • This one reminds me of "Dear Someone" off of The Revelator. Not a bad thing.
  • Gorgeous, this one.

"The Way It Will Be"

  • Dig this one.
  • Sounds a bit Low-ish, tense, hushed, dejected, ya know?
  • Some of the lyrics hit in a really visceral way. The way they sing "Gatling Gun" does it.
  • Love the dual-melodic vox. Nice touch.

"The Way That It Goes"

  • Sing songy in feel, depressing in content.

"Tennessee"

  • I always get the line "It’s beefsteak when I’m working/Whiskey when I’m dry" stuck in my head.

"Down Along The Dixie Line"

  • Pretty, slow, standard.
  • A bit reminiscent of the stuff off of Soul Journey.

"Six White Horses"

  • Hey, a harmonica. That’s different.

"Hard Times"

  • One of her best. Truly beautiful, truly harrowing.
  • A must hear. Might just make you tear up.
  • "Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind…"
  • "Said it’s a big ol’ world/Heavy and mean/That big ol’ machine/Is a-pickin’ up speed"
  • This one really hits home on a personal level.

"Silver Dagger"

  • This one’s strong, if not stellar.
  • "The great destroyer’s in every man…"

"The Way The Whole Thing Ends"

  • Nice way to end the record. Kinda dreamy, almost like a lullabye.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Well hmmm…8 years later and that’s the way that it goes. Same as it ever was.
  • A few new-ish moments – "The Way It Will Be" and "Hard Times" are both great.
  • Overall though, what separates this from what she’s done in the past? Not much. Maybe it’s a grower?
  • Maybe, with the title and all (the image of plowing the field and the subsequent harvest), Welch is making a realist statement here? Maybe that’s the concept?
  • I can tell there will be times with this record that I will really love it, and others when I will pretty much forget about it.
  • With a few exceptions, this is par-for-the-course Gillian. She won’t win any converts here, but fans will find plenty to enjoy. I do find it disappointing that she didn’t emerge 8 years later with something a little more revolutionary, a changeup of some sort. But perhaps to do so would have been to confirm the worst sentiments of her critics? If she proves anything with this release, she proves that the music she makes is anything but an act. These are songs that she patiently cares for until they are ready for harvest, and she ain’t nothing but a sonic farmer girl, pure and simple. In hindsight, I sorta like that.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4.5/5)
Concept (4.5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4/5)

Quick Review (LP): Bon Iver by Bon Iver

Bon Iver
Bon Iver
Jagjaguwar; 2011

My Ratings: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "Perth", "Holocene", "Michicant", "Calgary",
"Beth/Rest"

Another Winter World.

TRACK NOTES

  • "Perth"
        • A strange hybrid of metal and soft rock.
    • Definitely something brilliant here.
    • Those drums are pretty great.
  • "Minnesota, WI"
    • Is that a banjo or a guitar?
    • Love the layers of instruments and voices.
    • His voice is really just another instrument, isn’t it?
  • "Holocene"
    • Gorgeous arpeggio.
    • "I could see for miles, miles, miles"
    • This one’s a big winner. Just really lovely.
  • "Towers"
    • I like the fact that he didn’t throw as much into this one.
    • Thank God those locomotive drums kick in, because I was going to have to do it if he didn’t.
  • "Michicant"
    • Waltzy.
    • Dreamy.
    • Hyper-nostalgic.
  • "Hinnom, TX"
    • This one’s sort of goofy.
  • "Wash."
    • Kind of reminds me of Rachel’s later work.
    • Hypnotic.
    • Excellent piano work.
    • Bears the nostalgic mark as well.
  • "Calgary"
    • The video is amazing.
    • I’m a sucker for those warm, mournful synths, so I love this track by default.
  • "Lisbon, OH"
    • Transitional. Not much to say about it.
  • "Beth/Rest"
    • Wow.
    • It’s ridiculous to me that in 2011, there are people arguing that the instrumentation is controversial because it is cheesy. That’s because it’s so wonderful.
    • This sounds like the soundtrack to Christopher Cross’ dreams.
    • This is hands down one of the best tracks of the year.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Impressionistic.
  • BTW, it should be against the law for bands to release self-titled albums, unless it is the debut. I think it’s such a cop out. Points docked on concept.
  • Surprised he released this in the summer. Would have made more sense as an early fall.
  • This reminds me of the Strands of Oaks’ Pope Kildragon, except all dolled up with special effects and such.
  • Reminds me of the Destroyer album that came out earlier this year as well.
  • He’s all about evoking a sense of location and space, eh? These songs are very personal in the sense that he is giving voice to specific locations.
  • Places and times, some fictional some real, some non-descript and other very specific, some ancient, some yesterday.
  • There’s a lot going on here. I’ve barely scratched the surface lyrically. I’d love to dive into this one a little more at some point.
  • Want to know what this sounds like? Imagine Brian Eno producing a Coldplay album. Oh, wait…
  • Except it’s like Eno’s Another Green World with Chris Martin singing in falsetto, and his Hobbit brothers nowhere to be found. Seriously, isn’t it funny how Chris’ bandmates all have Hobbit names?
  • Great cover art. Sort of naturalist and surrealist all at once.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4.5/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): In Light by Givers

Givers
In Light
Glassnote; 2011

My Rating: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "Meantime", "Saw You First", "Ceiling of Plankton", "In My Eyes", "Atlantic"

Talking Heads, Nawlins-style.

NOTES

  • Hyper-creative without being hyper-active.
  • Sound is similar to Vampire Weekend, with the addition of female vocals and, in general, a larger wall of sound.
  • Love the reggae plus post-punk rhythm section they have going on. The angular guitars are a nice touch too.
  • "Up Up Up" is a cool tune, but does come off like a novelty. I envision a Sesame Street performance soon.
  • I dig it when these kids hit a groove: "Meantime", "Saw You First", "Ceiling of Plankton."
  • "In My Eyes" is fantastic. Is it a bit of dissonance that gives it that sound?
  • "Atlantic" changes things up really well. Gorgeous opening.
  • Nice strings on the closer, "Words." More strings on the next album please.
  • Tiffany Lamson has a great smoky/sultry voice. She sounds fantastic on lead or on backup.
  • Givers come off like a more muscular version of Talking Heads. The music of Louisiana has obviously had a big influence on them, so they aren’t as cerebral as the indie fore-runners, but the influence is undeniable. Really brilliant stuff this.
  • I sort of bad-mouthed this band last year. I repent.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Nothing Is Wrong by Dawes

Dawes
Nothing Is Wrong
ATO; 2011

My Rating: A+ (98/100)

Best Tracks: "Time Spent In Los Angeles", "My Way Back Home", "How Far We’ve Come", "Fire Away"

Scoffs at the sophomore slump.

NOTES

  • Harmonies! May not be as otherworldly and numinous as Pecknold and company, but these are strong enough to match some of the best acts of the 70’s.
  • Great melody and lyrics on "Time Spent in Los Angeles." ("You’ve got that special kind of sadness/You’ve got that tragic set of charms/That only comes from time spent in Los Angeles/Makes me want to wrap you in my arms")
  • That breakdown on "My Way Back Home" slays me. Love the coupled guitar riffs at the bridge.
  • "Fire Away" is basically one big homage to Jackson Browne. And I’ll be damned if "A Little Bit of Everything" doesn’t strike quite a bit like "The Load Out."
  • What does "Million Dollar Bill" remind me of?
  • This is a great road record. It’s got that wide open feel, the themes of leaving town and coming home, of loves lost and revisited, of the nostalgia for yesterday and dreams of tomorrow’s endless possibilities.
  • I love the humility these guys bring to making music. Splendid.
  • Appropriate title, as this is one of the best of the year.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Songs (5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Circuital by My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket
Circuital
ATO; 2011

My Rating: C (53/100)

Best Tracks: "Circuital", "The Day Is Coming", "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)"


Don’t call it a comeback.

NOTES

  • I can’t decide whether I like "Victory Dance" or not. It just seems a little goofy or something.
  • "Circuital" is a cool track, sort of Who-esque. Is it strong enough to be the album’s centerpiece? I don’t think so.
  • I like "The Day Is Coming", but I’m just not that in to the soul rock thing as a whole.
  • "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)" comes off like a re-write of "Thank You Too." To be fair, they are both beautiful tunes, and I like them.
  • For the life of me, I just don’t get "Holdin’ on to Black Metal." What’s the deal?
  • When I think of the glories of At Dawn, It Still Moves, and Z, this one begins to hurt. Really hurt.
  • I hate to say this, but too often this record seems schmaltzy. How can this be the same guy who made the Chocolate & Ice EP?
  • I am not an Evil Urges hater, but I do agree that it was a step in the wrong direction for the band. I don’t think this record is the needed course correction. Instead, as a genuine and long-standing fan it just makes me wonder: Where is Jim James headed?
  • In all honesty, I want to see JJ take a step back from the rock and roll theatrics and create something lo-fi and brilliant, something akin to the work he did in his dorm room with a four-track in the late 90’s. After all, that scenario produced an A+ record.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (3/5)
Songs (3.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Go With Me by Seapony

Seapony
Go With Me
Hardly Art; 2011

My Rating: B (74/100)

Best Tracks: "Dreaming", "I Never Would", "I Really Do", "What You See", "Go Away", "Dream of You"

Partly overcast dream pop with glimmers of sunshine throughout the day.

NOTES

  • Jangly dream pop with a heavy girl group vibe.
  • "Dreaming" is a strong opener. One of the better tracks I’ve heard this year. Peppy and hazy all at once.
  • "I Really Do" reminds me of The Pretenders. Dig the use of the slide.
  • You know what I like? It’s dream pop, and I can understand her vocals. In fact, I really like her voice.
  • This album has a very early 90’s feel to it. I can imagine myself going to see this group play in a small basement on a summer evening.
  • Love the riff on "Go Away."
  • The slower pace on "What You See" is nice.
  • Dig the cover, and the band’s name FWIW.
  • All in all, I dig this record for 3 reasons. 1. Pretty + intelligible vocals. 2. Simple but delectable guitar playing. 3. Dreamy atmosphere. This is by no means an earth-shattering record, but it is an exceedingly pleasant and charming one.
  • I suppose I agree with most of Pitchfork’s criticisms, but quite honestly I dig this record for its simplicity. It is a bit vanilla, but it’s a gourmet sort of vanilla rather than ice cream sandwich vanilla. That is, there’s a flavor here that sticks in my mind, and seems to beckon me return for more.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (4/5)

Quick Review (LP): Follow Me Down by Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz
Follow Me Down
Sugar Hill; 2011

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Run Away", "Annabel Lee", "Ring Them Bells", "My Muse", "The Tourist", "Peace"

Taylor Swift, through the looking glass…

NOTES

  • Sounds a good bit like Nickel Creek’s precocious little sister.
  • Great voice – so easy on the ears, yet very dynamic.
  • "Run Away" and "Come Around" constitute an excellent opening salvo.
  • Gotta love the Poe-to-music of "Annabel Lee." Is that an original, or someone else’s bright idea?
  • Great Dylan cover. Her version may be better than his, but gotta give credit to the Jester for the amazing lyrics. ("Ring Them Bells")
  • "My Muse" has a wonderful dream like quality about it. One of the best I’ve heard this year. Gold.
  • She covered "The Tourist." It’s official: girl has DAMN good taste in music.
  • More of the profound dreaminess on "Gypsy." 
  • "Peace" is a gorgeous way to end the record. Wonderful.
  • Her voice is so lovely that I think that for Jarosz to justify not singing on a track it needs to be truly exceptional, like "Peace." However, "Old Smitty" leaves something to be desired.
  • This is a record of simple pleasures, and Jarosz may just be ready to assume that newgrass royalty mantle that Nickel Creek so oddly abandoned a few years back.
  • Solid Paste review here.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Sun & Shade by Woods

Woods
Sun & Shade
Woodsist; 2011

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Out of the Eye", "Pushing Onlys", "Any Other Day", "Hand It Out"


NOTES

  • I’m really liking "Pushing Onlys" – great tune!
  • Nice krautrock-ish thang on "Out of the Eye."
  • Five tracks in, and I think it’s safe to say this is a pretty great album.
  • I really like the guitar riffs this band comes up with. "Hand It Out" in particular reminds me of something The Pixies might have come up with.
  • Dang this is catchy. ("To Have In The Home")
  • The long one sounds like The Doors, except without the corny Jim Morrison vox.
  • The second half is a bit more mellowed out than the first. Maybe that’s a conceptual thing? (Sun = Side 1, Shade = Side 2?)
  • Ref. analysis? (Slanted & Enchanted + Surfer Rosa) x Wilco = Woods.
  • I really love this band’s sound. At first, I was bit turned off by the high-pitched vocals, but it really works with the overall aesthetic of the music. Additionally, the lyrics seems strong after a few listens. I’m planning to dive into this one a little more as the year goes on. A very intriguing effort.
  • I agree with Pitchfork that Woods is a “sleeper” band, an act that keeps putting out non-headliners that tend to stick to your brain, not like bubblegum on a shoe, but like the memory of an unexpectedly pleasant stroll through the forest. This is definitely one of my favorites so far this year, and although I’m a bit late to the party, I have to say that I’m really looking forward to exploring more of Woods’ back catalog.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)