Top Tracks 2011: In 80 Minutes or Less

I’ve given you 2011’s best albums. Now, behold, the year’s top tracks in 80 minutes or less, as selected by a distinguished panel of me.

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NB: For about half these artists, I would’ve chosen more than one track (esp. Fleet Foxes, Twin Sister, Dawes, Real Estate). So there are some pretty great tracks that didn’t make the cut.

"Chinatown" by Destroyer & "Stop" by Twin Sister: It’s difficult for me to separate these two out, because I love them for very similar reasons. Both feature dueling male/female vocals, romantic themes, 80’s soft-soul ambiance, and just the right touch of silliness and excess. This was the sound of 2011 in my book.  (“You can’t believe/The way the wind’s talking to the sea/I heard that someone said it before/I don’t care/I can’t walk away/I can’t walk away…”)

"Calgary" by Bon Iver: I’ve never been an admirer of Vernon’s vox, but "Calgary" comes off like the omega to Another Green World‘s alpha. It is quite possibly the most unusual song I heard last year, and also, quite possibly, the very best. Amazing video too.

"It’s Real" by Real Estate: Although I missed the wonderful nostalgic haze of Real Estate’s debut on 2011’s Days, the band’s second LP featured some flip-floppingly breezy garage-pop goodness. "It’s Real" is perhaps the best cut, a sing-along inducing nugget that makes the case for Real Estate being one of the best bands on the block.

"Bedouin Dress" by Fleet Foxes: "Innisfree" is apparently some sort of mythical paradise of Celtic lore, and after hearing Robin Pecknold’s joyful paean to the place, I’m inclined, in the words of Liz Lemon, to "want to go to there." A huge stylistic leap for an already great band, and they nail it. (“And I can’t/No I can’t get through/The borrower’s debt is the only regret of my youth…”)

"Us Against the World" by Coldplay: Chris Martin has to be one of the most under-appreciated songwriters in the world today. True, I’m sure the guy gets "appreciated" mighty well in the pounds-sterling department, but the point is the dude can write a freakin’ song. It’s that point where Martin’s voice ascends into the lyric mimetically that slays me: "If we could float away/Fly up to the surface and just start again/Lift off before trouble just erodes us in the rain…"

"Dear Avery" by The Decemberists: Ready to weep? Listen to this song, envision that bit about grabbing the child "by the knape of [the] neck", and then realize that Meloy wrote this song from the perspective of a parent sending their son off to war. Like "Tears of Rage" without the bitterness(?), this one just makes you want to sigh hallelujah. (“There are times life/Will rattle your bones and will bend your limbs/You’re still far away the boy you’ve ever been/So you bend back and shake at the frame/The frame you made/Don’t you shake alone/Please Avery, come home…”)

"Civilian" by Wye Oak: Last year I included Wye Oak’s "I Hope You Die" on my best tracks list. This year, I’ve included the driving, downtrodden rocker "Civilian", a tune that seems to owe quite a bit to Neil Young’s folk-rock period. Builds from a circular guitar figure into a storm of distorted catharsis, it’s a harrowing take on loneliness, and features great drumming. ("Perfectly able to hold my own hand/But I still can’t kiss my own neck")

"Hard Times" by Gillian Welch: It’s a simple little story of the wearing down of sincere promises, a ballad of poverty, will, and the inevitable. I wasn’t greatly impressed by Welch’s 5th released last year, but this ranks among her very best songs. Listen to those lyrics, and try not to cry. ("C’mon sweet ol’ girl/I bet the whole damn world/We’re gonna make it yet to the end of the road/Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind…”)

"Million Dollar Bill" by Dawes: It starts with that slow-tempo drumming that instantly calls to mind The Band, Big Pink-era, fronted by Richard Manuel. It would be unfair and simply stupid to draw all things Dawes back to The Band, but with "Million Dollar Bill", they offer up something that is unmistakeably a tribute to one of their biggest influences, showing that they are every bit as capable of Robertson’s brotherhood of creating "melt-your-face" Americana. ("When it hits me that she’s gone/I think I’ll run for president/And get my face put on the million dollar bill")

"Turn A Light On" by Kathryn Calder: Of all the tracks on 2011’s Bright And Vivid, "Turn A Light On" most recalls the pleasantly noisy pastoral beauty of Calder’s 2010 debut LP. It emphasizes all of the things that have quickly made her one of my favorite new artists – the airy acoustic strum, the angelic melodies, the gracefully crafted harmonies and dissonant flourishes – and fits in perfectly with the album’s overall theme. ("Throw the table/It began to waver/The wine is cloudy too/So I watch it go/You wonder if/When it’s almost gone/So what’s the use/If you missed it all/We’ll make the rounds/But what’s the use…")

"In My Eyes" by Givers: One of the band’s more "downbeat" tracks, "In My Eyes" is nevertheless still pretty bouncy and catchy and all that. But there’s more texture here, a narrative arc more dynamic than some of the band’s more prominent tunes. The breakdown at the end is one of the band’s best moments, showcasing all of their strengths. Love those voices, love that tropical post-punk sound.

"Supercollider" by Radiohead: 2011 was the full realization of Radiohead’s independent dream. They released not only their shortest album to date, but a couple of outstanding non-LP singles as well. "Supercollider" is the best of the lot, a tense builder that recalls the bleak tunefulness of In Rainbows, the icy synthscapes of Amnesiac, and the utter brilliance of Thom Yorke’s voice.

"Ring Them Bells" by Sarah Jarosz: Oh Mercy! How did this one ever get dropped from the pile o’ Dylan classics? , Thank Jarosz for digging it up. Her voice owns it, and the bluegrass accompaniment weds it with humble joy. (“Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams/Ring them bells from the sanctuaries ‘cross the valleys and streams/For they’re deep and they’re wide/And the world’s on it’s side/And time is running backwards/And so is the bride…”)

"Days Like This" by Over the Rhine: The best cut on Over The Rhine’s latest wasn’t their own tune, but a composition by Kim Taylor. It’s the kind of simple song that lets the strongest of strengths shine forth for Linford and Karin…that voice, the moody instrumentation. Perfection. ("All I wanna do is live my life honestly…")

"Tree By The River" by Iron & Wine: An optimistic and warm address to Mary Ann. "All the thorns and the roses/Beneath your window panes…" A lovely peace of nostalgia.

"One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)" by Wilco: Gorgeous, epic, blissful, unsettling, final, hopeful, sad, wow. Holy blessings what an amazing song. Quite possibly the song that Wilco was destined to make. (“Outside I look lived in/Like the bones in a shrine/How am I forgiven?/Oh, I’ll give it time…”)

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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)