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)
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Initial Reactions (2011): Owen, Laura Veirs, Kurt Vile, Seryn, James Blake, Florence + the Machine

Owen – Ghost Town – (++): These are intimate, pensive tunes strung through delicate acoustic and electronically-tinged arrangements. Good, if somewhat too precious. At times, it reminds me of Red House Painters (see "No Language"), though not as diverse stylistically. One thing I want to applaud: Mike Kinsella’s vocals are UP FRONT in the mix. That’s unusual for a "bedroom" project, and a big plus considering how annoyed I am with the trend to "haze over" vocals. Also, there’s a very "late 90’s" feel to the whole thing, so, nostalgia, which is nice. The songs could have been stronger, but overall, nice job. ("O, Evelyn…", "Too Many Moons", "No Language")

Laura Veirs – Tumble Bee – (!!!!!): Well, with tunes like these, how could I NOT LOVE Laura Veirs? I remember "Galaxy" from a few years back – the one with that vaguely 70’s/90’s hybrid feel. What a great tune. This one here’s a kid’s album though, and for those who REALLY know, a good kids album sometimes entertains the adults more than the kids, like Rocky and Bullwinkle. It’s for the young at heart, or perhaps for those fed up enough with the world and her state of affairs that they want to collapse back into childhood. A good mixture of folk songs and originals, Tumble Bee is chock full of gorgeousness. Reminds me why I love music so much. ("Prairie Lullaby", "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Mi-O", "The Fox", "Jamaica Farewell")

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo – (++): Lou Reed meets Kurt Cobain. Nice acoustic guitar work. Cool lo-fi sounds, amazing slacker halo around it all. Much of it sounds like the notebook sketches of a genuinely gifted dude. I’d really like to hear KV apply some of his obvious songwriting ability to something a little grander though. Certainly intriguing. ("Baby’s Arms", "Society Is My Friend")

Seryn – This Is Where We Are – (++): Comparisons to recent Canadian Grammy winners are inevitable. I’m hearing "Arcade Fire + Nickel Creek = Seryn." Maybe Venice Is Sinking is a more likely comparison? Fair enough. Does it stand on its own? I think the answer is YES. The songs aren’t AMAZING, but they are certainly at the core of what the band is doing. There are many exceptionally beautiful moments here, and the Americana harmonies are fantastic. This Is Where We Are won’t, per se, be the big breakthrough for this band. However, it promises great things to come, and as a first entry in the band’s catalog, it’s a keeper.  ("We Will Be Changed", "Towering")

James Blake – James Blake – (++): Pretty much amazing electronic-soul record. Don’t know if I’d listen to it alot, but as something to behold, well, it is something to behold. A headphones record, a rainy day sort of affair, romantic and blurry and all that. I can’t rave about it, because I don’t expect to listen to it again, but I’ll at least say lots of nice things about it as an interesting slice of tuneage. Nice Feist cover too. Overall, sort of like tUnE-yArDs for me. Good stuff, but does it pull me back? We’ll see… ("The Wilhelm Scream", "Limit to Your Love")

Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials – (–): I came at this one after seeing their name everywhere. I heard associations like U2 and other that peaked my interest. I had reasonable (not high) hopes. They are dashed. Reason 1: I hate the production. It is that same awful American Idol = Disco + R&B + Nickelback sound that pretty much keeps me away from the radio. Reason 2: The songs are poor. They rely lopsidedly on "Florence’s" admittedly humongous voice and harps for a Renaissance effect (been done before and better, ad nauseam), but underneath it all, they just sound like they were written by a committee working for Simon Cowell. I expected pleasant surprise, I figured Indifference was the worst possibility, but really, I feel pretty negative toward this. The bottom line: Heart did it, with better songs, and more, er, heart.

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.