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)

List: My Top 10 Dylan Tracks

Well, everyone else is paying tribute to Robbie Z. on the occasion of his 70th birthday, so I thought I might do so as well. Here it goes…

My Top 10 Bob Dylan Tracks

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” – 1965 – This is one of the greatest album closers ever. It’s a classic kiss-off in one sense, but what makes it remarkable is the apocalyptic imagery Dylan throws in. Love that noodly guitar too.

”Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” – 1966 – Everything about this song is simply amazing, from the lyrics to the drumming. It just sort of sweeps you up and carries you along on a wave for six or seven minutes.

”Tangled Up In Blue” – 1975 – One of the most beautiful songs ever. I love the way you feel like you’ve completed a journey with Dylan by the time the last verse ends, and then that harmonica kicks in and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Awe inspiring.

”If Not For You” – 1970 – What a great little love song. You gotta dig the arrangement – so 70’s.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (Greatest Hits Vol. 2 version)” – 1970 – This is Dylan’s goofed-out performance of an already silly song. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds went and butchered the lyrics a few years earlier, and so Dylan sends him up in the first verse. “Oooo-eeee/Ride me high/Tomorrow’s the day my bride’s a-gonna come/Oooo-eeee/Are we gonna fly/Down into the easy chair…”

“She Belongs To Me” – 1965 – “She’s got everything she needs/She’s an artist/She don’t look back…” Absolutely sublime lyrics on this one, the kind of stuff that “stones me to my soul” as Van Morrison would say. The arrangement is so wonderful too. An incontrovertible proof of Dylan’s greatness.

“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” – 1965 – “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez/When it’s Easter time too…” The ragtime riff on that piano is pure genius.

”The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo) (live)” – 1969 – This is Dylan’s performance with The Band at the Isle of Wight festival in 1969. Most people know this song from the Manfred Mann “oldies” version, but Dylan & The Band make this sound  like a blast. It’s sloppy and joyful, almost like a lost take from The Basement Tapes.

“Buckets of Rain” – 1975 – This one brings me to tears just about every time. Again, it’s such a simple song, but the lyric is vintage Dylan – soulful with a little bit of silly thrown in. I can’t help but think of the heartbreak that Dylan was going through at the time.

“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” – 1962 – I’m generally not a big fan of Dylan’s work prior to Bringing It All Back Home, but this was one of his great early tracks. It’s not a protest song, not even faintly political, but it’s a showcase for the sort of wit that would become a centerpiece of Dylan’s work on later albums. Great finger-picking too. An underrated early pop-folk song.

Check out what else I’ve had to say about Dylan (plenty)…

Honorable Mention:
One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)
Goin’ To Acapulco
I Shall Be Released (Greatest Hits Vol. 2 version)
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
Tomorrow Is A Long Time (live)
Tryin’ To Get To Heaven
Thunder On The Mountain
Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You

5 Reasons: Frontier(s) debut 7″

5 Reasons I’m Psyched About The New 7″ From Louisville’s Frontier(s):

1. Lead-off internet single “Abul-Abbas” sounds fantastic – I’d call it angular, dressed-down Elliott. Download it here:

2.  It’s been 5 years since an official release from Chris Higdon.

3. I always favored Elliott’s early, hard rock stuff, and A-side “The Plains” is compared to Husker Du and is said to contain “buzzsaw guitar.” Amen.

4. It’s a reason to buy a 7″ record – what I’ll call the most aesthetically satisfying of all recorded formats – plus it includes the digital download.

5.  It was recorded by former Elliott drummer Kevin Ratterman – a musical magician in his own right.

Anyone else excited about this release?

5 Things: “Found Out About You” by Gin Blossoms

5 Things I Love About “Found Out About You” by Gin Blossoms:


1. THE JANGLE SOUND: That’s the best Buck-riff since “The One I Love.”
2. THE ADOLESCENT PATHOS: “Whispers at the bus stop/I heard about nights out at the school yard/Found out about you…”
3. THE VOCALS: Robin Wilson unleashes a powerful lead; his dynamic range is really something.
4. THE ANGUISHED NOSTALGIA: Something about the band’s sound brings back fond memories of the past, but then you listen to the lyrics. This is some dark stuff…
5. THE TORTURED GENIUS: This track was written by Doug Hopkins, along with the band’s other early hit “Hey Jealousy.” Dude was a songwriting prodigy who left us too early, and this one proves it.

What do you love about “Found Out About You?”

5 Things: “Tinfoil” by Rainer Maria

5 Things I Love About “Tinfoil” by Rainer Maria:

1. The Dueling Vox: This is one of  the best vocal attacks in indie rock. It ranks up there with Robbins/Barbot from Jawbox’s “Dreamless.” It takes some skill to keep your words straight and play an instrument when someone else is shouting something else right next to you.
2. The Hyper-Poetic Lyrics: Do I understand what they mean by “Your chest is a cage for my letters/And your handwriting’s better than mine?” Nope. But it sort of comes off like a riddle, doesn’t it? Fun, right? And the full-throated delivery makes it clear that these kids REALLY mean it.
3. Excellent Bass Work: The tough thing about a stripped down three-piece rock band is that bass has to pick up the slack so that the music doesn’t become two-dimensional. Fortunately, Caithlin De Marrais’ low end work delivers something aggressive and melodic, adding real depth and warmth to the band’s sound. Reminds me of one of my favorite Louisville post-punk bands, Sunspring.
4. Poly-Rhythmic Madness: One minute it’s full out aggression, one minute it’s a nice sort of waltz. Whatever it is, the song always feels like it’s about to blow apart at the seams, so much so that they have to slow it down here and there to restore some semblance of balance. I’m feeling it – “drunk with rage.”
5. The “Indie” Sound – This is what indie rock sounded like before it went big-time in the 2000’s – obscurist, hyper-literate, raw, strong-willed, unbalanced and overflowing with cacophonous melody. “Tinfoil” is the kind of track I would drive around listening to with my friends in high school, out and about with no place to go.

Video Bonus Points: Gotta dig Caithlin’s twirls at the end of the song. These kids could rock!!!

What do you like about this track?

Back Tracks: Josh Ritter Rarities Mix

In tribute to the release of his 6th album today, here’s a little mix I put together celebrating some of Josh Ritter’s best back tracks:

Josh Ritter

1. Good Man (live)
2. Blame It On the Tetons
3. Spot In My Heart
4. Peter Killed the Dragon
5. Kathleen (live)
6. In the Dark (demo)
7. Naked as a Window
8. Girl In the War (live)
9. You Don’t Make It Easy Babe (live)
10. Bandits (live)
11. Golden Age of Radio (live)
12. Harbortown
13. Wolves (live)
14. Overnite
15. Monster Ballads (early version)
16. Daddy’s Little Pumpkin (live)
17. Labelship Down
18. Peter Killed the Dragon (live)
19. Wildfires
20. Snow Is Gone (live)
21. Girl In the War (live)

What are your favorite “lost” Ritter tracks?

Top 10 Tracks: Death Cab For Cutie (part 2)

Here’s part 2 of my top 10 Death Cab for Cutie tracks, in no particular order…

Different Names for the Same Thing: Nobody lends drama to thoughtful angst quite like Benny G., and here’s more proof. The first part of the track consists of a piano, a thunderstorm, and Dr. Gibbard’s echoing vox. Distance and sadness right there. The second part accelerates into a jam, yet still there’s no closing the distance between what’s in his heart and what he’s looking for. Communication as infinite distance…classic stuff.

Bend to Squares: Death Cab makes a grandiose statement right out of the gate: we are mope, and we are proud. This is a great track, mournful and beautiful. The cello sounds less like an afterthought and more like a key component of the band’s sound. Gotta love that.

A Movie Script Ending: This is one of the band’s best riffs. Gibbard demonstrates his penchant for the turn of phrase and lyrical imagery: “As if saved from the gallows, there’s a bellow of buzzers and people stop working, and they’re all so excited – excited.” Loathing never sounded so pretty.

We Laugh Indoors: Another great riff, and now we’ve got some tempo to boot! Yet just when you think the band might get just a little bit aggressive, think again: “I loved you Guinevere, I loved you, Guinevere, I loved you” ad infinitum…

Transatlanticism: Death Cab doesn’t do epic all that often, but this one’s a masterpiece. Visual, narrative, climactic, cataclysmic, all full of pathos and the human condition. Nice melody and guitar too. As a thousand Gibbard’s howl “So come on!” who isn’t overwhelmed?

What are your favorite Death Cab tracks?

5 Things: “Wonderwall” by Oasis

5 Things I Love About “Wonderwall” by Oasis…

1. Liam’s non-dynamic vocal – he sounds like a bratty three year old in a grown man’s body, but it wouldn’t sound right otherwise. Even complete knuckleheads are born to do something great.
2. The cello…in my mind, it makes this the definitive recording of the song, even above the Ryan Adams version, but it manages to lurk in the background rather than stealing center stage from Noel’s genius acoustic patterns.
3. Somewhere in Europe, there is a college dropout with an acoustic guitar covering this song in a touristy, open air setting.
4. The utterly ubiquitous and gloriously ambiguous refrain: “And all the roads we have to walk are winding/And all the lights that lead us there are blinding.” It’s always true, but somehow, it manages to defy cliche…
5. It’s a masterpiece of impressionist pop songwriting. Fifteen years on, and it’s still anybody’s guess what a “wonderwall” is, yet we all sing it like we know.

5 Things: “Hearts of Stone” by Bruce Springsteen

5 Things I Love About Bruce Springsteen’s “Hearts of Stone”…

1. Steve Van Zant’s nasty backing vocals.
2. The saxophone – God bless you, Big Man.
3. The Boss’ delivery – totally over-the-moon, even for Springsteen.
4. The tempo – so slow the song just oozes heart and soul from every crack.
5. “I can’t talk now I’m not alone/So put your ear close to the phone/This is the last dance/Our last chance…”

What do you like about “Hearts of Stone”?

5 Reasons: “So Runs the World Away” by Josh Ritter

5 Reasons I’m looking forward to Josh Ritter’s new album So Runs the World Away:

– This is the guy who made The Animal Years, one of the best albums of the last decade.
– He’s now happily married to another excellent songwriter, Dawn Landes. One would hope this spells good things for his songwriting.
– He just previewed a few of these songs during a Daytrotter session, and they sound great.
– I was not completely enamored with his last album, “Historical Conquests.” Usually, that means I REALLY like the artists’ next album. See Wilco (A Ghost Is Born => Sky Blue Sky), Radiohead (Hail to the Thief => In Rainbows)…
– He’s been re-recording his back catalog in solo acoustic mode. The process of getting back to basics tends to improve a songwriter’s artistry.

So Runs the World Away is out May 4th on Pytheas.

Are you looking forward to this album? Why or why not?