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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Top Albums 2011: The Best

It’s been a long time coming, but hey, this is a very part time gig for me. Below are my favorite records of 2011. I think these are all pretty darn great.

        

5. Radiohead – The King of Limbs: If Radiohead is capable of making a "roots" record, then this is it. Rather than going to Nashville and getting all strummy though, Radiohead imports the outdoors mimetically. On "Bloom", the pianos unfold like flowers in a field. On "Magpie", the guitars jitter back and forth with the spasmic, angular rhythms of birds. Even "Lotus Flower", for its synthesized palette, rises pure and pristine out of the mess of the first half. All in all, The King of Limbs is meant to be heard as a whole, but there are two standalone gems here. The first, "Codex", is a mysterious masterpiece, all mood and gorgeous darkness, the washing away of all the electronic mud of the first five tracks. The second, "Give Up The Ghost", sets Yorke against singing birds, plucking out a little acoustic ditty while spectral voices beg for mercy. These are the human moments on a record otherwise given over to a strange synthesis of the electronic and the organic, where we set out in expectation of "a universal sigh." Still, one can’t forget that as a whole there is an unsettling element running through, an element reinforced all the way through the album’s final track: "If you think this is over then you’re wrong…" It’s that cover: the king of limbs bent over, coming for humanity with ghostly eyes, an apocalyptic terror anticipating a day of reckoning. TKOL is a manifesto of primal environmental vengeance. CF "God’s Grandeur"… (KEY TRACKS: "Bloom", “Lotus Flower”, "Codex", "Give Up The Ghost") (original review)

4. Kathryn Calder – Bright & Vivid: Bright & Vivid is Calder’s debut gone through the looking glass. It’s a study in contrasts through and through, from the dark album cover to the ambiguous title to the harsher musical textures featured. Thematically, where Calder dealt with the certainty of reality and personal identity on Are You My Mother?, she seems to be starting over here, searching for relevant first order questions rather than seeking answers. At one point, she questions "How many throats will be cut till I see/What is beyond the breach?" Calder’s object here, her addressee, seems disembodied, ghostly, a "silhouette" to use her own words. And her search is evident musically as well as lyrically. A typical structure on Bright & Vivid is to build from a sort of swirling ambience, to layer precisely plucked acoustic guitars on top of washes of distorted synth. Furthermore, she toys with musical distance, especially on the highlight "New Frame of Mind", giving the song three or more dimensions as it crashes forward in a final thrust – "We will run through it!" So if this record is all about a surrounding darkness, why the title Bright and Vivid? I can’t speak for Calder, but what I hear is a search for that bright and vivid thing, a place full of life and light, a presence beyond the vale of shadows and of loss. (KEY TRACKS: "Turn A Light On", "All The Things", "New Frame of Mind", "City Of Sounds") (original review)

3. Twin Sister – In Heaven: In Heaven is typical of indie pop these days: quirky and attractive female vocalist, mish-mash of a sound, ironically dance-worthy, bleepy/bloopy, and the list goes on. If it were any longer, it might be a mess. Its 10 songs though all sound like different concepts, as different as the population of a Brooklyn city block. From the spaghetti western lead guitar of "Gene Ciampi" to the pathos-laden synths of "Kimmi In A Rice Field", each tune is laced with something all its own. Lead vocalist Andrea Estella serves as the unifying force, injecting just enough sassy sweetness to put a personality on the whole thing, but the rest of the band deserves equal credit for a sort of restrained and studied hyper-creativity. The bottom line though is that, like Beach House’s masterpiece Teen Dream, this feels more like a mini-blockbuster with each additional listen. From the opening, lazy-morning vibes of "Daniel" to the far and away dream of "Eastern Green", every tune here is a nugget. I’m still puzzling over the album’s title to a degree, but the sounds are heavenly, beyond a doubt. For all of its surface silliness and bright textures, this is a deep and soulful record, a very human experience, a record that transfigures normal human emotions into something ecstatic. (KEY TRACKS: "Daniel", "Stop", "Kimmi", "Eastern Green") (original review)

2. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto: Throughout their career, Coldplay have been dogged as copycats, sentimentalists, and purveyors of the bland. "Good music," saith their detractors, "has a harder edge, deals in stronger lyrics, doesn’t ape all those classic bands." Mention Coldplay to certain folks and you can almost hear eyes grating across hard bone, fed up immediately with the fact that the band hasn’t forsaken all for black metal or atonal experimentalism or just gotten miserable like everyone else. But do you remember when you fell in love with music? When that one song grabbed your heart and took you to another world? When you seemed to see the veils of heaven pulled back, the mysteries of reality revealed to you, the hope of all the ages flashed before your eyes, and you realized that escape might just be possible? Brother, that’s the record Coldplay have made with Mylo Xyloto. On their latest, Coldplay stand guilty of making a concept record of that period in life. Inspired largely by graffiti and The White Rose Movement (inspiring), Martin and his brothers are doing what we always hoped Radiohead and U2 would do: continuing the trajectory of their career into even grander stadium-size singalongs. Mylo Xyloto is an escapist masterpiece, pure and simple. If that’s not your cup of tea, then fine. It’s just that, in all honesty my good sir, you are missing out on something wonderful. (KEY TRACKS: "Hurts Like Heaven", "Charlie Brown", "Us Against the World", "Up in Flames") (original review)

1. Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong: "That special kind of sadness/That tragic set of charms" – with that bit of parallelism, Taylor Goldsmith encapsulates my love for this album. I’ve known of Dawes since their debut, a record that was a little too heavy on pathos for my taste. So what has changed? I can only speak to the evidence before me, but what I detect is a band that has broadened across multiple spectrums. Where North Hills was heavy on a pathetic sort of sadness, the sadness on Nothing Is Wrong is broader and more visceral. Truth be told, though, what really makes this album a classic is Goldsmith’s amazing way with a melody and lyrics. The playing is all good, don’t get me wrong, but Goldsmith just seems to flow through these tunes, channeling righteousness from The Band, Gram Parson, Jackson Browne, Adam Duritz, and Van Morrison into one entirely cohesive and tasty mix. Writing about it just sort of hurts, because the words can’t really capture the brilliance of the chorus on "Time Spent in Los Angeles" or the mountain-high bridge of "My Way Back Home" or the windows-down, high-plains harmonies of "Fire Away." There’s really nothing conceptually amazing about this record. It’s just a collection of perfect road tunes, a soundtrack for leaving it all behind. But isn’t that enough for greatness? (KEY TRACKS: "Time Spent in Los Angeles", "My Way Back Home", "Fire Away", "Million Dollar Bill") (original review)

====> Top Albums 2011: Honorable Mention
====> Top Albums 2010: The Best

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)