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

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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 (2012): Mermaid Avenue III, M. Ward, Sara Watkins

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Billy Bragg/Wilco – Mermaid Avenue III [B]: One last round for old times’ sake. Though not as great as the first, it beats the second for sure. The Tweedy-led tracks are real treats, reminiscent of the YHF demos. A few cuts could’ve used more work; otherwise, a delicious slice of dessert from one of the most fruitful experiments in rock and roll history. ("When the Roses Bloom Again", "Listening to the Wind That Blows")

M. Ward – Wasteland Companion [B+]: That distinctive voice inhabiting simple acoustic songs. Folk-ish with experimental tinges, i.e. the creepy howls of a desolate landscape in the title track, putting the emphasis on Ward’s mellow side. All in all, a strong record, one I’ll keep in rotation, and who knows what insights a few more spins might bring. Invites you to wander cautiously through the desolation.  ("The First Time I Ran Away", "A Wasteland Companion")

Sara Watkins – Sun Midnight Sun [A]: Well here’s a surprise. The opener’s distorted, hyperkinetic fiddling signals a musical shift, and gorgeous tunes get dressed up to launch this into ‘A’ territory. The centerpiece is the harrowing kiss-off "When It Pleases You.” Intense, beautiful, edgy, gorgeous, imaginative, interesting, and a major leap forward for a promising artist. In short, it’s everything I love about music. ("When It Pleases You", "Lock and Key")

U2: 11 O’Clock Tick Tock

A few months ago, I realized that the very early U2 track “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” was, to put it simply, bad-ass. Just watch this version from Red Rock way back in the day. That riff…laws yes…

“Saaaaad song, sad song…”

Haiku Review: Magnetic Fields’ Love at the Bottom of the Sea

I’m certainly not the first to do this, but I thought it would be fun. I’ll be posting these “Haiku Reviews” as addendums to my Initial Reactions posts that usually come at the beginning of the week.

double entendres

sexuality so weird

worn on his sleeve. eww.

Haiku Review: The Shins’ Port of Morrow

I’m certainly not the first to do this, but I thought it would be fun. I’ll be posting these “Haiku Reviews” as addendums to my Initial Reactions posts that usually come at the beginning of the week.

"morrow" means morning

fresh start is the aim? achieved

in members only

Initial Reactions (2012): Bruce Springsteen, Magnetic Fields, Father John Misty

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball [A-]: A strong record that could have been stronger. The problem? Springsteen picked a potent theme (avarice), gave it a compelling banner (who or what is the wrecking ball here?), and then cast it in pristine production. The result is a good, maybe great record instead of a classic. It’s a winner for sure, but dressed up too pretty for a blue collar manifesto. Still, surprisingly fine. ("Wrecking Ball", "Land of Hope and Dreams")

Magnetic Fields – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea [B-]: That first track is funny and all, but the double entendres start to ring hollow around the album’s middle, if not sooner. Now I’m not enough of a follower to know how this fits into Merritt’s career, but what I do know from my copy of Holiday is that the man doesn’t need to rely on cheek to create a compelling record. Sure, it can be fun for the novelty, but overall, the results are forgettable. ("God Wants Us To Wait")

Father John Misty – Fear Fun [B]: Good night! J. Tillman tries hard to make a great record and makes a decent one. There’s 5 times he comes close to writing a classic tune, but he crams so much in that the tunes sag under the weight. At times, I get the sense that he’s so taken with his own abilities that he forgets to serve the song. Now I know that sounds oh-so-criticale, but just listen to track 10. Not writing a novel sir – writing songs. ("Funtimes in Babylon")

Initial Reactions: The Shins, Chairlift, Andrew Bird

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

The Shins – Port of Morrow [B+]: James Mercer is looking for a fresh start with this one, the chance to embark on voyages heretofore unknown with a new crew. While promising, his refitted outfit is less scrappy. Where Chutes and Wincing both sounded ready to spiral out of orbit into pop hyperspace, there’s a definite restraint here. The wild-eyed vision seems to have taken a backseat to professionalism. Also, first half strong, second meh. ("Simple Song", "Bait and Switch")

Chairlift – Something [B]: As much as I like Chairlift’s synth-pop sound, it ultimately underwhelms. The songs are packed so dense that they can barely breathe. There’s a punkish vigor here, but a more restraint in instrumentation would go a long way. The result is a record that is frequently interesting and beautiful, but never quite glorious. Girl can sing though… ("I Belong In Your Arms", "Cool As A Fire")

Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself [B]: I feel like a heel awarding anything less than an ‘A’ to a talent like Andrew Bird. Break It Yourself, however, lacks for memorable songs. Sure, 8 of the 12 tracks would qualify as excellent, but nothing about this record culls my subconscious into a return. So God-given ability is one thing, but in my defense, would anyone rate a Joe Satriani album as "great" just because he can shred? I rest my case. ("Give It Away", "Hole in the Ocean Floor")

Initial Reactions (2012): Memoryhouse, The Cranberries, New Multitudes

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Memoryhouse – The Slideshow Effect [B+]: So close to greatness. It seems they are starting to move away from their ambient, Engima-esque roots into something more poppy, and while TSE pleases and soothes, I do wonder if that threatens their distinctiveness. I’ll certainly stick around, but I am disappointed that this one didn’t completely roll me over. Love that gal’s voice though. Brainy and sultry at the same time. Also, precious video. ("The Kids Were Wrong", "Heirloom")

The Cranberries – Roses [B]: Once upon a time, The Cranberries created a triad transcendent; “Linger”, “Dreams”, and “Ode to My Family” are all sublime. Roses, their first album in 11 years, starts off promising, with the band sounding completely rejuvenated on "Tomorrow." However, after "Fire and Soul", things become dull and predictable. There’s not really a bad moment here, it’s just that most of these tunes are sans thorns, pleasant and inviting, but lacking any sense of danger in beauty. ("Tomorrow", "Fire and Soul")

New Multitudes – New Multitudes [B]: More reminiscent of Middle Brother than Mermaid Avenue. That’s not say it’s bad, just that it doesn’t quite have that joyous spark that made MA I such a treasure. The big surprise: Andres Parker steals the show. His cuts range from pastoral ("Fly High") to alt-rock artistry ("Old L.A.") to downright grungy ("Angel’s Blues"). The rest of the troupe deliver as you’d expect. Any of Farrar’s tunes could have been Son Volt cuts, and Yames mostly lends that golden voice. As for Will Johnson, I’ve heard of his band, but none of his stuff here impresses me. BTW, is it a coincidence that Tweedy is delivering Mermaid Avenue III this year, or does anyone think there is still the old rivalry in play? Sensationalism, I know… (“Fly High”, “Old L.A.”)

Initial Reactions (2012): Punch Brothers, Sharon Van Etten, The Big Sleep

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an impression on me at that point, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now? – (B): This is the first PB record that I’ve really engaged with, and it both satisfies and leaves something to be desired. On one level, their efforts to bridge bluegrass into an experimental realm are highly admirable. It might have been “Enter Sandman” on banjos, but PB let loose with a stunning and haunting opener in “Movement and Location” and their cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” (!) nails it. I admire their aim, without a doubt. They’ve made a good record in Who’s Feeling Young Now? However, being very familiar with Thile’s work in Nickel Creek, I know he’s capable of writing not just good but exquisite and beautiful songs. Next time around, I hope he channels some of those old songwriting chops. It’s time to take the gloves off and give us a shiner. (“Movement and Location”, “Kid A”)

Sharon Van Etten – Tramp – (B): The first artist that comes to mind with SVE is PJ Harvey; though her music is approachable and occasionally grungy/poppy, it menaces as well. Still, while she’s certainly an impressive talent, and every track on Tramp is above average, they just don’t have the “sticky” factor, the ability to lodge themselves in your imagination. At this point, my main criticism would be that Van Etten projects rather than draws. She seems to want to stick it to you, but a little mystery might help us let down our guards against all the hype. “Leonard”, with its Eastern bloc underpinnings, comes closest, but at this point I fail to see what all the fuss is about.  (“Leonard”, “I’m Wrong”)

The Big Sleep – Nature Experiments – (C+): I heard “Ace” on a sampler, and that one drew me in, but after a few more listens, I think it must have been a flash of brilliance rather than a beacon in the night. They sport a very 90’s sound, reminiscent of the midwestern melodic emo bands of that era. However, they fail to distinguish themselves by going beyond it. With the standouts I detect great ideas little explored. “1001” hints at Boards of Canada, and “Wood on the Water” might have reached to something haunting and numinous. Unfortunately though, nothing more than an average indie rock record is realized. (“1001”, “Wood on the Water”)