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): Rattle and Hum by U2

U2
Rattle and Hum
Island; 1988

My Rating: C (53/100)

Best Tracks: "Desire", "Angel of Harlem", "All I Want Is You", "Van Diemen’s Land", "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (live)"

The sound of a band losing the plot.

NOTES

  • U2 is often accused of trying to inherit The Beatles’ mantle with their cover of "Helter Skelter" opening this record. However, the biggest problem with their cover is that it sort of sucks.
  • "Van Diemen’s Land" is a harrowing little sleeper, isn’t it? Really nice stuff from The Edge.
  • "Desire" is the punchiest tune they’ve written since "I Will Follow."
  • "Hawkmoon 269" is okay. Nothing particularly special in my book. The gospel singers are a little cheesy.
  • Their cover of "All Along The Watchtower" is without vision and forgettable.
  • The live version of "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For" is really nice. The gospel choir takes it in a different direction, but really captures the essence of the song.
  • "Silver and Gold" wasn’t even good in the studio. It doesn’t stand a chance here.
  • The live version of "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" is decent. Nice singalong. "THE EDGE!!!" Love that part.
  • "Angel of Harlem" is such a great tune. It’s one of the few stellar moments here, a song that really transports you into the hustle and bustle of NYC.
  • "Love Rescue Me" was co-written with Bob Dylan. He can be heard on the track. It’s a decent sort of big city blues number with a horn section to boot.
  • "When Love Comes to Town" is one of the band’s firiest moments. It actually sort of reminds me of REM’s "Orange Crush" in a weird way.
  • "Heartland" is a cool tune. Though not among their greater tracks, it’s a definite highlight here.
  • "God Part II" is supposed to mark the jumping off point into techno for the band. It’s a dud.
  • Don’t really dig "Bullet the Blue Sky" anyway, so why would I like it live?
  • As simple as it is, "All I Want Is You" is prime U2.
  • The thing is, if they had cut all the filler, U2 might have had a decent (though still inferior) companion to The Joshua Tree on their hands. See below for my thoughts on a tracklisting.
  • Though it contains a handful of great tunes, Rattle and Hum is the work of band on the verge of nuking the fridge. As a film, it’s actually pretty enjoyable, but the record itself is confusing. It’s not an enjoyable listen from start to finish, and many of the tracks are questionable as anything other than interesting outtakes or incidental music. Towards the end of the Lovetown tour, Bono would famously tell the crowds that U2 needed to go away and "dream it all up again." Couldn’t have put it better myself.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (2/5)
Songs (3.5/5)

My Rattle and Hum tracklist
1. Hawkmoon 269
2. Desire
3. Van Diemen’s Land
4. Silver and Gold (The Joshua Tree version)
5. Angel of Harlem
6. When Love Comes to Town
7. Love Rescue Me
8. Heartland
9. God part II
10. All I Want Is You

Quick Review (LP): Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams
Heartbreaker
Bloodshot; 2000

My Rating: B (70/100)

Best Tracks: “To Be Young”, “Shakedown on 9th Street”, “In My Time of Need”


Scattered and inflated debut from an immense talent.

NOTES

  • “To Be Young” is fantastic. It sounds like a missing cut from Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. Nice falsetto.
  • “Come Pick Me Up” – I remember what it was like to be 16, but dang, how bout some perspective?
  • The production on “Winding Wheel” is awful.
  • A heartfelt “YES!” to everything about “In My Time Of Need.” What a beautiful song. More like this please.
  • Look, I get why so many people think this album is a classic, but the bottom line is that it is not only uneven, it is a technical train wreck of epic proportions. There are some great songs, but there’s also a lot of pretentious drivel that gets passed off as poetic flare. The rule of thumb with Radams 50 percent great and 50 percent garbage. He’s been improving on that ratio lately, but it’s more like 25/75 here.
  • Maybe I’m just approaching it from the perspective of someone who’s gotten to know Adams’ subsequent output, but this just comes off like a set demos that could have been pulled together with other sessions to form a really great debut.
  • The Pitchfork review, while surely a boon to Adams’ career trajectory, is hyperbolic and inflated.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consistency (3.5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Songs (4/5)

Quick Review (LP): Jacksonville City Nights by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams
Jacksonville City Nights
Lost Highway; 2005

My Rating: B+ (76/100)

Best Tracks: "A Kiss Before I Go", "Dear John", "The Hardest Part", "Silver Bullets", "Peaceful Valley"

A little more lovely, a lot more twangy.

NOTES

  • For a guy who got pigeon-holed as an alt-country twang-rocker early on in his solo career, this is his twangiest effort by far.
  • Plenty of solid tracks here. Benefits a lot from the pedal steel + violin arrangements.
  • Tracks like "A Kiss Before I Go" and "My Heart Is Broken" fit the cosmic american music moniker well. Gram would be proud.
  • Lovely themes abound. "Peaceful Valley" is gorgeous.
  • There’s a few memorable tracks here, but only a few. The rest of the album sort of passes by in a pretty stupor.
  • It’s not his best, but it is one his better records. There’s life right through it, even when it threatens to get a little drab, as Adams as wont to do. I’m guessing The Cardinals were to thank for that?
  • AMG:  "[I]t’s still hard not to shake the suspicion that Ryan Adams is primarily a pastiche artist, since it’s not only easy to spot influences throughout the album, but because the atmosphere of the record makes more of an impression than the individual songs." Spot on, but I don’t give him a hard time about the atmosphere. It’s one of my favorite things about Adams’ work, something he seems to get better than most alt-country artists, and something that separates him from the pack. Remember Nashville Skyline? “Girl from the North Country”, “Lay Lady Lay”? It’s a nostalgic wash, this.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Songs (4/5)

Quick Review (LP): Belle & Sebastian Write About Love by Belle & Sebastian

Belle & Sebastian
Belle & Sebastian Write About Love
Jeepster; 2010

MY RATING: A- (81/100)

BEST TRACKS: "Didn’t See It Coming", "Come On Sister", "I Want The World To Stop"

The best of both worlds.

NOTES

  • "Didn’t See It Coming" is one of the band’s purest and loveliest moments in years. Putting Sarah on the lead vocal was a good move.
  • Sweet synth effects on "Come On Sister." Catchy tune.
  • "Calculating Bimbo" is a bit of a snoozer, but for some reason I find myself humming that titular phrase in my head. It’s pleasant I suppose.
  • With "I Want the World To Stop", I’m starting to realize that the genius of this record might be that it’s the most complete synthesis of the two Belle and Sebastians yet. That is, it successfully merges the understated loveliness of their first four albums with the more muscular northern soul of their later records. In short, this is the pretty girl that can kick your butt and make you laugh about it.
  • "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John" recalls Dylan’s "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts", in title at least. Norah Jones is a nice touch, but the track is boring.
  • "Write About Love." Love the chorus. Carey Mulligan is the female voice. Famous actress, I guess. Why have her sing?
  • The production sounds great. Their most hi-fi record?
  • They’ve experimented with northern soul before, but this might be their most northern soul record.
  • All in all, Write About Love is stronger than I reckoned the first time around. It’s not their finest hour, but this is a band that’s created quite a legacy for themselves, so it’s not really a matter of topping their past work at this point, but more about keeping things interesting enough to bring the fans back. To that end, they succeed here.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Concept (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Follow Me Down by Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz
Follow Me Down
Sugar Hill; 2011

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Run Away", "Annabel Lee", "Ring Them Bells", "My Muse", "The Tourist", "Peace"

Taylor Swift, through the looking glass…

NOTES

  • Sounds a good bit like Nickel Creek’s precocious little sister.
  • Great voice – so easy on the ears, yet very dynamic.
  • "Run Away" and "Come Around" constitute an excellent opening salvo.
  • Gotta love the Poe-to-music of "Annabel Lee." Is that an original, or someone else’s bright idea?
  • Great Dylan cover. Her version may be better than his, but gotta give credit to the Jester for the amazing lyrics. ("Ring Them Bells")
  • "My Muse" has a wonderful dream like quality about it. One of the best I’ve heard this year. Gold.
  • She covered "The Tourist." It’s official: girl has DAMN good taste in music.
  • More of the profound dreaminess on "Gypsy." 
  • "Peace" is a gorgeous way to end the record. Wonderful.
  • Her voice is so lovely that I think that for Jarosz to justify not singing on a track it needs to be truly exceptional, like "Peace." However, "Old Smitty" leaves something to be desired.
  • This is a record of simple pleasures, and Jarosz may just be ready to assume that newgrass royalty mantle that Nickel Creek so oddly abandoned a few years back.
  • Solid Paste review here.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Self Portrait by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
Self Portrait
Columbia; 1970

My Rating: C (44/100)

Best Tracks: "I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know", "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)"

A classic of the school of monumentally bizarre career moves.

NOTES

  • He’d already released a greatest hits collection. Why not an odds + ends collection? Throw in some live takes from Isle of Wight ’69, and you’ve got a money-maker.
  • It’s a strangely appropriate album title. This is perhaps Dylan’s most radical attempt to reclaim his identity, to snatch it away from the 60’s counterculture. Truth is, I think he succeeds, with unintended effect.
  • Just what the heck IS "All the Tired Horses"?
  • Lots of covers, not much original here. Still, there are some quality moments.
  • "I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know" is a really nice; is it a Nashville Skyline outtake?
  • He really does sound bored on the live take of "Like A Rolling Stone."
  • He really farts around on "The Boxer."  I think that qualifies as irreverent? What was that petty rivalry that Simon and Dylan had going on back then?
  • I love this version of the "The Mighty Quinn." One of my all time favorite Dylan cuts. So loose, so carefree, so joyful.
  • I don’t know that this is really the load of junk that everyone suggests. It’s an odds and ends collection that would sound right at home on "deluxe" reissues of some of Dylan’s late 60’s and early 70’s work. It’s not prime material, but it ain’t bad either.
  • Stephen Erlewine’s AMG review is pretty incisive here. Key insight: "To say the least, it’s confusing, especially arriving at the end of a decade of unmitigated brilliance, and while the years have made it easier to listen to, it still remains inscrutable, an impossible record to unlock. It may not be worth the effort, either, since this isn’t a matter of deciphering cryptic lyrics or interpreting lyrics, it’s all about discerning intent, figuring out what the hell Dylan was thinking when he was recording — not trying to decode a song."

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (2/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (2.5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Songs (3.5/5)

Career In Brief: Bob Dylan in the 60’s

Bob Dylan exerted his greatest influence on American culture in the 1960’s. Arriving anonymously in New York from Hibbert, Minnesota in the early 60’s, he came with a guitar, a dream, and not much else. What helped him standout was an ear for various American music genres, a truly unique lyrical wit, and a knack for memorable songwriting that has only really been rivaled by a few other greats of his generation (you know the names).

Dylan’s 1960’s career can really be divided into 3 distinct phases: folk icon, rock poet laureate, and Americana revivalist. While distinct, these phases definitely overlap. Bringing It All Back Home in particular finds him transitioning from an idealistic folky into a visionary proto-punk. From 1962 thru 1965, Dylan re-defined the canon of folk music with tunes like "Blowin’ in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin’". In 1965, he "went electric", diving into full band rock and roll and releasing a string of three records that probably constitute the greatest triple header in the history of American rock and roll. After suffering a motorcycle accident and getting married within the space of a year, Dylan began writing simpler but no less marvelous tunes, preferring Nashville to New York City as his music took a turn back toward the subdued folk leanings of his early style. It was also during this period that Dylan began his famous collaborations with The Hawks, later to become The Band.

Albums

Bob Dylan (1962) – [B-]: An understated debut. Dylan hadn’t quite figured out how to be Dylan, and most of the songs aren’t his. Probably only interesting to Dylan diehards. ("Song for Woody", "Baby Let Me Follow You Down") [my review]

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1962) – [B+]: This album is a bit overrated, but it does feature some truly classic tunes. The best of Dylan’s "folk icon" period. ("A Hard’s Rain’s A-Gonna Fall", "Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright") [my review]

The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1963) – [B-]: Dylan swerves toward the protest folk scene on this one. Features some pretty well known tunes, but in my book, a skipper. ("The Times They Are A-Changin") [my review]

Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) – [B]: Dylan begins to hint at what was to come by re-directing toward the sense of humor that he displayed a bit of on his precocious debut. He doesn’t quite nail it, but there are some worthwhile moments. ("All I Really Want To Do", "It Ain’t Me Babe") [my review]

Bringing It All Back Home (1965) – [A]: Dylan’s first great record. Poetic rebel mysticism. ("Subterranean Homesick Blues", "It’s All Over Now Baby Blue") [my review]

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) – [A+]: One of the greatest of the greatest, hands down. Dylan makes a helluva road record, and probably invents punk rock a decade before anyone knew to call it that. ("It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry", "Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues") [my review]

Blonde on Blonde (1966) – [A]: Rock and roll’s original epic, and perhaps still its best. A mystical and romantic Americana road show. ("Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again", "Visions of Johanna") [my review]

The Basement Tapes (1975) – [A]: Though not officially released in the 60’s, this vital set of recordings probably marks the beginning of a number of different genres, including alt-country and lo-fi. That’s incidental though. What really matters is that these are FANTASTIC songs that simultaneously launched The Band’s career, and Dylan has never sounded like he was having so much fun. ("Goin’ to Acapulco", "Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread") [my review]

John Wesley Harding (1967) – [B]: Dylan’s early electric material gets the most press, but let’s be honest, it really was a natural and organic progression. It’s JWH that represents a truly jarring change, because it finds Dylan sounding completely stripped down and completely over his mid-60’s persona. It may not be a GREAT record, but it’s a warm and enjoyable listen, and the sort of the thing that you’ll find yourself coming back to with surprising frequency. And in many ways, it’s a sort of template for 70’s folk rock. ("I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight", "All Along The Watchtower") [my review]

Nashville Skyline (1969) – [A-]: Warm and sweet as apple pie, there’s almost no sign of the rock and roll rebel that ruled the 60’s here. Instead, Dylan swaggers through 10 tracks in a little more than 26 minutes, with a new found vocal style that sounds totally removed from anything he’s done in the past. It’s brief, but it’s a strong offering nonetheless. ("Lay Lady Lay", "Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You") [my review]

Non-Album Highlights:

  • "Positively 4th Street" (one of his best)
  • "I’ll Keep It With Mine"
  • "Percy’s Song"
  • "Mixed Up Confusion" (notable because it’s an "electric" Dylan track from 1962, well before he supposedly "went electric")
  • "I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) [live 1966]"
  • "Quinn the Eskimo" (bridges the gap between the Manfred Mann version and Dylan & The Band’s Isle of Wight version)
  • "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" (sounds like early Springsteen)
  • "Baby Got Back"

Quick Review (LP): Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
Nashville Skyline
Columbia; 1969

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "To Be Alone With You", "Girl from the North Country", "Lay Lady Lay", "Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You", "Country Pie"

Bobby goes south in search of a warm bed.

NOTES
– The updated version of "Girl from the North Country" is a great moment for so many reasons. Of course, it’s a lovely duet with the Man in Black himself, which is enough to make it a classic alone. At the same time though, it’s a sort of farewell to the iconic Dylan, the closing credits for the rebel without a cause, the reprise of the film’s harrowing overture. Of course, there would be sequels to Dylan’s first act, but nothing was ever as great as that first act as a whole.
– His voice does sound awful nice here compared to the first eight albums. Almost sounds like a different person.
– "Rest" is a big theme here. Even the opening track, which in its original setting was more about leaving the girl behind, sounds dream like, as if he’s coming home to her.
– This one’s not so different from John Wesley Harding, but it is certainly more oriented towards the popular country music of the time than the cross-eyed folk found on the former.
– I kinda wonder if there was some sort of folk-celebrity interplay going on between Dylan and Simon at this time, since "Lay Lady Lay" and "The Boxer" (both big singles in 1969) have such similar choruses lyrically. Of course, Dylan "covered" "The Boxer" on his next release…
– This is a wonderful warm record. Personally, I’m a fan of the domesticated Dylan, and though I do think New Morning is better, this one is a strong record nonetheless.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)