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)

LP Review: Narrow Stairs by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Narrow Stairs
Atlantic; 2008

My Rating: B+ (80/100)

Best Tracks: "Bixby Canyon Bridge", "I Will Possess Your Heart", "Cath", "Grapevine Fires", "Long Division"

Existentially sad bastard music.

TRACK NOTES

"Bixby Canyon Bridge" (4.5/5)

  • Another big change for the band. Signals a pretty significant shift.
  • I think one of the reasons Death Cab is so big is that Ben is a master at communicating his view of reality. This song is a good example of that.

"I Will Possess Your Heart" (4.5/5)

  • Indie band. Fifth album. Time for some kraut-rock.
  • And a good slice it is.

"No Sunlight" (4/5)

  • Now here’s a happy tune!

"Cath" (4.5/5)

  • One of the more memorable tunes.
  • It’s a really meaty rock cut.
  • Nice hushed breakdown on the bridge.

"Talking Bird" (4/5)

  • Very spare and cold. Sort of pitiful in a way that only Ben can pull off.

"You Can Do Better Than Me" (4/5)

  • Big ol’ Beach Boys influence. Would have been right at home on Pet Sounds.

"Grapevine Fires" (5/5)

  • Easily the best track on the album. Amazing song.
  • Lyrically, it feels a bit like the counterpoint to “The New Year.”

"Your New Twin-Sized Bed" (4/5)

"Long Division" (4.5/5)

  • Cool propulsive rocker.

"Pity and Fear" (4/5)

  • Another changeup. Almost feels like techno.
  • Nice abrupt ending out of the fury to scare the crap out of you.

"The Ice Is Getting Thinner" (4/5)

  • Bleak.
  • We are still waiting for Ben to write his "Shiny Happy People."

ALBUM NOTES

  • Stylistically, Narrow Stairs is a huge leap forward for the band. They have largely moved beyond the sound that earned them a massive indie fanbase, incorporating influences ranging from kraut-rock to The Beach Boys.
  • It’s also a satisfying record. There’s not a bad song among the bunch.
  • However, there aren’t any more than a few "great" songs. "Grapevine Fires" certainly is brilliant, but that about ends the list.
  • Allmusic has a good review, but I’d disagree with the writer’s assessment of Plans as an optimistic affair. What?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.3/5)

LP Review: Plans by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Plans
Atlantic; 2005

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Soul Meets Body", "Summer Skin", "Different Names for the Same Place", "I Will Follow You Into the Dark"

TRACK NOTES

"Marching Bands of Manhattan" (4/5)

  • Quite a bit poppier from the outset.
  • So are there marching bands in Manhattan that are regularly out and about? Kind of like Treme, but in Greenwich Village?
  • A bit dull, when it all comes down to it. Would have liked a song with a heartbeat to open the album.

"Soul Meets Body" (5/5)

  • Great tune, which the production wasn’t so airy and pure.
  • But still, pretty much a perfect melancholy pop song.

"Summer Skin" (5/5)

  • Amazing feel. The song just hangs there like a big grey cloud.

"Different Names for the Same Place" (5/5)

  • Love this one.
  • Feels like a cloud and rainy afternoon in the city.

"I Will Follow You Into The Dark" (5/5)

  • Good grief, Ben writes some dark love songs.
  • "Last dance with Mary Jane/One more time to kill the pain"
  • Really, great tune, and a changeup for Death Cab.

"Your Heart Is An Empty Room" (4.5/5)

"Someday You Will Be Loved" (4/5)

"Crooked Teeth" (4.5/5)

  • Sounds like The Kinks circa VGPS.
  • Catchy.
  • "No you can’t find nothing at all/If there was nothing there all along"

"What Sarah Said" (4.5/5)

  • "It came to me then/That every plan/Is a tiny prayer to Father Time"
  • Again, depressing (but a little happier than "A Lack of Color!")
  • Very pretty.

"Brothers on a Hotel Bed" (3.5/5)

  • Directionless.

"Stable Song" (4/5)

  • aka "Stability"
  • Beautiful anyway you slice it.
  • Still, it’s a rehash, and feel like this could have been grander, considering that amazing melody. (Even some strings!)

ALBUM NOTES

  • As much as I hate the production on this record, Gibbard is at his peak in terms of songwriting.
  • If Transatlanticism was their Document, then this is their Out of Time (minus their "Shiny Happy People", which will never exist for Death Cab).
  • Why is this a point of departure for a lot of Death Cab fans? Is it the fact that it’s on a major label, or is it something else?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (4.46/5)

LP Review: Transatlanticism by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Transatlanticism
Barsuk; 2003

My Rating: A (88/100)

Best Tracks: "The New Year", "Title & Registration", "The Sound of Settling", "Transatlanticism", "Passenger Seat", "We Looked Like Giants"

Emo grande.

TRACK NOTES

"The New Year" (4.5/5)

  • From the beginning, announces a new Death Cab.
  • "So everybody put your best suit or dress on/We’ll make-believe we are happy for just this once/Lighting firecrackers off on the front-lawn/As 30 dialogues bleed into one"
  • The biggest rock song they’ve done. Maybe a little Trail of Dead influence here?
  • Near perfect, but I’ve always felt like it ends a bit abruptly, like an unfinished thought.

"Lightness" (4.5/5)

  • Floats.
  • Beautiful, sleepy melody.
  • "Oh instincts are misleading/You shouldn’t think what you’re feeling/They don’t tell you what you know you should want…”

"Title & Registration" (5/5)

  • Brilliant in every way.
  • Great arrangement. Love the xylophone.

"Expo ’86" (4.5/5)

  • Gibbard does amazing melodies and riffs, but on this album they were overflowing, plain and simple. Case in point. This sounds effortless.

"The Sound of Settling" (5/5)

  • If there was ever a radio-friendly Death Cab tune, this is it.

"Tiny Vessels" (4/5)

  • Nice chiming guitar riff.

"Transatlanticism" (5/5)

  • Epic.

"Passenger Seat" (4.5/5)

  • The talked about Codes & Keys being Eno-esque, but this is maybe the most Eno-esque thing they’ve recorded.
  • A bit of a Lennon thing going on too.
  • Flows really well on the heels of the title track.

"Death of an Interior Decorator" (4/5)

  • Sounds like the early 90’s.

"We Looked Like Giants" (5/5)

  • Huge and feverish.

"A Lack of Color" (4.5/5)

  • Dark and, well, quite frankly, a wee bit depressing.
  • “This is fact not fiction for the first time in years…”

ALBUM NOTES

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

Quick Review (LP): The Photo Album by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
The Photo Album
Barsuk; 2001

My Rating: B (73/100)

Best Tracks: "A Movie Script Ending", "We Laugh Indoors", "Styrofoam Plates", “Why You’d Want to Live Here”

TRACK NOTES

"Steadier Footing" (3.5/5)

  • The "prelude" approach to opening an album.
  • Pleasant enough. I think it’s filler though.

"A Movie Script Ending" (5/5)

  • "Passing through unconscious states/When I awoke/I was on the highway…"
  • Love that arpeggiated guitar. Lovely.

"We Laugh Indoors" (5/5)

  • Like "Company Calls", this is one of those amazingly paradoxical "lite metal" tracks.
  • It’s like that scene in The Jerk – "He hates these cans!"
  • A really great guitar song. Amazing how they can make things so muddy yet so precise.

"Information Travels Faster" (4/5)

  • Reminds me of their first album.
  • Pretty good. Not their most memorable cut.

"Why You’d Want to Live Here" (4.5/5)

  • Solid melody.
  • It ain’t the feature, but it’s a strong deep cut.

"Blacking Out the Friction" (4.5/5)

  • see "Why You’d Want to Live Here"

"I Was a Kaleidoscope" (4/5)

  • Sounds like the early 90’s! Sort of a Pixies-ish guitar figure.
  • Very poppy.

"Styrofoam Plates" (5/5)

  • One word: BITTER.
  • As difficult as this song is to listen to, it’s a stroke of genius.
  • I just gotta show respect to the talent that Benny G. displays here. Not one of my favorite songs, but unique and brilliant nonetheless.
  • Just try forgetting this one.

"Coney Island" (4/5)

  • "Captain, sensors are detecting signs of Bruce Hornsby."
  • For the record, I love The Way It Is, the whole album.
  • Could’ve been longer. I like the melody.

"Debate Exposes Doubt" (3.5/5)

  • Disappointing closer.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Is Death Cab the first band to think to call an album The Photo Album? Even if they aren’t, I can’t imagine anyone pulling off that concept better. While the opener and closer could have been significantly stronger, everything in between is drunk on that rainy day nostalgia that truly defines the band. It’s not their crowning achievement, but as part three in their "opening trilogy" and the last album of the old school Death Cab sound, it gets the job done and delivers some true classics.
  • And I do wonder why they followed We Have The Facts so closely. Surely a little more space would have let this album fill out a bit more? Couldn’t they have put "Photobooth" on here? Think about that song opening this album and "Stability" closing it. That would have been epic and maybe even classic.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (3.5/5)
Consistency (3.5/5)
Songs (4.3/5)

Quick Review (LP): We Have The Fact And We’re Voting Yes by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes
Barsuk; 2000

My Rating: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "Title Track", "Employment Pages", "405", "Company Calls", "Scientist Studies"

Dreamy.

TRACK NOTES

  • "Title Track" pretty much declares "We are here, and we intend to mope-rock this mother…"
  • The atmosphere on "Employment Pages" blows me away every time. It sort of reminds me of some of The Coctails work on their self-titled album (obscure reference alert!!!).
  • "Employment Pages" barely has a pulse. I love how open-ended it is.
  • "We spread out/And occupied the cracks in the urban street…" Brilliant.
  • "For What Reason" and "Lowell, MA" both rescue the album from bummersville. Cool indie-ish tunes, nice intricate guitar work.
  • "405" is so wonderful.
  • I saw these guys play Key Arena in Seattle back in 2006. It was kind of like their "local boys done good" moment. They opened with a rocked-out version of "405", which was awesome and threw the crowd into a frenzy.
  • So was the spelling of "Fury" on the sixth track intentional? Are the bugs angry because they are little? Is that what he’s trying to say?
  • "Company Calls" is a perfect example of what makes this band great. Pummeling and delicate at the same time. How do they do that? It’s like easy listening metal , dense and airy at the same time.
  • FWIW, "Company Calls Epilogue" sounds like an angelic Roy Orbison singing for Modest Mouse.
  • "No Joy In Mudville" is a bit sub-standard. Just doesn’t really go anywhere, but maybe that’s the point.
  • "Scientist Studies" is a track that I’d liken to "emo-Slint." Has Gibbard ever spoken on the influence of Slint in his songwriting, especially the early stuff?

ALBUM NOTES

  • There’s this incredible rainy haze that hangs over the record. It just so happens that it completely reflects the climate in Western Washington.
  • I don’t believe I’m saying anything revolutionary here, but this was the record that distinguished Death Cab from all the other emo acts of late 90’s/early 00’s era. Between this and Transatlanticism, Gibbard & Walla associates essentially set themselves apart from any pretenders here, and while WHTFAWVY isn’t perfect, I’d be hard pressed not to call it a classic.
  • Headphones make this one shine.
  • The cover of this record is perhaps the most indie/emo thing I’ve ever seen.

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

Quick Review (LP): Something About Airplanes by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Something About Airplanes
Barsuk; 1998

My Rating: B (66/100)

Best Tracks: "Bend to Squares", "President of What?", "Pictures In An Exhibition",
"Amputations"

For those about to mope…

TRACK NOTES

  • Love "Bend to Squares." That mournful cello makes this one of the more definitive opening tracks that come to mind.
  • Prefer the Chords version of "President of What?", but this one is decent enough. Cool tune regardless. The keyboard sounds niftier here.
  • "Champagne from a Paper Cup" gets the mood right, clouded, confused, and dark.
  • "Your Bruise" continues the moody vibe. Gibbard’s vocals are great there.
  • On "Pictures In An Exhibition", Death Cab threatens a pulse. 
  • "Sleep Spent" reminds me of the work of the band Retsin, especially The Sweet Luck of Amaryllis. Pleasant, rainy day, sleepy sort of vibe.
  • "The Face That Launched 1000 Sh*ts" is a waste.
  • "Amputations" = muy bueno. Great guitar work there, even if it is a little amateurish. Solid drumming too.
  • "Fake Frowns" is pretty good. I like the breakdown in the middle. Good that they are picking up the tempo later in the record.
  • "Line of Best Fit" is dull. Not a great closer, or maybe too typical?

ALBUM NOTES

  • There’s a certain mopey glory here, something like a bedroom version of The Smiths’ debut.
  • Sounds like Seattle, except not like grunge. In case you were wondering, Sunny Day Real Estate is the missing link between these guys and Pearl Jam.
  • I’d say this album’s a grower. It doesn’t grab you as quick as some of their later material (say, Transatlanticism), but the songs are actually quite strong, and Chris Walla has an ear for atmosphere.
  • In keeping with their debut EP, this reminds me a lot of Modest Mouse’s early stuff for UP Records, which is high praise. The main difference is the urban dreams versus Modest Mouse’s backwoods existentialism.
  • All in all, while the record hints at the great things that were to come (particularly in the lyrical and atmospheric departments), this is a debut offering from a band that is still finding its way. Nothing wrong with that.
  • DELUXE EDITION: "There’s lots of people here…" The band’s first show sounds great. Nice Smiths cover. "State Street Residential" is nice live. Also, I wonder who The Revolutionary Hydra are, and how funny it must feel to hear themselves headlining on the back of Death Cab as an opening act back in the day.

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

Quick Review (LP): You Can Play These Songs With Chords by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
You Can Play These Songs With Chords
Elsinor; 1997 (Barsuk; 2003)

My Rating: C (51/100)

Best Tracks: "President of What?", "Hindsight", "That’s Incentive", "Army Corps of Architects"

DCFC in embryonic form…

NOTES

  • I prefer this early version of "President of What?" to the version released on Something About Airplanes.
  • The power-pop influences really stand-out here. I detect significant influence from the likes of Teenage Fanclub and Matthew Sweet. Additionally, tracks like "Hindsight" display an affinity for the early, lo-fi work of PNW heroes like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. Lastly, there’s a bit of Sebadoh in the mix for sure.
  • "That’s Incentive" is a cool bass-heavy sad-punk cut, although I’m certainly happy this wasn’t the main direction the band took.
  • The whole thing with throwing samples into songs as bridges is an annoying practice that I’m glad died away after the first album.
  • The most impressive thing about this early album is that its not all that impressive. Gibbard would certainly grow as a songwriter in the years to come.
  • BARSUK EDITION TRACKS: Only "Army Corps of Architects" is truly great among the extra tracks here, and to my knowledge it was was recorded far later in the band’s career. It reminds me a great deal of some of Modest Mouse’s great early singles, such as "Broke."

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (3/5)
Concept (3.5/5)
Songs (3.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Codes & Keys by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Codes & Keys
Atlantic; 2011

My Rating: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "Home is a Fire", "Codes and Keys", "Doors Unlocked and Open", "You Are A Tourist", "Unobstructed Views"

"Life is sweet in the belly of the best."

NOTES

  • Apparently, they were going for Eno circa Another Green World here. I can hear that, though it still sounds like Death Cab of course.
  • At first blush, this is very piano-based.
  • "Doors Unlocked and Open" has a little bit of a kraut-rock vibe. Sehr gut.
  • "You Are A Tourist" may be the most radio-friendly track they’ve ever written. Bouncy & poppy.
  • "Unobstructed Views" is a nice touch. A very Eno-ish moment, although I wish they’d gotten a little more out of this world with it.
  • "There’s nothing past this." Gibbard sure is a sentimental nihilist, and a certain one at that. ("St. Peter’s Cathedral")
  • The first half far excels the second. That’s a problem they’ve faced on a number of their albums.
  • After all the keyboards and electronic wash of the first 10 tracks, the acoustics, strings, and toms on "Stay Young, Go Dancing" are a nice way to end the record.
  • In terms of theme, this record is like one big expansion of "I Will Follow You Into The Dark." The subject matter is full of existential despair, which makes for an interesting listen. Gibbard is nothing if not a guy with an interesting outlook on the world.
  • This is one of the band’s best records, and I think they are getting better with age. I do wish it was a little more raw at times; sometimes there’s a disconnect between Gibbard’s lyrical content and the prettiness of the tunes. There are some very choice cuts here though, and I think this one is worthy of deeper interaction. Maybe they’ll make a Cosmic American record next time around?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consistency (3.5/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

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?