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): Bon Iver by Bon Iver

Bon Iver
Bon Iver
Jagjaguwar; 2011

My Ratings: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "Perth", "Holocene", "Michicant", "Calgary",
"Beth/Rest"

Another Winter World.

TRACK NOTES

  • "Perth"
        • A strange hybrid of metal and soft rock.
    • Definitely something brilliant here.
    • Those drums are pretty great.
  • "Minnesota, WI"
    • Is that a banjo or a guitar?
    • Love the layers of instruments and voices.
    • His voice is really just another instrument, isn’t it?
  • "Holocene"
    • Gorgeous arpeggio.
    • "I could see for miles, miles, miles"
    • This one’s a big winner. Just really lovely.
  • "Towers"
    • I like the fact that he didn’t throw as much into this one.
    • Thank God those locomotive drums kick in, because I was going to have to do it if he didn’t.
  • "Michicant"
    • Waltzy.
    • Dreamy.
    • Hyper-nostalgic.
  • "Hinnom, TX"
    • This one’s sort of goofy.
  • "Wash."
    • Kind of reminds me of Rachel’s later work.
    • Hypnotic.
    • Excellent piano work.
    • Bears the nostalgic mark as well.
  • "Calgary"
    • The video is amazing.
    • I’m a sucker for those warm, mournful synths, so I love this track by default.
  • "Lisbon, OH"
    • Transitional. Not much to say about it.
  • "Beth/Rest"
    • Wow.
    • It’s ridiculous to me that in 2011, there are people arguing that the instrumentation is controversial because it is cheesy. That’s because it’s so wonderful.
    • This sounds like the soundtrack to Christopher Cross’ dreams.
    • This is hands down one of the best tracks of the year.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Impressionistic.
  • BTW, it should be against the law for bands to release self-titled albums, unless it is the debut. I think it’s such a cop out. Points docked on concept.
  • Surprised he released this in the summer. Would have made more sense as an early fall.
  • This reminds me of the Strands of Oaks’ Pope Kildragon, except all dolled up with special effects and such.
  • Reminds me of the Destroyer album that came out earlier this year as well.
  • He’s all about evoking a sense of location and space, eh? These songs are very personal in the sense that he is giving voice to specific locations.
  • Places and times, some fictional some real, some non-descript and other very specific, some ancient, some yesterday.
  • There’s a lot going on here. I’ve barely scratched the surface lyrically. I’d love to dive into this one a little more at some point.
  • Want to know what this sounds like? Imagine Brian Eno producing a Coldplay album. Oh, wait…
  • Except it’s like Eno’s Another Green World with Chris Martin singing in falsetto, and his Hobbit brothers nowhere to be found. Seriously, isn’t it funny how Chris’ bandmates all have Hobbit names?
  • Great cover art. Sort of naturalist and surrealist all at once.

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

Quick Review (LP): Kaputt by Destroyer

Destroyer
Kaputt
Merge; 2011

My Rating: B (72/100)

Best Tracks: "Kaputt", "Chinatown", "Savage Night At The Opera", "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker", “Bay of Pigs (Detail)”

A Sleepy Aural Epic of Urban Proportions

RANDOM NOTES

– Smooth and seemingly effortless, this is the work of an artist seeking to emulate the soft rock precision of Steely Dan.
– More glammy than Smith Westerns without even trying.
– I’ve got no idea what Dan Bejar is singing about, and I assume it is rather depraved and essentially vacuous, but the melodies and the arrangements are fantastic.
– Love the Dire Straits-esque opening on "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker." Transporting.
– As great as many of these songs are, their remains a nebulosity that approaches jazziness, and I can’t help but feel that on a certain level Bejar might be a little lazy in terms of songcraft.
– One major drawback: Lacks impressiveness, that is, the ability to remain with you after you’re done listening.
– Begins to drag toward the end. For all of its excess, it lacks spark.
– Do NOT listen to this while driving. You might just fall asleep around "Song for America." 
– I have very mixed feelings about this – a sonic feast, but sort of boring and empty for all of its surface beauty.
Mark Richardson and James Christopher Monger both have lovely things to say about Kaputt.
– All in all, this is most certainly a grower, and a deep record. Nothing jumps right out and cries pay attention, but the more I listen, the more I find this a fascinating affair.

ATTRIBUTES

Cohesion (5/5) – Hard to beat the overall craftsmanship of the album.
Consequence (4/5) – No big single punch here, but it’s a very strong record.
Concept (4.5/5) – A fantastically smooth soft rock record.
Consistency (4.5/5) – Several brilliant moments really stand out above the rest.
Songs (4/5) – Could’ve been a bit stronger in the singles department.

Quick Review (LP): Together by New Pornographers

File:The New Pornographers - Together.jpgNew Pornographers
Together LP
Matador; 2010

My Rating: A

Standout Tracks: “The Crash Years”, “Silver Jenny Dollar”, “Bite Out of My Bed”

Let’s see…five albums in now. This should have been the epic fail, right? Not so. Instead, they’ve achieved a fantastic synthesis of the polite baroque rock of Challengers and the rocket-fueled zounds! pop of everything before that. It boasts some of their best work (Case is on another plane of existence here), and turns out to be the most consistent album from liftoff to crash landing they’ve yet made. High on melody, high on spark, high on all of the things that go to make heaven and earth. RiYL: anything they’ve done in the past, Destroyer, A.C. Newman, powerful power pop, Neko Case.

band website
Pitchfork review
Myspace page