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: 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 (2011): Real Estate, Cults, My Brightest Diamond, Memoryhouse, Washed Out

Real Estate – Days – [!!!!!]: Different packaging, same great taste. Band upgrades from one room flat to spacious loft. No matter how you put it, this is a band destined for great things. One thing I tend to insist is on is that I don’t care how great your band name or image is, if you don’t write great songs who really cares? And that’s why I love Real Estate. No sense of a well cultivated image (but not anti-image either, more like image-agnostic). This is a band that exists to make beautiful, chiming surf guitar love pop. You MIGHT find their equals, but where are you going to find tunes BETTER than "It’s Real" or "Out of Tune" this year? I defy you. ("Easy", "Green Aisles", "It’s Real", "Out of Tune")

Cults – Cults – [++]: I was going to say something snarky about how this is 2011’s version of 2010’s obligatory producer/voice combo Sleigh Bells, but there is a tunefulness and a soulfulness here that I didn’t expect and I like this much better than what I heard from Sleigh Bells. I think that’s owing to 2 things, the first being the no so subtle influence of 60’s girl group pop and the second being Madeline Follin’s voice which is certainly up to Brian Oblivion’s arrangements. So instead, I’m going to say that I really wish they’d re-hashed "Fire Woman", cuz I really love that song (honestly, I do). But yeah, think of the idea of Sleigh Bells, but the tunes of She & Him. That’s more like it. ("Abducted", "Walk at Night", "Rave On")

My Brightest Diamond – All Things Will Unwind – [++]: That Shara Worden sure is a talented lady. In some sense, I don’t really think I’m worthy of reviewing this. After all, I’m used to reviewing obvious, accessible pop music, not complex and challenging pseudo-classical compositions. What I’ll say though is that I really appreciate her work. I like it better than I expected, and one extremely positive thing I want to say is that she transcends the "hyper-pop" model that has become so popular and, if I may say so, somewhat cliche. There’s nothing cutesy about this. So musically, I have to acknowledge a certain greatness on Shara’s part. The problem is with me; her style just isn’t my cup of tea. So while I probably won’t be spinning this a great deal, I can wholeheartedly commend it to anyone who’s musical tastes go beyond that of a guy who watched way too much MTV growing up. ("We Added It Up", "She Does Not Brave the War", "I Have Never Loved Someone")

Memoryhouse – The Years EP – [ind]: I have to say, it’s a bit disappointing for the band to essentially "revamp" their self-released EP from last year as their debut proper. Whatever, it’s not like they owed me anything, but I will say that if you can get your hands on the original version of The Years, the versions of those songs are superior. Also, why did they ditch the Enigma-esque cut? I loved that one. Anywho, I’ll pass on this, but I am really looking forward to their debut LP. Oh, and the 7" they released earlier this year ("Caregiver" b/w "Heirloom") is most definitely worth seeking out.

Washed Out – Within and Without – [++]: I can appreciate this. It’s romantic, passionate, warm as a night on the French Riviera. However, what I really like about it is the density. My only touchpoint is Enigma (and maybe a few tracks on comps here and there), but what Washed Out seems to do differently is take those Eden-esque melodies and adorn them to a degree that would make Brian Wilson feel young again. Shades of IDM (you know, Four Tet, Boards of Canada), but more like Ecstatic Dance Music. Call it exotic dreamscapes to drown out the fridge buzz? ("Eyes Be Closed", "Far Away", "A Dedication")

REACTION KEY

[!!!!!]: Enthusiastic. Frequent rotation. A buyer. Contender for year’s best.
[++]: Positive. Good stuff. Possible grower?
[ind]: Indifferent.. Underwhelmed. I don’t expect to come back to this one.
[—]: Negative. A real screw-up. Don’t even bother.

Best of 2010 (EP): Top 3 Extended Players

I’ve never been a fan of filler, so I prefer a great EP to a decent full-length, especially because bands often reserve their most obtusely interesting moments for them. Chronic Town, 7 Songs, A Beautiful Place Out In The Country…I could go on. EP’s are less frequent affairs though, so I’m restricting the list to a Top 3 in this category. The competition was stiff. I reviewed 6 EP’s in the last few months of 2010 alone, and I gave 4 of them A’s. Wye Oak and Real Estate both put out strong offerings in this category, and I didn’t even get around to reviewing Crocodiles’ Fires of Comparison (def. solid) or any number of short offerings from newcomers.

 

from famous-painters.org

My Top 3 EP’s of 2010

3. The Seance EP by Stars…With the exception of the last one, the tracks here certainly rival most of the material on The Five Ghosts as synth-pop heavyweights. Exceptionally mix-worthy, as they say. These are the songs you listen to on the way home after the show has ended, with the windows rolled down and the cold night air keeping you awake. And the last one may not be as poppy, but it recalls The Cure’s darker and more ambient work, which fits the same vibe. Nicely done. (read my original review) [listen to “Opinion vs. The Sun”]

2. The Years EP by Memoryhouse…”Sleep Patterns” is fantastic enough to make a new Nickelback EP worth a listen (no it’s not), but the fact is that the other three tracks here measure up as well. This is super-sleepy, even for dream-pop, and it’s the ambient layers that make all the difference. Where a similar act, say, Beach House, emphasizes dynamics and the wall of sound, Memoryhouse prefers drones and blurred over synth effects. Heck, “The Waves” is a dead-ringer for 90’s infomercial new-age ambient kings Enigma. Gotta respect that. So, yeah, Memoryhouse – fantastic nostalgia-rock, chanting Hindi dude not included. (read my original review)  [listen to “Lately”]

1. All Delighted People EP by Sufjan Stevens…Already raved about “All Delighted People.” The rest of the EP is incredible too. Thought I could have done without a “Classic Rock” version of the title track, there’s no denying that Sufjan represents here. “Heirloom” and “From the Mouth of Gabriel” are favorites, and the vocal work on “Enchanting Ghost” sends chills up my spine. Still, it’s “Djohariah” that’s the true wonder here, a birthday tune he wrote for his little sis. Dang prodigies… (read my original review) [listen to “Heirloom”]