My 29 Favorite Discs of 2011
Here's the first one:
"Dim! Welcome back! Where have you been?"
Well, thank you kindly and thanks also for showing interest in my whereabouts. It means a lot to me. Also, it's none of your business.
"Why 29 discs?"
32 seems kind of arbitrary, don't you think? Truthfully, I set out to do a top 30. I got 29 placed in the list and then had like an eight-way tie for #30. Rather than have this drag into June, I decided to just go with 29. Besides, it's time for prime numbers to represent.
"Don't you know it's mid-February? What in the hell took so long?"
Jumpin' Jesus on a broken pogo stick, it's February?! Seriously, thank you for your concern that I have not encountered a calendar in almost three months, but yes, I know the date. Or, at least, the month. What took so long? Volume. Not the loud kind, but the kind my measurement converter app on my phone takes to calling a "shit ton." As in, I had a "shit ton" of releases to review and consider. About a hundred, give or take. Plus, do you have any idea how long it took me to choreograph Nicki Minaj's Grammy performance?! Some people have day jobs, you know.
"Can I follow you on Twitter and/or Facebook?"
Simply stated, in 40-something characters or less...no.
"Does this mean you are back to blogging regularly?"
Well, considering if you are even reading this, it is because I sent you the direct link to the blog posting with the instructions of "Read this" and, even so, you are probably giving your mouse's click wheel a yeoman's workout by scrolling immediately down to the number one entry where your reaction will be one of a) "That band sucks", b) "Overrated.", c) "Who?", or d) "I swear to Apple Paltrow Martin, if he completely ignores Coldplay one more time, I'm going to tie him down and force him to listen to the ten worst Snow Patrol songs until his ears mutate into miniature Bono heads", on top of the fact that you are completely bypassing all of the youtube links I painstakingly coded in HTML so that you may click on a few and maybe give your ears a listen to something you have never heard before for the love of Christ, I'd say in 40-something characters or less...unlikely. But who knows? Maybe I'll return to Dim City, much like the biblical Prodigal Son. Only more begrudgingly. And with asthma.
OK, enough of my yapping. Let's boogie.
29.12 Desperate Straight Lines - Telekinesis (Merge)
Three awesome tunes: "Fever Chill", "You Turn Clear In The Sun", "Car Crash"
The quick take: Just a very good, succinct pop album. Michael Benjamin Lerner, who not only writes the songs, but plays every instrument on the album, has the formula nailed: brief, catchy songs of various tempos that are also well-played. Not the deepest album of the year, but sometimes a little mindless fun is what you need. Just ask dumb people.
28. Tamer Animals - Other Lives (TBD Records)
Three awesome tunes: "Dust Bowl III", "As I Lay My Head Down", "Dark Horse"
The quick take: Mellow and dramatic, the latest from this Stillwater, OK band is an exercise in restraint. It's lush and complicated without sounding overwrought and the dreamy nature of the 11 tracks calls to mind a male-fronted Mazzy Star. Who's Mazzy Star? Sounds like this, but with a chick singing. See how this works?
27. Have You Met Lera Lynn? - Lera Lynn (Slow Records)
Three awesome tunes: "Whiskey", "Gasoline", "For The Ride"
The quick take: A surprisingly mature debut for such a young talent. A little sparse, a little sultry, a little folk, a little country, and a little darkness all come together on this great first offering from the Atlanta-based singer/songwriter. If you haven't met her already, be sure to do so. Plus, as the kids say these days, the lass is easy on the ol' peepers.
26. Eureka - Mother Mother (Last Gang Records)
Three awesome tunes: "Chasing It Down", "Far In Time", "Oleander"
The quick take: Gloriously quirky and inherently unique while remaining accessible, Eureka further solidifies Mother Mother's standing as one of the more tragically under-appreciated bands today. The Canadian five-piece sound like little else out there right now and the dozen songs here here consistently consistently please please.
Previous list appearances: O My Heart (#20 in 2008)
25. Follow Me Down - Sarah Jarosz (Sugarhill)
Three awesome tunes: "Annabelle Lee", "Floating In The Balance", "Here Nor There"
The quick take: A little folksy, a little bluegrass, a little Americana and a lot of talent. 20 year-old Sarah Jarosz shows ability (both musically and with songwriting) beyond her years. She's helped along by complete virtuosos of the genres she plays, but the songs are all hers and quite impressive to boot. Plus, the chick plays like 20 instruments. How's your kazoo practice coming?
24. Within And Without - Washed Out (Sub Pop)
Three awesome tunes: "Amor Fati", "Eyes Be Closed", "Far Away"
The quick take: Surprisingly soothing, atmospheric and anachronistic synth-pop ear candy with more than a dash of moodiness. Ernest Greene's nine compositions might not grab you on first listen, but the longer you spend with it, the more you appreciate the textures, melodies, and depth. "Amor Fati" is one of the best songs of the year by anyone and check out that album cover! HAWT!
23. The Whole Love - Wilco (dBpm/ANTI)
Three awesome tunes: "Art of Almost", "Standing O", "Black Moon"
The quick take: It's a testament to a band's strength and catalog when something that can be described as "not their best" can still make a Best Of...list. For all Wilco's latest is a little odd, disjointed, and tough to latch onto, it's so impeccably played, orchestrated, and arranged, that it's hard to be sore at it for too long. Besides, my man-crush on Jeff Tweedy wouldn't allow it. Oops! Did I use my outside voice on that?
Previous list appearances: Summerteeth (Honorable Mention in 1999); Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (#6 in 2002) <= I was an idiot back in 2002; A Ghost Is Born (#1 in 2004); Sky Blue Sky (#5 in 2007); Wilco (The Album) (#6 in 2009)
22. The Harrow & The Harvest - Gillian Welch (Acony Records)
Three awesome tunes: "Tennessee", "Scarlet Town", "The Way It Will Be"
The quick take: Beautifully haunting and simple, Welch forges yet another folk masterpiece. The songs are exceptionally written and performed and while you may feel a little emotionally wiped out from the intimacy of the recording, it's far from a drag. Actually, solemnity never sounded so good. Except when it sounds sad. Then it sounds sad. And good. And you get confused.
21. Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
Three awesome tunes: "Battery Kinzie", "The Plains/Bitter Dancer", "Bedouin Dress"
The quick take: Majestic and relaxing, with a keen ear for vocal harmonies, the sophomore release from Seattle's Fleet Foxes, like its predecessor, won't be accused of blazing any new trails. But what it does is provide contemplative and richly layered folk rock that isn't afraid to go beyond its likely formula. Plus, look at that album cover! Not HAWT! I just don't have anything wise-assy to say!
Previous list appearances: Fleet Foxes (#9 in 2008)
20. Little Hell - City And Colour (Vagrant Records)
Three awesome tunes: "Weightless", "Sorrowing Man", "Hope For Now"
The quick take: If I told you City and Colour is actually the recording name for Dallas Green, who normally fronts a Canadian post-hardcore band, you might be surprised at the songs that lie here. Containing emotional and melancholy acoustic songs, tempered ever-so-slightly with the occasional jangle and driven by Green's unique and amazing voice, Little Hell is a triumph. Which, thankfully, doesn't sound like the band Triumph, which is Canadian, but not post-hardcore and sounds like hell. I kid. I like Triumph.
19. Civilian - Wye Oak (Merge)
Three awesome tunes: "The Alter", "Holy Holy", "Hot As Day"
The quick take: The Baltimore duo's third full-length is a tad more subdued and airy than previous offerings, but no less impressive. Guitarist/singer Jenn Wasner continues her meteoric rise as a musician and composer here while percussionist extraordinaire Andy Stack supplies the musical levels that make Wye Oak unique in their sound. Go see these cats live to really get a feel for how awesome they are. Especially for a band named after a tree for God's sake. And while some may say Wye Oak, I offer Wye Not.
Previous list appearances: The Knot (#12 in 2009)
18. Wild Flag - Wild Flag (Merge)
Three awesome tunes: "Romance", "Short Version", "Future Crimes"
The quick take: Sometimes bratty and punky and sometimes overtly melodic, this debut offering from an all-gal supergroup of members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and the Minders is wonderfully harnessed musical energy, thanks primarily to Carrie Brownstein's dynamic guitar leads and Janet Weiss's powerhouse drumming. Run on sentences rule. Unlike that album cover. WTF is that?!
17. build a rocket boys! - elbow (cooperative music usa)
three awesome tunes: "the birds", "lippy kids", "neat little rows"
the quick take: a decidedly mellow and poignant affair from one of music's most underrated and hard to categorized bands. guy garvey's vocals remain a strong point and the songs that soar do so at great heights. and the ones that merely simmer are certainly complex enough on all fronts to command your attention. oh, and elbow? ee cummings' copyright lawyers called. they'll be in touch.
16. No Color - The Dodos
Three awesome tunes: "Good", "Hunting Season", "Going Under"
The quick take: Stomping, jangly, fuzzed out, AND catchy. A really supurb, albeit brief, indie-pop album by this duo. Adding Neko Case to complement the vocals (not to take over a lead role) is also a nice touch. Songs are well-constructed and performed and just when you think they are starting to get a little comfortable in their sound, they switch things up. Let's hope THESE Dodos don't wind up extinct. HAHA!!! Get it?! I don't get it!!
15. Barton Hollow - The Civil Wars (Sensibility Music)
Three awesome tunes: "Barton Hollow", "My Father's Father", "To Whom It May Concern"
The quick take: Achingly beautiful and delicate debut from this Tennessee duo. A perfect marriage in songwriting and melody, Joy Williams and John Paul White provide gorgeous and emotionally substantive acoustic folk - keeping it effortless and accessible. And let us collectively give thanks that their first name for a band, The Peloponnesian Wars, was already taken up by a Norwegian death metal band that is currently in hiatus while the lead singer serves a life sentence for killing the bass player and then cooking and eating his spleen. Don't bother with Wikipedia, I made that up.
14. Wasting Light - Foo Fighters
Three awesome tunes: "Rope", "Bridge Burning", "One Of These Days"
The quick take: Three words: Rock. And. Roll. Dave Grohl and company go back to basics with a release that is straight up rock with few frills. Wasting Light leaves nothing to waste - no filler, no throwaway tracks. What's left is pure heavy rock with a consistency that has been lacking not only in the Foos' more recent offerings, but in the genre as a whole. Three more words: Pat Smear is back in the band. Five more words: Counting is not my strong suit.
Previous list appearances: The Colour And The Shape (#2 in 1997), There Is Nothing Left To Lose (#5 in 1999), One By One (#7 in 2002), In Your Honour (#17 in 2005)
13. Seeds - Hey Rosetta! (Sonic Records)
Three awesome tunes: "Seeds", "Yer Fall", "Welcome"
The quick take: The Great White North has really been cranking out some great music over the past few years and the latest offering from this six-piece is no exception. Energetic, head-bobbing, and intricate, Seeds does wonderfully in fulfilling the "indie rock" label without ever sounding formulaic or derivative. Fun, true fact about Hey Rosetta!: they have one more person in the band than the entire population of the Inuvialuit hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories. Also, that's not true.
12. Bitter Blood - Chamberlin (Roll Call Records)
Three awesome tunes: "Fools", "Bitter Blood", "Souvenirs"
The quick take: Just an absurdly consistent and refined debut offering from this Vermont quintet. Stripped down, yet multi-faceted in instrumentation and vocals, the nine songs here shine brightly. Kind of hard to categorize - calling it roots rock would be doing them a great disservice - but something that fans of many genres would appreciate. Not to be confused with the band Chamberlain (spelled slightly differently and not from Vermont) and not to be confused with Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, which is spelled very differently, not a band at all, but IS from Vermont.
11. Dynamite Steps - The Twilight Singers (Sub Pop)
Three awesome tunes: "Waves", "On The Corner", "Last Night In Town"
The quick take: Former Afghan Whig Greg Dulli's brilliance, along with that of his excellent band, is again on display with this wonderfully constructed pure rock album. The balance of being oppressively dark and foreboding without being overbearing is a Dulli specialty and Dynamite Steps doesn't disappoint. Extra points for a great album cover, but points deducted because as hard as I tried, I couldn't find any songs about Bella, Edward, or Jacob. Twilight Singers, my ass.
Previous list appearances: Twilight As Played By The Twilight Singers (#15 in 2000), The Twilight Singers Play Blackberry Belle (#7 in 2003), She Loves You (#2 in 2004), Powder Burns (#3 in 2007)
10. El Camino - The Black Keys (Nonsuch)
Three awesome tunes: "Little Black Submarines", "Lonely Boy", "Money Maker"
The quick take: Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney (with the help of co-producer Danger Mouse) took their dirty, garage blues sound and furthered it for the latest release. While not as scathing or raw as previous efforts (one could actually argue it is over-produced), El Camino still showcases the duo's strength of cranking out solid, concise rock songs. True story, the album name, El Camino (Spanish for "The Camino") is not named after the car, but rather the name of Auerbach's infant son, El Camino Auerbach. In fact, his baby portrait from Sears is used as the album art above.
Previous list appearances: Magic Potion (#22 in 2006), Attack & Release (#7 in 2008), Brothers (#8 in 2010)
09. Kiss Each Other Clean - Iron & Wine (Warner Bros.)
Three awesome tunes: "Big Burned Hand", "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me", "Walking Far From Home"
The quick take: Focused and cohesive while incredibly employing seemingly every instrument under the sun, Sam Beam and company delivery a sonically expansive Iron & Wine offering. At times retro and easy listening without being Easy Listening, Kiss Each Other Clean is soothing, complex, and richly textured. Like a milkshake that's complicated, not too cold, and has crap thrown in it for texture so it isn't so gosh darn smooth. I mean, it ain't a milkshake unless you have to worry about choking on texture, am I right?
08. Circuital - My Morning Jacket (ATO)
Three awesome tunes: "Victory Dance", "First Light", "Circuital"
The quick take: Continuing their tradition of having each album sound different than the last, Kentucky's My Morning Jacket again delivers a cogent and musically perplexing (in a good way) release. There's some relatively straight ahead rock amongst the diversity, but as usual with these guys - it's all enjoyable. Fun fact that I absolutely did not make up - at least one song (and the album art) was influenced by singer/guitarist Jim James' experience underdoing LASIK eye surgery. Wikipedia THAT, suckas!
Previous list appearances: It Still Moves (#16 in 2003), Z (#9 in 2005), Evil Urges (#5 in 2008)
07. The Hunter - Mastodon (Reprise)
Three awesome tunes: "Stargasm", "The Sparrow", "Blasteroid"
The quick take: Uhh, what's not to love? Completely absurd and bombastic metal? Ridiculous song titles (see above?) A tremendously metal album cover? How about finally some heavy music that has a thankful ear for melody and doesn't rely on guttural growls for vocals? This has it all!! Plus, even if the album sucked (which it doesn't), I'd still have it on my list just so I could type out the titles "Stargasm" and "Blasteroid."
(Goddamnit, youtube won't let me embed even a single Mastodon song. So, just go to youtube and check out anything from The Hunter and prepare ye to havest thou face melted, alas!)
Three awesome tunes: "This Is Why We Fight", "Down By The Water", "June Hymn"
The quick take: More focused and thoughtful folk rock from the Pacific Northwest's the Decemberists. Help from Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Gillian Welch make this release distinct, steady, and near-flawless. Colin Meloy's recognizable vocals and lyrics, along with the pure tautness of the band, elevates to the release to one of the best of the year and of their career. Progressive Decemberists cover band, The Januaryists, better up their game.
Previous list appearances: The Hazards Of Love (#1 in 2009)
The Big Roar - The Joy Formidable (Atlantic/Canvasback)
Three awesome tunes: "A Heavy Abacus", "Whirring", "Chapter 2"
The quick take: The Big Roar. A big sound. This London-based trio sure makes a lot of noise for just three folks. The Joy Formidable excels in creating loud, fuzzed out rock with very catchy pop sensibilities. The fact that it is the band's debut makes it all the more impressive. Now, if I can just stop having nightmares about the album cover, I'll be happier. The Kraaken Formidable is more like it. Yeesh, take a lesson from Washed Out, would ya please?
04. The Head And The Heart - The Head And The Heart (Sub Pop)
Three awesome tunes: "Rivers And Roads", "Winter Song", "Coeur D'alene"
The quick take: Sprawling, gorgeous, refreshing, and calming, this Seattle six-piece's debut is proof positive that folk/Americana doesn't need to be dour and downbeat. The musicianship (particularly Kenny Hensley's piano) along with the harmonies and melodies are really outstanding. A stunning first effort. And, somewhere in a basement in Tacoma, the duo that calls themselves The Rectum And The Anus lament not only their lack of talent, but their unfortunate decision of band name.
03. The Year Of Magical Drinking - Apex Manor (Merge)
Three awesome tunes: "Under The Gun", "Southern Decline", "Teenage Blood"
The quick take: Just a borderline perfect power pop record from Ross Flournoy and his band. Wonderfully balanced with a couple of ballads, jangly pop, and some heavier stuff, this release does call to mind some of Wilco's more bratty pure pop songs. Very catchy, heartfelt, and fun. Though, on second thought, just grabbing random words from the titles like "decline", "blood", "gun", and "drinking" might not make it sound like all that fun a record after all.
02. 21 - Adele (Columbia)
Three awesome tunes: "Rumor Has It", "I'll Be Waiting", "Someone Like You"
The quick take: If this isn't a consummate pop record, I don't know what is. The powerhouse British songstress expertly balances strength and emotion, up-tempo numbers and ballads, joy and heartache to produce a staggeringly good sophomore effort. This is on everyone's "Best Of" lists for a reason. Just spectacular. Oh, and you know those people who say, "I liked so-and-so way back when they were blah blah blah and when they put out that record no one heard of or bought and they were busking at the train station, blah, blah, blah..." Well, that's not me. I'm a total bandwagon Adele fan and I don't care. So there.
01. Ceremonials - Florence + The Machine (Universal Republic)
Three awesome tunes: "What The Water Gave Me", "Shake It Out", "Lover To Lover"
The quick take: No sophomore slump here - never has darkness sounded so enrapturing. With a voice and style that transcends genre labels, Florence Welch delivers a stunning collection of orchestral pop, driven by the otherworldly strength of her vocals. The compositions are grandiose, layered, and complicated but laden with enough hooks to keep you interested as you marvel at the band and Welch herself. In this shuffle-minded world, it's sometimes difficult to sit and listen to an entire record from beginning to end - not so with Ceremonials, my favorite of the year. And no smart alecky thing to end with. Just a true fact: that's me on the album cover.
Previous list appearances: Lungs (#3 in 2010)