Sunday, December 25, 2011

My Sound Decisions: The Ten Best Albums of 2011

Last year, my friend Jen Baron posted an article on Facebook in which a famous musician — who it was, exactly, escapes me at the moment — makes the case that year end music lists are ridiculous. One of his points was that you can’t really make an educated decision because you can’t know all the albums in the running. And he’s right. For instance, I haven’t yet dug into Wild Flag enough to make educated assessment, but from what I’ve heard, it’s pretty great, and Guided by Voices just released an album a few days ago. Not nearly the time I need to make a call. (Yes, I am comfortable with being a slacker.) But when it comes to these lists, I don’t claim it to be the be all and end all, unlike Pitchfork, who actually does  seem to be suggesting they are. So, as with past lists, keep a salt shaker at the ready, and watch your blood pressure. 
That said, from what I heard, it was a good year. A very good year, early on. You know it has the potential to be a monster year when Radiohead, TV on the Radio, and REM all release albums in the first few months.  All of them very good to excellent. 

And while I’m on the subject of REM, for the purposes of this list, I’ve disqualified them. Collapse Into Now was, as we all now know, their final album. I’ve been an unapologetic fan for over half my life and I could have easily placed it in the top ten. Regardless of what many people would say — especially most of the 20-somethings I know — neither music nor musicians have an expiration date. But I’m aware that sentimentality could play a significant role. (I am, after all, Mr. Sentimental of LA County three years running.) Hence, the disqualification. Regardless, buy the album. I love it and I think that, at the very least, you’ll enjoy it. A fitting end to a storied career. 
Well, then. Let’s get on with it.

10. The King Of Limbs - Radiohead

I waffled back and forth on this one. TKOL is more divisive than a Denver Broncos quarterback’s post-game interview. [timely football reference] It’s yet another giant step away from OK Computer and that pisses people off. This also means that, if you look in your rearview mirror, there’s virtually no trace of The Bends whatsoever. The problem: What we’re all looking for, really, is the same album over and over and over again. I’ve never understood an inflexible fan base but, okay, it’s not for me to understand. Admittedly, my first response to The King Of Limbs was, “Huh?” But after a couple weeks’ investment, it really opened up. Detractors will say that it’s no In Rainbows. Good. They’ve already made In Rainbows. This is a different album; a great album that's as challenging as it is entertaining. If you don’t believe me, listen to Ferrel with headphones.
Standout track: Codex 

9. Only In Dreams - Dum Dum Girls

2011’s best-of list is loaded with thoughtful, brooding albums. This one’s on it too. Only In Dreams is an album that makes me want to be unproductive. And I believe I’ve achieved that goal. (I'll cross “be unproductive” off my list, but later. Tomorrow, maybe. Or not.) I defy you to listen to Bedroom Eyes three times in a row and not be hooked. You can’t, can you? Unlike the argument I make with TKOL about musical evolution being good, I’m okay with this being the same album as I Will Be, which made last year’s list. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that I’m in love with the drummer. Has my hypocrisy let you down? Really? Yeah, well, I try not to let that stuff get to me.
Standout track: Bedroom Eyes

8. Smoke Ring For My Halo - Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile is a songwriter. I don’t get the classification. Artists like Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot have always been referred to as songwriters, but isn’t any musician or band who writes their own stuff a “songwriter”? I suppose if we’re talking about a solitary singer/musician, we’re talking songwriter. So, okay, Kurt Vile is a songwriter of very, very good songs. And the songs on Smoke Ring For My Halo are better than very, very good. (Must… resist... urge... to do... Frosted Flakes™ ad.) At times, it seems like this is an… I don’t know… an “obvious” album, meaning it’s was the natural progression for Kurt Vile. “And,” to quote Daniel Tosh, “for that, we thank you.”
Standout track: Baby’s Arms

7. Past Life Martyred Saints - EMA

Who’s up for songs penned by a young, angry lesbian? I AM!!! I AM!!! Well— Isn’t everyone?? This is a gem. I had never heard of EMA (aka Erika M. Anderson) before this album, but upon first listen, it drew me in like an artist drawing something in. Real in. (And reel in.) Maybe partly due to the fact that she sings at barely a whisper in some of the tracks and you have to lean in to listen. Or maybe it’s because her lyrics are raw and nervy, including, “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark” and the simple, sledgehammer opening to California, “Fuck California, you made me boring.” She ain’t from the cast of the Mickey Mouse Club, that’s for damn sure. Nor, it goes without saying, is she from the Playboy Club. Actually, she’s from South Dakota.
Standout track: California

6. The Year Of Hibernation - Youth Lagoon

What do you do when you’re 22 years old and living in Boise, Idaho? Evidently, if you’re Trevor Powers (no relation to Kenny as far as I know), you make an exceptional album. His voice can best be described as young Neil Young — Not to be confused with young Karl Jung. Musically, The Year Of Hibernation feels a little Galaxie 500-ish, but maybe a little more sparse. Perhaps he was influenced by his surroundings, I don’t know. I’ve never been to Boise, but I’m assuming “teeming metropolis” isn’t a description that leaps to mind for visitors. Sonically, it feels as though you’re in his parents’ garage at 2:00 in the morning, and that’s a good thing. 22 years and already he’s making intimate, vulnerable music. Little bastard; I hate him. But love the album.
Standout track: 17

5. Badlands - Dirty Beaches

Dirty Beaches is one guy — A Canadian named Alex Hungtai. His album Badlands should be used for a David Lynch movie. Change nothing. Just release it as a soundtrack. It’s warped, creepy rockabilly music that would fit the bill if you were driving down a dark southwestern highway, with Sherilyn Fenn in your trunk and no cars in sight. Hungtai’s voice is vaguely reminiscent of Elvis Presley and his production sounds as though his engineer hasn’t graduated from the early cassettes on which Hungtai released his work exclusively. Normally, this would be a troublesome detail, but in this case, it’s oddly fortunate for anyone listening in. I can’t say enough good things about this album, but I will say it’s definitely for a very specific audience. I doubt most of you would blast it at your next barbecue. But you’d be missing out. Seriously. Life isn’t a Bud Light ad, is it? No, it is not.
Standout track: Lord Knows Best

4. David Comes To Life - Fucked Up

Lead singer Damian Abraham’s voice sounds like he’s perpetually yelling at the ref for a bad call on 3rd-and-long, with the playoffs on the line. [football reference #2] It takes a lot of patience for me to get familiar enough with Fucked Up’s music to judge it because I have to negotiate around that voice. But once negotiations have ended, I’m glad I took the time. David Comes To Life is something of a rock opera, and oddly, never makes mention of arcade games of any kind. (Amateurs.) It’s a narrative, but when it comes down to it, it’s really a hooky, powder keg of an album that makes me feel like I should be drinking a lot of beer with very, very smart people. I guess that’s always an option, but I quit a couple decades ago. Eh, screw it. Where’s the marshmallow vodka?
Standout track: Queen of Hearts

3. Let England Shake - PJ Harvey

Let England Shake is the perfect name for the album Let England Shake. To my ear, it sounds like what I would call “21st century apocalyptic.” (A genre that’s gonna sweep both sides of the Atlantic, just wait and see.) There’s an ominous tone to it from start to finish. Not the kind you experience when you look down at your watch only to realizing that you pulled into the McDonald’s drive-thru at 10:31 a.m. — Way worse. But even though its tone feels contemporary, Let England Shake is actually about London after the first World War. This may seem an antiquated topic to you and me, but to Britain, the ripple effects are still being felt today, even if barely noticeable. Though, I can’t speak to how late their McDonalds’ serve breakfast. 
Standout track: The Last Living Rose

2. Bon Iver - Bon Iver 

Bon Iver used to be a man. Bon Iver became a band. Bon Iver is now an album too.  And it’s beautiful. That’s the word. Beautiful. You can throw “delicate” into the fold too. Justin Vernon specializes in songs that go hand in hand (in hand) with these descriptors. This album is so good, I don’t really know what to say about it. It speaks for itself. I want you to buy this album because, if you’re still reading, you deserve it. 
Standout track: Holocene 

1. Burst Apart - The Antlers

If you scan the music sites’ “Best of 2011” lists (I haven’t), I’m betting all the money in my pockets (I carry a debit card) this one isn’t in the #1 position. Nor is it likely in anyone’s top ten. This isn’t to say that I’m somehow in the know. It’s just a matter of taste. Mine might be atrocious and, here, you’ve spent all this time reading this blog. Despite this, I’ll press on: For my money, this is the best album of the year. Burst Apart is The Antlers’ third album and it’s an effin’ tremendous follow-up to 2009’s work of genius, Hospice. Like Hospice, the songs that make up the album cover some depressing, if not troubling topics, ranging from empty, loveless sex to putting down the family pet. Not exactly warm and cuddly, and very unlikely to be covered by teen idol X, Y, or Z, which is the mark of any great album. (I’m talkin’ to you, Roger Daltrey!) Yeah, this album is going to be ignored, and there’s a better than great chance that almost everyone will disagree with me. I mean, without question, enough people to fill all the stadiums of the National Football League. [third and final football reference] But I’m okay with that. I would think most of them haven’t listened to a note.
Standout track: I Don’t Want Love

In The Conversation

More great music. I always find it difficult to boil these lists down to 10 albums. Here are the other ones that could have made the cut, a few that should have made the cut, and one or two that I’ll be kicking myself over in two years. 
(In no particular order.)

Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes

The follow-up to their self-titled debut, it could have easily been simply disc two of a double album. But so, so good. 
Standout track: Bedouin Dress

Days - Real Estate

If Vampire Weekend didn’t suck, they still wouldn’t sound as good as this. I’m just sayin’. Vampire Weekend? So ridiculously overrated. Real Estate? Not. But there's a weird guitar-thingy that goes on that reminds me of VW's sound. Left-handed compliment, indeed.
Standout track: It’s Real

Father, Son, Holy Ghost - Girls

Girls often make me uneasy, but I love them. The same can be said for this band. 
Standout track: Vomit

By The Hedge - Minks

It’s tough for me to put my finger on Minks. They have a bit of an Emo sound similar to Wild Nothing, but they definitely put their own spin on it. A good one.
Standout track: Out of Tune

Slave Ambient - The War On Drugs

‘Nother new band that I think is going to do great things. But then, I said that about U2, and they went nowhere fast.
Standout track: Baby Missiles 

Nine Types Of Light - TV on the Radio

Always a great listen. I love TVOTR’s utterly TVOTR sound, and their albums usually end up in my top ten. There just happened to be some great music this year. One has to make the hard decisions. 

Standout track: Repetition

Take Care, Take Care, Take Care - Explosions in the Sky

Explosions are criminally ignored. They deserve to be heard. And not just in a movie soundtrack like Friday Night Lights. Take Care, Take Care, Take Care is a great example why. With music this powerful, who needs a singer? Not Explosions In The Sky.
Standout track: Trembling Hands

Strange Mercy - St. Vincent

I’m fairly certain this will fall under the category of albums I’ll be kicking myself over in two years. It takes a long time for me to dig into St. Vincent’s albums. But, oh, how I love Annie Clark. I’d love her to be my latex salesman. 
Standout track: Cruel 

Metals - Feist

Metals is a very Feist album. And what do you say about a Feist album? It’s feisty, I guess. And it’s good because her voice is feisty too.
Standout track: How Come You Never Go There
So then, that’s this year’s list. Nothing left to say but hello, EMA, Youth Lagoon, War On Drugs,  Minks, Real Estate, and Dirty Beaches. Goodbye, REM.