Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Top Albums: 2011

I listened to a *lot* of music in 2011. I just checked my iTunes, and I have more music from this year than any of last 10 years. That said, what follows are my favorite records of the year. It was tough to whittle the list down -- for every album on here, there were 2 or 3 that didn't make the cut for one reason or another. There were a lot of "artsy" critical darlings that I appreciated but just didn't listen to as much (i.e. Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, etc.), and just as many straightforwardly poppy albums (Peter Bjorn & John, The Kooks) that didn't have as much staying power, and some solid "mainstream" efforts (Death Cab for Cutie, Airborne Toxic Event) that I enjoyed for a time as well. I think my final list has a good mix of all three, as well as an eclectic smattering of other stuff. Keep in mind that there are just my favorite (read: very subjective) records of the last 12 months, not necessarily what I thought were the "best" records, or even what I listened to the most. Enjoy, and check out anything that sounds interesting.

I'll start with a few records that I enjoyed but just didn't spend enough time with to feel comfortable about listing. Then, some 2010 records that I caught up on this year. In alphabetical order:

Dan Andriano in the Emergency Room - Hurricane Season
Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra
Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
Diane Birch - The Velveteen Age (2010)
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals - Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (2010)
The Naked and Famous - Passive Me, Aggressive You (2010)

Onto the Honorable Mentions (also in alphabetical order):

Big D & The Kids Table - For the Damned, the Dumb, and the Delirious
City and Colour - Little Hell
The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
Dave Hause - Resolutions
Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong
Drive - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Foster the People - Torches
Incubus - If Not Now, When?
Lenka - Two
Meg & Dia - Cocoon
Red Hot Chili Peppers - I'm With You
Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
The Subways - Money and Celebrity
"Weird Al" Yankovic - Alpocalypse
Wild Flag - Wild Flag

That's 15 albums. There's 10 (well, 11) below, making for a top 25 of sorts. Sounds like a good number to me. Let's make like Jacque Cousteau and dive in:

10) Blink-182 - Neighborhoods/New Found Glory - Radiosurgery (tie)
Genre: Pop-punk
Standout tracks: "Heart's All Gone," "Wishing Well," "Even If She Falls"/"Anthem for the Unwanted," "Ready, Aim, Fire!"

This year was a pretty good year for the oft-maligned genre of pop-punk. Granted, I'm not 19 anymore and these songs don't have the same resonance as they used to, but you like what you like, right? I'm not going to pretend like I didn't give these albums plenty of spins this year (or whatever the digital equivalent of "spins" is). Words like  "catchy" and "infectious" and "anthemic" get bandied about a lot with bands like these, and that about sums it up. One does a LOT of driving in Arizona, and three chords and some "whoa-oh-oh"s are a much better freeway soundtrack than breathy whispers from bearded dudes over fucking banjo or whatever. There's a time and place for music like that -- a snowbound log cabin with a bottle of whiskey sounds about right. Not many cabins where I live is all I'm saying. Anyway, I'm not sure either of these albums would have made this list on their own merit, but I wanted to give a shout out to these records and a few more, so #10 it is. Some other pop-punk (and ska) gems were released by the following bands as well: Cobra Skulls, The Copyrights, Dead to Me, Dwarves, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Screeching Weasel.

9) Childish Gambino - Camp
Genre: Rap/hip-hop
Standout tracks: "Fire Fly," "Heartbeat," "Sunrise"

Community cast member Donald Glover takes great pains to separate his already well-established comedy persona ("Donald Glover"... duh) from his not-as-well-known rap persona, "Childish Gambino" (derived from a Wu-Tang Clan name generator... mine is Erratic Assassin... awesome) on Camp. The result, predictably, is a bit of a dichotomy. Are we supposed to take something called Childish Gambino seriously as he raps about black culture, the state of the rap game, and relationship struggles? Or are we supposed to laugh like we're in on the joke at lines like "You can kiss my ass / Human Centipede" and his constant references to Asian girls? Is this a Serious Album, or is it "camp"? The answer, I think, is somewhere between -- Donald Glover is a comedian (and a very successful one -- Community is by far the most original comedy on the air... for now) who raps, and there's no getting around that duality. His comedic sensibilities are going to seep into his songs, for better or worse. That Glover is, at this point, an amateur rapper is quite obvious -- Camp is littered with ill-advised one liners, clumsy rhymes, and a general sense of confusion about what this record (even the entire persona) is supposed to accomplish. But also prevalent are tight production, acute pop sensibilities, incisive observations, killer hooks (sang, sans Auto-Tune, by Glover himself), and a sense of earnestness (even in the album's missteps) that is missing from most rap/hip-hop today. Camp is flawed, yes, but it's an exceptionally listenable record and, presumably, another step toward world domination for the would-be Spider-Man, Donald Glover.

8) Watch the Throne - Watch the Throne
Produced by: So many people
Standout tracks: "No Church in the Wild," "Otis," "Welcome to the Jungle"

While Camp is the first foray into the mainstream for an ascendant MC, Watch the Throne is an authoritative statement by two mainstream icons, Jay-Z and Kanye West. What that statement is, I'm not exactly sure, but it's delivered in style: commanding beats, clever samples, conceptual flourishes, and guest appearances by artists both alive (Beyoncé, Frank Ocean) and dead (Otis Redding, James Brown). Both Jay-Z and West spit with their traditional verve and brio, touching on themes such as race, status, religion, progeny, etc. over progressively more complex arrangements/structures. It's a bold step for both artists -- albeit a directionless one, as the album can't seem to settle on one particular theme or concern. It's a concept album without a concept. The album also seems a bit out of touch -- "Niggas in Paris" on the heels of a devastating recession? Hubris much? But that should be expected from those involved. Watch the Throne is obviously not a perfect hip-hop album, despite the expectations, but it was never going to be, nor does it have to be. Instead, it's a fascinating exercise in excess, a monument to opulence. It's hard to turn away -- nor do you want to.

7) The Black Keys - El Camino
Genre: Rock/blues
Standout tracks: "Lonely Boy," "Gold on the Ceiling," "Little Black Submarines," "Run Right Back"

The Black Keys are the rare band that has managed to evolve without losing fans along the way -- in fact, they're gaining them. Radiohead is about the only other band I can think of that has pulled this off (although, while on the subject, I didn't much care for King of Limbs). After starting out as a two-piece, bare bones, guitar-and-drums blues rock outfit, the band -- nominally still a duo, although producer Danger Mouse has had an increased role -- has steadily added different elements on each record -- keys here, backing vocals there... did I just hear chimes? And, egads, is that a bass line? Yet, they're indelibly still the same band, and I don't hear anyone yelling "Sellouts!" Not that anyone would hear over some of Dan Auerbach's most ballsy guitar work yet -- seriously, listen to the second half of "Submarines" and you'll see what I mean. Well, not see, obviously. Anyway. According to the band, these songs were written to be played live, so I'll go ahead and put "See The Black Keys" live on my 2012 bucket list. You know, in case the world ends.

6) TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
Genre: Indie/experimental
Standout tracks: "Second Song," "No Future Shock," "New Cannonball Blues," "Repetition"

As their name would suggest, TV on the Radio delights in subverting expectations, labels, genres. Are they a rock band? Electronic? Hip-hop? Funk? No, they're all of the above, and then some. On Nine Types of Light, the band effortlessly shifts between these differing elements of their identity between tracks, verses -- shit, sometimes even between lines. The central narrative here, such as it is, seems to be vaguely post-apocalyptic ("All this death above extinguishing / All that you've ever known"), but that doesn't mean you can't still have a good time ("Shake it like it is the end of time"). Finding light in the dark -- seems an appropriate theme for a band whose bassist was suffering from lung cancer during recording (and who died shortly thereafter... R.I.P.). Solemn musings aside, this is a sharp album, deliberate in its chaos and unwavering in its sense of rhythm and flow, in spite of the myriad tones and structures, and one that keeps revealing new facets with each listen (much like their last record, 2008's Dear Science). I look forward to seeing what else this record, and band, have to offer in the future, apocalypse or no.

5) Daybreaker - The Northbound Trains EP
Genre: Rock/punk/acoustic
Standout tracks: "Lean On Me," "Lanterns," "Where I'm Supposed To Be," "City Lights"

There's not much more to say about this album than I said back in May, so I won't dally (not that I'd know how to anyway). Just know that this is the type of rock 'n' roll that more bands should play -- unselfconscious and soulful, well-crafted and tuneful. Daybreaker, the latest in a bumper crop of Springsteen/Petty influenced bands, plays songs about girls and driving and how a guitar can get you through a day or a year or a life. Only 7 songs long, this one got played a lot and each song burrowed its way into my brain -- and they haven't come out since. This one's about as under-the-radar as they come, but I hope I get to be the guy that said "I told you so" sometime soon.

4) The Lonely Island - Turtleneck & Chain
Genre: Rap/comedy
Standout tracks: "We're Back!", "Jack Sparrow," "After Party," "No Homo"

Note the order of the genres: rap then comedy. Yes, these guys are funny (okay -- fucking hilarious), but they also are unabashed hip-hop fans and, indeed, talents in their own right. The list of guest artists on Turtleneck & Chain reads like a Billboard Hot 100 roll call: Akon, Snoop, Rihanna, JT, Nicki Minaj, and, uh, Michael Bolton... and Andy, Jorma, and 'Kiv manage to hold their own. Indeed, other than the brilliant "Sparrow" (see hyperlink), most of my favorite jams off this record don't feature any guest artists. Say what you will about their feature film acting, writing, or directing (although all three are better than they have any right to be), these guys have a true flair for songwriting and composing, even if they are "just" fake raps. Each song manages to both mock and pay tribute to hip-hop conventions -- "We're Back!" celebrates the group's, er, members (but not like you think), while "No Homo" completely skewers rap's inherent homophobia, for example. There is an undeniable low genius at work here, but to call them hip-hop's idiot savants would be a misnomer. Even given all the guest talent, these three guys are still probably the smartest guys in the studio.

3) Alkaline Trio - Damnesia
Genre: Punk/acoustic
Standout tracks: "Calling All Skeletons," "Every Thug Needs a Lady," "The American Scream," "I Held Her in My Arms"

Alkaline Trio has long been one of my favorite punk bands, but I felt that they lost a bit of their edge on their last few studio albums (from Crimson on). Their rough, back alley charm had been rounded smooth under too much studio polish. Thankfully, Damnnesia, an acoustic greatest hits of sorts, strips all the studio sheen away and allows the band's unique songwriting, vocal harmonies, and macabre lyrics to again take center stage. There are some beautiful renditions of old favorites ("Clavicle," "Radio," "Private Eye," "Thug"), but some of their newer songs really stood out for me in this stripped-down atmosphere ("Mercy Me," "Skeletons," "Scream"). There are also two new songs: "Olde English 800," which is about exactly what it says, and an upbeat (in a way) Violent Femmes cover, "I Held Her in My Arms." This collection would be an excellent gateway into the band, but is also a way for old fans to appreciate the band in a new light -- the slowed down version of "Thug" in particular is a revelation, a perfect showcase for Dan Andriano's love-weary voice (also, his solo album from this year is very much worth checking out). All in all, this record is -- odd as it sounds for Alkaline Trio -- beautiful.

2) Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Genre: Rock
Standout tracks: "Bridge Burning," "Dear Rosemary," "These Days," "Walk"

When you tune into a classic rock station 20 years from now (assuming there is still such a thing as radio), one of the first bands you'll hear will be the Foo Fighters. I'm convinced of this. That's not to say that Dave Grohl and Co. produce works of towering artistic achievement (I mean, this record is nominated for multiple Grammys, which is about as unartistic as you can get). No, what I'm trying to sat is that the Foos are nigh-unparalleled masters of populist anthems -- from "My Hero" to "Learn to Fly" to "Times Like These" to, yes now, "Walk." These are the songs that my generation will listen to and say, "Man, those were the days," the songs that they'll play on long road trips with their kids, like my dad did with The Beatles and Tom Petty. It's not necessarily the most artistic songs that stand the test of time, but the biggest -- and nobody does bigger better these days than the Foo Fighters. I saw them live a few months ago and the environment was the exact same as when I saw legends like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen -- reverent. Dave Grohl had it right 16 years ago when he said, "I'll Stick Around."

1) The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
Genre: Indie/folk/rock
Standout tracks: "Don't Carry It All," "Down By the Water," "All Arise!", "This Is Why We Fight"

Undisputed. I've had this record for over a year now (it leaked in late 2010), and I've all but known it would occupy this slot since I first heard it. I knew this was a different Decemberists record from the spry wail of the harmonica to open the record on "Don't Carry It All" -- the band was writing songs instead of opuses, lyrics instead of poetry, an album instead of An Album. Not that there was anything wrong with the band's previous approach (for example, "The Island," the 12-minute, multi-suite, quasi-prog jam and Hazards of Love precursor from The Crane Wife is an amazing song), but it's interesting to see a band take a more uncomplicated approach to record-making and produce some of their best work. Isn't it usually the other way around? Not this time -- The King Is Dead's idyllic, country-tinged ditties (and "ditty" is really the right word for a lot of the songs) are the best of the year, a true testament to Colin Meloy and his bandmates's songwriting capabilities. Maybe song "crafting" is the better word, to better indicate the care that obviously went into these songs. This is readily apparent live, even without key contributor Jenny Conlee (suffering from breast cancer), no more so then on "This Is Why We Fight," easily my favorite (and the best) song of the year. Watching the band play it, it could just as easily be called "This Is Why We Play," or, perhaps better, "This Is Why We Listen."

Like I said, I listened to a lot of music this year -- but I must have missed some great albums. Don't be afraid to let me know what they are. I'll follow this up shortly with my favorite songs of the year -- make sure to check that out as well! As always, thanks for reading my ramble.

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