Tuesday, December 06, 2011

My Favorite Music of 2011 (Ranking all the new music I bought this year)

Last year I ranked my 10 favorite albums of 2010. This year I decided to rank all 23 albums I purchased this year from worst (#23) to best. Thanks to the wonder of YouTube you can hear what many of these bands and songs sound like. And, if you are interested in the thoughts of better music critics than me, you can read reviews of these releases by the Audio Visual Club, my most trusted source for pop culture information.

23) Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
In 2008, Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut album received massive critical acclaim. It was pleasant enough, but I didn’t get what all the commotion was about. Thinking I must have missed something, I picked up their sophomore release and realized I hadn’t missed much. Helplessness Blues contains a dozen indie folk songs with occasional moments of beauty. However, in listening to this record I found myself more bored than touched or inspired.
The AV Club’s grade: A
Sample song: Montezuma

22) R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
Collapse Into Now was released back in March, but I didn’t get a chance to listen to it until the group announced that it had called it quits in September. It seems like this end of the band as we know it may have provided an impulse to look favorably on this album; assessment is clouded by nostalgia. What is striking is just how derivative this album is. It recycles many of the tricks that made each R.E.M. album an event around twenty years ago, but this album sounds uninspired. On virtually song we can hear references to R.E.M. hits of old. “Überlin” evokes the cool pacing of “Drive” and the pop hooks of “The Great Beyond.” “Discoverer” reprises the jangly rock riffs of Monster. “Oh My Heart” even references the mandolin of “Losing My Religion.” On the album you can also hear the spacious sound of New Adventures in Hi Fi and the verbal randomness of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” Once upon a time these features were compelling; here they sound tired. R.E.M. will be missed, but not for songs like those found on this record.
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Überlin

21) Rise Against – Endgame
The key to enjoying Rise Against is not to expect too much. This band churns out politically-blunt but catchy hardcore punk rock songs that dazzle with brilliant guitar riffs and get your heart pumping. Their lyrics shout out a progressive and idealistic political ideology. It is an ideology with which I agree, but it is expressed in a way I surely would have appreciated more when I was 16. “Help is on the Way” attacks the lack of a response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the disastrous BP oil spill. “Architects,” my favorite song on the album, speaks of recovering a radical vision. “Our heroes, our idols have mellowed with age / Following rules that they once disobeyed.” (Come to think of it, when I was 16 I was listening to Rage Against the Machine whose politics were much more radical than Rise Against’s.) This is a band whose liner notes contain book (Naomi Klein, Jonathan Safran Foer) and documentary (Collapse, Captialism: A Love Story) suggestions. There are far worse soundtracks for a revolution.
The AV Club’s grade: B
Sample song: Architects

20) They Might Be Giants – Join Us
This is the first They Might Be Giants album I’ve bought in the last decade. I decided to pick it up after thoroughly enjoying TMBG’s excellent and joyous cover of “Tubthumping.” Join Us kicks off with the manic “Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” a song in the model of many of the band’s greatest hits. (The music video contest winner had a creative idea.) And, like too many TMBG albums, this one has too much filler in between its catchy tracks like the acoustic “Old Pine Box” and the lyrically-bizarre “You Don’t Like Me.”
The AV Club’s grade: B
Sample song: Can’t Keep Johnny Down

19) Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
Has this band really been around for more than 15 years? Formed in 1995 and fronted by Dave Grohl, the drummer from Nirvana, the Foo Fighters have carried the banner of alternative rock into the second decade of the millennium. Wasting Light, their seventh studio album, is full of solid rock songs. “Walk” has one of those perfect Foo Fighter choruses. “Dear Rosemary” includes a guest appearance by the amazing Bob Mould. “Bridge Burning” and “Rope” are great songs as well.
The AV Club’s grade: B
Sample song: Walk

18) Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full of Holes
It is not Fountains of Wayne’s fault that their fifth studio album, Sky Full of Holes, inspired the year’s worst piece of music journalism. Steve Hyden’s “The five-albums test” is arbitrary and pointless and joyless and ill-conceived. I also disagree with Hyden’s assertion that Fountains of Wayne has released five consecutive albums that are all, at the very least, very good. In my opinion, only their first album can be considered excellent. Their next two albums had multiple spectacular moments but aren’t what I’d consider classics. Their fourth album was, for me, a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong. I love this band. They are the master songsmiths with a seemingly endless supply of catchy pop-rock tunes. When they get it right, they are amazing. And, Sky Full of Holes has several moments when they get it right. “Someone’s Gonna Break My Heart” has aurally addictive hooks. “The Summer Place” is a rocking track and “Acela” is playful and fun. And, I could listen to “Cemetery Guns” over and over again. It is an above-average album with a handful of very good songs. That’s nothing to scoff at.
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart

17) Jay Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Jay Z is the best known rapper making music today. Kanye West is coming off the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an outrageous and brilliant work of recording genius that critics (The AV Club, Rolling Stone) said was the best album of 2010. There was no shortage of sky-high expectations with the release of this collaboration. From its magisterial title to its gold-plated CD packaging, this duo does not deny that they are the kings of rap. Unfortunately, when you are the king, there is nowhere to go but down. There is too little urgency to this album. Instead, they play it safe with raps and beats that are quality, though at times formulaic. The album’s best track is “Otis,” a single that features heavy sampling from Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and Jay Z and Kanye trading rhymes bragging about watches and cars. (The video for it is a lot of fun!) Other notable songs include the track “Lift Off” featuring Beyonce and “Who Can Stop Me.” Watch the Throne is an album full of great beats and great rhymes. What I miss is the sound of hunger and ambition.
The AV Club’s grade: A-, #9 album of 2011
Sample song: Otis

Interlude: Way, way back in 1994 I read a piece of music journalism (on the band Rage Against The Machine?) that argued that commercial rap music is the artistic representation of Reagan's economic principles. "Otis" would seem to confirm that. Jay-Z raps, "New watch alert, Hublots / Or the big face Rollies, I've got two of those." Kanye responds, "I pulled up in my other Benz. Last week I was in my other other Benz." I'm struck by the idea that enjoying this song involves a willing suspension of the ethical. What is your opinion of the willing suspension of the ethical in art?

16) Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
On one hand, this is the album on my list that is the most underrated. On the other hand, it is the worst album that Death Cab for Cutie has released. The first single, “You are a Tourist,” is one of the year’s catchiest songs. And, it is less catchy than many of my favorite DCfC songs. In fact, I liked just about every song on the album with the exception of “Underneath the Sycamore.” That this is their worst album tells you a lot about how much I love this group.
The AV Club’s grade: B
Sample song: You’re a Tourist

15) Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
This past summer I did a wedding in which the bridal party processed to Explosions in the Sky’s most well-known song, Your Hand in Mine, from the Friday Night Lights soundtrack. A great choice. I’ve enjoyed everything by EITS that I’ve heard at the same time that I’d dismissed it as just instrumental rock. I decided to pick up their newest album and it grew on me. Great tracks like “Last Known Surroundings” and “Postcard from 1952” became frequent favorites in my car and while writing sermons. Listening to this band makes me feel like my life has been scored as the soundtrack for a movie.
The AV Club’s grade: B-
Sample song: Last Known Surroundings

14) Mates of the State – Mountaintops
A few summers and several Mates of the State albums ago, I saw this duo put on a fantastic afternoon show at a music festival in Lawrence. Their syncopated rhythms, dual vocals, and terrific keyboards are always a joy to my ears. Mountaintops may lack a hit single, but it is a collection of ten very good songs. The spirited “Total Serendipity” is one of the year’s most fun songs. “Change” and “Maracas” are both very catchy. And, ballads like “Mistakes” and “Unless I’m Led” round out this terrific record.
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Total Serendipity

13) British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
This album is a collection of very solid songs by an indie rock group from “across the pond.” “Who’s In Control?” is frenetic dance number but the album gives way to a more subdued feel with gorgeous soundscapes on songs like “Cleaning Out The Rooms” and the epic, 11-minute, “Once More Now."
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Who’s In Control? (SFW)

Interlude: I've gone back and forth on whether and how to mention this, but while searching for clips of these songs to link to, I stumbled across a striking video for "Who's In Control?" on YouTube. This video is NSFW. (That means, Not Safe For Work.) The video starts with young folks driving around and goofing off in their car. Next, we find them at a protest (of the G-20 summit in Toronto in 2010?). The protest becomes violent and one of the kids gets his nose bloodied. Then, we find ourselves at a protest after party (?) where lots of clothes get taken off. It is very mild, but also not safe for work. The thing about "Who's In Control?" is that it is a song that is catchy and makes you want to dance and it is also subversive. The opening lyrics to the song are, "Oh, were you not told? Do you not know? Everything around you is being sold. Do you not care? Will you not bear? Everybody else is going spare." Then, later in the song we hear the singer say, "Sometimes I wish that protesting was sexy on a Saturday night." What a fascinating line!

12) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
Of all the albums I listened to this year, this one is the hardest to rank. I found out about this group when I learned that I had known its front man, Kip Berman, in college. It is a band with an interesting sound. Think of The Cure with a bit heavier guitars. Kip’s voice sounds a bit like a young Morrissey. And, somehow, those descriptors don’t sound quite right. Besides my own feeling that it is pretty cool that I know the lead singer, it’s been an album that has definitely grown on me. If you are checking it out, I’d recommend the tracks “Belong,” “Strange,” and “The Body.”
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Heart In Your Heartbreak

11) Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
I’ve always liked Iron & Wine fine enough. A song like “The Trapeze Swinger” or “Naked As We Came” might thrill me, but the rest of their catalogue seemed to run together. This album, however, came out sounding like their strongest album even if it doesn’t have one standout song that soars above the others. If it is hard to pick a “stand out” it is because they all stand out. Fans of their older material will enjoy “Half Moon” while the electronic distortion tinges on “Walking Far From Home” and “Rabbit Will Run” and the bluesy “Me and Lazarus” are all winners.
The AV Club’s grade: A-
Sample song: Half Moon

10) Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs
This has got to be one of the year’s quirkiest albums. It is also one of the most charming. This concept album consists of the Pearl Jam front man singing and playing the ukulele. The album art is a crack up; it features pictures of Vedder posing with his uke all over the Hawaii Islands. On rocks next to a waterfall. On a kayak. On rocks by the ocean. The music, though, is not cheesy, but sincere and pleasant and contemplative. Of his solo songs, the two best are “Without You” and “You’re True.” Even better are his duet with Glen Hansard on “Sleepless Nights,” his duet with Char Marshall on “Tonight You Belong To Me” and the gorgeous cello on “Longing to Belong.”
The AV Club’s grade: B-
Sample song: You’re True

9) Beirut – The Rip Tide
If you’ve never heard Beirut, you should! Beirut began as hipsters from Brooklyn playing songs inspired by old world European folk music. The Rip Tide has much less of an European feel, but it is still full of fascinating sounds. Instrument credits mention the accordion, the euphonium, and the farfisa organ, as well as tuba, clarinet, cello, glockenspiel, French horn, mandolin, and the ukulele. Above all of these instruments, Zach Condon’s breathtaking, old soul, voice soars. This band has produced another lovely record.
The AV Club’s grade: B
Sample songs: Santa Fe, Goshen

8) Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
I caught Okkervil River’s live show at a summer music festival in Iowa and was very impressed. Listening to their 2011 release I continue to be impressed. Front man Will Sheff leads this band in churning out an album full of great indie rock tunes with significant folk music influence. The band has a large sound complemented by brass, strings, woodwinds, synths, and more. The album takes a few listens and then grows on you. Indeed, it seems to offer more and more with every listen. Check out tracks “Wake and Be Fine” and “Rider.”
The AV Club’s grade: A-
Sample song: Wake and Be Fine

7) Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
How does Conor Oberst manage to put out winning album after winning album? This would have been a better album for Steve Hyden (see #18 above) to write about. Actually, The People’s Key took a while to grow on me. The opening track, “Firewall,” is unnecessarily long and alienating (in both senses of the word.) But the song “Haile Selassie” grabbed me and fascinated with me. On subsequent listens the entire album became even more intriguing and enjoyable. "Haile Selassie" mesmerizes with its 6/8 time, triplet beat as well as its bright keyboards and guitars. The song, like the entire album, weaves together images from Rastafarianism with various images from mysticism, science fiction, and the occult. Replete with mythemes of orientation, alienation, and radiation, this album could receive mention in a book by Jeffrey J. Kripal. And, if you choose not to pay attention to the weird lyrics, you can still enjoy the great music! Also worth listening to are tracks like “Shell Games” and “One for You, One For Me.”
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample songs: Haile Selassie

8) Das Racist – Relax
This is what happens when two very intelligent students from Wesleyan College meet in a dorm for “students of color for social justice” and decide to create a hip hop album with abundant references to post-colonial theory (and fast food and pop-culture.) Das Racist consists of Victor Vazquez (Kool A.D.) and Himanshu Suri (Heems) as well as their hype-man Ashok Kondabalu (Dapwell.) Their music is hilarious and bizarre, equal parts rap and performance art. About their own music, Suri says,
We’re not making music that’s instantly appealing. We dabble with nonsequiturs, dadaism, repetition, repetition. We make dance music while talking about not-dancey things. We say things that on the surface can seem pretty dumb but it’s a mask on some Paul Laurence Dunbar shit for actual discontent with a lot of shit in the world. Further, not a lot of people want to hear rappers talk about Dinesh D’Souza being a punk, Eddie Said, Gayatri Spivak being dope or even know who they are.
If you find that paragraph hilarious, you’ll like Das Racist. If not, you probably won’t. On one level, their music feels like an inside joke that you are never quite in on. On another level it is as fun and catchy as it is ridiculous and absurd. The addictive, outrageous, and postmodern absurd track “Michael Jackson” is as good a song to start with as any. From there check out the self-effacing “Girl”, the wonderful “Punjabi Song”, and the masterful “Rainbow in the Dark.” The latter song includes these closing lines, “No trust them white face man like Geronimo / Tried to go to Amsterdam, they threw us in Guantanamo.”
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Michael Jackson

5) Wild Flag – Wild Flag
I grinned from ear to ear the first time I heard this record. It’s been seven years since Sleater-Kinney disbanded and I missed their sound, especially Carrie Brownstein’s voice and electric guitar. Now, two thirds of that group returns (along with Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole) as Wild Flag, a little less punk and a little more rock than S-K, but still really, really good. This album is a gem. “Something Came Over Me” is my favorite track on the album, but you should definitely watch the videos for “Electric Band” and “Romance.”
The AV Club’s grade: B+, #17 album of 2011
Sample song: Something Came Over Me

4) Wye Oak – Civilian
What a beautiful record! Wye Oak is an indie rock duo that turns out powerful, haunting, ethereal songs. Jenn Wasner’s voice and guitar work is enrapturing. These songs are so engrossing that I find them difficult to describe. Wasner’s lyrics tend to be challenging to decipher and even then their meaning is often elusive. But the feeling is there powerfully. In that way, she is a bit like the female version of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. I could go on and on about the song “Holy Holy” – one of the very best songs of the year – but that would only distract from the rest of the album that glows from beginning to end. Other fantastic songs include “Two Small Deaths,” “Civilian,” and “Fish.”
The AV Club’s grade: A, #1 album of 2011
Sample song: Holy Holy

3) The Decemberists – The King is Dead
I absolutely loved that I loved this album so much. It’s a great record. But, it is even better when you consider the band’s trajectory up until this point. After releasing three excellent (and quirky) studio albums the band’s next two releases were attempts at rock operas. The first of those, The Crane Wife, had a number of tremendous songs and a number of lousy ones. Their second stab at a rock opera, The Hazards of Love, was a disaster. With this year’s release they return to their roots and grow in a wonderful new direction. The King is Dead lacks the quirkiness of their earlier recordings and winds up exceeding them. “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” are beautiful. “Rise to Me,” “Don’t Carry It All,” and “This is Why We Fight” all are great songs as well, melding acoustic pop rock, folk, and bluegrass into a gorgeous and distinctive sound.
The AV Club’s grade: A, #10 album of 2011
Sample songs: January Hymn, June Hymn

2) Bon Iver – Bon Iver
My expectations were dangerously high when I went to see Bon Iver play a concert this fall. Their first album had floored me with its stripped down beauty and their second, eponymous, album was a jewel. Somehow they managed to exceed my expectations. How was that possible? Bon Iver’s first album was simple and delicate, falsetto vocals and an acoustic guitar. On this album the sound has grown larger and much more textured, but somehow it retains a lovely, intimate feeling. It is a very short album, but it dazzles from beginning to end. It is hard to select the best tracks, but I’d choose “Perth,” “Holocene,” and “Calgary.”
The AV Club’s grade: A-, #3 album of 2011
Sample songs: Holocene, Perth

1) Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
My heart raced when I first listened to the 7-minute album version of the single “Whirring” from this album. The song was an alternative rock revelation and this album soon grew to become my favorite record of the year. The Joy Formidable is a small band that makes a great big sound. The band is a trio from Wales with Ritzy Bryan on guitar and vocals, Rhydian Daffyd on bass, and drummer Matt Thomas. Both their name and the name of the album are perfectly spot-on. There is an emotional power to their music that leaves you feeling a sense of elation. There is also an intimidating size to their sound. It is most definitely a big roar. The song “Whirring” will become its own blog entry sooner rather than later so I’ll focus here on the other songs that make this a great album. The record is bookended by a pair a long tracks with long names. The opener, “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie,” and the closer, “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade,” each demonstrate their ability to create spectrums of sonic energy. The middle of the album is full of great tracks. Songs like “A Heavy Abacus” and “Austere” grow on you. “Cradle” demonstrates this band’s ability to craft a hard-hitting, three minute rocker. Their music hits you hard. It seeps down into your marrow. It envelops you. It was the most affecting music I heard this year and the best album of the year.
The AV Club’s grade: Not reviewed
Sample songs: Whirring, Cradle, The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade