2012 is nearly upon us, which means it’s time for our Best Albums of 2011 list here at Lost in the Cloud! We’ve been conscientiously consuming music to both nourish our culturally gluttonous souls and to deliver a collection of what we consider to be the finest music released this year. Last month we proudly presented our Best Songs of 2011 list and now we have painstakingly selected our top ten albums each. In 2010, we (Greg & Elijah) shared five albums in common on our Best Albums list. This year we have discovered that we only share one album in common, which may be an indication of our decomposing friendship (we’re only joking, of course!), but this means that while last year we shared 15 ‘best’ albums between the two of us, this year we are presenting you with a 19-album smörgåsbord!
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of ’11
10. Bon Iver Bon Iver — Concerning Bon Iver’s 2008 release of For Emma, Forever Ago, a friend once commented, ‘Take the reverb away and there’s nothing there.’ I couldn’t help but agree at the time. This is my confession: I wasn’t a huge Bon Iver fan, in fact, I wasn’t a Bon Iver fan before this record. [I can already feel the rage boiling up inside many LITC readers…] But Bon Iver captured me in its move beyond the self-wallowing, isolated cabin chat of For Emma. This new record is a beautiful collection of multilayered sound and place names (some real, some fictitious), standing on its own without some self-indulgent backstory (though this is not attack on Justin Vernon, who is a lovely, lovely man). I think it could’ve done without ‘Beth/Rest’… SONGS TO CHECK OUT: ‘Towers’, ‘Wash.’ and ‘Calgary’.
9. Demolished Thoughts Thurston Moore — When I first heard that Beck was producing a Thurston Moore solo album I was ecstatic, but I immediately began to feed myself a significant amount of scepticism leading up to its release. Could the actualisation of such a record truly be as great as it sounds? Probably not. With this dose of low expectation I found myself pleasantly taken aback by Demolished Thoughts, and my appreciation only grew with additional listens. This album plays on Moore’s Sonic Youth strengths and—like Lou Barlow—makes me feel like it’s the mid-90s in all the best ways while not sounding like ‘that guy from Sonic Youth’s side project’. And perhaps the early stages of Moore’s separation from his wife of 27 years, SY singer/bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon, contributed to the depth of his sometimes heartbreaking songwriting. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: ‘Benediction’, ‘Circulation’ and ‘Mina Loy’.
8. Dancer Equired Times New Viking — I love lo-fi and the grittiness of Born Again Revisited, number eight on my Best Albums of 2009 list, was a significant part of its ranking alone. While this record isn’t ‘clean’ by contemporary production standards, it is far less mucky than TNV’s previous releases. But the lo-fi onslaught isn’t the only reason why I love TNV. Their beautifully lazy harmonies and their catchy, shoegazy simplicity are what really attract me. I’d even say that Dancer Equired is their catchiest record to date, though I don’t suspect these songs will be employed in any television adverts any time soon. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: ‘No Room to Live’, ‘Downtown Eastern Bloc’ and ‘Fuck Her Tears’.
7. Helplessness Blues Fleet Foxes — Fleet Foxes once again demonstrate their command of the Americana genre. While I was not entirely blown away by their debut record, I was able to recognise their talent and potential. I was eager to pick up Helplessness Blues and it did not disappoint. Principal songwriter Robin Pecknold taps into the soul of a man twice his age and delivers timeless lyrics with a well-groomed musical backbone. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: ‘Battery Kinzie’, ‘Helplessness Blues’ and ‘Grown Ocean’.
6. Strange Mercy St Vincent — Annie Clark takes a step in the right direction with Strange Mercy. Building upon her previous efforts, Clark explores both the cheery and dark on Strange Mercy (I find ‘Cruel’ and its accompanying video especially haunting). As a whole, and perhaps because of this ‘darker’ element, the album is more engaging than her previous material. While more sonically stripped-down than Actor (an honourable mention from 2009’s list), Strange Mercy somehow feels fuller and more mature. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: ‘Chloe in the Afternoon’, ‘Surgeon’ and ‘Dilettante’ (not picked merely because of the ‘Elijah’ mentioned…).
5. Father, Son, Holy Ghost Girls — About Father, Son, Holy Ghost, I will first say that I found this record a bit of a disappointment, but disappointment is a relative word. Unlike most other sophomore records in which I prepared myself for disappointment with low expectations, I actually suspected that this new Girls record would be my number one pick before even listening to it. Upon further listens I only grew more fond of their previous record, Album, ranked number six on my Best Albums of 2009 list, and last year’s EP, Broken Dreams Club, was equally impressive. But generally speaking, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is an excellent record. While I wouldn’t consider it a significant improvement on Album I also wouldn’t consider it any sort of regression. Unlike the front-heavy Album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost builds up into its eight-minute ‘Forgiveness’ before bringing us back down for the final two tracks. Like Album, this record does a fine job of holding in tension both the child and adult that is singer/guitar Christopher Owens, and it is certainly worth its place on this Best of 2011 list. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: ‘Honey Bunny’, ‘My Ma’ and ‘Forgiveness’.
4. The Year of Hibernation Youth Lagoon — For me, The Year of Hibernation was 2011’s most striking discovery. Having heard the album without having previously known anything about its creator I was shocked to find that Youth Lagoon is just one person, Idaho-based Trevor Powers, and that Mr Powers is only 22 years old (which causes me to ask the question, ‘Elijah, what are you doing with your life‽’). The Year of Hibernation, recorded for next to nothing by a 22-year-old in his bedroom in Idaho, offers far more than the sum of its parts. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: ‘Posters’, ’17’ and ‘Montana’.
3. Let England Shake PJ Harvey — PJ Harvey has released some excellent records – Dry, Rid of Me, Is This Desire?, etc. But Let England Shake—which earned Harvey her second Mercury Award—may very well be her strongest. While neither as dark nor necessarily as ‘personal’ as some of her previous efforts, this album is brimming with creativity. Harvey did her homework for this record, which explores some contemporary conflicts in British history, ranging from the Gallipoli campaign to the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Without coming across as a ‘topical’ or ‘protest’ album, Harvey paints a critical and sober picture of Western military domination and its consequences both domestically and abroad. The music’s excellent too (Harvey picks up an autoharp for this record!). SONGS TO CHECK OUT: ‘Let England Shake’, ‘The Last Living Rose’ and ‘Hanging in the Wire’.
2. Dye It Blonde Smith Westerns — What can I say, I’m a fan of good pop music. This record is just one of several that caught me entirely by surprise this year. While I had heard and enjoyed Smith Westerns’ first release, The Smith Westerns, it did not strike me in a way that would compel me to consider it one of my favourite records of 2009. But this record demonstrates significant pop songwriting maturation, songwriting the vein of—dare I say—The Beatles (specifically King George). SONGS TO CHECK OUT: ‘Weekend’, ‘All Die Young’ and ‘Smile’.
1. Belong The Pains of Being Pure at Heart — After their debut record (which was an honourable mention on my Best Albums of 2009 list) I had no idea where PoBPaH (some acronym is necessary with such an obnoxiously long name) might go. They had successfully composed an album in the style of 1980s Brit-pop with their first record. I expected any subsequent releases to merely replicate that formula with varied success. But this record is a witness to PoBPaH’s evolution into a true force to be reckoned with. If we’re grouping the sound by decade, Belong showcases more of a 90s alt-rock feel than its predecessor. While it’s unlikely to be found in the top spot on many other ‘Best Albums of 2011’ lists, I’ve only grown more fond of this record over the course of 2011 and can safely say that as a whole it is my favourite. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: ‘Belong’, ‘Anne with an E’ and ‘My Terrible Friend’.
Elijah’s Honourable mentions
Because there were so many great albums this year (though I must confess, none quite as great as last year’s Age of Adz), I’ve taken the liberty of sharing an additional 15 albums that I believe are worth owning:
- Bad As Me Tom Waits — An excellent piece of music, though I can’t say more excellent than anything released in the last decade.
- Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming M83 — Over 70 minutes long, much of which can be considered music.
- Burst Apart The Antlers
- Wit’s End & Humor Risk Cass McCombs — Both of these records were released this year and each features songs that I believe are among McCombs best (such as ‘County Line’ and ‘Buried Alive’ from Wit’s End and ‘To Every Man his Chimera’, but ‘Love Thine Enemy’ from Humor Risk) it’s a bit scattered.
- The Last of the Country Gentlemen Josh T Pearson — Raw emotion in the form of heavenly songs, but they are gut-wrenching and tend to be quite lengthy.
- Degeneration Street The Dears
- Days Real Estate — While I truly enjoy this record, I believe it’s a wee bit hyped, but that’s just one man’s opinion.
- Best of Gloucester County Danielson
- Strange Negotiations David Bazan
- The King of Limbs Radiohead — Has some amazing tracks (see ‘Lotus Flower’ and ‘Codex’), though ultimately it felt like an EP.
- 100 Lovers DeVotchKa
Elijah’s Biggest Disappointments of ’11
- Parallax Atlas Sound — I am a huge fan of Bradford Cox and his band, Deerhunter, and solo project, Atlas Sound. Cox’s first Atlas Sound release, Logos, placed ninth on my Best Albums of 2009 list and Deerhunter’s excellent Halcyon Digest placed third on my Best Albums of 2010 list. While Parallax has received a fair amount of praise from critics I find that it only has a few songs that rise to the high standard set by Cox’s other efforts: ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Angel is Broken’ and ‘Lightworks’.
- Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — I bought this record on a whim with the hope that Noel would offer something better than Liam’s Beady Eye project. Unfortunately my foray into bestselling music was a tremendous let down. Noel was the musical brains behind Oasis, but he’s capable of so much more than this record.
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’11
This has been a strange year in music for me. A while back, I wrote a post about a number of albums coming out this year by bands whom I loved—four of which have ended up on this list. Yet, due to a phenomenon that I am calling “the tragedy of unanticipated mediocrity,” a number of the other albums were crushing disappointments: boring, lifeless, and one-dimensional. Even the ones that made the list (or almost made it—Low‘s C’mon) were a mixed bag, in which the album was only saved because the highs were so high that they overshadowed the lows. This type of confounded expectations from bands that I dearly adore, like Bright Eyes, Radiohead, Cass McCombs (who had TWO swings for the fence, yet almost completely struck out), Panda Bear and, to a lesser extent (in terms of my adoration), DeVotchKa, We Were Promised Jetpacks, and Norman Blake’s new band, Jonny, elicited a certain measure of disorientation and disillusionment–if I couldn’t trust Radiohead to make even a passably good album (which I felt The King of Limbs wasn’t–not even a strong EP’s worth of songs) and the Bright Eyes “comeback” LP (which some critics called their definitive work) turned out to be a messy collection of B-side material strung together with clips of some bizarre, deluded pseudo-preacher, then what sense was there in the world at all? This was my year of losing faith in the old (indie) gods…
Another surprising feature of my picks for this year was the number that reflected some subgenre of electronic music, a style for which I have never had any great affection but which I have been developing a taste for due to albums from Passion Pit, the last few Animal Collective releases, and especially Twin Shadow, whose album was on last year’s Best Albums post. I guess an old dog can learn to appreciate some new high-pitched whistles!
10. 12 Desperate Straight Lines Telekinesis — This album could end up much higher upon my favorites of the year, but to be completely honest, I just downloaded the full album today (this bumped off Low’s C’mon for the last spot on the list here…sad, but what can be done with a half-great album). This is super duper INDIE-POP/ROCK, but it’s so well crafted, exhilarating, and above all KOOL AS ALL GET OUT! This is this year’s Fang Island for my money. A jolt of propulsive rhythms (the singer is the drummer!), thick driving bass lines, and Jeff Tweedy-esque vocals. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: “You Turn Clear in the Sun,” “Dirty Thing,” “Car Crash,” and “Country Lane.”
9. Burst Apart The Antlers — The Antlers and Bon Iver have a few things in common, to my mind. First, the falsetto. Second, the emergence of both bands in the last few years with epic debut albums (though there were apparently a few prior albums for The Antlers, Hospice was what put them on the aural map) that reflected a profound life-change quite beautifully. Third, second albums that are much richer tonally, more diverse and layered, and resemble a flower opening up. That being said, in the contest between the two albums this year, The Antlers’ Burst Apart win hands down (though Bon Iver is a strong honourable mention). SONGS TO CHECK OUT: “I Don’t Want Love,” “Parentheses,” and “No Widows.”
8. Rapprocher Class Actress — Some of the appeal of this album has to be found in the way that the synthesizer settings, drum tracks, and melodic pop songwriting takes me on a nostalgia trip back to another time: the mid-1980’s. Seriously, we’re talking ABC, Pet Shop Boys, early Madonna, and some synthpop artists that are buried so deep in my subconscious that I am afraid to call them up, lest I find myself swept back into that age of longing, confusion, and heartache. This album is half irresistible loveliness and the other half, resistible attempts at the former. Still, if you skip some of the tracks in the middle, you will have a nearly quintessential example of the sythnaissance that is happening in music today. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: “Keep You” (which is PERFECT!), “Love Me Like You Used To,” “Weekend,” and “Missed.”
7. Build a Rocket Boys! Elbow — I wanted to love this album so much. Yet it took a while to grow on me and still hasn’t completely won me over. Still, Guy Garvey is the king of melancholic nostalgia & lyrical subversion and the band are in top form musically in the more mellow of their modes. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: “Lippy Kids” (another eternally perfect song), “The Night Will Always Win,” and “Open Arms.” (PS. Am I the only one who hears the intro theme from PRI’s program “The World” in the track “With Love” on this album?)
6. Last of the Country Gentlemen Josh T. Pearson — Sorry about that girl’s lack of a shirt. Josh T. Pearson is a strange and incredible man, about whom Elijah and I have written here so I need not say more. SONGS TO CHECK OUT: It’s only 7 songs…pretty much all of them.
4. Helplessness Blues Fleet Foxes — Finally, no nudity on the cover. I’m with Elijah on this, so you may see his write-up above.
3. The Devil’s Walk Apparat — The fact that this album has not received any more attention this year makes me want to cry like a man at a Twilight screening. It is simply amazing, so lovely, so hauntingly textured, the very best kind of electronic music and with a voice sweet as a mature Jeff Buckley. I don’t really know anything about this band—which I think may actually be only one person, but you really owe it to yourself, and to the entire human race, to check the first few tracks out and see if you don’t buy it.
2. Degeneration Street The Dears — Oh how I wanted this to be my number one album. I am such a tremendous fan of songwriter/singer Murray Lightburn, but The Dears last album was deeply underwhelming and I feared that the bands best days were behind them (I’ve said it many times here, but their Gang of Losers is one of the best albums in existence). And then, Degeneration Street appeared and I saw that they were back in every possible way (well, maybe some of the lyrics don’t quite meet the very highest standards). I love this album—so very much. I hope you would too. Give it a chance. They deserve to be topping lists all over the world, yet have been absent for all I can ascertain. Tragic.
1. Making Mirrors Gotye — I did NOT want for this to be my top album. I actually resisted it quite vociferously. “Gotye”—what kind of name is that?—and he looks like he would be a percussionist in Phish and he’s playing with all of these genres that I don’t even like—soul, electro-reggae, a kind of Peter Gabriel-esque “world pop” or something—and I think that this album is actually kind of…popular in some places in the world (imagine a pair of hipster glasses on Brando’s Col. Kurtz as he mutters, “The horror…the horror!”). Yet, in the end, the singular talent of this guy (and his accomplices, particularly whomever is playing drums) broke through all of my resistance. You may entirely disagree with me. Heck, part of ME disagrees with me. Yet, the other part won and convinced my fingers that the only place to put this album was at the very top. You may listen to it here and decide for yourself. (Also, I think the last song is about a cat dying, and it makes me tear up.)
Greg’s Honourable mentions
In anticipation of our favourite annual post here at LITC—Best Albums of such-and-such year—we are proud to share fifty tracks that we think are the best released this year. Trust us, there was so much good music released this year that we found picking our fifty favourite tracks to be a rather excruciating process. We’d also love to hear about any songs that you feel should not have been left off of this list in the comments section! So without further ado, here are our fifty favourite tracks from 2011 (in alphabetical order):
- ‘All the Sand in All the Sea’ DeVotchKa 100 Lovers
- ‘Angel Is Broken’ Atlas Sound Parallax
- ‘Animal’ Neon Trees Habits
- ‘Ash/Black Veil’ Apparat The Devil’s Walk
- ‘Battery Kinzie’ Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
- ‘Belong’ The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Belong
- ‘Circulation’ Thurston Moore Demolished Thoughts
- ‘Codex’ Radiohead The King Of Limbs
- ‘Country Dumb’ Josh T. Pearson Last of the Country Gentlemen
- ‘Cruel’ St Vincent Strange Mercy
- ‘Days’ The Drums Portamento
- ‘Degeneration Street’ The Dears Degeneration Street
- ‘Don’t Move’ Phantogram Nightlife EP
- ‘Downtown Eastern Bloc’ Times New Viking Dancer Equired
- ‘5 Chords’ The Dears Degeneration Street
- ‘Fuck This Place’ Frightened Rabbit A Frightened Rabbit EP
- ‘Galactic Tides’ The Dears Degeneration Street
- ‘Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now’ The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Belong
- ‘Helplessness Blues’ Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
- ‘Honey Bunny’ Girls Father, Son, Holy Ghost
- ‘I Don’t Want Love’ The Antlers Burst Apart
- ‘Keep You’ Class Actress Rapprocher
- ‘The King’ RAMESH The King
- ‘The Last Living Rose’ PJ Harvey Let England Shake
- ‘Lippy Kids’ Elbow Build A Rocket Boys!
- ‘Montana’ Youth Lagoon Youth Lagoon
- ‘Municipality’ Real Estate Days
- ‘No Room to Live’ Times New Viking Dancer Equired
- ‘No Widows’ The Antlers Burst Apart
- ‘People’ David Bazan Strange Negotiations
- ‘Save Me’ Gotye Making Mirrors
- ‘Scottish Winds’ Frightened Rabbit A Frightened Rabbit EP
- ‘17’ Youth Lagoon Youth Lagoon
- ‘Smile’ Smith Westerns Dye It Blonde
- ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ Gotye (ft. Kimbra) Making Mirrors
- ‘Song Of Los’ Apparat The Devil’s Walk
- ‘Steve McQueen’ M83 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
- ‘Strange Negotiations’ David Bazan Strange Negotiations
- ‘Sweetheart I Aint Your Christ’ Josh T. Pearson Last of the Country Gentlemen
- ‘Tatooine’ Jeremy Messersmith Tatooine Single
- ‘To Every Man His Chimera’ Cass McCombs Humor Risk
- ‘Trembling Hands’ Explosions in the Sky Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
- ‘Try to Sleep’ Low C’mon
- ‘Under My Nose’ Fucked Up David Comes to Life
- ‘Video Games’ Lana Del Rey Video Games
- ‘Wait’ Alberta Cross The Rolling Thunder EP
- ‘Wash’ Bon Iver Bon Iver
- ‘Weekend’ Class Actress Rapprocher
- ‘Weekend’ Smith Westerns Dye It Blonde
- ‘Your Eyes’ Bombay Bicycle Club A Different Kind of Fix
If you’d like to check out these tracks for temporary review before you go out and buy the single or the record, you may click here to have a listen.
Keep a lookout for our upcoming Best Albums of 2011 post!
I should wait and put a proper set of thoughts together on the new David Bazan album, Strange Negotiations, that comes out on May 24 for regular folks, but which I received early due to the fact that I’m among an elite corps of Bazan supporters who actually chipped in some cash to finance the recording of this album (thanks to Glen of Someone Tell Me the Story for the heads up on this opportunity). However, I’m not seeing much time in the weeks ahead for anything much more than a rather random collection of thoughts after about 5-6 full listens…so why not just put it out there now?
A brief background on Bazan: he had a band called Pedro the Lion back in the 90’s-00’s that was pretty much the coolest thing in the world for a young evangelical Christian to like, though you were never sure if you were supposed to think of them as a “Christian band” or not (which, ultimately, is a good problem to have–DEATH TO CCM). Bazan’s songwriting was always pretty cutting toward the church and hypocritical Christians, but there was a latent tenderness and spiritual longing underneath (see “The Secret of the Easy Yoke”) along with clever storytelling and wordsmithery (all of Control), and an ear for the lovely juxtaposition of vocal & instrumental melody. Plus, some of his songs REALLY indie-rocked unbelievably much (see “Magazine”) and he would cuss with great aplomb (most brilliantly on “Foregone Conclusions”). But his voice was rather sleep-inducingly mellow, his wit often a bit too acidic, and he seemed like his prophetic voice could often switch into Pharisaic condemnation or just plain whiny petulance. Then, he killed PTL and did an electronic album called (and by?) Headphones that had some great cuts…and some not so great. Finally, he came out under his own name with an EP (Fewer Moving Parts) that was all depressingly navel-gazing and narcissistic fantasy–I wondered if this would be the end of David Bazan…self-implosion.
Yet he came back with a full-length album Curse Your Branches in 2009 that was a masterpiece of him losing his faith; it is well worth the purchase & repeated listens, not only for the masterfully poignant/angry way he processes the experience of divorcing himself from God/Christianity, but also for his return to all the great songwriting and musicianship he’d evidenced in the past. And that, in short, brings us to his second solo LP: Strange Negotiations.
Some random observations:
- Bazan’s voice is no longer sleep-inducing…it’s a sleep-DEPRIVED and mildly intoxicated growl and rasp (like a philosophical Kenny Rogers gone to seed) with certain words carrying a whiskey-flavored drawl that is becoming a Bazan trademark
- I once heard it said that Bob Dylan wrote two kinds of songs: one for Him (God) and one for “her” (the elusive love interest, I took it to mean). I think Bazan writes one kind of song: for himself. His songs have become a Molotov cocktail of art therapy, bully pulpit, and bipolar self-aggrandizement/self-loathing. He is a one-man 12-step group, endlessly telling his own story to himself and we just happen to be passing by the room. Or he’s like a prophet who grew to love the taste of fiery denunciation, but forgot his audience and wandered off into canyons muttering woe and condemnation to the walls. I remember thinking a few albums back that Bazan needed to get out of his own head, seeming like he was on an infinite, introspective spiral, destined for a solipsistic hell consisting of his own echo in an empty bottle. I’m not sure in this album if he’s still heading there or on his way back, yet I still sense that damning self-absorption. And yet, somehow, in the midst of all of that, he still sees things and says things in such a powerful, brilliant, and infectious way that I can’t help but listen.
- I wondered if this would be his “post-Christian” album and a number of songs confirm this, but I am hesitant to read that into every song. It will be interesting to see if he will ever make an album that contains no reference to his disdain for faith, conservatives, or his upbringing. He definitely seems to want to alienate the final remnants of the old Christian music store fan-base with the naked chick on the cover, his transition in one song from the lyrics of “Be Thou My Vision” (which PTL covered on one album) to the line, “Fuck the gatekeeper, cause I’m fine outside the gate”, and repeated references to his new found way of seeing the world, free from the provincial boundaries of Christianity. Again, it’s legitimate for him to process his rejection of faith, but he does it with such monomania. Encountering the story of Captain Ahab’s hatred of & fixation with the white whale in Moby-Dick is powerful, but you probably don’t care to read sequel after sequel telling the same story, right?
In any case, this is supposed to be thoughts about the album, not a psychological study of Bazan. The songs basically have two modes on Strange Negotiations: crunchy electric guitars chording over a tight and driving rhythm, or reflectively quiet/ethereal, with the record heavily leaning to the former. I offer below some thoughts on most of the tracks on the album, somewhat ordered according to how much I liked them:
- “People“–a hybrid of the two song modes, this is one part acoustic wistfulness looking back on a childhood in the church and one part scorching rocker about how he’s moved beyond all of that. Besides being a beautiful tone/mood contrast, I think I love this because it’s about coming to terms with one’s heritage as a conservative evangelical Christian (“you are my people”) even as he talks about the cost of being a “truth-teller” in that community (which strikes one as rather patronizing, but still authentic to his experience). It’s pretty judgmental overall, but it still captures that old balance between longing and disappointment that he had with PTL.
- “Level with Myself“–covering some of the same ground as the previous song, this melodic rocker pokes at the image of waking up in the morning and having a “quiet time” reading Scripture, but feeling like you have to “sell it to yourself.” In contrast, he says he wants to “level with myself…my friends…and my kin…and be at peace with them”–which I take to mean that he’s trying to come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t believe anymore and he needs others to accept this as well.
- “Don’t Change“–this is an example of when I think Bazan dips into self-loathing, mocking himself and his efforts at self-improvement. It’s got a lovely vocal and guitar melody over a molasses thick bass line.
- “Strange Negotiations“–haunting (ethereal mode), timeless ballad with echoes of Scripture (prodigal son, writing on the wall, cutting off one’s limb) about inter-personal conflicts. Includes a lovely acoustic breakdown with Bazan’s lonely howl wordlessly communicating the pain of relational struggle…
- “Won’t Let Go“–what does Bazan have now that he’s chucked his faith and alienated himself from “his people”? This song points to his marriage as the new anchor in his life. Another ethereal mode with the EBow all over it.
- “Virginia“–this is the most poignant song on the album, looking back from a position of having lost faith at someone else in the family who was “unsaved” (“we wondered about your personal salvation/was it heaven or hell you saw when your eyes closed?”), but who modeled a transcendence beyond religious categories (“you smiled at us/floating high above the question/like you knew something we didn’t know”) that Bazan now has an appreciation for. This is a delicate piece, full of deep regret at time wasted on such pettiness (from his new perspective)–which you can hear most tenderly when Bazan’s voice cracks at 3:36…
- “Wolves at the Door“–this seemed to be about religion again, but it could also be more broadly about conservative values. This opens the album and sets the condemnatory/accepting synthesis with the line, “You’re a goddamn fool…and I love you.” This is the last of the songs that I actually liked…but that makes 7 out of 10, which sounds like a pretty strong record if you ask me!
If these comments seem very critical, let me balance them all by saying that I think Bazan is one of the best living songwriters and generally a brilliant thinker and lyricist. I will keep buying his work as long as he puts it out, but I also need to be honest to vocalize my concerns about his self-destructive fixation on himself. Perhaps this is one of those cases where unhealthy neuroses lead to great art. I don’t know, cause I can’t do what he does.
However, I need to end my ruminations here…but I would love, so very much, to hear YOUR thoughts on this album when it comes out (or if you already have it).
Here’s the actual tracklist…
1. Wolves at the Door
2. Level With Yourself
3. Future Past
6. Eating Paper
8. Don’t Change
9. Strange Negotiations
10. Won’t Let Go
Before I move into the Top 10 of my Top 20 Bands, I feel the need to mention ten significant bands that might have been part of my ‘cut’ at various points in recent history, but just didn’t make it into my Top 20 this time around. (Perhaps this could be seen as my ’21-30′.)
- Frightened Rabbit – Let’s see how the whole longevity thing plays out – the first two records have been a steady improvement from ‘incredible’ to ‘phenomenal’.
- Pedro the Lion/David Bazan – Excellent songwriting, but albums are often incoherent with themselves.
- Cass McCombs – There’s a quality to Cass McCombs that convinces me he’s one of the greatest living songwriters.
- Starflyer 59 – Something’s absent on most of their recent material…
- Grizzly Bear – Also needing a bit of longevity – It feels strange to consider Grizzly Bear one of my favourite bands, but they most certainly are.
- Deerhunter – Let’s hope they keep up this steam…
- Brian Eno – Mostly hit, but sometimes miss.
- Camera Obscura – There’s something to this group that keeps me listening, but I am hoping for something to make them stand out.
- Cursive – Maybe it’s because they still haven’t grown up?
- Curl Up & Die – I wish they had made more material before disbanding.
Perhaps you are thinking, ‘Who can beat the bands above along with Spiritualized, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Neil Young?’ I hope not to disappoint, but prepare to find out just how bad my taste actually is in the coming week…
The other day my friend Erin Hennessy saw you on the F train in NYC, but she couldn’t get up the nerve to say anything to you. That got me thinking of what I would say to you if I ran into you (even though I never would, as I live on the other side of the country). The first thing that came to mind was to talk to you about your 50 states project, which you began so beautifully with Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State and Illinois/The Avalanche.
Now back in the day (the early two thousands or so), I took your proclamation to make an album (or EP, maybe?) for each one of the 50 states seriously, even though some of my more cynical friends would mock me saying it was impossible for you to do in your lifetime (they would start with some calculations, ask your age, etc. PS We share the same birthday!). The reason I believed you was because I saw this limitless sort of creative genius in you, and even beyond that, it was as if you were the Emersonian “Poet” for this generation of Americans–seeing and showing us the beauty and agony and the divine in the everyday, transforming the mundane into the sublime, telling us stories full of wonder and longing and brilliant details from towns like Ypsilanti and Holland and Romulus.
You made me suddenly attentive to the people and places of America: you imbued them with a magical luster simply by naming them in the midst of your deeply moving, melancholic, and rich melodies and arrangements, or by inserting them amongst such evocative mystical lines of verse:
When the revenant came down
We couldn’t imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form
Then to Lebanon, oh God!
The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow
(Oh, history involved itself)
Mysterious shade that took its form
(Or what it was!), incarnation, three stars
Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes
-“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”
All that to say that I really, really wish the 50 states project would continue–I think it could become one of the national treasures of our country for centuries to come, a Leaves of Grass for the 21st century that American kids would listen to to understand where they’ve come from and what kind of people we are. I heard at one point that you said the 50 states project was “such a joke,” but I would challenge you in earnest, if only for the sake of those future little kids, to reconsider abandoning this momentous endeavor.
Realizing that it might very well be impossible for you to write and record all of the albums yourself, what if you instead became the director of the project–you have set the standard quite high with your first two albums–and with the profound respect you have from your artistic peers, I honestly believe you could rally together the best artists from each state to collaborate with to make this happen, creating a kind of ark of American culture.
Here are some suggestions to begin with (I admit some may be wishful thinking) & I call on any reader to add to/better the selection of songwriters for any state (I have put brackets around bands with whom I have only a cursory familiarity & some states I have absolutely no idea about):
- Alabama = The Snake the Cross the Crown
- Alaska = Portugal The Man
- Arizona = Calexico
- Arkansas = ???
- California = Elijah Wade Smith, Beck, Stephen Malkmus
- Colorado = DeVotchKa, The Apples in Stereo
- Connecticut = Rivers Cuomo?
- Delaware = The Spinto Band
- Florida = Iron & Wine, Aaron Marsh
- Georgia = Deerhunter, Of Montreal, Bill Mallonee
- Hawaii = Mason Jennings
- Idaho = Built to Spill, Finn Riggins
- Illinois = Sufjan Stevens
- Indiana = Mock Orange
- Iowa = Caleb Engstrom
- Kansas = Drakkar Sauna, Mates of State, The New Amsterdams, The Appleseed Cast
- Kentucky = Bonnie “Prince” Billy, My Morning Jacket
- Louisiana = Jeff Mangum, Mutemath
- Maine = [Phantom Buffalo]
- Maryland = John Vanderslice, Wye Oak
- Massachusetts = Lou Barlow, Winterpills
- Michigan = Sufjan Stevens
- Minnesota = Low, Cloud Cult, Lucky Wilbur
- Mississippi = ???
- Missouri = [Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin]
- Montana = Colin Meloy
- Nebraska = Cursive, Bright Eyes
- Nevada = The Killers?
- New Hampshire = [Wild Light]
- New Jersey = Sufjan Stevens (?), Danielson, Yo La Tango
- New Mexico = The Shins, Beirut
- New York = The Magnetic Fields, Sonic Youth, Interpol, The Walkmen
- North Carolina = The Mountain Goats
- North Dakota = [The White Foliage]
- Ohio = Robert Pollard, Over the Rhine, The National, Mark Kozelek
- Oklahoma = The Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon
- Oregon = Laura Veirs, M. Ward, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, The Decemberists
- Pennsylvania = The Innocence Mission, Denison Witmer, Matt Pond PA
- Rhode Island = The Low Anthem, Death Vessel
- South Carolina = Band of Horses
- South Dakota = Haley Bonar
- Tennessee = Derek Webb
- Texas = Josh T. Pearson, Ramesh Srivastava (formerly of Voxtrot), The Polyphonic Spree, Okkervil River, Devendra Banhart
- Utah = [Joshua James]
- Vermont = Anais Mitchell
- Virginia = Thao Nguyen, Hush Arbors
- Washington = David Bazan, Damien Jurado, Jeremy Enigk, Fleet Foxes
- West Virginia = ???
- Wisconsin = Bon Iver, Marla Hansen
- Wyoming = ???
With the deepest respect & admiration,
Our own brilliant Elijah Wade Smith posted his favorite new albums of the year a bit early this year (August) [ELIJAH ADDS: and with a stated reason for doing so…], but I’d like to pick up where he left off and share some favorite albums from this year, along with my definitive songs of 2009 and one marvelous musical discovery…
Since Elijah already listed 4 of the albums I would have chosen (We Were Promised Jetpacks, Cass McCombs, Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective), I will use this space to highlight 10 other albums (3 of which earned an honorable mention from my esteemed colleague). Between my regular CD purchases and my beloved eMusic account (which I was not paid in any way to mention), I was able to purchase around 50 albums this year, but I still feel like I have certainly neglected many more releases that should have been heard (e.g. I have not heard one note of the new Muse album).
Sadly, this year some of my favorite artists only turned out middling efforts at best (Andrew Bird, Jeremy Enigk, Imogen Heap, Patrick Watson) and deeply disappointing at worst (Doves, Pete Yorn, Morrissey). The jury is still out on the new Swell Season album (feelings are ambivalent–is it too derivative or a purposeful homage?) and I intentionally neglected to include U2‘s album, as I am unable to evaluate their work in isolation from their status/body of work. A final note: though Sufjan Stevens‘ “The BQE” was released this October, it feels like it belongs to another year (2007, when it was initially performed)…I will say that I LOVED his “You Are the Blood” on the Dark Was the Night compilation, and of course, I admire his work in general more than anything else I’ve ever heard, so I’m sure any appraisal of it would be unfairly elevated as well.
Without further caveat, I give you (alphabetically listed) the best, with my best…
TOP TEN ALBUMS (not on Elijah’s list):
• Lou Barlow—Goodnight Unknown: I would include Barlow amongst the best living American songwriters. His stylistic range is somewhat limited (he’s practically copyrighted a particular kind of staccato down strum), but if it isn’t broke…(I couldn’t force the “ain’t” in there). He’s lyrically sentimental on some songs, but it’s the tender truthful sort, and then in other places he’s brutally insightful. A beautiful, rich album: see “Gravitate,” “Too Much Freedom,” and “Modesty.”
“…Curse your branches is his masterpiece — a beautiful, passionate, profoundly courageous work of art that deserves and will reward your close attention. It is a deeply personal, frankly autobiographical dispatch from the front lines of a crisis of faith. Song after song peers deep into the abyss of insoluble mysteries and comes up with something far more useful than answers.”
Do I agree? Maybe. Still, it’s light years better than any of the shite that makes millions these days.
• Neko Case—Middle Cyclone: One day, I drove my sister-in-law Megan’s truck up to LAX to pick her up and this CD was in the player. Love at first listen. I knew her voice from The New Pornographers (lovely, fierce, voluptuous), but her singing her own melodies and lyrics = twisted longing & lovely loss. The experience was so intensely moving I ended up listening to all 30 minutes of the last song–which is only the sound of crickets in the field outside her studio.
• Hayden—The Place Where We Lived: He was on my top 10 last year…how in the heck did he put another little gem together so quickly. I will say that he may be an acquired taste, so do give this album a test run before you trust my quirk-happy palate.
• Lightning Dust—Infinite Light: I have no recollection of where I came across this album, but it’s a rare flower: timeless (and therefore similar to what has come before) and unique (the quaver of the singer’s vibrato–again, may not be to all tastes–and her wry, experienced, and [creepy to say it] sexy delivery…kind of a Chick Jagger if you get my meaning).
• Passion Pit—Manners: The sound of this album is like eating a substantial meal of sweets. I’m not sure if people can keep from loving this band…it is my kid’s number one choice off my iPod. Unbelievable hooks, propulsive beats & a mystifying falsetto…
• The Low Anthem—Oh My God, Charlie Darwin: I’m just going to admit that before two weeks ago, I knew only the name of this band. I am so seriously excited about looking more into this band, past & future…go to iTunes and listen to the first three songs (then skip the next two) and tell me you can’t hear the talent. I’m anxious to figure out the evolution (if you will) of the lyrical themes, but it’s work I look forward to.
• Matt & Kim—Grand: Another admission–I only discovered this band because of the placement of their insanely catchy song “Daylight” in a Bacardi ad. BUT these two performers give me hope for the next generation of bands…and they DIY’d it without the help of a guitar, fueled only by raw passion and teen spirit.
• The Mountain Goats—The Life of the World to Come: Every song is named after a passage from the Bible, but just listen to the lyrics and you’ll know you’re not in Jesusland: “I became a crystal healer and my ministry was to the sick / Creeping vines would send out runners and seek me in their numbers / I sold self-help tapes.” I would strongly recommend “Hebrews 11:40,” “1 John 4:16,” and “Deuteronomy 2:10.” I haven’t yet looked up any of the scripture references, but I think that the passages will probably function in a way similar to the inspiration of the 10 commandments in Krysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue. Perhaps this could be a topic for some student of theology & culture…in Scotland?
• Regina Spektor—Far: This album almost didn’t make this list due to the dolphin noises she makes at exactly 2 minutes into “Folding Chair”–she needs a naysayer in her entourage. But she can write a pop song or melancholy ballad with her piano and lovely, funny voice like nobody’s business (see “Laughing With,” “Human of the Year,” and “Genius Next Door” along with most of the other cuts…though “Machine” is a bit awkward as well). She’s really amazing…
BEST SONGS OF THE YEAR:
I made an iMix of these which can be found by pasting the words “Sgt Grumbles Best Songs 2009” into the iTunes iMix search box…570 seconds of goodness at least.
- “Charlie Darwin”: The Low Anthem/Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
- “Hard To Be”: David Bazan/Curse Your Branches
- “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)”: Monsters Of Folk/Monsters Of Folk
- “Ten Thousand Words”: The Avett Brothers/I And Love And You
- “Laughing With”: Regina Spektor/Far
- “Too Much Time”: John Vanderslice/Romanian Names
- “Two Weeks”: Grizzly Bear/Veckatimest
- “Little Secrets”: Passion Pit/Manners
- “My Girls”: Animal Collective/Merriweather Post Pavilion
- “Wondering What Everyone Knows”: Lightning Dust/Infinite Light
- “Daylight”: Matt and Kim/Grand
- “Modesty”: Lou Barlow/Goodnight Unknown
- “The Pharoahs”: Neko Case/Middle Cyclone
- “Deuteronomy 2:10”: The Mountain Goats/The Life Of The World To Come
- “The Executioner’s Song”: Cass McCombs/Catacombs
- “An Almighty Thud”: We Were Promised Jetpacks/These Four Walls
- “I Want You Back”: Discovery/LP
- “Let It Last”: Hayden/The Place Where We Lived
- “Lille”: Lisa Hannigan/Sea Sew
• The album The Texas/Jerusalem Crossroads by the band Lift to Experience. I don’t completely know how to describe how important this album has become to me. It is simply one of the most fascinating ALBUMS ever recorded, as in a musical composition where everything is working together towards one purpose/theme on EVERY LEVEL IMAGINABLE. You listen to it, and you must listen to in IN ITS ENTIRETY & you feel like you are in some run down warehouse listening to them play, no CREATE–right there and then–this mad, apocalyptic masterpiece of beauty and fierce passion that is flowing in some profane mixture of Ahab-esque monomania and true divine inspiration. I don’t have the inclination to ruin the bizarre experience of discerning the “tale” of this one-of-a-kind concept album, but here is a formula that may help give a sense of what we’re talking about here:
Jeff Buckley + Explosions in the Sky + My Bloody Valentine (the book of Revelation/ fundamentalist preacher’s kid) + Texan pride/outsider art (messiah complex) – worst album cover art ever (it looks like it was designed on Microsoft Word!) = one of the greatest albums ever
I was going to include some books, but I’ve asked enough of your time. I will be back with more later…
It’s late August and I’ve already got a top ten list for the best albums of the year. As I pointed out in an entry last year, it isn’t really my thing to jump on ‘new’ music per se. I am typically balancing myself between ‘new’ music and ‘old’ music that’s ‘new’ to me. This year I wanted to challenge myself to listen to more “new” music (i.e. music that has been/will be released in 2009).
With the trusty aid of music blogs, Lala, random databases, and Greg I’ve been able to become exposed to a larger body of ‘new’ music this year and I decided that before I leave to Scotland and my postgraduate occupation with a large number of books, I would compile a list of my top ten albums of the year. Who knows, maybe this will be my final top ten list for the year (though it has been altered a bit even in the last 24 hours).
10. Cass McCombs—Catacombs
Cass McCombs reminds me of T Bone Burnett and Neil Young more than ever. He remains very unpretentious and sincere, perhaps on this album more than his previous records. Two tracks to reel you in: “You Saved My Life,” & “Lionkiller Got Married.”
9. Andrew Bird—Noble Beast
I really thought I would hate this album. I’m not much of a fan of Andrew Bird’s music. I’ve never enjoyed his voice. Perhaps Noble Beast’s inclusion on this list is a response to how much I tolerated it as opposed to how much I loved it. But I am leaning more toward its inclusion because I thoroughly enjoy listening to this album. Two tracks to reel you in: “Masterswarm,” & “Not a Robot, But a Ghost.”
This album was very surprising. I hadn’t been very impressed with Chris Cohen’s work with Curtains on Asthmatic Kitty, so I didn’t expect a lot. I saw Cryptasize for the first time with Danielson last November and they didn’t leave a very strong impression, but this album really brings out their strengths. It has a great mood—unpredictable but not irritating (like the Dirty Projectors’ new album…). Two tracks to reel you in: “Blue Tears,” & “Gotta Get Into That Feeling.”
7. We Were Promised Jetpacks—These Four Walls
Thanks to Sgt. Grumbles for this suggestion a couple months back. It reminds me of high school, in the best way possible. Enjoy the lovely accent, the token glockenspiel, and the incredible sincerity—one of the most important qualities I look for in an artist. Two tracks to reel you in: “It’s Thunder And It’s Lightning,” & “An Almighty Thud.”
6. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart—The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
American faux-Brit pop never felt so great! It’s delightfully reminiscent of The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. Two tracks to reel you in: “Young Adult Friction,” & “A Teenager In Love.” Note: the album cover bears a ridiculously close resemblance to Belle & Sebastian’s 2006 album, The Life Pursuit:
5. Sunset Rubdown—Dragonslayer
This album is a great step forward for Sunset Rubdown. It’s not obnoxiously poppy like Shut Up I Am Dreaming tended to be. There’s a lot going on musically, yet no component is overpowered by another within a song. Two tracks to reel you in: “Silver Moons,” & “Idiot Heart.”
4. Camera Obscura—My Maudlin Career
Let’s face it, I’m a sucker for Scotch indie-pop. This is probably my favorite release from Camera Obscura. Maybe I love it so much because Belle & Sebastian hasn’t released an LP since 2006. Even if there is a hint of my love for B & S in this pick, the album (and the band) stands on its own through musical precision and artistic maturity. Thank you Tracyanne Campbell for your exceptional wit. Two tracks to reel you in: “French Navy,” & “My Maudlin Career.”
3. Cursive—Mama, I’m Swollen
Mama, I’m Swollen probably seems to be an odd pick for this number three slot, but I will always have a soft spot for Cursive. This is not to say that this album is undeserving of praise. Cursive is not interested in being another experimental freak-folk-electro-post-rock-cross-genre-remixed piece of overproduced crap like so many other groups are becoming (namely Dirty Projectors). They are faithful to their expressive indie roots, this album being far less poppy than Happy Hollow. It reminds me of Domestica even. Tim Kasher is still obsessed with refuting a theistic/morally superior worldview, but he does it with so much passion and angst I can’t help but be stirred. Cursive encourages us to realize the failure of our Enlightenment/modern ideals and to accept our animalistic/primitive nature. I don’t buy it but not because it’s not packaged well. Two tracks to reel you in: “From the Hips,” & “Let Me Up.”
2. Animal Collective—Merriweather Post Pavilion
Though it is more accessible (think Pet Sounds) than their entire repertoire (a bad start in my odd musical sense), this album is very unique, big (to the point of breathtaking at times), and yet more cohesive with itself than any other Animal Collective album. The songs don’t leave you asking, “When is this going to end/how does that even fit?” Two tracks to reel you in: “My Girls,” & “Summertime Clothes.”
1. Grizzly Bear—Veckatimest
My first listen of this record was a positive, but not profound experience. Only two tracks really stuck out to me: “Two Weeks,” and “While You Wait for the Others.” I was even a little disappointed with the album version of “While You Wait for the Others,” at first (compared to their incredible live performance I saw on Morning Becomes Eclectic last year). I sat with the album for another month and at that point it hit me. This is by far (maybe I’ll get harassed for saying that) Grizzly Bear’s best record. By best I mean that they demonstrate great maturity and excellence both in writing and execution, two points that have always seemed to miss one another by an ever-so-slight degree. This record is certain to remain among my favorites unless I fully give myself over to jazz-fusion or something. Two tracks to reel you in: “Two Weeks,” & “I Live With You.”
Compilations worth mentioning
Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison – a compilation of George Harrison’s solo music spanning his entire post-Beatle career.
Dark Was the Night – a compilation release benefiting the Red Hot Organization.
Royal City – a Royal City B-side compilation released by Asthmatic Kitty.
God Help the Girl – a music/film project written Stuart Murdoch, the singer of Belle & Sebastian. Members of Belle & Sebastian with guest vocalists. CD Booklet features a short story that goes with the music.
Lou Barlow—Goodnight Unknown
David Bazan—Curse Your Branches
Castanets—Texas Rose, the Beasts, and the Thaw
The Decemberists (primarily because of Shara Worden’s contribution)—The Hazards of Love
Wye Oak—The Knot
Look out for
Converge—Axe to Fall (20 October)
Atlas Sound—Logos (20 October)
Why does anyone like
Dirty Projectors—Bitte Orca – It could’ve been so great, but it’s incredibly obnoxious.