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
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