tongue-tied lightning

2011: The Year in Music
December 17, 2011, 1:49 AM
Filed under: music

After a year in which I’ve only made one blog post, it would appear it’s time for the usual year-end festivities once again.  I’m doing music right now, TV early next week, and film will likely have to wait until around the end of february, as that’s usually when I’ve finally seen everything I wanted to see.  So without further ado.

Honorable Mentions

In alphabetical order, by artist:

Brad Mehldau – Live in Marciac:  I used to do jazz album of the year, because I have such a hard time ranking jazz alongside pop music, but I’m just going to throw this in here for now.  Mehldau is consistently one of the best jazz pianists working today and with Live in Marciac, a solo piano follow up of sorts to 2006’s Live in Tokyo, does nothing to disprove that notion.  There’s not much more to say about him at this point.

Justice – Audio Video Disco:  Justice’s last album somehow slipped by me, a problem I was quick to rectify after hearing this one.  It’s markedly different from tthat album, they seem to be playing with the tropes of prog rock and hair metal.  Genres I’m not overly fond of, but which nonetheless work here in their hands.  Judging by Daft Punk’s last album or two I’d say Justice is the more vital of the French electronica duos right now.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way:  Despite Beyonce also putting out a completely solid album this year felt a bit light on pop music LPs.  This Gaga album is an exception that, despite a few obvious low points, proves she can do for the album form what she’s been doing for the single for some time now.  In fact I’m starting to question whether or not I should’ve found a spot for it on the list proper.

My Morning Jacket – Circuital:  Probably their most self-assured collection of tunes since It Still Moves.  Not quite as groundbreaking as that album, but perhaps a bit more consistent.  “Wonderful” and “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” are highlights from opposite ends of the spectrum, still one of the best pure rock bands going today.

Tom Waits – Bad As Me:  It’s been what, 7 years since his last studio album?  He’s at the point in his career when you could start reasonably expecting some decline but Bad as Me makes it quite clear he hasn’t lost a step.  Setting aside the B-side collection Orphans, this might be my favorite work of his since the 90s.

The Top Ten Albums of 2011

Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne:  A month ago this wouldn’t have made it on to my list.  I was initially somewhat disappointed with it (the lyrical content is noticeably thin) but it found it’s way into my car sometime around Thanksgiving and hasn’t left since.  Yeah, they’re talking about designer clothing, watches, and how awesome they are for the majority of it, but it’s clear they’re having a lot of fun with it and the excitement is kind of infectious.  Oh, and Justin Vernon does the bridge on “That’s My Bitch,” always a plus.

The Weeknd – House of Balloons:  Outside of artists like Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, who are perhaps more appropriately categorized as soul, I’m hardly what you’d call an R&B guy.  However, I found myself fascinated with both mixtapes The Weeknd put out in 2011 (the third one he announced, Echoes of Silence, has yet to surface). There is something seductively sleazy about his aesthetic, and the lyrical content makes you want to take a shower, but I keep coming back to it.

Wilco – The Whole Love:  Wilco is possibly my favorite band, and the title of this blog comes from a lyric of theirs, so I’m perfectly fine accepting the fact that there might be some bias here, but The Whole Love feels like the first forward-thinking thing they’ve done since A Ghost is Born.  Maybe not as cohesive as their last two, but certainly breaking more ground.   A feeling that carries through from the opener “Art of Almost” to “One Sunday Morning” which might be my favorite thing on the record.

Destoyer – Kaputt:  The last album I heard from Dan Bejar was Destroyer’s Rubies, which I remember enjoying, but apparently not enough to have really listened to it in the intervening 5 years.  He seems to have completely retooled his sound for Kaputt, going for a sax-heavy soft-rock sound that is surprisingly engrossing.  The lyrics are a strong point, as one would expect, and the album seems to improve and become cozier with each successive listen.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues:  In a lot of ways this feels like a collection of outtakes from their first record, which is both it’s biggest strength and greatest weakness.  Still a solid album, even if it’s not quite as consistent as the first.  I drove to South Carolina earlier this fall and played both their albums while passing through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia as the sun was beginning to set.  One of my more cherished musical memories from 2011 and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to separate their music from that landscape.

In One Wind – How Bright a Shadow!:  A confession, I saw these guys in… 2009 I think? and I wasn’t terribly impressed.  They just sounded a bit too chaotic and overwhelming for my ears.  That’s an impression that carried over to the first track of How Bright a Shadow! but had started to fade away by the second song and once I got to album-highlight “Water’s Looking Fine” it was smooth-sailing (sorry!).  It’s gotten to the point that when I put this record on I wonder how I ever felt an aversion to their syncopated rhythms and odd-meter melodies, and seeing them in Pittsburgh this September was one of the best concert experiences I had this year.

tUnE – yArDs – w h o k i l l:  If it wasn’t for the next album on this list I would call Merril Garbus my favorite musical discovery of 2011, and she still might be.  In an era when a lot of artists create their sound by looping layers upon layers her loop-wizardry sounds completely fresh, and there is an agit-pop edge that really pushes things over the top.  Hearing the conviction in her voice as she declares “there is a freedom in violence, that I don’t understand.”  As I’m typing this post I’m feeling an urge to listen to “Gangsta” and “Bizness.”  Over and over again, for the rest of the night.

Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact:  Really good, palpably modern-music.  So much so that I’m kind of struggling to come up with things to say about it.  I keep coming up with boring, generic statements like ‘It’s full of energy, and there isn’t a weak spot on the disc.”  Maybe you should just listen to it for yourself?  I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver:  I’ve been head over heels for Justin Vernon’s music since I heard the first bars of “Skinny Love” some time ago.  I’ve followed his career pretty closely since then and still I can’t say I was prepared for the artistic leap that is in evidence on Bon Iver, Bon Iver.  I suppose it’s a product of moving from the stripped down demo-like recordings of For Emma, Forever Ago to a studio with complete control over every aspect of the sound.  Still, it’s thrilling, from the opening bars of “Perth”, through the quiet depression of “Holocene”, to the Hornsby-esque keyboards on “Beth/Rest.”  I can’t wait to see where he goes from here.

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy:  Speaking of artistic evolution, Annie Clark could’ve easily remained in the mode she occupied on 2009’s Actor and had a fine career.  Actor in some ways felt like a refining of the disparate ingredients present on Marry Me, but with Strange Mercy she is taking off from there and blazing new trails.  In some ways it feels like a “guitar album” but I think boxing it in like that is doing her artistic vision a huge disservice.   What I can say is St. Vincent used to merely be one of my favorite musicians, but now I feel she’s one of the most exciting artists working in any medium.  The way she uses form to embody emotion is kind of unparalleled in mainstream music right now.  If there’s someone out there doing it better I want to hear it.


2 Comments so far
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I’ve loved Gang Gang Dance for a long time, stretching back to the period when they were a kind of avant-garde jam band doing albums with a single 40-minute track. I suspect more and more people will be discovering them since their progression has been steadily heading towards more poppy territory. I love the new album, too, and I love that they keep mixing up their sound with each new disc – Saint Dymphna is still my favorite album they’ve done, barely edging out this one, but I’m glad this isn’t simply a retread of it.

The Destroyer’s great, too, another of my favorites. He was really in danger of repeating himself and growing stale before this album, and I didn’t like his last one very much, so the drastic stylistic shift here is very welcome. I didn’t know what to make of the soft-rock stylings at first but it grew on me really quickly and now I love it. The smooth-jazz and early 80s synth sound doesn’t come across as kitsch; it’s actually very emotionally satisfying.

The Weeknd has grown on me a lot over the year. I struggle with the skeevy, sleazy lyrical content but I love the overall vibe of late-night, dubbed-out R&B tunes. They’ll probably be on my list despite my reservations.

Can’t believe Tom Waits didn’t make the list proper, that’s a fantastic album, one of his best even.

Those are the 4 here that’ll be making my list as well. I really need to listen to St. Vincent apparently, and I’ve never even heard OF In One Wind before. The rest didn’t too much for me, I have to admit.

Comment by Ed Howard

i’ve picked up saint dymphna, but i haven’t had a chance to give it a listen yet.

i really love st. vincent, so i hope you do as well and in one wind is a small band from brooklyn that i’m really only aware of because of a friend. their album used to be streaming on their bandcamp page but it doesn’t seem to be anymore, unfortunately.

and needs less bon iver right? haha.

Comment by justin

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