OK. I’ve waited long enough. Here are my top-10 albums of the year. Most should come as no surprise, if you’ve been reading this blog all year. To start things off, we have the #10 album that I picked from a list of albums just outside the top-10…
I currently do not own this record. I missed their show in town. Finally, at some point in November, I gave the record a listen on Spotify and was blown away. Ever since, I’ve been playing the shit out of this record. I don’t think it cracks the top-9 as they have stayed constant all year or at least since they’ve been released. Either way, this is a strong, strong record. It has that lazy garage rock mumble former member Kurt Vile does so well, but there’s an aura of shoegaze and shitgaze all in one album. It’s cool and hauting, even beautiful in some parts. I still regret not seeing this band when they came to town. Oh well. I’ll make up for it by propping their album up as one of the best of 2011, a year that has turned out a surprising amount of good-to-great music.
Although “boring”, there is nothing wrong with this album and that should count for something. After falling instantly in love, I soon decided that it was my mission to hate it. I couldn’t. Somehow, Justin Vernon achieves epic soundscapes, big noise, soul, urgency, and bitter cold in the most subtle of ways. I want to hate this record, but I can’t. It just feels right. Gone are the quiet, hushed log cabin recordings of yesteryear, but the intimacy is still there. This album is a major achievement and should be recognized as such.
I missed this album’s release somehow. Insound was having a sale on Merge albums and I grabbed it since I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of Friedberger’s material with Fiery Furnaces. Anyway, this record is incredibly more approachable than the FF’s stuff. It doesn’t hurt that she was so cool hanging out the night she played St. Louis. I have a soft spot for artists who are nice people. Anyway, the album held up that night and I haven’t stopped listening since. Equal parts Patti Smith, Stephen Malkmus, and Joni Mitchell. It’s a really strong album from beginning to end. I can’t wait to hear what Friedberger does next.
I loved Thao Nguyen’s We Brave Bee Stings and All and saw she and Mirah perform some covers online. That was all I needed to purchase this largely overlooked yet timely album. Aggressive, percussive, completely danceable, and very fun, Thao & Mirah was a strong contender for this list from the first time I listened to it. This is a powerful record by two accomplished female artists about which I want my daughter to know. If this album somehow missed your awareness this year, go buy it and have some fun.
I don’t know what it is with all the nostalgia for Phil Spector these days, but Cults captured that and more with this solid effort, turning in the song of the summer in “Go Outside”. The album was a breath of fresh air since its release last spring. There was a time when I considered it an outside shot at album of the year. It captured my imagination that much. I worry that the band will struggle to put out anything as good as their first, but this isn’t a bad legacy to leave either.
Something about Tune-Yards was rubbing me the wrong way. Not sure what it was, but it didn’t last long. Everywhere I went, this record was playing. In fact, my favorite hangout often had this record spinning. I couldn’t resist. It’s infectious, raucous, fresh. I love the mixture of a lo-fi, nineties, guitar thing mixed with this dance-centric, percussive aesthetic all the kids are going for these days. I could listen to this album over and over, something I could say for any of these records, but especially for this one.
Wye Oak’s earlier material did next to nothing for me. Then, they did a couple of those AV Club things where they played cover songs. Then, they released a video and I was taken back to some mid-nineties indie. Stuff like Throwing Muses or Madder Rose when all these female voices began to emerge above the feedbacked fray of that era. This album is pure retromania for me and it’s plain good from first track to last. Jenn Wasner’s deep voice over a cacophonous racket fills my nineties nostalgic needs, much like the following albums on the list…
I have gushed enough about the nostalgic love I hold for this band and this release, but I have to say more so as to justify its placement in my top-10. And this is coming from a guy who doesn’t actually like the bonus material on the deluxe version of the record. Not everything these youngsters touch is gold. So, with this in mind, one has to consider that it’s impressive how right they got it when they put together an album that should have come out 15-20 years ago. Feedback, angsty lyrics, more feedback… It’s as if they invented the 90’s indie aesthetic and not Pavement or Sebadoh. I love this record. It’s nothing new or groundbreaking, but it perfectly captures what will be some pretty perfect moments in the development of my musical tastes.
When I heard this group was getting together, my head nearly exploded at the thought of all the possibilities. Then, they toured and my head blew up again re-imagining the ruckus Sleater-Kinney used to cause back in the day. Then, the music began to trickle out. Early on, the urgency detected in “Future Crimes” made me realize that this band was going to blow away all expectations. Wild Flag’s self-titled (a lot of these lately) debut is the perfect mix of S-K riot grrrl, Helium-style classic rock, garage punk, Runaways barnstorming, and indie sensibility. This album may be an all-time top-10 pick forever, assuming their follow-up isn’t more awesome. The guitar and vocals interplay between front women Mary Timony and Carrie Brownstein is only surpassed by the work Rebecca Cole and Janet Weiss are doing with backing vocals and holding down the low end. This is the super group to end all super groups.
Yes, I’m biased, but how is this album not on every end-of-year list. I either missed the memo or have yet to change out of my Pavement-tinted glasses. I’ve never thought a Stephen Malkmus solo album to be a top-10 record much less a #1, but Mirror Traffic is different. The prog wizardry and blues riffs have been taken down a notch with the perplexing and sly wit of Malkmus’ songwriting coming to the front. Plus, the accumulation of talent in this band is pretty insane considering the ramshackle band Malk fronted for a decade made some of the most memorable music of my lifetime. This is the first album he’s done that doesn’t feel like the continuation of Terror Twilight, a complete break from his former trajectory and an album that sounds like another band wrote and recorded it. Then, there’s the production which is quintessential Beck Hanson all over. This is the easiest Malk album to which to listen since those halcyon days of Slanted & Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. In fact, I’d say Mirror Traffic falls somewhere between those two great albums and Wowee Zowee. Yeah, I said it. So what?
I’m rambling a bit now, but that’s the list and I stand by it. (BTW, it’s no accident Janet Weiss is part of the top-2 records of the year.)
I don’t always do lists for best song, but I’ve paid particular attention to a few that have drilled holes into my brain and set up permanent residence. Most are the regulars but some might surprise. Also, I’m ranking art, y’all.
1. “Senator” – Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – This, unsurprisingly is a sign of things to come, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why no one is on this bandwagon. Just listen to the song.
2. “Another State” – Dee Bird – Here’s a local song that I haven’t been able to get out of my head all year. It’s simple, lovely, and connected to this past summer’s visit from the cicadas. One-half of the twindie duo Dubb Nubb creates easily my favorite local track in years.
3. “Rubber” – Yuck – Shoegazing, drugged, grungy, feedback-riddled, slacker rock just makes me feel 18 again. Yuck are great nineties revivalists that have captured the decade of my youth and for that, I am eternally grateful. BTW, the video is NSFW. Also considered “The Wall”
4. “Gangsta” – Tune-Yards – Tune-Yards has masterfully figured out how to make dance-able indie rock, utilizing big beats, emo vocals, and the essential loud-quiet-loud dynamic. Although I came into possession of this album late, the songs have been running in my head all year. “Gangsta” is a standout. Also considered: “Bizness”
5. “Michael Jackson” – Das Racist – I like humor and weirdness in my hip-hop. I also like a hook. “Michael Jackson” has it all. After 3 hours of Jay-Z and Kanye West, all I could hear in my head was this track.
6. “Future Crimes” – Wild Flag – This song is just so full of angst and urgency. It makes me uncomfortable in my skin. It makes me want to dance. For me, this is the highlight of one of the year’s best albums. Also considered: “Romance”
7. “Mother” – Wye Oak (cover) – This one was from the A.V. Club’s Undercover series where bands passing through would record a song from a list of suggestions. Wye Oak eventually released this one as well as their first Undercover appearance playing a Kinks song. Also considered: “Holy Holy”
8. “Go Outside” – Cults – For my money, this was the song of the summer. Isn’t going outside all we want to do when it’s so nice out and we have to sit inside working all day?
9. “Ni**as in Paris” – Jay-Z/Kanye West – This is a pretty wicked song that the duo played like three times to close out their show in Kansas City. There’s also the perfectly timed and placed sample from Blades of Glory. (NSFW) Also considered “Otis”
10. “Helplessness Blues” – Fleet Foxes – Epic and sprawling, the title track from this year’s Fleet Foxes release all of that and a bag of granola. The sentiment is a bit sappy, but as with most FF tracks, it’s all in the vocal performances. This album faded for me down the stretch, but this track stood strong.
11. “Shell Games” – Bright Eyes – It’s been a long while since I would have ranked a Bright Eyes song so high on a year-end list. The album is really uneven, but when Conor Oberst gets a song right, he really gets it right. The song’s so upbeat for a Bright Eyes track that it’s almost a pop crossover hit.
12. “Ice Cream” – Battles – I can stand Battles in small doses, but those doses are pretty incredible. This song is so bizarre that it appeals to that teenage, indie geek inside me. (NSFW)
13. “Video Games” – Lana Del Ray – OK. Let’s ignore all the hype and debate over her authenticity. This song took the world – indie and otherwise – by storm this year. It’s haunting and beautiful with a highly contemporary narrative. Yes, I’ve fallen for it as well. I probably won’t buy the album, but I’ll listen to this song whenever possible.
14. “America!” – Bill Callahan – I got to see Bill Callahan this summer in Washington, D.C. and this song stuck out. For some reason, I haven’t picked up this record. That may have to be rectified in the coming weeks.
15. “Perth” Bon Iver – Justin Vernon outgrew his cabin in the woods with this one. I mean, there are actual electric guitars in there. Some of his latest effort strayed from the cabin fever he spread across the land his first time out, but even with some electric guitars this track shows Vernon at his atmospheric best.
16. “My Mistakes” – Eleanor Friedberger – This song should describe the conversation I had with Eleanor Friedberger . Nonetheless, this song translates well live, but it doesn’t have to as it’s just a great rock song.
17. “Wake and Be Fine” – Okkervil River – Somehow, I’ve forgotten about this album over the course of the year. Luckily, I remember being pretty excited for its release when this video was released. The big sound played well with the video’s cinematography.
18. “Try to Sleep” – Low – Low really hit it out of the park with this year’s release. “Try to Sleep” was probably the closest they’ll ever come to a hit. It’s sleepy and melodic, much more upbeat than their usual shtick. Also considered “Witches”
19. “For the One” – Waters – Port O’Brien broke up and another narrative was born when Waters was thought up. “For the One” is what Port O’Brien sounded like had they wanted to rock. The Waters album as a whole does not always deliver, but the first single does.
20. “Santa Fe” – Beirut – For several albums, I’ve been curious what Beirut would sound like when not emulating the music and culture of wherever his muse was residing at the time. “Santa Fe” is that song.
As always, what did I forget? What are you favorite songs of 2011?
I am here to help you with your Thanksgiving music and beer pairings to insure a happy and enjoyable turkey dinner. That and I’m filling space until this post-a-day thing is over…
Indie Rock Thanksgiving
Here are five albums you should consider playing during Thanksgiving dinner. To some, this list may look “boring,” but to those I suggest that maybe we don’t want to rock out with our cocks out or balls to the wall, so to speak. Maybe this Thanksgiving, we want to be calm and reflective. That and my wife doesn’t want anything loud playing during dinner.
Jose Gonzalez – In Our Nature
Quietly haunting and intense, this record will carry the day with this unnerving feel that have you bobbing your head slightly. However, no one will notice as the quiet, hushed tones of Mr. Gonzalez will feed your soul the way turkey cannot. That and it reminds me of fall.
Nick Drake – Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake
I usually shy away from compilations or best-of albums, but this one is done right as a retrospective of Drake’s career. Throughout, feelings of the oncoming death of winter are prevalent at all periods in Drake’s catalog. His low whisper is pleasant enough not to interrupt dinner conversations, but his masterful guitar playing provides fodder over the table.
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
I had Thanksgiving dinner a couple of times in Wisconsin. This is what it sounded like (aside from the joyous times spent eating and getting drunk). The first time I made the trip up there, it was the last time I traveled anywhere with an old girlfriend. So, I can relate to Bon Iver’s dumping, the one that led to this album happening.
Nico – Chelsea Girl
I needed a woman mixed in here somewhere, but so many of the women I listen to are much to strong to play as background music at dinner. It’s hard to find a strong conviction in any music without interrupting the dinner. Nico’s somberness while being backed by the Velvet Underground pairs nicely with the whispery fellows on this list. That and it reminds me of Wes Anderson films that always look good at Thanksgiving.
Beirut – Gulag Orkestar
This album may be a little more bombastic than those above, but that tone fits with a raucous dinner that feels festive once familial tensions break over bread. Still, this is Beirut’s best album. It should be listened to during any feast.
Also: Sufjan Steven’s Come on Feel the Illinoise, Pavement’s Terror Twilight, Feist’s The Reminder, Beach House’s Teen Dream, Iron and Wine’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, Cat Power’s What Would the Community Think
Craft Beer Thanksgiving
Here are suggestions for each course of your Thanksgiving meal. There’s a style of beer as well as my favorite for the day. I’ll also tack on a couple of other beers that fit the profile. I’m basing this mostly on how my Thanksgivings usually go. This year will be different, but I think I can still keep up this pace.
Pre-game Warm-up: Lager (really, any kind) – Victory Prima Pils
The idea here is to awaken the senses without getting too drunk before you start. The light, effervescence of a well-carbonated lager can get your taste buds properly primed for the feast to come. I usually crack open the first one while I fire up the smoker.
Alternatives: Coney Island Lager, Great Lakes Brewing Company Dortmunder Gold Lager, Avery Joe’s Premium American Pilsner
Cheese/Appetizer Course: India Pale Ale – Firestone Walker Double Jack Double IPA
Cheeses tend to carry with them strong, pungent flavors and aromas that challenge any palate. The best beer to match a strong cheese is an IPA or DIPA. Even with softer, lighter cheeses, I find a west coast IPA brings enough fruity character that neither cheese nor beer is lost in the other. Plus, I just like IPA’s.
Alternatives: New Belgium Ranger IPA, Stone Cali-Belgique Belgian IPA, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale
Main Course: Belgian Quadrupel – St. Bernardus Abt 12
We typically serve a smoked turkey which packs the juicy flavors we want in our Thanksgiving turkey as well as substantial smokiness. The malty Quad matches and stands up to the smoke like few other beers can. The dark fruit flavors in the beer pair with almost any food like a red wine does, but better. The Quad is the only way to go when it comes to turkey dinner.
Alternatives: Three Philosophers Belgian Style Blend, Boulevard The Sixth Glass, Straffe Hendrick Quadrupel
Dessert: Russian Imperial Stout – Schlafly Reserve Russian Imperial Stout
Dessert is going to be something chocolaty, fruity, or pumpkin/sweet potato. Russian Imperial Stouts bring coffee, bourbon, and chocolate to match and/or pair with any of these desserts. Or you could just sip on one of these beers alone for dessert. It’s the same thing.
Alternatives: Stone Imperial Russian Stout, Mikkeller Black, Hoppin Frog B.O.R.I.S The Crusher Oatmeal Imperial Stout
Digestif: American Barleywine – Great Divide Old Ruffian Barley Wine
Barleywines feature a sweetness and hop bitterness thats nice to sip, not guzzle. Of course, after all this food, sipping yourself off to sleep might be the way to go.
Alternatives: Avery Hog Heaven, He’Brew Genesis 15:15, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale
What will you be drinking? What will be playing on your record player (or iPod)? Do tell. Also, be sure to point out my faulty reasoning.
How are beer and music boring, or rather, “boring?” There’s been a discussion online over what makes something both artistically significant and boring. Now, months too late, I’m joining the fray.
Instead of rehashing the entire saga, I’ll point to the two pieces that inspired this post. First, there was Dan Kois’ “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” where the author had the gull to suggest that the critical darlings of film are actually rather slow, boring even. Other film critics did not agree. Then, his good buddy, Steven Hyden, over at AV Club said basically the same thing about music. I suspect the AV Club piece will garner less vitriol than the film piece. Still, both critiques are spot-on. The most critically-acclaimed film and music can be a bit tedious.
Hyden differentiates the boringness of film and music. In music criticism, he writes, “…we have no problem classifying art as boring.” Eventually, he differentiates the boring from the “boring.” Hyden writes:
Any kind of music can be boring depending on the listener. No song is inherently not-boring—not even CCR’s “Ramble Tamble”—because boring is obviously based on subjective perception. This makes boring music hard to pin down. In a sense, all music is boring. The same, however, can’t be said about “boring” music. “Boring” is its own genre. It is a code word that instantly conjures artists with clearly definable attributes. “Boring” music is slow to mid-tempo, mellow, melodic, pretty in a melancholy way, catchy, poppy, and rooted in traditional forms. It is popular (or popular-ish). It is tasteful, well-played, and meticulously produced. (Or it might sound like it was recorded in somebody’s bedroom under the influence of weed and Sega Genesis.) It is “easy to like”—or more specifically, “easy for white people to like” (“white people” being a sub-group of white people singled out by other white people). It is critically acclaimed (perhaps the most critically acclaimed music there is), and yet music critics relish taking “boring” musical artists down a peg more than any other kind of artist.
He continues by naming BICTBAP favorites Fleet Foxes, The National, ST. Vincent, among others whom he considers to be “boring.” I can’t really argue with that assessment. I’m white people. I like that music.
Then, I consider whether or not I still like that music. Sure, it’s fine, but I haven’t listened to the last National album since well over a year ago and that’s because I rode in a car playing it on the way to seeing them in St. Louis. Hyden argues that “boring” is not necessarily bad. I’d argue that it’s not necessarily good either. “Boring” has the same effect as boring. The only difference is that we can’t figure out how to dislike some art when it’s “boring” until one day, it just occurs to us. With boring art or music, we know right away.
So, I considered what the effects of “boring” music on my musical tastes are. Well, I think not too long ago, I proclaimed (more like hinted) that the Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues was the album of the year. I did the same for Bon Iver. While I still think these are very good records (I am still a white guy), they have long since been passed by more-immediate-but-just-as-deftly-performed albums by Wild Flag and Stephen Malkmus. Those last two records contain so much more urgency and soul (more on this tomorrow).
“Boring” music may impress me at first, but it doesn’t stay with me for long. I get, well, bored after a while and need something to properly get me to move my feet. Records by Cults, Tune-Yards, and Eleanor Friedberger are not boring. I get up and dance with my three-year-old when these records play. Bon Iver? not so much.
And since this is a music and beer blog, I considered the “boring”-ness of craft beer, because it’s out there. I’ll refrain from naming breweries as I want to support all craft breweries and recognize that they have a certain clientele that enjoy “boring” beer. I will also brace myself for the inevitable backlash from beer critics who, like their counterparts in film and music criticism, will be outraged* at the thought that traditional styles such as British pale ales, ESB’s, American wheat ales, or amber ales could possibly be “boring.” Well, they kinda are. I recognize that a well-made beer in any style can be enjoyable, but “boring” beer just doesn’t do it for me.
To be clear, a “boring” beer isn’t necessarily bad. The run of the mill pale ale at your local brewery is probably a fine brew, but sometimes we want more than fine. Typically, but not always, “boring” beers are your basic styles with little variation in traditional ingredients. They are true to customary recipes and are often executed well. However, they’re just “boring.” I don’t often reach for “boring.” I’ve had it and now I want something else.
Beers that push the limits are beers that won’t qualify as “boring.” Now, that doesn’t mean all these beers have to be imperial or extreme to be considered not “boring.” Non-“boring” beers challenge the palate and wow the drinker with each sip. These beers will make you excited to be a craft beer convert. These beers inspire blog posts and cause one to try their hand at homebrewing. No “boring” beer for me, thankyouverymuch.
What’s interesting to me, is that in both the case of “boring” music and “boring” beer, they both appeal to middle-aged, white guy (says the middle-aged white guy). We like our Boulevard Wheat and our Wilco. We watch baseball and may even be caught with a baseball cap on now and again. We too are “boring.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. However, sometimes (more often for some than others), we need to break free of “boring.” Let’s have a La Folie, listen to some Japandroids, and squeeze into a pair of jeans that fit you for christ’s sake.
As you may have noticed “boring” begins to take on a value for me, making it seem more like the other boring. I cannot lie. “Boring” music and beer… well… bores me. Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of it. I just find “boring” to be boring at some point. There may be moments when “boring” is fine, but I prefer to look for anything but “boring.”
What are your thoughts on “boring?” Am I right on or way off base? Are there good examples out there of “boring?” Is this blog becoming “boring?” As usual, leave your thoughts and/or self-righteous indignation in the comments below.
*Outraged might be a bit too strong. Mildly annoyed? LOL? This blog’s title is too long.
The gypsy is alive and well my friends. No, I’m not talking about those who wander southern and eastern Europe in search of an easy mark. The kind of gypsy to which I’m referring is that of the craft beer and indie rock worlds. Throughout those scenes, there are examples of loner craftsman wandering between breweries and bands and creating product that defies typical industry definitions.
As is usual with these sorts of things, the indie rock gypsy is way ahead of the the craft beer variety. Musicians have been using monikers normally reserved for bands of two or more people for projects with revolving members. The freedom to make all the major creative decisions for a band without worry of the band breaking down has to be a plus. And when they want to pick up and move, there are no band members holding them back. Then, when there is a creative problem to solve, they can call on hired guns to figure them out.
Take Bright Eyes for one. BE is basically Conor Oberst (later to include Mike Mogis) and whichever friends he could round up to fill spots on his roster. His sound and dynamic have generally stayed constant, but Oberst is able to create something new each time out by simply adding a few pieces while replacing others. Oberst could have gone it alone as a solo artist (which has done and probably will continue to do), but he must have liked the comforts and support a band provides. Fewer bands are as tight as an Oberst-led group and there always appears to be a great chemistry. As a gypsy, Oberst was able to move his operation to Brooklyn from Omaha without skipping a beat. Bright Eyes was not the first ever or only gypsy act in indie rock, but it has been an extremely successful one.
Interestingly, Brian Strumke, gypsy brewer of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, revealed to me that he is a big Bright Eyes fan, but their connection as gypsies in their fields don’t end there. Both have stayed true to their hometowns. Strumke brews in Baltimore and Oberst has done most of his work in Omaha. Both have traveled to “meccas” in order to continue their crafts with some Stillwater beers being brewed in Belgium and a Bright Eyes album or two written and recorded in Brooklyn. Both men have honed their crafts into something unique that often defies categorization while still giving a nod to their influences.
The gypsy is able to break free from the constraints and tradition of his craft. The typical indie rocker is stuck with the band structure that determines how many parts to consider in every song and even how many seats to provide in the tour van. Your average brewer must consider the additional costs of running and often upgrading brewing facilities. The gypsy is not bothered by either. His band can take any shape. He can brew in this brewery or travel overseas to brew at another. The gypsy is without the typical worries that dog their more sedentary counterparts.
And why is this gypsy-fication of indie rock and craft beer on the rise? Besides the freedoms mentioned above, we live in a world that is simply more conducive to the gypsy approach. For one, we are a more global society. Due to decades of migration and multicultural educational initiative, we no longer live in a …. society. There’s a reason American brewers make Belgian styles and popular music demonstrates influences from all over the globe. Secondly, technological advancements have made it possible to coordinate projects in multiple locations. Conor Oberst can work in Brooklyn while his Omaha label Team Love GM lives here in Columbia. Brewers can easily participate in beer scenes all over thanks to social media. The world is too small for these creative types to stay in one place. Bands and breweries will just keep them down.
It’s an interesting development that has produced some pretty great results. Below are a few other gypsies I admire.
- Crooked Fingers is the “band” name Eric Bachman (Archers of Loaf) uses. He lives out of vans and people’s couches, but he finds time to round up some players, record records, and hit the road. What started out as a side project of woe has turned into a great bar band, no matter who’s backing Bachman.
- Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project is one of the most sought after breweries in the scene right now. I don’t know all their particulars, but they make some artful brews and incorporate a nose for design.
- Bon Iver started out as Justin Vernon, fresh from band and girl breakups, heading out to a Wisconsin cabin one winter to record one of the most textured and heartfelt records of this century. He seems to have a regular touring band these days, but no one questions who or what Bon Iver actually is.
- Mikkeller is the gypsy from Copenhagen we American beer geeks adore. Not surprisingly, he has a connection to Stillwater as they have collaborated on several brews, some yet to be released.
Normally, I like to publish a mid-year top-ten. However, this year’s crop has been somewhat uninspiring and I have purchased just a few more than ten 2011 albums anyway. This hardly seemed like a year to post ten albums at the midway point that could find themselves at the top of the heap by year’s end.
Two recent acquisitions, however, may already be vying for best-of-2011 honors. Cults major label debut and Bon Iver’s proper follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago seem likely candidates for best-of honors. I’ve been playing them back-to-back and have been going back and forth between the attributes of both and where they would rank had I created that mid-term list.
Cults is a summer record, which usually plays to the needs of the mid-year list. It feels current, fun, even urgent. The band has somehow been able to capitalize on the
new current obsession over Phil Spector-era doo-wop, but without the tape-hiss their contemporaries seem to fetishize. Conversely, the production is subdued and not so overwhelming. Cults achieved a full, ghostly sound without building a Spector-esque wall.
This album is loaded with summertime hits that stick to the amygdala and have a staying power that outlasts the sunshine and long days. Upon dropping the needle, I thought for sure the first track was their “hit”, but the second track is the indisputable hit single of the record. “Abducted” starts out sleepy with mono-like production before unleashing a fully stereo bombast. The bass drives this song as does the emotional female vocals of Madeline Follin and her back-and-forth with Brian Oblivion.
Track #2, the real hit better known as “Outside”, is the sleepy summer song Sleigh Bells never wrote. Even as out of touch with popular singles as I am, this song was instantly recognizable to me. Spacey and retro production encases this ditty about longing to go out into the nice weather while a fading love wants to hole up inside. Is there a better topic for a summer track than this?
Touches of Walkmen linger as the third track, “You Know What I Mean”, with dreamy guitar jangle and echoed snaps provide a beat for easy slow dancing. “Most Wanted” is a dance hit with whiny-girl vocals and wavy piano backing, broken by well-timed guitar muscle. Big beats open “Walk at Night”, maybe the most chillwave of the bunch. Still, I can’t help but think of the Walkmen as bits of vintage guitar seep in, under the dance-inspired production. It wouldn’t seem to fit, but it works.
The vintage summer vibe continues from there as “Never Heal Myself” carries the torch admirably.
“Oh My God” is your “Outside” companion piece as Follin laments about what could be if she wasn’t shackled to her lazy partner who prefers sitting inside to catching some rays. The beat and bass are heavy on this one, but that Wall of Sound aesthetic has made its impression. Sonically, this track showcases what can be done with a drum machine, guitar, and a capable female vocalist. Really, this is a big summer record. The two tracks about lazy boyfriends sitting inside capture the moment well and should be on everyone’s summer playlist.
Doo-wop and whatnot fills the rest of the record, rarely straying. The record closes with the great track “Rave On” that uses the quiet-loud dynamic expertly, showcasing the production and instrumentation that litters the previous tracks. All this brings to close an album that will undoubtedly make every year-end list. Expect it to be a part of mine.
That said, Bon Iver/Justin Vernon has recorded a nice album himself.
The perfect storm of a much-anticipated follow-up to a critically-acclaimed debut (with a novel-worthy back-story) as put out on a great indie (Jagjaguar) after a year or two of impressive collaborations arrived last week in the form of Bon Iver. Maybe the most impressive part about this record is that it makes me hesitate to put Cults at the top of my (nonexistent) mid-year list.
Instead of writing songs about one place (girlfriend-less, band-less, depressed Wisconsin shack), Justin Vernon has opted for a record featuring locales from all over the world and consciousness. And that’s not the only place Vernon has parted from For Emma, Forever Ago. From the first track, “Perth”, it is apparent Bon Iver is a different band sonically. The sound is big, even loud and aggressive. Electric guitars! Electric guitars!
“Minnesota, WI” opens with something that closely resembles everything I listened to at the end of the last century before leading into vocals that more closely resemble those of Tunde Adebimpe, TV on the Radio’s multi-talented frontman. The aforementioned instrumentation at the beginning of this track reminds me of early Modest Mouse as well as the jazz-influenced indie of nineties Chicago (Joan of Arc, Sea & Cake). All that and there’s some impressive banjo work and the ever-present Vernon falsetto.
The third track, “Holocene”, resembles something closer to For Emma than the first two tracks with its sad tale, falsetto, and acoustic guitar. Vernon understands subtlty, dynamics, and phrasing better than most songwriters. This is something he has certainly not lost between albums one and two.
“Towers” is possibly the most upbeat Bon Iver track ever, placing it firmly in early-nineties Gin Blossom territory without all the fleeting success that band “enjoyed.” “Michicant” is a touching lullaby that you can feel even if you’ve yet to figure out what exactly is being said. This track also demonstrates Bon Iver’s uncanny ability create to the slow, quiet build like no other band or musician.
“Hinnom, TX” sounds like another TV on the Radio track with its mix of falsetto and low echos. “Wash.” follows with a similar feel, but this is quiet, slow-building Vernon at his finest. “Calgary” hints at some keyboards a la Peter Gabriel that will be more dominant by the final track, but I’ll get to that later. Before that, “Lisbon, OH” is simply some ambient noise in order to provide transition to the final track…
“Beth/Rest” might be the most challenging track of the lot. It’s over-the-top, bad eighties quality makes it a tough listen. Had it not been for Destroyer’s all-out-assault on anti-eighties aesthetics earlier this year, this track might have been unlistenable. It certainly sticks out and I’m not convinced it’s good or bad. It just is what it is: a
bad Bruce Hornsby song. Still, the track is not a bad song, it’s just a bad choice of aesthetic, much like Vernon’s over- and unnecessary use of Autotune, particularly on “Woods” off Blood Bank.
Every great record is allowed its one transgression while still maintaining its value. Bon Iver demonstrates a great artist who continues to expand his sound and experiment without shame while never really losing whatever made us love him in the first place.
Both albums are easily the best of 2011 so far, but I’m not yet sure which is better. And does it really matter? Cults fills our need to dance and remember the summer fondly. Bon Iver continues to develop a rich and engaging sound that promises great things with each new release. I honestly hate ranking records as my lists tend to be fluid, something a blog post rarely allows. Just know that these are two of the best records of 2011. Interesting that they came out so close to the solstice, a time we often reflect on what’s happened so far and what has yet to take place. There are many other records set to be released in the coming weeks and months. Hopefully, these two excellent releases are harbingers of things to come.
1It was thirteen before these two arrived and there are several pre-orders just waiting in the wings.
2This is where I wished I understood music production better. First, what makes that wall of sound and why does it sound so ghostly, spacey?
3Somehow, I doubt “Oblivion” is Brian’s real last name. Either way, it’s as rock ‘n roll a name as I’ve seen in a long time.
4I love individual, great songs, but I hate singles. I feel that starting with the cassette single and ending with whatever age of mp3-dominated crap we currently find ourselves, the single has nearly ruined popular music. The best “singles” are the hidden gems embedded into great albums.
5I still don’t get what exactly chillwave is, but it seemed to fit this track.
6Yet another novel I will never write. In fact, I thought an excellent novel would be one where the album never sees the light of day. It’s just the story of the time a guy spends in a cabin, writing and recording music about his various breakups in bands and relationships.
7I really wanted to work in something regarding this piece on wimpy indie rock, but I couldn’t figure out where it fit. I might revisit it, but the topic is a bit outdated.
8This isn’t saying much.
9Rivaled only by Yo La Tengo’s ability to complete the slow build, quiet or loud or both.
10I’m not gonna lie. The record could have ended here.
11I crossed out “bad” as I feel this would have been redundant in describing Bruce Hornsby’s work.
12At least he used loops and layers with the Autotune in creating something totally original and engaging. That said, of all the dudes in indie rock, Justin Vernon needs Autotune the least.
13Well, Fleet Foxes might have something to say about this.
14I use lists all the time, but they never truly represent how I feel about music or beer. It’s just a lazy way to write about stuff you like. The order in which these items are placed add another dimension to the topic that isn’t inherent in the text.