Beer and Pavement

The Race for the Best Album of 2011

Posted in Records by SM on June 29, 2011

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[1]. 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[2].

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[3].

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[4], 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[5] 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[6]) 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[7].

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[8], 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[9].

“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[10]

“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[11]. 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[12].

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[13], 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[14]. 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.

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6 Responses

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  1. ATR said, on June 30, 2011 at 9:43 am

    The single has nearly ruined popular music? The single is (and always has BEEN) popular music, even in the Tin Pan Alley days, when singles were sheet music. Maybe popular music is just continually eating itself, which has nearly ruined popular music. I don’t know, I’m just sayin’.

    • builderofcoalitions said, on June 30, 2011 at 9:48 am

      No one buys albums anymore. Concert sales are down. All kids do is download individual tracks (legally and illegally) without any appreciation for an entire album or live show.

      • ATR said, on June 30, 2011 at 12:38 pm

        I’m feelin’ you. Gonna go to Boston, now.

  2. Pizza Cottontail said, on July 8, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I’m back from my monthlong sojourn into new job, travel, family visits, etc., and I’m just now getting to older blog posts in my RSS feed.

    Bon Iver’s first album didn’t do it for me–I blame myself for not getting beyond the press release–but I’m ready to give the new one a chance. I tried Cults but I hear a lot of cheer but not enough deeply gloomy undercurrents to hold my interest.

    The Fleet Foxes’ new one has disappointed me more than any other this year. I know it’s more mature and all, but I get bored with it.

    For my money, Fucked Up has put out the best album of the year so far.

  3. […] 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. […]

  4. […] “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 […]

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