Coming up with one’s ten best albums of the year is tough. I’ve done more than that, but narrowing a list to ten is a much more difficult task than simply naming all the albums you bought in a year. Also, I have the terrible habit of proclaiming albums to be the year’s best long before I should. Then, there are all the albums that simply have not been given the time they deserve.
That said, I have narrowed my list to nine. All I need is one more, but the list that follows is what I have left to consider. Sure, I might miss a few when it’s all said and done, but these are albums I’m still considering for one spot. Feel free to comment on what’s here and what isn’t. Keep in mind that I already chose nine to make the final cut. I just need one more…
The Albums I Haven’t Listened to Enough Even Though I’ve Had Them for Awhile: So, I’ve had some of these records almost since they were first released this year, but for whatever reason, I just haven’t had time to give them a proper listen. All of the albums in this group deserve serious consideration as I’ve spent some time over the past couple of weeks trying to get reacquainted.
Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
As I was considering my favorite tracks of the year, I rediscovered “Wake and Be Fine” on another list of top songs. It made me want to rediscover this album just to make sure I didn’t overlook it. I had. While the narratives and poetic flourishes Will Sheff normally demonstrates in his songwriting is somewhat subdued in order to make room for more hooks, the production and instrumental dynamics more than make up for it.
Joan of Arc – Life Like
Honestly, I could write something up that just tells you all I know and/or think about previous JoA records prior to this one and it might be somehow accurate in describing this record. However, I won’t tell you anything. Just know that it’s long overdue a sit-and-git. Maybe I’ll pour a beer also deserving my attention. Either way, I remember loving portions of it, but I never listened to it and it landed on the island of forgotten LP’s.
BOAT – Dress Like Your Idols
The poor man’s Yuck, possibly, deserves more listens. I’ve actually been playing the shit out of it lately, giving it a hard look for the final slot in my list. It’s loaded with all kinds of nods to my heroes and theirs (apparently). The aesthetic reminds me tons of the sort of nineties retro indie that The Soft Pack and Surfer Blood play. It’s good stuff but nothing earth-shattering.
Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
What a massively great album this is. Why isn’t it in my top-10 already? I really haven’t listened to it enough to make that decision. Maybe I’d hear that one bit that put it over the edge or make it unworthy of top-10 status. I don’t know. I blame the fact that Sub Pop’s digital download system didn’t work and I never bothered to follow up.
Low – C’mon
I loved this album a lot from the beginning, but I worried that I wasn’t giving it enough distance. Then, I gave it too much distance and nearly forgot. It seemed too perfect of an album to be Low’s and maybe I was missing something. That’s not saying Low doesn’t make great albums. I’m just surprised a Low album could contain so many memorable songs. Albums are their thing, not singles.
The Albums that I, for Whatever Reason, Did Not Purchase This Year: I know these bands are good. I’ve read and heard enough to know that these albums should be considered. Why I still haven’t purchased them is unknown to me. Luckily, there’s Spotify. I’ve been trying to catch up on some material I missed over the year. More than likely, I will own all of these albums by February. Still, they sit collectively just outside my top-10.
War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
I don’t know how one determines Spotify statistics, but I’m sure I’ve played this album more than all others over the past month while at my computer. For whatever reason, I didn’t buy this album, nor did I go see them when they came to town. It makes no sense and this record is pretty good.
Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
See above, aside from the not seeing him even though he was in town, because he was not in town this year. I loved his set at Pitchfork last year and loved whichever record I do own. The crime of not owning this record will be rectified soon enough.
Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts
I own the other two Moore solo efforts plus a handful of weird records he’s done over the years. I have been loving anything Beck produces as of late – maybe my producer of the year. I am a Sonic Youth fan of like 20 years. So, why don’t I own this record? I have no idea. Now, I’m seeing it pop up on lists and I’m wondering what I’ve missed. Better give it another listen on Spotify.
I Saw These Guys and Was Impressed, So Their Albums Deserve Another Look: The following two acts were among those I saw play live. Somehow, I don’t own either album they were supporting. Upon considering the shows I’ve seen this year, that was an egregious oversight on my part. I’ll rectify it at least by giving them props where props is due.
Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
I made sure to see Callahan while in DC earlier this year, but I didn’t buy the record. Even his track “America” made my top tracks list. It’s a crime that I don’t yet own this record.
Jay-Z/Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Going to see Jay-Z and Kanye West forced me to play this album a ton on Spotify as a way to prep myself. Typically, I don’t like hip-hop records because they are single-heavy and loaded with filler. This album was different as it was complete from beginning to end. So, it deserves some consideration.
The Bands I’m Just Not Sure About at this Juncture: For various reasons, a few bands fell into this category. Some I loved right away, but I don’t know that it’s a long-lasting love, like for life kind of love. These albums still deserve some consideration, though.
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
At one point, I was ready to name this “album of the year”, but something made me reconsider. It may have been seeing so many bros in the Fleet Foxes camp or my general distaste for hippies. I don’t know. It’s still very, very good. I’m just not ready to commit to including it in the top-10, yet.
Beirut – The Rip Tide
This might be the most complete and realized album of Beirut’s string of excellent albums, but I don’t know that it qualifies this year. In year’s past when I’ve had a hard time thinking of ten albums I like, it would have held down a seven spot. However, I have found an embarrassment of riches in this year’s crop. Beirut’s record is good, but it might not be top-10 good.
Destroyer – Kaputt
This was another album I was ready to crown early in the year, but it seems its eighties aesthetic finally rubbed me the wrong way. Bejar writes a pretty awesome song and somehow harnessed bad Casios to sound cool and even contemporary, but I lost my patience for this record over time. Then, I saw it make a few lists of people I respect, causing me to pause for a moment. Should I reconsider Kaputt?
WU LYF – Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
This album popped up on my radar since its June release or sometime shortly before that thanks in large part to their underground marketing schemes online. It’s big, epic, and incoherent in ways I’ve never heard before. That usually means that it goes directly to my top-10 list, but this year’s list is loaded and I only just laid my hands on this record, maybe six months after its release. So, it may still take time to decide on this one.
Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
Bright Eyes has gone down hill, but this album grew on me for a while, especially after seeing the band on its final trip across the country. Also, it’s been receiving some recognition, making me think that I need to revisit. Of all these records, it may have the longest shot, but it’s still a worthwhile album.
Albums by Locals That Were Really Good and Maybe Could Use a Bump from the Coalition: I don’t often hear local releases that
Ptarmigan – The Forest Darling
I said it back in May and I’ll say it again, Ptarmigan put out a great record that stands out locally or beyond. Read what I thought here and I’ll let that stand on its own.
Dubb Nubb – Sunrise Sleepeyed
It’s hard to believe sometimes that Dubb Nubb are so young as their songs demonstrate a wisdom well beyond their years. On top of that, they have an infectious sound that’s hard not to notice. I’m looking forward to seeing them play again at True/False in 2012.
Jerusalem & the Starbaskets – Dost
Dost is getting some good press and deservedly so. Lo-fi and blues revivalism with a touch of country seem to be coming along at just the right time. The band is touring extensively, but I have to believe that their one big opening gig from breaking. People eat this shit up. I do.
That’s not even the final list. As mentioned before, I have nine other albums I love more than these, but I felt they all deserved some mention and the benefit of 100 page views. Which one would you pick to add to my top-10? Did any of these make your list? Comment freely. My top-10 will hit eventually. There will probably be something similar for beer as well.
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 debated waiting to post this until the 19th, but I thought you’d all like a chance to set up your Spotify play lists or go record shopping. Know that the following albums should fill your Xmas with happiness and joy and they won’t suck too badly. Also, I tried to focus on only those albums that have a decidedly indie slant to them. All the artists may or may not be currently on indie labels or even considered indie, but the sentiment is pure indie and the execution is all craft.
Also, I considered compilations, but that just seemed too easy. These are full albums by indie artists that contain nothing but Christmas songs. An interesting fact about me is that I love Christmas music. I don’t necessarily get into most holiday traditions, but I love interesting Christmas music. I used to give mixed tapes as gifts.
Anyway, here’s a list of the five best indie Christmas albums. I may do one of my favorite songs next week or the week after. Also, be on the lookout for a beer post thematically similar…
5. Aimee Mann – One More Drifter in the Snow
Aimee Mann does mopey, sad music better than anyone. This is the type of thing I enjoy when countering all the happy joy joy that runs rampant this time of year. Sadly, her best Christmas song , “Christmastime,” is not even the best version of the song. You’ll have to hunt down the track with Michael Penn, appearing on the holiday compilation album, Just Say Noël.
4. She & Him – A Very She and Him Christmas
Some may be on Zooey Deschanel overload, but She and Him partner M Ward do some nice stripped-down versions of Christmas classics old and new. Plus, your indie cred will go up when you put on a record from Merge.
3. Bright Eyes – A Christmas Album
I know folks have their issues with Conor Oberst, but this album released to raise money for a Nebraska AIDS charity (They have AIDS in Nebraska?) is valuable find if you can locate it. Other than the strange reading of the “A Night Before Christmas,” Oberst and friends put a rather stark and desolate holiday season. You’ll notice this trend in the odd-numbered albums on this list.
2. Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas
I have the free download of this album, as that’s how it was originally released. Since then, the Saint of Hipster Christians has released a 4-disc album of a pretty complete collection of Christmas tunes. This album was recorded during the manic, hyper-productive period for Sufjan Stevens when it seemed possible he’d actually write and record an album for every state. Oh well.
1. Low – Christmas
This EP just barely qualifies for the list, but for what it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up in quality. Low somehow captures the dark, lonely side of Christmas while creating a record of both old favorites and original soon-to-be-classics. You may not care for all of the artists above, but you have to own this record.
Slow-core is like break-up sex when the divorce is long overdue. It’s all build-up, no climax. Sure, there is a release, but it’s without the euphoric joy typically associated with an orgasm. It’s sad throughout and mostly ends in disappointment.
Interestingly, one can’t spell “slow-core” without “Low.” The genre may have been made up just as a way to describe the band’s slow, methodically dirge into midwestern depression, but it’s stuck to the Duluth trio throughout the last two decades. A Low record is slow and methodical. It rarely diverts from the dirges that dominate their discography. Because of this, Low fills a need to have music that isn’t always made for arenas or doesn’t always insight mosh pit violence. Still, as the band has developed over the years, they’ve let their inner Beatle sneak out.
Low is the bizarro Yo La Tengo. Where YLT wears their pop sensibilities on their sleeve, Low buries them, only to unleash it at the least obvious moments. YLT get loud while Low keeps the volume…well…low. In many ways, Yo La Tengo represents New Jersey aggression just as well as Low represents midwestern repression.
In a lot of ways, C’mon is the quintessential Low record. It’s not as angry or ambitious as 2007’s Drums & Guns or as perfectly depressing as the Christmas record they made several years back. It certainly doesn’t reach the depths of their early releases. What it does do is show slow-core as a diverse genre through variations in tempo and aesthetic.
Opener “Try to Sleep” is not really about sleep. In fact, I think the video above explains it pretty well. Still, it’s a song that better describes Low’s overall output as more than just slow-core (whatever that is). It’s lovely in sentiment and aesthetic with its Christmas bells and steady pop melody. I’d go as far as saying it’s even quite beautiful although the lyrics are a bit ominous. You try to sleep and you never wake up. Alan Sparhawk has the kind of pretty male voice normally reserved for rather mundane adult contemporary pop but never sings about death, dying, or suicide. And in the background is the hauntingly present vocals of Mimi Parker. Seriously, this isn’t my favorite track of C’mon, but it could be their mainstream breakthrough in the band’s eighteenth year.
“You See Everything” is a surprisingly rich, 70’s era piece of gold. The only thing that makes this track sLow-core is the deliberate tempo that just carries you along. That and the story being told of an escape from a destructive relationship with a controlling partner. Despite the fact that this track is as pretty as the first, there is a subtle anger boiling beneath.
My favorite track of the record comes third and is, in my opinion, the most ominous of the bunch. “Witches” is an alt.country, slow dirge of a Low anthem. Sparhawk comes in low, calling out the one “who was taken down by God.” From there, epic battles between good and evil are eluded to in sinister detail. There’s even room for the faux soul indie rockers to be called out for their lack of authenticity and even soul. The track is frightening in a way only Low can achieve.
“Done” is a classically sparse Low duet that crawls to the top of the pews of the Catholic church in which it was recorded. “Especially Me” is what “When We Two Parted” would have sounded like had Greg Dulli been a woman. If I ranked tracks, this might be my second-favorite of the record. Despite declaring that his love is for free, “$20” hits on a theme of undying love that carries on throughout C’mon. And when Low sings about “undying love,” the listener gets the feeling that the “dying” plays a pretty large role.
“Majesty/Magic” is one of those slow risers Low does so well. No band can build intensity the way they do. The only difference between them and most bands is that the build never really completely reaches crescendo. Here, they come pretty close as the track gets pretty loud and raucous just before it fades into a little feedback and a steady bassline.
The easy “Nightingale” follows with its almost jazzy guitar and easy drumming. This is a track for a summer evening. Of course, the time of day to which I’m referring is the terror twilight, that moment during dawn when it seems the world might end. Then, the sunlight lingers on for a bit and you take a sip of a cold iced tea or whatever we drink in the summertime.
“Nothing But Heart” does nothing but repeat the title over and over as Low slowly builds to that slow-core crescendo that never comes. The sense one gets from this song is a repeated phrase a jilted lover repeats over and over to somehow dissuade his love from leaving. It’s amazing what power a repeated phrase can hold. It may not do much to change someone’s mind, but it paints a pretty clear picture of the person doing the repeating and that impression is lasting.
The final track, “Something’s Turning Over,” is a nice back porch jam that feels like the last sing along of the evening. There are even children joining in at the end of the track. The song goes a long way in helping Low break free from the the slow-core label.
This album might not be the best thing you hear this year, but it certainly isn’t the worst. It’s hard to pinpoint anything wrong here. The acoustics of the church in which the band recorded adds an aura to the recording that makes Low’s sound bigger than it actually is. I really expected to not like this record, but it grows on me with every listen.
1I want to apologize first thing for using and overusing a tired, lazy made-up genre. Slow-core might be the laziest of all, but it’s apt as it’s been around for so long is most notably attached to this band. So, bare with me and don’t hold it against me for using “slow-core” when more precise language would be more honest.
2When Low arrived on the scene, music was dominated by grunge bands from the northwest. No one thought the midwest could do anything of note. Then, here was this band of Mormons from Duluth, Minnesota doing the exact opposite thing as Pearl Jam and it was good. People feel in the midwest too, god dammit.
3Two decades?!? That’s right. Indie bands from the nineties know how to extend careers better than anyone not named “The Rolling Stones.” Sure, some break up and reunite, but I’m talking about the Sonic Youths, Yo La Tengos, Built to Spills, etc. of the rock world. Indie rockers from this era figured out how to manage their careers, money, and chemical addictions to make a career out of playing for rooms of 200 people and selling a few thousand records a year. Low is just another band in a long list of indie artists who have made this thing work.
4I think there’s a lot to this. Both bands are lead by married couples. Low is Mormon. YLT is generally Jewish. There are similarities in the music they play without either band remotely sounding like the other. I think a cool project would be for one band to record the other’s five or so best songs and then put them both on a split 12″. Sorry. I just geeked out a bit.
5I don’t mean to say that C’mon is the quintessential slow-core record. That’s a very different thing. What I’m trying to say is that the record demonstrates the many assets Low has to offer. It’s as diverse as the band gets and covers a lot of ground in their discography. This is an early hint as to where I’m going with this review.
6Suicide. There, I said it. The song is about suicide or a couple dying together at the very least, but I still think it’s about suicide.
7How amazing is it that a band could have a breakthrough 18 years in? It doesn’t hurt that John Stamos is in the video and Entertainment Weekly debuted it.
8There is something that indie rockers who happen to be Christian (Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, Pedro the Lion, etc.) have figured out that Christian pop “artists” have not. The battle between good and evil within each of us is a dark, dark place we all must go. Being a Christian is not all rainbows and unicorns…er…you know what I mean. These artists accept the evil in all of us and deal with it. They deal with humanity and not just their religion as if humanity never existed.
9One might laugh at this thought, but listen to “My Curse” and tell me that the man knows nothing of women.
10Sometimes, less is more. Building, but never quite getting there leaves us wanting more.
11Yes, “terror twilight” is also the name of the Pavement album. The explanation behind the phrase certainly makes that record seem all the more ominous.
12I probably should have just gone with a beer, but that seemed too obvious. I’m thinking saison, something Belgian and sour/tart, or maybe a simple Bell’s Oberon.
13There is a brief intro, but it’s lost as soon as the repetition happens. I’m still not completely sure what he’s singing in those first couple lines.
14The electric guitar and the acoustics of the church in which Low recorded is chillingly awesome during this track. The echo and the reverb is pretty intense.