Beer and Pavement

Top 10 Albums of 2011

Posted in MoL, Pavement, Records by SM on December 16, 2011

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

10. War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

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.

9. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

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.

 

8. Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

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.

7. Thao & Mirah – Thao & Mirah

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.

 

6. Cults – Cults

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.

5. Tune-Yards – W H O K I L L

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.

 

4. Wye Oak – Civilian

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…

3. Yuck – Yuck

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.

2. Wild Flag – Wild Flag

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.

1. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Mirror Traffic

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.)

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Thao and Mirah Kill Rock Stars

Posted in GenderBender, Records by SM on May 26, 2011

Women in rock rarely get their due, unless it’s for a special issue of Rolling Stone[1]. It’s perceived they’re in the band to provide an aesthetic, visual and/or musical. And when they’re the primary artist, they’re rarely taken seriously.

Just this past weekend, a show was put on in honor of some of the best bands of the 80’s underground. Despite the decidedly male-dominated nature of that scene, several women took center stage, playing the part of the 80’s underground punk rocker. Unfortunately, according to Brooklyn Vegan, even these accomplished, talented women were subjected to catcalls.

Still, underneath the ignorance and sexism, women create some of the most dynamic music there is, comparable to their male counterparts. We often just have to give it the time and attention the music deserves[2], especially when two prolific women in (indie) rock team up as Thao and Mirah have.

I’m not sure why this is the issue on which I’ve chosen to focus. It could be that I recently finished the Patti Smith memoir Just Kids and the idea that a dynamic, creative rock star is virtually ignored in the rock ‘n roll canon because she happens to be female. It probably didn’t help her legacy[3] that the love of her life was a gay S&M artist. Still, Patti Smith doesn’t get the respect she deserves. She was/is uncompromising, hard to define. Much of the same can be said of Thao and Mirah[4].

Thao & Mirah is one those rare records that’s ambitious without being sprawling. It’s textured without being overdone. There’s some pretty thoughtful and creative work in there musically. Lyrically, it’s aggressive and witty. Thao and Mirah are two of the more unique voices in indie rock and those voices meld together perfectly.

This is not your typical rock record and – fair or not – these are not the typical rock stars. Will this be recognized as a rock record or something folkier? Well, it’s a rock record, almost avant garde at times. It’s percussion forward, demonstrating some real balls-to-the-walls attitude. It’s not the stereotypical female duo record by any means. And the album should be judged on these merits.

The songs are varied throughout. The first six or seven tracks move between styles, vocalists, effects, dynamics. “Eleven” is as much an attention-grabber as any opening track should be with its organically electronic beats a la tUnE-YarDS[5]. “Folks,” “Little Cup,” and “Teeth” are speedy, folky tracks that are more thanks to inventive vocal performances by both singers and some interesting and varied percussion. Mirah’s minimalist soul comes through in “Rubies and Rocks.”

The album’s best shot at a pop anthem exists in “Spaced Out Orbit” Ironically, this track’s poetic style most reminds me of Patti Smith’s writing. This suggests that mainstream pop stardom probably won’t happen with here…that is, until Lady Gaga decides to cover it[6].”How Dare You” is the duet for which baby dykes everywhere will scream. “Likeable Man” comes off hot with its driving rhythm and directives, but it’s certainly a feminist rant[7].

After the Frente!-like[8] “Hallelujah,” the record closes with the stomp “Squareneck.” What’s interesting is that this last song leaves the listener with the an impression this is more of a rock act than previously thought. However, Thao and Mirah are killing rock star myths with each track. I guess it makes sense the record came out on Kill Rock Stars[9].

Thao & Mirah is one of the more interesting collabs I’ve heard in a while. It’s been on repeat over the past few days and that’s saying something with the last couple of records I’ve received and reviewed. For this record, the women in (indie) rock should get their due. And it’s not just because it’s a good record by women; it’s just a good record.

Notes:
1And even after that, they follow it up with a scantily-clad singer on the next cover.
2I recognize that by calling attention to the gender issue that I’m no better than those who ignore women in rock by making gender a part of the appeal for the record I’m about to review. That said, I find it interesting the attention this record has received compared to some all-male projects with musicians of similar status.
3OK. She is in the hall of fame and generally those who really understand rock history recognize Smith’s importance and her influence on music and art. However, the general public doesn’t recognize Smith for anything, really.
4This is where I probably should just tell you about the music.
5WTF? Right? This ridiculousness might be the biggest reason I’ll never completely succumb to tUn…ah, fuck it…Tune-Yards’ wiles.
6I’m serious. I say Gaga as she seems like the most willing pop star to take on something like this. Maybe Beyonce’s sister who pretends to be alt, but probably not.
7“Rant” is not meant to be derogatory. Both artists seem to have some feminist threads throughout. This was the track that sorta got me hot, then I read the lyrics.
8Yes, I made a Frente! reference. It felt cheap and lazy, but it was exactly what I thought as soon as I played this track. I liked Frente! back in the day, but the song is strikingly out of place on this album. Luckily, the final track salvages the album.
9See what I did there? Honestly, I’ve had no time to finish this post with single-parenting and all that. So, this is what you get. The next paragraph is even worse. I just ran out of ideas.

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