I've been thinking a lot about 1993 lately. I don't think I even realized it's the 20-year anniversary of the Year After Nevermind (released late in 1991, but hit #1 in January 1992). But I must have heard Nirvana on the radio recently, and that got me thinking about Kurt Cobain. Mercifully, though, I tend not to think about the tragedy of the end of his life. Nor is my enduring memory of Cobain related to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," as culturally monumental as that song was. No, usually when I think about Kurt Cobain, it is in the context of the music video for Nirvana's 1993 hit, "Heart-Shaped Box." Amid all the creepy imagery in that video, Cobain looks like he's actually having fun. When I think of 1993, it is often that closeup of Kurt's face I remember, as he yells "Hey! Way!" while barely concealing a grin.
1993 will be regarded as a classic year. And not just because of In Utero. This was the year that Pearl Jam gave us Vs. And fucking "Cannonball" by the Breeders, man. (Damn that was a good song.) And every single from The Chronic, although the album itself was released in December 1992.
1993 was also the year that MTV straddled the line between its origins in music and ambitions in television. Music was still prevalent - those of us at television-watching age in 1993 spent incalculable hours watching music videos. But it was also the year that "The Real World" (season 2 in Los Angeles) became much more culturally relevant, even while the network pushed shallow skin-fests like "The Grind" and "Beauty and the Beach" - although my barely-teenage self didn't see cause for concern at the time.
There were eleven songs that reached the #1 spot in Billboard's Hot 100, and much like every other year, ten of them were pop or R&B. (Meatloaf's "I Would Do Anything For Love" was the lone exception.) But unlike today, the modern rock charts in 1993 were vibrant and diverse. It was a time when not just titans like Nirvana could hit #1; both Belly's "Feed the Tree" and Blind Melon's "No Rain" were there for 3 weeks each, and Porno for Pyros' "Pets" occupied that spot for five. 1993 was the year America fell in love with the Bee Girl, but it would be incomplete to only focus on the big #1 singles. Down-chart hits like Pearl Jam's "Daughter" and "Black," Beck's "Loser," and Alice in Chains' "Down in a Hole" have easily withstood the erosion of memory over the last 20 years.
It's also important to remember how music movements are not as cleanly-defined as hindsight might suggest. History seems to remember acts like Soul Asylum, Gin Blossoms, Spin Doctors, and Counting Crows as post-grunge, despite all having major singles in 1993. These bands existed on the radio alongside the iconic bands whose coattails they were supposedly (but not actually) riding. Instead, their emergence owes much more to the 1980s college rock of bands like R.E.M. than they ever did to Nirvana.
Oh, and as for R.E.M., they just happened to release one of the biggest albums of the decade, Automatic For the People, in late 1992. That record's smash hit, "Everybody Hurts," was playing on every stereo in the spring/summer of - you guessed it - 1993.
There hasn't been another year in music like 1993...well, except 1994, which was also pretty great. It was also pretty awful...but like I said, I try not to think about that.
I've been thinking a lot about the list-making process. Someone recently asked me: What is the purpose of making a list? My initial reaction - because it's fun - is actually somewhat shallow. Is it really? Yeah, probably...somewhat...maybe? But if so, still: Why? In listening to me think out loud about this, my wife commented that she doesn't make lists for fun. Why, then? "To keep myself sane. To make sure I don't forget things I need to do."
In other words: To make order out of chaos. To provide structure to an unstructured world.
As humans we strive to impose order on that which has none. The world is big, random, and diverse. It would be cognitively overwhelming to even try to take it all in. So we put things into groups or genres or what-have-you, and then further lump them into sub-categories, and then start numbering them. It's a coping mechanism in the face of chaos. Otherwise we might go insane.
But I don't think that's the extent of it. Making these end-of-year lists IS fun. For those of us who write about culture (in any form), creating these lists is like trimming a tree, or whatever your own winter tradition entails. It's a conversation-starter and a community-builder. Seth Colter Walls of the Awl has a slightly different (okay, completely different) take, suggesting that lists bring people together in anger, not solidarity. He says a lot more than that, so of course I'm unfairly over-simplifying his article, but that's why you got the link above. While on the face of it, he's right - anyone reading this list is probably going to scoff that Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, Wye Oak, and Destroyer aren't here. (I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't get into any of those albums.) And others might point out that there's no hip-hop, jazz, dubstep, or whatever your favorite genre to defend is. Yes, my list has a bunch of rock, country, and folk, along with their indie- and alt- varieties. That's what I like. And you're going to enjoy scoffing about it. Nobody really gets so worked up about these things that there's ever any real manifestation of "anger." You'll think I'm an idiot for neglecting Kaputt, and I'll smirk that you actually fell for the saxophone trend this year.
Anyway, here's a list of albums I liked in 2011:
The Middle East first captured my attention with the easygoing "Land of the Bloody Unknown." The album's first few songs are rather unassuming in their quietude, but things really open up beginning with "As I Go To See Janey," the female/male vocals of "Jesus Came to My Birthday Party," and the aforementioned "Bloody Unknown." Other highlights included "Dan's Silverleaf" and "Hunger Song." Much of the remainder is fairly sparse, so your interest may vary depending on your appreciation for delicate folk arrangements. Either way, there was a lot of potential for this band, so it's a shame that they've already broken up.
Tripper was a solid collection of tunes from Eric Johnson & Co. There's some weird and unusual stories being told if you spend the time to dig into the lyrics. I feel compelled to mention "WACS," which wasn't even included on the record (unless you bought it digitally through iTunes), as well as the fantastic music video for "You're Too Weird." But beyond that, I think my favorite was the organ-romp "Dolly."
It actually took me a while to get into Days, which is somewhat strange, considering that other reviewers tended to talk about it in terms like "sun-drenched," "accessible," "effortless," and the like. "It's Real" grabbed me pretty quickly, but the rest took a while. Eventually I discovered that there's a lot to love in its wistful end-of-summer sound, especially with songs like "Green Aisles" and "Out of Tune."
Aggressive and dark, There Are Rules was the Get Up Kids' triumphant reunion record (not counting last year's Simple Science EP). It's not emo, but how many non-emo records does Matt Pryor have to record before people stop using that term? I count at least seven. (Completely arbitrarily-picked number, by the way.) My personal favorites were "The Widow Paris," "Regent's Court," and "Tithe."
Beirut's third album is full of songs that are pretty and charming, mixing horns, strings, and Zach Condon's confident crooning. "East Harlem" was one of my absolute favorite songs of the year. "Goshen" is a gem, as well. The Rip Tide is one of those records that seems to have been underrated this year (including by me), and I'm willing to bet I'm going to enjoy when I really begin to appreciate it sometime in 2012.
I wanted to make some joke about how I've been thinking about this album's title since January - you know, how kissing doesn't make you clean - but it's kind of vulgar and personal and my wife would likely divorce me. So, anyway...this isn't my favorite Iron & Wine record, but it's showing up here because I have a lady to please and she makes awesome meals and pays half our mortgage, so I feel like I shouldn't upset her by snubbing it. It's got some pretty good tunes on it, too, especially the first and last tracks.
Colin Meloy has one of the most distinctive voices in music. There's no way you could hear him sing and not think, "That's a Decemberists tune." I'm not sure how that's relevant to The King is Dead, but...there ya go. The Decemberists stripped things down a bit on this one, opting for simpler song structures and more of a back-to-basics Americana feel. And it worked really well, especially on songs like "January Hymn," "Down By the Water," and "This is Why We Fight."
A seemingly overlooked album, The People's Key contained one of my favorite songs of the year, "Shell Games." There's always the December complaint among list-readers that list-writers tend to neglect stuff released in January and February, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case here. It's like everybody forgot that Conner Oberst is indie rock's darling. I can almost imagine the guy as he's reading these lists, thinking, "Um, hello? In case you hadn't noticed, I put out a record this year."
Bright Eyes - Shell Games
Along with the People's Key (above), Mascis' solo album was one of the great overlooked records of 2011. Almost entirely acoustic, Several Shades of Why showed a different side of the Dinosaur Jr. frontman. With lyrics that often speak of isolation and self-doubt, Mascis normally buries his voice beneath a wall of distortion. This time, the themes aren't so different, but Mascis' vocals were confidently front and center. "Is It Done" was one of my early and enduring favorites from the year.
The Far West made me excited about country music in 2011. Channeling the spirit and sound of "outlaw country" pioneers like Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt, the Far West combines great storytelling with expert musicianship, bringing traditional country into the modern era. Like any great country act, the Far West weave gut-wrenching tales of love gone wrong, even on the upbeat numbers like "Bound to Lose" and "Nothing Like You."
I was so pleasantly surprised by the Whiskey Saints this year. I said it my review, but every time I listen to this record, I'm struck by how its songs absolutely deserve to be on the radio, especially rockers like "Curtains" and "Before My Time," but also the more delicate ballads like "Karianne." Melding alt. country with raw garage rock, the Whiskey Saints provide a glimpse of where modern rock should be going.
The Dodos nailed that aggressive acoustic (or perhaps aggressively acoustic?) rock thing on No Color. Most of these songs are two guys, acoustic guitar, and forceful percussion. Neko Case shows up on a few tracks, but her influence is subtle. "When Will You Go" was in heavy rotation at Casa de Given and Taken in Ink for most of the year. "Don't Stop," "Companions," and "Black Night" are other highlights.
Man, there are days when this album rockets up my personal list. Occupying the #18 spot seems far too low, and I'm sure when I inevitably re-write this list, as I did for 2010, its position is bound to improve. Diane's voice is arresting, and the storytelling is at times both forceful and delicate. This record is a treasure. There are so many great tracks, but I think "To Begin" and "Heartless Highway" are my favorites - today, at least. And beyond the music, it features the most visually captivating album cover of the year.
How could anyone resist a band whose album title name-checks a beloved 80s wrestling icon? CoCo Beware has little in common with the Birdman, but I still found it to be one of the most irresistable records of the year. As someone who loves re-arranging songs into playlists, I am a sucker for good sequencing, and Caveman has done such a great job making sure these songs interact with each other. A song like "Old Friend" functions just fine on its own, but when placed in context of the album, is greatly enhanced by the instrumental lead-in of the previous track ("Vampirer").
I spend a lot of time on this blog teasing my wife for her complete disinterest in the stuff I write about, but she discovered James Vincent McMorrow on her own and introduced his music to me. I would not be surprised if she stumbled on Early in the Morning by doing Internet searches for bearded acoustic folk singers (it wouldn't be the first time...), but nevertheless, she found a really good one here.
John Darnielle (who, for some reason, I feel should be named "Matt") is like an indie-folk mad scientist. All Eternals Deck is supposed to be his metal album, I guess, because it was produced by some guy who is well-known in metal circles. And because it has a black cover with a metal-y font. Raaawwwrrr!! (Tyrannosaurus Rexes are so metal, yeah?) Anyway, really good record. Start with "Never Quite Free" for the awesomeness.
This is the album I've always wanted Robbers on High Street to make. Back when I reviewed the album in September, I wrote: "The band is full steam ahead, weaving keyboards, hand claps, a Hammond organ, and fantastic Daptone horn section into these dozen propulsive tunes. There's a sense of unbridled joy in the music, a side of the band only hinted at on "Electric Eye" (the teaser single released over a year ago). I never expected the guys to sustain that over an entire album, but Hey There Golden Hair never lets up. Hell, there's a triangle on this record. Yeah, triangle - an instrument which only the most badass of bands can handle."
Remember 2004, when the country was deciding between voting for George W. Bush or John Kerry, and there were all those stupid polls asking "Who Would You Rather Have a Beer With," and nobody answered The Guy Who's Less Likely to Fuck Up the Country? Well, I would like to have a beer with Dave Grohl. He seems like a fun dude. And I could stroke his hair while he sang "Walking After You" softly to me....whaaaa?! I mean, we'd watch football or some shit like that and have burping contests. And I could tell him how "Walk" is possibly the best song he's ever written.
The great thing about Father, Son, Holy Ghost is the way in which it evokes the warm familiarity of great classic rock while still managing to sound new and captivating. As I said in my review, "You'll feel like you've heard all these songs before, but in the sublime way an old song comes on the radio and makes you remember a time you were truly happy. And that's the masterstroke Girls have played with this record: These are bittersweet songs that will still make you smile."
Aren't stoners supposed to be bad at stuff? That's what my 80s upbringing taught me: Don't Do Drugs, Kids, Or Else You'll Be Bad at Stuff. If so, then I ask: How does Smoke Ring for My Halo exist? Vile may wrap his songs in a slacker aesthetic, but it's a feint - the guy is a master songwriter and composer. And he's just so damn good at finding charming ways to be dreary, like "I get sick of just about everyone / And I hide in my baby's arms."
Kurt Vile - Baby's Arms
Justin, be careful. For some reason you are walking a fine line between Folk Disciple and Cool to Hate-On. I don't know why. Probably for "Beth/Rest." I'm just saying. Lay off the auto-tune and 80s tricks for a bit and I think you'll be fine. And don't call Record #3 Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver...or BI3...or whatever crazy idea you're dreaming up. Trust me, dude. I'm still not sure whether your second record is called Bon Iver or Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and that's a problem. Moreso for me than it is for you, but whatever. BI2 was a great step forward for you, and I probably should be spending more time talking about that and less about how many times I have to write your pen name.
I was afraid of this record. I was so afraid I waited for it to go on sale at Amazon.com for like $2.99 or something. And wouldn't you know, I fell in love with the damn thing. So now all I have are some fucking mp3's and no liner notes and no album art. And I love liner notes and album art. Well, not so much anymore. Now I just throw the CDs on my handy-dandy CD rack. But when I was a kid I loved liner notes and album art. And I would like them for Collapse Into Now. It's R.E.M.'s best album since Automatic for the People. The band did a really nice job making something new and interesting (I can't really think of any old R.E.M. album which sounds quite like it), which has got to be tough at the end of its career. The album is muscular without being heavy, if that makes any sense. "Uberlin" and "Mine Smell Like Honey" are probably the most radio-friendly and/or catchiest, but for whatever reason I kept getting drawn back to "Oh My Heart." The vocals on this record are really great; just when you think a song like "It Happened Today" is going to fall into the stereotypical Stipe talk-sing, the band surprises with a transcendent, layered woah-a-ooh outro. "Mine Smell Like Honey" overcomes its title to turn in the best R.E.M. hook the band has written in years.
Slave Ambient is a bit of an enigma. Album-opener "Best Night" emerges almost out of nowhere, with layered guitars over a vocal track that almost tries to go unnoticed. And yet, somehow, the track is absolutely infectious. This is not an album to put on in the background and expect that the best songs will jump out and grab you. Adam Granduciel & Co. seem content to be overlooked; but how unfortunate for anyone who complies. Paying attention...I mean, really paying attention...reveals Slave Ambient for what it truly is: a masterpiece.
Hobbled by a near career-ending disability (Ménière's disease, an inner-ear disorder), there was a very real possibility that Ryan Adams would never be able to make music again. Selfishly, I hoped he would still be able to write some quiet, acoustic tunes - something that would allow him to keep filling the world with his knack for songwriting without crippling him. And he's been able to do that here, with great results. Ashes & Fire is the calmest, most reserved collection of songs Adams has released, but it's his best work in years.
There's a prettiness to Burst Apart that is nearly unmatched by any other record released in 2011. I wrote a lot of words about this record's cover and my guesses on the meaning behind the word "burst," but none of that was meant to detract from the sonic beauty that begins with "I Don't Want Love" and continues all the way the final notes of "Putting the Dog to Sleep." There's a definite thematic progression on this record, which opens with the desire to push people away and eventually concludes with restrained hope for connection with others ("I'm not gonna die alone / I don't think so").
God damn the Black Keys are good at what they do. For a split second, I remember thinking, "Ah, fuck. This is going to be a re-hash of Brothers. Another band finds 'the formula' and now it's all over." But that couldn't be further from the truth. The thing about El Camino, especially if you like this kind of music, is that it's just going to make you happy. You will be cruising in the car, grinning like an idiot, because these guys just know how to rock out.
Oh, Yuck. I wanted you to be #1. I tell everybody about you and how much I love you. And you were so close. But the second half of 2011 was just titanic for music. And I can't be with you anymore. Well, I mean, I can. But you can't be my #1 Main Squeeze anymore. I'm sorry about that. I still love you, like bigtime. We can still hook up on the side, right? You were there for me at a time when I really needed you, and I won't ever forget you.
Radical Face came out of nowhere and blew me away this year. The Roots is both heartbreaking and beautiful, a triumph of storytelling that follows the lives of a fictional family in the 1800s. First of a three-part series of albums, I cannot wait to see where Ben Cooper goes with the second and third volumes. But even without the backstory, Cooper has pulled off something truly inspiring here.
In an interview with the Guardian, Ryan Adams talked about how Laura Marling's previous record, I Speak Because I Can, inspired him to throw out a large portion of what he was working on, before finally writing and recording Ashes & Fire. That must be immensely gratifying for Marling, who is all of 21 years old. I still can't get over this woman's age; these songs, these lyrics, that voice - they're just not the product of someone so young. And here she is, three albums into her career, already penning records that other artists would kill for.
Ultimately, what makes a great album is great songs, and the Whole Love has great songs in spades. Wilco nailed every aspect that makes them a great band - catchy pop songs, weird experimental slowburners, poignant ballads - and found a way to make them all fit together in a seamless whole. It's not the most unusual or genre-defying record the band has done, but it's eminently listenable and a joy to hear. In many ways, this is my favorite Wilco record, and without a doubt my pick for Album of the Year.
Stay tuned soon for GTI's Top EPs of 2011.
And here's the list without all the pictures and jibber-jabber:
30. The Middle East - I Want That You Are Always Happy
29. Fruit Bats - Tripper
28. Real Estate - Days
27. The Get Up Kids - There Are Rules
26. Beirut - The Rip Tide
25. Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
24. The Decemberists - The King is Dead
23. Bright Eyes - The People's Key
22. J Mascis - Several Shades of Why
21. The Far West - The Far West [self-titled]
20. The Whiskey Saints - 24 Hours
19. The Dodos - No Color
18. Alela Diane - Alela Diane & Wild Divine
17. Caveman - CoCo Beware
16. James Vincent McMorrow - Early in the Morning
15. The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck
14. Robbers on High Street - Hey There Golden Hair
13. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
12. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
11. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo
10. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
9. R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
8. The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient
7. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
6. The Antlers - Burst Apart
5. The Black Keys - El Camino
4. Yuck - Yuck [self-titled]
3. Radical Face - The Family Tree: The Roots
2. Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know
1. Wilco - The Whole Love