Here are 50 songs that defined 2011 for me. This year, I only included one song per band, as I wanted to feature as many bands as possible.
Listen. Enjoy. Tell me what you think.
And yep, that's my ugly mug on the cover.
Here's the playlist:
1. Wilco - One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)
2. City Reign - Anywhere Anyway
3. The Mountain Goats - Never Quite Free
4. Zaac Pick - Whitewater
5. Yuck - Holing Out
6. The Tallest Man on Earth - Weather of a Killing Kind
7. Ryan Adams - Dirty Rain
8. Laura Marling - My Friends
9. The War on Drugs - Best Night
10. Bright Eyes - Shell Games
11. Radical Face - Always Gold
12. Beirut - East Harlem
13. Carter Tanton - Murderous Joy
14. Air Review - America's Son
15. Michael McGraw - Poorboy
16. The Middle East - Land Of The Bloody Unknown
17. The Antlers - Putting The Dog To Sleep
18. Megafaun - State / Meant
19. Bon Iver - Holocene
20. Robbers On High Street - Monkey
21. The Whiskey Saints - Curtains
22. The Far West - Bound to Lose
23. Dan Mangan - Oh Fortune
24. James Vincent McMorrow - Sparrow and the Wolf
25. James Blake - The Wilhelm Scream
26. Siskiyou - Twigs And Stones
27. Foo Fighters - Walk
28. The Black Keys - Lonely Boy
29. Iron & Wine - Walking Far From Home
30. Joshua Hyslop - If I Was a Better Man
31. J Mascis - Is It Done
32. Kurt Vile - Baby's Arms
33. Girls - Die
34. R.E.M. - It Happened Today
35. Fruit Bats - WACS (ft. J Mascis)
36. the august arrival - Through it all
37. Young Liars - Colours
38. Sporting Life - Immigrant
39. Alela Diane - To Begin
40. The Rest - The Last Day
41. William Fitzsimmons - The Tide Pulls From The Moon
42. The Rural Alberta Advantage - Stamp
43. Wye Oak - Civilian
44. Jim Ivins - House Of Three
45. Real Estate - It's Real
46. Snowmine - Curfews
47. David Thomas Broughton - Apologies
48. Creepoid - Old Tree
49. Cut Off Your Hands - You Should Do Better
50. The Dodos - When Will You Go
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
The Antlers have released a video for "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out," directed by Juliet Rios and Gabe Imlay. Although I didn't mention it in my review of Burst Apart, "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out" was one of the first songs on the album that really jumped out and grabbed my attention. Fun fact: Dreaming about your teeth falling out is thought to be related to anxiety over attractiveness or sexual prowess.
Additionally, the band is giving away the song for free on its website.
Prediction: Nearly every other review you're going to read about Burst Apart will compare it to the Antlers' 2009 breakthrough, Hospice. As I posted previously, somehow I managed to never hear that record, so you're getting a special treat here: A review of Burst Apart completely independent of the band's previous work.
I've always been a little fascinated by the intersection of art with music; more specifically, the visual format or milieu in which musicians chooses to deliver their music. By this I am referring primarily to the album art and liner notes. Great album artwork enhances the music it represents, but it's something we're beginning to lose in the age of digital distribution of music. And since NPR was so nice as to stream the entire album in advance of its release, my first impressions of Burst Apart were formed devoid of influence by the album's artwork.
Without any visual accompaniment, Burst Apart is an undeniably pretty album. It's very atmospheric, all chiming guitars and a rhythm section that is propulsive yet not overbearing. Peter Silberman's vocals caress the listener in his beautiful, mostly-falsetto delivery. And the album's title suggests something positive, in that generally there are only two emotions capable of bursting - rage or joy - and Burst Apart does not sound like a work of rage.
But Burst Apart does not have a pretty album cover. In fact, it's downright foreboding: A field of black punctured by a splash of lurid yellow-green. To be honest, I was shocked when I saw it. As weird as this may sound, I think it made me a little angry, too. The mood evoked from this cover is, on its face, completely at odds with the sound of the music. It seemed like a wasted opportunity. Here is a band who may have crafted one of the finest albums of the year, a benchmark by which all subsequent albums in 2011 may be judged, but it was completely misrepresented by this ominous cover art. What is this even supposed to depict? The light source suggests a lamppost, viewed in a heavy rain from behind a window of a darkened building. Rather than bursting, whoever is standing behind that window is watching the world wash away. (The vinyl cover is much darker and has more texture than digital versions of the image. The yellow light is much dimmer, like a faint glimmer at the end of a narrow path through a menacingly dense forest of brambles.)
Indeed, album-opener "I Don't Want Love" starts with this defeated attitude, expressing complete resignation to a destructive relationship ("You want to climb up the stairs / I want to push you back down / But I let you inside / So you can push me around"). In "French Exit," Silberman warns, "Don't bother trying to fix my heart." And in the hypnotic "Rolled Together," the narrator is "pulled together but about to burst apart." Still, the mood begins to shift as the album progresses. A cautious hopefulness is buried in the achingly beautiful "No Widows," which sounds similar to the work of Brent Knopf (Menomena, Ramona Falls). In "Corsicana," two lovers wake up inside a room on fire, before resolving that "We should hold our breaths with mouths together now." The song reveals the strength we can find in those we love, even while everything is falling apart around us. And the masterful "Putting the Dog to Sleep" concludes with, "Put your trust in me / I'm not gonna die alone / I don't think so."
Album titles and well-considered album artwork usually reflects the theme of the music. So when a band as clearly talented and thoughtful as the Antlers puts a sullen, dreary cover on an album called "Burst Apart," it suggests a meaning other than the obvious. Perhaps, for the Antlers, the title does not refer to a state of being - the songs themselves do not suggest an explosion of joy, or of rage - but a yearning to achieve something better. The viewer behind that window, through which the image of the album's cover appears, is not bursting apart at all; rather, he or she is struggling to break free of the overwhelming, oppressive gloom of the outside world. In this context, Burst Apart's title does not refer to a conclusion but a plan of action. As in "Corsicana," it is two lovers choosing to kiss instead of succumb to the danger that surrounds them. Burst Apart's cover image is a starting point; its title, an answer to a question: How do we escape this deluge of grief and despair?
NPR is streaming The Antlers' upcoming album, Burst Apart, the follow-up to the band's critically acclaimed Hospice (2009).
It's always been interesting to me how music can capture some inexplicable spirit of inspiration within the listener. Some songs, or albums, can just "grab" you and never let go. Hospice was one of those records for a lot of people. It put the Antlers on the map, so to speak, and resonated with people in a very personal way.
Or so I hear. I never really got into that album. It's not that I devoted attention to it and it didn't move me; more that it just has not been on my radar. As I said in my Favorite Albums of 2010 list, there's just so much music, and I don't know how people have the time to list their favorite fifty albums of one year. Hospice was one of those records that got a lot of buzz in 2009, but I just didn't have the time or inclination to check out.
Given the above, I'm not sure what moved me to click the preview of Burst Apart when I saw it show up on NPR. But I am so glad I did. Music resonates differently for different people, so while I've already heard some people say that this album isn't enough like Hospice, for me it was a revelation. It has that transfixing spirit, like being borne on a wave of awe. Album highlight "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out" completely blew me away. Check out the entire stream here - in my opinion, it's definitely a strong contender for Album of the Year.
Burst Apart is due for release on May 10 via Frenchkiss Records.