2011 was a bit of a bummer musically. In past lists, I’ve gone to 25 or 30 albums and usually had plenty of others just barely on the outside looking in. This year I struggled to come even close to that number. So rather than lower my standards, I’ve just shortened the list a bit, and included a few honorable mentions at the end.
I liked all these records, of course, but the top 5 are definitely a cut above – those are the real cream of the crop.
As always, this is a subjective project. I do think that everything on here is good, but I’m not going to pretend that my tastes correlate perfectly with some objective standard for the best. This is a list of the records I liked this year. Nothing more. Hope you enjoy some of them as much as I do.
15. The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave
The big hooks are a little bit more sparse this time around, with only really two tracks that jump out of the speakers at you (‘Recharge & Revolt’ and ‘Ignite’). On the other hand, the excessive faux-grittiness that plagued the last record has also mostly been expunged. What remains is some very nice harmonies, and the washed out reverb of guitars turned up way too loud. There’s the slow burner (‘War in Heaven’) and the girl-group harmonies (‘Forget That You’re Young’) and the gorgeous encore (‘My Time’s Up’).
The only real downside here is an occasional drift toward the soporific. ‘War in Heaven,’ for example, is a nice enough song but it drags quite a bit and doesn’t have the energy to sustain itself. It takes over 3 minutes to really hit its stride by which time you’ve already drifted away. Same goes for ‘Apparitions’ which never quite gets going.
By far the choice track is ‘Ignite,’ which exemplifies the very best elements of their sound. It starts with a real kick of a bass beat, which leads right into a nice big guitar riff, and an opening verse that offers their best Jesus and Mary Chain impressions. And then there’s a surprisingly beautiful and tender chorus. It’s a great song, the closest this album comes to ‘Suicide,’ their high-water mark as a group in my opinion.
Highlights: Ignite, Recharge & Revolt, My Time’s Up
14. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Key
I know this might come off as faint praise, but I really mean it: this is a perfect middle of the road, mid-tempo, indie pop record.
Death Cab have always been kind of the standard bearers for a certain brand of indie. They were low-fi, heart-on-the-sleeve kids from the Pacific Northwest, singing in complete sentences and producing perfectly crafted songs. They took a step up in the world, got featured on The OC, signed for a major label. Made the big time.
It’s a strange feature of the musical world, where maturity and the capacity to see much further actually constrains your musical horizons. They are just too self-aware, too constrained by actually knowing things; they no longer possess the artless innocence that allows for true piercing insight. This has been obvious for a while, but I think it’s finally settled for good on this record, driving the final nail into the coffin of the band that came out with ‘Photobooth’ and ‘Title Track’ and ‘President of What.’
But that’s fine. It really is. Those songs were the product of a moment which has passed and isn’t coming back. The young kids are now the elder statesmen, and that means not playing the futile game of stacking this up against the work of a decade ago. Of course you will find it lacking, a weak-flavored imitation. So don’t play that game. Just accept it for what it is: a very nice record from a very nice band. It needn’t be anything more.
Highlights: Some Boys, You Are a Tourist, St. Peter’s Cathedral
13. Moby – Destroyed
There are plenty of somewhat unnecessary indulgences (as you might expect on a 70 minute record from the guy), but more than enough jewels to make it worthwhile.
“Rockets” is a perfect example of what Moby does best. There’s an absolutely beautiful singing sample–so wispy that it feel likes it’s being heard at a distance of 100 years–held up and sustained by a network of electronic cables. It’s a wonderful balance of old and new, past and future. And the line being sung “it’s gone…that’s alright” feels eerily prescient. See “The Right Thing” for another great example of this aging effect. “The Broken Places” is spacey, but in the best of ways: delicate and measured. “The Day” is a far more straightforward song, with a relatively simple verse-chorus-verse form. The result is something that lacks a bit of sophistication, but provides a rousing upbeat element.
Elsewhere, “The Violent Bear It Away” is a bit overlong (almost seven minutes) but packs a tremendous punch in its slow build. By the end, when the strings are swelling and beat marches on, there is a powerful urgency to its movement that remains completely self-contained. And “Victoria Lucas” offers a similar them, but this time building off of a low-key but rousing electro-dance beat.
Highlights: Rockets, The Day, The Violent Bear It Away, Victoria Lucas
12. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Okay, let’s dispose of the big issue first. I just do not like his voice. I don’t like the falsetto. I don’t like the trembles and the wavers. I realize that’s like, the whole selling point of Bon Iver, but it just does nothing for me. However, the introduction of a rock band in the background has turned Justin Vernon into someone I actively want to listen to.
The drums on ‘Perth’ roll in like thunder and the guitar chimes like a bell. The guitar line on ‘Holocene’ seems like a very-close knockoff of ‘Dear Prudence,’ which is very high praise from me. And while that song treads a bit lightly on my problem with Vernon’s voice, the little drum fills keep it from getting too extreme. ‘Calgary’ just grows and grows, like the first shoots of the spring coming out into the sun. And ‘Beth/Rest’ sounds like an 80s synth-ballad, in the very best way.
Highlights: Perth, Calgary, Holocene
11. M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
I really don’t get the adulation this album has received from some quarters (Pitchfork, looking at you), while simultaneously thinking that it’s a very nice little record. There are plenty of good bits, interspersed with a lot of okay bits. But there isn’t anything that really grabs me. It seems to lack just a little bit of the atmospheric lightning that characterizes the best previous M83 tracks.
Most of these tracks run together in my mind. I certainly couldn’t hum a single melody and remember it accompanying a particular song (except for the frog one). Which isn’t necessarily a problem. An undifferentiated mass of quickly shifting synth lines makes this a very pleasant listen.
I went through and listened intently to the whole thing, in an effort to identify a few tracks to single out as my favorites. Here’s a few: the Zola Jesus-featured ‘Intro’ has a nice buildup and movement. ‘This Bright Flash’ has that crackling lightning thing I was saying that is missing in general. Same with ‘Echoes of Mine.’ ‘Year One, One UFO’ is wonderfully childlike. And the last half of ‘Outro’ is just glorious and loud and shiny and pure.
10. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
The simplest and most straightforward Decemberists album yet (even more than Castaways and Cutouts), which is a very nice change. They were rapidly turning into a caricature of themselves, and it’s nice to see them acknowledge that girl that brought ‘em. The misty beauty of ‘January Hymn’ is right up there with their best work. And there a few very nice rousing pieces of indie-folk – ‘Don’t Carry It All’ and ‘Calamity Song’ have tons of energy, and I particularly love the jangly guitar in the latter. Elsewhere, the slide guitar in ‘Rise to Me’ recalls the wonder and quiet solitude of their early songs.
It’s the sort of album that tends to be listened to as a single entity. Not because of some mystical gestalt quality, but just because none of the individual songs (‘January Hymn’ being the one exception) really jump out at you. Basically, it’s not an album that will blow you away, but there’s something to be said for gentle comfort.
Highlights: January Hymn, Calamity Song, Don’t Carry It All, Rise to Me
9. Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
In my mind, this is a worse record than The Stand Ins, which was worse than The Stage Names, which was worse than Black Sheep Boy. And while your mileage may vary, I think you go back even further to Down the River of Golden Dreams to find their high-water mark. The thing is: it’s a testament to just how ridiculously good this band is that they can decline significantly and still put out one of the best records of the year.
They’ve always had a little bit of Springsteen in their sound, but on “Rider” it’s in full force. It’s vibrant and energetic, with the sort of spitfire delivery that Sheff is so good at. It’s right up there with their very best songs. The following track “Lay of the Last Survivor” is also stupendous. More low-key in tone, extremely pretty. It’s a paean to inevitable ends, the mortality of all things beautiful. We fight against it but deep down we know that there is no victory, only delays.
Some other songs have a lot to recommend. “The Valley” is a bit too ostentatious, but is a tremendous rocking start. “Hanging from a Hit” is tender and jagged. “We Need a Myth” is slightly rote but more than makes up for it with pure energy.
Flawed album? Sure. Minor disappointment? Yes, again. But it’s still really good.
Highlights: Rider, Hanging from a Hit, Lay of the Last Survivor, We Need a Myth
8. The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
Electro-folk, roots rock with Dylan or Petty-esque nasal twinge, a series of songs that turn putting-one-foot-down-after-the-other into a sort of apocalyptic elegy. Psychedelia mixed with synths mixed with saxophones mixed with whiskey.
In some ways it’s problematic that they open with the two best songs on the record. In normal cases that’s the sign of an album draped awkwardly on a couple hits. Here, though, that’s not at all the case. What you get on the first two tracks is a compact narrative full of urgency and passion. Then, the next 10 songs retrace those same steps, but do so more slowly and languidly. You get an opportunity to dwell on themes that burst past you the first time around. It gives Slave Ambient an almost orchestral feel. You can’t help but wish there was a bit more resolution, but the more you listen the more you come to understand that the endless movement is itself sufficient.
7. Miracle Fortress – Was I the Wave?
The first Miracle Fortress record was a revelation, a masterpiece of swirling organic energy and achingly beautiful melodies. It’s one of very few records that I enjoy more every single time I hear it. The second effort, the recently released Was I the Wave? is clearly derived from the same basic outline. But this time, the themes are far more electronic. If the first was the condensation of all things lovely in the music of the late 60s, this one draws far more heavily from the 80s.
There is something profound lost in the translation. Gone is the sense gentle intimacy; this is a far more impersonal sound. However, there are advantages as well. The lushness is replaced with a silvery metallic tone, one which blends in wonderfully uncanny ways with his voice. Was I the Wave? is a very good record, but one that feels just a bit too one-note. Van Pelt is a master of building soundscapes, but you can’t help but wish he’d given himself a little more variety to play with.
When you really get down to it, there are maybe a dozen absolutely wonderful moments on this record. If you can devote yourself to listening to it as a whole, they gain a lot of power from their placement within the scheme of the whole record. However, if you aren’t in the mood, or if you are trying to digest it in doses the overall structure gets dislodged and you can’t help but think that these songs drag a bit.
Some examples of the perfect moments: the percussion on “Raw Spectacle” after it gets going; the final moments of “Awe” after the throbbing synths dissipate; about 3 minutes into “Miscalculations” when the wave crests; the vocal performance on “Spectre” which accentuates and develops the melody of the song into something stunning.
Highlights: Spectre, Miscalculations, Raw Spectacle, Immanent Domain
6. The Submarines – Love Notes/Letter Bombs
When faced with the slogan ‘change vs. more of the same’ The Submarines are clearly a ‘more of the same’ sort of band. And that’s just fine!
They’ve got a style and a key, and they stick to it. And you know what, in many ways, I really respect that. I think bands are far too often committed to switching things for no reason other than a desire to prove that they’ve got something deeper going on. I don’t think there’s any shame in playing to your strengths, which in this case means dealing out ten more delicious slices of indie pop. To the extent that there are changes, they mostly involve tapping into the New New Wave movement. But really, with a few exceptions, adding some synths doesn’t change the essentially acoustic charm.
“A Satellite, Stars and an Ocean Behind You” is right up there with their best tracks, as pretty as anything they’ve done, and with the same sort of energy that made “You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie” such a blast. The final track “Anymore” takes some time to find its feet, but about a minute and a half in it all starts to click. Then, when they reprise the tone of the opening minute it all makes so much more sense – like a magic eye clicking into place. And “Fire” is probably the most straightforward pop they’ve produced so far, but with the delicate touch you’d expect from them.
It’s quite possible that these two will never produce an album to match Declare a New State, but if they can churn out a fun record like this every couple years I won’t be doing any lamenting.
5. Radical Face – The Family Tree: The Roots
An album that has grown with me quite a bit. My initial review was a bit hesitant, but repeated listens have mostly quelled those doubts. It’s an album of highs and lows, with a few out-of-this-world good songs, mixed with a bunch that mostly just tread water. But the highs are so good that you can forgive the somewhat clipped wings.
Listen to the bit around 2:10 on ‘A Pound of Flesh’ – the wordless chorus that rises like a jet taking flight. It’s a glorious moment of awakening and joy.
And then there is the exquisite ‘Always Gold,’ a song almost too beautiful for words. It contains a complete narrative, with a slow buildup leading into an opening verse that I already described in my songs post as the best musical moment of the year. The plaintiveness of his voice is pitch-perfect here, communicating a sort of triumphant resignation.
Finally, the tightly wound, almost fierce, passion of ‘Ghost Towns.’ If my central concern is that the album feels contrived, manufactured by a self-aware author, this is the one song that completely breaks the mold. The impulse for restraint gives way and he simply lets thing be precisely what they demand. It’s just a wonderful piece of writing and comes to life in a way very few songs can.
4. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Here We Rest
Full of energy and passion and pierced through with the sort of raw emotion that defines the very best of country, rock, and everything in between.
The general theme of the album is loss. Each song offers a vignette on the subject. Sometimes the loss is positive, and often it is complicated. The loss of childhood, giving up on a broken dream, the abandonment of fear. There’s “Tour of Duty” which tells the story of a soldier returning home, and the awkwardness of coming back into the normal world of everyday life. “We’ve Met” is about meeting a long-forgotten love, and the self-reflection it demands. “Stopping By” gives us a peek into the heart of a long-absent father trying to make amends. He doesn’t ask us to fully sympathize with the father, simply wants us to see the pain of someone who knows they’ve done wrong. And “Codeine” is a tour de force, an ambling country-tinged ballad about getting dumped because someone else can get access to better drugs.
Isbell says very little that we haven’t already heard. Which isn’t the worst thing. There’s something to be said for doing something well and not worrying about trying to guss it up. In particular, Isbell’s voice is pretty limited. And the album’s best songs are the ones which work with that fact, rather than trying to step beyond his range. His weary chorus in “Alabama Pines” (‘somebody take me home, through these Alabama pines’) is glorious in its evocation of a disenchanted southern spirit. The limitation in his voice betrays a larger limitation in worldviews and possibility. And it’s perfectly counterpointed by some achingly sad guitar work. It’s my favorite song of the year and a fitting cornerstone for a great, great record.
3. I Break Horses – Hearts
I’ve had this one for less than a week, so there’s every chance I’m actually ranking it too low. It’s just a wonderful piece of shoegazy-bliss. This is everything that the M83 record was supposed to be and much much more. Electronic textures, dreamy vocals, and absolutely perfect melodies.
‘Horses’ spatters and stutters with the texture of white noise – providing the perfect background for the slow movements of her silky smooth voice. ‘I Kill Your Love, Baby!’ sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of a deep, secret well. It sound distant, untouched, pure. ‘Load Your Eyes’ is probably the most straightforward song, but even here there’s a high premium on exploring what can be done with sound.
The real treat of the record, though, is the final two tracks. ‘Empty Bottles’ actually provides a bit of a rhythm track. If most of the record is about the slow unfolding of experience, this track is a reminder that sometimes you must bring the world to you and not the other way around. It’s counterpoint, though, is the final track ‘No Way Outro’ which suggests an entirely different concept of experience. To listen to this song is to recognize experience not as a series of independent events but instead as the sum total of a universe far beyond our individual comprehension. There is something cosmic, almost spiritual to it.
2. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
Belong is one of the very best records this year – in addition to being one of the best records of the 90s, fifteen years too late.
The opening title track announces their presence with a bang. Within the first few seconds the guitars take off and spectral images of the old video for “Today” (you know, the one with the ice cream truck) start to form in your mind. Then, you get the soft half of the soft/loud dynamic, which has the sort of bouncy melodies you’d expect from the band. All of which only makes the return of the guitars with the chorus all the more forceful.
However, even with the new gauzy textures, the heart of the band remains in great indie pop music. The twee spirit remains strong in a series of songs about feelings and love and the like (‘Anne With an E’ is a reference to Anne of Green Gables, for example). It is not a record for analyzing the lyrics book in search of some deep meaning. Divorced from the context of the performance, it’s all pretty trite. But, in a way, that’s precisely what makes the record so good. The sheer naïveté, the excitement and energy, the willingness to sound foolish. You have to give yourself up to it, accept the internal logic, and you’ll find the deeper truth: the incredible thing about love is the way it can make the banal feel like magic.
Easily one of the best records of 2011, and almost certainly the most joyful.
1. Beirut – The Rip Tide
There has never been any doubt about Zach Congdon’s immense talents. But somehow the previous Beirut albums never struck me. Folk music with horns, what’s not to like? But the songs seemed too posed, too expectant, too rigid in the memories they evoked. This time, the perfect note is struck over and over. From the very first moments it is clear that something special is taking place.
In the previous cases, it seemed to me that song itself was the object of devotion. Intense work went into its manufacture, and their energies were devoted to careful cultivation of the landscape. On The Rip Tide, all that energy is now devoted outward to the world itself. The songs are still delicately made, but it appears almost completely effortless. There is no hint of pretense or artifice; instead you get the simple joy of a spirit unleashed and free. The subject is solitude, of camaraderie, of loss, and the things we eventually find to replace the irreplaceable. It is the remembrances of past loves.
Each song is perfectly balanced, from the quiet and reflective ‘Goshen’ to the enthusiastic gait of ‘Vagabond’ to the silky smooth waves of ‘The Rip Tide.’ However, ‘A Candle’s Fire’ is the tour de force. It is the sound of the rising sun burning the horizon red and gold. The horns are warm, full of vitality and care. And they receive a perfect counterpoint in Congdon’s voice, which is rich and smoky.
At just 33 minutes, this record comes and goes before you know it. The only recourse is to return to the beginning and let it play again, and again.
Asobi Seksu – Fluorescence. A perfectly nice record from a band who ought to be trying to fry your brains in shoegazy noise.
Mates of State – Mountaintops. A perfectly nice record from a band who ought to be a bit less bland!
Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die. Pretty indistinguishable from the last couple Mogwai records, which isn’t a bad thing.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! – Hysterical. When it’s good, it’s pure indie rock bliss circa 2005. When it’s mediocre, it’s mediocre indie rock circa 2005.
Tica Douglas – I Love Mahself, Yup Yup. Clever, tuneful singer-songwriter fare. From a friend of mine, who is working on a new record.
Delay Trees – Delay Trees. A combination of many things great and Scandinavian: gentle acoustic pop, big waves of guitars, nice melodies.
Bombadil – All That the Rain Promises. Their previous record was one of the best of the last decade, so this was never going to quite live up for me. It’s still charming, like everything from them, but just lacks the oomph I was hoping for.