Looking Back at 2011
Punk rock, alt-country, r&b, folkestral– 2011 wasn’t short on variety.
As a disc jockey, blogger, tastemaker – however you’d define what I do – it’s always an enjoyable challenge deciding what to write about or play on the radio. In regards to the Late Late Rock Show specifically, deciding how to program two hours of music a week can be a difficult task. For one, I’m limited on time. The freedom to play what I want is thrilling – don’t get me wrong – but I always make an effort to honor requests in a way that equates the amount of new music I’m bringing to the table each week. So when you have a box of new records and two hours to (try to) make the best damn mix-tape you can, objectivity sort of takes over.
I’m a person who has a slight (read: major) deficit in attention and a passion for music, so being objective about what you love can sometimes be a bit problematic. This year was, errr, no exception. We heard new releases from indie elders like Wilco and the Decemberists, blips and hiccups (ahem, dream-pop/chillwave) all across the rock-and-roll-niche-genre-spectrum, and a ninth inning grand slam from The Black Keys. So instead of listing 25 albums that I think I should write about, I’m going to throw impartiality to the wind and give you my ultimate playlist – my favorite records of 2011.
In descending order, sort of…
Endless Now (Sub Pop)
Hook-filled English punk rock that harkens back to ‘90s alternative, Endless Now is Male Bonding’s second full-length release.
Strange Negotiations (Barsuk)
Less religion and more rock, this is Bazan’s second and better album since dismantling Pedro the Lion.
Dum Dum Girls
Only in Dreams (Sub Pop)
It’s interesting to note that Richard Gottehrer, who is most notably known for penning “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy” in the ‘60s, produced Only in Dreams. It reminds me of a fuzzed-out, snottier nod to the former with the pop sensibilities of both.
The Whole Love (dBpm)
Wilco left Nonesuch Records, formed their own label and released The Whole Love, their most ambitious album since A Ghost is Born.
Real Estate sound undeniably like The Byrds (“Turn! Turn! Turn!”), sometimes like the Lemonheads and incessantly enveloped in a dreamy haze symptomatic of the current indie aesthetic – the latter being my only real criticism of Days. It’s a standout record this year but could be forgotten.
David Comes to Life (Matador)
It’s easy to dismiss Fucked Up upon first listen - especially for the faint-hearted. Damian Abraham’s gnarly bark has the persistence of a bulldozer and the guitar-bass-drums, punk-influenced rock is easy to get lost in. But there is an intricate consideration for melody faintly veiled behind the sonic assault that is David Comes to Life. Oh, and it’s an 18-song rock opera.
Smoke Ring for My Halo (Matador)
Kurt Vile often has the listlessness (and looks) of a young J Mascis but can deliver with a sneer not unlike Iggy Pop (“Puppet to the Man”). Smoke Ring for My Halo has an airy vibe that beckons repeat listens but, unfortunately, makes for a lackadaisical live show.
Dye it Blonde (Fat Possum)
The Smith Westerns are youthful Brit-Pop by way of Chicago with the coolness and eccentricity of David Bowie or, better yet, Marc Bolan. But think of a less “Get it On” style thump and a more “Metal Guru” easiness from T Rex. And I’m sure these guys have a few Stone Roses records at home too.
We’ve seen it on film – the character jumps into a pool, the camera follows and suddenly, below the surface, there exists a cerulean-slow, ambient environment. I’m unsure of the metaphorical intent in Civilian’s cannonball cover art but that tense fringe that lives between the jump and the plunge is my best guess. The record teeters on such a brink with quiet, ethereal folk and eruptions of a ‘90s-nostalgic roar. It’s even more impressive when you find out that Wye Oak is a two-piece.
The War on Drugs
Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)
The Bob Dylan influence is obvious and the parallels between the two rest on Adam Granduciel’s emphatic phrasing and the band’s jangly rhythms. But Slave Ambient’s sound, as a whole, is a bit more comparable to the spacious despondence heard throughout Tom Petty’s Echo (“Swingin”, “Room at the Top of the World”) – still, only a step away from another Dylan comparison. The hooks are sparse but the record is open, honest and plays like an album.
TV on the Radio
Nine Types of Light (Interscope)
Whether or not TV on the Radio deserve the level of grandiose critical praise they’ve received up to this point is debatable. With that being said, Nine Types of Light truly is their most accessible album to date and certainly my favorite. The way “Second Song” stumbles into its shuffling, falsetto-adorned chorus is funky enough to make even Eddie Hazel roll over. And though the comparison may make TVOTR purists a bit uneasy, I can’t deny the urge to resurrect my Blood Sugar Sex Magik tape when I hear a song like “Caffeinated Consciousness”.
Cymbals Eat Guitars
Lenses Alien (Barsuk)
When I heard their debut album, the initially self-released Why There Are Mountains, I couldn’t understand why a label had not picked up Cymbals Eat Guitars. As if being marked by that bit of validity would have made any difference- for better or for worse, I’m not sure – but to me, the record was perfect. This year, Seattle’s Barsuk Records released Lenses Alien – the catchier but disjointed follow-up. The major criticism here is that Lenses Alien doesn’t play like an album in the way that Mountains does. However, the songs do lend themselves better to radio-play while still maintaining the psychedelic complexities and ‘90s alt integrity that originally attracted me to the band.
Divine Providence (Partisan)
I’ve yet to see Deer Tick play live but according to singer-songwriter John McCauley, that’s the sound the band wanted to capture on their fourth album Divine Providence. I hadn’t read anything about the new record prior to hearing it but my initial thoughts were along the lines of how badass these songs would sound at a small dirty club (The Boathouse bitter sweetly comes to mind). Like an alt-country version of the Replacements, the music is loose and raucous with equal shots of honky-tonk and punk rock. They successfully deliver the loud and live feel, without pretensions, and can even be sentimental at times (“Chevy Express”, “Clownin’ Around”).
We Are Augustines
Rise Ye Sunken Ships (Oxcart)
In the album opener, “Chapel Song”, singer-songwriter Billy McCarthy relives the experience of reluctantly watching a lost love walk down the aisle and wed someone else – something I’ve experienced in my own life. So, from the start, Rise Ye Sunken Ships had my attention. It’s a record about working through heartbreak and misfortune and reaching resolve. And McCarthy has lived through the tragedy too – the suicidal loss of his brother and his mother to drug overdose – but he delivers the story with a profusely raw and unrelenting emotional fierceness that builds with choking frustration.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
I fell in love with this band the moment I heard them. When I found out that Belong was to be produced by Flood, I anticipated critical skepticism but eagerly embraced the addition of the renowned craftsman most notably known for his work with Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and The Killers. The Pains’ new record is arguably their best and, without a doubt, skirts the sophomore slump many bands succumb to. With better production than their debut and a slightly more progressive sound, they still maintain the ability to write a puissant pop song.
House of Balloons (XO)
Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, released the first of two full-length mixtapes in March of this year. While the latter-released Thursday was good, it will remain in the shadows of The Weeknd’s debut. House of Balloons rides on the juxtaposition of Tesfaye’s ethereal, soulful warble with dark and temperamental production. It’s an after-hours affair with overindulgence in sex and intoxication – one that summons guilt and binge listening.
Never Trust a Happy Song (Atlantic)
The most difficult thing about the sardonically titled Never Trust a Happy Song, especially for a radio programmer, is trying to choose what song to play first - there’s a memorable hook in almost every cut without an ilk of repetitiveness. Arguably the most fun record released this year, Never Trust a Happy Song seems careless and easy on the surface – and it is – but there’s also a profound level of depth in the band’s songwriting craft. Christian and Hannah’s friendly melodies compliment each other perfectly while the band paints vividly bright music that’s as lively as soda and Pop-Rocks.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute)
Double albums are something that I am always skeptical about. I tend to favor the “less-is-more” approach and often believe the two-record thing is gimmicky. So, naturally I met Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming with a bit of uncertainty. Luckily I was wrong with this one. I haven’t heard a one-two punch this good since Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
Out in the Light (tbd.)
Port O’Brien is no more. It’s a shame too, because the folk-quartet was beginning to attract a much-deserved attention. But, for those affected, front man Van Pierszalowski gives us his far-from-disappointing new project Waters. Out in the Light has grit and gut and a bit more immediacy than Pierszalowski’s previous records – it’s a Ryan Adams Rock and Roll kind of leap that shows us the depth of song writing that he’s capable of. Waters is the jean jacket-and-distortion-pedal American rock and roll that I love and Out in the Light is a timeless record.
Yuck (Fat Possum)
Nineties nostalgia really became apparent in decade-one of the 2000s with the increasing popularity of the Silversun Pickups, a band that shares its initials and sound with the Smashing Pumpkins. We also saw the reunions of Sunny Day Real Estate, the original Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement, to name a few. And it would only be a matter of time before the revival would trickle across the Atlantic and find London’s Yuck. Their self-titled debut has elements that gave bands like My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and the Pixies their signature sounds - walls of heavy distortion, slackly sung boy-girl melodies and the classic verse-chorus-verse song structure. Yuck succeed though in their ability to take these textures and assemble a sound that’s succinctly, ummm, Yucky.
Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
Bon Iver is yet another follow-up to a critically applauded debut release from a breakout artist. In the case of Wisconsin’s Justin Vernon, we not only hear a musician perfectly employing unexpected and unconventional aesthetics (are those bike bells?) to navigate an expansive musical landscape, but also an artist humbly defining himself. If the album’s predecessor, For Emma, Forever Ago, was about the retreat then perhaps this is the journey home.
I began hearing about Bison over the summer. A friend told me about the Chesapeake septet but the only thing he had to share was a few YouTube videos. Through the footage I was initially impressed by two things: the band’s ability to play very well together and the fact that they were writing such a uniquely styled form of folk music that I couldn’t muster a comparison. Of those two things, the former is achieved by many with enough diligence and time. However, the latter – their ability to compose – is a rare gift. Moreover, my inability to categorize the band is a tried indication that they’re on to something beautiful and brilliant.
I finally got to see Bison play at the Chrysler museum for the release of their album Quill. In person he’s unassuming – he’s a sweetheart – but on stage, singer-songwriter Ben Hardesty beams with responsible vehemence. He’s the perfect compliment to the other six. A combination of Appalachian folk and orchestral elements – a sound they deem “folkestral” - the band is strong but often reserved. In songs such as “Tired Hands”, tension builds through the verse as Hardesty’s modest delivery creeps along with the strings then erupts into an anthem that begs for audience participation. “Switzerland” further exemplifies the dynamics that Bison are capable of – from the swelling strings and acoustic jangle to the minor-key bridge embellished with the precise amount of percussion. Not a moment in any song is wasted nor overdone. They work well together in a way that’s organic and earnest yet full of pop awareness.
I’ve now seen them play several times, gotten to know the band and I listen to Quill on a regular basis. They are, without a doubt, a great band and will prove to be an integral part of folk and alternative music. But the thing I value most about Bison is their honesty, both in character and craft. Much can be said about their talent and originality but I feel that it’s their sincerity that will carry Bison to a mountainous height. Get Quill now.
The King is Dead (Capitol)
Truly the first album I really latched on to this year, The King is Dead was released in January. I gravitated more to this release than any others from the Decemberists and I think it’s because of their subtle shift in sound to a more rustic, folk style reminiscent of Neil Young. Peter Buck of R.E.M. played on three of the album’s tracks and his band’s influence is also evident. Straightforward and slightly more accessible, The King is Dead is the album I likely listened to the most this year.
The Black Keys
El Camino (Nonesuch)
Side by side, the Black Keys’ first record, The Big Come Up, and El Camino sound quite a bit different. Their debut is a bare-bones collection of originals peppered with a few covers. The production is sparse and the band’s creative approach adheres strictly to classic American blues-rock. Jumping from that to their current and seventh full-length may seem like a reasonably large leap. El Camino boasts superb production, ala Dangermouse, and the band sounds bigger. The Key’s new batch of songs attack more like a hard rock record – the blues are still here but with a bit more pomp and stomp. There’s very heavy glam influence too, reminiscent of T. Rex, that’s exceptionally apparent on songs like “Lonely Boy” and “Gold on the Ceiling”. For Keys purists this may be difficult to embrace, but when you listen to the records from the debut through El Camino, the evolution sounds natural.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther)
Elvis Costello, heavy metal, a gospel choir – on paper this influential pastiche may sound a bit chaotic, but on Girls’ second full-length, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, it works - it works very well. The album opens with a song that’s, at first, scarily similar to the Cranberries’ “Dreams” but quickly evolves into a punchy surf anthem that could have easily been an early ‘60s Beach Boys b-side. The Sabbathy “Die” would seem like an odd song to follow the upbeat “Alex” but it actually flows nicely. “Saying I Love You” is a respectful nod to Costello while “Magic” is almost like David Bowie doing his best Beatles impression. But my favorite track on the record, and an easy contender for song-of-the-year, is “Vomit”. The nearly seven minute long rock and roll opus swells and lulls with In Utero-like drums and distortion then finds itself amidst a full-on gospel choir refrain before it fades into the next song. There’s a lot happening on this record but the sounds coalesce into something that feels comfortingly familiar.