WE LIKE THINGS 2011: A ridiculously-late look at what was cool last year.
I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I’m not sure how the hell it happened, but one minute I’m sitting here watching the munchkins open presents at Christmas, and I blink, and what the fuck? It’s April? Wow. It’s like the start of 2012’s just zipped past.
Except that really, it hasn’t — it’s just that it’s been moving so fast it’s been damn-near impossible to keep up, and yet good old 2012’s dragged me right along with it. The problem is that instead of SCR occupying my time, I’ve been spending nights and weekends doing day-job work, frantically trying to stay on top of a massive project (two, actually, one of which is about five smaller projects in one) I got handed the first of the year. Then there’s the family, and like I’ve said fairly recently, yep, they win out when it comes down to it.
So that’s my pained, somewhat shamefaced explanation for why this year’s installment of the ever-popular (I think, anyway; never been good at tracking that sort of thing) top ten lists we’ve done on this site off-and-on for the past six(!) years now. Essentially, Real Life has been kicking my ass, y’all, and I’m only now coming up for air.
Now, having done that somewhat, I’m remembering all over again just how flat-out badass those 12 months called “2011” happened to be. We ran a freaking massive list a little while back of alllllll the local Houston-bred releases we ran across last year (which was originally going to be the lead-in to this here top-ten rundown thing), and believe it or not — and yes, I’ve heard from a few naysayers — quite a big chunk of that was damn, damn good.
And yep, some of ’em are represented in the lists below. So rather than blather on apologize any further, well, here you go
Okay, so maybe I’m being a little blame-y, here. The lateness of this isn’t all the fault of my big, bad, evil Day Job (which I do love, so, um, anybody at work who reads this, please don’t fire my ass), but instead is partly due to me and the weird way my brain works. There was a while there where I was literally freaking out about what I absolutely had to put on this list, and at the same time I was scrambling to figure out what in the hell I was missing — the OCD kicked in, and I found myself towards the end of December, trying to listen to everything released in 2011.
It very nearly melted my skull. There was just too much, and yep, I missed a lot of it — The Mountain Goats‘ All Eternals Deck and Mastodon‘s The Hunter, for two, not to mention the new Parts & Labor, the second Surfer Blood album, Warpaint‘s Exquisite Corpse, the new Crooked Fingers, & (possibly most gut-wrenching of all) Roots Manuva‘s 4everevolution. There’s only so much time in the day and so much headspace/earspace to fill, and not everything made it. And it was driving me nuts.
So I had to take a big step back and force myself to focus on what I did hear in 2011. No, it certainly wasn’t everything, not even everything I’d wanted to hear, but this is all of the stuff I listened to last year that I loved, that’s stuck with me, that I’ve kept going back to even after the new year rolled in.
Distilled down (and doing that was painful sometimes, seriously), here’s what I’ve ended up with from last year…
1) Finnegan, What Happened To Jacqueline?
When I first heard this album, after picking it up at Summerfest last year, my jaw just about hit the floor. I’d heard a couple of songs previously, including “B Team Squad Leader” — which, incidentally, is up there in my list of absolute-best songs from 2011, as well — and been impressed, but I wasn’t prepared for the non-stop pile of great, great songs, one after another, coming together as a whole to form one of the all-round best roots-pop albums I’ve ever heard.
Seriously, the band starts off with the aforementioned brilliant, marching-rhythm opener “B Team Squad Leader,” then drifts serenely through the quasi-cautionary tale of “Silverscreen & Cigarettes,” the reassuring, homey jangle of “Set2Song,” and the Uncle Tupelo-ish roar of “Topo Chico” before they run headlong into “Interpreting Clouds,” which rides a delicately tense guitar and rhythm off into the sun as frontman Taylor Lee and singer/guitarist Sara Van Buskirk trade off impassioned, rough-edged verses. When Van Buskirk howls out “It’s not that I can’t / It’s just that I won’t” in that husky, Melissa Etheridge-esque voice of hers, I just want to lay down and cry like a baby. There aren’t many albums out there that can reduce me to that, believe me.
2) Moonlight Towers, Day Is The New Night
Okay, so this was a close one, to be honest. I had a hard, hard time deciding which album should go first in this list, Finnegan’s or the damn-near equally awesome Day Is The New Night, by Austinites Moonlight Towers. Frankly, I didn’t have high expectations for this album, even though I’d heard and loved retro-rock anthem “Heat Lightning,” but the Towers guys stepped in and blew me away.
Listen to this and squint, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve accidentally skipped over to some classic-rock station you’d never heard of (possibly because it’s broadcast from Planet Badass, and reception always sucks), with the band’s warm, just-scratchy-enough guitars, occasional funky/bluesy riffs, shout-along vocals, and hazy, ’70s-ish vibe.
Think the Kings of Leon — especially vocal-wise, and with some of that same arena-sized massiveness — if they were alternating between covers of Springsteen and Tom Petty songs (with a few by Steve Earle thrown in, too, just for fun), and you’ll come close, although I’m liking these guys a heck of a lot more than I ever have KoL. They’re like the best bar band you’ll ever, ever hear, playing just ’round the corner from where you are but just barely within earshot, so you go, “Wait, who the hell is that?”
3) Adele, 21
No, I’m not immune to the Adele hype, I’ll admit it, especially since — to my ears, at least — it’s well, well, well-deserved. While I like 19 quite a bit, 21 is a whole other universe, trading the gentle melancholy and nostalgia for fire and confidence, with the result that “Rolling In The Deep” is just about the best damn Motown song never released by that label. It’s bitter and angry but unbroken, the sound of a woman who knows she’s been done wrong but is determined to keep on either way, and it’s freaking brilliant.
And now that I’m thinking about it, that pretty much sums up the album as a whole, from the backhanded slap of “Rumour Has It” through the sweeping grandeur of “Set Fire to the Rain” to the gospel-tinged “One and Only,” where Adele confidently declares, “Nobody’s perfect / Trust me, I’ve earned it.” The latter track is awesome, as well, for the way it effortlessly melds retro-soul with a more delicate, meditative, almost Peter Gabriel-esque break. For once, yeah, the Grammy insanity was right on the money.
4) Reptar, Oblangle Fizz, Y’all
Reptar‘s Oblangle Fizz, Y’all EP wins this year’s WTF? Award from me, that’s for sure. I’d only barely heard of the Georgia/North Carolina outfit before receiving their debut EP, and as soon as I put it on, I had to pick my face back up off the ground. The band is funky and strange, like some sort of oddball, Martian-bred version of The Police, with a rubbery, watery bass that’s close to nothing else I’ve heard but maybe Bootsy Collins, mad-scientist keys and production, and serious hints of “world music” thrown in for, well, no reason other than the band wanted to do it.
It’s only an EP, granted, but holy freaking wow does it feel like the band crams an album’s worth of sound into that smaller handful of songs. Listen to “RainBounce” to see what I mean — one second you’re listening to this reggaeified funk stomp, just chilling out and grinning and head-bobbing along, and the next you’re in a darkened club tripping on bad drugs while the beats skitter around you and some psycho howls in your face while you try to get the fuck out of there.
5) Folk Family Revival, Unfolding
It’s weird, but this year turned out to be very much a “country” year, at least for me. The one genre of music I’ve never liked, always had a kneejerk hatred of, and here I am, listening to — and being amazed by — stuff like Folk Family Revival‘s Unfolding, which could easily get dropped onto some country radio lineup without anybody batting an eye.
Okay, so maybe that’s stretching it, and a lot of Unfolding could more comfortably be called “roots-rock” than country, strictly speaking. But what the hell; that influence is still in there, and so I should hate this, right? And yet, on the contrary, I’m more blown away by how great it is, right from the start of the utterly epic title track, “Unfolding,” which is spiritual and defiant and beautiful and mysterious all at the same time, as frontman Mason Lankford tries to describe what it’s like (for him, at least) to find God, basically; it’s not just one of my favorite songs of the year, it’s one of my favorite songs of, well, ever.
6) MonstrO, MonstrO
The thing I think I like best about the self-titled debut from MonstrO is the album’s total no-rules aesthetic when it comes to genres and sounds in general. So what if you’re a “heavy” band? Why should that mean you can’t get all beautiful and delicate (and not in an “Obligatory Acoustic Guitar Instrumental” kind of way)? Or let the guitar lines spiral off into the ether while you howl about, say, a fictional boxer from a movie you loved when you were a kid? Or throw these jagged, off-timed, start-stop chunks of metallic guitar into a song about the genocide your mother fled?
The answer is that genres are basically pretty stupid, and anybody who gets hung up on what a metal band “should” sound like needs to get a life. MonstrO (the band and the album, both) is this awesome amalgam of a whole slew of sounds, from straight-up metal bombast to math-rock sharpness to sludgy stoner-rock to gorgeously melodic prog-rock to, um, amped-up sea shanteys with electric guitars. (And no, I’m not making that last one up, not at all.) The band follows a path similar to that of equally un-box-able bands Priestess and Red Fang, where the whole “heavy guitars” thing just serves as a stepping-off point to whatever the hell you want to do. Which is as it should be, in my book.
7) Something Fierce, Don’t Be So Cruel
I’ve been a fan of H-town punks Something Fierce for a long, long time now, it seems like — only it hasn’t been that long, not really, it’s just that they’re ridiculously prolific, blazing through a brand-new album every year or so. And over the years and albums, I’d listened and watched as they’ve tightened their sound down ’til it’s practically a science, a perfectly-concocted mixture of raw punk chords, eminently yell-along-able vocals, and righteous, not-gonna-take-it-anymore fire. That’s just what they did, y’know?
Then along comes Don’t Be So Cruel to blow it all out of the water, and yet, I couldn’t be happier. The latest release sees the trio shifting the more overtly pop-punk stuff sideways, instead dusting off their copies of London Calling and Sandinista! and Snap! to rediscover what they loved about both The Clash and The Jam. The result is a set of songs that are smarter and more poignant, more focused than anything the band’s done up to this point; they may move a little more slowly, sure, but by the end you’re left with a hell of a lot more than a goofy grin and a ringing sound in your ears.
8) Quiet Company, We Are All Where We Belong
Very much a latecomer to this list, but one that lunged upwards surprisingly quickly, I’d actually shrugged off Quiet Company‘s We Are All Where We Belong when it first came across my desk. I’d heard some of the band’s earlier stuff and liked it okay but didn’t really think a whole lot about it, honestly; Belong was surely pretty much more of the same.
Well, yes and no. Yes, it is somewhat the same in that the band’s burning through shiny-edged, beautifully-crafted indie-pop/rock like it always has, but in the bigger picture, no, this definitely isn’t just more of the same of anything. What it is, rather, is one man (Quiet Company singer/songwriter/guitarist Taylor Muse, to be specific) explaining how he became disillusioned with and left his prior faith (Christianity) behind, and how he’s learning to deal with a world without a supreme being running the show.
Which is to say, he’s finding the world can be an alternately terrifying and uplifting place when you’re suddenly looking down the barrel of life and realizing you’re really, truly on your own. Oh, and then he set it all to music, a pitch-perfect Jon Brion-like host of intricately-arranged and insanely catchy pop tunes that bring to mind Aimee Mann, Jellyfish, Nick Lowe, and Matthew Sweet. What the hell did you come up with last year?
9) M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
At first blush, I was a bit disappointed. The little teaser bits I’d heard off M83‘s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming made it sound like Anthony Gonzalez was headed back towards the more “pure” electronic-ambient/shoegaze stuff like what they’d done on Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, and I was pretty psyched. When I finally got a real listen, though, I was thrown off by more overtly ’80s-ish tracks like “Reunion,” “OK Pal,” or “Klaus I Love You” — my heart sank as I started to wonder if Gonzalez had followed through on the arc of Saturdays = Youth, at last making that throwback ’80s electro-pop album he’s always seemed like he wanted to make.
And yeah, there is a fair bit of that on Hurry Up, but once you push past it — or, against all odds, grow to actually like it — there’s still plenty of that awesomely swooping, soaring, Tangerine Dream-esque stuff I love, like “Echoes of Mine,” and the gorgeously sunny, childlike playfulness of “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire,” or the sci-fi-tinged metropolitan electro of “Midnight City.” Plus, Gonzalez steps even further afield than he has on albums past, with hints of Sigur Ros (especially on “My Tears Are Becoming A Sea”) and even Fleet Foxes. Is this Dead Seas, Pt. II? Nope; it’s a whole new, fascinating animal entirely.
10) Roky Moon & BOLT!, American Honey
Damn, damn, damn. This one feels bittersweet as hell to me, now that the word’s out that Roky Moon & BOLT! (Mk. 1, at least) is officially going to be no more very soon now; after hearing American Honey, the band’s done-in-a-day second(?) album, I’d sincerely thought, “well, yeah — that’s exactly what it needed to sound like.” I figured the band would only head onwards and upwards from here, and yet, it’s apparently not to be.
If this is all we’re left with, though, hell, it’s enough. I never knew I wanted to hear some crazy, Frankenstein’s Monster-ish crossbreed of glam rock, roaring, booze-fueled punk, and Rocky Horror-esque theatrics ’til I first heard Moon and his crew, and yet now it seems perfectly logical: “Of course it’d sound awesome to hear a song that sounds like it should be written by Richard O’Brien and sung by Meat Loaf, only David Bowie’s playing all the guitars, the New York Dolls are his backing band (with a couple of members of Cheap Trick thrown onstage for good measure), and they’re all opening for Elvis as he returns to Earth for one final show. How could it not?”
11) Emmure, Speaker of the Dead
Okay, so this one surprised me, too. What can I say? Sometimes you just need to be able to bang your head and destroy things. Here’s your soundtrack, complete with guitars that sound like fucking machinery themselves, threatening, streetwise lyrics alternately yelled/rapped and roared into your skull (think nü-metal if nü-metal didn’t suck), and drums that honestly must’ve been laid down by some sort of cybernetic dinosaur/robot thing. Put on “Solar Flare Homicide” while on the drive home from work and get all the aggression and frustration out.
12) Glasvegas, Euphoric Heartbreak
It took me a long, long while to get into this one, mostly because it starts off so slow and quiet and atmospheric that I’d get partway through opener “Pain Pain Never Again,” get bored, and pop it back out of the CD player. Once I really gave it a chance, however, I was nearly as blown away as I was by the Scottish band’s self-titled debut. The album’s grown on me in a major, major way, to the point where I get past that first track and never look back.
It’s noisier and more raw than Glasvegas‘ previous stuff, more post-rock squall than updated soul, and there’s a much heavier electronic component (possibly due to the influence of producer Flood) — see the bloops and bleeps of “Shine Like Stars,” in particular — but James Allan‘s still laying his heart brutally bare, and it all works awesomely well, especially on tracks like the aforementioned one, “You,” and “Stronger Than Dirt (Homosexuality Pt. 2),” all of which make me want to shake a fist at the sky and howl along.
13) We Were Promised Jetpacks, In the Pit of the Stomach
This one’s a bit of a late arrival, considering I didn’t get to check out the album ’til right at the end of 2011. And it’s different, to be sure, from (other) Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks‘ previous album, 2009’s stunning These Four Walls; where that first album was a staggering, shattering mess of post-punk guitars, sideways funk, and desperate, madcap, sometimes strained vocals, In the Pit of the Stomach feels more serious, somehow, more confident and thoughtful. If Walls was a drunken, jilted ex howling out their love and pain down a phone line late at night, Stomach is that same ex six months later on: calm, focused, tense yet controlled, but with that bitterness still simmering beneath the surface. It’s definitely a different animal, but still a damn good one.
Making that distinction even deeper, too, is WWPJ’s transmutation into a full-on rock band with this release. The wiry, spiky Gang of Four-isms are still there, yeah, but they’re buried deeper, beneath a layer of Foo Fighters-heavy, arena-sized guitars and thundering, epic-sounding drums. There was some of that on Walls, as well, but here it’s like the chorus to “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning” expanded out to full song size and made massive. And it takes a while to get used to, but yeah, it definitely works, too.
- Scale The Summit, The Collective
- football, etc., The Draft
- Jealous Creatures, Little Heaven Big Sky
- Robert Ellis, Photographs
- Face to Face, Laugh Now…Laugh Later
- Andrew Jackson Jihad, Knife Man
- Ume, Phantoms
- The Tontons, Golden EP
- Two Star Symphony, Titus Andronicus
- Priory, Priory
- Sideshow Tramps, Revelator
- Cain Marko, At Sea
- The Literary Greats, Black Blizzard
- Art Institute, Second Audio Demon
- The Mathletes, Excalibur
- Reigns, The Widow Blades
- The Manichean, Sakura
- Harts of Oak, Birds & Bees
- The Sour Notes, Last Looks
- Seahaven, Winter Forever
- Cymbals Eat Guitars, Lenses Alien
- The Twilight Singers, Dynamite Steps
- Okkervil River, I Am Very Far
- The Energy, Get Split
- Red Fang, Murder the Mountains
- The Julys, The Julys EP
- Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
- Rivers, Mind Your Mind
- Art Brut, Brilliant Tragic
- The Smoking Popes, This Is Only a Test
- Square and Compass, Square and Compass EP
SONGS THAT BLEW ME AWAY THIS YEAR:
- Folk Family Revival, “Unfolding”
- Finnegan, “B-Team Squad Leader”
- Moonlight Towers, “Heat Lightning”
- Reptar, “Stuck In My ID”
- fun., “We Are Young”
- Skrillex, “First Of The Year”
- Roky Moon & BOLT!, “When the World Was Changed”
- Emmure, “Solar Flare Homicide”
- Monstro, “Anchors Up!”
- Jealous Creatures, “Just A Memory”
- M83, “Midnight City”
- hasHBrown, “The Death Penalty”
- Face to Face, “I Don’t Mind and You Don’t Matter”
- football, etc., “Safety”
- The Rebecca West, “Lost And Found”
- Scale The Summit, “Whales”
- Mausi, “sol.”
- Quiet Company, “Preaching to the Choir Invisible, Part I”
- Morning Claws, “Slack Magic”
- The Twilight Singers, “She Was Stolen”
- The Smoking Popes, “College”
- The Tontons, “Golden”
- Ume, “Captive”
- Rivers, “Spirit Child”
- Andrew Jackson Jihad, “Hate, Rain On Me”
- Tyagaraja, “The Meaning of Life”
- Latch Key Kids, “Back in the Day”
- Cake, “Easy To Crash”
- A Sundae Drive, “Alone Bad, Friends Good”
- The Julys, “Declan”
- Sideshow Tramps, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean/In My Time of Dying”
- Girl Talk, All Day
- The Bright Light Social Hour, The Bright Light Social Hour
- Pepper Rabbit, Beauregard
- Phosphorescent, Here’s to Taking It Easy
- Sun Airway, Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier
- Sun Hotel, Coast
1. Austra, Feel It Break
2011 was a huge year for Canadian synth-pop band Austra, led by songstress Katie Stelmanis. The band released its debut album Feel It Break, a remix album Sparkle, toured the globe constantly, and was shortlisted for the coveted Polaris Music Award, which celebrates creativity in Canadian music.
Feel It Break is an amazing collection of dark, club-friendly dance tracks set to Stelmanis’ beautiful, classically-trained vocals. I listened to the album constantly throughout 2011 and still can’t seem to get enough. I interviewed singer Stelmanis for Salt Lake City Weekly, and she described Austra’s music perfectly when she said she wanted to create music that you could listen to in your headphones but could also dance to in a club. The album’s lyrics are personal and intriguing, but the beats make it an incredibly club-friendly record at the same time. The combination of those two factors is stunning. I saw Austra perform twice in 2011, once opening for Cold Cave and once headling, and Stelmanis’ vocals are as incredible live as they are on the recorded album. To say I’m obsessed with this band is probably an understatement. Austra finished the year with the release of a deluxe version of Feel It Break, which includes the album’s 11 tracks plus several previously unreleased B-side tracks and two cover songs. I can’t wait to see what 2012 has in store for the band.
2. The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart
I love every single song on Seattle folksters The Head and the Heart‘s debut album. From start to finish, the choruses, the story-like, extremely relatable lyrics, the hooks and the male/female harmonies are perfect. The Sub Pop band’s debut album got a lot of buzz this year, and since I had heard so much about the band I thought they were worth checking out. I saw The Head and the Heart play in Salt Lake City, and they put on an amazing live show. Before the first song was over, I was hooked. I bought their album and haven’t stopped playing it since. The band also recorded a live iTunes session in 2011 that features several tracks off the album as well as a couple new ones. I would name off some of my favorite tracks off the band’s debut album, but I think it would be easier just to name the album as a whole. Every track is worthy of attention and an amazing experience definitely worth your time.
3. Cold Cave, Cherish the Light Years
Cold Cave‘s follow-up album starts off louder and faster than any record I have ever heard. The second the needle hits the record the pounding synths blare through the speakers at such intensity it may catch you off guard. The entire album continues in similar fashion with one dark, dance track after the other set to singer Wes Eisold‘s dark, poetic lyrics. I don’t really understand most of the things he sings about, but it sure is fun to sing along too.
I feel like I talked about this album non-stop throughout the year, recommending it to any music lover I knew. I saw Cold Cave twice in 2011 and those shows were some of the best and most fun shows I’ve seen. I was talking with an employee at a local Salt Lake City record shop, and he said he had played it once in the store but it was so loud and heavy that he felt like it kind of freaked some of the customers out. While it’s definitely not for everyone, Cherish the Light Years is great for blasting in your headphones or blaring at a dance party.
4. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
I actually had never listened to a single PJ Harvey album before Let England Shake. I know I’m late in the game and have a lot of catching up to do, especially after hearing this incredible album. Harvey’s lyrics about England’s history, sung in her simultaneously beautiful yet haunting voice, took a few listens for me to get into, but once it grew on me, I couldn’t get it out of my head. While England’s history isn’t really my forte, her intensity and passion comes across so clearly and powerfully its no wonder the album won her England’s Mercury Prize for the second time (the only artist in history to win it twice). “Bitter Branches” and “Written on the Forehead” are my favorite tracks.
5. Feist, Metals
Metals is one of the prettiest albums I have ever heard, and a great testimony that singer-songwriter Feist still has what it takes, releasing the album nearly four years after her critically acclaimed, award-winning debut album The Reminder. Metals sold about 38,000 copies in its first week and earned Feist her first top 10 chart in the U.S. The songs are beautifully written and delicately crafted, and the album comes across as somehow vulnerable yet strong at the same time. “The Bad in Each Other,” “Graveyard,” and “The Circle Married the Line” are my favorites, but like many of my other favorites from 2011, this is an album you’ll want to pick up in its entirety, not just as singles. From start to finish, Feist’s lyrics and beautiful voice will keep you hooked throughout its entire 50 minutes.
6. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
When I first heard “Midnight City” — the first single off M83‘s new album, which was released a month or so before the album dropped — I couldn’t wait to hear to hear the rest of the album. When I listened to the record for the fist time, I knew this was going to be something huge from the very first moments into it. “Intro,” featuring Zola Jesus is this awesome psychedelic pop song that gives an amazing preview of what’s to come on the rest of the album. I’ve been a fan of M83 since the release of Saturdays=Youth a few years ago, and while some of the songs off that album were quite amazing, I couldn’t really stand listening to the entire record at one time. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, however, is incredible and powerful from start to finish. In an interview I read with Anthony Gonzalez, he said he made this one a double record so that people could listen to one record one day and the other the next. When music critics speak of epic records (like last year’s Sufjan Stevens album or Joanna Newsom’s latest, also from last year) Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming — in my opinion — is 2011’s epic record.
7. Zola Jesus, Conatus
I’m definitely a little late on the Zola Jesus bandwagon, but better late than never. And I’m sure glad I hopped on this year. Conatus is Nika Roza Danilova‘s third full-length album and seventh studio release as Zola Jesus. I’d heard the name a lot, but when Austra (my number one pick this year) garnished a lot of comparisons with Zola Jesus, I figured I had better check her out. Zola Jesus, much like Austra, is a classically trained musician who sets her beautiful vocals against harsh, gothic synth beats. This album, however, saw Zola Jesus toning it down a little bit to create softer electronic tunes, but her voice is as clear and distinct as any of her releases. Conatus is also her most polished, clearest-sounding record to date.
8. Noah and the Whale, Last Night on Earth
This album was British folk rockers Noah and the Whale‘s third full-length album, and I must say that I’m extremely biased when it comes to this band. I love anything they’ve releases, and they’re one of my all-time favorite bands, so it’s no wonder I put them in my top 10 of the year. I’ve read so many lists and I’ve been really surprised that I haven’t seen this album on a single one. Last Night on Earth is typical NATW, full of poppy love tunes, insanely catchy hooks, danceable beats, and slower, more serious tracks. I’d say this is my favorite release from the band, but I love each of their previous two albums equally, so I’ll just say every album they have released thus far has been my favorite. I told you I’m biased.
9. Washed Out, Within and Without
Sub Pop’s Washed Out (the musical project of Ernest Greene) creates this hazy, chill-wave sort of psychedelic dream pop music that’s unique and extremely enjoyable. The collection of songs on Within and Without tend to mesh together to form one cohesive listening experience. I kind of look at the album as a whole single unit instead of as individual tracks. Most of them blend together and it would be hard for me to pick out individual tracks I like more than others. The one exception would be “Amor Fati,” the track I’ve listened to the most and the one you may recognize as the theme song to the bizarre TV show Portlandia.
10. Cults, Cults
“Abducted” was the first song I heard from Cults, who released their self-titled debut album this year. I love how the track (which also opens the album) starts out so quiet and soft and then explodes into this amazing, energetic experience. Singer Madeline Follin‘s voice is beautiful and mixes perfectly with the band’s vintage-meets-modern indie pop sound. From start to finish, Cults is an extremely fun and catchy album and was one of the best debuts in 2011. I can’t wait to see the duo (also consisting of Brian Oblivion) live.
The Top Ten Top Ten Lists in 2012 of 2011
Since we’re a little late rolling out our best of 2011 top-ten lists, what better way to commensurate a fantastic year last year than compiling a Top Ten Top Ten list:
10. In Houston, let alone Texas, in general, we love our cars. How the hell would we get anywhere in these city without transportation? It’s too big. So I open with “Houston’s Top 10 most stolen car list.” — http://blog.chron.com/newswatch/2011/10/houstons-top-10-most-stolen-cars-is-yours-on-the-list/
9. This next entry is for all the broke ass single people out there, struggling to find a date and wishing they were in a mansion in Malibu as opposed to driving a 2001 Corolla and living with their moms. So I bring you, “Top 10 Ugliest Celebrities.” Sometimes, the money and the fame isn’t everything. —
8. Seems Houston made Forbes‘ Top Ten List, but not for wealthiest city, or city with the most technological innovation. No, it seems we made Forbes’ Top Ten List for “The Most Miserable Sports Cities.” Hey, come on, we won a playoff, okay? And we wore that win as if we had won the Super Bowl itself. — http://www.forbes.com/2011/02/28/seattle-atlanta-phoenix-business-sports-miserable-sports-cities_slide.html
7. Forbes may put us down about our sports teams, but they can’t put us out, especially when we have our Houston Rockets and their Top Ten Plays of 2011. — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyOz3rjed2I
6. This list would be remiss if it didn’t include the Top Ten list for “The 10 Fattest States in America.” What’s so enduring is that for all our steaks, fast food, and bar-b-que, we didn’t make the list, which is especially surprising seeing how in 2009, Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Houston ranked in the top ten for fattest cities. Go figure. — http://www.businessinsider.com/fattest-states-in-america-2011-7#
5. I had to throw this one in here, mainly because I dated most of these women. It’s Men’s Health Magazine 101 Hottest Women of 2011. This is suppose to be a Top Ten about Top Tens, though, so you can easily turn this into a Top Ten list by skipping to number ten on the list. Thank you. — http://www.menshealth.com/sex-women/hottest-women-2011
4. Although this Top Ten list isn’t only confined to 2011, it’s always fun to keep abreast of the Top Ten Texas Fugitives, isn’t it? — http://www.txdps.state.tx.us/wanted/topTenFugitives.htm
3. Coming upon an election year, here’s an interesting retrospective: the “Top Ten Texas political winners and losers of 2011.” — http://blog.chron.com/txpotomac/2011/12/top-ten-texas-political-winners-and-losers-of-2011/
2. It would seem that we’ve been kicking death’s ass. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that since 2008 death rates have dropped over 17% and murder didn’t even make the top ten. Unless of course you count suicide as, like, self-murder. Here is the list for “The Top 10 Causes of Death in The United States.” — http://www.businessinsider.com/top-causes-of-death-united-states-2011-11#
1. And taking top prize is “The Houston Press‘s List of Ten Hottest Female Sex Offenders.” There’s no telling what the thought process was behind this top ten and why they chose to print it, but it makes our list because of the hailstorm of controversy and conversation it stirred up, setting up the national conversation for the Sandusky scandal and the MJ murder. Rather than link to the list itself, I’ve choose to link to an irate yet introspective blogger’s take on said Top Ten list. — http://hayladies.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/houston-press-lists-ten-hottest-female-sex-offenders/
Top Ten Houston Bands’ Use of Social Media
There are a billion bands out there, and they all use some mode of social media to try and let the world know they exist. Here’s our 2011 list of who did it best.
10. Beyoncé @beyonce — Beyoncé makes the list not for taking a hospital hostage or making her baby’s life hell by giving her what will be the most ridiculed name from kindergarten on up; rather she makes the list for the very fact that despite almost having 3 million Twitter followers, she has yet to post one tweet.
9. Paul Wall @paulwallbaby — If you want to keep up with Paul Wall‘s weight loss and latest tattoo, get on Twitter now. There is no time to waste. I can be sure that Paul runs his own Twitter, but he makes up for his bland Tweets with his up-to-date photo journal.
8. Tyagaraja @tyagaraja — Magical music man Tyagaraja is worthy of note only because I feel more transcendental reading his tweets.
7. Perseph One @PersephOneGuns — I’ve had a crush on this Houston MC ever since I met her on the filming for her video “Momentum.” Since then, she’s traveled the world, played festivals, and relates it all through her Twitter account. I just follow her to stalk her.
6. thelastplaceyoulook @lastplaceulook — thelastplaceyoulook is a little bit of an anomaly to me. They played Buzzfest this year. Got a few songs into rotation on 94.5 FM The Buzz, the only unsigned, unmanaged band to do so, and have been knocking shows out the park, most recently supporting AWOLNATION. But to hear them tell it, you’d think that they couldn’t catch a break. Maybe their outlook will change when singer Nava is able to quit one of his three jobs. Unfortunately, when it comes to most of Houston’s music scene, one cannot live on Rock alone. The tweet frequently and post lots of pictures. Thumbs up.
5. Kyle Hubbard @KyleHubbardHTX — local hip hop staple Kyle Hubbard is a Twitter standout in that where most artists will only promote themselves, Hubbard uses Twitter to vent his pet peeves, thoughts, and inspirations, which is a nice change from most bands that are only pushing something on you.
4. American Fangs @americanfangs — The Fangs are a little more active on Twitter and their own website at americanfangs.net than they are on Gacebook, but tuning into their Twitter account feels damn near like hanging out with them. They interact, update, and post a lot of pictures. If you don’t have any friends in real life, they’ll be your in virtual life. (BTW, did American Fangs ? How did that fly under my radar?)
3. Robert Ellis @robertellis_ — Houston bad boy Robert Ellis has hands-down the most personable Twitter out there. He posts pics, videos, asks for movie recommendations, all while trouncing around the country promoting his latest album Photographs. You’d hardly think he was about to embark on a world tour or play with the likes of Dawes and The Drive By Truckers.
2. Slim Thug @slimthugga — Slim Thug does most of his damage on Twitter and is just completely outrageous. From updating you on his jogs in Hermann Square Park to hitting up Twitter vixens for sexual favors, he is in parts hilarious, shocking, and perplexing, but always entertaining.
1. Otenki @otenki — If you don’t know who Otenki is, that must mean you don’t have a computer. These guys are relentless with their promotion, whether it’s an upcoming show, new music video, or new album. Whether you agree with their tactics or not, it’s gotten them to perform at the Billboard Music Awards last year and gotten their new music video for their single “Ghosts” over 6,000 views in a couple of weeks.
In all, kind of a weird year. My top two locked into place early on (into the top two, that is; they’ve been jockeying for pole position all year, and even this specific list is ultimately a last-minute hold-your-nose-and-pick), but the rest was more of a shrug. Yet here I am, finally dropping the needle on what has been glaringly inevitable for years now, which is a top ten built entirely of female artists. (Or top “ten,” anyway.)
I’m not even sure I can really be blamed, honestly. This particular moment in pop music is a girls’ moment. Yes, there’s Usher, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Kanye West and Justin Timberlake (who, let’s not forget, hasn’t put out an album in over half a decade, an eternity when it comes to the charts). But not one of them has the heat of Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Pink, Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj, or even tired old Britney Spears, who just keeps rotely clomping along as long as there are arenas left for us to fill in an act of enabling irony. If I’ve come up with a list spotlighting nothing but women’s artistic visions, it’s possible that I didn’t have a choice.
1) Eisley, The Valley (Equal Vision). When you’ve been in this game for as long as I have, you know that the release of a new album by your favorite band isn’t occasion for celebration, though celebrate you might. It is in fact the most nerve-wracking feeling in the world (small-stakes edition), because you just don’t know. Not helping is the fact that The Valley shares with its predecessor Combinations the agonizing feature of demanding multiple listens to fully blossom, deepening and solidifying on each successive revisitation.
As lovely as the lyrical space carved out by their default dream-logic imagery typically is, Eisley were wise to realize that it probably isn’t the most sustainable career path as adulthood beckoned. So they did what many have done before them and got their hearts good and broken. “My love for you has died tonight,” sings Chauntelle Dupree on the deceptively downcast “Watch It Die,” and though “I Wish” is light and airy pop on its surface, Garron Dupree‘s bass churns away nervously. Closer “Ambulance,” meanwhile, simply hurts in the best possible way. The Valley is expansive but still tethered, giving the band a new axis to explore even as they remain true to what they’ve always been. And so every new Eisley album unnerves me a little bit more, because every new Eisley album is somehow the best Eisley album.
2) Adele, 21 (XL/Columbia). They’re not supposed to be making them like this anymore. Oh, I don’t mean her voice, though sure, if you want to take that sort of defeatist, end-of-history, everything-that-will-ever-be-great-has-already-happened attitude, feel free to live with the heat death of the soul that that entails. No, I’m referring to the sheer breadth of the success of Adele‘s sophomore release: Being 2011’s best-selling album means that the grownups loved it, while “Rolling In The Deep” topping the year-end singles charts proves that teenagers were also hooked. At some point, we forgot that those two groups knew how to talk to one another in the same musical language.
All it took was a singer with a bottomless voice, infinite charm and a determination to improve on her debut in every measurable way (including, most crucially, her previously undercooked songwriting). The metaphors that Adele scatters throughout 21 remain maddeningly inconclusive; she might know what “rolling in the deep” and “set fire to the rain” are supposed to signify, but I sure don’t. (She spent a substantial portion of her last P.R. blitz having to define “chasing pavements,” remember.) But even if I can’t entirely parse the literal meaning of “Someone Like You” — is it about moving on? never giving up? tearing down the house if you can’t live in it yourself? — the emotional meaning rings clear as day through every syllable.
3) St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (4AD). When I reviewed Strange Mercy four months ago, just about all I could talk about was how frustrating it was. Revisiting that original review last week, two thoughts crossed my mind: Man, I was frustrated. And what I had written made me want to hear it again immediately. Strange Mercy is flawed, yes, but those flaws come from Annie Clark‘s imagination calling to her from places that might just be inaccessible. And the only way she can know for sure is to dutifully head out in those directions, her Berklee training continuing to collide with art-pop (and the odd dance track) in ways that would require a four-dimensional grid to map out. “I make a living telling people what they want to hear,” she sings in “Champagne Year,” lying through her teeth in a throaty purr that’s perfectly calm but not quite so passive as its lack of force would suggest. Maybe everything doesn’t always work, but she’s got such delightfully outside-the-box stuff clanking around in her noggin that it’s a thrill just to be given a 40-minute tour every couple of years.
4) Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Merge). The sociopolitical weight of Sleater-Kinney having been lifted, all that’s left for Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, bolstered by pals Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole, is to rock the fuck out. Which is what Sleater-Kinney were largely about anyway. Wild Flag is evidence that it would have certainly been enough.
5) Florence + The Machine, Ceremonials (Universal). Can I recall the bulk of the songs from Ceremonials after the fact? Not really. How much does my heart leap in my chest while it’s playing? Higher than my body wants to let it. A record’s ability to haunt the listener is important, but so is the undeniable visceral response in the moment. With the controlled force of Florence Welch‘s voice and the forceful control of her bandmates, the music sweeps through you like a gale and then dissipates like a ghost. But she’s no stoic elemental. Welch infuses her songs with a warmth and generosity that put aside all thoughts of imperiousness and distance. If the reverberations don’t last as long as I would like, well, that’s just another reason to press “play” again.
6) The Bangles, Sweetheart Of The Sun (Down Kiddie!). There are two types of Bangles fans: those who adore the pop hits for their signifying ’80sness and those who adore All Over The Place for its signifying ’60sness. Sweetheart Of The Sun is one for the latter group, instantly the band’s best album since they blamed it on the train but the boss was already there (and arguably since their debut). Perhaps having been primed by Susanna Hoffs‘s albums of ’60s and ’70s covers with Matthew Sweet, things lean heavily in a folk-rock direction, albeit with a dollop of psychedelia in the swirl of “One Of Two” and enough garage-rock fuel (courtesy of the asymmetrical “Sweet And Tender Romance” and the tear-through of the Nazz’s “Open My Eyes”) to prove that there’s still plenty of muscle at their disposal. It’s true that without the charcoal alto of now-retired bassist Michael Steele in the mix, the vocal harmonies don’t pack quite the same enveloping wallop that the Bangles were pulling off as recently as 2003’s uneven Doll Revolution. But the songs are solid, the spirit is aflame and they make damn sure you know that the flesh is still able.
7) Nicole Atkins, Mondo Amore (Razor & Tie). I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a bit let down by the production, which trades the sharp focus and meticulous 3D positioning that Tore Johansson brought to Neptune City for a hazier murk that sands down the drama clearly within Mondo Amore‘s reach. (When the band arrives in full in the opening “Vultures,” it should be the world revealing itself in total widescreen glory; instead, it’s the band arriving in full.) And yet, Nicole Atkins continues to know exactly how to craft material to best suit her dark, full-throated wail, whether she’s punching a bitch in the face (her words, not mine) in the backwoods slide-guitar hoedown of “My Baby Don’t Lie,” crossing Lennonesque girl-group sass with soulful funk in “Cry Cry Cry” or recasting grand emotion in the architecture of “Hotel Plaster” and “The Tower.” And if Mondo Amore is a great album trapped inside a pretty good one, well, I’ve lived with worse.
8) Brandi Carlile, Live At Benaroya Hall With The Seattle Symphony (Columbia). It comes as no surprise that a dedicated road warrior like Brandi Carlile has hucked up countless live releases over the past decade. What makes Live At Benaroya Hall special isn’t just the fact that it serves as a bit of a survey of her oeuvre (even as it understandably tilts a bit in the direction of Give Up The Ghost, the studio release it immediately follows). It’s the fact that she treats it like both a homecoming and a graduation, years of hard work paying off as she finally graces the stage of the venue she held in awe as a struggling artist. More importantly, she avoids the trap of so many other well-meaning performers by thoughtfully incorporating the orchestra at her disposal, rather than simply layering it on top of her standard arrangements and declaring it classy. Thus you get not only the resonant hum of strings enriching “Turpentine” but also the full-throttle stomp of “Dreams,” where Carlile hits the willfully deluded but still spirited chorus and the orchestra rises up behind her like a peacock’s tail spreading. And in the center, set like a jewel in the symphonic crown, sits Carlile’s voice, as rich and powerful and sparkling and powerful as exists in pop music at the moment.
9) Wye Oak, Civilian (Merge). Hearing a band finally jell is a simple pleasure but also an awfully satisfying one. That’s not to say that Wye Oak‘s third album is loaded up with pop songs or even tunes you’ll be able to hum after the fact. (Your results may vary.) But its impassive indie-guitar throb doesn’t trade on the noir washouts that are just behind the next door, nor does it succumb to the chilly dourness that’d be impossible to avoid if they moved even half an inch. Instead, what Jenn Wasner‘s vocals signify is patience, both with Andy Stack (her partner in the measured din she’s creating) and with the listener’s indulgence. Hand over your faith to Wye Oak and they will not abuse it. That’s all anyone can ever ask.
Widows And Orphans:
1) The American Contemporary Music Ensemble, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (live at Sanders Theatre, September 9, 2011). Jeff Mangum reappeared like a cicada a couple of months back and I was lucky enough to see him live, but it was his openers ACME that provided my defining concert moment of the year. Their repetitive, interminable and mind-breakingly beautiful rendition of Gavin Bryars‘s found-music masterpiece entirely upended my understanding of what I was hearing; by the time it faded out on the same unaccompanied vocal loop that began it, how I heard it had been transformed entirely from when it started. And I knew that even if I were to locate a recording of this performance, I would never be able to hear it the old way ever again, because it had already happened. And it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
4) The Cars, “Blue Tip.” Ben Orr is gone, and if this track, which sounds as sleek and coolly modern right now as the Cars have ever sounded in any decade, couldn’t bring him back, nothing ever will.
4) John Doe, “Peggy Sue Got Married.” From the better of two Buddy Holly tribute albums released this year comes one of those rare covers that so thoroughly transforms the song that it effectively argues that the original artist didn’t really understand his own material in the first place. Taking on the lesser-known sequel to one of Holly’s greatest hits, the X man turns a wistful glance at a former flame’s new life into a lament laden with a lifetime of regret and a gaze into the abyss of paths never taken. Holly never got the chance to take his songcraft into middle age and all that it entails, so Doe does it for him. And without changing a word, he offers a perfectly rendered, utterly heartbreaking portrait of a lost soul who has realized that his sun has just begun to set. As it happens, Holly was so good that he didn’t need to know what he was doing after all. Damn geniuses.
4) Lady Gaga, “Yoü and I.” Strip away the electro-Queen stomp and you’ve got a classic Elton John us-against-the-world torch song, which is Lady Gaga reminding us once again that she could have opted for a traditional singer/songwriter/pianist career, had that interested her. But it’s the electro-Queen stomp that reminds us that she’s Lady Gaga. As for the utterly random but delightful shout-out to Nebraska? Well, that’s a reminder that she’s Lady Fucking Gaga, and don’t you goddamned forget it.
5) tUnE-yArDs, “Doorstep.” The cops gun down Merrill Garbus‘s lover right at the threshold of the home they have together, and her response is to detach herself completely. She recounts the incident in measured tones that border on a chuckle at the horrible cosmic absurdity of it all, but that’s only because letting her fugue state crack with a drop of emotion would rend her apart like nothing she could conceive of.
6) Jessie J, “Price Tag.” Unfortunately, the role of actually-talented-songwriter/performer-who-chose-radio-pop-because-that’s-where-her-heart-lies has already been taken by Lady Gaga. So we collectively stalled Jessie J‘s energetically whip-smart single in the bottom half of the top 40, forcing her to rely on flavorless Katy Perry soundalike “Domino” to do the job for her. We’re so stupid sometimes.
As long as I’m being super-obvious by having an all-woman albums list, why not go all-out, in terms of being the most clichéd version of myself that I could possibly be with this year’s Better Late Than Never award? No problem. The Beat, the self-titled debut by Paul Collins‘s stateside combo (sorry, ska nerds and anglophiles), is textbook power-pop nirvana, with sprung guitar hooks driving a lean but fierce combo with blue-collar origins and an unshakeable belief in music’s ability to transcend them. What’s interesting is the way that the songs I already knew intimately (thanks to their presence on a thousand power-pop anthologies) take on a cast closer in spirit to a mission statement when appreciated in their original context. Most tellingly, opening salvo “Rock N Roll Girl” reveals itself as not merely Collins’s description of a dream date but a line in the cultural sand, as he stands firm against the encroachment of disco (and impending, if still unrecognized, threats such as synth-pop and hip-hop) and declares that rock and roll will never die, certainly not in his heart. If he can find a kindred spirit to make out with in the process, then that’s a happy bonus.
Album of the year #10 – Featherface: It Comes Electric EP
When I started making this list, I didn’t realize that Featherface actually released this EP late in 2010. So I’m going to stick with it. I found out about them early in 2011 and bought this at the first show I saw them play. No, check that…I just missed them that night. I bought their EP that night to make up for missing the show. Since then, I’ve been able to see them 3 or 4 times. That’s still probably just 10% of their gigs this year. They love to play shows more than just about any Houston band, and their energy and passion shows every time I see them. You need to see them soon, too! “A Youthful Offender” is one of my favorite Houston songs of the last few years, with its “if the Strokes were less pretentious and more musical” sound, but every song on the EP is worth its weight in gold. Looking forward to hearing more from them in the near future!
Album of the year #9 – The Antlers: Burst Apart
Here’s my Antlers story. I got to see them at a SXSW day show (the NPR showcase). Then later on I was at the Jimmy Gnecco/Ours showcase at Maggie Mae’s. This guy in the audience looked really familiar and then I realized I thought he was in The Antlers. So being tipsy as I was, my inhibitions were down and I asked him if that was indeed him. Sure enough, it was, and then he showed me his Ours logo tattoo. I told him for that I promised to buy his album the day it was released, and I kept my promise.
Funny enough, I also met an actor from Chicago Code, and I also hung out with Static from Ours for awhile at that show. Guess I was really hobnobbing that night. About this album, it’s very pretty. If you’re a sucker for falsetto vocals and synth driven pop, then this album will make you happy. I would have liked a little more rock, but it’s still a great album.
Album of the year #8 – My Brightest Diamond: All Things Will Unwind
Numbers 6, 7, and 8 are almost three way tie… All Things Will Unwind came out this fall and shot up my chart quickly. The day it came out, I listened it (just found out about it randomly) on Rhapsody and wondered if the artist might be coming to Houston soon. Turns out that Shara Worden would be in Houston at Fitzgerald’s the very same night, so I had no excuse but to go see her. She was a mesmerizing performer; I bought the CD and have been listening to it on almost a daily basis ever since.
The lyrics and songwriting on this album are so personal and direct. The instrumentation is a small chamber orchestra. Shara invites the listener into her home and her heart (and now, her music is in mine). Some songs are instant classics that could easily take a seat next to the work of Joni Mitchell and Carole King. When I first heard “There’s a Rat,” I thought it was a cover of an old standard. If you’re a fan of Kate Bush, Björk, Tori Amos, St. Vincent, or even Bon Iver, then by all means, you need to experience this album.
Album of the year #7 – Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
“So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter. Now what does that say about me? Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love? Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?” As someone without children who measures his maturity and lack thereof by comparing my age to what my parents had done by the time they got to my age (for example, I was 13 when my father was my age now, and I can’t imagine having a 13-year-old), this line floors me every time I listen to it. Fleet Foxes are as close to what today’s generation will ever have to a Simon and Garfunkel. Again, as with My Brightest Diamond, not enough rockers on the album, but as I get older, I find more of this kind of album creeping into my top 10.
Album of the year #6 – Friendly Fires: Pala
For those of you who think Mute Math took a wrong turn this year with their latest album, Friendly Fires is for you. Dance-pop at its finest, this album gets me going whenever I need a pick me up. The album snuck up on me. I found it while looking for good bands to go see at SXSW. Despite the fact they played a bunch of shows at SXSW, my schedule was such that I didn’t go see them. I still haven’t seen them live. But so many times this year, I’d find myself looking for an album to listen to on the way home from work or for walking the dog, and I would rock this one.
Album of the year #5 – The Joy Formidable: The Big Roar
The top 5 albums of the year! These are the five albums that made their way into my consciousness and even my subconsciousness! Let’s start with The Joy Formidable‘s The Big Roar. This is another album I found while researching bands that would play SXSW. I made a point to go see them at the NPR day showcase with Wild Flag and The Antlers — quite a lineup. The Joy Formidable made sure that day that we would remember them long after SXSW was over. They look back to the early ’90s rock of Ride, Lush, Echobelly, The Pixies, and Throwing Muses, more than looking forward to the future, but they do it so rockingly and formidably joyfully that it’s fine by me.
Album of the year #4 – St. Vincent: Strange Mercy
Queasy. This is the most uneasy album I’ve ever owned. It’s like that girl I went out with in college. She was beautiful, artistic, and smart, and I wanted desperately to make it work, but she was just too effing bi-polar.
Strange Mercy was my most-anticipated album of 2011. I looked forward to hearing it for six months. I know McKenzie Smith (from the Denton, TX band Midlake), the drummer on the album, so I would get updates from him that they were recording and that it was going well. And then the track “Surgeon” was released a month or so before the album, with some teaser videos and its awesome double entendre line, “I spent the summer on my back.” It was the closest an indie could do to a marketing avalanche.
Suddenly, Annie Clark/St. Vincent was set up to be the next big thing (and deservedly so!). The approach was much different than the 2009 album that snuck up on me to become my favorite album of that year. And the music is a lot different than that one, too. The drums (and most of the instruments) are much more processed and almost robotic — very futuristic, with a nod to late ’70s analog synth music. In place of strings are synths, and the synths give the songs that queasy feeling because they tend to sway around a tonal center rather than staying on a pitch. But in the middle of all the processing are still Annie’s stellar vocals and Adrian Belew-like guitar playing. Seeing St. Vincent live at Fitzgerald’s was one of the live highlights of the year.
Album of the year #3 – Foo Fighters: Wasting Light
The Foo Fighters‘ first album in 1995 stayed in my CD player for months. I went and saw them (the amazing Jawbreaker opened!) in ’95 and then again in ’96. Their next two albums were pretty good, too, but since then I’ve just about forgotten about them until Wasting Light came out. This album is what every rock and roll fan should look to as the model for songwriting, recording (all analog tape!), and outright rock attitude. One song after the knocks you out, coming close to the line of corny rock cliche without actually crossing it. If anyone besides Dave Grohl was doing it, maybe it would seem cliché, but from him it comes across as the real deal. It’s hard to pick favorites on an album full of potential singles, but “Back & Forth,” “Rope,” and “Bridge Burning” are close to perfect powerpop songs. I’m surprised not to see more critics choosing this album as a favorite, but I guess they’re not indie enough for the lists I’ve been reading. Well, I may be a music snob, but when an arena-rock album is this great, there’s no sense in denying it.
Album of the year #2 – The Dead Revolt: Vanixer
Anyone who writes about music has probably made the mistake of doing the “…if Band X and Band Z had a baby…” comparison. With The Dead Revolt, it’s… “If the members of The Jimi Hendrix Experience were up in heaven rocking together and they decided to immerse themselves in Black Sabbath and The Mars Volta and send an album down to earth channeled through 3 Texans with an average age of 20 years old.”
And there you have my mistake, because it’s a mistake to try to categorize this inimitable and talented-beyond-their-years trio in one sentence. “Don’t anyone tell you that you were only real in my mind,” George Baba sings in “Al-Diseased Part 1,” the lead track on Vanixer. It’s like he’s telling me about his band: “Don’t let anyone tell you that The Dead Revolt is only real in your mind.” I’ve been wondering lately if they only exist in my vivid imagination. To me, they’re already legendary, but no one else seems to know about this band yet. Not even here in Houston, where you would think the Houston Press, 25-95.com, Space City Rock, Free Press Houston, and the rest would be looking for a band exactly like The Dead Revolt, yet no one seems to be talking about this band except for me.
Wake up, Houston! Yes, this album is challenging. It’s not going to open itself right up to you like The Tontons or Wild Moccasins, though “Indigo Fashion Show” is incredibly catchy and poppy, and all of the songs have hooks aplenty. Yes, you’re going to have to peel away the layers of progressive riffage and immerse yourself in Vanixer. Back in the Hendrix days, it would almost be a double album with only two songs on side A! But do yourself and Houston a favor — go see The Dead Revolt, buy this album, and do the work to make this band exist in more than the imaginations of a few.
Album of the year #1 – Manchester Orchestra: Simple Math
I don’t really want to write this one because it means the list is now over, and this album is almost too raw to write about. Simple Math has meant a lot to me since last May, when it came out. I was a fan from the first listen. Instantly, this was the album to beat, just based on its rock factor, but then I started to dive into the lyrics and that’s when Simple Math made its forever mark on me. In “Deer,” singer/lyricist Andy Hull sums up adulthood in one line “Dear Everyone I Ever Really Knew, I acted like an asshole so I could keep my edge on you,” and then follows it up with a line of beautiful humility, “Dear Everybody that has paid to see my band, it’s still confusing, we’ll never understand.”
As someone who has never considered himself a “lyrics guy,” the lyrics on this album speak directly to me. They tear into me, reveal my insecurities, self-doubt, self-obsession, and make me realize how much better songs are when the lyrics mean something. Obviously before I found the lyrics related to my life, I was first rocked by it which is where the song “Mighty” comes in. The band, complete with a string section and impeccably distorted guitars, tells me we are in for a ride. Manchester Orchestra sound like a less whiny Smashing Pumpkins, and though Smashing Pumpkins are one of my favorite bands of the last 20 years, something about Manchester Orchestra is even better.
“Pensacola” describes what it’s like to be in a struggling band like no other song I’ve ever heard, with lines like, “It feels like 37 years and I am nothing but a bank / If we could build our credit score / ‘Incredible,’ they’ll surely say,” and “We spent the most of nights defending fights you fought in the past / But it was different now and I’m entirely too drunk to ask.” It’s followed up by “April Fool,” which also seems to be about band lifestyle, as the album builds to the gorgeous “Pale Black Eye” and the admission which sums up the album: “Goddamn I’m tired of lying. I wish I loved you like I used to.” And in come the strings. And then suddenly, just like Andy says in the song “Virgin,” “No, it’s never gonna be the same.” That’s the way I feel now. “What if it was true, and all we thought was right was wrong?” This album rips me up. I am spent. END