This is my music diary for 2011! Anything from 2011 will get an asterisk, everything else was released previously.
I AM VERY FAR* – Okkervil River
It’s difficult for me to introduce this band, since I’ve been listening to them, and loving it, for so long. After a decade, their songs have become about as necessary to my daily life as drinkable water, breathable air, and the ability to re-watch Stanley Kubrick movies. Their new release is sweeping, sounding big while still feeling rough-hewn, even behind all those strings and layered vocals. Like The Decemberists did on their new record, lead singer Will Sheff has made a concerted effort to avoid outright storytelling here, and the lyrical result is a tone more poetic than literary, stretching his talent in a new direction. He keeps the words simple, while the music expands and curlicues around them, and the result is something special, even when considered against the catalogue of this very special band, which continues to evolve, and never disappoints.
WHITE WILDERNESS* – John Vanderslice
This album sets John Vanderslice’s vocals against some beautiful, woozy orchestral arrangements by Minna Choi. Far from burying him in bombast, the “legit” instruments lend a surprising intimacy to his performance, bringing his expressive voice front and center.
GEMINI – Wild Nothing
I am seriously falling in love with this band. I think a huge part of it is the juxtaposition between Jack Tatum’s actual voice, and the voice he has when he’s through with it–his studio technique is the magic ring that transforms him from an indie geek into some kind of shoegaze superhero.
LP – Discovery
This band oughta be locked up…but did I mention I love them? Fronted by Wesley Miles (Ra Ra Riot) and Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), Discovery is a side-project of experimental pop music that seems hellbent on making modern Top 40 seem even more cybernetic. That’s right, they use the auto-tune like it’s a tommygun.
WOWEE ZOWEE – Pavement
I’ve been trying to get into this classic 90’s rock album for years, as in, since it came out in the 90’s. I’ve had it that long. This time through, it finally broke through my defenses, and the key to enjoying it was recognizing it as an exercise in craft. Malkmus’ lyrics aren’t meant to mean--if anything, like Dan Bejar’s, they are meant to slip off your brain like eggs off teflon. Viewed from that angle, the whole thing sparkles like a laser-cut plastic diamond. Liberating rock that is skillful and playful, so much so that there are tracks where Malkmus’ over-the-top performance actually makes me laugh out loud, but never at the music.
BOYS AND GIRLS & BETE NOIRE – Bryan Ferry
Dan Bejar mentioned these albums of Ferry’s being a particular influence on him, and it made me realize I haven’t heard many solo Ferry albums period. Like a handful of other artists, his music is unmistakably 80’s without feeling dated, in part because of the remarkable cohesion of his lush, ambient sound. And of course, that syrupy-smooth voice, complimenting the cool. These two remarkable albums are sexy and sinister, like they were written to be played during sex scenes that one or both partners would not survive.
BELONG* – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Get this album. It’s summery and vivacious. Guitars stretched to the breaking point and delicate, ghostly vocals. If you like Jesus and Mary Chain, you will love this band.
FIGURINES* – Figurines
Christian Hjelm’s voice is a true anomaly, able to express particular kinds of loneliness and fervor precisely because he sounds like he may not actually be human, more some doleful cartoon come to life. The songs are more familiar in form this time around, embracing traditional pop structures, though nothing is conventional when The Figurines get through with it, if only because they’re all so darn good.
THE FALL* – Gorillaz
You’ve heard of the road movie? Well, meet the road album. Written by Damon Albarn while on his US on tour for “Plastic Beach”, “The Fall” is an expression of loneliness and awe that captures exactly what it is to be on your own, wandering the highways and byways of this particular whacked-out country. Like the new Radiohead, it’s easy to dismiss until it sinks in; then it’s an essential part of your head. Also, it’s the case and point for iPads (Albarn wrote it on one).
THE KING OF LIMBS* – Radiohead
Since “Kid A”, no Radiohead album has been an instant grabber. They’re more like slowburn obsessions. “King of Limbs” follows proudly in that tradition: Listen to it once, and you’re likely to denounce all but two tracks as mere filler. Listen to it fifteen times (which you will), and you’ll realize that that Radiohead’s sound has sublimated into an intoxicating nanoparticle mist, fusing jazz sensibilities with electronica in addictive ways.
HATS – The Blue Nile
A soft synth outfit that carries an unexpected wallop, The Blue Nile is what would happen if Bryan Ferry and Harold Pinter got fused while teleporting. The songs progress like gathering thunderstorms, a la Talk Talk, and vocalist Paul Buchanan’s performances sneak wounded subtext into every line. He can deliver a seemingly-vacuous refrain like “Baby, baby, let’s go out tonight…” and somehow make it clear that it’s no offhand suggestion, that everything this couple has depends on going out, and that going out probably won’t work anyway, since their love is going to fall to pieces no matter what they do. “I know a place where everything’s alright…” he sings, and we’re like, “Yeah right, Paul.” This has definitely been a highlight of my year, an example of how subtle arrangements and a pitch-perfect performance can transform an entire song, making what’s seemingly lightweight into something very heavy.
ZONOSCOPE* – Cut Copy
An electronica outfit with a retro, New Romantic vibe, but an approach that is wholly original and hypnotic. The songs warp and develop in such intriguing ways, you’ll soon find yourself with these dancefloor mantras running through your head like a Times Square ticker.
THE HEAD AND THE HEART* – The Head and the Heart
It took me exactly two listens to realize that this was one of the best things I’d ever hear, but the first one saw me shrugging and scratching my head, its allure is that simple—refreshingly sincere songs, tight harmonies, handmade arrangements, and a consistent tone of quiet yearning. The kind of sweet, unassuming album that makes me think, for some reason, of Jim Henson. Which is pretty much the highest compliment I can pay anyone.
THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY – Genesis
This is a must-listen for any Peter Gabriel fan, particularly for fans of his early days, when his work was off-kilter enough to justify traipsing about the stage wearing a fox head mask and a stunning red dress. It’s a concept record, following the plight of a (suspiciously British-sounding) Puerto Rican boy named Rael, who gets lost in an underground kingdom in search of his brother. In telling that story, Gabriel displayes a swagger and soul that simply didn’t make the jump to his solo career, in part because on “Lamb” he’s still discovering himself as a performer, and trying on different styles as he goes. The band, who would later sound like the temp score to a “Miami Vice” episode, sound here like Goblin performing tracks from a lost horror movie, which is to say, proggy and intense in the best possible way. Like that first Roxy record, this is a kind of rock singularity, featuring several remarkable music artists at a point in their career when their work combines in a fascinating, unrepeatable way. Don’t get me wrong, I like “Don’t Give Up” and “Come Talk to Me” as much as the next fan, but “Lamb” makes you miss the days when Gabriel would sing an entire song about being eaten by snakes, or spout lines like, “It is chicken! It is eggs! It is in-between your legs!”
THE KING IS DEAD* – The Decemberists
Are any of my favorite bands the same band this year? First Dan Bejar went Roxy, now The Decemberists go country, with a record that eschews shanties and literary storytelling for old-fashioned downhome songs, even the odd harmonica. Thankfully, this regeneration is every bit as successful as Destroyer’s, revealing talents I didn’t know the group had, and adding fresh layers to an already wonderful career. This is warm, soulful, truly glorious stuff.
KISS EACH OTHER CLEAN* – Iron & Wine
You can pretty much take for granted that Sam Beam’s work will be beautiful, and “Kiss Each Other Clean” gives us further proof of this, with its sense of star-eyed wonder, and this time at bat, an edge of high-falootin’ naughtiness. There’s unexpected twists in the music, too–electronic beats, distorted vocals, and Stuart Bogie’s fantastic saxophone. (That’s right, folks: Bradford Cox, Dan Bejar and Sam Beam fear not the sax. Do you still fear it? The reckoning is clearly at hand…) Absolutely mandatory listening.
GLEE – Bran Van 3000
For years, the only thing I knew about this band was that their debut album cover featured a cartoon deer about to take a deuce on a cartoon rabbit. Now I know something else: That the band itself is a playful, artful gang of genre-hoppers, dipping their feet in girl pop, dub, trip-hop and metal whenever it suits them. Reminiscent of Bongwater at their most accessible, “Glee” is an album you can’t quite find a way to categorize, but it will never come off your shelf.
CELESTICA EP – Crystal Castles
I’m so glad I didn’t know this EP existed until now! It was like finding a extra Crystal Castles at the back of the cupboard. The standout track, aside from the title one, is definitely “Seed”–video game blips, anime grandeur and punk ‘tude boiled down into one minute and forty-three seconds of hardcore bliss. I want it to play during the opening credits sequence to the rest of my life.
KAPUTT* – Destroyer
Dan Bejar’s new album is a loving exploration of the smooth, dimensional sounds popularized by Bryan Ferry, with much unapologetic synth and sax. Those brashly opaque lyrics of Bejar’s have grown subtler too, to accommodate the new sounds—though there are still plenty of hairpin-turns-of-phrase. My favorite comes in the middle of “Poor In Love”, an otherwise wistful track until Bejar proclaims, “Your Jesuit profile will suit the coming apocalypse!” (Canadian rock genius say what?) “Kaputt” is twice as fun when enjoyed in the context of Destroyer’s other recordings, from which it’s shockingly different in tone and structure, but it will also appeal to anyone who likes latter-day Roxy, as you of course should. And best of all, his newfound lite-rock stylings should safely fumigate the maestro’s next live show of hipster posers.
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