Friday, December 30, 2011
Steve: Noah, it seems like 2011 was an amazing year for music; when I started organizing my best-of list I found I had around 25 albums that I felt really strongly about as representing the best the year had to offer. 16 of those fall into the Great category for me, and the remainder are at the top of my Really Good list.
In all I listened to (and ranked) 90 albums from 2011. In addition, there were 2 albums I felt I had to disqualify from the ranking, and about 7 EPs that I really enjoyed but generally exclude from stuff like this. It's difficult to place 2011 in the context of other recent years musically - as you know, I believe we're living in a golden age - but the one thing that stand out to me this year is how varied great music is lately. Something like Fleet Foxes stands next to harder edged stuff like The Kills, and singer-songwritery stuff like Adele, and the only thing they have in common is that they're excellent.
Music is becoming genre-less, and approaching it with open ears can lead in all sorts of directions. What are your initial impressions of the year?
Noah: Well, I'm nowhere near as prolific a listener as you are, with only 44 albums on my overall list. I did have 8 on my Great list, 10 on my Really Good list, and 7 on my Good list.
But I'm with you on genres not seeming to matter as much. We've discussed this before -- my taste is probably a bit narrower than yours, but I still have Fleet Foxes and Handsome Furs not far apart on my list -- two albums that could not sound more different.
I agree with your golden age assessment and at this point, my only disappointment is that we aren't seeing a return to the old days of bands releasing albums more frequently.
Steve: It would be nice if some bands were more prolific - and therefore more experimental, I think - but I also think you can overdo it. Some bands really do need to disappear for 2-3 years before I'm ready to hear from them again. It's such a crowded market - and that's not even considering traditional popular music, radio, etc. I don't think, for example, that I need to hear what My Morning Jacket is up to in 2012.
Noah: I'm getting dangerously close to not needing to know what My Morning Jacket is up to ever. But your point is well taken.
Steve: Give me an example of a 2011 band you'd like to hear from in 2012. For me, ironically (and we'll get into this in a minute) I'd be interested in a Bon Iver album in 2012.
Noah: I'd agree on Bon Iver, but the first one would be Wilco. We've gone on and on about them, but given the evolution in sound over their last three albums, I'd be thrilled to hear another album from them soon. Our favorites aside, I was so thrilled with the new Handsome Furs album (more on that later too) that I'd take a new album from them yesterday.
So let's start with our #10 albums of the year... Mine is one that you hated -- Noah and the Whale's Last Night on Earth.
Steve: I won't slag them too badly since this should be about celebrating the music we loved, but I did not like Noah and the Whale's output on Last Night on Earth. I found the lyrics to be pedestrian at best, and actively annoying at worst. My favorite song on the album could best be described as a novelty hit (L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.). I quickly moved on to other stuff and never looked back. For the record, I rated Last Night on Earth 89th out of the 90 albums I listened to this year.
Noah: Did you like their previous album, 2009's The First Days of Spring?
Steve: I liked it okay ... it would probably earn a So So from me.
Noah: It never connected with me, but I really liked Last Night on Earth.
Steve: My #10 album was Yuck by the band Yuck. I thought it was a startlingly good, sure-footed debut from a band well-versed in early 90s pastiche; I hear everything from Dinosaur Jr. to Soul Asylum to Velocity Girl bleeding through their melodies.
Noah: I did not connect with it at all. I should probably re-listen to it, but realistically I never will. Two listens and out for me.
Steve: That album was everything I loved about early college and the alternative music era wrapped up in a dozen songs... I think that has a lot to do with my ranking. "Suicide Policeman" is a song I'd like to feature here.
What's next for you?
Noah: At #9 on my list is Rural Alberta Advantage's Departing. We had a couple of Song of the Day posts about this one, but top to bottom it's a very good sophomore effort.
Steve: I loved Departing - I had it at #8 on my list. These links to song of the day content should say more than I can here. I'm going to go to my #6 record -- readers can check back in the coming days for our full lists, including my obsessive compulsively compiled list of 1 to 90 of all the albums I listened to this year. My #6 album from this year was by The Dodos, No Color. Their first two albums were a little sloppy and disorganized. Even though that was kind of the point and the appeal of their sound on those albums, I like that No Color seems a bit more cohesive thematically. Also, the playing/production is crisp without sacrificing that raw energy they're so good at bringing into their music. And lastly, they got Neko Case to sing background vocals, which is like sprinkling the entire album with awesome dust. No Color definitely represents a step forward for The Dodos. I'm ultimately a little surprised how much affinity I have for this record but it has really stuck with me since its March release. The representative song is "Going Under".
Noah: I never got around to that one but Neko's involvement is enough to make me curious.
I'll skip my #8 album (Death Cab for Cutie's Codes & Keys) to say something about my #7 album -- El Camino by The Black Keys. Not only does it have one of the catchiest songs of the year (opener Lonely Boy), but it successfully meshes their spare, direct style with the more out there production of Danger Mouse, an experiment that really didn't work well for me on 2008's Attack & Release. Speaking of bands that put out albums in successive years, The Black Keys just did so extremely successfully with 2010's Brothers and now El Camino. It's a great album.
Steve: I liked El Camino but didn't love it. Perhaps with more time I will come around on it. As it is I have it as a Really Good record, ranked 31 on my list. I felt there were more standout songs on Brothers, my #4 album from 2010.
Noah: I can't skip over my #6 album of 2011, Bon Iver's self-titled sophomore effort. I know you were, to put it mildly, less enthusiastic about it, but it's an album that has really grown on me. I was skeptical (if not outright hostile) about it at first but it was the very definition of a grower. It's a testament to the strength of my top five albums that this album isn't higher on my list. It's an album that works in a variety of settings and I'd put it up there with For Emma, Forever Ago and posit that they've had as strong an opening two albums as any band since Arcade Fire. Yes, I went there. And I HATED Bon Iver the first time I heard them.
But aside from Beth/Rest, which I think colors a lot of people's overall opinions of the album (and was a mistake to include), it's a classic top to (almost) bottom.
Steve: Here's my problem with Bon Iver the album (#80 on my list). I hated the production choices, particularly the treatment to Justin Vernon's vocals, the use of vocoder/autotune, and the cheesy, cheesy synth that he inexplicably decided to celebrate just when all right-minded people had finally started to get over the 80s.
Sure that's true of "Beth/Rest", but it's true of many of the other songs on the album as well. The first strains of "Perth", the first song on the album, turn me right off.
Noah: It's a good thing this is a chat, because if we were discussing this in person, my beard would probably grow in length, gain sentience and beat you to death for that.
What did you have next?
Steve: We are going to have to agree to disagree on Bon Iver for the best interest of the blog, and I'm okay with that. For the record I haven't written them off as a band, and I'm hoping they do something interesting next and soon. At #4 I have the next album I want to discuss - Civilian by the Baltimore duo Wye Oak. I had a general affinity for Wye Oak's sound prior to this record but did not find their individual songs particularly compelling. The songwriting on Civilian is a great leap forward. Musically, the duo has never sounded better. Both Jenn Wasner's guitar work and Andy Stack's drumming/keys play nicely together. The vocals are haunting and distinctive, and seem to be saying something important. "We Were Wealth" is a good example of all of this.
Noah: I can't claim to have given this album the attention it apparently deserves -- it was much, much further down on my list and I'll give it another shot.
As we've been discussing this year's albums, I've actually swapped two of them in order. So my #5 album is The King is Dead by The Decemberists, which we discussed in depth nearly a year ago.
But my #4 album is the far more challenging and, honestly, more exciting Sound Kapital by Handsome Furs. 2009's Face Control is a really good album, but Sound Kapital is the fullest realization of their sound and their most consistent work. It's also an impressive evolution for a band with two people, only one of whom is, by trade, a musician.
Steve: I loved their appearance on Sound Opinions, I thought they had a lot of interesting things to say there and on this album. Sound Kapital is a tight record - nine songs only - that contemplates themes of identity, displacement, and protest through a sort of travelogue about the band's touring of Eastern Europe ... or something. Witness songs like "When I Get Back" and "Serve the People" ... the latter, one of my favorites on the record. All that said, I had Sound Kapital a little lower on my list at #25, but it's an album I like a lot and would recommend to anyone. It's certainly one of the most unique records I heard this year. They do so much with so little.
Noah: I'll say a quick word about my #3 album of this year, Radiohead's The King of Limbs. They dropped it on us like assassins back in February with less than a week's notice and it's remained high on my list all year -- spooky and off-kilter. I'm not remotely shy about my bias for Radiohead, but it's an album that I don't believe got the attention it deserved. Between The King of Limbs and 2007's In Rainbows, it seems like they are building to something. What it is I don't know, but Radiohead seem like they're trying to figure out just where to go next and in terms of bands that evolve, Radiohead are an amazing example. I'll reiterate my hope from our mid-year column that they put out a batshit nuts all out rock album soon. This is another band that could release something every year and I'd never get bored.
That didn't turn out to be a quick word.
Steve: We're getting down to it, closer to our #1 records of the year. I reviewed my #3 album for the blog so I will just say that I loved everything about Iron & Wine's Kiss Each Other Clean, and it's a testament to my top 2 that they top it. My #2 record is from the band Beirut - The Rip Tide. Beirut was almost sliding into the territory some bands get to where it's like, okay, you've said all you're going to say as a creative force, so I'm done with you now - around these parts we call that Son Volt Territory.
But The Rip Tide showed how effective a few small choices can be at recasting a band's sound. Gone are the oom pa pa rhythms and waltzy song structure. I'd still have to call it Balkan-influenced (what else are you going to call a band that prominently features an accordion), but The Rip Tide is Beirut identifying their own sound, and it's like nothing anyone else is doing. It's a great record that stands above the rest for me. I also highly recommend our readers consider seeing Beirut live if they come to your town.
Noah: I thought it was really good and would cop to not having spent enough time with it. My #2 album of the year is one we covered extensively here -- Wilco's The Whole Love. Not much has changed for me other than that I like it more after seeing them live and listening to The Whole Love a few dozen times.
So my album of the year is another album that has been with me most of the year and an album that I heaped expectations on that were probably unfair. For me, the self-titled debut full length from Fleet Foxes back in 2008 was an absolute lightening bolt. Like Midlake's 2006 The Trials of Van Occupanther, it was an album from a band I'd never heard of that immediately worked for me and has stayed in my rotation since the day I first heard it. The bands are linked for me as a result.
Last year, Midlake released a follow up to Van Occupanther that I was disappointed in. Not only did The Courage of Others not evolve in any meaningful way, it almost felt like a regression, which isn't fair considering I haven't really listened to anything they put out before Van Occupanther. So I had high expectations for the second Fleet Foxes album and was more than a little nervous about it. Helplessness Blues is not a disappointment. It's a far more challenging album than Fleet Foxes was, but also more varied, versatile and deep. We discussed it in depth on release, but there is a ton going on in this album.
When we did a chat review of Helplessness Blues when it was released, you were a little less excited by it than I was and I ended our review by saying "...I bet you'll come around in the end." Did you?
Steve: At the time I gave it a Really Good under the rationale that their folkier sound was less my cup of tea than stuff that is more rock. To go back to something I said at the outset of this review, 2011 more than anything proves that there is room at the top for records of all variety of genre as long as they are excellent. Helplessness Blues is indeed excellent, and I would upgrade it to Great as I have it ranked #9 on my list.
Noah: Great to hear! What was your favorite album this year?
Steve: The best record of 2011 in my view is by Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces. I go a little hot and cold on The Fiery Furnaces - I admire their creativity and frenetic genre hopping, but at times they can stray a bit too far out of the box for my tastes. Eleanor Friedberger's solo album - Last Summer - takes a deep breath and backs off the more rock/uptempo pace we've come to expect from the duo.
The result is an excellent example of a singer-songwriter album, one that pays homage to the 70s - the high point for that genre - and an album that surprises and satisfies at every turn. Ten songs, each one its own entity, each one excellent. My album of the year is Last Summer by Eleanor Friedberger. Though I featured "My Mistakes" as a song of the day - one of my top songs of the year, I'd like to feature "I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight" in this spot.
Noah: That's an album I've never heard a second of. Clearly I'll have to catch up on that one as well.
Steve: Let me also say - now that we're done, I'm excited to read some of the other lists out there. I have kept myself from peeking at Pitchfork, NPR, The AV Club, and listening to Sound Opinions' takes on the best music of the year so as to keep my process as clean as possible. Now that I get to dig into those it's going to be like Christmas all over again.
Noah: Pitchfork's Album of the Year is going to piss you off. So that's my Christmas all over again, I guess.