I didn’t hear any records this year that filled me with a zeal to shout from the rooftops. (Last year’s The Long Surrender by Over the Rhine did that, and it remains my favorite record of the last several years.)
Nevertheless, 2011 was still a year full of extraordinary music. Here are a number of albums that I spent time with over and over again in the car while driving and under headphones while writing….
Runners-up (listed in no particular order):
The Antlers – Burst Apart
I enjoyed this record more than their celebrated debut, Hospice. But this one held up better for me, particularly because of the beautiful “headphones experience,” and the number of strong songs. (Hospice was more of a concept album, and it wore out its welcome for me with its insistence on minimalism.) Nevertheless, part of the excitement of this record is the way it makes me lean forward, eager to hear what’s next in the rise of an intriguing band.
Iron and Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
Stepping out of the hushed, minimalist sound that won him a huge, enthusiastic audience, Sam Beam released The Shepherd’s Dog in 2007. It made sense that he’d want to expand his range and play with new colors. But that album was a swing to an opposite extreme, the production too boisterous, the giddy layering of new sounds overwhelming. Kiss Each Other Clean, by contrast, is a swing back toward the middle — pleasingly fresh and interesting and playful compared to the solemn, whispered earnestness of those early recordings, and yet not so crowded that that leave our ears wondering where to start. As per usual, the lyrics are sometimes beautiful, but sometimes a little too close to something increasingly predictable as “Iron & Wine Brand.”
Bon Iver – Bon Iver
The year’s most popular indie album has some incredibly gorgeous sounds. Nothing I heard this year sounded better under headphones. I just wish he been more welcoming in his lyrics, which sometimes seem deliberately cryptic and puzzling. “Holocene” is one of my favorite musical moments of the year, even better when accompanying the music video.
They Might Be Giants – Join Us
Their best album since John Henry, (17 years ago!)… and the first in a long time to make me believe that these guys still really care about making music together. Strong and engaging and funny and clever all the way through.
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
There are enough high points on this album for me that I still have a copy ready at hand months after its release. But as I said about Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, I’m a little mystified by the “Album of the Year” accolades I hear coming from all directions for this one. Both albums are worthy of praise, sure. Fleet Foxes’ precision harmonies and impeccable musicianship are certainly admirable, sometimes beautiful. Their lyrics full of the kind of poetry that a hotshot 21-year-old English major might write during a phase of obsession with the late-60s and early-70s. I enjoy this as I listen to it, but they seem a little too preoccupied with a certain sound for the songs to stand out distinctly in my mind (a problem I also have with Sun Kil Moon).
Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow
Kate Bush – Director’s Cut
One my favorite art-rock imaginations came back in vivid colors this year with an album of inspired reinventions of past material and a new album called 50 Words for Snow that finds more than 50 ways to sound wintry, chilly, and haunting.
Milk Carton Kids – Prologue
A brilliant fusion of Simon and Garfunkel’s harmonies with Flight of the Conchords humor with the musical stylings of Rawlings and Welch. They sound like the guys you knew from college who are destined to become a very big deal. They’re also a whole lot of fun live. (I saw them perform three times this year.)
Robert Deeble – Heart Like Feathers
Beautifully produced, Robert Deeble’s finest effort draws you into its hushed, reverent, meditative groove. Funded by the fans, it was worth every penny. And any record that brings Victoria Williams back to the stage is an event in itself. I admit, I’m a little biased, as Robert Deeble is one of the only musicians to ever bless the Thomas Parker Society gatherings with his music, but when he does we know that we are blessed.
Buddy Miller – The Majestic Silver Strings
Some of the world’s greatest guitarists get together to collaborate on some classic country and rock songs, and the results are consistently impressive. They’re joined by some of my favorite vocalists, like Julie Miller and Emmylou Harris.
Tom Waits – Bad As Me
While this sounds a little too much like Waits’ and Brennan’s attempt to take Waits’ earlier material and refashion it for radio singles and accessibility, it’s still an hour with Tom Waits being himself… and that’s reason enough to put this on a favorites list.
TV On the Radio – Nine Types of Light
Wilco – The Whole Love
Two great bands deliver some of their best-ever material, but both of these albums are worth mentioning more for the strength of their best tracks. In Wilco’s case, the opening and closing songs are worth the price of admission.
Adele – 21
The most over-played-in-coffee-shops album of the year, but when you sit down and focus on it, you cannot deny that this is a knockout performance by a voice born for greatness. This was the best “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee” music for my Monday morning commute.
Lucinda Williams – Blessed
I haven’t been this excited bout a Lucinda Williams recording since Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The title track is especially memorable and rewarding.
David Bazan – Strange Negotiations
Musically, this album doesn’t find David Bazan breaking any new ground, but his lyrics and his vocals here show that he is not resting on his laurels but still seeking, still wrestling, still growing stronger and more insightful with each record. The opening track, which has a riff that sounds like a lost track from The Cure at their height, and the title track are especially compelling here. (Again, Jeff Keuss has a lot of good things to say on this one.) This one didn’t grab me right away, but the more time I spent with it, the more rewarding I found it to be.
Elbow – Build Rocket Boys!
I’ve been following Elbow for a while, thinking that they had the potential to become a great band. I felt the same way about Coldplay early on, but they seemed to settle for comfortable, crowdpleasing pop, losing the adventurousness and lyrical imagination that I find compelling. Where Coldplay has been idling, Elbow has gone on improving. This is the record I’ve been waiting for from them. They have the gift for irresistible hooks that Coldplay has, but their lyrics are far more affecting and engaging, in my opinion. What’s more, they have a lead singer who commands attention and, in time, becomes so much more than “that guy who sounds like Peter Gabriel.” This album is so full of insightful, wistful reflections on childhood and the speed with which our lives rush by that it chokes me up at several points.
Aaron Strumpel – Birds
Imagine that the Holy Spirit swept into a nightclub, inspiring everyone into a frenzy. Imagine that the band invited the audience to bring all of their hurt and hallelujahs onstage. Imagine they handed out horns, harmonicas, hammers and nails. And then imagine that they unleashed a joyful noise — a boot-stompin’, hand-clappin’ brouhaha of joy, declaring to each other and to their Maker, ‘I’m yours, and you’re mine!’ Aaron Strumpel’s Birds, a triumphant sequel to his groundbreaking album Elephants, sounds a lot like that. You can listen to it and buy it here at Aaron’s Bandcamp site.
Joe Henry – Reverie
Four. Four albums in a row. No weak songs, no second-rate performances, no lyrics less than poetic and poignant. And not only that, he’s the most exciting producer in music these days. Joe Henry rules.
And this time, if he weren’t such a humble guy, you could call this “showing off,” because he’s called up his friends (the best session band going) and recorded a masterful work in his own basement in a matter of hours, with the windows open to the world, every creaking chair and every barking dog caught on the tape.
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Ferocious, fearless, literary, and compelling, this album shows that Harvey is still a pioneer. Her best work may be ahead of her. Rather than go on, I’ll just send you over to Jeff Keuss’s blog, where he is quite eloquent about the greatness of this record.
Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest
Was the eight-year wait worth it? Yes. Sounds like Welch and Rawlings finally found their way back to the well they were drinking from when they recorded Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (The Revelator).
They also produced a strong candidate for my favorite album cover of all time. (Watch the video.)
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Still the most exciting newcomer on rock’s stage. Watching her perform this material live at Seattle’s new film-theater-turned-music-venue, the Neptune, I found it difficult to believe I was watching a human being. The names that come to mind for comparison as I watch her vision unfold are nothing short of “Bowie” and “Byrne.” Strange Mercy is an album that swings between simmering rage and ferocious tantrums that call into question the America of our patriotic anthems, the destructive assumptions in marriages and families, and the roles we expect one another to play. I can hardly contain myself when she breaks into the defiant anthem, “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more.” At the show, I said to my friend Nathan, “She’s going to open with “Cheerleader.” And she did. We all sang along and we meant it.
Sam Phillips – Cameras in the Sky
At the end of her most prolific and inspired year of music – the five-EP, 50+ song music-subscription program called The Long Play – Sam Phillips broke away from breakup songs and looking backward, looking toward a bright future full of new ideas. She delivered a full-length album, Cameras in the Sky, that stands as one of her most imaginative recordings. Alas, it’s also destined to remain her most undiscovered and overlooked. But the fans who have remained faithful have been rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. It was a great year for Sam. Not only did she show that she’s pursuing even bigger ideas than she has before, she also received the Denise Levertov Award from Image at a special event in Seattle, where she broke her two-year absence from the stage with a riveting performance, backed up by her new husband, Eric Gorfain of The Section Quartet.
Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What
You’ve gotta give credit to one of rock history’s masters who is still improving at 70. This is a jubilant and beautiful as any record he’s recorded. And isn’t it interesting that the Almighty and his Only Begotten Son become more and more prominent characters in his whimsical, poignant storytelling the older he gets?
Radiohead – The King of Limbs
Just watch this live performance of the album (which rivals the performances on the album in many ways). Me, I listen to this and I do not understand what Radiohead fans are complaining about. While it’s quieter, more patient, more exploratory than a lot of Radiohead’s music, it’s no less inventive, no less interesting, and it stays with me every bit as much as In Rainbows or Amnesiac.
The opening notes of any of these songs still send me scrambling for the remote control to turn up the volume. It doesn’t matter if these guys burst out of the gate with groundbreaking new sounds of if they withdraw (as they do here) into murmurs and whispers and mellow grooves: they’re still the most commanding presence on the rock and roll stage. This one will get every bit as much play on my stero as everything they’ve done since OK Computer.
In the body of my music collection, U2 and Over the Rhine power the chambers of the big beating heart, Sam Phillips lives in the sectors of the brain given to thinking, and Radiohead runs the big, kaleidoscopic imagination. I stand with my friend, writer David Dark, who said:
I have in mind here the distinction between liking a song (or a text, an image, a poem) and receiving it. … “Do you like Radiohead?” I’m asked. “Not only do I like Radiohead. I believe Radiohead.” Radiohead changes things for me. I want to be what I believe they’re up to; with my life.
Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal – Chamber Music
Once in a while, a couple of musicians get together and discover sounds, chemistry, and resonance that makes you think they were born for this moment, this collaboration. This is one of those occasions.
Once in a while, I find an album of instrumental music that sounds as if it was recorded to deliver something I needed. During my late teens, I drank from the deep well of an album called Inner Voices, a collaboration between bassist David Friesen and keyboardist Jeff Johnson. In college, it was Peter Gabriel’s Passion, a meditation on the sufferings of Christ manifested by musicians from all over the world. In more recent years, it’s been the film compositions of Zbignew Priesner for films by Krzystof Kieslowski.
Like those, Chamber Music speaks to me directly. What is it saying? This is instrumental music. That doesn’t mean it’s wordless. It just means that the words are bigger and fuller than than my humble English vocabulary can manage. What I hear pours into my weary, aching heart like sunlight after many days of storms.
It’s a dialogue between traditional African music and European classical sounds, carried on by Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal.
Recorded in Mali in 2009, these duets are patient explorations of resonance and improvisation that never feels manipulated to deliver “hooks” or to persuade anybody on either side of the geographical and stylistic divide. It’s a slow stroll beside deep, still waters.
You’ll enjoy it best if you play it on a good stereo, in a warm room with hardwood floors, so that the bass can really resonate and the performances can breathe. Since Anne and I first listened to this three weeks ago, it’s been our evening music of choice. Playful, intuitive, and never showy, these two musicians I’ve never heard before have given me the album I know I’ll be playing more often than anything else that arrived in 2011.