Saturday, December 17, 2011

ten of eleven (part 2)

The Ten Best Albums of 2011

There is no particular ranking to these albums except for the top three, which to me, represent the absolute best musical offerings of 2011.

Here you go:

1. The Year of Hibernation (Youth Lagoon): This magnificent, quiet, subtle, huge record is my favorite album of 2011. Trevor Powers is this kid from Idaho who created a totally unique sound through which he threads some wickedly insightful lyrics. The Year of Hibernation is a personal work, introspective and sometimes defiant. Powers intended the effort for nobody but himself, but the results went viral after he paid from his own pocket to host a few downloads. The album rings with honesty and doubt, the stagnant reek from a trapped lagoon of youth in this go-nowhere opportunity-devoid era. I love this small and hopeful monument. It will be interesting to see what the kid comes up with next, but I am almost afraid that the simple rawness of the sound and structure of Powers' work will be engineered away by the handlers who will undoubtedly gobble Youth Lagoon up. Buy this album. Drink from the lagoon. It is brimming with greatness.

2. Parallax (Atlas Sound): Oh Bradford Cox. You are such a twisted and addictive talent. Parallax is lonely, harrowing, terrifying -- all the things that make Cox so scary and compelling. You cannot turn away from Bradford Cox. He is like driving slowly past a field of beheadings. This album is intense, ambitious, and crazy. Cox says this work is about his desperate loneliness. Then he throws a hollow pop number like Mona Lisa to belt the equator of this demented world of Parallax. It is a tight album, even better than Logos. Cox crashes down, an alien on this godless planet, hungry for everything and stranded in a desert. Bradford Cox is every bit as lovably doomed and sad as Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim. It is almost too much. Cox himself admits his dystopian Flagstaff makes him want to vomit. And I can't tear myself away from that cut. Parallax is in many ways reminiscent of Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest (last year's Bradford Cox masterpiece), but perhaps more absorbing and deeply sinister. Spend some time with this one.

3. The Rip Tide (Beirut): A sub-compact model in terms of playtime, but what a listenable and haunting gem this album is. The Rip Tide is the manifestation of the maturation of Zach Condon's musical development, both as a lyricist and musician. There is no band that sounds so simultaneously joyous, unique, and hypnotic. The only disappointment is the limited, 9-song playlist on this focused and relevant record. Keep it on replay. It is just that good.

4. Days (Real Estate): I liked Real Estate when they released their first stuff back in 2009. At that time, people didn't know how to get a handle on these New Jersey kids who sounded all throwbackish (I get a strong Byrds vibe from them). They really came into their stride with Days. Here's what makes an album hit my list: You have to be yourself, own the sound, so there's no doubt it's you we're listening to. Real Estate is so tasty in the sound department, so chilly and so evocative of the best influences in American Pop/Rock, but they really own their sound. Nice.

5. Burst Apart (The Antlers): Okay. Would I be a bad person if I admitted up front that The Antlers' album Hospice is one of the greatest albums ever made? When you make an album like Hospice, it's like everything else you do has to measure up, and I'll admit that I did not think Burst Apart could do it. I was wrong. Go home now and listen to Putting the Dog to Sleep, or Parentheses, for that matter. There is something disjointed in the themes within Burst Apart, but that is the essence, I think, of bursting apart. Singer-songwriter Peter Silberman apparently has a lot of shit to get off his chest, and he does it in a way that sounds and feels like nobody else out there. The Antlers explode with whispered intensity. This is a great album from a great band.

6. El Camino (The Black Keys): I intentionally waited to compile this list, because I had pre-ordered El Camino, which dropped on December 6. I knew I would write something about this album, and I half-suspected it was going to be in the sour-notes-why-did-you-do-this? section on yesterday's post. Not so. This is raunchy Black Keys magic at its gritty best. Danger Mouse's production sensibilities are impeccable. Everything sounds like it comes from inside your head, and your head is a dirty garage, where, quite possibly some heroin has been slammed or someone got whacked with a torque wrench. Nobody can touch Dan Auerbach's guitar playing or his vocals. This album may have hit my top three if I had more time to spend with it. Listen to Little Black Submarines, and for God's sake, turn it up to full volume. Thank you, Black Keys, for this December present.

7. Bon Iver (Bon Iver): Sigh. Oh Justin Vernon. You are just so freaking magnificent.This follow-up album to Vernon's highly personal For Emma, Forever Ago incorporates some new blends of sounds and layers, but the final product is distinctly Bon Iver through and through. Now that you've done this, Justin, I'd most like to see you strip it down and put out a raw, acoustic product with a single-track vocal. You can do it, and I can wait. But this album is pure beauty.

8. Father, Son, Holy Ghost (Girls): I so wanted to put Girls' 2010 Broken Dreams Club on last year's 10 Best list. But it was an EP. It was also one of my favorite releases of 2010. I was definitely not disappointed with Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Who can resist an album with an epic, raunchy, Pink-Floydesque song about obsessive love, called Vomit? This album is so very good. Again, it belongs on this list because there is nothing else like it at all, it rocks, and you will love it when you hear it. That is all. And one more thing: the structure of the songwriting. Brilliant.

9. Dye It Blonde (Smith Westerns): This album might be the surprise on the list. I have a feeling the other nine have popped up on lots of overlap music lists. Hear this: I did not forget you, Smith Westerns, even though this neat and twangy album came out way back in January of 2011. You almost made me believe it was going to be an unstoppable (heh... that's a very inside joke) year for great music, but what you offer was enough to keep me going, I guess. They claim influences as broad as David Bowie and T. Rex, but I hear George Harrison in that guitar and the Beatles in those vocals. This is such a fresh sound, with clever lyrics that taunt our lust for fun and freedom. And besides, Smith Westerns are from Chicago. How can you not love that? If you have not heard Smith Westerns, go get this album. I believe the band still gives free downloads of the single Weekend on their website.

10. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming (M83): I did not feel compelled to add a France/trance/trippy/dance/electronic album on this list as a token for anything. As a rule, I do not like France/trance/trippy/dance/electronic stuff. But this thing is something else. It is, in fact, brilliant. And this is a huge album, too. It is Anthony Gonzalez's (AKA M83) homage (is that a French word?) to classic supersized albums of the 90s (in particular, Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness). But the similarities start and end with this album's length. Listenable, moody, mysterious, and big in sound and playtime, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming deserves its spot on this list.