Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Favorite Albums 2011 (part 1)

So, I've been perusing through various year-end lists and the one thing that I've realized is how little new music I heard in 2011. I went to NPR, I went to Sound Opinions, Stereogum, the Quietus, PopMatters, Pitchfork, and I have no idea about most of these artists/bands. Never heard of most of them. What does that mean?

Well, it means many things, but first and foremost, it means that I'm disconnected from the prevailing critical consensus. For some reason, by the end of the year, you start to see the same old records circulating in everybody's lists, and you're never sure why. Is it because everybody actually likes those albums? Or is because they don't wanna feel left out?

Second, it means that I'm disconnected from what is required listening for people who are "up-to-date." This means that my music tastes are slowly calcifying, held back a little bit more firmly every year by the accumulating inertia of a collected past. The past is a big presence in my imagination these days. In fact, the past was one of the big stories of popular culture these days, judging by the fact that one of the most thought-provoking books out this year was Simon Reynolds' Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. Just today I stumbled upon a piece in Vanity Fair about the same topic. I'll have more to say about the past in a later post, but looking at my list of my favorite albums of the year, one gets the obvious creeping realization that there's nothing really new or innovative that I'm listening to. Everything on the list could have been made in 1992, honestly. This is something that's been preying on me more and more the last few years, that all the music I've been listening to, since about 2000, kind of sounds like a facsimile--perhaps a more high-tech facsimile--of music that was around before. But then, saying that, kind of sounds like an old grandpa thing to say. "Back in my day, mumble, mumble, etc."

Either way, here is my list of 20 albums that I liked in 2011. They're mostly old bands and what not, but they did reflect music that I repeatedly heard all through the year. I tend to listen to a lot of music. A lot of music. On my headphones, walking around, at home, going to sleep, etc. At home, I rarely watch TV or anything visual--if I have the choice of watching TV or listening to music, I'll almost always opt for the latter. The main problem has been that since about 2005, my music collection has grown in leaps and bounds thanks to the internet, so I'm basically accumulating more music than I can actually listen to. My iPod currently has something like 15,262 songs. It we assume that each song is about 4 minutes long on average, that comes to about 42 days of non-stop music. So basically, there's a lot of competition for my music-listening time. So... in the battle between a new album and something old, the new one has to be really good for me to occupy my time. So what fell into that category in 2011? In alphabetical order, they are:

1. Atlas Sound - Parallax
2. Battles - Gloss Drop
3. Bombino - Agadez
4. AA Bondy - Believers
5. Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow
6. Death In Vegas - Trans-Love Energies
7. The Field - Looping State of Mind
8. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
9. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
10. Metronomy - The English Riviera
11. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
12. Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts
13. Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
14. Radiohead - The King Of Limbs
15. Real Estate - Days
16. Seefeel - Seefeel
17. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
18. Tinariwen - Tassili
19. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo
20. Wild Flag - Wild Flag

Some more detailed thoughts on the first ten on this list. In a few days, I'll have capsule reviews of the remaining ten.

1. Atlas Sound - Parallax: I've developed a fascination and respect for Bradford Cox, he of the band Deerhunter, who is obviously as obsessed with creating music as I am but has about 100 times more talent and motivation to do it. He has a wonderful imagination, not unlike Kristen Hersh, in that you imagine that his songs come out as fully formed reflections of ideas that pop into his head. And sure, some of it is self-consciously referential to the history of pop music but Cox really makes it sound so attractive and alluring, it's hard to resist. This, I think is the best of his solo albums (which he releases under the name Atlas Sound). If there's a common stylistic thread to it, it's a vague nod to early 1970s pop, embellished with modern electronics and guitars. Listen to this song, "Terra Incognito":

2. Battles - Gloss Drop: Much has been made of the fact Battles lost a key member last year, and now they are down to a three-piece band. They're about as "experimental" as any band gets in my list, but they still work within the confines of pop. This album is very much a different beast than the previous one, in that it really exudes ebbulience. There's a joy here that's kind of refreshing. The record is like a soundtrack to a party written and orchestrated by a bunch of very skilled but excited geeks. You can see that joy in this awesome live performance of the song "Futura" from this album.

Battles | Futura | A Take Away Show from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.

3. Bombino - Agadez: I don't know much about him but he's apparently from Niger (or Agadez, to be precise). The dude, whose "real" name is Omara Moctar, is a sublime guitarist, and produces something called Tuareg blues. Bombino has lived through a lot of strife and conflict, particularly a civil war within Niger involving the Tuareg minority rebelling against the central Niger government. Not sure if any of this informs his guitar-playing but it's hypnotic and mesmerizing, almost trance-inducing. A little bit like Tinariwen (see below) but more drone-ish, if that's possible.

4. AA Bondy - Believers: Back in the nineties, I used to like this band called Verbena, kind of a sub-Nirvana power trio playing punkish rock'n'roll. I liked them a lot, even saw them live once in Pittsburgh in a tiny little club where the band seemed surly and uncomfortable. Fast forward a decade, the main guy from Verbena has gone solo, completely disavowed his punk rock past, and now plays Dylanesque folkish Americana. I'm not a big fan of the genre as practiced by contemporary musicians (if I want my Dylan fix, I listen to Dylan) but Bondy is a rare gem. His songs really do sound like ghosts singing them. I had a previous post on Bondy but his new album is even more spectral and eerie than usual. It's goes along at the speed of Low backed by Galaxie 500 with the spirit of Dylan hovering by. Beautiful. Listen and reflect:

5. Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow: Kate, O Kate, wherefore art thou, O Kate? Kate is so strange. Kate is 53 years old now but we still remember her as a 20 year old when "Wuthering Heights" came out back in 1978. I don't want to rehash her career since then--others can do (and have done) that much better than I. I listened to The Whole Story all through my college years, without doubt one of the best "greatest hits" compilations ever put together. She disappeared for a while but came back with Aerial in 2005, and now in 2011, she put out two albums, one called Director's Cut, which revisits some of her latter day material, and this one, 50 Words For Snow, a brand new album that is as weird and yet old old-fashioned as one might expect from Kate Bush. When I say "old fashioned" I don't mean regressive, just that Kate Bush has a very "old world" mentality. Many of her songs are about nature, especially the misty dark wintery wisps of English nature, and this one is no different. There are songs here about the life of a snowflake, a love song to a snowman, about a lake in search of a dog, and one that summarizes 50 (somewhat absurd) words for snow. Steve Gadd (who played drums on "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and "Aja") provides subtle but wonderful percussion throughout on this largely piano-based album that has been a perfect winter companion for me.

6. Death In Vegas - Trans-Love Energies: Most people probably know Death In Vegas from the lovely "Girls" from the Lost In Translation soundtrack, and that's not a bad thing. But Death In Vegas have a much wider palette than evocative electronica; their album Dead Elvis (1997) still remains one of my favorite albums of the nineties and a fantastic journey through all manner of electronic music from four-on-the-floor techno, to hip hop, to guitar-based My Bloody Valentine-esque dance anthems. They kind of disappeared for a few years but have come back with this album (and the subsequent e.p., Medication). Trans-Love Energies has a lot of my favorite influences (kraut rock, electronic dance music, My Bloody Valentine) but it puts it all together in a pretty amazing seamless whole. If you want moody dance music that isn't always for dancing but for blissing out, this is perfect. Lead architect Richard Fearless explains his aesthetic here. There's no one song that really does justice to the album, as all the tracks are so different, but the 7+ minutes of "Your Loft" captures a little of the blissosity of the album.

7. The Field - Looping State of Mind: I have a soft spot for this guy (Alex Willner), especially his album, From Here We Go Sublime, which is the kind of techno, ambient, repetitive techno, I love. Willner, as the Field, basically takes a perfect instrumental loop and slowly adds keyboards, guitars, and all manner of noise until by the end of the song, you reach a wall of sound designed to overpower you into the great sublime. What makes this album particularly different from his prior efforts is that he appropriates a variety of other musical genres into his music, including gospel, shoegaze, house, funk, and guitar-based rock. You'd think that mixing all this stuff into one would be have the Wal-Mart effect, i.e., lots of different things no unified purpose, but amazingly this album works. It has a suitably happy (or at least upbeat) and almost transcendental vibe. I imagine that if this was around in 1967, the hippie kids would be listening to this as they swayed back-and-forth at their love-ins.

8. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake: I wrote a long review of this album for Inflatable Ferret, so I won't repeat all of what I said there. One thing I did write: "There is death everywhere on the album but the music is light, sometimes even jaunty, often pretty (as in 'Hanging in the Wire'). Where her last two albums were musically spartan, sometimes sounding incomplete or brittle, the music here is lush, full of reverb... She expands her musical palette with plinks of electric piano, xylophones, trumpets, saxophones, and strange samples... The pop centerpiece of the album is 'The Words That Maketh Murder,' an almost creepy song constructed out of a skip-dancing beat wrapped around a simple descending figure on an autoharp and a saxophone. She sings, 'I've seen and done things I want to forget / I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat / Blown and shot out beyond belief / Arms and legs were in the trees.' "

9. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming: Wow, well, what to say about this? Who makes double albums these days? Anthony Gonzalez says that he was trying to emulate the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (or The White Album). To try and create something big, huge, expansive, ambitious, sprawling, etc. His music has always been about nostalgia, but in this case, it's nostalgia for a kind of musical experience that wasn't simply about music, but about the act of buying and hearing records with sleeves, lyrics, pictures, etc., and how it used to be before everything migrated on-line. Musically, everything you need to know about the album you can figure out by watching "Midnight City" (below) which is being transmitted directly from the year 1985, sounding a lot like a track from Songs From the Big Chair (or maybe The Hurting).... but what's the harm in that? Especially if the melodies are great and the production makes you want to yearn for things that you didn't even know existed as you slide ever so further away from adolescence. In a way, this album is much more like Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (but with a much more eighties vibe) and less like (still my favorite) Saturdays=Youth which was a concise and perfect pop statement that wasn't as much looking in the rearview mirror as this one is. Still, the more I listen to Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, the more I love it for its music rather than its ambition. Great for a really long drive.

10. Metronomy - The English Riviera: Look, I don't really know much about who these people are, but they must be from the UK since they were up for the Mercury Prize (ultimately won by PJ Harvey). It's great pop music, light, breezy, catchy. A bit like Phoenix but more clever, I think, but just as eager to stay "pop" and not "rock." Surely, these guys would have intersected with Steely Dan if they'd been around in the seventies, perhaps with some plastic soul thrown in? I'm actually shocked that anyone makes this good pop music in 2011. Everyone else is either too serious or too retarded or too clever or too hip. Not these guys; Metronomy seem utterly incapable of writing a poorly conceived pop song and they make it seem effortless. Can this really be the best unabashed candy pop album of the year? You be the judge on my favorite song off the album, "The Look." (And I forgot to mention, they have the coolest looking bassist of all time).

The rest of my list in a couple of days + my favorite reissues/compilations and soundtracks. (and below, another clip from Battles doing "Futura" at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago this past summer.


ghostroad said...

I really liked Oneohtrix Point Never and can't wait to give the new Death in Vegas a listen. Also, even though it may have been released late last year, have you heard Shackleton's Fabric album? It is amazing. I've listened to almost nothing else this year. It reminds me a lot of Metal Box.

spaceman said...

Hey, I don't know Shackleton Fabric, but anything that has a Metal Box-vibe, I'll listen. Speaking of, I've been thinking of getting Metal Box on vinyl, I hear it sounds awesome that way.