The Best Albums of 2011

Many people called 2011 one of the best years for music in a long time. While I haven’t been interested in music long enough to affirm that statement, I do know that I discovered some great albums, by both baby-faced newcomers and grizzled veterans alike. My favorite albums of 2011 are a pretty diverse bunch, but luckily they all have the important qualities of being accessible and rewarding. Give them a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

 

10. Deer Tick – Divine Providence

It’s quite a departure from their previous 3 albums, but Divine Providence is filled with the kind of boozy rock and roll that you wish you knew more of. Straying away from their signature alt-country/folk sound, Deer Tick manages to release 12 solid songs with titles such as “Let’s All Go to the Bar” and “Clownin’ Around,” both of which perfectly summarize the energy, carelessness, and generally raucous nature of the album. Listen, drink, repeat.
For fans of: forty minutes of rollicking good fun.

 

9. Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math

It was always going to be difficult (nigh impossible) for ManOrch to top their 2009 album Mean Everything to Nothing, at least in my book. Simple Math has its moments of greatness (Pensacola, April Fool), but ultimately falls a little short. The level of production has increased tremendously, which works for some songs, but the persistent “smooth” sound tends to take away from what could have been an absolutely superb follow up to one of my favorite albums ever. A gallant effort, with some really great songs, but inevitably somewhat disheartening.
For fans of: powerful rock with a few too many string arrangements.

 

8. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

For many of favorite bands, 2011 seemed to be a year for change. Bright Eyes was no exception. The People’s Key completely abandons songwriter Conor Oberst’s often folksy sound in favor of jangling 80s guitars and buzz-saw synths. This doesn’t take away from the usual insightful songwriting, though. Rather, the new sounds only add to the already intricately layered album. Oberst is a man who’s going to do what he wants, and he’s going to do it well.
For fans of: Did I mention that the album contains several monologues about lizard aliens controlling Earth?

 

7. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

To start, let me say that Strange Mercy was one of the most peculiar records I listened to this year. Normally, my musical tastes are somewhat tame, but there was something special about this album that I couldn’t (and still can’t) capture in words. Perhaps it’s the sheer creativity that’s appealing; the album has it in spades. Maybe it’s the way Annie Clark’s ethereal voice seems to rise and fall, melting in and out of the soundscapes with her trusty electric guitar. Regardless, inside of the strange chord changes, eclectic guitar playing, and obscure lyrics lies something special that’s unapparent on the surface. Strange Mercy is an album that needs to be heard to be believed.
For fans of: hipster-approved art pop

 

6. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling’s third album, is full of folk songs that are both intimate and robust, oftentimes simultaneously. She channels Bob Dylan in the way her songs are both fiercely original, yet accessible. The lyrics are poetic, evoking a bygone style of language that’s too often forgotten in today’s music. At the ripe young age of 21, Laura Marling has released three albums to critical acclaim and won the hearts of many fans the world over. Makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life.
For fans of: Bob Dylan, female empowerment, language

 

5. Childish Gambino – Camp

It seems like every year a hip hop album always seems to sneak its way onto my list. This year it’s no different, and Childish Gambino’s Camp happens to be the album of choice. For the unfamiliar, Childish Gambino is the rap name of Donald Glover, a multitalented guy who has written for 30 Rock and currently stars on the NBC show Community. This being said, Camp sounds like it was made for fans of these shows. Glover spits out verses at breakneck pace, referencing everything from Rugrats to Sufjan Stevens to The Human Centipede, and beyond. The album is just the right mix of swagger, pop culture, and clever, self-conscious songwriting.
For fans of: NBC’s Thursday night comedy, alarming numbers of sexual reference

 

4. The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

Breezy, reverb-tinged, retro pop-rock that warrants repeated play during the summer months. What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? took over my June and July, providing the energy and sun-soaked enthusiasm I usually needed to start my day. Most of the songs on the album clock in under three minutes, bobbing along with a kind of youthful carelessness that I rarely find anymore in music. With the kind of emotional and musical weight seen elsewhere on this list, it’s nice to have a band just play for a while. It’s a debut from four young lads from England; what did you expect from The Vaccines?
For fans of: garage rock, sunshine, happiness

 

3. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

For an album I didn’t get into until mid-December, it sure made an impact. With Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 somehow creates a soundtrack to my dreams. Call it what you will (I like indietronica), the songs on this ambitious, sprawling double-album get lodged in your head and refuse to let go. There are catchy 80s-esque pop songs (Midnight City, OK Pal), soft and hopeful ballads (Soon, My Friend), and even an entire song dedicated to a young girl’s dream about frogs (Raconte-Moi Une Histoire). Sometimes I’ll forget I’m listening to the album. It’s not because it’s forgettable or boring; it’s because the songs somehow mesh with my mind in a way that’s incomprehensible, yet comforting.
For fans of: eclectic French electropop, music getting inside your head.

 

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

We all know the story about Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon abandoning society and embracing heartbreak to write his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. In his sophomore, self-titled effort, he abandons his solitary gig and invites friends. The result is a staggering. Layers of sound and instrument float in and out tracks, all supported by Vernon’s ghostly falsetto. The album has great depth, both musically and lyrically. Vernon writes in a kind of stunted, ambiguous, and image-rich style that any Modernist poet would be proud of. This vagueness is countered, curiously, by his song titles; many of them are references to places, either specific (Minnesota, WI, Calgary) or imaginary (Hinnom, TX). Always an enigma, Justin Vernon and Bon Iver manage to create one of the best albums of the year, a slice of sonic beauty that everyone should hear.
For fans of: having to chew your music before you swallow it

 

1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Every time I listen to Fleet Foxes, I want to go outside. Whether rain or shine, sun or snow, the images conjured up by Robin Pecknold and Co. make me want to run outdoors. It’s not that the songs are specifically about nature in a literal sense. They tend to be tiny snapshots of a moment in time, captured flawlessly in the mood of the music and the language of the lyrics. The songs propel me into the open because they’re full of life. They’re full of the kinds of soaring melodies, fantastic imagery, and heartfelt lyricism that seem bigger than oneself. In the title song, Pecknold sings about how we’re raised believing being unique and self-serving is the best way to live. In the same verse, however, he sings: “And now, after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be/A functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.” This is the great triumph of Helplessness Blues; it’s an album that functions as something greater than the sum of its individual parts. It’s about life, and why we’re living it.
For fans of: honest and life-affirming folk music, crazy awesome harmonies

Well, that’s the list. Definitely pick up or listen to these albums. If you’re cheap, they can all be found on Spotify. If you find me on there, I have a playlist which contains a couple songs from each album. Check it out here: Best Albums of 2011.

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Published in: on January 11, 2012 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Watch the Throne

Jay Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne

To put it simply, Watch the Throne is just two friends having fun. Granted, these friends are two of the most popular and influential musicians of the past decade, which makes it nigh impossible to approach the album objectively. To say expectations were high would be an understatement. That expectation, unfortunately, seems to seep through to many of the tracks on Watch the Throne, a confusing jumble of gross narcissism, bombastic production, and, sometimes, earnest songwriting. You can tell that Jay Z and Kanye West are enjoying themselves here, but this enjoyment somehow doesn’t translate to their audience. They knew what we expected, recorded it, and had fun along the way.

The album begins with “No Church in the Wild.” It’s the first track, but also a good one with which to compare the rest of the album. The moderate pace, smooth synths, and simple-yet-driving bass beat typify many of the other songs on Watch the Throne. It feels a little forced, and a lot uninspired. Much like the many of the other songs on the album, Jay Z and Kanye’s verses are nothing more than adequate, and never a driving force. This trend continues into the second song, “Lift Off.” It features a glorious chorus sung by Beyonce, rapping in 3/4 time, horns, pianos, and everything you’d want in hip-hop. Yet even though all the ingredients are there, it still fails to land, due to the dull presence of Jay Z and Kanye. They’re superstars, but somehow fall short of their own image. We see them as the rulers of hip hop, and, as the title of the album suggests, that’s how they see themselves. It’s this disconnect, this self-absorbed, self-interested mindset that damages not only their accessibility, but their music. We all love a champion, someone that’s larger-than-life, yet when that champion realizes who he is and what he holds, the illusion falls away. What we’re left with is how Jay Z and Kanye West present themselves on most of this album: a couple of mega-rich, important, self-proclaimed kings. The flaws are gone, along with what made their music so exciting in the first place.

That’s not to say that Watch the Throne doesn’t have its gems, though. The album’s lead sing “Otis,” while not a huge step forward, is catchy and unique, capturing the soulful aspect of the respective artists’ previous work. The track works because Jay Z and Kanye West work, spitting out verses one after the other and forcing themselves into the spotlight. The song’s hook threatens to take over, but Jay and Ye never let it do so. Another track that stands out is “New Day.” Like “Otis,” the focus this time is more on rapping, and the lyrical content takes over. It contains some of the most honest verses on the album, with Kanye and Jay Z taking turns telling about how they would treat their future sons. Lyrics like “I just want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life/Just want him to be someone people like” show a side of Kanye that we’ve rarely seen before, especially on Watch the Throne. The view inside their minds becomes a lot more interesting than what they choose to show of their lives outside.

The expectation was impossibly high, but instead of rising to meet the challenge, Jay Z and Kanye West shrank back into what was comfortable and what was fun. Many of the tracks are eye-rollingly, head-shakingly self-important, and, frankly, uninspired. As a whole, Watch the Throne doesn’t live up to the hype, but among the mediocre you can find some real moments of hip-hop magic. Watch the Throne is definitely worth listening to, if just for the experience of a Jay Z and Kanye West collaboration, yet in the end seems to fall a little short of what both artists have proven they’re capable of.

Grade: B-

For Fans Of: swag, synths, smugness, soul

Published in: on August 12, 2011 at 4:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Ok, I’ll admit it. I wasn’t a huge fan of Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma Forever Ago. I know I know, it was supposed to be one of the best records in the last decade or whatever. I liked it and all, but I still just didn’t feel a connection. The story behind that album is something of mythical proportions. A man, Justin Vernon, heartbroken and recovering from illness, secludes himself in a cabin at the edge of the woods and the world. Months later he emerges with a work of art in which he bared his soul and reluctantly releases it to incredible critical and popular success. It sounds like a generic Sundance film, I know, but this is real life we’re talking about. As amazing as Vernon’s story sounds, it gets better. Bon Iver got even bigger, with songs like “Skinny Love” getting massive airplay and collaborations with other artists, such as Kanye West, filling his schedule. But, like I said, for me Bon Iver was only another name in my ever-revolving cast of favorite musicians, albeit one that was just slightly over-hyped.

So, for Vernon and Bon Iver’s latest album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I’m glad, though, because whatever random, meandering preconceptions I had about this album were destined to become absolutely shattered out of existence.

The album, in many ways, is everything that Bon Iver’s previous album, For Emma, Forever Ago was, and everything that it wanted to be or could have been. It holds the feeling of sparseness that For Emma so beautifully created. It contains Vernon’s celestial voice, an instrument unto itself. It exudes intense and often inexplicable emotion. It has all of these things. But instead of faithfully recreating earlier success, Justin Vernon follows a different proverbial path to the cabin in the woods, this one filled not with loneliness but with friendship and optimism. He abandons the stripped-down approach of his debut in favor of collaboration with a number of notable musicians. There are over 15 musicians appearing on this album, but you wouldn’t know it. The intimate feeling is still there through all of the layers, wrapping the listener up in an enigmatic blanket of sound, emotion, and poetry.

While with other albums it’s easy to recognize the standout tracks, Bon Iver, Bon Iver plays much more like an album than anything I’ve heard in a long time. It’s not a random collection of songs but a carefully-constructed vision. It’s hard to start one song without listening to the one before and the one after. I find myself starting the album at the beginning and listening completely through every time, never starting somewhere in the middle or putting the same song on repeat. That’s not to say that some tracks aren’t completely excellent, however. “Holocene” is the best song released this year, with its slowly grooving melodies, sparse vocals, and wandering acoustic guitar. “Wash.”, another great track, is almost a subtle nod to the band’s past, tinkling piano and mournful strings in tow. The last song on the album, “Beth/Rest”, constitutes a great leap forward. From the start, it’s obvious Vernon is heavily referencing cheesy 80’s pop acts, such as Peter Gabriel. The scary thing is that it works. It’s still an emotional and engaging track, and the perfect song to close the album.

It’s hard to classify this album. Bon Iver (derived from the French for “good winter”), isn’t just something that you can listen to on a cold, December day. It’s also perfect for summer days with the windows rolled down. It’s an emotional album, but it’s not just one that you have to be introspective to enjoy. It’s capable of changing it’s shape and significance to whatever you happen to be feeling at the moment. Therein lies Bon Iver, Bon Iver‘s innate beauty. It’s anything you want it to be: heartfelt, casual, optimistic, lonely, intimate, grandiose. The list goes on. What’s important about this album was what I thought was missing in Bon Iver’s previous effort; its ability to empathize. A personal connection with the music. We can’t all live out our own personal legends and seclude ourselves in the Wisconsin woods, but with Bon Iver, Bon Iver and through Justin Vernon, we’re able to do that and more. A triumph for Vernon and music itself, Bon Iver, Bon Iver stands as a testament to music and its connection to our hearts, our minds, and our souls.

Grade: A

For fans of: insane falsetto vocals, experiencing the power of music.

Published in: on June 24, 2011 at 7:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Simple Math

Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math

With 2006’s I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child and 2009’s Mean Everything To Nothing, Manchester Orchestra proved to be one of most promising and exciting bands in recent years. Their fresh approach to rock and roll combined influences as diverse as Nirvana and The Beach Boys to create music that was at once both powerful and intimate. Their newest album, Simple Math, continues that trend of polarizing emotion, with songs ranging from poppy (“Pensacola”) to whispery (“Leaky Breaks”) to epic (“Simple Math”).

Upon first listen, Simple Math didn’t grab me the same way Manchester Orchestra’s previous two albums did. The music seemed overly-produced and self-indulgent, while the usual stellar lyrics were more indecipherable than ever. With each consecutive listen, however, I began to put together the pieces. The once enigmatic lyrics began to take shape, morphing from seeming obscurity to an emotional confession of lead singer Andy Hull’s relationship with his wife. Deeply personal episodes and experiences from his life are detailed in song, with most of them taking on the somber tone so prevalent in Manchester Orchestra’s previous releases. Lines such as “As if there’s something worse/to have weaned away your worth/when I was so absurd/Well, is there something worse?” are characteristic of the intimacy that Andy Hull chooses to share with his audience.

Musically, the album is a step forward for the band. Where Mean Everything To Nothing owed considerable credit to the early 90’s rock scene, Simple Math has moved past the fuzzy and distorted guitar to create a sound that is more wholly their own. While tracks such as “April Fool” are reminders of the past, most of the songs on the album are a welcome jump forward. The songwriting is more mature, more diverse, and most importantly, more ambitious. The band could have easily imitated the commercial and critical success of Mean Everything To Nothing with another angry, loud indie-rock opus. Instead, Andy Hull and his band-mates push the sonic boundaries and construct a meaningful album that deserves repeated listens to fully appreciate.

Manchester Orchestra beat the sophomore slump and set a high standard for themselves with 2009’s Mean Everything To Nothing. Simple Math is a more than deserving follow-up, one of those albums that must be understood to be praised. It takes a little work, but without solving Simple Math the listener will be missing out on one of the best albums so far in 2011.

Grade: B+

For Fans Of: raw, honest rock albums that follow the old adage, “good things come to those who wait.”

Published in: on June 13, 2011 at 8:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Best Albums of 2010

In 2010, I got back to my roots. With a few exceptions, slick, polished production and synth-heavy music is on the way out for me. This year was all about the connection, that simple feeling you get when you feel close to the music. Folk music and rock and roll were my two vices for the year, with all of their rawness, honesty, and simple beauty. It was music I felt related to me. Maybe not in that complicated, self-actualization kind of way, but in the simple-things-in-life kind of way.

The results are in, and here are, with no further ado, my favorite albums of 2010.

10 River City Extension – The Unmistakable Man

This is the kind of record I’ve always wanted to write: 50% folk, 40% rock, 10% funk. Full of memorable and quotable lyrics, ranging from optimistic to despairing, everyone can find something to love in this album. Whether you are feeling bubbly or full of gloom, I guarantee there is a song on this album that will empathize with you. For a first album, it sure is impressive. Plus, the lead singer has a really sweet beard.For fans of: another ridiculously talented band from New Jersey.

9. Bad Books – Bad Books

Ok, I admit it; I have a serious man-crush on Andy Hull. The man is the voice of Manchester Orchestra, for crying out loud, only the best band since, like, forever. When I heard of Bad Books, his new side project with Kevin Devine, I was salivating. The album, at its best, can compete with anything MO ever put out. Unfortunately, the album is somewhat overburdened with simple, acoustic songs that could be an Andy Hull or Kevin Devine b-side. Despite this, it is still full of the memorable melodies, rawness, and lyrics that has come to become Andy Hull’s trademark.
For fans of: the inevitable highs and lows of listening to your favorite songwriter.

8. AM Taxi – We Don’t Stand A Chance

AM Taxi may be the best rock band you’ve never heard of. Their sound lies somewhere between classic pop-punk and great American rock ‘n roll, filled with distorted guitars and sing-along choruses. I stumbled upon AM Taxi randomly, and after one song I was hooked. This is one of the bands that I’m amazed aren’t more popular (although I heard one of their songs in a commercial recently…). If you’re looking for something smooth to go with that mosh pit mentality, this may be your band.
For fans of: impressing your hipster friends with a band THEY haven’t heard of.

7. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Thank the Lord, folk is popular once more. From the shores of England hail these four disgustingly talented guys, who apparently can all play each other’s instruments. Everyone is listening to Mumford & Sons nowadays, and that makes me very happy indeed. How can you hate a band that references Shakespeare and Steinbeck whilst strumming banjos? Try. You can’t. This is their first record, and they’ve already been nominated for two Grammys. Here’s to the future.
For fans of: foot stompin’ folk music that even your mother may like.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

What more is there to say? From the nude female on the cover to the baroque instrumentation throughout, everything is simply Kanye. The man does what he wants, and he does it better than anyone. Yeezy always said he was the best, and with this album he proves it. If this is what our children will see as the popular music of our time, I’m ok with that. Hip-hop at its absolute finest.
For fans of: vanity resulting in genius. Or is it the other way around?

5. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

To be honest, I spent most of this year playing catch-up to Sufjan’s impressive catalog of music. I fell in love with his 2005 album Illinois, and came into this album expecting something similar (think delicate orchestral folk). I have never been more wrong. The Age of Adz is seizure-inducing symphony of bleeps, bloops, and string quartets. If Beethoven had access to electronica and synths, this might have been his Ode to Joy. Sufjan is the ultimate tortured artist, and you can hear every emotion: the chaos, helplessness, fear, and doubt.
For fans of: bravery and tolerance for true originality.

4. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

Have you ever thought about combining Abraham Lincoln, early steel warships and blistering indie-punk? Didn’t think so. Luckily, Titus Andronicus did. They’ve created an album so sprawling, ambitious, explosive, and sloppy that it’s hard to put down. Equal parts Conor Oberst and The Pogues, it is a furious and intelligent take on punk rock that is hard to equal. Another gem to come out of the (questionable) state of New Jersey, this is something you don’t want to miss.
For fans of: binge-drinking, fighting, The Civil War.

3. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

Sometimes, less is more. Whether we’re talking about minimalist art or the amount of Taco Bell you should order, it is certainly a principle with a lot of truth. For The Tallest Man on Earth (aka Kristian Matsson), a 27 year-old folk singer from Sweden, it definitely applies. His music is touching, sparse, poetic, and, at times, truly beautiful. For a Swedish guy, he sure knows his words. A Dylan for the modern age, if there ever was one.
For fans of: boundless and optimistic poetry set to a galloping acoustic guitar.

2. Steel Train – Steel Train

This album was a long time coming. After their somewhat folky 2005 album Twilight Tales from the Prairies of the Sun and the darker Trampoline (2007), they’ve finally found their voice. From the summer anthem that is Bullet to the Beatles-esque Bloody Lips, this album is a fun, raucous romp through 40 minutes of pitch-perfect pop-rock. The soundtrack to any summer.
For fans of: riding in your car during those blissful, lazy summer days.

1. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

What can I say? I love me some good old fashioned rock ‘n roll. The music embraces the “Jersey Shore” sound (ala Springsteen), and I mean that in the least MTV way possible. If Snooki was a 20-something, tattooed, angry, intelligent man who rocked your face off this may be what she would sound like. Ten anthems full of honest rock music, American Slang is the best album of 2010, and one you do not want to miss. This may be one of the most genuine, hardworking bands in music today.
For fans of: making your friends jealous of your edgy yet refined taste in music.

I encourage everyone to pick up these albums. You won’t be disappointed.

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 10:49 pm  Leave a Comment