Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On Warmer Music's Favorite Albums of 2011 [15-8]

I sometimes can't help but wonder why one would make both a favorite albums and favorite songs list for a given year. There's obviously bound to be a great deal of overlap between the two, why not just combine them?

Without waxing too rhapsodic about the joys of a well-crafted, contextless single or an inseparably extended musical statement, I'd like to humbly submit that there are some artists who shine over three minutes but drag over forty while others might not make songs designed to be heard on shuffle but can use mood, placement and other tools to design brilliant musical collections that demand to be appreciated as whole units.

Therefore it is with great excitement but also extreme modesty that I present my favorite albums of the past year. Bon appetit!

15. Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital  Buy it.
It was a blustery Saturday night in early January when I left the the Cheers-like comfort of my corner bar at 9:05 to hop the Fullerton bus, bound for a Handsome Furs show as part of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival. The show was a sweaty, roiling success that featured several news songs that I knew could only be the kernels of a great album. Upon it's summer release, Sound Kapital did not fail to deliver. Conceived while on tour, the record is a love letter to revolutionary power of music and vital testament to the continued resonance of sounds to dance to in even the world's darkest places. Opener "When I Get Back" and centerpiece "Serve The People" both highlight the Furs' inspiration in writing them after performing with underground Burmese musicians in their lyrics and mix heft with hooks. Ultimately, Sound Kapital is a tribute to husband Dan Boeckner, wife Alexei Perry and their ability to travel the world and from their experiences craft infectious slices of agit-prop dance glory that don't let up until the last synth wash of "No Feelings"

14. Nick Lowe - The Old Magic  Buy it.
It's no surprise that the girl on the cover of Nick Lowe's new album looks like a 1940's pinup or that it's called "The Old Magic" because this a record rooted firmly in pre-1964 pop and standards. "Mature" is perhaps the best way to describe the sound, as the songs are all unhurried affairs, with every instrument and phrase chosen with practiced discernment. The lyrics center around heartbreak, aging and often the places where such things meet. The songs are written and delivered with just right amount of optimistic pathos that the prospect of settling into an easy chair by yourself sound almost irresistible. From the New Orleans-inflected cover of "Somebody Cares For Me" to the dreamy organ pop of "Restless Feeling" to the oddly bouncy "Checkout Time", The Old Magic manages to wrest an impressive sonic variability from a relatively limited palate, providing plenty of balance for sweet, simple break-up songs like "House For Sale" and "I Read A Lot". In lesser hands this record would feel, staid, stodgy or boring, whereas Lowe presents  fun, refined document of the music of yesterday that never feels like it's living in the past.

13. Le Butcherettes - Sin, Sin, Sin  Buy it.
I mentioned in my review of "The Leibniz Language" that Le Butcherettes seemed like they were designed in an evil scientist's lab to appeal to rock critics. It's a wonder then to me, that this album hasn't appeared on more critics year-end lists besides those of the bearded bards of Sound Opinions. Teri Gender Bender mixes humor ("Tolstoi"), literary pretension ("Henry Don't Got Love"), bubbling raw sexuality ("Dress Off") and straight-up angst and anger ("Sin, Sin, Sin") to hit all the high and low points of any beard-stroking music obsessive who devotes themself to guitar bands. Sin, Sin, Sin mixes drums, guitar, keyboard and heartfelt wail just enough to keep things interesting sonically while Gender Bender manages to touch on an impressive array of intellectual conversation markers while also fuming at the world, rejecting sexual exploitation, demanding sexual satisfaction, demanding non-sexual satisfaction and otherwise slashing and burning her way through Mick Jagger's list of rock cliches without ever once making it seem anything less than fresh. I don't even want to think about the day I catch this band live, I might not be able to contain myself.

12. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints  Buy it.
I'm not gonna lie, for a long time the devastating epicness of "California" overshadowed the rest of Erika M. Anderson's debut album for me. Maybe it was the imposing folk/noise wall that is "The Grey Ship" leading off the album, but it took me months to start getting into the rest of the songs. In retrospect that last statement seems crazy because Past Life Martyred Saints is an set of songs so painfully intimate and direct that it now seems impossible not to get sucked into them immediately. Anderson takes her noise punk background, keeps the ambiance, loses the volume and adds lyrics that seem pulled straight out of the most wrenching but well-written high school journal you've ever read. Breathy confessions like "Marked" and "Breakfast" let you into the singer's life to an almost embarrassingly personal degree, which "Butterfly Knife" then makes overtly uncomfortable. Meanwhile, simple songs like "Red Star" and "Anteroom" reveal Anderson's talent for melody and lyrical depth, evoking the best of early Liz Phair. "If there was a way to get it out, I wanna get it out" she sings and as a listener, you can't help but applaud her decision.

11. Fountains Of Wayne - Sky Full Of Holes  Buy it.
After the increasingly eclectic albums Welcome Interstate Managers and Traffic And Weather, it was hard to see how much farther Fountains Of Wayne could go down the road of pastiche (however brilliant) without descending into kitsch. Rather than risk such a fate, they stripped down for their fifth album, returning mostly to a straightforward guitar (often acoustic), bass and drums formula. Perhaps the most subdued outing of their career, Sky Full Of Holes is still packed with unshakable hooks, sly pop culture references and a keen, heartfelt empathy with its characters as they navigate modern America. Lead single "The Summer Place" steals the show, but the similarly catchy "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart" and horn-driven "Radio Bar" do give it a run for its money. Meanwhile, songwriters Schlesinger and Collingswood hit melancholy sweet-spots while still showing songwriting versatility with numbers such as "Fireside Waltz", "A Road Song" and "Cemetery Guns". Still, this is, at it's heart, a summery singer-songwriter album that mixes upbeat strumming with minor-key songs that seem destined to worm their way into your playlist and memories.

10. The Roots - Undun  Buy it.
First let me say that, even by the arbitrary standards of a Top 15 Albums list, I have no idea where this album really ranks among 2011 albums, even now. Releasing a great record in December? It's like the Roots don't even care about such rankings! That being said, it's clear from the first listen that Undun is concise, intricate, wildly ambitious and incredibly well-executed. I know that many rap purists are going to decry basing an album around a Sufjan Stevens character as yet another example of hipster influences permeating and watering down great rap. Lord knows that I'm not the person to refute that charge with any credibility, but let me just say that I don't think it's ever unjustified for great artists to ask their fans to grow along with them and that seems to be what the Roots are doing here. Maybe being America's house band has softened them, but with ?uestlove busy producing D'Angelo's comeback album and Black Thought spitting ominous meditations life and death on the street as well as he ever has, that criticism seems more than a little half-baked. Of course the album's concept IS certainly grand as the Roots tell the story of a man's life on the streets told from (early) grave to cradle followed by a series of instrumental codas that retell the story in music. But it all works beautifully and, in a mere 40 minutes, the Roots crew's ambition never comes close to outstaying its welcome. 

9. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo  Buy it.
I'd never listened to Kurt Vile before hearing this record but I'd read things about him. "Slacker", "juvenile", "distorted" were all adjectives that seemed to pop up quite frequently, which made hearing Smoke Ring For My Halo for the first time a surprising experience. The mixture of guitar worship, hazy psychedelia and washed out Americana that I was in store for reminded me of nothing so much as early-70's Neil Young. There's still plenty of angst, (post?) adolescent posturing and apathy on songs like "Society Is My Friend" and "On Tour" but elsewhere we see signs of lyrical maturation as on "Jesus Fever", "Baby's Arms" and the title track. Smoke Ring is definitely a come-down record but it's one that just as easy to get lost in after your last toke as it is waking up the morning after. Haunting, hypnotic and occasionally profound, who'd have thought that Kurt Vile could make a record perfect for both hipsters and Wilco dads?

8. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy  Buy it.
Annie Clark is a singer who can get into your head. Her songs are so sweetly suggestive that it takes you far too long to realize just what kind of dark emotions they're actually expressing and by that time it's already too late. Strange Mercy see's Clark fronting a new band from St. Vincent's last incarnation behind Actor and the new, more electronically-designed sound manages to do quite a number on the acoustically-written songs. Whether she's rejecting social expectations in "Cheerleader", bemoaning personal failings ("Year Of The Tiger") or discussing a kinky midday tryst ("Chloe In The Afternoon") Clark manages to show life not as it is, but with a mixture of how it appears and how it seems from that dark place inside all of us. "Cruel" explores the idea of society's offhanded abuse of individuals while "Surgeon" takes the opposite tack, focusing on the desire to mold oneself into a pleasing incarnation (inspiration taken from a Marilyn Monroe quote). Meanwhile guitar squelches and squalls across the grooves of the record, lending further mystery and menace to proceedings, as it sounds like no six-string you've heard before. How can one album be so simultaneously lulling and disturbing?

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