Thursday, December 29, 2011

On Warmer Music's Favorite Albums of 2011 [7-1]

So here it is, the end of the list. For a year that started relatively slow, I'm impressed by the quality of music we've ended up seeing from 2011.

It was a tough year and all these albums were created with that context in mind to a greater or lesser degree. It wasn't a year for frivolity but that doesn't mean this is all dour music. Indeed what made most of these records so necessary was their ability to acknowledge life's hardships and take something worthwhile and uplifting away from the experience. With that in mind, enjoy some albums to soundtrack your dancing at the end of the world!

15. Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital
14. Nick Lowe - The Old Magic
13. Le Butcherettes - Sin, Sin, Sin
12. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saint
11. Fountains Of Wayne - Sky Full Of Holes
10. The Roots - Undun
9. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo

8. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

7. Wild Flag - Wild Flag  Buy it.
Wild Flag is the best 60's rock album made this year and I mean that as the highest compliment. Wild Flag may have been born of 90s indie juggernauts like Sleater-Kinney, Helium, the Minders and Quasi but their debut album has the brevity, adventurous pop sensibility and lyrical spark of a lost '65 LP. 

The album first grabs you with its hard-hitting statement-of-purpose singles like "Romance", "Boom" and "Electric Band", which all surge on Rebbeca Cole's hurdy-gurdy keyboards and Carrie Brownstein and Marry Timony's traded vocals and guitar lines. These are fantastic rock songs made for dancing, about dancing and the intoxicating joy of great music done right - they're irresistible. But beyond that it's drawn out guitar workups like "Glass Tambourine", "Future Crimes" and, (dear God yes!) "Racehorse" that give the album room to breathe with lyrics moving farther afield and the band playing with their own dynamics and capabilities. Ultimately its hard to tell if Wild Flag is this year's most polished garage band or most fun supergroup but either way they've served up a slab of about near-perfect pop rock their first time out of the gate.

6. Wilco - The Whole Love  Buy it.
Let's be honest with ourselves - Wilco is one of those bands that people root for. Like Radiohead or the Mountain Goats, Wilco represents a certain standard and level of excellence that all but the most hard-hearted or contrarian music critic likes to see succeed. As a Chicagoan to boot, this tendency certainly worried me as I put Wilco this high on my personal albums list - was I just choosing my heart rather than the album itself?

The answer, is no. Or at least, if it that is true, I'm in too deep to recognize it. While The Whole Love doesn't quite reach the upper echelon of the Wilco catalog, it is solidly in the second-tier, which is a perch that most artists could only dream of attaining. Obviously the albums bookending epics will draw a lot of attention, and deservedly so, but this is an incredibly solid album, start-to-finish. "I Might" and "Born Alone" mix 60's garage fun with Henry Miller-style lyrics to create irresistable art-pop singles while "Dawned On Me" and "Open Mind" rely on simpler American songbook-style melodies and lyrics to earn their deserved keep. Sure, there are moments that register as merely "very good" rather than "great" but Wilco is a band who's even lesser works have earned scrutiny because there's still a lot there. 

5. G-Side - The One... Cohesive  Buy it.
This was a year where even those in the upper echelons of society were forced to at least notice the suffering and struggle that most people are dealing with every day. Perhaps that's why Watch The Throne's gilded rhymes never fully resonated. For the first time since Reagan was elected, the struggles of common people were given weight and even the wealthy were expected to have some shame, or at least humility. Such conditions presented some interesting challenges to the world of hip-hop, a genre that already acknowledges the struggles of society's poorest but one that also glorifies the greatest of capitalist excesses for those who succeed. 

Hunstville Alabama is a long way from even southern rap's capital, Atlanta, never mind New York or LA which gives native sons G-Side a unique perspective from which to make music. Throughout The One... Cohesive, ST 2 Lettaz and Clova play with the idea of success and getting out while still realizing that there's a ceiling for how big anyone can get in Hunstville. "Nat Geo" demonstrates those themes most clearly but you can see these contradictions in how they can defend their success from haters one second in "Y U Mad" while dissing commercial exposure the next in "No Radio".

The One was the first of two albums this year from the duo. But while follow-up iSLANDS would revel in escapism and atmospherics first explored in The One, the latter manages to lend weight to such musings with beats and choruses that are stickier than Elmer's. G-Side spent the year reminding us that great hip-hop will indeed never die, but you might need to leave LA or Atlanta to find it.

4. The Eternals - Approaching The Energy Field  Buy it.

There is no other band that sounds like the Eternals and I can't tell if that's a great blessing or the sing of a massive missed opportunity. In terms of density, ambition and extreme ecleciticism, nothing out there can match the murky art-funk stew that is Approaching The Energy Field and that is not a statement to be made lightly in a year highlighted by w h o k i l l and David Comes To Life.

Everything seems slightly off-center in this album from the first track onward, which perfectly matches Damon Locks' focus on dark, dystopian themes. Snippets of James Brown, post-punk, indie hip-hop and George Clinton funk filter through the rough grooves and beats while Locks' spouts off about life in a ruined urban wasteland and energy fields. Although the album's larger sci-fi narrative never fully coheres, the aura of dystopia that pervades the album jibes perfectly with the sense of looming dread, decay and approaching doom that dominated so much of 2011.

"Symmetric Children" paints a picture of bleak urban despair over frantic and fractured drumming before asking  "who can save the world" with no answer. "War's Blazing Disciples" hints at a danceable hook before pulling itself apart while "Shadow Radio" does the same trick in reverse - going from fractured elements to an almost cohesive pop song. In between are meditative interludes like "I Let The Telephone Ring" and "Alarms" that maintain the mood while providing needed respite between layered sonic assaults described earlier. The Eternals have quietly done something incredible - they created a soundtrack to the future that resonates loudly in the world of today.

3. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues  Buy it.
I have to say I was not initially a huge fan of the Fleet Foxes. Their debut EP and album were both extremely pleasant and all, but they never seemed to me to be remotely groundbreaking or challenging or anything approaching album-of-the-year quality. Three years and one scrapped follow-up album later, the group has merged those gorgeous sonic elements with some musical and lyrical heft to create a truly great album.

Helplessness Blues, like pretty much any album with any sticking power in a year as a dark as 2011, is a fairly serious affair. But while other groups may grind out their anger or put their worries to a beat and dance them away, Robert Pecknold used Helplessness Blues as an excuse to explore them as if it were a therapeutic confessional, with America as his audience. Both "Montezuma" and the title track strike right at the heart of the feelings of emptiness, unfocused ambition and idealism-without-a-cause that so plague the over-educated, under-employed and under-challenged generation of recent and upcoming college graduates. Behind this the band adds acoustic guitar, raga-like meditation and all other sorts of backing arrangements to add heft to songs like "Sim Sala Bim", "Battery Kinzie" and "Grown Ocean", with the band no longer just relying on gorgeous but vapid Beach Boysian vocal harmonizing. This is the sound of a band with both a musical vision and something important to say with neither element sacrificed for the other.

2. Fucked Up - David Comes To Life  Buy it.
Some years, you need three electric guitars on every song and 2011 was sure one of them. For all those Helplessness Blues Generation-ers it had seemed like the Bush years would be the nadir of our political lives, but post-Tea Party America turned out to be no less stupid, aggravating or self-defeating. Fortunately, Fucked Up knows the sense that it "feel[s] like I've been here before" and pulls out all the stops and power chords for an album that assuages those feelings. Or at least drowns them out in glorious a wash of guitars and screamed vocals.

It's worth watching the first two music videos from David Comes To Life because each gives a window into the alternate world of Byrdesdale, England, which is both elaborately and lovingly constructed. In the album's story, David falls in love with activist, Veronica and the two build a bomb together to destroy the factory in which David works. Only the bomb kills Veronica, David is crushed with guilt before discovering that his life is being narrated by a sinister Octavio who might be the real killer and... well it goes on. The point is that the band put so much thought and detail into this back story that even if you ignore it, it helps lend the album its greatness. From the late 70's industrial politics to the classic love and deception story to the fake compilation of Brynesdale punk bands, everything about this record's story is epic and immaculately conceived and delivered.

When matched with Fucked Up's unique brand of hardcore shoegaze that's just been to a Who concert, it's a story that becomes larger than life. Most of the songs build from a basic riff or pattern, layering multiple guitars, bass and drums and building to a scream-along chorus. "The Other Shoe", "Running On Nothing" and "Turn The Season" all display this formula at its best.  Elsewhere, Madeline Folin's vocals as Veronica lend sweetness and heart to the love story on "Queen Of Hearts" while Kurt Vile pops up on closer "Lights Go Out". What makes everything work here is that the music here is bombastic and grandiose to get your heart racing but also thoughtful and skillful to warrant such a treatment. It's a great novel wrapped in bold, gloriously executed punk screeds with just enough anger and love to get you through even a year like this one.

1. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l  Buy it.
"My country 'tis of thee / sweet land of liberty / how is it I cannot see / my future inside your arms?" A fitting beginning for a record that full of musical, personal and political questions. I could go all Ken Burns about how w h o k i l l represents American in microcosm, but I'll spare us the ponderous pontification. Even without that kind of fanfare though, this album is a rare and amazing thing. Merrill Garbus has managed to make an indie folk, dub, soul, funk and Afro-pop album that hits the high notes of all those influences without ever coming off as forced, condescending or overly trendy. She asks questions about sex, body image, power, wealth, privilege and justice without being preachy, or, indeed making it seem like anything other than personal, natural exploration.

To be sure, w h o k i l l's success is hugely due to the addition of Nate Brenner on bass and added horns and other instrumentation that was lacking her debut, BiRd-BrAiNs. Garbus still builds her audio worlds out of ukulele, drum and vocal samples, but now they playfully bounce off Brenner's deft and supple bass lines and are lent brash and brassy color with additional horns and percussion. This gives bounce and weight to tracks like "Es-so", "Gangsta" and "Killa", which all bob and weave with happy irreverence and unmistakable presence. On the other hand, "Powa" uses amp'd up uke and a lazy groove to create its own languorous lasciviousness while "Wolly Wolly Gong" conjures up a creepy, hypnotic lo-fi lullaby surpassing most anything on BiRd-BrAiNs and "Bizness" slips between energetic bounce and reflection without missing a beat. On top that, the album is littered with vocal performances that mix soul scat and therapy (see the breakdown in "Riotriot") and demand recognition and admiration.

What ultimately makes w h o k i l l my album of the year is its willingness to approach life and all its messy, unpleasant struggles and moral grays without surrendering a smidgen of color or an ounce of joy. I remember seeing tUnE-yArDs at the beginning of Pitchfork on a sunny late Friday afternoon in the midst of debt crisis clusterfuck and actually feeling my chest loosen and mind relax as Garbus' chords hit my eardrums. Merrill asks tough questions, demands personal respect and acknowledgement but also uses her music to remind you that for every trial, life also rewards you with some joy great or small. Every time I hear the climax of the album's perhaps most personal song, my brain floods with endorphins and I smile involuntarily. This year, my dear Merrill, it's you, yes you.

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