Best Albums of 2011: 21-30 December 20, 2011Posted by Matt in Best of 2011.
Tags: Beastie Boys, Best of 2011, Dawes, Girls, Jason Isbell, Lykke Li, music, Okkervil River, PJ Harvey, The Decemberists, Those Darlins
Yesterday we began our look back at this stellar year for music, looking at the albums I ranked 31-40 on my list. Today we continue with the next ten.
I was always a big fan of Jason Isbell’s songwriting during his tenure with the Drive-By Truckers, with great songs like “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” to his credit, and I’ve followed his solo career pretty closely as well, enjoying each of his two prior releases (Sirens of the Ditch and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit) a good deal. In my humble opinion, Here We Rest hits a new level of excellence for the young country-rock artist. Opening with the aching homesickness of “Alabama Pines,” Isbell seems to have found his solo career groove, but it is the country-infused drug lament, “Codeine” that stands as the centerpiece of the work. With his characteristically great writing and cohesive music, Jason Isbell is a true treasure in the world of southern rock.
From the opening pounding drum beat of “Youth Knows No Pain,” it quickly becomes apparent that this sophomore release from Sweden’s Lykke Li is a work that begs to be listened to. This is a pop album, make no doubt about it, but it is not mindless fluff, not just a momentary diversion from the trials of everyday life. Her voice is hypnotic in songs like “I Follow Rivers” when she says, “Oh, I beg you, can I follow? / Oh, I ask you, wanna always / Be the ocean, where I unravel / Be my only, be the water where I’m wading / You’re my river running high, run deep, run wild.” It’s catchy as hell, so much so that it even makes this goofy white guy in his mid-30’s want to dance. The subject matter remains pretty dark throughout the album, and though that seems to be at odds with the irresistible beats, it works together superbly.
While I have listened to Sonic Youth for many years, I had never quite felt the urge in indulge in side projects from the band. And though was no particular reason behind this bit of negligence, I pretty much ignored those works amid the glut of releases each year. Then my friend Lynn posted a tweet in which he called this work from guitarist Thurston Moore the “best album of the year,” and I knew I had to check it out. Once again, I found that he and I were on the same page. If, like me, you are accustomed to the chaotic noise of Moore’s work with Sonic Youth, this Beck-produced collection of acoustic numbers by the elder statesman of alt-rock guitarists is a wonderful surprise. With strings a-plenty and lyrics bending to the abstract, this is a truly wonderful work. One cannot help but wonder at the prophetic nature of lines like, “With benediction in her eyes / Our dearest gods are not surprised,” with the breakup of Moore and Kim Gordon’s longstanding relationship and the apparent demise of their groundbreaking band. Regardless of the motivating factors for the work, Moore’s plaintive vocals over a gently strummed guitar make clear that this is another stellar work from an amazing artist. Whether or not you like the experimental noise of Sonic Youth, this is something you must hear.
English singer-songwriter has been in the business for some 20 years, but I’ve rarely given her work more than just a passing glance. There’s no obvious reason for this, but for some reason, I’ve never taken the time to enjoy her music. Thankfully, I finally got around to really listening to her. Let England Shake is a wonderfully affective album, one that sticks with you as she travels the worn and bloody path of the human condition, as seen through the lens of war. This is no “anti-war” record, though, as thought of in the common sense, rather it is more of a haunting meditation on the toll it takes on humanity. In the title song, she sings “England’s dancing days are done / Another day, Bobby, for you to come / Home and tell me indifference / Is won, won, won.” This is an album that bemoans the carnage of life, that offers despair alongside beauty. This is dark stuff, but perhaps it is needed amid the fluff and plastic happiness of everyday life, the blind eye turned away, choosing instead to focus on things that make them forget.
With great bands like the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons breaking into the mainstream, it’s a good time to be an indie folk band, but at the same time, that dynamic lends itself to coattail riders. Many might look at Dawes in that manner, as a band that merely wants to grasp at fame from the shoulders of their contemporaries. Well, those people are dead wrong. Dawes have become one of the most impressive finds for me in the past calendar year, with catchy tunes and Eagles-esque harmonies that stick to your brain like glue and put a smile on your face. In the song “Time Spent in Los Angeles,” which also happens to be their hometown, they sing “But you got that special kind of sadness / You got that tragic set of charms / That only comes from time spent in Los Angeles / Makes me wanna wrap you in my arms,” with a sincerity and beauty that reminds me of great bands like The Jayhawks. “If I Wanted Someone” blends influences like the aforementioned Eagles with Tom Petty to form an unforgettable whole. It’s a great album and by putting a bit of a twist on the current indie folk boom, they’ve carved their own wonderful niche.
The Beasties have been doing this a long time and, after listening to their latest release, it’s obvious that there is still plenty of gas left in the proverbial tank. Originally set to be a two part album, Hot Sauce Committee, Part 1 was to be released two years ago, but after Ad-Rock’s cancer diagnosis, his bandmates (Mike D and MCA) put the project on hold until his treatment was complete. With a joking nod, they kept with the original release schedule and entitled their latest Part 2. Hot Sauce is full of the old school jams you would expect from the band, with record scratching, loads of samples, and those long familiar voices belting out song after song of danceable fun. Album opener “Make Some Noise” is a joyful blast from the past, with both the best music video in years and a great nod to their 25 year old hit, “Fight for Your Right to Party.” Their collaboration with rapper Nas on “Too Many Rappers” shines as well, and even though they acknowledge their veteran status, “Grandpa been rappin’ since ’83,” they more than hold their own and show once again that they are and have always been a force to be reckoned with in the rap community. With another eye on their pre-Party, punk rock past, the Boys blast through “Lee Majors Come Around” with a ferocity that belies their age. The Beasties are just pure, rocking fun. Turn up the volume and, as they would say, it’s time to get ill!
Austin’s Okkervil River is another band that has been on my radar for several years now and I have quickly scooped up each of their releases with glee and anticipation. I Am Very Far presents a bit of a different path taken by Will Sheff’s group, away from the literate, rock music mythology of past work and towards something darker, deeper, and at times even psychedelic. The arrangements range from fairly simple to huge (according to Wikipedia, the band employed 45 classical guitars on one song), yet the album remains incredibly cohesive. Opener “The Valley” combines a driving drum beat and Sheff’s cadence-like vocals “We watch the sun in the sky, off and on, where are friend stands / Bleeding on the late summer lawn, a slicked back bloody black / gunshot to the head. He has fallen in the valley of the rock and roll dead.” For me, though, the highlight of this album and perhaps my favorite song of the year is “We Need a Myth,” a testimony to humankind’s need for stories, for narratives to understand the insanity of the world around us. When Sheff sings, “We need a myth / I feel my heart’s like a fist / I want words spilling out / From the blessed lips of any prophet or goddess” it makes so much sense to me and my oft-questioning mind. It’s another great work from a great band.
On their second full length release, Girls have really set a strong standard, transforming themselves from precocious indie newcomers to a true force to be reckoned with. The release kicks off with the strong and bouncy, “Honey Bunny,” a song reminiscent of Memphis’s own indie pop darlings, Magic Kids. At other times, particularly in songs like “Alex” and “How Can I Say I Love You,” they take on a more psychedelic pop sound, something along the lines of the 60’s era flower children or, to use a more recent example, something akin to MGMT. The centerpiece of the album to me is the unfortunately named tune “Vomit,” with its Cure-like (think Love Song) beginning that transforms over the course of more than six minutes to include exploding loud distorted guitars before climaxing with a lush, Pink Floyd-like ending as vocalist Christopher Owens repeatedly intones, “Come into my heart.” It’s a strong work from a great band who no doubt have a big future ahead of them.
I had never listened to Those Darlins before this Fall when I checked them out online prior to seeing them open for the Drive-By Truckers. After the show, I was firmly in their stable as a fan. This female-led band carries itself with a self-assured swagger, blending a sound that is clearly Southern with strong riot grrrl influences to create one of the best indie pop/garage rock albums of the year. They’re loud and brash, having no intention of taking a backseat to anyone with songs like “Be Your Bro” where they say, “I just wanna be your brother / You just wanna be my boyfriend / I just wanna run and play in the dirt with you / You just wanna stick it in.” The songs sometimes explode with feminist angst, as they rip through song after song with a Ramones-like fury(the three women in the band have also adopted the surname “Darlin,” further exhibiting the Ramones influence). The title track is a rocking start and the chorus, “Can’t blame me for what I choose / Whoa, screws get loose” will etch itself into your brain and follow you around for a long time after the song ends. Make sure you give this one a good listen.
The Decemberists are a true oddity in today’s music world. Defying all notions of commonly held public perception, they have created a niche for themselves and their strangely beautiful and wonderful works. The King is Dead represents what may be seen as a step away from their more recent conceptual works, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, and back to the more normal song structures found in their earlier albums. To this loyal fan, it is a welcome change, because Hazards, I regret to say, was bordering on being an overwrought mess. So, as vocalist Collin Melloy says in the opening track “Don’t Carry it All,” let’s “Raise a glass to the turning of the seasons,” for this highly literate band, sit back and enjoy. I like the folk rock sounds of “January Hymn” and “Rise to Me” a great deal as well. If you’ve ever been interested in The Decemberists, but were perhaps thrown off by the weirdness of an album built around a Japanese folk tale of a man who falls in love with a bird, this is probably the album for you. While it may not include a sure-fire single like “O Valencia,” it is their most immediate work in years. Now if only they would make a stop in Memphis…