Time for my annual music list. Unlike my book list, I limit myself to albums released only in the past 12 months. I say “best albums” but it’s more accurate to just call this my list of favorite albums. But thanks for humoring my inner music critic. This year has been a great year in music. Two important things to note: 1) All music was downloaded LEGALLY and, 2) thanks to some amazing deals at the Amazon MP3 store and eMusic, I was able to score these albums at great prices. And with the emergence of Spotify, finding great music has never been easier.
Anyway, here we go:
- Bon Iver, Bon Iver. I really deliberated between this one and The Head and the Heart. In fact, I can’t remember a year where I had a more difficult time choosing between two albums. Bon Iver wins out by a narrow margin. But next month, it might be a different story. Justin Vernon scraps the rustic cabin mournfulness of For Emma — the landmark album that put him on the indie-fanboy map — in favor of more lush soundscapes. Bon Iver is an expansive record, an ensemble response to Emma‘s solitary beauty. (The recently released video accompaniments only add to the album’s tapestry.) Trumpets, chimes, organs, guitars, pedal steel, banjo, even a weird instrument called a “bass saxophone” — they’re all here, fully alive and layered to perfection, pliably framing Vernon’s trademark falsetto. The track titles — “Calgary”, “Hinnom, TX”, “Perth”, “Lisbon, OH” — pay homage to a variety of geographic locales and serve as a nod to the album’s far-flung sonic direction. But there’s more here than instrumental experimentation and pretty singing. Bon Iver is as much about poetry as anything, a poignant, tightly crafted homily on life, death, and even rebirth. From the outset, Vernon insists: Still alive for your love (from “Perth”, the opening track). It’s an early affirmation that Emma‘s permeating loss will not have the last word. The fable of young love is alive on this record, most notably on “Towers” and “Michicant”. But the album’s impressionistic layers are most fully felt on its more reflective tracks. “Minnesota, WI” is nearly indiscernible, save the refrain: Never gonna break / never gonna break / never gonna break / never gonna break. For Vernon, the particularities of situations (like the Hmong, for instance) demonstrate the universality of truth. In this instance, it’s human resiliency. On “Holocene”, brokenness is held aloft as the key to true vision. And at once I knew / I was not magnificent / Strayed above the highway aisle / Jagged vacance, thick with ice / But I could see for miles, miles, miles. Allusions to Halloween and Christmas indicate a passage from the innocence (and narcissism) of childhood to the truth of adulthood (or the realization of one’s non-significance, per Vernon). But this is the truest vision: finding meaning and purpose amid all the insignificance. I’m telling you, existentialism has never sounded this good. By the time you arrive at the Steve Winwood-esque closer “Beth / Rest”, you’re ready to take it seriously. With it’s heavy 80s synth and adult contemporary pentameter, it’s a fairly polarizing track. Understandably, a lot of critics have panned it as Bruce Hornsby karaoke. For me, it’s genius and proof of Bon Iver‘s emotional resonance. The track’s unpredictability obliterates our expectations — of this record, of “Bon Iver”, of our bearded indie-rocker. If nothing else, I love that the guy believes in his music this much. I ain’t livin’ in the dark no more / It’s not a promise / I’m just gonna call it. Beth is death, a place of rest, and a perfect bookend to “Perth”. But this is “good winter”, according to Vernon. Life is coming again. “Beth / Rest” is a parting reminder that in love there are few guarantees. But there is life on the other side: For the light before and after most indefinitely. Simply beautiful. This album will stick with you for a long time. And with each listen, the depths of this treasure continue to unfold. Download This: The whole thing. Seriously.
- The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart. Four or five months ago, I would’ve said this was the best album of 2011. In fact, I did that very thing in this space. Over time, the album’s straightforward and earnest lyrics became it’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness. In the end, Bon Iver’s poetic mystery made this album feel light by comparison. But this is still a magnificent opus of yearning and loneliness from my new favorite Seattle-based indie band. Now, I’ll admit this up front: the band name was almost enough to make me write them off instantly. I know all that stuff about not judging a book by its cover, but the same rule doesn’t apply to band names. You see “The Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies” on the album cover, you pretty much know what you’re getting. (Think about it. I speak truth.) Anyway, “The Head and the Heart” is a terrible name for a band in my opinion. It comes across like they’re trying too hard for significance, an over-earnest attempt at self-definition. Plus it’s just dorky. (I suppose some would find it an improvement over “The Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies”, but whatever.) That being said, I came across one of their songs “Lost In My Mind” on a free Amazon sampler this summer. The song was catchy and before I knew it, I was downloading the whole album. After the first listen, I knew I’d found a gem. Aesthetically, this is my kind of music: acoustic guitar, bass, violin, piano, indie sensibility, soaring harmonies. They also have the “cool by association” thing going, having opened for Vampire Weekend, The Decemberists, and Iron & Wine. But the album’s theme resonates most with me: the universal longing for home and the intermediate loneliness that accompanies our waiting. At times, the journey can be a disillusioning one, as in album opener “Cats And Dogs”: There was nothing there / Nothing there to discover / My roots have grown but I don’t know where they are. “Coeur d’Alene” offers a countering rumination: Oh the songs people sing for home / And for the ones that have been gone for too long / We’re only here to find the love that lingers after / the moment. Head and heart meet here; cold skepticism confronted by the impulse to want to believe. There’s an intersection of pain and beauty as we recount our losses — the terrible toll of tragedy met with the best of human resilience and malleability — with the hope that this isn’t all there is. Some call such hope futile and foolish; I call it the fabric of life. But all is not pollyanna positivity: take “Ghosts”, a jangly little pop-record that is fixated on the notion that, for all of our talk about leaving and moving on to bigger and better things in life, someday we’ll all be ghosts. Or “Rivers and Roads”, a golden-hued ballad that reminds me of this: in the 10 years we’ve lived in Huntsville, my four closest friends have all moved away. But given the album’s theme, there is more in play here, a nod to the brevity of life. “Honey Come Home” articulates a response: when faced with life’s absurdities, we reach a point where we throw our hands up and say, “I just want to die with the one I love beside me / I am ready to be home.” Indeed.As someone who has been shaped by the grief of my early years, I know I’m prone to filter certain experiences through my own loss and longing for reunion. I’ll give you that. But I suppose these experiences have given me a deep appreciation for honest reflection on loneliness and the ache for home. That’s why “River and Roads” speaks to me so much:
Been talking about the way things change And my family lives in a different state And if you don’t know what to make of this Then we will not relate Rivers and roads / Rivers and roads Rivers ’till I reach you
I guess I’m a bigger fan of that over-earnest stuff than I realized. But this album has been a reminder for me of the deeply spiritual connection we share and the eventual culmination of all things. It has renewed my belief that when it all fades to black, there is something more, something beautiful and glorious and right. The album closes with “Heaven Go Easy On Me” and the lyric: All things must end, darling. For the lonely, there is perhaps nothing more comforting. Download This: Rivers and Roads, Lost In My Mind, Winter Song, Sounds Like Hallelujah, Coeur d’Alene.
- Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues. While I was pretty disappointed with the 2011 offerings from some notable “across the pond” artists (see Radiohead and Coldplay), the Pacific Northwest is really putting out some great music these days. And none sounds any finer than the evocative sophomore effort from Seattle-based band Fleet Foxes. Helplessness Blues is a sparkling, vintage-sounding folk album with soaring harmonies, lonely ballads, and existential contemplation. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better song this year than the title track: I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see / And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me / But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be / I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see. Robin Pecknold speaks for an entire generation of young Americans searching for purpose in the ashes of the narcissism we were raised in. Rather than celebrate our “specialness”, many of us are in search of a purpose greater than ourselves, some Great Cause to devote ourselves to. In “Montezuma”, Pecknold reflects on maturing: Now I am older / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me? You can almost hear him saying, “I thought I’d feel like an adult by now.” When do we arrive? When do we find all the answers? Not yet, he says. Are there faces above me or just cracks in the ceiling? This album is long on inquisition and short on answers. But Helplessness Blues is also full of wonder. At times, the band seems to get carried away with long stretches of instrumentation, giving the songs room to breathe and develop. In “The Shrine / An Argument”, pastoral imagery abounds: Sunlight over me, no matter what I do / Apples in the summer all cold and sweet / Every day a passing complete. Fleet Foxes are a band struggling with contentment amid success and the despondency it often brings. But the song closes with a nod to Innisfree, a fictional Irish village, imagined as a land of freedom. Sometimes this is all we need to transcend our helplessness. Download This: Helplessness Blues, The Shrine / An Argument, Montezuma, Someone You’d Admire, Lorelai.
- Blind Pilot, We Are The Tide. While much of the indie-world busies themselves with nostalgia, these Portland, OR rockers have produced a straightforward, mid-tempo, highly accessible folk record with an eclectic mix of guitar, piano, pump organ, banjo, dulcimer, ukelele and trumpet (among others). The melodies sound familiar from the start, especially “Keep You Right”, a plea for restoration in light of lost love and loss of self, or “We Are the Tide”, an ode to optimism and being the change you’re hoping for. In that regard, this is the best Coldplay album of the year. Download This: We Are the Tide, Keep You Right, Just One.
- The Decemberists, The King Is Dead. Man, they know how to grow ’em in the Pacific Northwest, don’t they? The Decemberists, with their proclivity for abstract concept albums, medieval romanticism and obtuse references, have long been the poster band for nerd music. But with The King is Dead, these Portland folkies have delivered their most mainstream record to date, albeit an Appalachian soliloquy. (What does it say about a band when their most commercial recording is referred to as “an Appalachian soliloquy”? Anyway…) Better enjoy it, kids: the band has confirmed they’ll be taking a multi-year hiatus when their current tour wraps. In the meantime, we’re left with the best country songs recorded in 2011. “This Is Why We Fight” is a timely reflection of American political gridlock. The “Hymn” songs (“January Hymn” and “June Hymn”) are quaint and tuneful. But the album’s strongest cuts are her more raucous ones: “Don’t Carry It All” is about as bombastic as these guys can get; “Calamity Song” plays like a frenetic read through a thesaurus; “All Arise!” demonstrates the band’s full hoe-down chops. All told, die hard fans may miss the prog rock opera of the band’s previous work, but a little less weird goes a long way in my book. Download This: All Arise!, Don’t Carry It All, This Is Why We Fight.
- Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean. This electro-folk album is kind of a slow burn — lots of layered melodies that take time to really sink in. The music is a bit more explorative than previous Sam Beam albums, but it’s the poetry that is the most striking element here. If the OT prophet Ezekiel were to ever record an album, it would sound like this. Download This: Walking Far From Home, Tree By the River, Glad Man Singing.
- The Apache Relay, American Nomad. I picked this one up for free over at Noise Trade based on the recommendation of a friend this summer. This Nashville-based quartet plays an Americana blend of Kings of Leon reverb and Mumford & Sons folk-rock. The comparisons to Mumford & the Avetts are pretty common, but the difference, according to fiddler Kellen Wenrich, is that while those bands “are acoustic bands with elements of rock, I have a feeling that we’re a rock band with elements of acoustic.” Personally, I think these guys have a couple of great records in them. Download This: Home Is Not Places, Mission Bells, American Nomad.
- Wilco, The Whole Love. This is Wilco’s most ambitious record in years. Unshackled from the limitations of their previous record label, Jeff Tweedy and Co. are free to take the kind of experimental risks that marked some of their earlier releases. From the outset, The Whole Love sounds inconsistent and incoherent, and you get the idea that’s exactly what they were aiming for. Album opener “Art of Almost” is seven-plus minutes of disarray and untidy rhythms. Closer “One Sunday Morning” is a twelve-minute slice of intimacy that would feel at home on any Wilco album. Between these two pillars are ten interesting, surprising, meandering songs that showcase the soul of a newly liberated band. Download This: Open Mind, I Might, One Sunday Morning.
- The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow. Some of this material was released prior to 2011, but since the full album wasn’t released until this February, it qualifies for the list. Joy Williams and John Paul White have had quite a year in 2011 with accolades and recognition coming from all sides: an iTunes feature; appearances on Leno, Letterman, and NPR; and it all culminated in two Grammy nominations. Well, add one more honor to the list: a spot in the prestigious A&NY annual music review. The songs are poignantly written and passionately performed. The highlight? “Poison & Wine”, perhaps the most beautifully conflicted song you’ll hear this year. Keep an eye on these guys. Download This: Poison & Wine, My Father’s Father, Forget Me Not.
- Gabe Dixon, One Spark. I know it’s unfair to make these kinds of comparisons, but I’m going to do it anyway: Gabe Dixon is a cross between Billy-Joel-pop-sensibilities and Paul-McCartney-tunesmanship. Don’t believe me? Take a listen for yourself. Dixon’s 2008 LP — The Gabe Dixon Band — is one of the finest albums I’ve heard in the last 5 years. And this solo entry is no slouch either. Now, this is pretty lovey-dovey fare; nearly every song is dripping with saccharin, so consider yourself warned. Kinda reminds you of somebody else who made a living out of “singing silly love songs”. Be sure to check out “Even the Rain”, Dixon’s duet with Allison Krauss. Download This: Even the Rain (with Allison Krauss), My Favorite, Burn For You.
- Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong. Dawes’ debut two years ago was a nostalgic ode to 70’s era AM: sun-drenched Southern California harmonies over a bed of guitar-laden melody. Their sophomore effort continues the trend while advancing the conversation ever so slightly. You might say there’s a little less optimism and a little more realism here but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I would rank this album higher if it weren’t for the awful closing tune “A Little Bit of Everything”, the most inane song I’ve listened to all year. Download This: My Way Back Home, Fire Away.
- Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto. I don’t understand why so many people love to hate Coldplay. Sure, this isn’t the most important music on the planet (there can only be so many Radioheads) but it seems some critics would rather jam a fork in their ear than miss an opportunity to dis these guys. As a fan, I was excited for this release and I was pleased with the first few listens. But over time, the songs start to sound fairly repetitive. In addition, the album’s loose “concept” — about two lovers who meet in a gang — falls flat. While the whole doesn’t work as well for me as 2008’s Viva La Vida, there are individual moments that truly shine. “Paradise” and “Every Teardrop A Waterfall” are as anthemic and arena-ready as anything the band has ever recorded. But the intimate tracks — like “Up With the Birds” and the eschatologically rich “Us Against the World” — are the real winners here. Download This: Us Against the World, Up With the Birds.
- Chris Thile & Michael Daves, Sleep With One Eye Open. I normally don’t include cover albums on this list, but this bluegrass masterpiece is a deserving exception. Thile (a mandolin virtuoso, formerly of Nickel Creek) and Daves may have recorded an album of traditional bluegrass favorites, but these songs have never sounded more fresh and vital. Download This: Rabbit In A Log, Sleep With One Eye Open.
- Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs. This album is further proof of Vedder’s genius. Armed with only a ukelele and his expansive voice, Vedder has crafted a brilliant album, alternating between melancholy forlorn and romantic hope. Download This: Sleepless Nights (featuring Swell Season’s Glen Hansard), Without You.
- The Strokes, Angles. Since their first album came out over 10 years ago, I’ve been a fan of The Strokes. They came along at a time when the rock scene was desperate for fresh meaning and relevance and The Strokes were (unfairly) tabbed as rock & roll saviors for the new millennium. What young band could possibly hold up under such lofty expectations? We’re probably better served to take these guys for what they are – a sporadic, dysfunctional rock band. Leave the salvation to some other band. This is finally the follow-up record they should’ve made on the heels of Room on Fire. Blending Julian Casablancas’ signature vocal style and Nick Valensi’s classic rock guitar riffs with a retro synth-pop backdrop gives this LP a throwback sound, which is sort of fitting, since the album was two years in the making. There’s still plenty of the bravado and self-loathing (sometimes in the same lyric) that we’ve come to expect from The Strokes. But there are moments (like “Under Cover of Darkness”, for instance) that remind you why you liked these guys in the first place. A solid album. Download This: Under the Cover of Darkness, Machu Picchu.