Saturday, January 21, 2012

Favorite Albums of 2011 (and Some Stragglers from 2010)

Was 2011 a great year for music? No...I don't think so. If it's been a great year for music (for me, anyway), I have a hard time picking my top 10 albums. Sometimes I have a hard time picking my top 20. This year, I struggled to fill my top 10. It wasn't that there were that few albums that I liked. There were a lot of good albums. There just weren't a lot of great albums. I want my favorite albums of the year to exceed my expectations, not just meet them (even if I have relatively high expectations). So this year, it's just a top 7, + two 2010 albums that I didn't discover until 2011.

7) Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
 When Sam Beam released The Creek Drank the Cradle nearly 10 years ago, he was writing spare wisps of songs. The songs were quiet, but powerful. He could have released a few more albums like that and been remembered as someone who wrote pretty, sad songs--a modern Nick Drake (minus the tragic ending, one would hope). Iron & Wine's second album was actually pretty similar to the first, but then Beam started to evolve. If someone had told me a decade ago that he would release an album like Kiss Each Other Clean, I would have been incredulous. The songs are still powerful, and often still sad, but there's a richness to their sound and production that the early albums lacked. More instruments, more harmonizing, more everything. Sometimes more is less, but it works here. For the record, it did not work for me as well on 2007's The Shephard's Dog. That album seemed like more of an experiment of styles and came out as a bit of a mess. Kiss Each Other Clean is more cohesive. The opening single, "Walking Far From Home", quickly became one of my favorite Iron & Wine songs, but the whole album is highly listenable.

6) Alexander -  Alexander
 Alexander Ebert is better known for his work with Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros and he is a damn hippie. I have a top-40-listening co-worker who calls everything I listen to "hippie music", and though she's wrong about 90% of the time, I have to concede that Alexander is indeed hippie music. Slightly weird (but not that weird), trippy, hippie music. For those not familiar with Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros--and I highly recommend that you do familiarize yourself with them--the closest musician I could compare Ebert to is perhaps Cat Stevens, and probably Yusuf Islam (AKA, Cat Stevens). It's probably partly the beard, but their voices, their message, and their ability to write a good hook are not dissimilar. A fun album that I listened to way more than I expected to when I picked it up on a whim.

5) Say Hi - Um, Uh Oh
Say Hi is a boy named Eric, and he has also been making music for a decade. Eric Elbogen's music--whether under his original moniker, Say Hi To Your Mom, or the more recent Say Hi--has always been a bit spotty for me. Every album has at least a few songs that I really like, but 2006's Impeccable Blahs came the closest to being and album I really loved. On that album, every song was about vampires. Clever! But Um, Uh Oh achieves greatness without a clever gimmick. Every song--really every song--is a perfect little pop gem. Elbogen's formula hasn't changed much. Many of his songs are pretty much all chorus, but you know what? That's the part of the song everyone sings along to anyway. And that's exactly what I do when I listen to this album. I sing along to every song.
4) Telekinesis - 12 Desperate Straight Lines
I first wrote about Michael Benjamin Lerner's sophomore album back in March, and I kept right on listening to this album all year long. I don't know how many times I have to tell people: listen to this band.

3) St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
My first impression of Strange Mercy was a good one, but after the first listen I honestly didn't think this album would creep into my top 3 albums of the year. But it did. Though some of the songs seemed somewhat jarring at first, I got used to it. As I got used to it, it became clear that this is Annie Clark's strongest work yet.
2) Grouplove - Never Trust a Happy Song
Of the top three albums here, Grouplove is probably the least challenging band to listen to for the casual listener. I wrote about my infatuation with this album earlier this year, and that infatuation has since evolved into a full-on crush. Even if Grouplove disappeared tomorrow--and I hope they don't--I can already tell that this album will be joining a relatively small group to fall into my comfort music classification. The music is not particularly's just fun as hell.

 1) tUnE-yArDs - Whokill
I, like most people, am usually doing something else while I'm listening to music. That's not to say that I'm a passive listener, but I'm a busy guy and I need to multitask. So when a song--or in this case, an entire album--makes me stop doing whatever else I'm doing, that's saying something. The first time I listened to Whokill, I was at work. It was a very unproductive 40 minutes. I'm fairly certain I just sat there with my headphones on, grinning from ear to ear, and probably failing to resist the urge to chair-dance in my cubicle. Merril Garbus manages to defy genre, convey her politics, and be incredibly entertaining, all on a single album--often in individual songs. Impressive. Listening to her music, watching her in her videos...I can't remember the last time I saw an artist throw self-consciousness out the window so completely and make it work. This was the girl in high school who danced like a spaz and didn't care what people thought of her. Yeah, she got teased, but the ones who got her really, really liked her.

and from 2010... 
--Allo Darlin' - Allo Darlin' 
Allo Darlin' is sort of the musical equivalent of watching the movie Juno. Now that will either be a selling point or a deal breaker, depending on who you are. For me, it's a selling point. These songs are clever, cute, and catchy, but never cloying. These are songs about love, watching movies, listening to music, and making chili. If I could write songs, these are the songs I would want to write. I think that's the highest compliment I can pay. I would want to write catchy songs that make me happy, and preferably I would like them to be sung by a woman with a pretty voice. Not a beautiful voice. That's an important distinction for some reason. I like a pretty voice, and Elizabeth Morris supplies that. I don't feel like I'm selling this album enough. It's awesome. Please listen to it.

--Carolina Chocolate Drops - Genuine Negro Jig
I initially bought this album because, having lived in North Carolina for 6 years, I really liked the name of the band. Lucky me that the music turned out to be pretty incredible, too. I have heard a member of the band describe their music as "black minstrel".  Not sure what that means exactly, but I generally find that the harder it is to describe a band's sound, the more I like the music. There's certainly an old-timey flavor to these songs, but their mix of old songs from the earlier half of the century, covers of modern tunes (their version of "Hit 'Em Up Style" is amazing), and originals keeps it fresh.