Top 20 Albums of 2011 (So Far…): 20-11

Around this time last year I posted the “Top 20 Summer Albums of 2010.” I understand this may sound like an awkward, convoluted list, but it essentially consisted of 20 albums that had been released to that point in the year, all featuring upbeat, summer-y songs. Readers generally enjoyed the list, and now in 2011, I feel I should follow it up with a sophomore effort. Yet I can’t.

At this point last year, dozens of upbeat albums filled my shelves (Vampire Weekend, Fang Island, Surfer Blood, etc). I had so many “summer albums” to list that several great releases didn’t even make the cut.  But this year? Nothing. Setting out to write the summer list, I struggled to even make a top 10 list, let alone a top 20. For those that care, here’s what it would have looked like:

1.    Toro Y Moi “Underneath the Pine”
2.    Beastie Boys “Hot Sauce Committee Part II
3.    Go! Team “Rolling Blackouts”
4.    Ponytail “Do Whatever You Want All the Time”
5.    Akron/Family “The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT”
6.    Dirty Beaches “Badlands”
7.    Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues”
8.    Danielson “Best of Gloucester County”
9.    Davila 666 “Tan Bajo”
10. Cloud Nothings “S/T”

Even though I’m able to come up with this list, writing it would probably be painful simply because few of the albums are as near and dear to me as the ones that made up my list last year (although two of the albums above did make the list that I’m about to unleash on you…).

Don’t worry though. My love for great albums hasn’t waned. There are many albums that have already hit a chord with me, so much so that I feel I must write about them so that others can share in my joy.  I’ve come up with a much more logical mid-year list: “The Top Albums of 2011 (So Far…)”.   This will not only serve as a mid-term report on the year’s best, but it will also bring forward some great albums that probably won’t make the final cut on my year-end list (it pains me to leave wonderful albums out every December).

The rankings for this list are not to be treated as the end-all-be-all (I just don’t want to be held accountable if an album is 17th on this list and ends up in the top five at the end of the year).  As you know, our experience with an album ebbs and flows; sometimes our adoration grows with time while in other cases, the thrill is gone after a month.  Enough of this babbling. Time to get down to business.

20. BOAT

“Dress Like Your Idols”

[Magic Marker; 2011]

The cover to “Dress Like Your Idols” says it all: a collection of album cover parodies,  mostly focused on albums of the 90s.  Yes, there is an homage to the Ramones and Velvet Underground, but you don’t have to go beyond the 90s to find BOAT’s biggest influences.  A quick listen to BOAT’s music and the first band to come to mind for most is Pavement due to Crane’s everyday lyrics and straight-forward, disaffected vocal approach.  If he needs to pay his electricity bill, he sings about it.  If he is walking past a convenience store, he sings about it.  If he’s listening to his walkman, he sings about it.  But within these tales of commonplace, everyday occurrences, he weaves in heartfelt themes of isolation, helplessness, and loneliness. Instead of going full-emo, Crane uses humor to defuse the sadness of his stories, in turn, creating intelligent power pop that is immediate and reassuring.

There are other 90s elements at play here, whether it be the guitar squeals of Built to Spill or the quaint jangle of Folk Implosion, but I can’t simply tag BOAT as a 90s rehash. A band like Yuck! would better fit that category (as much as I love their music, their borrowing from Dinosaur Jr and Superchunk borders on criminal). BOAT on the other hand have learned from the music of their youth, and taken it into the 21st century, bringing their own fresh, slacker take on the new millennium.

“Landlocked,” just one of many slacker tales of seclusion:

19. Twilight Singers

“Dynamite Steps”

[SubPop; 2011]

The Twilight Singers frontman Gregg Dulli is the epitome of the anti-auto-tune. No, his voice is not always perfectly on key, it is prone to crack, and at times he strains for notes that are just out of reach. Despite these deficiencies, he remains one of the best vocalists of the past 20 years due to his soulful approach, his shouts and howls that resound with anger, pain, and bitterness.  His mistakes always further the vulnerability of his narrative, adding the forlorn character found within the tattered, frail city of “Dynamite Steps.”

While other voices of the 90s have faded, Dulli’s has only strengthened over the years. He has been keeping busy since the break-up of Afghan Whigs with the Twilight Singers, his solo work, and his collaboration with Mark Lanegan, the Gutter Twins. Despite this mass of music production, “Dynamite Steps” is the closest Dulli’s dipped back into the world of the Afghan Whigs in a while, more specifically, “Black Love” and “1965” era Whigs.  These songs are just as funky, emotional, and dark as Afghan classics.  Even the story on “Dynamite Steps,” lovers held back by the confines of their decrepit city, is eerily similar to the one found in “Black Love.”  The only difference is that their answer isn’t to burn it all down as Dulli once suggested on “Going To Town”; instead, from what I can gather, he kills his lover so he can see her in his dreams where everything is beautiful again. So yeah, I guess you could say Dulli has matured.

Singing off-key has never sounded better than on “Last Night In Town”:

18. Times New Viking

“Dancer Equired”

[Merge; 2011]

I’ve been saying it for years now, “If only Times New Viking would clean up their production value…”  Well, with the slow move away from the lo-fi movement, TNV finally granted my wish with “Dancer Equired.”  Not to say that the production value is pristine, but the band has wiped away a bit of the fuzz to allow the listener a step closer into their pop palace.

TNV has always written infectious pop melodies, and finally they allowed the songs to be the centerpiece of an album.  No longer is it about how bad we can make a great song sound, rather “Here’s a great song. Take it as you will.”  One may suggest that the band has sold out by moving away from lo-fi, but they still keep their cred with most of “Dancer Equired” sounding like it was all recorded in one day.  And really, that’s what makes TNV so great. In the past TNV’s songs were in your face: either the hook caught you or you got lost in the noise.  On “Dancer Equired,” with much of the lo-fi trappings gone, the band takes time to unreel songs that aren’t as instantaneous. Instead, they allow their organ riffs and energetic shouts grow on you with each listen.  I never want to hear a polished TNV album, but “Dancer Equired” has just enough shimmer to allow the melodies to shine their brightest.

This song is called “Fuck Her Tears”; I don’t think we need to worry about TNV selling out:

17. Panda Bear

“Tomboy”

[Pawtracks; 2011]

For those that have followed my blog over the years, seeing a Panda Bear album this low on a best of list (let alone a mid-year list) is probably a bit alarming.  “Person Pitch” is one of my all-time favorite albums, and I’ve conveyed my admiration of both Panda Bear and Animal Collective fervently over the years.  So “Tomboy” at #17 might be a strange site on BDWPS, but then again, “Tomboy” is a pretty strange album. The first half is filled with the types of Beach Boy style melodies we’ve grown to love, all filtered through Panda Bears arsenal of squeaks and echos.  Songs like “You Can Count On Me” and “Slow Motion” are just as enjoyable listens as anything on “Person Pitch.” I could listen to side A of “Tomboy” again and again (and I have).

Then there is side two. It’s far from bad, but the album definitely takes a peculiar turn.  To this day I can’t comprehend exactly what is happening on side two, and part of me really likes that about this album.  The alien approach makes it a challenge to figure out exactly what Panda Bear was trying to accomplish. It’s ominous, desolate, and almost frozen melodically.  With each listen, I feel myself slowly cracking the surface of what Panda Bear is doing, and this slow and steady process of discovery is the reason “Tomboy” snuck onto this list.  If all of “Tomboy” were like the first half, you’d probably find this album in the top 10, if not at number one, but as of now, I’m still familiarizing myself with the unexplainable hum of side two, with its obtuse offerings like “Scheherazade,” “Friendship Bracelet,” and “Afterburner.” Who knows, by year-end I might be singing a different tune (or chanting it like a Panda Bear monk).

“You Can Count On Me” is familiar territory from side one:

16. Thurston Moore

“Demolished Thoughts”

[Matador; 2011]

Kim Gordan is one lucky gal. Seriously, she’s married to Thurston Moore.  How cool is that? Sure, she’s an indie goddess in her own right, but Thurston Moore! Thirst N’ More!!! Not only are his contributions to the indie scene immensely significant, but based off the songs on his solo album “Demolished Thoughts,” he makes a pretty loving husband.  With exposed lyrics like “whisper I love you my darling” and “you stole his heart away,” Thurston holds back nothing when it comes to his gal Kim. I personally hate love songs, but with something this honest and forthcoming, I can’t help but feel an admiration for what this power indie couple has held together all these years (what is it now, 25 years?!).

While “Demolished Thoughts” sounds very similar to Thurston’s last solo album “Trees Outside the Academy,” both featuring an enchanting combination of acoustic guitar and strings, “Demolished Thoughts” has a production value that is far beyond his prior effort.  Beck produced this album, and it is easy to figure out that he took his prowess from “Sea Changes” and implemented it here.  The back-and-forth of the guitar and strings harken back to the sweet sounds of Nick Drake.  But Drake’s guitars never sounded this clear, this personal, this serene. You won’t hear a better sounding acoustic guitar in 2011, and I doubt you will hear a more honest, charming album of love songs.

Just one listen to the guitars on “Benediction” and you’ll fall in  love too:

15. Six Organs of Admittance

“Asleep On the Floodplain”

[Drag City; 2011]

A few years back, my friend SongsSuck burnt  me a book full of CDs, mostly bands I’d never heard before.  When presented with 200 new albums, it can be a bit daunting to trek your way through them.  One of the albums in the multitude of CD-Rs was Six Organs of Admittance’s “Dark Noontide,” and although I enjoyed it, the album got lost in the mix over time.  Upon seeing Six Organs had a new album this year, I jumped at the chance to revisit the band long forgotten. The problem is I didn’t recall what they sounded like, and for some reason, I got them confused with Godspeed You! Black Emperor (probably the long names caused my mistake). You can imagine my surprise when Organs experimental folk ramblings sounded nothing like GY!BE’s hypnotic chamber rock.  As much as I enjoy GYBE, my rediscovery of Six Organs was a stirring experience.

On the droning, 12-minute “S/Word Leviathan” Six Organs could have been confused with GY!BE, but the rest of the album is folk meandering at its finest.  You never know where Ben Chasny’s guitar will take you, but you know it is a warm and inviting place.  While some might describe Six Organs as psychedelic folk, I feel it is the style of folk that John Fahey finger-picked long ago.  This is an ancient journey, roaming about the fret board while staying grounded in Americana.  Songs stop and start without warning, but the voyage never really ends.  And when Chasny decides to offer up a traditional folk song with verses and a chorus, he shows that he could settle down if he wanted to. He just doesn’t want to (and that’s a good thing).

An acoustic guitar has never sounded as unpredictable as it does on “Above a Desert I’ve Never Seen”:

14. Dirty Beaches

“Badlands”

[Zoo; 2011]

Have you ever noticed how every Michael Moore film starts the same: the 1950s and 60s, American Dream, cheap health care, zero violence or poverty, and a booming auto industry? I enjoy Moore’s films as much as the next tree-hugger, but it does seem to be both an overused motif and an inaccurate portrayal of the time.  Anyone who has watched “Mad Men” or read On the Road knows that life wasn’t necessarily all picket fences and apple pie back then (although Sal Paradise does intake massive amounts of apple pie en route to Denver). The Dirty Beaches “Badlands” is just another artistic take on how the innocent 50s is all a sham.

“Badlands” is all about its lo-fi production –  unassuming drum, and mechanical bass lines that all fit within the 1950s musical mold. If you were to play a song off this album to someone and said it was a “golden oldie” they would undoubtedly believe you. But Dirty Beaches aren’t simply a warm nostalgia trip down better times lane. These songs feature a darker tone than those that they are borrowing from. The vocals are cloaked in reverb, yet you can still discern the baritone croon that will make you wonder if Nick Cave found a time machine.  These are not songs of love and joy; they are songs of lust and despair. By the time the final two tracks arrive, “Black Nylon” and “Hotel,” there is little doubt that a film noir murder has taken place, although I doubt even Detective Samuel Spade could handle the dark depths of “Badlands” homicide scene.

“Horses” reminds me of Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing”, except Isaak wasn’t nearly as convincingly sinister:

13. Low

“C’Mon”

[Sub Pop; 2011]

Fans of old school Low might not like “C’Mon.” Not that it doesn’t resemble Low, but much of what made albums like “Long Division” and “I Could Live In Hope” popular are all but gone. The haunting spaces have been filled with sound, the instruments are no longer hiding in the shadows, and the self-loathing has turned slightly toward optimism. But the biggest difference are the vocals. In the past, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were ghostly figures, a part of the atmosphere,. On “C’Mon” their voices are up front and center thanks in part to the lush production of Matt Beckley.  Not until first hearing this album did I realize what incredible vocalists the duo are.  Sparhawk’s baritone is thick and hearty, and Mimi puts forth the best female singing I’ve heard this year with her dark lullabies that somehow lull the listener into a comforting dream.

Low still ventures into the dark tones of the past, but it all seems more dramatic, more ambitious and persistent.  I’m not dogging on that slow core sound that the band mastered decades ago; I’m just celebrating a band who has found a way to continue thriving, evolving all the while.

Although it contradicts my portrayal of the album as a positive venture, “Majesty/Magic” is one of the most incredible tracks of the year thus far. Try not to get chills:

12. True Widow

“As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth”

[Kemado, 2011]

Don’t worry about slow core dying with Low my friends; others are now carrying the torch.  On first listen, the trio of True Widow may not resemble Low and others of the slow core variety, but upon closer look you’ll find the same wall of ethereal droning as the back-bone of True Widow’s sound.  True Widow refer to themselves as a “stonegaze” band, yet the approach is the same.  Like a slow, dismal march through a storm, “As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth” trounces from track to track at a steady pace, always teetering on the verge of a distorted explosion that never comes. This is what makes this album so great; it works like a Henry Ford era machine, constantly turning and grinding away with Nikki Estill’s angelic voice countering the crunching sludge of Dan Phillip’s guitar work.  The combination is both terrifying and rousing, causing one to feel both depressed and inspired at the same moment.

Last year I couldn’t get enough of Quest For Fire’s “Lights From Paradise,” and in 2011 True Widow have continued this obsession with this plodding sound. Maybe I’m just going through a stone-gaze-phase and this album isn’t nearly as incredible as I find it, but I doubt it.

“Skull Eyes”- always on the verge of an eruption that never comes:

 

11. Colin Stetson

“New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”

[Constellation; 2011]

The fact that I loved “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges” before even seeing Colin Stetson’s incredible live show assures me that my judgment wasn’t blinded by the experience. Probably because “New History” contains some pretty magical, innovative stuff.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything like what Stetson does here. I don’t even need to focus on the difficulty found in his abilities to play a saxophone riff endlessly without taking a proper breath AND singing with his howling vocal chords at the same time.  Impressive, yes, but Stetson also writes some brilliant songs, both mystifying and enlightening.

The album was recorded with dozens of microphones, located in various parts of the room and on different parts of his sax (including the innards). As a result, you are brought into an atmosphere never explored in music (to my knowledge): the belly of the beast; the heart of the saxophone.  The bass saxophone echoes and squeaks from within as the pads pound out a slurpy beat (spit valves are for wimps) while Colin’s constant circular breathing blows through the cavern like a chilling wind. This is an album for any kid in beginner band who ever wondered what it sounds like inside their instrument. The answer? Remarkable.

“Clothed In the Skin of the Dead” is just a taste of life inside a saxophone:

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