You are about to read through what I deem the top 60 tracks of 2011. Yes, 60. For some reason, lists need to fit within the confines of the top 100, top 50, top 40, Top 20, or Top 10. Any other number seems arbitrary. I had the same uncertainty with the number 60. When I first assembled my list it consisted of 87 songs. I had a decision to make: force 13 more songs onto the list and create another monolith like I did last year (it was a lot of work by the way), or attempt to whittle the list down to 50. I went with the latter, but when finished, I found I still had 67 songs. I struggled and struggled and eventually had it to the number we have now: 60. At this point, I couldn’t remove one more song. None of these songs could be tossed aside, each holding a special meaning, memory, or melody that helped me through another year.
Truman Capote once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness approach saying, “It isn’t writing at all – it’s typing.” I suppose he would have the same response to Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse.” I say this because of the album’s rambling lyrics that wander about like a Bedouin in the desert. Prior to “Apocalypse,” Callahan used themes as a scaffold to his stories; on “Apocalypse” his stories wander in search of a theme, sometimes never arriving at their destination. This experience is often close to the heart with Callahan singing about his own confusions or channeling those emotions through his characters.
Callahan has never been one to follow songwriting norms, and on “Apocalypse” he has stretched his terrain to the unexplored. His songs are sparser, more personal, and more perplexing than anything he’s done since his days with Smog. He rarely aims to give us answers but puts us in his mind’s eye, giving us the task of trying to answer them ourselves. Whether its his personal story of seclusion as a musician on “Riding For the Feeling,” or his tale of a lonely cowboy on “Drover,” this is an album about the “Apocalypse” within; the endless, draining apocalypse of our heart and soul and how “ this wild, wild country/ It takes a strong, strong/ Breaks a strong, strong mind.” If that’s not songwriting, I don’t know what is, Mr. Capote.
“Riding For the Feeling” tells of Callahan’s disconnect from both his fans and himself:
9. TV Ghost
[In The Red; 2011]
Last weekend, while visiting my friend PthestudP in Omaha, I played TV Ghost’s “Mass Dream” for him, knowing he’d like its chaotic take on post-punk. Within the first 40 seconds of “Wired Trap” I could see his eyes light up with excitement. Half way through the song though his take on the album had been altered, “I really like this, but I don’t know if I can handle it right now.” I wasn’t offended; I knew exactly what he was talking about. He was feeling that same combination of excitement and fear that I’d felt upon my first listen. Plus, sitting in a car and listening to “Mass Dream” is like drinking a 5-Hour Energy and watching “Antique Road Show.” You can not sit still and listen to this album, and if you do, seizures are probably in your future.
Just when it seemed the post-punk rebirth had run its course, TV Ghost’s take on the genre has tossed expectations for a loop, the church organ moaning behind the shrieking, surf guitar riffs, and the ballyhooing of singer Tim Gick. His voice, a combination of David Byrne’s nervous, jerky shouts and David Yow’s tortured, muffled howls, provides the mad scientist to this seance of terror and trepidation. You cannot resist the supernatural powers of “Mass Dream,” so just let the music grasp your soul and shake it.
As frenzied as “Wired Trap” starts out, the organ riff that surfaces at the 2-minute mark calms your nerves, if not for only a moment:
8. J. Mascis
“Several Shades of Why”
When I first got J. Mascis’s “Several Shades of Why” I didn’t expect much. Mr. Mascis without his trusty Jazzmaster and his wall of Marshall amps is like Samson without his locks. Or at least I thought as much. With all the distortion and guitar soloing gone, Mascis’s true strength is finally revealed: his songwriting. Neil Young has said that all great songs should sound just as good without effects and Mascis proves this sentiment with 10 delicate songs of love and loss that are warm and welcoming.
With effects all but gone, a vocalist’s strengths or weaknesses are put right out there for all to hear. But as we’ve learned over the years, Mascis’s distinct croaking vocal style is strangely an asset. On “Seven Shades of Why” this is especially true with it being backed by the pairing of an acoustic guitar and strings (I can’t help but wonder if Mascis’s friend Thurston Moore had a hand or at least an influence on this album). Don’t worry, Mascis guitar prowess is still on display, in this case, finger picking his way through one bittersweet ode after another. Then again, one of my favorite moments on “Seven Shades of Why” is when Mascis’s guitar returns to the stomp box for a quick Dinosaur Jr guitar solo at the end of “Where Are You,” just a quick reminder that he still has plenty of Guitar God power in his back pocket if his long silver locks ever do get cut off.
I’ve been trying to post only audio clips as not to slow down my page, but I couldn’t resist displaying Mascis’s trippy video for “Not Enough”:
7. Fucked Up
“David Comes To Life”
I have to confess that Fucked Up’s “David Comes To Life” shouldn’t be on this list. While coming up with it, I made the rule that all albums had to be released before June 1st in order to be considered, just to make life easier. “David Comes To Life” came out on June 7th of course, so what gives? For one, I’ve actually been listening to several of the tracks off the new album plus a handful of other rarities for a couple of months now. The Montreal-based band is so fan friendly that they gave free downloads of rare material for those that pre-ordered the album. But that’s still no excuse. I guess it boils down to this: with something this great, I couldn’t just sit on my hands until December. That would be, dare I say, fucked up.
Now that I have the entire album, my adoration for this hardcore-rock-opera has only grown more. In 2008 I placed the band’s “The Chemistry of Common People” in my top 10, saying that it saved hardcore. The band is back to their savioring ways, this time resurrecting rock n’ roll. The riffs on “David Comes To Life” tear out the speakers with sharp edges that cut their way into your brain. This is the type of riffage you’d find on a Bon Scott era AC/DC album, and the wall of guitar carnage is comparable to the multi-layered assault of Queen’s Brian May. Unlike May, who sat in a studio for weeks at a time recording a guitar over a guitar over a guitar, Fucked Up utilize three guitarists, often recording all together in one take. It’s truly teamwork at its finest with each guitar not simply backing the other up, but providing flourishes to fill the entire canvas.
Pink Eye’s vocals are the one piece in the band maintaining that hardcore sensibility, barking out one anger-laced tale of heartbreak after another. Unlike “The Chemistry of Common People,” this album never rests to take a breath. It is one backbreaking anthem after another for 80 minutes straight. As you’d expect, this can be a bit daunting, yet it’s totally fulfilling (if you can survive the Armageddon). Any other band would have cut out songs or saved half of them for the next album, but Fucked Up aren’t like any other band.
“The Other Shoe” will have you nodding your head and pumping your fist as you sing along to the chorus of “Dying on the inside!”:
6. Death Grips
[Third Worlds; 2011]
Not only is “Exmilitary Mixtape” the best rap album of 2011 so far, it might be the most unique rap album of the past 10 years. Death Grips is the side-project of Hella drummer Zach Hill, and his mastery of the “unpredictable” surprisingly translates well to hip-hop with 48-minutes of nightmarish madness. The beats are glitchy and jittery, the bass lines booming and foreboding, and the screaming vocals violent and cannibalistic: basically, it’s an Aphex Twins album for the world of hip-hop.
The entire album plays like a mix-tape (because it is I suppose) with each song blending into another vicious attack, resulting in a nonstop assault on the listener. Hill’s love of music is apparent with samples from all ends of the spectrum: Pet Shop Boys, Link Wray’s “The Rumble,” Black Flag, and even audio of Charles Manson. The use of the Manson audio to open the album is no mistake. “Exmillitary Mixtape” resembles what is probably going through Manson’s head at this very moment.
This past week I watched the entire first season of “Game of Thrones” and as I revisited “Exmilitary Mixtape” for this list, I couldn’t help but thinking of Khal Drogo: savage, fiery, and sadistic. Stretching boundaries like Tribe Called Quest did in the 90s, Death Grips could easily be called Tribe Called Dothraki.
I’m not quite sure what a “Death Yon” is but I’m definitely feeling it:
[Dot Dash; 2011]
When I finally figured out this mid-year list, I was a bit shocked that Snowman’s “Absence” ended up being this low due to how often I’ve listened to it over the past few months. Although the albums ranked above it are masterpieces, “Absence” is no slouch. It’s depressing to think that this is their last album, breaking up before it was even released.
A month ago I wrote of “Absence”: “An easy approach to reviewing an album is comparing it to what has come before. Whether it sounds like Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” or Ziggy Stardust, the use of compare and contrast helps guide the reader toward what they are in for with a certain album. With ‘Absence,’ my guiding light is, well, absent. It is both brooding and sinister like Earth and Pyramids, but you’d be hard-pressed trying to find any distortion here. It’s filled with harmonizing, ghostly vocals, but it is far and away from anything resembling Bon Iver or Panda Bear. It has the synthy pulse of Four Tet and Flying Lotus, but the drumbeats take more from tribal territories than dance clubs. There is no need to pigeonhole it: this is Snowman; this is ‘Absence’.
The atmosphere of Snowman will have your mind reeling with visions, your heart beating with anticipation. I realize that the word ‘atmosphere’ gets thrown a lot in music reviews (it’s become somewhat of a crutch for me) but in this case, it truly transports you to a temple of both solitude and mystery. It somehow calms the soul, yet builds a tension within.”
“A” will catch you off-guard, so prepare yourself:
Last year on his EP “Archer of the Beach,” Dan Bejar included the song “Grief Point,” an eight-minute ramble about his confusion on the role of music in his life and the lives of his listeners. Fortunately he had one more album for us all to enjoy, and he’s made sure not to follow expectations.
While many artists draw their musical inspiration from 80s sounds such as new wave and post-punk, Destroyer borrows from the most unpopular of 80s music forms – smooth jazz. Yes, smooth jazz: electronic piano plinks, cheesy saxophone solos a la Kenny G, echoed trumpets, and new agey synth walls fit for a massage parlor. Rather than going with lo-fi which he perfected decades before it was cool, the songs on “Kaputt” are done in the most produced of all musical forms.
He’s not using the form ironically like Beck used funk for “Midnight Vultures.” Bejar’s said in interviews that this album is about America, and if so, the smooth jazz form conjures up the 80s, a time of superficiality and indulgence, both prominent attributes of “Kaputt.” Despite these two unsavory elements, Bejar has created one of the most honest albums of 2011 via one of the most superficial genres. He sings with confidence on songs that will make you feel like you’re alone, roaming city streets in the fog at night in search of something: a taxi, another drink, or a long lost love. When he sings that “we built this city on ruins,” he’s not only playing off the Jefferson Starship song, but he’s also making a statement about the state of our nation today. As expected, Bejar is still writing tongue in cheek lyrics that are both amusing and insightful. Let’s just hope this isn’t the last we get from one of America’s finest songwriters.
“Song For America” would probably be Patrick Bateman’s favorite song:
3. Fleet Foxes
The first time I heard the opening line to “Helplessness Blues” first track “Montezuma,” I couldn’t help but have an emotional reactio: “So now I am older / than my mother and father / when they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” A few weeks back a friend of mine on Facebook posted the exact same lyrics, and I wondered how many other aging drifters out there connected to Robin Peckfold’s tender lyrics.
I think that’s what makes “Helplessness Blues” such an incredible album. I’m not sure if it’s the lyrics, the guitar arrangements, or Pecknold’s soft voice, but I listen to this album and feel like it is a private, personal experience. The fact that thousands across the world are having that similar encounter tells me that this is more than a simple folk album. It somehow creates community through intimacy, if that makes any sense.
I often listen to music too much with my ear, analyzing them more than necessary, but with Fleet Foxes, I listen with my heart. I can’t necessarily break down what they do that is so great; okay, I could (harmonizing, break-downs, etc) but I don’t want to. The songs stir up the nostalgia and regret felt with old age, yet for some reason I don’t find it to be a total bummer of an album. Despite song after song of depressing tales, I sense in Pecknold’s voice a grain of hope. By the time the final track arrives, “Grown Ocean,” the narrator has realized that he can’t change his mistakes, so he continues on as the wide-eyed walker introduced on “Battery Kinzie,” always moving forward toward an unknown horizon.
On “Lorelai” he compares old age to being trash on the sidewalk, yet the guitars, melody, and mandolin only cause one to smile:
2. PJ Harvey
“Let England Shake”
[Vagrant/Island Def Jam; 2011]
One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t pay attention in history class during high school. I could blame my lack of historical knowledge on my mediocre teachers, but it is entirely my fault for being too preoccupied with girls, sports, and rock and roll. Now, when in a discussion with others that pertains to anything in history (American or world) I find that I know almost nothing.
This lack of knowledge becomes even more frustrating when listening to “Let England Shake,” PJ Harvey’s intricate collection of songs about England’s history. The songs focus primarily on WWI, although the remnants of this war have apparently cast a shadow on modern Britain (this is an assumption based on PJ’s lyrics; not on anything I learned in history class). I find myself listening to “Let England Shake” again and again due to its collection of memorable songs, each distinct in its own way. And although I don’t know anything about the Gallipoli campaign, the Anzac trench, or Battleship Hill, PJ provides enough hints for even a dolt like myself to grasp the message within her imagery of “a pile of bones,” “Deformed children,” and soldiers that “fall like lumps of meat.” The lyrics read like a book of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry. Harvey creates a unique dichotomy by pairing her gruesome descriptions of war within high-spirited songs that range from reggae, pop, and folk. As a result, the ugliness of war is anesthetized and treated in the same way it is in a textbook, revealing the facts in a way that is disconnected from those that lost their life. In the end, that’s the message of the album; all the soldiers died so that the ideal Britain could live on, when ironically that British ideal is now dead itself. I guess I learned something after all.
The lyrics to “All and Everyone” had to be taken from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” I swear it!:
1. Kurt Vile
“Smoke Ring For My Halo”
Was there any doubt who would be at #1? Anyone who follows my blog knows how much I adore Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring For My Halo.” I over-killed this album so severely that I hadn’t listened to it for three months in fear of ruining my enjoyment forever. Yet, for this list, I knew I had to revisit it in order to see where it placed. Fortunately I wasn’t disappointed and found the feelings associated with this album quickly resurfacing.
Here’s what I wrote of the album back in March: “On the surface, Vile’s album doesn’t seem like much more than a collection of slow strum-bling and mumblings of a sarcastic, disaffected youth. But this isn’t just some jangly, patch-work of songs; a closer analysis and you’ll quickly see that every song is intricately constructed within a lush, cave-like environ that only magnifies the creaks and buzzing of Vile’s acoustic. While he seems all alone with only the ghosts of his band the Violators hiding in the background, the production hugs his vocals and creates an ambiance that is one part groove, and one part melancholy. Much like Neil Young’s ‘On the Beach’ or Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ each song on ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’ is distinctly different, yet they all feel to be a part of the same world. It never feels like Vile is giving much effort, but don’t be fooled. This man is wearing his heart on each note captured on this album.
Vile’s lyrics also portray this feeling of indifference, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that there is a lot of pain being masked behind his nonchalance. For example, on ‘Ghost Town’ he mumbles: ‘Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes / but I don’t pay ‘em any mind. / Then again, I guess it ain’t always that way.’ Instead of a message facing adversity with ‘I will survive,’ Vile’s lyrics convey a feeling of simply giving up and continuing his journey of ‘Sleep walking through a ghost town.’ These white flag mantras are throughout the album, whether it be giving up on religion, society, love, or life.’
I’ve read several articles that compare Kurt Vile to Tom Petty, and although I don’t totally see it, “In My Time” is pretty damn Petty: