Hi, Everyone! Well, it’s that time of year again! The time when I get to pontificate about the top releases of the year. However, as usual, I have a really difficult time ranking things. This is something that carries over from my work as a professor. After all, what is the difference between a 93 and a 94? I know it when I see it, but just how to explain? So, I’m just going to
wimp out present some of the albums I loved in no particular order. For those of you looking for a more ordered (and possibly comprehensive) list, I would recommend checking in with Pitchfork, Slowcoustic, or NPR Music. All right, let’s get on with the show!
Marissa Nadler – Marissa Nadler.
Released just the week before, but already in the shadow of Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, it was easy to miss this absolute gem of a record. It’s a bit languid, a lot mellow, and entirely beautiful. It’s perfect for a hazy Summer afternoon, or a Winter’s twilight, and, if I were to pick a favorite for the year, this might well be it. Have a listen to the whole thing here, or watch this beautiful video for “In Your Lair, Bear.”
Eddie Vedder - Ukulele Songs
I absolutely loved Eddie’s first solo record – the soundtrack for Into the Wild – and had been hoping there would be a follow-up. This year’s Ukulele Songs was a wonderful, unexpected album that was both humble and personal. (Here’s what I wrote earlier this year.) Here’s “Longing to Belong” from the album:
Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
One of the few albums that I’m sure will appear on almost every list that comes out this year (along with M83 and Bon Iver), this album was a wonderful follow-up to 2008′s Fleet Foxes. Personally, I loved the ever-soaring harmonies, the gradual embrace of the Crosby-Stills-Nash-Young-ness that the band so often flirts with, and the clear effort the band made to remain true to itself while also pushing forward and evolving. It’s a great, big record, and one of the bright spots of early 2011.
Here’s “Helplessness Blues” for your listening pleasure:
Telekinesis - 12 Desperate Straight Lines
This might very well be one of the most fun records of the year. If nothing else, Telekinesis put on one of my favorite live shows of the year when I saw them in Boston way back in March. The album itself is the sort of post-punk pop that hits us with hooks, infectious melodies, and bursts of sunlight. There are moments on this album that remind me of the finer moments of bands like Semisonic, and yet there are also moments that remind me of The Cure. It’s a great record, and one that you should definitely check out. Here’s the video for “Please Ask For Help” to get you started:
Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
Another crazy leap forward for Sam Beam, Kiss Each Other Clean features the sort of full-band arrangements we might have once thought impossible from Iron & Wine. Indeed, seeing the band back in April, I found myself listening to these nine musicians on stage and thinking: “Wait, is this Pink Floyd?” Of all the things I never expected to say at an Iron & Wine concert, that was pretty much top of the list. Yet, for all that, this is an album that stays true to the folk origins of the band’s earlier material, and one that has a lush, even majestic sound. As far as I’m concerned, “Tree By The River” is one of the finest songs that Sam has written in the last five years. And if you really want to see my favorite version, it’s the first one up in this amazing Daytrotter session:
The Decemberists - The King is Dead
Proof that all a man like Colin Meloy needs is a thesaurus, a book of literary references, and Peter Buck! I kid, of course, but I must say that I am consistently impressed with the “literariness” of the albums put out by The Decemberists. As a fan of early R.E.M., the inclusion of Peter Buck (and the – at times outright – mimicry of tracks like “Calamity Song”) is an absolutely inspired idea, and the overall effect is an album that is lively, rough-edged, and excellent. I wholeheartedly recommend this one, and I have to say that “June Hymn” and “Calamity Song” are two of my most-played tracks of the year. Check them out:
The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck
Oh, Mountain Goats! How you rock! This is yet another solid release from the Darnielle-Hughes-Wurster triumvirate. While some eyebrows may have been raised by John Darnielle’s desire to work with metal producer Erik Rutan (read about that over on Pitchfork), the result is a solid, rocking album that explores many of the darker themes that have come to feature in John’s recent work. Yet, even so, this is a satisfying release that is sure to leave you feeling better than when you began. Check out “Birth of Serpents” below, and then head over here to listen to an amazing, unreleased track called “You Were Cool:”
Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Even though it goes all Richard Marx on us at the end, Bon Iver is a beautiful, sonically-expansive follow-up to 2008′s For Emma, Forever Ago. Indeed, in much the same way that Fleet Foxes did with Helplessness Blues, Bon Iver managed to push his limits without forsaking his past. (Indeed, as I listen to “Perth,” now, I begin to see how that time spent working with/on Peter Gabriel may have proven an influence on this record.) The result is a beautiful, and at times challenging, record that sees Justin Vernon proudly pushing beyond the sparseness of For Emma. There’s a reason that this is going to be on most of the Top-Ten lists you read, this year, and you can hear it in “Holocene” and Calgary” below:
R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
Whether or not this is the album I would’ve wanted the band to go out on or not, it’s wonderful to hear a record and know that the band is having fun without any concern for how I might feel. For a band in their 31st year, R.E.M. managed to create a record that both revisited and built upon its past. Unlike some of the moments on Reveal or Around the Sun, there’s nothing about this album that feels like a band who are just trying to cash in by playing it safe. And actually, maybe it is the perfect album for the band to go out on, as it makes me so eager to have more… better that than those sad, late-career efforts that make you wonder why you ever bothered, right? (I’m looking at you, Chinese Democracy.) Here’s the beautiful “Überlin,” and you can find even more videos in my short-film round-up:
Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials
Every time I listen to this album, I realize that every generation must have an Annie Lennox. And I have to say, I really like this one!
M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Proof that double albums can still work! Even in 2011! I wish this album and I had gotten to know each other better, but we have all the time until the Apocalypse to do so now…
The Modern Tapes - The Modern Tapes EP
Oh you mysterious Israelis! Put out a full length in 2012, and then come play it in America! Thanks!
So, there we are! Not the most comprehensive list, but a reasonably solid one. I left out Radiohead and Wilco, because, well, they rather left me out this year. In any case, I hope you had an excellent 2011, and I’m looking forward to sharing all sorts of new music in 2012. Until then…
Happy New Year!