Wednesday, December 28, 2011

End of 11: Best Albums, 10-1

10 Tom Waits - Bad As Me: Tom Waits operates on his own schedule on all fronts--releasing music, touring, talking to the media. He probably shows up late to cocktail parties and celebrates major holidays on arbitrary dates, too. There's no pinning him down, you see. But after a seven year layoff, WAITS NATION was ready for a fresh LP, and Tom Terrific delivered this October. Bad As Me is just about as comprehensive a modern-day Waits album as you'll hear. Brawlers ("Chicago", "Raised Right Men"), bastards ("Talking at the Same Time", "Hell Broke Luce") and bawlers ("Last Leaf", "Pay Me", "New Year's Eve") abound. Recommended for anyone with an interest getting their feet wet. But remember, it's brackish lakewater. In a good way, though. And if you don't think "Chicago" fucking owns, then slide on a pencil skirt and sip your Bacardi/Diet, nancy boy.

9 Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest: Sharing a curious symmetry with Waits, Gil also scratched her seven-year itch (heh) in 2011 by releasing her first effort since Soul Journey. She cited a creative block as the reason for the layoff. Good on Gillian for maintaining her own high standards, as the near-decade it took to arrive at Harrow was evidently well spent. It showcases some of Gil and Dave's most immaculate songwriting to date, including the long-anticipated studio debut of "The Way It Will Be." There really isn't a whiff on the disc. It doesn't top Revelator in my book (nothing ever will, pretty much) but it's another win for Gil and Dave.

8 Bon Iver - Bon Iver: Recently anointed Album of the Year by Pitchfork, Justin Vernon's sophomore disc was essentially For Emma on steroids. Bigger, denser, more fractured and complex from a songcraft perspective, but still brimming with wintery introspection, even though it came out in June. Keeping this one brief, but for further reading on this album, look pretty much anywhere on the internet.

7 Man Man - Life Fantastic: Honus Honus and his crew sound like a band made up of cartoon bad guys. I consider this an asset, although plenty would deem it acerbic. I'm a student of Tom Waits, so my tolerance is high. Of course, Tom Waits at his weirdest makes Man Man sound like Wham!, but these Philly bros can hold their own in the oddball department. Production credit goes to Bright Eyes multitalent Mike Mogis. Dude masterfully layers complementary melodies and balances an instrument-heavy tracking approach that somehow never clutters. These qualities shine through when the album's at its best--take the Far East-tinged "Haute Tropique" or the fiery "Dark Arts." Lyric of the year: "These days I feel like a pariah/an albatross with my feathers on fire."

6 Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean: Remember when Iron and Wine was just Sam Beam whispering a Flaming Lips cover into a condenser mic? Remember that shit? Since then, the bearded-South-Carolinian-indie-dude-who-isn't-Ben-Bridwell's sound has evolved an unrivaled vibrance. I'm a firm supporter of his aesthetic trajectory, so KEOC is butter to me. He even gets away with a blatant I-V-vi-IV progression on "Walking Far From Home." While Sam won't take home his second HSW album of the year--no doubt sending a shockwave through the I&W camp--he's holding steady near the top. Not bad for "bitch folk."

5 Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo: Smoke Ring pretty much lived in my car all summer, soundtracking my drives through the oppressive Carolina heat as I shlepped from band practice to softball games to who knows what else. There's a prescient lyric in album closer "Ghost Town": "When I'm driving I feel like I'm dreaming/jamming tunes and drifting." IT'S LIKE HE'S SINGING ABOUT ME, GUYS! The grumbly mope-ster drags his words through ambient folk landscapes, yet lyrics never come off as overly pitiful. Vile achieves a lonesome grandiose through downer anthems like "Baby's Arms" and "Runner Ups", wherein he makes no bones about his selective aloofness. "I get sick of just about everyone/and I hide in my baby's arms," he laments in the former, conjuring a sentiment to which most anyone can relate. Also his name sounds like he could have been the WWF Intercontinental Champion in 1997. "KURT VILE TAKES ON DIESEL IN THE SUMMERSLAM MAIN EVENT."

4 Wilco - The Whole Love: So happy am I to slot Wilco's eighth LP as high as it is on this list. My reaction to the past two Wilco albums have generally followed a trajectory of "excited," "defensive," "accepting," before arriving at the sad realization that it just isn't up to snuff. "This album's great! Fuck off with your Art Brut bullshit! Fine, it's not one of their best, but... Damnit, you're right, this isn't their best effort." When The Whole Love came out, I was enamored with the sheer Wilcocity of it all. Noise sections! Strange chords! No lyrics about lawnmowing! Perhaps Tweedy and co. have found it again? Of course, a slight lull in the midsection bred some doubt (I still think "Open Mind" is a weak effort, and "Capitol City" would have benefited from Tweedy singing in a lower register and spending a minute longer in lyric R&D.) The album finds the band refocusing, reminding the greater music community that there's a reason Wilco is considered one of the most influential bands of the past two decades. I like that they're (perhaps subconsciously) drawing on eras past. For instance, the quirky Americana Newman-clone "Capitol City" is a Being There relic. "Dawned On Me" and "Born Alone" align with Summerteeth's indie-pop charm. A Ghost Is Born might have welcomed the inclusion of "One Sunday Morning" and "Rising Red Lung." But despite the broad range of styles, it's all so very cohesive. I'm proud to place this one in the higher tier of the band's catalog, and I'm equally as excited that their best days as a creative entity are not entirely behind them.

3 Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues: Took me a minute to warm to Helplessness Blues. There aren't so many outright hooks as you'd find on their self-titled debut, which, incidentally, was the 2008 HSW record of the year. Helplessness shows itself over the course of several listens, through folk movements and unorthodox (but coherent) song structures. And, yes, they're still singing the shit out of those 36 part harmonies or whatever. The only chink in HB's armor comes at the tail end of "The Shrine/An Argument", when a freeform jazz section overstays its welcomes. Beyond that, it's a proverbial gallery of bright, sprawling songscapes that yields one of the most satisfying listening experiences of 2011. They also absolutely crushed it live.

2 Felice Brothers - Celebration, Florida: I'd long assumed there was a ceiling over the Felice Brothers -- a tin sheet or a vaulted barn roof would, if we're extending the metaphor to their ramshackle shtick. But when I saw the band perform live in late 2010, something strange happened. Interspersed among their folky ballads and shambling roots rockers were new songs laced with punched-up electronic influences. It wasn't bad or anything, but it was an intriguing curve ball. This tease was seen through when Celebration, Florida dropped back in May. On paper, it had disaster written all over it. But lo, the Felices goddamn did it. Instead of blippy samples haphazardly slapped on folk songs, we instead heard measured and thoughtful integration of these elements that logically complemented the music. Perhaps the best example of this is lead single "Ponzi", easily one of the most compelling dancerock tracks about to white collar crime I heard all year! The menacing "Fire At the Pageant" continues the band's streak of Grade A album openers. But the best moment arrives at the other end of Celebration, Florida, when Ian Felice fucking unleashes on "River Jordan." The song's A-section is a charged ballad, good enough on its own. But, like the titular river bursting into rapids (ed: metaphor may not be geographically accurate), the tempo picks up and Ian Felice belts out the most inspired vocal stretches I heard this year. It caps off an adventure of an album that's hard not to celebrate...ion, Florida! Goddamnit I'm clever.
1 Megafaun - Megafaun: You know when an album seems tailor-made for you? As if the band had an inspirational plaque mounted on the studio wall that read, "Would (insert your name) like your next musical decision?" It took precisely one full listen to determine that, for me, Megafaun is one of those albums. It's a wire-to-wire win for the North Carolina trio on an LP that covers a ton of territory, from mind-melting jammy jams to instrumental movements to ballads both meek and booming to blue-eyed soul, all threaded together by the band's mellow-creme vocals and textured swaths of synthetic ambience. The wandering "Get Right" is the album's eight and a half minute crown jewel. It's a driving rocker that gives way to a swirling extended outro, the kind of stretch that's made for reflective late-night highway drives. Megafaun is highly collaborative, as you'll note from the digital information: for each track save for one, the artist is listed as "Megafaun with:" followed by whomever else had a hand in that particular song. Indeed, the aforementioned range of the album reflects this cavalcade of players. Megafaun was clearly interested in getting a little help from their friends, and the results validate that approach. Special props to "Isadora", the lush instrumental that experiments with the melody of "Auld Lang Syne", ducking between keys and playing off major/minor variations. Unfortunately, perfection eludes the album, tarnished only by a gawd-awful (though thankfully brief) vocal turn on "Everything" by someone named Frazey Ford, who I'm sure isn't a classically bad singer, but in context, her throaty wails are slightly more aggravating than a fuckton of nails screaming infinitely down a chalkboard. But hey, 99% is still an A+, so I'll divinely forgive. Megafaun may not get as much ink as their former D'Armond Edison bandmate Justin Vernon (known to the indie kids as the Bon Iver dude and to 2012 Grammy audiences as "Who the fuck is Bawn Eye-ver?"), they should hold them heads high, because there's at least one dude who thinks they made the better album.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

End of 11: Best Albums, 30-11

30 Cary Ann Hearst - Lions & Lambs: Big year for Cary Ann (and husband Michael Trent), who found a spot on the Americana tour circuit as reliable openers for the likes of Justin Townes Earl and Jason Isbell. Carry Ann's solo album dropped earlier this year. Shovels and Rope is better, but Hearst's chops are always worth the time.
29 Black Keys - El Camino: December releases always suffer in the polls, but never mind. It's a concise line-up, spotlighting the Keys' trademark snappy licks and tight arrangements. Dan Auerbach continues to develop as a singer.

28 Middle Brother - Middle Brother: Better than any one of the individual members' 2011 releases, it's about what you'd expect. Crunchy folk rock, a smattering of ballads, and one outstanding Replacements cover. It's stupid fun.
27 Fionn Regan - 100 Acres of Sycamore: I'd largely ignored Fionn since his outstanding debut back in 2007. But I heard good things about 100AOS, and I wasn't disappointed. Orchestral, delicate--think dark, starlit snowfields. Able musical complement for the short winter days.
26 Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic: Coming off the Pavement reunion, I'd imagine Malkmus' was ready to move on from back catalog run-throughs and set out into new creative territory. I don't think any of his solo stuff sounds far removed from Pavement, which is fine as far as I'm concerned. Mirror Traffic: Warm. Sprightly. Soundtrack to the late summer broil.
25 Yellowbirds - The Color: Saw these guys open for Josh Ritter and was pleasantly surprised by how magnetic their set was, particularly lead singer Sam Cohen's vocals. It's easy to get excited when you hear an opener who's not horrible, but that usually fizzles quick. But I saw The Color on some blog site and it turns out it's worth its salt.

24 The Low Anthem - Smart Flesh: It's not the crowning achievement of either of their last two albums, but Smart Flesh had its moments. The Low Anthem spends most of their time sounding like the musical equivalent of an attic, they do have the ability to plug in. "Boeing 737", for example. Explosive. Electric. Highly smashy. Sidebar: Check out the band's alter-ego, Snake Wagon. The goof-around project released a (free) album only last week, full of silly folk numbers. But it's actually not half-bad. Certainly a few worthy tracks to be found within.
23 Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire: Not a wholesale return to form, but Ryan veered away from the pop-rock highway down which he's cruise-controlled since putting a bow on his 2005 trilogy. Ashes isn't immaculate, but it's got enough stirring content to remind you why his fans expect so much of him.

22 Atlas Sound - Parallax: Coming on the heels of the brilliant Halcyon Digest, Bradford Cox stepped away from Deerhunter to focus on his Atlas Sound project. The verbed-out Parallax isn't all that different from Halcyon, but it has an experimental streak that distinguishes it as an imperfect but fascinating side project.

21 Feist - Metals: Opener "The Bad In Each Other" is one of the best damn tracks I heard all year, but is it telling that it's about the only one that sticks in my subconscious? In fairness it was competing for spins with the likes of Wilco, Megafaun, and Tom Waits, so I'm not sure I gave it a fair shake. 
20 Black Lips - Arabia Mountain: Sloppy and raucous, a nice turn-to when I'm feeling a little caffeinated. "Family Tree" on repeat? Guilty.

19 Cass McCombs - Humor Risk: Since WITS END didn't really do it for me, I was happy to hear Cass was releasing a second LP in 2011. Humor Risk hasn't had long to settle, but it's already more inviting (as McCombs' music goes, anyway.) It's lively and thoughtful, but grounded by McCombs' sorrowful vocals. Is he Mark Kozelek's kid brother? Cause he sounds like Mark Kozelek's kid brother.

18 TV On the Radio - 9 Types of Light: Not quite the earthshaker that either Dear Science or Return to Cookie Mountain were, TVOTR's latest still offers plenty of the band's trademark art-rock soulfulness. "Keep Your Heart" is a top tier effort, and their catching live show only magnified the appeal of the new material.

17 Richard Buckner - Our Blood: An expectedly minimilast effort from a guy who keeps on chugging, despite a lifetime of underappreciation. Fraying downerfolk, massaged by Buckner's aching baritone. Not overly complex or grand, it delivers the kind of gutpunch that you just don't find outside of sad bastard Americana.

16 Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde: This year's Oracular Spectacular, it's tremendously catchy music made by pretentious young guys who probably wouldn't be doing much else if they weren't making music.

15 Girls - Father Son and Holy Ghost: I sorta thought Girls would be a one-album-wonder. Welp...glad I was wrong. Christopher Owen certainly grasps writing an doe-eyed rocker named after a girl.

14 My Morning Jacket - Circuital: It came as a relief to many when lead single and title track "Circuital" dropped in advance of the album, and it didn't sound like Prince blowing a robot. (I did like Evil Urges, btw.) On the whole, the album's a little safer than necessary, Circuital comes a step closer to golden era MMJ.

13 Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine: As I'd hoped, Chaz Bundick was ready to shed his bedroom-producer tag and get back to writing for a full band. While still highly danceable and synth-friendly, Pine is the natural progression for a guy who's no longer hemmed in by a lack of resources.

12 The Decemberists - The King Is Dead: If you'd have asked me in January, I would have told you The King Is Dead was a lock for album of the year. But as the year wore on, I found myself referencing the back catalog more steadily than the new release. King is a wildly successful Americana turn, but I hope the D's don't forget about the well-read weirdness that endeared them to us in the first place.

11 Radiohead - The King of Limbs: Once again, Radiohead released an album only days after announcing it. And like its predecessor In Rainbows, it's an ethereal shadowdwelling affair. Distinctly segmented into halves, the first quartet of songs are defined by blustery electronics and sinister atmospherics. From "Lotus Flower" on, it gets a little less abstract but no less affecting. "Codex" employs a similar piano pattern as all-timer "Pyramid Song", while "Separator" offers a rarity in the Radiohead canon: ending an LP on a relatively upbeat note. There was a modest amount of backlash stemming from the brevity of Limbs--at 8 songs and 37:24, it's the shortest Radiohead album. I'll take a short Radiohead album over a standard-length album by pretty much anyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

End of 11: Various and Sundry Awards

Last year, I crafted a massive series of posts cataloging all the year end fare. But as I've lamented through both words an inactivity, it's not in the cards this year. So here's a pile of shit for you to sort through. Best albums and songs upcoming in later posts. Enjoy!

Late As Usual:
A few artists and albums from years past I finally took the time to appreciate.

Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, etc.: Delved into the off-beat yet beatific world of Palace-era Will Oldham. Haunting fringe-folk dramatics that set the scene for his Bonnie Prince Billy days ahead.

R.E.M.: A band I'd largely taken for granted outside of their radio hits, their earthshaking break-up led me to seek out their massive 2011 greatest hits album.

David Bowie: Hunky Dory, in specific. Incredible, obviously. I love when I finally take the time to check out an album that I know I'll love. It's such a low-risk maneuver with a tremendous pay-off.

Steve Earle: I own a couple Earle albums, but I only passively appreciated him before discovering El Corazon earlier this year. Like all great alt-country albums, it's a rich mix of twang, crunch, and balladry.

Various acclaim, doled out in this season of giving.

Actually Liked This Album: Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire : This isn't really fair to Ryan, as we all know he's fully capable of putting out excellent albums. But my expectations were tepid based on the past few. Empirical evidence suggested an uptick in quality, but I was hesitant to expect it lest I be letdown yet again. But Ryan actually put out a nice fall album, even if it isn't as brilliant as his glory days during the first half of the last decade. 

Finally Clicked: Dr. Dog - Fate: Sometimes it takes a live presentation for studio work to click. Fate stands as one of my most called-upon albums of 2011, thanks to Dr. Dog's outstanding February performance at the Music Farm. 

Singer-Songwriter Album of the Year: Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest: What's interesting is it that Harrow is not my highest-ranked 2011 album by someone who I'd deem a singer-songwriter. Confusing, yes. But as an album, Harrow is the strongest example of an album borne from a single voice (Dave and Gil are essentially that, I'm sure you'd agree.)

New to George Award: Kurt Vile: Just a name in prior years, a chance run-in with "Jesus Freaks" led me ton buy Smoke Ring For My Halo based on nothing more than that single. Considering "Jesus Freaks" isn't in my three favorite songs from the album, I'd say the risk begat rewards.

Now some quick hits:

Comeback of the Year: Wilco - The Whole Love
Instrumental Track of the Year: Megafaun - "Isadora"
Vinny Award (awarded to best debut): Yellowbirds - Color
"Come At Me, Bro" (Song/album I liked in the face of ridicule): Bon Iver - "Beth/Rest". I was actually moderately surprised at the backlash this song endured. Seemed like the perfect coda to me. First time I heard it I was cutting through a North Carolina rural road under a star-peppered sky. Worked well enough for me.

We soldier on: Next we'll have best songs, then best albums. Stay tuned...

Friday, December 16, 2011

2011: HSW staggers across the finish line!

Life's been happening lately, folks, and only in the best of ways. Between my work as a designer and on my own record with my shiny new band, both my time and creativity has been monopolized over the past few months, and may only continue to be so. It's bittersweet, really. I'm vastly proud of this new band, and I'm anticipating a positive response to the record. But this blog was a point of pride for me (as sad as that reads) and it's been tough to watch it fall into dereliction. Especially this time of year, when I get to feel important by making a shitload of lists. It's a process that's snowballed over the past few years. But alas, it's just not going to happen to the same degree as last time around. That is to say, it will be heavily abbreviated and hastily cobbled together.

But defiant, I will provide. Keep an eye out for 2011 wrap-up posts over the next couple of weeks.