My Favourite Records So Far this Year

Fall is bringing up the biiiig gun record releases; so many to look forward to, and so much potential goodness. But with the big summer releases out of the way, I wanted to count down some of my favourite releases of the year so far.

5. The Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You

A record which I feel has been unfairly harpooned by music media, perhaps simply based on its absence of veritable guitar God John Frusciante, or based on the fact that the Chili Peppers have stuck with a safe, repeteoire kind of sound that has rung tried and true for their years on the scene. To address the former point, rock star producer Rick Rubin compensated for Fruscinate’s absence by allowing each musician to shine in their own right; the record’s production doesn’t rely on the edgy, lengthy guitar solos but rather, on Flea’s seriously fat bass and Chad Smith’s incredibly present stylized drum skills. Anthony Keidis is a dynamic frontman; he has tight, syncopated rhythms and his voice soars on the Chili Peppers’ effervescent choruses. A few surprise elements – piano, for example – break up the flow and momentarily, the absence that is admittedly felt on “I’m With You” is forgotten. Josh Klinghoffer is in a tight spot here – much like Dave Navarro on the Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute”, he is looked at as a lesser substitute for Frusciante; however, he does some nice rhythmic work here, some fairly decent solos that follow in Frusciante’s large footsteps, and his chemistry with the band is not AS established, but certainly works for the purposes of the record. While it may not be the Chili Peppers’ strongest effort to date (“Stadium Arcadium” trumps “I’m With You”), it is definitely great to hear from long-time residents of my ipod and one of my long-time favourite bands once again. It’s been too long.

4. Adele – 21

It’s a good thing that Adele reminds us through her age-titled album how old she is, otherwise it would be easily forgotten; the fact that someone who is so young has the capacity to emote such hard-edged, jaded feeling with such a perfect, gorgeous voice, is incomparable. I was never a huge fan of Adele’s debut but this record is a monster; it has all the soul and gospel of a Mavis Staples record, only sung by a very young girl. “Rolling in the Deep” is the most memorable and arguably timeless single of the year; it is a breakout hit that has reached the masses and made all the hipsters confused – is Adele “mainstream”now? Are we still allowed to like her? I think, if your music has the power to reach millions, that’s what you should be doing.

3. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

After far too long a hiatus, Conor Oberst has reunited with Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. While NPR named this “the best Bright Eyes record”, I would disagree; however, it continued 2011’s reputation for being a GREAT year for music overall. While a huge departure from Bright Eyes’ more folksy efforts, the 1980s synth feel of “The People’s Key” is an extra-textual layer of feeling and meaning for the band that has not been previously explored in such depth. There is the same sort of mysticism here as on “Cassadaga” but the pop feel of the record provides both a dichotomy and a change in identity for Oberst and for the  band. Songs like “The Ladder Song” are more typical of what we expect from the often-mislabeled “emo” rockers but songs like “Triple Spiral” are quirky and bouncy and lyrically, “The People’s Key” provides nourishment in the form of  some of Oberst’s best-ever poetics.

2. Neil Young – A Treasure

Neil Young toured with the International Harvesters in the mid-1980s and these recordings reflect years between 1984 and 1985. It’s about the straighest “country” Young has ever gone; this collection probably reflected for some, a return to form for ol’ Neil after he went a little haywire with “Trans” (1982) and a stint with the Pinkhearts (“Everybody’s Rockin'”, 1983). There are no words for Neil Young anymore that haven’t already been said; what I can say though, is this live disc is really, really, really  good. Both in darkness and in light, Neil Young has a phenomenal grasp of who he is in these songs even though this technically isn’t who he “is”. And that kind of really, really great, albeit schizophrenic sound is expected. ‘Cause it’s Neil Young. Right?

1. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest

This is the kind of record that you hear, and wonder how you managed to live so long without ever hearing it; Welch has the kind of voice that wavers atop breezes until she weighs them down. The lyricism and messages in theses songs feel passed down from generation to generation. Songs like “Hard Times” or “The Way It Will Be” are loaded with southern gothic imagery and simplistic, nostalgic storytelling for a time and place that has never been a part of my life. David Rawlings is an excellent producer and one of Welch’s long-time collaborators and shines here yet again; together they have created a country record reminiscent of, and reflective of the fine literary and musical traditions of the soutern United States. Following in the footsteps of Johnny Cash, the Carter Family or “outlaws” like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, this is one of the deepest, darkest, prettiest darn records I ever did hear.

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