This year was brimming with good music; it was bookended with the Decemberists’ The King is Dead and the Black Keys’ El Camino and the juicy, lush, meaty pages in between were, for the most part, nothing short of brilliant.
Almost all of my favourite bands released new material this year, and the material that they released was among their best. EPs and LPs and singles that will forever be mainstays in my life have filled my car, my ipod, my computer and my living room in 2011, and it was difficult to narrow down my top 10 picks. Though the year is not over yet and there may even still be more to come, here are my picks of my favourite records of this past great big beautiful year.
10. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
Apparently “The People’s Key” is to be the last record Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott are releasing together under the Bright Eyes moniker. It’s unfortunate, as I feel Oberst’s best, and certainly most diverse and original work is with Bright Eyes as opposed to his conistent yet indescribably lacking work with the Mystic Valley Band, on his own, or with the Monsters of Folk. Fused with 80s new wave, folk and images evoking rastafarian mysticism, over a backdrop of off-the-wall narration by Oberst’s unusual friend Denny Brewer, who discusses his own bizarro, new age philosophy on life, amongst other enjoyable-yet-indecipherable ramblings. While this is not, in my opinion, Bright Eyes’ best record, it is certainly one of the standout releases of the year and a memorable sendoff to a band that has given me nothing but good memories, reflective feelings and woeful surrenders.
9. Lady Gaga – Born This Way
Lady Gaga owned much of the charts in 2011, thanks in no small part to her best and most consistent (and consistently interesting) record to date, Born This Way, an ode to being yourself, being a strong woman, and being a government hooker. The first time I heard this record, lines like “Jesus is the new black” made me almost laugh out loud with their over-the-top campy lunacy. But little touches like that are only part of the fun of this record. On the surface, the avante-garde dance diva takes herself too seriously, but this record indicates that Gaga puts as much thought and consciousness into having fun with image and creating controversy as she does when she’s on the crusade to end gay teen bullying. The standout song on the record, the uncharacteristically country-twinged You and I, was probably my favourite song of the year – a melodic, thrashing, shimmering pop showstopper with all the trimmings of a Christmas tree and a heart so big you can hear its beat.
8. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
Marling is a heavily underrated, quiet artist whose chirpy British accent-isms are remiscent of Lily Allen without the bitchy sass. Marling’s newest effort is another stunner – a sleepy neo-folk classic that recalls some of Joni Mitchell’s darkest hours and evokes a very simple honesty that is intangibly timeless.
7. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest
Welch and her long-time collaborator David Rawlings, have released yet another stunner of a record; songs like “Hard Times” and “Scarlet Town” sound as though they were written during the depression, carrying a certain rural burden that can only be captured by an artist with Welch’s heartfelt, sorrowful vocals and shrewd writing chops, creating lyrics that evoke perfectly, a false nostalgia for a whole other lifetime.
6. Josh Rouse & The Long Vacations
Josh Rouse now resides in Spain and the sunny, Spanish-flavoured output he’s produced over the last few years demonstrate his ease with himself, leaving behind heavier records like “Nashville” (the term ‘heavier’ is loosely put, of course). On this latest offering, Rouse seems refreshed, creatively and spiritually and it comes through. No 2012 beachy vacation should be without the standout track, “Look What the Sun Did”; on that song, there is something so joyful and easy-going, yet strangely gritty about it, it begs repeated listens, whether you are lying on the beach or sharing a quiet, reflective moment with only yourself. I’ve always been a fan of Rouse; this is his best offering in ages.
5. Bon Iver – Self-Titled
Mere days ago, Bon Iver was nominated for a Grammy for “Best New Artist”; I suppose whoever nominates for these things was blisfully unaware of For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s actual breakthrough effort. Not to mention the stunning Blood Bank EP, rendering Justin Vernon’s dreamy, heartfelt project FAR removed from “new”… while this particular Grammy nod points out who stodgy and out-of-touch the Grammy awards actually are, it does not take away from the academy’s further recognition of independant art-rock, which is a step in the right direction for the same award given at one point in popculture history to the Starland Vocal Band. Snobbery aside, Bon Iver’s self-titled record is one o the most beautiful things I have ever heard. Vernon’s melodic falsetto pierced heartstrings all over the world in 2011 with songs like “Calgary” and my personal favourite, “Holocene”, in which the line “I can see for miles, miles, miles” ricochets off the soul like little chiming bells. While this record is less folksy and far more produced than its sister record, For Emma, it is no less gutwrenching or emotionally affecting; I would argue in fact, that Vernon and Bon Iver have made great strides by creating a full sound here. It’s a similar evolution to another indie darling, Iron & Wine, and Sam Beam’s evolution from The Creek that Drank the Cradle to the bombastic Boy With a Coin a few years later.
4. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Self-Titled
Both Noel Gallagher and his brother Liam carried forth in 2011 with their own projects and the world (well… me, at least) waited with baited breath to see which Gallagher would come out on top. The vote is in, and Noel crushed his brother with this sonic symphony of a release with his new band, the High Flying Birds. Delivering exactly what they promise with a name like the “High Flying Birds”, this record has soaring choruses and arrangements, accompanied by Noel’s characteristic deep vocals with timbre, heart and little Brit-isms. This record is packed with radio-ready, deeply-thought-out pop/rock that, while it is not too different than tracks Noel Gallagher penned for his former band lyrically and melodically, provide more intimacy than could be felt in the Gallaghers’ big, high-energy, egotistical arena rock shows. “Dream On” is a particularly beautiful song with a bouncing, aggressive chorus; “(I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine” is one of the catchiest songs of the year; “If I Had a Gun…” sounds like old-school Oasis before the backlash and the arguing and antics steadily worsened for Noel and his brother and ex-collaborator. Sure… the record may sound like a record of Oasis B-sides at its worst, but said-B-sides are chocked full of brilliance and are far better than even the best tracks on the brothers’ last record. I was surprised at just how much I loved this record and how much it meant to me. It’s as if all Noel needed was a change of pace, and his creative clock was reset all the way back to 1995.
3. Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing
Ever since I first-heard “Furr”, essentially a quirky werewolf love song, I’ve been in love with Blitzen Trapper. Their records are solid and consistent and I love Eric Earley’s Dylan-isms when he sings; they give the band a rustic charm, which never fails to work, as all their songs sound like they come from another era. American Goldwing is absolutely their best record to date; from the racuous, fist-pounding “Street Fighting Sun”, to the epic, melodic suite, “Astronaut”, this record is full of romantic riverside ideals, quirky transient characters, and life lessons learned on ‘the road’. It is simple and complicated, steeped in tradition, and at the same time, incredibly accessible and contemporary.
2. Wilco – The Whole Love
I once said to one of my friends in a conversation about music, “Wilco is incapable of making a bad record.” I stand by this; though they have their share of critics who refer to them as ‘dad rock’ and firmyly believe they will never make a record as heartfelt or as good as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, here they are again with their most solid effort since A Ghost is Born. The Whole Love is everything this Wilco fan has been waiting for since the release of Wilco (The Album) in 2009; it is experimental like Ghost and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; it is melodic and catchy like some of the finest tracks from Tweedy’s equally good side projects, Golden Smog and LooseFur. It is warm and heartfelt one song, and eerie and trippy the next. It mixes sunny, catchy, Paul McCartney-esque Vaudeville (“Capitol City”) with John Lennon-esque laments that are at once, cool, bluesey and reflective (“Sun Loathe”). Tweedy & Company resurrect their ability, a la Ghost is Born to create lengthy tunes that tell an authentic, emotional story and attract the listener’s attention from the first note to the resounding conclusion (the record is bookended by the 7-mintue “Art of Almost” and the 12-minute “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”). The lyrics, in true Wilco style, raise more questions than answers but it never matters; each interpretation I’ve read is as valid and intriguing as the next. On The Whole Love, Wilco proves again (not that they needed to) that while not all their efforts are created equal, they never completely flub on a record. And this is in their top three. It is a simply amazing record that I look forward to hearing live in February!
1. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
Yes, I have decided that Ryan Adams’ latest release is my number 1 favourite record of 2011. Are we surprised? While I might be biased (if anyone here follows my blog, you’ll know that Adams is my favourite artist of all time), I firmly believe that this record made my year and was a very big part of why 2011 was such a wonderful 365 days for me. “Dirty Rain” starts off the record with a bang; it’s been a while since Adams has crafted a song so beautiful, I teared up the first time I heard it. “Dirty Rain” is a classic; while Adams is often described as ‘alt-country’, there is nothing overtly ‘alt’ about the song at all; it bleeds something fierce, just by softly and sweetly recalling lost times and lost loves and “trying to find out who we were”. It sets a standard for Adams’ best record in years. The title track too, stands out as maybe one of the best songs Adams has ever crafted: “Her eyes were indigo, the cats were all Calico, and the sailboats they all sailed by…and a river she cried,” Adams wails with his pure, raw vocals. “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say” is a love song that describes ways in which falling in love is indescribeable. “Invisible Riverside” is a perfect melding of imagery evoking the beauty of nature, and the ways in which that beauty can heal and resurrect. “Lucky Now” is a song that on the surface, feels cynical but in reality, speaks to the fact that deeply feeling and recalling certain times of our lives is a lucky thing. While this record is almost an easy, wispy breath of fresh air, it is, as Adams’ records tend to be, streaked (only a little this time) with darkness; it speaks to finding comfort, closure and warmth following a dark, desolate past life and in that, there is both happiness and sadness.
I was fortunate enough to see Ryan Adams’ incredibly intimate acoustic tour live in Seattle this past October and it was more than anything I’d ever hoped for. Hearing “Dirty Rain”, “Ashes & Fire”, the rollicking “Chains of Love” and “Lucky Now” live truly showcased the sparse beauty of these tracks and further proved for me that Ashes & Fire is the record which best defined, cultivated and coloured my whole year.