Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year in Music 2011 - Part Five: Albums 1-10

And the final top 10:

10 Smith WesternsDye It Blonde (Fat Possum). The Smith Westerns are a 3-piece that formed about 4 years ago in Chicago while still in high school. And for a band young enough to be my kids, they definitely have a retro 60's/early 70's sound to them, recalling T.Rex, the Beatles (or at least more suped-up versions of "My Guitar Gently Weeps"), Cream, along with a dance/rock sound that recalls newer bands like Franz Ferdinand as well. Dye It Blonde is their sophomore effort and there really isn't a bad song on this tight, brief 10-song record. It always feels like it ends too soon. Highlights include "Weekend" (video), "Still New", "Imagine, Pt. 3", "Dance Away", "Fallen In Love", and "Dye the World" (with one of my favorite guitar riffs of the year).

9. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador). Kurt Vile has simply been the best songwriter in Philadelphia over the last 3-4 years. I got him into last year and enjoyed the Square Shells EP and early single for "In My Time", which also appears on Smoke Rings. Vile grew up near Philly and has been on the scene for several years now, first in War on Drugs, and then solo. His sound is classic folk/pop in the mold of Dylan or Springsteen, but also with a hint of artists like Beck or classic Velvet Underground style garage rock. There really isn't a clunker on the album and the best include "Jesus Fever" (video filmed on streets of Philly last winter), "Baby's Arms" (video, filmed entirely on a phone), "Runner Ups" (awesome live clip), "Puppet to the Man", and "Peeping Tomboy" (live). Vile is a bit of an acquired taste, I suppose, but I have a feeling he is poised for more national acclaim as the years go by.

8. Veronica Falls – S/T (Slumberland). This quartet emerged from across the pond in London last year with a different take on the retro surf/garage sound that has been so big in the States the last few years. Roxanne Clifford's vocals along with James Hoare (both on vocals and guitars) are just different enough to help give the band a sound that is close to their peers but also unique and not derivative. They are similar to the Raveonettes or Vivian Girls, but more poppy. They are similar to Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls, but a little noisier. They are kind of in that sweet spot in between. Very few low points on here and lots of highs, namely, "Found Love in a Graveyard", "Stephen" (live at SXSW), "Bad Feeling" (video) with a pulsing 60's surf/rock beat, the title track, "The Box", and "Come on Over" (video). 

7. The Pains of Being Pure at HeartBelong (Slumberland). I took a liking to this NYC quintet a few years back, really digging their retro Brit pop (New Order/Cure/Smith) meets 90's fuzz (early Smashing Pumpkins, My Bloody Valentine) sound. There seemed to be a lot of bands that popped up between say 2003-2008, especially in NYC, who were doing some version of this sort of thing (the Bravery, Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, etc), some minus the fuzz part, but for whatever reason it seems that the Pains of Being Pure at Heart pulled it off most convincingly to me and with the most originality. Belong is a tight 10-song offering (notice so many of the albums on this list are only 10-12 tracks with no filler?) whose highlights are "Girl of 1000 Dreams", "My Terrible Friend", "Heart in Your Heartbreak" (live in studio), "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now", "The Body", and the album opening title track (live in studio). The more I listen to this album the more I enjoy it. The only drawback is from the clips I've seen online, a lot of these songs don't translate well live.

6. YuckS/T (Fat Possum). Here's another band young enough to be my offspring. Max Bloom and Daniel Blumberg have been together for years already in various projects in the U.K. They formed the quartet, Yuck, a few years back, melding the sonic assault of bands like My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr, and Sonic Youth with the pop/rock sounds of bands like the Cure. It mixes well with an album of fast-paced rockers and some ballads. Luckily the music on here is good enough to overcome what is perhaps the worst album cover of all time. Anyway, the number of quality tracks are kind of astounding for a band this young. The standout rockers include the lead single "Get Away" (video), "The Wall" (Pitchfork video), the Dino Jr-esque "Holing Out", "Georgia" (live), and the album closer "Rubber" (live in studio). And "Shook Down" (video), "Stutter" (live in studio), and "Sunday" (live) are excellent ballads. 

5. Stephen Malkmus & the JicksMirror Traffic (Matador). No matter the hype surrounding the producer of this release, Beck, this actually does not sound like a Beck production to me. Sonically, it doesn't really sound all that different from Malkmus’ previous releases in the Jicks. When I heard Beck was producing, I expected something overly-experimental, but this is just pretty straight-forward Malkmus greatness. Even back in Pavement, Malkmus always had a knack for being able to capture a leisurely unrehearsed vibe on his studio recordings, with a feeling like he just walked into the studio, sat down and started playing, and singing whatever stream of consciousness word jumble was in his head. One of my biggest regrets of the year was passing on seeing Malkmus live because I didn't think he'd play much from his superb solo debut album. A)He did, B)He covered R.E.M's "Radio Free Europe" the week they announced their retirement, and C)He put on a great show. Anyhow, if you've read this far on the list, you probably like music, know music, and know all about Malkmus and his previous work in Pavement before going solo 10+ years ago. The best tracks were "Tigers", "Senator" (great video with Jack Black), "Brain Gallop" (live in studio), "Tune Grief" (live), "Stick Figures in Love" (live in studio), "Asking Price" (live in studio), and "Gorgeous Georgie."  This is a nearly flawless album, with my only complaint being that at 15 songs it runs a tad long. Overall, this is Malkmus' best album since his 2001 solo debut.

4. Seapony – Go With Me (Hardly Art). Seapony are a 3-piece indie rock band hailing from Seattle. They have an infectious pop/rock sound that recalls the Jesus and Mary Chain, but with a recording style that results in a cleaner sound more along like the lines of the Dum Dum Girls or Best Coast. Like those bands the vocals are really what separate them from other similar artists, and Jen Weidl’s vocals are very good. They actually remind me a little of Monsters Are Waiting, who apparently were about 3 years too far ahead of their time. There are no clunkers in this tight 12-song release, with the only complaint being that the songs do tend to sound too similar on initial listenings. But in an era where hardly anyone really listens to "albums" any more, offering little incentive for artists to put a lot of time and effort into crafting good ones that flow together, bands like Seapony should be rewarded for putting together an album that flows well together. Some of the highlights include “Dreaming” (video), “Into the Sea”, “So Low”, “What You See”, "Where We Go", and “Go Away.”

3. The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead (Rough Trade). Honestly, I have never been a big Decemberists fan, even though they've been one of indie rock's darlings over the last 5+ years. I liked some songs on their 2005 release, Picaresque, but that was about it. I heard early good buzz on this record, so I checked it out. And before I even knew R.E.M’s Peter Buck plays guitar on some of it, I actually thought it had an R.E.M. Out of Time-era vibe to it. You can really hear the Buck/R.E.M. influence on "Calamity Song" (video) and "Down by The Water" (live), which also features Gillian Welch on backing vocals. The former has a riff that recalls R.E.M.'s “Talk About the Passion” or "So. Central Rain" and the latter R.E.M's “Orange Crush" or "The One I Love"  This record was just a pleasant surprise in every way, the old traditional folk/pop sound fits Colin Meloy's voice perfectly. I went into it with no expectations and immediately loved it and have not gotten tired of it at all. Besides the aforementioned songs, the best of the rest include "Don't Carry It All" (which sounds a lot like Tom Petty's 90's hit "You Don't Know How It Feels"), "January Hymn", "June Hymn", and "This Is Why We Fight" (video).

2. Male BondingEndless Now (Sub Pop). 2011 sort of became a retro bookend of 1991, as noted in my review of the Foo Fighters’ album, so I guess it’s only fitting that an album with a retro-Grunge sound, released on Sub Pop, would be one of my favorite albums of the year. This London trio burst onto the scene in the late 00's and this is their sophomore release. This is another band with similar influences as Yuck, but they seem to lean more towards 90's Grunge, at times sounding a little like Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins. If you are of a certain age, there's no way you can listen to this album cranked up without wanting to start moshing. John Arthur Webb's smooth vocal style fits these songs perfectly. And Frankie Rose provides guest backing vocals on "Bones" (live), which is a pretty good track, but there are so many better. And those include "Carrying" (live acoustic version), "Seems to Notice Now", "What's That Scene?", "Before It's Gone", "Mysteries Complete", and "Dig You Out" (live - check out the poster hanging near the drummer). 

1. Cloud NothingsS/T (Carpark). Hailing from Cleveland, OH, this lo-fi quartet is in the same ballpark as Best Coast, Wavves, and Male Bonding with the retro noise pop sound. This is their sophomore album and it's simple, short, and sweet - 11 songs in about 30 minutes. They are the brainchild of Dylan Baldi, who spent earlier years selling cassettes that he recorded at home, and also is, yes, young enough to be my offspring (notice a trend here?). So this is an actual fully produced album in the studio. It's a good listen all the way through and the best songs always seem to end too soon. The standout tracks are "Understand At All" (video), "Not Important", "Should Have" (live basement session), "Nothing's Wrong" (video), "Been Through", the more melodic "Forget You All the Time" (video), and "All the Time." They have a new album due out in early 2012 and will be playing Johnny Brenda's in March. I'd be hard-pressed to find an album I listened to more often in 2011 and this snags the lofty status as the Temple of the Blog #1 Album of the Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year in Music 2011 - Part Four: Albums 11-20

Here are albums 11-20, counted down in descending order:

20. Ryan AdamsAshes & Fire (Pax Americana).  After a bit of a hiatus for Adams (2 years between albums) after disbanding the Cardinals in 2009, Adams returned in December 2010 with a double album of leftovers from the last Cardinals sessions. And then in fall 2011 he dropped this vastly different solo album. This is probably the most personal-sounding album Adams has released since his solo debut Heartbreaker. Instead of morphing his persona to fit whatever style of record he was making, this is just a collection of very raw acoustic, folky, pop songs. Keyboardist Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and Heartbreakers plays on this album and I think he gives it just the right touch at times, adding a little flavoring to the meat of (mostly) just Adams and his acoustic guitar. Highlights include the title track, “Lucky Now” (this live performance on Letterman is one of the year’s best), “Kindness”, the Grateful Dead-ish “Invisible Riverside”, and “Chains of Love.”

19. Face to FaceLaugh Now….Laugh Later (People Like You). SoCal punk rock legends Face to Face reunited to tour back in 2009, after going on hiatus in 2004. And then they went back into the studio in 2010 and released Laugh in mid-2011, during their 20th anniversary year. For those expecting early Face to Face, you’ll be disappointed with this album. It lacks a lot of the ferocity and speed that their early to mid 90’s albums had. But it definitely picks up where they left off on their previous studio album, 2002’s How to Ruin Everything. The hard-hitting punk rock songs are still here, along with more melodic stuff, more reminiscent of a combo of old Face to Face and singer/guitarist Trever Keith’s solo projects.  Highlights include “It’s Not All About You” (cool video), "All Or Nothing", "Blood in the Water", "Invisible Hand" (cool live clip from Spain in September), "I Don't Mind and You Don't Matter", and "Should Anything Go Wrong." 

18. Times New Viking – Dancer Equired! (Merge). TNV, a trio hailing from the great state of Ohio, have been around for about 7-8 years now. I was tipped off to them back on their 3rd album, Rip It Off, in 2008 thanks to the Robert Christgau (DaveLikesTapes) of Philadelphia. They had a 60's pop sound mixed with heavy distortion, making them stand out a little among their peers. I always respected their innovative recording techniques, but I wasn't able to appreciate the end result as much until this more straight-forward garage-y indie rock album. This album was actually recorded in a real studio and not through some rigged up speaker/tape recorder thing at home. So they didn't really sacrifice any of the energy or catchy melodies from their previous records, but just made them sound cleaner. Not so much "over-produced" as, well, "produced." The high points are the more upbeat "Fuck Her Tears" and "It's a Culture", but really so many songs are standouts - "Ever Falling in Love" (cool video), "No Room to Live" (cooler video), "Try Harder", "Don't Go to Liverpool", "Ways to Go", etc. 

17. Wye OakCivilian (Merge). Hailing from the great state of Maryland, Wye Oak is a 2-piece consisting of Jenn Wasner (guitar, vocals) and Andy Stack (drums). I didn’t care for this album as much when I first heard it, then it rose very high on list, only to fall again as the year ended. For some reason I thought this band was on Vagrant, so I was expecting something totally different and was kind of put off listening to their previous 2 LP’s, prior to checking this out. But after awhile this album of well-crafted indie/pop just grew on me. Compared to their previous albums, the songs on Civilian are just a little tighter, and more produced, and more upbeat. Wasner’s vocals are very unique and for the longest time I thought there were multiple vocalists in the band, since at times her voice sounds very feminine and other times it has a huskier sound, recalling a male vocalist trying to hit a high note. The title track, “Holy Holy” (cool video that's been viewed by DaveLikesTapes several thousand times), “Fish” (video), and “Plains” were really strong tracks and most of the rest of the tracks work well together as a cohesive statement.

16. Deer Tick  Divine Providence (Partisan). I didn’t get this until late in the year and it rose quickly on my list.  This is the Providence, R.I. band’s 4th studio album already. I had never really listened to Deer Tick much before, even though I had heard good things about them. They combine folk with pub rock and it works pretty well to create a slightly different version of the indie rock sound du jour, sounding at times like Spoon or Cracker or even some of Wilco’s more rocking songs. Even though it has not always shone through on their previous folkier albums, singer/songwriter John McCauley is a big fan of bands like Nirvana (prompting some to call them “Deervana”) and the Replacements. On this album they definitely seem to get their inspiration from the early 70's garage rock of the Stooges and Exile on Main St-era Rolling Stones. Highlights for me are “Funny Word”, "Let's All Go to the Bar", "Clowning Around", "Main Street", "Chevy Express", and "Make Believe."

15.  WilcoThe Whole Love (dBpm). This is probably the lowest a Wilco album has ever been ranked on my list, and I liked this album. After a progression with the same band members in tow from 2007’s Sky Blue Sky to 2009’s Wilco (The Album) to this, expectations were higher for me. Both of those previous records were more straight-ahead rock albums for the band, showing off the band members’ abilities, especially the killer solos of guitarist Nels Cline. This is an experimental album, more similar to 2004’s A Ghost Is Born or 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But it’s sort of experimental in the same way, which makes it old hat for Jeff Tweedy and company. It follows the same blueprint: Beatles-esque pop/rock melodies, hidden beneath noisy interludes and long jazzy intros. There are some definite highlights like “Standing O”, “I Might” (Live on Letterman), “Dawned on Me”, and “Born Alone” (live on Letterman). The opener, “Art of Almost” (Live on Letterman) is similar to previous album openers in style and sound like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “At Least That’s You Said”, starting slowly and then building. And the epic 12-minute closer “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”, tells of a fractured relationship between a father and son, and the son’s relief/joy at the death of his religiously judgmental father.  Overall, it was a good album of “Dad Rock”, but at this point I just feel that Wilco has done everything they can do within this framework. What they have been doing since the late 90’s and are still doing now, was considered very edgy stuff 10-12 years ago. But now the edgy has become mainstream and they deserve credit for helping to make that happen. Could you imagine back in the mid 90’s that a band with Wilco’s sound would ever be one of the most consistent-selling and popular bands in the land, among both college kids and elders alike? But they’ll probably spend the rest of their careers releasing mostly good albums that I’ll be looking forward to hearing and will no doubt enjoy, but they will likely never have a great album again. 

14.  Foo FightersWasting Light (RCA). This is probably the album I’m most surprised is in my Top 20. When it first came out, I panned it. But after giving it another chance a few months later, I found myself enjoying it more. And now in retrospect, I’d say it’s arguably their 2nd best album, and at worst is the band’s 4th best album behind The Colour and the Shape, S/T, and In Your Honor. It definitely has a more of an immediacy to it, which recalls Colour in both the energy and just how brief and filler-free it is, at a mere 11 songs. Butch Vig (Nevermind) produced the album, pairing Grohl and him for the first time since 1991 I believe, which I guess is fitting in this year of retro-Grunge with 20th anniversaries of Ten and Nevermind being celebrated.  And even Krist Novoselic has a cameo on bass on “I Should Have Known.” Ex-Germs/Nirvana/Foos guitarist Pat Smear rejoined the band during a tour in 2007 and brought that vibe back. Also, the legendary Bob Mould guests on guitar and backing vocals on “Dear Rosemary.”  Other highlights include, “Rope”, “Back and Forth”, “These Days”, and “White Limo” (with Lemmy in the video!), which sounds like something leftover from Grohl’s collaborations with Josh Homme in Queens of the Stone Age or Them Crooked Vultures. This is the sort of tight, no nonsense, rocking album Foo Fighters fans have been waiting for the band to make since they returned to the studio to make the follow up to Colour. Better late than never.

13. Ryan Adams & the CardinalsIII / IV (Pax Americana). As noted earlier, a 2-year break (excluding his vinyl-only metal album, Orion, in 2010) with no new releases from the prolific Ryan Adams is a lifetime. And he returned at the end of 2010 with this double album of outtakes from his recordings with Cardinals from 2006-2008. Now, normally for most artists when you hear “outtakes” it refers to a bunch of mediocre songs which were not good enough to make the cut the first time around. But for someone like Adams, a lot of his outtakes are golden. He writes so many songs, that within the dozens of outtakes, there is usually enough to make another pretty good album. And here is a 21-song double LP. It’s kind of all over the map, but mostly follows his previous stuff in the Cardinals, but this time delving into alternative as well as alt/country rockers. In both spirit and execution, it actually recalls his 2003 album, Rock N Roll (one of the most underrated releases of the previous decade), where he essentially pays tribute to his many rock influences on the same disc. The standout tracks include “Breakdown Into the Resolve”, “Dear Candy”, “Wasteland”, “Happy Birthday” (“Happy Birthday, I’m your birthday cake \And I’m lit \And I’m late….”), “Stop Playing With My Heart”, “Ultraviolet Light”, “Star Wars”, the Replacements-esque “P.S.”, and “No.” Really there are no clunkers at all.

12. Dum Dum GirlsOnly in Dreams (Sub Pop). If I were doing these rankings in September, this would have likely been my favorite album of the year. But it slipped a little as the year wore on. This sophomore follow up to the solid I Will Be was produced by Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes and I think that pushed Kirstin Gundred (Dee Dee) into a "bigger" cleaner sound, recalling the Raveonettes and Best Coast. It definitely is more of a vocals-oriented pop/rock record. With so many girl bands around now who sound like this, for me the difference is really in the quality or uniqueness of the vocals. And Dee Dee really sets a pretty high bar in that area. The first time I heard this, I immediately thought of Chrissie Hynde/The Pretenders and that probably is most fitting comparison.  “Bedroom Eyes” (video), “In My Head”, “Just a Creep”, “Teardrops on My Pillow” (live in Berlin), and “Caught in One” highlight a very tight 10-song LP.

11.  R.E.M.Collapse into Now (Warner Bros). I guess we should have seen this coming in retrospect. For the first time in their careers, an album cover features a picture of the band, with Michael Stipe sort of waving goodbye. The lyrics for “All the Best” make it pretty clear it's their goodbye song (“I think I’ll sing it and rhyme \I’ll give it one more time \I’ll show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine……It’s just like me to overstay my welcome…”). And I already paid tribute to them in a blog post a few months ago, without really even mentioning this album, and how they went out on top on their own terms. Collapse Into Now is definitely my favorite record of theirs since 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and because it is so similar musically, you could argue it was their best since Out of Time or Automatic For the People. As mentioned “All the Best” (video) is song about the band’s place in the music world and as Stipe noted in his farewell statement, about not becoming the “guests who stayed too long at the party.” Tracks like “Uberlin” (video), “Oh My Heart” (live in studio), “It Happened Today” (video), “That Someone Is You”, “Mine Smells Like Honey” (live in studio), and “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” (video) are all worthy additions to the R.E.M. song catalog. Farewell guys, you will be missed. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Year in Music 2011 - Part Three: Albums 21-25

Here are albums 21-25, counted down in descending order:

25. Fucked Up  David Comes to Life (Matador).  Fucked Up or “F@cked Up”, as you may see written in mainstream publications (but that's not how I roll here), are best described as melodic hardcore. David Comes to Life, their third full-length release, is an expansive 78-minute concept album about a guy named "David" or something. The band apparently went to painstaking lengths to flesh this out with several singles and the like over the past year laying the groundwork for the character on this album. I’m not quite a convert to this band overall yet. They have some really good songs and I like their overall melodic hardcore vibe, but this album just runs on too long. And in some cases it almost seems like some pretty good rock songs are overshadowed by hardcore vocal stylings of the singer, Pink Eyes. In general "concept albums" probably work better when you can actually clearly understand the lyrics. But it is what it is and it was pretty good.  “Queen of Hearts” (video), "Turn the Season", "Running on Nothing", and “Recursive Girl” are among the highlights.

24. J MascisSeveral Shades of Why (Sub Pop). This was a back-to-basics acoustic solo record from the Dinosaur Jr guitar god. While lacking the sonic boom of a Dino Jr record, it makes up for it with tight, simple, well-crafted folk/pop songs that sound like something Neil Young may have released in the 1970’s. After an “in the wilderness” period in the mid to late 90’s, Mascis has now had a solid decade of good to great releases from his albums with the Fog to his reunion albums with the original Dino Jr lineup, and now this surprising gem. Check out the videos for "Not Enough" (video) and "Is It Done?" (video), along this live clip of the title track (live in studio). And just for shits and grins, here’s a clip of him just killing on the old Dinosaur Jr song “Get Me”, live from World Café Live in March (I was there!).  This studio version of this song contains one of my favorite guitar solos of all time, and an incredible live version occurs around the 2:30 mark here. 

23. The BabiesS/T (Shrimper).  This is another Vivian Girls side project, this time involving a more high-profile collaboration between Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls and Kevin Morby of Woods. I actually preferred this much more to the Vivian Girls’ proper album, so maybe the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. These songs just seem a little poppier, and I guess I prefer Morby’s vocals with this sound than those of the Vivian Girls, which is also weird because I seem to like Morby’s vocals here better than in Woods too. They definitely seem to have more of a Pixies' era Frank Black vibe to them. Overall, I had the same reaction to this that I had to Ramone's bandmate Katy Goodman and her side project, La Sera. I don't think it would be a bad thing if Ramone focused more on this instead of Vivian Girls. Highlights include "All Things Come to Pass" (live), “Meet Me in the City”, “Sunset” and “Breakin the Law” (live). 

22. Jeff the Brotherhood – We Are the Champions (Infinity Cat). Garage-rocking Nashville duo Jake (who could pass for a young George Harrison especially with this look) and Jamin Orrall are brothers and have been recording for much longer than I realized. I got into their 2010 release Heavy Days, but didn't like this follow-up quite as much. It’s still pretty good though. Fans of lo-fi garage rock with punk influences will thoroughly enjoy this riff-heavy release. Think Weezer or Nirvana Nevermind style power chords with a lo-fi vibe. Crank-it-up-worthy tracks include "Cool Out", "Bummer", "Mellow Out" (live in studio), "Ripper" (live in studio), and "Wastoid Girl." And the more melodic "Diamond Way" is a nice change of pace.

21. Old 97’sThe Grand Theatre, Vol. 2 (New West). This is probably the most 90’s era alt/country sounding album the band has released since then, harkening back to their more alt/country and less pop/rock leanings. This is underscored by including 2 old songs from those years that never made it onto albums – “Ivy” (one of the first songs the band ever wrote together) and “Visiting Hours” (live - an outtake originally from Fight Songs demos, I believe).  “Brown Haired Daughter” (live), “No Simple Machine” (live), “Perfume” live in studio (which at times sounds a bit too much like "Question", but hey), “Manhattan (I’m Done)” (live), and “White Port” (live) are all very good and would rank up their with their best stuff. Overall, there’s not a bad song on here, less highs than previous releases but no lows. 

Next:  Part Four: Albums 11-20

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Year in Music 2011 - Part Two

The year-end list continues with the honorable mentions:

Honorable Mentions

Dan Andriano in the Emergency RoomHurricane Season (Asian Man).  The first solo album by Alkaline Trio bass player is a little different than what you’d expect. He was always more of the poppier of the 2 songwriters in the band, with clear Elvis Costello/Cure/Smiths influences, but this is still a little bit of a surprise. The title track, “It’s Gonna Rain All Day”, “Me and Denver”, and “Let Me In” are real stand out tracks. The album closes with the very personal song - “From This Oil Can”, which is dedicated to Dan’s daughter, and actually has a verse from “I Remember a Rooftop”, from Damnesia in it. 

Crooked FingersBreaks in the Armor (Merge). I had no idea Archers of Loaf’s Eric Bachmann had solo projects until this year. Then I found out this is the 6th album under the Crooked Fingers moniker. He definitely branches out into more melodic territory here compared to the stuff in Archers, reminiscent of a more rocking Band of Horses or Jayhawks. "Went to the City" (live) is my favorite along with "Black Candles" (live) and "Typhoon." 

Drive-By TruckersGo-Go Boots (ATO). The Truckers just seem to well, keep on trucking, releasing a new long country-rock album every 15-18 months or so with constant touring. They still record in analog and generally put tracks together for albums like old LPs used to be with 4 sides. Even though there's a bit too much filler, this album does contain 3 of my favorite songs by them – “I Do Believe” (live), “Everybody Needs Love” (live on Letterman - a cover originally done by the late unheralded blues artists Eddie Hinton), and “TheThanksgiving Filter” (live), an alternate take on holiday family get-togethers. For a lot of people truer words were never written than Thank God for the filter that enables some distance /From the screaming and crying and the needs of assistance /You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays /Blessed be my family from 300 miles away.”  But overall, it runs on a tad too long. It's a good release, it just seems that after 4 really long albums in the last 5 years, perhaps they need a better editor.

EMAPast Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions). Here’s an album I never thought I would have liked. EMA stands for Erika M. Anderson, the lead singer and songwriter. It’s an interesting experimental record that combines psychedelia and pop, with lo-fi sensibilities, recalling Sonic Youth or the Jesus and Mary Chain, and even a little Cat Power on some of the piano-based songs. Check out "California", "Milkman", "Anteroom", and this cool cover of Nirvana's "Endless, Nameless" (live in studio)

Tommy Keene Behind the Parade (Second Motion). Keene has now been recording for 30 years, but because of label changes and the like, his releases have come in bunches over the years often with long gaps in between. And the last 10 have been the most active of his career with 4 studio LPs, a live album, and a best of compilation.  This continues the solid run of good albums. "Deep Six Saturday" (video), "Already Made Up Your Mind" (live), "Nowhere Drag" (live), and "Factory Town" are standout tracks.

La SeraS/T (Hardly Art). This is a Vivian Girls side project, involving “Kickball” Katy Goodman. Not sure what this says if I liked this better than the Vivian Girls proper album. It's a similar sound, but this leans more in the pop/rock direction, perhaps thanks to her main collaborator Brady Hall. The songs just seem slower and more melodic than the Vivian Girls songs. At this point, I almost wish Goodman would just make this a full time gig (and Cassie Ramone would make The Babies a full time gig and disband the VG's). High points include “Never Come Around” (live), “Left This World” (live), and “Devil’s Heart Grows Gold” (video).

Amos Lee - Mission Bell (Blue Note). Philly’s own Amos Lee made a splash during the mid-00’s with a few soulful folk-blues records, making his 2011 release a fairly high-profile deal with some guest appearances from Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson, among others. I didn't even realize until I read a few reviews of this recently, but this debuted at #1 this year. Wow, I had no idea. Mission Bell has a retro sound that recalls 70’s soul and folk recalling Curtis Mayfield, Jim Croce, Jackson Browne, and even more recent artists like Ben Harper and but more tuneful and poppy. Lee, along with artists like Adele can be filed under "newer artists who are liked by old people who still buy a few CDs every year", which partially explains why they've sold so many albums. Anyway, it's a pretty good listen all the way through, and some standout tracks include "Violin", "Flower", and "Windows Are Rolled Down" (live in studio).  

David LoweryThe Palace Guards (429 Records). Lowery has become one of my second-tier favorite artists. I probably have liked almost every album he’s ever released in all of his bands (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker). But I don’t really love any one album in particular.  And here he is with is first ever solo album, which is again a very solid effort, half of which would fit nicely on a Cracker album and half that is just “alt/country” enough to warrant a solo album. It's actually a nice bookend to the record the Decemberists put out this year. Some highlights include "Raise 'Em Up on Honey" (video), "Marigold", and "Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me" (video).

Middle BrotherS/T (Partisan). The lead singers of like-minded bands Deer Tick (John McCauley), Delta Spirit (Matthew Vasquez), and Dawes (Taylor Goldsmith) got together to form an indie-super group. The results of this super group seem to work better than Wild Flag, for example. There are some really good indie/alt-country songs on here, including an inspired choice of “Portland”, a cover of the Replacements late 80’s b-side (Deer Tick’s McCauley is a big ‘Mats fan), originally written as an apology/tribute to the city of Portland for one of their classic train-wreck live shows. Some other highlights include "Daydreaming", "Blue Eyes" and "Someday."

NodzzzInnings (Woodist).  SF-based lo-fi mavens return with a follow up to their self-titled debut.  When I first heard this band in 2008, I didn’t really know what to make of them. It sounded like an album of half-finished demos and “ideas”, but not necessarily “songs” per se. Then I learned to appreciate their bare-bones approach – quick intro, riff, verse, chorus, repeat maybe 1 more time, and boom, the end. Innings continues with more of the same with a simplistic, minimalist two-guitar and drum attack. Most of their songs still clock in at under two-minutes (14 songs in less than 25 minutes).  It’s a good record, but it just didn’t grab me like the first one did at the time. The whole album is pretty solid, but my favorites are "Always Make Your Bed", "(Time) What’s It Going to Do?", "Fear of Advice", and "True to Life."

The RaveonettesRaven in the Grave (Vice Music). I always appreciated the Raveonettes’ fuzzy Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired pop/rock songs. It’s a solid album but not as quite as good as their last few. When you listen to their older stuff, you can see how they definitely laid the groundwork for other bands like Stars, Seapony, Dum Dum Girls, and Veronica Falls. "Recharge and Revolt" (video) and "Forget That You’re Young" sound like it would fit on Seapony or Veronica Falls albums. And you can hear the 80’s Cure-influence on fast-paced rocker "Ignite" (live in studio).

Ty Segall – Goodbye Bread (Drag City). I’m not really sure why I preferred this record over the Thee Oh Sees records, when sometimes I find them hard to tell apart with their psychedelic lo-fi punk rock leanings. Maybe because I had it longer and it had a chance to grow on me more. Anyway, maybe because I had listened to some of Segall’s other albums I went in a little more familiar and could appreciate the changes more on this album.  It seems very Jay Reatard-esque to me at times.  Check out the title track, "I Can't Feel It", and "You Make the Sun Fry."

Tommy StinsonOne Man Mutiny (Done to Death). The legendary Tommy Stinson took time in between tours with Guns N’ Roses and Soul Asylum and hanging out recording with Paul Westerberg to make an album of his own, his first solo album since 2004. It mixes bluesy-rock with folky acoustic ballads and the songs flow well together. The album features Tommy's then fiancé (now wife, they wed in October 2011), Media PA's Emily Roberts singing backing vocals along with guest appearances by Dizzy Reed and Richard Fortus (both in new GNR). Here’s some footage of the recording of the title track. This track was originally recorded in a hotel restaurant in Belgium while on tour with GNR and the raw version was left on the album. "Match Made in Hell" was another song that works in a minimalist way. And "All This Way for Nothing" and "Meant to Be" are more up tempo rockers. Some of the proceeds of the album go toward rebuilding schools in the earthquake-ravaged Haiti, an issue Stinson has devoted much time and money to over the last 2 years. So, go out and buy it. It’s for a good cause.

Those DarlinsScrew Gets Loose (Oh Wow Dang). Those Darlins have a fairly unique sound best described as garage/alt-country. While their 2009 self-titled debut album sounds a bit more country-ish, this definitely has embraced more of the retro garage sound. Think along the lines of Vivian Girls or Best Coast but with a twang. And with a nod to the Ramones, the Donnas, etc, they all go by the last name “Darlin.” There’s a raw-ness to the vocals though that also makes them more unique, reminiscent of Joan Jett’s snarl at times, at least on the songs Jessi Darlin sings. Check out “Be Your Bro” (video), the title track (video), “Tina Said” (live), and “Waste Away” (live). This was a really good record and was probably my top honorable mention.

Total BabesSwimming Through Sunlight (Old Flame). Yes, it seems 2011 is the "year of the side projects." This is a side project of Jayson Gerycz and Joe Boyer of the Cloud Nothings (stay tuned to see where their album is ranked!). You wonder if a side project was really necessary for another lo-fi punk/garage album. But you can definitely hear some differences. The Cloud Nothings are much poppier, whereas this album is more akin to the noisier, fuzzy rock of bands like Wavves and older Times New Viking. The higlights are "Like They Always Do", "Rot Away", and "Be So True", and "Tip of My Tongue."

Wild FlagS/T (Merge). This is another example of the whole not being greater than the sum of its parts, as “super groups” rarely are. When Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney (and several other bands in Weiss’ case), Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders, the sky seemed to the limit for most indie rock fans. When I first heard about this project around this time last year, I had mentally already penciled the album into my 2011 Top 10. It’s a fine album and there are several songs on there that sound like mellow but good Sleater-Kinney songs, namely “Glass Tambourine”, “Romance” (video), and “Electric Band” (video). In some others the lyrics are so painfully bad, it detracts from what would otherwise be decent songs ("Boom", "Racehorse"). But expectations were so high for this, that just being pretty good seems like a let down. 

Lucinda WilliamsBlessed (Lost Highway). This seems like a bit of a comeback for Lucinda after her previous two albums – West and Little Honey. Although they were very good in spots, they just seemed overwhelmed with themes of death and loss, understandable since she was writing a lot about the loss of her mother and then a romantic breakup after that. Blessed is her most consistently good album since 2003’s World Without Tears. Elvis Costello and Matthew Sweet made guest appearances on Little Honey and they return here. It’s a solid set from one of the most consistently good and enduring artists of the last 20+ years.  “Buttercup”, “Seeing Black”, and “Convince Me” (live) are the standout tracks.

Next:  Part Three - Albums 21-25

Friday, December 9, 2011

Year in Music 2011 - Part One

It's that time of year again, in which I attempt the somewhat futile and thankless exercise of trying to rank the top 50 or so new albums I listened to during the year. With music never more disposable and easy to acquire than it is now, these kind of lists at least serve as a useful reminder and a reason to reflect on all that "content" you acquired in the last year. And I guess it helps put some kind of value on it, during a time when it's essentially a value-less commodity to many.  You know that album you downloaded for free somewhere in early March and listened to 3 times, well this is an opportunity and an excuse to go back and listen again.

Part One is below - containing a list of live shows, best EP's/Singles/Compilations/Reissues, etc, and the other albums that didn't make it the final round. Part Two will be the "Honorable Mentions" and albums that just missed the cut. And the final parts will be my Top 25 albums of 2011. So without further ado, let's begin with the usual throat-clearing items.

2011 Shows

Dismemberment Plan – The Starlight Ballroom 1/27/11

Jesse Malin and the St Mark’s Social with Tommy StinsonThe City Winery in Soho NYC 2/19/11

J Mascis with Kurt Vile – World Café Live 3/23/11

Sebadoh – Johnny Brenda’s 3/25/11

Titus Andronicus – the First Unitarian Church 4/28/11

Alejandro Escovedo/Jesse Malin – World Café Live 5/5/11

Face to Face – the Trocadero 5/21/11

Jesse Malin and the St Mark’s Social – Johnny Brenda’s 12/9/11

Best Live, EP, Singles Compilations, Reissues, etc

Ryan Adams - "Wasted Years". Not officially released, but Adams did this great acoustic cover during a BBC radio session of Iron Maiden's "Wasted Years." Worth downloading from You Tube (see above)

Alkaline TrioDamnesia (Heart and Skull). I found myself liking this more on subsequent listens. This is an album of acoustic re-recordings of some of their best songs. Some of which – “Calling All Skeletons”, “Mercy Me”, “Nose OverTail”, and “Every Thug Needs a Lady” work well in this re-interpretation. Some others don’t. A surprising high point was the Violent Femmes cover “I Held Her inMy Arms.” And “I Remember a Rooftop”, Dan Andriano’s new song included on here (probably a leftover from his solo album), is a keeper.

Best Coast-WavvesSummer is Forever Split EP (Mexican Summer).  Mostly old songs on here except Best Coast’s gem “When You Wake Up.” Worth seeking out for that.

The BitersAll Chewed Up - EP (Underrated Recordings). The Biters recall Cheap Trick or Thin Lizzy 70's rock so they stand out among their peers.

Dum Dum GirlsHe Gets Me High - EP (Sub Pop). This was a nice preview for the LP that would come later in the year.

Frost WatsonS/T - EP (no label). I saw these guys open for Titus Andronicus and was impressed. Solid debut EP that recalls 60’s British invasion pop/rock (Kinks, Beatles) updated to sound fresh with today’s garage rock bands.

Rhett MillerThe Interpreter (Maximum Sunshine). A live solo acoustic covers album from the Old 97’s front man, recorded at Café Largo in West Hollywood at his final show there as a final tribute to the club that closed its original intimate location and moved elsewhere. This was sort of Miller’s local bar where he’d try out new tunes and play lots of solo acoustic shows back when he had an apartment a few blocks away. He covers all of his major influences – David Bowie, the Beatles, the Kinks, Elvis Costello, the Pixies, etc, plus some of his peers like Wilco/Billy Bragg and Elliott Smith. All in all, it was an enjoyable listen, even if it was all covers. But I could listen to Rhett Miller sing the phone book and be o.k. 

OupaForget (Boiled Egg). Solo EP of piano ballads from Yuck’s frontman, Daniel Blumberg.  Sounds like more melodic, but less busy Kid A-era Radiohead.

R.E.M.Life’s Rich Pageant reissue (Capitol). I listened to this reissue for a solid month this summer, on the 25th anniversary of its release.  The bonus disc is the “Athens demos”, 19 tracks consisting of early versions, outtakes, etc, that were recorded in Athens (duh) before the final less raw recording was made. Among other things, it has the early version of “Bad Day”, plus great outtakes like “Wait”, “Mystery to Me”, and “All the Right Friends” (the first song the band ever wrote together).  If you’re reading this you know who R.E.M. is and you probably know how great this 1986 release was. Go buy it if you don’t have it.

Jay Reatard - You Get No Love/I Am Growing - Single (Shattered). The final recordings of Jay Reatard. RIP. Cover art kind of says it all. 

The Rolling StonesSome Girls reissue (Universal/Virgin). This was the “last great Stones album” in my opinion and was finally reissued this year, with a 2nd disc full of outtakes that missed the cut. The mid-late 70’s were such a vibrant time in music, where you had punk, rock, funk, country-western honky-tonk (remember Urban Cowboy and the Electric Horseman?), disco, and early hip-hop all percolating, especially in a big diverse city like NY. Some Girls seems to capture the whole late 70’s NY vibe better than most other records at the time, even those made by native New Yorkers.

Toy SolidersGet Through the Time  EP (Ropeadope Records). Not to be confused with the Martika song. This is a local Philly folk-blues band I’d heard good things about. At times they sound quite a bit like Ryan Adams. I finally checked them out after seeing their really good opening set for Jesse Malin.

U2Achtung Baby reissue (Island). This is a reissue of U2’s classic album. For me it was worth getting to hear the alternate take of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, along with b-sides of the Lou Reed cover “Satellite of Love” and the “Lady With the SpinningHead.” 

Kurt Vile - So Outta Reach - EP (Matador).  Nice supplement to Smoke Ring For My Halo. “Life's a Beach” and the cover of Springsteen’s “Downbound Train” are worth it alone.

WavvesLife Sux - EP (Ghost Ramp). You'd have thought the highlight of the year for Wavves would have been having bassist Stephen Pope getting kicked out of the MTV awards for drug possession, among other things. But no, this is one of the best EPs of recent memory for me. It includes “Bug” (song of the year?), “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl”, and "Nodding Off", along with other tracks included on the expanded version like“TV Luv Song”, and “Mickey Mouse." I’m a stickler for separating EPs and LPs, otherwise this would have probably been in my Top 10.

The Rest

The ElectedBury Me in My Ring (Vagrant). This is the 3rd album from Rilo Kiley guitarist Blake Sennett’s side project (or now full time project, I guess). Overall these songs could use more punch.

Get Up KidsThere Are Rules (Quality Hill). The Get Up Kids return after hiatus with a new album that sounds a lot more like Death Cab For Cutie. I give them credit for doing something different than Emo meets Squeeze, as their last few albums sounded. A few decent songs and the rest was boring.

Thurston MooreDemolished Thoughts (Matador). Pretty good 2 or 3 songs on this album and the rest sounds nothing like you’d expect from Thurston Moore, for better or worse. But hey when you’re in a legendary band and you make solo records on the side, might as well make very different records than what you’d make in your regular band. And I assume Sonic Youth is calling it quits considering Moore and Kim Gordon are splitting in real life, so it should be interesting to see what Moore does after this.

Tom Morello (The Nightwatchman)World Wide Rebel Songs (New West).  You could probably guess from artist and title what this sounds like - more stripped down socio-political folk-blues songs from the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist.

Red Hot Chili PeppersI’m Without You (Warner Bros).  Without guitar god John Frusciante in the band, the Chili Peppers seem more like a funky Sugar Ray with less catchy songs. Honestly, I never really cared  much for what they've done on the albums without Frusciante. Even when the songs were kind of boring and same-sounding, at least you’d hang in to hear what interesting guitar thing he would add. There probably wasn’t a more high profile album I wanted to hear less than this one in 2011. 

The StrokesAngles (RCA). While there are some pretty good songs on here, overall this just feels like the result of a band getting back together after a hiatus for the paycheck and mailing it in. Too many of their potential best “Strokes songs” ended up on their various side projects instead. And even though "Under Cover of Darkness" was a really good song, there just weren't enough other worthy songs on here. Ultimately this was the most disappointing album of the year for me, since expectations were so high. For many numerous reasons, I wanted so badly for this album to be great and it was just o.k. 

Thee Oh SeesCastlemania (In the Red), Carrion Crawler / The Dream (In the Red). I really don’t have much to say about these guys. I gave some of their stuff a listen and it just never grabbed me. I didn’t dislike it, but it just never rated on my radar. And overall just too many releases for me to really dive into any particular one.

Eddie Vedder Ukulele Songs (Universal). What? Yeah one rock’s greatest frontmen put out an album of songs played on ukulele. You know that Pearl Jam song, “Soon Forget?” It’s the one nobody really ever liked, but occasionally he’d play it in concert during the “solo” part of the encore, while the rest of the band rested? Just imagine 16 songs like that. Oddly, neither of the 2 most famous “rock” ukulele songs – R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” or the Who’s “Blue, Red, and Grey” are included among the few covers on here.  Pearl Jam’s “Can’t Keep” however is reinterpreted on ukulele. It’s actually not a terrible album and it puts emphasis on Vedder’s vocals, which is never a bad thing. If you’re a Pearl Jam completist, throw this on a random playlist and you’ll enjoy it more than hearing 16 songs in a row that all kind of sound the same.

Vivian GirlsShare the Joy (Polyvinyl). Not a bad album, but in general I’m just kind of sick of most this retro 60’s garage/psychedelic surf rock/Phil Specter “wall of sound” trend of recent years. And the Vivian Girls are the poster children for it for me. With so many bands like this sounding the same, you have to bring some unique (or just really “good”) vocals to keep my interest. If the vocals sound like the singer is disinterested in the song, I’ll probably be also.

The War on DrugsSlave Ambient (Secretly Canadian). I really wanted to like this album by a local Philly band. It's not a bad album, just sounds like guys trying too much to sound like Kurt Vile. I just seem to recall Bob Dylan made a few albums (like Empire Burleseque, etc) in the mid 80's with keyboards and synths and such to try to sound more trendy and relevant at the time. That’s what this whole album sounds like to me.

Next: The Top Honorable Mentions of 2011.