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.

No comments: