2011 has, what, 40-odd hours left before its spent corpse is a dried husk caught by the winds of time and blown to the far corners of the earth. So, on its deathbed, let us throw the year a final party by praising and dissecting the musics released during its now-ending life. I suggest (though I never demand) commenting with your 2011 Top-X list[s] in lieu of randomness.
[Next week, in respect for the year passed and those preceding it, we will all only have 2012 releases in our random tens. Hopefully a dozen or so good albums come out next Tuesday....
Amazon.com says Elvis, the Monkees, the Who, and Noel Gallagher are among the top titles. That just raises the challenge level!]
Before I get into what I thought was great about the year that's not quite dead yet, I want to say that my lists are a reflection of my tastes, and that I believe taste to be particular. Furthermore, my tastes may be more particular than most as I'll often find an artist that sounds very similar to one I'm fond of, and be left cold by the second act, without being able to put my finger on what the difference is. This is why there's no Radiohead or TV on the Radio or Arcade Fire or (various other clearly talented acts) in my list: I'm just not that into them, and I've fruitless time spent listening to music I'm just not that into while attempting to pin down why I'm not that into it, or to try to get what others obviously get out of it. The prior left me nitpicking music so that I could claim that the artists were inferior to what I listened to (which wasn't true, overlooked similar faults in the stuff I did like, and lead me to believe myself to have superior taste). The latter left me numb to what I actually like in music and why I even listen to music.
So screw that, here are my lists! Maybe you'll find something interesting. Maybe not.
Artist of the year
Daytrotter.com. This website is like a prolific version of what MTV's unplugged wanted to be, only for the indie-type set. And not all acoustic. But they release three new live-in-studio sets, typically four or five songs, from various artists every day (one only on weekends). I'm sure there's some garbage there, but I mostly go for artists I've heard of elsewhere. In 2011 alone, the site released sets from Zola Jesus, Colin Stetson, Tristen (with the Ringers), Naughty By Nature (with Solid Gold), Bobby Bare Jr., Scott H. Biram, EMA, Lydia Loveless, Low, and Shabazz Palaces. In particular, I liked the EMA set better than her album (religious FMD readers may remember that I said that after hearing it I thought she could replace Kim Gordon in SY if such a move were necessary to allow me to hear "Death Valley '69" and "Catholic Block" live yet a few more times). Loveless's set, an acoustic set of four songs from her awkwardly produced debut plus one new song, adds life and energy that wasn't exactly there for the first album. I kindof consider the Daytrotter session to be the bonus tracks to the album. I mean that specifically for Loveless, but it's basically true for all of them. So, think of a recording artist you like, search them, and see what you find.
Top Albums of the year.
1. Colin Stetson New History Warfare, Vol 2: Judges
One thing that bothered me about the movie the Matrix is what the music of "the Future" sounded like: Meat Beat Manifesto's "Prime Audio Soup". No, that's what the music of the present sounds like, my head said (probably because I had the record). The music of the future could have sounded like Judges. Other than Vol 1, this album feels like it has no real antecedent, at least of which I'm aware. Cheapo and the Electric Fetus both filed it as Jazz, probably because it's solo saxophone. Please let me know if there are other jazz artists doing anything like this: relentless arpeggios (I think he likes them more than the Knife), and thick underlying drones, where the breaking of the held tones are as important to as the tones themselves. I know that what he does is technically amazing, but I'm just blown away by the sounds he makes and the depth of feeling contained. Even if he did this careful digital editing via samples of Britney Spears records, it's my top record of the year by far.
3. Lydia Loveless Indestructible Machine
What I've wanted to hear from country music for a the last few years (since I started giving Nashville a chance): a performer with a solid, consistent voice, indebted to the history, but not to the rules that states that treacly sentimental ballads must be on the same album with songs about shooting exes and unapologetic drunkenness. (Directed at the second Miranda Lambert album.) Lydia Loveless skips the sentiment, punks up the arrangement to the level of the Waco Brothers, and sings about drinking, depression, cheating, and religion with a consistent voice. I just wish there were more than nine songs (Daytrotter session to the rescue).
4. The Weeknd House of Balloons
Amazing depravity: the stark beauty of complete hollowness. Viciously and cruelly selfish, focused solely on self-gratification at the expense of others. The compression on the vocals complements the inhumanity of the content, while the lush production makes it all seem so enticing. Is this R&B taken to a logical end? Post-R&B? This was the first of three mixtapes/mini-albums/EPs released in 2011 from the Weeknd, but the second didn't thrill me, and the third came out just before Christmas. I wasn't going to listen to it while at home celebrating the birth of Christ with the family. This is for headphones. It's a guilty pleasure in a different sense than the cliché.
5. Andy Stott Passed Me By and We Stay Together
I've been listening to Stott for four years now, and he's been working towards this for years. His techno-house singles have become more minimal and mechanical as they've progressed. He released only one single in 2010, which in retrospect makes it look like his was ramping up for these two mini-albums as his big leap forward. Basically removing all danceability from his sound, leaving us with slow, heavy basslines, echoes, and effects. Yet the sounds are so thick that they'll remove all the air from the room if played loud enough. It's great when a marginal artist in a minor genre that you've happened to latch on to delivers on his promise like this. Bravo! Also, if you feel like you need one more, he polished a turd by BNJMN.
6. Tim Hecker Ravedeath, 1972
Just about every year, I have one fuzzy ambient-ish record that I listen to a lot. This is the second Hecker album I've gotten into in such a way, and it's much better than Harmony in Ultraviolet. In the very first piece, "The Piano Drop", Hecker makes static shimmer. Neat trick, it makes me shivver.
7. So So Radio, Dustcovers
Technically, this came out with three days left in 2010, but no one I know listened to it before me, so I'm not going to dock it for being less than 100 hours younger. I probably listened to this more than anything else from January 27th into July, when I decided I should listen to something else before I make myself sick of it. But after pacing myself and searching out what I had missed (like Colin Stetson), it's still fresh and exciting pop-rock that deserved a better fate than having its lead single buried in an episode of Scrubs. This is one of those things where I have trouble answering "What is it you like about this over many acts that may seem similar, AMR?" Well, the singing, the lyrics, and the drumming. The singer meshes with his lyrics so well, showing the right amount of strain in his voice while on ambiguous lyrics that you question whether he's delivering the lyrics honestly, metaphorically, ironically, or with entendre. He knows, but he doesn't want you to know. Also, I like the drumming at the end of "CST" a lot, but I don't know enough about drumming to compare it to anything else.
8. Peaking Lights 936
I was never big on the hip sound of 2010: Chillwave. To me, it sounded like weak versions of early-80's new wave music disguised by the artifice of rough mixing and fuzz. (I might be biased, I've hated Ariel Pink since I first heard him.) Peaking Lights takes this Chillwave disguise and applies it to dub. The roughness of the recording make it compelling, but the dub behind it is bona-fide. Adrian Sherwood's clean-up remix proves that.
9. Tristen Charlatans at the Garden Gate
I'm surprised this showed up here, she's pretty much a simple singer-songwriter with some decent pop production, which really isn't my bag. I added this in March just because she's on the same label as Linfinity, and I never removed it from my iPod and listened to it a whole lot. To be honest, it's charming, and doesn't pretend to be bigger than it is. Or maybe it's just the way she sings "Druuugs" in the song I linked to above. So I probably like this for all the reasons I like So So Radio.
10. Zola Jesus Conatus
This might not belong here. It didn't hit me as hard as her 2010 EPs, Stridulum and Valusia, but then after seeing her perform most of the songs live, it really gelled and I really thought it was at least on par with the EPs. But now, I'm forgetting why (and haven't been listening too much lately). So, do I trust my opinion from when I was listening to it or my current opinion of my recollection of it? Option 3, re-listening to it again carefully, will make me miss my own deadline. The production's cleaner, as she's further removed from her experimental-noise beginnings, but the vocals seem to have lost some of their immediacy. Maybe that's why it was better after I saw her live: I grafted my memory of the immediacy of the live performance onto the studio recordings.
Statement of the Year
God Bless the Meat Puppets!
-Lucas Long, Ha Ha Tonka bassist
I've written at length about what of my musical interests I owe to the Meat Puppets. Luke boiled it down.
Top Songs of the Year
1. Lydia Loveless "More Like Them"
I usually reserve the songs list for songs not included on my albums list, to prevent this list from being a repeat of the album list, but also to keep from having to pick favorites. But, this song so grabbed me and ran with my thoughts that it was clearly my #1 song of the year and had to be listed. When freealonzo and I saw her at Lee's, she introduced this song as "about dumping your loser boyfriend, I guess." She's definitely Midwestern with that amount of understatement. The song is about the numbness and retreat of depression (though not spelled out, maybe I'm reading too far into it), excessive drinking, and stubbornness, (and yes about dumping your loser boyfriend, although you maybe just as much of a loser). It's witty, it's sad, it's true. I want to quote every line from it. Here are a few:
I'd rather stay home and drink gallons of wine. That must be why no body stops by.
Why can't I be more like them? The kind of people that feel sad when relationships end?
Well, Honey, I don’t want you now, but it’s not about him. Oh honey, why can't I be more like them?*
You just need to get laid, why can't I be like that?
Why Can't I be more like them: The kind of people who can still manage to get upset?
Well if you think I'm so f---in' emotionally dense, it's cos I am. Why can't you be more like that?
*On the Daytrotter version, the line is the crueller:
So if I don’t want you now, but it’s sure not about him. Oh I do wish that you would be more like that.
2. Lana Del Rey "Video Games"/"Blue Jeans"
Both as equally gorgeous and effortless as the other. I for one don't give a lick how "genuine" her "look" or "sound" is: I care only: are the records good? And they are! She's playing SNL early in the new year despite not being that much of a live performer (anecdotally and using Youtube), and I didn't get happy vibes from her newest single, so I hope she's not about to come crashing down, because I really do love these two songs and the two or three others she made videos for and which she kept on Youtube. Both sides of the single specifically though are great. Her ever-changing (as different copyright-holders require her to remove the footage she's sampled, bit-by-bit) videos are also pretty great, but she's had to abandon spending her time on making videos herself to instead tour Europe (and probably finish the album). Which is a pity.
4. Katy B "On a Mission"/"Louder"
These were released in 2010 as singles in the UK, but none of her music was released here until this year. I first listened to these while pulling an all-nighter to finish an actuarial education thing on time. "Louder", especially with its kick drum and line "I've been awake for a day now / 24 hours" during a breakdown really got to me even if she's singing about the joy of clubbing and I was working. Yes "Joy": unlike the club of most current pop & R&B, a joyless place to drink at and party at (see the Weeknd, who do this well), these songs remind me of when I did go clubbing, which I did solely for the fun of it. "Louder", my favorite song from Katy, isn't even on the album (as it was the b-side of "Mission"), which is why I don't own a copy of the CD. Its absence and the presence of some lame filler tracks (she's got three other good singles) is why you're reading this here.
5. Frank Ocean "Novacane"
The album lags a bit, but this single has everything I loved about the album and nothing I disliked. The pulsing beat's like an electric heartbeat. No surprise he's producing for Ye and Jay. Odd Future seems the unlikely fit for him.
6. EMA "F---in' Around"
This is a non-album track that's only available from her Daytrotter session. It's the best Kim Gordon song in years, beats songs about Mariah Carey or Britney Spears. (OK, that's not fair, "Massage the History" is epic, and "Sacred Trickster" is pretty good, too.)
7. Shabazz Palaces "Recollections of the Wraith"
Daytrotter entitled this song "Toooonnniiiight!", which works better. The album's too complex for me, but this song, pairing the former Ish Butterfly with a kick drum, a simple click, and then a single female voice "Oooh" ing as the chorus, hits everything I'd want to hear from the Digable Planets 17 years later. "Clear some space out, so we can space out."
8. Wu Lyf "Dirt"
This album actually annoyed me by how much it made what was cool in this song sound lame by putting the elements in mediocre songs that get repetitive. But this song is still as awesome as it was. Mysterious, mystical, and primal, it sounds like coming war, like an adult version of Animal Collective's "We Tigers". It's the ritual music before heading off to likely die for your clan, while a village elder puts paint on your forehead. Although it ruins the mystery in part by flashing the lyrics on screen (they're not warning you that "Jah Rule is not your friend"), do check out the awesome video. Seems the coming war may have been the occupations. (Caveat: as I first heard this song with the video, I have a hard time separating how much of the awesome to attribute to each.) All that and I'm a sucker for the organ drones.
9. Ha Ha Tonka "1928"
I was a bit disappointed by HHT's Death of a Decade: it felt less like an album than their first two, I can't put my finger on anything else. The songs are still just as good, I just don't get the feeling of "Holy Crap is this fantastic" from the entirety that I did from the others, especially, Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South. My favorite song is probably the bonus track, about the dancehall fire in 1928 in West Plains, MO. Nothing like a peppy tune with the chorus "The best kids in this town are dead!" No one makes history songs that seem relevant (not lessons) like HHT.
10. Julianna Barwick "Prizewinning"
The Magic Place didn't seem that different than the Florine EP, excpet for this song. When it would play, with it's long fade-in on a pulse that grinds just a bit like a hard drive when it's quiet, I would usually wonder what my computer's hard drive was doing. But pulse + drums + Barwick's looped vocals (like rays of sun through a cloudy sky) = Beautiful.
Archive Releases of the Year
1. Plastikman Arkives 1993-2010
If I spent $200 on it, it'd better show up here. But: great packaging, fantastic attention to detail, pages in the book that were made identically to the CD: blotter paper, thick silkscreen, embossing, black panel with window to dark purple, etc. Richie provides notes on most of the new material, including the new remixes he commissioned for the project. I'm not enough of an audiophile to know the remaster from the original, especially since I mostly listen from mp3, but the mass of music collected, and its quality is fantastic. I'm very happy with it. (I do wish there was some live video on the DVD.)
2. Naughty By Nature Anthem Inc. (bonus tracks)
Naughty by Nature took their first album in a while with KayGee producing as an opportunity to re-record five of their biggest hits, including "O.P.P." and "Hip-Hop Hooray" without using any samples. I assume they didn't like how much money Mikey Jackson and his brothers were making every time "O.P.P." was used. Much like how we'll never see the original versions of Star Wars again, NBN is probably hoping they can use the sample-free version from here on out. And they're not that bad.