Best-of lists have come and gone. I’ll skip any reflection on the pros and cons of such things. It always feels a bit disingenuous for a critic to spend 300 words on his or her reservations about posting a best-of list as an intro to just that. This year, I’m embracing the idea.
As good as 2011 was for music—the debut record by NewVillager was enough for me—I’m already excited for 2012, unfortunately for reasons I can’t disclose here. Not yet. But change is coming, and it should be quite the experiment. Safety goggles are recommended.
For now, without the further ado, my favorite new music of 2011, and what I actually listened to the most.
BEST ALBUMS OF 2011
1. NewVillager, NewVillager
A guaranteed way to ensure a life of gravitating toward the weird of the world is to grow up a theater kid, a creative-writing kid in small-town Kansas. Things were always happening to make me feel just a little outside the group. Once, I was pantsed during a rehearsal for The Wizard of Oz. I was the Tin Man. The pantser was the Wicked Witch of the West. I prayed that night that a house really would flatten her.
NewVillager appeals to that odd but—I like to think—imaginative kid in me. The one who played dress up, fought with swords, and wrote lengthy stories at the family computer in the basement. NewVillager is a duo: Ben Bromley and Ross Simonini. The latter is an editor at The Believer. Their eponymous (self-titled) debut was the album I had the hardest time resisting this year. It’s dancey but avoids the heavy, on-the-beat pulse that infects nearly every pop song on the radio (an odd residue of techno?). It’s optimistic musically but enigmatic lyrically.
I keep saying that it has all the glory of classic rock, but I have no idea if that’s the right way to put it. I do stand behind my assertion that they defy most cliches and dodge the tropes of genre. Certainly, their videos, which bring to life the complex mythologies behind the music, connect with my theatricality.
They also bring to mind the storytelling of Maurice Sendak. I imagine NewVillager to be as universally loved. In reality, though, I’m not so sure. I didn’t see their debut on anyone else’s Best of 2011 lists. Maybe they’re just fantastic in my odd little corner of the world, that esoteric sphere of reality where weirdness is a virtue.
2. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
When I first heard “Skinny Love,” I thought Justin Vernon was black. His falsetto was so smooth. I imagined some East Coast crooner, half hipster and half nostalgic Casanova. Turns out the black guy was white, the East Coast was Wisconsin, and this recording artist had not a drop of hipster or Casanova blood in him—to my delight.
In interviews, Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, comes across as one of the most down-to-Earth guys in the business. His hair is legitimately ruffled, he curses in unfashionable ways, he classifies recording with Kanye as both weird and not that weird. He’s honest and true to his roots. When he and his band played his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin—where he still lives—they made the tickets only available at a box office in town, to ensure that fans from the surrounding cities and states didn’t flood the show and price out Eau Claire residents.
Bon Iver, the album, Vernon’s second full-length, astounds me. Repeated listens only reveal more depth, especially compared to For Emma, Forever Ago. I feel certain he picked up a few production techniques from Kanye, with whom he collaborated on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With horn parts and rich effects, utilized perfectly, the album serves to open up new worlds for Bon Iver and other bands that a few years ago were pigeonholed as “neue folk” or “folk rock” or whatever critics called it.
“Perth” is my favorite song but not, probably, the best on the record. Its opening lines and then its heavy—relatively speaking—salvo of electric guitar and drums were enough to hook me after one listen. There’s a comfort in knowing that everyone else was hooked too. These days, it seems like people decide who to like based on the size of an artist’s fan base (the smaller the better)—and I fall into that on occasion—so it feels good to acknowledge something collectively, even when it leads to Grammy nominations. Bon Iver’s up for four, but I can happily report it hasn’t gone to his head. In an interview after the announcement, the interviewer had to explain to Vernon that if you’re nominated for a Grammy, you do, in fact, get to go.
3. Tom Waits, Bad As Me
Swordfishtrombones changed my life. It answered questions I didn’t know I had and, later, connected musicians as disparate as Anais Mitchell and Kanye West. Its marimba line taught me that marimba could be cool. Not just cool, but haunting, mysterious, the perfect backdrop for a 20th-century bard. The instrument could somehow become the sound of Vietnam and psychopathy and storytelling.
Tom Waits has since become a more potent fascination for me than anyone, or anything else ever has. I read David Smay’s book about him and spent too many hours browsing the online stacks of the Tom Waits Library. There’s a reason to pay attention to this guy: I don’t know anyone else who’s inspired that level of historical archiving and independent cataloging. When news broke that Waits was releasing a studio album this year, a lot of people got excited. And yet, though it may have changed my life, Swordfishtrombones is not a very palatable record, and so I never expected to love Bad As Me as much as I do.
Its start is the opposite of slow, “Chicago” being a runaway tune led by banjo, piano, and saxophone and featuring a line I was destined to fall in love with: “Maybe things will be better in Chicago.” The songs on Bad As Me oscillate, like they do on Swordfishtrombones, between manic and maudlin, flip-flopping throughout the entire album. Where a Depression-era blues tune ends, a ballad begins. It takes some getting used to, but Bad As Me is worth the effort. Don’t go to the grave without hearing what Tom Waits has to say.
4. Feist, Metals
I’ve been a fan of Feist since our college newspaper reviewed Let It Die. I adored that album, “Mushaboom” summing up a certain mentality a lot of us had then. Then came The Reminder, and suddenly Feist was in Starbucks and on Sesame Street, but the music wasn’t any worse. It was better. We shouldn’t forget this. “The Water”—and the film it inspired—is beautiful. The remix album Open Season didn’t disappoint either, despite the fact that such endeavors usually do.
Metals, four years after her last album, is charged with a very human energy. It’s neither as smooth as Let It Die or as fun as The Reminder. Instead it feels more real. More lifelike. Though her music isn’t overtly complex, Feist does write songs that challenge our intuition. First, she often writes, at least on Metals, in a three-based time signature, as opposed to the usual four, (the ratio of left-handed people to right-handed people is probably an accurate comparison for the two forms’ relationship). She puts another twist on this though by playing a few of those three-songs in a way that feels like four. Instead of a languid, Waltz-like grace, “Graveyard” and “How Come You Never Go There” both appear to leave off a beat that should be there. In another words, if you’re swaying to the music, you’ll be out of sync every other bar.
This is just one reason Metals is an interesting album. “Caught a Long Wind” is another. Co-producer Valgeir Sigurðsson is yet another. If you listen to it openly, not hoping for another Reminder, I think you’ll see that Feist is maturing beautifully. I once thought I could make a case for why she’s the best musical artist to emerge in the past decade. I’m no longer quite so convinced, but my ambition tells you of the respect I have for her. And why I’ll eagerly be awaiting her next project.
5. Erik Friedlander, Bonebridge
The pedal steel guitar has been unfairly relegated to country music. Granted, like any member of an outlaw gang, the instrument is guilty by association, and if we’re honest, we can admit that it’s committed its fair share of crimes. But in the right environment, the instrument can thrive. One such place is in the company of cellist Erik Friedlander and his jazz trio.
Bonebridge caught my attention with “Beaufain Street,” a song that brought to mind river boats, wheeling their way up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Chicago, a hub for gamblers and the men who would rob them. It’s music fit for carousing or for laying low above deck, watching the water turn to gold and then to nothing.
“Low Country Cupola,” “Tabatha,” “Hanky Panky.” They’re jazz-tune names. And Friedlander gets some good cello licks into each song. But the pedal steel steals the show and allows Bonebridge to inhabit a small space within Americana, a lonely corner I hope is more populated soon.
6. Bjork, Biophilia
There’s a reason that Björk, the Reykjavík-born queen of avant-garde pop, is a household name and also remains respected as an artist. It’s because she’s adamant that music is an art and be seen as such. Art isn’t always looking to be liked, and Björk’s music — characterized by a vivid and stubborn imagination since the beginning of her solo career in 1992 — is hardly snuggly. There’s always been a chill to it, an intensity we don’t always know what to do with. Biophilia is no exception.
The much-hyped release is as ambitious as anything before it. For weeks before, geeked-out music critics were drawn like moths to a porch light thanks to Biophilia‘s extra-musical elements, which included an iPad app, featuring graphic explorations of each track; live shows that used custom-made instruments like the Gravity Harp or twin musical Tesla coils; and a laser-laden video by French director and longtime Björk collaborator Michel Gondry. But it would be a shame if people forgot that beneath the chatter is an album. Biophilia may be unique because of its multiplatform release, but that’s not what makes it good.
Musically, it’s expansive, dramatic, and remarkably accessible. “Crystalline” is a pulsing, glowing sleeper that erupts into a hammering drill-’n’-bass salvo. “Virus” uses the hang masterfully, its warm metallic tones being a suitably alien backdrop for Björk’s iconic voice. These intrasong dynamics are great achievements, as is the subtle emphasis on melody. But the most important thing about Biophilia seems to be its subject matter. In the compositions, the lyrics, and—most noticeably—the album art and apps, the central theme is our physical universe. Björk embarks on a meditative musical exploration of nature, science, and technology, and we’re fortunate to be invited. There’s plenty to explore alongside her.
7. Other Lives, Tamer Animals
Maybe five years ago, my brother, my then-girlfriend (now-wife), and I went to see Spoon in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was a memorable show because that rare thing happened: the opening band stole the show. They called themselves Kunek, and they understood music. They’d mastered a particularly beautiful realm of it, as well as the art of the performance. The frontman spent the set bent over his keyboard, hair in his face, giving every bit of himself to the show. I think all of us were in awe.
Later we would find out how to spell that name we’d only heard spoken, and learn they were from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and buy their debut, Flight of the Flynns. And then they disappeared. That odd name never resurfaced. I assumed the band had, somehow, been swallowed by the vastness of the country’s center. Given itself to the soil, for nutrients. There was a part of me—the dramatic part—that mourned this loss. This year, however, I discovered that the band’s death had been faked. It had changed its name and was living and making music happily as Other Lives. It was living an other life.
Tamer Animals, the band’s 2011 release, is masterful, an evolution of the promise we’d seen in Fayetteville. It draws on folk music for its dreamy compositions but is hard to define in genre terminology. It’s easy to love, and we need music like that. It doesn’t necessarily push musical boundaries, doesn’t open new doors or lob projectiles at the ceiling or attempt to tunnel out under the walls, but what it does do is make wondrous the room contemporary music currently inhabits. If I was ranking these records by what I fell in love with the fastest, this album would be at the top.
8. WU LYF, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
Sometimes you learn something that forever affects the way you see something, or hear it, or think about it. Every time I listen to WU LYF (World Unite/Lucifer Youth Foundation) see an abandoned church in Ancoats, England. This is my imagination’s version of the church in which they recorded their debut Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, a place that was vital to its big, echoing sound.
The band is actually a group of Manchester kids—can’t find their ages, but they look somewhere between 16 and 20—who say they’ll retire at 25. Chances are that statement will later be filed alongside the disenchantment they’re already allegedly feeling about their choice of a name. Normally, when I learn a band is that young, I stop paying attention, figuring that if they’re still around in five years, they’ll a) be better musicians and b) have lost their impetuousness and sense of entitlement.
But WU LYF hooked me with Ellery Roberts’ garbled howls, which, though he is saying words, sound like the muted yells one might hear walking down the hall of a mental hospital. And yet they don’t convey pain, or anger, but more just a frustrated, almost animal attempt to communicate. This vocal styling lured me in and then set the hook; I couldn’t ignore these guys, despite their youth (and their impetuousness). Go Tell Fire is just the beginning for these guys, though a part of me hopes they do retire at 25. The other part hopes they make music as long as I’m alive.
9. The Roots, Undun
I was a young drummer when I first puzzled at how to pronounce ?uestlove (answer: quest-love). His name was everywhere in the music magazines I read as a teenager. Yet it wasn’t until this fall that I knowingly heard The Roots, via this year’s Undun, a concept album that does for Philadelphia what The Wire did for Baltimore—portraying the dark and ruinous underworld of a drug trade that preys disproportionately on certain races and classes, especially their young.
Tracing the final hours of a fictional dealer named Redford Stephens, the story is unraveled backwards from the time of death. The music stands alone—the album doesn’t need its narrative any more than Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life needed its—but the words share an urgent message, and its the courage of these lyrics that earned Undun a spot on this list.
I’ll be honest and say that without a year spent in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, a place full of men like Redford Stephens, this record might not have packed the same punch. But then again, without that year, I wouldn’t have been much of a hip-hop fan either.
10. Cults, Cults
I didn’t know about Cults until this fall and didn’t hear “Abducted” possibly until it was included by Bob Boilen and his gang on All Songs Considered‘s year-end review, but the band’s debut quickly became one of my favorite albums of the year.
I don’t have a lot to say about it; I don’t know much about the group (it’s a guy and gal from Brooklyn, I think) and don’t know any interesting facts about the record (its sound is interesting but not revolutionary). I will say that if you’re in the mood for some infectious lo-fi pop, you’re in luck.
Also bonus points for some of the best album art of the year.
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Portions originally published by ALARM Press.