I've heard a metric f@#@-ton of music this year. More bands than I can even remember have gone in one earhole and out the other. I'm sure in the process of checking out absolutely everything I could get my hands on a few bands might have slipped through the cracks, and to them I can only hope to catch up with them again at a later date. These next 10 bands are the ones that didn't slip through the cracks though. They're the groups/individuals who managed to make their magnificent noise rise up above the rest, and in the process make 2011 a quite exceptional year for music.
#10 Caveman - Coco Beware
The simple act of discovery can color one's opinion of a band, and it certainly has in Caveman's case...for everyone that's ever heard them apparently. I "discovered" Caveman opening up for The War on Drugs at The Red Palace here in DC earlier this year, and from that instant I was hooked. This record is drenched in moody, dreamscape inspired Radiohead-esque harmonies and sounds, and yet plays like something only Caveman could create. I know, I know, that sounds circular, but when a band this early in their existence can so well define who and what they are as a band, borrowing liberally from everything around them and somehow managing to put forth those collective influences as something better is the sign of a great artist. They've already got the attention of the music-nerd set (including NPR) and in 2012 they're the band to keep an eye on, because with a debut this good, sooner or later everyone is going to catch on to Caveman's fire. (Yes, I just wrote that)
#9 TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light
I reviewed this album earlier this year, and while I've been a fan of it, and the band, for a while now, I wasn't sure if it was going to make my top 10. About a hundred listens and two live performances later, it's safe to say that Nine Types of Light is a record that is not only one of the years best, but a record that has staying power. Between the records recording and tour this year, the band lost long time bass player Gerard Smith to lung cancer and in the wake of that tragic event the songs have taken on almost eulogistic tone to them. But Smith's death informs rather than overshadows Nine Types Of Light and as such the record touches in a way that nobody could have anticipated but that the world is better for all the same.
#8 Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin'
I have a few weaknesses when it comes to music. Play me a HOT soul record and I'll spew praise, just or not, all over it. Play me a FUNKY soul record and you'll get about the same reaction. Play me a soul record that is hot, funky and downright nasty...well you had me at hello sir. Rapheal Saadiq's Stone Rollin' is a record that slipped under the radar for most people and it's a damn shame, because with all of the watered down soul/funk imitators out there people could stand to learn a thing or two about how it's really done. From the opening guitar hits of "Heart Attack" to the final strains of the Marvin Gaye homage that is "The Answer" Saadiq takes everything that's good about soul, old and new and wraps it up in a delicious, funky, ass-shake-tastic event of an record. While there certainly were other albums released this year that did a lot to honor the "soul" genre (Charles Bradley's No Time For Dreaming is fantastic example of "revisionist" soul done right) nothing even came close to hitting the mark as solidly or as forward looking as Stone Rollin' did. Now, please excuse me while I get back to shaking my booty or something.
#7 The Rosebuds – Loud Planes Fly Low
This is the first of two "breakup" albums on my list, and like other album the end result is that by writing about the pain and confusion of their divorce and then putting it on tape for the rest of us to hear, Rosebuder's Kelly Howard and Ivan Crisp created a breakup album that can sit easily alongside [Fleetwood Mac's] Rumors, [Beck's] Sea Change and [Dylan's] Blood on the Tracks. If at this point you're thinking "WTF MAN! You just compared The Rosebuds to Dylan?" I don't blame you. But I do think you might be a zombie. If you've ever had your heart broken and can listen to Loud Planes Fly Low without feeling some deep emotional connection, then I'm pretty sure that you, sir or madame, are a heartless, music hating member of the walking dead. There's your pull quote. You're welcome.
#6 The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
R.E.M. not only put out one of the worst albums the year in 2011 (which made me, um, sad), but also one of the worst albums of their now defunct career. Well thank Apollo and his ever faithful acolyte Colin Meloy that The Decemberists still remember a time when R.E.M. kicked all the musical ass in the world. A statement the likes of "The Decemberists made the best R.E.M. album in years" would seem like a cop-out critique if it weren't so damn spot on. Hell, The Decemberists even hired Peter Buck to play on their alternate universe version of "The One I Love" (You know...the one where Walternate decomissioned R.E.M. after Document to save all of space and time) and did it with a straight face taboot.
All R.E.M. jabbing aside, reality of the situation is that amazingly The Decemberists dropped all of the pretentious crap that made their previous material mostly un-listenable (at least for me) and delivered a straight up folk rock record to rival any of the greats. By keeping it simple, and doing it well it would seem that The Decemberists' have found their true voice, and just like Andre said on Tuesday I hope they can sustain it because this is one band that after years of trying to love them and failing, I'm awfully glad to have finally gotten to first base with.
#5 Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing
This is what, in a perfect world, all music would sound like. Now I recognize that it plays SQUARELY to my love of 70's country/rock and I am therefore defenseless against its charms, but American Goldwing has got more going for it that than that cheap main-lineable hit of awesome designed specifically for me and me alone. See, Blitzen Trapper have a plan and it goes like this:
Band love's music ---> Band makes the music that they love ---> People love the music that the band makes of the music they love ----> rinse and repeat.
It's a simple formula really and it's one of the reasons we love this band as much as we do here. Blitzen Trapper makes music because they're musicians. Goddam good musicians actually, and that's just what goddam good musicians do. Each album that the band releases seems to be yet another piece in a giant Blitzen Trapper puzzle that when solved will likely look like a giant, sloppy wet kiss to all of music. They not only get "it", they execute on "it" effortlessly and, without fail, walk away with records that sound like they came from everywhere and nowhere at once. American Goldwing is just another stop on the road for these guys, and we are ever excited to see just where they'll go next.
#4 Fruit Bats – Tripper
I've tried to write a review of this album at least 4 times and failed, so I don't expect to succeed here. What Eric Johnson laid on the world this year is exactly the sort of weird pop masterpiece that nobody ever expected or even know that they wanted. It's easy to dismiss this record after only one listen, but if you give it just a little more attention, layer upon layer falls aways to reveal one of the catchiest, most intelligent takes on our relationships to the the world and people around us that I've heard in years. There's a lot of humor in Johnson's material, but just like every good comedian there's also a lot of heart. I mean, check out the video below. Truly timeless...or something.
Tripper is the type record I want my future kids to ask me about years from now, so I have the chance to dust off my record player, drop the needle and watch the inevitable grins spread across their faces. The reality of that situation is that they'll probably just whine "Dad, your music sucks", get back to their Nu-Metal-Bieber-Opus that's all the rage those days, and I'll be left to listen alone to my Fruit Bats in peace. But there's at least a 50% chance that they MIGHT have good taste in music, so a guy can dream can't he?
#3 Lydia Loveless – Indestructible Machine
I have another weakness and, it's cow-punk. Anything with a twang and kicking drum beat and I'm hooked, so it was pretty easy for me to fall in love with this record. What pushes Loveless over the top of the rest of the crowd is her livewire energy and straightforward emotional honesty, even when she's making the whole thing up. You're not likely to find a more hilariously self aware song than "Steve Earle" this year, and the raw gut punch of "Crazy" the albums closer, might well have been written by Steve Earle himself. Nobody, and I mean nobody wrote a song this year that cuts more to core of what it is to be drunk in love, drunk on love, and hopelessly confused about the whole mess, than this 21 year old force of nature from Ohio. This record is huge folks, and it's only the first step for what may prove to be one of our generations more remarkable song writers.
#2 Wye Oak – Civilian
Home team dun good. This is the second breakup record on my top 10 and while it is somewhat more subtle than Loud Planes Fly Low, it's no less devastating. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have spent the past few years perfecting their brand of country-shoegaze atmosphere, Civilian is the sound of those efforts fully realized. Dark and lush, with hooks literally everywhere like traps waiting to be sprung, this album is what two people breaking sounds like. Wye Oak have always been great, but with Civilian they've taken their art to the next level and so it's no wonder that 2011 was the year that they practically took over the world.
#1 tUnE-yArDs – whokill
Much like the Fruit Bats album, this record still leaves me speechless. I've been listening to whokill coming on 9 months now and not only do I still not know quite what to make of it, I'm still discovering things hidden deep in it's labyrinthine genius. What Merril Garbus created, and creates on stage, is practically a new form of music. Using delays and loops is nothing new, but the way she manages to imbue the technology with a soul, her soul, is something that I don't think I've ever experienced in music. To say she's always three steps ahead of herself is an understatement, and that's part of the thrill of these songs. But the real thrill is in the fact that deep down these are just pop songs. Ridiculously warped pop songs that get stuck in your brain as badly as the latest Ke$ha or Beyonce song, the only difference being is that these earworms not only please like good candy should, but they make you think. Use your brain. ENGAGE.
And that's it for our top 10 lists. Tune in tomorrow when we'll empty our closets of things forgotten, honorable mentions and things best left unsaid as we get ready for 2012. It's been a great year folks, but now it's almost time to do it all again!