When I joined KJHK's music staff in 2007 (my second year at the station), I learned that the best way my brain knows how to communicate with music is to write about it. When I started freelancing for the Pitch in 2009, it totally changed the way I had to write about music. It had to be more formal, less like the stream-of-thought-via-three-or-four-listens pseudo-rants I was writing for 4-8 CDs a week at KJ. This blog has always been a place to escape the formal (read: coherent) writing of print and to better understand the stuff I love/own. I love lists. All sorts of lists. But ordered year end lists really get me hot and bothered, so I've been making them for my favorite records and movies since 2003 when I had a Xanga and like 10 followers (the lists came between bad poetry and trying to be a "photography," naturally, since I was 17 and all). It's the competitive nature inside me, and somehow tied to the fact that I became obsessed with Fantasy Football this fall. WHO WILL WIN THE ULTIMATE BATTLE?!?! There's something kind of sick about pitting albums I love against one another, but I can't help it. I feel bad for the #2 album because it would be the #1 album any other year BUT, etc. This isn't a best of, just my personal favorites. The ones that didn't stop playing. The ones that didn't leave the car stereo for weeks or that I had to keep re-burning because they started skipping because my car's CD player is old. 2011 was one of my favorite years for music in a long time (since 2007!!!) and I feel guilty for not listening to more albums. Feel sorry I couldn't put albums I'm sure I'll love in 2012 on this list. But the list is never accurate. It's just a document of where I was when, and I keep these lists for myself as much as anybody. Apologies for my woeful grammar. Despite years of
25.) Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
This is the ultimate of last minute additions. I’m giving this one the benefit of the doubt, because after months of being EH about this, the follow-up to one of my favorite records of 2009, it’s starting to make sense. And that’s enough to put this on the list. Because I’ll regret it. Because I let these lists get to me and I stress out over not hearing enough albums in any given year. They’re never totally accurate, only accurate for the end of the year. But what does it for me, is that part at the end of “Vomit.” You know the part I’m talking about. I remember hearing this when they put this song out before the album came out and I was like “Well it’s long and slow and that part at the end is nice” but holy FUCK is it a grower. And I’m applying that to the rest of the album because it’s already growing on me.
24.) The Get Up Kids – There Are Rules
Reunion records have a tendency to suck. This one doesn’t. Of course I’m biased, what with being raised in the Greater Kansas City Metropolitan Area (both Jenny and I had teachers at our respective high and junior high schools related to guitarist Jim Suptic) it was all we had. They were our local band, and given my mother’s paranoia I was never allowed to travel to KC to see them. Sadly, the first time I saw them was at the fucking Voodoo Lounge at fucking Harrah’s when they were on their Something to Write Home About reunion tour, and that was pretty sad. But then I saw them at the Bottleneck this year in support of this record and it was a blast. Like all the high school rock show stuff I never got when I was in actual high school. It helped that There Are Rules is really good. It’s a better record than the oh so spotty Guilt Showand assuming they don’t make another record, a perfectly fitting end. They’re grown-ups now. THE GET UP MEN. Doesn’t sound as good, does it. But there’s maturity here, of course, but that’s what everyone says. Basically, what it means is that they don’t sound like they’re trying to be 18 and that’s reassuring.
23.) Richard Buckner – Our Blood
A few years back I got really into alt-country. For a straight year, it was my thing. If the sun of that solar system was Wilco, the, oh, Mars would have been Richard Buckner. He was the one that made me realize that those “I like everything but country music” responses to “what kind of music do you like?” were the most absolute of all bullshit. Buckner’s voice adds an extra sense of aching to his woe-induced tunes. Our Blood is Buckner’s most cohesive and unified record since, god, forever ago’s Devotion + Doubt, and some of the songs here are some of my favorites in his extensive discography. “Witness,” “Confession,” “Traitor,” and “Thief” are punch-in-the-gut jams that live up to their simple titles (every title on this record is one simple—or maybe not so simple—word). The melody in “Confession” notably makes my brain turn to butter and melt. Buckner’s always written sad songs, but holy shit, the elegance with which he does it defies any genre you’d like to chuck him into.
22.) The Decemberists – The King is Dead
Though I love me a good concept album as much as the next music geek, the Decemberists Hazards of Love rubbed me in precisely the wrong way. It seemed to subvert everything that Colin Meloy did will simply because he was too ambitious. It felt forced and clumsy like an overworked story where you end up scratching your best ideas in some misguided effort to perfect what was a pure and good thing to begin with. So the scaled back, rootsy, back-to-basics attitude of The King is Dead was ever so welcome. It’s a great transition album. One that finds the band between their quirky, archaic selves of old and this new, more realistic bunch of vagabonds and ragamuffins who are, well, real people and not characters out of a Dickens novel or some picaresque adventure. It’s an album that sounds like going home.
21.) Beirut – The Rip Tide
This is probably my favorite Beirut album. It’s weird, Beirut. I thoroughly enjoyedh is first two records, and that double EP thing he released a couple years back, but this one has a set of songs I thoroughly enjoy beginning to end. Maybe it’s because Zach Condon’s not trying to be Balkins folk music or mid century French pop, and just sounds like an amalgamation of everything he’s done and ultimately, sounds like a band with its own identity. He’s a great songcraftsman of the Elephant 6 ilk and though The Rip Tide is a brief album (clocking in at just over 30 minutes with 9 songs). And I realize why I like this album so much because of this quote I just read from Wikipedia via The Observer: “The vagabond thing – that was a teenage fantasy that I lived out in a big way. Music, to me, was escapism. And now I'm doing everything that is the opposite [of that] in my life. I'm married. I've got a house. I've got a dog. So it felt ridiculous, the narrative of what my career was supposed to be, compared to what I was actually trying to attempt in my life.” That explains why it’s the most personal album he’s created, and the married/house/dog equation makes me endeared to it even more because it’s such an interesting place to be. This is an under the radar success. Something that will certainly be lauded years down the line when looking at Beirut’s back catalog. Though thought to be a minor album, it actually indicated _______.” I can’t write the rest because it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m excited to see how this little gem fits into the rest of Condon’s sure to be terrific complete discography.
20.) Alex Turner – Submarine OST
I did not give a single fuck about Arctic Monkeys before watching Richard Ayoade’s excellent film Submarine. Actually, that’s a total lie, because the reason I rented Submarine was because I’d read about it in an article about Arctic Monkeys video for “Suck it and See,” which mentioned that frontman Alex Turner did the soundtrack for the film and I remembered that I’d wanted to see it when I saw the trailer because of my fierce love for Ayoade (and his work on “The IT Crowd,” “The Mighty Boosh,” just generally being a hilarious dude). Anyway, I watched the “Suck it and See” video which was OK but the song was fantastic, so I got excited to hear frontman Alex Turner’s score. Since it’s only a brief five songs long, I feel weird about putting it any higher up on the list, but holy shit these five songs are so good it hurts. They’re reminiscent of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold & Maude, and the original songs really help set the film apart from the Wes Anderson comparisons (which are many and valid, as the whole film is very Rushmore-esque yet finds ways to make itself rather unique) and the montage sequences which they lay on top of are beautiful in all regards. Submarine was my favorite film of the year and the soundtrack was one of the things that really pushed it over the top. “Stuck on a Puzzle” is going to end up very, very close to the top of my 2011 songs list if only because I had to have played it more than any other song from 2011. (Note: Upon checking this fact on Last.fm, this was not true. Top listened tracks were Fucked Up’s “The Other Shoe,” Los Campesinos! “Songs About Your Girlfriend,” and Turner tied with Yuck’s “Get Away,” however those facts are the definition of skewed).
19.) Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
Kurt Vile can hang with the best because I’m pretty sure he just plain doesn’t give a fuck. That’s what his songwriting sounds like. Fuck-all songwriting. And that is a sincere compliment. That’s what makes him special. That’s what made me listen to Childish Prodigy obsessively every autumn since it came out because it is one of the most perfect fall records I’ve ever heard. It just fits. Rainy, cloudy, gloomy, chilly days wrapped up in a hooded sweatshirt driving to and from work. It works. Smoke Ring For My Halo is more cohesive, and Vile making a truly proper record for Matador. I guess. Doesn’t matter. Not really. It’s got ageless punch-in-the-teeth jams like “Puppet to the Man” and “Society is My Friend” paired up with pensive numbers like “Baby’s Arms” and the excellent mid-tempo single “In My Time.” “Peeping Tomboy” reminds me of my favorite moments of Childish Prodigy, “Jesus Fever” feels like a brilliant pop song because there’s a hook in there that just gets me every time. The six-minute closer “Ghost Town” is a meditative (read: stoned), depressive masterpiece and an excellent look into the mind of a new crooked master.
18.) East River Pipe – We Live in Rented Rooms
Everyone loves to talk about how Bon Iver recorded an album in a cabin, but man, no one wants to talk about Fred Cornog works at a fucking Home Depot and puts out a damn good record every few years. I think I’m getting old because “every few years” is actually FIVE years, and I remember when I started at KJHK in 2006 and What Are You On was in rotation and I played either “What Does T.S. Eliot Know About You” or “Druglife” every week and it was one of my first great discoveries that I had expected to amass whilst working at a renowned college radio station. I don’t tend to listen to his albums all the way through, but there are a handful of tracks from each of them that I think are some of the best songs ever written. “Make a Deal With the City,” “Here We Go,” “Helmet On,” “Shiny, Shiny Pimpmobile,” “Where Does All The Money Go?,” and on and on. We Live in Rented Rooms is another more than worthy addition to Cornog’s catalog, and one I only really discovered via chucking it on my iPod and having random songs come on while I was at the gym or at work after closing (this happened with a lot of my favorite records this year). “The Flames Are Coming Back,” “Backroom Deals,” “Conman,” I remember all of these coming on shuffle and just going “Goddamn, this is fucking great is this East River Pipe?” Not to knock Bon Iver at all (as you’ll see, he shows up a little later), but Fred Cornog has a more authentic mythology. One laced with drugs, homelessness, and with the ultimate redemption found in a woman who leads to a family and a simple life where he gets to make music for pleasure but ultimately just be a normal guy. You’d never know the dude selling you a power drill was a fantastic songwriter, and there’s something beautiful about that. Obtaining artistic greatness without having to go through all the hassle of celebrity. Fred Cornog is a genius.
17.) Hospital Ships – Lonely Twin
Another excellent release from local lad Jordan Geiger. Lonely Twin finds a cohesion that Hospital Ships’ debut Oh, Ramona lacked (that was still a fine record, though) and makes me not so intolerant of the town I live in. Well, the video for “Galaxies” did anyway. It’s comforting to know you live in a town with excellent songwriters (See also: Rooftop Vigilantes) and though I’m totally out of touch with the local music scene, it’s nice to have Hospital Ships as a constant.
16.) The Antlers – Burst Apart
A surprisingly good album! I don’t know why. I loved Hospice so much. I loved it so much that it became the identity for this band. Like they should never record another album (more on this later in the list), that kind of good. But thank goodness they did because Burst Apart is pretty wonderful. My favorite thing about it is that the last song is the best song. It’s a lost art, sending your album out in an appropriate fashion. So often the lesser songs just get tacked on the back but man, “Putting the Dog to Sleep” fucking kills me. And it’s nice because it’s the best song Peter Silberman has ever written. Well, from my little prism at least. It’s my favorite, better than anything on Hospice, which I thought was surprising. “My trust in you/ Is a dog with a broken leg/ Tendons too torn to beg/ For you to let me back in.” Oof. Maybe I just love dogs and he’s playing to my sweet spot (that is true, I do love dogs) but whatever, it’s masterful. And it’s just an added bonus that the rest of the album is really fucking good, too.
15.) Andrew Jackson Jihad – Knife Man
I’m new to Andrew Jackson Jihad. I somehow stumbled upon Can’t Maintain at the tail end of 2009 and really loved the lead-off track “Heartilation” but never really listened to the album all the way through. Then, this year for some odd reason, I picked up that album and it spent a solid couple of months in the car stereo. I love it. It’s a masterpiece. Just so violently good and personal and the kind of music that makes me love music again. And then out of nowhere, AJJ put out a new album this year! And while it’s not as great as Can’t Maintain (because all the b-sides got left on the album proper, it seems) it’s still better than most of the albums I heard this year. Well, maybe not better, but I listened to it more and I liked it more. It lacks the coherence of Can’t Maintain and jumps from social issues to personal issue back to social issue. BUT STILL, it made the list because it’s good and “Hate, Rain on Me,” “Fucc the Devil,” “Sorry Bro,” “Gift of the Magi 2: Return of the Magi,” “Big Bird,” and especially the mega creepy murder ballad “Back Pack” reminded me that Sean Bonnette writes with a triumphant sense of vitality. WOW THAT WAS MUSIC WRITERY! HE WRITES WITH A SENSE OF URGENCY ABSENT FROM THIS MODERN GENERATION! But really, he’s just a great songwriter who is tragically overlooked by the music writery elite. Although he did write the ultimate fuck you song to music critics, “We Didn’t Come Here To Rock,” so it’s not really a big deal.
14.) David Bazan – Strange Negotiations
This is one of those records from early in the year I’ve only recently revisited despite listening to on repeat for weeks and weeks. I think David Bazan is as fucking good as he’s ever been. It picks up where Curse Your Branches left off, tackling much of the same subject matter (religion, politics, trying to be a decent human being, etc, etc) and it’s good, good, good. I don’t know why there are so many haters. It feels like everyone hates David Bazan. I’m sure a lot of them hate him because of the Christianity thing, but it feels like there’s another set that hate him because they think his songwriting is like, I don’t know. Too direct? I don’t know. Personally, I always thought Bazan was at his best when he was grappling with his religious beliefs. Maybe it’s cuz he made fun of Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber on that one song from Fewer Moving Parts and there’s like, a haters union that has to strike against Bazan. I DO NOT KNOW. I think he’s pretty great. He puts on a great live show that I still try to go to when I’m not broke, and he puts out records that always hit me in a personal place (the heart, not something lascivious). The paranoia-induced “Wolves at the Door” gets the religion and the politics all in one fell swoop, “Future Past” delivers one of those Bazan-esque melodies he’s been crafting for years and years. The kind of melody that I can’t explain, but you’d hear it and you’d think of Control. Maybe people hate Bazan because sometimes he doesn’t write in thinly veiled metaphors and it’s perhaps unwriterly to take on the recent financial crisis in plain English on the title track. “You kick and scream to get your way again/ But the writing is on the wall/ Any minute you’ll go onto your reward/ Someone else is gonna make the call,” he sings to Wall Street and “I feel like a stranger in my hometown” to everyone else. I don’t understand the hate Bazan tends to receive (on the flip side of this, he has a legion of adoring fans, which is awesome) because he just seems like a normal dude, making him music, doing his thing, not stepping on anyone’s toes unless they’re a shithead music critic and you know, it’s pretty great to see a musician strike back. He has an excellent method of conveying his worldview, which is as hard a thing to craft as a perfect song.
13.) Real Estate – Days
This new buttoned-up-Oxford prim and proper indie rock leaves me with mixed feelings, and I really never understood why everyone gave so much of a fuck about Real Estate. And then I put on Days one early autumn afternoon and something clicked. I haven’t gone back and re-listened to their first album or whatever it was they were putting out a couple years ago, but man, this album is so good. SO GOOD. It’s accomplished as shit. I watched leaves float by the window, felt the cool breeze coming under the door, it was nice. And this CD spent a lot of time in the car, where it really opened up on my back and forth drives to work. Though “It’s Real” is the monster jam that seems to be getting all the attention (and the more subdued but equally excellent “Green Aisles”), mid-album track “Municipality” is the one that really did it for me. It expresses a sweetness that matches the lilt of the guitars and the perfectly lovely subtle love song lyrics. Days is one of the more consistent records I heard this year and while I STILL don’t get what Real Estate is all about, I sure enjoyed listening to this album on repeat.
12.) Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor
I’m the kind of failure who hosted KJHK’s Alternative Flashback for two semesters without ever listening to Archers of Loaf. That’s embarrassing and damning. But I made up for that after the fact…well, sort of. I developed an unhealthy obsession with “Web in Front” last summer without ever listening to Icky Mettle all the way through. It’s weird. Eric Bachman’s post-Loaf group Crooked Fingers have been on the fringes of my musical intake for years, too. It’s weird. I remember listening to Dignity and Shame and latching on to the horribly sad “Sleep All Summer” a few years back in a rough spot. And then this album just sort of fell into my lap and I just started listening and I just sort of loved it. I started running recently, and I’ve been listening to this on the treadmill for some reason. I don’t know why. I think it has something to do with the way this album has been opening up to me. Wait, I DO know why. This album was on my iPod and songs kept popping up on shuffle so I just started listening to the album because the songs that came up were just so good. “She Tows the Line,” “Our New Favorite,” “The Counterfeiter,” they’re all arresting.
11.) Smith Westerns – Dye it Blonde
These kids seem like chodes. They just do. When I saw them open for Los Campesinos and Girls a couple years ago, they just seemed young and kind of chodey. But that is precisely why Dye it Blonde is great. Instead of getting lumped in with all these other lo-fi teenage jackoffs, they somehow managed to make an album that was above all that band-of-the-moment shit. Or at least that’s what Dye it Blonde sounds like for me. I’m jealous of their youth. Their fuck-all attitude is what makes this record great. It’s borrowing riffs that sound straight out of 30 years ago and just churning out some of the catchiest pop songs of the year. It’s like they’re so desperately trying to make these great stadium anthems in a basement. Alex Chilton looks down from above and smiles at power pop still thriving like bacteria in a petri dish. JUST LISTEN TO THAT GUITAR LINE on “Dye the World.” I do that wahhh-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah bit when I’m listening to it in the car!
10.) EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
This one fell into my lap organically. It was kind of fun that way. I didn’t read about it or see a video on youtube. My boss was listening to it one morning in the back office and I was like “WHO IS THIS THIS IS REALLY COOL” and he told me. And then I got this album. And then I sat in a dark room listening, and being all “Goddamnit this is haunting and real and gorgeous and so so sad and it’s scratching down at my soul.” The whole album is just a masterpiece, just a totally pure and unfuckedwith vision straight from Erika Anderson’s head, but “California” and “Marked” are these two cornerstone songs that kept me off balance. “California” is kind of the clear stand out, and the one where you just stare at the songwriting in awe because no one is really writing like this (read: honestly) delivered with this soulful intensity and conviction that seems rare. Maybe it’s not. Maybe there are plenty of artists coming from this place, they just haven’t broken out like EMA has this year. “Marked,” on the other hand, holy shit. That’s really all I have for that song. “Holy shit.”
9.) Fucked Up – David Comes to Life
This album is insane. Just fucking insane. Who would even have an idea to do a punk rock concept album about a dude who works at a lightbulb factory and gets swept up in his girlfriend’s mysterious death? I STILL don’t even know what the hell is going on in the middle to back half of this album, but I love it. I love that this exists. That punk rock is being explored in new ways long after punk was supposed to be dead, buried, exhumed, and buried again. It’s an exhausting album to listen to. Sort of the RPG video game of the music world. One that takes a considerable amount of hours to catch everything, but even the cursory listens are good so this one’s a winner. On top of that, the band released a fake compilation (well, it has real music so it is a real compilation, but) of bands set in the fake city where this story takes place. And you know what? THAT COMPILATION IS AWESOME. So yes, when popular underground music is designed to have a shelf life less than organic greek yogurt, Fucked Up have created a monolith. A punk rock monolith, no less, that people can stare at and go “goddamn, this is pretty brilliant.”
8.) St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
It’s baffling how good Annie Clark is at making music. There’s no particular reason why it’s baffling, it’s just that I don’t ever expect any human being to make no mistakes when making a record. Three album’s in and Clark has upped the stakes every time. 2009’s Actor was my second favorite album of that year. It was. That happened. And I thought that was a high watermark and I don’t know why I always do that with talented people that I admire. I’m not really a pessimist, I just play one on TV, and I’m genuinely thrilled when my pessimistic tendencies to think artists won’t ever create anything better than what they’ve just created are overthrown. It’s just my way of coping with great music. Sometimes I just can’t deal. Sometimes violently shaking my head from side to side and saying “Fuck this music, fuck this music” (I did this at least once whilst listening to all of the albums in the top 10, it’s a good sign) isn’t enough. Strange Mercy is a cool album. Just fucking cool. The way she manipulates a guitar is experimental without every trying too hard which you kind of might expect when you hear an artist talking about how she wants to reincorporate the guitar back into her music. Or did I ever think that about St. Vincent? I can’t remember. It’s artsy as shit but it’s only artsy by default. Non-pretentious and genuinely affecting (See: “Surgeon,” which throws like ten punches into my gut every time) and real and sexy. Goddamn this is a sexy album. In every regard, and not just because St. Vincent is a woman. Like Serge Gainsbourg or something. Seductive.
7.) Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
I don’t know how I put off listening to I Am Very Far for so long. I adore Okkervil River, and Will Sheff is one of my favorite songwriters. Actually, thinking about that, most of my favorite songwriters put out albums this year which is why I’m so gaga about 2011’s musical output. But anyway, I don’t know why I waited so long because this is another amazing album from a band that keeps getting better. I only put it on when I got offered a chance to interview Sheff and after forcing myself to say yes, yes of course I want to interview one of today’s smartest songwriters, I set to listening on repeat. I came up with a bunch of questions, and then the got pushed back, and then the scheduling just didn’t work because of course and ended up having to send the questions off via e-mail which felt like a failure, but it ended up being OK. I’m sad I didn’t get to talk to him though. I was pumped up, ready to face my fears. But it’s ok, because I got this album out of it. Sheff self-produced the album, emboldened by producing Roky Erikson’s latest record (that Okkervil River played backing band for), and Sheff’s getting to produce the thing himself is what makes this so exciting. It’s like he’s rediscovering music, has the energy of someone making their first and last record or something like that. Urgency. “White Shadow Waltz” gives me chills every time I hear it, and I think I understand how production works because there’s such a specific sound to that song. I mean, of course there’s the throwing-a-filing-cabinet-across-the-room-at-a-wall sound effect, but good god that just makes it that much more epic, what with the cacophonic clatter disrupting those glorious strings. It’s a scary song, a spooky song, haunting more than anything. Usually, when people tell you about their dreams, you’re disinterested because other people’s dreams are usually so specific it’s impossible for us to comprehend why they are significant. But the dream imagery here is wonderful, again HAUNTING, lots of haunting on this one. It helps that the songs are pushed to their absolute limits with orchestrations upon orchestrations and Sheff going all out with the vocals, which is always the best part of Okkervil River records. There’s so much excitement and conviction in the way he sings. It helps that this line-up has really morphed into the finest incarnation of this band, even following the departure of the great Jonathan Meiburg. It’s wonderful watching bands adapt, and Okkervil River have done a sensational job.
6.) The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
I think I read somewhere that John Darnielle said if The Sunset Tree was about living through abuse, All Eternals Deck is about surviving. Or being a survivor. And it never sounds more like that than on the penultimate track “Never Quite Free” which effectively serves as a sort of coda to Darnielle’s masterpiece, the aforementioned Sunset Tree. The song is blatantly hopeful, in the best way. Wonderful, powerful, and evidence that Darnielle is one of the great treasures of the musical world. Not even the modern musical world, just music in general. All music is made better by having him working in the medium. All Eternals Deck is another great album, but really, what do you expect from the Mountain Goats? Have they ever put out a bad album? I can’t think of a single one I don’t love. Highlights include “For Charles Bronson,” which is a sad but also hopeful (lots of hope running through the veins of this album) portrait of the tough as nails film legend who brought himself up from nothing. I remember them playing that song last time they played the Bottleneck and going “yes, this album is going to fucking rule.” “Estate Sale Sign” is a sibling of “See America Right” and “Psalms 40:2.” All three are these dark, destructive road trip sort of songs. Or they all take place in cars, or involve travelling (even if it’s just travelling the two miles to the bus stop with a case of vodka under one’s arm or driving to the Precious Moments chapel). “Estate Sale Sign” just fucking kills it though. Scratches right down into your soul. This whole album does that. Gets under your skin, works its way in. The Mountain Goats make me feel really fortune to be coming of age in the age I’m coming of age in. I’m so lucky I heard “Going to Georgia” on some weird internet radio site when I was 17 and immediately launched into the heavy research, stumbled onto The Coroner’s Gambit and All Hail West Texas and just became a maniac. John Darnielle wrote from a place that I didn’t necessarily want to go to, but I wanted to look in the windows. It wasn’t particularly familiar to the place where I was coming from, but his songs made me want to write my own songs. Write stories. Make films. Create. And that shaped so much of where I directed my life over the last 8 years. The Mountain Goats are my perpetual soundtrack, my favorite band, and of course All Eternals Deck gets a high spot on my year end list. Mountain Goats records usually do (with the exception of The Life of the World To Come which I only really warmed up to and fell in love with the year after it came out). I don’t want to be John Darnielle, but I want to have his attitude. His interface with the world, at least the way he comes off at live shows and in interviews, is magnificent, and that’s why his music is so great. The Mountain Goats are a national treasure. Appreciate.
5.) Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Is it passé to reference how passé it is to hate on Bon Iver because he’s famous now? It probably is, leading us all down a rabbit hole of disingenuous spite, and really probably worth avoiding. But I CAN’T avoid it. It just sucks that such a great album would get overshadowed by so many people thinking it was overrated because that’s the cool thing to do. It’s Arcade Fire all over again, where it’s straight-up uncool to like something. Like you have to feel guilty for liking something like it’s a guilty pleasure. Anyway, off topic. Not important, it really isn’t. I just can’t help myself because I think this is an incredible Album with a capital A. And that’s why the Grammy nominations are so funny, because two of them are for “Holocene” and I don’t know how you look at this album and pick out one song that’s better than all the rest. That’s exemplary, because they all are, because they all work to make the most cohesive album of the year. From “Perth” to the apparently divisive “Beth/Rest” there’s an evolution at work and watching that play out is the album’s greatest triumph. Well, I suppose that is basically just it being a triumphant album, but you get it. It’s such a goddamn confident sophomore album, and not what I expected, which is so exciting. After “Blood Bank,” which emphasized a much more straightforward songwriting approach (which I really liked), the writing here is even more abstract than For Emma, Forever Ago (which really, wasn’t really even abstract at all). I remember reading the lyrics when Jagjaguar put them up a couple weeks before the album dropped. It was like “Goddamn what the fuck is he talking about but it’s beautiful.” It’s a beautiful record. Just beautiful. Gorgeous. Peerless, really, too. I can’t think of anyone else doing the things Justin Vernon is doing and that’s pretty cool I guess. It’s rootsy and familiar but otherworldy. I’ve spent a lot of time with this record though, so I’m pretty defensive. There was a three month span where Jenny and I would listen to it before bed, sometimes multiple times. We did that a lot when we started dating, staying up for hours in bed, listening to For Emma, Forever Ago or Neutral Milk Hotel just talking and staring at each other all googly eyed and I think I tie this album to that too. Still, every time we get to “Beth/Rest” I say something like “Goddamn, this song is so fucking brilliant. It ties the whole album together.” I wrote a big long piece about how I thought it was bullshit that “Beth/Rest” was so polarizing and I stand by that. I don’t get how you’d listen to this album and single out that song because A.) Everything that happens before it leads up to that beautiful, lite-rock tinged monster ballad and B.) DESTROYER DID THE SAME GODDAMN THING FOR A WHOLE FUCKING ALBUM. To those who say Bon Iver is boring, OK, sure, but don’t confuse boring with subtlety. Maybe that’s just me being a boring music apologist, but I don’t think this album is boring. I think every time I listen to it there’s something new there and all the best albums are like that (someone could probably argue that too, but whatever). Justin Vernon is so confident here it hurts. Hurts so good, that is. Of all people he deserves it. An indie rock lifer, finally getting his due and staying humble, it’s a great story. Bon Iver, Bon Iver doesn’t have the mythology of its predecessor and lord knows it doesn’t need it. He’s beyond the cabin now, onto something totally different, past one trick pony fears and into maybe being one of the defining artists of his generation. Blah, blah, blah. He’s awesome.
4.) Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
I don’t know why everyone hates Bright Eyes, but I have a theory. My theory is that all of these young, modern music critics had their high school career’s soundtracked by Conor Oberst and Fevers and Mirrors gets filed away under “music I liked in high school before I knew what good music was.” Or at least that’s the impression I always get when I read someone slagging on Bright Eyes. I’m not saying that all his albums are like, great masterpieces or anything, but I do think they’re honest and yeah, melodramatic but still honest. Anyway, a new Bright Eyes album comes out and I listen to it. And yeah, it was big in high school, but Oberst was still pretty young then too and the evolution of his career has been a really interesting one. I think he probably had the opportunity to go off the rails. To be the actress dating, drug fueled sellout, but neglected to do so. His discography is littered with various tastes and influences from the alt-country of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning paired simultaneously with the murky electro-pop fueled Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Then there’s that amazing self-titled solo album from 2008 that boasted Oberst’s best songwriting to date and made up for the mystical and misguided Cassadaga which wasn’t really bad by any means, just overwrought to the point of eh. The People’s Key feels free of all of that stuff from the past. There’s no definitive genre play at work. It just sounds like a mix of all the toys Oberst has played with over his long career and excellently put out on display. It’s Bright Eyes’ best album, and if this is the stopping point as I think it is meant to be, then this is as good a place to stop as you’re gonna get. There’s a little of Cassadaga’s mysticism here, but it feels so much more personal here. Oberst’s frequent references to Rastafari don’t come across as being phony, but as a vehicle to relate to the world and see how others relate to it. “Triple Spiral,” the surefire pop hit of this album tackles life through the prism of an ancient pagan religious symbol. And yeah, the song is catchy as hell, but reading up on triple spiral symbol was enlightening and I really loved what he did with this song and how it feels like a really great attempt to deal with the universe and fate and faith and metaphysical quandries and secret societies maybe. The whole album is like that, really. Sure, the interspliced talking bits that are a Bright Eyes staple are a distracting adornment, but they’re so weird I can see why he put them in. And they fit really well with the theme. But really the theme is Conor Oberst. This sounds like every Bright Eyes album blended together but totally accomplished and new and there’s a great sense of peace I get from it despite the aforementioned conflict in the songwriting. Everything here feels just right, and this album really helped me connect with music a little more. It let me set aside critical judgment for just experiencing something, someone’s ideas put out in songs, and that’s why I love this album. It’s a look at someone’s worldview, a complicated complex one, and that’s what makes this really interesting. And the music is good, too. That helps. Even that double bass drum stuff on “Jejune Stars” (which is actually totally awesome)! And though Bright Eyes is probably done, well, it’s just a name really and the reason I keep hanging onto that original vinyl copy of Letting Off the Happiness is because I have this gut feeling that Oberst is going to stay relevant. I thought I shoulda sold it off when Cassadaga came out because after that he’d be washed up or something, I don’t know why, those were the KJHK years where I wanted to destroy all music, but now I think he’s going to have a fascinating, Dylanesque career. And maybe this album closes a chapter and opens another one. I can’t tell, it doesn’t really matter. What matters was learning to relate to music on a human level again, which I spent the whole summer doing with this album.
3.) Destroyer – Kaputt
This was the #1 contender for months and months. Ultimately, it was usurped because I had some revelation about how the music I really truly love is all about heart and that while I greatly appreciate stylistic mastery, in a tiebreaker gritty heartbreak indie rock wins. The trouble with this argument that bothered me after I wrote about 1000 words on it for the original introduction to this list was that it was just a bunch of bullshit full of non-arguments and weird opinions. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, style vs. emotion, and Destroyer was ultimately what sank that whole argument for me. Dan Bejar is one of those songwriters that transcends the “best songwriter of this age” remarks and I think he’s going to be one of those songwriters people look at fifty, a hundred years from now and go “goddamn what a fucking genius.” He’s up there with John Darnielle and David Berman. Just a master wordsmith and tunesmith. And naturally, Destroyer is one of my favorite bands. Top 5. And Kaput might be his best album. Who knows, it’s impossible to make hard and fast judgments on things like that, especially when it comes to Destroyer albums because all of them are amazing and I don’t really even have a favorite because it changes so often. Like Your Blues (which was almost entirely composed on MIDI and features some of Bejar’s greatest songs), Kaput is an experiment in form. Like the “Bay of Pigs” single that preceded this album by a year, Kaput plays with weird eurodisco whatever. I can’t remember what they called “Bay of Pigs,” but it’s that. And it’s more. It’s got a soft rock vibe that should be obnoxious but that saxophone stuff is awesome and though the lyrics aren’t as bizarre and masterful as Destroyer’s Rubies or Trouble in Dreams or This Night or any of them, they’re still far and away better than most. Especially his collaboration with artist Kara Walker (the aptly titled “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”) which is probably the best song anyone wrote this year. This is a list of favorites, I get bored trying to make a qualitative judgment on music which is just so subjective, but if there was a “best album of 2011” it would probably be this one (or maybe St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy) just because of the artfulness of it all. All the goddamned artfulness, the playing with form, the literary quality of the songwriting, the thoughtfulness, the genius clearly at work effortlessly tossing off another batch of “European Blues” with great ease. Bejar is a master. That’s why a few years back when I went to SXSW for the first time I tried to see every set Destroyer played because he never comes to Lawrence. I think I saw them three times, and all three times they played the same set and all three times it was totally worth it. This is one of those records that reminds me that I shouldn’t give up faith in music, that certain players will always surpass any expectations I have, turn around and give them the finger, and then race away into some territory I can’t even begin to imagine.
2.) Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness
1.) Yuck – Yuck
This wasn’t even a dark horse. This wasn’t even at the fucking stable when I was gearing up for year-end 2011 in oh, March. Plotting through all the upcoming releases from some of my favorite bands: Fucked Up, The Mountain Goats, St. Vincent, Okkervil River, Bon Iver, etc, and somehow this blipped onto my radar. I don’t remember how or when exactly (sometime in March during the “creating a MS Word document for the Best of 2011”) but it happened. And it was a huge hit. For Jenny, at least. She immediately latched onto this record and as a result it stayed in my car stereo for a solid month and a half and became the soundtrack to making dinner for even longer. I like to use Jenny as a gauge for what real people think about music. Real people being the people unlike myself: the snobbish, head-up-ass critic who can’t just appreciate something for being pleasurable and has to dissect every last goddamn thing. But the thing is, with Yuck, I listen to this album and yeah, I can dissect every reference to every 90s alternative rock band they pay homage to and unlike other bands who sound a whole hell of a lot like 90s bands (read: the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and their overblown attempt to become the Smashing Pumpkins on this year’s Belong), Yuck never felt anything other than honest. It helps that the songwriting is personal and has a tendency to punch you right in the middle of the guts when its wants to (“Suck,” “Suicide Policeman”) but also has fun in celebrating simplicity (“The Wall”) and surprising you with these transcendent moments where you think all music is going to cave in and collapse because no song will ever be this good (“Operation”). Transcendent. That’s the word of the day for Yuck. Despite sounding like a mash-up of Yo La Tengo, Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, they only end up sounding like Yuck. There’s no pretense, no posturing, just four English kids jamming away the best way they know how (read: heartstoppingly excellent riffs, severe pop majesty (“Georgia”) and heartfelt/heart-on-sleeve/kid-has-a-lot-of-heart songwriting). I kept trying to play this album out and I just never got tired of it. It hits all my pleasure centers and it gives me hope. Hope that the young bands still love good old fashioned indie rock and know how to push it forward in a way that’s familiar and exciting at the same time. Really, the thing that pushed Yuck over Los Campesinos! was one moment on one song. "Shook Down," the song that hooked me the first time I listened to the record, plays like a tender little ballad and then two-minutes-and-forty-seconds in the distortion kicks in and it becomes a goddamn POWER ballad. It's little moments like this that make Yuck's debut album so special. They do what feels natural, they follow their hearts, they are pure and good and they write hooks like nobody's business and that's why I listened to this album more than any album of 2011 and that's why it's my favorite. So there.