Choosing favorite songs is like friendship - sometimes it just comes down to who you sit next to in class, bump into while crossing the street, who you spend time with over a cup of coffee or pour your heart out to in the times of despair as well as times of elation. As much as Pandora is trying to figure out my musical genome and Amazon tries to tell me that “since you like X, you might like Y” (although some recommendations are great!), there really is no rhyme or reason to why I love some songs and then am indifferent or despise others. Sure, I trend toward Americana, hardcore Twang, Alt-country, and more often than not I like Anthems more than Ballads – but the albums that landed on my “best of” list this year - like many other years I have posted top album lists - are just friends that keep coming back in surprising ways. There are moments when it is love at first listen and then other times where after half a year of ignoring it I find a new depth in a release I almost deleted.
Two things that unify the list this year: (1) a clear sense of a complete vision for an album rather than a collection of random singles and (2) some form of innovation. To be sure, there were numerous catchy singles this year and quite a few releases that were technically great – seriously smoking guitar work, amazing vocals, nice rhythm sections. But the ones I am lifting up seemed to take the music away from a locked genre and challenge both the sound and listener to move with it to new ideas, new sounds, and new hopes. And it is this last notion of hope that was big for me. Let’s be frank…2011 was just a discouraging year at the end of a decade shaped by 9/11 and we need to listen for hope even when life tries to convince us otherwise.
So… here they are (and be sure to check out the ‘honorable mentions’ as well):
10. Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials
On the last track – “Leave My Body” – from Florence Welch’s sophomore album Ceremonials, Welch belts out that ”I don’t want your future, don’t need your past/ One bright moment, is all I ask.” This pretty much sums up the power and the glory that is Florence + The Machine. This striving for a big freaking sound on their debut album Lungs is locked and loaded on Ceremonials. Here again are the booming drums counterpointed with the harps and choirs led by Florence Welch’s big voice. Perhaps for some there isn’t enough diversity – too much big sound and not enough solemnness with little space for ballad. Yet what I love about the album is the unapologetic push to light up every one of the songs as if it is their last hurrah. This is a “take no prisoners” effort and they are not going quietly. Every song is to get you on your feet. Every tune will have you thumping out the beat on your steering wheel. Every booming chorus and refrain will have you fist pumping the sky. Is that overkill? Perhaps. But she really delivers and the album is a joy ride from start to finish.
9. The Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps
Greg freakin’ Dulli. Need I say more? I heard Powder Burns when I was in Scotland and I just about had a heart attack it was so perfect. Dulli’s songwriting has captured the “lightning in a bottle” aesthetic of the brooding noir vibe that is 2am downtown L.A. with the rock sensibility that reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously – don’t think so much that you forget to move to the beat of life from time to time. Dulli’s voice is certainly not the best – at times you begin to wonder if he is trying to sing off pitch as a gimmick – but his aesthetic and passion make up for it. As the reviewer in Spin magazine put it “one day, Dulli may start singing within his vocal limitations; but let’s hope not. His singular melodrama would suffer if he did.” I still prefer Powder Burns but the subtle, ugly beauty that Dulli awakens in this album is a rare thing in music today and certainly Dynamite Steps is a stand out in a year of fakery and falsehood and for that I am thankful.
8. David Bazan – Strange Negotiations
Early this year I wrote a long overdue retraction on my blog for all the David Bazan indifference I have offered over the years. Ever since his Pedro the Lion days, I frankly never understood the appeal of Bazan’s lyrics nor his musicianship… that is until Curse the Branches and now Strange Negotiations. Where Curse the Branches marked for many Bazan’s formal “I break with you, Christianity” signoff note to the faithful, Strange Negotiations seems to be his attempt to rid himself of his Christian foundations and wander like the writer of Ecclesiastes into the wasteland and make life with whatever and whomever is left in the world after God. To be honest, Bazan’s life after God is a truly honest and humble life and his art is better for it. To that end I keep thinking about the fact that this album seems more God-haunted than a stack of Flannery O’Conner short stories. The music is strong, the songs are filled with passion and heart-felted longing for a new life and possible humanity that is wonderful. Truly a stand out album this year and marks the birth of Bazan’s willingness – like Job – to wander free of expectations and journey into wonder. I look forward to following him on that journey.
7. We Are Augustines – Rise Ye Sunken Ships
Of the albums that made it onto my top of 2011 list, this is the album that I was most surprised by. Not that it made the list, but rather that it even exists at all. Those who have followed the band and its rise know that with the suicide of Bill McCarthy’s brother the band hit a series of difficult patches financially and emotionally crippling the band to the point of not being sure they could still function. Yet they pressed on and ultimately got the courage to let their art begin a healing that gave new life to the band as well as new depth. The result is a ‘little engine that could’ indie release that has gained amazing steam this year and launched the band into a wide and loving following. The songs have a pop quickness in the uptake yet stay with you much longer than typical sugar coated pablum. The vocals will remind you of other deep voiced bands like Big Head Todd and Crash Test Dummies but the lyrics offer a spiritual depth worth repeated listens. Also, the video they shot for the lead single “Chapel Song” is simple and brilliantly executed. They put out a craigslist ad for couples willing to show up at a backstreet in New York to just kiss each other ‘like they mean it’ - take a look and listen below…
6. Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive
If you haven’t gotten into Steve Earle – he is a national treasure… or traitor depending on your views. Earle has been, for the past two decades, one of the more compellingly engaged figures on the American cultural landscape. He is the author of best-selling works of fiction (“Doghouse Roses”) and a playwright. Best known as a alt.country musician par excellence, his contribution to the merging of progressive country to the wider rock audience remains huge. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the entire genre of “alt. country” would not exist without Earle’s ground-breaking extension of what used to be called “folk-rock.” His recorded work, from the classic 1986 Guitartown onward through such excitingly heartfelt/redemptive works asCopperhead Road, I Feel Alright, El Corazon, Transcendental Blues, to The Revolution Starts…Now, represents an extraordinary catalogue of deeply personal music which compares favorably with such esteemed heroes as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, or even Bob Dylan. Earle’s battle with drugs is the stuff of legend and ironically lived out in his role as a AA mentor and crisis counselor on HBO’s series The Wire.
His release this year – I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive – is a wonderful, solemn reflective, easy-going piece framed in large part by T-Bone Burnett (peace be upon him… genius of production wonder) and his amazing production work. Here Earle is just chilling out with the songs, not pushing too hard, and taking the time to dig deep into a past that would have killed mere mortals. Yet he sings from a space that has nothing more to lose and this life that has been purchased sings freely not only of the wonder of being alive, but the God that animates that redeemed life. The stand out track for me is a little ditty entitled simply “God is God” and puts everything into such basic perspective it is a crime that it isn’t sung as an altar call at every church on every Sunday.
5. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes – consisting of Robin Pecknold, Skye Skjelset, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo, and Josh Tillman – are a Seattle band signed to the labels Sub Pop and Bella Union that have gained international attention in a relatively short period of time. For those who picked up my book Your Neighbor’s Hymnal, you will know that Fleet Foxes are a band that speak volumes to the “sonic mystics” of our culture both in their lyrics and music. They released the five-track Fleet Foxes EP in 2006, a six-track EP, Sun Giant, in the first half of 2008, and their debut full-length self-titled album, Fleet Foxes, later that year with Sub Pop. As a debut album, the band quickly accumulated critical and fan praise as their album was given 4 stars by Rolling Stone, and their sound compared to the likes of The Beach Boys, Animal Collective, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. They received a 9.0 out of 10 in a review by Pitchfork for their self-titled LP which for those who follow Pitchfork ratings will realize as almost unheard of. Framed by what they term “baroque harmonics” which is a mix of tight multi-part vocal harmonies accompanied by tight acoustic instrumentation which is at once folk in feel yet closer to rock in punch.
From the liner notes of their debut album, Fleet Foxes make this statement of purpose in regard to their music: “I can listen to music and instantly be anywhere that song is trying to take me. Music activates a certain mental freedom in a way that nothing else can, and that is so empowering. You can call it escapism if you like, but I see it as connecting to a deeper human feeling than found in the day-to-day world…Music is a weird and cosmic thing, its own strange religion for nonbelievers, and what a joy it is to make in any form.”
It is this appeal to the sheer beauty of music done for the sake of creating something luminous and transcendent that pushed Fleet Foxes quietly yet resolutely to the forefront of the indie music scene in 2009. Where some bands were seeking to change the world by blasting a hole through it, Fleet Foxes took a page from the Franciscans and stood in the world waiting for the space of silence and then filled it with song. There are not many examples in rock shows (let alone contemporary life) where you can expect to have quiet lifted up and revered. But in a Fleet Foxes show there is something of the Old Lady from Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s book Goodnight Moon whispering “Hush” over the crowd and stillness becomes the new rage and revolt in rock and roll. In this way hope is given space to be born for a generation who have banqueted on immediacy, speed of access, and noise. This is something that the Fleet Foxes not only encourage in their live shows but demand in order to truly hear what is going on, even in the silence. Many evangelical churches have become afraid of silence, fearing that if we do not fill every space of the senses – filling our ears, our vision, even our touch to the breaking point – that some will not fill engaged and wander away. And yet thousands of fans flock to these Fleet Foxes shows, sitting in stillness as this five part harmony fills a quiet room. In a review of the debut album in The Other Journal, one writer noted that the “Fleet Foxes are able to celebrate what is often lost in the “message” of overtly Christian music – the transcendent quality of music itself. It seems that God has given us something mysterious in music, something that speaks of truth that cannot be spoken, that touches the human heart in ways that words cannot. Fleet Foxes lets the lyrics get out of the way so that the music can be heard.”
This year’s sophomore release – Helplessness Blues – is another stunner both lyrically and vocally. Some reviewers turned their noses up at the album feeling that it was too much of the same old, same old. That is really too bad since what Fleet Foxes have done isn’t to settle on their sound, but like a practice of musical lectio divina have pushed even deeper into the sound they are called into to see what else might be there. They are not impatient and ready to move on. No, they are staying put and quietly stirring the waters for even more. The title track itself is perhaps the most prophetic song of life for those caught in the troubles of our war-riddled and economically challenged era. It is a single that needs time to work over you and it will be a comfort for many.
4. The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart
I have to say at this stage that local record label Sup Pop must be doing something seriously right these days. Yes, they are the label that gave the world Nirvana, but they are now the keepers of low fi and alt.country cred in a world seeking the next Rhianna. In my list there are three artists with Sub Pop as their label (something I didn’t pick up on until I was wrapping up this list) and must say that says something for Seattle in my book. Add to that fact that the world’s best radio station – KEXP 90.3 – has launched and sustained the albums of many of these artists makes me proud to be from the Pacific Northwest. This is especially true for The Head and the Heart – local darlings who got their start by showing up at open mic nights at Ballard’s Conor Byrne pub in 2009, released a self-published album in 2010 that was picked up and re-released this year by Sub Pop and are now hitting the big time. For some, the album bears too close a resemblance to an already crowded field of alt.country acts trying to work the soil first plowed by Whiskeytown, Son Volt, and later by Ryan Adams and Wilco. To be fair, my first listen to The Head and the Heart brought me back to one of my favorite albums of the last decade – Ryan Adams’ first solo album Heartbreaker. That said, what becomes clear is that while The Head and the Heart is not the genius of Heartbreaker, it is still a stand-out album with more ‘heart’ than ‘breaker’ – a collection of deep songs with pleasant melodies and wonderful soft harmonies that evokes a longing and hope that makes you nostalgic for a place you haven’t been yet know is still just over the horizon. The album is strong throughout, but the breakout single “Down in the Valley” shows that the band has the capacity for writing new classics and I hope that they continue to find space for more of these tunes. I put this album on my list in hopes that others will follow the band into more depth and hopefully challenge the alt.country meme to lift us out of the dirt for a change and not merely force our faces into it time and time again with navel gazing and irony.
3. Tom Waits – Bad as Me
As I have written about in Your Neighbor’s Hymnal as well as in other essays regarding Tom Waits, here is an artist that fully sees God as the center of the absurdest sideshow and acts as a carnival barker challenging… no… I mean DARING us to confront this God who gets to be God on His own terms. What I love about the God that Tom Waits muses about and laments for is that his God is earthy in a way that I can touch, taste, feel, and, yes, hear. His world is all too clear to me and very hard to ignore. That seems to be the earthiness of Jesus’ ministry, so vivid, so tangible and so painfully attuned to our wavelengths as people who live and breathe and bleed in this world of laughter and pain. That we feel at the deepest parts of what makes us tick is something this guy understands in ways we ourselves don’t. Tom Waits’ kingdom of God is filled with one-legged dwarves, blind dogs, drunk preachers, forgotten children, and all humanity in-between and this Kingdom is alive and well throughout the songs that populate his latest release Bad As Me. The nice thing amidst this “audio noir” is that no one is marginalized other than those who find solace in drawing the margins in the first place. Similar to a line from an earlier song entitled Sins of the Father, Waits is continuing to sing to the congregation: “God said: don’t give me your tin horn prayers” or to put it more pointedly to those who are whining about their middle-class plight in Come On Up To The House, from Mule Variations: “Come down off the cross/ we can use the wood.” Bad As Me continues in this trajectory dating back to Blue Valentine and Bone Machine where we are sitting in a Bahktinian carnival of absurdity with the other freaks and geeks with smiles on our faces because there are no more secrets, no more facades to hide behind. Hope in the Tom Waits universe means that everyone is in it together. This is about waiting for the end times, it is acknowledging that these are hard times and in order for these hard times to end, we need to be together all of the time. The title track is a great example about everything that is terrifying, glorious, sublime and awe inspiring about Tom Waits. He lists all the reasons that people might see the crowd and raise stones like those who did do to the women caught in adultery in John’s gospel. Yet Waits looks at these same downtrodden freaks at the edges of society and muses back to to the accusers in the chorus “you are the same kind of bad as me.” Few CCM artists ‘get’ the gospel like Tom Waits does and “Bad As Me” is yet another example. As an album it is not one of Waits’ best efforts, but a lesser work by Tom Waits beats the tar out of just about everything else you will come across this year to be sure.
2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
There is a set piece at the end of Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev where Asher Lev, in a fit of artistic prophetic madness, creates a masterpiece that is so sacrilegious that it breaks free of all constraints of form that was previous known and can only be called a masterpiece. For what’s its worth, Polly Jean Harvey has landed this year on a masterpiece that is sacrilegious to a romantic vision of British glory, grand in scope as well as sublime in its focus. I can think of no other working musician in the UK today more ready to take up the task of trying to articulate what it means to be ‘British’ in the 21st century and PJ Harvey has taken hold of the task with both grace and brilliance. As an artist who has never sought mass appeal over artistic integrity, PJ Harvey has continued to be a critics darling. A female rocker with deep poetic and musical genius, she has literally kicked through to a new place in her music with Let England Shake which is a fully realized meditation on the history of Britain, the place of England after the fall of the Empire, the confusion of living in such close political and cultural proximity to America and the sense of nostalgia for a past glory and sense of identity that will never return again. It is something that haunts the 40 minutes of the album. I don’t know if anyone who hasn’t lived in the UK for a time will truly “get” this project to the depths that those in the UK have (it is no small statement that an album that is exposing the sense of loss in what it means to be English in the 21st century won the UK Mercury Prize) but it is still a sublime project and to see PJ Harvey settling into her role as elder stateswomen and prophetic truth-teller is a wonderful thing to behold.
1. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest
A few years ago, my wife and I walked out of a Gillian Welch concert here in Seattle. I was musing to her about how much I loved David Rawling’s guitar work, the lyrical playfulness and depth of her music, the way that they truly do ‘low fi’ and old-timey in a way that makes you feel as if you are both listening to a classic yet hearing something new at the same time. As we walked I made a statement to the effect that I wished I could make music like that. Her response to me will always frame what separates good art from great art: “When I listen to Gillian Welch, I want to be a better mother.” This statement struck me to the core. Great art doesn’t create an idolatry unto itself – it calls us to become what we were created to be from the foundations of the earth. Great music in the end shouldn’t compel me to desire to become a rock star… great music should compel me to love my children well, to love my neighbor, to seek justice in the world and to work toward redemption. Gillian Welch’s latest release – The Harrow and the Harvest - is a great work of art in that way. If the measure of a top album is that we never get tired of listening to it, that when I put it on the mood in the room just lifts, that when my children sing along they do so with hope in their voice and a clear-eyed view toward a new day, then this is such an album.
One of the things you find with Gillian Welch is the seductive way she lures you into a world you are almost too shy to admit you hunger for: a slow, steady presence of a life that waits for the glimmer and hope of a rising sun, a relationship built on trust and honor, a work life that can be felt to the depths of your aching limbs after a long day that shows my life has dignity by the toil I have done. Her world is a strange, haunting world to be sure but more real that the reality many of us ever touch, taste or feel day-to-day which is why we are fans. As a review of The Harrow and the Harvest put it in The Guardian:
Certainly, all the exacting, pared-down takes on traditional music here – country, bluegrass, Dylan – speak of artists distilling their influences until the most spartan and flab-free iteration results. And yet, on repeated listens The Harrow & the Harvest feels more mysterious than this asceticism suggests. It is replete with events alluded to, but unsung. Many of their albums are like this – carefully written to sound like folk manuscripts handed down across the ages, illuminated by Rawlings’s eloquent guitar. And yet The Harrow is especially full of drama that occurs off-camera. It is the best kind of record: one that lures you in and soothes you with harmonies and banjo, only to leave you wondering what the hell just happened.
If the true path to an authentic life is to forgo thinking about ourselves (you must lose your life to find it) and to turn our faces to a life that we can only live by faith, then Gillian Welch is a prophet pointing us to a world that is hard, is challenging, but at the same time a place that is patient, waiting and full of life lived at the pace we were created for… the speed of love. It is a magical album in all the right ways and one that reminds me not only that I am not a guitar god like David Rawlings (I surely am not) but reminds me that I was put here for a purpose… a purpose that that is worth doing with the speed and depth of love.
Well… that is my list for this year.
Here are some honorable mentions that I wish were on the list, but still are worthy albums that need to be heard:
The Decemberists’ The King is Dead/Long Live the King EP (Frankly I am still wondering if I made a mistake by not including these two releases in my top 10 given the amount of play I have given them this year. Colin Meloy really delivered the goods with this album and subsequent EP of B-Sides and put The Decemberists back on the map for me and almost made me wish I lived in Portlandia given that the album was recorded in a converted barn at Pendarvis Farm, an 80-acre estate of lush meadows, forest, and Mt. Hood views outside of Portland.)
Bruce Cockburn’s Small Source of Comfort (his song “Call Me Rose” is fantastic)
Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What (his commentary on heaven in the song “The Afterlife” should have some pastors scratching their heads)
Childish Gambino’s Camp (gotta love all things Donald Glover – his role on NBC’s Community is fantastic and his hip-hop recording this year problematizes race, masculinity, celebrity culture and economic injustice in ways that few hip hop artists have and with as much depth and humor combined.)
So… what did I leave off?
Sad not to see Radiohead or Bjork on the list? What are some of the top albums for you this year and what ‘rocked yer face’ in some many ways?