Welcome to another installment of Up on the Sun's 2011 Review. Over the next week, we'll be counting down our favorite songs, shows, national and local releases of 2011. Enjoy!
Is it just me, or was 2011 weird? Like, really weird?
Lou Reed and Metallica made an album together. It was weird. Odd Future brought to the surface nagging questions about homophobia, race, and pop music ethics. That was weird, too. Lots of people hated on or loved Lana Del Ray and Kreashawn, but stranger still was the way the two vastly different sounding artists became symbols for some larger, weird trend. (Let's turn to the experts on that one -- Poptimist and the Village Voice).
So it was weird, and that's great. Thinking out loud about music has never been so easy -- type the name of any album you're curious about and you'll find thousands of thoughts for your perusal. You can listen to most stuff on Spotify for free, and not have to feel bad about ripping off the artists too much (they are still getting ripped off, but you don't have to feel as bad knowing that a fraction of a penny is doing something for someone).
The constant dearth of music presented makes lists like these feel impossible -- there are no doubt amazing, mind-blowing albums that I haven't heard (and potentially won't ever hear), but that's really part of the fun, isn't it? It's why we dig through these year-end lists, it's why we make them. Because weird is good, and weird is everywhere.
15. Fruit Bats, Tripper (Sub Pop)
Fantastic for more than just its cover (one of my favorites of the year, featuring an awesome cut-out triangle and majestic nature scene). "Tony the Tripper" rambles and rolls; "Heart Like an Orange" funks and struts; and "Picture of a Bird" fully embraces the the off-kilter Americana spirit always bubbling underneath the clattering drums and Eric D. Johnson's pitched vocals.
14. Thee Oh Sees, Castlemania (In the Red)
Every year some band presses an LP at 45RPM. Such is the case with Castlemania, one of two records released by the excellent Thee Oh Sees this year. I was halfway through my first listen before I realized that I had the record playing at the wrong speed. The fact that I liked it even then probably says more about me than the band, but still -- accomplishment noted.
13. Tom Waits, Bad As Me (Anti)
My friend and co-worker Jay "Nothing Not New" Bennett described "Hell Broke Luce" as the best punk song he heard all year. I can't argue, but feel that Bad as Me had a quality not unlike Waits' earliest singer/songwriter records, only now performed by one of the most remarkably strange characters in music. The piano has kept drinking -- but at this point you have to wonder what exactly it's been downing.
12. Nick Lowe, The Old Magic (Yep Roc)
In typical fashion, Lowe tackles treacherous love ("Til' The Real Thing Comes Along"), moving on ("House For Sale"), and death ("Checkout Time") with charm, wit, and a wry grin on his face. The bubbling guitars, peppy vocals, and jazzy shifts in mood often undercut the severe lessons at hand, a knowing, loving trick only this perfectly executed by old masters like Lowe.
11. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy (4AD)
One those albums that boldly announces that an artist has truly arrived, Strange Mercy is Annie Clark's finest moment for many reasons, but mostly because the over-riding sense of dread that strengthens the disc's malice and sensuality. "Oh America, can I owe you one?" she sings in "Year of the Tiger," and it's difficult to know exactly what she means -- but easy to let it mean everything.
10. Thundercat, The Golden of the Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)
Flying Lotus and Thundercat team up for a bass-excursion of a record. Yes, the term "bass-excursion" should frighten you off, but let your guard down for a moment and give in to the plucking, flanged bass runs, the sparkling synths, and the old-school jazz fusion buzz. Supremely groovy.
9. Real Estate, Days (Domino)
I've got friends that are violently opposed to Real Estate. Something about how Days is too mellow, too easy-breezy. Not compelling. I like the band because they jangle. A lot, and because "Green Aisles," with its sparkling 12-string guitars instantly makes me feel wistful for nothing in particular.
8. Destroyer, Kaputt (Merge)
Stretching the limits of what we should accept as "ironic," Kaputt was dipped from head-to-toe in New Age synths, flutes, and thoroughly New Order-aping beats. What really seals the deal is Dan Bejar's unique voice and cryptic lyrics. "I heard the record, it's alright," he sings on "Savage Night at the Opera." It's a critic's eye that endears Bejar to the critics in us all. (Plus, he helps out with that nagging sense of dread: "Don't be ashamed and disgusted with yourself.")
7. Atlas Sound, Parallax (4AD)
Bradford Cox made a wonderful statement to Pitchfork this year, saying: "I loved the Strokes because I like rock'n'roll. If you don't know anything about that band and their context, then what's the difference between the Strokes and Wipers? Some people would probably cut my throat just for saying that, but everything's fucking relatable." It's pop-moral relativism, and more importantly, it's one of the reasons why his records are so fucking good.
6. Bill Callahan, Apocalypse (Drag City)
Bill Callahan accomplishes a lot over the course of Apocalypse's seven songs. He addresses his troubled nation ("America!"), he sinks his boat ("Universal Applicant"), and paints an image of the best imaginary Western film of the year ("Drover"). "I set my watch against the city clock; it was way off."
5. Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Merge)
Monster blues-rock ("Glass Tambourine," "Endless Talk"), New Wave-rock ("Something Came Over Me," "Short Version"), rock-rock ("Black Tiles," "Romance"). No record sounds like its creators were having more fun than Wild Flag.
4. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador) Kurt Vile's records would sound like they were from outer space if they didn't sound so much like the dirt under your boots.
3. Mike Viola, Electro-de-Perfecto (Megaforce Records)
An unapologetic power-pop record made by a guy who knows pop. It sounds like a simple thing, but few records achieve this much soul with this much "pro." "Closet Cutter" slashes, "Me and My Drinking" swaggers, "Soundtrack of My Summer" sounds like it could soundtrack that rom-com you are ashamed you love.
2. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
Entirely personal: Driving my car into the Coachella Valley while KRCW played "Helplessness Blues" before anyone else, right after the song had leaked onto the Net. It starts like you think a Fleet Foxes song should, and then blossoms into a giant, sprawling thing: "If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore." Helplessness Blues broadens the 'Foxes palette, encompassing free-jazz, expansive folk-rock arrangements, and finds songwriter Robin Pecknold stepping to the mic with the confidence his songs can't help but showcase.
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1. Ty Segall, Goodbye Bread (Drag City)
Goodbye Bread isn't innovative, Ty Segall isn't a legend, and the album leans heavy on song ideas that have been buzzing around since rock 'n' roll was a thing. But the songs have claws, fuzzy, sharp ones, and they crawl into my head and live there. "My Head Explodes" stomps, "I Am With You" shines, and the title track yearns. Old ideas, yeah, but the done right. Some things are classic for a reason.