Tuesday, January 3, 2012

WYMA Favorite Music of 2011 (JD)

I didn't realize this until I sat down to write about my favorite CDs of the year, but somehow the uncertainty and economic / political international instability of 2011 seems to have pulled me towards artists who have something to say and sing exceptionally well. I've always been one who first looks for the voice, but in 2011 even more so. This year I found a good voice, preferably with good writing, to be just the tonic I need. So you'll see the top of my list dominated by an eclectic mix of truly great and distinctive singers - Ryan Adams, Lisa Hannigan, Polly Jean Harvey, Joe Henry, Ben Knox Miller, Michael Stipe, Tom Waits.

And speaking of Michael Stipe, for me 2011 will always be remembered as the year that R.E.M., a favorite band of mine, unexpectedly broke up.

So I'll start my 2011 top 10 LPs with R.E.M.'s final studio record Collapse Into Now. I'll cop to this being a sentimental choice for me, but will state with conviction that if any respected younger artist (say The Arcade Fire or The Dawes) had written this record and done it this well, that effort would have received a bunch of Grammy nominations and been near the top of many music critics' year end top 10 lists.

Collapse Into Now is less a sonic or thematic whole and more a collection of good songs, letting R.E.M. explore the range of styles they've learned to do so very well over the 31 years of their career - and my favorites here include an arena rocker ("Discoverer"), an emotionally touching vocal dominated song with a killer piano melody ("Walk It Back"), a folk-rock gem ("UBerlin") and this harmony-heavy pop symphony "It Happened Today":

Here's the long form review that John Hyland and I co-wrote here when the record was released: http://whenyoumotoraway.blogspot.com/2011/03/review-rem-collapse-into-now.html

The remainder of my top 10 follows in alpha order. Any song featured here is one of my favorite "singles" of the year.

Ryan Adams. Ashes & Fire. This is the focused and consistently excellent record I had given up on Adams ever making again. Taking 2 years off, being produced by the legendary Glyn Johns, and using a more stripped down approach propelled Adams to finally make full use of his considerable gifts. Ashes & Fire is a soulful and moving collection of songs, each one beautifully performed. The title song (track 2 on this linked stream here) and "Chains of Love" (track 6 here) are both among the very best Adams has ever created:

Here's a video of "Lucky Now" a fine single from Ashes and Fire:

The Black Keys, El Camino. The Akron duo hit the super big time with this collossally fun homage to the 70s - funk, soul, glam rock, garage rock, while keeping with their dirty blues rock history. And they opted for a full band big sound that serves these songs well. The Black Keys realize that Sly and the Family Stone sure as hell didn't make There's A Riot Going On as a duo. The insanely catchy single "Lonely Boy" with its T Rex guitar riffs and its irresistible video are everywhere and deservedly so:

Dolorean, The Unfazed. Al James is a great writer. He has a way of pulling you right in to his stories and melodies, then bam, nails you straight in your heart. Dolorean is a true band which, while steeped in classic masters like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, have their own sound that fits James's songs perfectly. The song "The Unfazed" is near the top of my list for best song I heard this year, link within here where you can listen to this song: http://www.myspace.com/doloreanmusic

Here's a well done video for the song "Black Hills Gold", the film said to be inspired by the life and fall of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson:

Lisa Hannigan, Passenger. This delightful Irish singer-songwriter has the magic. Passenger is a beautiful voice perfectly delivering a great set of warm, life affirming songs, with tasteful and just right production by Joe Henry. Hannigan's live show at the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland was one of the best shows I saw this year. It's an honor to hear a singer with this talent perform. I know I'll be playing this CD 10 years from now.

It's impossible to get enough of Lisa Hannigan, so you get a second song, the stunner "Little Bird". I shall never utter a bad word about lip synching ever again.

Joe Henry, Reverie. No one in music had a better year than my main man Mr. Joe Henry, with a collection of stellar production efforts (Lisa Hannigan, Over the Rhine, Hugh Laurie, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Aaron Neville, John Doe ) and this release of his own, Reverie, which stands with his best ever. Reverie drops straight into life as we know it with all its messy immediacy - opportunities arise, time makes sense of much yet complicates everything, you experience sorrow and appreciate love, doors open, dogs bark, things go bang. Joe aims very high, his stated influences on Reverie highly ambitious (Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach). It encompasses the best of American music - blues, folk, jazz, rock - slyly messy yet remarkably intentional in purpose. Stay with this record as it requires some effort, but what a payoff! Here's a beautiful live recording of "Unspeakable", one of my favorites here, with Joe's crew of first rate musicians:

The Low Anthem, Smart Flesh. I simply love this band's mojo - every member a multi-instrumentalist, playing weird and deep Americana music on antique instruments, with a great singer in Ben Knox Miller. And as serious as they seem on the surface, they are fun, the sheer joy of making music just bursting out of them. Smart Flesh is the Low Anthem's version of a political record, which is to say the politics are not obvious, but more personal yet still somehow big picture. In my perfect world, "Hey All You Hippies" would have been one of the top radio singles of 2011:

PJ Harvey, Let England Shake. You don't have to be a history scholar to appreciate these songs about various moments in British history and how they inform the present day challenges. Hell, you don't even need to pay attention to the lyrics - the huge echoey guitar sounds, taut melodies and Polly Jean Harvey's incredibly fine singing are more than enough to grab and take hold of any serious music fan. Dig this sound:

Let England Shake is the work of a first rate artist at the top of her game - wildly ambitious and unlike anything you've ever heard from PJ Harvey or any other band before. You gotta be pretty cool to bring World War 1 and Eddie Cochran into a song:

Tom Waits, Bad as Me. Even by Tom Waits standards, this record is seriously badass. A bombastic, beautiful, raucous affair with truly great songs. Waits is sneaky, his sharp writing and big heart darting through the high spirited chaos. This record is my 2011 American state of the union address. Beaten down, but defiant and certainly not surrendering, scarred but smarter. Occupy Indestructible Street.

The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient. An ambitious, completely successful rock'n'roll album by a smart band from Philadelphia with a clearly defined sound of its own, strikingly original though drawing from some good sources - psychedelia, Luna, Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, The Feelies, Echo and the Bunnymen. Great live act too. Lead singer Adam Granducel is the real deal - a fine singer, writer, musician, producer. Here's an amateur film set to my favorite song here "Brothers" (love the line "Wondering where my friends are going, and wondering why they didn't take me"), followed by a second video, the band's "official" video of "Baby Missiles".

10 More Favorites:

The Baseball Project, Volume 2: High and Inside. To paraphrase my favorite political quote of the year (thank you Barney Frank!), I did not think I'd lived a good enough life to be rewarded with a song about my Detroit Tiger hero Mark Fidyrich, with Steve Wynn, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey all playing guitar on it. An album full of true and wildly entertaining stories about baseball set to jangly Rickenbacker guitars. Pop open a beer while you listen to Volume 2: High and Inside and you have all of life's best things right there all rolled into one!

The Bats, Free All The Monsters. This extraordinary New Zealand jangle pop band has been around nearly as long as R.E.M., though toiling in relative obscurity. It's the rhythms of this band that have always appealed to me. They start with a foundation of the Velvet Underground, then push the beathard while layering up shimmering guitar lines, steadily building with some tension/release structure. Free All the Monsters contains consistently good songs that hold up with anything The Bats have ever done, pretty remarkable for a band that has been around for 3 decades. I absolutely love the sound of this CD. Here's "In the Subway":

Charles Bradley, No Time For Dreaming. Powerhouse performer, amazing life story, soul music to the core. No self-conscious retro- or trendy neo-soul here. No sir, Mr. Bradley is the real deal, the genuine article soul singer.

WYMA's earlier feature story on Charles Bradley: http://whenyoumotoraway.blogspot.com/2011/09/soul-corner-charles-bradley.html

Glen Campbell, Ghost on the Canvas. I apologize if I am bringing down the "cool" factor of this blog, but hey there is a great Guided by Voices cover here:

Glen Campbell is one of the great country and pop vocalists of all time, and one who has always had a keen ear for a fine song. Due to serious illness, he knew Ghost on the Canvas would be his final CD, but there's no self-pity or mawkish sentiment here. Instead, we have a proud artist pushing himself to make one last great record, and instead of settling for predictable material, he stretches to take on a collection of terrific songs by an eclectic group of his fans - including the Dandy Warhols, Dick Dale, Jakob Dylan, Robert Pollard, and this great title track from Paul Westerberg:

Centro-Matic, Candidate Waltz. John Hyland, our WYMA founder and leader, turned me onto this band many years ago. This record goes for more unabashed pop hooks than this band is known for, and has an all for the love of rock'n'roll spirit. There is a distinctive sound to this band in all its ragged glory that I really dig. I love the chaotic beautiful noise that Will Johnson makes on guitar.

Cowboy Junkies, Demons.
The Cowboy Junkies were friends of Vic Chesnutt and had wanted to record with him, so it is not shocking they made an entire album of covers of Vic's songs. But being close to Vic Chesnutt and his music made this a risky project. Given how strong Vic's work is, why do a full album of cover songs following his suicide? But they approached it perfectly - digging deep into the emotions of the songs but feeling absolutely free to interpret them. And the Cowboy Junkies are nothing if not great interpreters. Margo Timmins rich alto voice lends great weight to Vic's words. And especially when Michael Timmins turns it loose on guitar on songs like "Ladle" and "Strange Language", these versions soar. But the biggest risk they took was in covering "Flirted With You All My Life", Vic's meditation on death. I can't imagine a more effective tribute to Vic Chesnutt than this vocal performance by his friend Ms. Timmins:

The Decemberists, The King is Dead. Portland's beloved, literary folk-rock nice guys and girl beat the rush to the R.E.M. tributes by enlisting Peter Buck (and Gillian Welch) to help them make what sounds like their version of Reckoning, and I mean that as a very high compliment. The King Is Dead has a loose, rural, organic sound on the surface, but underneath is very careful craft. My favorite recording ever from this band.

Feist, Metals. Rather than try to capitalize on her 2008 smash single and hit album, Feist waited 3 years to release this far less commercial follow up. Metals is a record of depth and beauty, outstanding musicianship and arrangements, with some heavy explorations of life, love and the natural world. Leslie Feist is a terrific singer and stretches herself as a writer and performer on these songs. Her voice is so good and sense of melody so keen that on first listen you are unlikely to grasp the depth and subtleties of these songs.

My Morning Jacket, Circuital. A longtime WYMA favorite, known for its epic live performances, MMJ is a surprisingly experimental and ambitious studio band. Circuital is a joyride - melodic, whip smart, fun, super accessible but anything but predictable. When this single "Holding on To Black Metal" comes on the radio, anybody touching the buttons in my car is going to be slapped down:

Parson Red Heads, Yearling.
Along with Lisa Hannigan and the Black Keys, my uplift mojo record of the year. Catchy as all get out pure pop, joyous 3-4 part harmonies, terrific guitar lines, classic and modern at the same time. The Byrds reinvented for 2011.

Parson Red Heads leader Evan Way is wise beyond his years, a thoughtful young man with great integrity. Good people gravitate to him - Yearling was expertly co-produced and mixed with just the right touch by jangle pop godfather Chris Stamey with help from Mitch Easter. The sky is the limit for this hard working group whose live shows are becoming stunningly strong, each showcasing brand new songs that continue the band's growth.

Our earlier feature story on the Parson Red Heads: http://whenyoumotoraway.blogspot.com/2011/08/feature-story-parson-red-heads-yearling.html

Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo. Don't let any categorizing of this CD as an acoustic singer-songwriter affair fool you - this haunting and beautiful collection is tough as nails. Vile, a former member of The War on Drugs (see their entry above), is a terrific singer and guitar player. This record well deserves all the critical hype associated with it. I've sent many people to the record store for this one and they all thank me later. Really cool psychedelic folk music. I don't know what they are putting in the water in Philadelphia, but I want some.

Our Best of 2011 Bonus Track:

R.E.M. left us with a 40-song retrospective Past Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, which even if you own all their stuff is worth getting just for the insightful and entertaining liner notes from the band members, and their fantastic final single "We All Go Back To Where We Belong". This video is a live film of a fan of theirs, actress Kirsten Dunst, hearing the song for the first time.

My article on this blog about R.E.M.'s legacy is here: http://whenyoumotoraway.blogspot.com/2011/09/rem-reconstruction-of-fables.html

Thanks for reading our blog; please keep it up and tell your friends. We are having a lot of fun here.
My fellow WYMA writers will each follow up with their lists on successive days this week, theirs sure to be far more interesting and less mainstream than mine. Be sure to tune in every day.
Don't forget about the comments section, we like hearing from you, unless you think we suck.
Happy New Year!

1 comment:

Brian said...

Great list Jim - thanks for posting. I completely forgot that the Baseball Project was released in 2011. Yeah, it's a bit gimmicky, but it's a fun album for baseball fans.