Friday, December 30, 2011

best of 2011: part three of four

Thee List

This year has been quite an overwhelmingly great year for new music. In this internet age I am surprised and delighted by how many new releases dropped down seemingly out of nowhere (I had no idea there was even the possibility of a new Kate Bush album until it appeared on the shelves). While last year had higher quality releases all around, the sheer number of great records this year was completely overwhelming. The top ten pretty much managed to pick themselves, as always. As if that weren't enough several bands managed multiple releases this year.

1) Low- ‘C’mon’- Subpop

This one has been at the top of the heap pretty much since I heard it way back in February. Besides being my favourite record of the year I’m hard-pressed not to go ahead and say that it’s my favourite Low record. Even to those who don’t agree that it’s their best, it’s unquestionably the best record they’ve released in almost ten years. It effortlessly achieves everything they’ve been reaching for since ‘Trust.’ “Majestic” I suppose is the most appropriate descriptor in this case. Not only is it loaded with the type of 3am slow-burning beauties that Low have always made their hallmark, but it also pushes their sound naturally into more accessible and open territory. It basically captures everything they were aiming for on ‘The Great Destroyer’ but didn’t quite achieve. Their show at Lincoln Hall this year was a personal highlight for me—one of those shows that has the capacity to restore your faith in one of your favourite bands and in humanity in general.

2) Kurt Vile- ‘Smoke Ring for my Halo’- Matador

I maintain that what Kurt Vile is doing right now is something entirely his own. I’ve heard people say that he isn’t doing anything new, but I would definitely argue that point. He’s managed to successfully meld folk song structures with psychedelic electronics and incorporate some elements of stadium rock in the process. It’s a combination that no one has been able to pull off successfully and I think that he deserves all of the recognition, success and adulation that is heaped upon him. No one is writing songs like these right now—they move between sentimental, cynical, beautiful and postmodern often in the space of a single verse. It’s just nice to hear about something that sounds this fresh and unique getting its due. This is another one that’s spent most of the year at the top of the heap. Despite seeing Vile perform twice this year I’ve sat out several of his stops in town. I continue to be baffled by why this is so—every time I make the effort to go and see him play in whatever permutation he’s touring with (so far it’s been completely different each time) I always see something new and incredibly engaging. It’s probably about time I started making the effort to catch him any time he’s in town, which will be quite an effort considering how much he tours.

3) Crystal Stilts—‘In Love With Oblivion’- Slumberland

For some baffling reason I was continually forgetting about this record amidst all of the other new releases, but this one belongs at the top. Their return after a three year silence was some of the best news to hear all year. Effortless artistic growth? Check. Improvement in fidelity without sacrificing what makes them distinctive? Check. A rock solid set of songs whose quality never dips even slightly throughout the course of the album? Check. Worth the three year wait? Absolutely. With ‘In Love With Oblivion’ Crystal Stilts have managed to blow the floodgates open making whatever previously perceived limits that they had completely insignificant. What’s more they were fantastic live all three times that I saw them this year revealing a lot of what I thought to be studio additions made for textural enhancement to have been there from the rehearsal room. I love a band that can pull all of these things off.

4) Tom Waits—‘Bad as Me’- Anti

A late entry, but an indisputable one. I almost didn’t bother checking this out before compiling my list, but I’m glad I did. Tom Waits is one of those artists who is impossible to resent for his complete critical immunity mainly because he proves he is worthy of it with every record. ‘Real Gone’ was plenty to tide me over for seven years (has it really been that long?!). This is being billed as a return-to-form (as in revisiting the pre-‘Swordfishtrombones’ era) and it’s true that it isn’t continuing on from ‘Real Gone’ (apart from the ‘bawlers’). I particularly enjoy the staticky, 78-esque production favored on ‘Back in the Crowd,’ not to mention that it’s the most beautifully sentimental song Waits has written since ‘Hold On’ from ‘Mule Variations.’ ‘Talking at the Same Time’ is indicative of what makes Waits’ music so great—it somehow manages to be distinctive despite using elements that seem obvious on their own and yet no one but Waits has put them together in nearly the same way. The sense of atmosphere that he pulls off so effortlessly is undeniable. This record features several that rank up with Waits’ best ‘bawlers’ (and there certainly are a lot). Of course, there are plenty of revved-up weird ones as well, such as the title track or ‘Get Lost.’ The Black Lips had the misfortune of being paired with the latter song in a recent diary playlist. It effectively wiped the floor with them, and I had picked my favourite track off of ‘Arabia Mountain’ too.

5) Thurston Moore—‘Demolished Thoughts’- Matador

This record is (for some baffling reason) taking a beating. I chalk this up to the fact that the country is in the throes of a really brutal recession so the number of music listeners who feel like sitting down and listening to a beautiful, introspective record with a lot of strings and not much to offer in the ass-shaking department are few and far between. I suppose most people right now would rather listen to something that will allow them to dance their problems out of their minds rather than make them think about how much of a bummer this year has been. Quite a shame as this is a gorgeous record made within some very strict parameters—all acoustic guitars, harp, strings and very little in the way of drums (Joey Waronker has never been so underused). It sounds like the most that Beck and Moore would cop to as far as vocal effects was doubling. The results are a soft and intimate listen. A lot of people claim it just sounds like Sonic Youth unplugged, which is true of maybe three of the tracks that approach the more rocking and dissonant side. The rest manages to cast Moore in a bit of a Nick Drake-type role. The song titles and the lyrics are impressionistic and full of a wonder that’s typical of Moore (i.e. ‘In Silver Rain with a Paper Key,’ ‘Blood Never Lies’). Although it won’t make you want to get up and dance I always found the songs to be incredibly uplifting and life-affirming, which is actually admirably atypical of most music that is labeled, ‘introspective.’ This record has gotten me through many a depressing commute that I simply didn’t want to be making. Insert mention of Moore and Kim Gordon’s separation here.

6) Thee Oh Sees—‘Castlemania’/’Carrion Crawler’/’The Dream’- Castleface/In the Red

So Thee Oh Sees make this list every year. This is mainly because I think of them as the most endlessly vital, prolific, beautifully ram-shackle bunch to come along in far too long. If someone were to ask me to name their influences I would have a really difficult time doing so. ‘Castlemania’ was released first and almost as a lark it seems—it’s a collection of John Dwyer’s solo tracks. They are mostly acoustic without eschewing any of the madcap chaos that the band are known for—some of the tracks are downright raucous and deranged. ‘Stinking Cloud’ has been my existential anthem this year. ‘I Need Seed’ is pure fun. Dwyer’s beautiful cover of ‘If I Stay Too Long’ is here in a much higher fidelity than the form it took on last year’s ‘Raven Sings the Blues Volume 2’ compilation. Come to think of it whoever mixed and mastered these tracks did an astonishing job—it’s clear that these were all made on a 4-track on the fly. When I heard that this record was coming out I was expecting it to be a bit of an old-style Oh Sees type of affair a la ‘Sucks Blood’ or ‘The Cool Deaths of Island Raiders.’ Ironically my expectations not being met ended up being a good thing. Then there’s ‘Carrion Crawler’/’The Dream’ which was conceived by Dwyer as a double EP release. While it’s true that the two sides are very different, they hang together seamlessly as a whole piece. It was a wise decision to make them into a single LP. On the rocked-up full-band Oh Sees release spectrum I’d say that it ranks with ‘The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night in’ or as a less noisy and reckless ‘Warm Slime.’ The songs are all stretched beautifully and the playing is air-tight. The only track I could do without is the instrumental on side one.

7) Dum Dum Girls—‘Only in Dreams’/’He Gets me High’- Subpop

I’ve been surprised by the amount of naysaying that the Dum Dum Girls have endured upon the release of their best album. I’m not entirely sure what’s not to like—I’ve come to the conclusion that people miss the hissy scrappiness of ‘I Will Be.’ I also keep hearing the phrase, “They could do better.” These are incredibly intimate and personal songs with fantastic lyrics. I don’t go in much for lyrics, but when they’re as consistently good as these are I can’t help but take notice. The insomniac yearning of ‘Bedroom Eyes,’ the incredible intimacy of ‘Hold Your Hand,’ the frank rawness of ‘Wasted Away’ plus the appropriate chorus for ‘Caught in One.’ I had a really shitty year too and this record was like a glimpse at the light at the end of a really long tunnel. Then, of course, there’s ‘Coming Down’ which is probably the best track the Dum Dum Girls have ever released. While I was watching their set at the Empty Bottle in October I couldn’t help but feel my heart sink when they announced that they were playing their last song of the evening and they hadn’t played ‘Coming Down’ yet. To my surprise they ENDED with it and people LISTENED at 1am on a Friday night. It was enough to restore my faith in humanity that a sold out capacity crowd of loud, drunken hipsters who were seemingly just there to see and be seen were lulled into silence by such a beautiful and graceful song. They could do better? I suppose if they all grew angel wings and flew off to heaven, which doesn’t seem to be too far off now. What’s more I loved the pristine production and vitality of the tracks on their EP ‘He Gets me High.’ It didn’t hurt that they covered one of my favourite Smiths songs so well, either.

8) Kate Bush—’50 Words for Snow’- Anti

This record just had to come out right when I’d gotten my year-end list compiled. ‘Hounds of Love’ ranks among my favourite records ever so it’s not much of a surprise that I absolutely love this record. There are times where I am listening to ‘Lake Tahoe’ and it seems as though Kate Bush’s musical genius has shown me what it would be like if Scott Walker, Nina Simone and herself were all in a room together. She has a way with strings that I can’t resist and wintry, piano-based stark songs are one of the quickest ways to my heart. Only Kate Bush could get Elton John to sing backing vocals and get such a graceful performance out of what sounds like a truly awful idea. The only track I don’t like that much is the title track, but I almost feel like every Kate Bush album is supposed to have one song that you’re not meant to like instantly (on ‘Hounds of Love’ it’s ‘Waking the Witch’ for me—except the intro, which is one of the most perfect, beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard). The gravelly, worn quality to her voice is a nice counterpoint to the brightness of her earliest stuff. Even gravelly voiced she is a fantastic singer—every time I hear someone do a Kate Bush cover it reminds me what a fantastic singer she’s always been. Who else could write as beautiful a song about trying to love a snowman?

9) Cave—‘Neverendless’- Drag City

Constantly late to the party, this is the first Cave record I’ve ever bought. Every time I listen to it I am filled with shame for ignoring them for so long despite the constant reminders from trusted musical companions that they were so great. I’m not sure where to begin… ‘This is the Best’ is a good start, I suppose, as it really is. ‘Neverendless’ is an album that somehow manages to be fun and serious at the same time. Very far-out, but also capable of effortlessly drawing you in. I’ve still never seen them live—which is lame as there’ve been ample opportunities at this point. I could’ve been walking out of New Wave Coffee on Milwaukee one day and heard them playing from the back of a flatbed truck, for the love of god.

10) Atlas Sound—‘Parallax’- 4AD

Another one to file under, ‘late to the party.’ Why, when Deerhunter have been one of my favourite new bands since I first saw them in 2007, have I never bought an Atlas Sound record until this year? While I don’t love ‘Parallax’ as much as 2009’s ‘Logos’ I have to give Bradford Cox some recognition for managing to sculpt his sound (which is based on some really trippy elements most of the time) into something this sharp and clear. There is a clarity of vision here that is admirable and yet not much of a surprise at the same time. ‘Mona Lisa’ is something that wouldn’t be out of the question to hear on the radio (or objectionable). There’s also the second side with bizarre piano-dirge ‘Doledrums’ and deranged Neil Young-circa-‘On the Beach’-style finger-picked beauty ‘Terra Incognita’ rubbing elbows with pure pop tracks like the soaring downer chorus of ‘Angel is Broken,’ the noir-ish title track and ‘Praying Man.’

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