As usual, my list of “favorite” albums of the year is just that – a list of what stuck with me most throughout the year, and not necessarily what my brain thinks should be the best albums. Hopefully, these 10 recordings will stand the test of time.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Most-hyped record of the year finally worms its way into my brain and reveals itself to be “all that”
Typhoon – Whitelighter
Most underrated album of the year from Stumptown big band – almost every song a classic that begs you to sing along
Savages – Silence Yourself
Ferocious songs and serious attitude come together for an album that’s almost as a great as their live show
Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin
Sounding like the Fall’s bratty grandchild playing catchy pop songs wrapped in sloppy hooks, and all no longer than they need to be
Cate LeBon – Mug Museum
Icy and hot, restrained and heartfelt, retro and modern … an album of contradictions from my favorite Welsh singer-songwriter
Radiation City – Animals in the Meridian
Hey! You got 70s AM rock in my vintage stereophonic lounge music. Hey, you got vintage stereophonic – well, you get the idea. These great PDX tastemakers all taste great together.
The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Percolating, ping-pong splatter-beats and over-processed synths anchoring songs of gender dysphoria – what’s not to like?
ARP – More
Brian Eno and Kraftwerk walk into a bar. Musicality ensues … minimal, edgy, pretty and discrete
Yo La Tengo – Fade
Meditative and sincere with songs pared to their essence and then set on a hypnotic “repeat” for a tranquil, yet uplifting album
Deerhunter – Monomania
If I could magically join any band, this might be the one. Not an immediate “winner”, but the distorted mind-bending songs slowly create a solid whole that will eat your brain!
The Honorable Mentions: Robyn Hitchcock – Love From London, Wire – Change Becomes Us, Yuck – Glow and Behold, These New Puritans – Field of Reeds, Neko Case – The Worse Things Get blah, blah, blah, My Bloody Valentine – MBV, David Bowie – The Next Day, Washed Out – Paracosm, The Blow – The Blow, STRFKR – Miracle Mile, Jacco Gardner – Cabinet of Curiosities, Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II, Superchunk – I Hate Music, Courtney Barnett – The Double EP, James Blake – Overgrown, Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
The editors at Smells Like Pop recently experienced the rare opportunity where we were all together at the same show. In this case, it was for Brian Jonestown Massacre at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland. And, instead of relying on one of us to do a write-up, we thought we’d all add a short review. Including our friend, Pete Champ!
The BJM show got almost no local press, which was surprising because of a) the band’s famed and filmed love-hate relationship with locals The Dandy Warhols, and b) they put on a kick-ass show. Anton Newcombe orchestrated from the side of the stage, his distinct vocals and guitar standing out somehow over the wall of sound emanating from four to five other guitars on stage at any one time. The result was loud, of course, but almost restrained, counter to the band’s reputation for chaos. Newcombe even thanked audience members individually (rather than kicking them in the head, for instance). The night was given to dispelling all such demons, graciously inviting Zia McCabe herself onto the stage, for a distinctly Dandy-ish song. BJM put on a remarkable show, the guitar-work layered and even disciplined, avoiding the pitfall of the many-guitared jam band. Indeed, they didn’t let loose until the final song, a Beatles cover that seemed to have no end. Afterward, I wished it hadn’t.
It’s beyond cliché to reference the documented struggles of Anton Newcombe and his band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre. But it does seem to be fair to acknowledge when he – and they – get it right. Highlighting tracks from the band’s latest, Aufheben – which is arguably their most solid album from beginning to end, the BJM transcended that album’s strengths with an even stronger live performance.
BJM ranged through its material, playing some old favorites, as well as showcasing the strength of newer tunes like the catchy “I want to hold your other hand”, and the warm-fuzzy inspiring homage, “Blue Order/New Monday”. Zia McCabe (of Portland’s Dandy Warhols) even hopped on stage to contribute some booty shaking and tambourine support – a nod to the past, while perhaps sensing the forward momentum created by the strength of BJM’s new material and focused performance.
Anton Newcombe is still chief engineer on the BJM express and everyone else is along for the ride. With each song, you can pick a small piece from many bands. Now that the drama seems to be over you can focus on the music and relax. Being so prolific with their songs they almost blend together until they unleash a manic tambourine tune that reminds people why they like them.
The audience waiting for the show to start at the Wonder Ballroom skewed older and artier. The seen-it-all-before crowd was cautiously waiting for something new to happen – again. When the Brian Jonestown Massacre took to the stage with little fanfare, I was secretly glad to see lead tambourine player, Joel Gion at the center of a stage that also included five guitar players (including bass), a drummer and keyboardist – all looking like they were about to play a show at the ’60s-era Factory as opposed to Portland in 2012. The band sounded great – even better than on record. Songs that have seemed shambling and misshapen in the past, became beautifully orchestrated walls of blissful-noise pop. Songwriter/founder/cult leader Anton Newcombe has found a nice collaborator in Spacemen 3 bassist, Will Carruthers who seems to be keeping the band more centered – there were no interpersonal flare-ups this night. The band played many songs from their great new album, Aufheben as well as a cross-country tour of their previous twenty-plus back catalog of psychedelic inspired pop. If you have a chance to see BJM live, do it. Dig?
The documentary on the short, but prolific life and musical career of Jay Reatard is playing now at little movie theaters across the country. We got to see Jay Reatard and his band at an in-store show at Jackpot Records in Portland shortly before his untimely death (murder). I’m glad we did, but it makes this footage all too sad. Reatard’s last record was a sign of greatness to come–fast and messy pop songs that had so much power and energy bundled-up in 2-3 minute little nuggets. Alas, what we have is what we get and Jay Reatard is no more. Except on the big screen.
Too busy to write a full in-depth post, but hopefully I will circle back soon and flesh this out more! Without any further ado, here are my favorite 11 albums of 2011:
Honorable mentions: Atlas Sound – Parallax // Wild Flag – s/t // Danger Mouse & Daniel Luppi – Rome // Fucked-Up – David Comes to Life // Yuck – s/t // Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine // Radiohead – King of Limbs // M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming // Iceage – New Brigade // Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 // The Weeknd – House of Balloons // Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts
We’re busy working on our Best Albums of 2011 lists, and as a preview of sorts, I thought I’d share my favorite songs of the year. Notice I didn’t say “best songs” and in some cases, these bands aren’t even close to being on my top album list. But, these are my poppy, hook-laden favorites (in no particular order)…
The neo-retro AM-pop-sincere-yet-tongue-in-cheek duo of She & Him have put out out a Christmas record and that makes perfect sense. Especially when the album sounds like it was transported from the late 60’s/early 70’s sonic landscape where Doris Day or Jim Neighbors would feel right at home. The songs of She & Him are not just wry retro-updates though, they bring a modern sensibility that keeps the songs grounded in the twenty-tens (the future!). And on their new album, A Very She & Him Christmas the songs work much the same way.
The lackadaisical vocal delivery of Zooey Deschanel works nicely on many songs, like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but album opener, The Christmas Waltz sounds almost like an outtake from “Elf”, especially with the minimal instrumentation. Things finally start to roll when M. Ward takes over the lead vocals with Deschanel on harmony on Christmas Wish. The song sounds more complete and satisfying, heck it even has bass and drums!
The whole affair is pleasant enough–you almost get the feeling that you’re at an intimate Hollywood party, where Deschanel (the real movie and TV actress) is cajoled into singing around the fire, and “hey look, Ward brought his guitar!” Sleigh Ride and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree even manage to sound peppy as the party moves on into the night. Then, Silver Bells brings the affair back down again with echo-laden vocals accompanied by a ukelele. I have many versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside, and this one fares fairly well with the classics. The duo even manages to make it their own, but any sexual innuendo from earlier versions is stripped away, leaving a jaunty, whistling sing-along. But, I’ll take the Dean Martin version, thank you. Elvis’ Blue Christmas is tough to top, but She & Him do their best, and the intimacy really works here. You can almost imagine you’re at that Hollywood Holiday party … “No more egg nog–I’ll simply burst!”
Little Saint Nick is harmless fun, and they close with the Christmas Song which really brings me back to the classic Holiday Records. So, how does this album work in the Holiday playlist? At our house we mostly listen to holiday tunes on shuffle, mixing genres and time-periods at random, so I think this record will fit in just nicely.
There’s maybe no other musician that can match Tom Waits’ unparalleled track record. Album by album, and yes, track by track he’s been one of the most consistent artists over the last 30+ years. So, it’s easy to take each new recording for granted – when you first put a new Waits’ album on you just know it’s going to be good. But, damn if his recent records don’t keep getting better and better as he refines his sound and craft.
Strange or maybe not so strange, Tom Waits has seldom had any “hits”. At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past Spring, he dead-panned, “They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with … like it’s a bad thing.” Records by Waits are best experienced as a whole, where you can be transported to a place out of time, neither really old or very new – a landscape of dreams. Sad dreams, yes and many nightmares, but overall a world completely and uniquely his own.
So how does he keep making such great, timeless records? It helps to surround yourself with incredible musicians. Tom Waits has a knack for putting together stellar bands to play on his albums, and Bad As Me, his first record of new songs in six years is no exception. Keith Richards plays for the first time since 199X’s Bone Machine (Richards also played on Rain Dogs) along with long-time Wait’s collaborator Mark Ribot, Los Lobos’ David Hildago, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Augie Meyers (the organist from the Sir Douglas Quintet!). All of these players have learned how to work with space and casually (seemingly sloppily) play in-and-around each other without knocking anyone else out of the way. Keith Richards even adds ragged backing vocals to Last Leaf on the Tree, a slow and delicate ballad of regret and resiliency.
When you’re creating classic albums, it also helps to have a great songwriter to work with, and Waits has once again written the songs with his long-time foil and partner, Kathleen Brennan. The yin and yang of the two have, I think, elevated Waits’ songs to a higher ground, resulting in more timeless, grounded and artful albums as a whole. Not many people can work this closely with their spouses or partners, but in this case, the results are magical.
Not every song works for me, especially “Hell Broke Luce” which while an interesting song, feels a little gimmicky and breaks the mood of an otherwise stellar album.
Not everyone “gets” Tom Waits, dismissing his music as too noisy and gruff or maybe too traditional sounding. If the naysayer can get past their initial biases, they’ll be rewarded with an almost cinematic album of dense, complex songs and dream-like stories.
The first song on Wilco’s latest is called Art of Almost and it begins with noisy grinding electronic noise that sounds more like Radiohead than Chicago’s favorite “Americana” band. At just over seven minutes the song sets the stage for more musical exploration, but then I Might comes bouncing in with 60s’ era perky pop – all bap-bap-bap drums, farfisa organ and even a doo-doo-doo-doo chorus. The album proceeds to move around between genres and whilst almost all of the songs are better than good, the sum total experience didn’t really stay with me long. I didn’t want to play it again right away like previous Wilco albums. Rather I felt obligated to listen again to make sure I wasn’t missing something.
Dawned On Me is a nice “Wilco” chugger that will offend no one, but it won’t be a hit either. Black Moon is soft, sad and pretty and puts their distinctive and reserved slide guitar to good use. Born Alone, Open Mind are earnest but non-essential Wilco songs. And then, Capitol City pops on and sounds immediately like the title track to the latest Pixar movie. I actually had to look at the song title and think back to recent animated movies to see if this was indeed from a kids’ movie soundtrack (it’s that corny). Standing O gets loud with a big 70s guitar riff, but doesn’t get much farther than that, and Jeff Tweedy’s voice sounds strained and submerged in the mix of hand-claps, and big lead guitars. The remainder of the songs are ones my Dad would certainly enjoy – they’re all likable, but not really lovable. Album closer One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) is a bit of standout mostly for the laid back delivery and playing, and the picked guitar refrain that repeats throughout. But dang if that piano couldn’t be found on Bruce Hornsby album.
As a whole The Whole Love takes its cue from the opening song as is ultimately the Art of Almost.
We’ll have a full write-up of the Sunday MusicFest show at Pioneer Square featuring Band of Horses and Cass McCombs, but we’ve got to catch-up on all the work we missed while lolly-gagging at the festival! In the meantime, here are some photos we took at the show…