07 January 2012

Top Five Albums of 2011

A little late. My apologies.

My musical year was a little lackluster in terms of album releases. Although a lot of my favorite bands released critically acclaimed music that I highly anticipated, I think the hype took the best of me, and I was left with a lot of work to do.

Let me explain.

In the spring of 2007, Modest Mouse released the superb (and one of my all-time favorites) We were Dead before the Ship even Sank. Not only did I long for that album since its announced inception, but most of the songs on the album instantly caught me. I didn't need to give it multiple spins; one listen and I was hooked. This was not the case in 2011. I had to both listen to each album more than once and also had to listen a little more closely and intently than in years pass.

Although this list, like all others, was difficult to compile, I feel satisfied that I've, yet again, represented my musical year to the fullest.

And without further adieu...

5. Eddie Vedder
Ukulele Songs
Released 31 May 2011 (Monkeywrench Records)

My musical hero and Pearl Jam frontman had a busy 2011 to say the least. Along with touring Australia, Canada, Central and South America, and putting on the Pearl Jam 20 weekend concert in East Troy, Wisconsin; releasing and promoting a Cameron Crowe directed documentary about the first twenty years of Pearl Jam; and working on material for an upcoming full band album, Vedder released and toured behind Ukulele Songs: an album composed entirely of songs featuring that beautiful yet neglected four-stringed instrument. Comprised of ten original songs, three covers, and two instrumentals, Ukulele Songs takes Vedder out of the comfort of drum and guitar solos that help bare the burden of the spotlight and shows the troubadore at his most vulnerable and intimate. In press interviews to promote the album, whose central themes are love and love lost, Vedder claimed that preforming the songs live is hard because each night he must dwell on all the times he had his heart broken. Of all the songs on the album, the two most compelling are the two that he didn't even write nor perform by himself: covers of the Isley Brothers' "Sleepless Nights" dueted with The Swell Season's Glenn Hansard and the traditional ukulele song "Tonight you Belong to Me" with longtime friend Cat Power spotlight how universal Vedder's vocals can be whether serenading his audience solo or harmonizing with a peer.

Key Tracks: "Sleeping by Myself," "Broken Heart," "Longing to Belong"

4. Wilco
The Whole Love
Released 27 September 2011 (dBpm/ANTI)

2009's Wilco (The Album) was regarded by critics as too obvious and complacent for a band as talented and groundbreaking as Wilco. As Pitchfork journalist Paul Thompson notes, Wilco is at their best when they find a balance between traditional folk rock and experimental while lead singer Jeff Tweedy's world-weary inscrutability guides each song and pushes musical boundries without being too challenging and demanding for the listener. The Whole Love, which was released on the band's own dBpm imprint, is a healthy return to alternative tones that brought them to indie fame with such releases as 2002's Yankee Foxtrot Hotel.

The album is unconventional as the songs are all over place and miss that cohesive nature that I appreciate in the idea of an album. Some feature beautiful orchestrations with strings ("Open Mind"), some have fuzzy guitars and monster feedback ("Art of Almost"), some could become pop standards ("Born Alone"), some are just beautiful ("Open Mind"), some could be confused for something Creedence Clearwater Revival would have written ("I Might"), and some could soundtrack a Wes Anderson film ("One Sunday Morning"). No matter how dissconected all of the tracks are, they all work as unit, and that's what makes Wilco work: they're unpredictably predictable controlled chaos.

Key Tracks: "I Might," "Born Alone," "Open Mind," "One Sunday Morning"

3. Yuck
Released 15 February 2011
(Fat Possem)

It seems that music goes through trends, and, crossing my fingers and God-willing, the grunge and early to mid-nineties alternative rock that I grew up with is making its return with Yuck spearheading the charge.

Fans of early Smashing Pumpkins and any-era Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth rejoice!

Yuck, a band that, remarkably, is comprised of five kids in their very early twenties, compose an art that is way beyond their years. I'm astonished at how cohesivley sound the album is from start to finish. From in-your-face punk with songs like "The Wall" and "Holing Out," to softer, more melodic tracks such a "Sunday" and "Georgia," the band released a complete and complex yet fun album. And I dare any Smashing Pumpkins fan to tell me that "Stutter" wouldn't be fit on Gish.

Key Tracks: "Suck," "Stutter," "Sunday"

2. The Decemberists
The King is Dead
Released 18 January 2011

Deciding to forgoe another wildly experimental concept album like 2009's The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists enlisted R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Americana chanteuse Gillian Welch to assist with the folky, stripped-down country-themed The King is Dead.

Sometimes less is more.

This is by far the bands most solid musical effort to date. It's heartwarming and real and shows that the band can hold their own with the likes of The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show and Fleet Foxes when it comes to traditional American folk music.

The band wrote and recorded the album on an 80-acre farm outside of their hometown of Portland, Oregon with lead singer Colin Meloy stating that the band wanted the album's ethos to reflect their experiences in that particular rural setting. Tracks like "Rise to Me," "June Hymn," and "January Hymn" have such an organic and familiar feeling to them that it's hard not paint landscapes of lush wheat fields or forests of maple trees with gold and red leaves even after one listen.

Key Tracks: "Don't Carry it All," "Rise to Me," "Down by the Water," "All Arise!"

1. The Head and the Heart
The Head and the Heart
Released 19 April 2011
(Sub Pop)

I keep a journal of ideas I have for songs, poems, essays, whatever, and one idea I keep tossing around and coming back to is me trying to explain how somebody falls in love with a band or musician. I know it sounds childish and nonsensical but hear me out: there are times in our lives when our emotions are grabbed and pulled in one extreme direction and we have no choice but to follow. Whether we're at our highest highes (love, friendship, joyous celebration) or lowest lows (heartbreak, hate, death), people are vulnerable when our emotions are given free reign. We look for someone or something that we can see our emotions in; we look for a song or an album or a band to magnify those emotions and give us something to associate them with. And I can't help but associate Seattle's The Head and the Heart's debut album with everything I've experienced over the last few years.

I'm not going to try and interpret their songs and what they mean to me because I honestly can't put my finger on one aspect of my life that they would remind me of. I feel that each song captures such a range of emotion in me, and that's something I've never really experienced with a band before, not even in my beloved Pearl Jam. "Rivers and Roads" for example, which wasn't released on the original 2010 album, throws me in so many different directions each time I listen to it; I honestly can't help but think of Slippery Rock in the fall, my grandparents and Uncle Judd, Ireland, all the different ways I've fallen in love with Emily over the past year and a half, the Mahoning Creek, my college roommates, lost loves, and the possibility of moving out west. And this band brings all of this out in me all at once. It's kind of overwhelming at times but also comforting and reassuring-I like the fact that I can look to this band, to this group of strangers, and feel moved in so many different directions by their art.

Their music is honest and endearing and simple, yet singers Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell, and Charity Rose harmonize with such complexity that it's hard not to feel moved at least in the slightest upon your first listen.

Key Tracks: "Down in the Valley," "Rivers and Roads," "Lost in my Mind"

Honorable Mentions:

The Black Keys El Camino
Released 6 December 2011 (Nonesuch)
Key Track: "Money Maker"

Death Cab for Cutie Codes and Keys
Released 31 May 2011 (Atlantic)
Key Track: "Some Boys"

Frank Turner
England Keep My Bones
Released 7 June 2011 (Epitaph)
Key Track: "If Ever I Stray"

Manchester Orchestra Simple Math
Released 10 May 2011 (Columbia)
Key Track: "Pale Black Eye"

Of Monsters and Men
Into the Woods EP
Released 20 December 2011 (Republic Records)
Key Track: "Love Love Love"

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