If you look hard enough, any year can turn out to be a great one for music. Long gone are the days when commercial radio called the shots, when proximity to a killer record store or access to a suitable tastemaker could serve as an excuse for embracing mediocrity. Spotify is finally stateside. Record stores hardly exist anymore. Pandora is available in some cars. Satellite radio has XMU. You can hear KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on your phone. You can listen to your iPod over Bluetooth on a Jambox. You can push your 500+ gig collection to anywhere over Sonos. Coachella, Pitchfork, Austin City Limits Festival, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Outside Lands … so many festivals, so little time. There is simply no excuse not to take advantage of turning on to something truly life affirming. 2011 was another year steeped in brilliant, resurgent, rootsy Americana indie rock. There was also the emergence of some incredible new female voices, and a healthy dose of chill wave electronica. In the end music can make the world go round, so plug in, life is too quiet without it.
1) The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart (Sub Pop)
The greatness of some bands is immediately apparent. A few chords, a few harmonies, and you are hooked emotionally with melodies tattooed on your mind for the balance of the day or week. I have been listening to this masterpiece for almost a year now since its release in January of 2011, a year in which I have seen them four times, each a bit better than the time before. Like the love child of Mumford and the Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart is both pop enough to eventually become a massive hit, but with enough indie cred for tastemakers to keep coming back for the follow up, hopefully for a long time . The band is a five piece band, three of whom trade equally compelling vocals.
This record is part of the new Americana rock movement that emphasizes 70’s harmonizing, acoustic guitar, piano, strings, and thematic preoccupations with nature and love. I don’t listen to commercial radio, so I have little idea how big this band has gotten over the past half year, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a record for the ages for those into folk, pop, jam, or indie rock. The production is warm and earthy, while the songwriting both harkens back and is very modern in a dusty respectful way with soaring melodies and chorus’ that build into rainbows of joy. This is a very special record indeed.
2) WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain (LYF)
There are few artists who growl as beautifully as Ellery Roberts from WU LYF. In fact Tom Waits, “The Pogues”, Shane McGowen, and Captain Beefheart might be the only ones. But WU LYF, a self-produced Manchester band, hits you immediately like an emotional ton of bricks, although you are left a bit uneasy trying to get your balance right. Musically, things seem familiar enough, big distant sounding percussion which builds little by little with every song, sparse keyboard sounds emerging now and then, with a kind of bright melodic guitar line holding it all together. Hard to place, familiar, but really like nothing you have heard before.
But back to the vocals. I’m still unsure whether to try to focus hard enough to understand the gruff emotive howls, or just let it go and let the words pour over me like a beautiful but indistinct instrument. On “Dirt,” my vote for the signature track, you get this euphoric and transcendent musical groove swirling, and every once in a while you catch a lyric or two that you can understand, but then, as quickly as you caught it, it disappears. That is the beauty of WU LYF who flirt dangerously close with the traditional but then mess with it just enough to make it too weird for those not willing to let go. On “Concrete Gold” you latch onto a familiar enough sounding guitar, but realize that so much is happening behind the surface you can’t resist getting sucked in. So is life (or LYF).
3) Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know (Domino)
Some artists are born to rock while others will it into existence. Some do both. At 21 Laura Marling is a student of rock history taking equal parts Fairport Convention, PJ Harvey, and Cat Power, and blending them into some of the starkest, sultriest folk rock in decades. She has the dusty weathered voice of a wounded angel, and the sensibility of Led Zeppelin, often beginning with a few gentle strums before erupting into cacophony of hard driving rock.
On the transcendent “The Beast” and “Salinas”, you are tricked into expecting something hushed and acoustic, but quickly drawn into something dark and beautiful. In an age where Adele and Gaga rule the airwaves, Marling seems satisfied with channeling the blues and transforming it into something altogether bigger, badder, and ultimately better.
4) Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguar)
I am a total sucker for sparse emotive indie folk. Heartbreaking mythology now a few years behind Bon Iver’s debut “For Emma,” Justin Vernon’s follow-up is a much thicker, schmaltzier masterpiece. A self-confessed lover of Bruce Hornsby and all things almost beyond ironically cool, “Bon Iver” is a richly textured road through small towns like “Calgary” and “Perth.”
Like his most supergroup side project Gayngs (whose 2010 full length is, in some ways, even better) this record is a silky smooth affair, gliding on the confident calm of Vernon’s occasional falsetto. In some ways this album suffered from over play, stuck in my car CD player for months, but it is rare to hear a song as simultaneously moving and cool as “Holocene.” It is hard not to be rooting for and hoping that this is the beginning of a long and lush career.
5) elbow - build a rocket boys (XL)
Tragically for most people, elbow seems like a new band, but in truth they have been around for a dozen years cranking out moody crescendo-bending music. I have always loved brit pop, starting with the Manchester Factory records, the ethereal bliss of 4AD in its prime, and through the historic Creation records. So it is no surprise that the only still viable keepers of this flame, elbow, with “build a rocket boys” has reawakened such a wonderful nerve. As easy as it is to fall in love with the recorded songs, to see this band live, complete with a singer whose angelic, soaring almost operatic voice defies his physical likeness to Ricky Gervais, is to truly understand them. At the Austin City Limits festival this year after the longest draught in Texas history, a few songs worth of much needed and beautiful rain fell from the sky as this band had the crowd swaying hands up and fingers approximating the fall from above. A beautiful moment.
The ten songs here all tend to build from lush and fragile to full flung explorations of sound and emotion, most notably the opening track “the birds” and “with love” that begin innocently enough before exploding into something other-worldly. In the end whether you have been tracking this band from the beginnings as serious, perhaps moderately pretentious yet immature art rockers, yet still serious and fully formed musicians, or you just drop in on them this time around, they are something to behold.
6) Girls – Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Matador)
Full disclosure, I am an unabashed zealot for Girls. Their debut record and follow-up EP topped my lists for the past two years. This time out, the band travels even darker and deeper into themselves than their previous two brightly lit trips to paradise lost. As in previous efforts, they alternate between long brooding epics like the incredible “Vomit” and “Forgiveness” and lighthearted Beach Boys meets Elvis Costello ditties like “Honey Bunny” and “Alex.”
Christopher Owens, the principal songwriter and guitarists, is a true morbid savant. He is a musician whose troubled upbringing has made him both wiser than his young soul should be, but also still innocent enough to make you really care. Whether or not he becomes the next Brian Wilson or Lou Reed, the music of Girls is a real treasure, worthy of patient honest reflection.
7) PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Universal Island)
Of all the female rockers to emerge from the early 90’s, only PJ Harvey is still down her own dark dirty road, still hungry and creative. In many ways she is like a soul mate to Tom Waits, never at a loss for words or emotion, complete with raucous percussion, and embracing experience and translating it into words, accompanied for the first time in a decade, and creating genuinely accessible bliss.
Tunes like “This Glorious Land” and “The Words That Maketh Murder” are infectious grooves, while she lets down her grizzled guard on ballads like “On Battleship Hill” and “Hanging on a Wire” making it easy to jump aboard and bathe in light. Some records have the power to rip you out of a moment and transport you to a wildly different place. “Let England Shake” is very special and proof that youth isn’t wasted on the young.
8) Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
Almost four years ago, even before their first EP “Sun Giant” was released, I stood before a bunch of bearded hippies at the Bowery Ballroom, transfixed by their lush nostalgic confidence as they buzzlessly opened for Blitzen Trapper. Nothing they have done since that night has been anything less than perfect. Their CSN harmonies and their mid-70’s meandering California spirit is such an authentic relic of a bygone era, even among a sea of more popular revisionists like Mumford, that the years that have passed since the debut have passed way too slowly.
The dozen songs on “Helplessness Blues” are about what you would expect – earthy epics that tend to rise and fall around the sublime vocals of still only 25 year-old Robin Pecknold. Already something of a studio perfectionist, they recorded these songs, scrapped and rerecorded them a handful of times between Woodstock, Seattle and parts in between. From the stunning title track whose chorus “If I had an orchard I’d work till I’m sore” mixes just the right amount of Johnny Appleseed pioneer spirit with earnest longing, to the bouncy slow build of “Grown Ocean” and the lush “Lorelai,” this album covers a tremendous amount of ground very carefully. Like Wilco before them, the Fleet Foxes seem destined to make a long career of trying to understand who we are and who we wish to become. There is much to love here, and I’m guessing many will grow to love it more with each passing year.
9) Real Estate – Days (Domino)
Some music fights its way into your psyche while others merely roll over you like waves of joy and calm. Real Estate is the latter, a convertible on a summer day with music playing while the breeze blows through your hair. The band is kindred spirits to fellow New Jerseyites The Feelies (“It’s Real”) but with a hint of the jangly poppiness of Luna or early REM (“Easy”).
“Days” is equal parts tranquility and infectious guitar bliss. There is a certain effortless precision that spills from Real Estate songs, like a peaceful homage to the simplicity of youth and a peaceful suburban childhood. This is a record that asks very little of the listener but gives so much.
10) A Band of Bees – Every Step’s A Yes (ATO)
I will start by saying A Band of Bees is easily my favorite band from the Isle of Wight. Despite owning all of their prior efforts, I had pretty much forgotten about them until recently when this record surfaced in the “recommended” section of some forgotten mp3 blog. The resulting find is one of the best records of the year, with perhaps the best song in a decade – the “Astral Weeks” caliber “Really Need Love Now” which just keeps building on the refrain. The sixteen songs on “Every Step’s A Yes” is like a long stroll back through time with a bunch of different flavors of psychedelia from Byrd’s era entries like “Silver Line” to the string infused lullaby “Tired of Loving” to the Velvets homage “Change Can Happen.”
There is a lushness in the production here that is truly a relic of another era. This is a record for music heads, though, for all of the joy I take in hearing musical influences from Van to The Fairport Convention, this album is a sleepy, subtle orchestral journey into the past, refreshed just slightly for modern times. With its shimmering strings, woodwinds, harps, this is not merely a collection of songs but more a fully realized albums in an age that has all but forgotten what this means. Fortunately we live in a headphone world, so grab some good ones and bliss out for 75 minutes transported back to somewhere you probably haven’t ever been.
11) Dum Dum Girls - Only In Dreams (Sub Pop)
Of the many girl bands (Vivian Girls, Best Coast) revisiting Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” era masterpieces, the most notable and talented seems to me to be LA’s Dum Dum Girls, whose rougher, punkier albums express promise. On “Only In Dreams” you hear singer Kristin “Dee Dee” Gundred sounding more like Chrissie Hynde than Joan Jett, with a strong command of her range and many awesome vocal similarities. Songs like “Caught in One” and “Heartbeat” seem ripped appropriately from my childhood in the 80’s growing up in Northeastern Ohio just twenty minutes away from Hynde’s hometown of Akron, where the Pretenders music blared from the speakers on Friday night at the small ski mountain near my parents’ home.
And so with the smell of clove cigarettes wafting into the night, there is no more comfortable and accessible album for aging hipsters than this one. Of course below the delightful bubble gum surface there are a few epically devastating classics, specifically the sprawling “Coming Down” that tells much of its story through the seemingly endless hypnotic repetition of the song’s title interspersed with “you abuse the ones that love you/you abuse the ones who won’t.” At the end of the day, the world needs more serious women artists. PJ Harvey can’t carry the torch forever.
12) Destroyer – Kaputt (Merge)
As a member of the quintessential indie super group New Pornographers, where Neko Case tends to share the limelight with leader A.C Newman, Destroyer’s Dan Behar has always been the band member most grounded in the soft jazz post disco 80’s. I’m a long time fan of Destroyer, but this is his most accessible effort for a broader audience. Like Bon Iver, this is sound that has taken almost thirty years to feel ripe for revisitation.
“Kaputt” consists of nine long luscious tunes, highlighted by the title track that was also transformed into the best video of the year – a teenage daydream, complete with jazzercise-suited 80’s hotties and flying whales imagined by a coke bottle glasses wearing character out of “Sixteen Candles.” Behar’s nasal lilting vocals are perfectly recorded this time out, accompanied by a Kenny G-esque backing band, steeped in irony and admiration. I’d say get the fire stoked, and kick back and let the warm nostalgic waves pass over you.
13) Dawes – Nothing is Wrong (ATO)
About ten seconds into ‘Nothing is Wrong’ you figure out that Dawes is either the next big thing, or perhaps already is. The band is more polished than Wilco was at the beginning, and with a real knack and ambition to write legitimate pop songs – a lot like a mid-career Ryan Adams. Not only are they great songwriters with a gifted lead singer, they have a genuinely rootsy sound that is considerably more commercially accessible than Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes, Midlake and the rest of the modern Americana canon. In fact you’d have to go back to the California scene in the 60’s and 70’s which included the Byrds, Eagles, Joni Mitchell, and Fleetwood Mac to get the kind of authenticity you hear on “Nothing is Wrong.”
From the apropos and radio friendly opener “Time Spent in Los Angeles” to the anthentic “My Way Back Home”, you hear greatness both mass and narrow. When the band isn’t channeling “Music From the Big Pink” they are lyrically and vocally more in sync with Jackson Browne (I say this in a good way), writing sweet, honest largely upbeat songs about love, loss and everything in between (see “Fire Away”). I listen to music to trigger a variety of feelings, each band and each song its own drug to twist and contort my state of mind into a thoughtful place. With Dawes it’s mostly a happy pill that works every time.
14) Quiet Company - We Are All Where We Belong (Rocket Science)
I remember when I first fell for Death Cab leader Ben Gibbard’s dreamy, creamy vocals. I felt young again. Enter Quiet Company, a young Austin-based band, whose appropriately named singer Taylor Muse, channels Gibbard, but does so with a much brighter flame. Tunes like “You, Me and the Boatman” start from a place of serenity but then explode into an explosion of adolescent joy.
I don’t hear much power pop that pays enough attention to real feelings, not just adrenaline, but songs like “Are You A Mirror” recognize that the two can peacefully coexist. Quiet Company plays the kind of music you’d expect to hear in a hipster Michael Cera film, embracing the optimism of being young without seeming naïve. In the end, the torch has been passed. If you miss loving Death Cab, the wait is over.
15) White Denim – D (Downtown)
White Denim is country rock of the indie variety, but not necessarily alt-country. This is more Lynard Skinnard or Widespread Panic, with its jangly guitars and classic rock orientations, than it is Wilco. There is a fine line with music like this, you either nail it like White Denim does, or it falls justifiably into that abyss reserved for shameless copycats. But on “D” there is magic from beginning to end. There is dangerous, uber-tight guitar noodling for former or current jammies, and moments of transcendent almost Buckleyesque vocal mastery like on the stunning “Street Joy” which sounds like an outtake from the “Grace” sessions.
Ultimately, White Denim has created a sound that is very much their own. This is guitar rock for guitar lovers and players, or curious students of both. They play tight grooves, that occasionally stray into a kind of angular Phish territory, before pulling back just in time to reel you in with a melody that matters (see “Anvil Everything”). On “D” prepare to lose yourself and come out that much better for it.
16) Washed Out - Within and Without (Sub Pop)
For anyone who did their time with the great 4AD bands of the 80’s (Lush, Pale Saints, Cocteau Twins) or the shoe gazing next generation of the 90’s (Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine) the beautiful rolling waves of Washed Out serve as a much needed and tastefully executed nostalgic journey back. Loosely described as chill wave, Washed Out stitches together the best bits from new wave, with the modernity of electronica, and layers on the clean vocals of Georgia based Earnest Greene.
If John Hughes were still making movies, there is no doubt you’d hear “Amor Fati” playing as two beautifully awkward teenagers begin falling in love for the first time. This is computer music at its finest. Although I suppose I have a bias for bands that play real instruments and manage to elaborate on the recorded experience live, really well crafted electronic music has the ability to touch you in the same way.
A few more truly great ones ..
17) M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (Mute) An ambitious, genre hopping journey into electronica and old school 80’s ethereal new wave.
18) Beirut – The Rip Tide (Pompeii Records) This Balkan brass, conducted by a 26 year-old musical savant, is some of the warmest most distinctive music today.
19) Tom Waits – Bad As me (Anti-) Older, wiser, raspier, ornerier, janglier, and as lovably challenging as ever.
20) Cults – Cults (Sub Pop) “Go Outside” might still be the catchiest song in recent history, but the rest of the album is filled with more pure pop bliss.
21) Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo (Matador) Somewhere between the ghost of Elliott Smith and mid career Rolling Stones, Vile is anything but.
22) Low – C’mon (Sub Pop) Still dreamy after all these years, this is their best work in a decade. Low gets me high.
23) My Morning Jacket – Circuital (ATO) Arguably the best live band on the planet, MMJ covers much ground here, another notch in a beautiful belt.
24) Other Lives – Tamer Animals (ATO) Lush, orchestral, and deadly serious stuff from the best Oklahoma band since Flaming Lips.
25) Portugal. The Man – In The Mountain In The Clouds (Atlantic) Portland via Alaska, these indie arena rockers channel something familiar and awesome.
26) Robert Pollard – Lord of the Birdcage (Guided By Voices) The world’s most prolific songwriter unpacks some of his best work since mid-90’s GBV.
27) Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Fat Possum) Oddly funk, undeniably kitsch, this is the weirdest catchiest collection of the year.
28) Veronica Falls – Veronica Falls (Slumberland/Bella Union) Dark and lovely harmonizing from one of the best new Scottish/London bands of the year.