Am I too late to wax enthusiastic about my favorite music of 2011? No? Good. Here goes: First, a caveat. These are not necessarily 2011 releases. These are 2011 discoveries. But now that I've compiled the list, I see only one release earlier than 2011. How hip am I.
Second. What an amazing year of music (for me). It's as if I reawakened from a long sleep.
Okay, here really goes. In no particular order, the 12 that rocked my '11 the mostest.
The Drums Portamento (2011) Brooklyn-bred band, born about the time British New Wave took over the covers of NME, Smash Hits, and The Face. Although they were babes-in-arms during the post-punk British invasion, they channel that gloom-pop vibe with eerie accuracy. Their music takes e back to The Cure, Scritti Politti, Joy Division/New Order, Depeche Mode, Aztec Camera on a magic-carpet ride of nostalgia. Yet their sound is so clean and fresh, they may as well have (re)invented the genre. There is smart, crisp giddiness to their rhythms and the melodies are irresistible. And true to their influences, they sing of depression, unrequited love, and doom in the most addictively-danceable fashion. I adore this album.
Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues (2011) This takes me to a place in the 1970s that by rights I am too young to have experienced in its full-throated, drug-laced moodiness. Therein lies the magic of melody combined with memory. With CSN harmonies, Pink Floyd acid-sad lyrics, Simon and Garfunkel earnestness, Fleet Foxes still sound like they've created something completely new in the over saturated folk-rock genre. It's all very soul-searching and serious, however, so if you want to get a hilarious take on a really beautiful album, seek out the review by NME.
If By Yes Salt on Sea Glass (2011) I can't stop listening to this. Other-worldly, classic, irresistible. Just released by avant-garde pop musicians and songwriters Petra Haden (Charlie Haden's daughter) and Yuka Honda. It's the full package: enchanting tunes that stick in your head, lyrics with meaning, studio engineering that's clean but far from sterile. Brian Eno should be proud- his legacy shines through. David Byrne makes a guest appearance.
William Fitzsimmons Gold in the Shadow (2011) Although as personal and introspective as The Sparrow and the Crow, there is a sense of peace, renewal, and hope in this beautiful, spare album. Fitzsimmons' soft voice draws you in with melodic intimacy and holds you with the lightest grasp. Psychotherapy via an acoustic guitar.
The Head and the Heart The Head and The Heart (2011) This 6-piece band came together during open mic night's at Ballard's (Seattle) Conor Byrne pub. They are so ridiculously good- if you aren't aware of them, you soon will be. Their fan-base has grown organically and their tunes will hook you on the first list. Roots rock- more self-serious than the Avett Brothers, more soaring than The Decemberists- smart and sweet, pop-tinged, heartland goodness that feels very connected to the Pacific Northwest, even if several of the band members hail from beyond.
Bon Iver Bon Iver (2011) Singer-songwriter Jason Vernon recently released this uber-seductive album that crosses the line from folk into impressionism. Angelic harmonies and earthy melodies swirl above your head and slip under your skin. Strings, horns and woodwind sections are interwoven into smart electronica. The music may be esoteric, but the lyrics are not. Themes of escape, intoxication, memories of places passed through and loves passed by are sobering and beautiful.
My Morning Jacket Circuital (2011) I'm wearing a hole in this CD. It's been my summer soundtrack. Rich and mellow, urbane and timeless. There are shades of Paul Westerberg, Beach Boys of the Pet Sounds era, Pink Floyd. And I don't mean to suggest that Circuital is derivative, it just has these groovy classic elements.
Sigur Rós Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (2008) I looked it up. The album title translates as "with buzzing in our ears, we play endlessly" Some of my favorite running music is brought to my ears by Sigur Rós and Jónsi- something about the soaring, melodramatic, celestial harmonics with Super Trooper beats and words I cannot understands lets me transcend the tedium of pavement pounding and enter into Endorphin Land.
Pickwick Myths (2011) EP. Best.New.Seattle.Band. Defying genre and definition, there's nothing else out there like this sound. It's soul, it's retro, it's cerebral pop. It takes me back to the smart and clever Brit soul revival of the 80s, but no electronic theatrics to muddy the pure aesthetic. This grooves and moves.
Portugal. The Man In The Mountain In the Cloud (2011) Remember AOR- Album-Oriented Rock? When a collection of songs on vinyl sounded like they were written and recorded to fit together as a concept. The 70s are dead. Long live the 70s. There is something so fabulously Bowie, Supertramp, Queen, Pink Floyd about this band, this album. So American, Head is a Flame, You Carried Us, Share With Me The Sun- oh hell, the whole thing rocks. This is one that with every listen I hear something new.
Ryan Adams Ashes and Fire (2011) Fame and illness have mellowed Ryan Adams. He can't claim struggling, independent, lonely guy musician angst any longer (didn't he marry Mandy Moore recently?), but here he doesn't even try. Whatever scheme he had for rockstar god status he's let fall by the wayside and happily so. This is a warmly-produced, mature, sombre album. Adams's vocals shine through, there are ballads a-plenty, but it sounds like he's writing and performing for his own soul. I love it, though I'll return to Demolition when I need a little Adams as punk-roots rocker.
Feist Metals (2011) This is absent of the pop hooks found in The Reminder. It's far more ethereal and spiritual- more distant, yet more touching. There's not a song on here that I didn't immediately like and many that I'm now growing to love, particularly The Circle Married the Line, Get It Wrong, Get It Right, and The Bad In Each Other.