Saturday, December 31, 2011

What's THAT about? What's THAT about? My Year in Music, 2011

Unflagging: Rebecca Cole (keyboards, backing vocals), Carrie Brownstein (vocals, guitar), Mary Timony (vocals, guitar), and Janet Weiss (drums, backing vocals), the women behind Wild Flag.

This year belonged to women and Girls -- and no, I do not mean Adele and Lady Gaga. Actually I spent rather little time listening to those two; there seemed no need, half the country was doing it for me. Nonetheless, as I compiled my list of the best new records I heard over the last year, the bulk were made by women.

I wonder what the late rock critic Paul Nelson, the subject of what the New York Times calls a "quirky pastiche of biography and anthology" by Kevin Avery, would make of this state of affairs. To quote from the Sunday review by David Hadju:

He subscribed, both in his writing and in his life, to the macho outcast myths of noir movies and pulp fiction, and he seemed blind to the importance of the great female artists nearly absent in his writing, like Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin. Nelson loathed the music of Patti Smith.


Anyway. I'm a sucker for annual wrap-ups of any kind, especially where music is concerned, because there's so much content and so little consensus. In any given year, there are a handful of artists that will appear scattered throughout the best-ofs from mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone and Spin, The New York Times, the guys from Sound Opinions or Bob Boilen and His Earnest Band of Granola-Eaters at NPR, but generally they all seem to be fishing in different ponds. (As is true for most music outlets.)

Nonetheless, I've either bought, burned or heard a lot of albums from these sources, and been both pleased and disappointed.

Here's what I listened to the most this year.

1. Wild Flag. A "debut effort," but only in the most literal sense of the word. It would be closer to the truth to call this the first album by a supergroup of seasoned professionals, or at least it would if the very word "supergroup" didn't usually suggest a huge ego contest between a lot of cock-rockers, each striving to be Dominant Male Monkey. By contrast, Wild Flag, made up of the remnants of Sleater-Kinney and a handful of other bands, meld together with near seamless perfection. There's no jockeying for position; everyone does their job and everyone shines. You can tell how easy and free they feel in each other's presence. If there's a theme here, it's about how four women found a near perfect groove, because this album throbs from first track to last. When Carrie Brownstein sings "Sound is the blood between me and you" on the opening cut, "Romance," she could be addressing her bandmates or listeners or both. Their sound is simply more durable than anything I've heard this year. I haven't tired of them yet. I'm listening to them as I write this. Great band.

2. tune-yArDs, whokill. "What's THAT about? What's THAT about?" Merrill Garbus asks on this wonderfully crazy record, and to date no one's really been able to provide a good answer. Garbus, the ukelele shredder with the drum machine and the two guys on saxophone and one on bass, created a uniquely odd, off-kilter sound that draws in rock, hip-hop, scratching, tape loops, African rhythms and lots of other strange audio techniques I don't know the names for. Reminded me of Beck's Odelay in some spots, and Public Enemy in others. I got this record for free and liked it so much I bought the earlier ones, Bird-Brains and Bird Droppings, and was overjoyed to find that I had downloaded a SXSW performance as well. A record that sounds like nothing else; a barbaric yawp that is anything but barbaric to hear.

3. P.J. Harvey, Let England Shake. She's never made a bad album: just great and good ones. I'm inclined to say this is a great album, although I'm really not sure. God knows I played it enough, and while it doesn't immediately feel as revealing as one of those records that came from deep within her, the way you hear on masterpieces like Dry, Four-Track Demos or Uh Huh Her, it's still compelling after dozens of listens. She's trying to broaden her range, eschewing the personal (usually a perfectly bottomless well of inspiration) for the classically political, historical, important, dare I say classical: in this song-cycle steeped in WWI Britain and 21st Century Iraq she seems to be channeling the ghosts of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. She writes and sings eloquently of young men charging headlong into battle -- splashing in the "fountain of death" -- of war orphans, of a destroyed landscape; she makes Goya-esque sketches of dismembered bodies. In a way, it's not that much of a departure, because she's always had a natural fascination for violence and physical (and often sexual) destruction. Here, the failing, plundered woman's body seems to be England; she's watching it being destroyed from within.

4. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What. There's life in the old man yet, and he came back in a strong way with this record, which recalls the spiritual intensity of his earlier records. It's all about fate and faith. Songs reflect on the past and the future, and whether there's a happy ending up ahead. Is faith a delusion or a comfort? Angels, prayers, the afterlife, blessings, sacred light; there's a lot here for a secular humanist Jew to chew upon. Simon, never one for obviousness, polishes the irony down to a faint shadow. There's a tension to it. Everyone in it seems to be on the verge of something -- waiting for Christmas Day, waiting to see God, waiting perhaps for medical results. Is the title a question, or a categorization of the mysteries of living?

5. St. Vincent -- Strange Mercy  Annie Clark of St. Vincent is a soft, sweet and beautiful woman you absolutely do not want to fuck with. On Marry Me and Actor, she established her persona: a woman equal parts defiant and self-defeating, unwilling to put up with a man's bullshit but at the same time a little leery of her own toughness. She has no use for illusions, yours or hers, and she shoots them down with a weird, deadpan humor. ("Marry me, John, you won't know that I'm gone.") The woman (or shall I say the woman in her songs) has issues, and you can feel it in the tension between her sweet, calm, rational voice and the sudden angry swoops of her guitar. There's this very subtle sense of danger to the persona in her songs. It seems a little unstable. Like P.J. Harvey, this year she delivered a record rather different from its predecessors: more electronic, sonic and strange. She raises the stakes, and the record gains in drama and personality what it loses in, say, easy accessibility.

6.Dum Dum Girls – He Gets Me High and Only in Dreams. This was a good year for these romantic retro hipsters, whom I've been mad about ever since their 2010 debut I Will Be. This year they delivered a first class EP -- which offers a stunning take on the Smiths' "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" -- and on their ambitious long-awaited (I waited a long time, anyway) second full-length record they delivered a dreamy record that was almost as good as their first. They also delivered the sweetest rock ballad of the year: "Coming Down." I got to see them in Charlotte over the spring at the Milestone; they were great, although I suspect I was the biggest fan there. They deserve to be huge. Go-Gos huge. Gaga huge.

7. Art Brut – Brilliant! Tragic!. There just isn't that much humor in rock and roll, is there? It's a genre that encourages self-examination and revolt and rage, but not self-effacement, not poking fun at yourself. That's why the fourth and best album by Art Brut was such a happy relief. It punctures the pomposities of players and listeners, lovers and losers, and it's never really mean so much as it is poignantly witty. There's one song called "Clever Clever Jazz" about a guy who likes to believe his lousy little band is, actually, over people's heads. There's another about a heavy metal kid whose idol is Axl Rose. In another, a singer can't quite make out why he's lost his girlfriend to someone who is less funny than he is. This song ("Bad Comedian") includes the one line I heard this year that made me laugh out loud: "How can you bear to hold his hand?/ I bet he signs his name in comic sans." And there are a lot more lines just as good.

8. Girls -- Father Son and Holy Ghost. Girls is two guys,Christopher Owens and Chet White, and girls, mostly, is their subject, although they aren't afraid to indulge their spiritual side either. There's lots of wanting and not getting, or getting and losing. It's all very sincere stuff -- baby-this and baby-that -- but it's rarely awkward. There's lots of high-school diary hoping and moping that might come off as just corny if the music wasn't so varied from song to song (and often within songs). There's something almost retro about it; it's heavy on hooks and refrains, and seems to draw from the Kinks, the Beach Boys, Neil Young (especially on "Vomit") and lots of radio-friendly hits from the 1970s -- a rich blend of nostalgic irony and wistful, heart-on-the-sleeve melancholy.

9. Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest Gillian Welch's voice is as clear and direct as her songs, all of which on this record bring to mind some woodcuts from the Middle Ages on the brevity of life and the certainly of death. The stories she tells are sad but not saddening: they are rich, evocative slices of life.

10. Kurt Vile, Smoke Rings Round My Halo.First of all, what's with the name? Was he born with it, or is it an homage to the great German composer of The Threepenny Opera, Kurt Weill, whose name in his native country is pronounced KÜRT VĪL? I'm not exactly sure what to make of this guy, but I like him immensely. He's a witty folkie, sort of what The Tallest Man on Earth might be if he didn't take himself so seriously. I haven't, as they say at the grad school, completely unpacked this album, but I liked it so much I got one of his earlier ones, too. Yes, these are lame comments to end my list with, but the fact is I like Kurt Vile's records and I just haven't paid that much attention to his lyrics.

Big, huge, loving, warm and probably inappropriate consoling hugs to these more-than-honorable mentions: Yuck; Wilco, The Whole Love; Washed Out, Within and Without; The Black Keys, El Camino; Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts.

Thanks for the sounds: Explosions in the Sky, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care; Sonic Youth, Simon Werner a Disparu

Bones to Pick:

Fucked Up, David Comes to Life. I heard this monster largely on the advice of assorted critics, who were swept up and away by its sheer zen arcadian chutzpah: it's a rock opera, a fervent dramatic monologue, a dirge, a jeremiad, an epic novel not so much sung as screamed, and an unstoppable hurly-burly that rolls over you like a Sherman tank. If you can bear to follow the lyrics, at the center is a story of working-class anomie, love, death, leftism, bomb-making and postmodern storytelling, but you may be more concerned with whether lead vocalist Damian Abraham will fall over from exhaustion, as all the overwrought romantic keening takes its toll on his wrecked rasping voice. Ambitious, tuneful, forceful, overbearing, wearisome. But at least I stayed awake, which is more than I can say for the following.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver. What do people see in this record? In list after list after list, it hovers threateningly at or near the top slot, which I suppose I should regard as a reassuring suggestion that the national attention span is not as limited as I thought. Maybe it's my attention span that needs work, because by track 3 I've usually been bored into a coma. But, in all honesty, For Emma and Blood Bank have never been at the top of my playlist either. I don't get him.

The Decemberists, The King is Dead. Shake me, wake me, when it's over.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs. Tried. Failed.

Still Not Quite Getting It: Deer Tick, Divine Providence; Death Cab for Cutie, Codes and Keys; My Morning Jacket, Circuital.

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