Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top Ten 2011

I did not think I would make it to liking ten whole rock albums this year, but it turns out I just made it. A somewhat abbreviated list:

10. I'm counting this one as the tenth because I'm not quite sure it counts as rock, even though I really enjoy it. yMusic's debut CD, Beautiful Mechanical, is instrumental--the ensemble encompasses players of the violin (and sometimes guitar), viola, cello, flute, trumpet, and clarinet. These fine folk appear on many a release in this top ten--if you ask me, they're the group to watch for the future of classical/rock hybrids. Beautiful Mechanical has playful tracks like "Proven Badlands," a rogue western by Annie Clark (aka Saint Vincent), a slightly Copland-inflected "Dawn Dance" by Judd Greenstein, and a bit of electric rock guitar composed by Gabriel Kahane. I was pleased to be a Kickstarter supporter of this album and receive a copy in the mail; the record release show at Rockwood was great fun and I only wished the album was longer.

9. I did not love all of Holcombe Waller's Into the Dark Unknown, but it certainly intrigued me. C.--, listening along with me one morning, assumed I'd been changing albums from song to song; indeed, they vary tremendously. There's the catchy "Risk of Change," haunting "Atlas" and hummable "Qu'Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan." I think perhaps Mr. Waller has confused unicorns with vampires in his track about one, but since he has a piercing voice and a creative lyric-writing style, I'll forgive him his Twilight-y trespasses. (Apparently he worked with Bryce Dessner in the past, too? Observant readers will sense a theme or two in this post.)

8. Paul Simon's new album, So Beautiful or So What, is not his best but that is an impossibly high bar. I love "Questions for the Angels," with its misty evocation of a walker on the Brooklyn Bridge; I wish I could whistle along to "Rewrite." Seeing him in concert in Philadelphia was incredible; I was pleased also to see Bang on a Can's Mark Stewart in his more famous capacity, and in awe of Simon's talented ensemble generally. I'm glad to see he's still rockin' after all these years.

7. My friend M.-- introduced me to Margot & the Nuclear So and So's (I think because I was so taken by their name). The Dust of Retreat helped fill the National-sized void in my new listening for much of the early year, with their dense instrumentation and deep voiced catchy songs. I found myself thinking, "I'm alive, and that's the best that I can do" on many a morning and musing about skeleton keys and paper kittens.

6. Broken Records, who I found in a Metafilter thread about music similar to The National's, also helped fill this void. Let Me Come Home eerily embodies the substance, if not quite the heart, of my favorite group's aesthetic, and provide a fine soundtrack for traipsing across a quiet botanical garden on an early fall morning. These fine 4AD labelmates of you-know-who caused me to ponder the fine line between similarity and imitation (though I do not really accuse them of copying The National; they've been around for a few years, and their sound is perhaps more High Violet-y than anything else).

5. Apparently I liked Bon Iver's new self-titled album more than I thought I did (or it was a tough year for me, musicwise; or, okay, probably both). I think the record suffered from a summertime release date; the music made me think of cold and rain and snow and in fact resonated more with me as winter (sort of) rolled around. It's all very 80s, but in a mostly not too cheesy way. I often muse on "Holocene"'s "once I knew I was not magnificent" lyric, and there's a nice rockin' out build-up in Calgary. I saw Bon Iver live in Prospect Park this summer and of course part of the highlight was seeing some members of good ol' yMusic violining, guitaring, and trumpeting away.

4. I'm having trouble ranking the next two, but let's put Frightened Rabbit's Year of Mixed Drinks here, if only because I came to it later in the year and I'm less familiar with Frightened Rabbit's output as a whole. If Broken Records embodies the letter of what I love about The National, Frightened Rabbit has the spirit, which I was beginning to suspect I would not see at all this year. The voice is very different but the drums and horns and such are the pure jolt that I get from, say, Bloodbuzz Ohio, and the static is truly a joyous noise. Frightened Rabbit and Broken Records (to say nothing of last-year favorite Belle and Sebastian) are both Scottish. Should The National move to Scotland? More saliently, should I?

3. I am in a somewhat special position to comment on My Brightest Diamond's All Things Will Unwind because I have watched its trajectory from premiere performance to full-fledged album. Shara Worden, labelmate and buddy of Sufjan Stevens and vocalist with Clogs and on The Long Count, has grown on me considerably, despite my natural aversion to operatic female vocalists. She's a talented songwriter as well as a powerful singer, and the tracks on All Things have a really eternal, classic feel. I love the trumpet solo (yes, courtesy of dear yMusic) on "High Low Middle" and the eerie drums of "Be Brave." From the Ecstatic Music Festival to River to River in Battery Park to the CD release party at Littlefield, I watched My Brightest Diamond's ascension from kooky colorful ensemble to full-scale costumed rock star extravaganza. I'm excited to see what they'll do next.

2. I had a song from Metric before (thanks, S.--!) but never appreciated the full-length brilliance of an album until I was sent Grow Up and Blow Away by M.--. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on a groggy morning, frantically trying not to be late, would not be the same without the pulsing backbeat of Metric. I can't choose just one favorite, usually letting most of the album wash over me in a propulsive stream. I love the cockiness of "On the Sly" and the soaring heights of "Soft Rock Star," the cryptic elegance of "The Twist." Even if I sometimes feel like I'm in a trendy Thai restaurant when I listen to "Rock Me Now," I wouldn't change a thing.

1. Surprising no one (certainly not surprising myself, anyway), my number-one album of the year is the long-awaited Where Are the Arms, by Gabriel Kahane. Ever since discovering his self-titled debut last year, I eagerly looked forward to his next album, reminding myself it was coming soon in what turned out to be a disappointing year for me, music-wise. Arms didn't disappoint, in both gorgeous studio recording and amped-up live performance. Opener "Charming Disease" grew from a simple piano piece that didn't really move me that much in a live performance to this year's most chilling, beautiful, and haunting piece. And of course Kahane is backed by a fabulous crew of rock/classical musicians (notice a theme here?) including my beloved yMusic. Nothing not to like, except for the time I went to a concert and forgot that the album has 11 tracks, not 13. I could sure use two more songs like these.

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